Lillian Lee’s professor, Cyrus Forough, has a suggestion for the CMU freshman violin major. He wants her to enter a performance tape in the 2014 Stuhlberg International String Competition. Forough tells her that she could be invited to compete at Stulberg, formed in 1975 to celebrate gifted artists younger than 20.
Lee is one of 150 applicants. Only 12 will gain a spot on the stage in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
For her performance tape, Forough recommends a violin concerto written by William Walton, which premiered in 1939 with renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Cleveland Orchestra. When it comes to classical music, it’s a rather contemporary selection, but Lee agrees with the choice:
“The Walton is still being defined; a modern choice stands out, and there’s less consensus around how to play it,” she says. The concerto also suits her “fast fingers” in the left hand, required by the energetic sections of the piece.
Several weeks after submitting the tape, she gets a call with a 269 area code while in class. Excusing herself, she returns the call and gets good news: “I couldn’t wait to tell Professor Forough and my family.”
At school year’s end last May, when other students had gone home, Lee is in Kalamazoo, performing before a packed audience in Dalton Center Recital Hall. In attendance are the same judges who advanced her to this round; they hear the Walton concerto live. From the crowd’s reception, and the smile on her mom’s face, she knows her fast fingers came through.
Next up is a required movement from Bach. She has chosen the second movement of four from the Bach Violin Sonata No., 1 in G Minor. To many listeners, her performance may seem flawless, but not to her. “It just didn’t feel right,” she says.
Perhaps she’s too hard on herself, because the judges advance her and five others to the finalist round for one more performance. Once again, Lee performs the Walton. Although she doesn’t win the competition, she says—unlike the frustration from the afternoon—she’s pleased just to have had the chance to perform: “Some string musicians like to sit and practice, but I play because I like to share the story of the music with an audience.”
A month later, Lee receives word that Stulberg wants her to perform at its annual fundraiser. She’ll have another chance to let those fast fingers share a story.