"That’s the point of music: to help people feel something, whether it’s joy or sadness."

Exploring the Human Experience of Music with Madeline Adkins

Music Interviews

Concertmaster and principal violinist Madeline Adkins assumed her new post at the Utah Symphony Orchestra in September 2016. Despite having to audition in sweatpants, Adkins seamlessly transitioned from Associate Concertmaster at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra—her home of 16 years—to the mountains of Utah and the stage at Abravanel Hall

“There was a lot of pressure to play technically well,” she says of learning the violin. “I definitely think that’s different now. You see people crowded around somebody on a sidewalk just going to town. That speaks so much more to the human experience than something that is rigid.”

We discuss the role of the concertmaster, what it means to be a woman in the orchestra world and her passion for innovative concert programs. But please, don’t call her a “concertmistress.”

SLUG: You come from a family of eight children—six of which are professional musicians. I know your parents were musicologists, as well. Did your parents foster a love of music and encouragement of instrument-playing from an early age? 

Madeline Adkins: My dad is no longer living, but they were both music history professors. My mom is an organist. My dad was sort of a musical dabbler. Like a lot of music historians, he got interested in an instrument researching it and would want to learn to play it. So he spent his career tooting away on odd things in the music room. 

We were all violinists or cellists until about the age of 18. That was kind of the family rule, that you had to keep playing until you were 18, then you could decide what to do. Some of them ended up in other fields, but at one point six of the eight were professional musicians. The house was kind of raucous. There weren’t enough rooms for everyone to even practice, so you’d be in the bathroom or on the back porch. 

So with eight kids, the violin and cello were kind of [my parents’] priority for us—and of course that we got good grades. There wasn’t enough time to take us all to sports, and my sister wanted to do ballet and there just wasn’t time for all that. So we just focused on music from a really young age, which is one of those fields that you kind of have to do that in. We started when we were five and some kids had already been playing for a year or two by then. 

SLUG: How would you introduce someone to orchestral music who has no vocabulary or experience with that kind of music? 

Adkins: A lot of times, and this is my husband’s favorite analogy, we talk about it in terms of a team or a sporting event, because a sports team is something everyone is familiar with. He likes to say that, especially in regards to my position, that the conductor is kind of like the coach and I’m sort of like the quarterback. I’m the leader amongst the players in that sense. I do have some role in leadership, morale, approach in how we’re going to play the game. 

I think one of the best ways is just to jump in. Sometimes the sound washing over you and the experience of a great big orchestra—that’s the glorious part about orchestral music, is 90 to 100 or even more people playing together and making this insane amount of sound. There’s a way to approach it that suits everybody. When you go to an art museum some people like to read the signs and understand the motivation of the artist or the meaning behind it. Other people like to stand and simply feel something. And so I think all of those approaches are valid when listening to music as well. It doesn’t have to be something you understand before you experience it. 

SLUG: You’ve mentioned before that the the classical orchestra and conducting/composing is still such a male-dominated field. Can you talk about your role as a woman in the orchestral world? 

Adkins: Luckily, things have taken a profound shift even in the last few years. It was notable when I was hired [at the Utah Symphony Orchestra] that I was only one of four female Concertmasters in the country [at] a certain caliber orchestra. They just hired a new one in Cincinnati, so now that’s five. It’s moving. It’s interesting to me that none of us have children. It’s a lot of work. I would say the things that held me back were in my own mind rather than reality. I had a somewhat limiting view of myself, even though my goal was to become a Concertmaster from the age of 15. There were ways in which I held myself back. That was something that I was working on throughout my thirties. I was like, “what would a man do in this situation?” 

Although it wasn’t stopping me from pursuing opportunities, I think so much of this job of concertmaster is about how you relate to people. That comes through if you’re not feeling bold or 100%. It’s one of those things where I think you have to work even harder than a man for the same result. Fortunately, the Utah Symphony Orchestra does completely blind auditions. The second Concertmaster blind audition to be held was the one that they just hired this woman in Cincinnati. I don’t think I know any musicians who think they wouldn’t want a woman [to be Concertmaster]. I think it’s a step in the right direction for sure.

SLUG: So you’ve talked a little about your position in the orchestra, but can you describe your role as the Concertmaster? What does a Concertmaster do?

Adkins: I know it’s kind of mysterious, but if you think about where the word originated from it starts to make sense. Back in the 18th century, there was no conductor. Ensembles were led by the first violinist in most cases when there were violins in the piece. So you were the Concertmaster. You kind of ran the piece and directed the ensemble in that sense. In the 19th century as orchestras were getting bigger and bigger, it wasn’t working so well and they had someone whose job it was to direct the ensemble, to keep time, to get everybody on the same page. So in that sense, the term Concertmaster is somewhat vestigial but over time it kind of took on a life of its own. 

I think you can divide the duties into things the audience can see and the things the audience can’t see. I come out and tune the orchestra, this is also somewhat a symbolic thing. When I come out, I’m accepting applause for the orchestra, not just for myself. I’m sort of starting the concert.

You play solos. Something the audience can see but they don’t know you’re doing is the bowings. So how do all the string players make their bowings go in the same direction? That process starts with me deciding for my section what the bowings are going to be and coordinating with all the other principals in the strings. So that’s a lot of work. As much time as I spend practicing and going to rehearsal, I spend doing that. 

As far as things the audience can’t see, I’m sort of a liaison between the conductor and the orchestra. Some conductors more than others rely on the Concertmaster to interpret and spread the info on how we’re going to do things. Some conductors are control freaks, and so on those weeks my job is less vital than on weeks when conductors are thinking in big strokes. That, I would say, is one of the most important roles. A lot of that happens off stage. That is really the hidden piece that makes the job really, really difficult.  

SLUG: Can you talk about what inspired you to program a season of the NOVA Chamber Music Series that included more female composers? 

Adkins: I was the music director for the NOVA Chamber Music Series [in the 2018–2019 season]. It was a season of eight concerts and there were ten female composers on the season. There are a few female orchestral composers that are quite well known, like Joan Tower or Jennifer Higdon, you might often hear a short piece by them on a program once every three years. And it kind of starts to feel a little like tokenism, like “we need a woman on this program.” So I was determined to not only try to take a number of women from different eras and different parts of the world, but to integrate them into the season—it shouldn’t really be a big deal in this day and age. 

The thing that is really interesting to me is that I hadn’t really believed that there were many women composers, because you grow up learning about how great Mozart is and how great Beethoven is. You don’t even really believe that women at that time period were writing just as good [of] music as them. And so that was kind of eye-opening because you think you’re a feminist and you surely wouldn’t actually think that men are better composers than women. But it was eye-opening as I went through my research process that I found so much amazing music that I couldn’t fit it all in, obviously. So that was really exciting for me.

"Sometimes the sound washing over you and the experience of a great big orchestra—that’s the glorious part about orchestral music, is 90 to 100 or even more people playing together and making this insane amount of sound."
Photo Courtesy of Madeline Adkins