Anna Kruger, Principal Viola
How long have you been performing with New Century, and how did you learn about the orchestra and decide to audition?
When I first moved to the Bay Area in the fall of 1998, I had just ended my 13th year with my NYC-based string quartet. Though I was elated to be gainfully unemployed and free of the tremendous intensity that my quartet life afforded, I needed to have work! So I looked in the local Musician’s Union paper and saw an ad for a viola substitute for New Century’s upcoming season. I won the audition and over the next 10 years subbed with the group, approximately one set per season. In 2008 New Century decided to add a viola position, and I subsequently won the audition and have been a member since then.
You are also Principal Viola of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Can you talk a little about your experiences working with the Ballet? Has there been music that you have especially enjoyed performing there?
Working in a ballet orchestra, we musicians are unfortunately not the main attraction! As such, we often have to play pieces at less than ideal tempi, and need to maintain lots of flexibility and awareness. (Some dancers just jump higher than others!) The conductor is of course responsible for keeping us with the dancers, but my task is to make sure that my section plays with however the orchestra interprets the conductor’s beat. This can be particularly challenging in a pit where the orchestra is forced to fit into a long rectangle, and the sound-lag from one end of the pit to the other can be considerable. My favorite ballet music includes Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and anything with a huge viola solo in it!
Chamber Music has always been central to your career, first as founding Violist of the world famous Lark Quartet for over ten years, and then later with the Sun Quartet here in the Bay Area. You’re obviously a chamber musician at heart! Can you talk about why you love making music in a chamber music setting?
When I was a sophomore in college, I decided (upon hearing the Juilliard Quartet’s recording of the Ravel and Debussy String Quartets) that there could be nothing more fulfilling as a violist than playing in a string quartet. It became my life’s dream. Indeed my dream came true, and after 13 years of living and breathing string quartet life, I can safely say that it was that fulfilling. (It had to be, given the life we had!) In addition to all I learned through my travels and through encounters with many great musicians, I learned that I am a team player, and that to me the audience is an integral part of a performance. I felt that as a chamber musician I was making a difference, and that my personal input was valued and important.
I’ve had so many memorable experiences, especially in my quartet (not all of them good!), but highlights include: participation in Gidon Kremer’s Summer Music Festival in Lockenhaus, Austria (taking place in a medieval castle), making a concert tour of China (shortly before the Tiananmen Square massacre), winning the Naumburg Chamber Music Prize in NYC, and competing in the Shostakovich String Quartet competition in Russia exactly when the Soviet Union dissolved. (The spirit of camaraderie at this competition was like none we’d seen whilst competing elsewhere in the world- all the quartets banded together to share this historic moment and be unified by our music.)
You travelled all over the world with the Lark Quartet. How is touring with the New Century Chamber Orchestra similar and different to touring with a quartet?
My favorite concerts with my quartet were on tour- especially overseas. This was before cellphones and laptops were at all mainstream, and when we were on the road we were out of touch. Life was simplified down to “where will we sleep and eat and how will we find the concert hall without GPS?!!” It was all about ensuring that we were in good shape for the concert that night. And night after night we got better and better, and no matter how much we disagreed during the day, the concert was sacred.
Touring with New Century is similar: traveling together, getting to know each other better, planning our days so that we’re fresh for the concert, each concert growing from night to night- we become more cohesive as an ensemble, even as our individual differences get highlighted. That’s the beauty of chamber music- the individual is not sacrificed for the sake of the whole. Rather, the different personalities add contour and variety, making a much more complex and many-faceted product.
In addition to your busy performing career, you’re a Professor of Viola at Sacramento State University. Please tell us about your responsibilities there.
My job as Viola Professor at CSUS is a part-time position. I usually have 5-7 students plus a chamber music group to coach every week. Put that all on my one day off (during Ballet season) plus roundtrip travel from my home in Oakland to Sacramento, and it becomes a pretty full day! For my Juniors and Seniors, I have to help them prepare for their annual recital, and then there are all the letters of recommendation for graduate School, summer camps, and even teaching or playing positions. I enjoy working with these college students- though sometimes quite challenging, it is also fulfilling.
I know from our New Century tours together that you often ice your shoulders after concerts because you have had surgery fairly recently. Luckily, your recovery has been going very well. But can you discuss performance-related injuries a little, and how it’s impacted you, and how you’ve addressed the challenges?
It is true that playing a stringed instrument, harmless as it may seem, can cause a great deal of physical pain and tension. Especially if you play violin or viola. (Really, who ever thought up such a crazy, unnatural way to hold an instrument?! It’s sort of like- who ever dreamed of taking apart a lobster to see how it would taste?!) It is a great strain on the upper body- neck, shoulders, arms, upper back, hands… We musicians tend to throw our whole bodies into making music, even if it isn’t helping us at all! I have dealt with aches and pains from playing ever since my college years. For relief, I tried Alexander and Feldenkrais techniques, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, swimming, “practice camp” (to tear apart my playing and build it up again properly)- the list goes on.
In 2011 I found myself in such pain in both of my upper arms (even in my sleep), that I could not find relief by the usual means. Stopping playing helped, but it turned out that I had severely torn rotator cuffs in both of my shoulders (the cause being part genetics, part lifestyle). Over the next 2 years I underwent 4 surgeries- 2 on one shoulder and 2 on the other, to repair the tears. The surgeries were all very successful, but the recoveries were lengthy, painful, and above all scary. There were many months when I thought I would never play again. Thankfully that is all behind me now, but I continue to do daily small weight conditioning, frequent body work, and keep my freezer stocked with ice packs.
Please tell us about your instrument.
I play on a “no name” viola that is probably about 200 years old and possibly from the region around northern Italy and southern Austria known as the Tyrolean Alps. The label inside is fake (the maker tried to pass it off as a famous instrument in order to charge a higher price!) but it is precisely because of its lack of pedigree that I am its fortunate owner! I could never afford an instrument of this quality if it was made by a famous luthier.
I do know that my viola belonged to a colleague of my sister (she plays violin in the Cincinnati Symphony), who acquired it from a woman in the Cleveland Orchestra, who bought it from her teacher- William Lincer, Principal Viola of the NY Philharmonic in his day. (Unfortunately, word has it that it was none of these violists’ first instrument, and spent much of its time resting comfortably under their beds.) Apparently before Mr. Lincer owned it, it had a life in the pit of a Vienna opera house, where it came to be covered with gunk. So I am proud to say that it is now cleaned up and is my A #1 instrument and I’m very happy to be playing it for you.
This interview appeared in the May 2014 Atlantic Crossing program book.