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Violin virtuoso brings world-famous instrument to San Luis Obispo

Violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn and her famous instrument, the Red Violin, join the San Luis Obispo Symphony for its season opener.
Violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn and her famous instrument, the Red Violin, join the San Luis Obispo Symphony for its season opener.

The San Luis Obispo Symphony begins its 2014-15 season not merely with a single concert on Saturday at the Performing Arts Center, but with a master class Friday and a private solo recital at Edna Valley Vineyard on Sunday.

These three events hinge on the presence of two visiting stars: internationally acclaimed virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn and her violin, with which she always shares top billing. 

Pitcairn, 40, owns and plays what is arguably the single most famous acoustic musical instrument in the world — the Red Violin.

The story of the Red Violin is well known. Full of drama, the movie “The Red Violin” left out one thing: The anonymous little girl with whom the 1720 Mendelssohn Stradivarius finally finds its home after centuries of wandering was, in real life, Elizabeth Pitcairn.

This remarkable musician hails from a remarkable Pennsylvania family.

Pitcairn’s great-grandfather John co-founded Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.; great-uncle Harold developed the helicopter prototype (the “autogiro”) and started what became Eastern Airlines. This fortune enabled the purchase of the instrument, which cost a cool $1.7 million.

Her parents were also distinguished musicians.

Speaking from her Los Angeles home, the busy virtuoso revealed that she works with a professional trainer to maintain the level of physical endurance required by the music she most favors: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous, terrifying “Violin Concerto,” which she’ll play here.

“This concerto may be the most important piece of music in my life. I’ve certainly played it more often than any other,” she said. “It was my audition piece when we went to London to take possession of the Red Violin in 1990, I won competitions playing it, and I recorded it in 1997, when I was 23.” 

“Then, I took 13 years away from it. I wanted to approach it from an adult standpoint,” Pitcairn added. “I came to appreciate the terrible struggles Tchaikovsky went through in composing it, only to have the establishment of the day tell him it was weird and unplayable. And I respect the piece even more now. That Russian dance theme — you know, music doesn’t get much better than that!”

If you go

Elizabeth Pitcairn master class

3:30 p.m. Friday

Community Baptist Church, 51 W. Foothill Blvd., San Luis Obispo

Free

Meet the Red Violin

8 p.m. Saturday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$20 to $80

Red Violin soiree

5:30 p.m. Sunday 

Edna Valley Vineyard, 2585 Biddle Ranch Road, San Luis Obispo

$100

543-3533 or www.slosymphony.org

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