At 17, mastering the classics on violin

By B. David Zarley | Staff Writer

Whenever teenage violinist Rabia Mohammadi draws her bow, the melodies that emerge ardent and airy—pour out of her instrument with a sound older than the Buckingham building where she practices, than New Eastside or America itself. As she plays her Landolfi, a Milanese instrument crafted in the 1750s, Mohammadi becomes a bridge—as all classical musicians must—between past and present.

Mohammadi’s passion for music developed early in life as a result of frequent exposure to classical music.

“I always went to classical concerts,” Mohammadi said in her family’s apartment at the Buckingham, 360 E. Randolph St., where views of Lake Michigan unfurled before her. “I was always surrounded by music, especially in this city. There’s a lot of places for classical music, like [the Chicago Symphony Orchestra]. I thought that was something I really wanted to do.”

Rabia Mohammadi. Photo courtesy of Michelle
Mohammadi

She picked up the violin at age 3. Now at 17, Mohammadi practices up to seven
hours a day.

Mohammadi gravitated to the instrument for its lyrical qualities. “I think it’s closest to a human voice,” Mohammadi said. She has coaxed that voice to “sing” in an array of competitions and venues, from Chicago to Central Europe. In early May, she will play an invite-only evening with Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine at the Buckingham building and compete at the prestigious Fischoff chamber competition at The University of Notre Dame.

Mohammadi’s busy schedule dovetails with her other major interest—travel. She is learning German, and her previous trips to the country have brought her closer to her favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

“I think that it is essential for every musician to play Bach, because it really helps everything, especially intonation and it helps you become a more musical person,” Mohammadi said.

Playing the works of famous composers in their home nations strengthens Mohammadi’s connection to them. “Being in the country where Beethoven or Bach was born, it does change the way that I play their works.” Mohammadi said.

The young musician has even played pianos owned by some of the world’s finest pianists, including Chopin. “That one was out of tune,” her mother, Michelle Mohammadi joked.

Her instructor, Desirée Ruhstrat of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, said the young musician improves quickly. “Those life experiences play into her playing, she’s constantly on the quest for knowledge, and that’s what I love.”

Currently in her junior year of high school, Mohammadi hopes to continue her studies in Europe after graduation—she’s aiming for Kronberg Academy in Germany—and to spend her senior year beginning to master a new instrument, the viola.

“There’s a certain quality about viola, I just think it is very human,” Mohammadi said. “There’s something about, in particular the C string, that really draws me to the instrument, and to be able to express myself in more ways.”

Her desire to add another instrument to her repertoire comes as no surprise to those who know her. “She is just an amazingly well-rounded musician, which you usually don’t see at that age,” Ruhstrat said.

Mohammadi will perform this summer at the Make Music Chicago festival, at Carnegie Hall, in Milwaukee, at Ravinia, and in London and France. In the fall, she will perform with with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, playing the works of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Published on May 2.

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