Maestro molds young players
Retired LaSalle Quartet violist passes on his enthusiasm

Among the strings students taking direction from Kamnitzer are (from left): Larissa Swanson, 16; Marilyn Vennemeyer, 14; Michelle Torres; and Elise Kaminsky, 18.
The Enquirer/Ernest Coleman

They are typical kids, dressed in jeans, from Loveland, Hyde Park, Sycamore Township, Anderson Township, Corryville, Mount Washington and Amberley Village.

They could be spending Saturday morning at a mall. Instead, they're in the library of St. Monica-St. George Catholic Center in Clifton Heights, digging into the score of some of the most heavenly music ever written - a Haydn string quartet.

Peter Kamnitzer, the violist of Cincinnati's celebrated LaSalle Quartet, leads an intense music lesson with a group of young strings students. He's passing on a lifetime of work as a member of the first quartet-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

"It's got to be lighter, more dance-like. Come on, you're playing without listening!" the retired 82-year-old master says, urging on the first quartet.

The coaching session was for eight students.

These students, ages 12-18, are learning to play string quartets in the Corryville Suzuki Project. They are the more advanced students among 35 in the strings program.

The entire Suzuki Project will play a variety of music, from string quartets to Appalachian fiddling, Saturday at the College of Mount St. Joseph during the Fine Arts Fund Sampler Weekend.

Kamnitzer's goal: To teach them how to make music.

"That's easier said than done. How do you make music?" says the lanky, white-haired musician, whose eyes get misty as he reflects on 40 years of one of the most spectacular careers in chamber music.

Since 2001, the Hyde Park resident has volunteered his time on Saturdays, about 12 weeks each year. These students have learned the notes; he is "fine-tuning" their performance - getting them to play at a higher level, to play with expression and to communicate with each other.

Kamnitzer, who projects enthusiasm and a sense of humor, sits with his score on his music stand, prodding them on vigorously, arms outstretched. He's a tough critic who shakes his head when he isn't satisfied and beams when he is. The students concentrate hard, but playing in a quartet - two violins, viola and cello - is full of unexpected pitfalls.

"You have three other people, and you become a member of the group," he says. "It's a jigsaw puzzle in a way, and you have to put it together."

One student struggles before she gets it right.

"Good!" He almost cheers. "You got it!"

Then he turns to a violinist, demonstrating how to bow with his long arms. "But you could be more jocular," he says. "Bounce!"

"It's intimidating," admits violist Elise Kaminsky, 18, of Loveland, a freshman at UC's Raymond Walters College. "It's good experience, but it is high stress."

For Titi Ayangade, 12, who attends Walnut Hills High School, Kamnitzer's advice is one small step in accomplishing her dream: to play her cello in a symphony orchestra someday.

"Working with people like this, you get directed on things you think you wouldn't have to do, but you know you do, now," she says.

"He expects a lot out of you," agrees violinist Marilyn Vennemeyer, 14, a freshman at McNicholas High School. "I think we all get a lot out of it because he's so honest with his critique."

Kamnitzer's warm demeanor shines through his tough words, as he guides them firmly in the direction he wants. He's a perfectionist - he wants them to play in tune, play together and most of all, to show some personality.

"He's all about details," says Vincent Phelan, a CCM grad, who with his wife, Elizabeth, founded the violin school 10 years ago. "He's got so much energy, I think it's infectious for the students. They begin to realize that music is so full of wonderful details that they have only begun to see."

"He'd come to performances and talk to me about the students," says Elizabeth Phelan, who studied viola with Kamnitzer at CCM. "He volunteered to come and work with them. We're just incredibly grateful to him."

The second ensemble is less experienced. Shawn Bonner, 14, who attends Springer School in O'Bryonville, has played his viola for four months. He likes discovering its rich, mellow sound.

Kamnitzer struggles to convey what he wants from this group - a tricky assignment for one who is accustomed to coaching the world's finest quartets.

"One has to contain one's manners," he says later, laughing. "With the LaSalle Quartet, we would sort of yell at each other and roughhouse. You can't do that with kids."

Why does he do it? "Because I enjoy it," he says simply, with a big smile.

"You're a better musician because of it," says Elizabeth Rahner, 13, who attends Clark Montessori High School in Hyde Park. "When you're playing well, he'll tell you, and you feel good after that."