The 30th annual Irving M. Klein International String Competition is now history. This year's Chamberlain Family First Prizewinner is Oliver Herbert, the semi-finalist we talked to for our story below. Herbert grew up in San Francisco, attended Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and is a former member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. He'll enter Philadelphia's Curtis Institute this fall. The judges also awarded Herbert the prize for "Best Performance of Solo Bach."
Here's the original piece:
One of the nation’s top music competitions is celebrating its 30th anniversary this week in San Francisco.
The Irving M. Klein International String Competition has given dozens of young musicians a boost as they started their careers.
Among the former winners are classical music superstars like violinist Jennifer Koh and up-and-comers such as cellist and Oaklander David Requiro. The competition's winners also go on to take leading positions in some of the country's most prestigious orchestras, including The New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.
The top finishers get cash prizes, and the winner gets booked for five performances with Bay Area symphony and chamber ensembles.
We recently talked to former winner, 25-year-old violinist Tessa Lark (2008), and to 17-year-old Oliver Herbert of San Francisco, a cello player, and one of the eight semi-finalists in this year’s competition.
What’s so special about the Klein Competition?
The thing that drew me to it is that it’s what I call a real world competition, in that the prize involves a lot of performances afterwards. Of course it’s nice to win a competition, have it on your resume and win a cash prize of some sort. But what really drew me to the Klein is it puts your foot in the place you want to be early on.
I’m still kind of new to the competition scene. But I have some friends who’ve done it in the past. My goal in entering a competition isn’t necessarily to win a prize. It gives me a goal and something to practice for. It also gives me the experience of hearing other people. Because at a competition at that level, it's really inspiring to meet the other musicians and play with them.
Your parents all play instruments. But what got you started playing when you were younger?
There was always music around the house and I always wanted to create it myself. There was a toy keyboard that I played.
I played mandolin. Before mandolin, I was begging for piano lessons. But we didn’t have the means for a piano in the house at that time and the teacher we found also taught violin and said, "maybe you’d like to start with that instead." I supposedly declared myself a violinist at age seven.
I’m told that I showed interest in playing. So when I was two or three years old, my parents started me on the violin and piano. I didn’t think that it was an unusual thing to be doing because both my parents were playing and there was always practicing in the house, so it was my way of fitting in. After a while I started to enjoy it. Eventually I discovered the cello when I was about five years old. When I was seven I got big enough and my parents allowed me start studies on the cello.
I get goose bumps as an audience member when I’m listening to a great performance of beautiful music. Why does performing mean so much to you?
It’s exactly the same for me: It’s that goose bump factor -- and that words are not required for instrumental music. In a way, it feels like a first language for me. So if you can’t put something into words, you can go to music and express yourself in that way. And I think that’s the amazing thing about the live concert experience too: that people can go about their days and then come to a concert and turn off their minds, woes and worries and be immersed in music.
The start of it all was falling in love with the music itself, discovering new composers and listening to great music. And eventually when I started performing, I discovered how great and profound it was to be able to share that feeling with other people as well.
Who are your favorite composers? Whose music do you love to play?
The thing I love most is slow and sultry romantic music. I adore Brahms so much. Any of those composers who have the knack for writing beautiful "ear-worm" music. Schubert, Chopin.
I love to play solo Bach. I don’t love to perform it, honestly, because it’s very nerve-wracking. But sitting in a room by myself, Bach is really special because of the way he wrote for the cello. I love playing new music, and in the Klein competition I get to play a brand new piece -- Ophelia by Paola Prestini, commissioned for the competition. Recently I started a little project where I tried to transcribe some Schubert songs for the cello, because the cello is a very vocal instrument and I think the Schubert songs really translate well. But I very rarely find a piece that I don’t like playing. My tastes are broad.
What do you listen to when you’re not listening to classical music?
I do like jazz a lot -- any of the old greats like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.
But also bluegrass fits in all the time, any day. I can let my hair down. I really like the "new grass" sounds of the Punch Brothers. Edgar Meyer does amazing stuff.
I used to love classic rock. I listened to Led Zeppelin a lot. And I also love alternative bands like Radiohead. But I’m playing so much music lately, that I actually don’t find a lot of time to just sit down and listen. The music on my phone is primarily classical these days.
Tessa: You mentioned white noise. Did you mean that?
I’m out in the countryside now here in upstate New York. Going out into the country and listening to nothing but natural sound is probably my favorite thing to do.
Oliver: What do you think about about what Tessa says about turning off the sound?
I agree silence is really great. I’m a cello player, so my instrument isn’t that loud. But my father is a timpanist. He always tells me how great it is to just get home and have nothing turned on and just sit in the quiet.
The 30th annual Irving M. Klein Competition takes place June 4-7, 2015 at San Francisco State University, San Francisco.