Published: Sep 02, 2008 10:04 PM
Modified: Sep 03, 2008 02:15 PM
Local violinist takes a bow
Chapel Hill's Jennifer Curtis moving to international stage
CHAPEL HILL -- Inside a house barely visible from the street beneath a suburban canopy of trees, violinist Jennifer Curtis spent the month of August making final preparations for her appearance at the International Johannes Brahms Competition in Portschach, Austria.Curtis, 29, whose music is drawing critical acclaim, was born and raised in Chapel Hill. She studied with local teacher Mary Frances Boyce, beginning lessons in the Suzuki method at age 3 and continued studies in her teens with UNC faculty member Richard Luby. After graduating from Mills College, Curtis earned a master of music degree from Julliard School, where she studied with Robert Mann, a founding member of the Julliard Quartet. For the competition, which is being held in a town where Brahms composed some of his most famous works, Curtis must practice for the possibility of three rounds -- if she makes it that far. The rounds, she explains, include some repertoire choices and some required pieces. For her first round, she played Paganini's "Caprice #10," and Bach's "Chaconna" from his Partita in D Minor. If she makes it to the second round, she will perform a Mozart violin concerto and the Brahms Sonata in G Major, and for the third, the first movement of the Brahms Concerto in D Major and his "Hungarian Dance."Though Curtis has competed in the United States (and has made her Carnegie Hall debut in the Weill Recital Hall), this will be her first international competition. Her trip to Portschach was made possible, in fact, by her 2006 win of the Milka/Astral Prize, given by the agency that represents her and the Markow Totevy Foundation of Paris and Washington, D.C.Responding by e-mail, Georges Markow-Totevy, president of the foundation which awarded the prize which takes its name from his mother, Milka, describes Curtis as a fine violinist with a very sure technique."(She) is at the same time sensitive and expressive in her execution. Her recital last March (at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill) was a perfect example of the high and ambitious goals she sets for herself. I admire very much her liking of contemporary music, her interest in less known and rarely played composers. ... Dynamic in everything she does!"Curtis has been following a bit of an unusual career path for a classical artist -- she has pursued interests in world music, particularly music from Latin America, African drumming, and is a mandolin virtuoso as well as an accomplished composer.Curtis is an only child, though her cousins Carmen and Brown Biggers are like brother and sister to her, she says. They even took violin lessons together as children. Her mother, Liz Holm, is a graphic designer for the Carrboro Citizen. She was raised by her grandparents, Mimi and Thomas Curtis. Her grandfather has led a distinguished career in the UNC psychiatry department, which he joined in 1954.The competition scene, Curtis explains, is almost a thing un^to itself, requiring preparation of particular pieces at the cost, she feels, of artistic growth. Rather, she prefers to spend time studying the psychology of the composer."My strategy is more towards getting to know that composer -- where they were when they were composing that piece," she said. "I've done that sort of navigation into pieces." Curtis keeps a daily practice schedule that is always "an absolute minimum" of three hours a day (she says she feels funny if she doesn't play at least that much daily), and can be as much as eight to 12 hours a day if she is learning something new or practicing with a group. She credits her grandmother for her early discipline. "She used to make me practice," Curtis said. "She doesn't have to now." "Can you believe she lets me listen to her practice?" beamed grandmother Mimi Curtis. "It's my favorite thing."This has been a busy summer for Curtis, who keeps Chapel Hill as a base but recently moved to Boston with her partner, violist Margaret Dyer. She also completed a two-week stint playing and teaching in Mexico City with "Cultures in Harmony," a project of fellow Julliard graduate William Harvey."Cultures in Harmony" stresses cultural diplomacy through music, one of Curtis' special causes. She herself founded the "Tres Americas" project three years ago, which has toured Panama and performed at N.C. State University and Carrboro's ArtsCenter, among other venues. In March, Curtis gave a memorable performance of Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne's composition for chamber orchestra "Las dos estaciones," a kind of post-modern answer to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." At the end of the piece, Desenne ran down the aisle, leapt onto the Memorial Hall stage, and hugged Curtis. Via e-mail, Desenne elaborated, "Working with Jennifer Curtis has been an intense musical experience. Her performance was superb in the very complex "Two Seasons" for violin and strings; she is an artist I can count on, and this is a very stimulating factor in the life of a composer."Another summer project for Curtis has been the acquisition of a 1777 Vincenzo Panormo violin. After playing on borrowed instruments like Stradivari and Guarneri, Curtis has finally found "the one" for her -- inspired by the sound of one such priceless instrument, but far more affordable -- at roughly the cost of a modest Chapel Hill townhome.Talking about the tones of violins, Curtis sounds a bit like a wine connoisseur describing flavors of a particularly fine vintage. The Guarnari, she explains, are possessed of "golden, rich, chocolate tone," while the Stradivari have "an extraverted zing that strikes through the concert hall."Curtis has been playing on a 1997 Joseph Curtin instrument, made in Ann Arbor, Mich., recognized as one of the best makers in contemporary America. Her new violin, she explains, is necessary as her artistry has grown. "I discovered tones and colors I wasn't discovering when I was 18. I discovered these tones because I was borrowing such wonderful instruments. They gave me so much to work with that I recognized what kind of palette could be achieved."Curtis will be performing at a house concert at the home of Florence and James Peacock on Saturday, Sept. 6, with pianist Wonmin Kim and violist Margaret Dyer. The concert is presented free of charge, but it is hoped that those attending might consider contributing to help Curtis acquire the 1777 Panormo violin.
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