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Four Retirements and a Jubilee

Posted April 27, 2016

New York Philharmonic 

Once a year, the New York Philharmonic family — active and retired Musicians, Board Members, and Staff — gather at a concert and post-concert reception on the Grand Promenade to honor their colleagues who are retiring or marking important milestones.

This year’s celebration, on April 28, honored violist Irene Breslaw (second from right), flutist Sandra Church (far left), and violinists Newton Mansfield (not pictured, but present in spirit!) and Carol Webb (second from left), who are retiring after decades of service to the Orchestra, as well as violist Katherine Greene (far right), who is celebrating her 25th anniversary.

(Photo: Chris Lee)

Katherine Greene, Viola, The Mr. and Mrs. William J. McDonough Chair, 25th Anniversary

Katherine Greene“Thinking about this milestone, I have two major feelings: How fast the years have gone, and gratitude,” Katherine Greene says. As she remembers how her tenure began, another feeling is clear: pride in “defying the odds.” Her arrival was the culmination of a remarkable career transition: she was 37 when she joined the New York Philharmonic, and viola was her second instrument.

Kathy, a native New Yorker, began her musical studies at the age of five on piano, and she later became a successful performer and teacher on that instrument. But she found herself wanting to be in a large ensemble. “There’s nothing like being inside a Bruckner or Mahler symphony,” she says, describing it as being “carried on a sound wave that goes right through your body.” Ms. Greene entered The Juilliard School playing both instruments and graduated with a master’s degree in viola performance in 1977.

Her gratitude and pride are just as deeply felt when it comes to her colleagues. “Besides being lucky enough to play with the greatest conductors and soloists in the world, my fellow musicians are also on that level. It’s a tremendous honor to be part of the great legacy of the New York Philharmonic and carry it forward. We all hold that very high.”

The variety of music-making is another thrill, she says, citing Broadway, film music, new music, and chamber music. Indeed, in 2014 Kathy produced Strings in Swingtime, an album of standards arranged for string quartet on which she was joined by several Philharmonic colleagues, released on the Bridge Records label. She describes the project — which included finding historically significant arrangements, attracting the label, and writing program notes — as “a pinnacle of my artistic achievement.”

When asked for her favorite moment from the past 25 years, she hesitates, then says, “The magic of making live music makes every performance thrilling for me.”

Irene Breslaw, Assistant Principal Viola, The Norma and Lloyd Chazen Chair, Retiring After 40 Years

Irene BreslawLove at first sight — and sound. What lies behind the powerful yet mysterious connection between music and emotion? Irene Breslaw has been asking this question since she was nine years old and, on watching a Mickey Mouse Club talent show, was overtaken by the passion that would guide her career. That was when the little girl from Queens heard another girl perform Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and called out to her parents, “I want to do that!”

Within a year Irene was studying violin with Margaret Pardee at The Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division, where at age 16, she was encouraged to try the viola. “I immediately liked the sound,” she recalls. “It felt more like my own voice.” She studied with Walter Trampler at The Juilliard School, and, on graduating, immediately won a position in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She moved on to the St. Louis Symphony, and then, in 1976, to the New York Philharmonic.

The Philharmonic was a bit of a culture shock, she explains. “I was coming from an orchestra that was at least one-third women to one in which I was one of eight.” And she was in awe: “The playing was phenomenal! I was sharing the stage with the legends of orchestral playing, seated in front of genius on the podium. When Bernstein walked on stage, I couldn’t believe it. His musicianship was amazing.”

Irene, who was named Assistant Principal Viola in 1989, has been very active in the Philharmonic’s chamber music series and, offstage, on the musicians’ Tour Committee, often joining the Philharmonic staff’s advance visits to assess halls, hotels, and logistics. “It is hard work – you land, run to the hotel, change, and then out the door! But it is great fun, working so closely with such wonderful people.”

As with music, Irene’s connection with Daniel Grapel, began with an instant spark. “I was going to Israel for the first time, in 1978; when I approached the El Al security screener my gut told me that something was going to happen with this guy — I just didn’t know what. After asking his standard questions he asked me for my phone number and if I wanted to go out with him.” She and Dani, a podiatrist, married in 1979 and are now the parents of a daughter, Michal, and a son, Ilan, both in their 30s.

About her plans for retirement, she says, “Life is a work in progress. There is a time and a place for everything.” Including Irene Breslaw’s next inspiration.

Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young says: “When you work with your colleagues as closely as orchestral musicians do, you’re lucky to be able to sit with someone you can tolerate on levels well beyond musicianship. Irene’s contribution to the viola section has been enormous on every level: she is as sensitive and supportive a colleague as she is a player — everyone loves to sit with her! Someone else will fill her chair, but no one can take her place in our hearts. I miss her already and she hasn’t even left yet!”

Sandra Church, Associate Principal Flute, Retiring After 27 Years

Sandra ChurchSandra Church started piano lessons as a five year old growing up in Syracuse, New York. However, she says, “it was sort of lonely on the piano and I wanted to experience ensemble excitement, so I joined the band.” After a year each on clarinet and French horn, in sixth grade she turned to the flute and piccolo: “I loved it: it is exciting to be on top of the orchestra.” And already she was thinking of a life in music; “it was my dream to be in the New York Philharmonic.”

Sandra spent two years at Syracuse University while also studying privately with then-New York Philharmonic Principal Flute Julius Baker. “He was a magical player, yet down to earth as a person, and so encouraging. Studying with him changed my life.” She transferred to The Juilliard School, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then became principal flute of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

She became Associate Principal Flute of the New York Philharmonic in 1988, when Zubin Mehta was Music Director. “Zubin was a pivotal figure in my life,” she recalls. “He was an extremely charismatic conductor and there was a lot of fun when he was on the podium, and we could feel his respect for the Orchestra.” Her view of Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s current maestro, is remarkably similar. “He wants results from the Orchestra, and he goes about it in a way that is positive, constructive, and encouraging.” There is a difference, though: “He’s informally friendly with the Orchestra, in a way that conductors never used to be. It’s been hard for me to get used to it!”

Asked to name highlights of her Philharmonic tenure, Sandra Church quickly replies, “Playing for Leonard Bernstein on the recording series of Tchaikovsky symphonies.” After a moment she adds memories of her own concerto appearances, playing the alto flute in Daphnis et Chloë at Carnegie Hall this past October, and, she says, “anything to do with Mahler — his music is in this Orchestra’s DNA.” And, generally, “being in the Philharmonic allows you to perform with an ongoing parade of first-class guest conductors and soloists. I’ve enjoyed touring; music can be a force for good in the world, and it’s been a privilege to act as a musical ambassador.”

But, really, the true highlight has been her fellow players. “To perform at this level you need people to be on your side, and here your colleagues root for you and look to you to inspire them. And I feel blessed to have been part of a truly great flute section; they are wonderful, both as players and as people. It really is a Philharmonic family.”

Associate Principal Bassoon Kim Laskowski, her colleague in the woodwind section, says: “Sandra Church is an incredible musician. Her tone is rich and complex and her interpretation stylish and nuanced. At the theater and on tour, we have shared many unforgettable experiences. Her sound will always be in my ear.”

Newton Mansfield, Violin, The Edward and Priscilla Pilcher Chair, Retiring After 55 Years

Newton MansfieldNewton Mansfield started his musical journey at age six, when neighbors in Paris asked him if he wanted to play a half-size violin. “I said, sure, why not. I thought it was a toy.”

Newton hasn’t stopped having fun. Ask him his favorite Philharmonic memory and you’ll hear about the 1968 Europe tour, which kicked off with Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday in Belgium. Actually, the party started en route. “We got our own plane and crew. As soon as the plane got off the ground, the bar was open.” And the tour itself? “We couldn’t play anything wrong. And the mussels in Brussels were delicious.”

Born in Poland, Newton moved with his family to Paris at age two. After being introduced to the violin he started studying at the Schola Cantorum. He played in salons run by Russian émigrés and gave his first public performance in 1938.

In 1940 the Mansfields were living in Toulouse, France, when the Germans marched in. “Since we were Jews and not French citizens, we were certainly going to be deported. My mother had the bright idea of sneaking me into the conservatory in Toulouse.” He got housing and permission to stay in the country. “Me, not my parents — they were hiding right outside the town. I was picked up by the police two or three times a week to be questioned about where my parents were.” Newton and his family finally snuck out at night and fled to Montpellier. “My mother played the same trick there with the conservatory.” Then they crossed into Spain, then Portugal — then Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1941, when Newton was 11.

In 1948, at age 18, he got a job with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, followed by stints with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw Chorale as concertmaster, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

He joined the New York Philharmonic in 1961, hired by Bernstein, and served on almost every committee for most of his 55 years with the Philharmonic. True to form, he had fun even when the Orchestra was in the midst of marathon contract negotiations. “Every year we’d be up at midnight screaming and yelling. It was great. Then at two, three a.m. we’d settle and the champagne would come out.”

Newton’s other longtime love: his wife Maria, whom he met in 1968. “I went up to her, introduced myself, and didn’t let go of her hand.” A beloved Lincoln Center tour guide once profiled in The New York Times, Maria passed away in 2014.

Philharmonic violinist Hae-Young Ham reflects: “I’m grateful to have played alongside Newton for the past three decades. His wicked wit and keen intellect have enriched and inspired my musical life. I will miss his anecdotes, wisdom, and brilliant perspectives on music and life.”

Carol Webb, Violin, Retiring After 39 Years

Carol WebbGrowing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Carol Webb never imagined how far the violin could take her. From moving to New York on her own to study, at age 14, to speaking in North Korea as Chair of the musician’s Tour Committee during the historic 2008 trip, her years with the New York Philharmonic have included performances at all points around the globe.

She began with piano lessons at age five. But it was the violin resting on her teacher’s grand piano (instructor Ruth Scott French was also a bluegrass performer) that caught her eye. “I can remember clearly saying, ‘What is that? Let me try it!” says Carol. “It was full-size, so it was out to here,” she adds, stretching her arms wide. But it felt right. “I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, what brings us to music. I already had an ear for it, but something just clicked at that moment.”

By age ten Carol had made her solo debut with the Louisville Youth Orchestra, then went on to the Meadowmount School of Music, where she began studying with Ivan Galamian and Margaret Pardee (and also met her future husband, violinist and composer Richard Sortomme.) Her teachers persuaded her to move to New York, and she became the first of a series of students Pardee invited to live at her home in Queens.

After years of focused concerto and solo work, she vividly recalls being immersed in the full Orchestra at her first Philharmonic rehearsal. “I was sitting in the second violin section, and it was the just — the sound. Being in the middle of that sound was almost awe-inspiring. ”

The Juilliard School graduate had a recent master’s degree and was a new mother at the time. Daughter Holly was only six months old; Lara was born three years later, soon after Carol became the first woman to win a spot in the first violin section. For all her accomplishment onstage, Carol says, “our girls are the thing I’m most proud of. Without a doubt.” But now that they are pursuing careers in Los Angeles (Holly is director of events for the Independent Film and Television Alliance and a competitive Ironman athlete and Lara is an executive with Sony Pictures television), Carol and Richard are relocating to Savannah, Georgia.

Which means it’s last call for a slice of the Coffee Lady’s poppy-seed cake. For more than a decade, Carol has worn a second hat as the Orchestra Coffee Lady, firing up her barista equipment at rehearsal breaks, complemented by homebaked goods and carefully composed lunches.

Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples credits that labor of love with bringing musicians together socially behind the scenes. “Carol is a truly cherished member of the Philharmonic. She is a tasteful, conscientious, and well-rounded musician whom I have often referred to as the ‘glue’ of the first violin section, masterfully bridging communication and ensemble between the front stands and the rest of the section. Similarly, on a personal level, she could not be a better colleague. Carol will be dearly missed for so many reasons.”