Saturday, September 17, 2022

Susan Lamb Cook in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On September 24, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the Elgar Cello Concerto with Susan Lamb Cook and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. I had the chance of asking Susan some questions about our program, and below are her answers:

Christian Baldini: Dear Susan, it will be a pleasure to collaborate with you once more as our soloist, this time with the beautiful Elgar Concerto. Can you tell me your history with this piece? When did you first come across it, and what are some of your fondest memories of playing it?

Susan Lamb Cook: I was first introduced to this piece when I was just finishing my studies at the University of Iowa.  After a friend shared with me the famous recording by Jacqueline Du Pré, I was so moved by this music that I felt I simply had to learn it.  It was not as easy to acquire sheet music at that time as it is today, so I had to wait some time before I could get started and, besides, I was in the process of moving to Europe to continue my studies and it took some time to get settled back into a serious practice routine.  Although I spent a great deal of time working intensively on this piece, it wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I had the first opportunity to perform it with orchestra, and that was in fact with Dan Kingman and the Camellia Symphony in 1989.  I had just returned to Sacramento from Europe and was thrilled to be able to perform this piece so dear to my heart back in my hometown with such fine local musicians.  A few years later, I was contacted by a colleague whom I had met in Vienna, and who was at that time the music director of the Cairo Symphony in Egypt.  Interestingly, I had already been to Egypt twice, once as a tourist and again as a member of the Ente Lirico Orchestra from Verona, performing Aida at the Luxor Temple. Obviously, I jumped at the chance to return to Egypt, especially to perform the Elgar Concerto with the Cairo Symphony and guest conductor Antoine Mitchell at the Cairo Opera House.  Many years later, I had the joy of performing the Elgar with the UC Davis Symphony in beautiful Jackson Hall at the Modavi Center, and now I have returned full circle to the Camellia Symphony!   

CB: Besides being a remarkable musician yourself, you are also a phenomenal cello teacher. What do you try to instill in your students' minds? What are some of the most important teachings that you hope they take away from you?
SLC: In our current environment in which everything seems to be moving at lightning-speed around us, it is hard not to expect that a skill like learning a musical instrument should come quickly and without much effort. However, for anyone who has stepped into this world of music, it becomes immediately apparent that patience, method, practice and above all time, are the essential ingredients for success.  Obviously, the physical aspect of learning an instrument is only one part of the equation.  Being fluent in music theory is important to understanding the relationships between notes and their function in the structure of the piece.  In addition to studying music theory, I encourage my students to learn as much as they can about the composers, their lives, and the history of the times in which they lived.  All of these ingredients add to a fuller and deeper understanding of the music we are hoping to interpret through our own voice and personal expression.    
CB: You are also very active performing chamber music with your wonderful colleagues. What are some of the pieces you would still like to perform, which you have not had a chance to yet?
SLC: When I founded the Great Composers Chamber Music Series in 2014, the programming was planned through the lens of a western European eye.  Because of my experience in Vienna, my comfort zone had always seemed to be within the realm of the European classical and romantic periods, so I therefore started off with a complete Beethoven series, followed by a complete Brahms series.  Obviously, each of these composers has a plethora of chamber music works to choose from, so it was not difficult to fill out each of those series.  Each year, I continued programming works which I considered to be by the “Great Composers”, mostly European men, however, it was only in more recent years that I realized how narrow my focus really was.  I am so thankful to colleagues who have encouraged me to open my eyes to lesser-known composers and their works that deserve to be programmed alongside what we might consider the “standard” repertoire.  It has been a fascinating and humbling journey as I discover, for the first time, wonderful chamber music works by women and composers of color whose works have been neglected over time, and I hope that the Great Composers Chamber Music Series will move forward as a platform embracing all great composers.
CB: What would be your advice for any young musician trying to make it in the profession? Any advice about auditioning for orchestras, being constant, and not losing hope when we (inevitably) fail during some auditions?
SLC: As I mentioned earlier, patience, method, practice, and time are essential ingredients to learning an instrument, but here I will also add the importance of working with excellent teachers, listening to others and, if one wants to go into the profession, getting performance experience, particularly through public recitals and competitions.  It is one thing to sit in one’s home environment practicing a piece, and a completely different experience when performing that piece in a competitive setting or in front of an audience.  Each one of us deals with the stress of performance in a different way, and the earlier one can figure out how to handle this very personal issue, the better.  Fortunately, the world of music offers many opportunities to those who want to make it their profession, so I believe that the more well-rounded one can be, the more likely one can create a sustainable life in music.  Many orchestral musicians also perform as chamber musicians, have active teaching studios, and participate in school or community presentations in order to create a sustainable income.  I think that it is important for students to understand that sitting and playing an instrument is only one thread of the fabric that will make up their life as a musician, but such a life is enriching beyond measure.

Susan Lamb Cook is Lecturer in cello and chamber music at the University of California, Davis, a member of the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera and the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, and director of the VITA Academy’s Great Composers Chamber Music Series at the Harris Center in Folsom. Her solo performances include those with the Sacramento Philharmonic, the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, the Cairo Symphony (Egypt), the Paradise Symphony, the Camellia Symphony, and was featured as soloist in a Gala Concert in the Esterhazy Palace, Eisenstadt, Austria with the Classical Music Festival Orchestra. As an active performer and educator both nationally and internationally, Susan has completed five concert and teaching tours of China, has performed and given master classes at San Francisco State University, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, Marshall University in West Virginia, Austin College in Texas, and Dixie State University, Utah, and her performances have been featured on National Public Radio and Austrian National Television. She has served on faculty at the Saarburg International Music Festival in Germany, the Vianden Festival, Luxembourg, and on the artistic staff for the Classical Music Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria, and has performed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.  Susan performs regularly for the UCD Shinkoskey Noon Concert Series, the Westminster Music At Noon Series, and the Crocker Art Museum’s Classical Concert Series.

As Director Emeritus of the Sacramento Youth Symphony’s Summer Chamber Music Workshop, Susan spent 30 years developing this program which trains youth musicians in the art of chamber music and, in 2019, the Sacramento City Council awarded Susan a Resolution recognizing her work with young, local musicians.  In July 2020, Susan developed Sacramento Summer Music, an educational program for young chamber musicians which focused on under-represented composers including women composers and composers of the African Diaspora. This program ultimately developed into the Sacramento Summer Music Virtual Festival of Concerts, and “Concerts and Conversations” produced by the Great Composers Chamber Music Series in collaboration with the Sacramento Baroque Soloists and the Sacramento Guitar Society, all partner organizations of the Harris Center. Susan is a member of the Chevalier String Quartet and, in collaboration with clarinetist Deborah Pittman, created a multimedia project centered on the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges called the “Chevalier Project” which includes a film, study guide, and musical examples of the works of Saint-Georges.

Susan’s past performances can be found on YouTube at Susan Lamb CookConcerts and Conversations, and the UC Davis Music channel.


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