Voyaging virtuousos’ paths converge

While many who follow the musical and theatrical scene at Williams know of the range of talents possessed by Richard McDowell ’09 and Eric Kang ’09, they might be surprised to hear of the pair’s hidden secrets kept quiet throughout their four years at Williams. The fact that McDowell played the tuba through high school, or that Kang formerly enjoyed playing the cello, is not in itself that remarkable. What is more impressive is that they have managed to hide this information from the investigative Steven Bodner, director of Symphonic Winds, who famously draws in any instrumentalist within a five-mile radius of his hearing.

The conciliatory Kang did not quite manage to escape and has added the last SymphWinds concert to his long list of performances, but McDowell has impressively finagled his way through the music department without touching the tuba.

In addition to harboring dark musical secrets, the two overlap in many aspects of their musical lives, participating in several of the same groups such as Concert Choir, Octet and Cap & Bells. They both also take private lessons, McDowell in voice with Keith Kibler and Kang on piano with Doris Stevenson.

Their first collaboration occurred in their freshman year when they worked together on arrangements of “Roll to Me” and “Don’t Lie” for Octet. After their self-proclaimed brilliant success as co-arrangers, they went on to work together in two musicals, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. This year, Kang has accompanied McDowell on piano for his vocal performances.

This past Saturday, the two teamed up again for a senior recital, in which they performed individually and together. McDowell sang Samuel Barber’s yearning Dover Beach and selections from Franz Schubert’s song cycle Schwanengesang, while Kang played Brahms’ grand Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79 No. 1, the short and sweet Menuet sur le nom de Haydn by Ravel, and a piano version of Prokofiev’s orchestral suite, Romeo and Juliet.

Despite their shared interest in classical music, musical theater and a cappella, the two diverge on several important aspects of their musical lives. Kang began piano lessons in first grade, and by eighth grade he had to argue with his parents to continue. “They always wanted me to be proficient in music but never thought I would take it really seriously. They just wanted me to know and be able to appreciate music,” Kang recalled. “At that point I already really enjoyed what I had done and wanted to keep going, so that was the first of many fights, or ‘heated discussions.’”

McDowell, on the other hand, had the more common experience of being coerced into music at first. On the first day of class in a new school in fifth grade, his music teacher began his vocal career for him. “She stopped me as I was leaving class and was like, ‘You have a good voice, you should be in choir’ and handed me this little form. This was the last period of my first day, so I was like, ‘I’m gonna miss the bus, I’m gonna miss the bus,’ and she was like, ‘Alright, I’ll see you in choir tomorrow morning.’ And then I was in choir,” McDowell said.

At Williams, the two have followed different paths to achieve their goals in music. Kang began his Williams career as a double major in biology with pre-med and music. In his sophomore year, he was accepted to the Mt. Sinai Humanities & Medicine Program. “I remember getting the e-mail and thinking ‘Yes, I don’t have to take pre-med classes anymore!’ Which is not the reason you should be a doctor,” Kang said. Thus, he dropped biology and pre-med as a junior and decided to stick with music only. McDowell, after taking music theory and performing a large recital as a first-year, realized that he would prefer to focus on the performance aspect of classical music and musical theater rather than the academic side. He is now a double major in economics and math.

The two clearly share a love of music, as shown through resisting parental influences and committing a significant chunk of time to rehearsals and practice. Kang’s favorite aspects of music include collaboration, the experience of an “emotional release” and the non-literal expression of emotion. “At least in the beginning, it was easier for me to think abstractly in terms of sound rather than in words sometimes, especially when it was about feelings and non-concrete subjects,” Kang said. Similarly, McDowell’s passion derives from the act of connecting with the audience through performance. “There’s such a universal expression in music, particularly in vocal music. No matter what words you’re saying, you can present feelings in the ways you say them and present them. I sing very little in English, but I always feel like the emotive content is the overarching idea that comes through in a concert,” he said.

With their senior recital completed, Kang and McDowell are far from done with the year. They have several performances coming up, including the Concert Choir Reunion Gala on Saturday, the Chamber Choir concert, the final Octet concert, Cap & Bells’ “A New Brain,” the production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (a project they spearheaded along with Augusta Caso ’09) and, of course, Kang’s return to the cello in the final SymphWinds concert. Perhaps now that the tuba secret is out, McDowell too could be adding another concert to his spring schedule.