by LAURA HAYES
At first glance, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (SMU) student Julia Kirk may seem like your average college freshman — baking in her free time, studying for tests, and participating in college music ensembles. However, between rushing to classes and writing papers, Kirk, a violin performance major, is also prepping to audition for the Aspen Music Festival’s orchestra program — one of the most prestigious music programs in the country.
That’s not the extent of her accomplishments. Kirk’s participated in the inaugural tour of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, performed with professional orchestras while she was in high school, and studied in France with world-renown musicians.
“If you want to embark on a musical career, you have to be determined and persevere. It will throw you a lot of curveballs. Being a musician is a huge challenge, but if you love it you can do it,” Kirk said.
After studying abroad for a year in France, Kirk decided to return to SMU. When she arrived in Winona, Kirk reached out to Winona Symphony Orchestra (WSO) Director Donald Lovejoy, asking if she could audition. “She came and auditioned and played incredibly well,” Lovejoy said. “By the time she left, she agreed to be the concertmaster.”
In orchestras, a concertmaster is the most important person in the ensemble next to conductor, leading the string players. “What we have is an experienced concertmaster that’s really young an incredible musician,” Lovejoy said. “I think she’s the shot in the arm that we needed.
While it’s not uncommon for college-aged musicians to perform with the WSO — Kirk is currently one of two — Lovejoy said that this was the first time that a college student has sat at his side as concertmaster. Lovejoy praised Kirk’s technical and interpretive skills. “She’s a stunning musician,” he said.
She loves bringing other people joy through music. “It’s not about me personally when I perform. It should be about the music and how the audience reacts to it,” she said. “I like being part of making sure that classical music lasts and help spread the appreciation of classical music.”
Kirk has lived across the world — Jackson, Miss., Winona, and France. She comes from a line of pianists and violinists. While she plays violin with the WSO, Kirk’s first instrument was piano. Her grandmother began teaching her piano when she was three years old, and she began violin lessons a couple years later.
She said that she always knew that she wanted to be a musician when she grew up. “Because I grew up in a musical household I never really thought to do anything else,” Kirk said.
Kirk practices two to three hours a day. “It should be more, but I have challenging academics and that takes a lot of my time,” she admitted.
In addition to the WSO, Kirk performs with SMU’s orchestra. Kirk’s participated in many orchestras — the National Youth Orchestra, Mississippi Youth Symphony Orchestra, Mississippi All-state Orchestra, Belhaven University Chamber Orchestra, Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra in Jackson, and the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra.
When she was 16, she began subbing for the professional Mississippi Symphony Orchestra only to become a full-time member two years later. “I won the audition, but I actually left to go to France,” she laughed.
While she may have felt uncomfortable at first being a teenager playing with adult musicians, Kirk got used to it pretty quickly. “I really loved it. From the very first rehearsal, I loved how easy it was to play with them,” she said. “Everyone was really sweet and welcoming.”
Kirk met Ukrainian violinist Alexandre Brussilovsky when he came to Mississippi to teach a violin masterclass and lessons. Kirk had the opportunity to take a lesson from Brussilovsky, who later invited her to attend the Conservatory De Versailles outside of Paris where he taught. “I decided then and there to go to the school,” she said.
It was a whirlwind for Kirk. “It was hard to leave my family. I got pretty homesick, but it was an amazing experience,” she said. “I definitely improved my French.”
There, she was immersed in music, taking ear-training courses and participating in chamber ensembles and performing with the orchestra and choir. After a year, Kirk decided to return to the U.S. to attend SMU. “I was already familiar with the school and I loved the campus,” she said.
A violin performance major at SMU, Kirk dreams of forming a professional string quartet. “That’s my passion,” she said. Currently, Kirk is working on developing her solo repertoire. “But I’m always on the lookout for string quartet [musicians],” she added.
On Saturday, March 25, Kirk and the WSO will perform three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.” Lovejoy said that Kirk will be featured as a soloist on one of the concertos. The concert will take place at the Harriet Johnson Auditorium in Somsen Hall at Winona State University at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $6 for students and can be purchased at winonasymphony.org.