Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Violinist Er-Gene Kahng in Conversation with Christian Baldini

In preparation for our performance of Florence Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 in Sacramento with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra, I had the pleasure of interviewing Er-Gene Kahng, concertmaster of the Arkansas Philharmonic and Fort Smith Symphony, and Professor at the University of Arkansas, who will be our soloist for our performances.

Christian Baldini: Er-Gene, it is a real pleasure to have you with us for this beautiful work by Florence Price. You were instrumental in the rediscovery and recording of this piece. Can you tell us how this project came into being? How did you first become acquainted with the compositions by Florence Price?

Er-Gene Kahng: I would be remiss if I didn't mention that it has been the collective work of our librarians who rescued the manuscripts, our historians and musicologists who have been researching, writing and thinking about Price's life and work since at least the 1970s, the archivists who continue the work to bring her legacy to the fore, and also the many performers before me who were already performing her compositions before we came to discover the lost manuscript of her violin concertos. It has been the combined efforts of a strong community over the course of many decades. 

I first performed Florence Price's String Quartet in G major (1929) at the Florence Price symposium at the University of Arkansas in 2015. After that introduction, my initial curiosity manifested into increasing levels of passion and commitment. One day, while at our special collections library, I found myself looking at Price's violin concerto manuscripts thinking, "this would be really great if someday, somebody recorded these works. Could that person be me... maybe?"

CB: What is so special about Florence Price's music? You bring a very beautiful sound and shape to every phrase in this concerto. Why is this music so special to you?

EGK: Thank you! It *is* beautiful music. And by that, I don't simply mean that it is pretty or pleasing, but that it holds a truth that is deep, layered and impactful. I hear the homage to the classical tradition in which she was trained (and a mastery its language), but also an homage to her Southern roots (even as she came to live the majority of her adult life in Chicago). The very tradition she honored and mastered was also the tradition that limited her opportunities. She questions this tradition without destroying its basic framework. Her answers to these artistic polarities (innovation vs. preservation of tradition) are manifested in the rich world she creates for her listeners, and the language she confidently develops and owns. She holds a space that generously houses classicism and modernist instability in a manner that is searching and assertive, all the while inviting us to respond to these polarities and clashes in our own way. I deeply admire her artistic vision.

CB: In this concert you are also playing the world premiere of Chris Castro's work "Sing High". I know Chris is very excited to have written this piece for you. What can you tell us about this piece?

EGK: I am very excited to share Chris's piece! It is an evocative work with a cornucopia of musical allusions and references, past and current. Despite it being a short, single movement work, it deals with big ideas which always circle around - it seems to me - the question of defining, elaborating and questing the very essence of 'music'. I find that so much of music is actually philosophy. Chris's piece really reminded me of this.

CB: How do you feel about having been so important in this great revival and interest in the music by Florence Price? Did you imagine it was going to have such a positive impact when you started your project?

EGK: I am genuinely surprised, elated and humbled. I had no predictions to its reception; in the beginning, I was simply consumed with the fear and anxiety that the project - for a number of reasons - would fail to finish. When we finally finished, I was overcome with a feeling of relief and gratitude, possibly even a moment of disbelief. As you know, any kind of recording project of this scope is dependent on many, many elements to come together at the right time, not to mention the strong faith, morale and dedication of each team member. Even the most carefully constructed plans cannot guarantee successful completion. I feel lucky and fortunate to have had the right elements in place at the right time with the right people.

CB: You are also a Professor, and have surely had many wonderful students over the years. Are there any tips you would give to aspiring musicians?

EGK: I really like and appreciate my students, not only as artists, but as people; and yes, I've had wonderful students over the years! The tips I would offer aspiring musicians are the same ones I aspire myself: actively creating an environment and attitude of learning; additionally, strengthening and utilizing all available resources for critical self-reflection.
Creating an environment for optimal learning might be something as literal as creating a good practice schedule, or making sure one gets enough sleep so that one isn't tired the next morning. Or, it might mean attending as many live concert performances as one's schedule might allow, or finding time in the day to discuss musical ideas with friends. At the core, it hinges on the idea that successful results require successful processes and that certain environments are more conducive to encouraging that success to surface than others; therefore, we should strive to set the stage for success, whatever this stage might look for you, whatever success means for you.
Bringing an attitude of learning means setting one's ego aside so that the challenges to artistic mastery aren't driven by our ego's need to personalize everything or preserve itself at the cost of truth-seeking or objective/unbiased observation.
Finally, over the years, I have found that keeping in touch with my mentors and role models, and allocating time to write regularly in my practice journal has vastly aided in clarifying my musical values and thinking process. I constantly work toward expanding my musical conceptions, keeping an open mind, and developing my musical empathy. I understand I still have a long way to go, and many, many more things to learn.

CB: As a performer, which answer would you give to folks that normally don't go to the concert hall and that might wonder: why is music still relevant or important in society nowadays?

EGK: I would encourage people to take a chance and enter that special space of live music-making. I more than understand that classical music and traditional concert hall culture may not be for everyone, and that sometimes it may only be successful in capturing the imagination and attention of a few. I also understand its challenges to aural accessibility. However, I do believe that the world of classical music, despite its cultural specificity, represents a very profound world, and creates/maintains a compelling connection to our shared history. It is a powerful anchor in affirming our humanity.

CB: Er-Gene, thank you very much for your time, and for sharing your immense talent with us. We can't wait to share your beautiful playing with our audiences in Sacramento!

EGK: Thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity!

Er-Gene Kahng

Er-Gene Kahng’s performances have been described as possessing a “caressing sense of phrase” and “an honest musicianship[which] translates the music into a meaningful discourse few virtuosi accomplish”; her recording of Florence Price’s Violin Concertos (Albany Records, 2018) has been cited and praised by The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Timesas an important contribution to American classical music, and has aired on programs like NPR’s Songs we Love, and APM’s Performance Today.  Alex Ross described the recording as “Price’s best outing on disk to date… Kahng plays the solo parts with lustrous tone and glistening facility.”

Er-Gene currently serves as Concertmaster with the Fort Smith Symphony, who has also completed a Florence Price preservation project by recording her symphonies no. 1 and no. 4 (a world premiere). Er-Gene also serves as Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra’s concertmaster, where she premiered Florence Price’s Violin Concerto no. 2.  Previously, Er-Gene has held title positions with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, SoNA (Symphony of Northwest Arkansas), Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as section positions with the Lancaster Symphony, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Eastern Connecticut Symphony and the Artosphere Festival Orchestra.

Er-Gene co-curated a new music series “Fuse” (2015-16), at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art featuring the works of American minimalism, indeterminacy, and postmodernism. Her A/V collaborations include working with animator Wilson Borja, whose work, “Cheré” explores themes of forced and voluntary migration of the African diaspora. Other collaborations include those with the Texas Ballet Theater, and the Hong Kong Arts Academy, performing an original score “Crash” by choreographer Jonathan Watkins.  

Er-Gene was a Visiting Wolfson Fellow at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK in 2016-2017. She received degrees from UCLA, Yale and Northwestern.  Her primary teachers include Mark Kaplan, Erick Friedman, Syoko Aki, the Tokyo String Quartet and Almita and Roland Vamos. She isProfessor of Violin and the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  Her students have gained admission to some of the top music schools in the country, including New England Conservatory, University of Southern California, Peabody Conservatory/Johns Hopkins University, University of Minnesota, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, as well as being prizewinners of the MTNA regional and national level competitions.  

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