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Teen cellist reflects on major competition wins that took her to Carnegie Hall, Russia

Teen cellist reflects on major competition wins that took her to Carnegie Hall, Russia
Srijani Bhattacharya, 13, practices cello on "Alice IV" each morning in the rec room of her La Cañada home. In March, the teen learned she'd won two prestigious concerto competitions and would get to perform summer solos in Russia and Carnegie Hall. (Tim Berger / La Cañada Valley Sun)

La Cañada teenager Srijani Bhattacharya wakes up every morning and practices her cello for about 45 minutes to an hour before heading off to middle school.

Her practice area consists of a music stand set up in the corner of a spare bedroom, where the family keeps a packed bookcase, elliptical machine and foosball table. Her instrument is a three-quarter sized cello named Alice IV, a carryover name from smaller, earlier iterations.

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“My teacher told me you have to name your cello, so I kept calling them Alice,” the teen says with a smile full of braces.

The practice space is not much, but then with talent like Bhattacharya’s, it doesn’t take much.

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In March, the unassuming 13-year-old learned she’d won two prestigious competitions for amateur musicians. She’d secured a first-place victory in the 7 to 13 age group at the American Fine Arts Festival (AFAF) International Concerto competition and placed second in the American Protégé International Concerto Competition.

Prizes included two solo performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City and a three-week tour of Russia featuring a performance with the Kostroma Symphony and a masterclass with a Maria Chaykovskaya, head of cello department in Moscow State Conservatory.

Mom Sohini Ray said she wanted her daughter to have some serious competitions under her belt in case she pursued music into and beyond high school, so she researched contests that would accept video auditions.

“These competitions seemed doable to me, and the opportunities they brought seemed like they’d been good experiences,” Ray recalls. “I had literally seen something on Google and threw a dart in the dark — and it landed in Russia.”

On a Friday in late June, Bhattacharya traveled with Ray and younger sister Sharani (with bulky Alice IV in tow) to New York City, where she played two performances in Carnegie Hall that Saturday and Sunday before flying to Moscow on the Monday following those appearances.

“I still think it’s just plain dumb luck,” the teen says of her recent victories. “I’m not really that competitive. And I forget things — one time I left my bow in the dressing room.”

Bhattacharya’s demurral shouldn’t be mistaken for laxity. She got her start on a one-quarter-sized cello at the tender age of 4 and has been playing ever since. Currently enrolled in South Pasadena’s Pascale Music Institute, she takes weekly lessons with instructor John Walz, a principal cellist in the Los Angeles Opera.

Walz, who helped his young protégé make the audition video and prepare for her solo performances, says he’s seen too many musicians forsake the art of music for the accomplishments it can bring. Bhattacharya isn’t like that.

“With a lot of kids it’s all about technique, playing real fast and showing off,” he says. “But with her it really is about the art form and the expression, which makes her playing really quite special.”

The teacher says the La Cañada teen has a lot of options for the future but definitely has the talent to pursue music if she chooses. Bhattacharya, however, seems content to continue her daily practice while seeing where her interests and studies take her.

“I really have no idea what I’m going to do with my life,” she admits.

“We have no problems if she does want to be a cellist,” Ray interjects. “That’s all I’ll say.”

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