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Out of the Silence: Conversations with Maestro Scott Speck and Guest Soloist Njioma Grevious

Frank Brichetto

Chicago Correspondent

After attending Out of the Silence, the concert performed so beautifully by the Chicago Philharmonic Society, I spoke with two of the artists who were on-stage that evening, Scott Speck, who is both Principal Conductor and Artistic Director for the Society, and Njioma Grevious, who played solo violin. Interestingly, Scott’s family heritage is Ukrainian; their last name was “Spivak”, which means “Singer” in English. Njioma’s hails originally from Boston, resides in Washington D.C., and is recognized as a rising violin virtuoso.

As rehearsals started, Scott told me, his biggest fear as a conductor was “How would our instincts have changed after eighteen months? Musicians have finely honed instincts about playing together, rhythm and pacing. To my delight, nothing was lost. Nothing at all. It was all there, flooding back in.”

Scott said that his job as a conductor “is to shape and help the musicians bring out different aspects of their abilities, and to reach into the music itself to help the musicians unify their playing for each piece.”

During the performance, Scott told the audience “Playing in a theater with a few hundred people is more engaging and energizing than playing before two thousand people on Zoom.” Afterward he said, “I felt more than the usual energy from the audience.” During this concert it was powerful. “The component of energy from the audience is so important, and we felt it much more strongly this time. It made us play better.”

He spoke considerably about the “astounding, marvelous talent and versatility” that each member brings to the stage. “For Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, for example we were in Mozart’s world, working to understand how he envisioned the piece. These musicians are so good that my role during a performance is to just use gestures to remind them of certain things: make sure that we’re not covering up the clarinet solo, that our phrasing and note lengths are unified, that we’re creating a particular tone color, and so on. With this group and on this small stage, it’s easy to keep it together. Everyone subsumes their egos into the music, supporting the clarinet line, and amplifying the musical conversation with the least action from me.”

He finished our conversation by explaining that most Philharmonic musicians are members and owners; the society is a collaboration of about two hundred musicians. They choose the programs, sort out who will play in a given set, and lay out their youth and community engagement programs.  This involvement makes for a much better, happier workplace than most full-time orchestras, and it shows.

I also spoke with Njioma Grevious, a young violinist of incredible talent and skill, who performed the solo in GLORY.  She’s the youngest of three, and all three were musically trained from an early age, encouraged by their mom’s love of music. She praised her mother at length, a single mom who made sure that all three kids got through their classes, homework, auditions, recitals, and private lessons.

She spoke of the “conversation” that is happening while musicians are playing; “This piece (GLORY, ed.) makes it easy to have the conversation; the quiet passages in the opening, playing back and forth with the other instruments, then leading to the more climactic parts and the solo, the interaction is so important throughout the piece.”

“When I’m playing, I’m not really “thinking” in the usual way. I’m sort of in a different world, in an intimate process, staying attuned to my playing as well as everything that’s going on. It’s very hard to describe, this getting into the zone. I imagine it’s similar to synchronized swimming and similar sports where people have to flow perfectly through their parts in harmony with everyone else.”

Njioma also remarked on playing before a live audience. “It doesn’t matter how many people are there…Compared to Zoom and other virtual environments, it’s awesome. I felt that energy from the audience too, it was very palpable, and I love it.  That energy makes my experience better, more enjoyable, more fun, and inspires me to be at my very best.”

“We’re still in disbelief that this actually happened,” Njioma went on, including her mom. “Coming to Chicago, working with the Philharmonic…was remarkable, everyone is so warm and friendly, so talented and accomplished, and they welcomed me generously. I’d love to come back.”

This year’s season with the Chicago Philharmonic, https://chicagophilharmonic.org/, is entitled “Rejoice!” and includes performances to be held in November, 2021, and March and May, 2022. Put these on your calendar, as these musicians are not to be missed.

This piece is abbreviated; the full length article about these two very special artists is available online at https://ukrainianpeople.us/