Chicago Academy Is Major Key For Young Musicians

Students at the Music Institute of Chicago have many opportunities to perform chamber music.  (Photo by David Joel)
Students intent on professional careers have many opportunities to perform at the Music Institute of Chicago.
(Photo by David Joel)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – How many cello concertos did Mozart write? What is the relative major key of E-flat minor? What is the form of the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto?

Almita Vamos teaches a violin student at the Music Institute.
Almita Vamos teaches a violin student at the Music Institute.

These were among the dozens of questions that two teams of students (named after the Sharks and Jets from West Side Story) answered for a couple of hours on a recent Saturday morning, along with identifying modes, extended chords, and musical works played on a piano. It was all part of the informal music theory contest that traditionally ends the 30-week school year of the Music Institute of Chicago’s Academy.

As bursts of applause, cheers and laughter made clear, there was a plenty of fun to go around. But the challenging event also showed the seriousness of the Academy, which competes with such elite programs as the pre-college division of the Juilliard School in New York and the Colburn School in Los Angeles and draws students from as far away as Venezuela.

“The Music Institute is really the place to go in the Midwest,” said 24-year-old violinist Benjamin Beilman, winner of a 2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant. He studied at the Academy from 2002 to 2007, later attending the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Other prominent alumni include violinists Jennifer Koh and Rachel Barton Pine, cellists Gabriel Cabezas and Wendy Warner, and two members of the Pacifica Quartet.

Many of the Academy’s students already have resumes packed with honors and awards. Gallia Kastner, a 17-year-old violinist from Arlington Heights, auditioned for the Academy when she was 8 and started a year later. She studies with Almita and Roland Vamos, who have taught at the school for more than 35 years. (See her at 10, left.) Kastner said that while she is not yet sure what aspect of music-making she wants to pursue as a career, she is leaning toward chamber music: “I think I would definitely love doing that for a long time.”

Kastner recently joined 170 budding talents at YoungArts Week in Miami, where she performed in the Brahms Horn Trio (at left). And she’s a member of Quartet Lumiere, which won the junior gold medal in the 2013 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. “Just doing competition after competition after competition is really difficult,” Kastner said, “and you have to be absolutely perfect at all times. The main benefit from it is that it gives me so much experience for later on.”

Institute founders David and Dorothy Dushkin with their children.
Institute founders David and Dorothy Dushkin with their children.

The Music Institute – originally known as the School of Musical Arts and Crafts – was founded in 1931 in Winnetka by David and Dorothy Dushkin, who met in Paris as students of famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. The elite Academy is  just one facet of the 83-year-old institution, which bills itself as the one of the nation’s three largest and most respected community schools, along with the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.

This broader program has an annual budget of $7.5 million and enrolls about 2,000 students – ranging in age from infants in its parent-child classes to at least one centenarian – during the academic year at its six Chicago-area campuses. Another 1,000 students take part in its camps and other summer activities. In addition, the Music Institute manages Nichols Concert Hall, a 550-seat, acoustically vibrant venue in a converted 1912 Greek Revival church in Evanston.

Violinist Samuel Dushkin, who taught artist students. (Library of Congress)
Violinist Samuel Dushkin performed with Stravinsky at the Institute.

Although the Academy division is only eight years old, serious training for students seeking a career in music has existed at the Music Institute in some form since the beginning. David Dushkin’s brother, Samuel, who performed the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, gave a recital early on at the school with Stravinsky, and the composer took part in master classes there. By the time Ukrainian-born pianist Inna Faliks began what she calls “life-defining” studies in 1989 with Emilio del Rosario, the Saturday classes she took closely paralleled those of today’s high-level Academy. “I never had Saturday plans, because we were there all day long,” said Faliks, who debuted as a teen with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and now teaches at UCLA. “It was just amazing. It basically made you a performer from day one, and I think I owe everything to that.”

To best serve professionally-bound students as well the many who simply seek to become proficient, the decision was made to divide the advanced training into a formalized academy and move it to its own location on the grounds of the famed Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

Flute students in action at the Music Institute of Chicago.
Flute students in action, for the joy of it, at the Music Institute.

“There was some tension when they were all in the same building, just because some kids are going to have that talent, drive or determination to be a professional,” said Mark George, the institute’s president and chief executive officer. “And it’s almost always going to overshadow what most of the other kids are doing, which is just learning to become very good musicians. So, putting (the Academy) in a different place and giving it its own curriculum and its own source of scholarship support have made both programs wind up being healthier and better disposed toward each other.”

The Academy’s training, all day on Saturdays, involves private lessons, music theory, chamber music and various master classes and presentations. Notable visitors last year included pianist Robert McDonald, violinists Pine and James Ehnes, and such ensembles as the Poulenc Trio and Fifth House Ensemble.

Fifteen-year-old pianist Daniel Szefer (shown here at 11 and 14) began his studies at the Music Institute when he was 7 and moved into the Academy last year. He’s among 129 musicians from seventeen nations chosen to take part in the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians, which is set for June 23-July 3 in Moscow.

“When I was very young,” Szefer said, “I remember hearing Lang Lang play, and I read his book, and he was one of the biggest inspirations of my young life. I read that he won the Young Tchaikovsky Competition, and it has always been my dream to play there.”

Nathan Mo, 15, of Rolling Meadows, has been a part of the Academy for three years after earlier studies at the Music Institute. As a 2014 first-place winner (in the age category 13-18) of the American Protégé International Concerto Competition, he got to take part in a group recital in May at Carnegie Hall. “It makes me feel that if I want something, I can reach that goal,” Mo said “This has motivated to me to work a lot harder, because it was very exciting to play in a great hall like Carnegie.”

From the beginning, the Academy has kept its enrollment to between 30 and 40 students, with last year’s class topping out at 31. “It’s the level where you can have a viable string orchestra but also give everybody the attention that they need,” George said. Indeed, he believes the Academy’s intimate size is one of the principal attributes that separate it from many similar programs, including the pre-college division at Juilliard, which has about 300 students a year.

In addition to the intense instruction, the Saturday classes also become an important place for the Academy students to meet and make friends with other career-minded musicians like them. Beilman, who in November performed the world premiere of David Ludwig’s Swan Song as part of his Carnegie Hall recital debut, said it was hard for many of his regular school friends to understand the rigorous practice and devotion he had to put toward his music at such a young age. “When you went to the Music Institute every weekend,” he said, “this was the time when you actually got to socialize with people exactly like you.”

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.