Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.
When the house lights dim at the Holland Performing Arts Center, the formally dressed musicians on stage cease warming up and the rustle of the audience immediately dies down. The silence and stillness in the 2,000-seat, acoustically superior hall signal a very satisfying tradition at every classical music concert: the entrance of the concertmaster.
A woman with luxuriously thick, curly strawberry blonde hair and a sweet smile appears from stage left, violin in hand, igniting enthusiastic applause. After bowing to the audience, she turns and faces her 75 or so colleagues, making eye contact with each of them as if to say, “We’re in this together. Let’s do it!” She then nods to the principal oboe to play a concert “A” and that wondrous sound of an orchestra tuning fills the space.
Susanna Perry Gilmore is the symphony’s principal first violinist, a high profile “glamour” job and, after the conductor, an orchestra’s second-most pivotal position. The concertmaster must possess superior playing and leadership abilities, but what the audience sees leans toward the ceremonial.
“I symbolically represent the orchestra,” Gilmore explains in her low, assertive voice. “There’s the tradition of entering, my hand gets shaken all the time by the conductor and the guest soloist and I ‘tune’ the orchestra, which isn’t really true but it’s part of the little rituals.” In addition, Gilmore plays all the violin solos within an orchestral work and is often featured as a soloist standing up front on stage. Reviewers have praised her deep tone and impeccable technique.
Behind the scenes, the job of concertmaster requires an exhaustive list of qualifications and abilities. Gilmore works closely with music director and conductor Thomas Wilkins to make sure the violins are playing exactly what he wants musically or what the composer intended.
“Thomas calls me his field general,” she says with a gentle laugh, amused by the image. “In rehearsal, I’m constantly evaluating what [the violins] are doing. Are we achieving what he or a guest conductor wants? If not, would a different bowing or a different fingering help? It may be just asking the conductor, ‘May we please just do this passage slower?’”
With the negotiating skills of a diplomat, the patience and understanding of a Zen master, and the obsessive drive of a politician, Gilmore gets an entire section of violinists—each with their own personality and style—to play as one voice.
Gilmore had just turned 40 when she came to Omaha in 2011 and quickly won the admiration of her peers.
“She has been a really important figure in transforming the violin section,” praises principal horn Jason DeWater, currently on sabbatical. The bow strokes are identical, they play the same phrasing and they sound amazing. Plus, she’s humble and kind and very talented.” But a strain of steel magnolia runs through Gilmore. “There’s an intensity about her and she’s no pushover,” reveals DeWater. “She’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody, including a conductor, if she thinks something can be done better.”
That kind of self-assuredness grew gradually out of her musical training. Born in Buffalo, N.Y. to a pair of academics, Gilmore always had the music in her. “My mother says I sang before I could talk,” says Gilmore, who has two brothers who, like their parents, became professors.
When she was 8, the family moved to Bloomington and Indiana University where she added violin to her piano studies and took lessons at the university’s school of music. She was too young to appreciate I.U.’s string program as one of the most prestigious in the world. Gilmore only knew she loved the violin. “I was a really sensitive, shy, and introverted kid and the violin was, and still is, a tremendous emotional outlet for me.”
Her training eventually took her across the pond to London and Oxford University where she received a degree in musicology and theory. Did she want to teach music or play violin fulltime? Her decision led to Boston where she earned a Master’s degree in performance at the New England Conservatory. Two years later Gilmore won the position of concertmaster with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, where she stayed for 15 years and raised a family. She has two daughters: Katy, 13, and Zoe, 10.
It was in Memphis as guest conductor that Thomas Wilkins met Gilmore and saw everything he wanted in a concertmaster. Their personalities clicked; their musical tastes meshed in what Gilmore calls “beautiful serendipity.” She was open to the possibility of change and spent a week “auditioning” with the symphony in Omaha. Serendipity struck again.
“I felt very embraced by the musicians here; very welcomed and supported,” she recalls of her tryout week. “That’s not always the case in a work environment. It makes making music easier.”
With positive vibes all around, Omaha’s concertmaster continues her course of excellence.