Violinist Adam Woodward was one of two winners of the March 2023 edition of the Berlin Prize for Young Artists. His program, meticulously curated and performed with palpable intensity, included music by Liza Lim, John Cage, and Bahar Royaee, and summoned the austere, indifferent beauty of landscapes and stars. Woodward, who is the youngest of six boys, grew up Mormon in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While all his siblings learned musical instruments, and some remain passionate amateurs, Woodward was the only one to pursue a full-time performing career. He studied violin at Brigham Young University and Rice University before moving to Frankfurt, Germany, to participate in the International Ensemble Modern Academy (IEMA). A member of the new Fabrik Quartet, a string quartet devoted to contemporary repertoire, Woodward is currently looking to create a career as a freelance performer in Germany. We met one recent morning in a café in central Frankfurt.
VAN: At what point did you get into classical music specifically?
Adam Woodward: In high school, I was listening a lot. That was a big part of my journey, just finding as many records as possible with classical stuff. It was really in my ears; I was drawn to it.
Do any particular pieces stand out when you look back?
I can see my progression of listening in terms of what I was not willing to listen to. Take opera: When I was younger, it was just like, No way. I didn’t want to listen to slow movements, even from concertos—I was like, That’s boring. The first movement of the Bartók First Violin Concerto is slow, and for months, I brushed it off. Then eventually listened to it. I was like, This is really good. Of course! I was like 14 or something.
When it comes to new music, the Ligeti Violin Concerto was a really big point. I was in the Greater Twin City Youth Symphonies (GTCYS), which had a partnership with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. And there was this one night where they got us tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with the Ligeti Violin Concerto. But I was really into the Minnesota Orchestra at the time, and the same night, James Ehnes was playing the Brahms concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. I went to that. But I had a bunch of friends who went to Ligeti instead, and we were talking about it at the next GTCYS rehearsal. And my friends were like, This Ligeti was amazing. I was really struck that they were so taken by it. So I listened to it, and I was like: Oh. It’s one of my favorite pieces, I really want to play it.
Was that what made you decide to become a violinist?
I was doing a lot of music in high school, but I was also a big soccer player until I was about 16. It was kind of one [small] decision after another. I had to eventually choose between playing in a string quartet program or soccer. I was like, I’m more interested in music right now. I just couldn’t do it all.
By the time it came around to auditions, I already knew I wanted to go to BYU because it’s a big family thing. My parents went there and two of my brothers went there.
Besides the family connection, what made you decide to go to BYU?
For example, Mormons get cheaper tuition. If you’re not Mormon it’s more, but it’s still crazy cheap. It’s a much smaller financial burden, and it’s an excellent university. In the music program you can really do a lot. My teacher and I had a great relationship. And there’s grant money to apply for. I was able to do projects. I went to Rice University after BYU, and suddenly I was at a school where literally everybody is trying to go to a summer festival every summer. And if you have to pay for it, there’s no money, because they can’t give money to every single person who wants to go to a festival. At BYU there was a significantly smaller portion of people who were trying to go to festivals, and they had the money for it.
In some Christian communities—I don’t know about Mormons specifically—musical tastes can run pretty conservative. Did you find that to be the case at BYU?
I would say it played a minor role. Mormons love making music. But it’s still a patriarchal, gender role-oriented culture. As a man doing music, [some] people were like, Why would you go into music when you can’t provide for a family? That’s a big facet of Mormonism.
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By now, Ligeti is a very canonical 20th-century composer, while your Berlin Prize program featured more avant-garde new music. When did you start discovering that repertoire?
At BYU, I was still mainly playing conservative classical music. I played a couple of pieces by my brother and a few things for student composers. But I was listening a lot. I was listening to Berio—Berio’s old and classic, but I wasn’t necessarily getting that education at school. I asked one of my professors about the Berio “Sequenza” and he was like, “I don’t think anyone else in the school knows what that piece is.” And I was like, “Come on, it’s like the Tchaikovsky Concerto.” And he said, “People just don’t play that very often.” It was like that.
I didn’t play the Berio until I went to do my master’s at Rice. I was still trying to do the classical thing, until the pandemic happened and I found myself changing directions.
At Rice you have to really grapple with the orchestra thing, because everybody’s doing it. I had an audition for the New World Symphony fellowship program three weeks before I made the recording for my International Ensemble Modern Academy audition. I was practicing these orchestral excerpts, and I was just like, I don’t want to do this. [He makes a blank face.] I felt really uninspired. I had colleagues at Rice who were killing it with that; they made [orchestral excerpts] sound really good. And I was trying my best, and it was just OK. I grew up on orchestral music, I love that stuff. But it was just not working.
Then I decided not to worry about it. Of course, I had a horrible audition for New World. I played really out of tune, I had memory slips. I wasn’t prepared, which is not the nicest feeling. I mean, I practiced of course, but something clicked like a week before: I thought, I’m gonna chill out a little bit on this one, and I’m gonna focus on what feels good, which was my IEMA audition.
I ended up playing the Berio “Sequenza” and the slow movement of the Bartók Solo Sonata. I memorized the Berio: It felt like I should. And actually, that made a big difference to [violinist] Jagdish Mistry from Ensemble Modern. The first thing he said to me when I met him was, “You memorized Berio. That was cool. And it was good.” He said that after he watched that, he wanted to memorize the Isang Yun solo piece he was playing.
You did your Mormon mission in Yekaterinburg and Perm, in the Ural region of Russia. How did that affect the progress of your career?
It was a huge, formative experience for me. I took two years off BYU for the mission. Most people at BYU do this, so it’s easy to come back and keep studying. You just defer; everybody is used to it. Whereas musicians are like, If you go on a mission, you’re going to throw away your career. You’re 19 or 20, you need to be practicing.
We have professional musicians in the [Mormon] community. You can absolutely get your technique back. You can get back into the violin after not playing it for two years. I played, but not that much. For me, it was a really nice opportunity to step away from the violin, and I felt really comfortable with that.
Did you have any musical experiences in Russia?
I got a $100 violin from a shop. I would play once a month for church service, but I didn’t practice for two years.
Yekaterinburg has a really nice opera house. They did Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” and it was life-changing. I also saw Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades.”
I even played for one professor at the state conservatory in Yekaterinburg, but I wasn’t practicing. I asked if I could play for them, but I was like, “I don’t have any music with me. I haven’t practiced the violin for two years.” I played the Shostakovich Concerto, and there was a four-minute cadenza that I’d still had memorized. He was just like, “If you did the audition, you could probably get into this school.” I was like, “That’s nice to know, but this is not a violin. This is like a toy.” [Laughs.]
Now that you’ve finished with IEMA, what are your plans?
Right now I’m planning on staying in Frankfurt. We’re doing a lot of stuff with the Fabrik Quartet, trying to find projects. I’d say right now we’re focusing on our viability as a quartet, especially in the new music scene. We really want to be a part of that. Right now it’s mainly quartet stuff, but I’m also trying to find other work and do my own projects. It’s always one step at a time, but it feels good.
Now that you’re a working musician, do you still listen to as much music as you did in high school?
Growing up, that was important for me because I was more interested in the music than I was in the violin. I was focused on the violin as the tool to bring the music alive. It’s only one aspect.
For me, it’s about the music. I found a solo cello piece two nights ago and I was like, I want to play this, but physically can’t. I can’t play the cello, or so many piano pieces, but there’s something beautiful about being limited. You hear an orchestra, and you can’t create that by yourself. At some point, you have to perceive the music. You can’t always be in the music.
That’s interesting, because I’ve definitely known musicians who enjoyed playing their instruments but didn’t listen to much classical music.
I also had plenty of friends who only knew the movement of the concerto that they were practicing, and it just didn’t make any sense. I met this cellist once who was playing the first movement of the Elgar Concerto, and I was like, “Oh, that’s a great piece. I love the fourth movement.“ He was like, “I don’t know it.“ I was like, “Dude, what?” [Laughs.]
That mentality doesn’t make sense to me. But the more that you perform, the crazier your schedule gets, the harder it gets to take in music—you’re really saturated in music. There are some days where I’m just like, I can’t go to a concert today. It fluctuates, but I have a bit more sympathy after IEMA, where we were constantly working for a whole year. There was a month where I realized I hadn’t listened to that much music. It was a bit sad for me, actually.
It’s something I love. It comes and goes, but to me, it doesn’t make any sense: If you don’t enjoy classical music… I guess there are people out there who just love playing their instruments and they don’t care what they play. There’s something beautiful about that too, but that’s not for me. I have to connect with what I’m doing. ¶
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