Matthew Lipman, violist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
As a kid, I jumped at the chance to sing in choir or act in plays at school. It felt natural to pursue a career in the performing arts, and viola was the perfect avenue because its sound completely enraptured me when I first picked it up at age 10. My mother loved the arts as well (she was a painter), and thankfully both my parents encouraged me to follow this dream. I was fortunate to have had great teachers every step of the way from beginner to professional, but my mother and primary college professor Heidi Castleman really helped define who I am as a human and as an artist.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Part of being a musician is about communicating deep and honest emotions to an audience, and that can feel quite vulnerable. Because of that, it’s easy to take any career setback personally, whether it be a competition loss or a bad review. It’s been a challenge removing my musical identity from my career achievements, but ultimately I feel working on this has made both my artistry and my career flourish.
Another challenge is that many audiences view the viola as ancillary, so it can take extra work to bring the instrument into the spotlight. Challenge accepted!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I was really happy with my two concerto debuts this summer (2021) with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Chicago Symphony! I am quite proud of the professional recordings I’ve made, and of the live concerts that have been released over the past few years. Here are a few highlights:
I will also highlight a few I made during the COVID-19 lockdown from home: Telemann Fantasias and Bach Partita 2 with baroque tuning that was new to me, which I was particularly proud of.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I have always gravitated towards spirited and uplifting music. And while analyzing harmonic and phrase structure is an important part of my musical process, expression through singing (on the viola) has always been paramount to me. For that reason, I think I have a penchant for works by Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, and Ligeti, for example. My absolute favorite piece to perform is the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Lately I’ve been taking a nap and going on a run a few hours before walking on stage. I feel like that gives me the most energy and balance, which allows for spontaneity and inspiration. Listening to other works by the composers of the pieces I’m playing helps inspire an interpretation. Nature has been an increasing source of inspiration, and honestly as a tennis fan, watching matches of my favourite players (looking at you, Serena Williams) inspires me to perform at my highest level and stay calm under pressure.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’m lucky that, at this point, I am quite familiar with most of the standard viola repertoire. I usually try to learn something new, whether it be a contemporary piece or a transcription, every six months or so. I like to make programs based around the new pieces I learn to highlight them. I find this keeps programs fresh and keeps me practicing!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I once performed an impromptu concert at the Galleria dell’Accademia next to Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence. That was pretty memorable. I love the sound of Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and have come to feel at home performing for the passionate New York audience.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
Thankfully, I think the beauty and strength of classical music performances are universally palpable. When it comes to growing an audience, I think we can take steps to make this great art form more accessible. Direct engagement with audiences through social media and artist chats, programming and commissioning living composers, smiling, even accepting applause after an exciting first movement – there are countless ways to make what we do relatable without worrying about diluting it.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been so many that stand out! Recording Sinfonia Concertante with Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and Rachel Barton Pine was unforgettable, and I learned so much from playing the Brahms Quintet with Leon Fleisher at Caramoor in New York. There’s really nothing better than when you and your colleagues trust each other on stage – that can lead to such memorable, inspired, and meaningful performances.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I don’t think success can easily be defined in the performing arts, since they are in essence, subjective. Sometimes the most magnetic performances or performers don’t seem to attract commercial attention, but that does not make them less compelling or unsuccessful. To me, success in this field is about impact. A performer is successful if their performance transports an audience member, a teacher is successful if they help a student improve their craft, an administrator is successful if they help bring more sublime art into the world.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I recently asked my mentor Heidi Castleman the same question, and I will quote her here, since I love what she said so much:
“Love the process. Don’t be so outcome orientated. Be more invested in the process and the discovery. Making mistakes, failing are among the greatest teachers one can have. Mistakes, things that you wish hadn’t happened are opportunities.”
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In 10 years, I’d like to have performed as soloist with more major American orchestras, have a small studio at a top conservatory, and run a festival or series in my hometown of Chicago. (And possibly dabble with conducting) Most importantly, I hope I can continue to express myself through glorious music and meaningful collaborations. Music is meant to be shared, and I hope to continue sharing it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Maple bacon donuts.
What is your most treasured possession?
I recently shipped two of my favourite paintings that my mother made from where I grew up in Chicago to my apartment in New York. It’s safe to say those are by far my most treasured possessions. I also really love my viola bow.
What is your present state of mind?
After essentially 4 months straight of touring, I’m ready for a nap!

American violist Matthew Lipman has been praised by the New York Times for his “rich tone and elegant phrasing,” and by the Chicago Tribune for a “splendid technique and musical sensitivity.” Lipman has come to be relied on as one of the leading players of his generation, frequently appearing as both a soloist and chamber music performer.

Lipman is performing throughout the US this autumn with performances in New York, Detroit, Massachusetts, San Antonio, Sleepy Hollow, South Carolina, Montgomery, Tennessee, Wolf Trap Virginia, Los Alamos, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, Stony Brook, Baltimore and Palm Beach.

Highlights of recent seasons include appearances with the Minnesota Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the Juilliard Orchestra. Lipman has worked with conductors including Edward Gardner, the late Sir Neville Marriner, Osmo Vänskä, and Nicholas McGegan. Lipman was a featured performer with fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann at Michael Tilson Thomas’s 2019 Viola Visions Festival of the New World Symphony in Miami. His recent debuts include at the Aspen Music Festival, Seoul’s Kumho Art Hall, Wigmore Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and in recital at Carnegie Hall.

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(Artist photo by Jiyang Chen)

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