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MUSIC: Ventura County

On Top of the World

Violinist Better Known Abroad Than at Home


Santa Barbarans may well have seen Michelle Makarski around town, squeezing the produce at the Farmers' Market, milling about in book stores while exuding the casual familiarity of a longtime--2 1/2 decades--resident. What locals may not realize is that Makarski is a violinist of no uncertain skill and purpose.

Makarski is one of those locally based artists whose career has unfolded more on the global plane, while her musical presence in the area--even on the West Coast--has been fairly low profile. Her appearance as a soloist with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in March was, in fact, her debut as an orchestral soloist in Los Angeles.

At the end of April, Makarski's slow, steady rise in stature in the music world jumped a notch with the release of her impressive solo violin CD entitled "Caoine" (a Celtic word, pronounced keen).

It is her debut release as a leader for the esteemed jazz-cum-classical label ECM. And it is a powerful and distinctive recording, blessed with an understated intelligence.

Over the course of the program, Makarski manages to work her way from the baroque music of Biber and Bach to 20th century pieces by Max Reger, George Rochberg and Stephen Hartke--a young composer whom she has long championed.

Makarski's own musical history comes full circle with her recording of the title piece, Hartke's "Caoine," which she first played in 1980 when Hartke was a composition student at UC Santa Barbara. "It was a piece that established very clearly in my mind that this was definitely a major composer, if not then already, then in the making. Indeed, he has gone on to be that. He just won a Guggenheim. He has done particularly wonderful writing for strings," Makarski said.

It was Hartke who also wrote a violin duet for Makarski and her husband, violinist Ronald Copes. The piece is the wry, blues-tinged "Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen," which appeared on Makarski's first CD for New World Records in 1991. Next year, New World will release a concerto, which Hartke also wrote for Makarski.

Makarski is particularly pleased to have found a happy home at ECM, a more personal association than she might have with other domestic labels.

"I've always appreciated simplicity in presentation, and not having the artist in a low-cut dress in a flashy color photo on the front cover," she said.

"There are no biographies of the artists inside, either. Basically, the idea is that the music is being presented and judged, if one needs to be judged, on the basis of the music on the CD, and not what it is that one has done or not done or the way one looks or does not look," she said.

"That, to me, is what music is all about and certainly the reason that I'm in music. It becomes very important, and is practically unique in its aesthetic."

Even if she has played infrequently in town, Santa Barbara has been a nice place to hang her hat and bow. She isn't here for the weather though. "I'm a real northern person," Makarski said. "When it starts to get warm here and consistently beautiful here, I get sort of depressed. I need some bad weather. It's very good for work, too."

Makarski's career has been in a slow, steady brew for years. One major turning point came with her winning the prestigious Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition in 1989. Winning the award, Makarski said, has "brought a kind of recognition that is a blessing. Partly, though, there was also a little misunderstanding because at first, people thought I was an American contemporary music specialist. That was not the case and hasn't been the case at all."

Now, with Makarski's career reaching new plateaus--especially on the East Coast and in Europe--and with Copes' recent appointment as the second violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet beginning next season, an eastward move looks inevitable, ending her long stint as a Santa Barbara resident.

Moving to New York, Makarski said, was "something that I rather strenuously avoided upon leaving school, because I just felt it was what everyone else did and somehow that wasn't what I wanted to do. Having done plenty of things in New York and having played there, I do love New York and do look forward to being there."

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