Almost 15 years ago, Megumi Kanda was the Milwaukee Symphony’s fresh new face, unusual as both a woman and an Asian in the orchestral brass world.
Now? “I’m the senior person in the whole brass section,” says Kanda, the MSO’s principal trombone. “I listened to almost everyone’s audition. I feel like Yoda.”
Well … Megumi Kanda is a lot funnier than Yoda. And she’s a little taller. At 5-foot-3, she’s about the minimum height to reach seventh position (the farthest extension of the slide) on the trombone. “But I’m a Japanese giant,” she says with a grin. “I go into stores there and they don’t stock shoes in my size.”
Recent decades have seen an influx of talented Asian musicians into American orchestras — but almost all of them in the string section. “I don’t know why,” Kanda says. “Maybe brass isn’t considered as fancy. There are great schools and high expectations for the strings, but brass in Japan is not very good. I guess that’s why I left.” And she explodes with laughter.
In fact, Kanda has celebrity status in Japan, dating back to her teen years when she was identified as a rising star. “There was a point when I was throwing up every day” because of the pressure, she says. Even now, when she returns to visit family and give clinics, “I want to improve the state of brass playing, so I do it, but I can only take it for a few weeks.”
Here in Milwaukee, she teaches private lessons, mostly to boys and young men. “I had my first girl in maybe five years recently,” she says. “There aren’t too many, but I do want to be a role model. My mom said, ‘Just because you’re a trombone player doesn’t mean you have to act like a guy.’ I can wear pretty dresses, I can have long hair.” The word “Megumi” means “grace” in Japanese, and Kanda says, “I can be graceful and be a trombone player. Until power is needed, and then watch out.”
One of the most powerful solos in the repertoire is rapidly approaching, as the MSO prepares for Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony as the farewell work for Music Director Edo de Waart. The piece was performed earlier in his tenure, and Kanda says, “There’s nothing like playing it with Edo. There’s a look he gives that just shows he trusts you and knows you can do it. It says, ‘Show me what you’ve got.’”
The very prominent trombone solo in the first movement “is awesome,” Kanda says. “It’s the best moment ever. It’s the only piece where the trombone player gets any respect.”
Born and raised in Japan, to a Japanese father and American mother, Kanda began playing trombone at age 10 (it was the only instrument left in the storeroom when she wanted to join the band). She progressed rapidly, and when the Metropolitan Opera toured Japan when she was a teenager, she played for the Met’s principal trumpet. “I said, ‘Am I good enough to get into Juilliard?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but I don’t think it would fit your personality. Let me talk to someone.’”
The result was that a year later, when the Cleveland Orchestra visited Japan, she had an invitation to play for James DeSano, then the orchestra’s principal trombone and a teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “My English was pretty funky at the time,” she says. “I thought it was kind of a weird lesson, but at the end, he said, ‘Congratulations, we’ll see you in September in Cleveland.’ It had been an audition, and I didn’t realize it.”
When she joined the MSO in 2002, the trombone section also included the much-senior Gary Greenhoe and Richard Kimball. “I quickly learned that being a leader doesn’t mean you’re bossy,” she said. “I could see what they thought, and learn from them and be a better leader. It took me a few months, but I got there fairly quickly, and I still think of things that they told me.”
The section now includes Kirk Ferguson as second and assistant principal, and John Thevenet as bass. “Their ears are always open, and I hardly have to say anything,” Kanda says. “They hear what I’m doing and make the change, and it sounds great.”
Kanda has released three CDs, but she says, “That was before kids. That’s how I date most things in my life.” She and her husband, MSO hornist Dietrich Hemann, have three sons ages 11 to 5. More recently, she has produced the book The One Hundred, a compilation of trombone excerpts from 100 orchestral works that are often required in auditions, with commentary on how to perform them. “That’s my mommy project,” she jokes. “I got strep throat three times in three months, because I wasn’t getting enough sleep.” The latest phase has been translating the book into Japanese, but earlier hurdles included getting permission to include works that are still under copyright. “The Shostakovich took two years,” she says. “Those Russians take their time.”
She also loves gardening, brightening the front and back yards of their small lot in Shorewood. The display was featured on a garden tour several years ago, but her favorite compliment is when passers-by stop to take pictures of her tulips.
“My mother and grandmother and I had three things that we all loved – music, gardening, and cats,” she says. “I have three cats, and that’s where Dietrich stops me. He said we could have a total of four cats and kids, and I broke that rule. Now he says that beyond three, I’m officially a crazy cat lady.”
Megumi Kanda was recently named a 2017 Woman of Influence by the Milwaukee Business Journal.