At just age 20, violinist María Dueñas stands tall as a citizen of the world

María Dueñas is an international violin star, with a full schedule of concertos, recitals and festivals, including her upcoming concert Feb. 14 with the Toronto Symphony at Orchestra Hall. At age 20, the Spanish-born virtuoso is also a full-time undergraduate university student.

“This is my lifestyle,” Dueñas said in a video interview. “I enjoy traveling so much, and I’m always curious and interested in different cultures and different cities. I can balance that with being a student. Sometimes you have to study on the plane. It’s a challenge, but it works for now.”

The touring life is notorious for rarely allowing an artist to venture beyond the airport, hotel or concert hall. Dueñas always tries to “at least walk around and try some local food, so you know where you are,” she said. “That’s the memories you will have from that city, walking around.” (She now has a recommendation to try a Chicago-style hot dog.)

And when she returns to the Music and Arts University of Vienna, she will be “happy to continue learning and come in contact with other musicians my age. It’s important to have a student life and go out with friends.”

In addition to violin lessons, she has taken classes on composition and conducting, because “I’m very interested in really knowing what’s going on in the orchestra. It’s very important to play chamber music as well, to develop your listening skills.” On her own, she has also composed several piano pieces and cadenzas for violin concertos. 

“Even if I’m playing with the biggest orchestras, I still need a foundation for my work,” she said. “Many people talk about talent, but the audience can’t see how much work is behind that, so for me, education is always important. I want a normal education as a musician.”

But there has been nothing normal about her career path so far. After a concert on her tour last year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Globe wrote, “She deftly proved herself to be no run-of-the-mill wunderkind with her riveting performance … without any of the stiffness or uncertainty that sometimes haunts new music. It seemed she’d had it in her fingers forever.”

Chamber music often offers more rehearsal time than an orchestral piece, but whether working with a pianist or a conductor, there will be times when opinions differ and a compromise has to be worked out. At 20, Duenas has less experience than many of her collaborators, but “it would be very boring to play with a conductor with whom it always works smoothly,” she said. “It’s much more interesting to work with so many personalities.”

For her Chicago concert, Duenas will perform Symphonie espagnole by the French composer Edouard Lalo. The piece is a staple in Spain, she said, and “Lalo knew very well what he was writing,” possibly because it was written for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. “Every time I play it, I always try to change something,” she said. “It’ll be very interesting to bring this piece to the United States, especially with the Toronto Symphony, on my first time with them.” Conducting the orchestra will be Gustavo Gimeno, its music director since the 2020-2021 season.

She currently has access to two 18th-century violins — the Camposelice Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Foundation, and a Gagliano instrument on loan from the German Foundation for Musical Life. “A violin is like a person,” she said. “It has its own soul, its own personality, and you can never play two violins the same way. You have to learn how to obtain its maximum.” 

But with the price of vintage instruments well into the millions of dollars, most violinists today will never own one. “It could happen that they’ll say they need the violin back,” Duenas said. “That’s why it’s important to have a modern violin of your own.” Hers, built in Vienna, “is different, of course, but it’s still a great instrument.”

But speaking of the 300-year-old instruments, she said, “A violin evolves when it’s been played. So many people have had it in their hands and played it differently. It has matured.” Her modern instrument, she said, has a precise, direct sound; the Stradivarius has a bigger volume; the Gagliano is notable for its silvery tone. “For the Lalo, I’ll probably choose the Stradivarius, because of the darker sound,” she said. “For a sonata with piano, probably the Gagliano would be better.”

Do the antique instruments need gentler handling? “Every instrument should be handled gently,” she said with a smile. “You have an instrument in your hands, hopefully you’re going to pass it on to other generations, so you have to care for it.”