In Events, Guest Artists, Orchestras/Symphonies

Director Kory Katseanes and student violinists Rachel Christensen and Donni Evans reflect on their experience preparing for, working with and learning from Perlman

It’s a rare moment when a young musician is able to observe firsthand the foremost practitioner of their craft, but the students in the School of Music’s Philharmonic Orchestra did exactly that as they shared the de Jong Concert Hall stage with top violinist Itzhak Perlman — making BYU history in the process.

Itzhak Perlman performs with the BYU Philharmonic Orchestra in a Jan. 9 BRAVO! series concert. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“It’s not easy to quantify what this performance means for students in the orchestra, the students in the School of Music, for BYU and for the community,” said Philharmonic director Kory Katseanes. “His is an unequaled reputation in our lifetimes. There’s never been a classical artist as well-known, as beloved as Itzhak Perlman, and the community knows that.”

To this point, the BYU Philharmonic is the only university orchestra scheduled to perform with the 15-time Grammy winner this year — an honor that was not taken lightly by the students in the orchestra. 

“As soon as Kory told us that we would be performing with Itzhak Perlman, we all knew in the back of our minds that we would need to rise to a new level of playing,” said concertmaster Rachel Christensen, a graduate student in violin performance. “Everyone wanted to do their very best for Perlman. It goes beyond a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — it’s something I never imagined would even be a possibility.”

For many students in the Philharmonic — including Christensen and her stand partner Donni Evans — Perlman has been a lifelong hero and the ultimate example of their craft, making the Jan. 9 BRAVO! series concert all the more personal.

Donni Evans (second from left), Rachel Christensen (right) and fellow Philharmonic violinists meet Itzhak Perlman. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“I’ve been listening to Perlman play for as long as I can remember,” said Evans. “I’d watch videos of him, trying to learn from his fingerings and bowings. He’s influenced who I am as a violinist throughout my entire life, so to have him here was incredible.”

With the most important concert in the history of the Philharmonic on the horizon, Katseanes identified a theme for the year to guide rehearsals and inspire the student musicians: prepare for Perlman.

“We worked harder than we ever have before,” said Katseanes. “I wanted the students in the orchestra to have a growing awareness of what it takes to be ready for important things. It’s one thing to be fortunate, to be standing in the road when the train runs by, but it’s another thing to be really ready. We were anxious that when he joined us on stage, he didn’t think of us as a group of kids. We’re not trying to be a good university orchestra — we’re trying to play to professional standards, the highest standards of the art itself.”

The night of the concert, Perlman took the stage to a standing ovation, but during rehearsal that afternoon, he was met with quiet focus from the student musicians.

Rachel Christensen (left) serves as concertmaster as the BYU Philharmonic performs with Itzhak Perlman. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“As soon as he came out on stage, everyone was silent,” said Christensen. “Rehearsal hadn’t officially started and we could have kept warming up, but it seemed that everyone was reverently acknowledging his presence and that we were ready to rehearse with him. I think the whole orchestra was praying, asking the Lord to help our efforts.”

Perlman and the Philharmonic played through Beethoven’s beloved Violin Concerto during their only rehearsal together, stopping occasionally for notes and insights.

“He had a couple things to say that completely changed how we played the piece,” said Evans. “I think we were 90 percent of the way there, and he took us to 100 percent. He helped us access that extra magic in the performance that we hadn’t been getting.” 

Nearly a year of preparation paid off as everything the Philharmonic had planned and practiced came together for a sold-out performance. While Katseanes encouraged the student musicians to carry themselves with the utmost professionalism, he hoped that they also felt the excitement and significance of sharing the stage with Perlman.

BYU Philharmonic director Kory Katseanes (right) thanks Itzhak Perlman. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“They saw what it’s like from very close up to be the greatest violinist in the world,” said Katseanes. “They’ll say to themselves — they won’t be able to not say to themselves — can I do some of that? How does he do that? How does he make that sound? When they graduate and go into their lives and their worlds, I hope that they take from this a sense of what it takes to make events and music like this happen.” 

Christensen felt the weight of the moment as she sat behind Perlman onstage.

“It was powerful for me as a performer to learn from him in person,” she said. “It’s not about playing perfectly, it’s about expression and the beauty and message of the piece; Perlman’s playing was about sharing his voice. He has such a distinct sound, and that was completely there the entire performance. I’ll lean on everything that I’ve learned from Perlman throughout my entire life and use him as inspiration for my future students.” 

Katseanes sees the concert as a reflection of the School of Music’s efforts to live up to President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1967 challenge to students in the arts to continually aspire to greater heights in their craft and professionalism.

“It’s impossible to overstate the value we attach to this experience,” said Katseanes. “We feel like we’re the luckiest people, but it’s more than just good luck that brings him here. I feel deeply about this, very deeply down to my atom level that this is part of the fulfillment of President Kimball’s vision for the arts. To see this unfold and take shape has been very inspiring and humbling. I think it means something for the university and for its mission and future — it’s so much more than just another concert.” 

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