Stephen Waarts: The Young Master

Stephen Waarts is the First Prize Winner of the 2013 prestigious Young Concert Artists International Auditions. He is truly an amazing young violinist. I would go so far to say that these days nobody plays quite like him. It is as if he belongs to a bygone era. He started the violin when he was only 5 years old. There was a music program at his elementary school. However it was his twin brother who really wanted to play the violin and Stephen just tagged along. While his brother stopped playing at 10, it was Stephen who continued. Violin was always natural for him. There was not really any special event or any particular person that inspired the young musician to commit to what he was doing. Summer programs were always a big motivation for him as they gave him the opportunity to play a lot of chamber music and spend time with other people interested in classical music. “Summer programs made me start thinking about making a career with the violin.”

Stephen’s favorite composer is Mozart. “Mozart is really hard to play for me though so I would not say he is my favorite to play. But to listen to he is definitely my favorite. French music feels good to play: Ravel, Debussy, and I also really like playing Bartok. Bartok is really interesting because he is so clever so it’s so interesting to explore his music.” As for the performers, Stephen loves Heifetz, Oistrakh, Callas, all the old style. “When you listen to Heifetz and Oistrakh it’s not that they have an “old” style it’s that they have their own personal style”, he explains. We can’t say people don’t have personality anymore. Nowadays people get so caught up in something else, they don’t make the personality a top priority. We can’t say it was a top priority before either, it was just the way they were. The way they play: they were living it.”The young violinist always tries to respect what the composer says. That value always comes first.”Then once you try to express what the composer puts into the music you also have to start thinking what is your relation to the piece itself. That’s what makes everybody’s interpretation sound different, personal.” When asking Stephen to explain his personal style he answered wisely. “I think that my strong point is that I try to use colors. I love colors. And long lines! Recently I have been really obsessed with long lines. I can’t really say what makes my playing special. Somehow it’s dangerous to state what you are good at and what you are looking for. There was a lecture at Curtis recently. They were saying there were 5 different brands that you can choose for your “company”. Those brands can be “exciting”, “elegant”, etc. They said whatever you choose the American public will put you in one of those slots so you should always stay true to your brand but I don’t think it’s good to think about music that way. You should be free to do whatever you want. I think everybody should be innovating. I think you shouldn’t get too stuck on one thing. So, on the one hand you need to know yourself, what you are capable of and what you want. On the other hand you have to know your weaknesses even better in order to keep improving and evolving.”

In life Stephen wants to do a combination of solo and chamber music concerts. “I would love to be part of something like the chamber music society at Lincoln Center. I like playing recitals all over the place, and with orchestra. It feels really great and I am happy.” He just played a concert on New Year’s Eve. He played the Mendelssohn Concerto with an orchestra in a church. There were a thousand people attending. The violinist thought it was amazing that people came to hear music on New Year’s Eve when they could be out partying. “I think classical music is very special. It has survived a long time and will live forever. We have to make sure that we have new music though. If you look at the difference compared to 200 years ago and today, the percentage of music being played that was contemporary has decreased dramatically. It’s very important to make sure that new music keeps happening but also to keep playing this new music well so it catches the audience and subsists.” Stephen feels as though today a lot of composers are going back to a more accessible style: “a really beautiful style I must say.” When he thinks about playing something, Stephen’s criteria is the same for modern music as for Beethoven: “I have to make sure that I like it and if I do then I make my audience like it too.”

The young musician also likes to go to concerts. He says he goes all the time to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts or to hear his friends playing at Curtis where he studies under the guidance of Aaron Rosand. “I think you can learn from going to concerts but for me it’s also so enjoyable. I am not so picky I just enjoy.”

Stephen Waarts has won numerous international violin competitions, including the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, the 2011 Sarasate Competition, the 2010 Menuhin Competition-Junior Section, and the 2010 Spohr Competition-Junior Section. There is apparently no magic recipe to survive a competition. “You always have to make sure that you are not trying to please anybody more than when you play a concert. I think competition is concert. I don’t think “oh there is this one guy in the jury that doesn’t like Mozart played at a fast tempo so I will play it very slowly. You have to make sure that you stay true to your own convictions. And after that you just have to play your best and be open to critics. I have learned a lot from the comments of the jury.”

If he was not doing something in music, Stephen would be a mathematician or a scientist. He has always been really good in mathematics and science, both of which he really enjoyed. It is not surprising to learn that both his parents are scientists. With such a scientific background he reflects, “Maybe it influences my playing. I do think a lot about structure when I play. I always make sure I analyze the structure well, that I know where I am in the piece. I think my good sense of logic and understanding of theory help me a lot.”

Now as in the future, Stephen wants to keep learning and studying and improving. “I studied for a long time, I still have another year at Curtis. I want to play concerts of course and get experience that way. I think it’s very important to get experience by playing not just by having lessons. I think I still have a lot to learn.”