California, Christian Baldini, Concerto, Experimental, Judy Kang, Korea, Uncategorized, violin

Judy Kang in Conversation with Christian Baldini

After a long pandemic pause, the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra will finally return to Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center in Davis California on October 15, 2021. Our opening program will be a short noon concert featuring a new work by Iranian composer Aida Shirazi, as well as Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with the extraordinary Judy Kang. I had the pleasure of asking Judy some questions, and below are her very thoughtful answers:

Christian Baldini: Judy, welcome, I am so excited to be performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with you as our wonderful soloist. You and I have known each other virtually for a long time, we have connected, interviewed, even performed remotely, but this is our first “in person” performance. Are you excited about this? What are some of the things you look forward to the most?

Judy Kang: Thanks so much for inviting me to perform this masterpiece. I’m so excited about it and working/meeting in person with you as well!
I look forward to getting back to the stage after the long “break”, getting back into the groove and having the privilege to play one of my all time favourites, I’m very grateful.
It’s exciting to play for a live audience again, “getting lost” and being in the moment, letting go, and embracing the unknown. The exchange of energy in the room and inspiration  pulled from the audience will be magical and something I realize that I miss deeply. One thing during the pandemic that really struck me was the realization and challenge to feel those things alone in a room recording in front of a camera even if there is an audience on the other side. The collaborations werent the same either though absolutely grateful it was possible to have. It will be wonderful to collaborate in the same room!

CB: What are some of the aspects of the Sibelius Violin Concerto that you like the most? What is so special about it in your view? What would you recommend to people who don’t know the piece, what should they listen for?

JK: I love the overall vibe of the work; the emotion that it provokes and displays. I love how it’s orchestrated and the way it’s structured. The virtuosity and passion the composer has allowed for both the soloist and orchestra. It’s so fun to play. What I find special about this work is that it has such richness and depth to it but it really penetrates to our emotion which doesnt necessarily require a type of intellectual understanding. The piece has a lot of tension underneath the surface. It’s cool and icy but hot and intense below. Listen for the way it builds to climax and how it moves away from the tension to warmer and more passionate places.
Listen to how the rhythm of the orchestra in the last movement is foundational to keeping up a consistency of excitement and intensity and how the violin plays and reacts to it and also in a way is improvisatory in essence over that rhythmic base. Let the music take you to where ever your mind and spirit wants.

CB: Tell me about your training as a violinist. You have been mentored by some of the foremost violinists of our time, and you’ve also developed a remarkable career as a soloist. What are some aspects of different “schools” of violin playing that you have incorporated and/or rejected? How did it all come into place for you?

JK: I was mostly exposed to a lot of the old Russian school of playing. I had very interesting training growing up. My professors from childhood gave me much freedom to express and allowed me to express myself. I felt free to do so. It felt very natural and organic. My first professor when I was at The Curtis Institute was extremely strict in contrast and I felt for the first time a loss of that freedom. The silver lining is that I adapted to learning things very quickly.

CB: You have also played the violin with Lady Gaga all over the world. You are allegedly the only living musician (according to the New York Times) to have played under both Pierre Boulez and Lady Gaga. How does this type of flexibility, desire and willingness to participate in crossover classical/pop music performances come into being?

JK: I’ve always felt a sense of fun and creativity in making up melodies as a kid. Instead of playing scales I would make up random tunes or would imitate a song or piece I heard that I wanted to learn eventually. I grew up listening to pop and top40. It was a type of therapeutic “easy” listening for me. My love for improv and collaborations opened opportunities to jam and work with all types of artists. I never thought or had planned to make a “career” outside of classical to be honest. It was more so an outlet for me to be spontaneous, and for self creativity and expression. Again, a form of therapy perhaps.

CB: If you had to name four or five of your favorite violinists (from any era), who would they be?

JK: I grew up listening to Heifetz Milstein Elman  Rabin Kreisler… they were and are a huge influence.

CB: Are there any dream/impossible performances you’d like to be a part of? (this could be playing in a string quartet with Mozart, or in a jazz combo with Miles Davis)

JK: any of the above mentioned violinists, Jacqueline dupre, Glenn Gould, Eddie hazel, Paganini, Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Mozart, Schostakovich, Debussy, Gershwin, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley, Elliott Smith, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Thom Yorke, Sarah Mclachlan.

CB: If you had an unlimited budget to put together a summer festival, what would you do? You could invite artists, orchestras, chamber music groups, dancers, from all over the world. A whole month of events all curated by you. What would this look like?

Jk: the possibilities are endless. When you get artists together it becomes a conglomerate of unknown possibilities. And without a budget, it’s about utilizing the means to re-create and build from authenticity and from what’s within. Somehow I feel that the lack of creates more a sense of raw creativity and I find beauty in it. It’s about balancing the two things I suppose. I would love an environment that allows for freedom without rules within boundaries. For collaborations and a space to freely express and another space that challenges one another to expand and go to the unknown places without judgement or a sense of pressure. An atmosphere where we are allowed and inspired to discover and embrace the deep parts of ourselves and where vulnerability is a warm and welcoming thing. A space to be unsafe. It would be a world, if you will, for us, as individuals, creators, and a community via relationships, to create and utilize art as a means of understanding ourselves, one another, allowing growth and ultimately, healing.

Judy Kang, courtesy photo

The New York Times hailed, “Judy Kang, a Canadian violinist and most likely the only musician to have worked with both Pierre Boulez and Lady Gaga, was featured in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. Ms. Kang, who drew whoops from the audience before playing a single note, offered a lean, focused sound, pinpoint intonation and expressively molded phrasing. Every line seemed to mean something personal in what amounted to an amorous serenade.” 

Judy Kang is not your quintessential artist. She has established herself internationally as a solo violinist and chamber musician in the classical world as well as featured guest artist and prominent collaborator in the world of pop, indie, jazz, and hip hop. A multi faceted artist evolving outside of her formal classical training, Judy has set herself apart from others through her work as a singer/songwriter, producer, composer, and arranger. Born a rebel to tradition, rules, and conformity, she discovered an artistic freedom and a sense of individuality through creation and improv at about the age of 7. Judy continues to defy and break the constraints of boundaries improvising, jamming, co-writing, producing, and performing with bands and artists from Alaskan prog rock band Portugal.The Man to such powerhouses as Lady Gaga. 
 
Born and raised in Canada to a single mother, her career in violin began at the age of four, winning competitions and performing publicly in recitals. Judy’s unusual gift was recognized immediately having instantly learned and memorized a piece at her first lesson. By age six, she made her solo orchestral debut and at age ten, she burst onto the classical music scene in a nationally acclaimed televised performance as soloist with the National Arts Center Orchestra. The Ottawa Citizen proclaimed, “If there was a star tonight, it was Judy Kang. Blessed with a gift for the violin that is exceptional, she moves about the instrument at her disposal with an ease that is awe-inspiring.” A year later and with a fractured wrist at the time (from a volleyball game), Judy auditioned and subsequently accepted a full scholarship to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. At 17, she graduated with a bachelor in music as the youngest graduate in Curtis’ history. Shortly after graduation, she captured the grand prize as well as the “Best Interpretation” award at the CBC Competition for Young Performers, Canada’s most esteemed competition. At the age of 19, Judy was granted the Lily Foldes Scholarship from the Juilliard School where she earned her master’s degree with high honors. Additionally, she was the first recipient on full scholarship of the Artist Diploma from the Manhattan School of Music, which holds the distinction as the highest level of education, above all other programs.

Since her first solo appearance at age four in her native Edmonton, Canada, Judy has toured six continents across North and South America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Caribbean Islands. She has performed with all the major orchestras and ensembles of Canada and those of US, Europe and Asia. Further, she performed in recital and chamber music to diverse audiences in prestigious venues including Tokyo Suntory Hall, Lincoln Center, Royal Festival Hall, Schubert Hall in Vienna as well as at the Metropolitan and Guggenheim Museums in New York, to name a few. Judy made her critically acclaimed debut to a sold out audience in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall.

Having achieved a level of pop culture status as “Lady Gaga’s violinist/nurse Judy,” she was personally selected by the iconic sensation as her solo violinist on the “MonsterBall” world tour in 2010-11, the biggest selling debut tour in history. Judy performed in sold out venues for millions worldwide. In the midst of touring Europe, she flew to NYC for less than 30 hours to perform as soloist of Brahms’ Violin Concerto at Stern Hall at Carnegie Hall, garnering rave reviews from the New York Times as well as other publications. She appeared on the Emmy award winning HBO special “Lady Gaga Presents: The MonsterBall World Tour Live from Madison Square Garden.” Judy was also featured alongside Lady Gaga on American Idol playing the violin solo of her hit single, “Alejandro.” 

A member of the acoustic trio of Academy award winning film composer and groundbreaker of electronic music, Ryuichi Sakamoto, they have toured Europe and Asia in sold out shows and have released two albums on the Decca label to much celebration. As a producer and writer for diverse artists, she co-wrote, produced, and arranged a song for singer Antoniette Costa whose music video garnered over 65,000 views in the first 48 hours following its premiere. She has also toured in collaboration with pianist Chad Lawson for a project entitled “Chopin Variations” which consists of revisiting his piano masterpieces in modern trio form.

Judy frequently collaborates with esteemed composers and has worked closely with Leon Kirchner, Richard Danielpour, Alexander Goehr, and Pierre Boulez. In response to her well-received performance and collaboration with Pierre Boulez and IRCAM, The New York times wrote, “violinist Judy Kang, who played with assurance and imagination, became the wizardly master of an entire sound environment.

Young people whose only experience of electronic music comes from deafening rock clubs should have heard this performance.” As a student at Juilliard, Judy became well versed in the New York club scene having played to sold out audiences in venues such as Le Poisson Rouge, The Bitter End, Irving Plaza, Mercury Lounge, Pianos, The Living Room, and Bowery Ballroom, among others.

She has performed in front of numerous diplomats and leaders including U.S. President Bill Clinton. Her extensive collaborations include distinguished members of the Guarneri and Emerson Quartets, Beaux Arts Trio, Olafur Arnalds, Lenny Kravitz, Richard Goode, Lynn Harrell, Andre Previn, Claude Frank, Miriam Fried, Emmanuel Ax, and David Geringas, among many others. Her mentors include Sylvia Rosenberg, Robert Mann, Aaron Rosand, Felix Galimir, Lorand Fenyves, James Keene, and Yoko Wong.

Judy has performed at major festivals such as Marlboro, Ravinia, Banff, Orford, Bargemusic, Manchester, Aspen, the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, Lenaudiere, and the Pablo Casals Festival, as well as at various jazz and pop festivals like Lollapalooza and the Festival Internacional Jazz Barcelona, to name a few. She was also featured in one of three chamber groups selected for the 60th Anniversary Disc from a live performance on Musicians from Marlboro. She is an original founding member of piano quartet “Made in Canada” having toured throughout Canada and was concertmaster and a frequent featured soloist with string ensemble “Sejong”.

Judy’s achievements have garnered her much media attention, frequently appearing on CNN and MTV as well as in myriad print publications including being featured in Chatelaine magazine’s 80 women to watch. Her release of two critically acclaimed CDs have been nominated for the Opus award and the Gemini award in her native Canada. She has won top prizes at prestigious international competitions such as Kreisler, Naumburg, Dong-A, and Carl Nielsen, as well as grand prize several years in a row at the Canadian Music Competition. Having graduated high school at age 15, she was selected as an All American Scholar, honouring the top academically talented students in America as well as being nominated for the United States National Mathematics Award (USNMA).

Judy is frequently heard live and through broadcasts on national and international radio stations such as CBC (Canada), BBC (London) and on WQXR (New York).

Humbled and thankful to have received numerous and continuous support through scholarships and grants from numerous foundations, Judy won the ‘Sylva Gelber’ prize given to the most talented musician under 30. Further, and in recognition of her outstanding achievement and contribution to the arts, she is featured as an accomplished artist and inspiration in a book entitled “Korea and Canada: A Shared History.” The sole artist to be awarded the longest use of an instrument from the Canada Council Instrument Bank, Judy won the use the 1689 “Baumgartner” Stradivarius, through a generous donor.

She frequently donates her time and talents towards charity, benefits, nursing/retirement homes, hospitals, schools, arts education, ministry, and missions. Judy is artistic director for EnoB, a community based nonprofit organization that reaches out to people who are disabled, hospitalized, or suffer from socio-economic disadvantages. She is also an artist ambassador for WorldVision.

Inspired by a deep yearning to delve within and to express pure and raw emotion on her own terms, Judy released a self-titled debut record of original songs on March 5, 2013, fully self written, produced, and recorded. The album takes the listener on her evolving personal journey as an artist, from past to present, through an exploration and experiment of sound, featuring the violin primarily, as well as vocals, and other instruments. The first of many more to come, her record garnered much praise and accolades from the press and artists alike, including MidWest Record saying, “Moving from Juilliard to Lady Gaga as easily as she moves from ambient to a Stradivarius, Kang blows open the stereotypical tiger mom progeny being a hot chick that masters classical violin before puberty. For all the pop chops she has under her young belt, this is a shining example of a wonderful record that many will not know what to make of.” Bob Boilen, host and creator of NPR’s online music show All Songs Considered, describes it as “diverse, unbelievably beautiful, and eclectic.” 

She continues to stretch her artistic boundaries through various projects of her own as well as with her collaborations with other artists.

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