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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | A Passion For Music: The Birth Of The Kandinsky Collective

By Joseph So on August 23, 2017


The Kandinsky Collective (Photo: Ani Chemilian)
The Kandinsky Collective (Photo: Ani Chemilian)

We are now into late August, the so-called dog days of summer, typically a dry spell when it comes to classical music programming in Toronto. Are we all relegated to cottage time, the CNE, and back-to-school shopping? What’s an inveterate music buff to do?

All is not lost! A quick check of the calendar reveals one intriguing event this weekend, the inaugural concert of the newly formed Kandinsky Collective, on August 26th, 7:30 p.m. at Mazzoleni Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Kandinsky Collective is a chamber quintet made up of five talented young artists—violinists Siobhan Deshauer and Amir Safavi, violist Jimin Shin, cellist Rosalind Zhang, and pianist Leonard Gilbert.

I know the work of three of them. I’ve heard Gilbert play on numerous occasions. He won the 2010 Canadian Chopin Competition, and represented Canada in the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. Last summer, I attended a recital he gave at the Steinway Piano Gallery, joined by violinist Amir Safavi and cellist Rosalind Zhang in a scintillating performance of a Brahms Piano Trio.

But what’s the significance in the name “Kandinsky”?  Art lovers will know that Wassily Kandinsky was a famous Russian painter, but perhaps not many would know that he was also a lawyer, an academic/theorist, and a trained musician. Given his circuitous artistic journey, Kandinsky offers the ideal inspiration for our young Canadians—Gilbert is a lawyer, Deshauer a Resident in Internal Medicine at McMaster University, and Safavi about to graduate from the McMaster medical school. Cellist Rosalind Zhang also has a background in arts administration and now works as the Chamber Music Assistant at the Manhattan School of Music.

Indeed, one of the stated missions of the Kandinsky Collective is “the dedication to the highest level of musical expression and inter-professional artistic collaboration.” As someone who has crossed professional boundaries in my own career as an academic and journalist, I’ve always been intrigued by the attraction music has for people in the sciences. Einstein is quoted as having said: “If I weren’t a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

The converse is also true—the music world is full of artists who come from other fields. Andrea Bocelli and Julio Iglesias were lawyers, to name just two. Both Fritz Kreisler and Hector Berlioz studied medicine. Wearing my anthropologist-cum-journalist hat for a moment, I’ve always found it intriguing that so many medical people are opera lovers. When asked, the answer I often get is that music allows them to get away from the ugliness of sickness and death inherent in their chosen field. Never mind that there’s plenty of ugliness in opera plots too…

Given that the Kandinsky Quintet members have disparate career paths, I was curious as to how they juxtapose the two worlds: their professional lives that earn them a living, and the musical lives that offers them—if I may be so bold as to assume—their spiritual fulfillment. Given their busy work and rehearsal schedules, a face-to-face group interview was out of the question. As it turned out, text and email exchanges allowed for highly nuanced and complex answers to my rather involved questions. I’ve edited as little as possible, to allow their individual personalities to come through:

Can we begin by telling our readers a bit about the genesis of the Kandinsky Collective?

AS: It is rooted in our long-term friendships. Leonard and I first met when we were both at the 2008 FCMF National Competition in Edmonton. We became fast friends and have remained musical partners ever since. When we were students at the University of Toronto, we formed Open Score, a salon concert series. Leonard introduced me to Rosy [Rosalind Zhang], one of his childhood friends, who shared a similar vision for community building. She joined us in co-founding Open Score. Last July, Leonard, Rosy and I performed a concert of solo piano works and Brahms’s first piano trio. Soon after, we started laying the foundations for the Collective and thought about [inviting] other musicians whom we felt had similar values. Leonard and Rosy were friends with Jimin [Shin] from their years at the Claude Watson School for the Arts and I was friends with her from our years as students at the Royal Conservatory of Music. I was thrilled when she came on board. To round out the group, we reached out to Siobhan, who was friends with Leonard at Indiana University and was two years ahead of me at McMaster’s medical school. Siobhan and I were surprised to see how common our paths were as violinists in the medical field, and we have enjoyed working together.

Have all of you always gravitated to music? Were you also interested in other fields when you were children? 

LG: Some of my fondest memories as a child were at the piano—music and piano were a constant source of wonder. That said, I often found skills developed at the piano complemented my pursuits in other fields. During law school, it became apparent that the skills required to interpret and make sense of voluminous musical works was surprisingly similar to the process of interpreting legislation. Just as there’s much more to simply playing the notes on the printed page of a musical score, understanding complex statutes requires more than a superficial understanding of the words used. The successful lawyer or musician will have an appreciation of the form or structure, the musical phrases or sentences, and the nuances and deviances that the words or musical notes might give rise to. Despite my significant involvement in music, I actually had a hard time deciding between studying music and medical sciences for my first few years of university, prior to my goal of pursuing law!

AS: I’ve been told that I used to constantly make sounds as a toddler, mimicking all the sounds of TTC trains, noises in the street, and sound effects on TV. Once I started music lessons, I became obsessed with playing the violin and piano, pretending to conduct, and writing small pieces. As I got older, I also developed interests in writing and literature, mathematics, basic sciences, and social sciences. My interests also cross-pollinated in strange ways—I intuitively began to analyze musical phrases as I would mathematical functions, in order to bring cohesion to all the peaks and valleys of melodies. I think my interests in music and these other areas are extensions of my creativity, curiosity, and analytical tendencies.

RZ: Being born into the third generation of a family of professional musicians, it was inevitable that music would be a large part of my life. ‎While it was never considered as a predetermined career path, I was heavily immersed in the arts from a young age. I took private lessons in two instruments, ballet classes, attended a highly selective arts school. Interests outside of music existed of course, such as a fascination with linguistics, social interaction and psychology. But having grown up surrounded by musicians, interestingly enough these other fields seemed even less lucrative!

SD: Music has been an integral part of my life since the age of five. I felt like I needed to get to a certain level of performance and comfort with the violin before I was able to think about anything else. My violin professor would always tell me to “listen to my inner voice.” Developing that kind of self-awareness helped me to figure out that I had other passions I wanted to follow in life outside music. It’s been a great privilege to have had the chance to focus my energy studying music before going into medical school. Now, practicing as a resident physician, I have been also fortunate to be more actively involved in effecting change, in addition to the experiences I’ve had on stage.

What made you decide to have music as your life-long profession? If you are in another field (medicine, law), what attracted you to these professions? Is it for financial reasons primarily?

LG:  While law and medicine can be more financially logical as a career choice, I think ultimately these types of decisions have more to do with the type of work one does, and, at least in my view, the potential positive impact that work can have on others. Growing up studying music hopefully imparts on the student a desire to communicate and have a meaningful and positive impact on the listener. But ultimately, this can also be achieved in other fields as well. In this regard, choosing a “profession” does not necessarily exclude a high level of professional accomplishment in another field… it doesn’t mean music no longer plays an important role. This concert is [a] prime example.

AS: As a young child, there were two things that I most wanted to be when I grew up: a Starfleet Captain (as in Star Trek) and a musician—it never occurred to me that these identities needed to be mutually exclusive! In my late teens, I found myself feeling pressured to study one—music or another academic pursuit—to the exclusion of the other. It felt quite unnatural to me. But, in her wisdom, my mother encouraged me to continue pursuing my musical and academic studies concurrently. With time, I realized that the divide between musical and academic pursuits was artificial. Both kinds of pursuits rely on so many similar attributes, such as critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity, so why not enrich my life with all these wonders? As I learned more about medicine, I found that being a doctor was incredibly similar to being a Starfleet Captain: not only do you get to use empirical inquiry to solve problems, but you also get to work in diverse teams, make first contact with others and build relationships, serve as a steward of a system, and explore the unknown through research. I also learned about physician-musicians who experienced the best of both worlds, such as Terence Tam and Albert Schweitzer, which was encouraging! [That’s why] I am currently in medical school at McMaster University and continuing with musical performances and teaching.

What qualities do you feel are the most important in making music? Creativity? Emotional connection to the music? An analytical mind to execute a piece? Meticulous attention to detail? Ability to work together, as in a chamber group? Individualized vision?

LG: There’s so much that’s important to music-making that it’s difficult to narrow it down. You’ve mentioned creativity, emotional connection, analytical mindset and meticulous attention to detail—these skills are essential to many professions as well. But what is perhaps the most essential and unique to music is the combination of these qualities in addition to having the passion for the music that you’re performing, a relentless drive to aim for what’s almost always an unattainable perfection, one of both technical and emotional mastery.

AS: To me, passion is the most fundamental element for music making: a passion for expressing myself in sound, and listening to sounds and silences. As an interpreter, I think it’s important to have a deep understanding of form and structure, as well as the harmonic syntax and its expressive potential. To discover the “unwritten” elements, I try to feel the score with a physical, kinetic sense of rhythm and sensitivity to the strain of intervals. With these elements, I can be creative and have a meaningful conversation with the composer. In collaborative music making, I believe that listening is a key pre-requisite: it allows everyone to retain his/her own voice and personality while creating a cohesive whole. I find that a sense of humour and receptivity to feedback are integral to good rehearsals. I also find it important to wholeheartedly embrace new ideas, and to challenge myself and realize these new ideas to their fullest potential.

RZ: The musicians I respect the most tend to be kind people, curious learners, and excellent communicators who find the perfect balance between confidence and humility. It’s not enough to have facility in an instrument—one would merely be a good technician. We already spend so many hours a day in solitude, perfecting our craft that I feel people often overlook the importance of a collaborative spirit, and the ability to adapt and be flexible, not only in performing alongside colleagues, but also with the direction [in which] classical music is heading.

SD: I think a balance between the emotional and technical aspects of music is key. I think this is something we’ve really been able to achieve as a group. We’re able to bring our own vision to this Quintet, while working together to interpret and bring to life the smallest details included in Brahms’s writing.

What are the challenges of working together to make music with people from disparate fields, like in your Kandinsky Collective?

LG: The real challenge is probably scheduling! Getting five people together for dinner is difficult enough—scheduling multiple rehearsals, some lasting over nine hours, is a tremendous feat. More seriously, the challenge is in reconciling different but equally convincing viewpoints. One of the most beautiful things in music is the various possibilities of interpretation. This is increased exponentially when, for example, in a quintet you have five unique instruments that all have particular sounds and different styles of expression. In this sense however, the “challenge” is also one of the most satisfying aspects of working with others. It allows all of us to learn from one another, and to gain insights we might not have previously conceived.

AS: I find that our diversity is our strength. We have enough in common so that we can relate to each other, but we also have different ways of conceptualizing the score and articulating those notions. These differences are conducive to rich and meticulous conversations. This intellectual friction also helps us to avoid being constrained by convention and tradition when reaching interpretive conclusions. The only challenges that arise are those related to scheduling!

SD: I’d say the biggest challenge is finding time to rehearse! But we have all shifted around our schedules to make it work.

JS: Other than scheduling rehearsals being a bit tricky due to different work hours and schedules, I haven’t noticed any challenges related to being from “disparate fields.” I find that musicians, with or without a different profession, are musicians deep down and we connect as such. When we get together to make music, it seems we’re all humans uniting through our shared love and passion that is music.

RZ: They have work hours!! People who have jobs have regularity and structure that demand specific work hours during the day throughout the week. Being a musician‎ often means we are working during evenings, weekends, and holidays(!) so that’s a challenge to overcome.

What does music mean to you? What pleasure(s) do you derive from playing, performing, and/or listening to music? 

JS: Music is a form of expression. One of my favourite things about performing music is how it can and ought to be used to communicate something to the listener in a non-verbal way. As performers, we start by exploring and interpreting what the composer had in mind to communicate through a piece, study and understand it, internalize it and make it our own by bringing parts of ourselves into the realization of the piece, to transmit it to the listener. I enjoy being that middle man between the composer and the audience, being instrumental to the process of invoking a feeling, a thought, or an impression in the listener. It is in these moments that I know I’ve accomplished this process, that I’ve fulfilled my calling as a performer and musician.

RZ: I pride myself in being an empath—because of my ability to pick up on emotions [of others] it has made me an extremely sensitive player. Listening to music is less rewarding for this very reason because I would much rather be affecting than be affected. I’m always excited to perform with a group of close friends. It takes the pressure off of myself and allows me to focus all my energy on supporting my colleagues, which usually ends up producing better results!

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts, and I wish the very best for the future of the Kandinsky Collective. And of course, toi toi toi for Saturday!


Summer Music at Mazzoleni Hall

August 26, 2017 7:30 p.m., Mazzoleni Concert Hall in Ihnatowycz Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music

Leonard Gilbert, piano; Amir Safavi, violin; Siobhan Deshauer, violin; Jimin Shin, viola; Rosalind Zhang, cello.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21, op. 53

Chopin: Nocturne, op. 48, no. 1

Chopin: Ballade No. 3, op. 47

Liszt: Rhapsodie Espagnole

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34

Concert presented by the Li Delun Music Foundation

Tickets available here.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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