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Competition Winners: SMTD Students in Professor Yizhak Schotten’s Viola Studio Take Top Honors at the 2021 American Viola Society Festival

Benjamin Penzner

The American Viola Society Festival occurs every other year at various universities throughout the United States, but because of Covid-19, it was held virtually this year from June 2-5.

The University of Michigan was a presenter of this event in 1987 when Professor of Viola Yizhak Schotten was the host chairman. The American Viola Society (AVS) sponsors two competitions for viola students competing from throughout the United States: solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts.

This year the students submitted recorded videos and were judged by a panel of jurors from the AVS. Videos of the finalists were played at the festival.

Benjamin Penzner, BM ’21, won first prizes in both the solo competition and the orchestral excerpts competition. Three of the four finalists in the excerpts competition were studio members: James Cunningham, BM ’21, won third place, and Wenlong Huang, SM ’21, was also a finalist. SMTD alumnus Samuel Koeppe, BM ’18, MM ’20, who now performs as principal viola with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, also competed in the orchestral viola excerpts competition and placed in the semi-finals.

Prof. Yizhak Schotten

Last year Schotten, who has been teaching viola students at SMTD since joining the faculty in 1985, was awarded the prestigious AVS Career Achievement Award for Distinguished Contributions to Viola Performance and/or Teaching. The AVS awards committee selected him for the honor, citing his “strong legacy of teaching, important recordings, and orchestral training materials among the significant contributions.” It also hailed him as “a treasure to the viola community.”

SMTD Dean David Gier officially presented the award plaque to Schotten at school before this year’s festival. A video of the plaque presentation and a performance video of Schotten’s recent recording of the W. F. Bach Sonata with harpsichordist Joseph Gascho, assistant professor of music, were played during the virtual event.

Schotten talks about his teaching philosophy:

“In general, I teach my students to teach themselves, and although I play for them to demonstrate beautiful sound, phrasing or artistic slides, I encourage them to explore their own musical ideas and find technical solutions for challenging passages, so they can think for themselves,” he says. “I do this by teaching the students how to practice. If they know how to practice, they don’t need me!”

“I spend much time teaching technique and have a technique class every week in addition to a studio class,” he continues. “It is important to be able to play virtuosic pieces, but the main reason to be technically proficient is to express the music. When my students are preparing for competitions, recitals, or auditions, I spend a lot of extra time with them, even helping them make recordings, as I did with the AVS competitions.”

Penzner decided to pursue his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in viola performance at SMTD in order to study with Schotten after seeing him speak about the bow hand at the renowned Primrose International Viola Competition.

“Ever since I first came to Michigan, I have felt my bow hand technique was severely lacking, and for the first time in my career, I can say that is not the case anymore,” Penzner says. “Although I still have a lot of work to do, Professor Schotten has given me the tools I need to progress even further than I have thought was possible.”

Last year, Penzner was the winner of SMTD’s 2020 Undergraduate Concerto Competition.

“Professor Schotten emphasizes creating a beautiful sound that is very specific to the viola,” Penzner says. “His focus on the vocal qualities of string playing has inspired me so much and opened up a completely new perspective to my approach as a musician.”

More information
The American Viola Society