Thursday, August 12, 1999

Villa Hills teen's violin soars

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jessica Park, 15, of Villa Hills, is a lot like most teen-agers. She enjoys “hanging out” with friends in Clifton to see a movie or grab a bite to eat. She likes hip-hop, rap and R&B, the music her older brother, Tom, plays on his car radio.

        But when she isn't studying geometry and advanced English at Summit Country Day School, where she'll be a sophomore this fall, she is standing in front of orchestras as a star violinist.

        She dreams of becoming a concert artist someday.

        “I'd like to be a soloist. I know I want to do music as a living,” says Miss Park from the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival, where she is spending the summer.

        “When I first listened to her when she was 6 years old, it was apparent that she was a wonderful talent who would learn very fast,” says Kurt Sassmannshaus, director of the Starling Project and Miss Park's violin teacher.

        “There was already a great accuracy in her playing. She was able to learn a lot of repertoire very fast, and the musicality was already apparent.”

        Miss Park started violin at age 4 in a Suzuki class, a group method in which children learn to play by ear before they learn to read music. At 7, she switched to the Starling Preparatory String Project, a renowned training program directed by Mr. Sassmannshaus at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Soon she was practicing an hour or two a day — a lot for a youngster.

        The practice paid off.

        By age 9, when many young girls are playing with Barbie dolls, Miss Park was preparing for her solo debut in a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Young People's Concert under Keith Lockhart, then associate conductor. She is the youngest soloist to play with the CSO.

        In 1996, she returned to Music Hall to play a Mozart Rondo with the CSO under John Morris Russell.

        Although she is too young to drive, she has toured the world, and is a featured soloist on the Starling Chamber Orchestra's two latest albums (Aspen Serenade and Simply Brilliant!)

        Her favorite memory is a Starling tour to Seoul, South Korea, in June 1997, where she met relatives she had never seen. (Her parents, Dr. Soon and Hyun Sook Park, were born in Pusan, not far from Seoul.)

        With the orchestra, she has performed at New York's Lincoln Center, toured Istanbul and traveled three times to Europe. On one European tour, her playing was noticed by the German newspaper, Frankfurter Neue Press, which singled her out as “an exceptional talent.”

        “Back then, I loved performing because I got to dress up, and it was fun,” she says. “I wasn't nervous about it at all.”

        Recently, she performed a gala concert in Graz, Austria, at the invitation of the Karl Bohm Foundation. Named for the famous conductor Karl Bohm, the foundation promotes young talent.

        “The concert hall was fully packed,” she says. “At the end, I played an encore, Czardas, and the audience was very surprised.”

        She had won their hearts without realizing it, because the melody she played was a familiar gypsy folk tune. She had no idea how popular the tune was until the next day when she was out shopping and heard a violinist playing it on the street.

        At Aspen, she is immersed in music from morning until night, taking private lessons, playing chamber music and working with some of the world's greatest performers and conductors. The students rotate between Aspen's four orchestras.

        “We play with all sorts of famous people. For instance, this Sunday we'll play Mahler's Symphony No. 3 with (Metropolitan Opera artistic director) James Levine,” she says, matter-of-factly.

        The previous week, she played a concert version of Wagner's opera Gotterdammerung under maestro James Conlon, music director of the Cincinnati May Festival and principal conductor of the Paris Opera. She also has played with David Zinman, music director of the Aspen Music Festival, and Lawrence Foster.

        Her favorite music to play as a soloist?

        “I like the Brahms, Beethoven and Bartok concertos a lot,” the young virtuoso says.

        As her playing matures, she inches closer to achieving her dream.

        “Now, her playing incorporates a really advanced technique with aristocratic sense of beautiful phrasing,” Mr. Sassmannshaus says. “I see a brilliant future for her.”

        In five years, she'd like to be “in a great conservatory somewhere,” working on a music degree.

        And touring the world?

        “Why not?” she says. “As long as I'm doing music, I'll be happy.”


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