Juilliard-bound violin prodigy has already earned her bows

William Motchan
Hava Polinsky performed a violin solo with the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra on April 28. Hava won the philharmonic’s Aspiring Soloist Competition. She also is the winner of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra’s concerto competition. PHOTO: BILL MOTCHAN 

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

When Hava Polinsky was 8 years old, she sat in the audience listening to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and dreamed about playing onstage.

Nearly a decade later, the dream became real. On New Year’s Eve 2016, the violin prodigy performed Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” with the symphony on the imposing Powell Hall. She played the piece flawlessly.

It was the culmination of years of dedication and practice for the Clayton High School senior.

“I still can’t believe it,” said Hava, now 17. “It was such an incredible experience. It was so surreal, and it was such an honor to be asked, and will probably be one of the biggest honors of my entire life.”

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If Hava was nervous before the performance, she certainly didn’t show it. Adam Crane, the symphony orchestra’s vice president for external affairs, escorted her from the dressing room to the stage.

“Her first words were, ‘Let’s do this!’” Crane said. “I remember after she performed, after several rounds of loud cheers and applause from the sold-out crowd, [music director and chief conductor] David Robertson said, ‘See what happens if you practice!’ It was a remarkable experience watching her perform on that. Hava is an incredible talent and we are so proud of all of her accomplishments.”

It’s likely that Hava will experience many more significant stage moments and honors in her career. She’ll attend the Juilliard School this fall. But Hava’s resumé already reads like a seasoned performer.

She has been a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra for six years and is the winner of the group’s 2017 concerto competition (her second). She is a past winner of concerto competitions conducted by the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra, Yangtze River, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Alton, Belleville and University City.

Hava attended the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival and School for the past two summers and was a member of the Aspen Chamber Symphony. And she’s the concertmaster for the Clayton High School Orchestra.

What’s the old joke? How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice. There’s more than a little truth to that. Hava practices five hours a day. When she’s not practicing, she’s performing or taking lessons from SLSO violinist Joo Kim.

Her schedule is booked solid with lessons, rehearsals and practice. But in many ways Hava is a typical teenager. She listens to pop music (including Jewish rapper Drake), and she gives Bruno Mars props for his dancing skills. But techno and trap music give her a headache. Call it an occupational hazard. Hava’s ears are finely tuned to musical flaws. 

So while Hava’s classmates may favor Lil Yachty, she’s happiest listening to Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

Hava first picked up a violin at age 5. Her mother Debbie remembers it well.

“She started out with the Suzuki method for about a minute, and she was quickly reading notes,” Debbie Polinsky said. “The teacher knew Hava had something going on. After a few years, she started taking lessons from Dana Myers, a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra violinist.”

Many musicians consider the violin the most difficult instrument to learn and to master. Any bowstring instrument requires much more concentration and precision than a woodwind or keyboard instrument. Hava acknowledged that the violin can be challenging, but she said from Day 1, she enjoyed playing.

“What I do remember was that it was never a hassle going to lessons,” she said. “It was always something that I wanted to do. I think part of that stems from the fact that from the start, it was what I wanted to do, it wasn’t something that my parents suggested, but it was from my interests. When I started out, I just remember that it was fun.”

Hava had a bit of heredity on her side, too. Her paternal grandmother played violin and was the concertmaster at Clayton High School. Her father, Michael, a neurosurgeon, plays the violin beautifully, although he’s quick to point out that Hava is a violinist; he merely plays violin.

In fact, it is Michael Polinsky whom Hava considers her most important musical influence.

“He has a great ear, and since the beginning, he always sat on my bed when I practiced and always gave me the best advice, so his input has always been important,” she said. “What Joo Kim teaches me is so incredible, but without [her father], I wouldn’t be here. So I am incredibly grateful.”

Debbie Polinsky sees that in her husband, too. In fact, when they were dating, Michael Polinsky serenaded her on the violin.

“He does have an amazing ear, and he gives Hava advice, and she never, ever shows signs of frustration,” her mother said. “She just says, ‘You’re right!’ She has so much admiration for his input, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

On April 28, Michael Polinsky, as he always does, visited his daughter backstage to offer last-minute encouragement before another virtuoso performance. This night, Hava performed as a soloist with the St. Louis Philharmonic. She is the winner of the philharmonic’s 2017 Aspiring Soloist Competition. The piece, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, is particularly difficult. It has a number of double stops, glissandi, trills, leaps and dissonances. When Tchaikovsky unveiled the concerto in 1878, the world’s top violinists thought it was unplayable.

Naturally, Hava nailed it, and she drew a standing ovation.

You can find Hava’s performances on YouTube, but to truly understand how masterfully she plays, go to one of her live performances. Central Reform Congregation and Congregation B’nai Amoona members know Hava’s musical ability well. She played the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur for both synagogues last year and has played it at CRC for the past three years. During Yizgor, she played the “Schindler’s List” theme.

Could the name Hava Polinsky someday sit alongside noted Jewish violinists such as Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman? Time will tell, but Hava is gifted and has a strong work ethic. I asked her where she sees herself in 10 years.

“It’s definitely an orchestra position or maybe teaching somewhere, too,” she said. “I definitely knew that music was my path.”

On May 26, Hava Polinsky will be playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra at 8 p.m. at Powell Hall.