Part of a continuing series of interviews with members of our Metrowest Jewish community
by Julie Wolf
There’s no shortage of music and noise coming from Miriam Bolkosky’s house, but it’s not always her two-and-a-half-year-old sons, Samuel and Ethan, who are responsible for it. Miriam and her husband, Ben Wright, are both professional musicians. Miriam is a cellist who has performed with the Boston Pops and the National Lyric Opera, among others, as well as a soloist on numerous classical and popular recordings; Ben plays trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Miriam shares how important her family was in her development as a musician, and how fortunate she feels to be able to find the balance between the work she loves and her family.
Please share with us your path to becoming a professional musician. This is something that many people dream of doing but few have the opportunity to do.
The opportunity comes from daily discipline — and when you’re just starting an instrument, and that discipline comes from your parents! A colleague of my father’s at Hobart [and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York] made string instruments as a hobby, and when I was born he gave my parents a viola, thinking one day I might play it. Four years later the Suzuki Method hit the U.S. from Japan, and it was suggested that might be a good way for me to start. My dad put a dowel in the end of the viola, and that was my first cello. My first teacher, Laura Sias, is still teaching at the age of 89 in Royal Oak, Mich.
My dad learned cello with me and practiced with me every day. My parents had no experience with classical music at that time, but they learned right along with us. My brother began his violin studies at age 3 with my mom as his Suzuki parent. Our musical lives became the focus of the family. Every summer was spent at Suzuki Institutes; weeks revolved around lessons, group class, practicing, and later chamber music rehearsals, and orchestra on Saturdays. As we got older, even into college, my parents followed us to festivals in Santa Barbara, Aspen, Vermont, and Interlochen. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life by about fourth grade.
You have two young boys at home now. How do you balance your work schedule and motherhood? Is much travel required for your work, or are you mostly local?
Before the kids, I did travel a lot for work. I toured many times with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and also played in the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, so I was back and forth to the Midwest every month. I am a member of the Phoenix Ensemble in Ann Arbor, so I do travel there once or twice a year for their chamber music festival. So far, the boys have loved coming to that.
I am constantly looking for balance. I continued my pre-children work schedule for the first couple of years and then decided to dramatically cut back on my teaching so I could spend more time with the twins. Now I just teach at home and perform. Oh, and practice — it’s so hard to find time to practice! Virtually every musician I work with who has children comes up against the same issues. It’s not a career you can put aside for even a little while. I’ve never even taken a vacation without my cello, so every day has to include time on my instrument.
In 1999, you performed on the album Holocaust Cantata. Can you tell us how you got the chance to perform on this project? As a Jew, was it intensely personal for you? Did you approach this music differently from the way you approach other music you perform?
That was an incredible project. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to play and record that. My dad is a Holocaust historian; he is very respected in the field and was involved in the development of some of the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He created the Voice/Vision Archive at UM Dearborn, has written several books and articles, and co-authored a curriculum for teaching about the Shoah to high school students. I was living in D.C. at the time the composer/conductor was looking for a cellist to perform the piece at the Kennedy Center. He heard my name, associated it with my dad, and called me.
My dad started taking survivors’ oral histories when I was very young, and the survivor community in Detroit became our extended family. Those friends and their stories were invaluable in my preparation of the Cantata. I felt I had an obligation not just to the composer (as in every piece, the performers strive to achieve the composer’s vision), but to the survivors, and the millions who couldn’t tell their stories. It’s a beautiful piece and I’m sure difficult for the audience to hear, but this generation and the next and the next must remember. It was the only way I could contribute to that memory.
You live in Natick now but have spent much of your career working (and presumably living) in bigger cities like Boston and Chicago. How did you choose Natick as opposed to somewhere like Boston or Cambridge? What is your connection to the Jewish community here?
I grew up in suburban Detroit, so I’m pretty comfortable being in proximity, but not directly in, an urban area. It’s very difficult for musicians to practice in apartments or condos, so we needed a house where we could make noise at all hours. We love our location since it reminds us of being at Tanglewood. We relocate there during the summer and live in Stockbridge — and that feels like living “in town”! Our children now attend the JCC preschool in Wayland, and we love the community.
Your children must experience a lot of music firsthand in your home. Do you play “kids’ music” for them, classical music, or a combination of everything? What do you think exposure to music at a young age does for children?
I could write a dissertation on the effect of music exposure on very young children. My youngest cello students have been about 3, and they absorb everything like sponges. Since my husband is a trumpet player, our guys are exposed to classical music every day. They are on the lawn at Tanglewood listening to rehearsals and concerts all summer. We take them to concerts here but have found they’re not very interested in “children’s” music. They enjoy identifying every instrument they hear, even on the radio. We try to add a heaping dose of The Beatles, Paul Simon, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m sure they’ll be exposed to more popular stuff soon enough.
Did you ever hit any roadblocks on your way to becoming a professional musician? If your children decide to follow in your footsteps, how will you help them navigate the challenges along the way?
Of course there is a list of unsuccessful auditions behind me, but I’ve been very lucky that everywhere I’ve lived I’ve managed to do work I love. I’ve always loved the freelance life; my husband loves playing in the BSO. It’s tough for two musicians to be married and each find career satisfaction in the same city. I hope my kids will play. Being part of an incredible concert is so amazing, and I do hope they’ll each get to experience that. Right now they’re content with “Bravo Mama!,” “Bravo Dada!”