“Music saved me.” Interview with chamber musician, Julie Scolnik.

I’m excited to bring you the first in a series of interviews with creative artists of all stages and disciplines.  

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Julie Scolnik, of Brookline, MA,  is the artistic director of Mistral, (formerly Andover Chamber Music), a series she founded with her husband, physicist Michael Brower, in 1997.  Julie has enjoyed a diverse musical career as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral flutist throughout the U.S. and in France. In earlier years, Julie performed as principal flute with Boston’s leading orchestras. She has released two solo CDs, the latest, entitled ‘Salut d’Amour & Other Songs of Love,’ with her daughter, pianist Sophie Scolnik-Brower. 

How you discover your passion for music and talent for the flute?

 Of all the memories from my childhood, the most immediate ones that tie my sisters and me most profoundly, are the memories of music filling our house always- of the records that my mom worked so hard to find for us. They began with the most beautiful poignant lullaby records, each song seeping into our DNA and staying there ever since. Classical Greek Myths narrated against famous works of classical music.  I can still hear the deep scary voice of the narrator from the Oscar Wilde Fairy Tale, The Selfish Giant. We listened to endless musicals and operettas- Oklahoma, Peter Pan, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Hansel and Gretel. These records were the soundtrack to our childhood. They immersed us in beauty and love, connected us as sisters.  And I believe they were responsible for the direction our careers took in the arts.

The flute fell into my hands largely due to a pedestrian crush my sisters and I had on a handsome twenty-something flutist my family was hosting as a favor to the local cultural council.  I can honestly say that the flute is not as difficult as any string instrument or the piano, and I promise this is not false modesty.  So yes it came easily to me, and my lips and breathing took to it naturally.

One of my favorite parts about Mistral (and I gather other fans feel the same way) is the unique thematic programming. Your season finale, “Poetic Journeys”, was serendipitous as the Mahler and Wagner pieces held special significance to me. How do you come up with the program themes and musical selections? 

Poetic Journeys

The is a great question, although somewhat difficult to answer. Usually, it starts with one idea.  I might be reminded of a piece I already know and love and once I decide to present it on a program, other pieces which relate in some way then come to mind.  It is a long process though and evolves slowly.  People are not aware of the fact that I tend to stress over every decision enormously.  

My process reminds me of the children’s book, “If you give a mouse a cookie.”  If I know I am going to be using a string quartet or say, a clarinet for a piece, then I try to think of other works that might use various combinations of those instruments. It’s a bit hard to explain. But the thematic programs make it both more challenging and more rewardingWe never simply throw three disparate pieces together.  Having thematic programs also makes marketing easier, too.

All artists have to deal with the more mundane aspects of their craft. In running Mistral’s operations, how do you balance the business side with the creative?

Ha! How much time do you have!?  It is true that 23 years ago when I founded Mistral with my husband, I knew nothing about marketing, graphic design, fundraising,  and the endless skills that were necessary to run a small non -profit organization. In the beginning, I asked others to create posters and graphics for me from my own ideas.  But I was desperate to learn how to design them myself.  So I set up lessons at the Apple store which taught me what I needed to know to create my own graphics.  I am a bit of a control freak about all things artistic, so now I am able to create exactly what my vision is for our posters, email announcements, website, and all things creative. Many artistic directors of music series do outsource those things, but I prefer to do it all myself, as it keeps me in charge of my Magnificent Obsession.

Where do you think creativity comes from? How does one nurture a creative side? Can it be taught? 

Ooh,  I am not sure I can do this question justice.  I just don’t know if it can be taught.   I always thought of creativity as part of one’s DNA.  Some people need to create, others have no innate need or desire to do so!  For some, their children are their only art.  For others, their art is their only child.  I can only speak from my own experience, and the very big difference I see between my husband and myself.  My husband is a physicist: rational, brilliant, a manager.  For me, every little aspect of my life seems to be about creativity. Vive la difference! I think it starts at a young age. Who knows? Probably creativity can be unlocked in people who never suspected they had it in them!

Songs-of-Love

What would you recommend for someone who is just beginning to explore classical chamber music? Where to start? I think some people feel intimidated by classical music, or they have been exposed to only the most famous pieces (or excerpts) through movies, etc.   

This is a great question and one I love to answer! It’s true that for some people, chamber music and classical in general can connote some long-dead boring art form.  My elevator speech is to describe chamber music as the most intimate and deepest expression of music that exists. Sitting a few feet away from world-class musicians engaged in fervent musical conversation is exhilarating and transporting!   I think even newcomers can make this discovery if the music is presented in an unstuffy, personal way,  It can make people aware of the role music can play in reminding us what is beautiful in the world–and these days we’re in desperate need of reminding.

The whole issue of how to build an audience is all I live and breathe. Part of our challenge is to make newcomers see how much fun a classical chamber music concert can be! Mistral’s motto is: “Unstuffy, unpredictable, unmatched.” We break down barriers between the audience and the performers by introducing the works. We hold a question and answer period after intermission, which is invariably full of hilarity. (“How come women dress in revealing sparkling dresses and men get away with boring button-down shirts and oxfords?”)  When the audience gets to know the musicians personally, it adds a lot to the experience. 

Mistral Q&A

My instinct to keep the programming adventuresome appeals to some but not all our audience members. I try to juxtapose beloved masterpieces with newly discovered or rarely performed gems.  But many old-timers won’t come if they don’t recognize a composer. The key has always been to gain the trust of my audience members, and to present works,  new and old, that I hope they will love as much as I do.

What inspires you these days?

My audience members of all ages. We bring music into the school systems of Lawrence where the kids have no exposure to any of the arts.  Once I received the most amazing note afterward from a little boy who said that when he thought about the music later that day, he didn’t feel so hungry. I am forever touched by people who tell me that our concerts make a difference in their lives.  Founding my own chamber music series gave me a chance to connect with people and build a community through music. Audience members tell me how the music transports them, makes their lives richer, and reminds them what is important. This inspires and sustains me. 

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 I recently learned you are a breast cancer survivor. How have you changed, if at all, as a result of that experience?

Fortunately, I have always had an easy time embracing life and appreciating each day. So when people ask me this, I usually respond that my outlook on life itself did not really change.  However, I did become aware of the fundamental role music can play during times of tribulation.

I spent long hours at Beth Israel Hospital sitting in my chemo chair while red poison was pumped into my veins. What made those hours bearable was listening to the most beautiful music imaginable through my earphones — the slow movements from Beethoven’s 9th or the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5thwhich lifted me out of a place of darkness into one of beauty.

Keeping my chamber music series going and continuing to play concerts while wearing a wig, kept my spirits high, and reminded me how beautiful life is and worth fighting for. The support received from my chamber music audiences was powerful.

I knew without a doubt that I was one of the lucky ones. Music lovers know why we need music in our lives but it was only when faced with this life-hurdle that I realized the indispensable role it played for me. 

I emerged from 6 months of treatment knowing there was more for me to do. I organized concerts in Boston and in Paris with full symphony orchestras to raise funds for women undergoing cancer treatments. I spoke to the audience about the role music played for me when I was battling cancer. I explained how life’s unexpected challenges spur people to find solace in different ways. 

I can safely say that music saved me.

I am happy to announce that in November of 2019, the world-famous conductor Simon Rattle is leading a concert I am organizing in Jordan Hall to raise funds for underserved women facing breast cancer in the greater Boston area.

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Thank you, Julie, for this inspiring interview. I can’t wait for Mistral’s new season!

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What role does music play in your life?

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