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Shining Stars: Rachel Saul

(Roy Nuesca)

Some of violinist Rachel Saul’s best memories are of playing classical music at Tucson’s 4th Avenue Street Fair when she was in high school or home visiting from college, with her younger sister, Rebecca, accompanying her on viola.

“What a great time that was, just performing together on the street and feeling that the community of Tucson really appreciates classical music and the fact that we were young, performing classical music,” she says.

Born and raised in Tucson, Saul now lives in Honolulu, where she is a violinist with the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra.

Her father, Lewis Saul, a Juilliard-trained musician and composer, started her on the piano when she was 3 years old. But Saul started playing the violin at age 5, copying her older sister, Sarah, who picked up the violin in her elementary school music class. Sarah didn’t end up pursuing a career in classical music, but works for the music-streaming service Pandora; Rebecca is a professional viola player.

Saul, now 30, was a member of Temple Emanu-El and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah there.

“I loved growing up in Temple, singing and learning Hebrew. I feel that singing in Hebrew was something that awakened a part of me that was dying for a deeper musical connection with my spirituality,” she says, adding that there must be “some genetic component to being a Jewish violinist.”

In fact, she recently spoke at a screening of a documentary about Itzhak Perlman, who once picked up a violin that had been rescued from the Holocaust and declared, “It plays Jewish!”

“There are certain keys,” she says, “like the key of G minor, that feel very Jewish” and often are used in traditional klezmer and Jewish liturgical music. Saul is attuned to hearing Jewish melodies in works by classical composers such as Gustav Mahler, “even though he had to convert from Judaism to Christianity,” and Felix Mendelssohn, who was of Jewish heritage although baptized and raised a Lutheran.

In April, Saul returned to Temple Emanu-El to take part in a “Music of the Shoah” concert, invited by a friend from her University High School days, Robert Lopez-Hanshaw, who is now the choir director at the synagogue. (See related story, page B-19.)

The concert celebrated “music that was written either by composers who suffered from the Holocaust or just pieces about the Holocaust that are moving,” she says. “It really was a special evening. I’m so happy I got to perform and be part of a meaningful conversation about the Holocaust.”

Next month, she will perform with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, playing in their season opening concerts on Sept. 21 and 23. The concerts will include Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with soloist Anne Akiko Meyers ­— “she played out here in Hawai’i and she’s stunning; I absolutely love her,” says Saul — and Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which was featured in the soundtrack of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

It will be a chance to visit with her parents, Joannie Rosenberg and Lewis Saul,  who still live in Tucson, she says, along with “several close cousins and an aunt.”

Saul is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, with a Master of Music degree from Boston University College of Fine Arts. She was performing in Graz, Austria, in 2010 when she met her husband, Jordan Schifino, who plays timpani (kettledrums) and other percussion instruments. He had a connection with the Hawai’i Symphony, and started playing with them in 2012.  On the strength of her resume and a recording, Saul got the chance to substitute with the Hawai’i Symphony, “and I kind of bought a one-way ticket to Hawai’i at that point,” she says.

Eventually she was invited to take part in a formal, blind audition, playing behind a screen. “I won that audition, so now I’m officially a tenured member of the Hawai’i Symphony.”

Musically, Saul’s true passion is chamber music. “I really love being able to perform in smaller ensembles,” she says, “and feel that level of artistry. You can communicate in a special way between a small group of musicians.

“It’s also special in a large orchestra; it’s just a different type of special,” she says, explaining that in an orchestra, the goal is to blend and not stand out from the other violins, while in a chamber group, each musician can allow their own voice to be heard.  In the Hawai’i Symphony, there are about 26 violins playing, depending on the repertoire.

Saul has played with several chamber ensembles in Hawai’i. She also teaches in public schools in Honolulu, co-founding an afterschool strings program at one elementary school, as well as maintaining a private violin studio and coaching chamber music at Punahou Music School.

When not performing, practicing or teaching, she says, “I love to surf, hike and enjoy all that Hawai’i has to offer. I also perform with a chamber orchestra on Maui . . . I love experiencing, appreciating and respecting the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands.”