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San Antonio concertmaster has Fresno roots

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At the tender age of 22, Eric Gratz — an illustrious alum of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno — was last week named the new permanent concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony. From the San Antonio Express-News:

Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing welcomed a new concertmaster, the first in nearly seven years with the permanent title for an orchestra with a history of concertmasters who have distinguished themselves in the classical music world.

A moment later, the slender, 6-foot-2 first-chair violinist named Eric Thomas Gratz strode onto the Majestic Theatre stage to accept applause as the new representative of the 72 orchestra musicians. Gratz is 22.

No one from Fresno should be surprised at Gratz’s youthful success.

Bee arts writer Marty Berry was writing about him at age 14 when he was selected as one of three musicians from California and 48 musicians from the whole country to attend the National Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious Summer Music Institute. From the story:

Eric’s mother, Sue Gratz, who with musician husband Eric R. Gratz, started the Youth Orchestras of Fresno when the philharmonic dropped its youth symphony program in 1995, says Eric showed an interest in the violin as early as age 2. The Gratzes were attending concerts in Germany and Austria.

“Eric looked up one day and said, ‘Can I play the violinder?’ He was just transfixed, sitting there in his stroller.”

Gratz decided he wanted to become a soloist after hearing violinist Joshua Bell, his idol, perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and is in his last semester at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

I’m looking forward to the day he comes back to solo with the Fresno Philharmonic.

Photo:  John Davenport / San Antonio Express-News

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Here’s the 2005 Bee story about Gratz:

He has the world on a string
At 14, this violinist is headed for a music career

lif dlw eric gratz

By Marty Berry
The Fresno Bee

Eric Gratz hasn’t decided where he wants to go to college yet. But that’s about the only thing the 14-year-old violinist hasn’t figured out.

Gratz, who began playing violin at age 4, has known since about age 8 that he wanted to be a professional violinist when he grows up. Although he doesn’t have all the particulars nailed down, he says his path will feature musical competitions, invitations to perform with orchestras, studying violin in college and a career as a solo concert violinist. And he’s well on his way, by all accounts.

Gratz, who will be the featured soloist in today’s Fresno Youth Symphony concert, has been selected as one of three musicians from California and 48 musicians from the whole country to attend the National Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious Summer Music Institute this summer.

The orchestra picks young musicians from throughout the country to attend the institute, says Merithew Benington, program assistant with the Kennedy Center Education program, which oversees the institute.

“We try to get one from every state, but in some cases they just aren’t up to our standards, ” she says. “Eric is very young and very talented. He’s being accepted as a first violin, at age 14.”

This year’s musicians come from 33 states. Applicants are eighth-graders through college sophomores, ages 14-21. In California alone, 20-30 musicians applied, says Peggy Burt, of the California Alliance for Arts Education. Her group screened the applicants at the state level and sent five to the National Symphony.

“We’re only allowed to send in five, ” Burt says. “So we got three out of five, which is great. It’s a really elite program.”

To apply, students must seriously be pursuing a performance career in clas- sical music. The three California musicians are violinists, which Burt says is unusual. The other two are Justin Ho, 17, of Cupertino, who is returning for his second year at the institute, and Ashley Lau, 16, of Saratoga.

While in Washington, the students will have biweekly private lessons, master classes and seminars with National Symphony musicians and others. They will perform in the Summer Institute Orchestra, under the direction of Elizabeth Schulze, on the Kennedy Center’s Millen- nium Stage. They also will attend National Symphony rehearsals and performances and will be exposed to internationally known conductors and musicians.

To say Eric is excited is an understatement.

“Going will send him right over the top, ” says Claudia Shiuh, Eric’s teacher for the last several years and first violist for the Fresno Philharmonic. “He was over the moon when he found out. It will be a huge boost. He needs to take advantage of the opportunity of going there, to learn from the big guys. I’m very tickled for him.”

Shiuh began working with Eric several years ago after her sister, Philharmonic violinist Cynthia Stewart, taught him from age 4.

“He’s a very talented guy and very ambitious, ” Shiuh says. “He’s a real work fiend. I never have to tell him to practice more. He’s great to have as a student.”

As for a career as a professional violinist, Shiuh says, “It’s tough, but not impossible. Nobody can predict who will make it as a concert artist, but he can play professionally at some level. He’s really talented and ambitious, which you have to be. Certainly in this area, he’s the best for his age that I’ve seen.”

Eric’s mother, Sue Gratz, who with musician husband Eric R. Gratz, started the Youth Orchestras of Fresno when the philharmonic dropped its youth symphony program in 1995, says Eric showed an interest in the violin as early as age 2. The Gratzes were attending concerts in Germany and Austria.

“Eric looked up one day and said, ‘Can I play the violinder?’ He was just transfixed, sitting there in his stroller.”

Actually his appreciation for music goes back even further than that, his mother says.

“When I was pregnant, I played Mendelssohn all the time, and it always calmed him down. After he was born, he had colic. I’d put him in a swing by the stereo and put Mendelssohn on, and he would go right to sleep.”

Eric says he knows the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by heart, even though he never has played it.

He began lessons at 4, although teacher Stewart at first was reluctant, saying she usually didn’t start students until age 5. He learned by the Suzuki Method, which stresses learning by repetition and with encouragement. The only time Sue Gratz can remember him not wanting to practice was a brief period when he was 5 or 6. Out came hot chocolate and cookies.

“Cynthia had warned that he would balk, and it happened just as she said. But it was just a couple of months.”

Now he loves nothing more than to pick up his violin every day and play. And he listens to nothing but classical music, with the possible exceptions of the Beatles and some U2. It’s the son who yells at the mom to turn down the rock music in their house, Sue Gratz notes.

Eric decided he wanted to become a soloist after hearing violinist Joshua Bell, his idol then and now, perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“He’s inspired my entire life, ” Eric says.

“He wants to be Josh Bell, ” Shiuh says with a laugh. “If he could take over his existence, he would be happy.”

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