Best Seat in the House

By Irene Cheng, First Violin, PSO

I was 18 years old and it was my first time in Carnegie Hall, my first time seeing and hearing my idol, Anne Sophie Mutter, play live and I could not have been more excited. My sister had managed to buy the last two tickets available to hear Anne Sophie Mutter. She played the Brahm’s Violin Concerto. Years later, my first time playing in Carnegie Hall was with the PSO and Anne Sophie Mutter was our soloist, playing the Brahm’s Violin Concerto! I had the best seat in the house—onstage near her!

My mother tells me that when I was 2 1/2 I would wake her every morning at 5 AM to turn on our record player and play the Suzuki violin music that my older sister was playing at the time. I began to take private lessons at age 3 1/2. I was very lucky that the Suzuki program in Seattle, WA, was amongst the very best. I finished all 10 books by age 11, playing the Mozart Violin Concerto in A Major for my Suzuki graduation recital.

Between the ages of 11 and 17, I spent every Saturday from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM rehearsing with the Seattle Youth Symphony in the Music Building of the University of Washington. Professor Vilem Sokol was my violin teacher and the Seattle Youth Symphony Conductor. He was such a positive influence in my life. I still remember his interesting stories and can still visualize his fun pastel pink and blue plaid pants matched with his brown, orange and yellow short sleeved shirts. He was color blind.

We often listened to old recordings of the Seattle Youth Symphony in the large lecture hall. I spent the next four years studying Communications and Advertising in the building next door to the music building and living in the dorms across the street from it. While I studied for my bachelor of arts degree, I played professionally in the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra.

The two most influential teachers in my life were Marjorie Kransberg Talvi, concertmaster of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, and Ilkka Talvi, concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. Both were students of Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and Curtis, and of Jascha Heifetz in Southern California. Once a week during high school and college I had a lesson with each, learning different repertoire and the very different styles of playing. They were incredible teachers of music and of life lessons. The Talvis knew I loved music and told me I should follow my heart. I followed their advice, and earned a master of music degree from Yale University, studying violin with Sidney Harth, and chamber music with Claude Frank and the Tokyo String Quartet.

Studying only music was new to me. I had enjoyed so many lectures in sociology, Asian American and African American studies, history, and English literature at the University of Washington; at Yale I loved art history, music history, chamber music, early music, recording class, etc.

I was fascinated with Europe. So after two years at Yale I decided I wanted to either study in London at the Royal College of Music, or work in Europe.

I started my journey east from Seattle, continued farther across the Atlantic Ocean and ended up in Lisbon, Portugal, excited to start my job in a newish group called The Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisboa. I was drawn by the opportunity to play recitals and chamber music while playing in the orchestra and teaching at the music academy. We toured as a group and individually, playing recitals and chamber concerts all over Portugal, in all the palaces, museums and universities. I made lifelong friends there, including my husband, the principal trumpet of that orchestra.

I kept going east every two years or so and spent the next few years playing in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, and finally, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur.

In the music world, as a freelance musician and teacher, I was always waiting for the “right” time to have my children. Well, there is never a better time than the present time.

It was 2009 and I was 6 months pregnant with my second daughter when the PSO violin opening occurred. I played my preliminary round of the audition behind a screen at 9 am Sunday morning in early June. By 2 pm, I was on stage playing the semi-final round, this time without a screen, and played my final round at 6 pm. I stayed in the green room with the other finalists until almost 10:30 pm, when they announced that I had tied with a member of the second violin section who wanted to move to the first violins, and that Music Director Manfred Honeck wanted to think about the decision.

After an extremely exhausting day equal to an emotional rollercoaster, I was pleased that I was in consideration for the job. It could go either way. If he chose the current member, the second violin opening would have to be advertised and a whole new set of auditions for that position would take place. I would have to start the audition process all over again. Happily, I accepted the position three weeks later on a phone call from the orchestra manager.

Touring is one of my favorite parts of playing in the PSO. The first concert is just as thrilling to play as the last. To play for such enthusiastic audiences not only here in Pittsburgh but all over the world is always so exciting and emotional.

My very favorite venues to play remain the same. I love the intimate and historical qualities of the Musikverein in Vienna. The wood there is so old, the sound is like butter. To play in such a beautiful hall that Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, amongst so many others, played and conducted in is truly an honor for me.

Playing in the Berliner Philharmonie is incredible, with the history of East and West Germany.

Finally, my most favorite place to play of all is at the Proms in London. There is no other audience like it in the world. Seeing people as early as 9 am camped outside the box office to score cheap standing only tickets for that night’s concert in the areas in front of the stage is really an incredible sight. The “Prommers” have camping gear for the day of waiting to secure the tickets. Every time we pass them on our way to our morning rehearsals at Royal Albert Hall they treat us like we’re Paul McCartney. Hardly a fair comparison, but I’ll take it!

I have the luxury of saying that I never regretted any part of my life after college only because I have been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the last 11 years—truly my dream job. Had I not made it into this incredible orchestra, I may have had a different outlook on my past.

I have friends all over the world who are still in the music world and many who have moved onto other jobs outside this field. My most often asked question is if I still enjoy playing the violin. My work in the PSO rarely ever feels like work. I’ve been playing my entire life and cannot imagine my life without the violin. I not only love to play, I love to teach all the up and coming young violin students who have such a passion to learn all they can about the violin and improve their playing. Teaching children about music is such a life lesson really, and a huge responsibility that I do not take lightly.

After living all over the world in exotic places, almost always on or with water nearby, I can honestly say that Pittsburgh is my most favorite place to live. I live in Mount Lebanon with my trumpet player and teacher husband, and my two daughters age 11 and 17. My older daughter is starting college at Penn State University Park next year to study biology and music. She plays the violin, piano, and tennis. My 11 year old plays the cello and dances at PBT. I am fortunate that my kids love to play music and have had all the cultural advantages that a large city like Pittsburgh has to offer. Both are involved in their school music programs, as well as TRYPO and PYSO. When I’m not working, driving my kids to their activities, teaching, I love to run along the many trails here in Pittsburgh. I love to cook, and I have learned how to refinish and reupholster furniture. I am never at a loss for things to do. This city is amazing and I’m truly blessed to live here!

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