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Interview with Ethan Balakrishnan

Ethan Balakrishnan received a BM in violin performance from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music as a full-scholarship student of Grigory Kalinovsky, and won a section violin position with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec during his final undergraduate year. In Indiana, Ethan was a member of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic and the IU Baroque Orchestra, and also performed as concertmaster of IU’s Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestras. He was a three-time trophy winner in the Ottawa Kiwanis Music Festival, as well as the recipient of two major prizes in the National Arts Centre Bursary Competition, and of MusicFest Canada’s top prize, the “Passion and Performance Award”. He has performed and studied at various summer festivals including the Tanglewood Music Center, Music Academy of the West, the NAC Young Artists Program, and NYO Canada. Ethan performs on a Charles Rufino violin and Giovanni Lucchi bow generously on loan from the Maestro Foundation.

What was your musical upbringing like?

My family was never really musical, but I was interested in music from a very early age. My first instrument was a toy xylophone that I played far too often. My mother made me take piano lessons as a child, but I never really enjoyed them. When I was five or six, we had to cancel a long-awaited trip to Disneyland as a result of a family emergency. As a consolation, my parents gave me my dad’s cheap old full-size violin that he used for casual lessons in college, which had been collecting dust under a bed. I seemed to enjoy playing it, so they enrolled me in violin lessons. I dropped piano shortly thereafter and continued with the violin from then on.  

How did you discover the Maestro Foundation?

In the summer of 2017, I was studying at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. While I was there, I began to notice that my violin was outmatched by the instruments of my peers (everyone kept asking me to play louder, but it was physically impossible). So, in one of my private lessons with former NY Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, I asked if he knew of any good instrument lending programs, and he immediately told me to contact someone from the Maestro Foundation.

How did the Instrument Lending Program help your career?

The Rufino violin and Lucchi bow provided to me by Maestro first and foremost allowed me to integrate areas of technique that I had previously been struggling with, as well as to discover new technical and musical skills that would have otherwise been inaccessible. The enhanced projection of the instrument also significantly enhanced my ability to play chamber music, and to remain viable in competition. Finally, of course, the violin and bow were directly vital to my success in winning the OSQ audition. 

Tell us about your new job and how you managed to get it during such a difficult time.

I started to take orchestral auditions partly “for experience,” although I was careful to remain in a competitive and perfectionist mindset throughout the preparation process. To my surprise, I ended up winning my second audition, for a tenure-track section violin position with Orchestre symphonique de Québec, in Québec City. The audition actually took place before the official start of the pandemic, and when the shutdowns started, the orchestra froze hiring, as did every orchestra. For the first few months of the pandemic, I was doubtful about whether I’d actually have a job, but the city was able to bring its outbreak under control relatively quickly, and OSQ received government funding to offset the impact of total loss of income. 

By July, the orchestra resumed “regular” activities, beginning with live streamed concerts, and earlier this month they played their first concert in front of a live socially distanced audience. I was still in Indiana getting ready to move out of my apartment when I was told that I had a job after all, so I had to return to Canada and complete my two week travel quarantine before starting with the orchestra. I officially joined on August 10th, starting with recording sessions to update our “Galerie symphonique,” an online classical music education platform for younger students.

There are quite a few health restrictions I had to get used to: everyone gets a stand to themselves (upside: we can write as many fingerings as we want), we must maintain a two-meter distance at all times, masks (provided by the orchestra) must be worn at all times except when seated in our positions, and every instrument group must follow specific paths to separate areas of the building where we keep our belongings. Playing in a distanced orchestra was extremely bizarre and challenging at first, but it didn’t take long to adjust. 

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We’d like to thank Ethan for doing this interview during the first week of his new job with the orchestra. His story is proof positive that thanks to the generosity of our members, the important work at the Maestro Foundation goes on, even in tough times.