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October 14, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Déjà vu, courtesy of violinist prodigy

Classical music performance brings forth memories of decades-old experience

It’s been said that the longer married couples stay together, the more they begin to think alike. I can’t refute that, although, for my wife’s sake, I hope a similar theory — that they begin to look alike, too — is far from true.  

One of those think-alike moments came to Joanie and me as we sat together in the warm darkness of the Tilson Auditorium balcony a few Saturday nights ago. Stephen Kim, a 17-year-old violin prodigy from California, was quite busy at the time holding an audience spellbound with his rendition of Max Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1.”

Ironically, it had been 30 years, nearly to the day, that as a considerably younger and less-tired couple, we sat in that same balcony and listened to a teenage violin prodigy named Joshua Bell perform. You probably don’t need to follow classical music that much to know that Bell is now one of the very biggest names in the business, the owner of several Grammys and an Academy Award nominee. He also owns a $4 million Stradivarius violin. He got his start, I understand, by strumming rubber bands strung between the knobs of dresser drawers.

We are, of course, not violin concerto aficionados, and we are not former Julliard School students, either. Joanie can probably still honk a passable marching band number on her clarinet; I am an expert at playing the radio. But we know what we like, apparently as did the other 600 or so symphony patrons who eventually begged Kim, via standing ovation after standing ovation, to make not one, but two curtain calls.      

As the lights came up on the performance, and we headed down the steps and toward our car, Joanie said it first: “That reminded me so much of hearing Joshua Bell.” So instead of heading to the parking lot, we went to a post-concert reception, where we met the soft-spoken Kim and his parents.

Kim, like Bell, began to play the violin long before he ever saw kindergarten. “I have two older siblings who also play the violin, so ever since I was born, I was hearing music coming from the violin around our house,” he said. “I think this made me feel a natural attraction to the violin, and seeing my brother and sister play also made me want to be like them.”

Performing in such places as Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe, Kim, nonetheless, returned to Terre Haute for a second time; he appeared with the THSO two years ago. He was quick to point out that Terre Haute has a real gem in its symphony, a fact of which far too few people in our community are aware. “It’s a wonderful orchestra, and it’s an honor to work with such wonderful musicians,” he says.  

Of the Terre Haute audience’s affection for him, he added, “I was surprised [at the calls for encores]. Of course, to some extent, a soloist must be prepared for anything, but it was very nice, and really an honor for me that the audience wanted to hear more.” His encores included the third movement of Johannes Sebastian Bach’s “Sonata in A Minor,” and Nicolo Paganini’s “Caprice No. 11.”

THSO Executive Director Tiffani Schmidt thinks things are looking up for the organization. “I feel [we’re] headed in a great direction. We have many new partnerships this year. We are using our marketing methods to the fullest and are reaching out to new audiences and potential patrons. World-class performances like Stephen’s showcase that our symphony is capable of producing truly professional music; we hope listeners will return again and again,” she said.

Another reason why the THSO is sounding so good is Music Director David Bowden. In his 17th season with the symphony, Bowden stays quite busy in similar positions with orchestras in Columbus and Carmel; he exudes an enthusiasm for music that’s contagious. “Wasn’t this a great night, a great audience?” he said as he dabbed at his brow in the warm reception room.    

Classical music is, nonetheless, proving to be a hard sell, not just for the THSO, but for many other orchestras across the country. Kim acknowledges that, but is quick to point out that if more people would give it a first chance, they’d probably be back. “One can explore a whole different world of expressions, emotions, colors and beauty [through it],” he said. “It may not be as popular among people … but I think that they would love it if they were exposed to it more. Of course, other genres of music are wonderful, too, and people should listen to what they enjoy, but I think classical music is so marvelous that it should be listened to more as well.”

I told my wife on the way home after the concert the other night that someday, perhaps another 30 years, if we are both very lucky, we might be able to still sit in the balcony to listen to the symphony. We’d hope that Kim, despite great international success, will have made it back to perform again and again.

Of course, we “might not be able to make it up the stairs to the balcony by then,” we both started to say at nearly the same time.  

We really do think alike …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this month. The THSO’s next performance is Nov. 2 at Tilson Auditorium on the campus of Indiana State University.

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