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September 22, 2023

Rogue Valley-based youth violinists heading to world-class music competition in Vienna in 2024

Siskiyou Violins artistic director Faina Podolnaya, left, plays alongside violinists and special guest celloist Samuel Severson, right, during a recent rehearsal in Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
September 6, 2023

Siskiyou Violins held fundraiser at Grizzly Peak Winery Thursday

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

It’s safe to say Vienna has been waiting for a performance by the James M. Collier Siskiyou Violins for some time. Next summer, pending meeting of fundraising goals, the wait will be over.

The Rogue Valley-based violinist group will compete on the world stage in the 2024 Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival. It’s certainly no surprise to Artistic Director Faina Podolnaya, based in Ashland, who has already led the violin group to both Carnegie Hall in New York City and an international youth music festival in Los Angeles. 

The student group is made up of violinists from all over the Rogue Valley, including Ashland. Others have come from as far south as Redding to play for Podolnaya.

Podolnaya has every reason to be confident about her students and their performance abilities, too.

The Siskiyou Violins group won three gold medals at the annual New York International Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and have also been awarded the Carnegie Medal.

The group includes proteges taught by Wendy Savage and an advanced ensemble taught by Podolnaya. The youth violinist group, with musicians ranging in age from 8 to “20-somethings,” filled the First Presbyterian Church with melodies, including songs from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” on a recent August evening. 

Daniel Heycke, 17, a senior at St. Mary’s, will travel next July to Vienna, Austria, to perform with Siskiyou Violins. Courtesy photo

“We’ve been dreaming and working on this for a long time,” said Kelly Conlon, vice president of the Siskiyou Violins board of directors, of competing in Vienna. Her son Daniel Heycke also plays with Siskiyou Violins and will be on the trip in July 2024.

Before they fly to Vienna, Austria, though, Siskiyou Violins performed a fundraising concert Thursday, Sept. 7, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland. 

The $35-per ticket fundraiser included sushi by Umami and various wines. Proceeds will help bolster Siskiyou Violins operations and music fund, with a focus on subsidizing its scholarship kids’ participation in performances and workshops at the 2024 festival. 

The group is aiming to raise at least $30,000 overall for the trip, with costs potentially rising by more than double that amount, depending on the final group size. More than 20 students are currently signed up to go. Family members will also travel with the group in addition to instructors. The 2024 trip is also still open to youth string players who meet Siskiyou Violin’s requirements.

The group has raised more than $16,200 of the $30,000 goal as of Wednesday evening, and were hoping for a well-attended concert and dinner fundraiser to help fill the gap. Funds would cover the trip for students and their parent/or guardians, in addition to traveling instructors.

Siskiyou Violins artistic director Faina Podolnaya, right, coaches violin student Benen Chiang-Willis, 8, left, as his dad, Jojo Willis, center, looks on at Podolnaya’s Ashland home. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Starting them young

Many of the students start at age 5, though some have started at age 12. Conlon’s son, now 17, a senior at St. Mary’s, will travel with the group.

“Having something you’re good at is so important for kids,” Conlon said, sharing a patio bench with Podolnaya at the music director’s Ashland home last week.

Podolnaya said the majority of Heycke’s success comes from Conlon, his mom.

Faina Podolnaya, artistic director of Siskiyou Violins, poses with her violin in her Ashland home. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

“She was at the lessons, she was practicing with him,” she said. “Without mom, it would not happen.”

“For me, I said ‘yes’ to this trip because of her (Conlon’s) son,” Podolnaya added. 

“He just gave me all the reasons (to go).”

Conlon noted that Podolnaya played a significant role in the violin students’ success overall.

“Once you know Faina, you love Faina,” she said. “You just want to do whatever she needs.”

The patio where the two sat across from a visiting reporter sits just off Podolnaya’s office, where she teaches young students violin and cello.

Posters and photos fill the walls of the space, showcasing where she has taken her students and where they have taken her over the years. Each poster and photo frame is a point of pride for her and a conversation piece, causing her to remember accolades from years past, such as earning a perfect 100 out of 100 score at a competition in Los Angeles, or playing at Carnegie Hall in New York.

“It was (the) first time,” Podolnaya said, of the perfect score at the L.A. festival. “They said it never happened.”

During the interview, Podolnaya welcomed 8-year-old violinist Benen Chiang-Willis and his dad, Jojo Willis, in the back door to begin the young violinist’s lesson. Chiang-Willis and his family will make the trip to the competition next summer.

Podolnaya smiled as Chiang-Willis dutifully brought his violin to rest between his neck and shoulder, his eye on his teacher as they both began to play.

When asked what it is Podolnaya does differently in her teaching methods, she had a one-word answer: Love.

“If they love (the) teacher, if they love (the) subject the teacher teaches, they trust that it is important,” Podolnaya said.

Podolnaya said performing in the strings group instills self-confidence and relationship building that goes beyond their teen years.

“If they master violin, they can master anything,” Podolnaya said.

“I heard from so many students, it helped them in different parts of their life … It changes kid’s (lives),” Podolnaya said.

Podolnaya has quite the story herself, having come to the United States years more than two decades ago in 1999.

Siskiyou Violins Artistic Director Faina Podolnaya prepares for a student lesson in her Ashland home. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Origin story started in Ukraine

Originally from Konotop, a small village in northeastern Ukraine, she left Ukraine at a young 

age and eventually taught music in Kazakhstan.

“In Kazakhstan, I had an amazing ensemble of violinists from Korean students,” she said. “We even had a gold medal from all Soviet Union competition.”

But when Podolnaya arrived in the U.S., and eventually in Ashland, she made $50 a night serving as a nighttime caregiver and said she had no hopes of teaching at the time. She had left everything behind to live with her daughter in the United States. She sent the money she made back to her parents in Ukraine.

“(In Kazakhstan) I taught in school equal to Juilliard in America,” Podolnaya said, “… that provided only professionals (training), and here (at the time, there were) no hopes, no nothing.

“I slept on the floor of my daughter’s student apartment (near Southern Oregon University),” she added.

Ashland community members and a Temple Emek Shalom violin concert helped raise several thousand dollars for her to get a violin once again.

“I fell in love with America and American people,” she said.

Podolnaya started with Siskiyou Violins by teaching one student at a time  — and then, two and then three, and beyond.

At this point in the interview, Podolnaya recalled a parent from Klamath Falls asking her, “Maybe you dream of going to Carnegie Hall.”

Podolnaya swiftly recalls responding, “What are you talking about?”

The parent helped her look into the concept and a video of the students performing was made and then submitted.

The rest is history. In 2005, an acceptance letter arrived.

“One student of mine was here when we got that letter,” she recalls. “They opened it. We were jumping, touching the ceiling, (the) lesson was ruined.”

The acceptance letter for Vienna came via email in January, Conlon said, and the group was just as elated at the chance to attend the world-class competition.

They will participate in three performances in five days in addition to the chance to see the sights of Austria in and around Vienna.

“I think it will be a transformative experience,” said Wendy Savage, assistant artistic director, who teaches 8-year-olds in the group known as the proteges.

Several of the proteges will play along with the advanced ensemble group going to Vienna.

For more information about the trip, go online to go.rallyup.com/violins-to-vienna/Campaign/Details, or to the Siskiyou Violins website at siskiyouviolins.org.

Musical artist Billy Joel first stated “Vienna waits for you,” as referenced by the reporter in the first sentence.

Reach Ashland.news staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Sept. 8: Story updated to reflect that the Sept. 7 fundraising event has passed. Also, more information added about the size of the group traveling to Vienna.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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