UW News

November 10, 2015

UW School of Music talents, influence featured in book ‘Classical Seattle’

UW News

The University Symphony, conducted for the last time by longtime UW School of Music professor Peter Erös, an internationally known musician and conductor, in 2014. Erös died on Sept. 12, 2014. Melinda Bargreen profiled him in her new book from UW Press, "Classical Seattle."

The University Symphony, conducted for the last time by longtime UW School of Music professor Peter Erös, an internationally known musician and conductor, in 2014. Erös died on Sept. 12, 2014. Melinda Bargreen profiled him in her new book from UW Press, “Classical Seattle.”Gary Louie

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based freelance arts writer who spent 31 years as classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She is the author of “Classical Seattle: Maestros, Impresarios, Virtuosi, and Other Music Makers,” published this fall by University of Washington Press. Bargreen is a University of Washington alumna, with a bachelor of arts in English and a master of arts in music.

Dave Beck of Seattle classical radio station KING FM said, “No other book provides such a well-informed and well-written perspective focusing exclusively on Seattle’s classical community.” Bargreen answered a few questions about the book — and the UW’s involvement in Seattle’s classical music scene — for UW Today.

This book is, as you write, not a comprehensive who’s who or “a footnote-heavy research tome” but a personal memoir of Seattle’s classical music scene. How did you come to write it?

The book arose in conversation with my editor, Lorri Hagman, an arts-savvy person who asked me to be a peer reviewer on another manuscript and then asked if I’d considered writing a book. This is like asking a trick-or-treater if she enjoys candy.

Bargreen to speak at UW Friday, Nov. 13

Melinda Bargreen will give a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, in Brechemin Auditorium.

The lecture will be before “Beethoven: Back to Back,” the first of three consecutive evenings of performance by piano professor Robin McCabe and violinist Maria Larionoff as they play all 10 of the composer’s violin/piano sonatas. Bargreen will speak on “For Pianoforte and Violin: Beethoven and the Evolution of the Sonata.”


You divide the book into several sections, one each on the maestros, impresarios, virtuosi, composers and power brokers and patrons of the Seattle classical music scene. Why was it important to include the power brokers, or “virtuosi of the boardroom,” as you call them?

Although I am lucky in having a slate of incredibly interesting musicians to write about in “Classical Seattle,” over the years as The Seattle Times’ music critic I have discovered a surprising fact about performing artists: Their lives are not necessarily fascinating.

Over the years I have often interviewed wonderful virtuosi whose life stories go like this: “I was born into a musical family, and at age 4 it was discovered that I had fabulous talent, and I became the protégé of Famous Music Person, and I studied and won this competition and that award, and then I went on the road, where I now play 250 concerts a year. My life is divided among the airport, the hotel, and the concert hall, with occasional infrequent breaks.”

But I have never encountered a “virtuoso of the boardroom” whose story isn’t quite different from everyone else’s. How did these people amass their fortunes; what has made them care deeply about an art form that they themselves do not master? Why do they think great music is significant enough to warrant the enormous effort involved in building a concert hall, saving an orchestra, revitalizing an opera company? What on Earth makes people give millions upon millions of their own dollars to the cause of classical music?

Initially my editors were not necessarily enthralled by the idea of including this category in the book, but now I think everyone is glad that it’s there, and these amazing people certainly give us a rounder perspective on what it means to have an arts community. Without them, there wouldn’t be one. And if you think these captains of industry and architecture and technology aren’t fascinating … well, read on!

"Classical Seattle: Maestros, Impresarios, Virtuosi, and Other Music Makers," by Melinda Bargreen, published by University of Washington Press.

“Classical Seattle: Maestros, Impresarios, Virtuosi, and Other Music Makers,” by Melinda Bargreen, published by University of Washington Press.Thomas Eykemans / UW Press

You write that the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair “set the stage for a remarkable five-decade-long transformation of the city’s classical music world.” Why was this?

Sometimes it takes a big event to launch things that would have straggled into existence somehow at some eventual point. Century 21 was a catalyst for a big boost in the way the outside world regarded Seattle, and the celebratory events themselves (particularly the “Aida” production) really reminded people of why this city needed an opera company and a civic fundraising organization to help pay for it. The fair spurred a “Yes, we can” attitude among people positioned to take the arts forward in this region.

“It would be hard to overstate the University of Washington’s importance in Seattle’s classical milieu,” you write. Would you tell a bit about the UW’s role in enhancing the classical music scene, past and present?

First of all, the UW as the region’s major university has long been the place where people look for the finest instruction, and during the time period in question, the UW has been the home of the region’s greatest and most influential musicians.

They provide not only instruction but remarkable concert activity; their work in the broader community has been incredibly influential, and not just as teachers of future musicians (valuable though that role might be).

Look at Vilem Sokol, who revolutionized the Seattle Youth Symphony and made it a powerhouse orchestra envied around the world. Look at Toby Saks, who created the Seattle Chamber Music Festival and its wonderful influx of great concert artists into this region. Look at figures like Silvia Kind and Eva Heinitz, who were at the forefront of an early-music revolution that has had profound and positive consequences for the Northwest and elsewhere. I could go on and on … but you have to read the book for yourself!

You write that despite economic ups and downs, Seattle’s major musical groups have been “smart and lucky” — that arts enthusiasts globally know the city not just for its sports teams and tech companies, but also for “the flying horses and airborne mermaids of Seattle Opera’s Wagner ‘Ring’ and Seattle Symphony’s imposing and widely recognized discography.” Based on its past, in your view, how is Seattle’s classical music future shaping up?

Crystal balls in the arts world are notoriously cloudy because the success of classical music is based on so many factors — lots of them having little to do with music itself. Look around the country and you’ll see important groups that have gone under, even in our greatest cultural centers. I still can’t believe there’s no more New York City Opera.

The arts can never be taken for granted, because of an equation that is so poorly understood outside the country’s cultural precincts: Even the best-run classical institutions that sell out every concert can earn only 50 percent of their operating expenses from ticket sales.

Unless you are based in Europe where there is state support, your programs rise and fall on financial circumstances that are not only impossible to control, they are impossible to predict. The rise, or fall, of the tech boom; the success of region-based enterprises and companies; the health of the UW and its commitment to applied music programs and faculty — all these are a part of the picture in attracting important talent to Seattle and letting the local arts institutions flourish.

I believe that a community that takes pride in its music scene, and takes part in it too, will value its continuance and ensure its future.


Learn more about Bargreen and her work at her website. Visit online for more information about the UW School of Music and UW Press.