Updated: Apr 4, 2019
Earlier this year, right around the end of spring, before the summer heat would melt any organism along the West Coast of America, Xiao Chen and Xenia Deviatkina-Loh, who are both graduate students of UCLA’s School of Music, flew to Seattle to compete in the Frances Walton Competition. The day was surprisingly sunny, a deviation from Seattle’s usual sombre and dreary weather. It was as if the jolly climate was anticipating the outcome for the two ladies. Xiao and Xenia made UCLA victor that evening.
Representing UCLA proudly, Xenia, with James Lent as the associate artist, wowed the audience with her performance of the Cadenza and Burlesque from Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and the First movement of Beethoven's Ninth Sonata for Violin and Piano, otherwise known as the Kreutzer Sonata. Xiao, on the piano, charmed the judges with her brilliant and passionate playing of Brahms’ First Piano Sonata and Richard Danielpour’s Mardi Gras. Xiao and Xenia were two out of the four winners of the competition, and the other two spots went to two USC ladies, BokYung Byun on Guitar, and Yasmina Spiegelberg on Clarinet.
Winning the competition no only meant receiving a substantial cash prize, but also a package of statewide touring throughout Washington State and a live radio broadcast on Classical KING FM 98.1 NW Focus. Xiao and Xenia chose to go on the Eastern tour, while the other two girls went on the Western tour. Both tours happened simultaneously during the week of September 10. While the Western tour winners had their radio broadcast after their week-long tour, the Eastern tour winners had theirs the evening before the tour began.
As expected, the broadcast was not a disappointment. Pianist Xiao brought an exciting solo piano program. She impressed the listeners and the radio host Sean MacLean with her powerful, colourful, and breathtaking performance. She picked three contrasting pieces with distinctive styles and techniques for this special night. She opened the hour by dazzling the listeners with Richard Danielpour’s wild and virtuosic work, Mardi Gras. She continued to impress the listeners with her subsequent work — the First movement from Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major. Her rendition, full of tranquillity and eloquence, was an immense contrast to her previous piece. The authority and control she had under her fingers were impressive. Xiao finally ended her program that night with her climactic execution of an “orchestral piece” on piano, the First movement from Brahms’ First Piano Sonata.
Xenia, on the other hand, opted out of solo repertoire and decided to collaborate with her long-term pianist James Lent, playing a selection of movements from three different sonatas. She started the second half of the hour with the First movement of Beethoven's Third Sonata for Violin and Piano. Both musicians conveyed class, fitting, for a classy work. The program then took a lyrical turn; Xenia and James followed the Beethoven up with the Second movement of Poulenc’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. What came next was a beautiful partnership begetting raw poetry. The dynamic duo concluded the broadcast in power, giving an exhilarating delivery of the final movement from Bartok’s First Violin Sonata. It can be noted that Xenia made James work extra hard for her chosen repertoire; but like usual, James did not disappoint.
The ladies took one day off, celebrating their successful radio broadcast at the beautiful Snoqualmie Falls, before starting their week-long tour in Washington State. They were driven around the state by the members of the lovely couple, Janice, and Larry Gockel — Janice Gockel is part of the LMC (Ladies Musical Club of Seattle) which organises the France Walton Competition — in a big red Ford Four Wheel Drive. Their tour began with a Sunday Matinee recital at the Englewood Christian Church in Yakima as part of their “Second Sunday Chamber Music Series”. The program consisted of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Schumann to Salonen and Danielpour. Throughout the week, the two ladies would give two more recitals; one at the Lake Chelan Lutheran Church (which was part of the Lake Chelan Bach Fest), and the last one in the beautiful Omak Performance Arts Centre.
The tour was essentially an outreach tour throughout the Eastern parts of Washington State, reaching the communities of Yakima, Wentachee, Chelan, Cashmere, Pateros, Bridgeport, Omak, Tonasket, and Okanogan. In this competition’s history, some years, the winners are even able to give performances and classes to the children part of the El Sistema program in Yakima. Some might recognise El Sistema from Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Music Director Gustavo Dudamel; his musical beginnings were from El Sistema. The ladies would find themselves playing for over twenty schools and around twenty-four hundred school children, years ranging from pre-school to high school seniors. Repertoire was explicitly chosen for the school presentations. When asked, Xiao and Xenia stated that they picked pieces that were fun and flashy, and if possible recognisable; the more they can relate to the students, the better. As the week went by, it only grew more intense, yet there were no complaints; as the schedule was packed full of excitement and cheer.
As the winners of 2017 Frances Walton Competition, Xenia and I toured the part of Eastern Washington State for a week. This has definitely been one of the unforgettable and beautiful experiences for me. We had three concerts and more than twenty schools’ performances. It is precious and touching to see the excitement, happiness, and satisfaction on the audience’s faces, especially on the children’s faces. We prepared a special program with familiar songs and folk tunes for the children and students. Our performances always ended with the students’ questions and curiosity about music. It was such a joy to communicate with all the children and students face to face and to establish a musical connection with them. We always got more than twenty hugs from the children after each performance, which deeply moved me. I still remember their sad faces when they had to say goodbye to us. One of the girls in elementary school asked me if I can go home with her and play more music for her. At that moment, I had tears in my eyes and realised the enormous power of music to these children. Some children had never heard classical music before, but their faces told me that their lives were enlightened by our music. And my life was also totally brightened and enriched by the smiles and hugs.
Playing with Xenia was super fun. She has the ability to connect with the children really well. Not only does she enjoy chatting with the children — trying to get her away from the microphone during question time is very difficult — but she would charm them through her music. One really strong memory that comes to mind is when we would perform Piazzolla’s Libertango to every class, Xenia had this idea of improvising towards the end of the work. It was around day 3 that she began doing that, and that was also the day she started to walk around the classroom, or gym, or assembly hall, or whatever room we would be playing in, when we performed that work. I bet if she was not playing the violin, she would have danced and got the kids up to do it with her.
The most amazing thing for me during the tour is that we never got bored or tired by performing the same program for more than twenty times. Every time we performed differently, with different feelings and moods. We were also inspired by different audiences every time. Every performance was special to us. The most beautiful thing for me is that music lives for that moment, for every moment. Even though I barely had time to practice during the tour, this experience enabled me to understand and perceive music more deeply. I remember after one of the concerts, an old lady came to me and held my hands saying, “Your music makes me feel young again.” All of these moments will stay with me in my lifetime, and become part of my music.
I will repeat Xiao’s words that the week we spent in Washington State was unforgettable and beautiful. The entire week was like one long fun ride through an amusement park. Xiao and I chose specifically chose repertoire with children in mind, thus flashy and short pieces, and or songs that they might recognise. A favourite for the school teachers was George Gershwin’s Summertime. However, for the children, they had more fun when Xiao and I played Monti’s Czardas, Piazzolla’s Libertango, and Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance. Xiao also charmed the students with her performances of Danielpour’s Mardi Gras and George Gershwin’s Preludes. What was more enjoyable was that these presentations allowed me to be a kid with them; I was allowed to act like a crazy fool and not feel ashamed of it. And like any partnership, there is always the more sane and settled one. And of course, Xiao was the more reasonable one. I am the younger one between us, albeit only by two years, but younger nonetheless. There was a time that she became so exasperated at me, she shooed me off the piano stool when I tried to demonstrate my poor piano skills to the children through a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Little Swans.
Can I say that some of the questions from the students were amazing? There was one kid, very young, around 6 or 7, who asked Xiao about her time in Juilliard and what was it like. There was another young kid in Grade 1, who asked Xiao how to make different sounds on the piano. Some students noticed I had ‘funny’ sounds when I played Sabre Dance — the funny sound was col legno. The funnier ones ranged from “Have you ever broken your violin?” (from primary school kids), to a day of middle school and high school kids asking me about my fashion, or more importantly, why I chose to wear what I wear. Many girls would also ask where Xiao bought her dress from (Ha Ha! It was my dress that she wore that day). These questions also reminded me that I was a kid before, that I also went through high school and wondered the same thing as them about music or strangers.
I have to make a claim; the week would not have succeed without Xiao’s partnership. I literally gave her my music at the start of the holidays and disappeared for 2 months. Like the little bratty sister I am, I stressed her out further by only managing two rehearsals before our presentations. Not only did she keep up with my idiosyncrasies, she managed it all while I improvised on Libertango, pranced around the room away from her sight, and taking numerous of liberties during my solos. Both of us grew closer during the week, and more importantly, our musicianship progressed immensely after all these presentations. The inability to practise due to the tightly packed schedule, consequently engendered our performances to be organic and fresh, and in a way, more invigorated. Not only were we responding to each other, we mostly responded to the children during our presentations. I would improvise Libertango differently every time depending on the students’ faces and body language. Xiao would ad lib her solos depending on the mood the children in the room were emitting.
Touring through Eastern Washington was one of the best experiences I had, and in addition, Xiao and I were able to give music and show our love for children of all ages and backgrounds. Music has the ability to encompass everyone in one warm embrace and communicate without any barriers. But the greater thing about music is that every message that is delivered, it is personal. Everyone can take home with them a piece of something from a performance, and that something is only theirs. No one else will ever be able to own it.
I was honoured to collaborate with Xenia for both the competition and the radio broadcast, and to watch Xiao’s commanding performances in both the competition and live on radio. While I always enjoy hearing Xenia thrive under pressure, there was an unusual level of high stakes, risk-taking, and extra intense finely tuned musicianship present in both the competition and the radio broadcast. It was a joy to drive through Seattle with Xenia and Xiao after competing and enjoying the amazing scenery and weather, and it was like seeing Washington with new eyes when traveling along with Xenia and Xiao.
The radio broadcast was extra intense as there was an element of live on the radio interviewing that we were not expecting. The broadcaster Sean MacLean is also a Yale Alumni, so we bonded in discussing our common teachers, and had many unexpected topics to discuss in the live interview which reminded me how much has happened since our time in school. He was very excited by Bartok’s First Violin Sonata in particular, and was thrilled that we shared it in his radio broadcast, which will continue to be aired with our interviews for the next 5 years throughout the Pacific Northwest on radio stations and at the SeaTac Airport. All in all, the experience provided incredible exposure for UCLA and all of us in a very compact timeframe, and was truly a highlight of the summer!
Author Credit: Dr. Xiao Chen
Ms. Xenia Deviatkina-Loh
Dr. James Lent