Carrie Dennis is easy to notice in the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Say “symphony orchestra” to people on the street and they’ll think of a mass-musician unit, an aggregate of many — all playing as one, no instrumentalist standing out from the others in a given section, except in a solo passage.
Yet for two years — up on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage — you couldn’t miss Carrie Dennis, even while surrounded by 100-plus other Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians.
Why? Because in most performances, the orchestra’s principal violist pops out of the picture. She dives down on a given accent, thrusts into the heart of it with startling vigor, her head impelled to her knees, her elbow raised high as she strikes her bow across the strings. By the final cadence, her neatly arranged hair is flying loose. Whatever it takes.
“I’m not sure what’s going on around me,” says Dennis. “Or if I’m influencing my section or not. The only thing I’m aware of is the music and bringing it out.”
But now, since this season’s October start, and after taking a suggestion Dennis says was approved by music director Gustavo Dudamel, she might on occasion turn her chair slightly inward to the orchestra, and her playing is, at times, somewhat less demonstrative.
No matter. She’s still an energetic presence, more so than any of her colleagues. One might wonder how that goes over with them. Are they enlivened? Or is the viola section-leader — sitting at the edge, right side of the podium — a distraction that breaks their sense of unanimity?
“Do I notice her?” says veteran principal bass Dennis Trembly, repeating the question. “Well, she’s right in my line of vision. There’s no way not to,” he says, laughing.
Answering the same question, another player exclaims, “You’d have to be having a heart attack or an orgasm not to notice her.”
But none of this speaks to the point, says Trembly. “Only that she has the chops. Nothing else counts, really.” Her high credentials, he adds — as a prized graduate of Curtis Institute, first chair with the Philadelphia Orchestra, then with the Berlin Philharmonic (arguably the supreme ensemble worldwide) — are also just lapel pins.
“Pedigrees are not an influence in our judgment,” says long-time associate principal cellist Daniel Rothmuller. “We don’t have to see it in writing. We can hear it.”
Associate principal violinist Mark Kashper finds it “inspiring to sit near her,” as he often has. “Otherwise,” he says, “I’m too busy playing to look at her,” a comment made regularly by other Phil musicians..But so have other sections accommodated to their somewhat animated first chairs. There was flutist Janet Ferguson, who “jerked her feet around noisily” says retired violinist T.K. Wang — it was joked that she had resin in her shoes. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour “does a tap dance, but with a light foot.” They all had quirks, he adds, though not nearly so pronounced as Dennis’.
Trembly describes how, in May 2008, Esa-Pekka Salonen, then the L.A. Philharmonic music director, had asked Dennis to stand for her first performance of a work by the conductor-composer, to get more weight from the instrument through the force of gravity. “It was a big, difficult, flamboyant solo in Salonen’s Piano Concerto,” the bass player says. “She had to go up against the powerful pianist Yefim Bronfman and more than met the challenge.”
Admiration for her virtuosity doesn’t stop at the music stand, though, according to many of the musicians:
“She’s genuine.” “There’s no star-turn here.” “Her playing is from the heart.” “A great musician, no matter how she achieves it.”
Though Salonen and Dudamel were not available to talk about Dennis, Zubin Mehta was. Mehta, the Philharmonic music director from 1962 to ’78, hired 86 of the orchestra’s players during his tenure and knows Dennis from his dates leading both the Berlin and the Los Angeles orchestras.
“She’s extremely talented,” he says. “And this is the way some musicians express themselves, even if their colleagues may not like all the motion. Look at [Jascha] Heifetz, he never moved. But then there was Isaac [Stern]. I could never find him, he moved so much.”
Violist Jerry Epstein (hired by Mehta 43 years ago) has seen section leaders come and go and played with Dennis two seasons before he retired last May. Once, he remembers, “when Carrie changed the bowing for a piece, I looked at her and said, ‘The rest of the strings are starting downbow, not upbow.’ She listened and took the advice, not like others who would say, ‘My way or the highway.’ ”
Her fellow musicians also agree that Dennis is shy, definitely not a show-off, even a tad uncomfortable socially.
On this the Philadelphia-bred violist herself concurs: “When you spend most of your time tunnel-visioned in your life work, learning social comfort is not easy. At the conservatory it was practice, practice, practice. I call it the loneliness of the long-distance musician,” referring to the unending hours of solitary work.
Her ultra-engaged, animated style of playing developed on its own and drew comments from the beginning she says. “Others in Philly noticed my physical approach. Some laughed and made jokes, which made me self-conscious. But all people have differences — some talk with their hands and some don’t. When I played with Berlin they noticed me but didn’t care, because they too are very physical.”
At the time that Dennis won her audition for first chair with the orchestra here, she also was sought after by the Berlin Philharmonic’s music director Simon Rattle. Salonen, in his eagerness to lure her to Los Angeles, offered to write a viola concerto as an added bonus. “But the timing was wrong,” says the 32-year-old musician, “Simon sort of got there first and something in my mind clicked at the prospect of Berlin.” So off she went to Germany. After her second year there, though, she was still experiencing too much social isolation.
“The culture shock never eased,” says Dennis. “Even rehearsals were hard because I didn’t speak German and the players didn’t speak much English and there was no balance in my life.” So when she inquired of Salonen if the L.A. invitation was still open, he welcomed her with open arms.
But Dennis admits to some trepidation in coming to Los Angeles: “Would the players hold it against me that I’d chosen Berlin first?”
No one did. “Who wouldn’t grab at the chance to play with that illustrious ensemble, no matter how fine we think we are?” says Trembly.
As far as intra-orchestra professional jealousy goes, violinist Mitch Newman emphasizes that “we were all No. 1 in our families but had to get over it, realizing the pond is bigger than that. The first chair people are immensely gifted, rock-solid, unquestionably deserving. All of us are lucky to have them.”
Meanwhile, though, Newman compares orchestra players to “actors in a play, dancers in a dance, each with one’s own voice, each inspired by the other.” Her section is still learning what Carrie’s gestures and motions mean, he says.
Along the way those big gestures have caused a few collisions.
“Sometimes I get Dale’s [Silverman] scroll at my head,” says Dennis, referring to the top of her neighbor’s viola, where the pegs are. “At Curtis my stand-partner whipped her bow across my forehead and it drew blood.” No question, making music can be a contact sport.
Dennis also allows that, with her vigorous playing, a string frequently breaks. In that case there’s a team around her to quickly exchange instruments. But the bigger picture, she says, involves the intimacy a musician must allow for in a full-sized orchestra, as opposed to a chamber group with far fewer numbers.
“You’re sharing so much of your musical self. That means, in the end, you must be comfortable with the multitude of other players.”