Interview with Violinist Tai Murray: The Joy of Touring and Teaching

April 23, 2023, 4:30 PM · Violinist Tai Murray loves the immediacy of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14. The soloist begins with no introduction, entering along with the orchestra, riding atop a long-held G major chord, sounding as simple and inviting as a ray of sunshine.

Tai Murray
Violinist Tai Murray. Photo by Gaby Merz.

"Emotionally, this concerto is just immediately within you," she said. "There's no 'getting drawn into it.' It's just, 'I'm here and you are a part of it.' Which I love about this piece."

When I heard that Murray would be playing Barber's Violin Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony on April 29 - right in my backyard - I knew I wanted to speak with her. (Click here for more information - there are two performances.)

The last time I interviewed Tai was in 2012, when she was releasing her recording of Ysaÿe's Six Sonatas for Solo Violin (read that interview here). We talked then about her upbringing in Chicago, about starting with the Suzuki Method, then studying at Indiana University with Yuval Yaron and Franco Gulli, then at Juilliard, earning artist diplomas from both institutions.

Tai's list of achievements is long and varied - she was a a winner of a 2004 Avery Fischer Career Grant, and a 2012 recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. She has played as a soloist with major orchestras across the globe and makes her home in both Berlin and New Haven, Connecticut, where she is an assistant professor of violin at the Yale School of Music, teaching applied violin and coaches chamber music. As of 2014, she plays on a ca. 1765 Balestrieri violin, on lifetime loan from a private charity.

When it comes to the Barber concerto, "I enjoy the challenge of the acoustic balancing of the piece," she said. Barber gives beautiful melodies to instruments other than the soloist, among them, the gorgeous oboe melody that starts the second movement. "And there are quite a lot of brass situational moments, where the violin needs to be present but not necessarily on top, which makes it more difficult to balance. Sometimes the brass have to ride above the violin, and the violin is like the blanket underneath."

Barber famously wrote a tricky third movement for the violin concerto, in response to a suggestion from its dedicatee that it needed to be more "virtuosic" than the first two movements.

"The answer to that movement is having good rhythm," she said. "If you don't have good rhythm, it doesn't matter if you can play all the notes, because it won't make sense." That goes for the orchestra, as well - "everybody involved in that situation has to have good rhythm, and obviously the conductor is a big part of that."

When Tai is not traveling as a soloist, she is most often at Yale, where she has been teaching since the fall of 2021.

"I love working with my students," she said. Her full load is 12 students, and it makes for quite a schedule. For example, "every half-week this month, I am going somewhere to play a concert, while the other half of the week is teaching," she said. "It's a busy schedule, but I'm enjoying it."

Teaching at Yale has been a balancing force in her life, easing the roller coaster of concert touring life.

"With the teaching job, I play the concert, then when it's over I come back and focus with other people," she said. "That is very stabilizing, both mentally and emotionally: fly all over the place, but then come back and be productive."

A lot of people would have a hard time with the concert-touring life, but by now, Tai has it down to an art.

"I have found the perfect neck pillow, which I do not lose," she said. "I know all of the places in these different countries where I like to eat - that's one of the things I try to keep sort of similar. And I make sure I have my T.V. shows and books for the plane - and then that's about it. Everything else, I just let it happen. I don't want to create so many rules that, when they get broken, it becomes upsetting. So just a little bit, and then I let the rest it happen."

The Pasadena Symphony concert is called "An American in Paris" after the Gershwin piece on the program - but for quite a while, Tai has lived as "An American in Berlin." What has that been like, and how is the classical scene different there?

One thing that has really stood out for her is this: "Every space and any space is a concert space, in Berlin in particular," Tai said. "Coming from the U.S., where everything is much more segmented, that was somewhat refreshing."

So where are some of the more unusual spaces where she's played a concert in Germany?

"One of the most memorable was in a swimming pool!" she said. For that concert, Tai was the soloist, playing a transcription of the Schoenberg Concerto, with chamber orchestra.

"It was an Olympic-sized swimming pool - very big," she said. "Obviously, it was empty, but the stage was inside the swimming pool, at the shallow end, and the audience was above us, around the swimming pool. It was quite funny!" (she laughs) "The space was large, so it wasn't quite like playing in the bathroom - but also - it was kind of playing in a bathroom! The pool itself was tiled, so it was actually nice acoustics, you know? Very resonant..."

And why hold a concert in a swimming pool?

"Because why not?" she said. "That's basically what I've discovered is the answer to that question. Why not? Because we want to experience the music. We want to understand that the impact of its surroundings has an impact on us."

"People are people," she said. "Yes, we have different cultures, different political makeups and so on. But people want to still go to a concert and enjoy the music - that's not so different!"

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