Two School of Music violinists perform with Cleveland Orchestra

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

The benefits of an establishment like the Chautauqua School of Music are not always immediate, but this year, two students already have made names for themselves after leaving the music campus a week early to compete in the first ever Thomas and Evon Cooper International Violin Competition.

Violin students Alexandra Switala, 17, and Laura Park, 17, placed second and third, respectively, in the competition during its final round Aug. 19. The competition, which was held at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, awarded Switala $6,000 and Park $3,000. Both students also received full-ride scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory after performing their concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall on Aug. 19.

Switala and Park both study with Chautauqua violin faculty member Almita Vamos, a former faculty member at the Oberlin Conservatory who also judged the first round of the Cooper Competition. Vamos had a total of seven students in the competition and was thrilled to have two of her students among the top three finalists.

“Their experience at Chautauqua will have contributed to their growth as musicians,” she said, “and prepared them for the next stage in their life.”

Both girls are entering their senior year of high school but are choosing to be home-schooled so that they can better prepare for college auditions. Now that they have full scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory, they said, the school is on their top-choice lists.

“It’s nice to know I have a solid backup,” Park said.

Switala also is the winner of the 2011 Sphinx Competition, a music competition for young black and Latino string players, which has granted her the opportunity to perform as a soloist in the fall with orchestras nationwide including the New World Symphony, the Ann Arbor Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Park, who won Chautauqua’s Sigma Alpha Iota concerto competition this year, will return to the Institution in 2012 to perform as a soloist with the Music School Festival Orchestra.

The Cooper Competition was different from many competitions in that it provided a learning environment rather than a strictly competitive one, Vamos said. There were a total of four rounds, and students that did not advance still were given the opportunity to perform in master classes and recitals with the world-renowned faculty present at the conservatory.

“What was great about this competition,” Vamos said, “was that it was unlike any competition I’ve ever judged. They made a festival out of it.”

Switala called the competition a “big reunion,” and said that the first place winner, 17-year-old Sirena Huang from South Windsor, Conn., was a good friend long before they met at Oberlin.

“I hadn’t seen her in about two years,” Switala said, “and she’s one of my closest friends.”

During the final round, Switala and Park performed their concertos onstage with the Cleveland Orchestra. Switala performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, while Park concluded the concert with the Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, by Jean Sibelius.

Both students remarked on meeting the orchestral musicians backstage and getting advice from them before their performance. Each violinist met with conductor Jahja Ling privately to discuss tempos and phrasing. There was only one rehearsal before the concert.

“That was the best prize,” Park said, “playing in such a beautiful place.”

Switala and Park said their dream come true would be to perform as soloists with all the great orchestras.

“I would love nothing more than to be a soloist and travel the world playing with all sorts of orchestras,” Switala said.

But right now, the challenge ahead is deciding which college can get them there.