Tom Strini

Meet the MSO’s Ilana Setapen

By - Oct 29th, 2010 06:05 pm

Ilana Setapen

“I was taught not to be satisfied with the bare minimum,” said Ilana Setapen. Setapen, 27, is in her second season as associate concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony. The bare minimum, for her, would be seeing to her orchestral duties, practicing enough to do that, and then enjoying her leisure.

Instead, she put on her own recital last spring and gave the proceeds to Ronald McDonald House. Sunday, she will play a completely different recital program, at the Wisconsin Conservatory under the Civic Music Association banner. With orchestra colleagues, she has formed he Arcas String Quartet. She has already played on the Frankly Music Series this season. She is assistant concertmaster of the Grant Park Symphony in summertime Chicago, and she played a recital a month ago in Chicago. In February, she will be the soloist in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Concerto with the MSO and guest conductor Carlo Rizzi. More is on her plate, but you get the idea. Setapen likes to play the violin. She’ll be right back at it Monday, Nov. 1, as a guest artist on UWM’s Chamber Music Milwaukee series

“I don’t necessarily do three recitals in six months,” she said. “But the CMA asked me. I was originally going to play things I knew, but then I thought of all the new things I want to learn.”

Setapen blends in with the orchestra, but on her own she shows some star quality. The photogenic violinist adopted a charming, Rosie-the-Riveter look for our interview and made me wish I’d brought my camera. As a soloist she’s glamorous and dancerly, with the sort of movement that’s fun to watch but not distracting. The look matches her passionate playing. Vigor and sharply etched rhythm were the salient aspects of her spring recital.

“My persona on stage is markedly different from my other persona,” she said, blushing a little. “I do consider myself a fiery, aggressive player. And I do think it’s a show. I like getting dressed up — I’m a performer. If you can’t put on a show, why should someone want to come to a live concert? The dress, the hair, the practicing, they’re all part of it. I was taught to think about the whole package.”

That came from Robert Lipsett, her teacher at the University of Southern California and later at the Colburn School of Music, in Los Angeles, where she earned a conservatory performance certificate. (Lipsett taught in the studio once occupied by Jascha Heifetz, Setapen’s idol.) But she grew up in the concert hall and saw early on what worked on stage. Her father, James Setapen, was music director of the Amarillo (Tex.) Symphony for 20 years. Her mother, Carol, was assistant concertmaster of the ASO. Ilana made her concerto debut with that orchestra at 15.

“They encouraged me,” Setapen said, of her parents. “But they never pushed. There’s a fine line between the two, and they were right in the middle. My mother was my first teacher. I started violin when I was 2 and a half.”

Her first violin was so tiny that her parents hung it on the Christmas tree as an ornament.

That sounds like a happy home life, but Setapen high-tailed it from Amarillo to L.A. as soon as she could.

“I grew up in Texas, but never felt at home there,” she said. “I mean, my high school’s mascot was The Sandstorm.”

After six years in California, Setapen went to New York, where she studied with Donald Weilerstein and Ronald Copes on the way to a master of music degree at Juilliard. After trying east and west, Setapen settled on the best, the Third Coast. She’s enjoying Milwaukee from a Prospect Avenue high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan.

“It’s the perfect size,” she said. “It feels like a community, but there’s plenty going on.” By a happy coincidence, her parents found musical jobs in Chicago.

She had no trouble finding musical colleagues here. Principal clarinetist Todd Levy will join her and the Arcas Quartet on Sunday. Pianist Stefanie Jacob, who is married to MSO acting principal cellist Scott Tisdel, met Setapen on the day she auditioned. Jacob played for her May recital and will play for her Sunday.

“It’s a real collaboration,” Setapen said. “I like working with her. She’s musically sensitive and our personalities work well together.”

Setapen’s recital will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. Tickets are $15, from the Civic Music Association, 414-483-3223. The repertoire: Ives’ Sonata No.2, Faure’s Violin Sonata, and Bernard Hermann’s Souvenirs de Voyage.

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