PhD student to play Bruch violin concerto with University Symphony Orchestra on Dec. 1

Samantha Fan, a fourth-year PhD student in Psychology, will perform the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 with the University Symphony Orchestra at Mandel Hall Saturday, Dec. 1. She is one of the winners of this year’s UChicago concerto competition, which brings together students from a wide cross-section of academic disciplines by a shared love for music.

In this performance, Fan will attempt one of the most famous violin solos in the world. She said she chose the music because it has deep resonance with her own life and history. “I want to share a very personal story with the audience when I play this piece,” Fan said.

The music is written with a longing and lyricism that have made it irresistible to violinists of all abilities.

“Many young students learn the Bruch violin concerto because it is beautiful and it is a lot of fun to play,” said Barbara Schubert, conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra. But, she warned, “It is very difficult to master.

“The piece requires extreme virtuosic control—it has lovely melodies, but also requires a mature musician with exceptional musical sensitivity as well as tremendous technical skill” Schubert said.

Fan has played with the USO for four years and been the concertmaster for three. Schubert noted that preparing for a concerto performance is a big undertaking under any circumstances, but doing so while working on a PhD dissertation is a testament to Fan’s dedication to music and to her tremendous musical accomplishments.

“It is thrilling to have a soloist who performs at such a high level,” Schubert said. “There are quiet and delicate passages in the Bruch violin concerto that will enthrall the audience when played poetically.” 

Converging interests in Psychology and Music

How Samantha Fan decided on this concerto involves a story that began long before she could even form memories.

“My mother was auditioning for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra when she was pregnant with me, and she chose to audition with this piece,” Fan said. Both of her parents were professional violinists, and music was a younger Fan’s first language.

If hearing her mother practice the concerto for hours taught her anything, it’s that music transcends all racial, cultural and social categories.

“I grew up in a backstage in a concert hall, in a very multicultural society,” Fan said. With four official languages and diverse cultures, Singapore offered Fan exposure to a wide variety of people and perspectives. She soon found that music would bridge any artificial divide between people.

Fan’s psychology research is now focused on how exposure to more than one language helps children develop the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. “People often tell you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but this is not easy,” Fan said. Learning how children develop this skill is the focus of Fan’s dissertation, which is being guided by Katherine Kinzler, assistant professor of psychology. Kinzler is an expert on how infants and children use language and accent as markers of group membership.

Fan will be the first psychology PhD student to perform a concerto with the University Symphony Orchestra. She said she’s indulged in a lot of “perspective-taking” with Max Bruch as she’s prepared to play his masterpiece.

“The musician’s primary role is to convey the composer’s vision, while adding your own interpretation of what you think he means,” Fan says. “Every movement is like a story, and I try to tell his story and my own story through the notes.”

The first movement of the concerto will feel very raw and emotional, with lots of back and forth between the orchestra and the soloist, Fan said. During the second movement, which is more lyrical and romantic, Fan will try to express the feelings that swell up when she thinks back on memories of her childhood. The third movement, a jubilant dance, will be Fan’s celebration of her present life.

“It’s important to share something new when performing a solo, especially one that people may have heard before,” Fan said. She believes her vision and perspective will complement the composer’s.

The USO is composed of students, faculty, and staff and community members who audition every year for a seat in the orchestra. Its six concerts every year are always a highlight of the musical offerings at Mandel Hall.

The other winners of this year’s concerto competition are violinist Zidi Chen and pianists Paul Wang and Nathan Harris. Chen and Wang performed concertos with the USO last spring, while Harris will perform 
the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor this winter.

“The University has always attracted a healthy number of talented musicians, since there is a strong correlation between academic and musical achievement,” said Schubert. “But the musicians on campus now—including instrumentalists, singers, and composers—are highly accomplished and extraordinarily dedicated to their art.  And for that I am delighted.”