A Balanced Life

Volume 119, No. 1January, 2019

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Amy Zoloto on her passion for bass clarinet, her use of yoga and Tae Kwon Do for focus and breath support, and the new opportunities for women in orchestras…

Amy Zoloto.
Photo:Chris Lee

Bass clarinetist Amy Zoloto, a member of Local 802 since 2000, joined the New York Philharmonic almost three years ago after having subbed in the orchestra in prior years. Along the way, she also played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

Zoloto has performed with the Met, New York City Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and American Symphony Orchestra. She has participated in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Bard Music Festival, and Colorado Music Festival. As a chamber musician, she has appeared with the New York Philharmonic Ensembles chamber series, was a member of the Sylvan Winds, and toured Europe with the Jeunesse Musicale Wind Quintet. As a teacher, she has conducted master classes at the Manhattan School of Music, coached the New York Youth Symphony, and was an adjunct professor at University of Florida.

A Chicago native, Zoloto is a graduate of DePaul University, where she studied with Larry Combs, the retired principal clarinet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and performed for two years with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. She completed further studies with Frank Kowalsky. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently got the chance to ask Amy Zoloto about her musical journey.

Bob Pawlo: I’d like to start with my standard opening question, because it opens so many doors. How did your journey in music begin?

Amy Zoloto: Well, my parents weren’t musicians, but they were lovers of the arts, and so they exposed us to music and art and plays. We lived in the suburbs of Chicago, and my parents would bring us into the city, and we’d go to concerts. My older brothers were musical and played piano and saxophone. They picked the clarinet for me by saying I could go on “cool band trips.” I started taking private lessons and played in band class and began to feel like I had an affinity for the clarinet. I sat first chair and had a good ear. In high school, I played in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, and that was really where I found the people who I wanted to be with. In school, sometimes it’s hard to fit in, but in CYSO, it was always a great experience for me. We toured Europe, and that experience of being with friends and playing great music was when I knew what I wanted to do.

Bob Pawlo: What was it like studying with Larry Combs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Amy Zoloto: It was incredible to listen to Larry up close in lessons. He had such a beautiful sound with a lot of style and nuance. I would go every week to CSO concerts and that was a remarkable experience for a young musician. He taught me to pay attention to producing a beautiful sound and to always go for the phrase.

Bob Pawlo: When you were at DePaul University, you won a chair in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago?

Amy Zoloto: Yes, and that was an illuminating experience too. We played under whomever was conducting the Chicago Symphony, including Solti, Barenboim and Boulez. We would rehearse for a month for each set of concerts. You don’t get that kind of in-depth rehearsing as a professional. But when you’re a student who’s trying to learn everything and soak it up, it was really enlightening.

Bob Pawlo: After your college years, what did you do next?

Amy Zoloto: I was in Chicago for a while and played with some local orchestras, like Elmhurst, which was conducted by Dale Clevenger, and Northbrook, which was conducted by one of the concertmasters of Chicago Symphony, Sam Magad. And then I studied with Frank Kowalsky at Florida State for a year. Frank was great for me because he was a wonderful pedagogue and emphasized the basics. It was right around then that I decided to audition for my first professional job, in Jacksonville, Florida. And this was where the bass clarinet comes into the story. The job in Jacksonville was for second clarinet and bass clarinet. I didn’t own a bass clarinet yet. I had never really played it. I always thought it was too heavy, and I didn’t want to carry it. But at the time I was teaching lessons at an affluent private high school, and a student said to me, “Oh, I have a bass clarinet. My parents bought it for me to march in the band, but I’m planning on selling it because I want to go to Paris.” So I said I would buy it! It turned out to be a top-of-the-line Buffet. I took one lesson on it and won the job in Jacksonville. That was grace under pressure, but after that I really started learning it and practicing a ton. I fell in love with the sound. It was like, “Where have you been all my life?” I just loved playing it.

Bob Pawlo: So Jacksonville was the right place at the right time for you.

Amy Zoloto: Yes. It really was. I got so much experience playing bass clarinet. But eventually I decided I really wanted to come to New York. I got the chance to play a Broadway show and started playing in the American Symphony Orchestra and other freelance orchestras. Then in 2006, I auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra and later, the San Francisco Symphony and made it into both finals. I felt like I was gaining momentum. At the time, the New York Philharmonic was looking for a full-time bass clarinet sub while they were auditioning for principal clarinet. It turned into five years of playing and doing all the tours. I loved it but I wanted my own full-time position and so I auditioned and won the job in Toronto.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of the main takeaways from your time in the New York Philharmonic as a sub?

Amy Zoloto: Those five years gave me incredible experience playing all the big stuff. We played Don Quixote, Mahler 6, the Shostakovich violin concerto and 11th symphony…almost everything. I learned all the pieces that are usually on auditions. Also, as a substitute, you operate on high alert, knowing that there’s always the imperative to sound good, because you don’t have the comfort of tenure. So I learned to play under pressure. Those were some stressful years, but I’ve realized that the stress has not gone away, even today. Now that I have tenure, it helps me sleep a little better at night, but the demands are still there!

Bob Pawlo: Around the same time, you also did some very interesting tours with other groups, like Philly. How was that?

Amy Zoloto: That was great. Even though I hadn’t won the chair, I had done well in my audition with Philly, so they hired me to tour while their bass clarinetist was on paternity leave. It’s fun to play in different orchestras and enjoy each one’s individual style. For instance, I remember playing the Rite of Spring as a sub with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. I’m ready with my reeds, and 10 minutes after the rehearsal was supposed to start, people start filtering on stage, and they’re all relaxed and milling around. Finally, conductor Valery Gergiev comes out with his little toothpick. (For those who don’t know, he literally conducts with a toothpick!) It was hilarious. During the rehearsal, the musicians are talking to each other and laughing, even shouting across the stage. It was a bit of a free-for-all and it was so eye-opening to see the differences between orchestras. There wasn’t a lot of English spoken, but we were able to communicate with each other enough to perform.

Bob Pawlo: It sounds like the Rite of Spring is your calling card.

Amy Zoloto: Yes, you always need a second bass clarinet!

Bob Pawlo: When did you finally settle into the New York Philharmonic as a member?

Amy Zoloto: Almost three years ago, in 2016. When the audition opened up, I was a tenured player in Toronto and loving it. Having that job took pressure off the New York audition. My daughter was going to school in Canada, but my husband, who is the audio director for the Philharmonic, was still in New York. It was a thrilling day and I cried when I found out I had won, especially with the history I had with the group. It felt like I was coming home.

Bob Pawlo: How do you stay balanced between clarinet and bass clarinet?

Amy Zoloto: That’s a very good question. I try to spend a lot of time on both instruments. Technically, you have to stay strong on both and keep your reeds up. I often feel that when I’m feeling great on bass clarinet, then my B-flat chops don’t feel as strong, and vice versa. To feel perfectly balanced on both instruments is very hard – it’s the part of an auxiliary job that’s the most challenging. On a week when I’m only playing bass clarinet, I will still play B-flat every day, and also spend time on reeds. I have some chamber music coming up, so I’ll practice that and do some warm-ups and scales. Tonight we are playing Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, so I have to concentrate on that. It is a challenge to find the balance.

Bob Pawlo: I’ve read that you’ve done some practice in Tae Kwon Do. How has that helped your music?

Amy Zoloto: In college, I worked up to a purple belt, and I just recently started going to a studio where my daughter goes, and it’s great. There’s a meditative aspect to it. The key to playing bass is having great breath support and of course mental focus, so yoga and martial arts are helpful.

Bob Pawlo: I’ve heard the saying “it’s not in the fingers; it’s in the air.”

Amy Zoloto: Yes. If you don’t have the air behind the fingers, you’re not going to be successful. You have to think of a wind player’s air as a string player’s bow, and if the bow stops – if the air stops – the left hand is not going to be doing anything if the bow’s not working, so it’s the same idea.

Bob Pawlo: Whenever I hear that professional musicians are also parents, I like to ask them how they balance the two jobs.

Amy Zoloto: I try to spend as much time with my daughter as possible. I’ve learned how to focus and conserve my energy. It’s like running a marathon instead of a sprint.

Bob Pawlo: Is your daughter interested in music?

Amy Zoloto: She likes Taylor Swift. She pretends to play the ukulele and be her.

Bob Pawlo: What are some of the pieces you’re looking forward to the rest of this season?

Amy Zoloto: Shostakovich 7 is coming up. I’ve never played that in performance, so that’s one of these things where the first rehearsal will be high anxiety, and after that, it’s like O.K., we’ve done this now.

Bob Pawlo: Let’s pretend you’re on stage, you have your reeds, and your instrument is all set. About a minute before the downbeat for Shostakovich 7, what’s going through your mind?

Amy Zoloto: I try to slow my breathing. I try to use all the yogic things that I’ve learned: slow your breath and quiet your mind. I do a lot of mental preparation, because really there’re a lot of demands on you, so the more relaxed your body and mind are, the better chance you have to get across what you’re trying to do on your instrument. And I also have to tell myself that this isn’t brain surgery. Nobody’s going to die. Your job is to communicate the feeling of the music, and the style and the character of it. Then simply realize that you’re human and do your best!

Bob Pawlo: Do you think things have gotten better for women playing in orchestras?

Amy Zoloto: For sure. It’s kind of funny that it took all these years. 2016 was the first time we had a woman as a member of the clarinet section. Orin O’Brien is still playing, and she was the first woman in the New York Philharmonic, when Leonard Bernstein hired her in 1966. Imagine, it wasn’t that long ago that no women even existed in the orchestra. Now, over half the orchestra members are women! Yes, it’s gotten easier for women to be in the game, and I think it’s good to have more gender equality in this orchestra or any ensemble. Everybody brings their own sensibility and I think the results speak for themselves.

Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to young musicians coming up now, especially young female musicians?

Amy Zoloto: If music is what you want to do, work with the conviction that it’s all possible. I hope that young women feel empowered by seeing how many women are in orchestras everywhere, and now more than ever, on the podium.

Bob Pawlo: You’re playing chamber music in a couple of weeks. What’s the shift that you have to make between playing a huge symphonic piece with one of the great orchestras in the world and then being on stage with a couple of players playing chamber music? What’s the key to the adjustment?

Amy Zoloto: In the end, all music is chamber music. What I mean is, I’m always trying to be intimately connected. You want that feeling of intense chamber music, even when you are on a stage with a hundred other musicians. The intensity should be the same and so should the idea of fitting in with all the moving parts.

Bob Pawlo: What do you look forward to in music at this point?

Amy Zoloto: I like being challenged with new pieces, or ones I’ve never played. l love to play chamber music, which happily is part of my job. It’s an exciting time at the Philharmonic, with a new music director, and good energy on stage. I’m lucky to have fantastic colleagues. I love my clarinet section and we really work well together. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to build a career in music.

Bob Pawlo: What would you like to say in closing to your fellow members of Local 802 and union members who will be reading this around the world?

Amy Zoloto: I haven’t had the kind of career where you get your perfect job at age 25. My path has been circuitous. But the union has been the constant through all the things that I’ve done, starting with regional orchestras, tours and freelancing. The union has been supportive in every facet of my career. I’ve appreciated the support of the union, and the boundaries and protections of union contracts. I feel that union has always been looking out for my best interests.