Sunday, December 21, 2014

Musicians string together

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 6/30/2014

Brian Lewis has known Jennifer Ahn since she was knee-high, he said with a laugh.

Every since she was 7 years old, Ahn has been coming to Ottawa to enhance her violin skills and is now one of the premiere musicians in the Brian Lewis Young Artists Program. It won’t be long before Ahn, 16, Omaha, Nebraska, will move on from the program and graduate to do new things, Lewis said.

Brian Lewis has known Jennifer Ahn since she was knee-high, he said with a laugh.

Every since she was 7 years old, Ahn has been coming to Ottawa to enhance her violin skills and is now one of the premiere musicians in the Brian Lewis Young Artists Program. It won’t be long before Ahn, 16, Omaha, Nebraska, will move on from the program and graduate to do new things, Lewis said.

“We are invested in each other,” Lewis, program director, said. “[Ahn’s] family is invested and has made many sacrifices. She has some very talented siblings also, so many people are playing.

“She always played very well, and you could always tell there was something special about her playing,” Lewis said. “Jennifer has been coming here and having excellent instruction here, and has been an excellent participant in our program. Eventually she is going to graduate and then she won’t be coming to programs and that will make us sad on a certain level, but very happy that she has moved on to go to a major school of music either in the United States or abroad.”

Ahn is one of just 12 students who are selected to participate in the annual two-week program at Ottawa University, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa. Twelve students are selected from about 100 auditions every year, Lewis said.

“These kids go through a process where they have to submit an audition DVD, which has a whole lot of repertoire, at least an hour of music from various composers,” he said. “That process starts over every year and this is for kids 18 and under. Just because you’ve been accepted once, it is not a guarantee that you will get in the next year.”

This year is not Ahn’s first time in the program, which she said she looks forward to.

“In fact, about two to three months in advance I’m like, ‘Ok, this is the countdown. We have this many days until I can be in the place that I enjoy being,’” Ahn said. “I fell in love with the place and kept coming back. I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences. When I first came here I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know what this program is like, I don’t know what to do,’ especially since I was just a 7-year-old, but as I kept coming back here year after year I got to meet new people and see familiar faces, and always learn more and grow as a person and a violinist.”

The program attracts young violinists from all over the United States. This year’s program features students ages 11 to 16 from New York City, Las Vegas, Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Ithaca, New York, Lewis said.

While Ahn might have a shorter trip to Ottawa than some of the Californians and New Yorkers, the 10-year violinist has had plenty of experience traveling and performing.

“She plays all over the place,” Lewis said. “She was here also for our earlier program, our Sound Encounters program, and she left to go out to California to play violin concerto, and is back. These kids are very active playing around the United States and around the world, internationally.

“These kids are out playing professionally,” he said. “One of the young artists is going to be going to Mexico to play concerto. Jennifer flew from here to go to California to play a totally different piece than she is playing now, so these kids are completely professional going out and playing different concertos with different orchestras.”

Not to mention they’ll play in Ottawa.


The Brian Lewis Young Artists in Concert performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fredrikson Chapel at OU. The concert will be the final performance of the year before the program ends and everyone heads home to enjoy the Fourth of July with their families, Lewis said. Every member will play a solo with the Ottawa Chamber Symphony.

“The concert is free and open to the public,” Lewis said. “Jennifer’s piece [in the concert] is a very, very challenging work, a gypsy violin piece by a French composer, and she will be one of the 12 young artists to stand up and play.

“We have a professional orchestra of roughly 50 people including harp, percussion, all of these things will be coming to play,” Lewis said. “The orchestra is made up from people from the Kansas City Symphony and other symphonies around the area, so they come down [to Ottawa] to rehearse. The symphony that is playing is called the Ottawa Chamber Symphony. It is an orchestra that specifically meets for the Brian Lewis Young Artist program. It’s an outstanding orchestra, with an outstanding conductor and outstanding soloists. If you were in Kansas City, you would probably have to pay tickets of $50 to $75 each to hear this concert.”

There will be an intermission and each half of the concert is about an hour long with each piece ranging from seven to 10 minutes in length. The performance will be different than just regular classical music, Lewis said.

“Each of the 12 young artists are performing as soloists with the symphony in the concert,” he said. “So there will be all 12 of them standing up to play music by French composers, gypsy music and Carmen Fantasy... it is a lot of virtuosic violin music. It is not your quote-unquote ‘average, boring classical music.’ Violin music is full of life and energy, and there is not one piece that is not completely engaging.”

Lewis, who grew up in Ottawa and is now teaching at the University of Texas at Austin as well as directing a violin program at The Julliard School in New York City, said the project costs about $25,000 for the concert including paying the conductor and orchestra. The young artists program is tuition-free, and both the program and concert are made possible by the Starling Foundation in Houston, he said.

“This concert and the whole BLYP is underwritten through the generosity of the Starling Foundation located in Houston,” Lewis said. “They are very nice to be an active part of this vision.

“All of these kids here are having all of their time and lessons here at no cost to them, which is a wonderful thing,” he said. “If we divided out all the costs to each of the kids, it would be around $6,500 for the two weeks, which is not possible. Of course the kids cover the cost of their air fare and room and board, but the program is tuition free and that is a wonderful opportunity for us. This helps because if they are able to save money here, hopefully they can spend it somewhere else.”


The program, sponsored by the Ottawa Suzuki Institute Mid-Southwest, ensures the students’ two weeks at OU are well spent. On top of four to five hours of lessons, students practice material another four to five hours every day, so each student is playing a minimum of nine hours on their instrument per day, Lewis said.

Ahn said she has learned a lot, not just about being a violinist, but about time management and other life skills as well from the program.

“I’ve learned a lot here,” she said. “Especially with the BLYP, I’ve learned a lot about time management. There was one year where I did have some minor issues, but I learned how to recover from that and move on. I’ve learned a lot, not only musically, but in terms of getting along and being more social.

“My favorite part is making connections with the teachers, the accompanists and the students just because you don’t get this type of personal attention anywhere else pretty much,” she said. “You don’t get the one-on-one lessons for a whole hour. I think that is something that is really special about this program in particular.”

The students get to experience a lot of one-on-one lessons thanks to the faculty, Lewis said.

“We have an outstanding faculty,” he said. “By the time you add up all the faculty, there are 12 young artists and 12 faculty members. It is a one-to-one average ratio, which is amazing to do. Our activities include lessons on the music of J.S. Bach, sonatas, and we have duos for two violins, they study concertos and their show pieces. Then they have rehearsals with all of that with piano coaching. The kids have progressed very, very far.

“In this two weeks period of time, they have a complete college year’s worth of lessons and coaching,” Lewis said. “That is what we do, we work on violin stuff, we are violin-centric. Everything is violin related because that is where these kids are going.”

But for at least the next couple days, the kids are in Ottawa, where Lewis said they “love to come.” Each student gets their own assigned practice room on campus, he said, and just being chosen for the program is a testament to not just being a great musician, but a great person too.

“[Students] are chosen, not just because they are great players, but also because they are great people,” Lewis said. “That is very important to me that our artists are very committed to being part of the community, whatever community they are in, and they bring humanity to what they do.”

For Ahn, she plans not just to bring humanity, but also some fire to the stage Thursday evening during her solo piece in the concert. She will perform a gypsy piece called “Tzigane,” which translates to “Gypsy” in French.

“It is a little bit rustic,” she said. “In the very beginning, the violin solo has a cadenza that lasts about half the piece, so it kind of shows virtuosic skills and abilities of the violinist,” she said. “It is definitely exciting. When the orchestra comes in it just kind of blooms and the ending is very fiery and fast.”

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