Bow down

Eighteen-year-old violinist Celeste Williams is making waves. “I don’t like to confine myself,” she tells Carsten Knox.

Rosin star Celeste Williams hits the strings April 24 at St. Matthew’s.
photo Carsten Knox

Prodigy isn't a label with which Celeste Williams is terribly comfortable. But she has heard it ascribed to her. "Usually people who use a word like that don't even know what it means," she says, laughing.

The violinist, 18 as of last Saturday, has a confidence in her speech and grace in her limbs that belie her youth. She raves about the challenges of playing in chamber groups as well as being a soloist, and makes a distinction between the kind of technical precision that performing requires of her and how she makes a particular piece her own by applying subtle emphasis.

"All the notes would stay the same, my bowing, my fingering would stay the same," she says. "It's just the little nuances, playing some parts a little louder. Just bringing out different notes, there are infinite possibilities within the guidelines. I don't like to confine myself.

"Every concert I play is totally different. I think there's nothing better than feeding off the audience's energy and giving them that energy back."

Williams's passion for fresh choices in her music has clearly served her well. She's made a name for herself as a soloist in Halifax as part of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra, and spent the early part of 2007 auditioning for schools in the US, including the Peabody Institute in Maryland and Manhattan School of Music in New York City, both of which accepted her. She hasn't decided where to go, since she has one more audition in May: Mozartuem in Salzburg, Austria. "It's kind of like Oxford University, but for music."

Music is practically coded into Williams's DNA. Her grandfather, Ifan Williams, was a Welsh-born violinist and long-serving director of the Maritime Conservatory of Music—now of Performing Arts—a position her father, a cellist and teacher also named Ifan Williams now holds. Her mother Catherine Loftin, a teacher and musician, plays the double bass.

Williams started playing the violin when she was four but quit at one point, along with ballet, figure skating and the piano. "I came back to the violin because I realized I really loved it," she says.

Ifan Williams recalls his daughter's talent appeared very early on. "I remember her very first performance which was for her primary class in public school," he says. "And that would have to be 14 years ago. That was a revelation, actually. She had this ability to perform in public, and give a performance that made musical sense and imparted a very strong message to the audience."

The show Williams is most anticipating is on April 24 at St. Matthew's Church with Nova Sinfonia, a local group of teachers and members of SNS, including both her parents. She'll be one of three violin virtuosi performing, along with Hok Kwan and Conrad Chow. The piece she's chosen is the "Waxman "Carmen' Fantasie," the version played by violinist Yascha Heifetz. It's a piece she describes as extraordinarily difficult, with even the simplest melodies consisting of "disgustingly fast runs" and "constant double-stops, triple-stops. Sometimes even quadruple-stops." She discovered it at age 13 when she heard it performed by Quebec violinist Guillaume Tardif, around the time she received the 1912 Edoardo Marchetti violin with which she'll perform on Tuesday. She was so inspired by the piece, she resolved to one day be good enough to play it.

"The first time I heard it I knew it was totally out of my league," she says. "But then, when I heard it I thought, "You know, I think I can do this.'"

Despite what must be a certain amount of pressure on her shoulders, Williams is nonplussed by this time of transition and the big show. "I'm actually just as excited to get all dressed up as I am to perform," she says, laughing again. "I get to wear a red dress and flower, if I can find one."

300 Years of the Violin w/Celeste Williams, Hok Kwan and Conrad Chow, April 24 at St. Matthew’s United Church, 1479 Barrington, 7pm, $15 ($10 seniors/$5 students), 429-5599.

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