Musician Spotlight

Deborah Tien Price, Violinist

Deborah Tien Price visited with Executive Director Parker Monroe at a café in Sausalito in February, where they spoke over lunch.


How did you hear about New Century, and how did you get started with the group?

I was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory, having followed my teacher, Camilla Wicks, here after first meeting her at Eastman and subsequently studying with her at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge.  While studying at the Conservatory, I started doing some gigs around town, including a Christmas gig where I met Candace Guirao.  We chatted and played, and we had a good time.  And then a few weeks later, I got a call asking if I would be interested in subbing.  So, that’s how it happened.  Candace and I had a real chemistry.  The next season I took the audition and have been with the group ever since.

You and Candace do have chemistry!  Because you share a stand and you sit in the front you’re very visible to audiences.  And it’s so clear to everyone that you enjoy playing together and enjoy one another!

We complement each other really well.   Candace can’t not play a beautiful note — ever.  And I find that really inspiring.  She gushes musicality, and I love that.  We enjoy each other outside of music, too – so much so that Nadja sometimes has to lean over and say, “Hey, you guys, shut up.  You’re talking again!” (Laughs). 

What appeals to you about being in a conductorless orchestra?  How is your role as an orchestral musician different?  How are rehearsals and concerts different?  Do you prepare differently?

I think my first experience with a conductorless orchestra was probably in Norway, when I lived there, and I really loved it.  Such groups are more common in Europe than they are in the States.

When was this?

This was 1995, and I hadn’t played with New Century yet.  I played principal second violin and over there, when you’re a principal, you lead sectionals.  You spend at least as much time in sectionals as you do in full orchestra rehearsals.  I learned so much from that process.

And it IS different!  It’s like they say – we’re a string quartet on steroids.  And you contribute so much more, every voice contributes so much more, personally and musically.  And that’s so satisfying, because you don’t find it in other contexts.

The preparation involved is very different.  If I’m playing under a conductor, I don’t  necessarily study the scores beforehand, but if I’m playing with New Century, I have to; it’s a part of my process.  I start by listening to the piece while reading the score and following my part, and I almost get more from reading my part than I do from playing it because I can listen to the other parts while I’m reading my own.  I get a more complete sense of the relationship of my part to the whole and I like knowing that!  Now, I like knowing it in a big symphony too, but I’m just not necessarily as invested.  And I like writing cues from all the other parts into my part and then looking at that person when we’re playing and having that connection.  New Century brings a special sense of fulfillment because you’re so connected to everyone in your section and the orchestra, and you’re so much more aware of everyone.

And the concerts are a relief—because we finally stop talking [laughs]!  And I love the talking and do my share, but by Wednesday we all feel:  ‘Let’s just play!’  The concerts are a sense of taking flight:  we’ve done all our work, we’ve cleaned and polished, and it’s awesome!

What do you think makes the NCCO so special?

Musically, it’s the most satisfying job I get to do by far.  I’m so thankful to get to do this.  And we have grown up together now a lot—seen each other get married and start families. 

You know, there’s always this sense of a family reunion at the first rehearsal of every set.  I even remember that at the very first rehearsal I ever attended!  I was the first one there, and then Stuart Canin and [then Operations Director] Anne Brewster were next, and they started to grab the chairs and the stands, and other people were trickling in and they all started helping with the chairs and the stands and hugging each other. 

It’s just a very special atmosphere. On tour, everyone wants to be together: a text message will go out to everyone saying ‘let’s go have lunch,’ and that’s pretty rare—that everyone enjoys one another so much.

Evan and I feel that New Century is a large part of our personal community.  We go to each other’s weddings, cook meals for each other after one of us has a baby…

How long have you been in the Orchestra?

Since the 1998-99 season.  Evan and I met that spring and I think I first played with the orchestra the following December or February.  And I remember Kurt Rohde teasing me and saying, “You’re on the phone every break!  You obviously haven’t been going out long!” [laughs].  Evan would drive me to rehearsals and pack me a lunch. 

How sweet!

I never had that continuity before because I had been following a teacher around the world, uprooting every year or so for almost ten years and I got used to saying ‘goodbye’.  After Rhode Island, where I grew up, the Bay Area has been my home for longer than any other place and it’s been very cool to have one another in our lives.

What else you do when you’re not performing with New Century?

I’m pretty active with my other community, the Alternative Mothers’ Group in Marin.  Most of us had home births and are interested in holistic, alternative health.  I love knitting, so I arranged a big Knit Night Out [laughs]; fourteen women turned out at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael last night!  So, I like to knit and I like to practice yoga, though it’s been a little while since I’ve had the time.

It’s a lot about the parenting for me these days.  We’re still learning about the balance of career and parenting, especially with both careers in the performing arts:  all the evening work, all the travel, finding the time to practice, and being the kind of mom I want to be—it’s exhausting.

Our little girl, Eleri, was born in August 2009 and I know a lot of our audience members saw me when I was a beached whale [laughs]!  She recently started going to pre-school three days a week.  And she thinks that everyone plays an instrument.  So when she meets somebody, she’ll ask, “And she plays what?”  Right now Eleri likes to play-act going to work.  She has a 1/32nd-sized violin so she packs that up, she gets her bag ready, and she’s ready for work!

We haven’t taught her violin directly, but she’s seen a lot of lessons and a lot of rehearsals and performances in her lifetime, and she’s picked up an amazing amount.  For example, when she holds the violin, that bow is straight as an arrow across the strings.

She also thinks she plays the Paganini Caprices because she’s listened to them on CD a lot!

What was it like playing with former Music Directors Stuart Canin and Krista Bennion Feeney?

I remember first being around Stuart.  You know how when you’re around someone with a Southern twang you can start to take on some of their character or their accent?  Well, I loved playing with Stuart because he’s of a different era.  He was trained in the early 20th century, and things have changed a lot since then in terms of what skills and musical attributes are cultivated in a player; there has been a gradual shift in priorities.  And I loved that Stuart was unabashedly himself.  I remember thinking: ‘Oh, my bow strokes are starting to look like Stuart’s and my sound is starting to be more like Stuart’s’.  And it was cool because just through osmosis I got to add more to my palette as a player.  I wasn’t with him for that long, maybe just four sets or so.  I think he had already officially retired but he had a year or so left and he was very relaxed by that time.  I have heard stories about him being rather stern, but I never experienced that at all.  I DO remember Candace making him laugh all the time.

You talked a minute ago about how musical priorities have changed for violinists.  How so?

If you listen to violinists of a generation or so ago, there was a great priority put on a beautiful sound.  I’m not saying playing with a beautiful sound isn’t important now too, but it’s different. Nowadays, there is more emphasis on technical perfection.  And today there is also more emphasis, if you’re conservatory-trained, on winning auditions.  If you’re a student, you’re told: ‘Make sure your bow changes can’t be heard.  Make sure your vibrato is consistent.’  I was once coached by [former first violin] Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet and he said, ‘I don’t understand.  Why do you people think your bow changes have to sound like the steering system of a Lexus?!’ [Laughs]

That’s great!

Yeah!  Or if you listen to recordings of Joseph Szigeti, they’re beautiful but they’re not technically as polished as say, Maxim Vengerov, or other leading violinists of today.

And Stuart was a perfectionist about intonation and rhythm.  He was unabashed about asking for it and I liked that!

You did?

I did!  I had a conductor at Eastman who was greatly feared and he used to say, ‘You hate me now, but you’ll love me when I’m gone.’  He was so demanding and such an amazing musician.  He’d have every score memorized and at the end of every rehearsal he’d say something like: ‘Second trumpet, 3 after E, you were sharp on this note.’  He had the ears and the memory and everything.  He was the real deal and he didn’t let us settle.  And that’s the place where Stuart came from.  His priority wasn’t: ‘I don’t want to make you feel bad, but…’

And Krista: I learned so much from her!   I have never met, or heard, a violinist like her.  She had this amazing ability to sound spontaneous and improvisatory on these old, old pieces and make them sound completely new. It was exquisite and so imaginative and deep.

Was that imagination or perspiration?

I think both.  A lot of her comes from within, but on the other hand, you can’t get to the place she got without incredible work.

At first it took me a while to get used to the idea of ‘Well, let’s see how it goes,’ but I learned so much from that.  And she was always 100% going for it, and she rarely second-guessed herself.  It was like, ‘This is how I hear it so this is how I am going to play it!’  She was fearless.

What new directions do you think Nadja has taken New Century and how she has changed us?

Nadja has really brought things into focus.  She makes things happen.  She’s a doer.  She works tirelessly and we all benefit from her energy and dedication.  What I mean by ‘she brings things into focus’ is that she brings unity of purpose to the group.  Her ideas might be not everyone’s idea going in, but she’s the type of leader who can unify the group behind her when necessary.  I feel like we were rudderless before she came, a little bit lost.  And I think because she’s so dynamic and so full of ideas, we’re drawn in.  She makes us, or me anyway, want to follow.

Nadja wants us to grow and to be known, which is what we want, and to make really great music, which we also want, and she’s focused on making all of that happen.  And that we have been flourishing since 2008, with the economy the way it’s been, speaks volumes. 

If you had one wish for the NCCO, what would it be?

I would just like to do more of what we already do. 

Anything specific?   I know you mean play more concerts…

Well, I’d like to play them at home!  [Laughs]

[Laughing too] Okay, that sounds reasonable.  Skype it in!  Would you tell the readers a little bit about growing up in Rhode Island and how you got started in music?  And the teacher who was most influential to you?

I’m the youngest of three children of a first-generation Chinese family; my mom’s from Shanghai and my dad’s from Wuhan.  My mom grew up playing the piano very seriously, but she says she never felt the passion for it, although she was apparently very talented.  She taught all three of us the piano.  I have no memory of studying piano or learning how to read music; it was just kind of always there.  I remember our piano had a brown stain on the ivory F key…  It was always very casual for me, maybe because my mom was my teacher.

I started violin in public school.  Carol Pellegrino, my first violin teacher, started a strings program in my hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island, and it was the only public school orchestra program in the state at the time.  My sister, who is two years older, happened to be her daughter’s classmate and best friend.  When my sister started violin in the fourth grade I was itching to get my hands on that violin!  But my mom made we wait until I was in the fourth grade myself.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was my very first solo piece [laughs]! 

You never know when you’re going to need Rudolph…

And my brother, who was six years older, said, ‘You’re just in the honeymoon phase right now and you’re going to get tired of it.’  But I loved it! 

Carol Pellegrino was like a second mother to me.  She really nurtured me in ways that I needed, both personally and musically, and encouraged me so much.  In fact she was instrumental in talking to my parents about letting me go to Eastman [School of Music], because they did not want me to go.  They wanted me to be a doctor or a pharmacist or a lawyer—something more practical—because in Rhode Island all the music majors that they had met became bank tellers and car salesmen.  It wasn’t a priority for them to make that part of my life flourish.  But it wasn’t until six or seven years later that I found out that Carol and her husband had come over to my parents’ house and told them, ‘We think this is what she wants to do, and it’s right for her, and you shouldn’t try to stop her.’

Tell us about your violin.

I’ve had my violin for six years, and it was new when I bought it.  The maker is local: Thomas Croen, in Walnut Creek.  It’s a composite model of a Strad and a [Guarneri] del Gesu, but what I love about it is that it fits me perfectly.  Violins come in different sizes.  Evan’s violin, for example, is too big for me.  I actually got tendonitis playing it – the only time I’ve ever gotten tendonitis.  The maple is Croatian.  It’s very healthy, and I don’t have to worry about cracks or anything like that.

I would love to play an old violin, and I have a beef with the world that I can’t [laughs]!  But I searched for this violin for four years.  I went to New York and Chicago and Ann Arbor.  I even had violins shipped to me, FedEx, to try.

What do you look for?  Is some of it just instinct?

Some of it is…  I like a darker, sweeter sound.   Some people like a brighter, slightly edgier sound.  Some people prefer French, or German, or Italian sounds.

Can you describe that?

Good French violins sound brighter, and have a tighter sound in general, while German violins tend to sound darker.  Good Italian violins sometimes have a sweetness, and a creaminess, and a slightly better balance than the other two.  I think, if I could have any violin, I’d love a German or an Italian one with a darker tone.

Do you have any special memories you would like to share?

I remember being on the first NCCO tour.  That program was very special and we got to do it nine times counting the kickoffs.  We could feel we were getting better and better with each concert.  And I remember sitting in the sound check at one of the tour rehearsals and feeling so pleased and feeling like ‘Last night’s concert was awesome, and tonight’s can be even better. ’   And I felt so lucky!  So lucky to be a part of it all, and creating this beautiful art.  It wasn’t work, it was art—art that makes you grow, and from which you learn more things every time you are with it.


This interview appeared in the April 2013 Anne-Marie McDermott Returns program book.