By Judy Bradford
SOUTH BEND — Austin Huntington is a mellow guy, soft-spoken, not a lot of drama.
But he can tell you exactly what playing the cello does for him.
“It’s an outlet for expressing emotions that are really hard to express in real life. It’s kind of like a funnel, combining all the emotions into one note. And if you add up all the notes, that’s your personality.’’
He’s taking that cello-playing personality to Paris this week when he performs at the Rostropovich Cello Competition, an international event bringing 86 cellists from all over the world. Huntington is one of only six Americans invited to compete.
“It’s held only every four years, and it’s named after Mstislav Rostropovich, who died since the last one was held,’’ says Huntington, a sophomore at Saint Joseph’s High School. “So, this will be the first one to be held without him.’’
Huntington, 15, son of a physician and a registered nurse, has been playing the cello since the age of four. He started with private Suzuki lessons and became a member of the South Bend Youth Symphony at age 8. By the age of 10 he was the symphony’s principal cellist.
He continues to take private lessons in Chicago and rehearses every week with the Chicago Youth Symphony.
“I’m kind of a big klutz, so I don’t do sports. The cello fills in that gap,” Huntington says. “But it’s like sports in that you have to work hard at it, and you do get rewards for that hard work.’’
“It feels natural to keep playing,” he continues. “I enjoy it so much that if I stop doing it, I feel depressed. I can’t imagine not playing.’’
Huntington practices about four hours each weekday. On weekends and holidays, he’s at it for four to six hours a day. “I have so much music to learn, and I’m working on many pieces at the same time,’’ he explains.
If the cello is his version of athletics and therapy, it has also helped him appreciate history.
“I like to study the composers, and how they were affected by what was happening when they wrote something. There’s a song by Shostakovich, the ‘Cello Concerto No. 1,’ which was written around the time of World War II. You can hear the sadness and anger in it,” he says.
But his favorite piece to play is Popper’s “Dance of the Elves,” an ultra-light, fast frenzy of deft finger work suggesting the scurrying of other-world creatures. (It might also be considered the aerobics of the cello world.)
“It’s so much fun to play, because of the harmonic progression and the chords exchanged between the cello and the piano,” says Huntington. “It’s not emotional, it’s just fun. But you have to play it right.’’
Among the pieces he’ll be playing in Paris, however, are works by Bach, Brahms and Britten. He’s been practicing for the competition since May.
To get some face time before a real audience, he recently gave a performance at the Snite Museum of Art on the Notre Dame campus. About 100 of his friends, family and classmates turned out for the cello-piano recital.
Huntington, one of five children, enjoys the company of musicians when he goes home. His older brother, Thomas, is a wildly successful violinist, who also plays in Chicago and at international competitions. His younger brother, Christian, plays the piano. He has two older sisters, Christy and Shanna, who have also played instruments.
But he feels the cello is the best.
“Every cellist must admit that its highest note is still nasal, but the cello has a depth of emotion and color that gives it the ability to express feelings. If the piece is angry, you’re going to hear that. If it’s sad or joyful, you’re going to know it,” notes Huntington.
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