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Entertainment & Arts

18-year-old gets handed a $2-million violin and a spot onstage at the Hollywood Bowl

Laura Kukkonen, 18, of Helsinki, Finland, won the L.A. Phil’s Play with Ray contest and a chance to perform Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with Ray Chen on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
Laura Kukkonen, 18, of Helsinki, Finland, won the L.A. Phil’s Play With Ray contest and a chance to perform Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with Ray Chen on Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Moments after leaving the Hollywood Bowl stage Thursday night, Laura Kukkonen, an 18-year-old Finnish violin student, was beaming. She had just performed the first movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto alongside headliner Ray Chen and received a standing ovation, and she was surrounded by lights and cameras in a crowded dressing room with her name on it. In a floor-length white lace gown, she looked like a superstar.

She was, in fact, a high school senior on her first visit to the United States — the winner of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Play With Ray competition, flown to Los Angeles for a week of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

At LAX she had been greeted by a driver holding a plaque with her name. On Tuesday she performed in an intimate master class with Chen. Afterward, Chen and a representative from Tarisio gave her the chance to select a high-end instrument for use at her Hollywood Bowl debut. She picked a violin by Guadagnini built in 1775 and valued at more than $2 million.

There was time for a little fun too. Tuesday night she and her fellow finalists, 13-year-old American Adriana Bec and 22-year-old South Korean Youngji Kim, had dinner at the Hollywood Bowl in a box with Chen. On Wednesday afternoon, the L.A. Phil treated all three finalists (and their moms) to an afternoon at Universal Studios with Chen and his parents.

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But for Kukkonen, who studies at the Sibelius Academy Youth Department in Helsinki, all of that excitement paled in comparison to performing at the Bowl.

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During an interview at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, Kukkonen was still nervous after playing for and with Chen during the master class. She talked about how she’d like to play in an orchestra or ensemble someday. By Thursday night, her nerves had evaporated, and she said she is considering a performance career as a soloist.

The Times asked Kukkonen to share her thoughts about her Play With Ray experience immediately after her Bowl performance. The following has been edited slightly for clarity and length:

I got a letter from Ray on Tuesday night. We were on the same car ride, and then he gave me the letter. There was something official, and then there was his handwriting, congratulating me. It’s very nice. I almost started to cry. I think I had some tears. But of course I was very like “Ahhhh!!!!” [She cups her face in her hands in excitement.] Like that.

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I think he’s such a feet-to-the-ground guy. Like not at all selfish. Doing this project already shows that he’s very kind and very genuine, so he’s a great person.

Laura Kukkonen backstage Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
Laura Kukkonen backstage Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

[On Thursday] when I walked off the stage, I thought it was a dream. If someone told me a month ago that this would happen, I wouldn’t believe it. It’s so crazy. First I got the email that I got in, then the three finalists. We were playing in the master class, then I got the message that I won, so everything happened so quickly . And then, now was the moment. I was so happy, so happy.

Tonight I played on Guadagnini’s violin from 1775. It’s like over $2 million! Yesterday I played on it the whole night, just to try everything, every piece I have, I played on it.

Before [going onstage], I wasn’t nervous, but I was very, very excited. I don’t remember being onstage. I always forget. After the performance, I can’t remember what I did there.

My mom was more nervous, definitely. She says she was shaking. But I was very calm.

I will always remember this moment when I got to play onstage. And when I saw that the people just stood up, and everyone clapping, that was amazing. I can’t describe the feeling. I saw some rows up front, and everything else was jet black. But I saw still that people were standing. That I will remember for my whole life.

It’s so different being a soloist. I think it’s really rewarding, to see the people looking at you. Yeah, probably I do want to do it again.

Laura Kukkonen and Ray Chen at the Hollywood Bowl
Kukkonen and Chen performing at Bowl. "When I walked off the stage, I thought it was a dream," she said.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times )
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