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.

California, Christian Baldini, Music, Symphony Orchestra, Uncategorized

Leyla Kabuli in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On November 23, Leyla Kabuli will return to the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (in which she was a member of the first violin section years ago, for two seasons) as our piano soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Below is an interview with Leyla.
Leyla grew up in Davis, California, and she went through the public school system. During her time at Harper Junior High School, she was concertmaster of the school orchestra, directed by Greg Brucker. I had the opportunity of asking Mr. Brucker about his recollections of Leyla as his student, and this is what he had to say about her:
“When she [Leyla] was a part of the Harper Orchestras from 7th -9th grade, she was by far one of the most talented raw musicians and musical minds the school and our program had seen, if not the best musician to come through the program to date. Her talent on the violin was incredible, and that was her second instrument. When she played the piano for the class, we were all absolutely moved. It was magical. […] There is no question we were witnessing a true musical prodigy on the piano. Her kindness, care and concern for others, and her connection to those around her showed a deep wisdom and compassion far beyond her years. And it has been a true pleasure to follow her growth and progress as a musician since, from her amazing performances while at the high school, SF Conservatory, and since throughout Northern California and beyond. She is a true talent, and one of the great prides of our program historically. It was an honor to be a teacher to her, and a true pleasure.”

Christian Baldini: Leyla, it is such a pleasure to welcome you back to the Mondavi Center, and this time in a different capacity. You will be our soloist for this very beautiful and demanding Piano Concerto by Rachmaninov. How does it feel to be back?
Leyla Kabuli: Thank you very much for inviting me to play my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra.  It came as a big surprise, and I am honored to be a soloist with the UCDSO. It’s super exciting to rehearse and perform at the Mondavi Center again.
CB: What are some of the features that define this Piano Concerto? What speaks to you in it, and are there any recordings that you really like of it?
LK: This is the ultimate emotional piece that touches the hearts of everyone in the orchestra and the audience.It’s technically demanding, with wide-spread chords. I especially like how the piano relates to the orchestra throughout; at times it’s role is to accompany the other instruments as in the simple flute and the clarinet accompaniments in the second movement. The energy in the third movement is incredible. How could Rachmaninoff express so many feelings in those notes? Among the many recordings, my favorite is the one by Sviatoslav Richter and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in 1959; it’s the composition of one genius performed by yet another genius.
CB: Let’s talk about repertoire. Who are some composers that have influenced you as an artist? Which composers have you had the chance to explore in depth (even at your young age, you are quite an experienced performer!)? And who are those composers and/or works that you’d like to explore more?
LK: I learned many, many pieces from every different era of classical music, but I found that exploring Bach in depth was most beneficial also for appreciating the works of other composers. In recitals, I like to include the works of composers whose beautiful piano music is not part of the standard repertoire. Interestingly, some of the pieces I discovered in recent years were suggested by non-musicians. For example, I got introduced to the piano works of Nikolai Medtner by a friend’s father, who is a famous plant biologist at the Carnegie Institution. Whenever I play Medtner, I also play a few shorter pieces by his extremely supportive friend Rachmaninoff, who tirelessly helped to promote Medtner’s music.
CB: You have already been involved in important social justice work, including your committed performance on From the Top, which was a tribute to Syrian refugees, of “Black Earth”, by Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say. What is the meaning of music to you? Does it have a role in society? Why is it so important nowadays?
LK: Following my performance on NPR’s From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley, I collaborated with the show on other projects. The music video of my shorter arrangement of Fazil Say’s “Black Earth” was intended to raise awareness for two organizations that help refugees, especially in the Mediterranean region. It surprises me that so many people have seen that video and contributed to these organizations, and some even sent me very touching letters, which all prove that music has the power of uniting communities. The arts connect people in ways that nothing else can, and our cultural diversity serves to enrich our experience. Music provides a means for communication and expression beyond any spoken language. It transcends boundaries, barriers, and all perceived differences between people. I’d like to repeat Leonard Bernstein’s famous quote: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
CB: Besides being a remarkable pianist and an excellent violinist, you also play the bassoon. In addition, you are pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley, and I am pretty sure you must be a great athlete. How do you find time for everything, and how do you organize yourself?
LK: I really couldn’t claim to be any of those things. I did prepare for the junior high school basketball team tryouts until my violin teacher asked if basketball meant so much to me that I would risk breaking my fingers, which would mean the end of piano. I tried wrapping my fingers with bandages for a while, but had to quit before the tryouts. In general, I’m not that well unorganized, and my to-do list is hopelessly long. My classes and work as a teaching assistant twenty hours a week are prioritized, and then I try not to get stressed out about the many other things that can’t be finished. One day I hope to find a way to multi-task and parallel-process piano practice with other homework.
CB: Tell us about your first few steps in music. How did you start, and when? Who were the main influences (people, teachers, and also musical experiences) in your life so far?
LK: Actually, performing at the Mondavi Center is very meaningful to me. When I was almost seven, my mom took me to a concert of Itzhak Perlman. Although we listened to classical music at home all the time, the live performance was a completely different experience. I probably understood that Perlman was the main star of the concert, but I was fascinated by his piano accompanist Rohan de Silva and the gigantic concert grand piano. It was very disappointing that I wouldn’t be allowed to climb on the stage and play the big piano right after the concert, and more shockingly, according to my mom, one needed many lessons to play it. In the months that followed the concert, I demanded those lessons, assuming they would take place right there on the Mondavi stage, and that de Silva would be the teacher. Finally, my mom was convinced and we bought an electric keyboard with a wobbly stand from everyone’s favorite wholesale store. Then my life changed when I got accepted by a fantastic teacher in Davis, Angelia Lim, who taught me the joy of playing the piano and even convinced my mom to buy a used baby grand after a couple of years of lessons. When I was ten, in addition to weekly lessons with Mrs. Lim, I started the Pre-College program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) as a scholarship student, first with John McCarthy, and then with Yoshikazu Nagai. In the next seven years at SFCM, I studied  violin with Doris Fukawa, and bassoon with Dr. Yueh Chou. I also had exceptional chamber music coaches there, including  Machiko Kobialka. Many great pianists coached me in masterclasses and summer programs such as Piano Texas, BU Tanglewood, Colburn Academy, Oberlin, Southeastern Piano in South Carolina, and IIYM in Kansas. As the keyboardist of San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for four seasons, I was coached in orchestral piano by SF Symphony’s Robin Sutherland; I got to play the piano, celeste and organ in Davies Symphony Hall. I have been so very lucky to receive the gift of music from these extraordinary musicians.
 
CB: We are the lucky ones to witness and appreciate your talent first hand, Leyla! Thank you very much for your time, and for sharing your extraordinary talent and wonderful energy with our musicians and our audience. I very much look forward to sharing this with everyone at our performance on the 23rd of November!
LK: I really appreciate it that you are giving me this opportunity. I look forward to Rach at the Mondavi Center!

Leyla_3

Leyla Kabuli is a third-year student at the University of California, Berkeley, studying Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and Music. She graduated from the Pre-College Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2017, where she studied piano, violin, and bassoon as a scholarship student for seven years. She was the keyboardist of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra from 2015 to 2019. Leyla’s piano awards include three consecutive National YoungArts Awards in 2016, 2017, 2018, the American Prize in Piano Concerto, and the US Chopin Foundation scholarship. She won first prizes in the Los Angeles Young Musician International, eMuse, American Prot´eg´e, Wildflower, Pacific Musical Society, MTAC, CAPMT, Kruschke, Mindell, Ghiglieri, Classical Masters, East Bay, Berkeley Etude Club, US Open, and Junior Bach competitions. Other awards include top prizes in Virginia Waring International Concerto, Seattle International, Enkor International, MTNA Piano Duet, Ross McKee, USIMC, and Zeiter competitions. She was also a semi-finalist in the prestigious International Piano-e-Competition, Cooper International Competition, Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Yamaha USASU International Piano Competition, and the First International Arthur Rubinstein Youth Piano Competition. She has performed at Davies Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Benaroya Hall, McCallum Theater, Zipper Concert Hall and other major venues. In addition to the national broadcast of her featured performance on NPR’s From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley in 2016, Leyla collaborated with the show on a benefit video and performed at From the Top’s 2017 Gala. Her Bay Area performances included San Francisco’s Noontime Concert Series as the Helen von Ammon Emerging Artist Award recipient, Ensemble SF Concerts, and Concerts at the Presidio. She was a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Waring Festival Orchestra, Nova Vista Symphony, El Camino Symphony, South Valley Symphony, Bay Area Soli Deo Gloria, Sonoma Philharmonic, and Palo Alto Philharmonic. Leyla has studied piano with Angelina Lim and John McCarthy, and currently studies with Yoshikazu Nagai of SFCM and with Michael Orland at Berkeley. She attended many festivals, masterclasses and summer programs, including PianoTexas, Southeastern Piano Festival, Boston University Tanglewood Institute, Colburn Academy, and IIYM. As a soloist, active chamber musician and collaborative pianist, she organizes and frequently participates in benefit and outreach events in California and around the country.