Music director-composer Ian Yan’s Executive Privilege

Music director-composer Ian Yan is a rapidly emerging force in New York’s highly competitive theater and music scenes. Yan’s dynamic mix of originality, raw talent and extensive formal training have allowed him to gain significant traction amongst his colleagues, and his impressive roster of credits was recently enhanced by serving as Music Associate for the White House State Dinner hosting the President of the South Korean Republic Yoon Suk Yeol.

“The Music Associate’s role is to assist the Music Supervisor and Music Director with any and all tasks that could arise,” Yan said. “This includes transcription, copy work, arranging, orchestrating, playing piano in rehearsals and conducting. Even though my work was remote, it was a once in a lifetime thrill, absolutely.”

President Biden enjoying President Yoon Suk Yeol’s performance (AP-Yonhap)

It was a glamorous, black-tie affair celebrating the two nations’ 70-year alliance. Attendees included Angelina Jolie and her son Maddox, Home Design stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim, cabinet members Antony Blinken, General Mark Milley and leading political figures such as Chuck Schumer, Mitt Romney and, of course, the President and First Lady.

The White House state dinner is a distinguished addition to his professional quiver of exceptional achievements—a resume which the Hong Kong-born Yan has dedicated virtually his entire life to. A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Yan’s prodigious skills quickly gained international attention, leading Britain’s prestigious Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music to rank the 11-year-old at an impressive Grade 8. 

At age 13, Yan was attending boarding school in England, where he added jazz and pop to his classical repertoire and began composing some strikingly original pieces. Moving on to New York’s venerable Columbia University, studying music theory, conducting, ear training, jazz orchestration and instrumentation while concurrently serving as Music Director for the Columbia Musical Theater Society, the annual Varsity Show and the Columbia Pops Orchestra.

His career plays out on multiple artistic fronts. Yan’s remarkable versatility allows him to serve as music director in theatrical, concert and studio settings as well as composer for film and musical shows including—thanks to the honor of being selected for the inaugural cohort of non-profit musical organization Musicians United for Social Equity (MUSE)—composing music, lyrics and libretto for his groundbreaking socio-cultural themed musical Re-Orient. The spectacularly original show was created during a one-on-one mentorship with Tony-Pulitzer winning Broadway powerhouse Tom Kitt (Flying Over Sunset, Next to Normal), and caught the attention of influential Broadway lyricist-librettist Sam Carner, who invited Yan to join his new Musical Theater Writer’s Collective.

Music Director Ian Yan

Yan’s expressive melodics and deep technical prowess unfailingly garner professional attention, and the White House state dinner gig is a classic example: he was working as music assistant for the annual, high-profile Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet Competition show—the celebratory conclusion of six weeks of competitive, in-theater fundraising by 42 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring companies—where he quickly impressed renown music director Ted Arthur (Diana, Cyrano, Mean Girls).

“I was in the middle of rehearsals for the annual BC/EFA Easter Bonnet Competition, which was being Music Supervised by Ted Arthur, who was also the Music Director for the White House State Dinner,” Yan said. “I had proved my skills useful at Easter Bonnet, and so Ted brought me on to the White House State Dinner, as well.”

Arthur’s confidence in Yan constituted a sterling professional endorsement, and he eagerly rose to the occasion.

“I was brought in around a week before the dinner, and there was a rehearsal process that happened in the lead-up towards the event,” Yan said. “The music was performed by the United States Marine Band—’The President’s Own’—directed by Colonel Jason K. Fettig, who is also the music adviser to the President of the United States.” 

Already notable as the Biden administration’s second state dinner and President Yoon Suk Yeol’s first official visit to the US, it was a major affair. With some 200 VIP guests being served in the East Room (largest in the Executive Mansion), everything, from the Korean-American fusion menu to the cherry blossom floral arrangements, had to perfect.

“I was in charge of creating the piano transcriptions that were used to do the full orchestrations,” Yan said. “The program featured Broadway stars Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis and Jessica Vosk and included hit showtunes such as ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables, ‘Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)’ from West Side Story, ‘This is the Moment’ from Jekyll and Hyde, ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel and ‘American Pie’ by Don McLean.”

That last title was a special entry, one which made a minor bit of history—President Yoon Suk Yeol had indicated that he, himself, would like to perform the song (a personal favorite), and President Biden was also prepared—with a guitar autographed by composer McLean.

“We had been informed that Yoon wanted to sing the song but were unsure whether it would actually happen or not,” Yan said. “We prepared the arrangement in case he decided to—which he eventually did at the end of the night, singing a surprise encore of ‘American Pie,’ for which I prepared the piano arrangement.”

Yoon’s climactic performance made headlines around the world and Yan, despite his physical absence, had a direct hand in an extraordinary musical moment on the world stage, a clear signal that the talented, fast-rising young artist is capable of just about anything.

“It was surreal to see the videos of the President singing my piano transcription online and, in real time, getting hundreds of thousands of views,” Yan said. “I felt very honored to have been a part of this experience and for Ted and the White House music team to have trusted me with this huge responsibility.”