Since joining Metropolis Ensemble two years ago, violinist Kristin Lee has quickly made herself irreplaceable to Metropolis Ensemble as both concertmaster and chamber musician. Next week, for Metropolis Ensemble’s fall concert Renderings, Kristin is taking on a new and exciting challenge: premiering a new violin concerto by resident composer Vivian Fung.
Of course, Kristin is already a seasoned soloist, having performed concerti with the Saint Louis Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, the Modestory Symphony, the Albany Symphony, Macon Symphony, Weschester Philharmonic Symphony, Ural Philharmonic of Russia, Pusan Philharmonic and Korea Broadcast Symphony.
So what makes next week’s premiere so different, considering her already seasoned resume as a soloist? Let’s ask her!
What have been some of the biggest challenges of putting a concerto like this together?
K.L.: This is the first time I am premiering a concerto, so I can’t speak to the consistent challenges that one faces for these kinds of projects. However, the biggest challenge for this specific concerto at this point is simply putting it together. The rhythm and tempo changes are quite difficult to line up with the orchestra, so it requires many hours of rehearsing to get used to. But it’s super helpful to have Vivian sitting right next to you and putting these puzzle pieces together. And if we ever run into a serious problem, she can always revise it however she wants to!
Composers and performers don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to a new piece’s interpretation. How do you view your role as a performer of a new piece? Do you feel it is important to have an exacting replica of the composer’s vision, or is it important that you have your own take on a piece?
K.L.: I like to be flexible, so I think this really depends on whom I work with. I’ve worked with composers who know exactly what they want and pick on every single note to the way they want it to be. On the other hand, there are composers who are completely open to taking different ideas and changes. In the case of Vivian, she was somewhere between the two. Some things were very specific, others, we tweaked and revised together.
My goal as a performer is to bring across the exact replica of the composer’s vision. I recently heard someone say, “performers are servants to the composers,” and I fully agree with this quote. I find that I always hear the most memorable concerts when it’s visible that the performer is in full understanding of the music. When we play pieces written by, say Beethoven, we would not be able to know exactly what he intended since we don’t have hand-s on guidance. However, if the performer tries their absolute best to depend their relationship to Beethoven by studying his personality, his family, his letters, etc., the perfomer can be convinced of what Beethoven envisioned in that certain piece. One of the greatest things about working with living composers is that you don’t have to go through all this trouble to understand what the piece is about. But the performance wouldn’t be any different if the relationship between the composer and the performer lies only with the notes on the page. I strongly feel that in order to fully replicate the composer’s vision, the performer has to get to know the composer’s life, personality and all the other aspects outside of the writing. So, in the ecase of living composers, a great friendship would be a crucial point.
In that case, this would be a good time to ask how you know Vivian!
K.L.: My first encounter with Vivian was back when I was an undergraduate student at the Juilliard School. She was my theory teacher, and while I enjoyed her class very much, I had no idea that she was a composer! It was only when she brought a recording of her first string quartet to the class the last day of classes in the spring semester that I realized she is an EXTRAORDINARY composer. I immediately noticed the eastern world sound in her writing, which captured my interest right away. Then, the following year, she brought a gamelan group from Bali to introduce to the students at Juilliard. She explained to us how she spent a few summers in Bali to study gamelan music, and decided to utilize its musical structure in her own compositions. The more I got to know about gamelan and Vivian’s music, I was completely hooked and tried to attend every concert that was being played in NY. I even traveled with Vivian to Bali last summer to work with her gamelan group. Through this project I got to know Vivian in so many different ways, outside of music as well. We found out we have much in common: our taste in music, love for finding great coffees in New York, and the way we were brought up in an asian household. We would meet to discuss the concerto and find ourselves chatting away about everything else in life as well. She is someone who is so special to me, not only as the great composer, but also as a mentor and a dear friend.
What are your impressions of Vivian’s music?
K.L.: Vivian has this unusual way of bringing to the audience a sound that seems familiar, yet not so familiar. The undercurrent of “eastern” style allows the listener to find a comfort zone, but the layer of her own personal voice keeps the listener on the edge of their seat. My personal favorite aspect of her music is her use of rhythm. The hemiolas and polyrhythms, which is a common technique in Balinese gamelan music, bring a hypnotic groove every time I hear it.
Outside of your work as a soloist and chamber musician, you have been the concertmaster of Metropolis Ensemble for about two years. How is being a concertmaster for a group like Metropolis Ensemble different from your role in a more traditional orchestra?
K.L.: The great thing about Metropolis is that every single player in the group is at such a high level. And because we all have our careers outside of Metropolis, everyone has true respect for one another. So, even though I do sit in the positin of a concertmaster, I feel the only difference in that seat with this group is that I’m closer to the conductor! We all speak up at rehearsals, and it really is a group effort.
Moving on from the realm of music, what are some of your favorite artists? What inspiration do you draw from resources outside of your own art?
K.L.: I love watching Woody Allen Films, reciting Robert William Service’s poems, and reading David Foster Wallace’s essays. These are things that I repeatedly go to, but I try to expand my knowledge in every aspect of art as much as I can. The more I have in my system, the more I discover my art and my identity.
What is your favorite chamber music setting to perform in?
K.L.: String quartet, no doubt!
A final, super important question: What is your favorite restaurant in NYC?
K.L.: This is a tough one…I have so many! I absolutely love Spice Market in the meatpacking district, I love Recipe on the UWS, Ippudo has better ramen than ramen in Japan! Café Gratzie on the UES has the best omelette in NYC…I can go on and on!
I do have my favorite coffee place in NYC, though, which is 9th street espresso!