Los Angeles Times

Classically Trained: Stringing together a musical life

ORANGE — I've always found the viola to be the most mysterious and misunderstood member of the orchestra. It doesn't have front-and-center showboat status of the violin. Or the slippery slope of sound from a sliding trombone. Or the lyricism of a solo oboe's seemingly endless phrasing.

So when I asked Bob Becker, the principal viola for the Pacific Symphony since 1982, how he chose to play the mystifying viola, he laughed.

"It was actually pretty simple," he said. "Look at my wingspan."

Becker is 6 feet 4.

"You're in the fourth grade and somebody puts a violin in your hands and you kinda wrap around it like Ichabod Crane," he recalled.

So the violin seemed too small. But he said the others — cello and bass — seemed too big to lug around. So it boiled down to the viola, with its larger body and middle-ranged sound.

For Becker, 60, his classical training started in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Though the Music City is better known for its country music, a music academy there served him well.

"We got music theory, ear training, chamber music and everything else, all on Saturday after we did the youth orchestra," Becker said. "And, as they say, one thing led to another and I fell in love with playing quartets and playing the viola."

Becker showed considerable talent and won the principal viola chair for the Nashville Symphony when he was about 17. Eventually he won a full-ride scholarship to study at Juilliard, where he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees.

Remnants of those days — including his degrees and a picture of him with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he played at Juilliard — hang in Becker's Chapman University office. He's director of string studies for the private college's music conservatory in Orange.

Becker's other teaching duties include the Viola Workout, an educational retreat he founded in Crested Butte, Colo.

Becker comes from a musical family. Mom was a pianist involved in church music. Grandmother Becker was a church organist.

Becker's father was a music teacher with a choir background. His doctoral robe hangs in his son's office as a nice family reminder, though the younger Becker doesn't exactly envy Dad's studies.

"My father's dissertation was titled 'The Methods of Education of the Choir Boys in the 12th and 13th Century France' … I cannot even conceive of that!"

Becker lives in the historical Floral Park neighborhood of Santa Ana. He's a father to twin daughters and enjoys fly-fishing, cooking, wine tasting, backpacking and golf.

When he came to California, he began a residency at UC Irvine. It started his professional roots in the Golden State.

Becker worked for many years in the recording studios, playing in some 400 scores for film and television.

One that stood out George S. Clinton's score for the 2007 TV movie "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." The film depicts the mistreatment of Native Americans in the late 19th century. Its haunting images struck a personal chord for Becker, who has Cherokee ancestry.

"I could barely make it through that day," Becker said. "It was just so moving to watch what was going on up on screen."

Becker's tenure with the Pacific Symphony is among the Costa Mesa-based orchestra's longest. Highlights of his time include the opening of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and the orchestra's 2006 European tour.

Becker took his viola section out to dinner at one point during the tour.

"Bottom line is, we're in their territory," Becker recalled telling his colleagues. "But we're playing our music. When we walk out, I just want you to play."

It was a time to remark that the relatively new American orchestra was playing in classical music's historical homeland, where most of the world's best orchestras are based.

"Of course, there was a little intimidation," Becker added. "But by the same token, we also knew that the pieces we were going to play in these places were pieces we were going to play very well."

Becker remembers loving the amazing acoustics in Vienna — as rich a hotbed of classical music history as anywhere in the world — where he could even hear the last chair of his viola section.

Looking back at his long history in Orange County — an area whose farmlands became a major population, educational and cultural center — Becker feels proud to have been a part of its artistic transformation.

"We have to meet up with the demands of our own expectations and the demands of the community," he said. "To this point, I think we've been able to do that artistically."

Still, he added, "I think we can always be better. I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. I am better today than I was 20 years ago — and so is the orchestra and so is the community."

For the musician from Nashville — who's played with Johnny Cash, Elvis, Madonna and Elton John — it's been a great musical life that's still going strong. No small part of that has been his Pacific Symphony performances.

"I look back and go wow. I've been onstage and played some of the most incredible pieces — with this orchestra — in all the repertoire."

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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