The $12 million endowment Miriam Schwab left to Ventura College upon her death in late 2017 is one of the largest gifts ever given to a community college. As enormous as it is, however, it’s not Schwab’s only legacy. Eleven years ago, she provided funding for the Henry Schwab Violin and Viola Competition, in honor of her husband, Henry Schwab Jr., a concert violinist who passed away in 2006.
Robert Lawson, department chair of the performing arts at Ventura College and music director/conductor of the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra, worked closely with Schwab to develop the competition.
“I want to have the best violinists in Ventura County be able to play whatever concerto they choose from memory,” he recalls Schwab saying of her vision for the competition.
Schwab competition preliminaries are held in the spring, and contestants up to age 23 perform two movements with a piano accompaniment. Of these, three are chosen to compete in the final, which takes place over the summer and involves performing a full concerto from memory with the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra (VCSO) in front of a live audience. First, second and third place winners are selected, based on stage presence, accuracy, articulation, intonation and overall musicianship skills, and each receives a cash prize. Now in its 10th year, the 2019 Schwab competition will take place July 6-7 with Rebecca Beerstein (17, Thousand Oaks), Vera Hong (16, Simi Valley) and Joanne Ma (16, Thousand Oaks).
They won’t be the only competitors, however. The Schwab has expanded considerably this year, thanks to additional funding from the recent Schwab endowment. For one thing, the cash prizes are larger — the first-place winner will take home an impressive $2,000. And Santa Barbara County residents are eligible now as well.
But the biggest change is the addition of a second category for younger musicians ages 11 to 20. These “Category B” contestants will also perform with the orchestra, playing a movement or piece of 12 minutes or less, using sheet music if desired. Five musicians will compete this summer: Ayden Chi (15, Thousand Oaks), Molly Gallagher (20, a Ventura College student from Malibu), Sophia Holdorf (17, Ventura), Beatrice Jiang (11, Thousand Oaks) and Emery Spencer (16, Newbury Park). Cash prizes ranging from $500 to $1,000 will go to the top three.
Lawson sees this as a way of recognizing younger and less experienced musicians who have tremendous talent but aren’t quite ready for the rigors of Category A.
“It gives the opportunity for more students to play with the orchestra,” Lawson says. “Compare a great young musician playing a small piece versus an older, more experienced student playing a full concerto. How to compare them? You just can’t.”
For Category A contestant Joanne Ma, the final on July 6 is actually her second attempt at the Schwab: She previously competed when she was just 8 years old, placing second overall. A lover of the Romantics, this year she will be playing Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor.
“My biggest concerns going into the finals are stamina and memorization,” says Ma, who just finished her junior year at Westlake High School. “The first and third movements of Saint-Saëns require a lot of power and energy, so I will have to maintain the same amount or more passion throughout my performance. Memorizing a 30-minute concerto is no easy task, and I am working to ensure that the notes are so ingrained in my muscle memory that I can focus on the feelings of the piece.”
Ma first picked up the violin at age 6, after hearing her brother play. She was studying ballet and piano at the time, but was quickly taken in by how responsive the instrument is to the player. “The violin is a beautiful instrument. You are completely in control of the pitch, tone, the color and the dynamics.”
While she doesn’t intend to perform professionally (medicine is her calling), Ma finds music “very freeing” and loves that it “can be interpreted in many different ways.” She thinks her background in dance will be an asset going into the competition.
“I think my greatest strength as a musician and performer is my stage presence,” Ma says. “In addition to having a lot of experience with performing violin and piano, dancing has definitely helped me be bold yet remain level headed in stressful situations.”
Beatrice Jiang, also of Thousand Oaks, will go into the July 7 Category B final with the first movement from Concerto No. 9 in A minor by Belgian composer Charles Auguste de Bériot — a piece she chose with the help of her violin teacher, Shuwei Liu, for its technical difficulty . . . although she herself is partial to Vivaldi and Bach.
The sixth grader at Los Cerritos Middle School has been playing since she was 6. “My mom was an amateur violin player. . . . I thought that if I learned, too, we could have a lot of fun together and play duets.” Mother and daughter do indeed play together — especially as the competition nears. “I practice a lot every single day, a couple of hours or so.”
At 11 years old, Jiang will be the youngest person competing in the Schwab this year. While she also loves math and science, she says that music “is really fun sometimes. It’s enjoyable when I perform, and I like how it sounds really beautiful. When I play in orchestras, it’s fun because you’re playing with other people.”
While neither Ma nor Jiang will be attending this summer’s music academy, both are excited about the opportunity the Schwab competition offers.
“I am very grateful for this experience because this competition is really going to test my abilities and push my limits,” Ma says.
Jiang is deeply appreciative of the donation that Miriam Schwab made to Ventura College, and thrilled to take part in Category B’s inaugural year, saying, “It does feel like a great honor.”
The 10th Annual Henry Schwab Violin and Viola Competition takes place July 6-7 at the Helen Yunker Auditorium at the Ventura College Performing Arts Center, 4700 Loma Vista Road, Ventura. For more information, visit www.venturacollege.edu/departments/academic/music/schwab-academy-of-music/henry-schwab-violin-viola-competition.