Max Tan '15 debuts with BPYO at Symphony Hall

by Andrew Chow '14

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander has worked with many guest star violinists over the years. But when the curtain goes up on Zander in Symphony Hall three weeks from now, his pocket ace won’t be a well-known phenom from overseas, but rather a college man from Boston’s backyard. That man is Max Tan ’15, and he will make his Symphony Hall debut as the featured soloist on the rigorous and famed Barber Violin Concerto. The piece will be one of three performed by the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra 8 p.m. Friday, March 7 at Symphony Hall.

Tan is a 20-year-old Harvard junior majoring in human developmental and regenerative biology. He is also a musical prodigy, say those who know his work.

"Just about everything he plays sounds beautiful. He has these wonderful natural musical instincts," says his teacher and Harvard violin player Lynn Chang.

"He has exquisite, wonderful control," adds Zander.

Tan started studying piano at age 3, before switching to violin six years later. When he arrived at Harvard, he jumped into basically every classical ensemble he possibly could: the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, Brattle Street Chamber Players, Harvard Pops and the Dunster House Opera. "I basically died second semester freshman year," Tan tells me over lunch in Kirkland House. He talks of all of his musical endeavors not as a bored, masterful veteran, but rather an earnest, enthusiastic student struggling to keep up with it all. It’s quite clear that for Tan, classical music is not just a profession or hobby: It’s a deep passion from which he constantly derives new meaning.

Tan has been approaching the Barber Concerto with that same enthusiasm. He knows the work well — in fact, he auditioned for the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra with the piece — and he’s trying to play it with a fresh take every single day, especially given that this is his first time playing it with an orchestra. "In the past month, my interpretation has definitely shifted based on what I hear from the orchestra and what I feel while playing," he says.

The orchestra inspiring him is made up of roughly 120 students from the Boston area. Unlike other American youth orchestras, which typically feature high-school students, the BPYO pulls from a wide range of ages: the youngest is 12, the oldest is 21. The group has performed at Carnegie Hall this year and recently went on tour to Holland, receiving rave reviews along the way. "We’ve created one of the finest youth orchestras in the world by treating the students as leaders," Zander says. "We want to delve deep not only into music, but into life."

Tan shares this holistic approach. Although his instructors acknowledge that he can match any professional concert violinist, he is still undecided about his plans for the future and is pursuing music and biology with equal intensity. "It’s very important not to just be locked away in a practice room. It’s very important to know what’s going on in the world," Tan says. He has been doing a lot of practicing, though, because he plans to head to Symphony Hall and bring his violin to life for the orchestra and audiences alike.

[Caption: Max Tan '15 will perform with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. PHOTO: Steve Dunwell]