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The Beehive Interview: Lianna Stuart

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If you follow Fresno’s classical music scene, then you’re sure to recognize Lianna Stuart’s last name. Her mother is the wonderful violinist Cynthia Stuart, a longtime member of the Fresno Philharmonic and many other local performing groups. And talk about coming from a musical family: Lianna’s aunt, Claudia Shiuh, plays viola in the Phil — she’s the one whose sheer joy at making music is evident from the back of the house — and is also well-known for her chamber music.

Lianna gets the nod tonight as the first musician featured in the Orpheus chamber ensemble’s new special series called “The Next Generation,” which will provide a showcase for young talented players in the community. Besides her musical pedigree, she has an interesting background. As the daughter of a violinist, she and her four older siblings learned to play violin. (And there was no dropping out of that school.) But for many years growing up, she swore she’d never pursue music as a career. Along with violin practice, she spent her adolescence listening to such artists as David Bowie, The Beatles, and Flaming Lips. Today she performs in an eclectic band called Before Perils.

Still, she finally caught the violin bug, and big time. After stints at Fresno City College and San Francisco State, where she studied with world-renowned soloist,Jassen Todorov, she’s returning to Fresno State as a violin performance major. She also teaches at the Gottschalk Music Center and as a student teacher at Edison Bethune Charter Academy as part of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno after-school program.

We caught up with Lianna to talk about her and tonight’s concert, which is 8 p.m. tonight at Wahlberg Recital Hall.

Question: Have you ever given a mostly solo recital like this before? Is it a big deal for you?

Answer: The closest thing I’ve done to this before was when I performed the Bruch violin concerto with the Fresno City College Community Orchestra a couple of years ago. But this is my first solo recital and it’s a pretty big deal for me. I’m really nervous but also really excited to show everyone my passion and versatility.

What was it like having your mother as a teacher? Did it make you nervous knowing she is such a fine player?

I think it was both a curse and a blessing to have my mother as my teacher. It could be problematic because it felt like violin was not my project, that it was something my mother was making me do. And that was exactly the case sometimes. But it was a blessing in that she was always there to support me and offer instruction when I needed it. She of course encouraged me to practice and could just pop her head into my room while I was practicing and point out where I was going wrong. A parent who isn’t a musician can’t do that. It never really made me nervous knowing that my mom was a great professional violinist. To me, that was just my mom, I never knew her any other way.

You write in the concert’s program notes that you started studying the violin at age 5, and you did it “kicking and screaming.” Did any of your siblings (who also took violin lessons) behave the same, or were you the rebel in the family? How old were you when you began to love to play?

Since I’m the youngest of five, I didn’t get to witness a lot of my siblings’ experience learning the violin. But from what I gather they all tried to quit at one point or another. However they all became excellent violinists in their own right because I’m sure my mother took the same stance with them as she did with me. My mother taught all of us and it’s a difficult situation when a parent teaches their child an instrument because different roles are being juggled. If one of us acts out in a lesson it probably has nothing to do with violin.

I would say I was about 19 when I really began to love to play. That’s how old I was when I broke out of the classical genre and realized that playing Mozart was not a requirement for being a musician. Once I got more interested in music I actually grew a greater appreciation for the classical genre.

Did any of your siblings grow up to pursue music as a career, or is it just you?

I am the only one who decided to pursue music as a career, but all of my siblings still play music for fun. However, none of them still play the violin. My sister plays viola occasionally and my brothers play piano and bass guitar.

Did you ever want to play an instrument other than the violin?

Absolutely. I picked up guitar a few years ago and used it primarily to write songs I could sing to. I’ve always loved the sound of acoustic guitar. My next endeavor is going to be drums. I find myself tapping and beating rhythms constantly so I figure it’s time to find a proper outlet.

What was it like having your mother as a teacher? Did it make you nervous knowing she is such a fine player?

I think it was both a curse and a blessing to have my mother as my teacher. It could be problematic because it felt like violin was not my project, that it was something my mother was making me do. And that was exactly the case sometimes. But it was a blessing in that she was always there to support me and offer instruction when I needed it. She of course encouraged me to practice and could just pop her head into my room while I was practicing and point out where I was going wrong. A parent who isn’t a musician can’t do that. It never really made me nervous knowing that my mom was a great professional violinist. To me, that was just my mom, I never knew her any other way.

How did you decide on the program for your Orpheus concert? Can you pick one or two pieces and explain why you chose them?

I’d like to say that I carefully and thoughtfully put together my program, but it was more a matter of convenience. I didn’t know very far in advance that I would be performing this concert, so a lot of the program consists of what was already in my repertoire, and since I haven’t been playing music with the goal of a career in mind for very long, my repertoire is not that big. My teacher suggested the Passacaglia for Violin and Viola (by Handel) because I had performed it with Devinda Gunasekara in the past. But we performed it about five years ago, so it was fun to revisit it and be able to tackle it with improved technique. I sort of stumbled upon the first movement of the Debussy sonata.

In the 2012 fall semester at Fresno City College, I took a piano class with John Hord. He wanted to play some Debussy for the class because it was the 150th anniversary of his birth. He knew that I played violin and asked if I would perform the Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor with him. So I worked it up, but we never ended up performing it. Orpheus will be my first time performing the piece. (Also performing in the concert will be Alan Rea on piano.)

Tell us a little about your band, Before Perils. How do you describe its music? Do you play locally?

It’s difficult for us to define ourselves because we enjoy touching on many different genres. I obviously have classical influences, while the guitarists, Jon and Benjamin Napoles, have a background in rock and metal. One of our songs will have a blues feel, and the next will have elements of prog rock. Right now we’re preparing a tango piece that will be premiered at the last Moment Musical concert of the season on June 9. We often perform at local venues, such as Full Circle Brewing Co., Pinot Wine Bar, Audie’s Olympic, Frank’s Place, and many others.

It’s probably a long way away, but if you have kids, do you think you’ll encourage them to play the violin?

Definitely. I think learning a difficult instrument like the violin teaches you a lot. It teaches you patience, the ability to multitask, and gives you a great sense of pride. And I would do exactly what my mother did and not let them quit, because if she did I definitely would not have made it to this concert.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Three years ago I was drifting aimlessly like a lot of people my age. I never would have imagined that I could be performing my own solo recital for an Orpheus series. But here I am, almost every second of my life dripping with music, and I absolutely love it. Music can have extreme powers of reinvention.

Responses to "The Beehive Interview: Lianna Stuart"

adam says:

I’ve gotten to seen her at the Fresno City College Community Orchestra and even caught her Bruch concerto performance there. Well done, lady!

Stephen says:

I’ve seen her with Before Perils, and heard her recordings and have watched her over the years playing – she is absolutely AMAZING.

I may be speaking Fresno sacrilege here, but I’ll take her musicianship over Patrick Contreras any day – and I LOVE Patrick’s stuff.

She is going to be featured in a lot more cities than Fresno quite soon, methinks. She’s a star.

Davy Doodle says:

Lovely. Things come home in the end and everything works out.

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