Music » Local Music

The viola in her life


Here comes the festival season: bread, circuses and good times a-rollin’, with déjà-vu variations on the theme getting added all the time. But standing out from the copycat affairs that regularly invade the cultural scene are events with a real mission: the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival and, now in its eighth year, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Created in 1994, Great Lakes annually offers metro Detroit a rich showcase from the history of Western classical music, more than two weeks of chamber concerts featuring works by the likes of Samuel Barber and Johannes Brahms, Sergei Prokofiev and Clara Schumann, Gabriel Fauré and J. S. Bach. Since 1997, a composer-in-residence program has brought in John Corigliano, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower and William Bolcom to play and conduct their contemporary pieces. And some of the finest soloists in America — many hailing from our very melodious metropolis — have come back year after year to play: Miriam Fried, Gilbert Kalish, Paul Katz, Ani Kavafian, Ida Kavafian, Ruth Laredo and artistic director James Tocco among them.

A major highlight of this year’s festival is the return of Detroit-born violist Kim Kashkashian, who brings along an international reputation, a sublime body of recorded work and a unique set of accomplishments under her arm. A standout soloist on an instrument frequently overlooked by programmers of orchestral and recital series, Kashkashian has made audiences and impresarios sit up and listen. With a tone that searches the warmest depths and subtlest nuances of lyricism, the quietest and most expressive reaches of an arpeggio, the enigmas as well as the transparencies of whatever she undertakes, Kashkashian has applied her instrument to a wide range of works by Bartók, Robert Schumann, Brahms, Shostakovich, Britten, Schnittke and Bach, among many others.

Fortunate, in her own words, to have been introduced at the age of 8 to the excellent teaching and motivation of Detroit string guru Ara Zerounian, she began playing violin and then took up the viola at the Interlochen Arts Academy when she was 12. (The Detroit Armenian community in which she was raised turned out a number of first-rate string players, among them the Kavafian sisters, also former students of Zerounian, who are regularly featured soloists at the Great Lakes Festival.)

Kashkashian soon moved on to studies at the Peabody Conservatory and the Philadelphia Musical Academy [now the University of the Arts]. And once the wide world opened its gates, nothing would keep her from exploring it. Her ongoing association with the Marlboro Festival in Vermont challenged her individuality as a performer. Then concerts in Europe, primarily Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, brought her a connection with Manfred Eicher, founder and director of ECM Records, one of the premier new-music and jazz labels of the past 20 years. Eventually, their relationship produced a series of recordings of contemporary composers (Hindemith, Britten, Penderecki, Kancheli), as well as interpretations of Bach, Brahms and Liszt, in which Kashkashian literally broke down conventional thinking about the viola and established herself as an essential figure on that instrument.

On one of Kashkashian’s ECM releases, 1995’s Hommage à R. Sch., she joins pianist Robert Levin and clarinetist Eduard Brunner in performing 19th century works by Robert Schumann, but the disc’s compelling focus is on pieces by Hungarian contemporary György Kurtág. Two of these are solo works for viola — “Nine Pieces for Solo Viola” and “Jelek” — which exemplify Kashkashian’s total immersion in every score she undertakes. Kurtág dedicated his 1994 revision of “Jelek” to her, and she wears it like a musical skin, investigating its pores, making it a statement of her own desire.

Among the high points of Kashkashian’s ever-expanding career are recordings with Dennis Russell Davies and Keith Jarrett, performances with major orchestras in New York, Berlin, Vienna, London, Milan, Munich and Tokyo, and a tour with a super-quartet that joined her with Gidon Kremer, Daniel Phillips and Yo-Yo Ma. Her Great Lakes Festival performances will include the not-to-be-missed “Signs, Games and Messages for solo viola” by Kurtág (Thursday, June 28 and Friday, June 29), as well as works by Brahms and R. Schumann.

The 2001 Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival — with composer-in-residence and native Detroiter Paul Schoenfield, the outreach concerts at venues all over the metro area, and Kim Kashkashian’s marquee homecoming — is a must for your inner music lover.

Visit our online What's Happening section for the complete Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival schedule. George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at

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