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Meet Karen Kamensek

14 August, 2023

The Grammy Award-winning conductor on Nicola Benedetti, Wynton Marsalis, and waiting for Simone Young at the stage door…

By Hugh Robertson

American conductor Karen Kamensek makes her first appearance with the Sydney Symphony this September, in an exciting program full of rich, energetic music by John Adams, Stravinsky and the Australian premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto performed by the superb Nicola Benedetti, for whom the piece was written.

It is a program ideally suited to Kamensek’s countless strengths. Equally at home in opera and orchestral music, Kamensek has over the course of her career given the world premieres of many new works, and also boasts a long association with New York’s Metropolitan Opera which resulted in a Grammy Award in 2022 for Best Opera Recording for Philip Glass’ Akhnaten.

In fact it was at The Met that Kamensek’s conducting career – and her connection to Australia – began: in 1996 she was operating the surtitles at the famous New York institution when Simone Young was conducting there.

‘I waited for Simone at the stage door in 1996, when she had conducted La bohème,’ says Kamensek with a laugh. ‘I said, “Hello, I'm Karen, I'm a young conductor, and I think you need an assistant. And I think that should be me.”’

But it was a long way from the stage door of The Met to Indiana, where Kamensek grew up and first discovered a love for music. She started learning piano and four, and violin at eight, and not long after that was handed her first baton – of sorts…

‘I was in elementary school orchestra class,’ she recalls. ‘And because I'd been playing piano for four years I could read the clefs already, so I was going around yelling at the other kids, saying “You're playing wrong!” And my teacher clearly thought “I have to rescue this child from herself”. So he put a drumstick in my hand and he said, “You're going to beat time”.

‘I picked it up quickly and had good rhythm, and he was like, “You little thing, you're going to be a conductor.” And if you think about it, that was like 100 years ago, and yet he had no qualms telling a little girl, “You're going to be a conductor.”’

Karen Kamensek
Photo by Benno Hunziker.

Kamensek’s career really took off from the moment she arrived at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. She arrived there very clear in her desire to become a conductor, but with no undergraduate conducting course, had to jam her foot in the door for every opportunity. At 18 she strode into an audition for a graduate role as the university’s opera coach, and was hired on the spot – she says as a result of her chutzpah, but one suspects her prodigious talent and ability to sight-read might have played a part.

That role brought her in contact with the great Hungarian-American cellist János Starker, who was a professor at the Jacobs School from 1958 until his death in 2013. Starker suggested she get in touch with Dennis Russell Davies, then-music director of the American Composers Orchestra in New York, and best friends with Glass.

‘I moved to New York and I just sat in all of his rehearsals. I did the typical New York slog: I played a lot of piano, I played in the studio for singers, I did off-Broadway things. I got any job I could get that was not in music as well, to support myself. I had the real traditional old-fashioned, ‘She went to New York’ thing.

‘I did have a period where I was working five different jobs, and coaching on the side, and being at the Met every day in supertitles. I got to observe a lot of conductors, but there was really no opportunity to assist there at the time. But then I met Simone, and she invited me to Bergen when she was chief conductor there. She let me conduct for five minutes, then told me to go and speak to her agent who had just watched me conduct those five minutes.

‘It's one of those things that I thought nothing was going to happen and then it just turned on a dime.

‘Simone was really the one who paved the way for all of the rest of us female conductors coming through.’

Throughout her career, new music has been at the heart of Kamensek’s practise.

Although one might not think of America’s Midwest as a crucible of new music, Kamensek was in fact exposed to lots of cutting-edge music as a young musician. The University of Louisville, Kentucky, has been the home of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition; first awarded in 1985, it has been presented to some of the biggest names in modern music, including Witold Lutosławski, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez, Unsuk Chin, Kaija Saariaho and Australia’s own Brett Dean, among many others. ‘I used to go to their concerts and rehearsals in high school, so it's kind of in my genes,’ says Kamensek.

Her university years also saw her become an expert in contemporary music almost by necessity, when as a conducting student she was sought out by all the composition students when they had a new work they wanted to workshop.

‘All the composers came to me,’ Kamensek recalls with a laugh. ‘Anything that was under 14 players we could just get together and put on without permission from the faculty, so composers used to bring me 11 or 13 players and say, “Will you read through this with the players? We need a conductor.”

‘I was a mercenary. I came to be the go-to person for a while and that's continued. And I love the collaboration, I love the challenge, I love that it’s living art.’

That attitude has continued throughout her career, and is evident in the program she will conduct in Sydney. The centrepiece is the violin concerto by American trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, who over a long and storied career has expanded and dissolved and fused the boundaries between jazz and classical music. Demonstrating his mastery of both genres, Marsalis is the only person to win a Grammy in jazz and classical music categories in the same year; he was also the first jazz composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Unsurprisingly, Kamensek is a fan.

‘I'm always researching and trying new things,’ says Kamensek excitedly. ‘I love crossover, I love mixing with folk musicians and rock musicians and all kinds – I’ve always loved that. And I had known that Wynton had written works for trumpet and orchestra, and one day I was just idly checking to see if he had written anything new. And there was this violin concerto, and the album had just come out, and I immediately started to think about how I could get to perform it. But then before I had even had a chance to talk to Nicola Benedetti about it, my agent got a call from the Sydney Symphony – and when he told me that Sydney wanted to do the Wynton Marsalis concerto with Nicola Benedetti, I let out a real old-fashioned Indiana ‘woo hoo!’

Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis
Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis. Photo by Jake Turney.

Kamensek knows this Marsalis concerto is something special, a work that is not only the inheritor of rich traditions from many different genres, but a work that advances those traditions into the twenty-first century.

‘Of course jazz is influenced by the culture of whichever country the jazz musician is in,’ says Kamensek. ‘And classical composers, from the beginning, took influence from everything around them. In the Western classical world we like to forget that, and think that anything having to do with folk music is somehow not serious.

‘But the challenge is always how to meld improvisational cultures with very strictly notated Western music. And I think Wynton has done a wonderful job in writing out improvisatory figures for the orchestra as well – which are notated – but that sound like they're being made up on the spot. There are jazz elements, groovy chord changes, Afro-American influenced rhythms and Creole songs from the Louisiana area. I think it's just highly cultivated and cultured – and also highly entertaining.

And then you add Nicola and everything she brings: it was handcrafted for her, and her Scottish background – you can hear the influence of Scottish music and fiddle, it's all in there.

Every measure is a gem.’
Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis
Composer Igor Stravinsky, photographed on his Australian tour in 1961.

Also on the program is The Firebird by Stravinsky, a work that Kamensek has chosen specifically for its musical and thematic links to the Marsalis concerto. Though the two pieces might seem a world apart on paper, in fact Stravinsky lived in America from 1939 until his death in 1971, and had an enormous influence on American music in that time. Marsalis himself has written of Stravinsky’s influence on him as a musician and composer, something that Kamensek hears clearly in his Violin Concerto.

‘I think every American composer of a certain age was influenced by Stravinsky,’ she says. ‘There's a lot of Stravinsky [in Marsalis’ Violin Concerto], lots of subtle rhythmic changes that you would hear in the Rite of Spring especially.

‘So when we were designing this concert I immediately thought of Stravinsky. His colour palette is as bright and as cinematic as a lot of American music is. And the Marsalis concerto draws on folk elements of the United States and North America, so there is an obvious link to Stravinsky, who draws from Russian folk themes, folk songs and fairy tales.

‘I think The Firebird is a really good counterpart to the Marsalis concerto. I’m very interested in what it will invoke in people – and Australia has a rich folk music culture with First Nations music and also all the Celtic stuff that came down. So I think the Marsalis will sound familiar to people. And there are similar elements in the Stravinsky too, which is like listening to a film – there are so many colours.’

Kamensek’s enthusiasm for these pieces absolutely bursts through in conversation, and she is overjoyed to be able to bring this music to life for audiences around the world. It’s not hard to imagine her as a university student, hungrily seeking out new experiences and opportunities and discovering connections between composers and genres. And it is in live performance that those connections can be most clearly laid out for listeners.

‘The world's a big place,’ she says with a smile. ‘And music is the gift that keeps giving – and you really have to come and see it live, because live it is a totally different thing.’