Violinist Katherine Winterstein: A concerto for today

Provided photo

Provided photo / Katherine Winterstein

By Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

For Katherine Winterstein, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s longtime concertmaster, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto is perfect for right now.

“It’s quintessentially American to me,” she says. “In a way, it’s become more important to me than it was before. It’s all the things that I think are good in our nation. It has this openness of spirit, generosity, warmth and sincerity.

“For me, it is openness and it is warmth — and it sounds to me like all the things that we’ve lost,” Winterstein says. “It’s one of the most simply beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard. I think it’s just about as lovely as a thing can be.”

Winterstein will be the soloist in the American composer’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14, when the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaime Laredo, performs Masterworks concerts at 8 p.m. Saturday at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre.

Laredo will also conduct the VSO in Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1812 Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, and the 2015 tone poem “Dreamtime Ancestors” by American composer Christopher Theofanidis. Preceding each performance by one hour will be “Musically Speaking,” a free discussion with the artists.

Members of the VSO, directed by Laredo, will also perform a free “Farmer’s Night” concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the Vermont State House in Montpelier. The program features Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” plus music of Mozart, Wolf-Ferrari, Rachmaninoff, and a world premiere by 17-year-old Vermont composer Jacob Dennison. Get there early because it’s likely to be standing-room-only.

Winterstein played the Barber Concerto for the first time two years ago with the Champlain Philharmonic, a Vermont community orchestra.

“It’s one of those funny things where I had taught it, but never played it myself,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I would be jealous of my students.”

Unlike a lot of musicians, Winterstein isn’t concerned that hearing other interpretations, live or recorded, will prejudice her about her own approach.

“I always find that no matter what I listen to, when I start to play it, I have my own feeling about it,” she said. “I don’t really worry about whether I’m mimicking someone, or ignoring the tradition, or any of it.

“It’s just how I want it to sound and that’s all,” Winterstein said. “God help us, it’s hard enough to do that.”

And, for these performances, Winterstein has a special advantage.

“It’s a huge boon that Jaime (a world-renowned violinist as well as conductor) played it for Barber many times personally, himself, so it’s a huge privilege to have that kind of one degree of separation from the composer,” she said.

Winterstein is a Boston-based free-lance musician, which means she plays all the time over the region. In addition to her VSO duties, in Vermont she is a member of the Craftsbury Chamber Players in summer. Currently, she is also acting concertmaster of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, with whom she plays regularly, and acting assistant concertmaster of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. And that’s just scratching the surface.

“One of the very big upsides of being a freelance musician is that I do have that range,” Winterstein said. “It is fun for me that I play period instrument stuff, I play music from today that was written by friends of mine, and everything in the middle. I don’t improvise very well yet, and don’t do Celtic fiddling.”

The downside to being a freelancer is the lack of financial security.

“And it can be harrying and harrowing, but the upside is I really like that lifestyle,” she said. “It’s nearly impossible to get bored.”

Winterstein began violin when she was 4. Her parents had started her two older brothers on Suzuki violin.

“I was jealous, so I asked to start. Both of them got wise — neither of them play musical instruments now,” she said.

“But I got hooked. I was very, very lucky,” she said. “Although we ended up on the west coast, when I was young we lived in Baltimore. My teacher was actually (superstar violinist) Hilary Hahn’s first teacher.”

Soon after that, Winterstein discovered her real passion — chamber music.

“That music gets its teeth in you and you’re just done for, really,” she said. “When I got back to Seattle, I had my own string quartet in high school, and my own conductorless chamber orchestra. All of those things kept me going.”

Winterstein went on to earn her bachelor’s degree at Eastman School of music, where she studied with Charles Castleman; and her master’s at Boston University School for the Arts, where she worked with Peter Zazofsky. She has been on the faculty of the Hartt School of Music since 2011, and joined the artist faculty of Brown University in 2015.

Not long ago, at a wedding, a cousin asked Winterstein if, after all these years, she was bored with violin.

“I realize that for most people, that’s a perfectly normal question,” she said. “I’ve been playing violin all of my life, and it never occurred to me to get bored, because I could always do better at it, there’s more music to play.

“And I’m greedy,” Winterstein said. “I’m greedy to play all the things I haven’t played.”

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Jaime Laredo, will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Katherine Winterstein, and “Dreamtime Ancestors” by Christopher Theofanidis:

— Saturday, Jan. 21: Burlington — $32-$61, $16 for students, Flynn Center, 153 Main St., 8 p.m., 802-863-5966, www.flynntix.org.

— Sunday, Jan. 22: Rutland — $20-$32, $10 for students, Paramount Theatre, 30 Center St., 3 p.m., 802-775-0903, www.paramountvt.org.

Preceding each performance by one hour will be “Musically Speaking,” a free discussion with the artists; for information, go online to www.vso.org.