Violinist Chu returns to play with Schenectady Symphony Orchestra

Violinist Jonathan Chu is coming home, but not just to visit. He will be a soloist on Sunday when th

Violinist Jonathan Chu is coming home, but not just to visit. He will be a soloist on Sunday when the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra opens its 78th season at Proctors. His wife, violist Beth Guterman, will also be a featured soloist.

“It’s great,” Chu said from Philadelphia, where he plays with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I grew up with them [SSO]. It feels like family, and to come back and play with my wife . . . I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

He’ll probably have more than a few people in the audience who remember him.

Chu grew up in Niskayuna and joined the Empire State Youth Orchestra when he was 12. Over the next four years he worked up to becoming concertmaster, and won the 1996 Lois Lyman Concerto Competition, which gave him the chance to play a concerto with the SSO the next year. He performed the Saint-Saens Violin Concerto.

“I took to violin really well and I loved the orchestra,” he said. “I had a good ear. It never seemed hard.”

Schenectady Symphony Orchestra

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

HOW MUCH: $12, $8, free for children 7 and under

MORE INFO: 372-2500, 346-6204,,

Standout performer

Music director Charles Schneider said the orchestra has always tried to highlight the talents of the area’s young musicians, but Chu stood out.

“I really have high regard for Jonathan,” Schneider said. “He started in the Suzuki program and came up through the whole school system.”

This is the third time Chu has performed with the orchestra as soloist. The last time was in 2004 when he played Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy.” On Sunday, he and Guterman will play Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat.

Schneider built the rest of the program around them. He scheduled Mozart’s popular Symphony No. 40, which he said he loves for its drama and excitement; and Kurt Weill’s rarely performed Symphony No. 2. Written in the 1930s before Weill left Germany, its three movements descriptively portray the chaos and scattering of the Jews.

“It is stark, bittersweet with sweeping, winsome tunes,” Schneider said. “It ends with a goose-stepping grotesque march. It’s not played much but eight years ago I traveled it through Europe on an orchestra tour. Everyone loved it.”

When it came time to choose a college, Chu decided on Vanderbilt University in Nashville to major in music and economics. That area had fewer performance opportunities but he didn’t want to go to a conservatory and his teacher was the same man he’d been studying with the past five summers at Meadowmount School of Music, which is a program for exceptional young string players in Westport, he said.

Drawn to viola

It was at Meadowmount where he discovered his real love: the viola.

“I’d messed with the viola in high school but at Meadowmount I played it in quartets. There are always too many violins and not enough violas,” he said.

The idea that he could make a career on viola, however, hadn’t yet occurred to him, Chu said. So after graduation, he auditioned and won a spot in the violin section of the St. Louis Symphony.

“But I’d always wanted a really good viola,” he said. “So I bought a new one.”

When a viola opening came up in the orchestra, he decided on a lark to try for it and made the finals. But he said he wasn’t happy in St. Louis and decided to leave after one season. He moved back to New York City and began a graduate program at the Juilliard School. He became the school orchestra’s concertmaster and began an active freelance career with gigs that ran from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to the rock band Vampire Weekend.

When a viola opening for the Marlboro Music Festival came up, he auditioned and got in. That’s where he met his future wife. A year later he heard about the viola opening with the Philadelphia and decided to try for it. He had only a month to learn the audition repertoire.

“I thought that if I made the finals I could get on the sub list,” Chu said. “By then I was at Stony Brook starting a violin doctorate program. So I had no stress [at the audition] and I won. It was kind of a shock.”

In spring 2009, he joined the orchestra’s viola section.

“I’d gone to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in high school but I never thought I’d play with them,” Chu said. “I never had a dream to be the great violinist. I just wanted to be in an orchestra. But the Philadelphia is superb. They play so together. It feels like chamber music. Musically it’s unparalleled. It’s so fun.”

Playing together

There’s only one hitch. Guterman is based in New York City where she’s a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. She frequently tours with the chamber group, and maintains an active international schedule as soloist and recitalist. The Philadelphia Orchestra helped them by allowing Guterman to sub with the orchestra and go on some of its tours. The couple now have a 7-month-old baby, named Apollo.

“It’s fun with two violas,” Chu said. “Violists are super friendly. We’re more laid back than violinists. We chill and do our thing.”

This performance is a rare chance for the two to work together with an orchestra, he said. It will be a first for him to perform the work, although Guterman has performed it before, he said. And it will be the first time in years that he’s played Proctors.

“It’s nice to come home and to see friendly faces in the audience,” Chu said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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