Nearly a decade ago, Matthew Vera was a “dream” to have in music class, according to his former teacher.
Richard Leek, a string bass player for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, was Matthew’s first music teacher. The then-fourth-grader at Corbett Elementary School, off East 29th Street, instantly responded to his teacher’s advice.
“You only had to tell him once,” Leek recalled.
The teacher remembered assigning his 9-year-old student a Vivaldi concerto to learn. “It was on a Monday. I think that two days later he had played it something like 50 times.”
Matthew, now 17, lives with Leek in Oro Valley. And the teenager’s musical determination soon may pay off with a professional career in classical music. That’s Matthew’s dream, anyway.
The rising senior at Rincon High School spends hours each week practicing the violin, viola and piano. Leek, who recently retired from teaching in Tucson schools after 37 years, will practice alongside him at times.
“When I practice, he’s there giving suggestions,” said Leek, Matthew’s foster father.
The coaching goes both ways, the teenager said.
Matthew seems well on his way to carving out a niche for himself as a professional solo artist. Earlier this spring, he performed the third movement from Bartok’s Viola Concerto during the TSO’s Celebrate the Future concert.
He joined other youth musicians as a winner of the symphony’s annual Young Artists Competition. Also, he has risen to the rank of concertmaster of the Tucson Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and he plays viola in the top-level group of Tucson Junior Strings.
Just a few years ago, as a high school freshman, Matthew won first prize in the Tucson Philharmonia Solo Competition and made his solo debut in Centennial Hall.
“Talent’s got a lot do with it,” he said of his accomplishments.
Not to boast, mind you. The young musician seems to know the deck’s stacked against him as he plans to apply to conservatories — Juilliard in New York City, the Colburn School in Los Angeles, among others — and doggedly pursue a paying career as a solo classical performer.
“I expect to be the starving musician for a while,” Matthew said. “I might have to do that for like five years.”
Nonetheless, the musician has made the best of his early success, parlaying it last year to a summer stint at the prestigious Interlochen Center of the Arts in Michigan. He’ll head back to the academy this summer on a full scholarship.
“I’m just using it as practice, period,” Matthew said of his upcoming six-week stay there.
The teen favors playing Romantic period composers, such as Chopin, Liszt and Paganini. He considers the period, from about 1815 to 1910, one of the richest in orchestral music’s history, and certainly, one of its most “expressive.”
Matthew views his aim of becoming a solo performer as the perfect chance to “interpret” these composer’s greatest works. It’s also his chance to occupy center stage.
“Audiences don’t faze me,” he said with a sly smile.