Interview with Michael Kaufman

Michael Kaufman, “a fine cellist with a well-developed sense of musical characterization” (Robert Levin), will soon be making his solo debut with Kaleidoscope on the upcoming concert featuring composer Yuan-Chen Li’s Wandering Viewpoints. Though performing in the role of soloist is not new to Mr. Kaufman, as he has won numerous awards in international and national string competitions, has premiered numerous works written for him such as BMI Competition Winner Daniel Silliman, and is a recipient of a 2016 Tarisio Trust Young Artist Grant for his chamber group, SAKURA, this debut is in stark contrast to how he is normally seen performing as a founding member of Kaleidoscope. Interested in how he is preparing for this role with the orchestra, he graciously donated his time to allow us to go behind the scenes to find a little bit more about who he is and what he values as a musician.

Carrie Rexroat: How’d you get started in music?

Mike Kaufman: I’m from Shaker Heights, OH, and when I was about three years old, I had a neighbor who I used to play with all the time. One day, she came over to my place with her cello and I was so impressed by her playing that I wanted to learn and begged my mom to buy one for me. She finally did about a year later, and I’ve been playing ever since.

CR: You must have started with the Suzuki method then, is that true?

MK: Yes, I did the Suzuki method all the way through the ten books. I also studied trumpet pretty seriously for three years in middle and high school, and I took some piano lessons, but sadly I don’t play either of those instruments anymore.

CR: How did the cello win out over the others?

MK: Well, I did think very seriously about pursuing trumpet, but it was difficult to do both. I got to a point where if I wanted to be competitive with either one I’d have to choose, and I was more advanced on the cello, so the cello won. I also realized quickly that the trumpet isn’t a good second instrument--if you don’t practice every day, you lose the strength to play high notes!

CR: *laughter* Very true! As a horn player, I understand that all too well. What do you love most about the cello?

MK: I find it really hard to talk about exactly what I love about the cello, but it all comes down to the sound. Everyone says the cliché that ‘it’s the closest thing to the human voice’. There is truth to that, but there are just sounds, colors, and certain types of lyricism that I love that are completely unique to the cello.

CR: Definitely. So how did you come to pursue cello as a career?

MK: I started cello as a hobby, and it stayed that way for me until I was about 14. In the summer before my freshman year of high school, I went to Interlochen and studied with William Skidmore who’s a really wonderful teacher. His lessons were extremely inspiring, and he instilled in me the confidence that I really could actually become a professional cellist; up until that point, I’d never realized that that was an option. Both my parents are physicians, and they probably assumed I’d go into a scientific field, but when I came home after that summer I knew I wanted to pursue the cello. In some ways, this was my way of rebelling against them. So, during my four years of high school I got much more serious about cello, did the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Alison Wells, went to Eastman for my undergrad and studied with Steven Doane, one of the most inspiring cellists I’ve ever heard. After that, I moved to LA to study with Ralph Kirshbaum, another amazing cellist whose recordings I’d listened to obsessively as a teenager, and got my Masters and Doctoral degree from the University of Southern California. Since then I’ve been freelancing and teaching in LA, playing lots of chamber music and generally trying to piece together a living!

CR: Sounds great! When you collaborate with an orchestra as a soloist, what are some things that you do to prepare for that role?

MK: I have to have a really strong command over my part, as well as the other parts in the orchestra before the first rehearsal so as to eliminate curveballs. There are always a lot of unknowns that one experiences in that first rehearsal in terms of tempi and balance, so there is a lot that is very hard to prepare for until you are sitting in front of the orchestra. I also find that frequently I’m extremely nervous in the first rehearsal; I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I can walk into a first rehearsal and be completely calm. So, preparation is the most important, and with this project I’m hoping we’ll get into the sound world and try to find the special elements of the piece.

CR: You say that you get really nervous going into the first rehearsal with an orchestra, but do you think that will be the case this time, being that you’ve been performing with Kaleidoscope since its founding?

MK: That’s hard to say. Even though I’m very familiar with the group, there are new people that play with Kaleidoscope in each rotation. In some ways it would be a new experience no matter what.

CR: I see. You’re no stranger to soloing with an orchestra, but what sorts of things are going to be different for you performing with Kaleidoscope?  

MK: One of the big differences would be that instead of it being a one-on-one collaboration with a soloist and a conductor, in this case the relationship will exist between the soloist and the whole orchestra; none of us are relying on a stick. So, communication will be different in ways that I’ve never experienced with an orchestra before. But, I’ve worked with Kaleidoscope in many other projects so I’m very familiar with the process, and have a sense of how the group works and what types of problems we’ll have. I won’t get worried if things aren’t perfect in the first rehearsal because I know that it always takes time to sort out complicated pieces. I have a pretty clear idea of the places that I think will be the most challenging and it’s a smaller group, so it’ll be a bit easier to manage.

CR: Absolutely. In relation to the piece itself, how do you interpret it?  

MK: I had the good fortune of listening to this piece in the first round for our Call for Scores, and I immediately knew that it was one of the very best that was submitted; there is literally not a single dull moment! Some parts are pretty black and white, in terms of it being much more motivic and driving or lyrical and sustained, but what’s going to be interesting for me is figuring out how to bridge all the elements of the piece together, as it has a tremendous amount of variety. I think that Yuan writes really well for the cello, even when using techniques that aren’t particularly standard, and it really showcases the virtuosity of the instrument.

CR: What sorts of techniques does she use?

MK: One of them is called ricochet, where you throw the bow onto the strings; she uses that technique quite a lot but in a very expressive way. The most striking technique would probably be playing a strained low chord on the bottom strings followed by tapping the upper two strings at their harmonic nodes with the left hand, mimicking a throat-singing technique. Another is an arpeggiation across the four strings, meant to sound like improvised singing or wailing.

CR: Wow, even I am not really sure I’ve ever heard that done on a cello before! So with you being one of the founders of Kaleidoscope, you helped set the values of the orchestra. Why was it so important that Kaleidoscope be really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales, and what are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?  

MK: In answer to the first part, community engagement was a really important element of the orchestra from the get-go because we see LA as the home of the orchestra. From an organizational point of view, we started with no audience, no donors, and really all we had were the musicians who were interested in playing and rehearsing for fun, enjoying making music together. Then we wanted to connect with the community and find a way to bring classical music to people who haven’t heard it before, but bring it to them in an approachable way to get them interested in music. Now in our third season, with the Pay What You Can model it puts people in a position to come to any concert without any financial obligation, which continues our mission to simply get people interested in classical music. In answer to the second part of your question, for me personally, a lot of us musicians tend to live in a practice room and almost all the performances that we do are for other musicians. By doing outreach performances, we engage with sharing music in a different way. There’s definitely an excitement that’s felt when you play for people who haven’t been exposed to classical music, yet have an instant understanding or appreciation for it; I think that’s really beautiful.

CR: It’s very beautiful. With this value being at the core of the orchestra, do you think that’s how Kaleidoscope stands out amongst all other organizations?

MK: Yes, but in general, the group has a really special energy and a fresh approach to music. We take a lot of rehearsal time to really prepare each concert and it’s an orchestra of people who are all committed and giving of themselves in every way. That is why Kaleidoscope is special.

CR: Excellent! On a more personal note, do you have any hobbies outside of music?

MK: Recently it’s been lots and lots of running. I just moved to Los Feliz right near Griffith Park, so it’s been wonderful to be in nature and explore. I do all the normal things, go out and go to movies, go to the beach, but of course not enough *laughter*

CR: *laughter* I hear you! Do you have a favorite quote or personal mantra?

MK: Yes. Robert Schuman said: “always play as if in the presence of a master.” When I’m lost, I try to imagine the advice my previous teachers would give me.

CR: That’s a great quote! Any final remarks to leave with our readers?

MK: Hope you enjoy the concert! Come see me afterwards!

CR: Great! Thanks for talking, Mike!

MK: Thanks so much!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.

Friday, January 13 @ 10 pm
Los Angeles Theater Center
514 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
***After party goes past midnight with DJ, dancing, and full bar! 

Sunday, January 15 @ 3 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401


Carrie Rexroat