Irene Breslaw joined the viola section of the New York Philharmonic in August 1976. She was named assistant principal viola in 1989. Prior to joining the orchestra, Ms. Breslaw was a member of both the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In May, she will celebrate 37 years as a member of the New York Philharmonic.
An active chamber musician, Ms. Breslaw appears regularly with the New York Philharmonic Ensembles. In the summers of 1993 and 1995, she traveled to Finland to perform chamber music with several of her Philharmonic colleagues and to coach members of the VIVO Youth Orchestra, an experience she found extremely rewarding. She has also recorded the Mozart Clarinet Trio, “Kegelstatt,” with former principal clarinet Stanley Drucker and pianist Lukas Foss for Elysium Records. Since 1998 Ms. Breslaw has been on the orchestral performance faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, and is an adjunct at Queens College.
Irene Breslaw was interviewed for Allegro by her colleague in the New York Philharmonic, solo piccolo and flutist Mindy Kaufman.
Mindy Kaufman: When did you start playing music?
Irene Breslaw: I started violin at age eight. I’d seen a student violinist on the Mickey Mouse Club on television playing Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen”and I asked my mother for an instrument. To this day I remember my father saying, “Are you sure you don’t want ballet lessons?” I said, “No, I want to play violin.”
Mindy Kaufman: When did you switch to the viola?
Irene Breslaw: When I was 16, because they needed violists in the Juilliard Pre-College Division’s string ensemble. I liked the sound so much better, so I switched, happily. I was encouraged by my teacher at the time, Margaret Pardee, whom I loved. (By the way, four other of Pardee’s students are Philharmonic violinists now: Carol Webb, Marc Ginsberg, Daniel Reed and Hae-Young Ham.)
I then went to the Juilliard upper division and studied with Walter Trampler, who was one of the greatest influences on my life. He was a great violist and a great human being, who gave everything of himself, and I respected everything he said to me.
Everything else that I did before I went to Juilliard fell by the wayside. There was no other activity that I put my mind to as much as the violin or the viola. My social life consisted of my Saturdays at Juilliard: those were the people with whom I bonded and have had lifelong relationships.
Mindy Kaufman: Did you have classical music in your house?
Irene Breslaw: My parents had a record player and they loved classical music. Once I got started and I was in the Juilliard pre-college division, they started taking us to concerts. I remember seeing Michael Rabin play with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium one summer.
Mindy Kaufman: Were you the first musician in your family?
Irene Breslaw: Yes. My brother asked for a cello after that. He studied cello through high school but did not become a professional musician.
Mindy Kaufman: When did you know that you wanted to become a musician? Did you make a decision, or was it something that seemed like the next step, perhaps something natural?
Irene Breslaw: I think it evolved. If I didn’t get into Juilliard, I was going to go to Hunter College and major in French.
Mindy Kaufman: The music field is so different from when we were students. We didn’t really prepare to be orchestra musicians although my teachers asked me to prepare several excerpts each week in addition to solos. Did you prepare orchestral music?
Irene Breslaw: We played in orchestra at Juilliard, but it was always something you had to do. Everyone was focused on being a soloist or playing chamber music, so I really didn’t focus on orchestral excerpts. However, I always knew that I’d be an orchestral player because I always liked playing in orchestra. Back then, however, there was no training program for auditions. Now that I teach, I realize how important it is.
Mindy Kaufman: What was your first job?
Irene Breslaw: It was in the Baltimore Symphony. I played through Christmas, and then there was a lockout for 15 weeks. I hadn’t known anything about labor relations, so I learned on the job, as it were. It was a very difficult negotiation. We were picketing in front of the hall, in the snow. I remember the mayor getting involved. I started looking for another job. In those days colleges were offering string quartet residencies, and I thought that would be a plum job. I auditioned for one in Evansville, Indiana, and got it. I stayed there for one academic year.
Mindy Kaufman: Where did you go after Indiana?
Irene Breslaw: Friends of mine in the St. Louis Symphony told me there was an opening and encouraged me to audition. I got that job, and those were three of the happiest years of my life. I made great friends with whom I am still in touch. I became very close with Carl Schiebler, who was there playing horn and serving as head of the Orchestra Committee. He became personnel manager in St. Louis before becoming personnel manager at the New York Philharmonic after I joined the orchestra.
Mindy Kaufman: Why do you think the union is important?
Irene Breslaw: The union gives us a lot of support during our negotiations. I am on the Orchestra Committee, which was and is an education: I have learned a lot about how contracts are formulated and what goes on behind the scenes.
Mindy Kaufman: You’ve been on our Tour Committee for a long time. What inspired you to join it?
Irene Breslaw: I joined the Tour Committee one or two years after I became a member of the Philharmonic because I felt like I couldn’t not volunteer. I was asked to join the Orchestra Committee as well, and got elected.
Mindy Kaufman: As part of the Tour Committee, you’ve traveled on many pre-tours. What are some of the things that you look into before a tour?
Irene Breslaw: For the three-week tour to Europe coming up in May, we did the pre-tour in four days last March. We didn’t go to every city; we visited cities we hadn’t been to or cities where we weren’t sure about the hotels. On pre-tours we also check out logistics, like how the orchestra will travel between the hotel and the hall, traffic patterns, and when we have to leave the hotel to get to the airport.
Mindy Kaufman: March is Women’s History Month. How many women were in the orchestra when you joined?
Irene Breslaw: Seven. There were people who broke ground before me. I was just out of high school when Orin O’Brien got the job here. When I heard that, I thought it was great. I can still almost see the article in the New York Times. She talked about changing in the cello crossover upstairs because there was no facility for her to change in.
Mindy Kaufman: How were you treated by the men in the orchestra at that time? You were also very young.
Irene Breslaw: For the most part, the women were treated very respectfully. However, there were some individuals who were of a different era and resistant to change.
Mindy Kaufman: What was it like raising a family as an orchestra musician?
Irene Breslaw: Going on tour was particularly difficult because it meant leaving behind my two children. There was one season, 1984–85, when we did two five-week tours on either end of the season. My son was eleven months old and my daughter was three. Five weeks is a long time: it’s hard on the kids and the mother. Following contract negotiations, we got those five-weekers out, and there’s now a cap on the length of tours. But it doesn’t really matter whether it’s three weeks or five weeks: it’s always hard when they’re little.
Mindy Kaufman: How did your children feel about you practicing or being out at night?
Irene Breslaw: It was very difficult for my kids. Until they reached a certain age, it was always hard for them when I left at night. They didn’t know any other way; I always felt they were born into this lifestyle, kind of like army brats.
Mindy Kaufman: But they weren’t surrounded by other kids in that situation.
Irene Breslaw: That’s true. Even in general it was difficult, and there were many times when I felt like I was giving both ends of my life short shrift because I couldn’t be there with quality for either my children or my job. I missed a lot of first days of school and graduations because we were either on tour or I had to work. Musicians set a very high bar for themselves. They’re perfectionists. And if you’re strung out from not having gotten enough sleep with a baby, or not performing at your top level, you take it out on yourself.
Mindy Kaufman: What advice do you give to young women musicians?
Irene Breslaw: At this point in time, I don’t feel the necessity to tailor my advice to the gender of my students. I think we’ve come a long way. One of my first students just had a baby. I remember when I had my first child, I wrote to my former Juilliard teacher, Mr. Trampler, and said, “I don’t remember what a viola is,” and he said, “To hell with the viola!” I quoted him to my student.
Mindy Kaufman: What does your job as assistant principal viola of the New York Philharmonic entail?
Irene Breslaw: Jumping in at the last minute if somebody in front of me is sick. I’m a titled player, third chair, but often sit second or first, so I have to be ready to take up the slack and play any viola solos. I like the challenge.
Mindy Kaufman: How can we promote classical music to the next generation?
Irene Breslaw: Until we can improve our overall education system, it’s going to be a hard road to improve the arts. As usual, I think it’s a money issue. We’re always fighting for more arts in the schools, and there should be more arts in society. It’s really difficult and pretty disturbing.
Mindy Kaufman: How can we improve music education and encourage young musicians?
Irene Breslaw: It has to be made fun, something that kids want to hear. There should be more television shows, like there used to be. Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts got me started loving classical music.
Mindy Kaufman: Did you watch the Young People’s Concerts before you started violin?
Irene Breslaw: Yes. I just loved them. I still love them.
Mindy Kaufman: You’re a linguist, and I’ve noticed you speaking different languages on tour.
Irene Breslaw: Yes, I like languages. I learned Hebrew as an adult — we have a bilingual household. I studied French and Italian and speak a little Spanish. I can get by in almost any romance language. I also like to knit and read. You’re my knitting mentor.
Mindy Kaufman: Are you planning to learn any other languages?
Irene Breslaw: No. When I retire, I want to study psychology and algebra. I’m going to go back to school. I always wanted to study psychology. Algebra is something I want to see from an older perspective.
Mindy Kaufman: Looking back, what’s the best thing about being a musician?
Irene Breslaw: I’m doing what I love to do.
This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see www.Local802afm.org.