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Violinist Maria Dueñas Clears the Field

September 24, 2019

The name Maria Dueñas may not be a familiar one now, but that is sure to change in the near future. Indeed, the 16-year-old violinist, who makes her debut with the San Francisco Symphony Oct. 3–5 under the baton of Marek Janowski, is decidedly on an upward trajectory. The teen, born in Granada, Spain, has been living in Vienna with her family since 2014, where she is studying with renowned pedagogue Professor Boris Kuschnir at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna and Graz University.

As for taking top honors in international competitions, the teen has been on quite a roll: Dueñas snagged first prize at the 2nd Vladimir Spivakov International Violin Competition (Russia, 2018), first prize in the senior age group of the Yankelevitch competition (Russia, 2018), where she was also given an 1890 violin by the Venetian maker Eugenio Degani, and first prize at the Zhuhai Mozart International Competition (China, 2017). In addition, her debuts this season include appearances with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Manfred Honeck, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Vassili Sinaisky, and a tour of Spain and Russia with the National Philharmonic of Russia conducted by Artistic Director Vladimir Spivakov.

Dueñas, who has been celebrated as a “rising star” by The Violin Channel, has also added composer to her list of accomplishments, having written the work, Farewell, which was awarded a prize in the Von fremden Ländern und Menschen composition competition. And, like many a violinist, Dueñas is also a fan of chamber music. As a member of the all-teen Hamamelis Quartet, she participated in an exchange project with the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.

I caught up with Dueñas by phone from Vienna, where she was eager to talk about her relatively short life as a concertizing violinist and all that that entails.

Was there music in your family, and why did you choose the violin?

My parents are not musicians, but we love to hear music and music has been a very important part of our family. I used to hear it since I was a child. My parents took me to concerts in my hometown of Granada and I loved music from the beginning. I also loved violin and told my parents to buy me a violin [because] I wanted to be a concertmaster of the orchestra. I was about 3 years old when I went to these concerts, but I started violin around 6 years.

In addition to Spanish and English, how many languages do you speak, and what’s it like being in Vienna, where music has been at the heart of the city’s cultural life for centuries, and where you also study with Professor Kuschnir?

Spanish is my language, then of course I have to learn German and I’m learning Russian, as well, because I love Russia — the culture — and I feel very connected to Russia and the people. My professor, Boris Kuschnir, is Russian and one of the conductors [I work with] is Vladimir Spivakov and I used to play with him a bit.

I sometimes miss Spain, but I love Vienna. It’s a beautiful city as well as [one] with lots of opportunities. There are concerts every day and lots of cultural opportunities. Sometimes I miss Granada, but I’m very happy here.

It’s such an honor to be in the class of Professor Kuschnir, because he’s one of the biggest legends of violin players. I could never dream of being here and studying with him. He’s such an important person and a great artist and pedagogue. He’s also a great human and I feel so honored that he has let me in his class.

You’ll be making your American debut with the San Francisco Symphony, performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What are your thoughts about this important debut and why did you decide on that particular work?

I’m really excited to be there for the first time and also to perform with such an amazing orchestra. The maestro [Janowski] has supported me a lot and he’s really inspiring. He gave me advice and so did Maestro Spivakov. I just came from Russia a couple of days ago [where] I played the Mendelssohn concerto. It was the first time I played it in concert, two weeks ago with Spivakov in Russia.

I learned the concerto when I was 9 or 10 years old when I played it the first time with piano. I feel very connected to this because there’s a very interesting coincidence. The Mendelssohn violin concerto was written for Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn´s friend, who premiered it on a Guarneri del Gesù. It is remarkable that I will also be playing on a 1736 Guarneri del Gesù, “Muntz,” which is a generous loan from the Nippon Foundation. This fact is kind of mystical for me because, as far as I know, the Guarneri del Gesù that premiered the concerto is nowadays played by the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony [Alexander Barantschik]. I can´t wait to meet him!.

It’s an interesting concerto because it has lots of different moods and lots of contrasts. I think it’s really thrilling to play it.

How do you decide what orchestras you will play with and what works you’ll perform?

I just got an invitation from the conductor Vassili Sinaisky to perform with St. Petersburg, and and so I usually get invitations from the conductors and they ask me if I want to play with them. [Manfred] Honeck in Oslo — he invited me, as well, but I’m just at the beginning.

They suggest pieces, because it depends which piece, for example, if a concerto was already played or not. I’m at the beginning and I have to take these years to learn from my professor, because there are lots of concertos and new pieces to learn. Of course, I try to choose invitations carefully, and I have to learn a lot of repertory now.  

What violinists and/or composers inspire you?

The first person that inspires me is my professor, of course. The second one is Maestro Spivakov. He’s an amazing violinist and conductor. These two have been my idols when I was a child and now, as well. They’re my two favorite persons and violinists.

That’s difficult about composers because I just love every composer. Each composer has something different. I love Bach, for example, his music is very pure, but I couldn’t choose. Or the Russians — Tchaikovsky — there are so many.

Tell me a little about the Hamamelis Quartet and your composing life.

I really love chamber music. We have played a lot of times together and have won a couple of competitions, as well. In fact, we have a competition next month. We all study at the university, so we just met a couple of years ago and have been playing with each other since then. [For] composing, I wrote a small piece for piano and also wrote my own cadenzas for Mozart and Beethoven concertos, but I haven’t written a string quartet — not yet. I don’t study composition, I just compose as it comes.

I also have two sisters [who] play violin and cello and we sometimes play together for fun. They’re younger and I have composed a piece for two violins and cello. I have also arranged a couple of pieces.

Tell me about your concert attire. Do you wear heels and fancy gowns and get your hair and makeup done professionally?

I always used to play with a ponytail. I don’t wear high heels — I think it’s too dangerous because I move a lot. I like long dresses — princess dresses — in white or yellow or beige. And no, no makeup because that’s too high-level already. I just do it myself a little bit and my mother helps me because she has a good sense of style.

Do you get to have any kind of a normal life — like going to the movies and rock concerts — and do you spend much time on social media?

Yes, I do have Facebook and Instagram, but I don’t use it very much — just to advertise my concerts. Then I put pictures on and say “thanks” after concerts. Of course, I go to concerts and to the cinema and I’m taking dance classes. Here in Vienna there are popular dances like the waltz and foxtrot. My friends are all musicians, so we like the same things.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope my career will develop and I wish I will be playing with big conductors in big halls. Now I try to develop very slow but very secure. There are so many conductors and great orchestras I admire.

Correction: As orginially published, this interview misidentified Vassili Sinaisky's first name.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.