Conductor and Mentor Jaime Laredo Performs With the VSO
State of the Arts
It would have been nice to interview Jaime Laredo in person for a piece about the Vermont Symphony Orchestra conductor and world-class violinist, but the man’s schedule is insane.
“It is insane,” Laredo agrees with a hearty laugh in a call from San Francisco, where he has just arrived with his wife, cellist Sharon Robinson, to play a concert with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Though based in Guilford, Vt. — the place he calls home — Laredo scheduled the phone interview a few days earlier from the couple’s other house in Cleveland, Ohio, where he and Robinson teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Meanwhile, the 71-year-old is also in the midst of his 39th (and final) season as artistic director of the 92nd Street Y’s chamber concert series in New York. And he is planning his 20th season as artistic director-conductor of the New York String Orchestra, a year-end seminar for rising twentysomething musicians that culminates in performances at Carnegie Hall under Laredo’s baton.
Then there is his ongoing schedule of guest-conductor appearances with orchestras around the country, duo performances with Robinson and KLR concerts that take the trio around the globe from their base in Washington, D.C., where they are the chamber ensemble-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Amid all this activity, Laredo will return to Vermont to perform in the VSO’s Masterworks 4 concerts this weekend, conducted by Vinay Parameswaran. The program features concertos for two violins by J.S. Bach, Philip Glass and David Ludwig; the last work, by the VSO’s new-music adviser, was specifically commissioned for the project. On violin will be Laredo and Jennifer Koh, his former student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he taught for 35 years.
Vermonters often see Laredo from the back, dressed in one of his signature black, mandarin-collared shirts, baton in hand. This weekend’s concert series offers an opportunity to see him in two other roles, for which he is perhaps better known outside Vermont: musician and mentor. It seemed like a good occasion to ask the performer and teacher about his views on conducting.
Laredo has been playing professionally for 60 years. In that time, he soloed works by Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber under those composers’ own batons, and played viola for 15 years in a quartet with violinist Isaac Stern, pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among other feats. (Back when he trained at Curtis, Laredo explains, all violin students were required to learn viola.)
Born in Bolivia to a family with no other musicians, Laredo showed so much promise by age 6 that his violin teacher urged the family to move to Europe or America, he recalls. Laredo’s father chose San Francisco, where he had grown up. Five years later, the 11-year-old musician made his professional debut with the San Francisco Symphony. After Laredo won the 1959 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium international violin competition at age 17, his elated home country named a soccer stadium after him and printed a Jaime Laredo stamp.
“I became a national hero, I think, because the country had only been known for revolutions and turmoil before that,” Laredo jokes with characteristic modesty.
Over his long teaching career — after Curtis, he taught at the Indiana University School of Music for seven years until he started at Cleveland last fall — Laredo has become a kind of hero to many of his students, too.
The Masterworks 4 concerts are a testament to that. Though the program ends with Mozart’s 40th symphony, it contains three of the four double concertos Koh put together for a project named Two x Four — that is, four concertos for two violins. (The fourth is another commission by composer Anna Clyne.) Koh, 36, initiated the project to celebrate the teacher-student relationship, and Laredo’s mentorship in particular.
“He’s one of the greatest, most generous human beings, I would say — and in the world of music, he’s one of the most beloved of musicians,” Koh says unreservedly in a phone interview from New York.
When Koh was 14 and playing in Detroit, Isaac Stern asked to hear her play and immediately recommended she study with Laredo. Why? “It had a lot to do with Jaime’s reputation and how his colleagues really love him,” she replies.
Like many of Laredo’s former students, including the innovative Hilary Hahn, MacArthur fellowship winner Leila Josefowicz and Vermont’s own Soovin Kim (who founded the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival), Koh has achieved a certain level of stardom. When asked about his protégés, however, Laredo says he dislikes the word. “I prefer to think of them as people I have played with,” he says.
That tendency to treat budding virtuosos as equals helps explain why he’s so beloved. Laredo’s style with his students “wasn’t a matter of breaking them down and building them up again,” says Koh — an approach common among conservatory faculty. Then, as now, “he leaves space for other people, for a conversation to take place, musically speaking.”
When Laredo did see room for improvement in Koh’s playing, she adds, “He would say, ‘Maybe this section isn’t holding together, so why don’t you think about it?’”
Koh says the “conversation” that will happen at the VSO concerts between herself and Laredo is partly generational. “Jaime is an old-school player: He sounds so warm. But I play Bach, for example, much leaner than he does,” she says. “It really does make the pieces more compelling.”
Though the connection will be less visible onstage, Laredo also mentored David Ludwig, who wrote the third double concerto on the program, “Seasons Lost,” specifically for the two violinists. Ludwig, 40, teaches composition at Curtis — where, like Laredo, he also studied — and appreciates the older pedagogue’s mentoring skills from a different perspective.
“What we do in classical music is so personal that the teaching of it has to be done with great care. You’re dealing with these young people’s futures, absolutely,” Ludwig comments by phone from Philadelphia. “Jaime has always been thinking about that. He’s legendary in the field for being so generous and positive and enthusiastic.”
Ludwig introduced himself to Laredo as a 20-year-old Curtis student, aware that the famed violinist already knew his family. (The composer’s grandfather, Rudolf Serkin, a pianist who cofounded the Marlboro Music Festival, was director of Curtis when Laredo began studying there.)
But, says the composer, “his mentorship really came with the [VSO] orchestra” — a relationship that began 10 years ago, when Laredo and the VSO secured a Meet the Composer grant for Ludwig’s three-year residency. During that time, the orchestra helped commission a string of works from Ludwig, which often led to other commissions.
When the residency came to an end, Laredo kept the composer on as new-music adviser — a position Ludwig calls “very rare” among orchestras. “He’s one of the great champions of contemporary music,” Ludwig adds. “Young composers need advocates like him.”
So how does conducting fit into this musician and mentor’s busy life? Though he never trained as a conductor, Laredo says he learned from a number of great musician-conductors simply by soloing under them, including George Szell, who was also an accomplished oboist, violinist and pianist.
Since he began conducting in 1975 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — a gig that lasted 25 years; the man apparently does nothing short-term — Laredo has approached the art in the same spirit of collaboration as he does teaching. “I don’t think of myself in any kind of dictatorial way,” he reflects. “Conducting is like leading a very large quartet. Very often, we’ll ask players, ‘How would you like to do this passage?’”
And as a performer, he points out, “orchestra players look on me as an equal, someone who doesn’t just tell them what to do but can do it.”
“Jaime is a mensch. He’s a complete and total mensch,” affirms Hilary Hatch, a VSO violinist for the past 30 years. Hatch, who has also played with a number of regional orchestras in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, adds, “He’s the only conductor I’ve ever had who, just before every concert, says, ‘Have fun!’”
The Leicester-based violinist recalls that when Laredo was first hired in 1999 — he was handpicked by then-CEO Tom Philion — VSO members were a bit upset. While they had collectively voted for Laredo’s predecessor, Kate Tamarkin, after a year of guest-conductor appearances, Hatch says, “we were presented with Jaime, and we didn’t like that.” But since then, she notes, “the quality of the orchestra and its performance level have just increased dramatically.”
Laredo says he took the job partly because of what he had identified during a single guest-conductor appearance as the VSO’s “unique atmosphere. It’s like a family. I don’t see that in any other professional orchestra,” he avers.
Today, that warmth may be due as much to Laredo as to anything else. As Ludwig puts it, “Orchestras reflect like mirrors their management and musical direction. This orchestra — you know, big surprise! — is positive. They come to play for Jaime. He gets incredible devotion from these guys.”
Vermont Symphony Orchestra Masterworks 4, featuring violinists Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh. Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Bellows Falls Opera House; Saturday, March 9, at 8 p.m. at Flynn Mainstage, Burlington; Sunday, March 10, at 3 p.m. at Paramount Theatre, Rutland. $16-59; $9 students. flynntix.org