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Unforgettable Sound

After falling in love with conducting, alum Nicholas Koo wins a spot at the Italian Opera Academy hosted by renowned conductor Riccardo Muti.

Nicolas Koo and Muti
Riccardo Muti, right, coaches conductor Nicholas Koo at Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna, Italy. Image: © ZANI/CASADIO — COURTESY OF RICCARDOMUTIMUSIC.COM

By Ella Kuffour
Spring 2023
People

Growing up in the Bay Area, Nicholas Koo ’18 MMus, ’22 DMA sang in choirs and played guitar, clarinet, saxophone and piano. Thinking he’d become a doctor, he studied molecular cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. But after seeing the university’s orchestra perform during his senior year, he decided to reignite a lifelong passion. He delayed his graduation and instead enrolled for a fifth year to pursue what he’d wanted to do all along: a music major.  

At that point, the only available course that fit his music requirements was a class on conducting. 

“I fell in love right away,” Koo says. “You come out of it knowing yourself like you would never have believed.” 

Koo went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in orchestral conducting from the Bienen School of Music. Koo was the final doctoral student of acclaimed conducting and ensembles professor emeritus Victor Yampolsky, who retired in 2022. 

After graduating from the doctoral program, Koo applied to the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy as “a shot in the dark,” Koo says. From a pool of more than 300 applicants, Koo was one of five people selected to study with Riccardo Muti ’14 H, a world-renowned conductor and music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in Ravenna, Italy, in December 2022.  

“In the classical music world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t know who [Muti] is,” Koo says. “Particularly with Italian operatic repertoire, he is probably the living authority. There were moments where I’d watch him conduct and think, ‘This man is touching sound.’” 

Koo and his academy cohort completed a rigorous two-week program, dividing their time between vocal, orchestral and choral rehearsals. The conductors took turns leading the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, an orchestra of early-career Italian musicians that Muti founded in 2004. Muti guided each session, encouraging the conductors to interpret the music in a new way or draw a particular sound quality from the orchestra. 

“He would demonstrate how I could pull the sound out of the orchestra with just movement,” Koo says. “I was completely in awe.” 

The academy culminated in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem at Ravenna’s Teatro Alighieri, conducted jointly by four members of the cohort. Koo calls the experience “unforgettable.” 

“Muti told me that our mission is to be as sincere as possible. We don’t sugarcoat anything. We do what the music asks, and we connect to it as human beings,” Koo says. 

Koo has since taken what he learned from Muti to Denver, where he serves as a conductor for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Koo returned to Northwestern this spring for a performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with violin doctoral student Olga Kossovich. 

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