In advance of WFMT’s 70th Anniversary on December 13, 2021, WFMT celebrates two of the adults behind the Chicago area’s finest young performers: violin and viola teachers Almita and Roland Vamos. Their past students include Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh, Benjamin Beilman, and Ryan Meehan of the Calidore Quartet; and their present students appear on Introductions rather frequently, as well as ensembles they coach through the Music Institute of Chicago Academy.
This feature-length interview with Robbie Ellis goes into their personal histories and their teaching styles, and features WFMT archival audio of performances by their students, past and present. Listen to the episode below.
On WFMT’s 70th anniversary on Monday December 13, 2021, current Vamos students Abigail Park, Tara Hagle, Elinor Detmer and Esme Arias-Kim will perform live as part of two different teenage string quartets. More details on the program page.
Eugène Ysaÿe: Solo Violin Sonata No. 3, Ballade (excerpt)
Esme Arias-Kim, violin
First broadcast on Introductions, November 21, 2020.
Jean Sibelius: Valse, Op. 81, No. 3
Karisa Chiu, violin; Inah Chiu, piano
First broadcast on a Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert, January 4, 2017.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 in C, BWV 1005:
Maya Anjali Buchanan, violin
First broadcast on Introductions, May 12, 2018.
Max Bruch: Double Concerto in E minor, Op. 88:
II. Allegro moderato
Almita Vamos, violin; Roland Vamos, viola; Eugenia Monacelli, piano
Recording supplied by Almita Vamos.
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2:
II. Scherzo (excerpt)
Pacifica Quartet: Simin Ganatra & Kyu-Young Kim, violins; Kathryn Lockwood, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello
First broadcast on Live from WFMT, January 19, 1998.
Peter Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings, Op. 48
1st movement (excerpt)
Music Institute of Chicago Academy Orchestra; Roland Vamos, conductor
First broadcast on Introductions, May 2, 2009.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A, BWV 1015:
Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Paul Cienniwa, harpsichord
First broadcast on Live from WFMT, November 1, 2010.
Robert Schumann: String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3:
III. Adagio molto (excerpt)
Calidore String Quartet: Jeffrey Myers & Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello
First broadcast on Impromptu, 19 October, 2016.
Amy Beach: Romance, Op. 23
Isabella Brown, violin; Milana Pavchinskaya, piano
First broadcast on Introductions, July 24, 2021.
MUSIC: Esme Arias-Kim playing Eugène Ysaÿe’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 3, Ballade. Music fades under talking.
ROBBIE ELLIS: It’s a couple of days before WFMT’s 70th anniversary. And this program, Introductions, has been part of that history for 13½ of those years featuring the Chicago area’s finest young performers Saturday after Saturday. And there are a couple of names that keep coming up on our episodes time and time again.
(Montage of David Polk, Michael San Gabino, Robbie Ellis and Lisa Brownstone mentioning the names Almita and Roland Vamos.)
ROBBIE ELLIS: I’m producer and presenter, Robbie Ellis. And now I get to say: Almita and Roland Vamos, welcome to Introductions.
ALMITA VAMOS: Thank you.
ROLAND VAMOS: Hi.
ROBBIE: So the violinist that I’ve just put in the background, Esme Arias-Kim performing some blistering solo Ysaÿe on Introductions last year at the age of 14: first of all, she’s going to be on the radio in two days’ time performing in a string quartet, live on WFMT. Second of all, I did not realize this when I had her on the program last year, but she is the great-grandpupil of [Eugène] Ysaÿe himself, I guess.
MRS. VAMOS: That’s correct. My teacher studied with Ysaÿe and talked about him frequently.
ROBBIE: So your two teachers were Mischa Mischakoff and Louis Persinger at the Juilliard School. What sort of teachers were they?
MRS. VAMOS: Very different. I studied with Mischakoff from the age of eight and I was probably one of the youngest students he ever had. And at the time that I studied with him, he was Concertmaster of the NBC Symphony. So I would have my lesson between the rehearsal with us when he was with Toscanini and then he would sandwich me in in a corridor in the NBC studio. Sometimes it didn’t go very well and I imagine he was quite nervous for the concert that took place, the recording that took place right after.
He was short on patience. He was fabulous. I owe so much to him because even though he didn’t always know how to explain things, he would pull my arm, he made you play well. He did not allow anything to escape and he repeated and repeated, he shouted a lot. But sometimes if he was happy, he danced! You know, sometimes it was really pretty harsh but I owe so much to him.
ROBBIE: And then Louis Persinger, quite different.
MRS. VAMOS: Well, Mischakoff left and went to Detroit. He wanted my parents to send me at the age of 11 to Detroit and live with somebody, and I didn’t want to do it and my parents wouldn’t do that. So he actually recommended, “I’m calling Mr. Persinger.” He looked at me and he said, “You will like Mr. Persinger; he’s a gentleman.” Greatest musician I have ever met. I can’t describe, I can’t teach the way he taught. He had the imagination of the gods. And when I’d take a lesson, I’d go home. Sometimes I’d walk on air; I’d feel like I didn’t feel the ground. Very inspiring.
ROBBIE: And Roland, who were your teachers and what were they like?
MR. VAMOS: I had one teacher that isn’t very famous but I think I owe almost everything that I can do right now to her teaching. That was Suzanne Gusso, from the time I was about 12 to the time I was 18. I didn’t go from high school to college. Because of circumstances and lives we have to earn a living. So, at 18 I found myself in Denver playing in the Denver Symphony. I asked for a raise and they said no, so I quit. Then the next year I was in the Houston Symphony. From there, I think I went to Miami and became a strolling violinist in the nightclubs, and you have to play violin in a way I was not accustomed. They didn’t play from music, they just knew, what you’d call, “know the tunes”.
ROBBIE: And were you at Juilliard while you were in high school, or did that kind of come after all this jobbing itinerant work?
MR. VAMOS: Quite a bit after. I mean I was, as I said, in Denver for one year; Houston for one year; two years in Miami…
MRS. VAMOS: And the Army.
MR. VAMOS: And then I was in the U.S. Army Band in Washington, DC. And then finally I went to Juilliard and that’s where I studied.
ROBBIE: When you think of Juilliard at the time that you two were there; we’re talking 1950s, 1960s, I’m guessing. How does that compare at that time to major music schools today?
MRS. VAMOS: Well there weren’t that many major music schools. I was from New York and of course I didn’t realize that there was any other place than New York. I didn’t hear of New Zealand then, where you’re from.
ROBBIE: Well, quite a lot of New Yorkers could say that about Chicago, even.
MRS. VAMOS: Yes. I thought Chicago was a little town; I had no clue. Anyhow, Juilliard was the school and Curtis was also an important school at the time. There was Indiana and that grew, but at that time it wasn’t. Fortunately I lived in New York, I was with Persinger, I continued… I think a school is the teacher. I think a school is a school. Many people don’t realize that, but you have to find the teacher that suits you, [your] personality and what you want to get, and the person that really takes interest in you. I had that teacher there, and Roland had that teacher there.
ROBBIE: So you grew up in the New York City suburbs, in New Jersey, and Mr. Vamos, you were in New York City. Do you think that you would have become musicians and become music teachers if you hadn’t grown up in that area?
MR. VAMOS: You know, I sort of believe in faith. You are going to be something. You don’t know it, but there’s a certain path that’s gonna take you and of course, you know, you can walk down the street and if you go to the right or to the left…
MRS. VAMOS: That’s how we got married. We were standing in Juilliard and somebody said, “Come to eat!” We were a bunch of kids and we got our fortune cookies. Then they said, “Read yours out loud,” and it said, “Your fate is waiting outside the door.” We never would have found each other if I hadn’t had that fortune cookie. And then he met me outside the door and we walked back to Juilliard. We became friends.
ROBBIE: But Mr. Vamos, did you position yourself outside the door?
MR. VAMOS: I sure did!
MRS. VAMOS: I think he was just in front of me.
MUSIC: Karisa Chiu and Inah Chiu play Jean Sibelius’ Valse, Op. 81, No. 3.
ROBBIE: That was Karisa Chiu on violin and Inah Chiu on piano, with the Waltz by Jean Sibelius, Op. 81, No. 3. Not a performance from Introductions, but Karisa was of Introductions-eligible age at the time: she was 17 when she performed that Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert five years ago. Throughout this Introductions episode, I’ll be playing WFMT archival recordings by students, past and present, of Almita and Roland Vamos.
I asked Mrs. Vamos when a young violinist or violist comes knocking, how does she determine they’re a good fit for her and vice versa?
MRS. VAMOS: When they play for me first of all, if they’re not set up as I’d like them to be, I have… Mr. Vamos used to… we used to team-teach a lot. He does less with me now; we do some together. But I have a wonderful assistant, Davis King, who’s marvelous. He studied with us at Northwestern and he knows musically, he knows technically, he’s been through all of Mr. Vamos’ étude books and scale books. So if [I] feel that they’re not ready but I see that they’re gifted and they’re interested – and most of the time they come to me, they’re interested and Chicago is a great place to be; this is very live musically – when he [Davis King] thinks they’re ready, they switch to me. You know, it’s great teaching young ones because they have parents behind them, mothers who sit at the lessons and arrange their schedules. It’s so much easier for them than it is when they get to college.
ROBBIE: Without naming names, have you ever turned down a student because the parents were too much? (pause) I can imagine it’s possible.
MRS. VAMOS: I don’t have parents now that are too much. But when I was younger… I know one of my students Sibbi Bernhardsson said, because he was young and he didn’t have gray hair… He said, “When my hair turned white, I had much more respect from the parents.” But there was a period where I had some extremely difficult parents. And I would not tolerate that now, but it doesn’t happen anymore. They see how old I am; they’re not going to be that disrespectful.
ROBBIE: Well, you are in a position where you can pick and choose your work a lot more easily.
MRS. VAMOS: Fortunately I’ve had wonderful parents and I love having them because they’re very helpful to me. You know, [Ivan] Galamian said that he wished all his students were orphans because the parents could be so difficult! But in my experience I don’t feel that way.
MUSIC: Maya Anjali Buchanan plays the Adagio from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata in C, BWV 1005.
ROBBIE: The opening movement of Bach’s solo violin sonata in C major, live on Introductions on WFMT in 2018. Maya Anjali Buchanan, who was 18 at the time, commuted from South Dakota to Chicago for lessons with Almita Vamos.
Vamos [pronounced VAY-mose] is spelled V-A-M-O-S, the same as the Spanish for “let’s go”. And that’s something I always wanted to clear up. So to set the record straight about that name, here’s Roland V.
MR. VAMOS: My background is Hungarian, and “Vámos” [VAH-mosh] is the way you would pronounce it. The ‘á’ has an accent on it to give it an “ah” sound, and ‘s’ is pronounced “sh”. So by rights it’s “Roland Vámos” [ROL-ond VAH-mosh]. But Americanized, “Roland Vamos” [VAY-mose].
MRS. VAMOS: When people say, “Is it [VAH-mos] or [VAY-mos], I say “Yes.” I do use [VAH-mos] when somebody’s haughty with me and I’m annoyed. (pertly) “It’s [VAH-mos].”
ROBBIE: Or if you’re encouraging people to get a move on, it’s like, “¡Vamos! ¡Ándale!”
ROBBIE: There’s a lovely recording [of Max Bruch’s Double Concerto] that you sent me of the two of you: Mr. & Mrs. Vamos on violin and viola [correction: viola and violin] with Eugenia…
MRS. VAMOS: Monacelli [MO-na-CHEL-ee].
ROBBIE: Monacelli, thank you.
MRS. VAMOS: We used to be the Hyman Sisters. We performed together; I performed with my sister. She was 2½ years older than me and we performed since we were young. We played in Carnegie Recital Hall together; we toured together. She was an absolutely phenomenal pianist, so phenomenal as a young child that my parents gave me the violin because they knew I would not ever be able to keep up with her. I had a brother who died before I was born. He was a pianist, supposedly very talented. I had an older sister who was married when I was born, fantastic pianist, she studied at Juilliard with James Friskin.
And Jeannie, my sister, whom we just lost in Covid time – the summer that took her, we were planning the whole summer to rehearse together and do all the Beethoven again, all the Beethoven sonatas that we had done before, and we were really looking forward to it. So this Bruch concerto, it’s really not a piano accompaniment as you can see, it’s really a trio almost for violin, viola and piano. And it’s very close to my heart because we just played that a few years ago with her.
ROBBIE: And this recording, you said it was from your time at Oberlin [College] when you were teaching there?
MRS. VAMOS: Or we went back and did a recital. I think it was when we were teaching there.
ROBBIE: It is wonderful, big sweeping playing on that recording. I do like it.
MRS. VAMOS: You know I told you, I don’t really like to listen to my recordings. I listened to several of them and I came upon this one. I was actually moved by it. So I said, okay, this is Roland and I, this is how we feel music together. And my sister.
MUSIC: Almita Vamos, Roland Vamos and Eugenia Monacelli play the middle movement of Max Bruch’s Double Concerto, Op. 88.
ROBBIE: A family making music with Max Bruch’s Double Concerto. An old trio recording made at Oberlin College with Eugenia Monacelli on piano; Eugenia’s sister Almita Vamos on violin, and Almita’s husband Roland Vamos on viola. Not sure of the date on that, but thank you to Almita Vamos for supplying the recording.
Today is a special episode of Introductions for WFMT’s 70th Anniversary. Normally, this show features young musicians, but today I’m interviewing Roland and Almita Vamos, teachers of violin and viola and mentors to so many of Chicago’s finest young performers who have appeared on this program.
And if you want to join the ranks of said young musicians, Introductions accepts auditions at any time. Go to wfmt.com/introductions for more, and if you’re a high school senior, your deadline is February 1.
I’m Robbie Ellis and you’re listening to Classical WFMT.
KERRY FRUMKIN: Music of Mendelssohn, played by the Pacifica Quartet, live from WFMT’s Studio One. The members of the Pacifica Quartet are violinists Simin Ganatra and Kyu-Young Kim, violist Kathryn Lockwood, and cellist Brandon Vamos.
MUSIC: The Pacifica Quartet playing the Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2. Music fades under talking.
ROBBIE: From a WFMT broadcast in 1998: Kerry Frumkin introducing, among others, the son and daughter-in-law of my interview guests today. I’m Robbie Ellis and you’re listening to Introductions, a show that features the Chicago area’s finest young musicians, quite a lot of whom are trained by Almita and Roland Vamos. As WFMT approaches its 70th anniversary on December 13, Mr. and Mrs. Vamos invited me to their downtown apartment for an interview over tea and chocolates. And here’s my attempt, so to say, to spill some tea.
ROBBIE: (in the room) Is it true that two of your kids married two of your students?
MRS. VAMOS: Yes, it’s very true!
ROBBIE: You weren’t trying to play matchmaker or anything like that?
MRS. VAMOS: No, not at all. In fact, my youngest son is married to a girl and his wife just sent me a program [from] when she was eight years old. I was in Texas and we were doing masterclasses; it was a conference or something and she played in a Suzuki program. She was eight and I wrote on her program something beautiful and Roland said, “You were so cute I could steal you, I’d like to steal you.” Little did we know she would marry my [then] four-year-old son, but they’re together now. She lived with us.
And Simin [Ganatra] – Brandon, my son who’s in the Pacifica [Quartet], his wife – she lived with us when Brandon was in college. So I didn’t have to do any matchmaking.
ROBBIE: You two have been recognized seven times with a Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching. Is that through the National Endowment for the Arts?
MR. & MRS. VAMOS: Yes.
ROBBIE: [You’ve] been to the White House, I’m guessing a number of times. Any stories about one of your White House visits?
MRS. VAMOS: I would say my favorite was Clinton. All the other presidents got up on a balcony and said a few words; I would sit in the garden and I was afraid to move my hand because the Secret Service was staring at us and I was afraid if I lifted my hand, who knows what would happen? But Clinton invited us into the Rose Garden and he got up and spoke to us. After he spoke, he didn’t run away like all the other presidents, he walked out into the yard and went over to the teachers and shook their hands. I was too shy to go over to him. I didn’t know what I would say at the time; I can think of things now. He was fantastic.
ROBBIE: Is it true – I don’t know about you, Mr. Vamos, but Mrs. Vamos – that you work and you teach seven days a week?
MRS. VAMOS: True. Very true. Not only seven days a week, pretty close to eight hours sometimes a day.
ROBBIE: So okay. I like my job. I don’t like my job seven days a week. What keeps you going to do that much, to take up so much of your time with teaching?
MRS. VAMOS: The reason I’m answering is Roland is doing a little less than I am doing now. But he’s eight years older than me, so he deserves to have a little time to read and watch TV; I let him do that. But we do teach together a lot and many times I ask him to come in.
Some of the reason I’m teaching so much is because… I teach at Roosevelt [University] and I love teaching there. You don’t know how many students are gonna come, so it’s a numbers game. You think “oh maybe two will come,” but this year twelve came. Sometimes I wish I had a little free time to get the doctor’s appointments in, the surgeries in, everything as you get older. You know things happen.
ROBBIE: Thank you for making the time for me today.
MRS. VAMOS: Oh my pleasure, because we had chocolate and tea too.
MR. VAMOS: Hear hear!
MRS. VAMOS: When you get older and you lose friends, you lose relatives, it’s good to be busy. And so I appreciate the fact that I’m surrounded by wonderful students. They’re all… I mean, I love them all; personally I love them all. It doesn’t matter if they’re great or if they’re not so great. I just take a lot of interest in them and it keeps my mind off listening to the news, for instance. This is a good thing. And so I think I’m pretty happy that I’m busy. I would love to have an afternoon off, but maybe next year.
ROBBIE: Mr Vamos, you’ve also been a conductor here and there. We’ve got recordings of you conducting the Music Institute of Chicago Academy Orchestra that’s been on Introductions once or twice. There’s a lovely thing that you you said in that interview in 2009:
(applause fades out)
DAVID POLK: What are you putting in the water when you give lessons?
MR. VAMOS: (in 2009) Well, the trick is to find marvelously talented students and try not to ruin them.
MR. VAMOS: (present day) Oh, yeah, it’s not what you do to them. It’s how you can let them do themselves and then you take the credit!
ROBBIE: How do you approach conducting a teenage ensemble versus conducting adults?
MR. VAMOS: Well, you know, our students are very talented and I don’t play down to them. I just treat them like grown-up adults: I make demands on them that I would make on a professional orchestra and expect them to make it work out.
MRS. VAMOS: Roland is very explicit with his hands. So when I watch him and he gets a sound out of the orchestra, he’s not a huge talker. When he’s working with the kids, he does it more, getting them to respond. And these are talented kids, they don’t always need to be told exactly where in the bow [to play]. Sometimes he has to, but I’ve watched him conduct and I’ve learned an awful lot, actually, from him. He sings a lot too. I sing a lot at the lessons and it’s just a very natural thing.
MUSIC: The Music Institute of Chicago Academy Orchestra playing the first movement of Peter Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for strings, conducted by Roland Vamos (excerpt).
ROBBIE: The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings: the Music Institute of Chicago Academy Orchestra conducted by Roland Vamos, live on WFMT’s Introductions in 2009. Back to my interview with Roland and Almita Vamos.
ROBBIE: (in the room) When you’re teaching teenagers, do you have a feeling whether they’re destined for an orchestra job, a chamber career, a solo career, something different entirely? Can you kind of have that feeling that early?
MRS. VAMOS: Well, solo careers are hard to come by and most people who are soloists do other things too. However, it’s the same training to be a soloist as it is to play in an orchestra or to play in a chamber group. It’s musicianship, it’s technique, it’s sound, it’s intonation, it’s all the same. Last night I had a studio class and I told the students that it’s a very serious business – I was trying to get them to practice more if they could – and that you need to want it so badly. It has to be something that you have such a desire that you’ll do anything.
I’ll tell you a quote from Rachel Barton when she was a little girl. Her Mom picked us up and I said to Rachel, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said, “I’d like to be a soloist, I’d like to play in an orchestra, I want to play in a quartet, I want to compose, I want to conduct, and I want to be a teacher just like you.” And I said, “You know what, Rachel? I’m not worried about you.” She is going to and she has done all of those things.
What I worry about: if somebody would say to me, “All I want to do is be a soloist.” That’s dangerous. You have to love it so much, you just want to be a musician.
ROBBIE: Rachel Barton as she was then, Rachel Barton Pine as she is now: one of your more prominent students. What’s it like following your past students’ careers?
MRS. VAMOS: I have a very close relationship with most of my students. I just talked to a boy whose mother sent me some gifts; he studied with me at Northwestern years ago. Many of them keep up. The one thing that Roland and I do not do: we don’t run after the students. If they want to keep the relationship, I always tell them “Door’s open.” You want to play for us? We will never charge you. You’re always welcome to come and play for us again. It’s really nice to have that relationship.
Rachel and I, I’m going to see her tonight. She’s going to listen to some of my students. And I’m going to take notes. They’re gonna do some Bach and she has done a lot of, I’ve learned a lot from her about… now I’m using a Baroque bow and whenever I don’t know something I call her up. “Is it okay to do this? Is it okay to do [that]?” Because she’s spent more time doing Baroque music than I have, and I love it and I like to get her.
She did a masterclass; she heard three of my students. She always calls me right after and tells me how they did, and what she felt they needed. I have students who come back and they do play for me and then I ask them, “What did your teacher tell you?” Then I can steal all kinds of ideas!
MUSIC: Rachel Barton Pine and Paul Cienniwa playing the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata in A, BWV 1015.
ROBBIE: Rachel Barton Pine playing Baroque violin, live from WFMT in 2010 with harpsichordist Paul Cienniwa, playing the Sonata in A major, BWV 1015, by Bach.
Rachel Barton, as she used to be called, studied with Almita and Roland Vamos, who’ve been teaching young musicians for decades. I asked the Vamoses: what non-musical lessons do they try to instill in their students?
MRS. VAMOS: Good character. I think it’s really important. Roland used to tell the students, “Be careful how you behave. That person next to you could be your stand partner for life later on.”
Don’t we always tell them: Don’t talk down anybody at school. Don’t say anything. Don’t bad-mouth anything. It could be your roommate, who you love and you think they’ll be quiet and you never know. Always character, I think is extremely important.
I always question my motives when I do something, I think about it. Roland is extremely kind to his students. They like to study with him more than me because he doesn’t even show on his face. He doesn’t grimace; he doesn’t act sarcastic. He’s really sweet at his lessons and they really appreciate that. Hopefully they take a little of that away from their lessons.
I don’t tolerate meanness. I don’t tolerate rudeness and I don’t tolerate ugly competitiveness. There’s good competitiveness and ugly competitiveness.
ROBBIE: What’s the difference now for the teens of today heading out into the world, versus three or four decades ago? Has the industry changed in a lot of ways and is how you prepare the students changed?
MRS. VAMOS: Roland, you went to Denver took an audition, you got the job. Then he left when he didn’t get the salary raise. And then what did you say?
MR. VAMOS: Well, I went to Houston and auditioned, and I got that job. And that gave me more than my raise than I was asking for in Denver.
MRS. VAMOS: And today some of our best students do 40 auditions before they can get a job. So the competition is huge now. It’s tougher, and there are so many good players. There was, I don’t know if you were the [host] on WFMT, they were interviewing Jaime Laredo…
ROBBIE: (in the studio) Edit: nope wasn’t me. It was Bill McGlaughlin who interviewed Jaime Laredo for Exploring Music a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what Mrs. Vamos was remembering.
JAIME LAREDO: I have a little standing joke with my students. I will tell them I don’t want you to listen to violinists of today. I only want you to listen to dead violinists, because everyone had their own distinct sound, their own distinct personality. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen today. And yet the playing today is more brilliant and on a higher level than it’s ever been.
BILL McGLAUGHLIN: Technically.
JAIME LAREDO: Technically, yes.
MRS. VAMOS: In those days, the playing was very different, very unique. But there weren’t these hundreds of thousands of talented people who played their instrument very well. So they could afford to have, maybe different personalities. Now it’s more difficult to distinguish.
ROBBIE: Earlier this year, I was doing a pre-concert talk at St. James Cathedral and one of the violinists on the concert was Allison Lovera, who was a student of yours at Roosevelt [University]. She was never on Introductions and there’s a very good reason for that, because she grew up in Venezuela and made her way to the United States. I think she said something along the lines of: she was in touch with you and you’d assured her…
MRS. VAMOS: From her.
ROBBIE: What’s that?
MRS. VAMOS: These earrings.
ROBBIE: Oh, the earrings that you have on are from Allison! That’s lovely.
MRS. VAMOS: I wear them every day.
ROBBIE: [She’d said] that you two were in touch and you told her: “Just get yourself to Chicago. I’ll take care of the rest.” What was that deal there?
MRS. VAMOS: I went to the Dean. I said this is a very talented girl; we want her. And they’re very receptive. I said we need to help this person. It’s a wonderful school. They try their best and they’re very open.
I have seven Venezuelan students. I went to Venezuela many years ago and I gave masterclasses. They have a wonderful teacher there who had been a Galamian student, and he sent a lot of students to me. And every time I went to Roosevelt, the school has helped. I have seven here at the school. I help a little bit when they need something because it’s difficult. They have a really difficult time.
ROBBIE: For context, I think Allison said she made her way overland from Venezuela through Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico…
MRS. VAMOS: Hard to get out, hard to get in…
ROBBIE: Hard to get into the United States at the best of times…
MRS. VAMOS: These students are so amazing. They come from a very difficult background. I have a student, he’s a fabulous musician. He tells me he gets up at 6 o’clock and he does grocery deliveries. He goes to school, he plays the violin and the piano practically equally as well. He accompanies all my students, gets up and plays in a quartet, plays solo, enters competitions, then he goes to school, he does his schoolwork. But on top of that: never complains. None of them do. None of them say “I have to work, this is terrible.” They just do it.
MUSIC: The Calidore String Quartet playing the third movement of Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3 (excerpt).
ROBBIE: From Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A major, the Calidore String Quartet performing on Impromptu in 2016. One of the violinists is Ryan Meehan, who performed on WFMT in the very first year of Introductions, 2008. His family moved from Florida to Illinois so he could study with Almita Vamos, my interview guest today.
ROBBIE: (in the room) You’ve alluded to this earlier, but: Mrs. Vamos, you’re teaching seven days a week; Mr. Vamos a little bit less. You said a couple of years ago in an interview with Madeline Frank: “Teaching is an ever-learning process. You cannot perfect it, you can only keep improving. [That’s] what makes it continuously interesting. When I lose the desire to get better, I will quit. (May that never happen.)” And you’re still learning, is that right?
MRS. VAMOS: Totally. And I’m practicing. I have the violin out all the time and if I have five minutes I run to the instrument and I practice. I have programs that I’m doing, playing more now. We will not teach if we don’t feel that we’re growing as teachers. Also as psychologists a little bit, because students have very hard lives these days and they’re packed up with so many things to do.
And we make mistakes; we have to learn from our mistakes. It is much more challenging when you’re working with young people. I think for the most part, we’re doing okay, but I’m always thinking about it.
Sometimes I ask the students to give me some feedback. Yesterday I said, “Are you not practicing because I’m not inspiring you? Do I need to give you more literature? Am I too picayune about little things?” I got an answer.
ROBBIE: What was the answer?
MRS. VAMOS: I think they would have liked me to give more repertoire, because when I’m picky, I’m there, but when they’re alone, they don’t always know how to be that picky. So they run out of ideas. They’re not ready yet. They’re not at my level where I am teaching myself constantly. I can spend thousands of hours on the first three lines of a piece, thousands of hours over and over. But they don’t know quite what to do. So that was informative. And I also found out by asking them, I didn’t know that they weren’t getting enough practice in.
ROBBIE: Almita and Roland Vamos. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for appearing on Introductions. Thank you for sending so many students to Introductions over the years. I’ll speak on behalf of my former colleagues, Michael San Gabino and David Polk, and say that as well.
MRS. VAMOS: Thank you very much for coming.
MR. VAMOS: It’s our pleasure.
ROBBIE: And thank you for inviting me over for tea and chocolates.
MRS. VAMOS: You’re very welcome.
MR. VAMOS: Hear, hear.
MUSIC: Isabella Brown and Milana Pavchinskaya playing Amy Beach’s Romance, Op. 23.
ROBBIE: Violinist Isabella Brown, with pianist Milana Pavchinskaya, from her Introductions recital in July of 2021. After eight years of study with Almita Vamos, she’s now a freshman at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.
This interview with Almita and Roland Vamos was the 70th Anniversary special edition of Introductions, WFMT’s show that features the Chicago area’s finest pre-college classical musicians. In today’s program, you heard WFMT archival content from Introductions, the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, Live from WFMT, Impromptu and Exploring Music; with presenters David Polk, Michael San Gabino, Lisa Brownstone, Kerry Frumkin, and Bill McGlaughlin.
This program is available to listen to again as a podcast, and we’ve got a transcript on the web too. Go to wfmt.com/introductions. And make sure to tune in this coming Monday December 13 for our Day of Celebration. We’ll have live performances all day long and among the scheduled performers are four of the Vamoses’ current students. Details at wfmt.com.
Thanks to Weston Williams for production and research assistance on today’s episode. My name’s Robbie Ellis, producer and presenter of Introductions. Catch you next time, where we profile more young local musicians, Saturday mornings at 11 on Classical WFMT.