Sounds of Sin City: De Ann Letourneau

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

De Ann Letourneau is the talented concertmaster of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and a member of Celine Dion's hugely successful show at the Colosseum, Caesar's Palace. She has frequently appeared on TV for productions such as the Billboard Award shows, Country Music Awards, and the Latin Grammy Awards. Letourneau has led orchestras with Luciano Pavorotti, Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman, and Alicia Keys, to name but a few. As a founding member of the chamber ensemble, Virtuosi West, the dynamic Letourneau enjoys bringing an ecclectic repertoire to the wider American audience.

Letourneau met with Final Note in Vegas to chat about the vibrant classical music scene there, and her unwavering passion for performing and teaching.

Where did you grow up, and was your house a musical home?

I grew up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin called Superior. Our home was extremely musical, but nothing in the Classical genre...mostly old Country (Hank Snow era), Bluegrass, light Jazz (Herb Alpert)...surrounded by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Barbara Streisand. My mom played piano and sang, as did my Grandma who sang Opera (but I never got to hear her, and only found that out a few years ago). I also discovered that my Great Grandfather was a Band Leader in Germany back in the 1900s...so music is in my blood!

At what age were you drawn to the violin?

I fell in love with the violin at age 8, in public school. I loved the sound and I loved the teacher who demonstrated it to our class. I thought it sounded like something "a princess would play"...as I wanted to be a Princess you see [smiles].

Tell us about your time at the University of Cincinnati.

I loved Ohio. I learned so much there — most of which had little to do with the violin. I studied with Dorothy DeLay, who was arguably one of the best teachers in History. She started me on the path to learning MORE than just “playing the violin”...she focused on all aspects of being a great musician, including WHO I was as a person who played the violin. I also began a life-long friendship and collaborative partnership with Sandra Rivers (CCM Faculty Collaborative Pianist). Both of those amazing women changed the way I viewed performing and made me a much better, well-rounded musician.

How did the opportunity to come to Las Vegas and the Philharmonic arise?

I met my husband, Scott Letourneau, in the summer of 1995 at a mutual friend's wedding up North (Duluth MN) where we are both from. He lived in Vegas...I performed in Cincinnati. We were engaged and I decided to give up my work in Ohio so I could move to Vegas to be with him and his business opportunities. The Las Vegas Philharmonic did not exist yet, there was a failing Symphony and a small local Chamber Orchestra which I joined. I spent time traveling, giving solos, performing recitals, teaching at festivals, etc... (pre-kiddos), and so missing the Symphony was no big deal at that time. However, Harold Weller began the LVP and I was too busy at the time to join in the first season, until they needed a Concertmaster for a concert. I had a few weeks off from my concerts and I was asked to play. I had so much fun and realized I was missing a major part of who I was as a performer. So, I took the audition for the open CM position, and I won! I have been there ever since, and have helped to grow and cultivate not only the orchestra, but the community with it.

In such a heavily dominated show scene, what are the general attitudes towards Classical Music in Vegas?

It's thriving actually. Who knew Vegas would have culture? [cheeky smile]. People WANT to hear classical music and they are coming to hear us because we sound great! We have our new Concert Hall (Reynolds Hall in the Smith Center of the Performing Arts — 3 years old), and our new Maestro Donato Cabrera. People are very excited about it all! We have been steadily selling seats at the Smith Center to almost capacity now, and that is a great feeling!

Do classical programmers feel pressure to include non-classical music, or crossover classical music, in concert repertoires in order to appeal to the mainstream audiences of Vegas?

No. We have a fun series formerly called our Pops Series (original huh?). But Donato is taking the LVP in a whole new, very different direction — it's really exciting. We are doing away with words like 'Pops' or 'Masterworks' and just putting on 'a Season'. We program living composer works, classics, jazz, pop, film music, etc... Vegas is unique because we have some of the world's best Broadway shows, singers, dancers, actors, musicians living and performing here nightly...in a way, I think it allows us (especially in Vegas) to be THE classical element in the community instead of trying to re-create any show.

How does Classical Music sell in Vegas?

In Vegas the LVP sells well...other groups not so much. The people who live here truly come out to support us. With the exception of big name groups such as Cleveland, Josh Bell and St Martin-in-the-Fields, etc..., the classical concerts just do not sell well, so the Smith Center does not bring in many other groups. This leaves us to meet the majority of the classical needs of our community. We have been selling to about 75% of the approx 2000-seat house (these are not hard numbers, just my eyeball assessment of the audience from my seat on stage).

How has the LVP changed since you joined in 2000?

So much has changed. Our season is double the services. We have added a Chamber Series. Our budget has grown, as has our office staff and board. Our Hall has changed from the UNLV on-campus Hall to the amazing Smith Center built specifically for our community and the LVP, along with the other home company the Nevada Ballet Theater. We have added more ballet with the NBT. We have had three Maestros leading us and advancing the level of the organization. Our newest Maestro, Donato Cabrera, is a former LV Native, so he has a special tie to our community. The musical level of our players performing as a team shows the growth in our 17 yers together. So much more...so little paper!

What qualities do you consider important for the role of Concertmaster?

Ability, humility, focus, being fair, a good listener (to people and their issues), having a positive attitude, approachability, being business-minded and level-headed. Today, so many orchestras are struggling...the old model was to have a great player sit at the front and fill the rest of the orchestra with great players. That’s just not enough today. I look at my job description as being very complex. I believe the CM has to bridge the gap (a big gap sometimes) between players, Management and the audience. The CM is both player and manager ...and walking that line can be tricky.

When I’m on stage in rehearsal, I’m approachable to the players without any pretense in my demeanor. When I’m on stage during a concert, I’m completely engaged in what I’m doing...I love it, so this part is easy...but too many players today are non-expressive and the audience doesn’t like that. When I’m in the board room dealing with negotiations or personnel issues, it's important to be a good listener and understand that it is still a business model and I need to put on my business cap to work closely with them, especially if they are from the 'For Profit' world trying to navigate the 'Non-Profit' world of Arts.

Describe your teaching style.

I am a coach. I don’t 'teach' anything, I believe people are innately self-taught...I just have knowledge and experience to share and get them there faster. When I lived in my small town, I began lessons at 14 with one of the greatest coaches of all time, Diane Balko (who was Concertmaster of the Duluth-Superior Symphony and UW-Superior violin professor). At 15 Mrs Balko told my parents I needed to go out East to study because I had surpassed what she felt she could offer me as a teacher. My parents didn’t want a 15-year-old moving away from home so young, so I stayed in my small town, but my teacher became my coach and that altered my beliefs about performing, learning, teaching and even being a student. She allowed me to experiment, encouraged me to watch, and listen to every great artist I could (in a small town there were not many first-hand opportunities to see great concertos, so it was down to VHS, library recordings and Heifetz). My lessons became 'student-led', and it was brilliant.

I learned faster than anyone, and to this day I pass on that knowledge to my students. So, my coaching style is to encourage experimentation, allow them to make as many mistakes as they can on their way to what they want, and to be proud of it. My coaching style is all about encouraging. I usually get the question from parents “do they have talent?” My answer is always “do they want this?” If they want it, anything is possible.

How did your collaboration with Celine Dion come about, and how does this experience compare with your position in the LVP?

Celine’s Musical Director, Claude “Mego” LeMay and the whole crew had National auditions for the show. They did not find exactly all they were looking for, and a friend of mine (who worked closely with them) mentioned me in town. Mego called me, asked if I would be interested in being on the show...I went to the studio where I auditioned via SKYPE with the powers that be...and the rest is history!

It's different from the LVP not only in the obvious musical styles, but because of WHO I am performing with each night. Living and performing in Vegas, I have performed many times with major music and movie stars...I am usually not fazed by who they are. Celine is just a rare gem of a person and performer. To watch her organically create that amazing energy she has on stage every night is something amazing. She is an Icon, not a Star!

Can you tell us a little about the Lifetime Achievement award you received in 2012?

It was a huge honour for me to get that from my High School (Superior High School), in my home town. It represents all that I strive to do — make a difference. It was humbling...and exciting to think that at my half-way point, I still have so much more to give. I can't wait to touch people’s lives through music...it's my passion and this Award was a beautiful tribute to my goal.

Tells us about your chamber ensemble Virtuosi West.

This group is extra special to me. They are all my close friends and amazingly talented colleagues. It includes my amazing friends Sandra Rivers (Collaborative Piano Faculty at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music), Andrew Smith (Cello Faculty UNLV and Principal cellist of LVP), and Jason Bonham (Viola Adjunct Faculty UNLV and Principal Violist of LVP). Each of us loves to perform Chamber Music, and our international contacts include some of the finest musicians. Our idea was to bring Chamber music to not only Las Vegas, but around the Country...doing Master Classes and performing, educating. We didn’t want it to be considered a 'quartet' or a 'trio'...we wanted it to be all-encompassing with multiple performers invited to perform in the group for concerts. This coming Fall, we have concerts scheduled in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, parts of Utah and many others...

What is it like to raise daughters in Vegas?

There are amazing opportunities — Arts, Sports, Education, etc... Our girls are all involved in so many different things...things they could not do in most other cities. Grace is 13, she is a singer, actor, dancer, violinist... she will continue her vocal studies at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts High School next year as a Freshman, and has recently been signed with AEFH Acting Agency in LA for her TV/Film career. She would not have this opportunity anywhere else, other than living in NYC or LA itself (and the cost of living in LV is much better — no State Tax). Rose is 10 and a first Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. She is a National Sparring Champion and competes in Districts in a few weeks...with a win there, she could move on to a chance at a World Title. Faith is a competitive dancer, with Tap and Jazz being her favorites. Each girl can play their violins and all three sing. Being able to have them see top rated Broadway Shows, Amazing Icons (like meeting Celine in person), sitting in the Smith Center on a regular basis to watch Mom play...that’s Vegas to me! We Love it!

Is Vegas a viable option for young classical musicians interested in moving to the US?

Yes! Vegas is a musical thriving market once again. UNLV has a wonderful String Department, Orchestra and opportunity to freelance while in school! The music scene fell apart in the 1980s with the Strike, but it has now come back. Currently we have two full-time shows playing the strip using 30+ piece orchestra. Several smaller shows using live strings, Rock String groups, etc... Celine will be back Aug 27, meaning we need players for those other two shows. LVP season starts again in the Fall and with all the work, we need players!

What's the union scene like, and are there many agents there to look after classical musicians?

We have a solid Union here...Local 369. With all the musicians working the various shows, the Union has met the challenge well. We are strong and moving forward. Agents are different...we have a few 'Contractors' who call us up to perform various shows (Bocelli, Billboard Awards, Latin Grammy’s, ACMA, etc...) so the work is steady, even from the true freelance work that we get doing multiple recording dates and extra shows. So the answer is: it is both contracted and sporadic...we do it all in Vegas!

Who inspires you?

Wow, that’s a big question! Many people do, on a daily basis — students, colleagues, friends... But the real answer is my family — Scott and our 3 girls...I know it sounds cliché...but its true. They are all so smart, fun, beautiful, full of life, full of energy, crazy, focused, super sweet, successful, driven, goofy, and they always remind me with a small hug or smile that life is to be enjoyed and shared. I’m so Blessed to have them all in my life.

Do you have any forthcoming tours or recordings?

Yes! So many right now in the works...I don’t even have them all on paper yet: I’m playing Asst CM for Andrea Bocelli at Hollywood Bowl on June 7; performing CM for a show in LA that involves Video Games – Final Fantasy; performing next Season, Brahms's Violin Concerto with the LVP at Smith Center in early March. Virtuosi West is perfoming the tour in the Fall, Sept 15-28. LA, LV, Utah Vertex3 — our new Electronica Group (2 violins) with Composer/DJ Aaron Ramsey and violinist Rebecca Sabin, is performing regularly in Vegas. In February Virtuosi West is back with a Chamber Series at the LVP in Troesch Concert Hall. I’m also recording a solo album...my first...sometime this Fall...probably in Montreal!

Random performances with my good friend singer/songwriter Frankie Moreno (a good friend of Joshua Bell) in Las Vegas...Performing Electric Violin concerto with the Lake Superior Chamber symphony for their 30-year Anniversary (a nice, fun departure for me). Many Master Classes and smaller recitals for various groups and schools — all in the works so far.

I'm currently performing nightly in ShowStoppers at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas — an awesome Best of Broadway style show with the best dancers and singers! The Las Vegas Philharmonic Season begins again September 12!

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