Meet the Musician: Violist Philippe Chao

"The main differences between performing fiddle and classical music include cultivating a sense of easy musical freedom, internalizing the musical ‘vocabulary’ of articulations and bowing choices, and finding the groove in the music’s internal rhythm. The perception of control and idea of ‘presentation’ are worlds                                                            apart between the two styles."

Where are you from originally? 

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. 

Where did you go to school? 

One year at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and then I followed the renowned pedagogues Roland and Almita Vamos to the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis to finish my undergraduate degree. I earned my Master’s degree at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

How long have you been in the orchestra? 

I joined the orchestra in the fall of 1998. 

With former KCOHO Music Director, Placido Domingo, 2000

What ensemble did you play with before joining the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra?

Previously, I was the Assistant Principal Violist of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. 

You play both viola and violin in Bright Star, the musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. What are the differences between the two instruments? When did you learn to play violin? 

I began my musical studies on the violin at the age of seven and began to study the viola at fourteen. In my experience, the biggest differences between the instruments (aside from the learning to accommodate the differences in size) lie in the response-time of the instruments and the amount of effort it takes to activate the sound. One example of this showed up at one of the early rehearsals for Bright Star when I was asked to try out one of the fleet fiddle passages on the viola (to manage the logistics of a quick change of instruments at one point) only to discover that idiomatically, the sound, character, and response just didn’t sound right on the viola.

The music in Bright Star requires you to play violin in a bluegrass fiddle style. Was it easy to pick up on the style? As a classical musician, how did you prepare to play fiddle music? What are the main differences you’ve noticed between performing classical and bluegrass? 

When I was first engaged for the show, it was made known to me that this was a fiddle part, but in the final product, the fiddle segment appears in the big dance sequence of the work which is more of a swing dance number with touches of the fiddle style. As a classical musician, we are expected to be flexible and versatile when it comes to different styles of music. While this is not my first encounter with this style of music, I did take it upon myself to take lessons from a bluegrass fiddler in preparation for this role. I wanted to make sure that I could sound as authentic as I could, that I could perform the role as truthfully as possible. In Bright Star, I have the pleasure of working with a first rate band that not only includes a fabulous fiddler (I have the second fiddle part), but also the other essential components of the a bluegrass band...I take inspiration from and learn from all of them. The main differences between performing fiddle and classical music include cultivating a sense of easy musical freedom, internalizing the musical ‘vocabulary’ of articulations and bowing choices, and finding the groove in the music’s internal rhythm. The perception of control and idea of ‘presentation’ are worlds apart between the two styles.

You make an onstage appearance in the show! Is this your first time performing in-costume on stage? 

For this show, all of the ten musicians are costumed and visible to the audience. My group (with the cello and mandolin/guitar/lap steel players) is stationed on stage right, on a raised balcony. One of the original ideas of the staging included an onstage appearance, with my fiddle, but this was eventually abandoned due to the logistics (musical and physical) of switching out from the viola in the previous number to the violin and getting onstage with a portable microphone/monitor system in time for the scene. And yes, this is only time I’ve ever been costumed for a show! One of the great things about this show is the fact that we are all onstage, actors and musicians alike. Aside from being more involved in the action (and the perk of seeing the show!), there is a stronger sense of community amongst the entire production, from the actors to the musicians, the stagehands, producers, electricians, sound engineers, costumers, and on and on because we are all sharing the same space. The separation that is usually built into the physical detachment of the being in a pit simply does not exist in this production; this is a real gift and joy. 

What is it like working with Steve Martin and Edi Brickell? 

Both Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (and Paul Simon a couple of times as well!) were in the house and backstage for nearly every preview show (I think there were 15 or 16 previews) and the official opening night, hanging out in the lounge with the rest of us, sharing observations, tweaking various aspects of the show. Both were relaxed, gracious, and easy to talk to. I found it to be a great privilege and honor to work with these two wonderful and creative people.

What is one of your favorite memories at KCOHO? 

Being in my 18th year(!), it’s hard to choose just one! In terms of productions and projects over the years, the ones that stand out include hearing Placido Domingo sing in one of my very first operas here (or any opera, really), Giordano’s Fedora, our production of Wagner’s Parsifal with Heinze Fricke, and our performance of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven for Led Zeppelin with Ann and Nancy Wilson during the Kennedy Center Honors a few years ago. And I suspect that this production of Bright Star will remain with me for all of the camaraderie, excellence, and excitement. Time will tell! Overall, the community and family that is this orchestra will have a lasting impact on my time here. 

Members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra performing for Led Zeppelin at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors

What do you do for fun when you’re not performing? 

Aside from the never-ending task of preparing for the next performance, I enjoy hanging out with my wife and two children. We enjoy our annual road-trips out West and have recently discovered the joys of family bike rides and ropes-course adventures! Cooking and discovering obscure composers also rank high on my list.

Philippe with his wife Eva at the 'Bright Star' opening night celebration