The image of a music hall, deathly quiet, with a somber quartet of musicians sitting stiffly and playing stately music by such composers as Mozart or Brahms is nearly always what comes to mind when the subject of classical music comes up. The Heifetz International Institute of Music at Mary Baldwin College is working to dispel this traditional image and make classical music accessible to everyone.
The Heifetz Institute is a non-profit organization in collaboration with Mary Baldwin College. It is a six-week summer solo and chamber music institute for students studying violin, viola, or cello. The program focuses on teaching the students how to communicate through their music and interact with the audience. During the rigorous training, students are taught by a faculty of internationally recognized professional musicians.
Daniel Heifetz, president and founder of the Institute, wants to change the way people think about classical music. “I’m one of the few people in the classical music world that is saying we are the problem. The classical musicians are the problem,” he said, “We’re programming pieces that we find exciting or interesting without thinking about what would be exciting or interesting for the audience.”
Heifetz, an international solo violinist, teaches his students to bring out their own unique personality in their music and to convey the music’s emotion to the audience. “Nobody is teaching in any of the conservatories how to communicate the emotion of the music, how to connect to the listener,” he said, “I call it becoming the music instead of just playing the music. That is what caused me to create the Heifetz Institute.”
Even as a young career soloist, Heifetz tried to be accessible to everyone. “I was the first person in America to take a classical instrument and perform in a prison. And I did this throughout the country,” he said, “I would go to a city, play in a prison, and also play in a major concert hall in that city.”
Upon entering his first prison performance in New York, a prison nicknamed “The Tombs,” Heifetz tried to lighten the tense mood by talking to his audience. “I’m going to play for you Jewish soul music,” he said to exclamations of outrage. Heifetz told his audience, “I’m Jewish, my mother was born in Germany, and almost all of her relatives went to the gas chambers under Hitler. The music of one persecuted minority group can be related to by any other persecuted minority group.”
Heifetz said, “I then played a legitimate classical music piece by a classical composer named Ernst Bloch. The piece is called Nigune. It’s based on some of the sounds from the synagogue, based on Middle Eastern sounds. I looked around and the guys had tears in their eyes.” After packing up his violin at the prison, Heifetz said, “The warden told me it was a bigger response than when Johnny Cash had come in and done a country music concert a few weeks before.”
Experiences like these taught Heifetz that classical music can be accessible to anyone: “It was the most important, life-changing experience for me as a concert artist to realize that no matter what your background, you can appreciate and get excited about classical music if it’s delivered on that basic level of human experience.”
According to Heifetz, the Institute came to Staunton from New Hampshire in 2012 because “the president of Mary Baldwin College had the vision that this could be a tremendous partnership with the school. The city of Staunton has also opened up their arms, wanting to become an international cultural center in the summer, along with the American Shakespeare Company.”
Along with the six-week program for student musicians, the Institute also offers concerts year round, featuring international musicians and former students of the program. This year, the Institute created a full time Artist in Residence position, who speaks and performs at local elementary and high schools, and other public events.
Dmitry Volkov is a cellist from Russia and an alumnus of the Heifetz Institute. He is the current Artist in Residence and has been living in Staunton since 2012, when the Institution moved to Virginia. In 2008, Volkov received a full scholarship to come to the United States and attend the Institute, and has been involved with the organization to some degree since first coming to the US.
Volkov is the first full year Artist in Residence for the Institute and said, “It is exciting to start something new, and of course Mr. Heifetz helps me a lot, but there are infinite possibilities for things to do here.”
Along with touring local schools, Volkov will be performing in three concerts in the Valley, as part of the Heifetz on Tour performances. The first concert will be at the Glenmore Country Club in Charlottesville on Feb. 16, the second will take place at the Francis Auditorium at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton on Feb. 17, and the third will be at the Kendal Retirement Community in Lexington on Feb. 18. All the performances will begin at 7:00 p.m. The concerts are free, but the Institute asks for donations to support the program’s scholarship fund.
For more information about the Heifetz Institute, visit heifetzinstitute.org .