The Transfiguration of Caroline Goulding

Caroline Goulding
Strings Magazine

Caroline Goulding has been thinking a lot about Yehudi Menuhin. The 24-year-old violinist, like Menuhin, started young—picking up a violin at age three and debuting at 13 years old with the Cleveland Orchestra. By 16, she had her first Grammy nomination for her self-titled 2009 release on Telarc, which made the classical Billboard Top 15.

Now, as Goulding is poised to present and perform the first concert program she’s ever curated, Menuhin seems to be following her. It started at the 2017 Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, where Goulding received the Thierry Scherz Prize honoring the best performance with an opportunity to return and record an album under the Swiss label Claves Records. In 1957, Menuhin and his family moved to Gstaad, Switzerland, where he founded the Menuhin Festival.

“I remember being there, in Gstaad, and I felt the heart of him. This flow was happening throughout this whole year. It really feels like the seeds were planted,” says Goulding, sitting across from me in a sundress and bare feet, pink bug bites dotting her porcelain skin. “I’m itching again!” The rural Montana mosquitoes at Tippet Rise Art Center—where she’s performing her program in four concerts over two days—have feasted on both of us, and I hand her a bottle of anti-itch spray.

“Yesterday, I was playing Bartók’s solo sonata—it was written for Yehudi Menuhin—and that night, Paul Kantor and I spoke on the phone. He was one of my teachers. We hadn’t spoken for a year. He was in Cleveland and I happened to call him. He said, ‘I was in our old studio, where you took lessons, and there’s a picture of Yehudi Menuhin and I took a photo of it today because I was so moved by it.’ I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I was playing his Bartók today!’

“Talk about an amazing, unbelievable soul,” she continues about Menuhin. “He was a child prodigy, you could say, though he was a cultivated artist right at 16. He went through a process [at age 19]—he went onstage and he couldn’t play. He just stopped. Something happened. So what did he do? He took it and ran with that experience, totally open to it. He started exploring all kinds of different music. He was a yogi, you know?”

Goulding has been doing yoga since her studies at New England Conservatory. The practice piqued her curiosity about meditation, and she went to her first class in Boston with her classmate Luke Hsu. She’s been at it ever since, developing the program for Tippet Rise at the Colorado-based Buddhist meditation retreat Shambhala Mountain Center and at Karmê Chöling in Vermont.

The title of her program, presented July 14 and 15 with Joshua Roman on cello and David Fung on piano, is cryptic at first—Universe as Poet: Transfiguration through Cycles, Sages, and the Collective Unconscious. Not even Goulding can explain it in clear, concise language. Yet as the performances unfold and she becomes increasingly vulnerable, she reveals herself as not just a virtuosic violinist, but as a young woman in the throes of discovering who she is. Both in the music and in the unpredictable moments—watching the summer breeze blow her sheet music off the stand or her string break mid-solo—she allows us to witness her figuring it out.

Tippet Rise is the ideal environment for such an experiment. An 11,000-acre working ranch in south-central Montana, north of Yellowstone National Park, its vast landscape—peppered with large-scale sculptures by world-class artists—makes you feel like anything is possible. Nestled in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, Tippet Rise’s rugged canyons, high meadows, and big sky glow in washes of gold, olive, and azure. Sheep and cows outnumber the people here, even in the summer months when Tippet Rise hosts concert-goers in the 150-seat Olivier Music Barn and sculpture tours.

Philanthropist couple Peter and Cathy Halstead modeled the space after Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley, and incorporated their passion for classical music (Peter is a pianist) with a summer music program that’s attracted top string players since its inaugural 2016 season, including Goulding and cellist Matt Haimovitz who both returned for the 2017 season.

Goulding’s first season at Tippet Rise was curated by then-musical director Christopher O’Riley, host of NPR’s From the Top and a longtime friend of the Halsteads, but this year she was offered an opportunity to create a program from scratch. With Peter Halstead as her mentor, Goulding shaped the program around emotionally weighty and technically challenging pieces, which included Schoenberg’s seminal Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4; Ravel’s posthumous Sonata for Violin and Cello in C major; Enescu’s Impressions from Childhood, Op. 28; Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, in E-flat major; and three pieces by one of Goulding’s favorite composers, Schumann: 6 Studies in the Form of Canons, Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110, and Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D minor.

“Caroline has a unique ability to play things the way you’re not used to hearing them,” says Peter Halstead. “By changing the expectation of what a note is, not only does Caroline make old music modern, but she makes modern music accessible—old, in a way. It’s something that people don’t do, maybe they’re scared to do it—and there’s a tradition that you’re supposed to make the same sound that’s on every CD that anybody owns. But why? Why not have the nerve and the imagination to open things up? That’s what Caroline does, which is very unique among musicians. She’s such a prodigy and she’s so brash and bold that she has the guts to do it.”

Goulding neither embraces or rebuffs the prodigy label. “When you’re starting your career young, there’s always going to be some kind of effect—positive and negative,” she says. “To be honest with you, if you start early, you can’t get around it being a little different—a little different than just being able to go to school. There’s pressure involved in what we do and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Read the rest of the review here