ashland.news
July 18, 2024

‘Speaking one language through music’: Young Southern Oregon musicians to travel to Austria

The Siskiyou Violins, shown here at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday, will compete against the top young musicians in the world between at the 16th annual Summa Cum Laude International Youth Festival in Vienna, Austria, in July. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
June 14, 2024

James M. Collier Siskiyou Violins headed to world-class competition in Vienna in July

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news 

There are more than 5,700 miles between Medford and Vienna, Austria, but soon, musicians from throughout Southern Oregon will close the gap by traveling to compete in the music capital of the world.

About 30 students ranging in age from 10 to 26, taught by Artistic Director Faina Podolnaya, will represent Southern Oregon as members of the James M. Collier Siskiyou Violins group on the world stage in Vienna, Austria. Performance competition takes place July 5-10 at the 16th annual Summa Cum Laude International Youth Festival. 

Siskiyou Violins, an advanced ensemble of violinists from across Southern Oregon, is one of two orchestra groups set to compete from the mainland United States, and one of five groups from U.S. territories, including Musicall Youth Orchestra of Miami, Philadelphia Girls Choir, Tumon Bay Youth Orchestra in Guam, and Guam Territorial Band. 

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The Southern Oregon group will compete against 36 orchestras from around the world, with a gala performance on July 9.

“I am so excited to be performing internationally with Siskiyou Violins, the group that I’ve grown up with,” said Trinity Psalm, an 18-year-old participant, in a news release. “I have never been outside the U.S., and this is going to be such a wonderful experience.”

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

The festival is a premier international youth music festival for choirs, orchestras, and symphonic bands, with stringent eligibility standards. Austria’s Federal President and Sabine Haag, president of the Austrian Commission for UNESCO, are slated to attend.

In Vienna, more than 1,000 students will perform at The Golden Hall of the Musikverein, the Grand Hall of the Konzerthaus, and the MuTh Concert Hall of the renowned Vienna Boys Choir, according to a news release. Musicians from China, Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, the Faroe Islands, Estonia, Peru and many others will compete, “speaking one language through music,” according to a news release.

“I am very excited to play in Vienna because it sounds like a really beautiful place, and I hope that I will make new friends from other countries,” said Ember Richards, 10, in a news release about the trip.

Siskiyou Violins Artistic Director Faina Podolnaya smiles Wednesday as she works with violinists during rehearsal at First Presbyterian Church in Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Playing by memory

Siskiyou Violin participants play violin in a unique way — by memory – which Podolnaya teaches using components of a color-coding and the Suzuki method. 

She also conducts the group by playing songs from memory with them, versus conducting them with a baton. Students are taught to incorporate choreography as they play. For instance, when violinists play “Pirates of the Caribbean,” they are instructed to use interactive body language while playing to show aggressive feelings associated with music about pirates. 

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“I told them, you have to get this music into your soul,” Podolnaya said in an interview over tea at her Ashland home Wednesday morning.

Podolnaya meets with each of her students on a regular basis for private lessons at her home.

Caleb Bechtel, 21, practices with Siskiyou Violins Artistic Director Faina Podolnaya on Wednesday at her studio in Ashland. Bechtel performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the student violin ensemble and will travel again with the group to compete in Vienna in July. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

During an interview with Ashland.news, one of Podolnaya’s students, Caleb Bechtel, arrived for his one-on-one practice session. 

The 21-year-old, now a junior at Tennessee Adventist University, has been a student of Podolnaya’s since age 15 and traveled with Siskiyou Violins to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2019.

Jennifer Bechtel, of Talent, who accompanied him to the one-on-one practice session, praised her son for his accomplishments.

“He worked so hard to get to that level, and there was a lot of pressure, it’s not easy,” Jennifer said.

“I think violin has given him a little bit of an emotional release,” she added. “I feel like it almost rounds him and gets him in tune with the music that’s inside of him.”

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Despite the warm weather, students met for rehearsal inside First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday evening in preparation for their upcoming Friday night show at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s popular, outdoor Green Show, which takes place on stage near the bricks.

When the group performs, the youngest students arrive on stage to play first, followed by the rest of the group, which includes students up to age 25, showcasing the overall strength of the group in a way that incorporates surprise.

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Artists and entertainers

All students are instructed to enter the stage smiling, according to Podolnaya, who has been known to stop a rehearsal if even one person isn’t smiling as they enter.

“They are not only violinists, we are not only performers, we are artists and entertainers, and that’s why they have to entertain themselves first of all and (the) audience,” she said.

Conlon, president of the board, will also travel to Vienna with her son, Daniel Heycke, 18, a recent graduate of St. Mary’s in Medford. The performances in Vienna will be his last with Siskiyou Violins.

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“It’ll be his grand finale,” Conlon told Ashland.news in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Siskiyou Violins perform Friday at Green Show
The James M. Collier Siskiyou Violins will perform their Vienna competition set at 6:45 p.m. Friday, June 14, at the Green Show on the bricks at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and again at 7.p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at First Presbyterian Church, 1615 Clark Ave., Ashland.
For more on the James M. Collier Siskiyou Violins, click here.

To learn more about the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Festival, go to festivalsclfestival.org.

In another way, it will be their grand entrance to the international stage.

“It’s a dream come true trip,” Conlon said.

“It’s just been such a rollercoaster figuring things out … Every time I thought things were going smoothly, there’d be another bump in the road.

“All these kids have been working so hard to pass (concert) pieces,” she added. “Faina makes sure that each individual can play the piece just right and a lot of them are quite young and so some of these young ones are working so hard to pass one more piece (of music). It’s just been amazing to see how hard the students are working.”

It won’t be the first time the student violin group has traveled far to compete.

Since 2005, Siskiyou Violins has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

It will be the first international competition for the group, but Podolnaya is confident in their skills.

Using her violin bow, Podolnaya pointed to the gold plaques on Wednesday above the doorway of her Ashland violin studio, located inside her home, to highlight how far the group has come over the years.

“We have reason to think good about ourselves,” Podolnaya said.

However, she cautions students to think too much about winning and emphasizes just being present.

The group, between students and parents, will total 73, many of which will be staying overseas longer to tour and sight-see in Europe, including Podolnaya.

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

The Siskiyou Violins at a rehearsal in First Presbyterian Church in Ashland on Wednesday. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

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

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