Hearts and Violins
Jennifer Bourianoff Has Found Happiness Playing Chamber Music and Living in Austin
The grand finale of this season's Austin Chamber Music Festival is a homecoming concert for many of the classical musicians who got their starts as youngsters in the classrooms of the festival host, the Austin Chamber Music Center (ACMC). Felicity Coltman, ACMC director and fixture of the local chamber music scene, will be welcoming back students from all parts, but there is one particular ACMC former student Coltman won't have to welcome back. Violinist Jennifer Bourianoff, who took lessons with Coltman as a young woman, has lived in Austin almost all her life, and now plays with Coltman professionally and teaches alongside her at the center. Still, her participation in this 20th-anniversary celebration has the air of a homecoming, as do her many local classical connections.
The bright 31-year-old, with her cascading, dark auburn hair and quick smile, holds the position of assistant concertmaster with Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO), plays in the Austin Lyric Opera orchestra, and performs with a host of trios, quartets, quintets, and more, from the Chamber Soloists of Austin to the Arundel Trio to A. Mozart Fest. Fluid, graceful, capable of a great range of emotions with her instrument -- a 200-year-old Italian-made violin -- Bourianoff has found happiness playing chamber music and living in Austin, adhering to a rigorous schedule of performances, practice, and rehearsals and teaching young violinists and violists in her studio that often sees her working days start early in the morning and last well into the night.
Bourianoff will be a frequent participant in the three weeks' worth of Chamber Music Festival concerts, playing in events that range from classical to modern, Latin American to European, serious to humorous. "I think Felicity said that I'm playing in more concerts than anyone else," muses the violinist. "There's also the academy that is attached to the festival. I'll be involved teaching young people during the day. Since I was involved with that when it first began, it's pretty close to my heart."
A native Austinite, Bourianoff learned the piano at age 4 and the violin two years later. She attended O. Henry Junior High and Austin High School, leaving her beloved hometown only long enough to obtain her bachelor's degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music [CIM]. "I came back here because I missed Austin," she says. "I went to [the UT Austin School of Music] and did my master's in performance. I started on my doctorate in musical arts and got all the way to candidacy -- I finished all my coursework. I just haven't done the rest of it," she laughs.
Ironically, one of her former UT professors shares a music stand with her during ASO performances. Concertmaster Vincent Frittelli sits in the first chair of the first row of violins, with Bourianoff, his assistant, sitting immediately to his left. Was it difficult to play alongside her professor? "He's a great stand partner," says Bourianoff, though she admits he is prone to occasional professorial advice mid-concert: "Drop your shoulder! Why are you fingering like that?" and so on. At a recent Pops concert, she says, "He told me that I can call him Vincent now. It had been enough time, and I could call him Vincent." Not that Bourianoff did once during our interview, opting for the respectful and time-tested "Mr. Fratelli."
When Bourianoff performs as a soloist -- and she does, from time to time -- her body moves with the music and she has the air of one gently possessed by the lyrical sounds flowing from the instrument tucked securely between her chin and shoulder. In spite of her standout performances as a soloist, it isn't something she focused on as she developed her craft. "I love to do it," she admits of playing as a soloist, "and it's certainly in my blood. But if [a soloist career] were going to happen, it would probably already have happened. That was something when I went to school in Cleveland that my teachers were trying to push me toward doing. And I had gotten involved in chamber music, and I just was like, 'No.'"
A soloist's career is rather like a professional athlete's, where, by age 30, the world-class soloist has already established herself and is making room for the next generation of musicians. "There is something to be said," Bourianoff notes, "that as you get older you get to know your body a little better. So playing gets easier as you get older. You're more responsive to your body. I've been told that people hit their prime between their 30s and 40s, and after 40 they start developing aches and pains. Then you have to deal with that. Of course, I already have some aches and pains; that's why I'm working out!"
Instead of the rigors of a soloist's career, Bourianoff has chosen the rigors of a chamber musician's career, finding satisfaction playing as part of a group. She sparkles in conversation, but even more so when she describes what it is about playing with a chamber group that so thrills her. "[It's all] about communicating with other people, really developing a great rapport with your instruments and being able to converse with others. And that was really what I was focusing on, learning the chamber music literature when I was at school at CIM, instead of focusing on violin concertos."
And the world of chamber music offers plenty for Bourianoff to study and perform. "I don't know that I have a favorite [piece of music]. I think I have a favorite composer. I love Brahms. His music just gets me right here," she says, pointing to her heart. "But I love Bartók. Bartók's Fifth String Quartet is definitely up there for me. It is not actually something I've played. It is something that I've listened to an awful lot," she says, laughing. "I think someone like Felicity would probably [schedule] it, but I it's also a matter of finding three other musicians that would be willing to put the time in, because that's a huge piece. And realistically it would be difficult to work it up during the season. It might be something like a summer project, where we could sit down and for a month really get in there. But to do that piece, it would have to be done really, really well."
In taking a piece of classical music from the page to performance, Bourianoff and her musical collaborators share the load. "For the most part, we just sit down and try to work it out collectively. There are things that need a conductor; we did L'histoire du Soldat last summer, and Peter Bay conducted that. That's an octet, but it would have been murder to do without a conductor, because rhythmically it gets so complex. But, likewise, we play chamber orchestra material without a conductor, and that's 20 to 25 people onstage playing together."
Who leads these large outings? Bourianoff points to herself and laughs. "Chamber Soloists and A. Mozart Fest both put on chamber orchestra concerts once a year, and they're really exciting because it's a group of 25 musicians playing without a conductor. But typically we play music that doesn't go beyond the Classical period, so it's very structured. You know pretty much once you start, it's not going to fluctuate except at cadences or maybe before cadenzas. Certainly getting out of people's cadenzas is the hardest part in those concerts. To know when a cadenza ends and to lead the orchestra back in, that's always the most stressful thing for me. Because I'm the concertmaster for those. So if I come in wrong, then ..."
She trails off, which prompts the question: Is there a piece of music that intimidates the hell out of her? "Well ..." She laughs again. "I just played it, actually! At the Victoria Bach Festival. It's the Grosse Fugue by Beethoven, Opus 133. It's a great piece, but it's terribly, terribly demanding. And I think we did a very respectable job. I would love to play it again, because we only got to play it once, and that's the kind of piece that, I think, as you play it more, you really start to hear more.
"Beethoven was, I think it's safe to say, completely deaf when he wrote it, and when you sit and look at the score, it makes complete sense intellectually. You have two voices kind of paired against two voices; but it's so dense and so thick. His dynamic markings are 'loud' through most of it except for one middle section which is soft and slow. So you have these extremes. And that was hard to do. You know you're playing at top volume and then having to restrict your muscles and play at smallish volume. In terms of control, it was difficult. Intellectually, it makes a lot of sense to look at it on the page, to study the score, but aurally, somehow, it's so complex. I remember listening to my Guaneri CD, going, 'Is that right? Can I keep time to it?'" She snaps her fingers in rhythm as she speaks, "'Yeah I can keep time to it.' There were times that when it [is] completely right, it doesn't sound right. So it's a great piece, it's a terrific piece, but it's terribly intimidating because if you get off, it would be very, very hard to find your way back on.
"So we didn't get off. And that was good. It was a quartet ... a really good group. And we played it Friday night down at the festival. And we were all very relieved on Saturday when we had gotten it behind us. We could sit down and play Dvorák and Bach, certainly demanding pieces, but not demanding like the Grosse Fugue."
To make her living, Bourianoff plays, it seems, all the time. She hasn't had a vacation in 10 years, she says. The security of holding a permanent place with the two larger companies, the symphony and the opera, is intrinsic to her ability to make a living as a musician while pursuing her love of chamber music. Not that it was easy getting into the symphony; for a young woman returning home from her studies in Cleveland, there was a daunting series of auditions. She came back to town in 1991 and got right to work.
"The audition process for the symphony is quite demanding," Bourianoff says. "For the opera, you take one audition and you're in. But for the symphony, you have to take a series of three auditions a year apart. They have a limited number of openings. So you have, say, 20 people showing up for two spots. Then you get in and you serve a year, and at the end of the year you take your first tenure audition. If you pass the committee, then you take your second audition, and [if you pass that] then you're officially in the symphony. So it's a long process. When I got into the symphony, I was last chair, first violins, and I started working my way up, practicing hard, doing my best. And then a couple of years ago, the assistant concertmaster position came open. They held a national search for that. And I won it. It was a one-year appointment. At the end of the year, I had to take another national audition. There were a lot of people that came out for that [audition] because Austin is such a nice place to live. That was high pressure." But she prevailed and now sits permanently beside Concertmaster Frittelli, receiving a sort of continuing education from her former professor.
Bourianoff's place with the symphony and opera orchestras leads to a busy schedule, but with both orchestras being part-time engagements, she gets the opportunity to continue her pursuit of chamber music, often in the company of her fellow orchestral musicians who form and reform the many excellent chamber companies in Austin -- mini-homecomings, if you like. When asked if she has plans to move on in the future, she answers without hesitation: "You know, I'm not sure of that. My mom and dad ask me that all the time. Am I going to move? And I'm just not sure, because I love Austin so much. This is where I was born and raised. This is my home. I love playing music here. And I have a terrific group of friends that I get to play with. My life is good. So I don't really see any reason to take myself out of here, unless it was just a tremendous opportunity. I like the fact that the symphony is not full-time here, because it allows us the time to do the chamber music.
"Austin's a nice place to be based. I got to go out to Santa Fe and play with a chamber orchestra there. I got to go on tour to South America one time. The symphony sent us out to Germany and France a few years ago. There is great opportunity here for musicians if they just hang in there and work hard. So why would a classical musician want to leave here?" she asks. "I just don't see it. Probably what I'll be doing in five years is more of the same. At this point, I don't really see myself leaving Austin, not anytime soon."
Jennifer Bourianoff will perform in the following concerts at the ACMC 2001 Chamber Music Festival: the opening concert Fireworks!, Saturday, June 30 (with the Austin Chamber Music Center Festival Chamber Orchestra); Jubilee Jewels, Monday, July 2; the Elastic Band family concert, Thursday, July 5; the Duo Turgeon concert, Saturday, July 7; Bach (PDQ, that is...) & Beyond, Saturday, July 14. All performances are at 7:30pm at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover. For information, call 454-7562 or visit www.austinchambermusic.org.