The Classical Station’s interview with Scott Yoo for Preview!

Interview with Scott Yoo
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Kate Lemmon)

Scott Yoo is this week’s guest on Preview! As the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Mexico City Philharmonic, Scott Yoo also hosts the PBS series Now Hear This, in which he travels the world to track down experts in all forms of music. 

KENNEDY: Scott, it’s been four years of Now Hear This. It’s a remarkable odyssey through the world of classical music. Tell our listeners what inspired you to undertake such a huge project. 

YOO: I met the director, Harry Lynch, in 2016 at an event where I was explaining how the Brahms piano quartets could be seen as a document of Brahms’s life. You can almost trace his maturation through those three fantastic pieces of music. After my talk, Harry came to me and said, “I’m a producer for PBS and we should have a TV show.” I was stunned by that, but I didn’t think much of it. About a month later, he called me and said, “Let’s do some talks and film them. We’ll put 24 of them together and we’ll film them right in a row. We’ll rent a studio and we’ll sell it to PBS. What do you want to do with the series?” And I said, “I would love for the series to be an updated version of Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concert.” You can’t replace the genius of Bernstein, but you can do things in a more contemporary way. And he said, “The thing that our audiences on PBS like is some kind of discovery. That’s why Antiques Roadshow is so popular.” We decided that we would model our show after Anthony Bourdain’s shows. We have the advantage that you can consume classical music over a television set, whereas you can only watch people eat. Of course, we have the disadvantage of not having Anthony Bourdain–nothing we can do about that!

KENNEDY: Episode 4 of Season 4 takes us to Spain and that fascinating composer Itzhak Albéniz. Our listeners are familiar with Iberia and Suite Española, but Chants d’Espagne isn’t so well known. Can you tell us what Albéniz has wrought in this wonderful suite of five pieces? 

YOO: There is a really interesting backstory to this episode. We’ve done episodes on Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, and Vivaldi, but if there ever were a composer that was perfect for Now Hear This, it would be Albéniz. As you rightly say, his music is familiar, but not that familiar. He only wrote for the piano. He would go to Seville, he would settle down there for a few days, and then he would write a piece and call it “Seville”. And then he would go to Cades, and he would sit there and absorb the culture and listen to the folk music of the region and eat the food and drink the wine. He’d write a piece and call it “Cades”. There are pieces for Granada and Mallorca, and the list goes on. We picked the repertoire for this episode to highlight the travelog aspect of Albéniz’s output, and to also highlight the fact that even though Albéniz never wrote for the guitar, he was basically writing guitar music for the piano. Your listeners will see scenes where the pianist and the guitarist are both playing bits of the same music; they show how this passage is awkward for the piano or this passage works better for the guitar. It is really fascinating because the guitar was and still is the national instrument of Spain. If you want to talk about Spanish culture, you have to talk about the guitar. 

Kennedy: It’s a magnificent instrument. Our Music Director at The Classical Station has his training as a classical musician with the classical guitar, so we have a great affinity for the instrument. Tell our audience briefly how you manage to juggle all of these incredible assignments you have: conductor of the Mexico Philharmonic, doing this work for PBS, and all the other things you do. How do you manage to keep it all together? 

YOO: It’s not easy. I was just being interviewed recently, and the host asked me what I like to do in my free time. And I told her, in my free time, I like to not travel. That’s the most valuable thing for me, is to be at home, because when I’m at home, I’m preparing for all the things that are coming up. The secret is that you have to plan your workflow many months in advance. I just make sure that there’s plenty of runway for each project so that I’m never surprised. As you know, in this line of work, the name of the game is preparation. You have to be completely prepared. It takes a lot of time, but if you do a little bit every day, you can get there. 

KENNEDY: We both know this advanced preparation allows our subconscious to do most of the work for us so that we host an on-air program and everything flows because the mind has absorbed what has to be absorbed. 

YOO: You couldn’t be more right, that is the key. When I was a kid, I saw a 60 Minutes episode where Lesley Stahl, the wonderful veteran correspondent, was interviewing a memory expert. They had her use the wrong hand to type onto a numeric keypad, and they had her do it at night and then they had her do it the next morning. Apparently, she did it much faster the next morning because her brain had been dreaming about entering the numbers with her left hand overnight. One of my tricks when I’m learning something difficult, is to study it right before I go to bed. Then I wake up in the morning and I study it again. Usually it’s gotten better overnight. 

KENNEDY: Scott, thanks for inspiring our listeners with this wonderful program, Now Hear This, and all that you do in the classical music community. Thank you so much. 

Join us for Scott Yoo’s interview on Sunday, July 16th, at 7 p.m. Listen on, on 89.7 FM, or on our app!