YOUTH AND VIRTUOSITY: THIS IS "CURTIS ON TOUR"
by Felipe Elgueta Frontier
17 January, 2018
Roberto Díaz is an outstanding Chilean violist who has been living in the USA for more than 40 years. He presides over the famous Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, where he founded the initiative “Curtis on Tour”, thanks to which teachers and students of the institution make extensive international tours. One of them culminated on October 21 with a wonderful concert at the Municipal Theater of Chillán. The sextet formed by Diaz himself and five students inaugurated the tour with a concert in Washington DC on October 1, and then began their journey through Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Talca and Chillán.
A Meeting with Latin America
“Before we left for the tour, everyone was talking about ’empanadas’, that we should try it in all the countries we visit and see how they are different. I thought they were talking about bananas.” During the trip, Youngin (cello) was able to resolve her confusion. She loved the empanadas, and Michael (viola) even confesses to having developed “a serious addiction” to them. In addition to the culinary surprise, Joshua (cello) says he has learned a lot from Latin America “simply being on the street and absorbing the sounds and smells and sights.” “You can see the history of the country when you look into people’s eyes,” adds Andrea (violin).
All these young musicians, who in each of the recitals of “Curtis on Tour” proved to be at the peak of their art, referred with admiration and humility to the children and young Latin American instrumentalists whom they offered masterclasses during these weeks. Maria (violin) admired above all their “hunger for knowledge” and their joy when they managed to understand and apply something new: “It was incredibly rewarding and a beautiful thing to witness and learn from.”
The Curtis Institute is a top-level school that grants full-tuition scholarships to all its students so that nobody with the necessary talent is left out for economic reasons. Applicants come from all over the world. Youngin Na, for example, comes from Korea. Barely 18 years old, she is the youngest of the group. She started studying cello at 6, when she wouldn’t go to sleep without first watching her DVD of the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach.
The oldest of the group, the American Michael Casimir (26 years old), was also the most precocious. He took the violin at age 2 and, although he is now a violist, he is also a fan of Yo-Yo Ma, and he even played with him in the multicultural Silk Road Ensemble.
The Italian violinist Andrea Obiso (23) has his colleague Nathan Milstein as a favorite “for his elegance and nobility.” Andrea began studying at age 6 and now plays a Guarneri violin from 1741, a jewel on loan from generous patrons.
The American Joshua Halpern (24) started studying his instrument later, at age 10, and is currently studying at Curtis with the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. Born in Russia, the violinist Maria Ioudenitch (21) migrated to the US very early in life. A daughter of two phenomenal pianists (one of them, winner of the famous Van Cliburn Competition), it’s not surprising that she started taking violin lessons at 3 years old.
Learning in Family
The sextet they form with maestro Díaz has made a deep impression on audiences, but it is also an important instance of learning for these young virtuosos. The demanding experience of playing with the eminent Roberto Díaz and having to represent the Curtis Institute in the best way does not intimidate them, because they manage to create an environment where confidence and creativity flow among them. The audience was able to appreciate how they exchanged their positions during the concerts—between violin I and violin II, for example—a way to show everyone’s talent equally and a sign that this ensemble privileges peer collaboration over the hierarchy. “It’s a big family,” says Andrea, “so, how good is it to play chamber music with your sisters and brothers?”
Maria explains that in each ensemble “you get a completely different set of personalities, emotions, ideas, and experiences. This group is highly diverse in all of those aspects, making each rehearsal and concert a new experience.”
The program performed at the tour’s concerts included one of Brahms’ string sextets, and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, arranged for sextet. Much less known was the recent “Arcana” (2008) by American composer Kevin Puts. Playing this work requires one of the cellos to assume a solo role, which was entrusted to Joshua. For him, “it has been an immensely rewarding experience. I think it’s an amazingly compelling and successful piece of music, and I’ve been struck by how positively most audience members have reacted to it. ”
Speaking without Words
The concerts of the ensemble have left deep traces, both in the Latin American audiences and in the young virtuosos from Curtis. According to Joshua, “we have had great experiences playing for large audiences, like when we played at the Nezahualcoyotl Hall in Mexico City, and we’ve had just as memorable experiences performing for thirty Uruguayan schoolchildren.”
These young artists from Curtis, born in 4 different countries, show how music connects people, regardless of cultural differences. This mysterious power is illustrated in an unexpected situation that occurred in the small Zavala Muniz Hall in Montevideo. Joshua says that “when the concert began, ‘something’ happened in that room.” The audience was sitting so close to the musicians that they could feel its attention and energy, as if they communicated directly with it through the music. Every great musical work is, in the end, a story told without words and, as Youngin said as a summary of this tour, “I was pleased that I could feel the audience was listening carefully to our stories.”
“The concert in Santiago (Carabineros Theater) started with a small student orchestra. After the concert, the small students who played in the orchestra came to our sextet members and asked for signing their programs, and one of them asked me to write my name in his small hand, which was so small that it was hard to write something in. It was the most adorable experience in my life. ” (Youngin, cello, 18 years old)
“There was one concert night in Santiago before which I felt woefully indifferent and filled with negative energy. As my teacher Pamela Frank says, it was a BCS kind of day (Black Cloud Syndrome). Nevertheless, the night still had to go on. Immediately with the first note, my negativity started to melt away. On stage, there is no chance to be in your own problems. The music overwhelms. It has to, to make any difference to anyone in the audience. After the concert was over, I was a new person. Thanks to the music, thanks to the people with whom I was playing, thanks to the audience and the aura of the stage.” (Maria, violin, 21 years old)