The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: UW’s Suzanne Beia, violinist for all seasons, speaks with The Ear, Part 2

September 21, 2010
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Though she doesn’t get a lot of publicity, Suzanne Beia – recognizable as the blond woman with the magenta-dyed horsehair on her bow — really is a violinist for all seasons.

In Madison, the hard-working Beia (below) performs as a soloist, a chamber musician and orchestral player, all in addition to teaching. She is legendary for learning music quickly and playing chamber music from memory.

This Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, several colleagues will join Beia for her UW-Madison faculty recital. It features a program of 20th and 21st century music – some classics and some rarely heard. The works are Ravel’s Piano Trio, Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertante” for violin and piano, Roger Sessions’ “Duo for Violin and Cello” and Bright Sheng’s “Four Movements” for piano trio.

Then on this Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Beia will perform with Pro Arte Quartet in a program of Mozart (Quartet in E-Flat Major, K. 428), Dvorak’s Quartet in D Minor, Op. 34) and Schumann (Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3).

Admission to both concerts is free and open to the public.

Today is the second of the two-part e-mail interview that Beia provided:

How would you compare the various posts you described yesterday in terms of demands and enjoyment?

I love all of the facets of my musical life in Madison.  I try very hard to balance all of these obligations, so that each gets an equal share of my preparation and energy.

The Pro Arte Quartet – which turns 100 next season — is the reason I moved to Madison 15 years ago.  As a young musician, I dreamed of a career in chamber music and pursued this vision relentlessly.

However, I never could have imagined that I would one day find myself in a position of getting to work on a daily basis with musicians at the level of my colleagues David Perry, Sally Chisholm, and Parry Karp.  It is not an exaggeration to say that every day I learn from them, find myself inspired by them, and grow as a musician through my exposure to them.

I always look forward to the Madison Symphony!  The Symphony has undergone unbelievable growth in the time I have been here, both fiscally and artistically. But what I love most about the Symphony is the orchestra‘s incredible spirit. In it, I find a very rare combination of extremely skilled, intelligent and dedicated musicians coming together with nothing but a profound love of music and a shared commitment to achieving the very highest level performance possible.

Never does anybody’s ego get in the way. We seem to be immune from that intangible cloud of negativity and resentment that hovers insidiously over so many professional ensembles. The musicians of the Madison Symphony truly love what they do, and this love is evident in their support of one another, musically and spiritually.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) combines the “best of both worlds”- the intimacy of playing in a string quartet or small ensemble, with some of the richness of sound found in a symphony orchestra.

My colleagues in the Chamber Orchestra are all highly accomplished instrumentalists, but also share a sensitivity that allows the group virtuosity, for lack of a better word.  It’s a sort of musical flexibility that I rarely find in musical ensembles of more than, say, eight members.

For me, the sensation is similar to driving a car that handles unusually well, navigating intricate twists and turns with ease. I have absolute confidence that if one of us, acting on a moment of inspiration, were to spontaneously linger just a moment before a new phrase, or play with a new and special tone color, the others would instantly perceive the change of plan and adjust accordingly.

For me, this kind of almost psychic connection that develops between musicians is one of the most exciting aspects about playing.

Sometimes, in my reflective moments, I wonder whether I should have chosen a more “useful” career- one in which I could more readily see the tangible results of my labors, one in which my work served to fill a basic need in those around me.

But the Rhapsodie Quartet reminds me, on a daily basis, of the difference that music can make in people’s lives.   The opportunity to bring a woman with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease the joy of hearing a familiar song from her childhood in Vienna; or the attempt to reach inside the mind of an autistic boy, forging a connection between the outside world and the beautiful spirit locked within. Or the reward of seeing a visibly agitated man relax and grow quiet as he listens to the beautiful Largo movement from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony – these experiences feed my spirit in a way that is almost too deep and personal for me to put into words.

Do you have any advice for violin students?

Learn everything you can when you are young!!  It becomes much more difficult when you become older.  As an adult, I find that I need to allow about twice as much time to learn new music as I did when I was a teenager.  The pieces that I learned when I was young always come back relatively easily (although I sometimes find myself thinking “Hmmm, I don’t remember this passage being so difficult for me before!”)

I would also say that you should consider music as a career only if you cannot possibly imagine yourself doing anything else.  That’s how it was for me. From the age of about 11, there was never even one doubt in my mind that music was what I would be doing for the rest of my life.

I doubt that there is much that one can do in life that can reap emotional and spiritual rewards comparable to those I experience every day as a violinist, but it’s definitely not an easy path.

What do you like to do other than play the violin?

In addition to playing the violin, I like to draw, paint, and create cards and the like for my friends.  I love to study and explore the opera repertoire.  I am also passionate about birds, and in the last few years, I have begun to keep some parakeets whose friendly little chirps and cute antics amuse and delight me every morning.

What can you tell us about your program of modern music?

That’s it’s hard.  Seriously, though, I have long been fascinated by how many divergent paths classical music has taken over the last century.  Two pieces, both written in 1960, can sound so very different in a way that two pieces written in 1820 do not.

My program, featuring works of Igor Stravinsky (neo-classical, with a touch of pointillism), Bright Sheng (below top, who wrote exotic music that utilizes sounds and flavors of the Far East), Roger Sessions (below bottom, who wrote very dense music; incredible rhythmic energy interspersed with sections of great lyricism) and Maurice Ravel (French Impressionism) will hopefully offer something for all musical tastes.

Learning this program with my inspiring colleagues pianist Karen Boe and cellist Karl Lavine, both of whom have an immense depth of experience with new music, has been a wonderful experience that I will treasure for years into the future.

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