As we prepare the young musicians of the 21st century for the professional world, it is vital to understand the new pathway that is emerging, that is different from the old paradigm, and that will utilize the very best of that astonishing skill set and talent that belongs to musicians. In this series of blogs, I have invited some of my colleagues to tell of their own experiences or discoveries as musicians, teachers, and entrepreneurs that shed light on the new pathway. Earlier posts in the series include my introduction and essays by Lyle Davidson and David Loebel.
The Borromeo String Quartet, Ensemble-in-Residence at NEC, represents for me one of the finest and most intriguing ensembles in the world. Their artistic quality, musicianship and energy are phenomenal, but their sense of curiosity in terms of repertoire choice, presentation and the use of technology in performance place them in a unique position in the world of chamber music. Their second violin, Kris Tong, who joined the quartet in 2006 after receiving his Master of Music from NEC in 2005, is a young musician who not only plays in the most energized way, but is also engaged in thinking and discussing the issues surrounding music and the world. This guest blog takes us into his world and reveals a personality concerned with every aspect of music.—Tony Woodcock
“So why are you doing this?”
I was surprised by the question. I had expected Lenny to be enthusiastic that I had chosen a life in music, that I wanted to apply to music schools and to continue the violinistic tradition of which he had made me suddenly aware, in less than a year’s time. Lenny (Leonard Braus, Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony) had a reputation as a tough teacher; he didn’t take many students, and my waiting until the 11th grade to study with him made me feel like I was rather behind. But what a year it had been; my technique had been rebuilt from the ground up, from open strings and long tones to scales and Kreutzer etudes with various bowing exercises. I had played the violin my whole life, really, but it was not until I met Lenny that I knew what was really possible, how hard it was, what a responsibility it was to try to play well. He had been an assistant to the great violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold, who in turn was the protégé of Eugene Ysaÿe. Studying with Lenny was like going back in time, like looking in on an era when musicians were still celebrated, when a life in music, in art, was very serious work indeed, and seriously regarded.
“You know, it’s getting harder and harder to get a job out there. The audiences are going down and nobody knows what to do. Someday, maybe in 10 years, 20 years, there are only going to be a handful of orchestras, in the biggest cities, and everyone’s going to be competing for just a few spots.”
How Lenny was so prescient in the summer of 1997 I’ll never know. The country was in the middle of a boom, just at the beginning of the dot-com craziness; the federal deficit had been cut and there was talk of even a surplus in the coming years. And here I was, on the phone with Lenny, who was suddenly all doom and gloom. How could he discourage me, when he was the one who had ignited in me this burning, insatiable desire to play, to play, like Heifetz or Milstein, Elman or Oistrakh?
Once, in a lesson, Lenny asked me what my favorite concerto was. There were too many pieces to name; how could I choose between Beethoven and Brahms; Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, or Mendelssohn?
“Conus. Your favorite concerto is Conus.”
This was news to me, as I had never heard (or heard of) Julius Conus’s little known Violin Concerto
(You can listen to Jascha Heifetz’s incredible recording here.)
But more than that, it was Lenny’s way of assigning me the task of not only learning the solo violin part, but also to charge me with the responsibility to explore what the piece was, to open myself to its beauties, and to love it. It was a great lesson, and an important one for me to learn. After all, ultimately, what we do in music is to empathize; we try to feel what a composer has felt and has transformed into physical tones, so that we may once again create these notes, just vibrations really, and in doing so evoke the same sensation that we ourselves have felt, imagined. And we get chills from the vibrations…
Of course, he was just making sure. Lenny needed to know that I was going in with my eyes open, that I was moving forward because of music, and not because of delusions of grandeur about fame and fortune and a big recording contract. That I would be happy just doing it, having a life in music.
“Gingold used to say that all we can ask is to play the violin. And if that’s not enough, then you should do something else.”
I suppose it’s never quite that simple. When I joined my colleagues in the Borromeo Quartet I was ready to dedicate the next several decades of my life to the intensive study of the quartet literature, interspersed with occasions when we would interrupt said study to perform, in public, for people who could not possibly understand the complexity or difficulty of our efforts, then to resume study. But I came to realize, very quickly, how entirely futile our efforts are without an audience to consume them. How it is a remarkable thing that people come to concerts, amidst their endlessly busy lives, and actually open themselves to having an experience, to receiving the sounds that you are creating, with all of their import. How it is an important thing to make yourself and your art available to those who may not have a native interest in your chosen profession. That in order to justify dedicating your life to something, you must ask yourself why it matters at all; you must ask why what you do is relevant.
And this is no small question. I remember sitting at Bear’s in Bloomington, Indiana (a local watering hole for Hoosiers) with my best friend from college, Aaron, a cellist himself, on September 12, 2001.
“Kris, what are we doing? There are people whose job is to rush into burning buildings to try and save people. What are we doing? It’s all so…selfish.”
I’m not sure I have an answer for Aaron, after all this time. I could never look anyone in uniform in the eye and tell them that my work is as important as theirs. But my feeling is that it is our responsibility to continue to prove our worth. That we need to continually find ways to share what beauties we have discovered with others. To invite people to share in our empathy.
One of my many duties as a member of the New England Conservatory’s quartet-in-residence is to teach some of the wonderfully talented students who come through Boston on their own personal quests for a life in art. I am constantly amazed at what these young musicians can do. They are hungry to learn, eager and ambitious, and they are all racing to get better, to be more accurate, more in tune and faster and louder and…I just need to be sure.
“So why are you doing this?”