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Locally Grown: Meet the Musicians of Columbus' VIVO Music Festival

color photo of eleven string players rehearsing in a classroom
Ted Ou-Yang
VIVO Music Festival
Musicians of the VIVO Music Festival rehearse for "Unstrung," the festival's Aug. 23 string chamber orchestra concert.

They're cris-crossing the globe in world-class string quartets. They're getting snapped up by major orchestras. They're performing with legendary artists at the world's most prestigious music festivals. And they're innovating the classical music world of the future.

You wouldn't necessarily guess from their international itineraries that most of the musicians of Columbus' VIVO Music Festival received their early classical music training in Columbus. But they did, and they're back in town this week to perform as the festival unfolds in three core concerts Aug. 21-23 at the Short North's Garden Theater. The festival culminates in "Unstrung," a string chamber orchestra concert Aug. 23 at 4 p.m. that reunites a whole generation of young professional classical musicians with Columbus roots and on the cusp of promising professional careers.

Most of the festival's musicians have been friends since their grade-school days, and they're inviting all of Columbus to join their reunion in the spirit of community-building and sharing great music. Here are the creators and musicians of the VIVO Music Festival, a glimpse at where their careers have already taken them and how Columbus' classical music scene helped make them the musicians they are today.

Siwoo Kim, violin, VIVO Music Festival Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director

When Siwoo Kim was a kid in his native Seoul, South Korea, music was as much about being social as it was about being, well, musical.

"My mother ran a music school back in Korea," Kim said. "Our home was located within the school so as an infant, I was surrounded by music and gravitated to playing an instrument by the age of two and a half, possibly as a means of socializing."

Kim eventually chose the violin, and when he and his family moved to Westerville when he was 11, the Columbus area supplied many opportunities for him to develop musical skills and friendships. He supplemented his private studies with noted Illinois-based string pedagogues Almita and Roland Vamos by serving as concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, and had a chance to gain performance experience as a concerto soloist with the Westerville Symphony and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

Now a graduate of New York's Juilliard School and a fellow of the Ensemble ACJW, a joint venture of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute, Kim says his early Columbus musical experiences enabled him to forge friendships with other musicians, many of whom he and VIVO co-founder John Stulz have invited to participate in the VIVO Music Festival. And as their professional careers take off, Kim says he and his Columbus colleagues haven’t forgotten where they came from.

"I think what's most amazing is how all of these great musicians are still down to earth and proud of their roots," Kim said. "I think this is a testament to Columbus' great sense of community. We all perform across the states and even the world, but it means so much to us to play for our family, friends and community whom we have deep relationships with."

And this sense of community, of bringing together performers and audience members alike to share great music, is the heart of Kim’s vision for the VIVO Music Festival.

"I want musicians and non-musicians alike to be excited about another opportunity to enjoy experiencing classical music concerts of the highest level and adventurous programming in a social and relaxed setting," Kim said. "I want to make classical music even more relevant to the booming culture of contemporary Columbus."

John Stulz, viola, VIVO Music Festival Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director

"The only thing that defines us is our attitude, and we want to create a special experience for our audiences through an attitude of positivity, energy, experimentation, and authenticity," said violist John Stulz about the vision he and longtime friend Siwoo Kim have pursued in creating the VIVO Music Festival.

Stulz, a Columbus native who grew up in Upper Arlington, is a graduate of Boston's New England Conservatory of Music and has recently been named a member of the prestigious Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain. He credits his experiences studying music with Columbus' professional musicians and performing with Columbus' youth musical ensembles with helping to bring him to the cusp of a promising musical career. And he's keenly aware that the support of the Columbus community has helped make those institutions what they are.

"Columbus has an incredibly exciting music scene that is growing with our city," Stulz said, "but the reason all of this is possible is because of the wonderful institutions in place. It's because of the direct investments our community has made in the Chamber Music Connection, the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra, all of the wonderful private teachers in town, and most importantly, the vital music programs in our public schools, that these things are happening now."

This week, as the VIVO Music Festival become the newest thing happening in classical music in Columbus, Stulz says he believes the festival is really about bringing the people of his hometown – both the close musician friends who will perform alongside him in the festival and friends he hasn’t yet met – together around great music.

"Music is about sharing experiences within a community, our experience is clearly defined through programming and the way we present our events," Stulz said. "If we succeed, it will be in the sharing of that attitude with our audiences and people far beyond Columbus."

Jeffrey Myers, violin

Had the three-year-old Jeff Myers not sat completely still during a Columbus Symphony Orchestra concert, he might not have become a violinist with one of the world’s most promising string quartets.

"This is what my dad tells me: I sat completely quiet for the first movement (of the Sibelius Violin Concerto), and he was amazed," Myers said. "This was the first concert that he ever took me to, and he was like, 'Wow, I can't believe this is going so well.'" 

Today, a graduate of the Juilliard School and a violinist with the Calidore String Quartet – one of only two ensembles recently appointed to three-year residencies with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Two program for emerging world-class chamber ensembles – Myers credits his musical training during his early years in Columbus with laying the foundation for his current success.

"There's something that's really special about Columbus. I’m very proud to be from Columbus," Myers said. "It has a very supportive musical scene."

That musical scene nurtured Myers' talent by way of the music program with the Upper Arlington public schools and institutions like the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, with its extensive youth orchestras program.

"I grew up playing with the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras and going to as many Columbus Symphony concerts as possible, and I ended up studying with a few members of the Columbus Symphony. And just to get to see them perform week after week and having that experience, I think, is irreplaceable," Myers said.

And the Columbus music scene also gave Myers opportunities to foster what have become enduring friendships with other musicians. Myers shared a music stand with VIVO Music Festival co-founder Siwoo Kim during their youth orchestra days. Myers and VIVO Festival co-founder Jack Stulz – friends since fourth grade – carpooled to school every day during their years at Upper Arlington High School.

"Just to have musicians that are serious, like myself, in wanting to pursue the career was also very helpful, and I'm very glad for that," Myers said.

On the eve of the VIVO Music Festival’s opening concert, Myers says he looks forward to performing with his Columbus friends, and to experiencing, once again, the special feeling Columbus classical music audiences bring with them.

"Whenever I've performed in Columbus the audience always feels like they're supporting you and cheering you on," Myers said. "It's a very positive environment to perform in. And when you have such a positive work environment and performing environment, special things can happen."

Nate West, double bass

"Columbus, to me, has so much to offer for classical musicians," said double bassist Nate West. "I think it's actually something that a lot of people in Columbus don't realize."

As West, a graduate of Upper Arlington High School and Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, prepares start his new job with the Washington National Opera Orchestra at the Kennedy Center next month, he says Columbus was second to none in giving him opportunities to grow as an artist.

"I had nothing but the best teachers growing up," West said.

Those teachers included faculty members at the Ohio State University School of Music and musicians with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Coachings with the faculty and visiting artists of the Worthington-based chamber music education program Chamber Music Connection gave West world-class training in a town that may well be one of classical music's best-kept secrets.

"It's really amazing that a lot of young players get the opportunity to work with great musicians and have nothing but the best opportunities growing up," West said. "A lot of us really have an appreciation for the fact that it wasn't just us building our own careers – that would be far too much of a coincidence – but I think we all recognize that we're products of a community that was able to support young musicians in a way that most communities can't."

Kyle Price, cello

"I think a lot of people don't quite understand how artistic Columbus is," said cellist Kyle Price of his hometown. "I think, the city's really developing kind of into a little arts mecca of sorts, seeing how the Short North is building up and just seeing all of the programs that are really taking off."

A Worthington native, Price grew up performing with ensembles coached by the Chamber Music Connection, the Worthington-based chamber music education organization founded by his mother, Deborah Price.  In 2012, while pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Price founded the Caroga Lake Music Festival, inviting eight of his friends to perform chamber music in the area around his grandmother's lake house in upstate New York.

"The first year was a week long, the second year was two weeks long, and now in the fourth year, it's four weeks long, so I don't know if that trend will continue," Price said of the festival. "But it's been really great to see it all kind of exploding. It's really exciting up here."

Price is also setting wheels in motion to convert an abandoned amusement park near Caroga Lake into a center for collaborative arts and education. If it takes off, the center would serve the Caroga Lake area with arts programming year round.

"Luckily I've found a lot of amazing artists who are interested in the idea, and hopefully we can make something happen with that," Price said.

And like the other musicians of the VIVO Music Festival, Price says he's glad to help make that festival happen here in what he calls the "musical hub" of Columbus.

"I think it should bring a lot of pride to Columbus and hopefully bring national recognition to what's going on in this area," Price said. "I'm excited to play with a lot of friends and make some new friends, as well."

Alicia Hui, violin

"There's never been anything like this in Columbus at all," said Alicia Hui of the VIVO Music Festival.

Hui joined the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in 2011 as principal second violinist after training at Peabody preparatory - the young musicians' training division of Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music, receiving a bachelor's degree from the Curtis Institute of Music and completing graduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music. She says she now considers Columbus her adopted home, and thinks the VIVO Music Festival has the potential to bring a different kind of classical music experience to Columbus.

"It's not 'You have to clap at a certain time, or you have to stay quiet.' Just relax and engage with the musicians," Hui said. 

And Hui says she hopes the festival's goal of performing concerts with a casual feel will make audiences fall in love with classical music and even return to the festival, if it continues in the future.

"I hope that people would really love classical music, and if they already love classical music, that they would love it even more," Hui said. "I really hope that we'll be able to do this again in future years."

Heather Kufchak, violin

For violinist Heather Kufchak, participating in the VIVO Music Festival feels like getting together with a large extended family. She met VIVO Music Festival co-artistic director Siwoo Kim while the two were musicians in the Westerville High School orchestra. This week the players will perform together again in the VIVO Music Festival's final concert on Aug. 23.

"It's always great to see old friends that you grew up with," Kufchak said.

A native of Syracuse, New York, Kufchak moved to Columbus with her family when she was 10 and graduated from Westerville South High School. She was a member of the Columbus Symphony's Junior Strings and Cadet Orchestra, and performed with student ensembles of the Chamber Music Connection before attending Ohio University and Rice University.

In 2011 Kufchak returned to Columbus to start her professional career as a member of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra and a substitute musician with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. She also runs a violin studio in Westerville and encourages her students to participate in the same opportunities for young aspiring classical musicians that once nurtured her own talent. 

"I try to get all of my students involved in the programs that I did growing up because I think they're so great for having a well-rounded education in music," Kufchak said.

And even as Kufchak is establishing herself professionally as a performer with Columbuss established classical music ensembles, she says she's glad to take part in something new.

"It's neat that there's going to be something else added to what's already here," Kufchak said, "and that it's a little bit different than what's already going on." 

The VIVO Music Festival unfolds over three core concerts Aug. 21-23 at the Short North's Garden Theater. The final concert, "Unstrung," 4 p.m. Aug. 23, brings all of the musicians together in a string chamber orchestra performance of works by Bach, Grieg and Piazzolla.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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