By Thomas May | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Launching a career as a solo violinist has always been arduous; add in a global pandemic, and a special kind of adaptability becomes crucial. María Dueñas, named New Artist of the Month in September 2019 by Musical America, was looking forward to the start of a new season crowded with important engagements—including her American debut. The coronavirus, however, forced organizations to pivot to virtual platforms. Undeterred, the 17-year-old Spanish violinist found a way to shine in the virtual realms as well. 

In January, Dueñas received first prize in the 2021 Getting to Carnegie Competition. Pianist-composer Julian Gargiulo, who founded the competition, gave each of the four finalists a separate movement of his new Violin Sonata No. 4 (From the Window) to perform. They were sent a recording of the piano part and had to learn and record their own respective parts. The audience, which, at more than 25,000, was the largest to date for the competition, had a 50-percent say in determining the winner, while a professional jury (including all six previous competition winners) accounted for the other 50 percent.

A native of Granada, Dueñas had already taken first prize at the Zhuhai International Mozart Competition in China and the Vladimir Spivakov International Violin Competition in Russia. She also won first prize and the audience prize at the 2021 Yehudi Menuhin Competition in Richmond, Virginia. In 2014 she moved with her family to Austria to study at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna with Boris Kuschnir, her chief mentor. Dueñas, an award-winning composer herself, is also a founding member of the Hamamelis Quartet. 

Maria Duenas holding a violin
Maria Dueñas. Photo by Fernando Frade Codalario

What was it like preparing and performing for the Getting to Carnegie Competition?

All in all, the experience has been fantastic. Especially because the main goal was to prepare and premiere a newly composed sonata, and I felt very curious about it. That’s why I decided to take part in the competition. The fact that Getting to Carnegie was held online actually made me feel rather relaxed, as if there was nobody watching. I was really able to focus on the music—a very intimate moment. I think the best part of all was the process of talking to the composer, Julian Gargiulo, and getting to know him—something that can hardly happen with the standard repertoire. 

The 2021 Carnegie Competition was designed to take into account the age of Covid. What are some other ways you have navigated the pandemic to keep your progress on track?

During the pandemic, I’ve been listening to many new pieces and expanding my repertoire, recording myself very often. Time has not been wasted! But I do miss attending live opera and concerts. I’m fortunate enough to be living in the [hub] of music, so I’m looking forward to the next live performances. One thing I have finally had time to do during the quarantine has been to make arrangements, one of my many hobbies. I have mostly adapted orchestral repertoire for violin and piano, so I have added some new pieces to my repertoire that I will hopefully have the chance to share at my next concerts.


Advertisement


What steps you are taking as you continue launching your career? For example, new recordings?

Strange though it may seem, I’m not really designing or thinking about strategies to launch my career. I honestly do what I love the most in this world, which is music, and do not think of it in terms of a career; it’s a conception of life, not a job. I am looking forward to my first CD, which was planned for 2020 but had to be cancelled. Wonderful projects are getting back on track now, such as my debuts in Pittsburgh, Oslo, and Copenhagen under the baton of Manfred Honeck; my return to events such as the Colmar Festival, Rheingau Musik Festival, and Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival; and my collaboration with Marek Janowski and the Dresden Philharmonic.

What are some examples of your favorite music to perform?

The works that I like to perform the most are those that are full of contrasts, those that not only show my virtuosic side but also allow me to bring out my musicality. The Paganini Concerto No. 1 represents me especially well because it gives me a chance to show my technical abilities but also my ability to “sing” the lyrical passages, which are typical of Italian operas. Another piece that I find incredibly fascinating every time I perform it is the Beethoven Concerto. There are no limits to the different ways of analyzing this work. It is not just about playing the right notes, but about telling a story with your interpretation and convincing the audience of that story. As for the chamber-music repertoire, my favorite work has always been Franck’s Sonata in A major. This sonata has so many details, and being in a constant dialogue with the piano creates a very intimate atmosphere every time I perform it. But the composer I am inspired by the most is Bach. His works are unprecedented in the history of classical music, not just because of their complex structure but also because each note has a meaning.

What other repertoire do you intend to work on? Getting to Carnegie is unusual in being so focused on a new work—how important to you is new music? 

New music is really important to me. I feel that musicians of this generation have a responsibility to make known the music of living composers. I recently premiered some solo violin capriccios composed for me by [the Catalan composer] Jordi Cervelló, for example. He contacted me after watching some of my videos during the Zhuhai Mozart Competition in China and wrote the following very special message: “I remember Christmas Night in 1955, when I first heard the Beethoven Concerto by Nathan Milstein and the Pittsburgh Orchestra. When the recording was over, I started shouting ‘Miracle! Miracle!’ That feeling remained with me until I first heard your recording. I have not heard anything like that in years. I was moved… What I heard was also a miraculous performance.”

We began corresponding, and he sent me a piece called Milstein Caprice for violin solo that was written as a special union among the three of us: Milstein, Cervelló, and me. The piece has a kind of ancestral mystery and is dreamy and evocative. After Milstein Caprice, Jordi Cervelló composed Giocando, which is a funny piece and has a great deal of cinematic language. He came to Vienna to meet me and record the two pieces. He has a highly varied corpus of pieces, including a magnificent violin concerto I look forward to playing very soon.

You play two rare violins: what distinguishes them?

I’m extremely fortunate to enjoy the use of two very different instruments, each with a unique voice. The Nicolò Gagliano, a generous loan from the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben, dates from the end of the 18th century and has a very silky and brilliant tone. Recently, I received the 1736 “Muntz” Guarneri del Gesù from the Nippon Music Foundation for special projects. It is a very special instrument, with a wide and deep sound. They have both enabled me to search for a unique sound, for different colors I was not aware of before. I feel very privileged.

What other activities do you enjoy to balance your life as a musician?

I like spending time with friends and people who transmit good vibrations and positive energy, eating a good meal around a big table with good conversation. That’s important to me. Dancing is another of my passions, as well as water activities such as swimming.