And then there were three: Another Yale student wins a Gates Scholarship

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Naomi Woo

Recent Yale College graduate and current Yale School of Music student Naomi Woo has been awarded a 2013 Gates scholarship for postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge. Woo, a Canadian — considered for the scholarship in a later round than her American peers — is the third student from Yale to receive the prestigious honor this year.

An award-winning pianist who was a math/philosophy and music major at Yale and is soon to receive a master’s in piano performance at the School of Music, Woo is on a mission to spread the gospel of classical music in a world that dismisses the likes of Beethoven and Bach as the exclusive purview of the rich and elderly.

Woo, who gave her debut as concerto soloist at the age of 12 and has played in Carnegie Hall among other venues, doesn’t see it that way at all.

“You don’t need specialized knowledge to enjoy classical music,” she says, and she plans to prove it, using her experience as a performer and the knowledge she acquired at Yale and will expand upon at Cambridge.

Naomi Woo will give a Masters of Music Recital on Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. in Sprague Hall, 470 College St. The program includes work by Handel, Brahms, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Ravel. The concert is free and open to the public.

Her commitment to broaden the reach of classical music is not based on a need to prove an intellectual point, however. Rather, it is to communicate the emotional transcendence she feels listening to and performing the work of great composers, she says. “Having experienced music in such a profoundly moving way throughout my life, I feel compelled to share it with others … and believe there need be no barriers to understanding, enjoying and being moved by classical music.”

She points to the high price of tickets and the rigid code of behavior imposed in a typical concert hall as giving Mozart, Brahms, Ravel et al. a bad rep, and the first reform she wants to put into practice is performing in more intimate settings.

“There are ways to more actively engage listeners, excite their imagination, and bring them into other worlds,” she says. She cites a recital she gave in an art gallery in Vancouver, her hometown, as one model of how classical music should be presented. Based on the “theme” of literature, the concert provided an opportunity for her to talk to the audience about the historical and cultural context of the music she was playing.

At Yale College, Woo dedicated herself academically to exploring the intersection of philosophy, math, and music. Her projects included a study with math professor Gregg Zuckerman on his paper “The Mathematical Foundations of Consciousness”; a series of projects examining the concept of time and its application to experiencing and performing music; and her senior thesis in music examining Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of a piano piece he composed.

“I think all of these interests of mine are related,” she says, noting her fascination with the workings of the mind was spurred by reading Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in high school.

Woo’s extracurricular life was no less dedicated to exploring the eclectic possibilities of the musical experience. As an undergraduate she was co-director of the contemporary ensemble SIC InC, which during her tenure collaborated with Yale Dancers, Control Group (an experimental theater troupe), and a group of Yale filmmakers and visual artists. A conductor as well as a performer, Woo served as music director of the Berkeley College Orchestra and frequently conducted piano concertos from the keyboard as a soloist. At the School of Music, she is a teaching artist at John C. Daniels School through the Yale Class of ‘57 Music in Schools Initiative. She has also been involved in a free music program in Vancouver for children and youth from disadvantaged communities.

Woo will pursue an M.Phil. in music studies at Cambridge, the only university that she knows of, she says, that offers an advanced degree in the combined disciplines of musicology and performance. “I want to use performance as a means of informing and enriching musicology, treating works of music as experiences rather than merely as texts, which will help connect music scholarship more closely to its listeners. … I am constantly seeking to broaden the reach of classical music lessons and performances to individuals who might not otherwise have access to these resources,” wrote Woo in her biographical statement for the Gates Cambridge scholarship.

While she will continue to work to build new audiences for classical music, Woo intends to earn a doctorate and to pursue an academic career.

Woo will give a Masters of Music Recital on Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. in Sprague Hall, 470 College St. The program includes work by Handel, Brahms, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Ravel. The concert is free and open to the public.

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