Prize-winning teen violist to be center stage in Ars Viva season finale

Tue Apr 27, 2010 at 11:16 pm

By Bryant Manning

Matthew Lipman

Violist Mathew Lipman, 17, becomes a student at Juilliard in the fall, but he’s already wrapping up high school like a touring star.

A scholarship student at the Music Institute of Chicago and senior at Crete-Monee High School some 40 miles south of Chicago, Lipman recently won the Music Institute’s inaugural Young Artist Concerto and Aria competition. His first-place prize will be a solo performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto with the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra next Sunday.

In the finals he beat out three violinists and a couple of cellists, which is no lean feat for a violist. As someone who describes his instrument “like a violin, but better,” Lipman brings a lot more to the table than impeccable virtuosity. During a recent phone chat he exhibited a strong awareness of music history aided by a quick sense of humor.

“It’s really nice to know that there wasn’t a bias against the piece I played and the fact a viola might not sell out an audience as much as another instrument,” he says. “And even if there was a bias that I had to work through, well, then that’s even more awesome.”

Alam Heatherington

Even Alan Heatherington, the erudite maestro who spearheaded the founding of this competition, agrees that “in such company it’s a rarity for a violist to come out on top.” If that’s not testament to Lipman’s gifts, he has also been featured prominently on Christopher O’Reilly’s influential young artist showcase, From the Top.

Heatherington, who is music director of both the Lake Forest and Ars Viva symphony orchestras, says the competition was born as a companion to their annual collaboration with the Steinway Concerto Competiton, a partnership that stretches back to 1997. Now the two competitions will alternate every other year, with Ars Viva not hosting the Steinway again until 2012.

“The MIC and I have talked for a long time about expanding it that so we could include orchestral instruments as well,” says Heatherington. “We wanted to open it up to everything but piano, and that includes vocalists. Even though high school vocalists are usually not advanced enough at that age, every once in a while someone will pop up, and so we wanted to allow for that possibility.

And this is the only competition in the area that provides young students the chance to perform a complete concerto with a professional orchestra on a subscription series concert.

In January, the competition’s preliminary round included 30 pre-collegiate orchestral instrumentalists who were plucked from the gifted Music Institute of Chicago student body. When that pool dwindled down to six finalists, Heatherington and Chicago Symphony members David Taylor (violin) and Gary Stucka (cello) sat in the judge’s chairs.

“It’s a huge challenge to narrow it all down given the process of elimination, but that’s the way competitions work,” he says. “Someone could have the day of his life and pass by someone who is normally the better player. It’s such an ephemeral thing to just stand up and play your concerto.”

But Heatherington isn’t implying that Lipman had a lucky day. “Anyone who plays at his level will be in terrific demand,” he says of the budding Primrose, who was unanimously voted the victor due to the panel’s belief that he will go on to have a distinguished career. Though depending on one’s level of optimism, fledgling concert violists can look forward to a relatively dimmed spotlight as soloists or regular employment as role players.

“There’s a paucity of viola repertoire,” Heatherington says, adding that the biggest viola concertos came from the 20th century, with Walton’s being very “audience accessible on first hearing.”

Lipman—who is also scheduled to perform the Carl Stamitz Viola Concerto with the Montgomery Symphony—doesn’t mind the limited body of work and augments his time by playing “a ton of transcriptions,” such the Elgar Cello Concerto. “It’s much easier to be a good violist than a good violinist,” he says, “because you’re always in demand, and especially for chamber music.”

Lipman should have plenty of company to perform with  once he moves to Manhattan, since he has previously participated in the Perlman Summer Music Program in New York.

“A lot of those kids also go to Juilliard, and I know a lot of them. It’s a really nice sub-community within the greater Juilliard community.”

Matthew Lipman performs Walton’s Viola Concerto with Alan Heatherington and the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra 4:30 p.m. May 2 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The program will also include Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Corigliano’s To Music and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.; 847-673-6300.

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