The Kansas City Symphony’s Principal Violist is Loving Where She is and What She’s Doing and Ready to Take on New Challenges
Christine Grossman, principal violist for the Kansas City Symphony, was reluctant. As a teenager, she wasn’t sure she wanted to switch from violin to viola. As a born and bred New Yorker, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be principal in an orchestra in the middle of America.
She’s changed her mind: “What I love about the Kansas City arts scene is an openness and a welcoming spirit among the musicians and artists. I also feel like the audiences in Kansas City have an openness to new things, which, to me is a sophistication, in a way that not all cities have.”
From Jan. 12 to 14, Grossman and concertmaster Noah Geller will perform as soloists for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra with the Kansas City Symphony.
Grossman has been with the orchestra since 2008 and this is her third performance as featured soloist. In 2010, she performed the Byronesque-hero role in Hector Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy.” Then in 2014 she channeled Freddie Mercury in an arrangement of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for orchestra and solo viola during a Classics Uncorked concert.
“The fun part for me was to try and really abandon some of my inhibitions,” she said. “I love (Freddie Mercury). I respond to him so much as an artist, to his melodramatic qualities. I respect it. I tried to connect to that and it was liberating.”
Along with her solo stint, Grossman will participate in KCS’s Free Happy Hour performance on April 24, featuring Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in c minor. She’ll also participate in the orchestra’s spring meditation performance, a new endeavor for the organization, pairing selections of string quartet music with guided mindfulness practice.
Though she grew up immersed in the lively musical world of New York City (her mother was a piano teacher and worked in arts management; her father, a photographer and tenor on Broadway and with the Metropolitan Opera; her brother, currently bass in the New York Philharmonic), Grossman never felt pressured to pursue a musical career. She started on Suzuki violin at the age of five and also learned piano, attended the Manhattan School of Music Precollege, and switched to viola as a teenager at the urging of her teachers. She attended the Juilliard School for her undergraduate degree, but she didn’t commit to a career as a musician until she started her master’s program there, with the intent to join a professional string quartet. She joined the New World Orchestra, but after a year she was convinced that chamber music, not orchestra, was the path for her.
She moved from the East Coast to San Diego to join the California Quartet for a fun, intense two years, but left to pursue other things. After a year of freelancing in Los Angeles, she moved to Philadelphia and started studying with Roberto Diaz, a move that changed her life. “He was such a gift for me, the perfect teacher at the perfect time. I had spent a couple of years kind of aimless and freelancing and not happy with how I was playing,” she said. “I view practicing differently now. My approach to preparation is so much more holistic and more focused now. I learned to love the metronome, to approach it as almost a Zen thing or a meditation.”
Having tried orchestra, chamber music and freelancing, she said, “I felt like Scrooge after he wakes up from seeing his Christmas Future. I needed to get serious if I was going to perform at a certain level. I was sort of scared straight a little bit, so I was ready to work and change the way I approached my instrument.”
After a few months of intense focus, her playing improved. On Diaz’ suggestion, she auditioned for the principal spot at the Kansas City Symphony, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to play in an orchestra, let alone be principal.
“But what has been a really happy discovery is that being principal is the best of both chamber music and orchestra in a lot of ways. I like the exchange of energy, when I look at another section leader or when I look at the conductor and . . . we’re making music together, we’re responding to one another . . . it was a huge part of what I found so rewarding in chamber music,” she said.
Having lived in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami and Philadelphia, Grossman also didn’t expect to love living in Kansas City. “I like that it’s small enough. I enjoy the fact that you can be out and see people you know, but it’s not claustrophobic. There are interesting things that are accessible, and people doing interesting things and you can get to them pretty easily,” she said, citing Corvino Supper Club and Greenwood Social Hall.
Though her schedule includes frequent performances with the Kansas City Symphony and teaching at the International Center for Music at Park University, there’s a different pace, too. “What I like about my life here is that I have time and space to explore interests outside of my music.” Grossman loves to swim, paint, draw and knit, and holds interests in psychology and spirituality. She serves on the Leadership Council for KCUR’s Generation Listen KC.
Beyond classical music, she’s performed with the Barclay Martin Ensemble and she also wants to dig into other musical styles, like jazz and bluegrass. Learning to improvise is challenging, along with learning the harmonic language, but for a classically trained musician, it requires unlearning, as well, to “dim the voice of judgement. It’s very difficult for me,” she said, after decades of crafting music in a certain, defined way, “really letting go and not judging it so harshly.”
Now firmly established in Kansas City, Grossman is no longer reluctant, embracing the city and fresh artistic challenges.
Kansas City Symphony presents Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra at 8 p.m. Jan. 12 and 13 and 2 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Kauffman Center. For more information and tickets, visit www.kcsymphony.org.
Photo by Jim Barcus