Phoenix Avalon Violinist
Phoenix Avalon did not announce his passion for the violin until he was a year and a half old. His family went to a Haydn in the Park event that allowed incipient music lovers to try out miniature instruments, and he let his preference be known. It seemed too early to embark on music lessons, but his parents allowed that if he still wanted to study violin when he turned three, he could do so.
His sentiments did not change, and Phoenix embarked on his path as a violinist shortly after turning three. He started out with a 1/16 sized instrument and took instruction through Santa Fe Talent Education. Now on the verge of his fifteenth birthday, he recounts the succession of instruments that have kept up with his growth in stature and technique since then: “After the 1/16, I had a 1/8, a 1/4, a 1/2, and
then for a long time a 7/8 size was right. But now I’m up to a full-size violin.” It’s not just any full-size violin: It’s a certifiable “Old Cremona” built by the Amati Brothers around 1617.
For several years, while receiving coaching through Santa Fe’s EPIK Artist Program, Phoenix traveled to Dallas to work with Jan Sloman, now the principal associate concertmaster emeritus of the Dallas Symphony. Sloman arranged for the instrument to be lent to him by Kenneth Warren & Son, a Chicago firm that specializes in fine violins.
As of September, Phoenix is living most of the time in Ohio, accompanied by one of his mothers. He has enrolled as a freshman in the Junior Young Artist Program of the Cleveland Institute of Music, a multiyear pre-college course of study. Sloman now teaches there, and Phoenix is studying violin with him and the eminent Jaime Laredo, alternating between their studios from week to week. He is one of four young violinists in the program; two of the others are seniors who will soon be moving on. It’s a different experience for Phoenix, a collegial form of education that he has not had up until now, because he was home-schooled. “Home-schooling just worked easier,” he said. “It frees you up to have more time to practice. But the Young Artist Program is amazing. Because of the community, the other kids there, it inspires you to work a lot harder. There is no such thing as good enough.”
Private violin lessons are the focus of his curriculum, but his instruction is supported by classes in music theory, analysis, and eurhythmics. He plays in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, collaborates with other students in chamber music, and takes a performance class with the members of the Cavani String Quartet, which provides the opportunity to get comfortable performing before other young musicians in the program. He also continues his academic work and is especially drawn to studying philosophy, citing Montaigne, Kant, Descartes, and Locke as figures he finds especially stimulating.
September was a big month for Phoenix. In addition to starting his studies in Cleveland, he was featured as a soloist on the nationally syndicated radio program From the Top. The show has served as a launching pad for many young performers, and it seems to have invested high hopes in Phoenix; in addition to granting him a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award for 2016, the show gave him two spots in the broadcast — playing Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen in the main part of the show and then a transcription of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 to bring the broadcast to a close, in both cases accompanied by host Christopher O’Riley. These are somewhat old-fashioned pieces that invite interpretation with a lot of heart, which is exactly what rings Phoenix’s bells. “There are a lot of modern violinists I really appreciate,” he said, “like Hilary Hahn, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Itzhak Perlman, of course. But I mostly tend to listen to violinists of the past: Heifetz, Oistrakh, Milstein, Elman, Szeryng, Grumiaux. I like the old style. It’s more emotional. They play with a lot of slides, which people do less nowadays.”
He normally spends five hours a day practicing violin. “I try to start with technical work for about two hours — scales, triads, double-stops — and then the rest working on repertoire.” Currently on his music stand are the violin concertos of Mendelssohn (which he’ll play in February with the New Mexico Philharmonic) and Tchaikovsky (in which he’ll solo in March with the Boulder Symphony), caprices by Paganini and Wieniawski, and Bach’s Unaccompanied Partita No. 1. Before then, he will appear in his hometown with Serenata of Santa Fe, in that ensemble’s performance of Bach’s Musical Offering on Jan. 10. Back in Cleveland next semester, he’ll be playing in Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings. “And after the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concerto performances,” he added eagerly, “I’m going to start the Shostakovich Concerto, which I am very excited about.” Nobody knows what the future holds, but for concertgoers who love the violin, the name of Phoenix Avalon may well be part of it. — James M. Keller
THE YOUNG ARTIST PROGRAM ... INSPIRES YOU TO WORK A LOT HARDER. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS GOOD ENOUGH.