Classical musicians play in Boonville

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 | 9:09 p.m. CDT; updated 10:39 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 21, 2008

It's their first time playing together, but you would have to be a classical music connoisseur to notice.

David Halen, concertmaster for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, strokes his violin next to the Steinway grand piano. Pianist Ching-Wen Hsiao plays the 7-foot instrument.


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They are rehearsing Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata for the Missouri River Festival of the Arts, taking place at Boonville's Thespian Hall Thursday through Saturday. Halen came to the festival's rescue three years ago when ticket sales were so low that the Friends of Historic Boonville were considering cancelling the event.

"I'm a Missouri boy," Halen said about why he puts his position as concertmaster on hold to run a festival in a town of 8,752. Halen, who has been artistic director since 2006 and grew up in Warrensburg, said coming to work in Boonville was "like going home for me."

Frank Thatcher, the chairman for the festival this year, said the timing of Halen's arrival was impeccable.

"We needed someone to resurrect it," Thatcher said. And resurrect it Halen did.

Tickets sales have doubled since Halen took over, and Thatcher said Halen has helped restore the festival's reputation as a sophisticated classical music showcase.

"One of our aims at Boonville is to present emerging artists ... people that represent the future," Halen said.

One such artist is Ching-Wen.

She was awarded Taiwan's "New Rising Star" prize in 2006 and is slated to play concerts in Berlin, Vienna and New York - when she's taking time off from finishing her doctorate at Juilliard.

"By the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to do this for life," Ching-Wen said. Born in Taichung, Taiwan's third-largest city, she started taking piano lessons at age 4. After years of "very intense" training - and less strenuous accolade-collecting - she got her break with an interview at the Juilliard School in New York, arguably the world's most prestigious performing arts conservatory.

"I felt so tiny," she said giggling, remembering the audition so vividly that she can tell you the room number - it was 309. Ten experts scrutinized her every move that day. A few months later, she was admitted, and the next year she won the Gene Bachauer Competition, an achievement that comes with a full tuition scholarship.

Ching-Wen will play Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, one of the best known pieces of this year's event. Halen said he knew that to make the festival a success, they had to play "classical music that appeals to everyone."

The sonata, dark and sensual, is "a piece that everybody knows, and that makes it more difficult," Ching-Wen said. "Everyone has their own idea of how the piece should sound. ... I want to bring something new to it, my voice."

Another ascending star taking part in the festival is Erin Schreiber, a violinist who was appointed assistant concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at 20.

She described snatching the position from "people of all ages," many of whom were musicians well into their careers. Her job at the orchestra will be to help make sure directions are passed from the conductor back to the orchestra.

On Friday, Schreiber will perform Paganini's Caprice No. 24, a piece designed to show off the talents of violinists.

Yolanda Kondonassis will play Handel's "Concerto in B Minor." Since making her debut with the New York Philharmonic at 18, Kondonassis has become one of the most recorded harpists in the world.

"The harp is an instrument every little girl wants to play," Halen said. Kondonassis, who has a 6-year-old daughter, agreed. But, she added, a harp isn't as idyllic as it might seem.

"It's one of those great surprise packages," Kondonassis said. "It's gorgeous and sweeping and romantic and aesthetically evocative, but the inside is a machine. ... The gorgeous gilding is there to conceal a mechanism."

The harp usually has 48 or 49 strings with two tons of pressure keeping them taut; these strings are then played with bare fingers, which often bleed during a long performance.

"The harp can be more red than gold," Kondonassis said.But Kondonassis isn't playing in Boonville yet.

At the moment, Ching-Wen has just finished playing.

"Glamorous, too glamorous," Halen says of her.

"That's the piece," says Thatcher, the festival's chairman. "That'll light everybody's fire."


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