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Music Notes: the new face of the CSO

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Vadim Karpinos's one-bedroom South Loop apartment is stocked with enough entertainment to satisfy any high schooler. Beavis and Butt-head DVDs, PlayStation games, and techno CDs are scattered on the floor. His stereo system is impressively tricked out, with expensive speakers and surround sound. A small basketball hoop is fixed to a closet door that barely conceals mounds of laundry. Karpinos isn't just young at heart: at 25 the percussionist is the second-youngest player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Over the last few years the CSO has been restocking its ranks with younger musicians, and by now about 10 percent of the group is under 35. Oto Carrillo, a 31-year-old hornist, calls the older members of the orchestra "mentor/fatherly types."

The decreasing average age of the CSO may be a result of natural attrition or it may be an unspoken policy. U.S. law forbids most businesses from forcing aging employees to retire, but not from offering them unrefusable retirement packages. (CSO musical director Daniel Barenboim has said that he prefers the European system, which requires orchestra musicians to retire at 65.) Five veteran violinists accepted retirement offers from the CSO this year. One of them, Fred Spector, 78, had played for the CSO for 47 years. "These are very talented people, and they play extremely well," he says of the new crop. "But their attitude is very different. It's a very difficult thing for me to talk about. We old-timers had a different attitude."

"Many very talented musicians retired recently," says Karpinos, "and while it's sad to see them go, many talented musicians have joined. Obviously when someone new joins the orchestra it will take a few years to fit in with the CSO sound."

Karpinos has been playing percussion since he was a toddler in Kiev. "When I was three years old, I saw someone on TV playing drums, and I never had any desire to play any other instrument," he says.

Karpinos's family moved to New York in 1991, when he was 12, so he could attend Juilliard's precollege program on a full scholarship. He missed his first concert because he didn't realize he was supposed to come back into Manhattan from his home in Brooklyn to play on a Saturday night. "I didn't even know I missed the concert until the next rehearsal when the conductor yelled at me and someone explained that I was supposed to play in a concert. After that I learned English pretty quickly and I never missed another concert," he says. "I was late to a few rehearsals, but that wasn't because I had a language problem." Karpinos, who's known to spend his evenings practicing martial arts, playing basketball, and drinking mudslides with his young colleagues, doesn't usually go to sleep until about 2 AM. He's always found it difficult to wake up for early calls. "We can't simply play the concerts and then go home," he insists. "We have to live. So sometimes we go out for a drink, sometimes we play basketball, and sometimes we play chess. There's more to us than just our profession."

Which isn't to say he isn't dedicated. His commitment to playing music has caused him to miss out on a lot. "I skipped school a lot in high school," he says. "I was so focused on practicing, nothing could distract me. I still got good grades, so it wasn't such a big deal."

"Now that I'm thinking about it, Vadim probably did miss a lot of school, although he certainly excelled in his music classes," says Lucinda Santiago, coordinator of the instrumental music program at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts in New York City. Santiago says it's rare that someone is so devoted to their music that they skip school to practice, but that Karpinos was always a perfectionist. His goal back in Kiev was to get into a major orchestra by the time he was 22.

"The [CSO] audition was really intimidating, especially seeing all those people who I had looked up to. But then I focused and I did what I had to do," he says. "Now I have an amazing opportunity to play with terrific musicians and a world-famous orchestra. It's what I practiced my whole life for."

The CSO returns to Chicago this week after a two-week tour of Japan. They'll perform a program called "Ode to Shakespeare" on Saturday, November 8, at 8 PM and Tuesday, November 11, at 7:30 PM at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; call 312-294-3000 for tickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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