Thursday, October 20, 2005
Brian Lewis is about to give Eleanor Allen a birthday gift she'll never forget.
Lewis, a virtuoso violin player who grew up in Ottawa, is coming to Lawrence this weekend to play a concert in honor of Allen, his first violin teacher, who celebrated her 90th birthday in June.
The concert is part of the 150th anniversary celebration for First Baptist Church, where Allen's late husband, Sam, served as pastor from 1956 to 1976. But for most, the focus will be on a special bond between a teacher and a former student.
"I still call her Mrs. Allen, and she will always be Mrs. Allen to me," Lewis says. "I could not call her anything else because she will always be my first violin teacher, and I will always be the little kid."
The concert, at 4 p.m. Sunday at the church, 1330 Kasold Drive, will be with pianist Laura Kennedy and feature works by Beethoven and Schumann, a contemporary sonata by Robert Avalon and other music.
Lewis' musical ability has taken him around the world.
He has bachelor's and master's degrees from The Juilliard School. Though he's only 37, he's held an endowed teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin for more than three years. He's performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
He recently completed his seventh solo CD, a collection of music recorded with the London Symphony, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, made famous by the Beatles. The CD is due out in April.
His career started at age 4 in Lawrence, at Allen's studio.
Lewis' mother, Alice Joy Lewis, was herself an accomplished violinist and teacher. But she wanted her son to learn from another instructor - in part to avoid conflicts - and was interested in the teaching method developed by famed Japanese violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki, which Allen still uses with the 20 students in her studio.
Starting in 1972 and continuing for 10 years, Alice Joy Lewis drove her son twice a week to Allen's house - once for a private lesson, once for a group lesson.
Allen says she could tell early on that Lewis would be successful. He would fiddle around with tunes he heard elsewhere, and at home he'd dance to the music his mother would play.
"He was a very enthusiastic little boy," Allen says. "He was excited about it. He was very quick learning. His drive to learn was intense."
Today, Lewis credits Allen for setting his musical foundation.
"Mrs. Allen was such an incredible influence on me," he says. "She was an amazing teacher for me. She had such great focus. She was very calm. She was very loving and nurturing but also knew exactly what she wanted from us.
"Your most important teachers really are your first teachers. They set you up. They set up your technique on the violin."
Alice Joy Lewis went on to found Ottawa Suzuki Strings. She and Allen would go to conferences on the Suzuki method, which stresses an early start on the violin and parental involvement. They'd often take Brian along.
"He always loved her, from age 4 to his current age," Alice Joy Lewis says. "She's extremely encouraging. The way she taught, she called for a right standard of playing to prepare people for a career in music."
Lewis, who started giving private lessons at age 15, continues to return each summer to teach at the Suzuki Strings' summer music programs, and he owns a home in Ottawa. Allen says it doesn't surprise her that Lewis continues to teach, considering the humble attitude he had growing up.
"I always admired the quality he had," she says. "He was better than the other kids in school, but he never made them feel like that."
Asked why she continues to teach at age 90, Allen replies simply: "I like it. I really enjoy working with children."
Lewis figures his former teacher will never stop giving lessons.
"When you are such a dedicated teacher, it would be inconceivable to stop. Why stop?" Lewis says. "She is as active as she has always been, and sharp as a tack, and very much able to do that teaching. I imagine she probably will teach for at least another 15 or 20 years. Seriously."
Lewis' performing and teaching schedules keep him busy these days. He says he'll be home five weekends between September and the end of the year.
Playing on Sunday in the First Baptist Church sanctuary, where his parents attended while they were students at Kansas University, might not be as glamorous as performing solo with a world-class symphony. But he says every concert is important - especially when it's meant to honor a special teacher.
"It doesn't matter if it's in Ottawa or Lawrence or Lincoln Center or Abbey Road Studios," Lewis says.
"My violin has really helped be a great passport. Not too shabby for a kid growing up in the middle of Kansas."