Catherine Kwak has no regrets. It’s a big challenge for someone who combined school and university at the age of 12, then left school at 15 and moved to the other country to learn the cello.
The big decisions didn’t stop there. At just 18, after completing her Bachelor of Arts in Music, she went straight to medical school.
“I would make the same decisions again.”
However, there was only one unfinished business – the New Zealand National Concerto Competition.
Born in Korea and raised in New Zealand, Kwak was in her senior year of medical school when she decided to give the competition one last try. She had competed unsuccessfully many years previously and knew this was her last opportunity before her medical career took off.
”I thought, why don’t you give it one last big chance?”
She pitched in, practiced as much as she could alongside her studies and reached her goal last year when she emerged victorious after her performance Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonin Dvorak.
“It was really something special for me. There was definitely a part of me that wanted to do it for myself.”
Although she was perfectly happy with her decision to pursue a career in medicine, she thought it would end her music career.
“I never thought I’d ever perform solo again, but I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to continue. It’s not what I expected when I made the decision.”
She has played with the Auckland Philharmonia and will be performing in Dunedin tomorrow with Corpus Medicorum, the Australian Medical Orchestra.
Kwak, who grew up in Christchurch but studied music at Waikato University, has also discovered that many of her peers enjoy music, like the medics in the Melbourne Orchestra, who play everything from violin to bassoon to drums.
“I’ve decided that I definitely need to try and make time for it.”
The decision to pursue a medical career came when she got to the point where she realized that while she genuinely enjoyed music, she was “fascinated” by the rest of the world.
“I was looking for another way to connect and help others. I thought that maybe music isn’t the best way and that there could be more [to] life as music.”
She looked at what else interested her and made a similar connection with people, and medicine seemed to fit in well with that.
Entering medical school, Kwak was the same age as her fellow students for the first time. “It was a bit of a shock to the system.”
Being the youngest in the class at a few years hadn’t been too much of a problem for Kwak.
” I got along really well. I was so excited about this career that I didn’t mind missing out on “normal” school life. But I didn’t miss the social life. Musicians are all so friendly because we all go through the same things.”
Kwak, who is now a freshman domestic worker, describes playing the cello as her main hobby. She makes sure to balance the musical opportunities she has by taking regular time off so she doesn’t get overwhelmed.
“I find routine and balance work for me. Get some fresh air, go for a walk, play sports. I still do a lot of Pilates, bake, meet friends.”
Kwak also realized that she now has a different relationship with the cello, which she began playing when she was 7 after her older brother took up the violin.
“If it were my main job, I would have to do it 24/7, whether I wanted to or not. You love it, but it’s a job. Now I’m lucky to be able to do as much as I want and not earn any money.
“It makes it less stressful and [I] do it for the love of the cause and not for anything else. That was definitely a factor in my decision making.”
Kwak comes to Dunedin to perform with Corpus Medicorum. She will play the Elgar Concerto, the first “big concerto” she learned more than 10 years ago.
”It’s really special to me. It’s one I’ve listed most often, and the more times you do something, you discover something new. I look forward to playing that again.”
Corpus Medicorum director Phillip Antippa says Kwak’s experience isn’t all that unusual as there are many talented musicians in the orchestra who have had extensive careers in every possible medical field, from dentistry, nursing and medicine to medical law and psychiatry.
“Many could have had a professional career in music but chose their own path in the health sciences.”
Some are former professional musicians who, like Kwak, have retrained in the medical field.
“She’s a superstar. We are really looking forward to playing with her.”
Antippa himself is a violist and cardiothoracic surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He founded the orchestra in 2002 to give medical professionals an outlet for their musical talents.
“We started small, but now most of our repertoire is big orchestral repertoire – the big symphonic stuff – and we do four concerts a year. We’re pretty good; We are probably considered the best amateur orchestra in the country. We play some pretty challenging works that get critical acclaim.”
The orchestra, conducted by Keith Crellin, raises funds for the Royal Melbourne Hospital to fund lung cancer research. Antipa works mainly in the field of lung cancer.
“We have raised well over $1 million for lung cancer research.”
It is also happy to support young, up-and-coming musicians by inviting them to perform with the orchestra.
“We’re also trying to support local musicians in Melbourne.”
Prior to the pandemic, the orchestra also toured overseas to twin cities of St Petersburg in Russia, Osaka Japan, Milan Italy and Greece on behalf of the City of Melbourne and was on the verge of traveling to China when Covid-19 put an end to that.
The tour to New Zealand is the first since Covid reduced its grip and the orchestra is looking forward to it, he says.
It will raise funds for the Canterbury Charity Hospital Trust in Christchurch and the Otago Medical Research Foundation in Dunedin.
In addition to Kwak’s Elgar concerto, they play Weber’s The Freischütz Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.
“It is a hero program of the classical repertoire. Very populist and we are very happy to play in your great halls known for their excellent acoustics.”
The members of the orchestra had become not only friends but also family over the years.
“We can play great music with our best buddies. It is a very rewarding opportunity to play and perform together.”
While many people rightly assume that medical professionals are very busy, Antippa says there is always time for the things people love.
“You have to organize yourself. You get an immense satisfaction that comes from playing orchestral music, like any team activity or anything you have practiced for thousands of hours…in return you have the opportunity to participate in the greatest art form.
“You are here for the moment. It’s a thrill to play. At least for us there is nothing that compares.”
Antippa is also proud that the orchestra provides people with a means to continue playing rather than putting down the instrument as they begin their medical careers.
“It was incredibly satisfying.”
Rebirth, concert tour in the South Island of New Zealand,
Dunedin City Hall, Friday at 7pm