Encores & Curtain Calls: 'She's really got it!'
“I know a girl who cries when she practices violin because each note sounds so pure it just cuts into her, and then the melody comes pouring out her eyes.”
— Conor Oberst
It all began with this email from my old friend Margaret Kelsey-Wright, a piano teacher of long standing in the Northampton area:
“I want you to know about a very special concert that is coming up on Saturday, June 21, 4 p.m. at Buckley Recital Hall, Amherst College.
“Alice Ivy-Pemberton, age 17, is an extraordinary violinist who is playing with Estela Olevsky in a special concert to benefit a school in Haiti. It is a really lovely program, as you see below ...
“I know Alice’s beautiful playing because I have heard her play numerous times in concerts at Grace Church in Amherst and have actually played on concerts with her ... shared concerts. By now, she has won numerous awards, played in many countries and has still maintained her charm and personal warmth, both on and off stage.
“And the school in Haiti, St. Mathieu, is a very special place, too. Grace Church supports some of the many efforts of this school, which is still recovering from the devastating results of the earthquake, hurricanes and everything else.
“So, I hope so much that you will join me at this concert, and in supporting a really good cause.
“And please spread this message to others!”
This letter led to my speaking with another old colleague, the much-admired pianist Estela Olevsky herself, lately of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who, having retired from her position as professor of piano performance, has had a good deal more time to pick and choose her venues and who, for reasons which intrigued me, had evidently chosen to mount a one-on-one concert with a fledgling violinist more than half a century her junior.
Connecting with Estela — who regularly shuttles between Massachusetts and Manhattan — by phone, I got it straight from the horse’s mouth: “She’s really got it!” said the pianist of her string partner.
This, for a performer of Estela’s calibre, is quite a mouthful and a vote of complete confidence to be totally taken on faith.
But being an ever-curious soul, I of course sought out the wunderkind directly, wanting to experience her thoughts on her gifts and her art. The following conversation with the young Alice Pemberton, who, along with her family, is spending the summer in Leverett, is the result:
JM: How did you stumble upon your musical passion?
AP: When I was 4, the son of my mother’s friend started playing violin and he wanted someone to do it with and I just picked it up and started playing bluegrass and fiddle music. Then he sort of stopped and I kept going and, for a couple of years, I didn’t have a teacher; but when I was 8, I started doing some of these local community orchestra things and I played for the audition and they said “You need a teacher!” and gave my parents the card for my current teacher, Nurit Pacht, who I’ve been studying with since then, almost nine years. And she changed almost everything for me since then and made music something that I really wanted to throw myself at and really treated me seriously from the first lesson. Even though I wasn’t serious when I came to her, I quickly was after that.
JM: Was there a moment of epiphany or a gradual romance with the classical violin?
AP: I would say it was gradual. I came to her when I was 8, and I did the (young people’s classical performance) radio show “From the Top” when I was 10, so a lot happened in those two years in terms of development. Because she (Nurit Pacht) took me seriously, I wanted to take me seriously. I got so much exposure (from the show) and I thought, “Wow, this is really something that I might be able to do” and so I just kept working, working. Recently, two or three years ago, when I had just turned 15, I started the Perlman program, where I met Itzhak Perlman during the summer and that’s when I started doing music for the first time and said “That is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
JM: Are you saying that you’ve been thinking about redirecting your career into the chamber rather than the solo realms?
AP: I wouldn’t go that far. Right now, as a young musician, it’s really important to establish yourself in the solo realm. My end goal is not only to be a soloist, but I have to say my greatest love in classical music is chamber music. The experience of playing with other great musicians is really the best. There’s a mix to be had.
JM: Well, in chamber music you really get the “ball” batted back to you very quickly and intimately, unlike the experience of playing with an orchestra, which has a tendency to more concerted, where you’re either really out front or else letting the orchestra do its thing.
AP: Yes, it’s a very different experience, but I enjoy both. I just played the Tchaikovsky concerto with an orchestra last week. That is really an amazing experience. You feel like you’re on top of Mount Everest and, you know, yelling to the world, really projecting yourself. Chamber music is more about giving yourself to others and making one sound out of four. They’re very different but I enjoy them equally.
JM: I’m curious, given your relatively young age, whether the works that you play “speak to you” personally? Are those sounds “saying something” to you in a very personal way, or is it the case that, at least at times, they are merely sonically exciting or technically challenging?
AP: When you’ve worked on something so long — even though my teacher is very detail oriented — when you’ve put all these things together and perform it before an audience, the sounds are not just exciting, but I definitely feel as if the sounds mean a great deal to me. I feel when I know what I want to say with a piece, sometimes as if I’m saying something to the composer. They are Tchaikovsky through my lens and they are me through Tchaikovksy, it goes both ways.
Among the major works on the program are Cesar Franck’s exquisite sonata for violin and piano, a work regularly co-opted by other instrumentalists for its sheer, unrelenting beauty; Claude Debussy’s delicate violin and piano sonata, a Wieniawski work and several solo piano pieces by Issac Albeniz.
The show is a benefit for Grace Church’s Partnership School, St. Mathieu, in Bayonnais, Haiti, and for Mohawk Trail Concerts.
The suggested donation is $25.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.