By Karen Peterson | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
Boson Mo is deep into his first season as concertmaster with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra (PSO), arriving in the nation’s fifth largest city in September as it continued to swelter under record heat. Mo laughed when asked how it felt to move to the official “hottest city in America.” Fresh from the Houston Symphony and Cleveland, where he graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Mo says he’d been working his way through high temperatures since he left the “four seasons of Montreal.”
“It’s a beautiful city and I miss it every day,” Mo says of his Canadian hometown. But music has beckoned since he was a child growing up in a musical family, and he’s known all along that the violin would take him places. It has, but Mo continues to be astounded by what he has accomplished so far in his career. He credits his family, including a brother who’s a cellist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“I learned from my parents that if you don’t plan to take something seriously, don’t even bother doing it,” says Mo, who decided in high school that the violin would be his profession and proceeded accordingly. “I knew it was what I was going to do,” he says. “And I feel grateful for every opportunity I’ve had.”
At 33, Mo has garnered honors that include being named one of Canada’s 30 Top Classical Musicians. He’s also been featured as a Young Artist in Residence with American Public Media’s Performance Today. Mo has toured Europe with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and has played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Today, holding the Herberger Foundation concertmaster chair with the Phoenix Symphony, Mo is enjoying his new life in Arizona. “It was a leap of faith,” he admits of the move from Houston. “But I had so much fun during the trial audition. I feel like I’m playing with a large group of friends.” And it doesn’t hurt that he has already worked with PSO’s new associate conductor, Alex Amsel.
“I’m really loving how welcoming the musicians have been,” says Mo, “and another thing that’s been very heartening is that the audiences are exceedingly enthusiastic. Maybe because we have had some truly stellar soloists and programs, but wow!”
Tell me about your primary instrument.
I’m playing on a violin made in 2010 by the illustrious luthier Joseph Curtin. I was lucky enough to be accepted to music school (Cleveland Institute of Music) while playing on a less-than-ideal instrument, and over my years at school, I was loaned various wonderful instruments. The loans started, from the Virtu Foundation, with a Paul Bailly violin, and as I began competing at international competitions, the Virtu Foundation very generously upgraded me to an 18th-century antique Italian instrument by Carcassi. Finally, when I was in graduate school (Shepherd School of Music at Rice University), I qualified to audition for the Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank, and I had been loaned a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume between 2012–15 and a Carlo Tononi between 2015–18. By the time I was auditioning for the 2015 edition of Canada Council, I really felt the necessity that I should have a beautiful violin to call my own. This is when I remembered that I’ve heard some incredible-sounding violins being played by a few of my peers, and maybe it was coincidence, but seemingly every one of those instruments was crafted by Joseph Curtin.
What do you know about this instrument’s history?
Honestly, not enough! The instrument, having been made in 2010, is younger than me, but if I remember Mr. Curtin correctly, the wood itself is substantially older. When I got in contact with him, I had mentioned how much I loved one of his violins that a colleague of mine plays on, so I think my violin may have been born from the same trees as the violin of my colleague. Otherwise, I was told that it used to belong to a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before they decided to put it back on the market. I never asked further because I didn’t want to appear prying, but I’m now inspired to see if Mr. Curtin still has the records of this violin’s former musician!
How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it and how did you know it was the right fit?
After I was able to save up some money, I decided to reach out to Mr. Curtin in 2016 to see if I could try some of his instruments. He sent me a fresh-off-the-bench violin in the spring of 2016, and while it was gorgeous, there was something about it that didn’t quite feel right for my playing. While I was sending it back, Mr. Curtin and I discussed the various things I did and didn’t enjoy about that particular instrument so that he could send me another that would better fit what I was looking for. A second instrument arrived in the early summer, and while it did fit me better, I remember feeling that it lacked some intimacy. It had this incredible power, but when I was looking to play something more quiet and private, the color just wasn’t what I was looking for. I ended up sending this second instrument back, and, honestly, I feared for my life that I had offended Mr. Curtin. The summer came and went, and around Thanksgiving I got a phone call from Mr. Curtin, and he said he had an instrument that he had just taken to various exhibitions and wondered whether I might be interested in trying it. Well, from the moment I plucked the strings, I kind of knew that this was the one.
What gift does it bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
Making music with this violin really feels like a beautiful partnership. There’s a kind of unspoken understanding, and I feel like the violin knows what sounds I’m looking for, and it helps me get the sounds I’m looking for without resistance. I know that it sounds kind of crazy to ascribe this sort of agency to a violin, but honestly there’s a kind of “understanding” between the instrument and the musician that many violinists are in constant search of, and I feel very lucky to have an instrument like that.
What are some of its limitations?
Well, when compared to some beautifully preserved, antique 18th-century Cremonese violins, I find that my Curtin sounds a little bit less “aesthetic” by comparison. Maybe it’s the age, or just the idea of playing on an antique Cremonese violin; maybe it’s the unbroken list of illustrious violinists who have played them over the years, but playing on violins by the Cremonese masters often feels like having an in-resident Michelangelo. Not only will it have all the colors, it almost always “knows best” as to which one to use and how to use it.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
Well, I feel like my instrument likes to wear its feelings on its sleeve. It has a very open, generous, and sincere “personality,” and I guess it reminds me of the feeling of being in a grand, opulent late 19th- or early 20th-century concert hall, abounding with both visual and aural splendor.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
I think it likes cooler and dryer places. The heat, and especially humidity, seems to make it sluggish!
What is its greatest strength?
Definitely its generosity of sound. Many other instruments I’ve played have beautiful and big sounds, but sometimes it feels like one has to do a backflip on a tightrope before one gets the reward. This Curtin, again, feels like a very good partnership, and I only need to ask nicely for what I’d like.