17-year-old virtuoso violinist Karisa Chiu performed at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial concert series on January 7, 2017. Chiu is a merit scholarship recipient at the Music Institute of Chicago and is currently studying under Almita Vamos.
Chiu was accompanied by her mother, pianist Inah Chiu, for this performance, which included works by Jean Sibelius, Johannes Brahms, and others.
Read our conversation with Karisa Chiu below.
Picture this Post: When did you start playing your instrument? Are your parents/siblings musicians? What were your first musical experiences?
Karisa Chiu: I started playing the violin when I was 3. Everyone in my family—dad, mom, brothers, aunt, my uncles on both sides, and cousins—are all musicians. My older brother played the cello, so it came very naturally that I would play the violin. My dad is a violinist in Chicago Symphony, and he was my first violin teacher. My mom is a pianist, and she has been playing for me ever since I started playing the Twinkle Variations in Suzuki Book 1. She also performed with me at the Myra Hess Concert. She also taught me piano for many years. I think my first memorable musical experience was at age 6 or 7, performing the Bach Double Concerto with my dad accompanied by the several members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was an outreach concert for some school students.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Park Ridge, IL and grew up in Palatine, IL.
Please tell me about your family—what do your parents do for a living?
My dad's parents came from China, and he was born in Ithaca, NY. He is a violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. My mom immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with her family when she was 14, and she is a pianist and teaches at the Music Institute of Chicago. My parents met in Indiana University when they were both studying as music majors.
What have been the major competitions you have won or other milestones in your career? Do you play other instruments?
Most recently, I won the Walgreens National Concerto Competition which resulted in playing the Brahms Concerto with the Midwest Young Artists Orchestra just a couple of weeks ago. I also won first prize at the 2016 Blount Slawson Competition and received the 4th prize at the 2015 Cooper International Violin Competition. I will be entering 2017 Julius Stulberg International Competition in May as one of 12 semifinalists.
I started out on both piano and violin, but eventually began to focus primarily on the violin. I still like to play a little for fun.
When did you decide to become a professional musician? If you didn’t choose that path, is there another career that would have been your top pick?
I think I have always wanted to be a violinist, ever since I can remember. It seemed so natural for me to go into music since that's what I've been doing every single day since I was 3 years old. I was always surrounded with music whether it was my mom rehearsing with my dad, my brother practicing his cello or my mom teaching her students. My dad was my first teacher until I was 12, and then I went on to study with Almita Vamos at the Music Institute of Chicago Academy. That opened the door to a whole different world. It was the first time I had a chance to really meet other young violinists and interact with them. I started enjoying playing the violin even more since I had so much fun getting to know and working with my peers. I feel so fortunate to have had the strong foundation from my dad, but also to have grown more as a musician with the guidance of such a great teacher as Mrs. Vamos.
If I didn't choose this path, I might have become a professional soccer player. When I was younger – age 9 to 12 – I was in a traveling soccer team. Everyone said I was very talented, and I almost enjoyed it a lot! I just couldn't keep up both soccer and violin because of the time and also because of the risk of hurting my hand or arm.
When you are not rehearsing or performing or doing other things related to your musical career, how do you spend time?
Finding time to relax is rather rare in my day to day life. It’s a constant cycle of practicing, eating, and sleeping. I love to spend time with my friends (although because most of my friends are also in music it is often difficult to find time when we are all free).
When I do get time to myself, I love to draw and paint.
Please tell me about each piece in your program. Why did you choose this piece?
My first piece, The Devil’s Trill by Tartini transcribed by Kreisler, was recommended by my teacher Almita Vamos. She really loved this piece and she had performed it in her recital when she was a young student like me. When I started learning The Devil’s Trill, I immediately connected to the piece and fell in love with it. It is a great opening piece for a program, and it has a good balance of beautiful, elegant melodies and exciting, virtuosic passages. The first movement theme is touching as it is sweet but also somewhat sad, but the whole series of fast trill sections are sure to thrill any audience.
The set of short Sibelius pieces is what I listened to my dad playing a lot when I was much younger. I've always wanted to perform them; I think they so charming and fun to play (and a little nostalgic for me).
The third piece, the Brahms Scherzo from the FAE sonata, is an exciting yet beautiful piece. I really like the music of Brahms. I had played the D-minor Sonata, the B-Major Piano Trio, and the Brahms Concerto all in the past year. For this concert, I couldn't include the whole sonata because of the time limit, so I decided to play this piece because although it is short, it still has the rich and weighty aspect of Brahms's style.
The last piece in the program is the Ysaÿe-Saint-Saëns Caprice. This is a challenging piece with a lot of technical difficulties but definitely a crowd pleaser. It's a great piece to end the concert with.
Do you any personal or professional goals for the coming year?
I just finished having my college audition tour! I auditioned for many schools including Curtis, Colburn, New England Conservatory, and Juilliard. I'm so excited to go to one of these great schools to continue my musical studies. I also recently found out I was selected as one of 12 semifinalists for the Julius Stulberg International Competition. Finally, I am looking forward to this summer when I'll be attending the Aspen Music Festival with a fellowship.
Any other comments?
One strong memory that I have is doing family concerts in the summer. For more than 10 years my family and my uncle's (Frederic Chiu) family would get together at this glamorous resort called The Mohonk Mountain House near New Paltz, NY. My uncle has played at their concert series for more than two decades and is close friends with the director. From the time I was only 3, my father and uncle would play recitals at the concerts, and our whole family would use the opportunity to stay at this wonderful resort for a family reunion. This went on for more than 12 years. You can imagine how difficult it was in the beginning when all the little kids needed babysitters throughout the entire concert! By the end my entire family would be participating in these concerts. We were a little bit like the von Trapp family. My mom and uncle would start out with a piano four hand piece followed by a sonata by my dad and uncle. Then the whole family would end the concert with an arrangement of the Bach double violin concerto with my brothers playing the continuo part. The concert was always a big attraction! Unfortunately we haven't been able to do these get togethers the last three years due to conflicts in everyone's schedule, but we have been asked many times to come and we hope to continue that tradition soon.