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Caeli Smith

PROFILE: Violinist and Arts Administrator Lisa Utzinger

July 6, 2006 at 1:43 PM

BOSTON, Massachusetts -- "I work late and on weekends—sometimes, when we're on the road, it's seven days a week. My job is exhausting, but it's also exhilarating, and I love it."

25-year old Liza Utzinger is a classically trained violinist with a great job in the music industry. She gets to use her music skills every day. But she doesn't play her violin for a living. Instead, she chose a career in arts administration.

Lisa is the Scholarship Programming Manager at From The Top, "the radio showcase for the best young classical musicians in the country." I first met her in the summer of 2005, just before I began my stint as Roving Reporter on the show. She's only been there for a year, but already she's accomplished a lot. As the manager of the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artists Award, she meets and works extensively with many up-and-coming musicians from all over the country. The Cooke Young Artist program recognizes approximately twenty-five pre-college classical musicians each year. Recipients receive a $10,000 grant to be used to support their artistic development, a chance to perform during a live From The Top taping, and the opportunity to participate in a cultural leadership project in their community.

Lisa (left) with violinist Stephanie Song, a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Winner

In her job, Lisa draws constantly upon her musical training. She started playing violin at age 5. She also studied organ, saxophone, piano and voice in her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. When she was younger, she thought about being a professional violinist. "When you grow up near Boston, you know about the Boston Symphony. I thought, maybe I'll be in that orchestra someday," Lisa said in a recent phone interview. But instead of going to a conservatory, she chose to pursue a liberal arts education, majoring in music and psychology.

As a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, Lisa played violin in a baroque chamber orchestra, but she missed being in a big youth orchestra, as she had been in high school. The next year, she joined the full orchestra at nearby Amherst College, which she enjoyed more.

But Lisa still wanted a full orchestra for her own school. So she and a friend founded the Mount Holyoke College Orchestra. They raised money, recruited students, got the college's music faculty involved, and hired a conductor, George Mathew, who commuted to Mount Holyoke from Boston. Lisa herself used to picked him up and drive him to the bus station for every rehearsal.

"The great thing about a small liberal arts college is that students really can create change," Lisa said. "The music department at Mount Holyoke started to take notice and support what we were doing with the orchestra. It was a big success. It was my college claim to fame."

Starting the orchestra at Mount Holyoke also changed Lisa's life.

"I was giving George a ride after rehearsal one day, and he asked me what I was planning to do after college. I told him I hadn't thought about it. He said, 'What you're doing here is pretty impressive,' and that's when he suggested I go into arts administration."

George Mathew helped Lisa get a summer internship with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston after her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke. This internship cemented both her desire to pursue and arts management career and her love for the city of Boston.

After she graduated from college, Lisa found an administrative job at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she was the Assistant for Board Relations. She also took time to study orchestra management at the American Symphony Orchestra League's "Essentials of Orchestra Management Seminar." Lisa worked at NEC for three years before accepting the job at From The Top, whose offices are on the campus of the conservatory.

When Lisa arrived at From The Top, her tasks were to create the scholarship application; design the selection and review process; market the award; conduct live auditions; and work with the production team to make sure the performers' needs are met.

"My music training is a tremendous asset my job as manager of the scholarship program," she said. "I listen to and evaluate the kids, to see if their applications are strong enough to pass on to the producers, who make the final selections. I'm familiar with the field of music, and can speak about it intelligently. I came in knowing a lot about the genres and repertoire. But I've learned quite a lot this year, and I feel my ear is a lot more developed."

“I've really enjoyed getting to know the Cooke Young Artists," Lisa said. The Cooke Young Artists, selected for their outstanding musical talent, strong academic achievement, and unmet financial need, come from a variety of backgrounds. "For example, Ania Filochowska. She's twelve, a recent emigrant from Poland, and she plays the violin. Ania is a terrific musician, and she's also a lot of fun. Everybody loves her. She now emails me regularly. We're developing quite a friendship."

Ania, who lives in New Jersey, studies with Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho at Juilliard. She is buying a violin with her scholarship money, and Lisa is helping her through the process of finding the instrument. With Jack Kent Cooke's help, Lisa is also recommending Ania for professional management by IMG's Charlotte Lee, who represents young artists such as Nicola Benedetti and Ji-Yong. (You can hear my radio interview with Charlotte Lee about managing very young musicians here.)

"Another young violinist I really enjoy working with is 17-year-old Stephanie Song, an amazing young violinist from New York,” Lisa said. “She's so highly cerebral. Her mind is always working; she's a critical thinker in the best way, and that comes across in her playing. But she also has a great joie de vivre. She loves to go shopping and have fun."

"One of my favorite aspects of the Cooke Young Artist program is that we ask each kid to do a Cultural Leadership Project. A lot kids have really embraced it," Lisa said. She told me about violinist Miran Kim, another New Jersey Juilliard Pre-College student, who received a Cooke Award this year. Miran is committed to working with homeless people.

On a youth group trip to help homeless people in San Francisco, Miran took out her violin and starting playing during a barbeque in a public park. Some of the bystanders in the park had been doing drugs at the time, but when Miran began playing "Amazing Grace," they put their needles and drugs away. "It show what kind of potential music and musicians have for doing good in the world," Lisa said.

Lisa works with the Cooke Young Artists throughout their scholarship year to support their Cultural Leadership activities. She gives them advice and helps them facilitate their projects.

"Two kids who did a really spectacular job with their project were bassoonist Megan Schlie, and clarinetist Ashlee Miller, both from North Carolina, "They are both are at North Carolina School for the Arts. Together, they worked to get music programs back into schools by introducing music to kids and trying to get them excited about it. They formed a woodwind quintet with their friends, ordered transcripts of Peter and the Wolf and did performances at elementary schools in North Carolina. They got dancers, costumes, and a narrator. It was a huge success, and I was so thrilled to be able to help them facilitate their project."

A naturally a social person, Lisa loves bouncing ideas off intelligent people such as the Young Artists themselves and the From The Top staff. "Music taught me a lot of different skills, in terms of being disciplined, knowing how to work hard towards long term goals and not expecting instant gratification," she said. "I took a lot from all my years of studying violin, but as you know, playing music can be a very solitary activity, practicing all those hours, every day by yourself.

"I've learned that a musician's lifestyle doesn't suit me as well as the kind of collaborative work that we do at From The Top," she said. "My first year here has been a whirlwind experience. The job requires a lot out of you; we devote our lives to this organization, but I feel lucky to be here; the atmosphere suits me and my personality very well."

From Karin Lin
Posted on July 6, 2006 at 5:24 PM
Thanks for another great piece, Caeli! It's fun to hear about all the stuff behind the scenes at "From the Top". :)
From Luis Pernalete
Posted on July 6, 2006 at 5:32 PM
Hi Caeli, great work again. Im journalist and violinist in Venezuela and i so impressed with your perfomance. I see your Bruch´s video in YouTube, you play really good. Congratulations. Luis.
From Grainne Murray
Posted on July 7, 2006 at 10:05 AM
Wow, what a job, its sounds so interesting! Im a young violinist from Ireland, its great to here that programmes like yours exist to help young people like myself continue playing at a high level, I dont think we have anything like that here! :-( Cheers!

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