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Violinist learning to play politics

Kevin Nance
Herald-Leader Arts Writer
When Alyssa Park goes onstage at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall tonight to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, she won't be the innocent teen-ager from Lexington anymore.

Park, who will give a solo recital on Dec. 1 as a special attraction of the University of Kentucky Artist Series, is now a scar-bearing veteran of the political infighting that is increasingly common in the classical music world.

But so far, she's come out on top.

"You wish you could say there are no politics involved in art and music," said Park, now 23. "It's probably more subdued and more innocent than in any other field, but there are still politics involved. There are always some conflicts, and you can get yourself involved if you want to. I guess some people know how to play the game a little bit better than I do."

She plays it well enough. Last year, Park was hired as the violin soloist for the Czech Philharmonic's current East Coast tour.

But Park was chosen for the tour by Gerd Albrecht, a German who had recently become the orchestra's first non-Czech conductor. Outraged nationalists from the Czech Republic called for Albrecht's head. They finally got it when the German left (whether voluntarily or not isn't clear) and was replaced with a Czech, Vladimír Valék.

Would Park's head be next?

As it happened, she kept her head, in more ways than one.

"I was caught in the middle," she said in a telephone interview from Cincinnati, where she now teaches at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "I was afraid that after they changed conductors they would want to change soloists, because I had been associated with the German conductor. But they never took me off, so I'm doing it."

Talking about this brush with musical death, Park sounded surprisingly calm, almost blasé; already in her brief career, political scuffles like the Czech episode have become old hat. The teen-ager who took the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow by storm six years ago has grown into a seasoned professional for whom battle scars are just part of the job.

What she tries to do instead is stay out of trouble and concentrate on music. This is possible, in part, through a professional and artistic composure that The New York Times noted when it observed that she "is taking correct steps toward a substantial place in concert life. She showed utter confidence."

'Kind of wacky stuff'

So far, so good. She hasn't made quite the same splash as her Asian-American contemporaries Midori and Chee-Yun, and she's had her share of bad reviews. (Reviewing her performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto earlier this month, Charles Passy of the Palm Beach Post said, "Her tone is whiny and her phrasing smudgy.")

Still, Park has had no trouble finding work. She has appeared with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis; toured Germany with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic under Albrecht; and toured Spain, Switzerland and Austria with the Cincinnati Symphony under Jesus Lopez-Cobos. She has also toured Asia and Australia.

And although she continues to play violin concertos by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and -- her favorite -- Beethoven, Park is maturing into a player with an interest in more than the war horses. For example, she has tackled difficult violin concertos and sonatas by Prokofiev, Bartók, Schnittke and Berg.

"I definitely think I'm more open to new music these days," she said. "It's just a matter of being exposed to it. You are going to find modern composers that are really good. There are some wonderful pieces by them, and there are some pieces I probably will not play. But it's nice to introduce something new to yourself and to an audience."

Every year, she said, "I try to learn something new so that I keep fresh. I kind of like some of the modern, kind of wacky stuff. A lot of pieces have sound colors that you couldn't possibly put into a Mozart concerto."

Two highlights of her new-music career were giving the world premieres of American composer David Diamond's Concert Piece at New York's Alice Tully Hall in 1991 and, last year, of Krzysztof Penderecki's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Polish Radio orchestra conducted by the composer.

Even though playing the Penderecki piece was "tough, really tough, because I had only about a month to prepare for it," Park said working with the great Polish composer was "a dream come true. You have a chance to ask the composer questions, which you can't do with most pieces. And he's just an incredible musician and incredible person. He just keeps giving and you keep absorbing from him."

In Lexington, accompanied by pianist Michael Chertok, Park will stick to the standards. The program includes Mozart's Sonata in G major, K. 239a, Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher and Saint-Saéns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

After her Czech experience and the other rigors of the road, Park's coming home to Lexington will be a treat. She hasn't been back for a while -- not since she soloed with the Lexington Philharmonic a couple of seasons ago -- so it'll be nice to revisit her old stomping ground.

"I think it'll be great," she said. "I'm offended I wasn't asked earlier. Just kidding."

If you go

Alyssa Park, violin, with pianist Michael Chertok. Special attraction of the UK Artist Series. 3 p.m. Dec. 1, Singletary Center for the Arts. $8-$15. 257-4929.


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