Violinist and former Lacombe resident Preston Hawes (right) had been planning to visit his brother in Lacombe when he thought

Violinist and former Lacombe resident Preston Hawes (right) had been planning to visit his brother in Lacombe when he thought

Rittenhouse tribute concert set for Lacombe

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse started life in Lacombe and went on to spectacular acclaim in international musical circles. Not only was she the first person to earn a doctorate in music from the prestigious American Peabody Institute of Music in both violin and piano performance, but she also founded the globally-known New England Youth Ensemble and performed around the world as an award-winning composer and soloist.

Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse started life in Lacombe and went on to spectacular acclaim in international musical circles.

Not only was she the first person to earn a doctorate in music from the prestigious American Peabody Institute of Music in both violin and piano performance, but she also founded the globally-known New England Youth Ensemble and performed around the world as an award-winning composer and soloist.

The resident of Massachusetts, who died at age 88 last August, never returned to Lacombe to play after leaving the community at age three with her parents. (The Seventh-day Adventist missionaries lived in South Africa and Jamaica before settling in the U.S.)

But Rittenhouse’s protégé, the violinist and former Lacombe resident Preston Hawes, wants to ensure his mentor’s music makes it back to Central Alberta, where the late composer still has relatives.

He’s planning a tribute concert for Rittenhouse (whose maiden name was Shankel) at the Canadian University College in Lacombe. He will perform on Sunday in the administrative building’s auditorium.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner,” said Hawes, who’s based in Maryland and teaches at Washington Adventist University.

The Regina native had been planning to visit his brother in Lacombe when he thought, why not give Central Albertans a chance to hear Rittenhouse’s compositions while he’s here?

“She was an extraordinary talent — the kind of musician you see once in a lifetime,” said Hawes, who got his musical education at Yale University and the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University. He is now the artistic director and concertmaster of the New England Symphonic Ensemble as well as the New England Youth Ensemble director.

Rittenhouse composed some serious pieces, including her epic oratorio based on Biblical passages about the apocalypse, as well as suites inspired by Jamaica and Africa.

But Hawes noted his mentor was known to friends for her musical sense of humour. She would entertain them by creating impromptu variations on ditties, such as the Happy Birthday theme to make it sound like Brahms or Mozart.

She told Hawes she was once a little bit peeved about having to perform an atonal work towards getting her doctor of Musical Arts degree from the prestigious Peabody Institute of Music. “She hated atonal music, yet she was tasked with writing an atonal variation in a week,” said Hawes.

Despite her lack of affinity, Rittenhouse sat down at the piano in front of a judging panel of instructors and spontaneously began smashing out an improvised variation on the keyboards. “She decided to make fun of atonal music. At some points, she was using her fists and elbows to create some variations . . . pounding on the piano. . . .

“When she was done, her composition teacher said, ‘That is by far one of the finest atonal compositions that has ever come out of this institute,’ ” recounted Hawes, with a chuckle.

He remembers Rittenhouse as a spirited conversationalist, whose eyes would light up to show her interest in various topics. “She was absolutely the most vivacious, brilliant person you’d ever come across,” said Hawes.

Rittenhouse, who was married to a surgeon, was considered a musical innovator and pioneer of Seventh-day Adventist education. She won countless awards — including the London Associated Board Overseas Scholarship, the New York Concert Artists Guild Award, the International Music Guild Award and the New York Madrigal Society Town Hall Award.

Hawes plans to play, with Lacombe pianist Wendy Markosky, several movements from Rittenhouse’s Jamaican Suite and African Suite, her 45-second Cherry Tree vignette, and other works. Hawes will use Rittenhouse’s 1840s violin, made by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who’s considered the French Stradivarius.

Admission to the 4 p.m. concert is by donation. Proceeds will support New England Youth Ensemble projects in South Africa.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com