Cancer survivor plays on

Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 11:44 p.m.
Joan Kwuon was just six years old when she played the first note of her life's composition, a musical journey that would lead her to the classrooms of Juilliard, the nation's television screens and stages around the world.
Tuesday night, the path she began as a young Los Angeles girl fascinated by her older sister's instrument but too small to play it, will bring Kwuon to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, lead by conductor Thierry Fischer, marks Kwuon's second appearance in Gainesville.
"She's fascinating to watch on stage," says Elizabeth Auer, assistant director of University of Florida Performing Arts. "You can tell she loves what she does."
But Kwuon, who has performed from New York to Seoul and appeared on multiple national news broadcasts and the "Today Show," is more than what The Boston Globe calls "a big, fiery player with a commanding technique."
She's also a breast cancer survivor.
Kwuon was about to turn 30 when, while doing a self breast exam in 2000, she discovered what would turn out to be cancer.
"It was definitely unexpected," Kwuon says in a phone interview from New York, where she's lived for 10 years. "It's amazing how something like that can change your perspective."
Kwuon was lucky: she caught the disease early and is now cancer free. In 2000, she co-founded Artists for Breast Cancer Survival, an organization that has since raised more than $1 million for research and patient care through benefit shows featuring such musicians as Roberta Flack and Itzhak Perlman.
"As a survivor, from the start it seemed important to get the word out that younger women should think about doing self breast exams," Kwuon says.
Using music to help others is fitting for Kwuon, who says the violin helped her deal with her own illness.
"Having music in my life at that point was so crucial," she says. "It was great to enjoy beauty and music while being stressed out."
Kwuon is passing that gift on to the next generation. She's an assistant faculty member at The Juilliard School, one of several schools from which she holds an advanced music degree and where her husband, Joel Smirnoff, is chair of the violin department. She also makes time for her youngest fans: Auer recalls the half hour Kwuon spent posing for pictures and answering questions with a group of 8- to 10-year-old violin students after her performance in Gainesville a year ago.
"She gave her heart," Auer says, "both in the performance and to the kids, who just adore her."
Tuesday night, Kwuon will perform with the orchestra on Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, opus 26, which dates to the 19th century.
"It's not something that we hear a lot," says Dr. Janna Lower, UF associate professor of violin and head of the strings area. "It's certainly one of our most beautiful works."
If Kwuon's previous appearance in Gainesville is any indication, local classical music fans have a lot to look forward to.
"The audience loved her," Auer says. "It flows so naturally from her."
After 30 years, her lifelong duet with the violin is far from its finale.
"It's such a privilege to do what I do," Kwuon says. "The moment you step on the stage, the music takes over."
Sarah Stewart can be reached at 338-3103 or

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