A NIGHT WITH A VIOLIN VIRTUOSO
There is no shortage of evidence that Fredericksburg is no longer the sleepy, quiet town it once was. On the downside, State Route 3 traffic is proof positive the region has changed dramatically from the days when Central Park was a Sheraton Hotel and a golf course. On the other hand, some very positive examples of the region’s growth include the increasingly big-name musical artists who have made Fredericksburg a major concert destination.
Two prominent forces are driving this positive change—two concert series that have put the region on the music world’s map. The Celebrate Virginia Live series has brought in big-time rock and country artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Darius Rucker, and the University of Mary Washington Philharmonic Celebrity Series has brought in major talents to play with the orchestra, including Marvin Hamlisch, Judy Collins, Kenny Rogers, flutist Sir James Galway and the Canadian Brass.
But it doesn’t get any bigger than the world’s foremost classical violinist coming to town—and this week, Itzhak Perlman himself will be performing a sold-out concert with the UMW Philharmonic at Dodd Auditorium.
“I told the group who we’d be playing with and they audibly gasped,” Dr. Kevin Bartram, the orchestra’s director and conductor, told Weekender. “I kept hearing them whisper: ‘Did I hear that right?’”
Perlman has reached audiences far beyond the concert halls, including appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Sesame Street,” and worked with acclaimed composer John Williams on the score for Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”
For a group composed of student and community musicians, this is beyond a thrill; it also means the pressure is on.
Bartram said the musicians are working hard to master the very challenging music chosen by Perlman for the concert: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
“In terms of the orchestra, this composition requires a high level of precision, of listening to the violinist; we have to be absolutely with him at all times,” said Bartram.
Perlman himself has said that while he has played the concerto many times, it remains “a journey of a lifetime.”
Bartram added that no matter how many times he plays this Beethoven work, he can still discover something new. “It is probably considered the greatest concerto written for the violin,” he has said.
However, a different kind of pressure awaits the student violinist in the UMW orchestra who will be picking up the acclaimed virtuoso in Washington, D.C.—and who just happens to be a lifelong Perlman fan.
“It was such a shock when Dr. Bartram told us he would be coming here to play with us. The first thing I did was call my mom,” said junior Jackson Heard, who wrote papers on Perlman in middle and high school.
“I remember I was 3 years old watching ‘Sesame Street’ and saw him,” said the 21-year-old anthropology major. “After I saw him on that, I told my mom I wanted [a violin], so she got me one maybe not thinking that I would stick with it, but 18 years later here I am and I still love it.”
So what does one chat about with a beloved musical icon while traversing the horrendous I–95 traffic for an hour and a half?
“Hopefully, I won’t talk too much. I want to read him and just have a nice conversation with him,” Heard said. “I have a million things I’d like to ask him, but most of all I just want to talk with him and hear his love for music.”
A COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
While Weekender realizes that it’s something of a tease to present a story about a sold-out event to its readers, it’s also a good opportunity to point out how this reflects the unique and growing chemistry between the arts and the region—for an event like this does not happen in a vacuum, nor without an outpouring of support.
“Many of my [classical music] colleagues across the country are performing to empty halls, sadly,” said Bartram. “We’re standing-room only” for most of the Philharmonic’s concerts.
He thinks that’s a reflection of a mutually beneficial relationship between the orchestra and the community, and also an increased recognition by outside booking agents of the good geographic location Fredericksburg holds.
The Perlman performance, which took almost two years of hard work to arrange and confirm, sold out in only four days.
“It’s a partnership,” Bartram noted. “We have a large group of donors, the Friends of the Philharmonic, who are a primary source of support not only in terms of revenue” but also in terms of building community support, and providing the director and the orchestra with encouragement.
A TRUE CLASS(ICAL) ACT
The UMW Philharmonic offers artists like flutist Galway or violinist Perlman something they can’t get even with the world’s most acclaimed orchestras: the chance to work with a true community orchestra, and help encourage the next generation to carry the torch.
Everyone in the group, composed of roughly 90 musicians (not all will play with Perlman during the concerto on Saturday, due to the nature of the piece), had to audition to become a member of the orchestra. But in the end, it is still composed of talented students and community musicians—and that is an allure to those big-name performers hoping to further the future of classical music.
“James Galway, who performed here last year, is a noted educator and loves working with students,” said Bartram. “It’s the same with Itzhak Perlman—the chance to encourage, and work with the students, was one of the motivating factors” in their decision to play with the orchestra.
He adds that performing with world-class musicians brings out the fire in the Philharmonic musicians.
“If you want to be the best, you need to be with the best,” Bartram said. He includes himself in the rise-to-the-challenge equation.
Perhaps that kind of motivation is behind the national acclaim the orchestra has received. In 2012 it was featured in a PBS feature, and in 2009, it received the American Prize, an award given to the top collegiate orchestras in the country.
Bartram said the community players, who are often older than the students, provide a bedrock of cooperation and motivation for the younger players, while the students provide the energy that keeps the orchestra so vibrant.
“It’s a perfect combination,” he said.
Dave Smalley is a Fredericksburg-area writer and former Weekender editor.