Amy Hillis on Lutosławski, research as a performer and more

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Blog post by Chris Maskell

As winner of the 2016-2017 McGill Concerto Competition, violinist Amy Hillis (D.Mus 2019) is set to perform next weekend as a featured soloist with the McGill Symphony Orchestra. In advance of this appearance, we spoke to Hillis about the repertoire, her experience at Schulich and more in a recent email exchange.

Next week, you’ll be performing Lutosławski’s Partita for Violin and Orchestra with the McGill Symphony Orchestra. As your doctoral research focuses on his unique compositional style, can you tell us about the piece from your viewpoint and how it fits into the violin repertoire?

Lutosławski believed that his "Partita is really a piece of primary order, it belongs with my most important compositions." I agree wholeheartedly with Lutosławski's conviction, which is why I'm thrilled to be able to present the piece to the Montreal public with pianist Katherine Dowling along with Maestro Alexis Hauser and the McGill Symphony Orchestra. Written in 1984 for violin and piano and then orchestrated for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1988, Partita presents a captivating dialogue between violin and orchestra that is both lyrical and rhythmically driven.

Lutosławski's musical language in Partita combines traditional compositional techniques such as melodic violin writing with experimental techniques such as aleatoricism (a freedom in the coordination between parts). Lutosławski wrote the piece in the later stage of his career when he merged experimentation of the 1960’s with more traditional constructs. In his score for Partita, Lutoslawski writes: “The three major movements follow, rhythmically at least, the tradition of pre-classical (18th century) keyboard music... The word 'partita,' as used by Bach to denominate some of his suite-like works, appears here to point out a few allusions to Baroque music, e.g. at the beginning of the first movement, the main theme of the Largo, and the gigue-like Finale.”

In short, the piece is a joy to play because it gives the musicians a language based in conventional rhythms but full of new colours. It highlights the violin's expressive qualities with fantastically refreshing orchestral sonorities.

As you completed your undergrad degree at Schulich and later returned to do your doctoral degree, what do you feel the school has offered you in terms of opportunities to develop?

As an undergraduate student, I needed a large music school like Schulich to get a better idea of the music world. Coming from a relatively small music community, it was imperative that I meet musicians from different backgrounds, play in a variety of ensembles, hear music by all kinds of composers and work with seasoned professors. I am extremely grateful for the work I got to do with Professor Denise Lupien during my undergrad as she not only took the time to rework the fundamentals of violin playing with me, but she also believed in my potential to improve and offer something unique as a musician.

As a doctoral student, I have a better idea of what I value most in music and the flexibility to experiment with my interests and research. I also have the resources to coordinate new projects. For example, the school has offered me the opportunity to teach courses I have curated myself, which has been invaluable to my growth as a professional. I am also very grateful for my time with Professor Axel Strauss to explore violin technique from a pedagogical standpoint – and for his patience as I still try to figure out how to play the instrument myself! 

How do you balance performance, practice and research, and how do you feel the three influence one another?

My research and work as a teacher ends up supporting my knowledge and confidence as a performer and vice versa. I've found that I thrive as a musician who gets to "wear many hats," as each experience allows me to learn something new and look at the art form from a different perspective. I try to keep my performing schedule as busy as possible so that I am constantly challenged to present new repertoire and perform for a new public. My research always relates to the repertoire I am most interested in so by learning about pieces from an academic perspective, I am more informed in my performance choices as a violinist.

What are your future plans after you’ve completed your doctoral degree?

I would love to continue pursuing a variety of projects as a performer and teacher after I've completed my studies. Perhaps this means teaching music to undergraduates at an institution where I can continue to perform as a chamber musician and soloist. Perhaps this means being a member of a performing ensemble that does a variety of outreach projects in the community. Right now, I want to keep my options open and continue to explore what is most rewarding about what I do and how I can share that inspiration with others.

Amy Hillis performs with the McGill Symphony Orchestra on Friday, September 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, September 23 at 7:30 p.m., both in Pollack Hall.