BY JANET MANDELSTAM
These musical ambassadors from Indiana University have performed — and been cheered — all over the world, most recently in Argentina and Brazil. They have presented concerts at Carnegie Hall and have been the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary. And not one of them is older than 18.
They are the Virtuosi, a group of dedicated pre-college violinists, violists, and cellists who study at the Jacobs School of Music. “It takes everything one has to thrive in the Virtuosi,” says Director Mimi Zweig, professor of violin, string pedagogy, and occasionally viola. The students’ curriculum includes private and group classes, music theory, and chamber music, as well as rehearsals. Their repertoire ranges from Bach to Bartok and beyond and includes works written for them by Jacobs School faculty and former students.
The Virtuosi are selected from among the 100 violin and 25 cello students currently enrolled in the String Academy, a Jacobs School program many enter as young as 5. Zweig started the Academy in 1976 with fewer than a dozen students. She had just moved to Bloomington and learned that IU had always wanted a pre-college string program.
Academy students, many of whom commute more than 200 miles, come to the school three times a week. A team of 10 teachers guides the young violinists, violists, and cellists. Zweig calls the cello program, directed by Susan Moses, “a hidden gem.”
The String Academy is a pipeline for musicians to join the Virtuosi. “They really self-select by rising to the top of the pyramid, by the level of their passion and interest,” says Zweig.
Zoie Hightower, a 17-year-old violinist who has been a member of the Virtuosi for four years, says, “Virtuosi has helped me grow in my music and grow as a human being.” The group’s international travel, she says, has shown her that “all of us in this world are connected by music.”
Virtuosi alumni continue their studies at renowned music schools, such as The Juilliard School in New York City and the New England Conservatory in Boston, as well as IU’s Jacobs School of Music. They perform in the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and other major orchestras. “They are positioned to go anywhere,” says Zweig. One former student is teaching violin and viola in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Funding for the program comes from the Starling Foundation, which supports violinists and violin teachers.