Unlike most prodigies, harpsichordist Jory Vinikour wasn’t nudged into music by his parents. His father was a dentist and amateur violinist. “He told me I could do anything except dentistry.”
Vinikour’s two older sisters took piano lessons and taught him in turn, but he quickly surpassed them and was rewarded with his own concert grand. Though precocious on the keyboard, he chafed at the rigors of the classical repertoire; besides, he enjoyed the attention showered on him as a kid star in performances at Forest View High in Arlington Heights.
He had vague thoughts of becoming a jazz pianist when he enrolled at the classically oriented Music Center of the North Shore in 1977. But soon he realized he didn’t have the right temperament for jazz. “The difference between myself and someone with a genuine interest in that type of music became more and more obvious.” Vinikour turned to classical piano, prodded by the center’s esteemed teacher Emilio del Rosario. Still in his midteens, he fixated on baroque music, hooked, he says, by “the complexity, the utter symmetry, the rhetorical gestures, the ornamentations, and just the sound of the plucked string!”
Del Rosario steered him to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but Vinikour was itching to switch from piano to harpsichord. “The harpsichord teachers there weren’t too good, so I ended up learning on my own how to refine my touch, how to comprehend the conventions used by baroque composers,” he says. After his graduation he attended the Mannes School in New York and entered the doctoral program at Rutgers. By then he’d started thinking in earnest about moving to Paris, a mecca for harpsichordists.
In 1987 he traveled to the city for the International Harpsichord Competition, won a prize for performing contemporary music, and promptly ordered a custom-made harpsichord. Soon after the instrument arrived in New York, in July 1990, he decided to drop out of Rutgers and accept a Fulbright grant to France. “I packed my new harpsichord and three cats and headed straight to Huguette Dreyfus’s class,” he recalls.
Vinikour credits Dreyfus, a disciple of the great Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, and Kenneth Gilbert, whom he calls “the other important harpsichord professor in France,” with his evolution as a virtuoso versed in early-music practices as well as the intricacies of modernism. After three short years of apprenticeship, he won first prizes in prestigious competitions in Warsaw and Prague. Those accolades quickly led to engagements with singers and orchestras. Today the 36-year-old lives in Paris and enjoys a thriving career in both recital halls and opera pits. But his activities aren’t confined to baroque concerts: for a recital last November at Northeastern Illinois University, he asked local composer Patricia Morehead to write a solo piece. Morehead says he’s “a stunning performer, extremely musical, amazingly dexterous, and flashy in that elegant French fashion.” Vinikour will reprise Morehead’s ten-minute-long Fantasy Variations for a recital at his North Shore alma mater, which recently changed its name to the Music Institute of Chicago, for its “Musical Homecoming” series this month showcasing some of its conquering heroes. All due to his skill with an instrument that he acknowledges “remains an oddity, in spite of its ever increasing popularity with listeners.”
For now Vinikour is content to be an expatriate in Paris. “Frankly, there are far more opportunities in Europe than in the States,” he observes. “Whereas back home I’d have to lug my harpsichord around in a station wagon, here most venues have harpsichords, some even of baroque vintage. And I can play in Prague one week and Grenoble the next, as I’ll be doing later this month. The only thing I miss is all-night shopping, but I can always do that when I come home to visit.”
Vinikour’s solo recital will start at noon on Wednesday at the Music Institute’s Thoresen Performance Center, 300 Green Bay Road in Winnetka. Admission is free. Call 847-446-3822 for more information. –Ted Shen