Clarinetist Brian Kang, 17, is no stranger to challenges.
He weathered the change in cultures when his family emigrated to Canada from his native Korea when he was in Grade 4.
He has maintained high grades at Southridge School and is applying for early admission to several prestigious colleges and universities.
On the musical level, the voluble Grade 12 student has survived the choice of a difficult and demanding instrument, and the perpetual reed players’ torment over the impermanence and changeability of the wooden reed itself.
He’s also transitioned from solo playing, at which he’s excelled in competition, to the team approach of ensemble and orchestral work.
This Sunday, Nov. 18, he will face one of his biggest musical challenges yet, as a member of the reed section in the Vancouver Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra (VAMSO) for the concert Beethoven Celebration, 7:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theatre.
It’s the most elaborate concert in VAMSO history, and the ambitious all-Beethoven program will include the composer’s Symphony No. 9 (including the last movement, the famous Ode To Joy) in partnership with Vancouver Opera’s Young Artist Program and the Vancouver Bach Choir.
The reed section work is crucial to the piece. which places extra pressure on the instrumentalist (his brother Ryan, 16, is also a member of the orchestra, playing cello).
But Kang, a beneficiary of Peninsula Arts Foundation grants who was featured in this year’s foundation showcase concert, is, predictably, taking it all in stride.
“I think performing is great,” he said. “I think everyone should experience it at least once in their lives.”
And while he can’t predict with ultimate certainty what path his post-secondary education will take, he’s hoping he can at least continue some musical studies while pursuing an engineering degree.
“A double-major in engineering and music would be ideal for me,” he said.
Ironically he only began playing the clarinet in Korea because he thought, at the time, it would improve his recorder playing.
“Now, I think of the recorder as just a toy,” he said.
He credits the move to Canada, and the relative freedom he has enjoyed in the school system – even at academically-focused Southridge, where he applied and was accepted after finishing Grade 7 at Chantrell Creek Elementary – with helping him develop as a musician.
“If I had stayed in Korea, I don’t think I would have continued with the clarinet,” he said. “I never realized I’d continue with it. For a young boy it’s more usual to go out and play soccer.”
But Kang, who started competing as a soloist when he reached Grade 8, realized he had talent and a natural affinity for the instrument.
“In my first competition, I did really well for a first time,” he said, adding that it led to a spate of competing and performing.
But that changed in Grade 11, when he started studying at the Vancouver Music Academy and became a member of the youth symphony orchestra.
“It was a big transition from soloist to orchestral playing, but I feel it’s more enjoyable than being a soloist,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing I enjoy is meeting people – musicians who are just like you and who have the same passion. In school, some courses are mandatory and there’s not the same enthusiasm – you have to be there.
“In music, people want to be there. And I love the fact it’s not just one instrument – it’s different instruments of different timbres that have to combine, that somehow blend with each other.”
Kang said he has really come to appreciate the ensemble approach to making music, whether in a chamber or symphonic setting.
“I’ve met a lot of soloists who tend to be self-centred. Being in an ensemble helps you become more musically and socially aware. You learn to listen to each other – listening and learning to work with each other is a big lesson.”
Aside from the challenging 9th Symphony and the Fidelio Overture, Kang said he’s looking forward to playing Beethoven’s demanding Triple Concerto, featuring three returning VAMSO alumni Naomi Woo (piano, now at Yale University), Jonathan Chan (violin, now at the Guildhall School) and Jonathan Lo (cello, now at Juillard).
“It’s not as famous as the symphonies, but I think it’s one of his best works,” he said.
But the 9th Symphony is far more rigorous for the clarinet, he acknowledged.
“It’s very long, so stamina is a big challenge in the piece. We don’t have breaks in the music, and the third movement features a lot of clarinet melodies.
“I’m working hard to focus and stay focused.”