Symphony Spotlight ~February 2020

Michelle Lee Elliott 

Associate Concertmaster of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra

“My piano teacher told me that she thought violin was more my ‘voice,’” said Michelle Lee Elliott, violinist with the La Crosse Symphony.   “I think that was her kind way of telling me I shouldn’t pursue a career in piano.”

 

But she may have seen the future because from that time, the “violin voice” only grew and matured.  Having started violin at age three, Michelle wears a ring on her pinky from her inspiring, first violin teacher, Mary Nagy, who wanted her to “play pretty.”  Terrine Gomez, with whom Michelle studied through high school, introduced the young violinist to chamber music, along with some delicious Indian curries.  From age six through high school, Michelle’s parents drove her from their home in Decatur, Illinois, to Chicago so she could study with Dr.  Myron Kartman, chairman of the string department at Northwestern University.  During her New Hampshire high school boarding years, her professors – Steven Kushner, Mimi Bravar and Rowan Smith – encouraged her to pursue music after high school.  While in the east, Michelle also studied at the New England Conservatory with Zinaida Gilels.

Attending the University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana, Michelle was inspired by professors Danwen Jiang, Sherban Lupu and Suren Bagratuni to play more chamber music.  She would continue her chamber studies at Yale University with renowned musicians Claude Frank, William Purvis,  Boris Berman, Syoko Aki and the Tokyo String Quartet.  As a founding member of the Vinca Quartet, Michelle studied with the Takacs String Quartet at the University of Colorado – Boulder.

Michelle’s “violin voice” was soaring.  “For so long, music was the love of my life,” continues Michelle.  But her focus shifted as she married her seventh-grade carpool mate and had two children.  When the family moved to La Crosse for her husband to complete a residency program, Michelle decided to stay home with their two small children.  But she missed the violin, so Michelle began practicing at a YMCA room while her children were at the facility.  One day, she met Busya Lugovier and it was the beginning of a lasting friendship, and then, a musical collaboration with violist Busya, cellist Derek Clark and Michelle to form the Druzhba Ensemble. 

From there, the “voice” grew stronger as she contacted the La Crosse Symphony about playing as a substitute violinist during the 2013-14 season.  Now as assistant concertmaster, Michelle plays regularly with the local orchestra and other groups, along with giving private lessons.  She, along with fellow symphony violinist Kristina Guillion, head the LSO Play it Forward After School String Program at the Erickson and Mathy Boys and Girls clubs.  “My students inspire and challenge me to find new ways to teach them how to play the violin and apply what they’re learning to life.  I try to foster a love and appreciation for music – the same that my teachers instilled in me.”

In expanding her musical career, Michelle has found teaching most inspiring.  A recent Boys and Girls Club night when students had an open lesson format – meaning parents and family could sit in on the session – was most rewarding for the students and Michelle.  “One group played ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody,’” began Michelle.  “I was accompanying them on violin, and it was wonderful – great fun and very rewarding.  We have some very dedicated and promising students.”

Just possibly the piano teacher’s prediction has come full circle, as the “violin voice” of Michelle Lee Elliott has found a new home with the La Crosse Symphony and is inspiring others in the symphony’s education programs.

 

Symphony Spotlight ~January 2020

Sister Mary Ann Gschwind 

Emeritus Board Member of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra

“Music feeds my soul” is something many people have often heard Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA, say. “And the La Crosse Symphony has played a big part in feeding my soul!   We are absolutely blessed to have such an outstanding organization and are greatly enriched by what the Symphony provides.”

“My life has been full of music,” begins Sister Mary Ann.  In second grade, she started piano lessons which continued through college.  “I also took cello lessons and played in the Catholic Grade School Orchestra, the Aquinas Orchestra and the Viterbo Sinfonietta.”   Other lessons were on organ, clarinet and violin; plus, she taught herself to play guitar and soprano recorder.   “At Viterbo College, I was a music major as a freshman and sophomore. When I switched majors to English, music became my minor.  Admittedly learning more than she ever thought possible, the teachers and teachings intensified her love of music.

From 2008-2014, Sister Mary Ann served on the La Crosse Symphony board.  Again, she learned a great deal about the symphony’s inner workings and its education and youth programs like the Rising Stars Competition and Symphony for Youth.   She continues to be inspired by the dedication of past and present board members.   “David Reedy started the endowment, which has been a real gift to the Symphony. “  

As an Emeritus Board member, she is still involved on the Nominating and Conductor Wannabe committees.  She says, “As a member of the ‘Conductor Wannabe’ Committee, I have enjoyed inviting outstanding area people to participate in this annual spring fundraiser which started in 1997.”  In the past several years, half the funds each contestant raises goes to the Symphony and half to a non-profit of his/her choice.  This collaborative effort has been very invigorating for the contestants and a welcome bonus to the non-profits benefitting from the fundraiser.  “From my personal experience as a Conductor Wannabe contestant, I have to say it was one of THE most enjoyable projects in which I have ever participated. “    

“Overall, my experiences with the La Crosse Symphony have been a real gift in many ways, not just ‘feeding my soul’ at the concerts but also connecting with like-minded lovers of music.”

 

Symphony Spotlight ~December 2019

Alexander Platt 

Music Director and Conductor of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra

“Every time my car and I reach the outskirts of the Coulee region, I truly feel like I’m coming home,” states Alexander Platt, who has called the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra podium home for the last 10 years.

However, the journey to La Crosse began far from God’s country.  Platt was a hard-working viola player in high school.  He also grew up with serious music traditions of the Episcopal Church – singing in the chapel choirs through graduate school.  It was during this time, he was

Influenced by the rector of his church.  “He had been a protégé of the Episcopal bishop of New York, a very famous man at the time,” Platt began.  “He had this way of walking into a room and setting an atmosphere, while, at the same time, sincerely listening to other people.  It took me years to fully realize what I had learned from him.”

By the time Platt entered Yale College, he knew he wanted to become a conductor.  Upon graduation, “I was very lucky and won a Marshall Scholarship, Great Britain’s unending thank you gift to us for saving them after World War II with the Marshall Plan.”    The conductor, then, spent three years at King’s College Cambridge.  Platt loved the Chapel Choir there and had “an unbelievable time; music was everywhere.”

After studying in England, Platt reminisces about another special time.  In 1991, at age 25, he was on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall to audition to be a Conducting Fellow at Tanglewood.  “I was conducting some devilishly hard passage from Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’ with the great maestro Seiji Ozawa fifteen feet in front of me.”  Although nervous, Platt exclaims, “I got it; I really got it!  The moment it was over, he stood up, pointed to me and said, ‘YES.’   And so, the journey began.”

Favorite music includes almost any piece by Finland’s Jean Sibelius, the Beethoven of the 20th century.  “He taps into something so vital, like into the earth itself.”  On a more earthly level, Platt also favors, wine, reading books and newspapers away from the internet and swimming.   Others “apparently think I have a wild sense of humor, full of mid-century cultural references,” Platt chuckles.

Those traits have carried the LSO conductor all over the world, but regardless of the location, he still values “an orchestra that presents the highest possible standards and yet remains in touch with the community.”  He loves the camaraderie of the La Crosse orchestra along with the local audience, “the best anywhere.”  They send love over the footlights.”