Married, with Music
There are many musicians of the Oregon Symphony who have a professional musician spouse. Here are just a few of these couples’ stories about the rewards and challenges of making music together.
- Sarah Kwak & Vali Phillips
- Jonathan Dubay & Robin Dubay
- Lynne Finch & Kenneth Finch
- Charles Noble & Heather Blackburn
Concertmaster Sarah Kwak and violinist Vali Philips met when they were both members of the Minnesota Orchestra, where they always sat next to each other — but in different sections. “We felt a connection,” says Sarah, “but neither one of us recognized what was happening,” until the Music Director decided one day to put the second violins on the opposite side of the stage from the first violins. “We both immediately felt that something was very wrong. Each of us felt as if we had been torn in half. Val thought it was because he was now on a different part of the stage. However, we both soon realized that it was simply because we had been separated. The rest is history.”
Before joining the Oregon Symphony in the 2012–13 season, Vali and Sarah also performed in a string quartet together, and in a number of different chamber music ensembles. Their most memorable shared performance was as duo–soloists with the Minnesota Orchestra, playing J. S. Bach’s challenging and sublime Concerto for Two Violins.
Even with their children grown and out of the nest, the challenges of sharing a home and a job still boil down to what many married musicians experience: scheduling practice time, and maintaining healthy boundaries between work and home. But the shared adventure of performing music together — especially when seated next to each other — makes it all worthwhile.
“When we’re sharing the stage, we call in the grandparents,” says Jonathan. With two young, enterprising children around the house, Robin and Jonathan attempt to divide their time so that one can do child care. “We can’t afford otherwise!” The couple started dating when Robin, also a violinist, was playing as an extra musician in the Oregon Symphony over ten years ago. Now, their music careers are timed for turn-taking. “We wait in line for the practice room.”
Robin teaches violin privately and has taught at Pacific University. She is a long-time member of Portland Baroque Orchestra and has also perfomed at the Britt Festival and the Oregon Bach Festival. Recently, the two played the Schumann Piano Quartet in Portland. Jonathan counts that among his most meaningful shared musical experiences. “It is such a beautiful, profound piece. It was wonderful to share the experience with my wife. It was also memorable because at one performance I gave the cue to begin before she was ready to play. I didn’t make that mistake twice!”
Both Robin and Jonathan spend extra volunteer committee time with their respective orchestras. Jonathan also volunteers to teach music in his son’s class where the music progam at the school was cut. “Though, financially, it can be stressful to do this, but it can bring a lot of enjoyment when you feel that you’re doing your best to make a difference, to make things better. Every day is filled to the brim.”
For the last 22 years, Ken and Lynne have shared the stage every time the Oregon Symphony performs. “Going to work together is great, because of our shared understanding of what we do. However, the benefit of a common work schedule, as a couple, becomes our biggest challenge, with two busy school–age children.” Raising children with mom and dad as concert artist means finding consistent childcare for evenings and weekends, “We want to be very involved in our children’s activities, the difficulty is in trying to help with their homework, practicing, and after school sports, as much as possible, in the few short hours between school and the time we both leave for the concerts. This requires a great deal of family ‘time–management’, energy, and teamwork as a couple — and a small fortune in childcare expenses. Add to that the demands of our own practicing and preparation for the performances, and it is clear that for us both, the day accelerates until the last note!”
Lynne had graduated from Lewis and Clark College and was earning her master’s degree from the University of Oregon when she met Ken, an undergraduate. Lynne joined the orchestra in 1981, while Ken was in graduate school at Eastman. He finished in December of 1982 and they married 5 months later. Ken auditioned in 1984. “Following Ken’s audition finals, the orchestra had an evening rehearsal, after which the audition committee made their decision public. Those moments after his audition, while we waited for the results, were some of the most anxious moments of our life (aside from the births of our children!)”
They attribute the beginning of their relationship to playing in a string quartet together in school. “We also both loved to snow ski,” Lynne says. “We say that is really what brought us together!” Skiing aside, it is clear that their most memorable concerts are those that involve chamber music, such as a recent performance of Schubert’s Bb Piano Trio, at a benefit concert for Mercy Corp. “The joy of collaborating and expressing music together, is a wonderful experience.”
Charles and Heather’s relationship was forged in chamber music. “Heather was in the Maryland Symphony string quartet and they needed a violist,” remembers Charles. “The concertmaster, who was in the quartet, had just heard my audition and said ‘that guy is pretty good’ and I read with them, and the rest is history.” Here in Oregon they worked together in the Ethos Quartet. Among their most memorable musical experiences together was a performance at the Aronoff Viola Institute in Seattle. “We played a performance of Arvo Part’s Fratres in a huge, dark chapel. It was a transcendent experience for the two of us, and for the quartet.”
Since coming to Portland, Heather has performed with every major musical organization in the Northwest, with the most time spent playing with the Oregon Symphony on three one-year contracts. Charles points out that, “if you’re both in the orchestra together, even your moods become synchronized—which is not always fun—but, you do get to share the good times as well.” As for the two-careers household, “It’s hard to balance one another’s goals and ambitions, every audition you take must be carefully weighed against what the other person has going on at the moment.” Charles and Heather feel that these challenges are offset by their shared passion for music and what they do. “We know the sheer hard work and force of will that it takes to be successful in this business.”