By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Maria Sampen and violin did not get off to the best start. As a 4-year-old Suzuki student, she stepped on her violin. It was an accident. She says.
Her parents decided maybe she should take piano lessons. She did eventually find her way back to her original instrument.
Now Sampen teaches violin at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma Washington, and she performs around the world as a soloist with orchestras and smaller ensembles.
Until January she hadn’t presented a solo recital in the area since she graduated from Bowling Green High School in 1993. She and pianist Thomas Rosenkranz played the first of two concerts titled “Brahms in Context” at the Toledo Museum of Art. The second concert will be presented Sunday at 3 p.m. in the museum’s Great Gallery.
The concept for the concerts is to play all Johannes Brahms’ pieces for violin and piano and pair them with contemporary pieces, and in one case a piece by Clara Schumann, a friend and possible unrequited love interest of Brahms.
The idea for the recital first germinated first in China. In 2015, Sampen had traveled to teach and perform at Szechuan Conservatory in China with her parents John Sampen and Marilyn Shrude, both members of the faculty of Bowling Green State University College of Musical Arts.
Sampen needed a pianist and her parents suggested their BGSU colleague Rosenkranz, who was in Chengdu on sabbatical. The concert went well. So well in fact that several months later Rosenkranz contacted Sampen with the idea of performing the Brahms pieces in a recital with contemporary works.
Performing with Sampen, had led him to reconsider the music of Brahms, which he had previously “never warmed up to,” he said.
At the January concert he explained he discovered innovations and rhythm subtleties “under the surface” of the music.
Rosenkranz suggested the museum’s Great Performances series as a good venue for the performance.
That performance included William Bolcom’s jazzy Violin Sonata No, 2. Sampen knows Bolcom’s work well from her time as an undergraduate and doctoral student at the University of Michigan where he teaches. Sampen has frequently performed his violin concerto.
On this Sunday’s recital the duo will play Brahms third sonata and his scherzo as well as Alfred Schnittke’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano, one of the most popular post-World War II violin sonatas.
Sampen has fond memories of family visits to the museum with her parents and younger brother, David, who now lives in Los Angeles, where he performs in a rock band and acts.
She also took art classes at the museum. That was just one of the ways she benefited from the area’s rich cultural offerings.
The other was the musical instruction offered at BGSU. After the mishap with the violin, she went into a piano class with Joanne Smith, who ended up giving her the piano proficiency test when she entered the University of Michigan years later. Her first private instructor on piano was Ann Pope. Sampen said Pope was a wonderful teacher, who gave her a grounding in music theory.
Sampen said she still loves playing piano, though, she came to focus on violin.
She returned to the instrument in fourth grade when the first string program in Bowling Green schools started. “I liked playing in orchestra, and I liked playing with people.” Piano is a more solitary endeavor.
However as a middle school student, she decided she wanted to quit violin. She recalls, while sitting in the same room in her family home, the weeping and pleading as she tried to convince her parents that she wanted to give up violin. This time they did not relent, and no instruments were destroyed.
Sampen hears all the time from people who say they wish their parents had forced them to continue playing.
When her parents took summer positions at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and brought her, then a high school freshman, along.
“That was the moment my priorities shifted,” she said, and she began to focus on violin. She continued to study at Interlochen in the summers throughout high school. “It was so exciting to be with students who had the same interests and having these friendships with people from all over the world.” She was even contacted before the January museum recital by a former cabin mate who intended to come to the concert.
Sampen started studying with Paul Makara in Bowling Green. “I know looking back at it how good he was for me.”
She continued her studies first at the University of Michigan, then Rice, ending back in Ann Arbor where she earned her doctorate.
Over the years she has returned to her hometown to perform pieces at the New Music Festival, which her parents are deeply involved in. On Thursday, March 15, will give a master class at 2:30 p.m. at BGSU in Bryan Recital Hall.
Bowling Green is her home, she said. She feels a close connection to those Midwesterners she meets on the coast. “These are my people,” she said. “I miss the wide open spaces and the warmth of the people. I am a Midwestern girl at heart.”