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Vendryes’ music career spans recorded and live music, from his work with the harp and viola combo Duo Esprit to his regular gig with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as its principal violist.

Basil Vendryes

Viola instructor Basil Vendryes of DU’s Lamont School of Music remembers an aunt reading him the riot act over his plans to pursue a career in music.

“You’ll be playing outside Carnegie Hall, not inside it,” she warned the fledgling musician.

When Vendryes played the historic New York City venue as a sophomore in college, he made sure to save a seat for her.

Vendryes’ music career spans recorded and live music, from his work with the harp and viola combo Duo Esprit to his regular gig with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as its principal violist.

But he often gleans the most pleasure from helping the next generation of musicians. He recalls a conversation he had with a dean several years ago.

“When a student ‘gets it’ … when the light goes on and they actually get it and you hear the results, it’s really one of the great joys for me,” he recalls telling the dean.

Growing up, music touched the lives of Vendryes and his six sisters. But he was the only one to take that love and turn it into a lifelong pursuit.

He originally wanted to play the saxophone, but the viola’s signature sound proved too compelling to ignore.

“Its attributes were more to my personality. It was a darker, more introspective instrument, not a showy one,” he says.

Vendryes’s musical career flowed smoothly from there. He earned scholarships and praise as a young viola player, and his time with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra followed stints with the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Rochester Philharmonic orchestras.

“I feel qualified to teach. I’ve had my fingers in all the different pots that are possible,” he says. The experiences left him with a sober outlook on his craft.

“The music field is a crap shoot,” he says, noting some of the better musicians around are still waiting tables. That reality informs his lessons, but he doesn’t let it dim his students’ passion.

“It’s a balance between giving [students] the best education you can and also guiding them so they understand whether or not they’ll be viable in the field,” he says.

The New York native helps DU students refine their viola skills but he also coaches younger pupils as founder and director of Colorado Young Sinfonia, a group which focuses on playing complex, less mainstream works. He also squeezes in duties as music director of the Colorado Youth Symphony Orchestra.

The music market may be tight these days, but it offers enough wiggle room for those with the talent, drive and entrepreneurial pluck to succeed, he says.

“There are so many avenues that musicians can go down. They can teach, or play in studios or even play at casual weddings,” he says.
 
Vendryes says one of his latest projects, Duo Esprit, gives him the chance to tackle an unusual music combo.

“There are several new pieces being written for us this year,” says Vendryes, who played about 10 concerts last year with harpist Ann Marie Liss. “The literature is limited [for the viola/harp combo] but it’s growing pretty quickly.”

Richard Slavich, cellist and chair of the Lamont string department, calls Vendryes a “professional’s professional” who blends high musical standards with an engaging personality.

“In rehearsal, he is relentless in exploring and analyzing every musical option,” Slavich says. “In concert, he lets go of all the analysis and gives deeply.”

Vendryes asks plenty of his students, and they are more than eager to oblige, Slavich says.

“It is a fine line that a music teacher walks, balancing critical perspective with personal nurture … Basil walks it beautifully,” Slavich says. 

“I don’t know how he manages his enormous schedule … any one of these duties would be enough for most people,” Slavich adds.

It’s no surprise Vendryes, who plays on a rare Italian viola made in 1887 by Carlo Cerruti, is a strong supporter of arts funding.

“The arts is not just about the people who are making it … It’s an incredibly important part of everyday life and it’s taken for granted,” he says. “Arts should be one of the last places [to cut].”

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