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Laurie Niles interview with Ayane Kozasa, winner of the 2011 Primrose International Viola Competition

July 29, 2011 at 3:09 PM

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.

Ayane Kozasa

"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.

Currently Ayane is studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in the Diploma program, with Misha Amory and Roberto Díaz.

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:

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 29, 2011 at 3:42 PM

Very nice playing, indeed, but hate a 30 second ad before the music starts. Well done.

From Peter Kent
Posted on July 31, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Casual observations about the Primrose competition......Winning gal uses a huge viola, and actually changes to a high Baroque bow grip for the Bach fiddle piece.....whereas 2nd place Goldstein, who appears to be about 2 meters tall, uses what looks like a 14 1/2 " baby viola.....Primrose would be aghast.

Posted on August 3, 2011 at 7:20 PM

Congrats Ayane!!! 

Peter, small violas can sound great and be played by very tall violists. I sold two small 15  1/2 violas to very tall violists of the Gewandhaus Leipzig...    one of them told that playing 5 hours long Wagner pieces in a big viola is very tiring even when you are tall...

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