arts profile

Strings Attached
Story by Tori Phelps
Photography by Bob Hunt

Don’t call her a concertmistress. Violinist Marcia Henry Liebenow is concertmaster of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and trying to turn it into a more politically correct word makes her cringe. “The term ‘concertmaster’ comes from the German ‘Konzertmeister’ meaning ‘leader of the orchestra,’” she explained. “It isn’t a gender specific term.” It is, however, a term that delights this talented musician.

Marcia Henry Liebenow is also professor of violin and viola at Bradley University. In fact, both positions are part of the same job. “I’ve been at Bradley and with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra (PSO) since fall 1992. These two positions are connected into one overall that’s considered a full-time faculty position at Bradley. I teach a two-thirds faculty course load at Bradley. The duties of concertmaster of the PSO constitute the other one-third of my job. This benefits both organizations because the PSO wouldn’t be able to hire a full-time concertmaster, and Bradley didn’t have a full-time faculty line for a violinist at one point. Since I’ve been here, however, the string program has grown a great deal, and I’m very busy,” she said.

Just listening to her schedule sounds daunting. In addition to a crowded teaching lineup, Henry Liebenow and the PSO have a season concert series that includes seven subscription concerts and the annual youth concerts in the spring. “The last two years we’ve also had a family concert in the fall,” she said. “We have a special concert in early May featuring the renowned pianist Emanuel Ax. These World Artist concerts, which started two years ago with Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance and included Bobby McFerrin last year, are now part of our yearly concert offerings. It’s exciting for us in the PSO to bring such world-class artists to town and get to work with them.”

As concertmaster, she leads not only the first violins, but the entire string section. “I mark bowings on the music well ahead of the rehearsal period,” she said. “This process takes a while to complete, and I work with the other string principal players and sometimes the conductor to finalize the bowings. Bowings are the directions we go with our bows. When you attend a PSO concert, notice how the bows of the string players in each section move together. It isn’t choreographed for visual effect. The movement helps the musical phrasing, and if we’re all playing together, the sound of the strings is more unified.”

Henry Liebenow grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, in a family full of musicians—including a father who taught high school orchestra and band and a pianist/organist mother. “All of the kids in my family learned to play several instruments, starting with a bit of piano. I’m the only professional musician of the five kids, but today when we gather as a family, everyone—including my nieces and nephews—pulls out their instruments and plays music together.”

During a high school musical career punctuated by top honors, Henry Liebenow participated in an intensive four-week music festival that had a strong connection with the renowned Cleveland Orchestra. “We studied with members of the orchestra, rehearsing string quartets and orchestra under their guidance. That experience was so eye opening, fantastic, and intense that at that point I knew I wanted to be a professional musician,” she said.

She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in music and violin performance from Ohio University, taking advantage of opportunities to perform as a soloist, concertmaster, and in chamber music. After seven years of teaching at Eastern New Mexico University and in Montana, Henry Liebenow returned to school to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

With a resumé like that, it’s no wonder one of the biggest challenges for her is to continue to grow and learn new things as an artist when she’s usually relied upon as the teacher. “I’m always looking for playing opportunities to improve my skills,” she said. “What I like about Peoria is that there’s strong appreciation for the arts. Since I’ve been here, I’ve developed a loyal following of music lovers who attend my concerts and recitals, who are supportive and excited by my new endeavors. Each time I play, I feed off their energy in the audience. You can feel this on stage, whether it’s in Dingeldine Music Center at Bradley, the Civic Center Theater stage, or somewhere less formal.”

Henry Liebenow said there are so many rewarding aspects of teaching, where she spends the majority of her time. “One is seeing students make good progress and master specific skills of playing. These might be technical skills; producing better tone; or the skill of being more expressive in playing, which comes more naturally to some students than to others. Another part I love is the give-and-take between teacher and student. Some students make great observations that can lead to new discoveries for both of us.”

What can be difficult is figuring out how to be the teacher each student needs, she said. “No two students learn in exactly the same way or at the same speed, so teaching is very specifically tailored. Some students have to be prodded and encouraged; others just trust the information you give them, put it to use, and do well. But finding the best way to engage each student’s mind and encourage creativity is a huge challenge. And in all cases, you have to inspire the student to reach for the stars but still do the ‘housekeeping’ work that enables a good musician to become more complete.”

In addition to teaching at Bradley University and performing with the PSO, Henry Liebenow is a member of the Concordia String Trio, along with Leslie Perna on viola and cellist Darry Dolezal. “We’ve been performing together since 2000,” she said. “Leslie and Darry are both faculty members at the University of Missouri—Columbia. We met in Boston in the early 1990s when Darry and Leslie were playing in a string quartet. I was in Boston working on my graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory. I played chamber music with Leslie, as well as with her in the Portland (Maine) Symphony.”

After reconnecting with Perna in 1998, the two began talking about starting a string trio—rather than the standard string quartet—to enjoy the wonderful repertoire available to trios. “That summer, the three of us started working together as a group,” she said. “Since 2000, we’ve played many pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, and Ernest von Dohnanyi. Then we discovered some fantastic pieces by lesser-known composers from both the Romantic era and the 20th century.”

Even better, Henry Liebenow said a number of new works have been written especially for the Concordia String Trio. “Jeffrey Hoover from Peoria wrote a work we premiered a few years ago. In addition, there have been pieces by composers Alan Schmitz from Iowa, David Colson from California, Mark Lewis from Texas, and Andrew List and Samuel Headrick from Boston.”

The trio has performed locally and regionally, in addition to prestigious performances and demonstrations in Boston, Vermont, and California. “One of our goals is to professionally record some of the works we’ve discovered because recordings don’t exist for many of them,” she said. “At this point, we’re in the process of being considered for such a project by a record company. We’d also like to find a manager to help us book more concerts. I’d love to perform more concerts with the trio, but with my PSO and Bradley schedule, it’s really hard to carve out any available time. Between rehearsals and events at Bradley and with the PSO, every weekend is booked. The trio rehearses several times a year in blocks of three to four days, mostly when our schools are on break over the holidays and in the summer.”

Henry Liebenow has been busy with another project as well: recording a CD with famed pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi. “I recently recorded Edvard Grieg’s three violin sonatas with Antonio, who’s appeared as soloist with the PSO several times in recent years. Antonio is in the midst of recording all of the piano music of Edvard Grieg for Centaur Records; the total number of CDs in this series will be 15. Most of the CDs are solo piano music, but these three violin sonatas and one cello sonata are part of the series. Besides playing with Antonio in his concerts with PSO, I also played in a chamber music concert he gave with David Commanday, the PSO conductor, who also is a cellist. Antonio liked the way I played and the quality of my sound, and last September he asked if I’d like to record this CD with him. In December, we rehearsed intensely in Cleveland and Mansfield, Ohio. In early January, we rehearsed two more days in Baton Rouge, La., on the LSU campus, then recorded the CD for Centaur on three consecutive days.”

The CD was a great challenge for several reasons, she said. “First of all, Antonio is a top-notch player, and working with him was very rewarding. It pushed me to achieve the same level of perfection that he demands of himself. Since these sonatas were new to both of us, it was a challenge to record them and make them sound like old friends—meaning that we had to get very comfortable in playing them together right away, without the benefit of giving any live performances of these works. This is something we hope to do in the next year, and that project is in the works.”

Henry Liebenow said the CD will be released in 2007. “I don’t know yet where it can be purchased when it’s released, but I’ll make sure it’s available locally.”

This wasn’t Henry Liebenow’s first foray into recording. The Concordia String Trio recorded and released a CD by Capstone Records entitled “90s Timeflow—the Chamber Music of Alan Schmitz.” They also recorded “Six Bagatelles for String Trio” by contemporary composer Andrew List that’s waiting to be released. In addition, Henry Liebenow played on the title track of one of Dave Hoffman’s jazz CDs.

With all of her projects and sidelines, however, Henry Liebenow is—first and foremost—a performer, and she’s been celebrated all over the world. “I’ve appeared as a soloist with the Samara Philharmonic Symphony in Russia, with orchestras in Germany, and served as primo violino (concertmaster) of Orvieta Musica in Italy, in addition to my solo appearances with the PSO,” she said. “Last October’s performance of ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams was a highlight for me. I was thrilled by the wonderful audience response. A standing ovation for a piece that ends quietly is amazing.”

A response that undoubtedly will follow her for many years to come. a&s