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Get to know Jessica Mathaes, Austin Symphony’s crucial concertmaster

Austin American-Statesman – Michael Barnes

January 2, 2019

Nobody recognizes Jessica Mathaes at the grocery store.

Why should they?

When the concertmaster for the Austin Symphony is not dressed in formal black attire — and positioned next to conductor Peter Bay on the Long Center for the Performing Arts stage — few strangers would guess that the relatively unassuming mother of three kids in aisle five is the second most important musician in the orchestra.

Yet 14 years ago, Mathaes, now 39, earned that key position, also known as principal of the first violin section, only two years out of Rice University’s vaunted symphonic training program.

Before Austin, the Chicago native had played in Houston Grand Opera’s orchestra and had auditioned for other ensembles around the country. Yet in 2005, after Mathaes spotted an advertisement announcing auditions to replace the respected Vincent Fritelli as concertmaster in Austin, she applied.

By then, American orchestras had pretty uniformly instituted “blind auditions,” during which judges hear the applicants from behind a screen to prevent the intrusion of biases.

“That did help,” Mathaes admits. “I was pretty young, 25, and female. They didn’t know any of those things when they heard me play.”

At the time, not many women filled this crucial orchestral role, although now more than 30 serve in that position in this country.

During the audition, a committee of seven people — the conductor, all the string principals and the brass, wind and percussion principals — compared violinists playing the same list of musical pieces.

“They pick the hardest stuff to get a good snapshot of how people play,” Mathaes recalls. “Some were group pieces, and others were what we call ‘concertmaster solos,’ such as ‘Ein Heldenleben.’ Going to these auditions, you get to be seasoned and professional. I was extremely well-prepared and had studied concertmaster solos with my teacher at Rice, and he had studied with some famous teachers, a beautiful tradition in our field.”

After two blind rounds, the Austin Symphony judges took down the screen.

“They want to see you leading physically,” she says. “How you play the instrument visually affects how you lead your section. The music was ‘Scheherazade.’ They wanted to hear how I fit into that sound puzzle.”

How to become a concertmaster:

Growing up in Chicago and Omaha, Neb., Mathaes enjoyed the advantage of mother who played the piano and a father who “loved opera and everything he heard on Bugs Bunny as a kid.”

Mathaes was drawn to her mother’s playing. She danced along and asked if she could play, too. A sister four years younger learned all the same instruments — piano, violin and drums — that she did.

Mathaes then embarked on the Suzuki method, a training program created in the mid-20th century by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki that includes a lot of memorization and playing by ear before learning to read notes. She added violin lessons in the fourth grade after winning a scholarship to a Suzuki Music Festival.

“I started strings just for fun but told my mom I needed more,” Mathaes recalls. “The main Suzuki violin teacher taught 100 students, and my mom took me out of school for lesson time. For a musician, though, starting on a new instrument, I was kind of old. It helped that I had piano behind me.”

Very early on, Mathaes liked playing in groups and joined the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra.

“I thought it was very difficult, but it blew my mind,” she says. “It was awesome. That’s when I knew. It’s lonely practicing on a solo instrument, and much more exciting to be part of a whole.”

She listened to the “Hooked on Classics” series of symphonic albums in the car.

“It really spoke to me that there were several different instruments in there rather than accepting it as a total sound,” Mathaes says.

Early on in the Area Youth Orchestra, she was placed in the second violin section at the first stand.

“The conductor kept kind of shushing me, as if I were too loud,” she smiles. “But the next time, he put me in with the firsts. We played Liszt’s ‘Les Preludes,’ and I remember that it was very challenging.”

The role of the orchestra concertmaster — the main conduit between the conductor and the players — appealed to her early on. One of her private teachers served as the concertmaster of the Omaha Symphony, and she earned that title in her high school orchestra as well as the Area Youth Orchestra.

“I read books profiling concertmasters,” she says. “When you are a nerd in a field, you can find those books.”

Prepping for Austin:

Unsurprisingly, Mathaes picked her college with great care.

“I was very interested in things other than music,” she says. “I wanted to keep up my academics and learn about the world. Rice has an excellent music school but is also good in liberal arts.”

The private Houston university also employed just the right violin teacher for her.

“I went to the one who said my technique was bad,” she laughs. “Kenneth Goldsmith and I are still in touch, and he just turned 80 over the summer.”

Although relatively young, Rice’s Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra regularly lands on published lists of the best university orchestras in the country. The players rehearse 5 1/2 hours a week, and while Mathaes was a member, they took up some tough music.

“The first piece I played at Rice was Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring,’” she recalls. “The standard is so high, and the counting is very difficult, with its mixed meters. The conductor held up a cup and said, ‘The next time someone plays in the rest, put in a dollar.’ You are always trying to make the group sound the best.”

Mathaes earned her undergraduate degree in 2001 and then a master’s degree in viola performance in 2003. She sometimes played principal viola — which is a larger instrument and produces a lower, deeper sound than a violin — in the university orchestra.

“I don’t really have time to play the viola now,” she says. “I got into it because of some physical issues, to address specific body issues. Musicians are like athletes, but we don’t take care of our bodies. I was in pain playing the violin. But I never left the violin; the viola was like cross-training.”

Since joining the Austin ensemble in 2005 as concertmaster, Mathaes has played ceremonial and consequential roles. For instance, while the rest of the orchestra is in view when the audience arrives, the concertmaster strides onto the stage alone a few moments before the conductor enters.

“My friend’s kid’s teacher was impressed that I come out alone at the beginning,” Mathaes says. “She said, ‘We didn’t see you but instead one chair empty, then you walked out.’ I am there to represent the orchestra. Peter (Bay) shakes my hand onstage before and after performances so he doesn’t have to shake 72 hands.”

After she acknowledges the applause but before the conductor enters, the concertmaster rises.

“I stand up to show that we are going to tune,” she explains. “The oboe plays the A. Then different sections play the A. We make sure the instruments are in tune for the difficult pieces we are going to play. I sit down. Peter comes out. We play.”

Yet long before rehearsals and performances, the concertmaster does something few in the audience could imagine.

“I help decide the way we use our bows,” she says. “There are multiple options for how to play a piece. In a section, we all need to do it in the same way, up-bow or down-bow. It needs to be decided beforehand because we have very limited rehearsal time. It’s called ‘doing the bowings.’”

Mathaes usually does the bowings a couple of months in advance.

“The first violin section needs good bowings to help honor the composer’s intent,” she says. “Also, I know Peter — he likes to honor the composer’s intent.”

After Mathaes marks her score, the second violin section’s principal receives a copy, makes more marks that go to the principal viola, then principal cello and lastly the principal bass. All this must be done three weeks before the too-short rehearsals on the Long Center stage.

“During the rehearsal process, if something is not working the way that Peter wants, sometimes I change it on the fly,” Mathaes says. “Let’s try the up-bow, and if it works, we go with it. With a concerto, the soloist comes into rehearsals last, and if they are doing different bowing, we change ours. It’s a flexible process.”

Some classical pieces come with a solo for the concertmaster, which can lead to solo opportunities outside the orchestra. Although she’s a group player at heart, Mathaes has been booked on her own in New York, Chicago, Singapore and elsewhere.

“I don’t use an agent,” she says. “These days, unless you are very famous, you just do it yourself. And with three kids — ages 7, 4 and 1 — an agent seemed like a huge waste of money.”

Mathaes was not around for the part-time Austin Symphony’s great leap forward when it hired Bay in 1998, but she was on board for a second leap when the group moved from the unforgiving Bass Concert Hall to the Long Center in 2008. She sees progress at almost every level of the orchestra.

“Every time we have auditions, we get very high-quality players,” she says. “We also have a really major city with good money. The symphony, however, hasn’t taken the steps to go full-time. That’s when we’ll have an even higher-quality ensemble. I think Austin deserves it.”

Upcoming Austin Symphony Masterworks concerts:

Jan. 11-12: “Variation Voyage,” Charles Ives, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonín Dvořák, Benjamin Britten

Feb. 22-23: “Brahms’ Requiem,” Johannes Brahms

March 22-23: “Creative Expressions,” Fanny Mendelssohn, Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger, Clara Wieck Schumann, Jennifer Higdon and Vitezslava Kapralova

April 12-13: “Worlds Apart,” Gioachino Rossini, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonin Dvořák

May 17-18: “A Shakespearean Evening,” Louis-Hector Berlioz, William Walton

All Masterworks concerts are at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

austinsymphony.org, 512-476-6064