Next stop, New York
Showering her students with a powerful mix of loving attention, discipline, humor and advanced musical technique, Faina Podolnaya of Ashland has shaped the Siskiyou Violins into a stunning ensemble of pre-adult performers who will take the stage March 21 at Carnegie Hall.
Once voted Teacher of the Year in the former Soviet Union, Podolnaya emigrated here in 1999 to be near her daughter, then created the ensemble of 9- to 18-year-olds — making playful work of tutoring them individually and in weekly rehearsals and preparing them for performances.
Earlier members have appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2005 and the Disney Concert Hall in 2008, winning gold medals at both.
With 40 members, the ensemble is an independent nonprofit, not associated with schools. Half the proceeds go for travel expenses to New York.
"Faina brings incredible passion and dedication and passes that along to students with a lot of love, encouraging them to strive, grow and perfect their playing," said Jill Savino, mom of one of the performers.
Podolnaya's engagement and artistry blossom in rehearsal at Grace Lutheran Church as she coaxes, tweaks, pokes and darts among her students, demonstrating intonation, bowing, vibrato, phrasing and stage presence — for which students get stars on their charts.
"It's a very special sound when you have only violins," says Podolnaya. "They're not professional, but they play like professionals. I love my students so much. If you're teaching a subject you love, the students are going to want it. "It's so important to build a good relationship, so they trust and love you, then they will work very hard."
Podolnaya rejects any notion that young people can't perform like experts.
"It's very important to keep a high standard. You can never increase the standard too high for students. No matter how high you go, they always meet your expectations. The young believe in goals, in what they're doing — and everything depends on how much they believe in that."
The ensemble has played many times at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Green Show and performed in January at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater. Most are members of the Youth Symphony of Southern Oregon.
Martin Majkut, director of the Rogue Valley Symphony, says the ensemble is "contributing tremendously to the music scene here and having a significant educational impact."
After a confident run-through of E. Doga's waltz and Handel's haunting and moving chaconne, student Ellie Jensen, 15, describes Podolnaya as "aggressive, but she loves us. The synergy is amazing. She pulls us into the music so beautifully."
"We love it," says 15-year-old student Drew Thompson. "It's a huge advancement of our musical careers, a huge opportunity and a lifelong dream."
The ensemble is accompanied on piano by recent Southern Oregon University graduate Daniel Swayze, who will accompany them at Carnegie Hall.
"This is a unique job for me," Swayze says. "They are performing such a variety of works, learning Faina's skill sets and acquiring such flexibility and skill."
The group employs a rare approach, memorizing every work, including countless techniques, such as what part of the bow to use and when, says Podolnaya.
Parent Yookjae Barchet says, "We really love Faina. She's inspiring and makes each kid fall in love with the music."
"The excitement is contagious as we build the dedication and persistence," says Podolnaya. "They gain assurance they can meet any end. ... They have love for each other and love for the music. They love to perform," she adds, citing a quote that says, "Music is the only art of heaven that was given to humans."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.