Best Seat in the House

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & e's the last person to walk onto the stage before the conductor and, per symphony protocol, the only member of the orchestra to be greeted individually with applause. He plays a single note on his violin; all the other string players check their tuning to his. He shakes hands with the conductor as the conductor steps to the podium, and then he takes his seat in the first chair of the first violin section, beneath the conductor's left hand. The conductor's arms rise, and another Spokane Symphony concert begins.

For 37 years, this has been the public's glimpse of Kelly Farris, the orchestra's concertmaster since 1969. Impeccable in his formal concert garb, Farris cuts a debonair yet comfortably familiar figure on the stage of the Opera House -- or the Met, Boswell Hall or even the Big Easy. He's quiet and steady, never drawing attention to himself, yet consistently, reliably, solidly present.

But surely there's more to the job than shaking hands, tuning the orchestra and playing the occasional solo. Who the heck is this Kelly Farris guy, anyway?

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the strictly defined hierarchy of the orchestra, where the players sit in designated chairs within their sections according to rank, the concertmaster holds the top position among players. Onstage, he's second only to the conductor. In a sports metaphor, he's the team captain; in military terms, he's the field general. (And yes, the concertmaster is most often still a "he," as is the conductor; the staid world of classical music is changing, but slowly.) But what does it take to do the job?

"You have to have a very good relationship with the conductor, so you can read the kinds of sounds that he'd prefer, before he asks for it," Farris says, "or make adjustments when he asks, certain bowings and articulations to achieve a certain sound. There's a certain amount of mutual candidness -- although not necessarily in front of the orchestra."

That part about "reading" the conductor's wishes before they're expressed is what makes Farris so good at his job, says Spokane Symphony Music Director Eckart Preu. "I think the dream for every conductor is to have a concertmaster who can read your mind. The conductor can't do anything about sound production unless the concertmaster does it." With a laugh, he adds, "It's actually the concertmaster who does much of the job, and we [conductors] take credit for it."

About working with Farris over the last two years, he says, "It's a nice give and take. It's been a beautiful working relationship. Besides that, it is great to have someone with his experience in the orchestra; I can learn so much from him. But what I like about Kelly is that he's not gotten tired about it. It's never become a job for him. He's as excited about playing as he was 36 years ago."

Nearly a third of Farris' tenure came under music director Fabio Mechetti, who moved on to the Jacksonville Symphony in 2004. "Kelly is such a well-rounded musician -- not just on violin, of course, but he has a depth of knowledge," says Mechetti. "He is inquisitive, always trying to know more, to study more. His experience is unparalleled. One of the reasons why Kelly is so much respected by his peers is because they understand that he takes it seriously. He never shows up unprepared."

Verne Windham -- music director at Spokane Public Radio, director of the Spokane Youth Symphony and former first horn player of the Spokane Symphony --has known Farris for 35 of his 37 years as concertmaster and echoes the sentiment.

"Kelly is completely open and fair, which comes out of his love and commitment to the music," says Windham. "He wants to have a great musical experience, and he knows that the best way to have a great musical experience is if everything is working. So never -- never -- has his ego gotten in the way of anything. He's fearless that way.

"The biggest thing the concertmaster needs to have is a lot of awareness," Windham continues. "And Kelly uniquely has a lot of awareness. He is never so much into himself that he's not putting his attention onto the whole, onto everything outside of himself. So Kelly has really been a great concertmaster in that sense of thinking about and working on the health of the whole orchestra."

Preu sees the same qualities in Farris: "He's definitely a very modest guy, which I think translates to: He wants to serve the music. If you deem yourself too important, you impose yourself onto the music rather than letting the music speak for itself."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince 1987, associate concertmaster Michael Price -- also a judge in Spokane County Superior Court -- has sat next to Kelly Farris and shared a music stand with him. He sees firsthand how much preparation the concertmaster's job requires; as the associate, he fills in on those rare occasions when Farris isn't around.

"I have such great admiration for anybody who's a concertmaster," says Price. "One thing that non-orchestra members don't understand is there's a lot of preparation by the concertmaster, before the first rehearsal. Part of that is the bowing."

Have you noticed how every string player in the orchestra moves the right arm -- the bow arm -- at the same time? That's not by chance; the concertmaster figures out the bowing patterns to achieve the sound desired by the conductor.

"That takes hours and hours to do," Price says. "There's lots of discussion about it during rehearsals. If the conductor wants to change the sound, he turns to the concertmaster. Then it's Kelly's job to come up with the bowings to make it happen."

The relationship between long-term stand partners is much like any committed relationship; partners learn each other's habits like no one else.

"I knew I was an accomplished violinist to get to where I was, but sitting right next to Kelly, I really have felt that my playing has grown tenfold," Price says. "I've been able to pick up his methodology." In addition, Price thinks the two of them make a good pair. "I'm kind of loud and comical, and he's so quiet," he says. "But he has an absolutely wicked sense of humor that only a few people understand. Sometimes he'll lean over and say something to me that no one else can hear, just a moment before the conductor walks out on stage, and I'll start laughing like I'm going to cry. And nobody knows what I'm laughing at. And he knows exactly what he's doing."

Although they don't hang out much outside the orchestra -- Price is too busy juggling double careers -- Price has learned a lot about his stand partner's hobbies and lifestyle.

"What always concerned me about Kelly was that he was always out playing soccer," laughs Price. "He was always athletic. I always wondered what he was doing before the concert. I'd worry: Did I know his solo? He likes to live life full-throttle."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen Farris first played as concertmaster in 1969, it was not his first time onstage with the symphony. Ten years earlier, as a 16-year-old high school senior from Walla Walla, he won the Greater Spokane Music Festival's Young Artists competition (now Musicfest Northwest). In addition to the prize money, he won the chance to play with the symphony, then known as the Spokane Philharmonic, under its founding music director, Harold Paul Whelan. At the concert, he played the second and fourth movements of a violin virtuoso's showpiece, Edouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole.

"I was able to wangle the week off from high school, so I stayed at the Davenport for the week on my winnings," Farris recalls. "That was $200, which in those days -- it was two quarters' tuition at the University of Washington. I probably spent $70 for the week on the hotel and another $30 buying music at Sampson-Ayers Music store. I'd never been to a real music store before."

After high school, Farris did four years at UW and went on to Julliard for another three, earning an artist's diploma while also playing with the New York City Ballet. During one trip with the Ballet, in Denmark, he met his future wife Else; they married in Copenhagen in 1967. By then, he had entered the military. For three years during the Lyndon Johnson era, Farris played at White House functions as part of the U.S. Army's Strolling Strings.

With his Army service complete in 1969, Farris won an audition for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. There was only one problem: The orchestra was on strike, and it looked to be a lengthy dispute. So he came back to Walla Walla.

"When you get out of the Army, they give you a one-way ticket back to your draft board," Farris says. "Money was quite short at the time, so I came back to wait it out. My brother-in-law and sister had met [Spokane Symphony music director Donald] Thulean and made me aware that he was looking for a concertmaster. I came up to Spokane and played for him at the Fox Theater, and he offered me the job.

"So I thought I'd try it for a year."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & nd 37 years later, he's still playing. When asked if he has a "highlight reel" of favorite memories, Farris demurs. "Well, I didn't keep a journal, and I don't have a good memory, but I know I had fun somewhere along the line."

Still, the memories emerge in stories. There was the time a visiting soloist willfully changed his interpretation from the rehearsal to the concert, forcing conductor Bruce Ferden to scramble to keep up. "I remember the crazed look of joy that Bruce had on his face as he successfully followed every [change]," Farris says. "And the orchestra caught on. I remember Bruce just looking at me with this crazy grin in the middle of this."

Then there was the famous conductor who came to the end of the first movement of Schubert's Fifth Symphony -- and kept conducting for two more measures. "The next time we repeated the program, and he got to that spot, everybody was looking at him, because no one had said a word. So he gets to that moment and gives the last beat, and he grabs his right hand with his left. It really was the perfect gesture."

When violinist and composer Mark O'Connor came to town, Farris played a duet with him during the concert. "That was exhilarating. Playing that piece, it was so damn fast that I was hanging on by my fingernails. It was fun. And he was, of course, very calm."

There are specific concerts that stand out: Salome with Ferden, the Mahler Sixth with Mechetti. But perhaps some of Farris' fondest memories come from the early days, when the orchestra frequently toured all over the Inland Northwest, playing in school gyms and converted Quonset huts. Both he and Windham recall days filled with school concerts and evenings spent cooking elaborate homemade vegetarian meals over an electric frying pan in the motel. And there was the tour with a young baritone, another local kid named Thomas Hampson.

"We played basketball between concerts in those gyms," says Farris. "Tom's a big guy. You're guarding him and you're looking at his hipbones."

Recounting these stories, it's not surprising that on reflection, he concludes, "The hardest thing to give up is the social network. All your friends are there. It's that way with any job."

Farris may be giving up the responsibilities of concertmaster, but don't expect him to lay down his fiddle any time soon. He's been sitting in with the Seattle Symphony, just one guy in the middle of the violin section. He's taking the next year off from the Spokane String Quartet, too, but expects to be back in one way or another. And he has no plans to leave Spokane, other than to travel to see far-flung family and friends. So we'll still be able to see him perform?

"Oh, yeah, possibly," he says. "If I still have all my marbles. And fingers."

The Spokane Symphony's season finale at the Opera House is Friday, May 12, at 8 pm, and features works by Verdi, Janacek, Saint-Saens and Richard Strauss. Performers include the Spokane Symphony Chorale, 2005 Musicfest Northwest Young Artist winner Joy Adams, ballet dancer Mimi Ewers and students from Theatre Ballet of Spokane. Tickets: $15-$35. Farris' last concert as concertmaster is "Symphony on the Edge II" on Friday, May 19, at 7:30 pm, at the Big Easy. Tickets: $27. Call 624-1200.

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