Maestra encore: Cheung signs on for 3 more years; sets 2013-14 season

Maestra Teresa Cheung has shared a few laughs with Altoona Symphony Orchestra audiences about the silence coming from them during a show.

“I joked many times with the audience that sometimes I got worried while I was conducting because I could not hear any noise behind me, and was fearing the music had put them to sleep,” she said in an email.

But the silence wasn’t for lack of interest.

“Altoona Symphony really has the best audience around,” she said. “They are discerning listeners that are curious and adventurous at the same time. They are also extremely attentive when they listen, hence the quietness. Sharing music with them is a great pleasure for me and for our players. When we perform, we feel like we are just sitting down and sharing all the good stuff that we find in the music. I feel very, very lucky to have what we have in Altoona. There is something very special about our town.”

Cheung, who has headed the Altoona Symphony Orchestra as its music director and conductor since the 2008-09 season, has recently signed on for three more years, for which Cheung said she is thrilled.

The Altoona Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 85th season in 2013-14.

Cheung, a Hong Kong native, can remember working with the musicians for the first time and how they exceeded her expectations.

“It is always delightful to guest conduct an ensemble and to find the musicians happily meeting you halfway to create great music. ASO was different – they were there 75 percent of the way and I was overwhelmed with their openness and all-for-music attitude. Things have not changed in this respect with them. I come in from New York City for our concerts, and each time, I am welcomed with a refreshing attitude and dedication to make the best music we can for our amazing audience.”

The good feelings are mutual.

Cheung is “absolutely brilliant,” and a musical genius, longtime orchestra member Shirley Pechter said.

“She is a fabulous conductor who knows exactly what to do,” she said.

Pechter remembered when tap dancer Joshua Johnson performed with the symphony, and Cheung traded spots with him, breaking out into a tap dance while Johnson conducted.

“She’s just that kind of a person,” she said. “She’s comfortable with the audience and the artists.”

Her precision with tone and tempos makes what is complicated easy, guest artist Walter Fabian Guerrero of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who first played with the orchestra under Cheung’s predecessor, Nicholas Palmer, said in an email.

Her “musical taste” enriches the ASO, he said. Cheung’s “main concern is to get excellence every performance” he said.

ASO Board President Vi Whiting said many subscribers were asking if Cheung was going to stay on and were “elated” when they heard the news.

“Our audience appears to thoroughly enjoy conductor Cheung’s concerts,” she said. “Some appreciate the descriptive explanations she gives prior to most orchestral pieces. Some prefer to just attend and listen to the selection she has chosen.”

Cheung has made friends and is comfortable with the community, Whiting said.

“The musicians love to play for her as she is constantly teaching them,” Whiting said. “Teresa has a great rapport with the musicians, but she does expect and demand a lot from them. She knows at their level of expertise they can produce what she expects.”

Cheung has “elevated the level of their ability to produce exceptional music,” she said. “While doing this, she has also elevated the listener’s ability to expect and appreciate the same exceptional music from each concert.”

Cheung is a “gem” and “an incredible asset to our community and the Altoona Symphony,” executive director Pamela J. Snyder Etters said in an email. “Though I have only known her for a year, I feel strongly she is a major catalyst in the symphony’s recent success. The symphony seems to be experiencing a resurgence in audience members and supporters, and I believe a lot of that is due to her programming, personality and visible passion for what she does. … Maestra Cheung is a true artist. Her dynamic presentations thrill audiences on a visual level, as much as the music moves them on an emotional one.”

Cheung has a vision to take the ASO outside of Central Pennsylvania, which she has done with “Dvorak’s New World,” a Humanities on the Road program that was broadcast in Pennsylvania in 2011, according to her biography.

Cheung, who earned her bachelor of music in piano performance from Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and her master of music in conducting from the Eastman School of Music, New York, has achieved several career highs, including receiving the JoAnn Falletta Conducting Award from The Stein Foundation for the Arts and Sciences in 2002.

In 2012, the former resident conductor for the American Symphony Orchestra, New York, and the assistant conductor for the Bard Music Festival and Bard SummerScape, New York, conducted the New York City Ballet in their Balanchine Nutcracker production, and began as a lecturer in orchestral conducting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

She has guest conducted throughout the United States including the Regina Opera, New York, and Amarillo Symphony Orchestra, Texas. She has also conducted in Canada.

From 1999 to 2005, she was a resident conductor in Indiana for the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, and conductor for its youth orchestra and its chorus.

In 2008, Cheung told the Altoona Mirror that reaching children was her highest priority. She has created several children’s programs, including the Altoona Symphony Apprentice Program, which places selected high school string players in the orchestra for an opportunity to study and perform with the symphony.

The ASO has performed side-by-side concerts with the Juniata College Orchestra and the Penn State University Percussion Ensemble.

“Loving music is one thing, but my bigger hope is to do something great for people through music, like building a community and giving people something incredibly powerful and beautiful to treasure,” Cheung said. “I remember hearing a commentary about people always choose to drop music and arts in schools first when there are fiscal problems. But when people begin to look for something to represent national pride and culture, they often look for it in the arts.”

But it is not just finances that are needed to keep the arts alive.

“Anything that is worth staying around, not just for us, but for the generations behind us, will cost an extraordinary amount of resources, talents, manpower, sacrifice and tenacity in order to keep it going,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have a town that recognizes that.”

Cheung looks “forward to continue to share what I discover in music with Altoona,” she said. “Since I am not the creator but the re-creator of these great works, my inspiration and challenge is to present the works in a meaningful way through programming. I love doing that because this is when I get to be creative and inventive. Everything about what I do is rewarding. There is no better work than doing what I do.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.