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Renaissance Man

by Carolyn S. Ellis
On a wintry night in February I find myself on the corner of West 65th Street and Broadway, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Lincoln Center occupies 16 acres here � home to the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet. The Juilliard School for the Performing Arts shares this world-renowned campus. On the sidewalk, a seven-foot lighted placard announces: The Calder Quartet; Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Eric Byers, cello; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Alice Tully Hall.

Brakes screech and a siren wails, but I barely notice. Violinist Andrew Bulbrook is my son, and his concert at Lincoln Center is starting in 30 minutes.

This place is second only to Times Square in hustle and bustle. It’s a metaphor for the confluence of people, events and opportunities that have brought my son and his quartet-mates (and all their parents), to Lincoln Center. Tonight the Calder Quartet, founded at the USC Thornton School of Music in 1998, will perform string quartets by Haydn, Christopher Rouse and Smetana to critical acclaim.

Andrew was introduced to the violin in first grade, when schoolmates enrolled in a Suzuki class put on a mini-recital. They possessed the magical ability to produce sound from a wooden box with strategically placed openings, long neck and drawn strings.

Have you ever held a violin? It’s hard to imagine how the beautifully curved instrument with elegant scroll and pegs, f-holes and bridge, when paired with horsehair stretched on a slender stick, can produce music. Especially intriguing for a child, the violin comes in a shaped carrying case that snaps open to reveal a satin blanket, velvet nest for the instrument and separate compartments for the glistening, amber rosin and extra strings. Even little boys get the real thing, not a toy.

“I love the violin,” Andrew recently told me. “I fell in love at 6 when I started to play, and the violin has shaped and driven my life ever since.”

The violin brought Andrew to USC to study with professor Robert Lipsett in 1997. From the start, though, he understood the difficulties of forging a career in the competitive field of classical music. The violin was all Andrew ever really wanted, but alone it was not enough.

On May 4, 2002, a perfectly sunny California day, my husband John Bulbrook and I stood before the USC Wall of Scholars in Leavey Library to watch Andrew and 16 other students accept their hard-earned Renaissance Scholar prizes. USC President Steven B. Sample and Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Jackson were present, as they had been five years earlier, when Andrew, then only 17 and brand new to Southern California, had made his Bovard debut at Freshman Convocation.

And now here we all were at Commencement. Earlier in the day, Andrew received his bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude!) from the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences under the largest white tent I have ever seen; then we wandered to the grove by Ramo Hall to watch the USC Thornton graduation ceremony.

That Andrew’s undergraduate years at USC concluded with the Renaissance Scholar ceremony was especially fitting. The program honors likely leaders for the 21st century � an exceptional few graduates who pursue divergent fields with depth and breadth, and meaningfully connect them. My son pursued the unlikely combination of violin and economics.

It seems to be paying off. “Andrew is unique in his entrepreneurial skills,” observes Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, where the Calder is currently graduate quartet-in-residence, a high distinction. “He gets the big picture, and he asks the right questions. Musicians need to be proactive to develop new opportunities. Andrew is talented at doing that.”

Renaissance seeds were sown early for Andrew. Soon after he began violin lessons in first grade, he talked about quitting. Too many other interests beckoned. But his aunt, a cellist, had watched him play and thought he exhibited some talent.

Don’t let him quit, she urged. Find a high school student to practice with him once a week. His coach turned out to be a multi-talented virtuoso, destined to solo with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at 17 and later graduate from Harvard medical school. She also introduced our daughter Anna, then 4, to the violin.

Afternoons and evenings in our home were filled with scales and arpeggios, �tudes and concerti. Neither my husband nor I played violin or had had much experience with classical music. But we both found the violin compelling and tacitly agreed this would be our family focus. (Anna studied violin extensively and went on to become concertmistress of the student orchestra at Columbia University. Now in the cultural PR business at the Los Angeles offices of Rogers and Cowan, she continues to make music on the side.)

By 10, Andrew was studying violin, piano and music theory at the New England Conservatory’s preparatory program. His teacher required parents to attend lessons and take notes � so I too was getting a music education. Bach, Berlioz, Rochberg � I loved this new world. Before Andrew chose violin, I couldn’t have told you how many strings it had. Now I was learning the difference between major and minor scales, between chord progressions and intervals. It was like seeing the night sky full of stars for the first time and being introduced, step by step, to an endless universe rich with constellations and movement.

Andrew’s teacher � a Russian traditionalist by the name of Sophie Vilker � believed in the importance of chamber music. Soon my son was playing his first Beethoven trio. A year later, at Greenwood Chamber Music Camp in the bucolic Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, he met fellow violinist Jonathan Moerschel � a future member of the Calder. Another promising young violinist, Andrew’s cousin Elizabeth from Pennsylvania, was also working hard to become a soloist; she told him about an amazing teacher from Los Angeles whom she had met at the prestigious summer program, ENCORE School for Strings, in Hudson, Ohio.

Andrew spent four summers at “violin boot camp” in professor Robert Lipsett’s ENCORE studio. There he made friends and played chamber music with another future Calder member � violinist Benjamin Jacobson. Andrew was introduced to the intonation, sound quality and bold approach that were propelling ENCORE alumni to careers as soloists and concertmasters.

“I saw how far I would have to go to reach artist level,” Andrew says, “but I believed that with Mr. Lipsett I could possibly make it.”

By junior year of high school in our small, suburban town of Weston, Mass., Andrew was restless. He was taking honors courses and had served as sophomore class president at Weston High. Violin took him weekly to the New England Conservatory, a magnet for talented teens across the region. He and I (as chaperone and parents committee chair) traveled to Italy, Chile, Argentina and Brazil on youth orchestra tours. He visited colleges in Boston and New York with the idea of applying early.

Several years older than Andrew, cousin Elizabeth Pitcairn ’97 � who now has an appointment on the USC Thornton School’s string faculty � was already in Lipsett’s studio. “USC is different,” she told him. “You need to come out here and see how it feels.”

Andrew and his dad headed to Los Angeles. They learned about USC’s Resident Honors Program (RHP), an accelerated track for exceptional students combining the senior year of high school with freshman year of college. Andrew came back with three applications: for university admission, RHP and a Trustee Scholarship. The toughest part, we knew, would be getting into Lipsett’s USC studio. That would be by audition.

USC was unlike any East Coast college Andrew had visited. Not only could you leave your winter clothes in Boston and wear flip-flops year-round, you could feel that Trojan spirit everywhere.

In the spring, Andrew turned down an Ivy League admission when everything, including the generous support of a Trustee Scholarship, fell into place for him at USC. Many friends asked why Andrew was going all the way to California when we have so many fine colleges here on the East Coast. Ten years ago USC was known in our community primarily for football. Friends wanted to know how you send a child to college when you can’t put the computer, comforter and stereo in the van and drive.

“You put him on a plane with his dad, two suitcases and his violin,” I replied, “and they will work it out.”

As Andrew was packing for college, he received a phone call inviting him to perform at Freshman Convocation. He accepted. My heart swelled when I later saw the photographs: There’s Andrew, almost the youngest person in Bovard Auditorium, on stage in front of 500 fellow freshmen. He was playing Massenet’s “Meditation” from the opera Tha�s. Sample, Jackson, Thematic Option [honors] program director Robin Romans and RHP program director Pennelope Von Helmolt were all present. “He seemed so comfortable,” Von Helmolt recalls, “He really connected with the audience.”

The first time I saw USC with my own eyes was Parents Weekend in October. At home in Massachusetts, autumn leaves were beginning to fall, but in Alumni Park roses were blooming. I loved the Southern California architecture (recognizable from watching TommyCam), especially the Mudd Hall arcade and the Little Chapel of Silence.

At the USC vs. Stanford game, my heart leapt when the Trojan Warrior galloped down the sidelines on Traveler. While I don’t recall the score, I do remember the alumni all decked out in cardinal and gold, the palpable presence of Trojan spirit.

First year was a challenge � lots of homework, practicing and travel. Andrew was fulfilling his high school requirements with the wonderfully demanding Thematic Option courses and writing workshops, studying with Lipsett and his assistant Michele Kim, and trying to practice four hours a day. USC Thornton orchestra rehearsals consumed hours a week. Several trips home to perform as a soloist with Boston Classical and other orchestras added to the strain.

Chamber music was mandatory, not that Andrew needed any prodding. He and Jon Moerschel had been in a prize-winning quintet back in Boston. When they realized they’d both be attending USC, they made a pact to keep playing together. Ben Jacobson requested the same quartet.

Ben, like Andrew, was in the Resident Honors Program, Thematic Option and Lipsett’s studio. Jon had switched to viola a few years earlier, having developed a taste for the brawnier instrument. At USC, he was studying with viola professor Donald McInnes.

During sophomore year, USC Thornton string chamber music director Peter Marsh introduced the three friends to Eric Byers, a new cellist who had joined professor Ron Leonard’s studio. Besides similar playing styles and ability, the four had a synergy that they and Marsh couldn’t miss.

At USC Andrew found himself in a world he would not have encountered in conservatory. In the rarified atmosphere of Lipsett’s studio, talented young players were comparing notes on which summer music festivals to attend. However, his Thematic Option classmates, other friends and fraternity brothers were talking about corporate jobs, internships and, inevitably, salaries. Finance, law and accounting were popular potential professions.

In our family, academics had always been very important; music was extracurricular. Needing to evaluate his options, Andrew sought advice from Von Helmolt and Romans. He took aptitude and personality tests offered by USC Career Services. A Los Angeles Times article about Deborah Borda’s appointment as executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic caught his eye. Here was a violist assuming the helm of a major U.S. orchestra organization! Perhaps economics, which he found fascinating, would be a good field to study. It could lead, if need be, to a career in arts administration.

With help from USC Thornton associate dean Chris Sampson, Andrew devised a plan to move to the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences so he could major in economics. “That Andrew could negotiate this move � to figure out who, what and how to bring together all the related parties � was a major accomplishment,” says Sampson. Despite his change of major, Andrew was not willing to back away from his goal to reach artist level on the violin. He convinced everyone, especially Lipsett, that he could handle both.

When he heard of the Renaissance Scholars program, Andrew realized his disparate interests were assets rather than liabilities. His fork in the road became a point of convergence. He applied successfully for Renaissance Scholar certification in economics and violin performance.

Meanwhile the quartet was getting better and better. When the boys applied to study with the Takács Quartet at the Colorado String Quartet Seminar, the entry form asked for a group name. “We didn’t have one,” Andrew recalls.

At Ben’s suggestion, they settled on the Calder, in honor of the great American visual artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976), whose playful creations embody motion, color and form. When I first heard them play in Boulder, I knew I was hearing that special something that Andrew, with joy, had often mentioned and that embodied Calder’s creations.

In time they won other opportunities to study with preeminent American string quartets such as the Emerson, the Juilliard and the Tokyo.

Andrew reached the pinnacle of his USC experience during the spring semester, when he was studying violin with Lipsett, chamber music with the quartet’s mentor Ron Leonard and “The Art and Adventure of Leadership” with President Sample and University Professor Warren Bennis, founding director of the USC Leadership Institute. He listened carefully to Sample, Bennis and a VIP list of seminar guests that included philanthropist Eli Broad, presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and L.A. Mayor Richard Reardon. His interests were nourished by influences as disparate as Machiavelli and Mozart.

“I was flying high that semester,” he recalls, “Only at USC could I study these separate interests of mine with people of such high caliber. I was doing just what I wanted to do and was just where I needed to be.”

Andrew made plans to stay at USC a fifth year. He pursued his leadership interests by running for USC student senate president � a valuable experience, though he didn’t win. He interned for two summers at the corporate headquarters of Massachusetts-based Inverness Medical Technology and at the L.A. Opera.

In the leadership seminar, Sample had asked students to think about how much money they needed to earn and what other aspects of their work would be important. That message was reinforced when Andrew took professor Richard Easterlin’s seminar, “The Economics of Happiness.” Easterlin’s pioneering research shows that higher earning often doesn’t bring greater happiness; people adapt to higher income and lust for more. “Lasting satisfaction comes from work we truly enjoy and time with our families,” Easterlin had explained. Andrew credits both teachers with freeing him from the assumption that he had to choose the highest-paying career.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Andrew interviewed with Goldman Sachs for an investment banking position that didn’t go beyond finalist stage. He also auditioned for the New York String Orchestra Seminar, which panned out. The city was still reeling from the terrorist attacks. Over the winter break, he served as assistant concertmaster for a pair of Carnegie Hall performances conducted by maestro Jamie Laredo. Our family spent Christmas in a hotel on 57th Street.

The quartet members spent the summer of 2002 in Colorado and Arizona. After the week-long Chamber Music Sedona festival, they did a nine-week fellowship at the Aspen Center for Advanced String Quartet Studies. This was an important opportunity to work uninterrupted, eight to nine hours a day, and study with several great quartet artists. “We got a lot better,” Andrew confided to me, “and I had a really good time. I wanted to figure out how I could do this for the rest of my life.”

Back at USC, autumn saw the Calder members once again immersed in instrumental studies. Andrew � who had graduated already but decided to stay on at USC Thornton for an advanced studies certificate in violin � set his heart on building a future for the quartet. He prepared press kits, contacted presenters and venues, and opened every possible channel of communication.

“I thought if we just played well someone would notice,” Eric recalls. “But from the beginning Andrew understood the business side of the quartet.”

Ever cautious, my son turned to Michael Jackson one last time for advice. The USC student affairs vice president urged him to forget about campus recruiters or the LSATs. “You don’t want to be a lawyer,” Jackson told him. “Here’s your chance to do what you have dreamed about � go for it.”

The Colburn School, originally USC’s music preparatory division but later independent, signed on the Calder Quartet as graduate quartet-in-residence.

“When Andrew got to Colburn his talent and energy burst forth,” recalls Lipsett, who teaches at both institutions. “He was unstoppable.”

Professional engagements took the Calders from the Grand Canyon to Gallery C in Huntington Beach. They made their New York debut in the Schneider Concert Series at the New School and collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt in setting Angela’s Ashes to music. With composer Matt McBane ’02 they co-founded the Carlsbad Music Festival, an alternative classical music project now in its fourth season.

Andrew’s first professional years were unfolding far away, but I shared them through phone calls, the considerable press generated by quartet activities, and the concerts we attended. Sedona, Laguna Beach, Aspen, Boulder � who could believe there were so many venues for chamber music in such lovely locations? I have boxes of memorabilia, concert programs and ticket stubs.

Late in August 2003 I attended a Calder recital at the Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles. (Andrew had been so excited that “Calder Quartet” would be in lights on the 101 Freeway). They dedicated the program of Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn to Eugenie Ngai � Jonathan’s wife of less than a year, who was critically ill. Their exuberant yet emotional performance caught the attention of Craig Fisher from the Los Angeles Times, who gave the performance a rave review. In September, Eugenie died.

On January 4, 2004 the Los Angeles Times Calendar section ran a front-page feature by Scott Timberg on the Calder Quartet. When the group gave its recital in Zipper Hall at Colburn in February, the crowd extended onto the sidewalk. The concert was delayed per the fire marshal’s orders so more seats could be placed on stage; the overflow audience watched on video monitors in the lobby.

For me, one of the most powerful concerts musically and emotionally took place at the Aspen Summer Festival in July 2004. The Calder Quartet performed String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse. These works � written in the 1980s, close to the time the Calder members were born � are a young man’s lament on the state of the world, rich in despair and complexity. “It takes an interest in philosophy, history and world events to be a good musician,” the composer, who was present that night, told me. “They are young, but the Calder Quartet plays my ‘17 minutes of rage’ with real understanding.”

Quartets today need to do more than play exceptionally well. Concert engagements include outreach activities in schools, radio appearances and donor events. Public speaking, teaching and creative programming as well as Web site development, travel planning and accounting are now tasks that the four musicians share.

Andrew’s gear includes a centuries-old, hand-crafted instrument along with the latest cell phone and laptop. His material ranges from 18th-century string quartets by “Papa” Haydn to 21st-century works by American minimalist Terry Riley. Andrew says his goal is to bring the string quartet to audiences of all persuasions � from kids who love hip-hop to devoted followers of classical chamber repertoire.

In September 2005 Andrew moved to New York for the Calder Quartet’s two-year residency at the Juilliard School. It’s great to have him on the East Coast for a while. The quartet assists in teaching, is coached by the Juilliard String Quartet and continues its full concert schedule around the country. Calder’s residency coincides with Juilliard’s centennial, and they have performed in special events at Lincoln Center for this celebration.

Besides their recital at Alice Tully Hall, the Calder Quartet’s 2005-06 season included performances at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Performing Arts Society, and in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox Festival. I might have thought it a dream that my son and his colleagues could be performing in these venues, but I have seen how hard they have worked for the progress they have made. From the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center to UCLA Live, and the MIT Guest Artist Series to La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, they continue to grow professionally in this high-risk enterprise they have created.

It’s nearly curtain time, and I am eager to enter the warmth of the concert hall and share the audience’s quiet anticipation. Four young men, who have grown up together personally and professionally, will step onstage and possibly spot their parents’ proud faces as they scan the crowd.

The violin gave me the opportunity to share my children’s lives more deeply than I could have imagined. Twenty years ago, I could not have told you the difference between violin and viola or what clef the cello plays. I didn’t know what chamber music was. But through my children’s lessons and rehearsals, my own appreciation for classical music developed.

Because I loved the violin, I accepted Andrew’s desire to study with a great teacher across the country, even if it meant he would leave home at 17 without finishing high school. I let go of my vague ideas of how his life might unfold � Ivy League college, first job in New York or Boston � to watch and wait as opportunities, events and people emerged to shape Andrew’s dreams. How many people get to do what they love? USC, with its compelling vision of interdisciplinary study and academic leadership, gave Andrew the courage to find and be himself.

Boston-based freelance writer Carolyn Ellis is a regular contributor to Strings Magazine and to various financial planning publications. As a “music mom,” she has traveled the world with her children and their youth orchestras. She and husband John Bulbrook visit Los Angeles several times a year for Calder Quartet concerts and to see their daughter Anna, a publicist in the Los Angeles offices of Rogers and Cowan, an entertainment public relations firm.

Andrew Bulbrook at Lincoln Center, where the Calder Quartet � the chamber ensemble he and three classmates started back at USC � appeared in a recital at Alice Tully Hall last February.

Photograph by Joe Fornabaio

John Bulbrook and Carolyn Ellis huddle with their gifted children at daughter Anna’s 2004 graduation in New York. Also a violinist, Anna was concertmistress of the Columbia University Orchestra.

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