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Week of 12 September 1997

Vol. I, No. 3


Three strings to violist Ansell's bow

By Judith Sandler

If being the violist of the Muir String Quartet -- the acclaimed ensemble-in-residence at SFA -- weren't enough to occupy his time, Steven Ansell also has two other major musical jobs: he is the principal violist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he teaches viola at BU.

Asked how he manages what sounds like three full-time jobs, he smiles and shrugs, as if to say, "No big deal."

Boston Symphony Orchestra member Steven Ansell balances more than that orchestra's viola section: in addition to being a first-desk player with the BSO, he is violist with the Muir String Quartet and he teaches viola at the School for the Arts.

Boston Symphony Orchestra member Steven Ansell balances more than that orchestra's viola section: in addition to being a first-desk player with the BSO, he is violist with the Muir String Quartet and he teaches viola at the School for the Arts. "Steve's dedication to music is really inspiring," says SFA Dean Bruce MacCombie. "He's playing two full schedules of concerts, yet his students feel that they are his first priority." Photo: Boston Symphony Orchestra

A faculty member at SFA since 1983, cofounding member of the Muir Quartet, and violist with the BSO since 1996, Ansell may take his multiple commitments in stride, but he also revels in his good fortune. "My life has become musically more interesting," he says. "I'm playing a much broader range of repertoire. I think that I've become a better and more complete musician."

His casual attitude belies his stature in the musical community. Steven Ansell is at the top of his profession. "As far as I know," says SFA Associate Professor Peter Zazofsky, who is first violinist with the Muir, "there's no one else in the American musical scene to hold simultaneous positions as a member of a major quartet and a principal player with a major symphony orchestra. Steve is uniquely qualified to fulfill the demands of this multiple career."

Former violinist with the Muir and Adjunct Associate Professor Bayla Keyes also marvels at Ansell's multiple talents. "It's unusual to be so gifted as a private teacher, an ensemble coach, a chamber musician, and an orchestral player," she says. "He's inspiring."

Phyllis Hoffman, director of the Music Division, agrees. "All of his experience comes together in what he brings to the orchestra, the quartet, and to his teaching. For those of us who have heard the BSO viola section with and without him, there's no question that he's provided the kind of leadership that has enriched and enhanced the section. And he has a big, rich, beautiful sound that projects in the Tsai Performance Center as well as in Symphony Hall."

As a fellow musician, Keyes finds him to be "gifted with the ability to get to the heart of the music. His playing is full of character; it's natural and from the heart. He has a great musical understanding that gives his playing conviction and a distinctive sound not like any other violist. He's demanding as a musician and as a teacher, but his students uniformly worship him."

It is all the more remarkable that Ansell maintains a level of playing that the Boston Globe recently called "glorious" because his Muir schedule alone includes 50 to 60 concerts from Rome to Rumania each season. And summers bring additional tours and festivals. Into this schedule Ansell weaves the regular Symphony Hall season of the BSO, from late September through April, with international tours and recording sessions, along with eight weeks of performances during the summer season at Tanglewood.

His position as principal violist means added responsibilities: performing solos with the orchestra and as a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, directing the viola section, and taking part in musical discussions within the orchestra that help determine the BSO's sound and style.

"I feel it's a very well-balanced life," says Ansell of his musical juggling act. "The symphony and the quartet play off each other." Rather than draining him of energy, the schedule seems to recharge him. "I feel refreshed because of the variety in my music-making."

And a big part of that charge comes from his students at SFA, he says. "I'm passing on my knowledge to my students. Our students are like our children. They're our professional children. We live on through them and the knowledge from our teachers gets passed on to them. I hope my students will find their ways into big orchestras and quartets and they'll love playing as much as I do, ultimately passing on their knowledge. That makes me part of a continuum linking my musical heritage with future generation of musicians."

Steven Ansell begins his fall season Wednesday, September 24, with the opening night of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; on Tuesday, November 18, at 8 p.m., he performs at BU with the Muir String Quartet in the Tsai Performance Center.