One of the best young violinists to ever come from Ottawa is Kerson Leong. The young performer is currently continuing his education at a very special music school in Belgium. ARTSFILE asked him what it’s like to be a student there. If you want a chance to hear Kerson Leong play in Ottawa, he will be performing during Music & Beyond and Canada Scene on July 16 in Southam Hall with L’Orchestre de la Francophonie. This is a free show. For more information, please see nac-cna.ca.
Q. How are you adapting to Waterloo, Belgium? What is daily life like there?
A. I’ve settled in quite nicely. It has a very distinct cultural flavour and yet I don’t find it such a big departure from home (Ottawa). Waterloo is a not a big town and the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel is located in the middle of a wooded area, so it’s very tranquil and great for concentrated work.
Q. Can you tell me about the school?
A. I’m in residence. The Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel (La Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth) was founded in 1939 by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium and the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye. It’s quite unlike a typical music school or conservatory as the focus is mainly on the individual transmission of knowledge and experience from a master musician to a young artist. It also organizes many concerts a year for its young artists, which give us the chance to share the stage with our mentors and other leading and established musicians. We are also fortunate to have access to state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. As an artist-in-residence, I have my own private music studio, complete with a grand piano, attached to my living quarters, which is quite unique and ideal.
Q. Why did you go there? I know the faculty includes people such as Louis Lortie. Was that part of the attraction?
A. At the beginning, I decided to attend the Chapel because I wanted to work with Augustin Dumay. I was lucky to have first met and played for him in January 2015 while he was recording Bartok Violin Concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, thanks to my nomination as Revelation Radio-Canada for classical music that year. Having worked with him for the past two years, I definitely made the right choice. I feel I’ve gained much confidence and found my own voice, but not necessarily because he’s trying to mold me in a certain way. Rather, it is because of his ability to constantly challenge me to go beyond my musical comfort zone and his encouragement for me to develop my own musical understanding and ideas. …
I’m (also) very grateful to have a very close and personal working relationship with him, as I imagine he would’ve had a similar relationship with his teachers, the great Nathan Milstein and Arthur Grumiaux.
I was obviously thrilled when I heard that Louis Lortie would be heading the piano department at Chapel starting last October. I was invited to perform with him at his inaugural concert at the Chapel and we have since developed great chemistry and will be performing more together in the future. He has invited me to perform with him in Domaine Forget, Quebec and at his first music festival in Lake Como, Italy this summer.
Q. Was it a bit intimidating when you arrived for your first day?
A. The Chapel is a prestigious and historic institution so it was definitely a little daunting the first time I arrived there. All of its ‘masters-in-residence’, (Augustin Dumay (violin), Miguel da Silva (viola), Gary Hoffman (cello), Louis Lortie (piano) and Jose van Dam (voice)), are leading musicians in their respective instruments and they offer great musical depth that often challenges us to think outside the box. While most young artists who come to the Chapel have already completed a bachelor or masters degree in music, I’m fortunate to have been able to build a strong musical foundation without having gone on the traditional path. For a young artist who already has the right prerequisites in place, it can be a very intense and fulfilling learning experience.
Q. What is your schedule at school. What courses are you taking? What is your favourite? What would you rather not have to do?
A. Since I travel a lot outside of the Chapel for performances, I really benefit from a flexible schedule tailored to suit my individual needs. When I’m there, my schedule can be with chamber music rehearsals and coaching, intense sessions with Augustin, as well as regular concert performances. There are no formal courses at the Chapel; instead our time is focused solely on music performance and concert experience.
Q. How long will you be at this school and where do you want to go next?
The normal duration for the artist diploma at the Chapel is three years. This is my second year. I view my musical path as a continuous and lifelong learning process. It was certainly a defining moment for me to enter the Chapel and, even after I graduate, it will continue to play an important role. My goal is always to seek out and learn from the right mentors.
Q. Is this intensive study of music making you more committed to a career as a soloist?
A. The Chapel certainly adds another dimension to my career by giving me the chance to form new musical partnerships. For example, I recently played a Vivaldi double concerto with Giuliano Carmignola, a leading baroque violinist of today, when he came to the Chapel to perform and give masterclasses. I also represented the Chapel at a special concert in Brussels celebrating the centenary of Yehudi Menuhin, where I shared the stage with violinists such as Valeriy Sokolov, Vadim Repin, Dr. L Subramaniam, Gilles Apap, and Roby Lakatos. In addition, I played with Orchestra Gulbenkian and conductor Christopher Warren-Green at the Alcazar of Seville, Spain, among other memorable concerts, during the Chapel’s musical cruise last September.
Q. What is next for you after you graduate from La Chapelle?
A. My career has been building steadily since I won the Menuhin Competition 2010 in Oslo at the age of 13. I’m very thankful to have the chance to travel to many new places, share my music with more audiences around the world, and also share the stage with more and more of my idols and musical heroes. My focus is to keep expanding my connections in the professional music world, expose myself to more musical experiences, and of course, continue to improve as a musician.