Kyle Knox: The Accidental Conductor

by Katherine Esposito

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin

It was the path he’d chosen, the direction he’d pursued, and Kyle Knox had finally tasted triumph in 2005, when he won, at age 23, the position of assistant principal clarinet of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

It was a plum trophy in a sometimes punishing profession, realized only after a decade of studious toil in the practice room and on the orchestra stage.

Kyle Knox.
Kyle Knox. Photograph by Katherine Esposito.

The young man who’d once won Most Valuable Player in Raritan, New Jersey as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer had bent his competitive edge toward music, and he’d won something akin to MVP there, too. He studied with the great clarinetists – Ricardo Morales and Yehuda Gilad – went on to Juilliard and Tanglewood, and bested hundreds of rivals for the Milwaukee job.

Then, three years later, almost imperceptibly, one neuron at a time, it all started to unravel.

Today, Knox is best known in Madison as a promising young conductor, a graduate student at UW-Madison who recently made his Madison Opera debut in its production of Little Women. In 2014 and 2015, he conducted University Opera’s award-winning Albert Herring and also two concerts with the Middleton Community Orchestra. (He is also the husband of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz.)

Kyle Knox with his wife, Naha Greenholtz, hiking in Santa Fe, 2009.
Kyle Knox with his wife, Naha Greenholtz, hiking in Santa Fe, 2009. Family photograph.

He has impressed many observers, including Madison Symphony Orchestra conductor John DeMain, who has watched Knox conduct several times, including Albert Herring, in which DeMain’s daughter Jennifer was cast. “[Kyle] worked uncompromisingly to achieve as close to perfection as possible,” says DeMain.

Until a few years ago, however, Kyle had never considered becoming a conductor leading an orchestra. He was exhilarated to be playing in one.

His emergence as a conductor has almost been an accident, one that may now be resolving in his favor. But he faced many bleak days before he got there.


 

It was almost imperceptible at first, just odd coordination problems with his right hand. It was the spring of 2009. “I remember I was playing principal on Peter and the Wolf, and there’s this one passage with fast 16th notes and C-major arpeggios, and I remember having a hard time with this particular passage, repeating 16th notes, a very specific sequence of finger motions, and thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was very strange” Kyle says.

For that concert, he wound up transposing it into a different key, and playing on an A clarinet instead of the usual one. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” he continues. “I just thought, oh, for some reason, my pointer finger is a little slow.”

“But maybe a month later, I was playing E-flat clarinet on Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony, and there’s a huge E-flat solo in the beginning of the second movement, very fast, and it had a very similar sequence of fingerings in the middle of the solo, and I practiced it obsessively, and I recorded it at home, and drove my wife crazy. But no matter how much I practiced, I never felt comfortable with the fingerwork.”

Classical orchestral musicians, at the highest levels, achieve mastery through one main thing: practice. It is not enough to be talented and musical; one must constantly revisit passage after passage to precisely engrave notes in the mind. Largely due to this kind of preparation, Kyle had always been assured and confident while performing. But now he began to feel unmoored.

The symphony schedule was intense: much music, many solos, multiple performances. In concert after concert, the strange sensations recurred. At first, Kyle thought it was just a matter of working harder, to fix those notes even more firmly in his brain. “When something’s difficult, you want to feel secure on it. When I do these octaves, I know the distances, [so that] even if I miss the note, I know it was a fluke. It has to feel right in your head,” he says.

But it wasn’t feeling right anymore. He began to lose confidence in his playing. A rigorous orchestra schedule gave him little respite.

His fellow musicians and the symphony patrons did not detect anything awry. But Kyle felt it was getting worse.

After six months he consulted neurological specialists at the Cleveland Clinic and Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, who studied his movements as played his clarinet in their offices. They asked him questions and ruled out a few possibilities. Then they gave him a diagnosis: focal dystonia. He had never heard of it before.

His response was to practice even harder. He describes the chain of events that unfolded. “I started obsessively practicing, to make it feel right. In an effort to make it feel right, you start playing wrong, because you start compensating. You start doing strange things, which eventually start to show in your actual playing, and then you start hearing mistakes, which confirms your initial fear that there was something wrong. And then it becomes a feedback loop.”

For three years, Kyle continued to play with the MSO. He was managing, but the amount of music to learn and crush of performances — 150 per year — became overwhelming. “I just couldn’t rehab in a way that gave me confidence about playing in orchestra full time,” he says. “Wind players can’t hide. Everything you do is a solo, so you feel exposed. It was a really rough time.”

He remembers his final concert, in October 2010, Mozart’s Requiem with conductor Edo de Waart, on which he played the basset horn. “I hadn’t told anyone anything about what I was dealing with,” he says. “I remember thinking about the routines of orchestra life, how accustomed to the whole ritual I had become and reflecting on how some day soon I just wouldn’t be doing it anymore. It was heavy. After that Requiem performance I talked to the personnel manager and started my injury leave. That was it.”


 

Since the age 13, Kyle had known he wanted to work with music. He remembers hearing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on the radio, and watching a documentary about Leonard Bernstein and the music of Gustav Mahler. “I was mesmerized,” he says. “I was interested innately. I had to figure out a way to access it, and access came through the clarinet.”

Now, that access was cut short. He was adrift. He immediately dove into conducting after cobbling together a volunteer orchestra in Milwaukee, trying out conducting studies at Northwestern University, and ultimately attending graduate school at UW-Madison.

At the School of Music, he studies with orchestra conductor James Smith, an “accidental conductor” himself who also once played clarinet. “Jim is enormously accomplished,” Kyle says. “I’ve been very lucky to play some of America’s greatest orchestras in my career. I’ve played for a lot a famous conductors, and I can legitimately say that Jim is as good as anyone I’ve ever played for.”

Kyle Knox with the UW Symphony Orchestra, 2013.
Kyle Knox with the UW Symphony Orchestra, 2013.
Scott Gendel (MM & DMA, School of Music) and Kyle Knox, preparing Little Women. Gendel is coach & accompanist for the show. Photograph by Steffanie Berg.
Scott Gendel (MM & DMA, School of Music) and Kyle Knox, preparing Little Women. Gendel is coach & accompanist for the show. Photograph by Steffanie Berg.

Madison got to know Kyle three years later, after several notable turns as a promising young conductor. Early on, he caught the eye of John DeMain, who knew about Kyle’s focal dystonia, and who saw real promise, and wanted to give him a chance.

Telling Kyle’s story on paper makes it all sound so simple. One career ended, another one started. He did it the only way he knows, urgently, intently, almost desperately, uncomfortable with any lack of movement in his life. The truth, however, is that he really had very little control over what was happening. And that was the main thing he needed to accept.

“Being a clarinetist was a thing that defined me,” he says. “It was part of my sense of self, and you can’t underestimate that.” He knows better now. “The things that made me able to accomplish anything on the clarinet are intrinsic qualities. The clarinet doesn’t define me. I define myself.”

If he had to enter that valley once more, he’d hope to approach it differently. He’d take time to grieve, to try to discern underlying meaning, to try to figure out the nature of the problem. Rushing doesn’t help anyway, he says.

“Sometimes, in a effort to redefine yourself too quickly, you can slow your process down of ending up where you’re going to end up anyway,” he continues. “Maybe you’ve been pushing too hard, maybe you’re been working too hard. Your body is telling you things, and you need to use it as an opportunity to reflect.”

“You have to be sympathetic with yourself. I think that is hugely important. And to have as much an eye on the long term as possible-that life is long, that your career is long, that there are lots of things in the future that will happen that are potentially good. But you have to let them unfold.”

Ten years ago, he wouldn’t have listened to these words. It wasn’t who he was. But it is who he is now.

“It’s possible to have great aspirations, but also to be patient and to be sane. It is possible to be of both minds. And I think the most successful people are that way.”

Katherine Esposito is the publicist and concert manager at the UW-Madison School of Music

Spring Performances with Kyle Knox, Conductor

Madison Opera’s Little Women

February 5 & 7, 2016

http://www.madisonopera.org/

 

University Opera, Transformations

March 11, 13, 15, 2016

http://www.music.wisc.edu/opera/

 

Madison Savoyards, The Gondoliers

July & August, 2016

http://madisonsavoyards.org/

 

Middleton Players Theater, Sunday in the Park with George

June & July, 2016

http://www.middletonplayers.com/

 

Summer Music Clinic Honors Orchestra

June 26-July 1, 2016

http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/smc/index.html

 


About Focal Dystonia

Kyle Knox is only one of many musicians who was diagnosed with focal dystonia, many of them very famous. Glenn Gould, the pianist, and Robert Schumann, the 19th century composer, both are now believed to have suffered from it. Pianist Leon Fleischer used only his left hand for several decades while searching for a solution. A New York Times story in 2012 sheds light on this little-understood and seldom discussed condition. Another Times story recounts the story of pianist Fleischer.

Here’s how Kyle Knox describes it:

“Focal dystonia is far too complicated for me to paraphrase easily. That said, I’ll try: Basically it is a neurological condition where the brain’s ability to rewire itself, called plasticity (normally a good thing as it enables the acquisition of new skills and information), becomes overactive. In the case of musicians, it becomes overactive in a very specific way that involves otherwise familiar gestures that have been long perfected through years of practice. To put it simply, music that was once effortless suddenly starts to ‘feel’ wrong. It doesn’t sound wrong to outside listeners, but the neurological experience of playing, for example, a certain finger combination, becomes distorted in the player’s mind. As my neurologist told me, ‘all initial symptoms of musician’s focal dystonia are imperceptible to the outside observer.'”

A link from the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation provides more information.

Please note: This story was simultaneously published on the website of the UW-Madison School of Music.

Hire a Musician!

Do you seek one or more musicians for your wedding, private party, corporate event, or church service? Our students routinely gig in the community and now there’s an updated place for you to advertise. See this website and send your request to the email listed. Note: All arrangements are made between the students and the employer.


The School of Music offers a smorgasbord of performances each year; we invite you to visit our website and click on our events calendar. We also publish a season brochure that is mailed every August.


You received this newsletter because you either signed up at join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu or directly at this blog. You can also follow us on our very active Facebook page and hear our music on our SoundCloud page.

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UW-Madison’s Top Musicians to Solo in Annual “Symphony Showcase”

News and Events from the UW-Madison School of Music – January 26, 2016

“Symphony Showcase” brings out the best, literally

They’ve prepared for months and now are ready to show off a bit on the stage of Mills Hall: Our annual Symphony Showcase, a concert featuring the winners of our annual concerto competition in solo performances with the UW Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Smith.  This year’s winners are all graduate students with impressive worldwide resumés; one is a composer whose new work will be premiered by the orchestra. Please join us on Sunday, February 14, at 7:30 PM for our concert and reception in Mills Hall! (Note: Parking is free on Sundays in Grainger Hall.) Concert tickets are $10 but are free for students of all ages. Buy in advance ($4 fee) or in person in Mills lobby.

Concerto winners
L-R:
Kangwoo Jin, piano; Luis Alberto Peña, piano; Garrett Mendelow, percussion; and Paran Amininazari, violin. Photograph by Michael R. Anderson.
Yunkyung Hong, composer. Photograph by Michael R. Anderson.
Yunkyung Hong, composer. Photograph by Michael R. Anderson.

Meet the winners and the works they will play, and read full biographies on this webpage.

Violinist Paran Amininazari, doctoral student of Assistant Professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino. Paran is also a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and a founding member of the Willy St. Chamber Players. Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, one movement.

Yunkyung Hong, a doctoral composer studying with Professors Laura Schwendinger and Stephen Dembski. “Yun” has won many awards and commissions worldwide and is employed by UW-Madison’s MOOCS (massive online courses) program as a sound designer. Her new work is called Transparency.

Pianist and Collins Fellow Kangwoo Jin, doctoral student of Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. Kangwoo is a winner of many competitions and received his master’s degree from Indiana University. He is also a teacher in the school’s Community Music Lessons program. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18, third movement.

Garrett Mendelow, doctoral percussionist and Collins Fellow studying with Professor Anthony Di Sanza. In 2012, Mendelow won second place in the biennial Tromp Percussion Competition in The Netherlands, and in 2014, he was a semifinalist at the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany. Arena Concerto, by Swedish composer Tobias Broström.

Luis Alberto Peña, a doctoral piano student of Professor Christopher Taylor.  Luis has soloed with many orchestras and won awards in Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela and the USA. Richard Strauss’s Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra.


The Wisconsin Idea at Its Most Audible

Did you know that the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, the Wingra Wood Quintet and the Pro Arte Quartet are our contribution to the Wisconsin Idea? Over decades, the three ensembles have logged thousands of miles giving concerts and master classes in high schools, concert halls and colleges all over Wisconsin. And we want to visit your town!

We’ve given it a new name: the “Music Engagement & Outreach Program,” and we have a new coordinator, Beth Larson,  a violinist who graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 and performs with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Willy Street Chamber Players.  With Beth’s help, the three groups have begun an exciting new partnership with Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, working not only with bands and orchestra but with literature and science classes as well. Contact Beth to learn more.

ThreeEnsembles-Web2015-16

Find the ensembles in your corner of Wisconsin! Upcoming concerts include:

Pro Arte Quartet (please note: due to injury, the Pro Arte concert for Feb. 3 in Mills Hall has been canceled)
2/23/16 5:30 PM Concert & Clinic | Wisconsin Philharmonic | Waukesha, WI
2/28/16 2:00 PM Concert | Marcus Center for the Performing Arts | Milwaukee, WI
4/5/16 7:00 PM Concert | University of Wisconsin – Platteville | Platteville, WI
4/7/16 7:00 PM Concert | Oakwood Village – University Woods | Madison, WI
4/11/16 7:30 PM Concert | Three Lakes Arts Association | Three Lakes, WI
5/14/16 7:30 PM Concert | Midsummer’s Music | Sister Bay, WI
Wisconsin Brass Quintet
3/4/16 7:30 PM Concert | Concordia University | Mequon, WI
Wingra Wind Quintet
2/11/16 3:30 PM Concert | Coventry Village | Madison, WI
2/18/16 10:00 AM Educational Concert | Edgewood High School | Madison, WI
2/26/16 7:30 PM Concert | Nicolet Live @ Nicolet College | Rhinelander, WI


Music reviewer Greg Hettsmanberger gets his own TV blog

Blogger Greg Hettsmanberger has been writing about classical music for Madison Magazine for several years now, and has now begun a stint on TV as well and started a new personal blog, “What Greg Says,” mostly about music. You can catch his TV segment on occasional Wednesday mornings just after 6:30 AM on WISC-TV/Ch. 3. In his debut appearance, he included our upcoming Schubertiade as one of his recommendations.

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Meanwhile, another faithful classical music critic, Jake Stockinger, just passed the 1.4 million mark in hits to his blog, The Well-Tempered Ear, in continuous publication since 2009. Congratulations, Jake!


Want to burnish those rusty piano or trombone skills? UW-Madison’s Community Music Lessons can help

The CML program was founded in 1968 and is still busy offering lessons to students young and old(er) in our community. Our teachers are graduate students recommended by their major professors, and are available in the areas of instrumental, voice, and even composition. Registration for the spring semester just opened; click here to learn more.
Read biographies of our current teachers.


Faculty News: Laura Schwendinger, Uri Vardi & David Perry.

Alumni News: Violist Elias Goldstein.


Hire a Musician!

Do you seek one or more musicians for your wedding, private party, corporate event, or church service? Our students routinely gig in the community and now there’s an updated place for you to advertise. See this website and send your request to the email listed. Note: All arrangements are made between the students and the employer.


The School of Music offers a smorgasbord of performances each year; we invite you to visit our website and click on our events calendar. We also publish a season brochure that is mailed every August.


Personalize your calendar view! Click on the “view as” link on the right of our calendar page.
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You received this newsletter because you either signed up at join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu or directly at this blog. You can also follow us on our very active Facebook page and hear our music on our SoundCloud page.

UW Opera Wins National Award; 3rd “Schubertiade” coming on Jan. 30

Happy New Year from the UW-Madison School of Music!

University Opera’s Albert Herring wins award from the National Opera Association

Albert Herring, an opera composed by Benjamin Britten and produced by University Opera in October, 2014 at Music Hall, has won third place in Division III of the National Opera Association‘s annual opera production competition. The opera was directed by interim director David Ronis and conducted by Kyle Knox, a graduate student studying conducting with professor James Smith.

It is the first NOA award for UW-Madison and the fourth for Ronis, whose previous wins came while he taught at Queens College in New York City.

All photographs by Michael R. Anderson

This past weekend, Ronis collected the award at the association’s yearly meeting in Indianapolis. “When I arrived in Madison, I felt that the quality of the work being done by University Opera was of a very high caliber, certainly of the level of other college and university opera departments that I had seen win awards,” Ronis said in an email. “So I thought, ‘Why not? We’ve got nothing to lose.’ So I submitted both last year’s productions of Albert Herring and The Magic Flute and I guess it paid off.”

“Good opera has been produced by UW-Madison for years. It’s just very gratifying to have the recognition of a national organization,” he continued.

The competition is blind, meaning that performing companies are not identified to judges. Those eligible include small professional opera companies and opera training programs from academic institutions, music conservatories, summer opera training programs, and opera outreach programs. Entries are separated into seven divisions by the judges; the criteria include the size and scope of institution’s music and opera program and the level of vocal training of the singers in the cast.

Congratulations to University Opera!

Mark your calendars now for University Opera’s spring show, Transformations, Conrad Susa’s thought-provoking opera from 1973. Susa’s chamber opera for eight singers and eight players is an adult re-telling of ten classic fairy tales (among them, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel) as seen through the eyes of poet Anne Sexton. Sexton’s struggle with mental illness frames the darkly humorous and audaciously recounted tales, filled with mid-twentieth-century references, both literary and musical. Performance dates are March 11-15, 2016. Buy tickets here.


Third “Schubertiade” coming January 30 to Mills Hall!

(Please note ticketing and parking tips below!)

In homage to a beloved composer, the UW-Madison School of Music will present its third annual Schubertiade, an evening of songs, piano duets and chamber music by Franz Schubert, one day before the composer’s 219th birthday.

All photographs by Michael R. Anderson

The concert will take place on Saturday evening, January 30 at 8 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall. The concert is hosted by pianist Martha Fischer, who is professor of collaborative piano and piano at the School of Music, and her pianist husband Bill Lutes, emeritus artist-in-residence. Alumna soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine, who has sung with many major opera companies including Wolftrap in Washington, D.C., the Santa Fe Opera, the Minnesota Opera, as well as Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera and Madison Opera, will be a guest soloist. Guarrine now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The program will include a major work for piano duet, the Allegro in A minor, known as “Lebensstürme” or Life’s Storms, performed by Fischer and Lutes. Guarrine will sing one of Schubert’s final works, the delightful “Shepherd on the Rock,” along with Fischer and clarinet faculty Wesley Warnhoff.

Additional guests will include UW-Madison voice faculty Mimmi Fulmer and Paul Rowe; current University Opera director David Ronis; alumni singers Daniel O’Dea and Benjamin Schultz; current DMA candidate Sara Guttenberg; soprano Marie McManama; UW-Madison horn faculty Daniel Grabois; UW-Madison faculty violinist Soh-hyun Park Altino; UW-Madison faculty violist Sally Chisholm; adjunct professor of clarinet Wesley Warnhoff; alumnus cellist Ben Ferris; and Leo Altino, cellist, the husband of Park Altino.

Read more here.

Tickets are $15.00 for adults. Students of all ages are free.

Tickets are available through the Union Theater Box Office. Patrons may buy online ($4 fee) or save the fee and buy in person at Memorial Union or in Mills lobby day of show.

Please note: We recommend that patrons arrive early, both to secure a parking spot and to buy a ticket (if you haven’t already). Parking will be tight due to UW hockey, but parking passes may be ordered two weeks in advance to guarantee a space.

To buy a parking spot, complete this online request form or call the Special Events Office at (608) 262-8683. Please allow two weeks for processing. In the box for “special instructions,” please indicate “Schubertiade.” [Note: This form may be used for any concert.]


Meanwhile, Martha Fischer has won “Musician of the Year” from local blogger and former Capital Times arts editor Jake Stockinger.

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He writes: “Fischer is a first-rate collaborator who performs and records regularly with other faculty instrumentalists and singers. They include UW trombonist Mark Hetzler, trumpeter John Aley and singers, baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Julia Faulkner, who has since moved on to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“A model of the Wisconsin Idea in action, Fischer also serves as a juror for piano competitions, gives talks around the state and helps recruit talented students.

“As a researcher, Fischer – who trained at the Juilliard School, Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory of Music — traveled to England and interviewed famous collaborative pianists about playing Schubert’s art songs.”  Thanks, Jake! Read his full post here.


And one more: UW-Madison’s classical side was lauded in Isthmus’s “Best of 2015” list, via concert reviewer and emeritus history professor John Barker. Among his favorites were last year’s “Schubertiade” concert in January with pianist Martha Fischer, Bill Lutes and many friends; pianist Christopher Taylor at the Madison Symphony in Feb; David Ronis, James Smith and University Opera’s Marriage of Figaro in Sept; David Ronis and Marc Vallon with Madison Bach Musicians; and many alumni who performed with the brand-new Willy Street Chamber Players over the summer. Meanwhile, jazz studies prof Johannes Wallmann was complimented by writer Marc Eisen. “A jazz scene plus,” Eisen writes.

Christopher Taylor
Christopher Taylor

Mark your calendar! Pianist Christopher Taylor will perform solo at the School of Music on February 26. On the program: the French Suite No.1 in D minor, BWV 812 of Johann Sebastian Bach; 12 Etudes, Op.8   of Aleksandr Scriabin; and Piano Sonata No.1, Op.1 of Johannes Brahms. Read more here.

Buy tickets in advance.

NEXT ISSUE: We’ll announce the winners of our annual Concerto Competition and invite you to hear them perform solo at Symphony Showcase, Feb. 14.


 

Alumni News: Nathaniel Wolkstein, Jonathan Posthuma.

http://www.music.wisc.edu/alumni-news/


Hire a Musician!

Do you seek one or more musicians for your wedding, private party, corporate event, or church service? Our students routinely gig in the community and now there’s an updated place for you to advertise. See this website and send your request to the email listed. Note: All arrangements are made between the students and the employer.


The School of Music offers a smorgasbord of performances each year; we invite you to visit our website and click on our events calendar. We also publish a season brochure that is mailed every August.


Personalize your calendar view! Click on the “view as” link on the right of our calendar page.
Untitled


You received this newsletter because you either signed up at join-somnews@lists.wisc.edu or directly at this blog. You can also follow us on our very active Facebook page and hear our music on our SoundCloud page.