Natalie Loughran started violin at the age of four, no one had to make her practice.When violist
"I started on Suzuki violin, and I loved it, I couldn't put it down," Loughran said, talking with me at The Colburn School in Los Angeles after winning First Prize in the Primrose International Viola Competition last Saturday.
Back in her earliest days of playing, her parents "actually had to limit the amount of time that I spent with the violin," she said. "My teacher was very strict, she wanted me to have specific time with the instrument to make sure it was the correct set-up -- she didn't want me just fooling around on it!"
Loughran grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. Her parents are both classical musicians - her mother, Betsy Loughran, is a cellist in the Princeton Symphony; and her father, Robert Loughran, is a conductor and director of the Princeton High School orchestra and the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County.
Loughran stayed with her first teacher, Gerry Rice, for 10 years. During that time, when she was 11 years old, Rice introduced her to the viola. "She was a violist herself," Loughran said. "She knew that I was a well-rounded child who liked to do a lot of things - she said, 'You're not going to want to practice eight hours a day? You can't play violin, then!'" Loughran laughed. "So yes, I switched to viola then, and I loved it. I just loved the sound - it was a perfect match."
So what were those other things she liked to do? For one, she did ballet for 10 years. Then when she started track and field just before high school, "I was quite serious with that," she said. After going to Nationals her sophomore year, colleges started recruiting her for track and field.
"That's when I decided that I had to choose one or the other," she said -- either music or track. "It was so time-consuming to do both."
She chose music, and the rest is history.
BELOW: From the 2021 Primrose competition: Loughran's Final Round performance of William Walton's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, with the Colburn Orchestra, conducted by Molly Turner.
"I've been at Juilliard for six years now," Loughran said. For her undergraduate degree, she studied with Roger Tapping, the current violist in the Juilliard String Quartet. "Our studio is so unique. He cultivates originality and encourages everyone to bring out the voice that they have - not to try to be something that just fits his ideas," Loughran said. "He encourages us to take our own musicianship to the max capacity of what it could be. It's a special thing to find, and so inspiring."
As a masters student, she also now studies with Misha Amory, "who is also so incredible. So I'm splitting time between them for two years."
What made her decide to participate in the Primrose competition?
"I did the Tertis Competition a few years ago," she said. For that competition, she was a semifinalist, and she received a special prize for her performance of the Bowen Viola Sonata in C Minor.
"That was my first competition, and I was much less mature then, in terms of being confident in my voice and what I want to say," she said. "In fact, I find it interesting to compare -- then and now -- and see how much my mindset about playing in competitions has changed. Now, I put much less pressure on myself. I've accepted the idea that, if you win you win, if you lose you lose. It's not going to change the world, it's not going to make or break your career. It's just an experience."
"I think if you look at it that way and try to be as genuine as you can about what you bring to it, it's a great experience," Loughran said.
In the Primrose competition, Loughran not only won first prize, but she also won the Audience Prize as well as the BIPOC Prize, for her performance of a piece by a BIPOC composer.
BELOW: Loughran performs the second movement from William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano, followed by "Elfentanz" by Florence Price. Loughran arranged both pieces for viola and won the Primrose Competition's BIPOC Prize for her performance.
When it came to choosing these particular pieces, she was inspired by her boyfriend, violinist Randall Goosby, who recently released an album called Roots. The two met at the Perlman Music Program and have been dating for a little more than three years.
"I'm inspired by him every day," Loughran said. "He's doing amazing things and has an important voice right now." They played together in the Kila Quartet and "we have been rehearsing Sinfonia Concertante together - hopefully we will play it somewhere some day!"
The piece she played at Primrose, "Elfentanz" by Florence Price, is not one of the pieces he recorded for his album, "but I've heard him perform this piece before and it really spoke to me -- the charm that Florence Price puts into this wonderfully short piece," Loughran said. "I thought it was a great way to finish off my first round."
Of course, neither of the BIPOC pieces she played were originally written for viola - both were written for violin.
For the Price piece, "I didn't need to transcribe it much, it basically just works on viola," Loughran said. "There was one short phrase that I took down an octave, but for the most part I just played what was written for violin. It made it a little more virtuosic, as well." She also transcribed the Still piece for viola.
When it comes to her instrument, Loughran plays on a viola made by Sergio Peresson. "It's relatively modern, made in the '60s or '70s," Loughran said. "I found it on a Tarisio action in 2018, and it really spoke to me. I do believe I'm the first woman to play on it." Prior to her, the instrument was played by older, larger-size men who were orchestral players.
And there is reason the instrument might have been played by a larger person - it is a very large viola, measuring a little more than 17 1/4 inches.
"That used to be the thing to do," for violists to gravitate toward the larger-size instruments because they make such a strong sound. But these days, violists "are definitely going in the direction of smaller instruments that can do the same thing, or something similar," Loughran said. "That has definitely been on my mind.
With such a large instrument, Loughran has to fight against injury, especially when she has a festival where she can be playing up to six hours a day.
"I kind of constantly have a good amount of neck and shoulder pain, so I have to just deal with it," she said.
One thing that has helped greatly is practicing yoga.
"I have been constantly searching for remedies and things to help, and yoga has been great," Loughran said. "You have the mindfulness, you have the centering, and then you have the strength-building -- as well as the stretching. It combines everything that I need within one hour."
For Loughran, the Primrose competition not only provided the chance to perform a great deal of repertoire for an appreciative audience, but also to be in an environment where the viola is celebrated and held to the highest of standards.
"I'm so grateful to be here and have all this support - it's been a great week."
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