Margaret Batjer (Violin ’80) has served as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) since 1998. She is renowned as a violin soloist, chamber musician, and teacher, and has established herself as a versatile and respected artist worldwide.
Margaret has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras across Europe and the United States. An esteemed chamber musician, she was a longtime participant at the Marlboro Music Festival among other notable festivals. Margaret joined the faculty of the USC Thornton School of Music in 2005 and the Colburn Academy in 2014, where she teaches violin and directs the Academy Virtuosi Ensemble. Read her full biography here.
When you were at Curtis, you studied primarily with Ivan Galamian. How did your education affect your own teaching skills down the road?
I think that was where I really developed my passion for teaching. It wasn’t about what he was teaching me, but I was watching him teach. It was so educational to see his mathematical and very analytical mind really teach the younger students so much in such a finite period of time. And he taught eight hours a day until the day he died, seven days a week. He never took a day off. And so, it was just really inspiring to me to see the gift he was giving all of us.
And David Cerone was another teacher of yours, right? What about his influence on your teaching philosophy?
I looked at my violin lessons as an opportunity to focus much more about the physical aspect and the technical aspect of playing the violin. And then all of my other influences that I got through chamber music at Curtis and all of my musical mentors at Marlboro and Curtis were about, “Why are we doing this? What are you trying to say by playing this piece?” I think that my teaching became a combination of musical and technical elements. I melded those influences together. In my own studio I try to approach the technical work from a musical perspective. “Let’s try to fix the problems with this phrase technically, while serving the music.”
I think lineage is something in music that maybe younger students don’t understand. But I sat next to Felix Galimir, playing the Berg String Quartet, Op. 3 at Marlboro, when he would say, “Well, we should do it this way because Berg told me to do it.” And I think that stuck with me as a young musician. “Oh, my God, I am the next in the line down from Alban Berg to Felix Galimir to me.” And that lineage went back to Brahms. I felt like it was a responsibility and a privilege. And that’s why I feel I like teaching. I feel very strongly that I need to pass on everything that was gifted to me, because I’ve been very fortunate. I count my blessings every day.
Your teaching has certainly had its own impact. It’s pretty remarkable that you will have three former students attending Curtis in the fall: Lingyu Dong and incoming violinists Dandan Jingfei Wang and Dindin Jingyi Wang.
I am so thrilled that all three of my kids have gone to teachers at Curtis that I have had great relationships with professionally and personally. Midori, who was my colleague at USC, teaches Lingyu. And Arnold [Steinhardt], of course, is so wonderful. And now, Ida Kavafian: she’s the teaching machine. She just keeps putting them out there. And the fact that she’s going to have the girls is really special to me. When you lose a student, when you send them off, you think “Oh, I’ll miss them so much.” But I have nothing but happiness for them to go and have this experience. So, it’s really special as my alma mater.
What piece of advice would you give to young musicians who want to model your career path?
What I say to my students at USC is, “Be prepared for everything. And don’t close any doors because you just never know.” When I was at Curtis, all of us were like, “Orchestra job? Are you kidding? No way.” I took the Curtis Symphony Orchestra pretty seriously, but I still never imagined myself sitting in an orchestra after Curtis. And the fact is that later I moved to a city where there was a chamber orchestra—that, to me, was the perfect combination of orchestral playing, combined with chamber music. It was a very comfortable fit for me, leading a chamber orchestra, because I had so much experience with chamber music in my young life at Curtis, and my adult life. I never played an excerpt until I was 40. I had to literally learn the big excerpts and the solos for my audition with the Chamber Orchestra. The difference is that my education prepared me to do that.
Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking about leadership positions, like being a concertmaster in an orchestra?
I’m very happy to say that I actually think that there’s a fair amount of women now in leadership roles. Comparatively to when I was young, it’s like another world. In terms of advice, I would say the same thing I say to men, which is “Just work hard. Educate yourself in every aspect of music. Don’t shut any doors. And strive to be the best musician you can be.” And the truth is, you can have it all. If you want to balance your life more towards family and still have a career, there are orchestra jobs. If you want to have a family and have a touring life and go out there, there are plenty of examples too. I see my younger women students at USC. They don’t ever think about the things I thought about, because they know they can have it all. They can do whatever they want if they work hard. I think that the generation before me started to bust the ceiling on that and that my generation took it one step further. And the next generation took it all the way. So, I do think we have made huge strides in being able to be taken as seriously as men for any position.
What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
I’ve just formed a new piano trio, the Los Angeles Piano Trio, with Fabio Bidini, who’s a piano teacher at Colburn and Andrew Shulman, who’s the principal cello in my orchestra. And we formed two months before COVID. So all of our dates were cancelled until we had our debut in April at the Phoenix Chamber Music Society. It took over a year, but we finally played together. That was my very first concert in front of a live audience in thirteen months. And it was almost surreal.
But who knows? I don’t know what’s next for me beyond that. The happiest people I know are people that keep making changes in their lives so they don’t get stuck. And so, I feel like I’m at a point now where I’m starting to reevaluate. If we don’t try to constantly challenge ourselves, we don’t grow.