By Laurence Vittes
On a summer night in early August, Laura Kukkonen performed the first violin solo in the first movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Ray Chen at the Hollywood Bowl. The 17 year old had won first prize in “Play with Ray,” an international skills-based talent competition.
Together with the other two finalists, Kukkonen, whose regular instrument was made by Joseph Gagliano in Naples in 1792, played on a rare Guadagnini, and attended master classes and concerts in the days leading up to the concert.
More than 800 applicants from ages 6 to 76, from 73 countries (Kukkonen is from Finland) on six continents, submitted written essays and videos of themselves performing in hopes of a chance to play alongside superstar violinist Chen. Strings caught up with Kukkonen as she was underway with the new semester.
When you applied, what video did you post?
I decided to participate in the competition right after Ray announced it on his Instagram account in March. I sent in my application just before the deadline at the beginning of May, so I practiced about a month before applying. I posted a video that I created for the competition where I played first violin solo in the first movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. In the video, I also had a quartet play the orchestra part.
How did you create the video?
I have always considered myself more of a chamber musician, so I knew that I wanted to include not only myself playing in the video, but also my communication with the orchestral part. I formed a string quartet with my friends, practiced with them a few times and explained my vision of the piece. The filming was done by a friend who had a professional camera and microphones, and who did all the technical work. I also rented a church near my house for the filming, because I think Bach must be played mostly there.
What was your essay about?
The essay was about my relationship with music: an introduction, biography, and an explanation of my musical approach using Bach’s music as an example.
At what point did you realize that this might actually happen?
I was quite confident after I sent my application because I really liked the chamber music that I used in the video. But after I heard that there were over 800 applicants, I was quite sure that I wouldn’t make it. It took me completely by surprise when I got the email about me being a finalist.
How did you prepare for the performance before you left Helsinki?
I learned both solo parts, and actually performed a concert where I played the second solo violin. I also analyzed the piece carefully and learned the orchestral parts to fully understand the piece. I think it’s very important because Bach’s music is very conversational and you can fulfill it only by knowing what others do besides the solo.
Did you get coaching from your teacher at the Sibelius Academy?
I didn’t get coaching from my lovely professor Réka Szilvay, because I kept my participation a secret. I didn’t even tell my mother. I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something completely on my own and be confident about it.
What was the audition process like in Los Angeles?
We had to play a piece of our own choice during a masterclass with Ray, which was kind of the final. I played Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Arethuse, and then the solo part of the first movement from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with Ray.
What were your coachings with Chen like?
We concentrated on small details and tried to get the best possible sound from the violin. Ray with just the simplest suggestions helped me to discover new sides of my own violin, and also of the Guadagnini that was loaned to me for the concert.
What was the process of choosing your violin and bow?
After the master class, we had an opportunity to try three Guadagnini violins from different decades from Tarisio Auctions. I liked the one from 1775 because it felt right in my hand. I liked its pure, but at the same time soft and singing sound.
Did you know you were going to play it at the Bowl?
The next day, which was the day before the performance, we had a rehearsal with Ray and that’s when I was asked if I wanted to play the Guadagnini onstage. I, of course, couldn’t resist and was very happy and surprised by his offer. I had to practice on it until quite late at night so I could get used to it as quickly as possible.
How much time did you rehearse, and what was it like?
We rehearsed with Ray a day before the concert and then played through a few times on the day of the concert. I got to practice with the L.A. Phil on the day of the concert for about 15–20 minutes, because Ray had to rehearse Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with them. I enjoyed those 15 minutes of practice and noticed that they were very quick to respond to our ideas, and I was enjoying the chamber music that we made together with the orchestra.
What was it like playing with Ray Chen?
It was so joyful and encouraging. I learned many things from him, and not only about music. Ray is a very genuine person and I will never thank him enough for the opportunity that he gave me. I take inspiration and motivation from that event on a daily basis.
Did you have to deal with any stage fright?
I was the most nervous before the master class. It was the crucial point of my future in the competition. However, I was not nervous before the Hollywood Bowl performance. Usually I am more afraid of small halls, because I am more intimate with the audience and afraid to fail in front of them. In this case, on the Hollywood Bowl’s giant stage, I felt calm and just enjoyed playing next to Ray. When I got a standing ovation after the performance, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I loved the audience, and hopefully they felt it.
Did you get to know the other two finalists?
I was nearly always going somewhere together with the other finalists, so we really got to know each other. I really hope we will meet in the future, surrounded by music.
What’s next on your agenda?
I have to make a decision about where I want to study next, because I am starting my bachelor’s degree next year. I have to apply to the music universities and practice hard to get in!
Violinist Ray Chen on Sharing the Stage
The three finalists and I had such an incredible week together. This wasn’t just like any other competition. The goal for “Play with Ray” has always been about participation and the joy in music, and while there are definitely moments to be serious, it’s also important for everyone to connect and experience the fun outside of music, too.
We spent many hours in the classroom and at meals discussing sound, and violin playing, and we also went to Universal Studios and had our fair share of screaming from the rollercoasters. I’m so glad that these young, talented women were able to have an experience that hopefully inspires them to not only work hard, but to also one day continue giving back to future generations in classical music.