Virginia Pilot

 

VIRGINIA BEACH

Less than two years ago, in June 2010, Andrew Gonzalez felt honored to have a solo in the spring gala concert for this region's Governor's School for the Arts orchestra.

On Sunday the 20-year-old violist returns to perform on that same stage - the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts - alongside one of the world's greatest violinists, Itzhak Perlman.

The Chesapeake-reared musician is touring with Perlman and seven other alums from the Perlman Music Program, a school in New York City for the world's top young instrumentalists. The 3 p.m. concert is presented by the Virginia Arts Festival with the Simon Family Jewish Community Center.

Much has happened for Gonzalez in the past two years, enough to make anyone's head swell. Awards, concerts, completing his second year at the Juilliard School.

But he sounded awed last week as he discussed the prospect of performing with Perlman in his home region.

"When I was a kid, growing up listening to him, I thought, 'Wow, I want to play like him.' Even my parents grew up listening to him," he said by phone from New York City, during a short break between rehearsals.

"Then, finally getting to meet him and, three years later, playing with him.

"It's great."

He'll be part of a chamber ensemble performing challenging works by Mozart, Dmitri Shostakovich and Felix Mendelssohn.

So how did he get there?

Andrew Gonzalez started playing viola when he was about 10, recalled his mother, Ann Gonzalez. She and her husband, Jose, still reside in Chesapeake.

"We have no idea where he got his musical talent," she said last week, but noted that her other three children are musical, too.

He stood out for his talent. Besides Governor's School, he played with the local Bay Youth Orchestras of Virginia and the Hampton Roads Chamber Players. In 2009 he toured the United States with the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, a group based in Detroit with a mission to bring more black and Latino players into classical music. Gonzalez has Latino roots.

"Andrew's success as a high school musician is not a mystery," Jeff Phelps, head of the Governor's School's instrumental music program, wrote in an email. "Andrew actually practiced the viola every day and carefully considered every piece of advice from his family, his peers and his teachers."

His private instructor, Amy Davis, suggested he get some training from a great viola teacher, Heidi Castleman, who in turn told Andrew Gonzalez about the Perlman Music Program.

      

PMP, which is how its alums refer to it, was started in 1993 as a place where highly gifted students are tutored in a non-competitive environment. The student-teacher ratio is 2:1.

PMP's mission: to train "the next generation of classical music leaders."

Players may start there as early as age 11. Gonzalez got in for a six-week summer session just after his junior year at Grassfield High School. Only 40 youths are selected from around the world for such programs, which take place at a former resort on an island off Manhattan.

"I remember getting out of the car with him on Shelter Island. He was jumping up and down like a two-year-old. He was just so excited to be there," his mother recalled.

As her son got to know Perlman, now 66, and his wife, Toby, who originally conceived of the school, he discovered a warm, friendly couple who had created a nurturing environment for budding players.

He was wowed by his peers, too. "Oh, man, it was life-changing," he said. "To be around people who were just like the best at what they do for their age. Really exciting.

"I thought, 'Wow, I'm part of this now.' It helps you focus." He realized that if he wanted to make a career for himself in music he had better push himself.

"So I kept working hard," he said. During his freshman year at Juilliard, where Perlman also teaches, he occasionally played recitals at the Perlmans' Manhattan home, where they invite students to come and perform pieces they are working on.

Perlman began touring with some of the PMP alums a couple of years ago. With 350 active alums, the odds of being chosen to play in a small chamber group with Perlman are slim.

But when Gonzalez heard that this series of concerts would end up in Virginia Beach, he made his desires known: "Hi, Mrs. P! I'm from Virginia, and I would definitely like to go!"

And he was chosen. "I feel very honored," he said. "I'm at a loss for words. Nothing can explain how exciting it is to play with him."

Gonzalez already has performed with the great man in Toronto and Valle de Bravo, Mexico.

Being on stage with Perlman, "he really keeps you focused, and he keeps you in the moment. He's incredible.

"His playing is so spontaneous. So beautiful all the time. And it makes you want to play beautifully all the time.

"Keep it fresh, every time."

 

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