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Meet the Musicians

Meet a Musician: Kenneth Freed

Kenneth Freed holding a viola.
Kenneth Freed | Photo by Travis Anderson

Minnesota Orchestra musician since: 1998
Hometown: White Plains, New York
Education: Yale College, Yale School of Music 

How did you get your start in music and find your way into the viola world?

When I was 6 and my family lived in Flushing, Queens, I started violin lessons with Elizabeth Weickert, who was a Hungarian refugee who came to New York City after 1956. I studied with her at the Henry Street Settlement Music School. A few years later I went to Westchester Music and Arts Camp and heard a fellow camper, Lisa Bressler, play the Boccherini Cello Concerto and was blown away. I asked her where she learned to play like that, and she told me it was at Juilliard Prep. I talked to my teacher about it, and she said I’d have to get serious and start practicing at least three hours a day. I played an audition at the end of the year, got in and studied violin with Louise Behrend, a major force of the Suzuki method in this country. My high school orchestra didn’t have any violists, so I asked if I could give it a try, and I loved the chocolatey, dark sound. In summers I went to the Greenwood Music Camp in western Massachusetts, where I met the young Sam Bergman, years before we ended up in the Minnesota Orchestra viola section. I went on to Yale and earned degrees in English literature and music, and started conducting for fun.

Were you always focused on performing music as a profession?

I could always see myself becoming a musician. However I’ve been drawn to education and kids, growing out of my own experience as a young musician, particularly musical literacy. I started a non-profit for elementary school students called Learning Through Music, where we integrated music with math, history, language, language arts and social studies. The older kids even wrote and performed an opera with some help. These days, with music programs being cut, music is missing during the school day for many kids. For years I conducted the Mankato Symphony as well as the Kenwood Symphony.

What have been your favorite Minnesota Orchestra concerts and tours?

The second time Osmo [Vänskä] conducted here, he did a Rachmaninoff Second that was a real sizzling barn burner. And I loved doing Messiah with Bernard Labadie. We’ve gone on some memorable tours, but the standout was South Africa, and of course Cuba was extraordinary, too. The first piece we played there was their national anthem, and it was so moving and unexpected for the audience that people in the audience were crying.

What do you like most about the Minnesota Orchestra viola section?

We inhabit sort of a parallel universe from the rest of the Orchestra. Everyone works selflessly together as a team while possessing strong individual personalities. The fact that we’re providing rhythm and harmony means we have to be hyper-aware of the melody we’re accompanying as well as the viola’s role in the inner voice. Philosophically, we develop a sense of humor almost as a necessity. It’s a wonderful group and we like to have our own parties and go bowling. Personally, I find it a lot of fun to make people laugh, sometimes by singing a falsetto line sotto voce in rehearsals, or perhaps giving a deranged BBC announcer’s introduction of that evening’s maestro just before the conductor walks out. Occasionally the violas have been known to crack up in response to this levity leaving the hapless conductor confused.

You’re also a frequent chamber music performer. What do you enjoy about that art form?

Going back to my days in the Manhattan Quartet, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of ownership in chamber music, where there’s no conductor and a strong sense of personal ownership and agency in the sound and the interpretation. When I show up at a string quartet rehearsal, I have to come with a good idea of the interpretation, tempos and mood changes. There was a vibrant energy and electricity in our recent concert without a conductor—a brilliant suggestion from Thomas [Søndergård]—that had that same feeling. Shameless plug here: I’m also a member of the Isles Ensemble chamber group, and we invite you to come to our next concerts on March 5 and 10!

What are your favorite things outside of music?

My wife Gwen and I raised our family here in this great community, and we have just welcomed a new grandson. Going out with my friends makes life very rich too. I’m on season 7 or 8 of The Blacklist and really like spy movies and reading poetry and novels. I also enjoy swimming and I love to cook. A few months ago I decided that rather than reading so many news outlets to start the day, I would try to read seven poems.

Is there anything else you want to share with the audience?

I love playing for our hometown crowd. They are the most enthusiastic listeners in the world. The fact that so many young people come to hear music is a testament to the support and love this city and this state shows its musicians and Orchestra. I’m ever mindful of the people who think of our Orchestra as their spiritual lifeblood and center. The future of this Orchestra is in great hands, not just onstage, but out there in the audience.