Bringing the Florence Price Violin Concertos to Life: A Conversation with Er-Gene Kahng

February 25, 2019, 11:37 AM · Back in 2009, not long after I joined the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, that group celebrated its 75th anniversary season. The winner of that year's Young Artists' Competition was violinist Er-Gene Kahng, who performed the Mendelssohn concerto. I made a rare appearance as a violist in that concert, my last before I went back to the first violins for good.

Almost ten years later and 3000 miles to the west, I remembered and met Er-Gene again at her performance of the Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento. Florence Price's two violin concertos were recently rediscovered amidst other forgotten manuscripts by Price in an abandoned house that was once her summer home. Kahng, a Professor at the University of Arkansas, has edited and recorded these concertos in order to bring the work to a wider audience. (Here is a link to her recording of both of Price's violin concertos.)

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I caught up with Er-Gene after the concert and we made arrangements to chat via Skype, as she was leaving the next day--to go to London!

KarenandErGeneKaren with Er-Gene after the concert in the fabulously renovated art deco CK McClatchy High School Auditorium

Karen: I wanted to talk with you about Florence Price, but I also wanted to talk about your development as a musician. You mentioned that you are from California. What brought you to Arkansas?

Er-Gene: As I was finishing up my doctoral degree at Northwestern, I started applying for jobs. University of Arkansas listed a vacancy for a violin professor. I applied, interviewed and got the job! Sorry the story is not more interesting! :) Growing up in southern California, I didn't know anything about Arkansas, and had never even visited!

Karen: I also went to grad school, to get a PhD in Neuroscience. I'm only belatedly realizing that academia is a path for violinists too. Did you have plans to become an academic?

Er-Gene: No, I did not really have plans to be in academia. And I didn't know--still don't--if it is a common path for violinists. I was very idealistic and only knew that I liked the structured environment of school and wanted the chance to learn more and dedicate time to my artistic self-development.

I would even go further to say that for me growing up, the understanding was that people went into academia if they could not "make it" as a practicing artist. It was the "those who can't play, teach" concept.

Karen: I noticed something similar, even though I didn't go on professionally in music. When you are a child learning violin you are exposed from the beginning to performers who were all child prodigies and major soloists from an early age, and you get the impression that that is the only path.

Er-Gene: I feel like even the concept of a doctoral degree in music was relatively new'when I was going to school. It may have existed for decades before, but the idea was that a Masters' degree should be enough, and that if you actually needed "all that time" to learn your craft, it was evidence of a lack of talent. It's interesting how this narrative of "genius", "prodigy", and "talent" is so prevalent in our industry.

Karen: So did you go to a regular public school? Many violinists homeschool or do school online so that they can spend more time practicing!

Er-Gene: I'm very proud that I went to a public school. My school still exists today: the LA Center for Enriched Studies. It is a humanities magnet and I still keep in touch with some of my teachers. I remember my third grade elementary school teacher had us memorize Robert Frost poems by setting them to music. He composed at the piano, which was housed in our classroom. I didn't realize how incredible this was until much later.

Karen: That sounds very cool! I teach at a relatively new STEM-oriented private school. I'm always interested in hearing about what works to make a healthy school community.

Er-Gene: I took my music classes at Colburn, back when it was still near USC, not downtown as it is now. I took music theory, chamber music, orchestra, piano and violin lessons there. From there, I have seen some stars born. I remember seeing and hearing Leila Josefowicz, and I was completely amazed, as I am still.

Being surrounded by such young artists growing up, I wasn't sure I had a place in the music world. I definitely loved violin, but the master teachers enforced a strict 3-4-hour practice schedule, which, at the time, I couldn't handle. I still don't really have an explanation for it, only that I was very interested in academics and wanted to divide my time equally. I wanted to take the time to study and read, as well as practice.

Karen: I can totally relate to that. I always had a lot of other things I wanted to do besides practicing.

Er-Gene: I had very supportive parents and many teachers who never "pushed" in the sense of being stern time keepers. I think they observed my interests and allowed me the independence to use my time the way I wished.

I do sometimes think about "what would have been" if I had gone to a conservatory. I think I would be a much stronger violinist today. But I'm also grateful that somehow, so far, I've been allowed to progress at my own pace.

Karen: How do you think your academic training and orientation influenced your interactions with Florence Price's music? Do you think that you felt more ready or willing to take on the project because you have a doctorate? What is the degree called in music? Is it still a PhD? I mean, this project is a dream PhD thesis. You discover this awesome music and bring it back to life!

Er-Gene: My degree is called a "DM, " a Doctor of Music. I think my program at Northwestern was a good fit because again, it allowed for a lot of independence and space for me to explore and play with ideas. But it didn't literally prepare me for work like the Florence Price concerto--although obviously it also did!

I don't think that most higher ed programs are able to be, or want to be that prescriptive. So much of academia is trying to play catch up to the pace of real life. Many jobs that we train our students for may not exist by the time they graduate.

Karen: That's an excellent point! There has been a sea change in what PhDs do with their degrees in many fields. I have a PhD in neuroscience and I am not doing the job I trained for either. Do you have your own graduate students that you teach now?

Er-Gene: Yes! We don't offer a DM, so the highest degree is a Masters. I have my own students and I'm also Director of Graduate Advising. This is my favorite part of the administrative side of my job: the chance to talk to our students about their passions, their hopes and their concerns about creating a path in music. It's so exciting to see them going off to their dream doctoral programs!

Karen: What else do the graduates of your program do?

Er-Gene: Music education is our most popular major, so many of our graduates go on to secondary school teaching within the state of Arkansas. Some have gone to neighboring states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Others choose to freelance and/or set up their own private studios.

Karen: One tends to hear about music programs in schools being cut, especially in states with less money. I hope that is good news for AK overall, that there are jobs for music teachers!

Er-Gene: Working at a state university means that I am able to have friends who are involved in the work of new ideas . . . the work of thinking, speaking, teaching and writing. For interpretive / performing artists, we also have the experience of realizing our interpretations and performances! I'm sure that being in this environment helped me feel the familiarity of doing primary research, even if I had never done it before, even in my doctoral work.

Karen: That is really great! I think that is the ideal of how universities are supposed to work. How did you first learn about Florence Price, and how long did it take before you felt ready to perform the Price concertos and record them?

ErGeneKahngCamelliaSymphonyFeaturedKahng playing the Price concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony

Er-Gene: I first learned about Price at the University of Arkansas' own symposium about her in 2015. With respect to the recordings, I didn't really have the luxury of choosing the timeline. Our contract set a date with the Janacek Philharmonic, who were available in the summer when I had time myself, but who only had a 3-day window to record. There was no choice but to agree to their timeline! Nevertheless, I had about 9 months before that to prepare.

Karen: Where would you place Price in the tradition of violin concertos? Does her music remind you of any other composer?

Er-Gene: This is actually a tricky question, because I believe the paradigm with which we have judged, excluded and included certain composers would not traditionally include Price. We can't properly judge Price's concertos against this tradition.

Karen: That's fair enough. I don't have a lot invested in that paradigm. I haven't studied many violin concertos, myself, other than Bach and Mozart. And at this point I'm primarily a violist.

Er-Gene: It would be easy to say that Price deserves a place . . . up there with the Beethoven Violin Concerto! But even if I felt that way, it's not as simple as persuading people to see the "greatness" of Price against the narrative of greatness they have inherited and been taught since childhood.

On the other hand, to say that Price (or any other historically underrepresented composer) is not the same as composers traditionally included in the canon is not equivalent to saying she is not great. Rather, I think to say so simply acknowledges that the canon has been very exclusive and narrow.

And that brings into question the way in which we raise our young musicians. We teach them a great deal about how to think and judge greatness. History is so much of the stories we tell our children. And sometimes--often times?--our children never question those stories that they hear from their parents and teachers.

Karen: Interesting. I felt that a lot of what I learned about determining greatness didn't have much substance. It was mostly about hero worship and about talent, as you mentioned earlier. I love what you are saying here, that we need to be more thoughtful about that.

Er-Gene: This is not to say that Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. are not great masters. They are. But we need to be more conscientious about the stories we preserve, and informed about the important figures we overlook (even when it is unintentional, which I believe it is, most of the time). This brings to the fore our responsibility as citizens, parents, teachers. We have to face our own blind spots, stay curious and cultivate critical independent thinking in our young musicians.

Karen: Yes! I think that for many musicians their introduction to the repertoire comes when they are students. They learn concertos in a very formative time, when they are children or teens, and that shapes their whole outlook on concertos and on which ones should be included.

Er-Gene: Because so much of violin training at earlier ages has to address basic sound production and technique, it focuses on the absorption and successful performance of these 50 or so "great" pieces that we as a community have agreed deserve to be learned. And as you know, just making a pleasant sound on the violin can be all consuming! Where in all of that do we have time to bring up these critical questions? I'm not sure, but we must make it a value and a priority in our lessons.

Karen: I came to the concert with a friend, Jasmine Reese, who is a violinist interested in learning concertos, and she thought the Price concerto you played was within her technical abilities, or at least that it could be if she worked on it. If that is the case for other students, then I think the Price concertos will come to be more widely known.

Er-Gene: I believe the mission is about expanding and redefining the canon, not denigrating "dead, white European males" or pushing Florence Price to hold an equal place in the old canon. We need to address the points of accessibility and visibility. Publishers will help with accessibility, while performances and programming will address both.

EGKreceivingflowers

I did a recital with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and afterwards I posted on Instagram something that is in line with what we have been discussing:

The shift into Db Major when the second theme first appears in Florence Price’s second violin concerto is tender, jarring and heart-breaking. Though its final statement is a resounding D Major, it feels like a Pyrrhic victory, despite my best efforts to convey celebration and triumph. Perhaps I give myself away in expressing skepticism at simple happy endings, even as the notes on the page could suggest otherwise. This is not only the vessel of emotional ambivalence Price’s concerto carries, but more largely the truth (of an unequal, unjust society) in which Price lived. I’d like to believe that with every deeply considered performance, we can take on the role of stepping up to the daunting task of moving toward a more just (musical) society. Here is to our collective efforts to program and interpret with intention and justice.

I keep trying to find ways to salvage the narrative, but then I think that it's not my job to put a pretty package on the narrative. Many things are broken, and it is our job, first and foremost, to show the truth.

Karen: When I first heard the concerto, I found it touchingly sunny, and I was a bit surprised by that. With everything Price must have gone through, I expected something heavier and darker. I want to listen to it again in light of your comments!

Er-Gene: I encourage performers who may feel that their work is not as impactful as that of historians or librarians or publishers to acknowledge the raw power of their medium. It takes a village and no single element is most important. A performer is not just a simple "mouthpiece." That view downgrades the power of direct transmission and the realization of abstract notes on a page that brings the essence of music to life!

EGKwithcomposerKahng with Chris Castro, composer of "Sing High," which premiered at the same concert

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Replies

February 25, 2019 at 10:30 PM · What an interesting musician! Thanks for doing and sharing the interview.

February 26, 2019 at 08:27 PM · Great interview! Thanks for that!

February 27, 2019 at 01:29 AM · You're welcome!

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