Earl Lee was only 24 when he found out he had focal dystonia. After finishing up his master's at Juilliard in New York, the promising young cellist had been making a name for himself on the chamber-music circuit, and had recently moved to Cleveland for further training along with his girlfriend, who'd gotten a position with the orchestra there. The diagnosis was devastating at first – "I was crying every night," he said – but the Toronto-raised musician wasn't going to simply walk away from years of striving. Not without a fight.
Focal dystonia is the kind of neurological condition that performing musicians dread, a potential career-ender. For Lee, it meant his left hand, the one tasked with fluttering up and down the fingerboard of his cello, started refusing to obey his commands. "Lazy" is how he describes it. Sometimes the fingers would even curl back of their own accord, leaving him unable to so much as play a C major scale at a half-decent tempo. After tanking in the first round of a cello competition, he faced the prospect of retraining from scratch – before his career had properly launched, and with no guarantee he'd ever regain his facility.
Still, he figured he had to try. He flew to his native South Korea to see a man he was told was the country's top acupuncturist. No dice. He had better luck with a pair of Spanish focal-dystonia experts, Joaquin Farias and Joaquin Fabra (musician's dystonia afflicts the right hand of many a Spanish guitar player), but he found the recovery rate painfully slow and unpredictable.
A cellist with iffy fine motor skills, Lee suddenly found himself assailed at night by thoughts of LSATs and business school … until finally, two years into his diagnosis, he made a decision: Music was what he loved, and music was what he was going to do.
So he called Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a pianist and conductor he'd met at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont (and, yes, the son of Russian novelist Aleksandr), and said, "Hey, Ignat, can you teach me how to conduct?"
On Saturday, almost five years after that phone call, Lee takes the podium at Roy Thomson Hall to make his formal debut as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's new RBC Resident Conductor.
It's a funny job, being the conductor of a modern symphony orchestra. From the third balcony, it can be hard to tell what exactly a maestro is for, beyond walking on stage to hearty applause, shaking the hand of the first violin player, ascending the podium, inhaling deeply and then waving the baton with great solemnity for 40 minutes or so. Bow, exit stage right, repeat.
But wielding the baton before a fractious 100-person band and leading it through the hairpin turns, sudden fits and stops, and elastic sense of time of your standard Beethoven symphony is a minor miracle. With the hands, eyes, body and breath, the successful conductor must be able to communicate dozens of tiny nuances of phrasing, articulation and dynamics, and keep a half-step in front of the musicians while listening closely to what they're giving back. He (and even today it's almost always a "he") should also have a keen sense of group psychological dynamics, and be able to communicate his intentions directly (The Grammar of Conducting, the classic instructional text, advises the young would-be maestro to "develop the habit early of knowing exactly what you want and getting it").
And that's just table stakes. Today's conductor is also expected to be a tireless public face and promoter of the orchestra, as comfortable in front of a crowd of regulars as he might be on a goofy TV segment or in a Reddit Ask Me Anything.
For the next two years, Lee's job will be to attend each rehearsal and performance – about 163 of the former and 137 of the latter per year – and hoover up every morsel of insight he can from watching the orchestra's music director Peter Oundjian and the parade of guest conductors who take his place throughout the concert season. It's a role that the soft-spoken, self-effacing Lee approaches with all the composure of a very well-behaved six-year-old just handed his very own tub of ice cream.
On his second day on the job, Lee was helping out while Paul Goodwin, a British maestro with a buoyant podium manner and a quick wit, rehearsed a program of unfinished Mozart works. "He's fantastic," Lee, his right hand conducting in miniature swoops and darts, said as Goodwin coaxed a sparkling performance out of a roomful of musicians who'd just returned from dinner. "We have to camp it up much more!" Goodwin exclaimed to a pair of singers, who dutifully puffed up their chests and strutted about. All the while, he kept a watchful eye on the clock at the back of the stage, lest he run out of precious rehearsal time before making it through the tricky sections of Mozart's Lo sposo deluso.
Oundjian clearly relishes having in Lee a pair of ears he can trust in the back of the hall during his rehearsals. He says selecting the 31-year-old for the gig was a no-brainer, and a near-unanimous pick among the musicians, who each had a ballot on their music stand when the resident-conductor applicants were up for audition. "He's completely natural in his hands, in his musicianship and in his communicative powers," he said recently in his office as Lee looked on, blushing. "He just has what it takes."
Lee's facility in front of an orchestra was evident when he took the podium for his first rehearsal at Roy Thomson Hall, a few days after observing Goodwin. Despite his nerves – "Thank you. I just want to say, ah … actually, it's hard for me to say anything at this point, my heart is beating so fast" – he soon seemed at ease giving feedback to musicians more than twice his age, including his one-time cello teacher David Hetherington, who's about to retire after 4 1/2 decades with the orchestra.
"Within 30 seconds he seemed completely at home," says Gabriel Radford, the orchestra's third horn player. "He has this humble competence about him. And I'm sure the humility is real, but there's gotta be confidence behind there, because you can't possibly lead an experienced orchestra through a rehearsal without feeling like you know what you're doing."
Back in his office, Oundjian quizzed Lee on his focal dystonia, and chatted with him about various experts (including the two Joaquins), famous sufferers (Schumann, perhaps) and treatment options (including Botox). Oundjian should know. Like Lee, his career as a string player was brought to a close by the condition in 1995. Unlike Lee, he had 2,000 concerts and 14 years leading the prestigious Tokyo String Quartet under his bow when he put down his violin.
"It was fine for me to say at a certain point, okay, thank you very much," Oundjian says.
Although Lee is now fully devoted to a career as a conductor, he never actually gave up the cello. Over the seven years since his diagnosis, he slowly rebuilt his technique, finding ways of working around the dystonia. In his spare time, he gets together with former classmates and other young string players in a New York-based group called the East Coast Chamber Orchestra. They rehearse and perform without a conductor.