For violist Ayane Kozasa, winner of the 2011 Primrose International Viola Competition, a competition is a wonderful way to master new repertoire.
In June Ayane placed first in the Primrose Competition, which was founded in 1979 as the first competition for violists, with the great violist William Primrose serving as its first chairman of the jury. The competition currently is sponsored by the American Viola Society, through an endowment. First prize includes $5,000 USD, use of a viola made by Spanish master luthier Jardon Rico, a gold-mounted Arcos Brasil bow, and select concert appearances in the United States and Europe. Other laureates this year were Elias Goldstein, 28, of the United States and Norway, who won second prize; and Vicki Powell, 22, of the United States, who won third prize.
Like many violists, Ayane, 23, started her musical studies on the violin. A native of Japan, her family moved to the United States when she was very young, and when she was four, she started playing the violin in a Suzuki program in Dallas, Texas. She went to a public high school in Chicago, but it was during her summers at Meadowmount School of Music that she discovered the viola.
"At Meadowmount most – if not all -- violinists are required to play viola at some point in a chamber music group," Ayane said. "It's a really great idea, and it's nice that kids at a young age can be versatile on both instruments. My first-ever viola piece was the Ravel String Quartet. It's the perfect piece to start out on viola. I was instantly floored by how amazing and beautiful the viola sounded."
After Meadowmount, she continued playing the violin, and she enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Music as an undergraduate violin student, studying with William Preucil.
"But while I was doing my undergrad there, I met three other friends, and we wanted to really play in a quartet together," Ayane said. "Two of them were violinists, so I decided I would pick up the viola and started playing quartet with them."
The quartet stayed together for three years, until their different ages and levels in school sent them in different directions academically.
"It got a little complicated and so unfortunately we had to disband," Ayane said. "But because of that experience, I really felt that chamber music on viola was something I wanted to pursue. So I decided to switch my major altogether my senior year of college." Her viola teacher at CIM was Kirsten Docter.
It was a decision that came about in a very natural and gradual way.
"For me, violin had always had a special place in my heart, but I always somehow knew that chamber music was something I really wanted to pursue. After my experience with the quartet, I realized that viola chamber playing was really my thing," Ayane said. "Then I became curious about viola repertoire in general, especially all the sonatas for viola, which are absolutely gorgeous. And I realized, if I'm so interested in this field, then I should probably be thinking about private lessons. It just felt like it would be a better choice for me to switch and actually study from a viola professor."
What is the most compelling thing about playing viola?
"I love the lower sounds," Ayane said. "When I first started the violin when I was four, I heard a concert by Midori, and I was so inspired by music that I really wanted to play violin. But as I progressed, somehow I was attracted more to the bass-like sound in classical music. Even when I'm listening to other genres of music, I gravitate towards the bass part of compositions."
Subbing in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ayane has enjoyed playing in the viola section.
"When I play in the orchestra, I really enjoy being in the middle of everything, hearing the brass and the winds, in addition to the strings," Ayane said. "Being in the viola section really makes me understand how each instrument fits together with the others. It's a really great feeling.
Why do the Primrose Competition?
"I did a couple (of competitions) in high school, but I was really young, and they were on violin, of course," Ayane said. "The only other one that I did in my undergrad was two or three years go, the Washington International Competition."
"The reason why wanted to do this competition, and also the Washington, was to get to know more repertoire for viola," Ayane said. "I looked at the repertoire for these competitions, and it really interested me, especially the semi-final round. It was something that was completely new to me, and I wanted to challenge myself and learn it."
"I actually spent this whole academic year learning all this repertoire, which was really great, just being able to really let it grow with me as the months progressed," Ayane said. "It was also great being able to have two different opinions on it, with two different teachers."
The competition was held this spring in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with 29 quarterfinalists representing 13 countries, Each competitor was required to prepare the first movement of a 20th century concerto, selections of Bach, and a Primrose transcription. The top eight competitors from those rounds passed on to the semi-final round, during which competitors were required to perform Peter Askim's "Inner Voices," a second Primrose transcription, a sonata, the first movement of the Mozart Divertimento with violinist Andy Simionescu and cellist James Holland, and a selection of Bach. From this round, the jury chose the three finalists.
Ayane especially liked "Inner Voices" by Peter Askim, a piece which was commissioned for the competition. Here is her performance of that piece at the competition.
"I absolutely loved it," Ayane said. "It was a piece that, the moment I started playing it, I really felt that I could connect and understand it."
"What I enjoyed the most about the whole experience is that I just had so much fun playing each round. I didn't feel any pressure at all; it was just me, and my pianist or other chamber players -- and the music," she said. "I think what also helped was how positive the whole experience was. Everybody was so supportive about every single person's performance. I think that made it that much more enjoyable. It was like a celebration of viola, and I was very comfortable there."
Also, it was more than a competition.
"There were a lot of workshops, masterclasses and discussion forums about Primrose and technique," Ayane said. "Also, some of the judges did a concert towards the end of the festival, and Dimitri Murrath, the winner of Primrose three years ago, also did a recital. So it wasn't just about competing, it was also about learning, getting to know more violists and making connections."
What does the future hold for Ayane?
"In terms of what I'd like to do professionally, I would love to play chamber music for a living," she said. "Right now I'm subbing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is the most amazing experience. To be around all those professional musicians -- working together and hearing their sound right above my head -- is just incredible."
"I'm starting to understand that even orchestral playing is chamber music playing," Ayane said. "When you're playing in orchestra, of course, you're playing with nine or ten other people on the same instrument, but also you're working together with other instruments. Sometimes you are the accompaniment or support for an oboe solo -- you always have to be consistently conscious of how they're phrasing, and their dynamic levels, and if you are supporting them. You have to be conscious of the kind of colors they're making. You are working together with 100-plus other musicians, and so you just have to be that much more alert about how other people are interpreting phrasing. Even just in your section, you have to blend your sound with the other nine, ten violists, and you have to be conscious that your sound is becoming a unified match.
"The idea of music should always be sharing it with people, working together with other people that enjoy it just as much as you do," Ayane said. "As long as I get to do that, I'll be happy.
Here is Ayane's performance of Bach, from the competition:
Here are more performances from the 2011 Primrose International Viola Competition: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/primrosecomp
Congratulations to Noah Bendix-Balgley, 27, who recently signed a three-year contract as concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he will begin in September. As it turns out, he is not the first in his family to play in this orchestra; his great-grandfather, Samuel J. Leventhal, played violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1900 to 1904, under Music Director Victor Herbert, according to the PSO blog.
A native of Asheville, N.C., Noah earned his Bachelor of Music degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, studying with Mauricio Fuks; and he earned a postgraduate Meisterklasse diploma for violin at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Munich, studying with Professor Christoph Poppen. He is a Laureate of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels as well as first-prize winner at the Vibrarte International Music Competition in Paris, in May 2011.
And here is a video interview from the Pittsburgh Symphony:
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Violinist William Fedkenheuer was named second violinist of the Miró Quartet, replacing Sandy Yamomoto, who retired to spend more time with her young children. He will begin with the award-winning quartet this fall. Other members of the quartet are first violinist Daniel Ching, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele.
Fedkenheuer has a Bachelor of Music degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with Kathleen Winkler; and he did graduate studies with Miriam Fried at Indiana University. Most recently, Fedkenheuer was first violinist of the Fry Street Quartet and was on the teaching faculty of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University. With his appointment to the Miró Quartet, he will join the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music, where the Miró Quartet has been in residence since 2003.
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Founder of the Jascha Heifetz Society Claire Hodgkins died in June after a long illness. Claire was the former assistant to Jascha Heifetz at the University of Southern California and teacher to many, having served on the faculty of five Southern California universities, including USC.
The Jascha Heifetz Society, which will continue under the directorship of co-founder Sherry Kloss, just released a four-DVD set of live performances, including Ruggero Ricci, (last concert); Sherry Kloss; Erick Friedman; and Aaron Rosand. The DVD set can be purchased through Sherry Kloss's website.
Dusk was settling over the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night when soprano Hei-Kyung Hong hung a note so high and pure in the air that I completely forgot that I came mostly to hear my 11-year-old son sing in the children's choir in "Turandot."
I've played some opera, but not a lot, and though I have enjoyed the operas I've seen, I can't claim to be an "opera buff." After Sunday night, I just might try.
Hong was performing as the character Liu, a slave girl whose master has chosen to try for the hand of the cruel and ice-cold Turandot. The Chinese princess so far has lopped off the heads of her many suitors, all who have failed to pass her test by answering three riddles. Calaf, sung by tenor Frank Poretta, believes he's up to the task, but Liu, who nurses a secret flame for her master, does not wish to "lose the only smile I've ever lived for."
Sounds like an opera plot, eh? But the drama centered on the music Sunday night, with a concert performance of the opera led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (in numbers I doubt would fit in an orchestra pit); 80 voices from the Los Angeles Master Chorale; 40 voices from the Los Angeles Children's Chorale; and a cast of soloists including Hong; Poretta (who was subbing for Francesco Hong); Christine Brewer as Turandot; Alexander Vinogradov as Timur; Timothy Mix as Ping; Daniel Montenegro as Pang; Beau Gibson as Pong; Greg Fedderly as Emperor Altoum and Craig Verm as the Mandarin.
Back to Hong, as Liu, she gave an arresting performance, and I also enjoyed Timothy Mix's voice, which flowed so easily.
I'd actually been to a rehearsal for the LA Children's Chorale, and I enjoyed witnessing the process by which 40 children first learned their part in solfege, memorized the Italian, learned what it meant, and became aware of its context within the opera. I watched their director Anne Tomlinson work with them until their voices sounded as one, unifying their vowels and also encouraging them to express meaning through both their voices and demeanor. I watched their first rehearsal with the LA Master Chorale -- what a powerful experience, when all voices united for the first time in the "Gloria" at the end of Act II.
Sunday was even more powerful, when all those voices came together with the LA Philharmonic, with Dudamel channelling that energy as only he can. The Hollywood Bowl has some large screens to help the audience get a closer view, and when the camera panned to my son, I saw an expression on his face I'd never seen, a complete immersion in the music. To think that he had the opportunity to perform in the midst of so many talented musicians, to feel that music moving through everyone and everything -- it brought tears to my eyes.
Afterwards, someone asked how on earth he sat on stage for three hours, waiting for the few choruses when the children's choir sang. He admitted that his legs began to get a little antsy. But he figured out a way to cope: "I just went with the music."
Over the weekend I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles for the first time, along with my daughter and my parents, who were visiting from Cincinnati.
We enjoyed the collection, which included the visiting exhibition Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol (I didn't know he'd painted so many, 32, ranging from the common like "Tomato" to the more unusual like "Pepper Pot").
© The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY, Campbell Trademarks used with permission of Campbell Soup Company
I was marveling at how long the paintings must have taken, and explaining to my daughter the possible interpretations: that all these soups, until then cooked in people's kitchens, cooked with very different ingredients, for different occasions at different times of the year, were now homogenized in identical cans with nearly identical labels. It says something about our culture…
"Mom, it's SOUP," she said, unimpressed. She liked a large Jackson Pollock work with multi-colored drips of paint meandering in countless directions.
The permanent collection represents good sampling of work by some of the most famous contemporary artists (works made since 1940), including Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, George Segal, and a lot more.
After strolling through some dozen chambers, I was becoming immersed in the out-of-the-box nature of this art: colored strings on the ceiling that produce an optical illusion; canvases with long splatters in many colors; photos from the '50s; sculptures that looked like blobs of people parts or clumps of trash from an office complex. Look, those carpeted steps lead nowhere! And is that a chair, painted onto a sort of…chair?
I was getting tired, both mentally and physically, when I noticed a bench in next room. Ah! I walked over and parked my posterior.
"MOM!" said my 14-year-old daughter. "Get up, get UP, that's a piece of art!"
"Oh no!" I shot back up to my feet, embarrassed and concerned that I'd sat on a piece of art.
I turned to my daughter, who was laughing hysterically.
As many of you know, Czech violinist Josef Suk died July 6 in Prague, at age 81. Here is some history about this violinist, and we also welcome any remembrances that members may have of him. Suk was a grandson of the composer by the same name, Josef Suk, and he was also the great-grandson of composer Antonín Dvorák.
Suk did not know his famous great-grandfather. His grandfather, the well-known composer who was a member of the Bohemian Quartet who had once been a student of Dvorák, had married, Dvorák's daughter, Otilie, in 1898. Their son, Suk's father, pursued a career in engineering.
Photo courtesy of Prague Music Performance Institute and Festival
The younger Suk was born in Prague and showed early signs of musical talent, performing in public by age 11. He was a student of the Czech violinist Jaroslav Kocián.
He was a member of the Prague Quartet and founded the Suk Trio, named after his grandfather.
Among his recordings: Songs my Great-Grandfather Taught Me, which contains transcriptions by (the younger) Josef Suk of 30 Dvorák songs, performed with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy and released in February 2010. Also is a recording of the Brahms Sonatas, released in 2001 but clearly recorded well before that. Here is another list of recordings with Josef Suk.
Here is a performance of the Dvorák Violin Concerto, with Josef Suk and the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Neumann:
Occasionally I get some unusual e-mail in my capacity as editor of Violinist.com. For example, yesterday:
"My wife and I raise alpacas, and every year we named them after artists. This year we've decided that we would like to use violinists. Our first cria (baby) is a female, so we would like to see a comprehensive list of female violinists. Where can we go to see such a list?
Thank you, Tom & Tsulan Balka, Lavender Fields Alpacas, Elizabeth, CO"
Here is the newborn alpaca that they'd like to name after a violinist:
Awwww! Shall we help them out? I'm all for anything that promotes violinists, and the art of violin!
Historic female violinists:
Lady Wilhelmina Hallé
Living female violinists:
Rachel Barton Pine
...and in case any male alpacas join the mix:
Historical male violinists:
Living male violinists:
Any other suggestions for Tom and Tsulan?
I'd heard of player pianos, which can play without the aid of human fingers. But a player violin? Without even robot hands?
Yes, Toyota, it was done before, and patented in 1912. Going on information given to me by my friend and fellow violinist Liz Blake, I found the proof Tuesday at Solvang Antique Center, in Solvang, California, a small town ("the Danish capital of America") located in the wine country near Santa Barbara.
The antique store had on display not one, but two "Violano Virtuoso" player violins, both made around 1925 by Mills Novelty Co. of Chicago. A little sign from an exposition boasts "Designated by the United States government as one of the eight greatest inventions of the decade," presumably that decade being the 1920s! Before I go any further, just check it out: (extra credit points go to the person who can name that tune; I can't!)
Below is a picture of the bowing mechanism, which is comprised of four rollers, one for each string. Each roller is pushed down onto its string as needed by a medal rod attached to a spring mechanism.
This is the "fingerboard," though no fingers are involved, as you can see:
Instead are scores of little metal pinchers that come up from underneath to squeeze the string and change the pitch. They appear to be placed in half-step intervals. Also, notice the four weights behind the scroll. I'm pretty sure they have something to do with the production of vibrato, as I could see them shaking, vibrato-like, as the mechanism was playing. Behind everything are the hammers to a 44-note piano.
The entire mechanism rests elegantly, if humongously, in a mahogany cabinet. Its current price tag is $79,000.
Eat your heart out, Toyota, you weren't first. But I think we humans still have them both licked!
Happy Fourth of July, and for those in the United States, happy Independence Day! Here is one of my favorite arrangements of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," written and performed by Bruce Dukov.
(The music, if you are interested, can be found here.)