Ask Me Anything: Kevin Lin, Violinist

Kevin Lin takes over as concertmaster for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Courtesy Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Nick Shotwell

Was there any hesitation about joining the ISO with music director Krzysztof Urbański leaving soon and his successor unknown?
I find that exciting, actually. I’m sad to see Krzysztof go, but 10 years is a long time for a musical director. Hopefully, I can help pave the way for the next decade. London just hired a new musical director, so I saw what did and didn’t work there.

What worked and what didn’t?
A lot of it was internal politics. We’re very happy with who we found, but when you’re working with a lot of decision makers, it’s impossible to get 100 percent consensus. I saw how London navigated it, and I can bring that experience here.

What will your role be in the selection process?
I won’t be steering the ship. But I’m eager to learn what has worked for the orchestra in the past, who they liked, and to consult.

The last three music directors here—Raymond Leppard, Mario Venzago, and Urbański—had very different styles. What do you think should come next?
What we do is entertainment and art, but it’s also a business. So we have to find someone who works in the same way that a successful CEO or other figurehead does. If the music director works well with the musicians, we perform better. In return, it’s a better experience for the audience. If the morale is high for the orchestra, it makes donors feel differently. It’s all interconnected. And if this person can be great with donors, well, better-paid musicians are also happier musicians.

You were named co-leader of the London Philharmonic at age 24. How unusual is it for someone that age to be in such a lofty position?
I don’t like being braggy about myself.

It’s not braggy, it’s factual. How often does that happen?
I think it’s rare. It was also weird for me because I wasn’t in the European circuit. You don’t see many people who went to American conservatories there [Lin attended The Colburn School in Los Angeles]. I felt like it was easier for me because I was an outsider. I had no expectations.

The transition must have been dramatic.
My whole life changed in a matter of two weeks. I got married. I got my first job. I moved to a new country. I just kept my head down and did the work. In my first week, we went to a festival in Romania and did an Enescu opera, Oedipe, which is rarely done. I was completely thrown into it. Now, no matter what I do, I feel like whatever comes my way won’t be as scary.

I’m sure there will be challenges with your wife [who is a violinist for the Cincinnati Symphony] living in another city.
We’ll have a place here and one there. I’ll balance my time in between. But it’s really important to be connected to the community and be available whenever I can to engage.

With two musicians in the house, how much shop talk is there at home?
We’re good about only talking about the funny stuff. We don’t bring the serious stuff home.

Any spousal conflicts with practice?
Personally, I like to practice in the bathroom. Giant mirror. You see everything you are doing. Not many distractions.

A while back, the ISO had a pretty grim front line. From the audience perspective, it didn’t look like they were having a good time. How important should the visual be for concertgoers? Or is it just the sound that matters?
I think it’s both. But each individual player is entitled to how they present themselves. I’m not going to make someone move if it’s artificial. I move quite a bit, but I’m not doing it for show. That’s just how I play.

I don’t mind the clapping. I feel like if we get applause between movements, it just means that we did really well on that movement. I do think there is a bit of an elitist attitude surrounding classical music. A lot of people feel like they don’t know how to act at a concert. We have to find ways to get around that.

Your predecessor Zach De Pue had his group, Time for Three, and was a star of the Happy Hour concerts. What do you take from his groundwork, and where do you diverge?
Zach has done a whole range of things. I’ve stuck with classical.

You’re not going to be doing a Radiohead concert?
I could try. But I would be nowhere near as good as Zach in that regard. I would love to do it. I just haven’t. What I think I bring is experience in different markets. I’ve done a lot of touring. I’ve played all the big concert halls in Europe and Asia. I think I can elevate what we are doing classically here.

And your feeling about new music?
It’s what I’ve been doing for the past three years. London is at the forefront of the contemporary music scene, so I’m very used to working with new composers. My music director in London says, “Sometimes you have to eat your vegetables before you get your dessert.” And I really buy into that. Not that I think new music isn’t as great as the classics. You just haven’t heard it as much. So you have to eat your vegetables. You have to play the undiscovered work. At one point, Shostakovich and Bartók were new music.

How much homework did you do on Indianapolis before taking the job here?
I had been to Indy before, and I already had friends here, which made it an easier decision. [Principal cellist] Austin Huntington and I went to school together. I’ve known [first violinist] Sophia Cho for many years. And [associate conductor] Jake Joyce and I performed together. Classical music is such a small world.

Like many young violinists, you played in competitions. Are they necessary evils or are they good for musicians?
It’s only evil when you have to stand up there and do it. The stress is insane. But in order to better our craft, we have to put ourselves under pressure.

You’ll likely be playing with competitors in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. What do you say to young violinists in those contests?
Enjoy it. I know it’s hard to do that when you’re worried about your future. But everyone wants you to do well. They aren’t looking for mistakes. They want to see a display of excellence. The more you enjoy, the more they enjoy.

At a season opener a few years back with celebrity violinist Itzhak Perlman, there was clapping after a movement, and the audience reaction of horror was palpable. How much of that kind of traditional classical music etiquette is important to you?
I don’t mind the clapping. I feel like if we get applause between movements, it just means that we did really well on that movement. I do think there is a bit of an elitist attitude surrounding classical music. A lot of people feel like they don’t know how to act at a concert. We have to find ways to get around that.