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6 things to know about violinist Kerson Leong

By
Robert Rowat

Take a glance at violinist Kerson Leong's engagements for the 2018-19 concert season and you might get a little overwhelmed. The 21-year-old Ottawa native will perform on stages from California to the Canary Islands (with many stops at home in Canada), playing works ranging from solo Bach to chamber music to full-blown Romantic concertos.

Leong is living the dream — and putting in all the hard work that goes along with that — while raising the bar he already set so high for himself last season.

With so much going on, we contacted Leong to get the latest. Here are six things to know about the busy young violinist.

1. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in May

Most musicians can only dream of performing in Cargegie Hall's 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium. How many can say they made their debut there playing a new concerto written specifically for them by a major composer? Leong can.

On May 28, he walked onstage at Carnegie Hall to play Visions, a new violin concerto by John Rutter. "For me, this was a very powerful moment," recalls Leong during a recent phone conversation with CBC Music. "That hall has lived in my childhood dreams ever since seeing clips of Heifetz and all the great musicians who've been recorded playing there. To be able to stand there and absorb the atmosphere and experience the acoustics of the hall first-hand, it was surreal."

Commissioned by the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition to mark the 100th anniversary of Menuhin's birth, Visions is a four-movement work for solo violin, treble voices, harp and string orchestra, conceived as a musical depiction of Jerusalem. Rutter composed the work for Leong, who won first prize in the junior division of the 2010 Menuhin Competition. "It's very well suited to the lyrical capabilities of the violin," Leong says. "Overall, it's a very intimate, cathartic and powerful piece."

Following the world premiere at Temple Church in London, England, in 2016, Leong recorded the work (with Rutter conducting) and has since performed it in Brisbane, Australia, Hong Kong, and most recently at two sold-out performances in Leong's hometown of Ottawa.

Enjoy this performance of the third movement ("Lament for Jerusalem") of Visions, filmed during the recording sessions.

2. He's got Louis Lortie in his corner

At 21, Leong is still a rising star of the violin. But you'd never know that by looking at the established musicians he regularly works with. In addition to Rutter, veteran Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is a frequent collaborator.

"We first met at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium because that's actually where I've been based as an artist in residence for the past three years, working with Augustin Dumay, the French violinist," explains Leong. "Louis Lortie came in two years ago as the new pianist master in residence there, teaching students, so that's where he and I met."

When Leong and Lortie performed together for the first time at the opening concert of the Music Chapel's 2017 season, they evidently hit it off. (Watch below.) Leong was soon invited to play at Lortie's LacMus Festival on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. "That place is gorgeous," says Leong, who is full of admiration for Lortie. "He's very passionate toward his vision, so it always makes for stimulating rehearsal sessions."

Earlier this summer, Leong and Lortie teamed up with cellist Stéphane Tétreault for a trio concert at the Domaine Forget Festival in Saint-Irénée, Que. That concert was recorded by CBC and will be broadcast on Sunday, Sept. 9, on CBC Music's In Concert, hosted by Paolo Pietropaolo.

Coming up on Sept. 30, Leong and Lortie will give a recital of music by Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy at Teatro Calderón in Motril, Spain; in January, they'll play chamber music by Fauré at Montreal's Bourgie Concert Hall.

3. He's artist in residence with l'Orchestre Métropolitain

For the 2018-19 concert season, Leong is artist in residence with Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain.

"For me, it's an incredible honour," he confides. "It's almost like going full circle because I've worked with the Orchestre Métropolitain a lot of times before, especially when I was much younger, and the relationship has sort of continued over the years."

Leong's most recent performance with the Orchestre Métropolitain and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took place in May at a gala concert. "That went very well. I feel like there was a chemistry there, which I really enjoyed. I'm really thrilled to work with him [and] the orchestra again, more in depth."

For his upcoming residency, Leong will play Korngold's Violin Concerto in November. Those concerts will be conducted by Kensho Watanabe, assistant conductor of Nézet-Séguin's Philadelphia Orchestra. In March, Nézet-Séguin himself will lead Leong's performance of Bartók's Violin Concrto No. 1.

"To be able to work with Yannick in depth on a concerto like Bartók 1, on a musical vision, I'm really excited for that. I've always been impressed every time I've seen him conduct live. He's definitely one of my favourite conductors today."

Violinist Kerson Leong (left) poses with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin following a gala concert with l'Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal in May 2018.

4. He plays a premium violin

For the past year, Leong has been playing a 1741 Guarneri del Gesu violin on loan from Roger Dubois of Canimex Inc.

"This particular instrument has a timbre that is closest to what I have in my [mind's] ear," he explains. "It has a very deep, kind of alto-ish timbre, but also very balanced. There's this same power that you get from the G string on the E string as well, which is not very common, even on great fiddles. In terms of registers, it has the low end but also the high end, so every melody line can come out really well, so that, for me, was a big appeal about this violin."

Leong is effusive in his gratitude to Dubois and his late wife for their unwavering support. "I've had the fortune of knowing Monsieur and Madame Dubois — both have been such a wonderful support since I met them when I was 11. When I was 13, they started lending me instruments — a few over the course of these years."

Watch Leong play Wieniawski's Caprice No. 4 (with himself!) on his Guarneri del Gesu violin:


5. Solo violin repertoire is his latest obsession

Lately, Leong has been playing all six solo violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe in a single concert.

"Of course, these sonatas are very hefty. It's very emotional, probing, and in a way also very dark music, and that's what makes it very powerful and satisfying for me to approach these pieces," he reflects. "Doing all six in one concert is almost like playing all 24 Paganini Caprices in concert: it's a technical challenge. But for me, the music is so powerful, and deserves to be heard more, I find."

The total duration of all six Ysaÿe Sonatas is around 67 minutes, and the set contains a lot of variety. "Every one of them has such an individual, powerful character, and I wanted to do this project for how great the music is, and how satisfying it is for me as a performer to play," he says, crediting his Guarneri del Gesu violin for inspiring him to tackle the solo repertoire. "It's my first real dip into something substantial for solo violin and I can't wait to do more."

He played all six Ysaÿe Sonatas at St. Barnabas Church in Ottawa in July, and will repeat the project in March for Halifax's Cecilia Concerts. "The audiences have taken very well to these pieces, sticking by me throughout the whole cycle." Leong will also give a recital of solo violin music by Bach, Ysaÿe, Milstein and Ernst on Sept. 23 in Brussels.

6. He's killing it on social media

Leong maintains an active presence on social media, regularly posting short videos from the practise studio and his travels. "For me, putting myself on camera is very much like performing," he says. "Most people will know me in formal attire, onstage or in videos, and of course that's a big part of what I do. But also it's fun to put yourself in a more casual environment, where you're able to catalogue something of the moment, and you're able to look back on it to have it in your archives. It serves as a good timeline."

To stay on top of his activities, follow Leong on Facebook and Instagram. In this recent video, he plays a short passage from Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, which Leong will perform with London Symphonia and guest conductor Gordon Gerrard on Sept. 15.


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