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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the May 22, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Diane Monroe: Musical Variety in Varied Venues
As the State Theater’s Bristol-Myers Squibb artist-in-residence,
violinist Diane Monroe gives a conventional concert at New Brunswick’s
State Theater Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. Well, almost conventional.
Playing both standard repertoire and jazz, she appears in the company
of classical pianist Albert Tiu, jazz pianist Thomas Lawton, and bassist
Steven Beskrone. And the concert is free.
Monroe’s other engagements during her two-week central New Jersey
residency include far less standard venues than the State Thheater,
a converted theater with inviting acoustics. Her tour takes her to
public and private schools, corporate headquarters, senior centers,
a correction center, a facility for women recovering from substance
abuse, and a center for people with autism and other disabilities.
Her final performance of the residency is at Rutgers’ Jane Voorhees
Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick Friday, May 24, at 3 p.m.
In a telephone interview from her home in suburban Philadelphia, Monroe
calls the State Theater performance "mostly classical music with
jazz overtones." The non-standard performances are a mix of master
classes and what Monroe calls "informances." To all of them
she brings her command of all corners of the music world, and her
willingness to engage audiences of all sorts.
A member of the audience at a May master class featuring eighth grader
David Pan at the West Windsor-Plainsboro Middle School praised her
way with children and observed, "he played very well before Diane
Monroe worked with him, and she got him to play even better."
The "informances" are intimate lecture-demonstrations where
Monroe interacts with the audience. She plays without accompaniment,
finessing the need to look into the presence of a piano or worry whether
the instrument is in good condition. Jails, institutions, and corporate
spaces are natural venues for her.
"I use Bach in all the concerts. I love Bach." Monroe says.
"I often go from Bach into an improvisational piece that I wrote."
Her core program consists, in addition to Bach, of works by Fritz
Kreisler, Paul Hindemith, Nicolo Paganini, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,
jazz pieces, and her own compositions.
"I talk about what I’m going to play," Monroe says. "With
children I talk about improvisation, what it is, and how it comes
about. I explain that we improvise in life all the time. We don’t
do the same thing twice The children identify with that."
"Sometimes I go into a place where people are depressed or anxious,"
Monroe says. "and I don’t see the faces respond so clearly as
with children. But I feel that the energy has changed. I can tell
by the energy of the people who handle them all the time. There is
a change in their level of hope. A lot of seniors are physically debilitated.
Maybe they couldn’t necessarily get out, but music brought them such
joy. That’s equally true in the correction centers. There’s a response
of joy. People get to hear a violin up close who might not have heard
In the small venues Monroe welcomes questions from the audience. "Questions
about my career are the most common," she says.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Monroe started piano
at four. Her family was musical, though it included no professional
musicians. Monroe’s mother played piano and her father sang. An uncle
was a pianist. A grandfather, who died when she was two, and his seven
brothers were guitarists. "Everyone had a guitar," Monroe
says, "and they all sang." She apparently inherited some of
those genes. "I picked up the guitar when I was 12 and I could
just play it. My grandmother freaked out."
She began to study what she calls "fiddle" at eight, in public
school. The word "fiddle," she explains, "is an endearing
term in the classical world."
Monroe graduated from West Philadelphia High School. After two years
at Oberlin College, she transferred and earned a bachelor’s degree
at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (formerly the Philadelphia
Musical Academy). A mentor at that stage of her life was Charles Castleman.
"He encouraged and motivated me for first time in my life,"
she says. "The training he gave me was well-rounded technically
and musically. He was like a father figure."
While Monroe was pursuing a master’s degree at Michigan State University
in 1975, Joseph Gingold and David Cerone invited her to Philadelphia’s
Curtis Institute, and she arrived enthusiastically. "I was 21
at the time. My youngest colleague at Curtis was 11. It was fun to
fill the age gap. There was no age discrimination."
Monroe’s four years at Curtis were the most important part of her
education, she says. She singles out the renowned violin pedagogue
Ivan Galamian as the significant mentor for that phase of her musical
development. "He could teach practically anybody to play the violin,"
she says. "I thought I was getting the best of training and understanding
of the mechanics of the instrument."
Before devoting herself to solo engagements Monroe was first violinist
of the Uptown String Quartet and the Max Roach Double Quartet. Television
viewers have seen her on "The Cosby Show," "Mr. Rogers’
Neighborhood" and "CBS News Sunday Morning."
She also appeared in the film "Music of the Heart" that starred
Meryl Streep as the indomitable teacher who started the East Harlem
Violin Program and struggled for its continued life. Monroe was among
those who played at Carnegie Hall, along with Arnold Steinhardt and
Isaac Stern in the first Fiddle Fest, a 1993 benefit for the innovative
program that brought classical violin to the streets of Harlem. She
has appeared in subsequent Carnegie Hall Fiddle Fests.
As the 10th Bristol-Myers Squibb artist-in-residence, Monroe joins
the roster of those who have presented a broad spectrum of programs
to more than 25,000 people at more than 160 different locations in
central New Jersey. Past residencies have focused on classical music,
opera, African percussion, Afro-Caribbean, and East African dance
Single-handedly, Monroe provides her own wide-reaching approach to
music, drawing from classical and jazz sources; and incorporating
new music, as well as her own compositions in performances. Perhaps
most remarkable about her performing career is her zeal for bringing
music to music-starved environments. When she plays for prisons or
drug treatment facilities, she allows their residents to forget their
status and become just an ordinary people listening to music or talking
to a performer. And then, with admirable flexibility, she performs
for those in the mainstream, giving all of us an idea of the resources
at her command.
— Elaine Strauss
New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. A concert by the Philadelphia-born violinist
and Bristol-Myers Squibb artist-in-residence. Call for free tickets.
Thursday, May 23, 7 p.m.
streets, New Brunswick, 732-932-7237. Free program of classical music
and jazz. Friday, May 24, 3 p.m.
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