Tag Archives: violinist

Dawn Hannay: Shining Light on the Union

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) looks back on her career and activism as a violist with the New York Philharmonic.

Dawn Hannay of Local 802 (New York City) practically grew up on the stage of the New York Philharmonic. Having joined at 23, in 1979, the violist was one of a handful of women performing with the orchestra at the time. Now comprising more than half women, the oldest ensemble in the country is steeped in history and tradition. Hannay, who retired from her position last October, says she learned quickly, “I was always a bit of a rabble rouser so it wasn’t long before I was elected chair of the musicians’ committee.”

Back then, for an “inexperienced young woman,” there was a learning curve. Hannay explains that in those days music schools did little to prepare string players to master the overwhelming orchestral repertoire. “You had to be a great sight reader and fast learner,” she says, remembering the first time she played Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe suite in Studio 8H at NBC with the mics on, no rehearsal. “It’s like jumping on a speeding train. You have to be tough, especially as a young and very naive woman in what in those days seemed like a good ole boys club, complete with poker games, chain smoking, and even occasional fisticuffs!”

Hannay inherited the torch from those older and more experienced musicians who had fought so successfully to improve the lives of orchestral musicians. She says, “I took on the challenge, and spent decades doing my utmost to improve the working life of my colleagues, negotiating contracts and helping to resolve disputes.”

“The union is crucial in maintaining fair wages and working conditions for all musicians. Younger musicians who prefer to remain independent need to learn the history of their business, and how essential the union is in ensuring that musicians could earn a living from their craft. It is easy to take for granted the 52-week season, health benefits, and pension that we enjoy today,” she says.

What distinguishes prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic from the Vienna Philharmonic? She says it’s “the communication between older players and the next generation. There are many traditions of phrasing and tempi, of fingerings and articulations, of tone quality and bowings, and even jokes that are handed down, such as applauding in rehearsal at the false ending in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.”

Hannay explains that a wise conductor lets an orchestra play, shaping his or her own interpretation, but allowing the unique character of the orchestra to shine through. She says, “There may be fewer than a dozen musicians left in the orchestra who played West Side Story under Leonard Bernstein, but they still play the score like nobody’s business. That’s tradition.” 

Not long ago, playing in an orchestra was among the most precarious of livings. Hannay explains, “It’s almost unheard of nowadays in any profession for people to stay in a single job for 30, 40, or even 50 or more years. It’s the norm here. We owe this extraordinary stability to a whole generation of musicians who fought to make it so. Their work created the continuity that enables the unique musical traditions to be carried forward from generation to generation. Through the efforts of the past generation there are contracts and fair wages.” 

Orchestra standards were set by flutist Julius Baker, clarinetist Stanley Drucker, trumpeter Phil Smith, and concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, of Local 802. Bassist Orin O’Brien of Local 802 shattered the glass ceiling and became the first woman in the orchestra. Legendary players Buster Bailey, Bert Bial, Ralph Mendelssohn, Newton Mansfield, and John Ware created and added to the history and traditions that make today’s daily performances possible. 

Hannay performs chamber music, appearing often with the New York Philharmonic Ensembles. She spends the summers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, playing with the Grand Teton Music Festival, where she is a founding member of the string quartet Wind River 4. In 2001, she was a featured soloist and guest principal viola with the London Chamber Players on a tour of South Africa.

Ann Ourada Strubler

Violinist Ann Ourada Strubler Discovers Her Musical Heritage

Ann Ourada Strubler of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) was born a musician. Barely four years old, she was already playing piano, but switched to violin, when it was discovered she had perfect pitch. 

In high school Strubler attended Interlochen Arts Academy, in Michigan, from 1969-1971, which changed her life. She says, “I had hoped to be in a major orchestra and Interlochen gave me the confidence I needed.” She entered the New England Conservatory and went on to Boston University for a master’s in violin performance, studying with Joseph Silverstein, in her view, the “king of the concert masters.”

Ann Ourada Strubler

The documentary Tapestry: A Musician’s Journey tells the adoption story of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Ann Ourada Strubler. Its soundtrack features Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians.

But it was only when she was well into her career that she realized musical talent is, in fact, in her genes. Strubler, who retired from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra after 30 years as a violinist, was adopted when she was 10 days old so she never knew musical lineage.

Her three sons, all natural musicians, found their various niches in music and composing. Strubler’s son, Michael, was inspired to write a film about his mother’s adoption and subsequent search for her birth parents. For years he had observed his parents’ advocacy work in the community in support of adoption. Michael says, “When she told her story, I saw how it affected everyone in the audience. They were very moved by it. I started talking with my parents about more details, what really happened. I’m just amazed that this is part of my own history.”

The Tapestry: A Musician’s Journey, by Michael Strubler, who also wrote the score, will premiere in November on Detroit Public Television. Woven into the tale of Ann, her family, including her father, mother, and birth parents, is a narrative of how adoption changes lives—the sad, authentic, and ultimately joyful way it became a story of rescuing the past. Along the way, you meet her birth mother, a girl from the Midwest just starting out and the handsome Bostonian she met in Miami who played in jazz ensembles and composed big-band pieces, who vowed to marry her. In between, various relatives are introduced, from an uncle who studied at Berklee (like Ann’s eldest son, Mark) to a grandfather who played in the Chicago Symphony and the popular Sousa Band. In the end, for the Strublers, it all adds up to a rather remarkable musical legacy.

Thanks to the way her parents embraced it—five out of six siblings were adopted—Strubler was always very proud of being adopted. She says, “I felt chosen, special. I had a very close relationship with my mom, until her death at 59 of ovarian cancer. I had just gotten into the Detroit Symphony, and she died less than a year later, in 1981.” She says, “I always had a fervent desire to share in a positive way being adopted. I was grateful. Nobody has a perfect life, but I knew this was where I was supposed to be.”

She began speaking publicly about her experiences. At a fundraiser for a local crisis pregnancy center a young woman approached her. “After my talk, she came up to me and said, ‘I gave up my baby daughter when I was 17, but I always worried that she would hate or resent me for the decision I made.’ I was stunned. I never had feelings like that for my own birth mother. So that’s when I started contemplating these things in my own life. Who wouldn’t want to know about their background? But you don’t go there as an adopted person. I didn’t,” Strubler says.

Strubler’s husband, David, an educator, approaches it from a “nature or nurture” perspective.” He explains, “Adoption nurtures the nature. That’s exactly what happened to Ann. She was born with perfect pitch, musical talent, just like our sons. But had it not been nurtured, from the age of three by her parents, she might not have pursued music.”

She felt compelled to convey a positive message to her birth mother. First, Strubler had to be at peace with the decision, no matter what emerged. She says, “I wasn’t looking for medical records, I wasn’t looking for an identity, and I wasn’t looking for a mother.” She imagined every possible scenario, and asked her father how he would feel. “I tell people not to have expectations and know that you could continue on in life with your head held high.”

In 1986, she made contact with her birth mother in California through the adoption agency, and over the years they developed a relationship. It was not until 2006 that she tracked down her birth father in Boston. He, too, became part of the extended family. A few years later, he attended his grandson Mark’s graduation from Berklee. “We have his upright bass he gave our sons,” Strubler says. From her birth mother, she has her grandfather’s violin.      

When Strubler joined the DSO in 1980, she was one of 13 women in the orchestra. She felt lucky to have secured a position—and luckier to be part of the AFM. Strubler says, “It’s made symphony orchestras what they are today. Before laws, there was no protection, no help, and no advocacy. There weren’t clear lines of delineation to protect the orchestra. Once you’re in a symphony orchestra, they’re your advocate,” she says.

A November 20 presentation of the film at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall will feature a prelude by the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The 30-minute documentary will be followed by Matthew Strubler’s, “The Tapestry: A Symphonic Poem,” featuring an ensemble of DSO musicians. The concert is presented in partnership with Spaulding for Children, an adoption agency for placement of children with special needs.

Both the documentary and symphonic poem, featuring members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra, will be webcast by Detroit Public Television at 3 p.m., November 20, in celebration of National Adoption Month. The Strublers view this concert as a way to integrate the arts into the community to support a cause.

David Strubler says, “We hope orchestras and other musical groups across the country find similar ways to engage and collaborate in
the community.”

Leah Zeger

Violinist Leah Zeger Masters Unconventional Repertoire

Leah ZegerViolinist Leah Zeger of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) was 15 years old when she was sidelined by injury, essentially losing the use of her arm. It was a crucial time, preparing for conservatory auditions. Doctors were mystified as to the root of her pain, but Zeger’s mother didn’t give up and took her all over the world to find an answer. When she was finally diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), they discovered she had a congenital abnormality that was causing nerve compression in her upper limbs.   

Zeger opted out of the risky surgery recommended for acute cases, but it would take another four years for her to fully recover. Her parents, Ruth and David Zeger, both orchestra musicians and members of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX), had nurtured her career. Her mother, especially, was disheartened. But it was during this hiatus—a break from the rigor of practicing classical music several hours a day—that she discovered other musical forms and recaptured teenage years usually lost to serious musicians. Zeger says, “She had given this identity to me, and I lost it. But I was having a great time living life. I was impressionable. I was able to explore music outside the classical world. Jazz friends were teaching me stuff. I was listening to rock music.”

At 19, when Zeger was a sophomore in college, she again picked up the violin and her mother worked with her to prepare for an audition with Austin Symphony Orchestra. She secured a seat in the first violin section, beating out Juilliard grads. She credits her mother’s expert teaching, saying, “She’s fantastic. She motivated me.”

During her time at a performing arts high school, Zeger studied with mezzo soprano Katherine Ciesinski and she continued studies in opera performance and violin at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating, Zeger went on to become associate concertmaster of the San Bernardino Symphony and first violinist in Redlands Symphony.

Outside her classical pursuits, though, Zeger’s musical tastes are more akin to a rock star than a classically trained musician. Jazz and blues factor into her performances, but hip-hop and rock are staples on her playlist, which includes Nine Inch Nails. What’s more, the 33-year-old has a passion for the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt to which she was first introduced as a young girl. She’s a featured soloist with the gypsy jazz band New Hot Club of America. 

Her extreme versatility means Zeger is in high demand. She’s played alongside Willie Nelson of Local 433 (Austin, TX), Charlie Daniels of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), and Eddie Vedder of Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA). As a member of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, she played with Steely Dan—for Zeger, a dream come true.

Zeger is a musical chameleon. In a video she produced and directed she gives a thoroughly artistic performance of the “The Man I Love,” alternating from ingénue to cabaret singer. In another, a leather-clad Zeger dazzles on an electric violin. Bands take advantage of her violin virtuosity and her ability to simultaneously sing in long legato tones. Zeger downplays her talent. “It’s easy for me because I’ve always loved harmony singing. I had an ear for harmony already,” she says. “If you do anything slow you can do it fast or up to speed.”

In between symphony projects; jazz festivals, including Montreal, Buenos Aires, SXSW, and the Olympia in Paris; touring Europe; and working on recordings, Zeger is also a sought after film and TV session player who has worked with Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), and ELO’s Jeff Lynne of Local 47.

Zeger’s debut album, Leah and the Moonlighters (2010), is a collection of original works. In 2013, on Pour Moi, she gives spirited renderings of jazz selections, including compositions by Django Reinhardt. She lends her haunting vocals to jazz standards, and classical and folk melodies. More obscure arrangements are further recreated with Zeger’s characteristic panache. Her third album, a combination of jazz/rock fusion, with string arranger Stevie Black, is expected to come out next year.

With such an eclectic and multi-faceted résumé, it’s hard to know exactly what her dream job might look like. But with Zeger’s artistry and flair for performance, and given her knack for mastering all things music—at the moment, she’s learning the bass guitar—Broadway is not unachievable. For now, she says, “I’d love to be a headliner at jazz festivals.”

Pablo Diemecke Playing with Heart: Violinist’s Versatile Career

Violinist and Local 247 (Victoria, BC) member Pablo Diemecke is frequently asked to give master classes in Canada, the US, and Mexico.

Violinist and Local 247 (Victoria, BC) member Pablo Diemecke is frequently asked to give master classes in Canada, the US, and Mexico.

Violinist Pablo Diemecke has a wide-ranging career that has taken him around the world, throughout Europe, North America, Asia, Russia, and Iceland. After two decades as concertmaster with the Victoria Symphony, he opened a private music studio, and founded his own group, the DieMahler String Ensemble.

“Since then, I have been teaching and training young performers in chamber music, in Canada and in Mexico,” says the Local 247 (Victoria, BC) member. He runs the academy in Canada, while his sister manages the family’s music academy in Mexico, both under the name Diemecke Music Academy.

Diemecke, who is affiliated with the Royal Conservatory of Toronto as a private teacher, was born into a family of classically trained musicians. His father, Emilio, was a cellist and a renowned conductor. His mother, Carmen, was a piano teacher. Together, they opened a music academy in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, during the 1960s.

“The house was always filled with music. We listened to recordings of famous violinists and orchestra music,” Diemecke says. And the number of children—eight in all—was perfect for competing quartets. “I was first violin and concertmaster of my father’s orchestra,” he remembers.

Diemecke’s father first bought a violin for his younger brother. “My father was teaching Enrique how to hold the instrument and I was watching. My father asked if I wanted to try—and that was the beginning. Once I held the violin, I knew I wanted to become a violinist,” he says. Enrique, a member of Local 542 (Flint, MI) is now conductor of the Flint Symphony Orchestra, the Bogotá Philharmonic, Politécnico Orchestra in México, and music director of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra. His brother Augusto Diemecke of Local 380 (Binghamton, NY) is violinist and concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes.

Other generations have also secured a place in the family’s legacy: Pablo Diemecke’s daughter, Jeanette Bernal-Singh of Local 145 (Vancouver, BC) is assistant principal violinist in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and his son is a violinist and violist in Australia, with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra.

Success came quickly for Diemecke, who made his professional solo debut at 17 years old, and began studying under renowned violinist Henryk Szeryng at the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra, in Toluca. He became concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico at just 26 years old.

In the US, he studied with Hungarian virtuoso Robert Gerle and with Daniel H. Majeske, the celebrated concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra. In 1980, he became assistant concertmaster of the Washington Chamber Orchestra, and would occasionally play with the National Symphony, then under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich.

Diemecke credits the AFM Showcase in Washington, DC, with presenting further opportunities to perform, meet other musicians, and acquire contracts.

Diemecke’s 1994 recording of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy. In 2002, he received a Gold Medal Grammy Award for his live recording of the Carlos Chavez Concerto for Violin, with the National Symphony of Mexico. He was also presented the Lira de Oro (Golden Lyre) award from the Musicians Union in Mexico.

The dynamic of living in a large musical family taught Diemecke to balance solo and ensemble performances. “A soloist has achieved the highest level in an instrument. You transmit all your emotions to the audience. In chamber music, you share the responsibility with the other instruments and musicians,” he says. To communicate that emotion, Diemecke encourages students to come into their own, drawing on his father’s advice to play from the heart.   

Whether it is in Canada, an international venue, or in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, Diemecke makes time at least once a year to perform with his siblings. “I just played ‘Ginastera Concerto’ in January in Mexico and will be performing it again in Argentina, with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, where Enrique is the music director,” he says. At 65 years old, he says he is playing better than ever.

Violinist Diane McElfish Helle Delivers Musical Hope to Patients

Diane McElfish Helle, 59, of AFM Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI), is an accomplished violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony. From a family of pianists, McElfish Helle began playing the piano at age five, and then picked up the violin in fourth grade through her public school program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She discovered an immediate affinity for the instrument, and hasn’t put it down since.

It may be this background that created Helle’s desire to give music back to her community through teaching. She not only teaches students and faculty at Grand Valley State University, she also volunteers with fourth graders around West Michigan, bringing music to children in the same way that she found it. In 2011, McElfish Helle was awarded with the YWCA West Michigan Tribute Award for her teaching and for her music therapy-based health initiative.

She is also the regular host and lecturer of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s preconcert series, “Upbeat.” She serves on the boards of both the symphony and Local 56, where she has been a member for 35 years. She is incredibly active in labor and organizational issues.

“The union is the structure that connects us with one another, trains us in organizing ourselves, teaches us how to negotiate, and also brings support from the outside when we need it,” says McElfish Helle. “I became involved with the orchestra and negotiation committees once tenure allowed. We would not have livable salaries or good working conditions if we weren’t organized or didn’t know how to advocate for ourselves. It is as simple as that.”

McElfish Helle won the violin audition for the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1980, just two days after receiving her master’s degree from Indiana University. She says, “Semyon Bychkov had just become music director and I’d heard that both the city and the orchestra were growing; I thought it would be a good place to live and work as I was interested in growing and developing enterprises.”

Clearly, Helle was on-target. She’s been with the symphony ever since, and has become very involved with the Grand Rapids community. “When you join a symphony orchestra, you become a vital part of the whole artistic life of that city. It expands to include all the interactions you have with audience members, board members, student musicians, schools, and even your neighbors. You are musicians for your community in and out of the concert hall,” she contends.

However, McElfish Helle says that the most important performance of her career surprisingly occurred off-stage. “I particularly remember playing [Jules] Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thaïs in a congregation full of stunned people the Sunday after 9/11, and as I played, feeling hope enter the sanctuary like a tiny green shoot appearing in a barren landscape.”

McElfish Helle is perhaps most proud of her latest success, a health initiative that she heads in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Spectrum Neuro-Rehabilitation. The program brings music therapy into the lives of patients suffering from chronic ailments. Helle and other musicians provide live chamber music to patients in one-on-one or group rehab sessions. This music-therapy program is different because it is musician-driven, rather than doctor-driven. Helle and the other musicians didn’t quite know what to expect going in. “We weren’t sure if we were even going to be playing!” says Helle. But they do play, bringing a touch of life and beauty into an otherwise sterile and clinical environment.

Helle’s program is uniquely results driven, she says, “Rather than duplicate a program from elsewhere, we built it around one central question: If Spectrum Music Therapy could have highly trained professional symphony musicians partner with you to do anything, what would you have us do? Out of this came a unique program, one that neither partner would have thought of on their own.” Music therapists and musician duos work together to plan and carry out group music therapy sessions three times a month for patients in all stages of recovery.

This type of music therapy has innumerable patient benefits. It stimulates certain neurological areas, including patients’ emotions, speech, and physical movement. It reduces pain and nausea, as well as stress and anxiety, and produces a profound feeling of relaxation and even hope. It gives patients something to hold onto and connect with, whether that is an instrument, the music, or the musicians themselves.

As for McElfish Helle, she says she loves seeing how music “works” physically as well as aesthetically. The music therapy program doesn’t just benefit critically ill patients. It also makes McElfish Helle and her fellow musicians feel good. They sleep just a bit better at night knowing that they’ve done a bit of good in the life of another person.

Rachel Pine Performs for Homeless Shelter


The largest homeless shelter in Washington D.C. the D.C. Community for Creative Non Violence, which feeds over a thousand homeless people, experienced a world renowned guest – professional violinist Rachel Barton Pine of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL). She has played around the world and is internationally known, but she decided to play for only a dozen people this time.

Pine says she was not so different from those in the shelter. “We were always getting our electricity and phone cut off, and were one missed payment from losing the roof over our heads.” She goes on to say, “My father had left the family by that point and, sure enough, he became homeless.”

Pine says it was a shelter like the Community for Creative Non Violence that helped her father get back on his feet. It’s an inspirational story that Pine wanted to share, and a story that many people took to heart.

Kenneth Price, a man staying at the shelter, said, “Her story is almost like mine. Her father was homeless, me, my girlfriend passed away, then that’s how I got homeless.”

David Basnight, another resident of the shelter, was also inspired. “It gives me the motivation when I leave here today to go try to get me an apartment or something because if she did what she did and got as far as she got, I know I can do the same thing.”

It goes without saying what Pine has done is more than simply play a few songs. She has inspired and motivated, all while staying extremely humble.

“Music is coming from a higher power and I’m a conduit for that.”

Other Interesting News Items

Instrument Carry-on Rule for Flights Pleases Musicians 

DOT Harmonizes Rules for Musical Instruments on Flights 

Musicians Get Approval to Carry on Instruments When Flying 

DOT Final Rule on Musical Instruments in the Cabin 

DOT Updates Rules for Musical Instruments on Planes 

U.S. DoT Issues Final Rule – Air Travel with Musical Instruments 

Hey, Rockstars, You Can Now Legally Bring Your Instrument as a Carry On