When Kevin Lin walks out onto the stage, he sees himself as a piece of a moment. The violinist looks for people-watching opportunities — for the couple on an awkward first date, for the family finding their seats. It’s how he slows down time, connects to listeners. Once Lin begins to play, he speaks to them through every nuanced bow stroke, the music’s mood seeming to spill from his entire body.
The combination of his communicative style and expressive talent is why the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra hired Lin from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be the Circle City’s concertmaster in 2020. As the first chair of the first violin section, he sits in one of the orchestra’s most public-facing positions and connects with donors and community members. He must navigate a bevy of personalities as the liaison between the orchestra’s members and its conductors. He also is expected to perform solo repertoire.
After the pandemic delayed his first full season with the symphony, Lin is settling in now, and Indianapolis is hearing one of its newest ambassadors. His influence will be key as the symphony recovers from its COVID shutdown and seeks to bring in new generations of audiences. Lin, 28, is a strength, a virtuosic musician who remains relatable.
“There’s something in his playing that everyone was drawn to,” said Sherry Hong, who plays in the first violin section of the Indianapolis Symphony. “He was just a good match for this orchestra, how we work, just the whole vibe here.”
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After growing up in the hyper-competitive world of classical training, the violinist thrives on taking risks musically, putting himself in high-pressure situations and finding his own interpretations of masterworks that sometimes can feel set in stone.
“In my normal life, I think I’m a serial overthinker,” Lin said. “But when I’m in the moment, when I’m sitting in that concertmaster spot, got the entire orchestra and the conductor and we have to execute on a millisecond basis … I can shut that off and just be in the moment.”
‘A very natural leader’
Lin’s Indianapolis Symphony audition began in November 2018, when he sat as guest concertmaster for two days of performances. The orchestra was just a few months into its search following Zach De Pue’s June resignation. Over the next year and a half, about 20 violinists sat as guests in the prominent seat, with a handful returning multiple times, CEO James Johnson said.
Lin easily made the short list, performing on about 12 concerts between 2018 and the January 2020 announcement of his appointment. Among the tests were chamber works he played with symphony musicians, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto under the baton of JoAnn Falletta and a solo program in front of orchestra members.
“He was clearly our star candidate,” Johnson said.
Lin also had the right interpersonal temperament. The concertmaster must develop a rapport with conductors and interpret their vision for the musicians. That includes tasks like determining bow directions for the string section and the specific character those bow strokes should take to convey the style of the piece. Often, the communication occurs without words.
“Whether he’s sitting in the concertmaster chair or playing as a soloist, he almost is like a conductor with his instrument in that he’s showing you where the beats are, where everything is supposed to fall,” said resident conductor Jacob Joyce, who also is a longtime friend of Lin’s.
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Hong said Lin puts players at ease.
“When we have someone who’s a very natural leader and a very demonstrative player and charismatic like Kevin, a lot of times it allows us to just trust what’s happening and we can just play into it,” Hong said.
Lin is equally comfortable playing solo pieces accompanied by the orchestra. In June, he performed Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor on his 1780 Joseph Gagliano violin, which he chose for its warm sound and ability to project to the back of a concert hall. Lin pulled out caramel, chocolate tones from the Romantic piece, sometimes growing from a whisper into passionate chords while he shifted his weight from foot to foot.
“The more (audience members) think about it, the more likely they’ll come back and (say) ‘I want to hear more. I want to be challenged intellectually,'” Lin said.
On that June evening, the audience rewarded him with two standing ovations after his initial bow.
‘What I’ve been chasing my entire life’
The enthusiastic response wasn’t so different from the one he remembers from his seventh-grade year at Tenafly Middle School in New Jersey. In front of parents and community members, the violinist poured himself into Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, a solo that builds from passionate wide intervals into a sizzling conclusion.
The applause was immediate and thundering.
“That is what I’ve been chasing my entire life — that sudden thrill of like, ‘Wow, people are seriously impressed with you.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Lin said. “I got validated for something I was good at.”
After that performance, his peers and their families dubbed him the “Maestro,” a title that appeared in his high school yearbook signings and one that still returns in Facebook birthday greetings.
Kevin started playing violin at age 6, taking lessons at the JCC Thurnauer School of Music in Tenafly. His mom, Hui-Chuan Hung, was a soprano and music major in Taiwan, where she sang arias from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute.” She caught the music bug from her mother, who often sang traditional Taiwanese and Japanese songs.
Hung married Kevin’s dad Chyuan-Sheng Lin shortly before the couple moved to New York. Born to a farming family in Taiwan, Chyuan-Sheng took interest in a Columbia University scholar’s work and attended the school, where he earned his doctorate. He now works in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology and at Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. Hung also works at the center.
Fitted with a half-sized rental violin, the young Kevin quickly took to the instrument. With videotapes of his lessons at the ready, Hung worked with her son from the couch, the family’s black miniature poodle Mocha nestled in her lap to listen.
“I make a routine. Every day: Practice — even when we went to vacation, Disney World,” Hung said. “I’d say, ‘OK, practice about 30 minutes before we go to the park.'”
Kevin also began his lifelong habit of mental practice — tapping out musical passages in his fingers while he’s talking to a friend or thinking through a piece when he’s away from his instrument.
In an industry rife with risk, Kevin’s parents supported their son’s pursuit of music without worrying about the outcome.
“I came to the United States — I paved the way for my kids to have a good opportunity to pursue what they like,” Chyuan-Sheng Lin said. “I don’t really care that they would need to make a lot of money or they need to have a good title just to impress my relatives or my friends. I want them to do something that they want and then they can be happy about themselves.”
By age 14, Kevin’s talent was evident enough that Patinka Kopec, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, agreed to take him in the renowned Precollege Division. She adored her new student, who brimmed with charisma, natural coordination and a lush playing style. But he lacked patience.
“When he had to work on something that didn’t just come instinctively, that was hard for him — in particular just to really be accurate,” Kopec said. “I was tough with Kevin.”
“I absolutely hated that when I was in the moment,” Kevin said. “But now I think back to it (and) I’m super thankful that she did that.”
Kopec recommended that he study with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, who emphasized the technique that musicians must drill into their fingers so they can execute seemingly impossible feats without stumbling. Kevin excelled, working with top professional players in the industry.
‘I didn’t have time to be nervous’
Lin’s path to becoming a concertmaster wasn’t immediately clear. One day in 2016, when the violinist was still earning his graduate diploma, he sat worrying over a Yuengling at a neighborhood dive bar in Philadelphia. He and his friend Will Chow talked about witnessing job announcements from their classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the country’s most prestigious and competitive music schools. But they still didn’t have jobs lined up.
Lin went home and posted his resume all over industry boards. In the process, he applied to be a substitute for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Later on, he received an email from concertmaster Pieter Schoeman asking for recordings of his playing. That turned into an invitation to audition for co-leader, who would lead the section when Schoeman took time off.
Schoeman had remembered the young violinist from a side-by-side performance when the London orchestra had performed with Colburn’s, Lin said. As a student, Lin had made sure to have coffee with the orchestra’s leaders when they visited and sent them holiday cards later on.
Just a few months after finishing at Curtis in 2017, Lin traveled across the sea, first on a trial and then to officially take the job.
“When I was in London doing my trial, I think it was so far out of my reach and it was such a foreign world being in London that I didn’t have time to be nervous or second-guess any of my decisions,” Lin said. “Ignorance is bliss, so just sit down and do your job and if it’s meant to work out, it’ll work out.”
With an orchestra full of older and more seasoned peers, rehearsals only covered the music’s most difficult spots. Lin often played repertoire in its entirety for the first time during a performance. On top of that, the British have different names for note types than Americans, so he kept a note card on his music stand with the translations.
He learned quickly from his colleagues, relished playing in some of the world’s biggest concert halls and experienced musical rites of passage, like performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” which nearly moved him to tears on stage.
Still, Lin grew homesick. He missed his family, and his then-wife wanted to return to the U.S. He texted friends to ask about opportunities. The reputation Lin had built up in London allowed him to be a guest concertmaster with orchestras including Singapore and Pittsburgh.
Then a friend in Indianapolis let him know of the ISO’s concertmaster opening. Lin was thrilled to win the job, especially because he can perform fulltime without living suitcase to suitcase.
“I want to have a family life, I want to be settled somewhere,” Lin said. “I would potentially like kids and (to) live the lifestyle that I had growing up, the lifestyle that my parents gave me.”
‘People just listen to him’
Lin moved to Indianapolis in August 2020, which he finds big enough to explore but small enough to feel familiar. Unable to gather at Hilbert Circle Theatre, symphony musicians began inviting him to perform in distanced concerts for the community — at the Gazebo on Lawton Loop in Lawrence and at the Fairview Presbyterian Church parking lot.
“It actually changed the way I think about how music plays a role in society,” Lin said. “When you’re touring and you’re playing in all these big places, you kind of forget that it’s like, this is really for everybody. It’s not just for myself.”
Off the stage, Lin is the one who invites friends over to play video games when they need to talk out their problems and the one who often buys his group a round of drinks on a night out.
More than anything, his ability to connect with people is the underpinning for his playing and anything else he does.
“Even if he wasn’t a musician, he’d probably be CEO of a company or something like that,” said Chow, who’s now a cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “People just listen to him.”
Up next from the symphony
- Oct. 30-31: Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” performed live as the film plays
- Nov 4-6: Greetings from England: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. With violin soloist Benjamin Beilman performing Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 80 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
- Nov. 12-13: Cirque Spectacular, with Troupe Vertigo’s cirque acrobatics as the symphony performs selections from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”
Find ticket information and details at indianapolissymphony.org.
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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.