By Abigail Napp

When KuanFen Liu conducts, the graceful pulse of her gestures captivate choirs, orchestras, and concert-goers across the Central Coast and beyond. Some say her hands dance with the music.

In June, Assistant Professor of Performing Arts/Music KuanFen Liu, Ph.D., will fulfill a childhood dream and guest conduct a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Liu feels both excitement and humility about achieving this impressive career milestone.

“I chose the path of conducting by accident,” she says. “But I always dreamed about coming to the United States, studying and performing on the world stage.”

The invitation to play at Carnegie Hall arrived on a fortuitous day — her birthday — via Facebook messenger just over a year ago. A colleague remembered her conducting style and recruited her for the opportunity.

Since that day in January 2021, Liu has been organizing non-stop activities to make the concert available to musicians of all levels. CSUCI students and alumni will perform as part of the choir at Carnegie Hall alongside Liu thanks to an Instructionally Related Activities grant from the University. Additionally, 100 students from Santa Paula High School, Ventura High School, and the Kirkland Choral Society will join the choir performing at Carnegie Hall.

The choir has been practicing in a hybrid setting - both in-person and via Zoom for out-of-town singers. When the group finally meets in-person in New York City, they will perform in front of an audience of 2,800 people. The New England Symphonic Ensemble will accompany them.

Liu is counting down the days. The process of rehearsing and experiencing the distinct parts of the music coming together is what invigorates her.

“I’m really looking forward to the two piano rehearsals beforehand and the dress rehearsal with the orchestra in Carnegie Hall,” she said. “I find satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment when I lead the ensembles and feel fully immersed in the experience of the musical collaboration.”

Assistant Professor of Performing Arts/Music KuanFen Liu has conducted concerts all over the United States.

Photos courtesy Renata Hundley and Jonathan Holliday

Assistant Professor of Performing Arts/Music KuanFen Liu has conducted
concerts all over the United States.

Few musicians ‘make it’ without a rigorous commitment to their art. The discipline and dedication Liu has shown in her career started early in life. In addition to supportive parents, Liu had both talent and drive.

“It was always in me and it felt predestined,” she says. “It was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.’ I knew I would pursue music.”

By seventh grade, Liu was enrolled in a conservatory in her native Taiwan, practicing piano five to seven hours a day.

At Tunghai University in Taiwan where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts, a professor discovered a natural ability in Liu: conducting. He encouraged her to pursue the field in the U.S. and reminded her there were few female conductors in the world. “You need to be one of them,” he told her.

Liu took a chance and applied. She was one of four accepted master’s students at the Eastman School of Music, a prestigious music conservatory in Rochester, New York.

Liu said the experience was profound and amazing. While her professors in Taiwan had attended top conservatories in the U.S. and Europe, no one could prepare her for the adventures and challenges of living outside of her comfort zone and learning English.

After Eastman, she earned a doctorate at the University of Southern California before landing a lecturer position at CSUCI almost 20 years ago.

Liu said the learning curve as a professor was steep. She had to adapt her formal musical training and teaching methods to a new audience with little to no formal background in music, but she quickly caught on.

“It was only by knowing our students and talking with them that I discovered they are so eager to learn what I know,” she said. “It really changed me and gave me a brand new perspective on how I could contribute to make a difference in my students’ lives. I realized my approach was going to be, ‘Ok, how can I help them?’”

Liu says she is a servant of the music, the composer, and of course, the musicians, who make the music come alive.

Liu spends hours studying the musical scores and finding ways to demonstrate the intention of the composer and style of the works they perform. Rehearsals are planned down to the minute and always begin on time.

When she’s not commissioning new pieces that touch upon issues of concern, like climate change, and leading her orchestra and choir, Liu listens to Bach. It reminds her of what drew her to music so many years ago.

“I feel people can always find comfort and inspiration when they listen or study classical music,” she said. “And that’s my ultimate goal — to broadly disseminate classical music to whoever wants to know some part of it, big or small.”

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© Spring 2022 / Volume 27 / Number 1 / Biannual

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