Q&A with Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner
Seattle Symphony Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner, flanked by scores of mallets and drums in the unofficial percussion "lair"
Tonight and Saturday, in a program also featuring Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, Seattle Symphony Principal Percussion Michael A. Werner plays Rough Music, a percussion concerto written (and conducted) by HK Gruber. After today’s rehearsal, we caught up with Werner and asked him a few questions about his upcoming performance of this dynamic, unique piece.
It’s rare to see a percussion concerto featured on a concert program. What’s it like to have the opportunity to play one with the Symphony?
It’s great for me because I spent most of my career in New York in the opera pit. [Werner was a percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera for 13 years.] I wasn’t even on the stage — I was actually under the stage. To be out front is a great experience. Also, as a percussionist, I know what the instruments are capable of, but I don’t often get the opportunity to show it. It’s nice to be able to have percussion featured and to show people the qualities of sound and the dynamic range that are possible.
What is unique about HK Gruber’s music?
This piece gives a lot to very delicate moments, and really soft, kind of simple playing that shows the beauty of the tone of the instruments. A lot of times some percussion concertos can get very busy. [Gruber] keeps things somewhat simple at times, but he also puts that up against a big drum set part that’s really ferocious and malicious. So you have two extremes happening back to back. His music is also quite playful, which also suits itself well for percussion.
What percussion instruments will we see you play in this concerto? Is it challenging to have such a huge setup?
Well, from stage left going across, you have the vibraphone, and then the marimba, and then the conductor’s podium, and then the drum set. Instead of facing the audience, the drum set is turned straight at the conductor because it’s so imperative that we stay together. Then, there’s an octave and a half of tuned cowbells, Almglocken, and there’s a timpani setup that has a bass drum and some various cowbells and China cymbals. The tricky part is, especially in the third movement, there’s a lot of transition between instruments on the stage. The mistakes I worry about are not coming back to make a page turn — there’s lots of little things that I have to pay attention to. In the second movement I go from incredibly busy, fast, complicated drum set playing and then I come over and play the most delicate notes in the piece on the vibraphone. So you really have to instantly turn a switch to the next item you’re going to play.
Of all the instruments you get to play in Rough Music, which is your favorite?
I really like the vibraphone writing on this piece. I play it in both the first movement and in the second movement. The vibraphone is usually viewed as more of a jazz instrument, but it’s really nice in the context that [Gruber] uses it, and the orchestration is very pretty.
Q&A with Principal Horn Jeffrey Fair
Jeffrey Fair, photo by Rodger Burnett
Jeffrey Fair, the Seattle Symphony’s newly appointed Principal Horn, is a passionate educator, new-music lover and model train enthusiast. Below, he describes his musical journey to our Education and Community Manager, Laura Reynolds (who is a horn player herself!).
LR: Congrats on your recent appointment as Principal horn. You’ve been a member of the Seattle Symphony horn section since 2003 — what has your experience been playing in the Orchestra for 10 years, and how have your responsibilities changed as Principal?
JF: The last 10 years have been wonderful! It has been a great experience to learn from all my colleagues, including playing in a section with the former Seattle Symphony Principal Horn, John Cerminaro. Playing in a section with him was an amazing experience and an inspiring one. In a way, playing with these great colleagues over the last 10 years has inspired me to push my own abilities more and more to reach this point where I feel like it’s time for me to take the principal role.
My role now is to lead and communicate with the horn section and to bring my musical ideas to the stage when I perform the great orchestral works of the world.
LR: This concert season has featured a number of pieces that highlight the horn (like the upcoming Beethoven Symphony No. 7 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5). Is there a particular piece or musical passage that inspires you?
JF: We also have the Bruckner Symphony No. 4 coming up, which is a piece on which I’ve never performed as principal and one that I’ve always wanted to play. So, I’m particularly excited about performing that with our former Music Director Gerard Schwarz. I’m also excited to explore new works come June with Maestro Morlot. The new works I’m looking forward to playing the most are the premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean and performing the Britten War Requiem.
LR: Nerdy horn-player question: What kind of French horn do you play?
JF: I play an Engelberg-Schmid triple horn. I bought it new in 2000 and feel like I’m finally figuring out how to play it.
LR: On April 7 you’re performing in Soundbridge’s First Concert series — a series tailored for kids to learn more about the instruments of the orchestra and to meet our musicians. Can you share some of your early musical memories?
JF: There’s one story that I like to tell about how I chose the horn, which is the first instrument I played. When I was 11, I insisted on playing the horn even though they wanted all the brass players to start on trumpet or trombone. My grandmother had given me some stickers that had a horn and my name on them when I was really young and it inspired me to play that instrument. I still have one of them stuck on one of my mutes. I also listened to lots of records as a kid. My mom was an amateur flute player and loved the Boston Pops so we’d watch them on TV and listen to records together.
LR: It sounds like music was a big part of your family when you were a child. What is your experience as a music educator and why do you feel this education work is so important?
JF: I enjoy teaching people of all abilities, from beginners to the most advanced players. I believe that the Seattle Symphony’s efforts to reach audiences of all ages is invaluable and that is why I’m thrilled to participate in all varieties of educational activities. That said, playing a musical instrument oneself is the best way to develop a lifelong love of music. I hope that the First Concert series will inspire kids and parents to grab an instrument and begin learning themselves.
LR: Outside of music, what are your favorite things to do in your free time?
JF: There are lots of things that I like to do in my free time. Kids are a big part of my free time — I have one child and another one on the way next month. I also enjoy gardening (I just finished planting 15 trees in the yard), working on my model railroad set, and I love to cook and experiment with re-creating restaurant meals at home.
Q&A with Jeff Tyzik
The Seattle Symphony recently announced the appointment of Jeff Tyzik as Principal Pops Conductor beginning in the 2013–2014 season. He brings with him experience, originality and a passion for all music.
Jeff Tyzik, photo by Tyler Boye
Congratulations on your appointment! You’ve conducted several Seattle Symphony Pops concerts in the past. So far, what have you enjoyed most about working with the Orchestra?
I have always enjoyed working with the Seattle Symphony. They are great performers who always give their best. The Orchestra has a wonderful sound and the ability to play all styles of music effectively.
Now that you’re Principal Pops Conductor, you get to plan whole seasons of Pops programs — how do you go about creating a diverse pops repertoire that’s also aligned with your own interests?
First of all, I love all styles of music. Duke Ellington once said, “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.” I agree with Duke and I strive to program “good” music in all of its forms … from jazz to Broadway, Latin, pop, country, gospel — you name it. If it’s good music that touches me and I feel it can work with a symphony orchestra I will consider it.
I understand you have past experience conducting both pops and classical programs. A concert with Duke Ellington songs is undoubtedly very different than one with, say, a Beethoven symphony. That said, what similarities do pops and classical programs share?
If the repertoire has a high level of musical integrity, the experience can be very similar. The preparation in rehearsals is very much the same. I have to pay a lot of attention to detail and making the music come alive no matter what style of music we are performing. When an orchestra plays Ellington, for example, the musicians have to learn the musical language of jazz in order to play it correctly. Most orchestral musicians learned how to play classical styles as they were developing their musicianship, but they were not taught jazz styles. My job is to give them the information they need to play jazz effectively.
Do you have a favorite activity when you’re in town? A place you go to for artistic inspiration?
I love water. I enjoy a long walk along the water near Elliott Bay. I often wander down to Pike Place Market and pick up the energy and fun there. Seattle is a warm and welcoming city, and I like the energy I feel when I’m out and about. There is a “feeling” in the Northwest that gives me inspiration. Maybe someday I will capture that feeling by composing
a piece about Seattle.
Jeff Tyzik conducts the Seattle Symphony in Holiday Pops concerts on December 6, 7, 8 & 9. Read more about the program, and get your tickets, here.
We Welcome Jeff Tyzik, New Seattle Symphony Principal Pops Conductor
He’s original. He’s experienced. He loves music across all genres. And now, he’s one of us.
Photo by Tyler Boye
The Seattle Symphony is excited to announce the appointment of Jeff Tyzik as new Principal Pops Conductor of the Orchestra. He brings with him a solid background as a Pops conductor (he’s been Principal Pops Conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 19 years, and holds the same position with the Oregon Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and The Florida Orchestra). He’s regularly featured as a guest conductor in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s subscription series (a very unique honor for a Pops conductor to have). He’s a Grammy Award winner, and, in the words of Simon Woods, Executive Director of the Seattle Symphony, “He is an incredible musician and a great entertainer. But what makes him unique is that he has a real love of music of all styles and genres.”
Read the full press release, including Jeff Tyzik’s impressive biography, here.
Tyzik officially assumes the position of Principal Pops Conductor in the Orchestra’s 2013 – 2014 season, but you can see him in action for two shows in the 2012-2013 season. He conducts the Seattle Symphony in our December Pops program, Holiday Pops, and in our June Pops program, A Night at the Cotton Club.
Q&A with Alexander Velinzon
You may have seen him in June during the Seattle Symphony’s performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Before that, you may have seen him in October 2011 as guest concertmaster for the Orchestra’s performances of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Now, he’s here to stay. We welcome Alexander Velinzon, the Seattle Symphony’s David & Amy Fulton Concertmaster, in his first full season with the Orchestra.
Welcome to Seattle! What do you look forward to most in your new role as Concertmaster of the Orchestra?
It’s a great honor for me to join the Seattle Symphony. It has always been a wonderful ensemble, but I feel that now that the Orchestra has entered a whole new chapter of its life, it has a potential to go to the next level in terms of sound, repertoire and unity. It’s very exciting to be a part of this process!
While you were Assistant Concertmaster at the Boston Symphony Orchestra [from 2005 to spring 2012], you had the opportunity to work with Ludovic Morlot [who was Assistant Conductor at the BSO from 2004 to 2007]. What is it like to work with him again?
I’ve always loved playing under Maestro Morlot. In fact, one of my first times filling in for the BSO’s concertmaster was under Morlot’s baton. Even though I was, of course, a bit nervous, that feeling went away after a few minutes from the start of the first rehearsal. His music-making is so natural and his style of work so friendly that I forgot about my worries and enjoyed that week tremendously. I am looking forward to having many more special musical experiences in Seattle with Maestro Morlot.
Your most recent position was Assistant Concertmaster with the BSO. Now you’re Concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony. How does this change things? Is there more pressure?
I really enjoy making music. Sitting in the concertmaster chair is definitely more responsibility, but also allows one to be more creative.
The concertmaster position is one of artistry and leadership — you’re largely responsible for facilitating the connection between the conductor, the string section and, to some degree, the rest of the orchestra. How do you approach this opportunity? Do you have plans? Goals? Or is it more of an organic process?
It should definitely be a process. The Seattle Symphony is an orchestra with deep traditions; I believe that my responsibility is to incorporate my personal experiences and knowledge into the creative work of the Orchestra.
We’ve got a great season coming up, with lots of variety in programming. Is there a particular concert you look forward to?
There are so many great programs this season. But if I had to pick one it would be the Turangalîla Symphony by Messiaen. It’s a piece that just pulls you inside its own beautiful universe. And having the amazing Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano will only add to the fantastic experience. Also, since Mahler happens to be one of my favorite composers, I am very much looking forward to performing his Fourth Symphony.
This year, we’re introducing [untitled], a new late-night contemporary chamber series in the Samuel & Althea Stroum Grand Lobby. The aim of this program is to break down barriers between musicians and audiences — what do you think presenting music like this in such a unique setting will accomplish?
I think it’s a fantastic idea! It’s so important to bring the musicians closer to the audience. This will give the public an opportunity to hear music they wouldn’t have heard otherwise in a much less formal atmosphere than a regular concert hall.
Now that you’ve performed with the Symphony a few times, you may be familiar with our tagline, “Listen Boldly.” What does it mean to you?
“Listen Boldly” strikes me as a perfect line for what Maestro Morlot is trying to accomplish here in Seattle. I hope the listeners are excited about the music that the Symphony is bringing to them this season. There will be many opportunities to get to know some exceptional pieces that are new to both the Orchestra and the audience. But, as with many things that are unfamiliar, one must “Listen Boldly” and keep an open mind in order to appreciate it.
Music aside, what excites you about living in Seattle?
My family and I are hoping to explore the great natural beauty of this region. I was also very excited to learn that Seattle is a great theater city; I will try to take advantage of that. And, of course, to experience the wonderful cuisine of Seattle!
Meet Meeka Quan DiLorenzo, Cello
As a newly-minted Seattleite in 2009, Meeka Quan DiLorenzo ran into Dave Matthews at a park in Wallingford. “I was very sad I was wearing sweatpants,” she says with mild embarrassment. “I think I was holding a box of cupcakes or something.” But this didn’t prove to be too much of a damper to DiLorenzo’s interaction with Matthews. “I had a good conversation with him — he’s a very nice guy.” Matthews, in fact, shares a special relationship with the Seattle Symphony: his CD Some Devil features several Symphony musicians.
DiLorenzo’s was a fitting baptism to the Northwest music scene, where Seattle Symphony musicians regularly brush elbows with other pop, jazz and classical artists, be they established virtuosos or rising stars. DiLorenzo, who joined the Symphony after five seasons as Associate Principal Cello of the Utah Symphony, is quite happy with her new home in the Northwest. While she and her husband don’t hit the slopes anymore given the lengthier drive time — “it was only 20 minutes to the lift in Utah” — they’ve found a lot of other things to do. Between exploring the Puget Sound’s islands and Seattle’s restaurants they stay quite busy. “We’re total foodies,” she says.
Being a mother certainly takes up a lot of time as well. “When I’m not here [at the Symphony], I’m usually with my son…. That’s pretty much my life. I am Mom all the time.” Meeka’s husband, Anthony DiLorenzo, is a composer and trumpet soloist; needless to say, their son, Luca, has grown up in an incredibly musical environment. “He thinks everybody plays an instrument because all my friends do,” says Meeka.
Well, does he play an instrument then? Not yet. “He’s got so much energy that I’m thinking sports will be better for him,” says DiLorenzo. As with many of the musician-parents in the Seattle Symphony, DiLorenzo and her husband are content to let their son find his way. After all, DiLorenzo got her start as a cellist not because the instrument was forced upon her but because she expressed interest. “I come from a very blue collar background. I went to a Montessori school and that’s what was offered and so that’s what I did. And it was great! Now I’m going to send my son to a Montessori school as well.”
The musician-parent dynamic can be both challenging and rewarding. “Being married to a musician,” DiLorenzo says, “has its benefits and drawbacks.” She and her husband are very laid back about letting their son explore his own interests, but they are much more vigilant about the delineation between their own work and free time. “We try not to talk about work too much,” she says. “Before you know it, you can talk all day about work and the orchestra.”
They do, however, understand each other’s busy schedule and their needs to practice and prepare. It’s not all drudgery, of course — their professional life leads to intersections with interesting people and places. Anthony, for example, plays in a brass quintet with Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, Principal Trombone for the Seattle Symphony; and DiLorenzo, an avid chamber musician, enjoys taking her talents to such festival locations as Sun Valley, Aspen and Taos. And, of course, she is a familiar face in the Seattle Symphony’s Chamber series — the chamber concert on Sunday, April 22, is her third of the season. See DiLorenzo, other Seattle Symphony musicians, and guests perform in the intimate Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. Get your tickets here.
Meet Stefan Farkas: Principal English Horn
Do instruments often fit the personalities of their musicians, or is it vice versa? Stefan Farkas, Principal English Horn for the Seattle Symphony, says his instrument suits him well. “Quite often in the repertoire, the English horn is given slow, melancholy passages,” explains Farkas. “I think that does fit my personality. I’m more of a laid back person.”
This isn’t to say that Farkas is melancholy, but he’s certainly calm and easygoing. His thoughtful demeanor reveals an impressive patience for whatever comes his way.
Reedmaking, for example, can prove to be an incredibly tedious endeavor. Farkas spends countless hours making reeds, most of which aren’t even good enough for rehearsal. “There’s so much weeding out of bad reeds,” he says, but in the spirit of patience, he adds, “It’s a means to an end.” Without the hours of shaping, tweaking and perfecting several reeds, he wouldn’t get to play the instrument he loves.
Farkas doesn’t get fed up with Seattle’s notorious excess of gray, either. A plaintive English horn solo may conjure up images of gloomy Northwest forests, but Farkas doesn’t seem to mind Seattle’s damp climate. “The clouds and the dampness in the winter don’t really bother me,” he says. “It gets to some people, but not to me.” Endless days of winter rain are sometimes trying, he admits, but are a fair trade for the heat and humidity of his childhood home on Long Island, and his last place of residence, Houston, Texas. (He played for the Houston Symphony before moving to Seattle.)
The temperate climate appears to be a good fit, and interestingly, so too does Seattle’s storied music scene. Farkas may be calm and mild-mannered, but his musical preferences are eclectic and sometimes loud. “In high school, I was really into the grunge scene. It’s funny to imagine that I’d end up here.” Farkas even played guitar in a few bands in high school. “It was kind of hard alternative rock. I guess it was grunge.” Then, with a smile: “The names of the bands are escaping me, which may be a good thing because they’re probably embarrassing.”
Though he no longer plays in grunge bands, Farkas recently went through another phase: Leo Kottke–style finger picking. He’s since given up this hobby for no small reason — his son was born — but Farkas’ willingness to try new instruments and styles mirrors his multifaceted role with the Seattle Symphony.
By title, he’s Principal English Horn, but he also plays Second Oboe (and sometimes First) when the music calls for it. “I play a lot of different roles, which I enjoy,” he says. He even took on a new instrument, the oboe d’amore, for the Seattle Symphony’s recent presentation of Ravel’s Boléro. Though the instrument is a member of the oboe family, it wasn’t without its differences. “There was definitely a learning curve,” Farkas says. “It was a challenge to pick up an instrument I’d never played before, and I had to make reeds for it and all.”
The performance was a success; Farkas reiterates, with the air of one who appreciates hard work for what it produces, “It was a good challenge for me.”
Farkas will take up the oboe d’amore once more for Boléro on the opening night of the 2011–2012 season. Get your tickets, starting August 6, here.
Meet Emma McGrath: Associate Concertmaster
When Emma McGrath was three, she gave her first public performance: she sang “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” at a Christmas party. “It was an illustrious performing career from the start,” she says with her characteristic dry wit.
Just seven years later, the British-born McGrath gave a much bigger performance: she played violin in London’s Purcell Room. At age 14, her performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was broadcast live.
Though McGrath may be remembered for her prestigious performances, she’s very open to exploring all avenues of performance — and okay with them taking her into unexpected territory. A perfect example: the same year she made her London debut, McGrath also took on folk music. She calls it an accident: “I think I was short of some cash one day so I decided to go out busking. I thought, ‘What’s going to sound good? Brahms? No.’ So I learned some folk tunes. A couple of months later, I was in a band. Six months later, I was in another band.”
The fortuitous “accident” of McGrath’s learning the fiddle led her to the No. 1 spot in the U.K. Folk charts as a member of Celtic band Tarras, which claimed this honor with their 1999 album, Rising. At ages 16 and 17, McGrath and Tarras toured extensively in the U.K., Germany and the U.S., where they had record contracts. “After this, I really figured I should go to University, and possibly come back to the folk music thing later,” she says.
Nowadays, after McGrath’s classical education and career has taken her from the U.K. to the U.S., she may not have much time for folk music, but she’s grateful for its influence: “I just think that it’s good to be a really well-rounded musician. What you’re looking for is something unique, for your own voice. Folk is a different style; it’s very free. It’s kind of good to have that freedom. With classical, it’s good to have that level of technique.”
Classical music, McGrath’s self-described “first love,” has formed the backbone of her career, but as she continues to demonstrate, exploration and innovation are important to her continued growth. She’s lately shifted her focus to Baroque violin, another style that she took on somewhat unexpectedly. “The Baroque stuff kind of happened accidentally,” she says. In December 2009, she sat concertmaster for Handel’s Messiah. Stephen Stubbs, director of Pacific Music Works, was playing in the orchestra. After working with McGrath that winter, he began hiring her for concerts as a Baroque violinist. This February, she played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the Seattle Symphony, Stubbs conducting. She was praised for capturing Baroque style on a modern instrument. “I just love the style,” she says, adding that she’s already acquired a Baroque violin for future performances. In what appears to be typical McGrath fashion, she’s willing to follow this new style wherever it takes her.
She also composes and sings, though she says because of her current “all-consuming” dedication to violin as Associate Concertmaster, her voice is “in hibernation.” Her word choice is appropriate. For someone with as many talents and interests as McGrath has, it’s not a matter of abandoning projects, but of temporarily quieting them with the intention of addressing them later. As she’s demonstrated before, their influence just may resurface somewhere down the road, and will probably do so in a very unexpected way.
Meet Michael Miropolsky: Assistant Principal Second Violin
The timeline of Michael Miropolsky’s life is marked with major changes, from personal to political to geographical. At age 7, he knew he wanted to be a professional violinist. At age 13, he took a huge step toward this goal: he left his childhood home in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (then part of the Soviet Union) for Moscow, Russia, to continue his studies. He struggles to explain the transition. Moscow is to New York City as Bishkek is to…Yakima? Bellingham? Spokane? The point is, it was a big change for Miropolsky, but it wouldn’t be the last.
“Since 13 I was living alone,” says Miropolsky. It was difficult — his mother, he recalls, was quite sad — but his decision was fruitful for his career. In addition to his passion for violin, Miropolsky had a growing interest in conducting, but his state-sponsored university education only allowed him to have one focus. Two majors? Nope. “You couldn’t even have a major and a minor,” he says. So he stuck with violin, graduated, and later sat in on conducting classes when he could, learning as much as possible about life on the other side of the baton. His postgraduate endeavors in Moscow laid the foundation for his current balancing act as a professional conductor and violinist.
For ten years, Miropolsky made a living as the Assistant Principal Second Violin of Moscow State Symphony, with which he performed in over 25 countries. He even found time to serve 20 months in the Russian army in a military music ensemble. “I was fortunate not to hold a weapon in my hand,” he says. “The violin was my weapon.” In 1990 came another big move, much bigger than that from Bishkek to Moscow. This time, the relocation had less to do with professional ambitions and much to do with personal safety.
“I am a Russian Jew,” clarifies Miropolsky. He recalls how after the fall of the Soviet Union, anti-Semitic sentiment and actions became more noticeable and often violent. Miropolsky’s wife had her own struggles. She and her parents had been denied the right to emigrate from Soviet Russia in the late ’70s, thereby becoming refuse-niks to the KGB. Because of this stamp in their dossier, her parents lost her jobs, and she, a violinist who had earned the highest degree in her field, was “lucky to find work teaching at an elementary school.” In 1990, with the Russian economy in ruin, anti-Semitic violence on the rise, and the lack of quality medical care, Miropolsky and his wife finally immigrated to the U.S.
After an 18-month stay in San Fransisco with a sponsor family, Miropolsky got his job with Seattle Symphony, and he, his wife, and newborn daughter moved a final time. Miropolsky is quite happy with his home. “Seattle is known for its standard of living, for nature,” he says. “It’s a great place to raise kids. People here are so nice!”
Obviously, he’s done well at Seattle Symhpony, having held his post for 20 years. He’s also been able to follow his passion for conducting and is Music Director and Conductor of Seattle Violin Virtuosi, Seattle Chamber Orchestra, Cascade Symphony Orchestra and Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra. All told, Miropolsky has recorded ten CDs with his American groups. He’s so busy that he’s had to start turning down opportunities to conduct. He’s humbly thankful for these opportunities, though: “It’s very exciting to feel needed, to know that people want you to lead them.”
“I love to teach,” adds Miropolsky. Be it the Second Violin Section or an entire orchestra, he relishes the opportunity to help bring together a group of musicians. “It comes from my father who was a professional teacher,” he says. “It’s in my genes. To take something from scratch and bring it to a final product… it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Meet Maria Larionoff: Concertmaster
Maria Larionoff’s violin is old. It’s not WWII old. It’s not Civil War Old. Go back further. Crafted in Italy in 1775, the Guadagnini is Founding Fathers old.
Oh, and Maria Larionoff’s violin — the Guadagnini, the powerhouse model she plays during concerts in Benaroya Hall’s expansive S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium — isn’t really Maria Larionoff’s violin. (She does have her own, a 1678 Amati, which she plays for smaller, more intimate concerts.) The Guadagnini is on loan from the family of the late Benum W. Fox, a doctor and amateur violinist. “His children remember him playing this violin every day,” Larionoff explains. “They didn’t want to just sell it. Now, they can come up from Portland and hear it get played.”
When labeling an instrument “old,” it’s easy to focus on major historical events and to gloss over intimate personal connections forged among the instrument, its owners and its audiences. The Guadagnini has certainly touched the Fox family (and the thousands who have heard it played at Benaroya Hall over the past two years), but record of its performing history doesn’t stop there. The instrument is also called “the ex-Lorand”; it inherits this name from another former owner, Hungarian-born Edith Lorand, who created and led her own (all-male) orchestra in the 1920s and ’30s. She spent much of her professional life in Germany, moved back to Hungary because of the worsening political climate, and eventually immigrated to the U.S.
“Her repertoire is basically salon pieces,” says Larionoff. So it is that the same violin that is showcased in Seattle Symphony’s recent recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade played waltzes and light classical pieces in European salons some 80 years ago.
An instrument’s sound quality is, of course, much more important than age, though the two are often linked. Larionoff calls the Guadagnini’s sound “dark” and “robust.” Its ability to carry over the orchestra makes it a prime choice for performances in large concert halls.
Sadly, this relationship will soon come to an end. At the end of this season, Larionoff will be stepping down as Concertmaster. She won’t, however, be stepping away from her commitment to music. Next year, rather than helping lead the Seattle Symphony in front of audiences over 2,000 strong, she’ll be devoting herself to education outreach work for The American String Project.
The decade-old nonprofit organization, founded by Larionoff and her husband and UW bass artist-in-residence, Barry Lieberman, is a conductorless string orchestra that performs twice a year. The Project’s “project” is to expand string quartet arrangements for string orchestra performances twice a year. (Read more on the ASP website.) But having been given a recent $200,000 education grant, it looks like American String Project will soon be doing more than just playing music.
Larionoff, who as a child got her start on violin thanks to her public school’s string program, looks forward to giving back to talented students in Seattle-area public schools. String Project artists, who are or were concertmasters, principals or soloists in groups from Seattle to Switzerland, will periodically travel to Seattle to coach string quartets, says Larionoff. ”We’ll have several residencies throughout the year, and [String Project musicians] will get to work with some of the more advanced students in the public schools.”
Though the future is looking good for Seattle’s talented young string students, Larionoff’s presence with the Seattle Symphony will be missed. She’s been with the Orchestra since 1990 and has soloed countless times, but is happy with where she’s leaving off. “I feel like I’ve done all I need to do as Concertmaster,” she says. “It’s time to quit while I’m ahead.”
“I’ll be back though,” she quickly adds. And she will — she’s slated to play the Pēteris Vasks Violin Concerto, Distant Light, with the Symphony in January 2012.