Written by Lauren Carrane

Over the last few months, we’ve made an effort to do a profile of each of the members of Civitas, to give you a little window into the people behind our music.

We started the inter­views with pianist Win­ston Choi, clar­inetist J. Lawrie Bloom, and vio­lin­ist Yuan-Qing Yu. This week, we talked to our final member: cellist Kenneth Olsen.

Olsen, 35, is a native of Albany, NY, who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Bard College and the Juilliard School of Music before joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Olsen won first place at the Nakamichi Cello Competition at the Aspen Music Festival and second prize at the 2002 Holland-America Music Society Competition.
Here’s what he had to say:

How old were you when you started play­ing music?

I started playing music when I was 8 years old, in third grade. It was in elementary school, and we were only allowed to pick a string instrument. I wanted to play the violin, but my teacher said that I was taller than everyone else, so I had to play the cello, and I’ve been playing it ever since

Were your par­ents musicians?

My parents were both jazz musicians. My dad plays jazz trombone and my mom is a singer, so I grew up around a lot of live music. Surprisingly, I’ve never been able to do what my dad does and improvise music. I just don’t have that talent.

What kinds of music were you exposed to as a kid?

We didn’t live far from Tanglewood, so we would go see performances there, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, and we would listen on the lawn. I connected with that for some reason.

When did you know that music was some­thing that you wanted to pur­sue professionally?

In high school, I spent a few summers at music intensives, and after my junior year, I went to the Aspen Music Festival School for the whole summer, and after that, I knew this is what I wanted to do.

What is your favorite music to play? Do you have any favorite composers?

Well, Beethoven and Bach produced some of the greatest music ever written. I love playing Mahler and Richard Strauss with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For chamber music, I love Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Why do you enjoy playing with Civitas?

I love playing chamber music in general, and with Civitas, it’s great because we’re all very close friends. There’s a level of comfort and trusting each other on stage when you’re that close and intimate with the people you’re playing with. I think the audience sees that, too.

What kinds of things do you do for fun out­side of music?

I have two dachshunds that take up a lot of my time. I love taking them for walks. I love sitting on my couch and watching TV with my dogs in my lap. My social life usually consists with going out to eat with friends, and luckily I have some friends who are very good cooks and often invite me over. I love traveling, too, and seeing different parts of the world.

What has been the most excit­ing moment of your career so far?

Well, the day I got my job at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’d been trying for a while, and at every audition I would get to the very end of the process and they’d say, “Thank you, but no thank you.” But then to finally have the hard work you’ve been putting in pay off was great.

Other great moments were getting to play Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, conducted by Bernard Haitink, and recently doing Verdi’s Macbeth with Ricardo Muti. That was amazing.


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