PM360 recently spoke to Ann D. Kwong, PhD, Founder and CEO, Trek Therapeutics, about playing Bach on the viola.
PM360: How long have you been playing the viola?
Dr. Ann Kwong: I have been studying and playing the viola for approximately 50 years with different degrees of intensity over time. I was very lucky and got to study with a fantastic violist—Nobuko Imai—when I was in high school. She won the Gold Medal in two International competitions and has made many recordings. She was a huge influence on me. She told me that to be the best in the world in any field it all comes down to the same thing: You have to have talent, work hard, be persistent, have good teachers, and be lucky. Nobuko’s teaching shaped my approach to my work in science and drug discovery and development, and she deserves a lot of credit for some of the success that I have had.
What made you want to play the instrument?
We had a great music program in the town I grew up in (Wheaton, IL) and kids could get lessons and rent instruments through the public school system. I went to an introductory presentation and when they demonstrated different string instruments, I fell in love with the sound of the viola.
What is the most challenging aspect of playing the viola?
When I was younger, it was definitely the least sexy string instrument—except for maybe the string bass. The viola literature was not as easily accessible for the general audience, as say the violin and cello literature. And the viola, being bigger than a violin, was harder for a young child to play. Ever since I stopped practicing three to four hours a day and focused on science instead of music, the challenge has been finding time to practice and play.
What is your favorite piece to play?
I love playing the Bach unaccompanied cello suites arranged for viola. They are incredibly beautiful and exquisitely balanced—I never get tired of them.
Do you have any pieces you are currently working on getting better at?
I am currently getting back in shape playing the viola by working on the Bach unaccompanied cello suites 1-5. My long-term goal is to get back in shape and be good enough to play in an orchestra again and sit in the top two stands (first four chairs) in the section. I really miss playing with others in an orchestra.
When not playing, what are your favorite pieces to just listen to?
I have many favorite piano and string compositions that I listen to, including: Pamela and Claude Frank’s recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas; Glenn Gould’s Bach solo piano recordings; and Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites and violin sonatas and partitas, transcribed for viola, performed by Nobuko Imai and by Scott Slapin, respectively. But, I could go on and on. My daughter, Ursula Kwong-Brown, also recently got her PhD in music composition, so, of course, I also love to listen to her compositions.