Jason Lim is the conductor and artistic director for the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra. His career has taken him to such locations as Hong Kong, Australia, Poland ... and Denton. Recently, Lim, representing the McKinney Philharmonic, was announced as the winner of the American Prize in Orchestral Programming/Vytautas Marijosius Memorial Award professional division for 2021.
What is your earliest music-related memory?
Although I can't remember one particular memory, I do remember many, and many of them involve my mom being instrumental in doing everything she could to give me and my siblings a wonderful musical training. She wanted to give us a means to make a living as a grown up, but I didn't think she dreamt of any of us reaching the heights that we have. I also remember that my grandfather opposed us having music lessons. Being an old school guy from China, he didn’t think being a musician would be a meaningful profession.
How long have you been conducting? What got you into it?
My mother would get her hands on video tapes from friends and would bring them home to let us watch them. One of the video tapes was the Liszt Piano Competition in England with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. His gestures were so colorful and were so much fun to watch. I was about 12 then, and since then I secretly wanted to become a conductor. However, I never thought it was possible for me. I wasn’t particularly brilliant on the piano back then and neither was I even remotely good on viola. I secretly held on to this "dream" until I made it to music school in Australia. For a while I wanted to be a jazz pianist, then when the opportunity came, I decided to give it a try. I would say that I have been conducting actively for the last nine years. I got my masters in conducting in 2003 but quit because I had a bad experience with my college professor and was very disillusioned.
What instrument(s) do you play? How long have you been playing?
My main instrument is the viola but on occasion, play the violin. I've been. playing the viola since I was 12.
What is your favorite piece to conduct?
My favorite piece to conduct is the piece I have not yet conducted. I have enjoyed every piece whether it is difficult or easy. They all pose a unique challenge, however I always enjoy conducting Copland. The meter, tempo and often style changes make it so much fun to conduct.
Your career has led you all over the world. What has been your favorite place to perform or conduct and why?
As they say, nothing beats home. Spending time with the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra is special to me in so many ways. I have built a rapport with the musicians I work with and have spent several years slowly convincing them that finding meaningful ways to connect with our community is vital. When I conduct the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra, I am working with musicians that I have hand picked to help me fulfill the mission. In every sense it is "community building" through music and the arts. When I conduct a public performance, we are performing for our city, for our community.
Tell us about the 2021-22 concert season for the McKinney Philharmonic.
The 2021-2022 season is the most ambitious thus far. I am so proud to bring Jeff Bradetich who is a world-renowned double bass professor at the University of North Texas, and he will be performing a world premier piece that he commissioned. That same concert, the orchestra will perform Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov. In March 2022, we will perform music of John Williams, with music from “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Saving Private Ryan” and many more. Of course, we have our one-of-a-kind Annual Christmas concert which has become a landmark tradition in McKinney. I highly recommend this Christmas concert. In my opinion, this Christmas show is second to none. Our soloist and performers will bring Christmas tunes with their own versions that you can't hear anywhere else. We do Christmas tunes with Irish Celtic styles, blues, rock, classical and jazz. We are collaborating with Texas Youth Ballet Conservatory to bring music choreographed to ballet in February 2022.
Last, but not least, we are partnering with McKinney Parks and Recreation in October for their Halloween Trick or Treat Trail where the orchestra will perform music from movies like “The Avengers,” “Star Trek,” “Frozen 2” and many more. We also have smaller chamber music concerts and for the first time we are offering a recital series where members of the orchestra will present joint solo recitals. This is a way for our audience to get to know the members in a more personal way.
How did the pandemic impact the McKinney Philharmonic?
First and foremost, The city of McKinney has strong arts leadership. They supported us first and let us know they will not stop their financial support. The McKinney Arts Commission, The Community Development Corporation and Visit McKinney put their trust in us to continue giving arts to our city and we took it upon ourselves to succeed. The challenge was venues closing and for the most part of the 2020-2021 season, we had to take a wait-and-see approach on when they will reopen. We had to change our concert season dates several times. Another supporter is our Mayor and first lady, George Fuller and Maylee Thomas who did everything she could to help raise funds for musicians in McKinney. Another individaul who has continued to support us is Annie Royer who is really the cornerstone of what the Arts in McKinney is today.
Tell us about the McKinney Philharmonic mentorship program.
I developed this program when the orchestra was first formed in Denton. It was designed to give all state students in our community the opportunity to perform at a professional level. It was designed to give local orchestra directors something they could reward their students by recommending them to us about their accomplishments. It was our way to also establish a relationship with the local directors, but mostly to give high school students this rare opportunity. Today, our mentorship program is only limited to our Youth Orchestra members. We have had tremendous success with this program where every year I will select one of a few highly gifted students from our youth orchestra to perform with the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra in selected concerts within our concert season. Many of our recipients have gone on to pursue music as a major and have done extremely well. A few of them even won the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra's competitive audition process to win spots in the orchestra. Some of them even beat seasoned professionals in the audition.
Who performs in the McKinney Philharmonic?
The McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra is unlike any orchestra in the North Texas region. We have a specific mission statement that is geared towards "community.” When I formed this orchestra in 2012, I wanted to bring together a special kind of musician that not only plays well and is well versed in their perspective instrument but to bring together musicians that they believe in "service to community.” Most musicians are not trained that way in music school and have very little interest in that, but over the last few years, we have been so blessed to find many musicians like that, that believe in our mission and have been integral in helping us build our organization, engaging on our vision, helping mentor our youth orchestra and bringing all kinds of music to our community. They are the ones that make the world go round. We have a youth orchestra (The Greater North Texas Youth Orchestra) which is also based in McKinney. Our musicians have many students that play in the youth orchestra and their students follow them because of the type of relationship they have with their students goes beyond just music lessons. They are not just their music teachers, but they are their mentors and treat their students like their own kids. Granted, we do have very good performers in our orchestra, from graduate music students to orchestra and band directors in the local school districts as well as seasoned musicians that have been in the business for many years. Currently we have a handful of musicians in leadership roles that are leading the charge in pursuing our vision.
What kind of music do you listen to in your free time?
I love Jazz standards. To me it is music for the everyday person.
What do you do to unwind?
I love to spend time with my 5-year-old daughter Eva, and I do love a good series on Netflix that I can binge watch.
Tell us something about yourself that would surprise most people.
My accomplishments are often associated with my training, but most people don’t know that I grew up not being able to afford music lessons. I grew up in a country back when classical music was non-existent. I grew up listening to my mother talk about Midori and child prodigies which grew a perception that a classical musical career is meant for pedigree and privilege. It still is a very much a privileged industry which not enough people talk about in the classical music world. That is why I built the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra to bridge the gap between the privileged few and the many that will never get the opportunity otherwise. Another thing that I think will surprise most is that I also am an Uber driver. I often enjoy conversations with my riders and talk about everyday topics. Sometimes when I am in McKinney, I will tell them I am the conductor of the McKinney Philharmonic Orchestra and the surprised look on their faces is quite delightful.