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Friday, January 15, 2016

Music: The Great Equalizer with Julie Scolnik

Posts on Friday Features are intended to generate discussion by shaking up preconceptions of who or what strong women are and exploring the concept from a variety of perspectives. My next guest broadens our spectrum. I met Julie Scolnik, Artistic Director of Mistral Chamber Ensemble, at a cocktail party on Beacon Hill and we clicked. Bright and charismatic, she broke the image of what I thought a world-class flutist was. Not only that, but I had an image of musical directors of classical music groups as pudgy guys with bald heads. Shame on me. Regardless of my preconceptions, I think you'll agree that Julie fits anyone's definition of an accomplished, capable, and strong woman.

Music: The Great Equalizer with Julie Scolnik

Many think of chamber music as something sedate and soothing. You are the energy and the power behind Mistral, praised by the Boston Globe for its energizing performances, innovative programs, and audience engagement. What are some of the challenges you face breaking preconceptions while building an audience?

This is a great question, and one I love to answer! It’s true that for some people, chamber music can connote some long-dead boring art form. When asked to define it, my elevator speech is to say chamber music is the most intimate and deepest expression of music that exists. Being a few feet away from world-class musicians engaged in fervent musical conversation is exhilarating and transporting! I’m dedicated to making people aware of the role music can play in reminding us what is beautiful in the world, and these days we’re in desperate need of reminding.

How much time do you devote to building an audience?

Ha! How much time do you have? It’s all I live and breathe. I believe that part of our challenge is to make newcomers see how much fun a classical chamber music concert can be! Our motto is: “Unstuffy, unpredictable, unmatched.” We break down barriers between the audience and the performers by engaging in conversation about the pieces! We often hold a question and answer period just after intermission, which is invariably full of hilarity and good stories. ("What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you?” or “How come women dress in revealing sparking dresses and men get away with boring button down shirts and oxfords?” The key is creating unique programs that find common threads in pieces that allow people to hear them in new ways. Mistral’s musicians are virtuosic and communicative, and above all, unstuffy!  

My instinct to keep the programming adventuresome appeals to some but not all our audience members. I try at all concerts to juxtapose beloved masterpieces with newly discovered or rarely performed gems. But many old-timers won’t come if they don’t recognize a composer. The key has always been to gain the trust of my audience members, and to present works- new and old-that I know they will love as much as I do.

Are the challenges different being a woman at the head of a classical music organization? 

I am not sure. I wish I could say that I have done something atypical for women, but I am afraid that’s not true. There are many women who run chamber music organizations. The first thing to remember is that classical music is merit-based, so it is essentially sex-blind, but I believe the role provides a different perspective as an impressario and not a performer. All I can really say with confidence is that the reason Mistral succeeds is because of my very strong vision of what I want it to be. Perhaps interpersonal qualities – i.e enjoying people, telling stories, creating a certain ambiance and setting, like inviting someone into one’s home – come into play in my particular case.

Obviously music was important, but who/what were the influences that gave you the confidence to create this group and move it in the directions you do?

I was a busy freelance musician in Boston playing with the Ballet and Opera orchestras and subbing with the Boston Symphony. Very good work, but I craved more control of my artistic life. Through my freelancing I developed a network of fabulous colleagues, and founded the concert series in 1997 to play the music I loved most with the greatest musicians in the world.

But founding my own chamber music series gave me more than this: it gave me a chance to connect with people and build a community through music. Audience members tell me how the music transports them, makes their lives richer, and reminds them what is important. This inspires and sustains me.

What would you say your core strengths are?

For as long as I can remember, I was peddling concerts — Not just playing them, but thinking up ways to fill the hall one person at a time!

When I started, I would bring huge art books to Kinko’s and use stencils to create hundreds of fliers that would I fold and hand-address. I’ve been collecting names and contact info over 30 years of performances! Seeing random people from my past–a cab driver, a person I met on a plane, a Trader Joe’s cashier – is very rewarding.

My artistic sensibility extends beyond the music. Behind the scenes, I create the promotional posters and flyers, write the Message from the Director, choose the players and the programs, and do much of the fund-raising. On concert nights, I want people to feel as if they are stepping into my living room and share what is important to me in music and in life.

In preparing this interview, I learned you are a breast cancer survivor. How has your world view changed, if at all, as a result of that experience?

Aha! Another very good question that I am happy to talk about.

Naturally my diagnosis in 2005 was a shock. I spent long hours at Beth Israel Hospital, sitting in my chemo chair while red poison was pumped into my veins. I was lucky to have the support of my husband and children. But the only thing that made those hours upon hours bearable was listening to the most beautiful music imaginable through my ear phones — the slow movements from Beethoven’s 9th or the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th — which lifted me out of a place of darkness into one of beauty. Keeping my chamber music series going and continuing to play concerts in my wigs kept my spirits high and gave me the endorphins I needed to remember how beautiful life is and worth fighting for. The support from my chamber music audiences was powerful. I knew without a doubt that I was one of the lucky ones.

I endured over six months of treatment and emerged knowing there was more for me to do. I organized concerts in Boston and in Paris with full symphony orchestras to raise funds for women undergoing cancer treatments. I spoke to the audience about the role music played for me when I was battling cancer. I explained how life’s unexpected challenges spur people to find solace in different ways. Some turn to prayer or meditation. I can safely say that music saved me.
I hope that I am making a difference in people’s lives by bringing that transformative power of music to our communities.


Flutist Julie Scolnik’s has enjoyed a diverse musical career as a soloist, orchestral flutist, and chamber musician. As a guest flutist at festivals across the U.S. and France, Ms. Scolnik has collaborated with countless world-class artists and chamber groups. She is an active soloist in the U.S., and in France she offers an annual fall recital at the Salle Cortot in Paris and in festivals of Provence during the summer.

In earlier years, Ms. Scolnik performed as principal flute with many of Boston's leading orchestras including Emmanuel Music, The Boston Ballet, and Lyric Opera. Ms. Scolnik is a frequent featured guest on Boston's WGBH radio, having made over three dozen radio appearances. Ms. Scolnik has released two commercial CDs, the latest, ‘Salut d’Amour & Other Songs of Love,’ with her daughter, pianist Sophie Scolnik-Brower. Since undergoing treatments for breast cancer in 2005, Ms. Scolnik has found ways to both organize and perform concerts which raise funds for cancer support and research, the most recent two with the world-renown conductor, Sir Simon Rattle in Boston’s Jordan Hall in 2010, and in Paris for the Ligue Contre le Cancer at the Hotel de Ville in 2014. Twice a year since 2009 she has been a guest speaker at Harvard Medical School. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband, physicist Michael Brower, and has a daughter, Sophie and a son, Sasha, also musicians.


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