Photo by Laurie Pearman

There were no musicians in Mikhail Shmidt 's Moscow family. But they began to suspect he had talent when, as a


Best Violin Masters of the Seattle Universe

Mikhail Shmidt


Photo by Laurie Pearman

There were no musicians in Mikhail Shmidt's Moscow family. But they began to suspect he had talent when, as a toddler, he started singing along—in tune—to the family's reel-to-reel player. At age 6 he passed the entrance tests for Moscow's highly-regarded, decidedly old-school Gnessin School (founded in 1895), and there began violin lessons. "They picked it for me," he says. "They look at your hands."

As a teenage music student in Moscow, Shmidt's maverick ways soon became apparent. He had little patience with the standard Russian musical gods: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich (still alive but already a revered monument). Instead he was drawn to chamber music—uninterested in being groomed, as Russian prodigies typically are, for a solo career—and to early music, like Bach's cantatas, works never heard in concert or on the radio in Russia. Says Shmidt: "Any kind of baroque or authentic way of playing, it was almost exactly opposite to the Russian school [which focuses on] how to play notes as beautiful, clean, and fast as possible." It was a technique Shmidt had to learn on his own. "What early music taught me is that beauty of sound is not absolute, and rhythm is not absolute, and when I got into new music, it all kind of came together."

Landing in New York City in 1990, Shmidt played in the pickup orchestra for the Mostly Mozart festival, then led by Gerard Schwarz, which in turn led to his current position in the first-violin section of the Seattle Symphony. Shmidt also regularly sheds the tuxedo and performs outside Benaroya Hall. With the Seattle Chamber Players, Shmidt has brought more challenging, contemporary work to such non-classical venues as On the Boards and SAM.

Ingrid Matthews also showed talent at a young age, but it was perhaps less surprising: Both her parents are Juilliard-trained and teach at an arts high school in North Carolina, which Matthews attended. Her head start there led her, like Shmidt, to rebel against the prevailing repertory. By the time she got to the University of Indiana, a music powerhouse, she was already well-practiced in the warhorse symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, et al. "I wanted out," she says.

She ended up in the baroque ensemble instead. "I had no idea what a baroque violin was or sounded like or felt like," Matthews recalls. But she had an epiphany, grounded in the instrument itself, which, unlike a modern violin, doesn't have a chin rest—your skin comes in direct contact with the wood and its vibrations: "This is how I always wanted [the violin] to feel," she remembers thinking, "the physicality of it, the feeling of having it be part of my body...this is the tool that I can work with." Matthews came to Seattle in the early '90s and, with Indiana colleague Byron Schenkman, founded the Seattle Baroque Orchestra.

For her, too, early music has been a gateway to iconoclastic ideas about music. At Indiana she explored 17th-century music, in which very little is written down—often just the "raw materials of pitch and rhythm"—and much left to the performer. "It felt much more creative than modern violin training," she says, "[which] was a lot about learning to sound the way other people sound, getting your interpretation handed down" through generations. She recalls, as a composition minor, giving a piece of hers to a traditionally-trained cellist—and suddenly realizing why early-music study was so fulfilling: "It was square, it wasn't vocal enough...I wanted there to be inflection, as there is in speech."

An improvisatory feeling is a hallmark of the style of both violinists today—not license, but a revelation of the inner flow of a work's ideas. The freer their playing, the less it's about them; they make it seem as though a composer's thoughts were flying at that moment out of his or her head straight into yours.

And they both play literally on the edge of their seats. "It's the physical aspect of playing that frees up the music, that unlocks something," says Matthews. In orchestras, she says, "I used to annoy everybody around because I had to sit on the edge of my chair so I could move...I took up too much room, nobody sits up there. Well, Misha does."—Gavin Borchert

Video by Darren Lund.

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