For SPCO regulars, Francisco Fullana is the slightly shy-looking, floppy-haired figure in the violin section, swaying empathetically to the rhythms of the music.
But he has proved himself an incisive pulse-setter in ensemble playing as well as a sweet-toned, technically scintillating soloist. Since joining the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra as principal violin two years ago, Fullana has emerged as one of the orchestra’s top musicians.
Yet just a decade ago Fullana was a high school student in Mallorca, Spain, with no intention of moving to America. A violin teacher spotted his talent, however, and Fullana soon left his homeland to study at New York City’s Juilliard School.
It was a huge gamble, but it paid off handsomely. Fullana, now 27, just released his first solo album, currently trending in the top 10 albums of iTunes’ classical chart. Titled “Through the Lens of Time,” the recording features Fullana’s rendition of Max Richter’s “The Four Seasons Recomposed,” a modern take on Vivaldi’s baroque masterpiece.
Topping off a hectic period of activity, Fullana was recently announced as one of this year’s four recipients of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. The $25,000 award is aimed at helping musicians of outstanding ability further develop their talent.
Fullana talked by phone recently about this “most exciting” period of his young career. The conversation has been lightly edited.
Q: When you applied for principal violin at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, you already had a solid career as a soloist and chamber musician. Why did you want to come here?
A: Because the SPCO is such a dynamic group, and the experience every week is really different. There’s also a lot of flexibility. And I’ve been able to continue developing solo opportunities outside Minnesota.
Q: Have you continued to learn things as a player since joining the SPCO?
A: Oh, yes! The level of commitment and new ideas is fantastic. I’ve enjoyed so much working with the orchestra’s artistic partners, people like the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the clarinetist Martin Fröst.
Q: Not many orchestral players get the opportunity to make a solo album. How did your new recording come about?
A: I had played Max Richter’s “Four Seasons Recomposed” with conductor Carlos Izcaray. And his management in London wanted to do a recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. So they gave me this amazing freedom to build a program around a borderline obsession I have with the connections between baroque music and modern music.
Q: Max Richter is a living composer. Is his take on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very different from the original?
A: A lot of the melodies are Vivaldi’s, but it’s really a completely new piece, with its own sound world. Sometimes my solo line is exactly the same, but Richter changes the accompaniment, bringing the listener into the world of today.
Q: You sequence the album in an unconventional way, with the “Four Seasons” split up and works by other composers slotted in between. It has a very SPCO feel. Was that deliberate?
A: Yes, absolutely. There are works by Alfred Schnittke, Isang Yun and Salvador Brotons, all of which are reactions to masterworks of the past. As a performer you have to really know why the composers are making these changes to the old masters, and it helps you develop a deeper sense of the old work, and also the new piece that you are discovering.
Q: You play a violin that you call “Miss Mary.” Tell us about it.
A: It’s a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù, an amazing instrument. It belonged at one point to Mary Portman, a British amateur violinist who had a hall built specially for the violin to be played in. It was also one of the violins that the great Fritz Kreisler used to perform on. I’m very lucky to play it.
Q: And you’re playing “Miss Mary” in the string quartet for this weekend’s SPCO concerts?
A: Yes, we’re playing Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,” one of the most incredible and unique pieces he ever wrote. SPCO artistic partner Jonathan Cohen has been such a great influence on me, deepening my understanding of early music and how to play it. I’m so excited to be playing in the quartet with him for the Haydn.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.