Artist Interview: Violinist Tim Fain

By Patrick Burke on October 18, 2013

With his adventurous spirit and vast musical gifts, Tim Fain has emerged as a mesmerizing presence on the chamber music scene. His November 1st performance with Pei-Yao Wang at the Philosophical Society features a who’s-who of contemporary composers. Earlier this month I sat down with Tim to talk about his new CD, his work with Philip Glass, and his memories of Philadelphia.

Patrick Burke:  Your November program with PCMS features a lot of new and exciting works, most of which are also found on your newest CD, River of Light.  How did you go about selecting the works for this recital?

Tim Fain:  The program, and the CD in general, is a cross-section of some of my favorite voices in contemporary music, which I believe represent some of the best music out there by living composers. These works speak directly to who I am as an artist. Virtually all of the works bring ideas from other idioms to a classical setting while presenting a lyrical quality that I appreciate  and relate to so strongly. Patrick Zimmerli's music is heavily influenced by his jazz background, and we worked very intensely on The Light Guitar together, Richard Danielpour's work River of Light draws heavily from Persian music and styles, Lev Zhurbin’s piece Sicilienne has a very Brazilian-clave-meets-Johannes Brahms kind of feeling, and of course Philip Glass's work owes as much to world music as it does to Andy Warhol. I was really taken by Ruth Shaw Wylie’s Wistful Piece. Her music shares an entrancingly lyrical aesthetic that is present among the other composers, particularly River of Light and Jennifer Higdon’s Legacy, which both evoke a darkly mysterious character.

PB:  You've toured extensively with Philip Glass. How did you first meet Mr. Glass, and how would you describe your relationship with him?

TF:  We have an awfully good time performing and working on some of his newer pieces together. He performs his music like nobody else–the flexibility and passion with which he plays really brings his music to life. I believe we first worked together on a concert production of Einstein on the Beach at Carnegie Hall. Shortly after, I toured with Philip in a work he wrote called Book of Longing, a song cycle based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen. That was the first time I encountered his newer work for solo strings, and I was really blown away. In Book of Longing there is a tiny movement for solo violin, maybe only a minute and a half long, called I Enjoyed the Laughter. It’s a fast and furious piece that I would play night after night on tour. Finally, I cornered Philip and said something like, "This little piece is so great–how about we work on something bigger?" And about a year later he wrote the Partita for Solo Violin. It’s a major work, seven movements long, about thirty-three minutes of music, which I believe to be some of the most intimate and very finest music he has written. I premiered Partita for Solo Violin in this country as part of a solo multi-media show that I produced called Portals, which is all about how we connect in the digital age.

PB:  You've have worked with an incredible number of artists from a wide range of genres. The Portals project pushed the boundaries of live performance, and you also worked on the movie Black Swan. Could you tell us about some of your current projects?

TF:  I recently worked on the new feature film from director Steve McQueen called 12 Years a Slave starring Chitwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and Paul Giamatti, in which I ghost play all of the solo violin performances for the main character. It’s a historical drama based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup played the violin and, in many ways, music was what kept him alive through his terrible experience. Ejiofor did an admirable job in preparing for his role as a violin player, which was no easy feat! I’m very excited about how the film has turned out–McQueen is a visionary–and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

PB:  How has your work with 20th and 21st century composers expanded your understanding of the development of classical music?  When you perform a new piece, what do you hope the audience will take away from the experience?

TF:  I hope the audience will approach this concert as they would a concert of Brahms or Schubert. While the music that Pei-Yao and I will be performing does push the boundaries of technique and color and emotion, it is music that sings and is lyrical. In essence, I hope that all of these works will portray an immediacy of emotion and connection, not unlike the music of Brahms. One of the great satisfactions for me as a performer is approaching the music of the present and past with equal ardor.

PB:  Many of our patrons are interested in the history of the instruments artists play. Could you share with us any stories related to your violin?

TF:  I’m really honored to be playing on a violin from 1717 made by Francesco Gobetti, on loan to me from Clement and Karen Arrison through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. I’ve loved playing on this instrument for a number of years now. I sometimes feel when I play this violin that I am communing with another soul, another personality–and a very strong personality at that!

PB:  You lived in Philadelphia when you were a student at Curtis. What are some of your memories of Philadelphia, and what is it like for you to return here?

TF:  The first time I came to Philadelphia I was 16 years old on the last leg of my college tours and auditions. I had already been to a number of schools throughout the country, but when I walked through the doors of the Curtis Institute of Music, I turned to my father and I said, “This is where I want to be.”  There is just this wonderful feeling I get around Rittenhouse Square and the whole city really. And the atmosphere is always just a little more relaxed than in Manhattan. I have very fond memories of exploring the city as a kid–heading down to South Philly to eat at Pat’s or Geno’s, or over to the Art Museum where, when we tired of rollerblading up and down the front steps, we would put on our shoes and head inside to enjoy the fantastic collection.

Tim Fain and Pei-Yao Wang appear with PCMS on Friday, November 1, 2013 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.

For more information on Tim Fain, please check out his website.