Some musicians get jolted into the spotlight seemingly instantly. Think of conductor Leonard Bernstein, who made the front page of the New York Times after brilliantly substituting at the last minute in 1943 for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic.
For others, the process is more gradual. Put Simone Lamsma in that second category. The 28-year-old Dutch violinist, who will make her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts June 5-8, has slowly attained an international career, building one success on another. “For me,” she said in an e-mail, “it has worked to be selective from an early age as to which engagement to accept at what moment, trying to make decisions that feel right at that time. And this is still my approach.”
Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden (below right), music director of the Dallas Symphony and Hong Kong Philharmonic, has been a particular champion of this young violinst since 2007. Most recently, the two collaborated in February during concerts with the San Francisco Symphony, and they performed together in March during a tour of China with van Zweden’s Hong Kong ensemble.
“There was a very natural musical understanding between us straight away,” Lamsma said, “one where not many words are needed to communicate. I think we both make music on an intuitive basis, which seems to click. He is very inspirational to work with. I so admire his total commitment, and his extraordinary ability to communicate his vision to an orchestra.”
At Symphony Center, Lamsma and van Zweden will team again in performances of Britten’s Violin Concerto, Op. 15, as part of a program that concludes the CSO’s Truth to Power Festival, a series of concerts and related events that began May 22. The festival explores the 1930s and ’40s, focusing on the varied roles that the music of Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich played during those decades.
Lamsma first encountered the Britten Violin Concerto, when she was preparing for the Benjamin Britten International Violin Competition in London. As the winner of that event in 2004, she performed the concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, and she has gone on to play it with many other orchestras, becoming a proponent of the once-neglected composition in the process.
“It is a work of great emotional depth,” she said. “Written in 1938-’39, it reflects a time of wars, in particular the Spanish Civil War and reflects Britten’s personal grief during these horrific times. The work contains many Spanish flavors and influences. The concerto is an emotional journey and a big arc from beginning to end, with a most gripping last movement [Passacaglia]. For me, the concerto ends in hope.”
Lamsma began studying the violin at age 5, moving to Great Britain at age 11 to study first at the Yehudi Menuhin School with Hu Kun and later at the Royal Academy of Music with Maurice Hasson. In 2011, she was named an Associate of the Royal Academy, an honor granted to alumni who have made significant contributions to the field. After 10 years of studies in London, she moved back to her home country in 2006.
She has made two recordings, including her most recent, an album on the Naxos label featuring three of the 15 violin concertos of Louis Spohr. Born 14 years after Beethoven, the German-born Spohr was one of the best-known and most prolific composers of his time, but his music has fallen into obscurity since. “The choice of Spohr was a choice by the record company, who had specific repertoire in mind, but I was very happy to take on this project, as his music is beautiful, charming and very operatic,” Lamsma said.
The up-and-coming soloist acknowledges that it can be hard to carve a professional niche in a field teeming with super-talented young violinists, but she is confident that the future is bright. “I believe that staying true to yourself,” she said, “and following your own path is the way to go to establish yourself and build a longer-term career. You’ll somehow find your place.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.