A CLASSIC VIOLIN APPROACH FOR OUR AGE
THE GIVENS METHOD IN ACTION:
A CONCERT TO REMEMBER
by Harry Wimmer
On Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 6 pm, a distinguished group of former Juilliard students
of the beloved violinist and teacher Shirley Givens filled the school's Paul Hall stage to bursting
to present Vivaldi's ever-popular Four Seasons, the colorful violin concerti so aptly described
by their original sonnets. Many people had to be turned away at the door.
It was my privilege to conduct this wonderful alumni orchestra in a nostalgic repeat of a concert
with Givens students at the Aspen Music Festival featuring the late soprano Jan DeGaetani
narrating the sonnets. For this performance the narrator was the glamorous Givens alumna
Elizabeth Dabney.. Beyond celebrating the work of her students, the underlying musical aim
of this concert was to have players and audience enter Vivaldi's wondrous world of musical
tone-painting, of mirroring nature.
It is not totally clear how the basic plan for this gala event came about, but once word spread,
there was great enthusiasm both among the Juilliard Administration and the Givens alumni.
The 4 Concerti Soloists, totally different in style, yet equally brilliant, were Harumi Rhodes
(Trio Cavatina - "Spring") , Elizabeth Fayette (U.S. Presidential Scholar - "Summer"),
Min-Young Kim (1st Vln, Daedalus Quartet - "Autumn), and Joseph Lin (newly appointed
1st Vln, Juilliard Quartet - "Winter"). They were supported by a devoted orchestra led by
Amos Fayette, and by a group of friends playing the essential lower instruments.
Last but not least, Lionel Party, the distinguished harpsichordist and former Curtis Institute
and Juilliard faculty member, flew up from Chile especially to play for this event.
Shirley Givens with 3 of her alumni soloists, Min-Young Kim, Harumi Rhodes and Joseph Lin
Soloist and U.S. Presidential Scholar Elizabeth Fayette, after Kennedy
Center Ceremony with Shirley Givens and Harry Wimmer
Pamela Frank and Shirley Givens
One might ask: what caused such a warm outpouring of support for this venture among alumni
and friends, many of whom had to travel sizable distances to take part in this event?
To attempt an answer, we might delve a bit into the background of Shirley Givens as an artist
and human being. We will discover a philosophy of teaching, of life, that has nourished her
students well beyond the narrow instrumental discipline needed in the REAL outside world
Born in the little town of Louisville, Ohio, where, to this day, the handsome Augustus Juilliard
home still stands (now a Senior Center), the house of the Mr.Juilliard, the highly successful
textile merchant who was a founder of the Juilliard School.
Shirley's family moved to California when she was 4 and, after begging for a violin, her mother
found a well-known Hollywood violin teacher for children, Karl Moldrum, a dour Swede who
sat behind an old upright piano while conducting the Hollywood Baby Orchestra. Would you
believe, earlier graduates were conductor Lorin Maazel and Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri
Quartet! This baby orchestra gave several concerts a week which included recitations, skits,
costumes and what have you! Shirley also took ballet, tap dancing, acrobatics and "elocution"
lessons. Soon bit parts in some Hollywood movies followed!
Back in Ohio, a Mendelssohn Concerto solo appearance with the Canton Symphony at age
11, then a bi- weekly commute to New York through her high school years and lessons at
Juilliard with Hans Letz, formerly of the Kneisel Quartet, who also sat behind a piano,
regularly eating his lunch while dispensing pearls of wisdom.
Even the seemingly severe Ivan Galamian, who followed when she entered college, had a
twinkle: he made sure to schedule her lessons at 8 a.m. on Sundays to thwart any late
Saturday night "hanky-panky" with the current boy friend. Also he laced his otherwise
super-serious violin teaching with such descriptive phrases, delivered in a thick Russian
accent, as "A violin tone is like the human body. It must have good bone structure, firm
muscles and a little fat - but not too much fat!"
These and other illustrrious teachers and mentors prepared her for a performing career that
brought her to the White House to play at a State Dinner, followed by an international tour with
Metropolitan Opera star tenor, James Melton, and numerous CBS and NBC solo appearances
including the Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan shows. Her blossoming teaching career led to an
invitation by Yale University to become a Sanford Fellow, to the Conservatoire in Fontainebleau,
France, as its first American Professor, to the Aspen Music Festival, where she founded the
Aspen String Workshop, witth Isaac Stern, Sidney Harth, Itzhak Perlman and Dorothy DeLay
participating, to an invitation by the Regional Mexican Government to help it organize a string
program in Aguascaliente, to Australia for the AUSTA 2000 Celebration, to the Victoria, Canada,
International Festival, and to performances at the Puerto Rico Pablo Casals Festival and in his
last home in the hills of San Juan etc etc. For many years on the violin faculty of the Peabody
Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, she is currently on the faculty of Mannes College
The New School in New York in addition to Juilliard.
There is a broader thread that runs through her many-faceted achievements, and that her
alumni seem to sense: Shirley Givens constantly teaches her students that violin playing is
a theatrical experience, from the moment they walk on stage and delve into the inner message
of the music. It requires great imagination in its projection. It's also a deeply meaningful human
experience as you convey your message to the audience.
Finally, what gives Shirley Givens a breadth of vision well beyond the narrow instrumental
scope, is that she is also a highly gifted visual artist. The walls of her home are covered
with her striking oil paintings, but there are also cartoons, some on my website, and also
wonderful illustrations that fill her 24-part (!) children's vIolin series, "Adventures in
Violinland," also numerous concert posters, such as an announcement of Saint-Saens'
"Carnival off the Animals" with Itzhak Perlman narrating the Ogden Nash verses, also an
Arnold Schönberg Victoria Festival poster of his "Verklärte Nacht."
Shirley Givens Aspen Music Festival Poster with Itzhak Perlman
narrating Carnival of the Animals
Schönberg Poster for Victoria, Canada, International Festival
Alumnus violinist Kyu-Young Kim, Senior Director of Artistic Planning and Principal 2nd
Violin, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, summed it all best when he wrote recently:
"You gave me the greatest gift with your amazing teaching in the most formative years!"
Harry Wimmer, cellist and conductor, is an alumnus of the Juilliard School, where he studied with the legendary
Leonard Rose. His artistry has been recognized in letters by such musical icons as Pablo Casals and Bruno Walter.
He is also the husband of Shirley Givens and, through the years, has shared numerous projects and musical
adventures with her. His complete biography can be found on his website www.wimmercello.com
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