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1 to Watch: Victor Wang. What turned him from microbiology at Yale to the flute?

Flute, not scalpel: Player talks about journey to Charlotte Symphony

What turned Victor Wang toward music from medicine? It was simple...
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What turned Victor Wang toward music from medicine? It was simple...

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In an alternate universe, Victor Wang would be wrist-deep in someone’s innards or calibrating a sample for a clinical trial in a lab. Instead, he’s wrapping his long fingers around a flute in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

Five years ago, en route to his bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Yale University, his parents in Rochester, N.Y., were among many voices suggesting medical school. Even his music teachers, he says, “were cautious about advising me to go into music, because it’s so difficult to get jobs.”

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Might have been a scalpel. Joshua Komer Joshua Komer

Instead, he earned a master’s degree in music at Yale, playing on the Yale Symphony’s acclaimed recording of Paul Hindemith’s piano concertos. A year after graduating, he won the principal’s chair in the CSO. He’ll get the spotlight Feb. 22-23, playing solos in Michael Daugherty’s “Trail of Tears” and Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.”

Wang says he was “kind of at peace with the idea” that college could lead to a career where notes are written only on patients’ charts. But music had simmered in his blood since he took up the piano at 5.

“My older brother played a lot better than I,” he recalls. “The deal was, I could quit – if I picked up another instrument. I thought the flute might give us the chance to play duets.”

What it gave him was a chair in his high school orchestra and the belief he needed to get serious. He wasn’t deterred when, as a Yale freshman, he applied to nine summer music festivals and got into none. He improved and finished a combined bachelor’s/master’s program that charged no tuition for the second degree.

After a year in a Bard College orchestra that trains people for gigs like the one he has now, Wang began his first round of professional auditions. Orchestras hold those behind screens, so judges can’t identify musicians. At 23, he played above his age.

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Victor Wang was hired at 23 as principal flutist for the Charlotte Symphony – two years ago. Look for his “Trail of Tears” solo in February. Joshua Komer Joshua Komer

“You see the same group of candidates, whether in Charlotte or Orlando,” he says. “And you play the same things: Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1, Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe,’ some Bach.”

What made him stand out here? He smiles modestly. “I had a good day. I’d also put a lot of stock in piccolo playing and had a piccolo audition with the Houston Symphony. They didn’t want me, and Charlotte did. That turned out to be a good move.”

He met his first CSO trial five months after starting in September 2016: The mercurial Badinerie of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2. Then came “Trail of Tears,” Daugherty’s homage to Cherokees expelled from North Carolina in the 1830s. Wang has played the third movement, “Sun Dance,” in run-out concerts; he’ll do the whole thing in the Classical series.

“The first movement, ‘Where the Wind Blew Free,’ has lots of melody and singing lines for me. The second, ‘Incantation,’ is free-form and lets me improvise; it deals with the death march. (Nearly 4,000 Cherokee died on the way to Oklahoma.) Then ‘Sun Dance’ is full of pyrotechnics. I’m delighted to play it.”

He has settled into First Ward, where he wrangles friends into board games and hikes. (He’s just discovered Crowder’s Mountain.) He does play elsewhere: He gave an August recital at a Florida flute convention, adapting a Brahms’ viola sonata for flute. But though musicians regularly audition to keep their names in the job market, he’s going nowhere yet.

“Before I was hired, I told orchestras I wanted to find a place where I could be happy for the rest of my career, if that’s how it worked out,” he says. “I feel like I found one.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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