The Lowe Down: Vermont contributes to the greater music world

Conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn is one of Vermont’s most spectacular contributions to the international music world. (Provided photo)

This week’s cover story on New York Philharmonic cellist and Marlboro native Eric Bartlett brings up a serious question: Can Vermonters, coming from a rural state without the tradition of the intense competitive music education of urban areas, turn out musicians who will be successful on the world stage? The answer, of course, is yes, but our young classical musicians do face a real challenge. Here are a few that I’ve had a personal relationship with. Perhaps best known is pianist and conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn. Born in Moscow in 1972, he came with his family to Cavendish at 3 after his father, dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was exiled from his native Russia. Ignat began piano studies with Chongyo Kim at the Brattleboro Music Center at age 9, going on to work with the late Luis Batlle in Marlboro. I met Ignat when he was 15, performing with violinist Lazar Gosman at the Norwich University Russian School in Northfield. His mother chaperoned my interview to make sure it didn’t get political. (That, of course, was not my interest.)  In my review — Ignat’s first ever — I noted that while he didn’t have the virtuosity of a prodigy, he played with a deep musicality, which continues to this day. Ignat took the usual trajectory, studies in London, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, Marlboro Music Festival, to become a world-traveling pianist and composer. Today, he is principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony and conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and serves on the faculty of the Curtis and the Tanglewood Music Center. And Ignat returns regularly to share his music, often to Cavendish, Brattleboro, Marlboro and Soovin Kim’s Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival. Still, the first of the musicians I knew was New York composer Mary Jane Leach. I had no idea of her serious interest in music, despite my own, when we were fellow students at Montpelier High School and members of the Montpelier swim team. Today, Mary Jane is a highly respected composer and teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It wasn’t until the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble performed some of her music in Montpelier that I found out. Since, she has generously sent me recordings of her knotty but fascinating and inspiring music. It was while a student at Marlboro College that I first met Eric Bartlett. He was a student at Brattleboro Union High School when we both played in a community orchestra sponsored by the Brattleboro Music Center. (It was pretty terrible, but it was directed by Blanche and Louis Moyse.) We all knew Eric was an excellent cellist, but he hadn’t yet chosen it as a vocation. Of course, he went on to a successful career and is now in the New York Philharmonic. I look forward to hearing him June 9 when he will be soloist with the Juno Orchestra in Haydn’s D Major Cello Concerto in Brattleboro. Mary and Fran Rowell, violinist and cellist respectively, grew up on a farm in Craftsbury, played in the Vermont Youth Orchestra and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard. MaryRowell achieved an international career as an avant-garde violinist, playing cutting-edge classical, rock, tango and traditional classical music, co-founding the string quartet Ethel. Fran took a more traditional route and now plays with the New Jersey Symphony. I met both as members of the summer Craftsbury Chamber Players, of which they are longtime members. Mary Rowell and I have been close friends from the beginning, but I didn’t get to know Fran until she took over as director of the Players from her stepmother, Mary Anthony Cox. Today, Mary Rowell splits her time between New York and Vermont, where she is a member of TURNmusic, and both can be heard regularly in Vermont concerts throughout the year. While technically not a Vermonter, much of violinist Soovin Kim’s musical development was here and he has become an integral part of the state’s music scene. Growing up across Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, New York, Soovin spent his childhood and teen years as a member of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, playing chamber music with its members. After studies at Cleveland Institute of Music, and Curtis with Jaime Laredo, Soovin continued his development at Marlboro Music Festival where he continues to participate as a senior artist. I first met Soovin when he was a teen soloist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, but didn’t get to know him until I interviewed him when writing about Marlboro. It was his creation of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, a cutting-edge educational and audience development dynamo held each year at the Vermont Youth Orchestra’s Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester, that I really began to get to know him and his attachment to Vermont. Today Soovin teaches at Boston’s New England Conservatory and travels the world as soloist and chamber musician, but returns many times a year to give back to the state where it all started. Can a Vermont musician make it in the international classical music world? Yes, but it’s difficult.   Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at or

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