Student Spotlight: Karen Ní Bhroin - A Young International Conductor

Already considered a leading young conductor in her home country of Ireland, Karen Ní Bhroin came to Kent State in 2018 to pursue her master’s degree in orchestral conducting. For the past two years, she has studied with Dr. Jungho Kim, and she is the Graduate Assistant Conductor of the KSU Orchestra.

Since her arrival, Karen has established herself in the United States with her appointment as Assistant Director of the Akron Symphony Chorus in 2019 and her debut with the Akron Symphony Orchestra in 2020. Set to graduate in May 2020 with her Master of Music, she has already secured the full-time assistant conductor position with the Winston-Salem Symphony and will also lead their Youth Orchestra program. She starts this June in North Carolina.

On March 8, Karen will lead the Kent State University Orchestra in Ravel’s beloved “Mother Goose Suite'' and Rimsky-Korsokov’s opening prelude to “Scheherezade.” Both works are inspired by some of the world’s best-known literary stories. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen about conducting and the upcoming concert. Read excerpts from that conversation below!

Alena Miskinis: How did you decide to pursue conducting?

Karen Ní Bhroin: I felt I had more to give than I could on my own instruments (clarinet, piano, tin whistle and concertina). I was already leading an Irish music group and those leadership skills seemed transferable. Also, I came to classical music in my late teens, and again when I saw my high school conductor bringing the ensemble together. I wanted to do that. I wanted to hear and guide all the textures together, making a bigger sound than I could on one instrument. I love working as a team with the orchestra and guiding all the parts together, helping it become one unit. When it comes together and you feel everyone working together, it is magical!

AM: What are your thoughts on the connections music can make with literature?

KNB: It is connected in so many ways. For example, the story of Romeo and Juliet has been used by both Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. There is a famous quote, ‘where words fail, music speaks’ by Hans Christian Andersen, and I do believe this to be true. It is magical when both are connected and we can really hear and see the characters, of the existing story or literature. It is equally special when we don’t know the story and have to conjure it in our own minds.

AM: I read that Ravel based the last movement of the “Mother Goose Suite” on his own ideas of fantasy. Does this affect how you conduct this movement in relation to the others?

KNB: The last movement of the Ravel is a Fairy Garden. I learned this piece many years ago, but this is my first time performing it. The tone is very nostalgic for me, and I think Ravel’s cinematic orchestration compels the mind to hear that. To me, the opening is so sad and reflective. It certainly grows very quickly, and after what I consider a reflective, sad, painful opening, within seconds it’s extremely bright and celebratory. When we dream of fairies, anything is possible and that is certainly represented in this movement.

AM: How do the different characters in the 1st Movement of “Scheherazade” work together musically?

KNB: Similar to Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov makes the characters come alive in the music. It is the conductor’s job to research the story, the composer, the piece as a whole and to bring it all to the foreground of the piece. Sultan is the first character we hear. It's big, it’s brutal, it's scary, it is almost the entire orchestra. This is followed by the tenderness of the violin solo where Scheherazade—with all her beauty—sings and soars like a snake charmer. Finally, we get into a ternary time signature which represents the waves and the journey of the ship. Rimsky-Korskov did all the hard work, I just have to tell that story through my baton!

AM: How do you make old and frequently performed music new?

KNB: Imagination, excitement, joy, being reflective, carrying through the emotion, belief and a drive to strive for what you want to do and for the results you want to achieve!

Learn more about Karen, including her recent performances and new position, at the following links:

Winston-Salem Symphony Appointment Announcement Interview


Written by: Alena Miskinis, Writing Intern

Contact for Media: Andrew Paa, Marketing Assistant | 330-672-0894


UPDATED: Friday, December 09, 2022 10:51 AM