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Thursday, July 23, 2009 04:50 pm

Home-grown virtuoso

After beating string players twice his age, Springfield's Clayton Penrose-Whitmore moved on — to Chicago, Detroit and Carnegie Hall

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Clayton Penrose-Whitmore inspired Thomas Penrose (middle) and Dr. Michael Whitmore (right) to take up cello and viola.
PHOTO BY TERRY FARMER

T here must have been scores of kids who, like Clayton Penrose-Whitmore, found themselves enjoying a snack in the Ethnic Village at the Illinois State Fair, just as a group of Suzuki violin students took the stage. And there must have been several whose parents, like Clayton’s, figured, “Hey, my kid could do that,” and signed them up for music lessons. There may have even been a few other wee tykes who practiced, just like Clayton, and worked their way up from sawing out “Twinkle Twinkle” to skittering merrily through Mozart concertos.

But few students zip through the Suzuki method books at Clayton’s clip, and fewer still go on to more advanced musical literature. Clayton, at age 9, won Jacksonville Symphony Guild’s “Talent Among Us” competition, beating out area string players twice his age. At 10, he repeated the feat, winning the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony concerto competition.

At 12, he became the youngest musician to reach the finals of the national Sphinx Competition, then returned two years later to win. He was just 13 when the New York Times described his solo with the Sphinx orchestra at Carnegie Hall as a “polished presentation . . . notable for its lilting pulse and dynamic contrast.” At 15, the Times review of another Sphinx concert at Carnegie Hall noted that Clayton gave a “buoyant performance.”

Two years ago, he moved to Evanston to study with Almita Vamos, whose previous students include famed solo violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Jennifer Koh, as well as members of the Grammy Award-winning Ying Quartet and Pacifica Quartet.

So how does a kid growing up in Springfield fiddle his way into the rarefied world of top-notch classical music? The obvious place to look for an explanation is his family, and even a first glance tells you that Clayton’s crew is unique. Clayton, who is African American, was born in Washington, D.C., and was still an infant when he was adopted by a white couple from Springfield. The couple was already raising a daughter, Joli, adopted from Honduras. Clayton’s hyphenated last name is a combination of theirs: They are Thomas Penrose and Dr. Michael Whitmore.

That’s right — two men.

“We have some interesting family portraits,” Clayton says.

Clayton began playing the violin in a Suzuki class when he was 4 years old.

But don’t let the fact that Penrose plays cello and Whitmore plays the viola fool you. If you think their musical interests explain Clayton’s talent, you would be wrong.

T he first thing you would notice when you meet Clayton in person is, well, nothing whatsoever. Like most adolescent boys, Clayton reveals for grownups no more than necessary. He’s polite and cooperative, but soft-spoken and bashful, crafting his answers to a reporter’s questions using the fewest number of syllables possible.

Georgia Hornbacker, a violin teacher who for seven years spent hours with Clayton every week, got excited when she heard that her former student would be featured on National Public Radio’s “From the top” — a weekly show that spotlights the best pre-college-age classical musicians in the nation. Hornbacker was not especially eager to hear him play; instead, she was counting on host Christopher O’Riley’s talent for enticing young musicians into a few minutes of repartee. “I wanted to hear him talk!” she says.

She would not be disappointed. Clayton told O’Riley about his insatiable athletic shoe addiction, informed the radio audience that he was wearing Nike Dunks low-cut, and busted Penrose for not practicing his cello enough. Then he dazzled the airwaves with a virtuosic exhibition of John Williams’ “Devil’s Dance,” from The Witches of Eastwick soundtrack.

Being a somewhat shy sneaker-collector is just part of what makes Clayton an average boy. He also plays sports — his Springfield pals knew him as a threat on the soccer field, both indoor and out, and as a shortstop and a pitcher who could bring the heat in the Springfield Southwest League. His dads, watchful of his valuable fingers, never let him play basketball competitively, but he still plays.

Clayton is a member of the Gemini Quartet, which in April advanced to the semi-finals of the nation’s largest chamber music contest, the Fischoff Competition, held annually at the University of Notre Dame.

“Every time I spent the night at his house, we played basketball until late at night, then got up early and started playing,” says Garrett Belville, who has been “best friends since 4th grade” with Clayton.

Another friend, Greg Knox, calls Clayton “P-Dub” and says he lays down some amazing hip hop beats for their Garage Band project, Say What? “On one song, he does hip hop rap and a violin solo,” Knox says.

Clayton’s MP3 player has a little bit of everything. “I have a lot of classical music on it, then hip hop and R&B, and some jazz,” he says. “A lot of the songs that I have on there are from, like, when I was in middle school and stuff. I just listen to a lot of the songs on my iPod because the songs help me remember about certain times in my life.”

Now 16, he has his first serious girlfriend — another string player he met at the Music Institute of Chicago. In Evanston, he spends his free time hanging out with his friends, playing basketball in the park and drinking hot chocolate at Starbucks.

Also like a lot of kids, Clayton is spending the summer at sleep-away camp, though his has the title of Heifetz International Music Institute. A prestigious and rigorous six-week-long program for advanced violin, viola and cello students, the brochure promises that students get two private lessons per week, plus chamber music coaching, performance opportunities and five hours of practice time every day.

Clayton is honest. “Right now, I try to practice five hours a day,” he says, “but it usually ends up being four and a half to five.”

He seems like a completely ordinary kid who just happens to be extraordinarily talented at violin.

“That’s exactly how we describe him,” Penrose says.

He was advertised as a healthy African American newborn in the classified section of The Washington Blade, a newspaper catering to the gay community in the nation’s capital. Penrose and Whitmore picked it up while they were spending a week sightseeing, visiting friends and attending the annual Gay Pride parade, in the spring of 1993. With daughter Joli then 16, almost grown, they had been considering adopting another child. They were afraid the baby in the ad would be unavailable by the time they got around to inquiring, a few weeks after they returned home. As it turned out, no one else had applied to adopt the little black boy.

Whitmore, the director of the department of emergency medicine at Passavant Area Hospital in Jacksonville, and Penrose, who retired from Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, began the tedious process of submitting to a home study and background checks, supplying references and taking classes. By the time all the paperwork had been processed, Clayton, who had been living with a foster family since birth, was already 7 months old. When Penrose and Whitmore finally got the green light to travel to D.C. to get Clayton, they got so lost in the suburbs that they arrived at the foster family’s home late at night. Due to the hour, their special bundle was presented without ceremony — a few items of clothing, a stuffed bear and a sleeping infant.

“That was maybe the most surreal moment in my life. You just pick up this baby, and there you are,” Penrose says. “He’s not yours one minute, and he’s yours the next.”

His birth mother, who had two older children, had given him the name Daquan, which his dads kept as Clayton’s middle name.

From the beginning, he was surrounded by music. His parents had amassed a vast library of classical recordings. Whitmore had played piano from age 6 through college, and as an adult had taken classes in violin repair. Still, both men were more consumers, rather than purveyors, of serious classical music, and that went double for Penrose: “I had lessons on Hawaiian guitar when I was 10, for about three weeks,” he guffaws.

Like most parents, they set out to expose their child to a variety of experiences and see what grabbed his attention. With Clayton, soccer and baseball caught on, but he refused to even try dance. When he started Suzuki violin classes at age 4, he was hooked.

Right away, Penrose noticed that Clayton seemed to experience music at a deeper level than most kids do — a trait that Penrose has learned is common among musically gifted children. “There’s something going on in their brains that makes the music even more wonderful to them than it is to us non-musicians, and Clayton had that,” Penrose says.

He had fun practicing, he enjoyed going to his lessons, he played in tune, and he zoomed past all the other kids in class. “He just had a really major facility for it, which was obvious within a year,” Penrose says.

In fact, Clayton made it look so easy that his parents decided to join in. Whitmore began taking violin and then viola lessons at Lincoln Land Community College, and Penrose took up the cello.

“I thought it would come easier, honestly, but it’s very frustrating,” he says. “And to have someone in the house like Clayton, playing so well while you’re just struggling away, it bruises your ego badly.”

Little by little, it started to dawn on the dads that maybe Clayton had a special gift. Asked if he remembers when their light bulb switched on, Clayton mentions winning the WUIS-WIPA Young Musicians Contest, for musicians through high school age, in 2002. He was 9 years old.

Clayton’s older sister, Joli, was adopted from Honduras. “We have some interesting family portraits,” Clayton says.

Whitmore’s violin teacher, Laura LaCombe, paved the way for Clayton to transition from Suzuki class to a private violin instructor. LaCombe, who played with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, recommended Georgia Hornbacker, an associate professor at Millikin University and associate concertmaster of the ISO.

“To get Georgia to take a student from somebody else takes a lot of work,” LaCombe says.

However, after only a few lessons, Hornbacker realized that Clayton had more natural talent than any student she had encountered in her 30 years of teaching. To prepare to teach Clayton, she signed up for a week-long pedagogy symposium with Dorothy DeLay, the legendary violin instructor at the Juilliard School, whose students included Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

“I was able to ask some questions about how to teach certain things, advanced techniques that I had not had any students who were advanced enough to do,” Hornbacker says. “I knew Clayton was going to get advanced enough to do them, and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.”

Hornbacker tackled Clayton’s technical difficulties. His left hand squeezed the neck of his violin, his bow position wasn’t perfect, and he held his right shoulder much too high. But at the same time, she recognized astonishing gifts. He has perfect pitch — “You can punch any note on the piano and he not only can tell you what it is, he can pick up his violin and play the right pitch in the right range,” Hornbacker says. He memorizes music so easily that Hornbacker suspects Clayton might have a photographic memory. Bonnie Ettinger, the pianist who frequently accompanied Clayton for performances, calls his memory “amazing.”

“It’s like he just internalized the music,” she says.

Ettinger also noticed Clayton’s immunity to stage fright. One of their earliest performances together was on the Unity Temple Concert Series, in Oak Park, where Clayton was one of three featured soloists. Ettinger says she felt jittery — Sen. Dick Durbin and his wife, Loretta, were in the audience — and tried to teach then-10-year-old Clayton the deep breathing technique she uses to relax herself while they were waiting backstage.

“He said, ‘I’m not nervous, Mrs. Ettinger. When are they gonna introduce us?’ ” she recalls. “He was just such a joy. I considered it an honor and a privilege to be able to accompany him.”

With Hornbacker’s coaching, Clayton entered his first national competition, sponsored by the Sphinx Organization, devoted to increasing diversity in classical music by nurturing African American and Latino artists. Just 12 at the time, Clayton was the youngest musician to make it to the finals of this competition. He placed fifth.

“You know what was the most amazing thing? This kid,” Hornbacker says, “no matter where you put him, in whatever context, he rises to the top. It’s like he has these reserves of ability that all you have to do is strike the match and ignite it and there it goes.”

Clayton played pitcher and shortstop with the Springfield Southwest League for several seasons.

What he did next was even more phenomenal: He decided to take a year off competition, and devote all of his energy to conquering his lingering technical problems. Besides, Hornbacker felt certain that if he had gone to the Sphinx again, he would have won, and winning any prestigious competition automatically brings invitations to perform, or “concertize.” Clayton and his parents realized that he wasn’t quite ready for that.

During that non-competitive year, Hornbacker and a friend arranged for Clayton to have a private lesson with famed violinist Rachel Barton Pine. In town to perform with the ISO, she agreed to meet Clayton at her hotel, between rehearsals. In that first lesson, she recognized a young musician who possessed what she calls the “total package” — technical proficiency and emotional musicality, the ability to absorb new intellectual ideas and physical concepts quickly, and an inborn fervor for playing violin.

“It becomes very obvious if it’s a kid who’s doing music out of a sense of duty, or whether they’re doing music because they’re truly passionate about doing music,” she says. “There’s no magic formula. You just have to rely on your instincts. And after having been in this world for three decades . . . you’ve seen all the different sort of configurations of family dynamics. It was obvious that Clayton loved playing the violin.”

She began inviting him to her Chicago studio for occasional lessons, and Hornbacker would go with him and take notes. “I learned so much from observing those lessons and watching how she taught him, how she talked about playing, what she said about particular passages in each piece,” she says. But Hornbacker could sense that her stellar student was slipping away.

“It was bittersweet,” she says. “As soon as he’d had a couple of lessons with Rachel, I said OK, he’s going to be gone before I know it. She figured he was in too small a pool of peers, and he needed an opportunity to play in a better orchestra and be more challenged. She wanted him to study with her teachers. I kept saying, ‘Please don’t take him yet.’ But I didn’t want to be selfish about it.”

Clayton auditioned for Pine’s teachers, Roland and Almita Vamos, whose roster of former students have thriving solo careers and chairs in the world’s top orchestras. It took Almita 10 minutes to decide to accept Clayton. He auditioned for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and won a top chair (he has been concertmaster, and is currently principle 2nd violin), and passed a battery of musical tests to earn a place in the Music Institute of Chicago, a training academy for what Pine calls “pre-professional” young artists.

His parents realized that they had to move. They sold their five-bedroom west side Springfield home, and pared down their accumulated belongings to fit into a two-bedroom Chicago condo.

“It was a very difficult decision, especially for me, because my life’s here, my family’s there,” says Whitmore, who still works eight days every month at the Jacksonville hospital. “But you adopt a child and they’ve got a special gift; you kind of feel like you’re his steward, you know? You’re obligated to give him the best. And here we’re given this child with a very special talent — I mean, how could you say no?”

Clayton says the move has motivated him. “I left all my friends, and my parents had to make big sacrifices too. I feel like since I moved, I might as well be working as hard as I can to achieve what I want to achieve.”

Clayton performed a solo with the Sphinx Orchestra at Detroit Orchestra Hall in 2008, immediately after winning the national Sphinx Competition.

The decision has paid off. Last year, Clayton returned to the Sphinx competition and took first prize. He toured Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts with the Sphinx orchestra, including two performances in Carnegie Hall. In Detroit, he performed under the baton of renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin. He performed as a guest soloist with the New World Symphony, the Colorado Symphony and the Hartford Symphony.

Many of these orchestras have invited Clayton back, but he has turned them all down to spend this year concentrating on his school work, his violin lessons and preparing to audition for various music conservatories. His goal is to join a major professional orchestra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra is his current top choice.

Whitmore recently asked Clayton to consider a university with a conservatory component, so that he will have a degree in addition to music performance. Clayton didn’t like the idea.

“He just looked at me and says, ‘Dad, I can’t even imagine myself doing anything but playing the violin.’ ”

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