Music and Beyond: Kerson Leong is a man on the move

Kerson Leong. Photo: Bruno Schlumberger

It’s always worth catching up with Ottawa’s violin phenom Kerson Leong. ARTSFILE had an opportunity to do just that before the young soloist’s appearance at the Music and Beyond Festival on July 12. He’ll also perform a piece written for him by John Rutter in concerts conducted by the composer on July 15 and 16. But before these gigs, he had places to be.

Q. You are headed to Italy. What are you doing there?

A. I’m performing some Tchaikovsky chamber works at the LacMus Festival, recently founded by the pianist Louis Lortie. It’s in the beautiful countryside near Lake Como in northern Italy. I took part in the first edition of the Festival last year and have been invited back this year. 

Q. When do you get to Ottawa? 

A. I fly back on July 8 to Montreal. No time to relax as I have a first rehearsal of the Barber Concerto with the Orchestre Metropolitain and young conductor Nicolas Ellis that evening at the Maison Symphonique. I’ve been invited to perform the Barber on July 9 at the Gala Concert of the Canimex Canadian Music Competition as their ambassador this year. The performance will be broadcast live on After that I head back to Ottawa to relax for a couple of a days before my next few gigs at the Music and Beyond festival.

Q. Do you find it hard to get home as much as you might like?

A. Of course it’s getting harder and harder, but every time I come back to Canada, or even North America, for concerts (which is quite often), I always try to spend a bit of time at home. It’s a grounding force and there are certain things which I can only have access to at home and that are impossible to bring along with me in my suitcase.

Q. What is the biggest thing you have done in the past year or so?

A. The past few months must have been the biggest “thing” I have done so far in the past year, not just because of my debut at Carnegie Hall, but also in terms of its sheer intensity and pace which tested my endurance and ability to handle the pressures which arose.

My debut in the iconic Stern Auditorium, in which I gave the Carnegie Hall premiere of John Rutter’s Visions with the composer himself conducting, was an important milestone and a highlight of my career up to this point. It felt tremendous and surreal walking onto that stage for the first time knowing the musical legends who’ve performed there. I also performed a Kreisler encore where Fritz Kreisler himself must have stood many times. 

At the time I was criss-crossing the Atlantic at a near-frantic pace. Right after Carnegie, I went immediately to the Netherlands to perform the complete Ysaye solo violin sonata cycle in concert. Performing all six in one go is a huge technical, mental, and musical feat and almost like running a musical marathon. Then, I crossed the ocean again to perform at the G7 summit in Quebec. Perhaps the most intense part of this period was right after that — imagine flying back to Brussels right after the G7, arriving in the morning to be ready to perform the complete Ysaye violin sonata cycle yet again at noon in a concert which happened to also be webcast live. To not only repeat that musical marathon but to do so just a few hours after arriving jet-lagged from a trans-Atlantic flight is quite insane, when I think back. 

Q. What’s on the horizon? 

A. I have been appointed soloist-in-residence of the Orchestre Metropolitain for 2018-2019. I will work with maestros Yannick-Nezet Seguin and Kensho Watanabe (assistant conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra) in a series of concerts, in which I’ll be performing Bartok Concerto No. 1 and Korngold Concerto. I will also debut with several orchestras, including the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal in Germany, the Liège Royal Philharmonic in Belgium, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Q. You performed at the recent G7 leaders summit. What did you play?

A. I played the Waxman Carmen Fantasy.

It was an intimate outdoor setting with the leaders seated around a campfire and the St. Lawrence River providing a pretty spectacular backdrop. It was quite windy and cold and things were running a bit late, so we waited quite long outside and my fingers were frozen. Performing a virtuoso piece under such non-ideal conditions was certainly a new experience. The leaders all seemed to enjoy the show judging by their enthusiastic response, and the fact that they all wanted to personally greet and thank the performers right after the show. So I got to shake hands and have a few words with all of them, including Justin Trudeau and his wife, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Theresa May and her spouse, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and his wife, and Giuseppe Conte, as well as our foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland.

Q. What is on the program on July 12?

A. I am performing the Ysaye sonata cycle. This will be the third time in concert. It is quite rare to hear all six sonatas in the same concert, so I hope this will be a real treat for my hometown audience. Although they are complex and difficult, with both technical and musical challenges, they fit the violin like a glove, being written by one of the giants of the 20th century violin world. For me, there is so much beauty and depth to discover in these pieces, and hearing all six together in one setting also gives a unique opportunity to not only understand the differences between them — each one was dedicated to one of Ysaye’s famous fellow violinists and in a way captures the personality of their dedicatee — but also the connections between them and the overall musical arc. Interestingly, a previously undiscovered sonata for solo violin by Ysaye, written some time between the publication of his 5th and 6th sonatas, was found recently, and I’m very interested to explore it and possibly include it in my sonata cycle in the near future.

Q. And giving a master class, do you do a lot of these?

A. Masterclasses and teaching in general are something I’m doing more and more of. In fact, I will be giving a masterclass in the morning of July 13 at the University of Ottawa’s Tabaret Hall.  The participants are major prize-winners at the recent Canimex Canadian Music Competition.  I found that I really enjoy working and sharing my experience and ideas with violin students and young people in general.

I was just at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, USA recently as a guest artist of their summer string academy, to give a talk, work with students one-on-one, and perform in a recital with other faculty members.  This was my second time there at the invitation of well-known violin pedagogue Mimi Zweig, and it was a very fulfilling experience. Nowadays, in addition to giving masterclasses, I also try to participate in outreach programs wherever I perform, as I find it to be a wonderful way to engage with other young people and to help build the next generation of musicians and audiences.

Another related project I have initiated recently is a video series titled Art of Etude on my YouTube channel and on Facebook, in which I share tips about using etudes to develop particular violin techniques. I have become quite interested in videography, so I have also been doing some vlogs to share and give insight into some of my experience as a performer.

Q. Do you like the international stage?

A. I love observing the different ways in which music is perceived and appreciated the world over. Being able to perform in many different places gives me the chance to meet so many different kinds of people, experience so many different concert-going cultures, and reinforce the fact that music is really a universal language which brings people together.

Q. When are you back on the road again? 

A. I’ll be heading to Reims, France later in July to perform in the annual Picnic Concert at the Flâneries Musicales de Reims festival. I will be performing some Tchaikovsky with the Orchestre national de Lorraine and conductor Jacques Mercier and sharing the stage with pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, who is the artistic director of the festival. I performed at the festival for the first time last summer in a ‘tribute to Fritz Kreisler’ recital which was broadcast live on

At this point in time, travelling feels as ‘routine’ as, for example, brushing your teeth in the morning. I don’t really think much about it anymore and I neither like or dislike it. Sometimes it can be inspiring but just as often it can be incredibly tedious and stressful. I just try to really keep myself busy with something useful.

Q. What’s your favourite thing to do in a new city? Why?

A. The very first thing I tend to do when I arrive in a new city is pick a few spots to observe … could be a famous monument, could be in the middle of a busy square or even just on a bench in a park. I then ‘take a step back’  and try to absorb the whole atmosphere as one coherent unit. Doing this puts me in a certain ‘state’, which brings out, in every different location, a different set of emotions and images in me.

Kerson Leong
Music and Beyond
Where: Saint Barnabas, Apostle and Martyr Anglican Church, 70 James St.
When: July 12 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.