by JANINE LATUS
Sandler Center photography by MARCUS HOLMAN
New York City photography by EJ TOUDT and JENNIFER FENNER
Billy Jenkins checks the gas and the tire pressure. He puts a bottle of water, a pillow and blanket in the back seat for his daughter, Annika, tucks flowers into the doorjamb and hands his wife, Barbara Jenkins, a cold Mountain Dew. It is 2:30 on a Friday morning – cold, hot, snowy, rainy, foggy, blustery, crystal clear, it doesn’t matter – and Barbara and Annika are starting out on their weekly trip to The Juilliard School, eight hours and five states away from their home in Virginia Beach.
They begin with 2½ hours up the Eastern Shore, through small towns silent, their stoplights blinking yellow, to a gas station in Maryland that opens at 5, where Barbara fuels up the car while Annika sleeps; then another hour through Maryland and into Delaware, where Barbara checks herself again before pulling onto Route 1. If she’s sleepy she pulls into a well-lit gas station and sets her alarm for 15 minutes, then wakes up and drives on, all the way to the New Jersey Turnpike, Annika still asleep, Dad at home, his cell phone by the bed in case he needs to call AAA or a tow truck or the highway patrol.
Just before the Lincoln Tunnel, Annika wakes up, pulls her precious violin from its case and begins to play, her old bow bumping against the ceiling or jutting through the sunroof, her elbow sometimes sticking out of the open window as she practices études or complex fingerings or works on pieces she has yet to memorize. Sometimes she plays along with a CD of a concerto or rips through songs her mother calls out from Beauty and the Beast or Titanic or Pirates of the Caribbean, or patriotic songs like America the Beautiful.
People stare, people nudge. Once, late at night, the driver of the next car over waved at them to roll down the window. In his backseat was a young man with a guitar and together he and Annika played a duet until the light turned green.
Annika is one of those rare beings, an outlier, a person so gifted with talent and determination and family support that her litany of accomplishments seems implausible.
She has served as a concertmaster in Germany and Austria, written a cover story for Ranger Rick magazine, contributed three ponytails to Locks of Love, won poetry contests, become proficient in Latin, Mandarin Chinese and the Elfin language from The Hobbit, read Harry Potter in French and played for the animals at the SPCA while dressed as her pet husky, Zorro. When she was little she had friends give to the zoo and the hospital and the animal shelter instead of buying her birthday presents. She was an honor student through Norfolk Academy, played tee ball and basketball, and made the traveling team in soccer, cheered for her big sisters in sports and in concerts, and started learning French in preschool so they could no longer speak in code and exclude her in the car.
She has even made it to Carnegie Hall, proving the truth of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”
In her case, every day of the year, sometimes until 4 in the morning.
“I am inspired, and when you’re inspired you do what it takes to achieve your goals,” Annika says. “My work ethic developed because of my music.”
Annika, now 17, tucks a leg under herself on the plaid couch, surrounded by teddy bears and family photos. The cross-stitch over her head reads, “Home Sweet Home.” Her parents bought this lot in Kempsville in 1978, when they were first engaged and the neighborhood was just an idea. They got married in 1980, moved into a tiny apartment and saved every dime until they could build their own home. They didn’t know how to sew but they made their own curtains. They brought three babies home here, coached their ball teams, helped with the Girl Scout troops. Both of their mothers live nearby. In 31 years of marriage, neither of Annika’s parents has taken off their wedding ring.
They are influence No. 1. Influence No. 2 is her sisters; Amber, 10 years older, is now a doctoral student in English in Kentucky, and Alyssa, seven years older, is a medical student in Charlottesville. Annika started life listening to them practice and perform in Norfolk Academy’s orchestra. She was just past toddlerhood when she started lessons herself, playing on a 17-inch-long violin that had been theirs. They played, so she had to play. They read, so she had to read. They performed poetry and music at nursing homes, so tiny Annika, by this time 3 and already six months into her lessons at Academy, performed too, sleeping against her mother’s shoulder until it was her turn and then carrying that tiny violin to the front, nodding to the old people and then playing, the songs at first simple and then complex.
By the time she was 6, she was performing with the Bay Youth Orchestra in Virginia Beach in their Junior Strings Orchestra. According to Music Director and Symphony Conductor Helen Martell, she’s been its most loyal member since, always prepared, always focused, and with a work ethic that’s off the charts. This year, the orchestra’s 40th, Annika again won the audition to be concert master, leader of the strings.
Annika was 10 when she hauled a full teddy bear bank before then-mayor Meyera Oberndorf and the Virginia Beach City Council. Inside was $100 of her own savings and those of her friends – their contribution to the building of the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. And then she played a Tchaikovsky mazurka, the sound soaring in the council chambers, Mayor Oberndorf beaming.
Annika again stood alongside the mayor at the groundbreaking, and two years later she soloed at the Sandler’s dedication. A few days afterward, at a gala performance by Itzhak Perlman, the mayor presented her with the key to the city. She was 12.
That was also the year she and her mother made their first drive to Juilliard, a place so demanding that there are years only two or three violinists are accepted.
They went up a day early and settled into a hotel on the New Jersey Turnpike, planning on a full night’s sleep. At 4 a.m., though, the fire alarm blared, and as they hurtled down the stairs, Barbara – one hand on Annika and the other gripping the violin – tripped and twisted her ankle. Hours later, Barbara waited as Annika was led to an audition room.
“I stood there thinking that no way in that little time would anyone be able to know how well she could play or what was in her heart. And then somehow from all the way down the hall I could hear her start to play. I still don’t know how, because the rooms are soundproof. But I heard her play Bach, which she absolutely loves. It was beautiful and I knew they would know.”
On Fridays, Annika has private lessons with artist-teacher Shirley Givens, who calls her a joy to teach.
“With her impeccable technique and strong musicality she is able to reach to the heart of her audiences in performance,” she writes.
Saturdays they’re up again: piano, conducting, theory, ear training – plus a 2½-hour orchestra rehearsal and another with a chamber music trio. They don’t turn back south until well past dinnertime, when Annika finally relaxes by doing her homework for honors literature and world history, classes she takes through the California-based Laurel Springs Gifted and Talented Academy. There is simply no time for a traditional school.
The French violin she uses now is old – from the 19th century – and on loan to her from the Juilliard Rare Instrument collection.
“A violin isn’t like a car,” she says. “It doesn’t get worse with time, it gets better.”
The rules are strict: It must not ride in the trunk, must not be left alone in the car, must not be leaned against anything or exposed to lotion or perfume and – most important of all – must not be played by anyone but Annika.
Her bow chose her – like Harry Potter’s wand did – from the dozens she played in the back room of a bow shop in New York City, one after another, short strokes and long.
“You have to have a feel for the bow and the way it works with your particular instrument,” she says. She narrowed it down to five, and then to two. The one she finally bought, using savings from poetry prizes and music competitions, felt made for her hand.
JoAnn Falletta, the Juilliard-trained conductor of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and one of Annika’s heroes, calls her “a fantastic musician, a role model for her peers and younger people because she’s so dedicated to excellence and so filled with joy from her music making.”
Last year Symphonicity, the Sandler’s resident orchestra, designated Annika its Young Artist in Residence.
“Annika committed to a career as a violinist very young, and she has been pursuing it determinedly ever since,” says David Kunkel, Symphonicity’s music director and conductor. “If you think of the top of a mountain as the pinnacle of concert violinists, she has just climbed higher and faster than most everyone else, certainly more than everyone around this part of the East Coast.”
Thus in November she returned to the Sandler stage to play more Tchaikovsky, this time his Violin Concerto in D Major. For a year she had practiced its fingerings and strokes, her head and hands and body intent.
“I love the beauty, complexity and genius of classical music,” Annika says. “I enjoy analyzing and getting to know the composer through his or her work and mastering the nuances of the time period. When I perform classical music it’s about loving every note and communicating my interpretation of the composer’s thoughts and ideas.”
As she practiced, her mother hunted for the dress. It needed to look Russian and have some red, Annika said.
“The first time I played him I felt a burst of color, a flare of red. Each composer has his or her own color,” she said. “Mendelssohn is blue. Bach is black. Mozart is purple.”
Store after store, dress after dress. Barbara brought home the ones she thought came close and Annika chose a white bell of a gown with a flash of scarlet down the center. Annika didn’t have time or inclination to be fitted, either, so off Barbara went again, measurements and dress in hand, to the ever-understanding dressmaker who knew she might have to let it out or take it in again and again, all without meeting Annika.
The night of the concert Amber and Alyssa festooned Annika’s dressing room with balloons and silvery stars and stuffed animals. Their father was in the balcony, his eyes half on the stage and half on his video recorder. Barbara stood in the back of the auditorium so she could rush down to help with the costume change.
Finally Annika strode onto the stage. She glanced at the audience, then raised her violin. With the first stroke she disappeared into her own world, the music a spell, her body and bow pulling ever more from the symphony, a call and response. For 45 minutes her hands flashed, each note ringing, the full year of daily practice cresting to this moment.
First there was silence, and then the audience rose to its feet as Annika blinked and bowed.
“I lose myself in the music and the moment and it feels like time is suspended,” she said later. “When all the hard work and hours of practice come together, it is exhilarating. I sometimes find myself breathless when I take my violin down.”
Annika left the stage and moments later reappeared in cowboy boots and hat, her mother in too much of a daze from the last notes of the concerto to get to the changing room on time, the delicate French violin now a country fiddle as Annika ripped through the Orange Blossom Special, feet dancing, audience clapping.
Afterward in the lobby, party-dressed girls with programs and pens jostled each other.
“She’s coming!” they said.
Then, as she stepped through the doors, “Can I get your autograph?” “Can I be in a picture?”
Annika, violin strapped to her back, signed programs and smiled for photos. Waiting patiently were her sisters and her father, beaming with so much pride he radiated.
This is why she works so hard.
“I’m serving God’s purpose,” Annika says. “That’s the reason I’m able to do this and to share what I’ve learned. If I can find one heart in the audience to touch, then my work is complete.”