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Golden Violin Award helps talented performer shine

Aaron Chan’s glittering performance sets stage for a bright future

golden violin award winner Aaron Chan poses with the sculpture

Aaron Chan, BMus’20, practices the violin for six hours a day, on top of his classes.

“But of course practicing is not all there is to playing an instrument,” he says.

According to Chan, the 2019-20 recipient of the Golden Violin Award, music history classes at McGill helped him gain a deeper understanding of the context behind individual pieces, enabling him to interpret and perform music with more “meaning and purpose.”

It is perhaps this combination of technical skill and academic knowledge that helped Chan deliver a standout performance during the finals of the Golden Violin competition, held at Pollack Hall on November 15. His 40-minute program, performed with accompanist Felix Hong on piano, garnered the undivided admiration of the competition’s jury.

“The jury was impressed by the level of accomplishment on display with all candidates, but Aaron was the unanimous choice for the winner of this year’s Golden Violin Award,” said Douglas McNabney, Associate Dean (Academic and Student Affairs) of the Schulich School of Music and Chair of the Golden Violin jury. “Aaron’s performance was at the highest level expected in major international competitions. We won’t be surprised if he goes on to win one in the very near future. Aaron will be an excellent ambassador for our school – we are very proud of him!”

Putting McGill-trained musicians on the map

The Golden Violin Award, established in 2006 by Seymour Schulich, BSc’61, MBA’65, DLitt’04, is among the most prestigious musical awards in Canada.

“Seymour Schulich has changed lives with his loyal encouragement of our students through the Golden Violin Award – and for this we are forever grateful,” says Brenda Ravenscroft, Dean of the Schulich School of Music.  “The Golden Violin Award encourages musical excellence and provides a critical stepping stone to the professional world of music performance. It also contributes to developing the worldwide reputation of the Schulich School of Music, enhancing McGill’sposition as a cornerstone in North America’s cultural and educational landscape.”

On top of a scholarship of $25,000 and a 14-karat gold violin lapel pin, the award offers opportunities to make history though high-profile public performances, and an acknowledgement engraved on the award’s namesake – a pewter and gold filigree violin sculpture on permanent display in McGill’s Marvin Duchow Music Library.   

The sculpture, which is life-sized and took a Swiss artisan one year to craft with fine-gauge pewter and gold plating, is what first inspired Schulich to establish the award. 

Schulich found the violin at a shop in a Dubai hotel boutique where he was vacationing with his wife. He had recently made a $20-million gift to the Schulich School of Music, and felt a strong connection to the School. After discussing the possibility of using the sculpture as a physical embodiment for a scholarship award with then Dean, Don McLean, he purchased it for about $100,000.

Fueled by passion, made by perseverance 

When Chan started playing the violin at age five, he was following the path of least resistance.

“Back home in Hong Kong a lot of kids learned to play musical instruments,” explains the Toronto-born, Hong Kong-raised violinist.

Unlike the majority of his peers, who stopped playing as soon as their parents allowed, Chan developed a passion for music.

“I felt like playing an instrument was a unique way of expressing myself; it was simpler and purer, without the obstacles of words,” he says.

Chan dedicated himself to honing his craft from a young age, devoting hours to practice from the age of 10. He left home in 2015 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and followed teacher, mentor and award-winning violinist, Jinjoo Cho, to McGill in 2017.

In a short time, he’s built an impressive CV: the young violinist studied with the Cavani String Quartet, participated in masterclasses given by globally renowned musicians like Philip Setzer and Boris Kuschnir, and performed with orchestras, small ensembles and quartets, and as a soloist. He is also a recipient of the Lloyd Carr-Harris String Scholarship from McGill.

Paving a path to the world stage

The Golden Violin Award will help Chan finance both his graduate studies and opportunities to go abroad.

“Receiving the Golden Violin Award is definitely an amazing honour! I still cannot fathom the reality of it, but I am really grateful for the opportunities the award provides,” he says.

But, according to Chan, the cash prize is far from the only gain from his participation in the competition. “The entire experience has been an amazing journey! The nerve-racking performance setting was definitely helpful for me in developing my skills as a performer.”