Concert Preview: New England Philharmonic Family Concert with PALS Children’s Chorus and Ilana Zaks, violin

On Sunday, the New England Philharmonic and music director Richard Pittman are presenting a family concert that pays no heed to the season but showcases some of the area’s finest young performers in action.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Violinist Ilana Zaks, winner of the NEP’s 2012 Young Artist’s Competition. Photo: Mickey Goldin

Since the Boston Pops holiday schedule means an early end to the Boston Symphony’s fall season, newcomers to the area could be forgiven for thinking that all is quiet on the Boston orchestral front come December. Happily, that’s not the case: chamber orchestras like the Discovery Ensemble and A Far Cry remain active well into the month, and, of course, there are the traditional Messiah and Christmas Oratorio offerings of the Handel and Haydn Society, Boston Baroque, and other groups around town.

This year, add to the mix the New England Philharmonic (NEP). On Sunday, the NEP and music director Richard Pittman are presenting a family concert that pays no heed to the season but showcases some of the area’s finest young performers in action. Billed as “Beasts and Beats,” the program features the excellent PALS Children’s Chorus singing excerpts from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, and the NEP performing movements from Copland’s Rodeo and Silvestre Revueltes’s Sensemaya.

But perhaps the concert’s biggest draw is 12-year-old violinist Ilana Zaks, winner of the NEP’s 2012 Young Artists Competition. Currently a student of Donald Weilerstein, she will be performing Pablo Sarasate’s show-stopping Carmen Fantasy, a piece that most recently turned up in these parts in July with Anne-Sophie Mutter and the BSO at Tanglewood. Not that Ms. Zaks is daunted by any such comparisons: in anticipation of her NEP debut, she graciously answered several questions about her practicing habits, interests (musical and other), and future goals via email. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Arts Fuse: How did you come to start playing the violin?

Ilana Zaks: It was a very natural choice for me to play the violin. I heard violin music in my house as soon as I was born. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and my mom are professional violinists. I am the fourth generation of violinists in my family. At the same time as I started playing the violin, my parents tried to get me involved in different activities to find out my interests. I tried art, swimming, tennis, skiing, gymnastics, and singing. I loved them all, but music was my passion: it excited me the most and was something I wanted to do every minute of the day. However, swimming, tennis, and skiing remained my hobbies.

AF: When did you first hear the Carmen Fantasy? How did you decide to learn and perform it?

IZ: I first heard the Carmen Fantasy when I was listening to a recording of a violinist at nighttime. I always listen to music before falling to sleep, which introduces me to many new pieces. When I heard it for the first time, I kept playing the same recording over and over again, dreaming that one day I would play it. Last summer my dream came true when conductor Max Hobart invited me to play with the Wellesley Symphony and suggested that I perform Carmen. I was very excited: finally my long-time favorite piece got on my practicing list! At my next lesson, we told my teacher about it, and he approved of the choice. I went into my mom’s studio, opened the closet (that had all my other dream pieces in it), and quickly took out Carmen. Then I started playing it and continued to learn it from that point. I never get tired of playing it. It has so much to offer both the violinist and the audience.

AF: Which recordings/performances of it do you like the best?

IZ: I love the recordings of Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Gil Shaham.

AF: Have you performed it with a piano reduction? Do you prefer playing it with an orchestra or with piano accompaniment?

IZ: I have played Carmen with the piano reduction, but I prefer to play it with an orchestra. Carmen is a piece that deserves to be played with the full orchestra because each instrument is a different character and adds to the rich palette of colors.

AF: What’s your favorite part to play? What’s the hardest part to play?

Violinist Ilana Zaks — she practices about four hours every day. Photo: Mickey Goldin.

IZ: I would say my favorite movement(s) are the last two. They are connected, and both are fiery dances that Sarasate does as the grand finale. The hardest part (which is not all that hard after you practice it!) is probably the double-stop passage at the beginning of the last movement at tremendous speed.

AF: What piece(s) did you play before you learned Carmen, and what are you going to play next?

IZ: The pieces I played before Carmen were Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Zigeunerweisen (by Sarasate), and Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. I am working on the Mendelssohn Concerto and hope to be able to play it with an orchestra one day. I am learning a lot of pieces at the same time.

AF: How many hours a day do you practice? Do you have any tricks for memorizing music?

IZ: I practice about four hours every day. As a trick to memorize music, I listen to many recordings and then the piece doesn’t get out of my head.

AF: What are your hobbies? Do you know what you want to pursue when you get older?

IZ: My hobbies are (in the summer) tennis and swimming in pools and oceans. In the winter I ski, if possible. I also like traveling, hiking, and taking walks outside to refresh myself.

When I grow up, I would like to be a soloist like Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern, who toured around the world playing lots of concerts both with orchestras and pianists for different audiences. It would be great to make music with the other musicians. I would like to be able to learn amazing violin repertoire because it has so much for me to discover.

AF: Do you have any lucky performance day rituals?

IZ: I do not have any lucky performance day rituals. As long as I am warmed up, I just go out there and have fun!

The New England Philharmonic’s Family Concert “Beasts and Beats” features music by Revueltas, Copland, and Sarasate, and performances by the PALS Children’s Chorus and violinist Ilana Zaks on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Boston University’s Tsai Center for the Performing Arts, 685 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. Ticket information can be found here.

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