Musical prodigy proud of Chinese roots

Hannah To, 17, is a proud Chinese-American musical prodigy. She was one of four high school winners of the Fidelity Investments Young Artists Competition, selected to perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra at Symphony Hall on the Chinese hammered dulcimer, or yangqin.

Hannah To (front second left) performed the “Dance of the Yao Tribe” concerto with the Boston Pops on June 6 at Symphony Hall. (Image courtesy of Charlotte Lam.)

Hannah is the first yangqin soloist to play with the Boston Pops. She performed the “Dance of the Yao Tribe” concerto on June 6 with conductor Keith Lockhart and Leslie Odom, Jr. of “Hamilton” fame. The piece was composed in 1952 for a Western orchestra, based on traditional Yao melodies

“I thought this was a great opportunity to showcase yangqin to a broader audience than it would usually reach,” Hannah said. “As first-generation Chinese American, I really related with the concerto being Western and Chinese.”

Hannah will be a senior at Oliver Ames High School. She was born in America to Charlotte Lam and Wing-kai To, both immigrants from Hong Kong. To teaches history and Asian studies at Bridgewater State University, while Lam is a member of the cooperative education faculty at Northeastern University. Hannah’s parents cultivated a love of music early on, with yangqin lessons at age 6 at Kwong Kow Chinese School.

“There’s a sense of freedom, when you’re playing an instrument,” Hannah said. “You get lost in the music.”

Hannah’s yangqin mentor Hui Weng of the New England Conservatory Preparatory School helped her prepare for the June 6 concert.

Lam said, “Her dulcimer teacher once said that it was impossible for the Chinese dulcimer to be played in Symphony Hall and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is exciting that Hannah can be the pioneer on that front and bridge the Chinese dulcimer with Western music.”

Hannah has recorded three professional CDs on the yangqin. She received first prize in the Cross Boundaries Music competition in 2017 and is a two-time winner of the Youth Poetry in Silk and Bamboo Competition. Along with yangqin, Hannah is also a piano virtuoso, touring Germany in summer 2016.

While she’s played internationally, Hannah’s favorite performance was closer to home. At a winter concert junior year, she played yangqin with her high school orchestra.

“It was really exciting because I live in the suburbs and my town has a small Asian American community,” Hannah said. “Playing it at my school, people were so interested. Taking the first step and introducing people to your culture is so important.”

Hannah is a member of her school’s jazz band as well as orchestra. Outside of music, Hannah partakes in FIRST robotics, volunteers at the Tech Studio in the Museum of Science, and pursues passions in politics and science. She is considering a major in aerospace engineering, with a double major or minor in music.

“I’m going to keep music in my life,” Hannah said. “Music can cross boundaries. Music can open new worlds.”

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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