If there is anyone who thinks that classical music and the people who play it aren’t accessible, I would ask them to talk to PMF violist Sally Didrickson for approximately two minutes. I am in Julie’s Park Café, where Didrickson and I are planning to meet for lunch, mentally going through my classical music knowledge, which, sadly, doesn’t amount to a whole lot. I begin to panic, wondering how I will interview a woman about her profession when I’m not even sure what a viola looks like.
What I did find out is that when a woman has a career with the Peninsula Music Festival (PMF) that has spanned 42 years, she often runs into people who know very little about her life’s work. “All you need to know is that I grew up playing music, and I really can’t remember a time when I wasn’t immersed in it,” Didrickson says, She began playing the piano at six years old, the violin at eight, and eventually went on to attend Evanston’s prestigious Northwestern University for Music Performance. It was at Northwestern that she took up the viola. “Our orchestra needed viola players,” she smiles. “I felt like it would be good for me to know how to play all of these different instruments, so I volunteered.”
The conductor who asked her to make this switch was PMF Founding Music Director Thor Johnson, who, in addition to founding the PMF in 1953, was Didrickson’s professor at the time and the Director of Orchestral Activities at Northwestern.
Didrickson herself began her relationship with PMF in 1968, when she was working with Johnson at the Chicago Little Symphony.
“Thor was conducting the symphony at the time and suggested that I come up and play for the festival that August,” she says, “and I’ve been coming up here ever since.”
It’s safe to say that Didrickson must have her fair share of anecdotes, having played with the same orchestra for nearly half a century. She says that most of the things she remembers “shouldn’t be put in the paper,” but she does have a few memories – both in and out of her orchestra chair.
One involves something that happened a few years ago, when an innocent attempt to watch meteor showers after a show turned into a police call. “A group of us were laying in a field, eating chocolate chip cookies and listening to this recording, waiting for the meteor shower,” she says. “We must have been making too much noise, and a nearby neighbor called the police, thinking that it was a group of kids having a party or something. The poor police officer that came out was very surprised to find a bunch of middle-aged orchestral musicians watching the night sky.”
Another memory involves the orchestra before it began playing in the Door Community Auditorium and was still playing in the high school gym of Gibraltar School. “There was a lightning storm, and of course, the electricity went out,” Didrickson explains. “Many of the concertgoers had brought flashlights just in case – and many of those people wound up coming on stage to shine their flashlights on our music. It was a wonderful thing to see – patrons who wanted so badly for the show to go on.”
This last story brings up another point about the PMF family – something that Didrickson says she will miss immensely. “The PMF orchestra – and its board – and its patrons – really operate like a family,” says Didrickson. “I think it’s because we’re all committed to getting the best performance that we can, and when you have that kind of commitment to each other, you tend to be close-knit.” Didrickson has played with several orchestras throughout the Chicago and Evanston area, but is quick to say that PMF is the exemplary organization.
“To be honest, it’s unusual how well we get treated in this orchestra,” she says. “Others aren’t quite as lucky.”
Didrickson says she will also miss playing for Music Director Victor Yampolsky, who, she says, shares one of her passions – locating and playing obscure orchestral pieces. “Through Victor I have really been exposed to some wonderful literature,” she says. “Victor really goes to great lengths to find the music he does. Many of the pieces we play have never been played in the United States.” This is a complement coming from a woman who estimates that she herself has been able to locate and edit nearly 3,000 pieces of chamber music from all over the world. Of course, the catch with all of these pieces is that they have a viola part in them.
“If I’m going to find a piece of lost music,” Didrickson laughs, “I want to be able to play it.”
Didrickson says that even thought she is retiring after this last week of the 57th season of the Peninsula Music Festival, she is planning to get up to see the concerts every year for as long as her health will allow. She does admit that it will be a little strange to be sitting on the other side of the conductor, but that she’s looking forward to it.
“It will be nice to hear my friends,” she says.
The final concert of the 57th season of the Peninsula Music Festival is planned for Saturday, August 22 at 8 pm at the Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek. The Festival Finale is a tribute to composer Leonard Bernstein, and features PMF Festival favorite James Ehnes on violin. Tickets range from $35 to $60. For more information or for tickets, please call the Peninsula Music Festival at 920.854.4060, or visit http://www.musicfestival.com.