By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
As first associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2005, Juliette Kang serves regularly as concertmaster when David Kim is off. She helps communicate his leadership across the first desks of the other string sections, both in rehearsal and performance, and needs to be prepared to step in at a moment’s notice.
After studying at Curtis with Jascha Brodsky and at Juilliard with Dorothy DeLay and the Juilliard Quartet’s Robert Mann, Kang won first prizes at the 1992 Menuhin Violin Competition of Paris and the 1994 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. She has soloed with the San Francisco, Baltimore, l’Orchestre National de France, Montréal, and Toronto symphonies, and, in 2012, at Carnegie Hall with her hometown orchestra, the Edmonton Symphony. She serves on the central board of trustees at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School.
I spoke to Kang from her home in Philadelphia, where she lives and plays with her husband, cellist Thomas Kraines.
Strings: What’s in your case?
Juliette Kang: I have a 1730 Camillo Camilli and a 2008 Marcello Villa—and, before you ask, I love playing them both. I acquired the Camilli in the mid ’90s from a dealer in Baltimore with prize money from competitions, as well as loans. I bought the Villa in 2011 in order to have an instrument available while the Camilli was undergoing a big restoration. I don’t consider it my “secondary” violin exactly; it’s a genuine pleasure to play and, depending on my mood or repertoire, I sometimes grab it first.
What qualities stand out in each?
The Camilli has a warm lower register and an even response across the strings, which is a major priority. It was also relatively affordable, which is a big factor in old instruments! The Villa felt close to the Camilli physically, so I felt confident switching back and forth. It has an immediate response and a warm, dulcet tone.
Is it the player or the instrument that produces the sound?
I basically feel that within a few weeks on any instrument, I will end up sounding like myself, with my own distinct timbre. On the other hand, having years available to grow with a violin and bow brings a deep relationship that changes and develops in mysterious ways. I’m in constant negotiations with my violins to coax out the nicest tones I can while still playing with a full range of dynamics and colors. It can take a different approach from the bow and vibrato, depending on how the violin is feeling that day.
How long did they take to break in?
The Villa has undergone a lot of change in the past nine years; I feel responsible for its development as I’m the only player it’s had. I feel like I’m raising a child! It has developed more wolf tones and personality changes, depending on the strings I’ve used. It has also become more complex in tone and more varied, especially in the lower register.
Which do you prefer for playing with the orchestra?
The Camilli is a good instrument for orchestra playing—it is powerful and personable but also blends nicely in a group. It has a little bit of slow response at lower dynamics, which fluctuates a great deal with humidity and temperature. That can be a surprise at times, when the sound doesn’t pop out until mezzo forte! The Camilli is also a fine solo instrument. It’s a little challenging getting a broad tone on the A string that’s not too nasal, so using the right bow has been crucial.
What bows are you using?
I usually use a Simon for solo and chamber work, and a Hoyer or Jombar for orchestra. The Villa is a good chamber-music instrument with piano or completely solo. It has that quick response and even tone as well as a darkish timbre. The Simon bow crushes the sound out of it though, interestingly enough. I occasionally use a Husson bow, which can create a dull tone on the Camilli but a deep one on the Villa.
What other gear do you use?
I use Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld or Dominants on the Camilli and Dominants on the Villa, with Hill or Pirastro Gold E strings. I’ve been loyal to Bernardel rosin but have recently branched out to Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi Gold and have been happy so far. I don’t have a full shoulder rest but use a mutilated Artino Magic Pad. I sliced off one side at an angle to create a graduated edge, in order to fill in the negative space between the violin and my collarbone as unobtrusively as possible.
I also have a gorgeous silk violin bag, which was a gift from a colleague in Asia. He explained the material and weave work to regulate the humidity wonderfully well, and every day I see it I’m grateful to him.
How do your instruments match your husband’s cello?
Tom’s 1720 Don Nicolo Amati/Marchioni and his playing are both quite powerful, and the Camilli is a good match for their projection and brilliance. The Villa is very sweet sounding but blends in almost too well and doesn’t have the capacity for the dynamic volume I need.
What’s your favorite new repertoire for violin and cello?
In my opinion the Ravel Duo towers over everything else: beautiful and stunningly emotional, spiritual and spirited, and as clever as possible. I also had the chance recently to learn a fantastic duo by Anna Weesner, who is on the composition faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, called Sudden, Unbidden. Really fun.