The first time I laid eyes on Susan Goldenberg I saw her the way most people do — from afar. She was sitting on the Helzberg Hall stage with her trusty “fiddle” tucked under her chin, one of about 80 members of the Kansas City Symphony.
I met her after rehearsal that day. Mind you, she was a stranger to me at that point. But she walked up to me with the sort of great-to-see-you smile you’d give an old friend you haven’t seen in years.
That, Symphony fans, is Susie.
After a number of conversations with Goldenberg over the last few months, watching her play classical music outside the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, seeing her giddy at Kauffman Stadium after performing with the group at the World Series, and spending time with her and her lifelong playing partner — her brother Bill — this I can guarantee you.
There could be few players in the Kansas City Symphony as passionate about the group as the small, lean woman in the first violin section.
Just ask any of the famous soloists she has thanked in person after a performance or Symphony staff members who have received one of her handwritten, well-done notes.
To have those stories made public will make her blush and perhaps a bit anxious, for it is her way to steer clear of the spotlight. In her work she is happy to be a single string in the fabric that is the Symphony.
“To be able to sit in an orchestra and be surrounded by all these sounds and kind of blend in and have people enjoy it makes it very satisfying to me,” she says. “Music … that’s kind of my voice.”
Goldenberg is 62. This year, she celebrates 35 years with the Symphony, which makes her one of the veterans.
“She has a great personal history with the orchestra, and considering that she has seen it grow and develop so dramatically during her many years here I think she is especially grateful,” says the Symphony’s executive director, Frank Byrne. “She doesn’t take for granted any of the successes that we have had.”
Indeed. When Goldenberg talks about her still-new workplace, the acoustically and visually stunning Helzberg Hall, she raves like a tourist describing the Taj Mahal.
“We’re so lucky,” she says. “I feel like this is a dream come true. I mean, everybody says it, but it’s spectacular. People all of a sudden are energized.”
She knows well the story of the orchestra’s rather painful birth in 1982 after the messy dissolution of the Kansas City Philharmonic — she had just been hired at the time. Though that history is certainly public record, she politely but firmly declines to open scabbed-over wounds by talking about it.
(She said the same thing to a local author working on a history of the orchestra. I know only upbeat things, she told him.)
Told you. Big orchestra fan.
With the Symphony ensconced in a shiny new home and its profile growing in the city and across the country, this time in its life feels upbeat to Goldenberg, and she’s enjoying the ride.
Or, to use a phrase more appropriate to her, things are going swimmingly.
She keeps her private life so quiet that many of the stories that friends share about her are prefaced like this: “I don’t think a lot of people know that Susie …”
This story comes from her longtime friend and fellow Symphony violinist Nancy Beckmann.
Years ago the newspaper featured coupons that could be redeemed for free french fries at McDonald’s.
Beckmann recalls that Goldenberg collected as many coupons as she could and handed them out to homeless people on the Country Club Plaza.
She has also known Goldenberg, who is Jewish, to assist people in the tradition of shivah, a seven-day period of mourning in which a family gathers a minyan of 10 adult Jews for special services.
“I know at times she has gone and done this even if she doesn’t know the person, just so that they have that 10th person,” Beckmann say. “Susie is a mensch, she has integrity. And if she says she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it.”
Goldenberg’s colleagues also might not know that she travels the world playing her violin. In her life outside the orchestra, she and her pianist brother Bill — she calls him Billy — play together as the Goldenberg Duo. He is a piano professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Music is their passport to see the world. Every year they pick a place to visit, and she lines up summertime gigs there. She uses “a lot of postage” sending their resumes and letters to schools, universities, museums — “there are a billion museums in Ireland,” she says — soliciting jobs.
They have played on four continents, in China, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the American Cathedral in Paris and St. Peter’s Church in St. Albans, England.
“We’re very lucky to be doing something that we love to do,” says Bill, who is 64 and single like his sister.
By staying in hostels and private homes they usually make just enough money to break even on the trips. But the money is no matter.
“We both like making connections with people of all different backgrounds,” Bill says. “You know the cliche music is the universal language? It’s absolutely true. It connects everybody, there is a connection just through the music.”
Kansas City knows the Goldenberg Duo, too, because every year Bill comes to Kansas City and they perform in the area.
Over a handful of days in October they gave concerts at William Jewell College, the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Baker University in Baldwin, Kan., and libraries in Johnson County.
“They always give interesting programs and offer insights into the music and the composers,” says William Krusemark, chairman of the fine arts department at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, who has known Goldenberg for about 20 years. “The music is very informal, they’re very personable, and they’re good ambassadors for culture and music.
“They always play the music in the sense of style the composer intends. They never put themselves in front of the music. It’s always the music first.”
Bill stays with his sister at her Kansas City apartment when he’s in town. Her home, where I met the two of them last fall, is monastically spare of possessions and clutter. She has a phone, but no TV or computer; she knows where computers are at nearby libraries.
The only piece of “furniture” in the living room is the music stand where she spends hours practicing when she’s not at work. It’s as though anything that doesn’t directly feed her body or soul never makes it past the door. (Thankfully, I made the cut.)
“If I miss a day of practice, that’s OK. If I miss two days, something’s weird. It’s like something’s missing,” she says. “It’s not like just going to listen to music. I have to be a part of my instrument, I have to be there with it, under my chin.”
The Symphony’s season is 42 weeks of concerts and other programs, and performing with the Lyric Opera and Kansas City Ballet.
That’s 42 weeks of sitting in a chair and having to hold a violin in a position that Goldenberg’s brother calls “very awkward.”
She takes care of her body by swimming every morning before many of us are out of bed, her routine for the last 35 years.
“To me the water is healing,” she says. “When I sit five hours a day in a chair (playing) … the older you get, the more you need to keep everything flexible.”
Brother and sister grew up in Cleveland Heights, a Cleveland suburb. Their Ukrainian-born father, David, a chemical engineer, played the violin for his own pleasure; their social worker mother, Helen, played a little piano.
As children they took classes at a Cleveland music school where tuition was based on what families could afford. They both started out on piano, but Susan switched to violin. She has been playing it since she was 6.
Their dad “appreciated classical music very much,” she says. “He was very knowledgeable about all the great artists and had a big library of recordings.
“My father and mother both loved classical music. It’s just that when we got older and decided we wanted to major in it, that’s when things started getting uncomfortable.”
Both parents, but especially their father, worried about whether music could put food on their tables. Standing up to their father together by heeding their mother’s “do whatever you want as long as you’re happy” advice bonded the siblings in a way that is apparent today.
“It makes you stronger,” Susan says. “Maybe that’s why we got along so well, because we thought we’re both doing what we want and we are making it on our own.”
When Bill went off to college he chose Oberlin in Ohio for its music conservatory and its liberal arts program. He majored in music and math, “which pleased my father and let me please myself,” says Bill, who later earned his master’s in piano performance at Juilliard and doctorate at Indiana University in Bloomington.
His sister, on the other hand, wasn’t sure she wanted to major in music “but I just kept at it” at Indiana University’s competitive music school.
“Then I went to Yale … and I really loved what I did.”
Her first job was with the National Symphony Orchestra of San Jose in Costa Rica in 1976.
“It was a great, great situation for a foreigner because they paid our travel down there and paid for us to take Spanish,” Goldenberg says. “And the orchestra was made up of lots of Americans and a lot of people from different countries. It was a great experience for two years as a first job.”
After Costa Rica she played with the Charlotte (N.C.) Symphony for two years before the Kansas City Philharmonic hired her in 1980. That’s right when that messy history that she doesn’t want to talk about happened — a musicians’ strike, the cancellation of the 1980-81 season and the philharmonic eventually shutting its doors.
She ended up working as a waitress for a while. Goldenberg even wound up on the front page of The Star when the paper took a photo of her practicing her violin in her apartment as an out-of-work symphony musician.
But really, she doesn’t want to talk about that.
Two weeks before the World Series in October the Goldenberg Duo gave an evening concert at St. James Catholic Church in Kansas City. The performance was part of the neighborhood’s ongoing “Music on Troost” series.
The Goldenbergs perform for the concert series every year, so many had heard them before.
Wearing a floaty, flowery muumuu purchased in Hawaii, Goldenberg served as performer and host, introducing each piece with a story about the composer or music.
One of her favorite composers, Hungarian Bela Bartok, was first for the night. Goldenberg is partial to his “beautiful, gorgeous melodies … most of it is very upbeat, happy music.”
(On the flip side, she’s not a big fan of German composer Richard Wagner.)
At the front of the darkened church, sister standing next to brother, they held every eye in the place.
“I always like to look at them and imagine them playing together when they were 10,” said the Rev. Donna Simon, pastor of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran, a co-sponsor of the concert series. “I just imagine that they always delighted in each other. They’re very unassuming. For people who have the level of talent that they have, they carry themselves like they’re just like everybody else. You really wouldn’t know.”
That weekend the Kansas City Royals were locked in a playoff battle with the Baltimore Orioles. So the Goldenbergs tucked a little unscripted surprise into their lineup.
Right along with the Chopin and Barber and Dvorak, they led the audience in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
That, Symphony fans, is Susie.
The Kansas City Symphony performs Ravel, Debussy and Rachmaninoff this weekend. | D3