Julia Tai stood facing the orchestra in anticipation, suspense thickening the air as nine weeks of preparation came to this one, final moment.
On May 24, an eager audience gathered in First Free Methodist Church to watch the Symphony Orchestra perform their last concert of the year. This concert featured SPU students and faculty, with a viola soloist, choir, and select wind instrument and percussion players performing alongside the orchestra.
The night could not have happened without the efforts of Tai, the orchestra’s conductor, as she brought the entire show together, starting with the preparation and ending with the final performance.
Tai began the groundwork independently, and said that, “A lot of time is spent preparing by myself, just looking at the music and how all the different pieces come together.”
She carefully chose pieces that were the proper difficulty for the orchestra.
From there, Tai handed out music to the performers, discussed its meaning and explained what each piece tried to portray.
Students from all classes frequently practiced on their own, focusing on difficult passages. During weekly rehearsals, they brought all the different parts together and worked on ensemble issues such as dynamics, balance and the interrelations between instruments.
Tai was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and began playing the violin at 4 years old. She naturally gravitated towards music, with her mom as a choir director who taught both high school and church choirs. Tai was always surrounded by music and concerts.
“We started learning the instrument very young, because the idea was that if we could go and accompany the choir, she wouldn’t have to find babysitters,” Tai laughed.
At age 9, Tai entered music school where she furthered her knowledge of the violin and acquired new skills in singing and piano. She received rigorous training as she studied there for 10 years before coming to the States at 18 years old.
She attended the University of Southern California, which had an impressively large music program, with four orchestras and four choirs.
Like her mother, she began conducting church choirs as a side job while in college. She loved transitioning from practicing music alone in her room to working with people through the organization of concerts and rehearsals.
Tai obtained her doctorate of musical arts from the University of Washington in 2010. Brian Chin, the chair of SPU’s music department, recruited her to come conduct for SPU. This is her second year working for the school.
The night began with the recognition of graduating seniors, as this was their final concert at SPU. They were each given a rose as a token of gratitude for their participation in the orchestra.
Tai’s passion for diverse music was reflected in her program selections, which featured composers of different backgrounds.
“It’s just fun to have diversity in the music and to explore different cultures. Every time I feel closer to that culture and I can understand a little bit more about the people and humanity,” Tai said.
The symphony’s first piece was by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer. The piece was titled “Two Norwegian Airs” and transported the audience to the Norwegian countryside.
The concert also featured music from the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Williams’s piece, “Flos Campi,” felt mystical and incorporated English tradition, drawing inspiration from the Songs of Solomon. It required a great deal of focus, as the choir, orchestra and viola soloist had to come together perfectly.
Amber Archibald, the viola soloist and instructor of viola at SPU, stood out among the group in her floor length red dress in contrast to the black attire of the orchestra.
This piece captured the audience through its beauty and emotion as it subtly transitioned between six different movements. At its end, Archibald blew kisses to the orchestra behind her, expressing her love and gratitude for their hard work.
The next piece was titled “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” and included the string orchestra, two flutes and a harp. This song complimented the previous piece beautifully.
When asked about her expectations for the night, Tai said, “Live performance is always very exciting because we’ve spent all this time preparing and practicing. … You never know what will happen.”
Tai’s approval of the concert was apparent as she smiled, took a bow and gracefully exited the stage.