Jeanne Skrocki: A violinist flying high


Jeanne Skrocki remembers a time when she had given up the violin and might not ever play again.

Twenty-five years later, she is the now assistant concertmaster of Pacific Symphony, a spot that seems like it was reserved especially for her, empty for five years before she filled it in 1993. This week, she will be returning home with her daughter, who is also a professional violinist, and the rest of the Symphony from their recent five city tour in China.

Before jetting to China, Skrocki learned that she would lead Pacific Symphony as concertmaster for its first international tour since going to Europe in 2006. Originally, when auditioning for the orchestra in 1992, she placed fourteenth violin.

Before that audition, Skrocki had not practiced the violin for ten years while she was exploring other interests as a college student and after graduation.

“I got the violin out, dusted it off and I started practicing. It was horrible, it was really awful. I couldn’t do anything. It was a solid six months before it even was enjoyable again,” she said. “I just worked really hard, got back into shape, took the audition and here I am now leading the orchestra on tour.”

Skrocki began playing the violin at age five with her mother, renowned violinist and teacher Bonnie Bell. Later, when she turned ten, she began studying with her stepfather, Manuel Compinsky of the famed Compinsky Trio.

When she was eight years old Skrocki remembers other famous musicians coming over to her Los Angeles home to play chamber music with her father almost every week. With this musical upbringing, Skrocki went on to play chamber and then orchestral music as a teenager with various youth orchestras and ensembles.

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The bass drum in Wuxi Grand Theatre

In the video below, you’ll get just an inkling of what the bass drum sounded like — the fidelity isn’t great — when Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony played “Daphnis and Chloe” in Wuxi Grand Theatre in China recently.

I wrote about it here.

Tuesday in Beijing

I finally got laser tagged in Beijing.

All I was doing was trying to get a photograph of bassoonist Andy Klein, on crutches, being helped off the stage of the National Center for the Performing Arts there on Tuesday. It was right after Pacific Symphony’s performance of “Daphnis and Chloe,” which opened the concert. Some other Symphony musicians had come to Andy’s aid, as he struggled to get off the riser and into the wings. The audience sat in silence watching. No music was being played. Sitting in the balcony, I raised my smart phone to get a snap (I am a reporter, after all), and, presto, the red scribble of a laser pen flashed on my screen. That’s Chinese for “Oh no you don’t.” The usher who immediately came to my seat told me as much, in the nicest possible way.

So, we don’t have a shot of Andy coming off stage. We do know, though, that Andy fell on the uneven pavement at the Forbidden City earlier that day, wrenched his knee and had to be taken to the hospital. His first concern, apparently, was making it to the concert that night.

There was some bad luck going around in Beijing. Clarinetist Joshua Ranz had also landed in the hospital with a serious case of food poisoning. (Tour physician Dr. Larry Snyder took him there.) Josh, who later told me it was the worst and most epic case of food poisoning he had ever had, was unable to play the concert. (Taylor Marino and Peter Nevin stepped in at the last minute to cover Josh’s parts on E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet.) He wasn’t certain what had caused him to get sick, though he had his suspicions. (And it wasn’t fried scorpion, which another musician tried from a street vendor.)

What’s more, one of the tour busses, loaded with musicians, broke down in traffic on the way to the NCPA that night. We were in a convoy, luckily, so the musicians quickly scampered onto the other busses.

They call the NCPA “The Giant Egg” and you can see why. The building is enormous and inside it includes more than one performance space, shops, galleries, eateries, etc.

The orchestra had a sound check in the hall. The concert would be recorded and broadcast. Eileen Jeanette made some announcements, perhaps the most important being that those members of “Group C” who would be going to the Great Wall in the morning had to have their luggage down to the busses by 6:45 a.m.

St.Clair just ran a little bit of “Daphnis” and left it at that. He thanked the orchestra for a wonderful tour — this was the last concert — and dismissed the musicians early.

Beethoven statue in lobby of NCPA

Beijing’s audience was the best and probably the biggest of the tour, and it inspired the orchestra. Rather than warm slowly, as previously on tour, this audience was excited right off, greeting the performance of “Daphnis” with (deserved) healthy cheers, and roaring for flutist Ben Smolen when he got his solo bow.

Pinchas Zukerkman and the orchestra then made magic with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, putting “Pinky” into a very good mood. He did two things I’ve never seen a soloist do before. After a beautiful performance of the aria-like second movement, he shuffled his feet, quickly and briefly, a universal tribute in the orchestral world for a job well done. The shuffle was directed at the orchestra.

In the dance-inflected finale, Zukerman did some dancing of his own, turning to play with the orchestra in the process. He was having fun. He played his encore, the Theme from “Schindler’s List,” and the audience demanded more. It kept bringing him out for bows. Finally, Zukerman came out and ordered, “sing along,” and played an impromptu rendition of Brahms’s “Lullaby” for the orchestra. During this encore, he encouraged his choir with a “very good!” and gave them a bravo at the end.

After his performance every night, Zukerman received a big bouquet of flowers on stage. He gave them away to a different musician each time, while the audience watched. This night the bouquet went to violinist Christine Frank.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” had its best performance of the tour to end the concert. Carl St.Clair prefaced the first encore with a couple words in Chinese (basically asking if they’d like to hear one more; they did) and then the Chinese encore, “My China,” for the last time, again received ecstatically. A young cellist asked to speak with me afterwards and told me the story of the encore, which no one on tour had really quite seemed to know. It’s from a classic and patriotic Chinese film. Oooooh!

The only thing that remained was the after party back at the hotel, and that went late, of course. Musicians do know how to party.

The day, warm and muggy, had started for many of the musicians — and the rest of China, it seemed — with the requisite visit to the Forbidden City.

To read more of my coverage of Pacific Symphony’s China tour click here and scroll.

Sunday in Chongqing

We were in and out of Chongqing in less than 24 hours, arriving mid-afternoon Sunday and departing Monday morning for Beijing. The concert came in between. You’ll get no summing up of this mega-city from me. Fair to say, the jaws of everyone on this tour dropped when we saw it, or began to see it, because it goes on and on. Downtown, or what we thought was downtown, was like Manhattan on steroids. Depending on how you count, some 30 million people live here.

“I don’t like days off when I’m on tour,” Carl St.Clair told me, seated in the back of a van on the way to a press and fan event in the early evening. He had spent his entire Saturday in Wuxi, a free day for everyone, in the hotel, resting, refreshing, staying focused.

The event was held in the well-stocked gift shop of the concert venue. St.Clair was greeted and treated as a celebrity at the event, cameras clicking. He asked two Chinese Pacific Symphony musicians — violinist Angel Liu and Shelly Shi, both of whom speak Chinese — to join him at the microphones. A translator got St.Clair’s words across to the gathering.

Chongqing Grand Theatre is a modernistic chunk of metal on the outside, shaped rather like a British World War I tank. It is redeemed by its location on the water and the surrounding theater of skyscrapers, an impressive forest of architecture. It also lights up at night.

I sat close to the stage in the cavernous hall, so can’t properly judge the acoustics. The strings came through in great detail, though, and the orchestra sounded excellent. Touring agrees with the group, young and old, at least musically. 

A young man moved down to a seat in front of me at intermission, saying what he had heard on the first half was so good that he wanted to be closer. Assistant conductor Roger Kalia joined me as well and we struck up a conversation with the young man, a violinist of unknown talent it turned out. Most amusing was his question to us after the performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which garnered the usual roar. St.Clair went off and came on stage, in the usual manner. The young man was confused. “Where is he going?” he asked. We informed him that this was tradition — “Oh!” — and that if he wanted to hear more he had to keep clapping.

Chinese concert halls seem to have pre-recorded gongs to warn audience members to take their seats. Chongqing’s warning sounded just as the orchestra was tuning. The usual list of rules were announced in two languages. I especially liked this simple one: “Please look after your children.” A good rule for life as well as concert halls.

After the concert, a good many of the musicians went up to the Sky Bar and then the observation deck at the hotel, sipping cocktails, smoking cigars and conversing into the wee hours. Touring brings orchestras together in ways rarely found on home turf. 

Thursday and Friday in Hefei and Wuxi (continued)

We rolled into Wuxi (pronounced Woo-she) at a little after noon Friday, having left our hotel in Hefei at 8:30 a.m. Wuxi is on the way back to Shanghai on the train line; we had passed through it on our way to Hefei. Now we were taken to the Hyatt Regency there, the tallest building in the city, the lobby on the 43rd floor and our eatery on the 65th. My hotel room wasn’t ready when we arrived, but when it finally was, I had a ridiculous view of the city.

While we were waiting for our rooms, Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte strolled by and asked if I’d like to take a walk. A concierge directed us to a local park that was crammed with people and activities, John and I standing out as the only Westerners. This boy and his mother (I would guess) took a liking to me.

The concert venue that night, the Wuxi Grand Theatre, was as impressive on the outside as they come, a massive structure (that I could only photograph part of) designed by Finnish architect Pekka Salminen.

The single thing I will remember most about the Wuxi concert Friday — I kid you not — is the bass drum in “Daphnis and Chloe.” The audience was as we’ve come to expect (loud and lovable), but I’ve never heard a bass drum sound like this ever before. These hits are fortissimo solos near the end of the Suite No. 2, and I do mean solos. Everything stops a split second for the hits, after which the orchestra explodes off of them. Something about the combination of the acoustics of the hall, the wood-paneled shell behind the drum, the drum itself, the mallet and the drummer (I’ll get his name) created an unbelievable impact, like the side of a mountain was being hammered. What a thrill.

Update: The bass drummer’s name is Eddie Menses. I talked to him about the solos described above and he seemed pleased that someone had noticed.

Saturday was a free day for the musicians, many of whom went out and about to see the sights in and around Wuxi. I was among those who took a white-knuckle cab ride out to the peninsula to see a very big statue of Buddha.