Chamberfest: Marina Kun honours the gift of music

Marina Kun. Photo: Lindsey Gibeau

Marina Kun has always been interested in music.

“I don’t know the reason, because it’s not in my background. When I was young and going to elementary school they did give music appreciation.”

Perhaps, she said, that is what captured her. But whatever the reason, by age 16 she playing the clarinet in high school and regularly attending classical music concerts by herself at the old Capital Theatre.

“I used to just go by myself and sometimes I’d get a girlfriend to go. People would look at me strangely wondering what’s this young girl doing here by herself.”

Marina went to the concerts because she was fascinated. She developed a particular passion for latin music, especially flamenco. She loved the fact that music came from Spain where the culture had been influenced by Arabs from North Africa.

“I started to go to Latin America at a young age. I went to Argentina when it was unheard of. I went to Mexico to and I fell in love with Mexico. I started going when I was 18 and I’ve been there about 100 times.”

Little did she know then that her adult life would be spent involved with music as a wife, mother, business person and as a philanthropist. Those early experiences laid the groundwork for her involvement with the Chamberfest and funding a concert series with her name on it.

But there is more to this story.

Marina worked in the federal government after high school and pretty soon after that she was married and was the mother of four daughters.

After about a dozen years, however, her marriage was ending. And then she met Joseph Kun.

“My daughter Darya wanted to take violin lessons. Joseph Kun was recommended as a teacher. That’s how I got to know him.” This was in the early 1970s.

Marina says she was captivated by Kun’s work both as a teacher and more importantly as a maker of violins and bows. And then she was captivated by him.

“I found it all very noble.”

Joseph Kun came to Canada in the wake of the Soviet crackdown that ended the Prague Spring in 1968 in what was then Czechoslovakia.

In his homeland, Kun was a teacher of music, he even lectured at the famed Moscow Conservatory. But he was also inventive, creative and artistic, Marina said.

He would frequent violin shops and makers workshops and over time learned the skills needed to become an instrument maker and a bow maker.

After Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Kun headed west.

“He wasn’t particularly political. He did not like communism, that’s for sure, but he didn’t go on and on about it. He was dedicated to a career as a maker. He came to Ottawa because, when he was in Austria as a refugee, he was told they were building the National Arts Centre here and he thought he could have a future in Ottawa.”

He established himself as a violin maker and bow maker in Ottawa. Kun would go on to win international awards for his creations. He even wrote a book on bow-making.

But violin making is painstaking work and the monetary rewards are not great. So he also taught music. And he had another creation that he was selling in small numbers. This was a shoulder rest for violin and viola.

Then, Marina walked though the door.

He was divorced and she was in the process of obtaining a divorce. The magic happened and after a short time they married.

She saw how unique Kun’s creations were but the diamond in the rough, turned out to be the shoulder rest.

“He brought the idea with him from Czechoslovakia, but he patented it here,” she said. “When I met him he had sold a couple of hundred of them.”

She realized pretty quickly that such a device didn’t exist on the market.

Before the Kun shoulder rest, musicians would use all kinds of improvised supports, including placing a sponge under the instrument, to help hold their instruments in the proper position.

“I never aspired to be a business person, but it happened. Necessity is the mother of invention. Joseph invented the rest but he had come from a communist country. He didn’t know anything about marketing. Somehow I convinced myself that I believed in him and his rest and I started to market it.”

Not only that, Marina and her daughters would join Joseph to make each rest by hand. There was a metal base that was made for them and then the family would glue down foam rubber and a covering to finish each rest. At first they were making a few hundred a year. Then Marina’s work selling the product started to pay off.

The Kun original shoulder rest.

The first shoulder rest, known as the original, was popular and by 1980, demand was so strong that they could no longer hand-make them so they started to mass produce them. The original is still the most popular but there are other versions including a collapsible one and smaller ones for children.

Today Kun Shoulder Rests are sold in more than 100 countries. From its headquarters in a nice home on MacLaren Street, the company dominates the shoulder rest market.

The key to the success of the Kun rests, Marina said, is because they don’t affect the sound of the instrument because they have a minimal contact with the instrument.

“Strad Magazine did a test of various shoulder rests and found that ours had the best sound when attached on an instrument.”

The other benefit of a good shoulder rest is they help reduce the chance of injury that many musicians face.

The Kun rests are so successful, she said, that the company these days is constantly fending off competitors who are copying them and violating the patent.

Joseph died in 1996 and Marina became the president of the company, a position she still holds. Her daughter Juliana Farha, lives in London with her husband the British Tory MP Kit Malthouse. Juliana handles much of the day-to-day running of the business.

Her eldest daughter, Soraya Farha, is a distinguished lawyer in Toronto and a board member with LEAF, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund along with roles on the Health Services Appeal and Review Board and the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board. A third daughter, Leilani Farha is the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing.

Darya, the daughter who wanted those violin lessons so badly, was taken a few years ago by breast cancer.

“There is no bigger grief than losing child,” Marina said. “She was a beautiful person. She had two doctorates and she was an artist.She even created a clothing line when she was being treated for cancer.”

These days, with her success and her many interests, Marina is an active philanthropist.

She was among the group of patrons who helped found Chamberfest 25 years ago. And she supports the festival still.

She also supports Young String Performers of Ottawa and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra where Kun is underwriting a national instrument writing competition, and the business offers supports scholarships for foreign music students at uOttawa. And Kun also helps Ottawa’s Orkidstra.

Marina is on the board of the National Youth Orchestra and Suzuki Stellae Boreales. Kun also sponsors the Banff International String Quartet Competition, the Palestine Youth Orchestra, Venezuela’s El Sistema and the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica.

“My company is international, but because I have been successful, I like to give back to the community. I want to bring this pleasure that I have had in my life to people in Ottawa.

“I don’t do it as an example. People should follow their own instincts. That’s just how I think.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.