Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Irene

Today I received a phone call from a former student, Irene Cheng, now a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony. We had a lot of catching up to do. Irene was my first pupil, back in the days when Sidney Harth was Music Director of Northwest Chamber Orchestra, in the late 80's. I was pregnant with Anna then, trying to conceal my pregnancy by wearing lots of Laura Ashley jumpers. But one day, Irene's mom asked, "Are you pregnant?" And we all broke into laughter.

Irene and I took a trip down memory lane, just a few moments ago, by telephone. She reminded me how I took her to task for not practicing and paying enough attention to details when she was a teenager. Actually, Irene was light years ahead of many students these days, as she always came prepared for lessons, but as a 16 year old, just didn't understand the perfectionism required for great violin playing. It wasn't long before she grasped the rigor of the art form, and as a result, her progress went full speed. After a few years with me, Irene worked exclusively with Ilkka, and completed the undergraduate requirements at the UW. She, very wisely, picked up a degree in a field outside of music, to have as a fall back. Later, Irene Cheng was awarded full scholarship at Yale University, and completed her Masters in Music with Sidney Harth.

For a short time, Irene played in the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra, as a core second violinist. That was her first professional gig. But one day, she showed up in tears backstage. "This isn't the place for me" she said, recognizing that life in the pit leads to nowhere, and colleagues of lesser abilities were judging her, making her feel like an outsider. The stick man wasn't able to divine her musical ability by reading her face, as was his custom. "I want to better myself, not stand still," she confided.

And that is a vivid recollection I have of Irene, because her words came true. And, as we were harkening to the past, we returned to the present. The Music Director of Pittsburgh Symphony, Manfred Honeck, commended Irene for her individual European approach to violin playing, a style which reflects traditions from the past, and is rarely heard nowadays. Although Seattle doesn't seem to appreciate this originality, preferring the cookie cutter approach, it's all the better. Pittsburgh Symphony does, and they're not suffering from bad press or fiscal irresponsibility. So, one might say, Irene's in a better place. What more could a teacher ask for?

In the picture: Irene, me and violinist Irv Eisenberg (who just celebrated his 90th birthday), mid-1990s

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