Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Catalyst Quartet violinist Karla Donehew-Perez credits family’s move to California for advancing her career opportunities

By Heather Longley

When Catalyst Quartet violinist Karla Donehew-Perez’s family left Puerto Rico for California, it was the first step in realizing her dream to become a classical musician.

She grew up the daughter of professional musicians. “My dad was in the symphony, and my mom was a professor at the conservatory, so I sort of was like a music brat,” she says. “Already at a young age, I was advancing much faster than a lot of the kids around me. … The exposure that I was getting wasn’t enough.

“For me the real moment of choosing to sort of commit myself to this life, at least to try to make it happen, was when I moved to California,” she says.

Donehew-Perez says that had she stayed in Puerto Rico, she might not have fulfilled her musical aspirations.

“There’s still opportunities there, and there is a rich culture of classical music there,” she says. “But it’s just like anything else—there’s only a small world, and you want to be connected to everything else. By staying, I might not have seen as much or been as involved with the rest of the (music) world.”

In California, she enrolled at the Crowden School, a middle school founded by music teacher Anne Crowden for students seeking a serious balance between high-end music training and first-class academics. It was there, at an institution that requires its pupils to learn a stringed instrument before they can take up the piano, that Donehew-Perez fell in love with chamber music.

“Since then I’ve always wanted to be in a quartet,” she says.

She made a name for herself with Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting classical music participation among Black and Hispanic youth. In 2002, at age 17, she earned second-place laureate in the junior division, placing again in 2007 and 2008.

She also has performed with a number of orchestras, including the Berkeley Symphony, Sacramento Philharmonic, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, and Miami’s New World Symphony. She also has collaborated with members of the Juilliard and Takács quartets.  In 2010, she joined the Catalyst Quartet in its debut with the Sphinx Virtuosi string orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

In addition to relocating to the continental United States, Donehew-Perez says the Sphinx experience helped to get her career off the ground.

“They have been such a huge support. They started the quartet, they offered me the job I’ve always wanted,” she says. “There is a slight misconception that they have handed us our career. However, we have had to do a lot of … footwork. But they provide us with exposure and opportunities and have been, I would say, like mentors or sponsors.”

Dworkin, who founded Sphinx in 1996, says he’s proud of his organization’s advocacy efforts and how it has helped to shape and influence musicians.

“We’re always doing educational residencies and partnerships. It’s a big part of what we do,” Donehew-Perez says. “It’s very important to make sure that you also expose the youth. … It’s good to get out there and bring this so-called classical music that everyone thinks is untouchable. It’s not, and it should be for everyone.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.