Violinist and Composer Scott Yoo Travels the World for His TV Show ‘Now Hear This’

Each episode featured interviews with musicians, scholars, writers, and professors about an array of topics all related in some way to classical music and the people who make it

By David Templeton | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

When season five of the PBS Great Performances series Now Hear This aired over the course of four consecutive Friday nights in April and May of this year, its host—the accomplished violinist and conductor Scott Yoo—was only able to watch one live episode. “I’ve been out of the country,” he explains, a reference to his job as chief conductor and artistic director of the Mexico City Philharmonic. Though he sees the complete episodes long before they air, he does enjoy watching them live when he can. And he enjoys it when colleagues and fans write to him after a new episode. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of nice people that way,” he says. “People who reach out and said, ‘Hey, I really liked this part or that part of the episode,’ or ‘Would you ever consider doing this or that or telling this little-known story?’ It’s really fun. It’s a great way to meet people who like the same kind of music I like.”

Now Hear This debuted as the first new PBS show dedicated to classical music in over 50 years. In every episode, Yoo travels the world, talking to musicians, scholars, writers, and professors about an array of topics all related in some way—except when following some entertaining tangent—to classical music and the people who make it. In the most recent season, Yoo explored the life of legendary violinist Niccolò Paganini, talked to established virtuosos in an array of fields (from cheesemaking to circus performing), interviewed Yo-Yo Ma and two of his closest friends, met the next generation of classical musicians, and even took a deep dive into the world of music composition by trying his hand at composing a new musical piece of his own.

In late April, just before the final episode of season five aired, Yoo took some time for a Zoom call to talk about the show, how it came to be, what he’s learned from it, and what he hopes it will accomplish. (Spoiler alert: he thinks it might just change the world.)

This episode of “Now Hear This” originally aired May 3, 2024.

How did you end up hosting a show like this on PBS?

It’s a little convoluted, but I’ll give you the short version. Since 2005, I’ve been running the Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, California. We are always trying to make the festival even bigger and better, and a very important arts consultant said, “Why are you trying to make your festival bigger? Why not just make it deeper?”

So, we developed a kind of concert called Notable Encounter, sort of a museum docent’s guide to classical music. The idea was that we’d take a piece of music, and I would explain to the layperson exactly how it works, who it was who wrote it, and what went into making it. I did one on the three Brahms trios, which, of course, were written at different points in his life, so you can almost watch Brahms getting older through the three pieces. It took me about two weeks to write that script, and I was quite proud of it. Then, at the actual event at the University of Texas—where I gave the talk the day before we performed the trios—only seven people came to the talk. But one of them was Harry Lynch, a producer for PBS, and the next day, after the trio concert, he found me backstage and said, “We need to make a television show together.”


Three weeks later, I was in Mexico City, and he called me, and we talked about what the show could be. I think it was 12 months later we were filming the pilot in Milan, and PBS picked it up for a full season less than a year later. And it just steamrolled ahead after that. 

How much time does it take to shoot this show? You are a very busy person. How do you manage it?

Well, my involvement with each episode is about three weeks, but then it takes the incredible editing team about three months to put the episode together. As for how I do it? The truth is, I guest conduct a lot less than I used to. That’s how I manage it.

Every episode has a theme, and then goes off on tangents related to that theme. How do you decide where to film, whom to interview, and what rabbit holes you might explore?

Harry Lynch writes and directs each episode. We sit down and go through a bunch of ideas for a season, and then whittle them down to four episodes. Once I’ve convinced Harry to do something, like doing an episode on Paganini, then we start looking for the B story. Harry likes having an A story and a B story. Our pilot episode was about Vivaldi, but it was also about the evolving technology of the violin. We did an episode about Astor Piazzolla, but it was really about the art of the tango dance. So, with the Paganini episode, the B story was going to be about virtuosity in other fields besides music, but what happened was that the B story was so interesting, we ended up flipping it. The A story became a look at virtuosity, as it applied to Paganini, as it applied to Cirque du Soleil artists, as it applied to cheesemaking, or what have you. It was so much better that way.

Actually, this whole fifth season was flipped. The first episode was going to be about Mendelssohn, and the B story was going to be about child prodigies. As we started thinking about which young people we wanted to meet, we realized there are so many fascinating kids doing amazing things, there would be no time in the episode for Mendelssohn, so the episode just became about young virtuosos. So, all of the episodes this season are B stories, and not A stories.


You are an excellent interviewer. You seem to really connect with your subjects, and you ask very interesting questions. Does that come naturally to you?

Going into an interview, Harry does give me bullet points, certain topics I should try to hit. But sometimes the person I’m interviewing goes off on a tangent and doesn’t hit the points I’m supposed to be hitting. So I have to get creative. What I try to do is to keep my mind as blank as possible, and make it my only goal, the most important thing in my life, to be talking to that person. That’s my mindset. When you go to that place, it just works better, I have found.

You have so much experience as a musician, as a conductor, as the leader of music festivals. I imagine that, in doing this television show, you find yourself drawing upon a lot of that knowledge.

I think that everything I have done in music up to this point has prepared me for this job. I was a violin student first, then a very inexperienced violin soloist in my early teens. Then I was an inexperienced chamber musician. I’ve conducted. I was the librarian of my college orchestra for a while. Every step, every run, every accomplishment was an important experience, and I’ve drawn upon everything, all of it, to do my job as the host of this show. 


If you were not a violinist, if you were some other kind of musician—a percussionist or something—do you think you might be a different kind of host of this show?

Well, if I were a pianist, I would not have this job with this show at all, that’s for certain. I would not have been asked to do it. Harry told me right off the bat, ‘I love that you play the violin, because it’s portable.’ In one of the very first scenes in the first episode, the Vivaldi episode, I am looking at this manuscript that I’d listened to growing up. It was the “L’amoroso” violin concerto, and I was sitting there with gloves on, going through the manuscript, and I had my violin, so I started playing from the manuscript. If I had been a pianist, that would have been impossible. I can’t take a piano with me wherever I go. When we first started talking about this show, Harry asked me to watch this PBS series called Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, in which the host carried around a Geiger counter. That was his interface with the world. Harry said, ‘Scott, your interface with the world in this show is going to be your violin. You are going to carry it everywhere.’ So, if I were a flutist or a trumpet player, I might still be hosting this show. But even if I were a cellist, probably not. My violin is key to the storytelling.

What would you say is your main reason for doing this show? What is your hope for it, in terms of its impact on its audiences?

Here’s the best way I can answer that. There was a time when, if a kid told their parents they wanted to grow up to cook food in a restaurant, their parents would be shocked and disappointed. Cooking in a restaurant? That’s not a way to become wealthy and successful. Then what happened? Cooking shows on PBS. Anthony Bourdain traveling the world showing us how chefs do what they do. Chefs are huge celebrities now. It’s a glamorous occupation, and that’s because of shows on television that opened people’s eyes. That’s what I want to do for classical music. That’s what I want this show to do. Maybe some young person will fall in love with classical music because of this show, and their whole world will change. I think it could happen. I think it might already be happening. That is well worth the time and effort it takes to do this. It’s why I’m so excited and genuinely grateful to have this opportunity, and why I will keep doing it as long as possible.