Bach on the streets

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Hearing musicians outdoors in Woodstock is not a surprise. But it was a big surprise —startling, actually — to walk out of CVS on a Sunday afternoon and see someone playing unaccompanied Bach on a violin. A moment’s listening surprised even further: this was a very good violinist, a high class professional. A slender Japanese woman, playing superb Bach in front of a drug store!

Of course I had to investigate. After she finished the piece, we spoke briefly and she gave me her card.

Her name is Akiko Kamigawara, and the story of her coming to Woodstock is just as unusual as you would expect. She was born in Japan 22 years ago. When she was three years old, her father’s job took the family to Geneva. During the three years she spent there, she spoke French everywhere except at home and at Japanese school on Saturdays. Shortly after arriving in Geneva, she was taken to a piano teacher at the Geneva Conservatory. The teacher told her mother that the three-year-old’s hands were simply too small for the piano, and suggested she try the violin instead. She was also interested in becoming a clown, or a painter, or a cook, but only if she also played music well. She was taken to Habib Kayaleh, a student of Yehudi Menuhin who ran a private violin school. (A year later, she also began taking piano lessons from that same Geneva Conservatory teacher.) Starting music lessons so early, she learned to read music before she learned to read text. Kayaleh taught her the solid basics of violin technique: bowing, fingering, and producing rich tone.


When Kamigawara was six, the family returned to Japan. Her studies continued at the Toho-Gakuen School of Music for Children. When she was ready for high school, she was admitted to the world-famous Toho Music High School whose graduates include Seiji Ozawa and many other well-known Japanese musicians. She says she “got lucky” with her violin teachers, as she had with Kayaleh. In 2007 she won second prize at the All Japan Student Competition. Among her chamber music teachers at Toho were the members of the Tokyo Quartet, which played many times in Woodstock at Maverick Concerts. She played much chamber music at Toho, including Beethoven Quartets. Kayaleh came twice to Tokyo to give master classes, in which she participated. She also played in other master classes by internationally known musicians.

On graduating from high school, she decided to continue her studies in Belgium, long a major center of violin study and performance. She studied at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels for three years. She was happy to return to Europe, where she feels she learned greater independence.

While studying, she also played in the first violin section of the Brussels Philharmonic as associate concertmaster.

By the time she graduated from school, Kamigawara was an experienced performer and had been through some of the types of incidents that veteran performers like to relate at parties. Once, during a performance of a Beethoven Violin Sonata, the lights in the hall went out. Both she and the pianist knew the music well enough so that they were able to keep playing until the lights went back on. Also, at the Conservatory, she won the opportunity to perform Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto, a favorite showpiece. During the final rehearsal, the conductor made a sweeping gesture towards the orchestra and knocked the violin out of Kamigawara’s hand. She had to play the performance on a borrowed violin; hers took a year to repair.

After her graduation, Kamigawara intended to remain in Europe and start a career there. But one day she met a friend of one of her own students, Alexander Friedman, who was visiting from New York. The two took an immediate liking to each other. They visited several times in Ukraine and then in the U.S. Her last visit was intended to be short, and all her possessions except her violin were left behind in Brussels. But at the end of August, when she had been planning to return to Europe, they couple decided they wanted to stay together and get married. Friedman, who develops math instruction programs, had lived in Brooklyn, but decided to escape the crowding of the city and moved to Bearsville, where the couple now lives.

Kamigawara has not given any formal performances in the U.S. yet, “except the times I played the whole Bach Sonata outside. I hope it will happen soon. But I know it takes time to find people who will support my musical activities. I always do my best when I play the violin, even outdoors. I’ve learned many things from street performances, such as how to keep myself focused on playing even when there are distractions, how to let myself feel free to follow the ideas that arise. I feel ease in connecting with people. But I miss giving a concert ‘under the roof,’ where I find it’s a more appropriate place to share deep musical ideas with an audience. I’m also starving for chamber music, and learning more about music from other musicians.”

Weather permitting, Akiko Kamigawara will be playing on the Village Green this Friday around 5 p.m. and in front of CVS Sunday around 3 p.m. Perhaps soon we will be lucky enough to hear her “under the roof.”