Click here for the archive of profiles that takes you behind the scenes with some of the featured performers who bring their special talents to Emmanuel Music.
Violinist Sarah Atwood arrived at Emmanuel Music as a Bach Institute student in January 2010, the first year of that program. Atwood was a freshman at Boston University when she joined the Bach Institute, which was created to share Emmanuel Music’s decades of experience and accumulated wisdom in Bach practice with gifted young musicians. Atwood had been playing Bach solo sonatas and partitas since she was eleven, but this was her first experience with cantatas and with playing Bach in an ensemble. The experience was eye-opening.
“It was inspiring to play such gorgeous music in such a beautiful space, and with such wonderful and welcoming musicians,” she says. Her first direct exposure to such a high level of singing opened up Bach’s music in a whole new way. Because Bach uses the voice in ways both personal and spiritual, and from vulnerable to powerful, Atwood realized that instrumentalists can better understand how to play Bach by listening to vocalists. Similarly, her first encounter with strong continuo and organ playing helped Atwood find ways to give her own parts a real line and destination. Artistic Director Ryan Turner’s conducting further reinforced these lessons. “I learned so much from Ryan about expressing the arcs of phrases and ends of phrases, and how to create a wonderful ring and release at the end of a note. He helped me figure out the expression of the phrase while keeping the shape of the overall line.”
Unlike many Bach institute students, Atwood arrived steeped in Bach and loving this composer above all others. “I loved the variety of the compositions,” Atwood says. “Bach wrote so many cantatas, and each one has its own character. Each cantata explores new harmonies, different ensemble instrumentation, and timbre. It’s inspiring that although Bach wrote these weekly cantatas for his job, each one is still fresh, genuine, and reveling both in the glory of God and in music itself.”
At the same time Atwood acknowledges that many musicians feel nervous about playing Bach. “There’s so much controversy about the ‘right’ way to play Bach,” she says, “whether the old-school Romantic approach or the early music approach with no vibrato.” Atwood doesn’t share those concerns. ‘I truly believe that Bach was so progressive that he wouldn’t have wanted people to stay wedded to one style of play,” she says. “He was always changing, and wouldn’t want others to be boxed in.” Atwood is grateful that both Ryan Turner and John Harbison encouraged all of the Bach Institute participants to feel free as musicians to contribute their own interpretations to the performance, even as these leaders guided the students to the appropriate overall sound and feel.
Atwood saw her destiny to be a violinist when she was only two years old. Living at a research station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he father was an ornithologist, she happened to see and hear someone playing a violin in a garden. Atwood immediately knew this was what she wanted to do, and she pestered her mother for two years. Finally, at age four Atwood began Suzuki lessons; by kindergarten age Atwood was home-schooled so she could devote as much time as possible to violin practice. In the next phase of her preparation for a musical career Atwood found a teacher at the Hartt School in Hartford and drove there weekly (and sometimes two or three times a week) from her home in New Hampshire. Atwood’s Bach education began at the Hartt School with her teacher Katie Lansdale, who helped Atwood understand Bach’s fugues for solo violin. “She showed me how to highlight each voice within the fugue with a different color, so I could see how the voices spoke together and traded dialogues.”
Atwood chose Boston University for her undergraduate training because she wanted to study with Bayla Keyes. “Keyes helped me organize my playing to express more of what I was trying to say,” Atwood says. In Atwood’s senior year Keyes helped her prepare for the American Protege International Piano and Strings Competition. Atwood won first place and played the solo Paganini Caprice #7 at Carnegie Hall. “That was probably the highlight of my undergraduate years, she says. “I’d dreamed since I was little of performing solo at Carnegie Hall. I was especially excited to perform the Paganini because the musicality and technicality of the caprice helped bring together all of the different things I’d learned from Bayla during my four years at BU.”
Keyes also helped Atwood get to the Tanglewood Music Center as a fellow for two summers. “The Tanglewood Music Center fuses many generations, and it was an amazing opportunity to feel the energy, power, and wisdom of some of the golden age composers,” Atwood says. Her very first concert was memorable – a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. “I never knew Beethoven could sound like that,” Atwood says simply. In another memorable performance Atwood played Stravinsky’s Firebird under the baton of Charles Dutoit.
At Tanglewood Atwood also met her current teacher, Tamara Smirnova, the assistant concertmaster at the Boston Symphony. “I’m now in my second year of the Master’s program at the New England Conservatory, and Smirnova has helped me so much, whether with technique, solo playing, or a well-rounded preparation for the real life of a musical career. I’m especially fortunate, because I’m the only full-time college student that she currently has.”
During this final year of graduate study (Atwood completes her Master’s in spring 2016), she plays frequently in the Emmanuel Music cantata series, and has been honored as one of two Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellows. This award recognizes young musicians of exceptional promise and offers them opportunities to perform in prominent roles. Still at the cusp of her career, Atwood also appears with Cantata Singers, ProArte, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), as well as serving as the assistant principal second violinist for the Cape Cod Symphony.
“My hypothetical ideal career is to be a musician in a symphony orchestra,” Atwood says. Since her Tanglewood days Atwood has been in love with the repertoire and the collective energy of a large orchestra. She sees symphony work as the basis for a varied career, rounded out with solo and chamber performances as well as teaching. For now she is learning and gaining all the experience she can, and will undertake serious symphony auditions only when she feels ready to do her absolute best.
In the meantime, Atwood recalls her feeling as a young Bach Institute student, convinced that she wanted to keep playing the music of her beloved Bach in this way. Returning now as a regular member of the ensemble is an especially gratifying experience. “My favorite weekends are the weekends when I play with Emmanuel Music,” she says. “There is no better way to start a week.”