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aisha syed dominican violinist

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Aisha Syed, Violinist and Goodwill Ambassador for the Dominican Republic

Renowned Dominican violinist Aisha Syed made her sold-out Carnegie Hall debut in 2018. Now NYC audiences will get another chance to hear her when she returns to Carnegie on October 10, 2019. The concert is part of Syed’s Heritage World Tour of 11 countries on four continents. Hosting the event will be Evi Siskos, actress, producer, author, and NY Emmy-nominated Telemundo television host.

Hailed as “one of the youngest and most talented ambassadors of the violin in the world” by Live Out Loud Magazine, Aisha Syed serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Dominican Republic. She has won many awards over the years. The Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, founded in 1538, honored her in 2014 by making her its youngest-ever Honorary Professor of the Arts. In May 2015 she, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and singer Carlos Vives were named Ambassadors for LEALA, which promotes the Spanish language and Latin American culture in the Los Angeles area.

The upcoming performance at Carnegie Hall is the New York-based Dominican Heritage and Culture Society‘s third annual concert. Proceeds will support DHCS’s newly-established scholarship fund for underserved young Dominican talents pursuing their dreams in music, art, history, literature, and the performing arts.

aisha syed dominican violinist

At just 11, Aisha made her debut with the Dominican Symphony Orchestra. Two years later, she became the first Latina to attend the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, where she also studied at the Royal College of Music on a full scholarship.

Born in Santiago in the Dominican Republic, she’s now a true citizen of the world. I called her in the DR to learn more, firsthand, about her background, the Oct. 10 concert in New York City, and her life and career.

Can I ask you first about your background? You’re Dominican, but with roots in India.

Yes. I was born in the Dominican Republic, in Santiago, a beautiful town in the middle of our country. It’s called the “heart town” because it’s kind of like the heart of the country.

My father’s parents migrated from India to Pakistan, and he was born in Pakistan. Then he came to live in the Dominican Republic, where he met my mother, and I was born! So technically I’m half-half.

I have my first big concert in India actually, with the Mehta Foundation in December. [See Aisha’s website for upcoming concerts]. So I’ve been associated with the Indian side throughout my life, but with the concert in December I think I will be following that side of my cultural background more.

Does your varied background have to do with why your current tour is called a “Heritage Tour?”

Yes, exactly. I’m playing a compilation of pieces that mean very very much to me in different ways. For example we start with a piece by William Grant Still, an African-American composer. As a Dominican I have Spanish heritage, I have African heritage, I have aboriginal heritage. For me it was very important to find an African composer. In the Dominican Republic unfortunately we don’t have many classical music composers; I have to look to the States to find one. When I came across this Suite for Violin and Piano I totally fell in love with it and I thought it was a great piece of music and it needed to be brought forth more, so I added that.

We have some Spanish pieces by the wonderful composers Granados and Albéniz, two of my favorite Spanish composers. We have a Dominican composer, Rafael Solano. He is very well known for his songwriting; people like Placido Domingo have recorded his work. He’s still alive, and he arranged it especially for me, for the album which is coming out.

Kreisler’s “Danse Orientale” (after Rimsky-Korsakov) was very important to me because of my Indian background. Also we have a beautiful arrangement of “Ayesha’s Dance” from the ballet Gayaneh by Khachaturian. And the song “Deep River” was very important for me because in the Dominican Republic we were oppressed for a long time by colonialism. I think even though this piece wasn’t written by a Dominican composer, it really projects what we as a country have lived the past many years.

Then we also have Bernstein’s West Side Story, three of the songs: “I Feel Pretty,” “There’s a Place for Us,” and “America.” With that one we finish the concert at Carnegie. For me it was very important to portray not only that I am from the Dominican Republic, but that I was moving all my life. When I moved to the UK I attended the Yehudi Menuhin School for child prodigies. I became by God’s grace the first Dominican student there, and then I studied at the Royal College of Music.

But after that I moved to the States – Miami, Florida – and when I came across the melting pot that Miami was – New York, too, by the way, so many Dominicans! – I felt sort of like at home, because I have moved much of my life, into different countries, and West Side Story really really captures that feeling, that sort of energy. I thought it was just the perfect piece to end the concert with.

We’re also playing Wieniawski’s “Theme and Variations.” My pianist, Martin Labazevitch, he’s wonderful, he has a Polish background, and I wanted to include a Polish composer.

Was it difficult leaving home for a foreign country when you were just 13?

I had experienced something similar beforehand, because when I was about eight and a half I “forced” my mother to let me move in with my violin teacher in the capital, Santo Domingo, and she allowed me to do that. Actually she got special permission from my school to allow me to only go to classes four times a month so that I could live in the capitol, come back to Santiago every weekend, have classes on Fridays, take my exams, and then go back on Sunday to the capitol. Honestly, I don’t know how my mom allowed me to do that, because I would not let my kids do that, but she did!

So you were very driven even as a child.

Yes, yes. Actually it was very helpful, to [be able to] think about music for a long time every day, and that was very important to me at that age. And then when I was 11 was given a huge opportunity to debut with the National Symphony Orchestra of my country.

That concert, I felt, was the start of my professional career. I started to earn money through the violin when I was 11. Since then I have been very focused on what I want, which is, as a Christian, to bring a message of love and represent my country for classical music. To bring something to the table that is authentic to us while also, of course, having the structure of classical music.

Where do you live now?

I am in between many places. I’ve just had a daughter, and I leave her with my mother when I travel. I pass through Santiago, then I take a plane to my concerts. So I’m staying in the States and the Dominica Republic for a while.

So you’re not just a citizen of the world culturally, but almost literally.

[Laughs] Yes, but – when I look at my daughter, she’s not even one yet – I started to do concerts just two months after I had given birth – I think that [pauses to think] she will be proud that I did not leave a career behind just to bring her up. I’m still bringing her up, and I sacrifice a lot of things. It’s gotten to a stage where I feel that if I had to leave my career it would be like amputating an arm or a leg. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, but – I feel that the more I love my daughter, and the more I play music, everything just sort of feeds the other. I’m very very happy at the moment.

You have the opportunity to play some amazing instruments. Which violin are you playing at the Carnegie Hall Concert?

[Over the years] I’ve been offered a couple of Stradivarius violins to play for high-profile concerts, but I haven’t made the decision. I usually do choose the 1690 Long Pattern Stradivarius, which is a Strad that is slightly longer than others, and it’s really good because I have very long arms. Last year I played with that one at Carnegie.

You mentioned an album coming up.

We have just recorded in April this year an album which has all the Heritage program that we’re performing at Carnegie. It should be coming out in April next year – God willing. It takes a long time to post-produce.[laughs]

You co-founded the Music for Life Foundation in the DR some years ago, and you just did an event for it there last month. Tell me a little about the foundation.

It’s a foundation my mother and I started back in 2010. It started with the idea through inspiration from Yehudi Menuhin. As a student at the Menuhin School I had to constantly visit hospices, homes, and bring music to the disadvantaged. And my mother and I got together, and – first of all, we’re Christians, and we are supposed to do this anyway! And second of all, Yehudi Menuhin was inspiring so many people by doing this, so you should follow in his footsteps in your country and give something back to the community.

[We visit] hospices, orphanages, hospitals, schools – a great deal of schools – and also we have a festival every couple of years. Mark Messenger, the director of strings at the Royal College of Music, comes here [to the DR] when we have the festival – he is also a violinist and violin teacher – to give lessons individually to every student enrolled. We have about 50 to 60 students every festival. We’re able to do that through the sponsorship that we receive. Some of these kids don’t even have enough money for a football in the Dominican Republic, and they’re able to have a violin lesson with us, totally free.

Also, as a violinist, I give master classes all around where I travel. For example I was in Argentina and Brazil just last week, doing concerts, and in Argentina I was at one of the universities there, so I like to involve young people, young students. And just yesterday I gave a motivating speech for 100 young people from low-income families here in the Dominican Republic, just to inspire them to follow their dreams. This is very important for me – I feel like I feed myself more energy than what I actually give.

Aisha Syed performs at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall October 10, 2019 at 8:30 PM. Visit the Carnegie website for tickets, and Aisha’s website for upcoming concerts and more information.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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