Pitcairn & “Red Violin” CHAMPS in Austin, Texas

by Paul E. Robinson

A lingering recession is the worst of times for the arts generally and for music education specifically. Hardly a day goes by without more news of cuts to funding of orchestras, theatres, art galleries, museums and schools. The bad news, however, is often offset by good news; for example, the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto, Canada) just announced a partnership with Carnegie Hall to introduce a national system of study and assessment in the U.S. modeled after the RCM’s comprehensive and highly respected programme, and the Venezuelan movement called El Sistema has taken root in the United States as well, with encouraging results.

More modest classical music education programmes are flourishing all over the United States and some seem almost impervious to economic or political ups and downs.

One such venture was initiated in Austin in 1991 by violinist Robert Rudié under the name Chamber Music in the Public Schools (CHAMPS). Today CHAMPS works every year with at least 60 students in a total of eleven schools.

To judge by the benefit concert given last week at the Ballet Austin Headquarters, CHAMPS has more support than ever. Several years ago, I was one of a total of approximately 50 people who attended a similar CHAMPS event. This time out there were more than 250 in attendance.

The State of Texas, like most U.S. states, has a huge budget deficit, and hundreds of teachers are being laid off, but proven programmes like CHAMPS continue to grow. Why? I would guess that driving this growth are parents who care enough about their children’s classical music education to make the effort to find the money to fund the programmes that provide it.

2redviolinThe big attraction at this year’s CHAMPS benefit concert was Elizabeth Pitcairn performing on the Red Violin.”

In 1998, Canadian director Francois Girard made a film (poster: right) called “The Red Violin” about a Stradivarius violin (the “Red Mendelssohn”) and its mysterious history. This particular Strad was called the “Red Violin” because of the distinctive colour of its varnish. Unlike most Strads, the whereabouts of which have been well chronicled over history, the “Red Violin” vanished from sight for more than 200 years; the film speculates about the people who might have owned it and/or played it throughout those years.

Current owner of the “Red Violin”, Elizabeth Pitcairn, comes from a distinguished musical family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her great-grandfather founded the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company (PPG) and her father trained to be an opera singer. Her mother, Mary Eleanor Brace Pitcairn, has an Austin connection, having studied cello at the University of Texas. Elizabeth herself studied with Robert Lipsett at USC in Los Angeles. She concertizes internationally and, until recently, served as co-concertmaster for the New West Symphony under Boris Brott.

Pitcairn became a part of the history of the “Red Violin” when her family bought this priceless instrument  for her at auction almost twenty years ago. The auction price is said to have been $1.6 million.

imagesAccompanist for Ms. Pitcairn at the Austin concert was Toby Blumenthal (photo: right), newly appointed director of CHAMPS. Pitcairn and Blumenthal are both directors of a summer music school, The Luzerne Music Center New York State), founded by Toby and her late husband Bert Phillips, a longtime cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This CHAMPS fundraiser concert was thoroughly enjoyable and no doubt an inspiration for all the young people in attendance. Between pieces, Ms. Pitcairn charmed the audience with some personal anecdotes and a brief history of her famous violin – which she has named “Felix.” Judging by her love of music, her ability to charm an audience, and her virtuosic playing, Elisabeth Pitcairn seems an ideal role model for young people just beginning to explore the wonders of classical music.

Playing with authority and panache, she began her short programme with Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata then went on to pieces by Gershwin, Dinicu, Paganini and Monti. The sound of the “Red Violin” was pure gold in Paganini’s “Cantabile.” and distinctively exciting in the fireworks of Monti’s “Csardas.”

The CHAMPS programme made a wise choice in inviting Elizabeth and “Felix” to perform their magic in Austin. I am certain that many children and their parents left this concert vowing to redouble their efforts to make good music an important part of all their lives.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of “Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar,” and “Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music.” NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

Photo slideshow by Marita