Strings keep family harmonizing

Two sisters learned to play professionally when other girls had bows only in their hair.

Classical Music

January 06, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Families that play together stay together. And enjoy successful careers.

That, more or less, is the musical lesson offered by the Adkins family of Denton, Texas. Out of eight siblings, six are professional string players.

As the Adkins String Ensemble, they give several popular concerts each season in Dallas; the rest of the year, they are busily engaged with their respective orchestras. And quite an impressive roster of orchestras too.

Madeline Adkins is in her second season as assistant concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (the third highest position in an orchestral string section). Since 1983, Elisabeth Adkins has been associate concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington (the second highest position).

One of their brothers is principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Another sister is in the first violin section of the Houston Symphony; another brother is assistant principal cellist of the Dallas Opera Orchestra. One more sister is a free-lance musician in the Dallas area.

The remaining siblings -- "the black sheep," Madeline says with a laugh -- studied string instruments, too, when they were kids. But they ended up pursuing other paths. One is an executive with an entertainment company, the other a singer and actress.

Two members of this instrumental version of the Von Trapp family -- Madeline, 24, and Elisabeth, 44 -- will be the featured soloists in the BSO's concerts this week in Meyerhoff Hall. The opportunity to collaborate delights both violinists.

"Elisabeth had gone off to graduate school when I was 1," Madeline says. "So I only saw her at Christmas and during summer vacation. Now that she lives nearby, we've been able to become much closer."

Elisabeth remembers how difficult it was to be close when Madeline was a kid.

"The story in the family is that I was back home from college for a visit," Elisabeth says, "and when I came stumbling out of my room in the morning, Madeline said, 'Mommy, that big girl is up.' "

Eventually, music provided a firm bond for the sisters. (Half-sisters, technically. Elisabeth was one of two children her mother had from a previous marriage before marrying Madeline's father, who also had two children from another marriage.)

"Both my parents were music history professors at the University of North Texas," Madeline says. "My mom would sit and practice with me every single day until I was 12. Then my older sisters would help me."

The family rule

Avoiding a string instrument was pretty much impossible in the Adkins household.

"My mother had been a church organist," Elisabeth says, "so she always had to play by herself. She started me on strings because she thought it would be good for me to play with others. And string players had an easier time making a living than wind or brass players; an orchestra always needs strings."

There were occasional attempts to break with the family tradition.

"Almost everyone rebelled at some point," Madeline says. "I wanted to play clarinet, but my parents wouldn't let me. I also wanted to do gymnastics when I was a kid, but they worried I would hurt my wrists."

Madeline, who confesses a weakness for 1970s disco when she isn't immersed in classical music, did manage to get in voice lessons for six years. But the violin remained her focal point.

The deal was that each child had to keep studying until the age of 18; then they could choose whether to continue.

"I didn't realize when I was a kid that it is unusual for a whole family to be involved in music," Madeline says.

The Adkins brood tended to be as gifted academically as it was musically. Madeline entered the University of North Texas at age 16. Elisabeth did her graduate work at Yale, Madeline at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Elisabeth received her NSO appointment in 1983, a remarkable achievement for a musician in her early 20s.

"Elisabeth is of enormous importance to the NSO," says music director Leonard Slatkin. "Her musicality and leadership are things that all the members of the orchestra draw upon. That she is able to combine these traits with outstanding solo abilities is a great plus for the musical community here."

Madeline joined the BSO right out of grad school ("Isn't that special?" she asks with another of her easy laughs); occasional substitute work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was her most significant previous experience.

"She possesses a beautiful sound," says BSO assistant conductor Lara Webber, who will conduct the sisters this week and has often been on the podium for pops and youth concerts when Madeline has served as concertmaster.

"Everything's there technically, and her leadership is strong whenever she's in the concertmaster chair. I've rarely encountered a musician with sharper or more refined ears; she hears everything in the orchestra. She's so good it's scary. She's also a lot of fun."

Madeline takes her success in stride.

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