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Asian American Hosts Musical Travelogue, Now Hear This

By Jana Monji

As a child, Scott Yoo’s parents wanted him to go to Harvard to study law, but his fate was sealed the moment he first held a violin. Yoo began studying music at three and by age 12, he had performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony. In the PBS program that he will host, Now Hear This, he’ll take us to see beautiful places where great music was made and documents are kept.

Appearing at the TCA PBS Summer Showcase via satellite link with his violin, Yoo joked that “judging from my fetal weight they knew I wasn’t going to be a linebacker” but what clinched it was “at some point, I started playing it [the opening bars for the old Masterpiece Theater]. I could play it by ear.”

This is one of the times when a words fail because Yoo took time to demonstrate snippets of music.

He went to Julliard. At 18, he conducted an orchestra in St. Louis. Now he is mostly a conductor, serving as the chief conductor and artistic director of the Mexico City Philharmonic.

In Now Hear This, Yoo wanders the great halls, libraries and ancient buildings of Europe following the footsteps of great composers. “It’s a real privilege and honor to experience those things especially as an American,” he said.

His travels will humanize some of the great composers. Yoo explained, “I think when you grow up as a muscians, you think of Bach as a marble statue on your mother’s piano. But then you see a business card.”

Lynch explained that in one segment Yoo and his wife will have to solve a riddle on a business card in a painting. When we learn the answer, we’ll also learn something more about Bach–that he, at the very least, had a sense of humor.

“First of all, I have never been to some of these places,” Yoo noted and then explained that “when you stand where Handel has been or you stand where Bach was buried, it really does change you.”

Playing a few bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, he said, “even if you’re not a musician, you know how that goes.”  In the previews, Yoo is looking at music written by Vivaldi with the conservator taking it out from behind the glass case in a library.

Filmmaker and co-executive producer (with Yoo), Harry Lynch explained that 92 percent of Vivaldi’s music was lost. Some of it was only discovered in 1929 and then it took another 20 years to publish it. The library where Yoo was shown in the clips has 92 percent of Vivaldi’s work.

Taking us back to a time when social media, YouTube and recordings of music couldn’t easily be swapped and sampled, Yoo noted that “what happened was Vivaldi reused the ‘Four Seasons’ and just changed a few notes. I think what happened was he took some of the Four Seasons and made it into something else.” Trying to explain it further, he said, “Measures 1-14 were the same and instead of taking a left, he takes a right.”

The reactions you’ll see are authentic because sometimes information is withheld from Yoo because he is, after all, “no Meryl Streep.”  Viewers will also learn about the making of instruments. Yoo gets to try out some valuable violins and we’ll learn of how they are making violins today. Some of the violins may not be ready during our lifetimes because “it takes about 50 years for a violin varnish to mature. “It’s like baking a cake but you can’t taste it for 50 years,” Yoo said.

Of course, one of the reasons to travel is great food. Yoo said, “Great food is the number one art; music is the number two. Number one and number two, they go together. “Now Hear This” is “a travelogue with music” and one advantages this program has over food travelogues is that while you can’t eat the food (and there will be some food on view), you can certainly experience the music.

This is a show that means to engage the viewer, by taking them on locations where “you can hear the music, see beautiful locations in the capitals of Europe” and even learn something about great composer and musicians.

Now Hear This premieres on 20 September and the four-part series will be air on four consecutive Fridays on PBS.

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