Violinist Karen Gomyo singles out a Glass work as ‘the closest to my heart’

When critics describe the playing of celebrated violinist Karen Gomyo, superlatives are the norm. Here’s the Dallas Morning News in 2019: “Karen Gomyo was the dazzling soloist in the Mozart G Major Violin Concerto (K.216). Playing a Stradivarius of ravishing beauty, she gave not the usual well-behaved summary, but a highly dramatized, even operatic account. This was playing of flawless technique and great sophistication.”

And here’s the New York Times’ account of her skillful rendering of the Scherzo in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1: “Gomyo was extraordinary, dispatching the tangle of technical challenges with fervor and command.”  ‘

You get the picture — she’s a master of her craft, one who is always looking for ways to expand artistically.

She addressed that subject and many others in advance of her concerts Nov. 9-11 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under John Storgårds, at Symphony Center, where the program will include works by Sibelius, Glass and Rachmaninov.

Your repertoire spans a wide range of musical genres and styles. How do you go about selecting and preparing pieces for your performances?

I have always appreciated different periods and genres of music (good music is good music regardless of the genre!), and have tried to keep a mix within my performance diary that keeps me curious and excited. I was fortunate to have gone to a school like the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where we were exposed to the highest level of classical, jazz, world and contemporary music-making. The core of my repertoire and activity is the standard violin concerto, but I am always interested in exploring what is being written today by living composers, as well as staying connected to a particular love of mine, which is Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango.

How has collaborating with other artists influenced your own artistry?

I learn so much from collaborating with other artists. The sharing of different ideas, perspectives and “languages” can be hugely inspiring. There’s a beautiful give and take in collaborations, and a nonverbal communication while playing which can elevate you to different spheres of emotions and consciousness. I think this is truly the heart and magic of what music-making is.

You’ve had several great mentors during your education and career. What difference does mentorship make in your line of work?

Yes, I’ve been blessed with having had a handful of mentors who have shaped and guided me during my student years and beyond. One of the most important influences for me was Dorothy DeLay, with whom I studied between the ages of 11 and 18. Unfortunately, she then passed away. Of course, she taught me a lot about the violin, but the lessons I continue to carry with me are the ones to do with the person and artist behind the violin. In short, Miss DeLay encouraged me to develop my own voice and to nurture it with confidence. Even though she passed away two decades ago, this is still something I continue to work on. Her own strength and autonomy continue to inspire me today.

How does your approach to recording differ from live performance? How do you maintain vitality with multiple takes?

This is a very good question! Sometimes I do find that the first takes were in fact the favorite. But sometimes not! I have found that connecting with the space (or even imagining a specific person sitting out in the hall) rather than focusing on the mikes reminds me of the feeling of having an audience and of staying connected to the feeling of sharing, rather than delivering.

You participated in a 2014 documentary about Antonio Stradivarius. Of everything you learned about him, which revelation was the most eye-opening?

The biggest takeaway was the fact that, after so much research and so many attempts at trying to understand Stradivarius and his workmanship through meticulous and advanced scientific studies, one can still not quite replicate the magic, the soulfulness of his instruments. Having spent 10 days in Cremona with the film crew, visiting the museum where the tools he used were on display, speaking to the forest ranger who told us about Strad’s process of selecting wood, nothing seemed particularly revelatory. Yet he created hundreds of remarkably unique instruments unsurpassed in their magnificence!

How have age and experience — both life and musical — changed the way you interpret and play music?

When I was younger, I was almost entirely focused on the violin and the study of music. As I have gotten older, I’ve started to pay more attention to living itself. It is nothing new to say that life and music go hand in hand, as ultimately music is the expression of the experience of living. I think, as I accumulate more life experience, I start to recognize that there are so many subtle layers within every aspect of life. There are countless shades of one color, for example, there are multiple ways to look at one situation, and so on. The sense of dimensionality grows, and of course, you start to look at and feel music in this way, too.

If there’s a particular piece of music that’s most meaningful to you, what is it and why?

There are several pieces of music that I hold close to my heart from different times of my life. If I had to choose just one piece at this particular moment, it would be Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1, which the CSO and I are performing [in November]. This work was written in dedication to the memory of Mr. Glass’ father. In recent weeks, three of my close friends have lost their fathers. It’s been a time of heightened emotions and complex feelings. Mr. Glass’ concerto feels like an emotional meditation on this universal experience of loss and remembrance.

How much room for innovation and evolution is there in the classical genre, and how can you personally contribute to its progression?

I think there are some incredibly creative and exciting living composers today writing music that is both steeped in tradition, but that also mirrors today’s ways of life. One of my favorite collaborators is the composer Samuel Carl Adams [the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence from 2015 to 2018]. He combines a background in classical, jazz and electronic music. The music he writes is both compositionally intelligent and complex, while also emotionally accessible and powerful.

“Diptych,” a piece he wrote in 2020, and which we recorded together recently, has a touch of electronics in the mix of the more traditional violin and piano combination. Many audience members have commented that the piece reminds them of a modern Bach, but most importantly, that it moved them deeply. To me, this is a perfect example of classical music of today evolving in a sincere and meaningful way.

Your career took off early in life. Any advice for young violinists who want to follow in your footsteps? Many of them probably don’t fathom the extreme dedication it requires, which is arguably even more important than talent.

I believe today’s world can be extremely challenging, especially for the younger generation. There is a plethora of information obtainable through the internet and social media, and this can be extremely distracting and confusing. Achieving anything on a high level requires immense focus. However, despite these distractions, I do see many impressively talented and dedicated young musicians coming onto the scene. I believe the challenge is more in keeping one’s values clear, and to stay in tune with the reasons one takes up music in the first place.

What would you be doing — or like to be doing — career-wise if you weren’t playing violin?

I may have gone in the direction of archaeology! Funnily, I know nothing about it presently, but thinking of my younger self, I can imagine that I would have been intrigued by the idea of exploring and discovering the unknown of the past. In a way, there are some parallels to being a classical musician, as we are musically and emotionally always doing this!