Interview with Oregon Symphony’s Sarah Kwak

Oregon Symphony’s new concertmaster talks Carlos Kalmar, Shostakovich, and Portland food.

By Zach Dundas November 21, 2012

You just moved from Minnesota to become the symphony’s new concertmaster. What is that? I lead the string section. Beyond that, I am kind of the right hand to Carlos Kalmar, the conductor. I make sure his ideas are getting through to the strings and the rest of the orchestra. I need to be physically demonstrative to show the others how to play.

You were a prominent player in Minneapolis, one of Portland’s arch frenemies. What’s different? Professionally, it’s definitely a step up. I was the second violin chair there, and I would step in a lot to fill this role. But being on the job all the time is much, much different. I’m one of the faces of the orchestra—meeting patrons, meeting the public. In general, the food scene here is so much better. My husband and I used to go to New York pretty regularly specifically for the food, but since we’ve been here, we’ve haven’t missed New York.

You and your husband both applied for the concertmaster’s job. You got it. He got hired as a section violinist. How did that, um, play out? We figured it gave us better odds, and we figured that if one of us got the job, the other one could sub for the orchestra or ... do something. We were so lucky that we both got full-time jobs. That is very rare. 

How does Kalmar compare to other conductors? He knows exactly what he wants, and he can achieve it. It’s hard to describe. He lives and breathes music—that’s something I connected with right away.

What do you do to prepare for a show? I tend to start working three or four weeks ahead of the performance, figuring out the bowings. All the violin bows are supposed to be synchronized: down or up, all at the same time. That doesn’t just happen naturally. People might hear that we work 20 hours a week, but that’s just rehearsal and performance. It doesn’t count the individual practice time. This morning, I played on my own from 8:30 to noon, and I’ll probably go back and do some more from 4 p.m. to 7. 

You must not get out much. I still don’t quite know how to get to Target without checking my phone.

The Oregon Symphony performs Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 2, Dec 1–3. 

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