Susan Babini, Principal Cello
You are from a musical family. Please tell us about your family and about growing up as a young musician. Who were your first teachers?
I come from a very big family of cellists! My mother, Susan Richter (yeah, we have the same first name) was a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra and after that joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She met my father there, Italo Babini, who was Principal Cellist of Detroit Symphony… and I came shortly after. My uncle, Aldo Parisot, a well-known pedagogue and cellist teaches at Yale.
My grandfather, Tomazzo Babini, was also a very famous teacher in Brazil. He taught both my father and Aldo as well as a great number of cellists in South America. I never had the chance to meet him, but I’ve heard that he was an extraordinary cellist.
However, out of all of my siblings (all nine of us!) I’m the only one crazy enough to carry on that tradition! But there are advantages to having so many cellists in one family. I have the great pleasure of playing on my father’s cello, which is a beautiful Francesco Goffriller from the early 1700’s. Also, my first piece, Hot Cross Buns, at the age of three, was played on a Guarnerius. So, there are advantages!
You’re the Principal Cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony. Can you tell the readers what’s involved with being the principal of your section at a major American symphony orchestra? What are the responsibilities of the job?
I’m currently in my second season with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. It’s a fantastic group and a very cool city! I was pleasantly surprised by that when I moved out there. Sometimes it feels like my job consists of marking bowings! (And more bowings) But it is much more than that. With so many people in a section there could be many different interpretations, not just of the music but also the wishes of the conductor. So I guess my job is basically to help unify the section so that we come across as one voice. That doesn’t mean I’m in control all the time though! I often like to “play back” into the section, into what’s happening behind me.
You recently performed the East Coast premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Colored Field for Cello and Orchestra. What was it like to premiere the new piece?
I actually just recently performed the concerto for the second time with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and the second time around was just as intense as the first time!
It’s quite a difficult concerto, but it is an amazing piece of music! I worked with Aaron on it quite a bit and quickly came to truly love the piece. Also, it’s epic… a huge work. It’s just over 40 minutes long, uses two separate string sections and more percussionists than I can count. So balance is a constant struggle, but he says he wrote that into the piece intentionally.
I tend to push myself pretty hard in the practice room, and with a piece as technically difficult as the Kernis I really pushed myself to the limit. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it, but it was worth every moment of it.
I know you’re an equally passionate chamber musician, and you’ve appeared at Marlboro, Aspen and many other major festivals. What challenges and satisfactions does chamber music bring to you?
To me chamber music is has always been where my heart is in music. It’s wonderful to have the balance of some solo playing and also the joy of creating in the moment with other musicians on stage. It can be so incredibly inspiring when you’re playing with great artists and feeding off each other’s energy and creativity on stage.
One of my favorite performances was actually with Nadja Salerno- Sonnenberg in Aspen. I had the privilege of playing the Brahms Piano Trio in B Major with her and Anne- Marie McDermott a few summers ago. I’ve always adored Nadja’s playing and love playing with her at NCCO, but it was so special to have that kind of intimate connection with her musically. It was an exhilarating, wonderful performance and was definitely one of the highlights for me!
I also had the opportunity to participate in the Marlboro Music Festival for four summers. The level there is so high that one is constantly growing as a musician with all the inspirational playing surrounding you. It’s in a small town in Vermont and the setting is secluded, very much an artist’s retreat, so it fosters this intense, heightened atmosphere where we’re always pushing ourselves to explore the next level of music making. I grew so much during my summers there and will always treasure that time.
You received both your Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees from the San Francisco Conservatory. Who did you study with there, and what can you tell us about the experience?
I finished my undergrad work here in San Francisco but actually spent three years of my undergraduate time at the Cleveland Institute of Music as well. After meeting Bonnie Hampton at Tanglewood I transferred to the conservatory here to study with her. She was my main teacher and one of the most wonderful influences on my life as a musician. She is an extraordinary cellist and artist and I’m so glad that things worked out as they did!
The conservatory has a very special chamber music program and I learned so much from the opportunities I had to play with the amazing artists that they brought in. I loved the small setting and received so much individual attention that I might not have received at a bigger school. After the San Francisco Conservatory I went on to study with Bonnie Hampton further at Juilliard. But my years here were probably the most influential on the musician that I am today.
This interview appeared in the November 2013 Legacies and Concertos program book.