It is perhaps her switching from violin to viola at age 10 that made Anna Heflin the adventurous music connoisseur and performer she is today. While the viola is not traditionally known for its solo repertoire, she feels it offers something the other instruments in the orchestra’s string section do not. “It’s a more interesting part,” she says. “It’s a different type of listening.”
When prodded about the lack of standard repertoire for viola in the classical canon, she has a quick answer. “I’m a new music person. So, that is a solution to that problem.”
The road less traveled seems to be the preferred route for Heflin, a manifestation of her intellectual curiosity. As a second-year master’s degree candidate at SFCM, she has had the opportunity to perform in all manner of ensembles. Whether she is playing a solo or sitting in the viola section of the symphony orchestra, she’s happy if there is a new work on the program. Both the collaborative engagements with the Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) program and standard ensemble settings provide the dynamic experience she seeks. “There’s more than enough contemporary rep to go around,” says Heflin.
Calling attention to a few of the most visible artists in the contemporary music scene—composers Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli and violist Nadia Sirota—she expounds her personal sense of discovery and learning. “I’m discovering things all the time, which is part of the fun. You’re also playing with all these weird techniques. You’re always figuring things out about the instrument.”
It takes a bit of daring to learn the finer points of extended techniques that show up in more contemporary scores from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Heflin sets the bar high for herself; she is also adept at reading and performing complicated rhythms. Well-received performances of works by Frederic Rzewski and Ted Hearne are a testament to her impeccable musicianship and suggest her own enthusiasm translates to audiences.
However, she notes the performer perspective is only one side of the musical coin. The other comes from the listener. Heflin signed up this year for SFCM’s Music Criticism class, the first ever offered at the Conservatory apart from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, a biennial conference and competition she also participated in this fall. In the course, led by San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman, Heflin learned how to put herself in the audience’s shoes, allowing her to take stock of a performance in a way she had never before.
And the review process itself was Heflin’s major eye opener. “What was hard for me at first was not making [reviews] program notes,” she recalls. “That was my first reaction because I’ve done mostly academic writing.”
Concert curation is one of Heflin’s passions, and writing concert reviews has informed her approach to her own professional projects. “It’s the ability to look at concert programming from a different perspective. If you have to really think about what stood out to you and why, it changes your perspective as an audience member and will make you program things differently, like when you’re putting a concert together for yourself.”
Heflin’s attention to the reflective process in apparent, a glowing element of her curious nature. She quotes Kosman with the line that speaks to everything criticism should be, giving clarity to the craft. “If you were talking to a friend right after a performance, what would you mention?”