Violinist Isabella Lippi was 21 when we first saw her, making her Orange County debut with the Pacific Symphony led by Kate Tamarkin at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in 1990.
Since then, her local appearances have been few.
She served as a guest concertmaster for the Pacific in 1996 when the orchestra was engaged in a search to fill the job (later taken by Kevin Connolly, who resigned after one season). She also played that year with the Glendale Symphony.
Now, at 31, she returns in an engagement with Ami Porat's Mozart Classical Orchestra on Sunday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. But she comes as the newly appointed concertmaster of the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony.
"I've settled down," Lippi said from her new home in Charleston, where she moved in September.
"I'm trying to broaden my horizons a bit. I think it's really important for every musician to do a variety of things--not only to grow as a musician, but to keep your options open professionally. I've been pretty happy going with the flow. Right now, I'm very happy."
Born in Chicago, Lippi moved to New York after graduating from high school to attend the Juilliard School of Music. She left after a year to study at USC with Robert Lipsett, whom she had met at a summer music camp. She studied with Lipsett for about eight years, and in 1984 earned an artists diploma, essentially a doctoral degree in musical performance. She lived in Los Angeles until her recent move.
Lippi won first place in the 1988 Young Musicians' Foundation Debut Competition in Los Angeles, and had a big break a year later when she won a competition and the opportunity to play with the St. Louis Symphony in a pops program.
But Leonard Slatkin, then the St. Louis music director (and now National Symphony director), was so impressed that he rescheduled her to appear on three dates of the classical subscription series.
"I've been involved in perhaps 10 of these competitions, and I've never heard anything on this level, nothing this captivating," Slatkin told James Wierzbicki of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989.
"She'd do a phrase and the judges would all look at each other in astonishment," Slatkin continued. "When she finished, we cheered and yelled, 'Bravo!' . . . Someone from the Women's Association came out and reminded the audience not to applaud; she didn't realize the applause had come from the judges."
Still, her career has not skyrocketed as might be expected from so auspicious a beginning.
"Everyone knows you have to go out and make connections, which is not my thing," Lippi said. "I just love playing."
She has appeared as a soloist with the Dallas and Baltimore symphonies, among others, and has also toured Japan. She's played "a little bit of chamber music here and there, and a little bit of studio work to supplement my income too.
"But actually doing that, you feel kind of narrow. I always knew I wanted to play as a concertmaster, which is harder to get as you get older. You need experience, so I'm really thrilled I was able to do it now. It's better to do it before I get too old. Orchestras want new blood."
Lippi won the Charleston post from among 12 applicants at the orchestra's third national audition to fill the job, according to orchestra manager and personnel manager Chalmers Haas. She has a three-year contract and sees the position as "a big steppingstone" because two previous concertmasters have moved immediately afterward to the Cincinnati Symphony and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.
In the month she's been in Charleston, she has already played four orchestra concerts and a chamber music program.
"Hard stuff too," she said. "Shostakovich 10th, all Strauss, Brahms Three, [Mussorgsky's] 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' They keep you busy here."
Looking back, she has some critical words for her life as a soloist. She feels the public has become too enamored of competition winners and superstars.
"I wish it didn't matter who was playing or how many people were playing. I wish people would be as interested in seeing four people, a quartet, as a soloist.
"Even if you're playing in the middle of nowhere, I don't think you've failed. The important thing is to keep playing. It should be more about the music."
* Isabella Lippi will play Mozart's Third Violin Concerto with the Mozart Classical Orchestra led by Ami Porat on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Drive, Newport Beach. $23-$29. (949) 830-2950.
Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at email@example.com.