Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My mother played the violin and I was asking to have a go from the age of three, I thought it was what everyone did. My Dad was a bassoonist in the London Symphony Orchestra so the house was full of music and musicians. I wanted to be a violinist as soon as I started playing.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I suppose teachers come to mind. I was terribly lucky to be a student of Sheila Nelson from the age of 7. Sheila was ahead of her time in her thinking about the psychological well being of her students. She taught me not to be afraid of things that I have since been told are “hard”. We played chamber music, Brahms sextets, Beethoven quartets, and we were fearless. I am so grateful for that. She let us all grow in our own ways at our own pace. I studied with Gyorgy Pauk at the Royal Academy, his golden sound and beautiful musicianship were a huge inspiration. And Mauricio Fuks in Indiana University helped me to find ease and joy and to come back to why I was doing it all in the first place. I was also his teaching assistant, and these days I really love to teach, I think of his teaching every day.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I remember the time that my children were babies as infinitely challenging. Touring with them in tow so that I could feed them at night, sleep deprived and too little time to practise. I learnt to do all urgent practice in an hour! And babies aside there are days when getting on stage and communicating from the bottom of your soul is a very tough thing to do.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
In the Irish Chamber Orchestra we work with many wonderful artists. Things that I still think back to are Bartok’s divertimento with Gabor Takacs, Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht with Thomas Zehetmair, and Beethoven 7 with Jörg Widmann and many more of course. And we have recorded many Mendelssohn symphonies with Jorg as well as his own works, it is an honour to realise a composer’s interpretation in the recording studio with them conducting.
And now this April saw the release of my solo album with the ICO, something very meaningful to me because it expresses the many sides of my playing life.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I enjoy playing a lot of different styles, gypsy and tango and jazz. I love to have the chance to break out of the regular things that a classical violinist is expected to do. Whether I do it well is for others to say!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Every season is different, and very often I am asked to play specific repertoire. I may be directing the Irish Chamber Orchestra, in which case the programme is worked out to fit into the season. I enjoy coming up with ideas for concerts that might draw in the less frequent concert goers. I recently became Artistic Director of the Killaloe Chamber Music Festival. Killaloe is a beautiful village in the west of Ireland and is where I live. It feels very special to invite artists from all corners of the globe to my home. I have just finished planning the programme for 2021. I programmed concerts that I would love to go to, experiences that hopefully leave the audience richer.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t have one favourite, I have played in wonderful halls both with the Irish Chamber Orchestra and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The Wigmore Hall feels like a big hug, the Konzert Haus in Berlin is so beautiful, I wouldn’t know where to start. It is always special for me to perform at the University of Limerick where the ICO is based. The hall is great for chamber music and I see the happy faces of the people that have attended our concerts for years.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Things that come to mind are sometimes memorable for unfortunate reasons. The time I forgot my violin, or let go of my bow and watched it catapult through the audience. I did a concert with The Far Flung Trio (violin accordion and bass) and left the music in our hotel which was a 30 minute drive away. So they got going and played tunes to the audience while I drove, and I got a big round of applause when I returned. That was also the evening that we were presented with beautifully crafted walking sticks made by a local wood turner. It made a change from a bouquet!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Success for me is to be continually growing artistically, and therefore an inspiration to those we collaborate with. I find it unhelpful to think too much about how an audience will receive what I do (other than when programming). Success for me means staying true to myself.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I love to teach, so think about this very question a lot. I think as artists fear stands so much in our way. Fear of messing up and upsetting people, fear of not being good enough and even fear of realising our potential and what that would mean. I try to help my students be their best selves and to be open to everything that comes their way.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness to me is in tiny very simple things. I can feel sublime happiness making granola, playing Gershwin, sitting next to my partner and sharing a joke. It’s everywhere if you can catch it.
New from Orchid Classics, a dazzling programme of music for violin and orchestra performed by The Irish Chamber Orchestra, featuring Katherine Hunka (violin/director) and Nicola Sweeney (violin – Schnittke). Further information here
Born in London, Katherine Hunka grew up under the musical guidance of teacher Sheila Nelson. She performed chamber music at London’s South Bank and the Royal Albert hall, was soloist with the City of London Sinfonia and led the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Katherine was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where she studied with Gyorgy Pauk, and then furthered her studies in the USA at Indiana University where she also acted as teaching assistant to her professor, Mauricio Fuks. This instilled in her a great love of teaching. She has since returned to Indiana as a guest Professor and been made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music.
Katherine has been Leader of the Irish Chamber Orchestra since 2002 and regularly directs from the leader’s chair. As director and soloist with the ICO she has toured Germany, China and Singapore, appeared at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, and more recently, at the Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Katherine directs ICO national tours, which take the orchestra all over Ireland and enjoys collaboration with contemporary composers. She has directed premieres with many Irish composers. As leader, she has also enjoyed performing solo concertos and chamber music with Jörg Widmann, Pekka Kuusisto, Anthony Marwood and Nigel Kennedy amongst others.
Katherine performs regularly as a chamber musician and soloist at festivals throughout Ireland and the UK. At the Aldeburgh Festival she premiered Benjamin Britten’s rediscovered Double Concerto. She has been a regular at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival and the Killaloe festival. Her trio Far Flung, with accordionist Dermot Dunne and bassist Malachy Robinson, delights audiences with its light-hearted approach, their repertoire spanning from Bach to Klezmer with anything in between. They have recently released their first album.
Katherine has been a guest leader with the Manchester Camerata, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She has also been guest soloist with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and Concert Orchestra.
She is currently a Professor at the CIT Cork School of Music and the Irish World Academy of Music.
Katherine plays a Grancino violin and her bows are made by Gary Leahy.