Sound & Mood
Suzanne Ornstein on her lifelong passion for music, her inspiring teachers, and the insights she's gained
Volume 116, No. 9September, 2016
Violinist Suzanne Ornstein, a member of Local 802 since 1977, has enjoyed a rich and varied career. She’s served as concertmaster of the American Symphony Orchestra, New York Pops, New York Choral Society and Little Orchestra Society, and she also subs frequently with the New York Philharmonic. Ornstein is a founding member of the Arden Trio, which has been touring and performing since 1981, when it won the prestigious Concert Artists Guild competition. Ornstein also served as concertmaster with the Coffee Club Orchestra, which was the house band on Garrison Keillor’s American Radio Company. The ensemble went on to become the resident orchestra for City Center’s Encores Series, and has been featured on the PBS series “Great Performances.” Ornstein has recorded with Dawn Upshaw, Audra MacDonald, Thomas Hampson, Barbara Cook, and many more. She earned degrees from the University of Michigan and the Yale School of Music, and in 1996 earned an M.S. from the Columbia University School of Social Work. Suzanne Ornstein recently sat down with Local 802’s Bob Pawlo to share some of the highlights of her musical life.
Bob Pawlo: How did your journey in music begin?
Suzanne Ornstein: As is often the case, with my parents. My mother was an Interlochen camper who attended Juilliard prep, where she studied piano and flute. She entertained my sister and me as toddlers with art projects, and by playing all kinds of recordings. There was a costume box left over from her stint with the Paper Bag Players, and we’d grab scarves and dance to everything from Frescobaldi to “Swan Lake” – it was Dalcroze Eurhythmics in costume. Ravel and Richard Rodgers got equal airtime and respect. My father was an Elizabethan scholar and a self-taught musician. His family struggled during the Depression and couldn’t afford the trumpet lessons he wanted. But while he was working on his PhD in Elizabethan poetry and literature at Wisconsin on the GI Bill, he bought recordings of all of Beethoven. You could drop the needle with him on any string quartet – he’d win radio contests identifying obscure overtures. He had perfect pitch and was an incredibly astute and discerning listener. I trusted his judgment on all musical matters above anyone else’s. He also had broad tastes. If the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to town, we were there – he adored musical comedy.
Bob Pawlo: And what was your first experience of music as a student?
Suzanne Ornstein: When I was three, in another desperate attempt to keep me occupied – since I detested dolls and games – my mother taught me how to play on piano the soprano descant line in the Bach cantata “Sleepers Awake.” She played all the counterpoint, and at the correct moment, I would creep over her moving hands to play the soprano melody. It’s in Eb so I got to touch some of those exotic black keys. I still remember shivering with the thrill of learning how to come in at the right moment and play the melody precisely over the counterpoint. I realize now what an extraordinary lesson that was in ear training, memory and ensemble. She began giving me piano lessons, and she taught me to read music well before I learned to read words. I enjoyed playing the piano but wasn’t big on practicing. As I advanced, my mother suggested I try improvising in the style of Beethoven, and, later on, Debussy. It kept me at the keyboard longer and was another remarkably imaginative lesson in processing music. What makes Beethoven sound like Beethoven?
Bob Pawlo: How did you come to play the violin?
Suzanne Ornstein: Just before my ninth birthday, my mother arranged for violin lessons with a highly respected local teacher, Betty Krolick. I agreed to give it a shot, but my cooperation ended there. I would not let my mother into the room while I was doing my five minutes of practice. The lessons were interesting, but practicing was irritating, particularly as I was reasonably advanced as a pianist and did not appreciate sounding like the beginner I was. Moreover, by then I had become an obsessive reader and considered just about anything to be an interruption to reading, and that passion has followed me into adulthood. After a year, Mrs. Krolick sent me to play for Paul Rolland, who was head of the string department at the University of Illinois. I don’t know why he took on a 10-year-old refusenik, but he and his graduate students were all over me…I had lessons twice a week or more. I still could not bring myself to practice much. But I improved by dint of all the lesson time. He was an inspired teacher and was president of the American String Teachers Association. He took me to a number of conferences, where I acted as his student while he demonstrated his teaching methods in public. I even took a public lesson with Suzuki, who was just coming to these shores, in a stadium filled with parochial school teachers – a sea of black and white habits. That’s not a sight you forget. I’m afraid I remember nothing about the lesson itself. But I loved having a hotel room. No parent came along to tell me to brush my teeth! And I was rewarded with chocolate toffee. I have the fillings as a souvenir.
Bob Pawlo: How did your studies continue from there?
Suzanne Ornstein: When I was 13, the family moved to Cleveland in no small part because my mother had developed a passion for Baroque music and had been transitioning from piano to harpsichord. In Cleveland, she would have more performing and teaching opportunities. My father was quite renowned by then and could have taught anywhere, but we made this move for my mother. I studied with Dan Majeske, the Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster, undoubtedly testing his patience with my minimal practicing. I spent a couple of summers at Greenwood music camp, which I absolutely adored. My very first chamber group assignment at age 13 was the first movement of the Schubert cello quintet, playing second violin in an ensemble that was otherwise made up of camp counselors who were much more accomplished players. It was a stretch for me to handle the truly demanding second violin part, but the thrill of that experience was the inspiration for pursuing opportunities with small ensembles as an adult. My senior year of high school, I began studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and taking an academic spread vaguely tilted towards comp lit. It was not at all obvious that I should be applying to college as a violin major.
Don Weilerstein was the first person to talk about a concept of sound and the mood of a work, and also gave me the tools with which I could start to vary both sound and mood. It’s been the first thing I think about when finding my way into anything and everything.
James Levine was the director of the school orchestra at the time, providing remarkable training to the students. He commanded a level of preparation and commitment that was completely compelling.
Donald Erb was teaching composition there, and roped some of us into reading student works at some terrible morning hour. It was really hard, but also fun, and great experience.
But the conservatory atmosphere proved to be too confining, so after two years I transferred to University of Michigan to study with Paul Makanowitsky, another extraordinary teacher. During those two years, I finally practiced the way a serious music student should. This was in part because rumor had it that Makanowitsky slept with a pistol under his pillow, and it occurred to me that he might also keep one in his studio. But the real game changer was his approach to practicing. One was never to repeat something without having a specific improvement to make. He eliminated mindless drill, and replaced it with a goal-oriented, efficient practice technique, which was my salvation. It was ideal for a restless and impatient person, and I practice that way to this day. He insisted that his students enter the concerto competition, which I had the misfortune to win. The performance didn’t take place for a number of months, and I kept passing by Hill Auditorium and literally breaking out into hives in anticipation of the performance.
I graduated with a strong technique and the ability to compete, but also with a full-blown case of performance anxiety, which has been a defining feature of my musical life. That’s when I showed up on Dorothy Delay’s Aspen doorstop, depressed, burned out, thinking of changing my field of study even though I was headed to the Yale School of Music for the fall. With just a few lessons, she changed my life. She helped me find my way back to music by choosing only repertoire that appealed to my sorry self at the time.
The lessons were inspiring, and at the end of the summer, she invited me to perform in a master class for Itzhak Perlman, with Isaac Stern in attendance.
She told me that I could change course and follow her to NY, with all that this implied, or stick with my plan to go to Yale, where I expected to prepare for a career in academia. Most importantly, she observed that while one might have the musicality and technique needed for any chance of a career in performance, it was not enough. One also needed an undergirding of confidence, and the steely will necessary to pursue the kinds of opportunities she was prepared to offer. I think we both knew I didn’t have those last two qualities, and she was supportive of my decision to go on to Yale, which I did. But she kept in touch and wrote letters of recommendation for a few years after I had this really brief encounter with her, and to this day, I cannot recall her interest and generosity without tearing up.
At Yale I found Broadus Erle, who encouraged me to think for myself and to identify small but critical details to enhance. He was very ill when I arrived, so I had little time with him, but it was important. I was assigned to Oscar Shumsky, who inspired me to completely remake my technique into something much more relaxed. It was a daunting decision to make at the graduate level, but it did turn out to be worth the trouble.
It’s probably unusual to have had so many teachers, but they all imparted wonderful technical and musical ideas that I synthesized into ways of thinking about everything. I was still ambivalent about trying to make a career of it, but my mother said that I should try music first, because nobody was going to be interested in a middle-aged violinist. She was speaking from experience, although she had become successful against all odds. She also warned me that I had better love music enough to tolerate all the inevitable frustration and disappointment in the field. Right again.
Bob Pawlo: Can you tell us about your early freelance experiences?
Suzanne Ornstein: I loved orchestral playing, but wasn’t prepared to make a permanent commitment, and a string quartet I’d had at Yale was actually quite good, but the rehearsal process drove me crazy. The only teaching jobs I’d qualify for were out in the boondocks. So I finally came to NYC, because I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. It appeared as though everything under the sun was happening here, and I hoped to try as many things as I could, suspecting that smaller ensembles would be the best fit. I never meant to stay, but all the stumbling around in search of things led from one thing to another. There was so much going on in those days, both classical and commercial. But without NYC credentials and few contacts, and with my Midwestern upbringing that disparaged cold calling, schmoozing and self promotion, I was floundering after a year.
So I auditioned for the New York Philharmonic. I was very fortunate to make the finals, and miraculously was invited to sub there starting immediately. This not only kept the wolves from the door, but gave me a local credential that opened a lot of doors. And of course, there was thrill of playing with an orchestra I had idolized since I was a child, as those televised concerts with Bernstein were required viewing in our household.
I also auditioned for an open associate concertmaster chair at the American Symphony Orchestra, and winning that helped with being considered for other leadership chairs. There were and still are few opportunities to introduce ourselves as freelancers through auditions, so I am very grateful that various people took a chance on me early on.
Loren Glickman, who was in charge of some of the city’s best freelance work, tried me out as concertmaster of the New York Choral Society, and later on, at the Little Orchestra Society. I’m still at the Choral Society. The opportunity that Loren gave me made an enormous difference, and I remain in his debt.
Around the same time, the piano trio I’d formed with two Yale alums decided to audition for the Concert Artists Guild competition. We were really just looking for an excuse to rehearse repertoire together. Up until then, the guild had only presented soloists, so we were one of the first ensembles to be offered a fully -sponsored debut at Weill Hall. What had begun as a lark developed into the most difficult but also the most rewarding sector of my wildly diversified work life. There was one problem at first. The trio was offered tours that we couldn’t turn down, and therefore maintaining ties to the Lincoln Center orchestras for which I had subbed became more or less impossible.
Clay Ruede, the trio’s cellist and later my husband, suggested we attempt to work on Broadway, where you could retain your right to a chair as long as you followed the rules and hired subs responsibly. Not only did that turn out to be a brilliant way to subsidize our trio habit while also generating medical and pension benefits, but it led to a lot of unexpected and happy musical experiences.
I met Paul Gemignani early on as a sub for a show, and went on to work for him steadily for 23 years. He was a remarkable employer, entrusting me immediately with both large and small ensemble recording sessions, televised concerts – you name it. His confidence in a young player was both scary and thrilling, and I learned from each new assignment. He advocated for players, insisting, for instance, on getting them overscale when merited, once even refusing to make a recording unless I was compensated as he felt I should be. He coached me on how to negotiate for myself, and was incredibly respectful and supportive of many of us who were working on multiple projects, letting us out of performances if he knew we had something important we wanted to do. He is such a tremendous musician that I often found myself taking performance risks that I might not otherwise undertake. He encouraged many to “lean in” long before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase, and I am not the only one to benefit from this kind of mentoring.
I had only worked for Red Press a few times when he sent me in to try a week with the Coffee Club Orchestra, the house band at the time for Garrison Keillor’s show. I’ll never know why, but it was another one of those transformative experiences. I met the remarkable and unflappable Rob Fisher, who organized the show’s repertoire and led from the piano. He and the band members could play absolutely anything with wonderful style. I learned a lot sitting with Andy Stein and listening to John Frosk, Jack Gale, Red – all of them. It was seat-of-the-pants and live, so not for the faint of heart, and while it often scared me to pieces, it was one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had. At a minimum, I developed a love of dance music, particularly swing. That orchestra followed Rob to City Center, forming the core of the Encores series orchestra, which after more than two decades has almost a cult following in the theater community.
Bob Pawlo: Earlier, you mentioned performance anxiety. That’s an important topic for musicians, but something that’s not often discussed out loud. How have you managed it?
Suzanne Ornstein: There are people who are hard-wired for anxiety. Some of us are just predisposed to it, and I must fall into that group. However, I’ve learned that it’s OK to struggle with it, and even believe my subliminal doubt has contributed an interesting nuance to my playing. It also helped to become a mother. I was too busy and tired with a baby to obsess over performance anxiety, and I think despite the fatigue and lack of practice time, I became a better and more committed performer.
Learning to speak to audiences prior to concerts – something we did as a trio during years of residency work, and a practice I continue with the piano quartet – has also had an impact. I resisted it for years because it made me nervous, but when I finally actually addressed an audience, I found myself really looking at them for the first time, and wanting to find a way to help them connect to what they were about to hear. My interest in breaking down what I had come to view as the pointless barrier at the lip of the stage had the unintended effect of helping me recognize that people come for an experience of enrichment, of nourishment, and not to hear me undermine myself. By allowing myself to really see them and attempt to connect with them before playing a note, I began to move past the worst of my own angst.
I also discovered that I have a minor talent for standup. Nothing is more gratifying than hearing an audience laugh. In the end, my deep love of music and desire to share it with my collaborators and with an audience has won out over all the misgivings that would interfere with that experience.
Despite all of this, I will never be a “performer” – that is, a person who can’t wait to get out on stage. To this day, I sit quietly in whatever chair I’m sitting, with no instinct to put on any kind of a physical show. But I have made my peace with this longstanding conflict.
Bob Pawlo: How do you prepare for and think about the wide range of work you do?
Suzanne Ornstein: Anything worth doing is worth doing well, so I ask the same questions about virtually everything: What is this? Is it big or small, am I expected to lead, or am I a supporting player? I enjoy shifting gears and adapting to the culture of wherever I am, and forming quick alliances for work. And I’ll look for any chance to prepare.
So often you have to come in on the spot and figure things out as quickly as possible, and while I have always enjoyed that challenge, I also appreciate the luxury of being able to get ahead of any assignment.
For me, the die was cast early on. My first experience of playing was to learn where I fit into the broader ensemble. I found that thrilling at the time, and have ended up making a happy life for myself as an ensemble player, always looking to see how to fit myself into the greater whole. And because I was exposed to such a broad range of music growing up, it is no surprise that I have been as happy playing Sondheim as Mahler. Great is great.
A lot of people have behaved generously towards me, many more than there is room to cite here, so I try to pay it forward whenever possible. Sometimes a little can go a long way. My dad used to remind us that the world didn’t owe us a living, so I grew up with little sense of entitlement, and have had enough of both success and disappointment to be over myself and much of the business. But he also felt it was important to stand up for ourselves and for others when necessary, and to be prepared to take our lumps for doing so.
Over the years, I have stood up for myself and others when I thought it was necessary, and have the lumps to show for it, but no regrets. What I’ve found is that in general, the best musicians are secure enough to want to surround themselves with other strong musicians. So wherever I go, I know I will be working for or with a really good employer/contractor or music director, along with wonderful colleagues, and I’m going to have a good experience. Having some perspective on all of this is important with the world such a place of suffering for so many.
I’ve managed to keep my sense of humor, an essential survival tool. Besides, if you think about it, I’ve spent much of my life scraping horsehair across a wooden box with four strings on it and expecting to be paid for it. If I weren’t laughing, I’d probably be crying.