Artist Interview: Violinist Elizabeth Fayette

By Patrick Burke on January 23, 2016
Elizabeth Fayette

Violinist Elizabeth Fayette makes her PCMS recital debut on Sunday, February 14 with pianist Adam Golka. I recently spoke with the 2014 Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia Career Grant about her program, her busy performance schedule, and her musical upbringing. 

Patrick Burke: Your February recital features exclusively French composers. How did you decide on this program, and are there more commonalities besides just the nationality of the composers?

Elizabeth Fayette: The four works on this program span just over 100 years, with the earliest, the Franck, composed in 1886 and the latest, the Boulez, in 1991.  Yet despite sharing a nationality, an instrumentation and a basic time period, each piece is a unique work with its own language, its own internal logic and its own indelible style.

On the other hand, as the appropriately French epigram states, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose; roughly translated, the more things change, the more they stay the same. These works all have a flair for the dramatic, balance great extremes of emotion, and share a structure in which ideas re-appear and are re-examined throughout the piece.  In the end, I hope that the experience of the recital is like looking at a prism from many different angles - as each facet is observed, more perspectives emerge to create a broader picture of the whole.

The Franck was the first piece that I programmed for purely selfish reasons - I wanted to play it! It is such a standard piece in the violin repertoire, yet by chance or circumstance I had never studied it.  About a year and half ago, I heard a flutist perform it (it is one of the most stolen violin pieces…), and all I could think about was how jealous I was that I wasn’t the one playing. That was a pretty good indicator that it was past time to explore the piece for myself, and I immediately bought the music and went to work!

PB: You are an avid chamber musician, and recently you have been playing extensively with orchestras as both a soloist and as concertmaster of Symphony in C. With this schedule, how do you prepare yourself for a recital, and how are the two experiences different for you as an artist?

EF: On a general note, I am so lucky to have a varied and interesting musical life, and I take great inspiration from not only my orchestral and chamber music colleagues, but also from the repertoire itself. I think that this breadth of experience only helps my musicianship. For example, one looks at a Mozart violin concerto a little differently if one has also played his string quartets, his operas, and his symphonies.  Besides, the music is just too good; who wouldn’t want a life where one can play solo Bach, a Mahler symphony, and everything in between?

Artistically, in preparing for a recital rather than an orchestral or chamber music performance, the only difference is one of autonomy - I make more decisions for myself a higher percentage of the time!  Otherwise the aim, to communicate a point-of-view, is the same no matter what kind of performance I am preparing for.

Practically, I find it helpful to categorize repertoire based on type. This even extends to how I physically organize my music - depending on the current and future requirements of my life, I might have separate binders for concertos, recital programs, orchestra music, chamber music, etc.  When I practice, I focus on only one category at a time, as each style of playing asks for different things. When I prepare a recital program, much of my practice goes into unifying and honing my interpretation and building endurance as I prepare to be in the spotlight for the entire performance. On the other hand, when I practice chamber or orchestral music, I focus on how I fit into the whole, when I need to be heard and when I need to support, and how I can best fulfill the role that I am in.

PB: You’re a graduate of the Curtis Institute, and your teachers are all PCMS favorites including Pamela Frank, Shmuel Ashkenasi, and Arnold Steinhardt. Could you tell our audience about your time at Curtis, and specifically your work with these three masters?

EF: I feel that I have had one of the best musical educations that one could ask for.  I was always playing at Curtis - I wanted to be involved in everything, from opera orchestra to the contemporary music ensemble to working with composers to my own chamber music projects - and this led to experiences which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  The fact that all three of my teachers were not just fantastic violinists but also incredible chamber musicians inspired me to make chamber music a huge priority in my own life.  I thought myself so privileged to be able to bring not just the standard concertos and sonatas to my lessons, but also Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht or Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence.

What I loved about my teachers in particular, and Curtis in general, was a sense of being connected to a musical lineage. Mr. Ashkenasi would tell me about his lessons with Mr. Zimbalist, or Mr. Steinhardt would talk about hearing Heifetz perform, and through them I felt part of that history as well.

PB: You come from a musical family. Could you tell us about your musical upbringing and how you came to choose the violin?

EF: My house was certainly a busy (and loud!) place when I was growing up. Both my parents are musicians - my father a bassist and recently retired high school music teacher, and my mother a violin/viola Suzuki teacher - as well as all three of my siblings. Looking back now, I realize objectively that we must have looked unique to an outside observer; we practiced before school (I do not miss 6am scales….), car ride discussions might center around proper orchestral etiquette, and when we were little it was a coveted prize to choose the music we listened to during dinner. Yet, even though I knew that we were unlike other kids in my school, since it was my entire family doing this I always felt very normal.

As for why I play violin, it was really sheer stubbornness. My brother is two years older, and he began violin with my mom right when I was born, so the first two years of my life were spent sitting with my mom as she practiced with him. By the time I was two I had started to imitate my brother with a violin-shaped Christmas tree ornament and a Lincoln Log, but my mom didn’t think that a boy and a girl so close in age should play the same instrument. She tried to convince me to play cello instead, but I, and this is the polite way of saying it, refused. She tried again with the next child and thus my younger sister is now the cellist, but starting her made my mom realize that she knew very little about beginner cello. So the youngest in my family again plays violin!

PB: Lastly, our audience is always interested in the instruments that our artists play on. Could you tell us about your violin, its history and tendencies and how did you choose that specific instrument?

EF: I am playing on a violin which was built for me and finished in March 2015 by the NYC-based luthier Stefan Valcuha.  I am so thrilled with the instrument, and feel that it is a true helpmate and partner in my musical life. This is the first violin that I have owned in a long time - I have been borrowing instruments since I was in high school - and while I was privileged to play on historic violins, this one feels like it is a true reflection of my disposition. Older instruments often come with their own ingrained personalities and while I certainly had a fantastic education from each instrument that I played, now I am in the lucky position of being able to imprint this violin with my own personality!

When I started the process of looking for a permanent violin, asking Stefan to build one for me was my first choice.  I had heard and tried a number of his instruments over the years, since he took care of the violins that I borrowed from the Juilliard collection, and was struck by their warmth and strength as well as how beautifully they fit under the hand.  I also liked that his instruments could suit soloistic, collaborative and accompanimental roles. As someone who plays a lot of chamber and orchestral music, I need to balance times when I really have to be heard with times when I really shouldn’t be heard!  

From 2014-2015 Stefan made two “twin” violins, letting me choose which one I wanted. I chose this one after only five minutes of playing. Even though the two violins were the same model, same wood, same color and same age, I sensed (they were both brand new and thus not fully formed) that the one I chose had an extra sweetness. I also appreciated that, while it was comfortable to play, it wasn’t too easy - I like being able to “carve” out the sound.  Interestingly, my teacher and a good friend visited his shop and saw the two violins before I did. After playing them, both correctly predicted which one I would choose!

Violinist Elizabeth Fayette performs with Adam Golka, piano on Sunday, February 14, 2016 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.

For more information on Elizabeth, visit her website.