Q&A with Justin DeFilippis, violin

In 2014, in honor of our 50th anniversary, the Bowdoin International Music Festival created the Kaplan Fellowship Program to offer tuition free opportunities for advanced musicians at the beginning of significant careers in music. Now in its third year, the program is a unique offering geared to mature, accomplished players. Kaplan Fellows perform with artist instructors throughout the summer concert series and become familiar faces to concert goers throughout Maine. Kaplan Fellows also receive a full scholarship to cover all participation fees and housing and are sponsored by members of the community.

In advance of their arrival we sat down with these 17 highly skilled Fellows to better understand where they’re coming from, and where they’re headed in the future. The talks ranged from musical memories, to incredible sagas of how Fellows obtained their instruments. What follows is a selection of those conversations.

BIMF: What are some of your earliest musical memories?

Justin: I always wanted to jump ahead and learn pieces my teacher hadn’t assigned yet, sometimes disastrously! I was lucky enough to have had a brief chamber music experience one summer when I was 5. When I was 7, I frustrated my teacher when I insisted on rewriting a note in Saint-Saens’s “The Swan” because I was convinced that it would better portray the swan floating on cool water played that way, as I imagined, as opposed to warm water.

BIMF: At what age did you start playing your instrument?

Justin: I was 4 years old when I started playing the violin.

BIMF: Does your instrument you play on have a story? How did it come to you?

Justin: I’m fortunate enough to own my current instrument. My story is that it is a painstaking process finding the right match for a good bargain – sometimes it takes looking far and wide. I ended up making six trips to Philadelphia with my very dedicated mom from two hours away in northern NJ, for various reasons related to the instrument, before deciding on it. Unfortunately, depending on who appraises the instrument, there is often no clear consensus on the maker, lacking other information which would normally be the main source of its market value like chain of ownership or markings on the instrument. My instrument is probably around 100 years old (though it was antiqued to look even older when it was made), and is possibly from Ferrara, Italy. It has been beyond my means so far to get a bow I really like.

BIMF: What is the longest you’ve ever spent preparing a piece of music?

Justin: Many of the big pieces in the violin repertoire, especially concertos, take me a considerable time to learn, sometimes half a year to a year. As for larger cycles, it took me the better part of a decade to get through the entire six Bach solo violin works for the first time — I probably spent around three non-consecutive years focusing on the just the A Minor Sonata and the Chaconne alone.

BIMF: If you could play with any musician who would it be and why?

Justin: Too many! Among historical figures, to play chamber music with Beethoven, even if he couldn’t hear me, would reveal so much about his eccentric notations and his musical personality. If anything, it would settle the age-old debate of whether his tempo markings were really meant to be that fast or whether his metronome was broken! Speaking of composer/pianists, Benjamin Britten comes across as a profoundly great interpreter of standard repertoire, especially of Schubert, in duo recordings with Rostropovich and Menuhin, so I would love to have played with him.

BIMF: How do you make a well-known piece of music your own?

Justin: The overall trend in performance over the past half century has been an increasing focus towards the quest for objectivity and less on the subjective interpretation of the performer. This is evidenced by the increased scholarship in print editions of repertoire, the amount of care given to composers’ markings and intentions, the heightened awareness of period performance practices, and the fixation on consistency at the expense of spontaneity, largely evolving from the pressures to compete with studio recordings. For me, I find the scholarship an extension of my natural exploration of a piece. I tend to find inspiration from how much more vivid a piece can become when paying attention to composer’s details and historical considerations. But one part of the scholarship is in realizing how fluid, spontaneous, and mercurial composers and performers could be in many of these historic times. Therefore, there is still so much of a grey area for my personality to come through, sometimes in the moment of a performance. I still hope one day I can recreate the mostly-lost art form of improvising a cadenza largely on the spot!

BIMF: How would you explain your passion for chamber music to a non-musician?

Justin: While everyone will be familiar with certain orchestral pieces, even just clips through movies and commercials, very few of even the dedicated classical music audience seems to cherish this segment of composers’ greatest output. There is a reason Beethoven made his first publication a set of three piano trios, and when completely deaf at the very the end of his life post-9th Symphony, exclusively dedicated his prophetic writing to string quartets. I recently completed a thesis about one of the myriad of miraculous chamber music works Schubert wrote in his last couple years of life, after he realized that his illness wouldn’t allow him to live long past 30. Brahms seemed to channel a lifetime’s worth of love he couldn’t openly express to Clara Schumann, most prominently in his chamber output. Olivier Messiaen, while interred in a WWII prisoner of war camp, somehow defiantly composed the genesis of the “Quartet for the End of Time,” a spiritual affirmation in the face of his own world falling apart, for fellow musician-inmates. I give these as examples of some of the greatest musicians of all time who saw the intimate yet complex expression of individual musicians coming together in a meaningful dialogue the perfect medium to construct their greatest personal confessions — what isn’t there to be passionate about as a chamber musician!

BIMF: What do you look forward to most about your time as a Kaplan Fellow?

Justin: It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of high level chamber music and giving back to the festival community in different performance settings. I’m also really looking forward to the dedicated time to focus on individual studies under the guidance of a variety of teachers — I always find it helpful to see how a multiplicity of expert viewpoints can come together and really be saying the same things in different ways.

BIMF: What’s next for you after the Festival? What are your career goals?

Justin: I will return for my final undergraduate year at NEC in Boston, and will apply to graduate programs. I will look to continue to build upon my violin playing, but it also intrigues me to possibly study music theory or conducting at higher levels as well and be able to incorporate those even more with what I do instrumentally. I am passionate talking about music, reaching audiences in meaningful ways, and about the potential of teaching in addition to the goal of performing at a high level.

BIMF: What advice would you offer to an aspiring musician?

Justin: I’m still an aspiring professional musician myself! I will say that music takes as much time, effort, focus, and learning as humanly possible. Having said that, I know this sounds cliché, but you are not going to do all of that work if it is inherently unenjoyably to you. Of course, not all of the practicing or work will always feel fun, but you will feel more rewarded for your effort if you are in the right situation around the people that inspire you and with the music you love to guide you. It’s important to some degree to have some extrinsically ambitious goals, but these can become a curse when overdone or when you inevitably hit a temporary wall at some point – you never need license or permission from the world to do what you care about most.

Check back soon for more interviews…