Iris Stone, Violinist
Executive Director Parker Monroe visited with violinist Iris Stone at her San Francisco home in September 2013.
Can you talk a little about what appeals to you about being in a conductorless orchestra? How is your role as an orchestra musician different? How are rehearsals and concerts different? Do you prepare differently?
While my preparation for orchestra and chamber music is the same, I do think the expectation and individual responsibility we take as musicians is particular in the chamber orchestra setting. We may have a leader, but we also have many, many cooks – or conductors- depending how you look at it! It’s a good thing in regards to the energy and personal engagement the musicians bring to the work, but it makes for a rehearsal process that is as exiting as it is exhausting at times. Performing with New Century is a crossover between playing in a small chamber music group and a symphony orchestra. The musical awareness of the players has to be similar to playing in a string quartet but the range of expressive possibilities and the group dynamic are those of an orchestra. It can be as powerful as the experience of synchronicity in the flight of a flock of birds…
One of my chamber music professors in college, who was a passionate quartet player, founded a conductor-less chamber orchestra at our university. It was a very intense, revelatory and formative experience for me, which made me seek out this particular kind of music making.
So you have been playing in orchestras like this since you were in school!
Yes, that right. I played with different chamber orchestras in Germany while I was still in school in Karlsruhe, in southern Germany. After I finished graduate school in Cleveland, I came to San Francisco and auditioned for New Century. I joined the orchestra that summer in 1995.
What made you decide on the Cleveland Institute of Music?
I had been planning to get my graduate degree outside of Germany. I was thinking about Paris or London at the time. That was before I met Tom at a masterclass in Switzerland during the final year of my undergraduate studies. After many trips , long letters and months of outrageous phone bills (that was before email and skype!) we decided to find a way to live in the same place. We both auditioned for teachers in Europe and the US. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service to study in Cleveland. It was the German equivalent of a Fulbright Scholarship.
And you were in Cleveland for how long?
I was there for two years, studying with Donald Weilerstein, who is a truly exceptional teacher and musician.
Okay, you were finished with your degree. Then what happened?
As a European student finishing a degree in the States, I received a 1-year work permit. After having survived two seemingly endless winters in the Midwest, I wasn’t sure that the pursuit of my happiness was in fact possible in America. I spent the following year between San Francisco, where Tom was studying at the Conservatory, and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, doing a long-term residency. During that year I auditioned for New Century. That was 1995/96 – my first season with the group. However, at that time, I could not make up my mind to stay in the States.
You were pretty young. In your mid-twenties?
Yes. I decided to go back to Germany. I auditioned for the Munich Chamber Orchestra, which I played with for the following two years, before moving back to San Francisco for good.
Were you and Tom already married then?
Tom and I married the year I moved back here to stay, in 1998.
Can you talk a little about what it was like playing with former Music Directors Stuart Canin and Krista Bennion Feeney?
It is fascinating to experience the variety of processes different musicians use to create their work. Stuart always insisted on his leadership in an almost conductor like way. His ideas of ensemble and virtuoso playing shaped the rehearsal process. There was a sense of discipline and rigor but also an endearing playfulness.
I remember working with Krista on Baroque music, and her very particular ideas of style and articulation. She, in complete contrast to Stuart, thought of the orchestra as a democratic institution where all musicians were asked to contribute their opinions – which isn’t always a good idea. During Nadja’s first year as music director, she was stunned to find out how long we could debate the pros and cons of a certain musical idea! Now she makes jokes about it and moves on.
Truthfully, I have learned a lot from all three music directors as each one of them plays very differently. Playing together in a section requires you to kinesthetically absorb the other’s way of music making. It is like learning a new language and being open to spending some time in another person’s universe. It really broadens your musical horizons. However, I think (laughing a little here), as a younger player, it was a little harder for me to do than it is now. Or, let’s say, I appreciate the challenge of it a lot more now. Maybe it was a teenage rebelliousness against leadership that I’ve outgrown …
There is a little anecdote. I’m not sure it belongs in the program book, but here goes. From my first season with New Century, there was a story that was being retold about Stuart and me. We were rehearsing Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, a chamber orchestra classic. He had very definite ideas about the way it should be played. To my suggestion to try a different musical idea he would say, “ I’ve been concert master with the San Francisco Symphony and Opera and we’ve played it that way for 40 years! We’ve always done it this way.” (Laughing) And I said, “Well, maybe that was too long!”
Well, I think he was pretty shocked. In hind-sight there may be something to be said for both sides: having strong opinions, and questioning those opinions. Anyway, that story travelled, and when I came back to the orchestra after my years in Germany, people said, “Oh, that was you…!”
Any happy musical memories?
I really enjoyed the Abbey Road project. It combined a lot of different worlds. We had never done anything like it before. All the different collaborators and arrangers with their personal ideas and interpretations of the Beatles’ songs were fascinating.
Was it fun to play?
Really fun! I remember particularly the Terry Riley arrangement of I Want You (She’s So Heavy), and playing it in Berkeley with all of his fans there! Kurt Rohde’s arrangements of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Here comes the Sun that were done with incredible imagination- you could really hear his voice as a composer come through.
Can you talk a little about the new directions you think Nadja has taken New Century and how she has changed us?
Nadja has changed the group in ways I think none of us expected. We all had some expectations from having heard her as a soloist, but none of us expected that she would “adopt” the orchestra as her close family in a very loving way. No matter how far out on a limb Nadia goes wither her musical ideas, she always goes there with great humanity, humbleness and reverence for the different musicians in the group. I think those values and her personality have brought a new closeness to the group.
Tell us about your violin.
My violin was made in 1706 by the Milanese maker Giovanni Grancino. He was one of the first famous Milanese luthiers. He studied in Cremona, where most of the violins at the time were coming from.
It has a really warm, dark quality, which I love, paired with brilliance.
Tell us about your family. Your husband, we have already mentioned, is quite a successful professional musician and a member of the Cypress String Quartet.
Tom has accomplished remarkable things with his colleagues in the Cypress String Quartet. They’ve been playing together for 17 years and have a beautiful sound and aesthetic- I particularly like their recordings of the Late Beethoven Quartets and they also have commissioned some fantastic quartets including one by NCCO member Kurt Rhode. They tour throughout the US and Europe. Tom and I have two children, Hannah and Daniel, who are ten and twelve years old. They both play the cello. Actually, they both are passionate performers — but neither one of them likes to practice! Daniel has also started singing lessons this year, and enjoys figuring out songs on the guitar and the piano. He recently discovered cycling. Hannah is very creative and loves drawing, writing magazine articles and designing fashion.
Between your performing career, and teaching, and family, you must be very busy, of course. When you have free time, what do you like to do?
What free time? (Laughing) As you know from being on tour with me, and seeing me reading plays, I have been nurturing my passion for the theater – and it’s been revelatory for me. Studying acting has influenced my understanding of music and the arts. It has opened new perspectives and doors for me creatively. I have been working a lot on Shakespeare and feel fortunate to be able explore the craft of acting – and to have been able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London for the past two summers.
It takes courage to try something really new!
Yes, but it is really rewarding.
This interview appeared in the September 2013 Daugherty Perspectives program book.