Kay Stern and Cordula Merks talk career, risk-taking, and listening

Kay Stern and Cordula Merks

The SFCM faculty members and San Francisco based concertmasters are powerful women in orchestra positions of authority who lead with empathy, play with passion and intention, and encourage their students to do the same.

Kay Stern and Cordula Merks have a passion for music that’s infectious. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music violin faculty members speak about performing with a realism and reverence that makes you want to hear them play. It’s a blend of this passion, drive, and tenacity that’s helped them craft lauded international careers—currently as concertmasters of the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestra, respectively—take risks, and share what they have learned about leadership with their students at SFCM.

Stern was originally drawn to the violin out of a need for catharsis and expression. At age nine, she turned to her instrument for comfort after seeing vivid images of the Holocaust that left her momentarily speechless.

Music made so much sense for me,” recalls Stern. “It was a place where I felt like I could feel and express things that I wasn't able to with words.” - Kay Stern

Throughout her decades’ long career—including being a founding member of the Lark Quartet, concertmaster of Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and concertmaster of the SF Opera —performing continues to be Stern’s greatest form of expression.


The same is true for Merks. Growing up in a music-loving family, she took to the violin (after a brief desire to study cello) and never looked back.

Merks was first assistant concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony and concertmaster of Germany's Essen Philharmonic, Bochum Symphony and Bergische Symphony. She has also served as guest concertmaster for many orchestras, including the Houston Symphony, American Ballet Theater at the Met, Dresden Philharmonic, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Portuguese National Opera.


She joined SF Ballet in 2015 and fondly recalls an impactful Swan Lake moment that shifted her way of thinking about working with dancers. “I watched a rehearsal with Yuan Yuan Tan, one of the most important principal dancers in the company,” remembers Merks. “She was dancing the white swan with just the piano. I was moved to tears, because I could actually see how great ballerinas can really show you the music.”

Stern and Merks are both “pit concertmasters” because their orchestras accompany opera and ballet performers on stage. It provides them with an alternative perspective of leadership to share with students as opposed to working as a concertmaster for a symphony.

“It’s a different kind of teamwork,” explains Stern. “Not being the focus on stage, the orchestra is in a supportive listening role. When you’re following the conductor and supporting singers on stage, there are a lot of balls in the air, so we must rely on each other so much. If someone’s rhythm or intonation waivers for a moment, we can make it into gold. And we provide all of the subtext and drama for these epic stories.”

When everything works together—the music, staging, dancing—it’s just unbelievable.” - Cordula Merks

Merks agrees that her role functions differently as part of a ballet orchestra. “As concertmaster, I play the concertos too. Normally when you play solos you prepare and think, ‘How do I want to play this?’ In ballet, I work within the framework of the dancers. So I ask, ‘What do they need? What does the conductor want? What works?’ It’s tough but when everything works together—the music, staging, dancing—it’s just unbelievable.”

Years of leadership positions and observing other orchestras have taught Stern and Merks that the key to being an impactful concertmaster—both technically and personally—is empathy and building relationships.

“There has to be a very close connection with the conductor, as well as the [string] section, and the entire orchestra,” says Merks. “The concertmaster can help shape the sound of at least the strings because we are responsible for things like bowings.”

She continues, “I grew up listening to the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. I loved how they used the bow—how you can see the whole string section follow and hear the phrasing across the group. I could recognize those strings as distinct. They moved almost like a single organism. That’s my ideal. I hope to get there sometime.”

Stern adds, “I remember seeing the Concertgebouw when they were on tour in NYC. As Cordula described it, they illustrated the incredible possibilities of group intention, unity, and generosity.”

Being concertmaster sometimes has so little to do with how I play.” - Kay Stern

Stern also agrees that great concertmasters strive to have equally great people skills. “When I started [at SF Opera], I realized how being concertmaster has so little to do with just playing well. It’s about being available to dance in the moment—how I play, lead, and speak for the people [in the orchestra] to the conductor and vice versa.”

That can sometimes be challenging. “When I first [became concertmaster] at the opera, 28 years ago, there were a few gentlemen who weren't willing to give me a chance.” This made things tricky for Stern, particularly during a time when there were far fewer women in positions of authority in American orchestras (while there are more today, it is far from equal).

“I remember performing with Jorja Fleezanis, who was associate concertmaster of San Francisco Symphony and then later concertmaster of Minnesota Orchestra,” says Stern. “Jorja was only the second woman in the U.S. to hold the title of concertmaster in a major orchestra. Spending some time with her helped me find some subtle alternatives to a few challenges I faced back then.
Leadership includes so much more than being a fine player. It is also about perseverance, risk-taking, and mostly, listening.”

“I’ve won six full-time auditions in my life,” says Merks. “I’m very proud of that. At the same time, I’ve probably lost almost three times that number. I don’t mind sharing this with my students, because they really should know how many tries it can take to be successful at auditioning, especially maybe if, like me, the focus is on applying for leadership positions.”

Stern courageously took unplanned career risks that turned into incredible opportunities. Famously, before becoming concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and returning to the violin, Stern originally joined the San Francisco Opera orchestra as principal violist—a role she won after only playing the instrument for a month. She says, “As I look back, I simply just took every opportunity and jumped in.”

Stern and Merks share all of this advice with their students at SFCM.

“Teaching is such a big responsibility,” says Stern. “After studying with Dorothy Delay for so many years, and other teachers who have changed my life, I want to pass on to my students their wisdom on how to musically build a character, specifically how to take responsibility for a whole movement—a whole concerto—and how they relate the whole piece. In a movement of solo Bach, what are the sequences? How many cadences are there? What's the structure? I teach students to really take account of expression and character while maintaining style. Playing the music within the technical parameters and in tune is the launching point for fun and creativity. I find students sometimes need encouragement, permission to get inside of the music.”

She continues, “This is why listening is so important. Don Weilerstein talked about how you first imagine a phrase, then build it with your left hand alone, and later add the bow. There's so much character that can happen in the left hand. It's also knowing what you want to hear, not just thinking, ‘I'll play that louder or with more warmth,’ but identifying what the sound and physical sensation is before you even start the note and going on to the next. Everything is anticipation and intention.”

“It’s about having a very clear vision of what you want to hear,” Merks says. “This takes imagination and letting yourself be open and sensitive. You have to let yourself feel and at the same time also be curious and read up to find the right intuition.”

Stern agrees, “I love when students have breakthroughs, when I can help them reveal something that they didn’t know they could play or accomplish yet.”

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