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MUSIC

Meet the 15-year-old who just won ‘the Olympics of the Violin’

Keila Wakao, of Chestnut Hill, took top honors at the prestigious Menuhin Competition. She was photographed with her instrument this month outside New England Conservatory.
Keila Wakao, of Chestnut Hill, took top honors at the prestigious Menuhin Competition. She was photographed with her instrument this month outside New England Conservatory.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Violinist Keila Wakao, 15, has been winning competitions since she was 7 years old. But the Chestnut Hill resident’s top honors at the recent 2021 Menuhin Competition puts her on the map internationally, and she says the win is a dream come true.

“It was overwhelming, the most exciting, positive thing I could imagine,” she said by phone with undisguised enthusiasm. “I’ve been watching the competition online with my Mom since I was 8 or 9, and it was so inspiring and fun. I really wanted to be part of it.”

Now she will go down in competition history as 2021′s top player at the junior level, chosen from among 22 prodigies, ages 12 to 17, from around the globe.

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The late violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99) created the competition, dubbed “the Olympics of the Violin,” in 1983 to help talented young violinists learn and grow. This year’s competition, postponed from last year and entirely virtual due to COVID, was hosted by a consortium of institutions in Richmond, Va., marking only the second time it was hosted by a US city.

“This is probably the most prestigious competition for young violinists because Menuhin was himself a child prodigy and became one of greatest violinists in the century,” said violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, who has experienced the competition from both sides. An active soloist and chamber musician, he won Senior First Prize in the 2010 Menuhin Competition and this year served as one of the judges.

“It was difficult to be on the other side of the table,” he said of his judging experience. “We had to make some tough decisions. We were not looking for perfection but for a distinctive individual voice you could recognize with eyes closed that had a story to tell and a passion you can feel through the screen.”

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He said he felt that immediately with Wakao’s performance. “The first notes that she started playing captured my heart. She’s very mature and has such vulnerability and is not afraid of revealing that, and you can feel that personal connection, that charisma. I think that is something special. She is not just a great violinist, but a real young artist.”

The 2021 Menuhin Competition marks Keila Wakao’s first international win.
The 2021 Menuhin Competition marks Keila Wakao’s first international win.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Bright and spirited with a lively sense of humor, Wakao started violin at the age of 3. Within three years, she began studying with the late renowned violinist-conductor Joseph Silverstein. Since the age of 8 she has trained with Donald Weilerstein, chair of violin studies at New England Conservatory of Music. (She studies there with Soovin Kim as well.) At 9, Wakao made her solo debut with an orchestra, and she has since performed solos and recitals throughout the Northeast, Japan, and Germany.

Along the way, Wakao’s natural love of performing found an outlet in competitions, which allowed her to share her music more widely and meet other young performers, plus inspire her to learn new repertoire and develop as an artist. Even losing has its benefit, she said, in building resilience. “I’ve lost many times in the past and will probably continue to lose, but it will help me learn, help me be a better person.”

Weilerstein praised her passion and maturity. “She’s incredibly musical, with a real rhythmical spark, and is able to transmit all kinds of different feelings and characters in her music-making,” he said. “One thing that comes across to everybody is how much she enjoys her musicmaking and loves to perform. That’s a really rare and fantastic quality.”

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The Menuhin Competition marks Wakao’s first international win. Even though the competition was virtual, she enjoyed the experience of recording in her church (Church of the Redeemer) and having her family with her the moment she learned she was the top winner. “My parents jumped up, especially my dad, who was crying happy tears.”

In fact, Wakao’s parents are a huge part of her musical inspiration. Her mother, Mie, is a pianist, and her father, Keisuke, is assistant principal oboe of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal oboe of the Boston Pops. Wakao remembers music was always in their home, and it was music that helped see them through her father’s cancer when she was 11, an experience she chronicled in a talk for TEDxBeaconStreet.

Her father called her playing for him “a small cure,” and it helped her release and process scary emotions. “It was a difficult time,” she said, “but it taught me that even through hardship, there’s always some light somewhere, and for me that was music.”

Currently a ninth grader at Newton South High School, Wakao tries to find time to practice four hours a day while balancing homework. (Next year, she’ll attend Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick.) And even though she is well on her way toward a dream of becoming a professional violinist, she still gets nervous before every performance.

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“Even in front of preschoolers,” she said with a laugh. “When I’m about to go on, I’m shaking because of excitement and nerves. But the moment I step onto the stage, it feels like I’m transported to a new world. Once I start playing, the audience kind of disappears, and I just think about the sound and the music. It’s such a great feeling.”


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.