Laurel Gagnon, a graduate student at Park University's International Center for Music, placed fourth at the Singapore International Violin Competition earlier this month. This distinction comes with a cash prize and a loan of a rare violin.
Only 34 musicians, and just five from the United States, were invited to perform in the competition, which is open to violinists under the age of 30. And only six musicians advanced to the finals of the contest, which ran from Jan. 28 through Feb. 8.
Gagnon says playing an instrument was mandatory when she was growing up in New Hampshire, one of six homeschooled kids. At first, she says, she wanted to play the flute. But since Gagnon was only three, her mom suggested she try another instrument, saying she could always switch when she got a little older.
"Three-year-old's lungs aren't quite developed enough to really play the flute," Gagnon says. "So I just picked the violin because my older brother was playing violin. And I just ended up falling in love with it, so I never ended up switching to flute."
We had a few other questions for her.
How did you prepare for a competition like this?
"It was a lot of hard work. I worked with my professor [Ben Sayevich] quite a lot over the winter break. I was practicing six or seven hours a day, making recordings, having a lot of lessons. It was a good experience."
How did you decide what music to play? In each round, you played very different pieces.
"For each round, we had a list of repertoire to choose from. And I sat down with my professor and I went over pieces that I had already played, or that just worked really well for my playing style, and picked what I thought would be best for the competition."
In the finals, you played Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major. Was there particular meaning for you in that work? And how do you feel performing that as your winning piece?
"Interestingly enough, the first concerto I ever played was when I was nine or 10, and it was Mozart's concerto [Mozart wrote about five violin concertos between 1773 and 1776]. And I think I spent most of the time very upset because I just could not play well enough to suit my nine-year-old standards.
"So this was actually my first time performing a Mozart concerto. I prepared for this well. It was interesting to just go out and play Mozart and come back triumphant when the first time that I had played Mozart concerto, it had been such a traumatic experience" (laughs).
The fourth-place win includes a $6,000 prize and three-year loan of a violin from the Rin Collection. It seems like musicians are very attached to their own instruments — what will that be like for you?
"I have a 1719 Carlo Tononi violin that I've been loaned for three years from the Rin Collection. And it's incredible to have a violin of this caliber.
"I did end up borrowing a violin just for the competition from Kolonaki in New York. That just improved my playing so much and opened up so many more opportunities for me.
"And I can't imagine what it's going to be like to play on this violin for the next three years. It has a very pure sound and projects very nicely. So I will enjoy exploring it over the next two weeks, getting to know it a little bit."
What's next for you?
"I just started a two-year graduate certificate program [at Park University], so I have approximately a year and a half left. And then we'll see where I go. I've got some decisions to make.
"It was just an amazing experience. And I'm excited to keep practicing, keep improving, see what the future holds."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.