Top Five Modern Violinists

Following up from yesterday’s post about the top five historical violinists, today we have the top five modern violinists. These are the violinists that if they come to do a concert in your town, you should do everything you can to get to see them. These are the ones that you should be watching and listening to for the best quality recordings of today. And these are the ones that I just prefer to listen to. Let’s get into it.

5. Lara St. John

Lara St. John is a Canadian, iguana loving violinist who has studied and played all over the world. Initially studying with Richard Lawrence, she gave her first performance as an orchestral soloist at age four. She then started travelling to Cleveland, Ohio where she received lessons from Linda Cerone. After spending a year studying with Gérard Jarry in Paris, she won the grand price at the Canadian Music Competition at age nine. She made her European debut in Lisbon at age 10, after which she spent three years touring through Spain, France and Hungary. At 13, she entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, studying under Felix Galimir and Arnold Steinhardt. After her graduation at 16, she moved on her own to become the youngest post-graduate student at the Moscow Conservatory. She’s also studied at the Guildhall School in London, the Mannes College of Music in New York, and the New England Conservatory in Boston.

While at the Curtis Institute of Music, St. John was sexually abused by one of her instructors, Jascha Brodsky. Her claims were dismissed at the time by the Curtis board, however after an investigation by law firm Cozen O’Connor into her claims were found credible, the Curtis board unanimously accepted the firm’s findings. St. John’s campaign to be heard shone a light into the dark world of institutional abuse, brought to light many more cases, and started to move classical music in a better direction.

In 1999, following her personal dissatisfaction with the marketing and production approach of larger recording companies, St. John founded an artist-owned record company called Ancalagon LLC, named after her pet iguana. Since then, she has released a number of albums, including a recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, and my personal favourite recording of the Hindson Violin Concerto.

St John also edits a lot of her own videos, so I’ve chosen this really interesting one of John Corigliano’s STOMP, which was written for Lara St. John, and she filmed around New York in many places that were special to Corigliano himself, as an 81st birthday present.

4. Janine Jansen

Born into a musical family, Dutch violinist and violist Janine Jansen began to play the violin at age 6, studying with Coosje Wijzenbeek, Philippe Hirschhorn and Boris Belkin. She debuted at the Concertgebouw in 1997, and since then has been a huge star in Holland, having appeared with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra, amongst many others. She opened the BBC proms in 2005 with a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and was a featured artist of the 2014 BBC Proms.

Jansen received the Dutch Music Prize in September 2003, and has won the Edison Classic Public Award four times, three Echo Awards, the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist award, and many others. She currently plays on a 1727 ‘Baron Deurbroucq’ Stradivarius on loan from Beare’s International Violin Society.

Jansen has a number of recordings, but the one I really recommend is her recording of The Four Seasons. For this album, Jansen moved away from the traditional baroque orchestra accompanying a soloist, and instead chose to have only one player per part. As such, this recording feels much more like a chamber music performance, as opposed to a soloist with orchestra. The inner parts and the interplay between the instruments is much more of a conversation and it is a recording worth having in your collection.

There are a number of videos on YouTube, but I’ve selected a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2017.

3. Ray Chen

One of the brightest shining lights in the classical music world, Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen won the 2008 International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition and the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition, at which he was the youngest participant, and was granted a three year loan of the “Huggins” Stradivarius by the Nippon Music Foundation, who is currently loaning him the 1735 “Samazeuilh” Stradivarius.

Chen was signed by Sony Classics in 2010, but just recently has performed Ravel’s Tzigane on a complete orchestral works box set released by Deutsche Grammaphon, and his most recent album, “The Golden Age” contains virtuosic works form the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and members of Chen’s chamber music collective, Made in Berlin. His latest album, Solace, features his selections of movements from the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin which he recorded completely during quarantine, which you can watch his progress in a vlog he recorded.

For a bit more of his playing, here is an encore he performed after performing with the Chigago Symphony Orchestra, his solo violin arrangement of Waltzing Matilda.

2. Joshua Bell

Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1967, Joshua Bell is considered one of the greatest violinists of our age. He started learning violin at age four under Donna Bricht, before progressing through Mimi Zweig to Josef Gingold. By Age 12, Bell was serious about the violin, thanks to Gingold’s inspiration. He appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccado Muti, before continuing his studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 with the St. Louis Symphony, and has been a performing regularly since then, performing standard works and new works, such as Nicholas Maw’s violin concerto which was dedicated to Bell, and performing on the soundtrack to the films The Red Violin and Ladies in Lavender.

In 2007, Joshua Bell took part in an experiment initiated by The Washington Post. Performing as an incognito busker, Bell busked for 45 minutes at the Metro subway station L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC, playing the same repertoire he had performed at a sold out concert just three days earlier. 1097 people passed him by, seven stopped to listen to him and only one recognised him. He earned $32.17 from 27 passersby, and $20 from the one person who recognised him. It’s also included in the documentary “Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary

Bell has a rich recorded discography, including 7 albums which topped the Bilboard Classical Charts (His 2009 album, At Home with Friends peaked at 118 in the Billboard 200 charts).

In July 2020, Bell partnered with a number of helthcare workers who also play violin to create this moving performance of the Bach Double Violin Concerto.

1. Hilary Hahn

Born in Lexington, Virginia in 1979, Hilary Hahn started learning through the Suzuki Program just before she was four, before starting lessons with Klara Berkovich. She joined the Curtis Institute of Music at age 10, studying under Jascha Brodsky. She had completed the undergraduate requirements by age 16, but remained to study electives until her graduation in May 1999, studying violin with Jaime Laredo and chamber music with Felix Galimir and Gary Graffman.

She had her orchestral debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at age 11, and at age 16 debuted at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Along with her orchestral performances, she performs chamber music regularly, having performed nearly every year since 1992 at the Skaneateles Chamber Music Festival in New York, as well as many other festivals and tours.

She has been a noted champion of new music, commissioning Edgar Meyer to write a concerto in 1999, and Jennifer Higdon for another concerto in 2010. In 2011, she commissioned 26 composers to write short encore pieces and held a composition competition for the 27th piece that was included in her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The works were later released in a sheet music album for all violinists to be able to include in their repertoire.

As proved by TwoSet Violin, she is incredibly talented – being able to play a range of pieces in all sorts of different manners – even playing while spinning a hula hoop.

There are of course many performances on YouTube that I could have chosen, however, one of the clearest ways to hear a player is through their performance of Bach.

So they are my top five modern violinists – and there are so many more that I could have included as well, but these are the five that I would see no matter what. Who are your favourite violinists?

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