When Michael Turkell was 8, he embarked upon a mission to find his father’s old violin, which he discovered in a battered alligator-skin case on a top shelf in a bedroom closet. After a loud crash, his mother found him sitting in a heap of fallen items, triumphantly holding up the violin.
Even though Turkell first studied piano and only began violin lessons around age 11 — considered late for serious students — he prevailed by gaining admission to the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. He’s been awarded a scholarship to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this fall, where he will be the only freshman to study with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik of the San Francisco Symphony.
Along the way, Turkell has merged his music with his Judaism by studying Joseph Achron’s haunting “Hebrew Melody” and performing at his synagogue, Temple Beth Am. For four summers, he attended Camp Alonim, where he toted his violin atop a cabin roof one Shabbat and played the iconic melody from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
It was while serenading friends and relatives at his bar mitzvah that the now-17-year-old Turkell decided to pursue music in earnest. He won competitions, joined the Junior Philharmonic and was one of only eight admitted as sophomores to Los Angeles’ “Fame” school — a reference to the competitive high school depicted in Alan Parker’s 1980 film.
“It’s been a real wake-up call,” he said. “I learned how hard I would have to work, what you need to do, who you need to meet [teachers, deans of music conservatories] and where you need to go.”
With regret, Turkell gave up Camp Alonim in 2009 to attend Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute, a premiere training program for high-schoolers. Last summer’s destination was the grueling Meadowmount School in upstate New York: “That’s where I learned to practice five hours a day,” he said. “We call it ‘boot camp’ for violinists; Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and all the greats went there.”
While all the rehearsals and the competitions can be “incredibly intense,” he said, “the music is incredible. You can’t get much better than a Mahler symphony or a Brahms concerto.”
Turkell keeps balanced by mentoring beginning violin students, performing chamber music at assisted-living facilities and hospitals and once more attending Shabbat services, now that his conservatory auditions are done. “I do believe in God, and I love being a Jew,” he said.