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Eugene Watanabe has a lofty dream: to create a world-class junior conservatory in Utah that becomes the new national model for music education.
And, yes, he thinks the United States badly needs one.
An audacious idea, perhaps, but the Utah native backs it up with a sterling résumé and a work ethic born of the music training that catapulted him to a dual career as a concert violinist and pianist.
The early results of the Gifted Music School Watanabe created in Salt Lake City two years ago are looking good. Local music experts say if anyone can make this happen, Watanabe can.
KBYU classical-music host Walter Rudolph will be the master of ceremonies for the school's spring gala concert on Tuesday, March 29. Rudolph became acquainted with the Gifted Music School when its orchestra performed on a national NPR broadcast of "From the Top," a show featuring the nation's most outstanding young musicians.
"You've got to be a striking virtuoso, technically, to get on that show to begin with," Rudolph said. "Beyond that, there has to be something that's inside you. And when you hear this group perform together, there's heart. The music just really speaks out."
Rudolph believes creating a full-scholarship music school of national prominence in Utah could succeed "if everybody will pay attention and take it seriously."
Like Watanabe, Rudolph envies the emphasis and public funding accorded to arts education in many European and Asian countries. "That's not how Americans think about the arts," Rudolph said. "But Americans can make things happen. That's what Americans do we're up to that."
And that's what Watanabe intends to do. The school's mission is to "redefine serious music education for children in the United States."
The first phase of the plan is in place. It includes a full-scholarship program for highly committed students, selected by audition, and a tuition-based community music program for piano and strings. The community program is overseen by Debbie Moench, whose respected violin studio has produced a parade of award-winning students.
Students meet Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake Recital Hall adjacent to Peter Prier & Sons Violins. Classes in the community-based prep school happen there after school on weekdays.
While growing up in Utah, Watanabe studied piano with Gary Amano and violin with Joseph Silverstein, showing prodigious talent on both instruments. He went on to become the only student ever to graduate from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music with double degrees in violin and piano. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and on international concert tours, playing both instruments.
Watanabe is frustrated by the fact that at Curtis, a full-scholarship conservatory, relatively few students from the United States survive the entrance audition. "Students are coming from other countries because we don't have a standardized national program for kids," he said. "The goal of our school is to address that need."
Providing full scholarships is crucial to maintaining the school's high standards, because it ensures that students gain entrance based on ability to play instead of ability to pay.
Watanabe has garnered support from several of Utah's major charitable foundations for his program's first phase. His eventual plan creating a full-time academic and music school in downtown Salt Lake City will take more fundraising.
Jane Davis, of Kamas, has three children in the school's scholarship program, so the family's Saturdays are largely spent on the trip to Salt Lake City for attending the string orchestra rehearsals, music theory instruction and choral music training.
The family's music-intensive lifestyle came about after Davis researched ways to help an older son struggling with severe dyslexia.
"Music is the very best thing you can do to develop kids' brains," she said. "Every ounce of energy my husband and I have goes into raising our children, and music is the avenue. We found the best teachers and drove as far as we had to."
Davis' husband, Mark, is an electrical contractor, and the economic slump has made it hard for the family to keep up with the expense of private music lessons, but they make it work.
"There are weeks when we will live on $15 per week for groceries in order to pay for music lessons," Jane Davis said. "The music comes first. I clean the piano teacher's house to pay for lessons. A couple of really fine people have donated to help us. To me, that's heavenly intervention we've had miracles."
Daughter Maren, 16, will be a featured soloist in Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins at Tuesday's benefit concert. She started learning the violin at age 3 and now studies privately with Utah Symphony associate concertmaster Leonard Braus.
The philosophy at the school fosters cooperation and support among the students, not competition. "The best part is seeing how everyone is progressing," Maren said. "We all encourage each other and help each other do our very best."
Gifted Music School spring concert
The Gifted Music School, a junior conservatory for students ages 9 to 18 headed by Utah violinist/pianist Eugene Watanabe, presents a spring gala concert. The orchestra will perform works of Vivaldi, Grieg and Elgar, and student violinists Shenae Anderson and Maggie Ivory will perform solos, accompanied by Anastasia Magomedova.
When • Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1365 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets •$25, at 801-686-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More • For a video of The Gifted Music School Orchestra performing the third movement of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," visit http://bit.ly/fLV9OB