Immigrants run the Seattle Symphony. They helm, conduct, and compose the Seattle Symphony. President and CEO Simon Woods hails from England. Music director Ludovic Morlot comes from France. And immigrants make up one quarter of the orchestra, which is nearly double the demographic representation, percentage-wise, of the immigrant population in Washington.
The stories of the symphony's musicians are as varied as the countries from which they hail. Many fled the anti-Semitism and economic depression of the crumbling USSR. One spent thousands of dollars and years of his life waiting to acquire visas, while others busked the streets of Rome for a year before waltzing into New York. All are highly educated, incredibly trained musicians working at the top of their game for the state's largest art institution, one that's been winning Grammys for the quality of its recordings.
During this election cycle, Donald Trump has painted Mexican and Syrian immigrants as terrorist criminals who want to take our jobs. The resulting conversations around the impact of immigrants has rightly focused on dispelling the racist assumptions underlying these claims and debunking the lies about the economic contributions immigrants make to this country.
Those contributions, by the way, are substantial. According to a recent report from New American Economy, one-eighth of Washingtonians were born abroad. These immigrants create jobs (approximately 141,483 people work for immigrants in this state), wield tremendous spending power (just south of $23 billion), and pay billions in state and federal taxes ($2.4 billion and $5.7 billion, respectively).
But less attention has been paid to the way immigrants enrich Washington's cultural life, where fresh ideas and new perspectives are desperately needed.
Woods embraces the multitude of nationalities he says often characterize US orchestras in general, and Seattle's orchestra in particular. "There are some orchestras for whom the traditions are much more inbred," he says, referring to European symphonies such as the Vienna Philharmonic.
But in the US, our orchestras often include many cultures. "That's one of the things that makes them amazing institutions—they have different values and different perspectives from all over the world," he said.
The orchestra is an 88-headed beast that makes a lot of weird noises. But each one of its musicians has a distinct story. I wanted to learn why each of these musicians came here, how each of these musicians came here, and what each has been doing since they arrived. I talked to eight musicians and one administrator. Here are their stories.
Mikhail Shmidt—First Violin
Huge numbers of Jews fled the collapsing (and virulently anti-Semitic) Soviet Union during the late 1980s and '90s. Mikhail "Misha" Shmidt was one of them. He describes a two-tier immigration system. If you could get out of the country, you'd first travel to Vienna, Austria. There you'd apply to the US as a refugee. Then you'd move on to Rome, Italy, where you'd wait for an interview. Because there were so many people emigrating, the process could take up to a year.
That's how Shmidt found himself and his violin in the Via Frattina, busking by the Spanish Steps. "Good businesses was there," he said. In the beginning, he didn't like playing on the street. "You have to understand, I was a highly trained professional," he said. "My quartet went to international competitions. I played in the state symphony orchestra."
After a while, though, he began to enjoy his time in Roman limbo. The busking money allowed him to travel all over Italy. He'd get invited into houses that "looked like they were in Fellini movies" to play surprise parties. In January of 1990, he secured a visa and headed to New York.
"[The immigration process] was nothing like it is now," he said. "It was almost like we rode a limousine into the country." The refugee visa was "more or less guaranteed," he said. He had a green card for six months and became a citizen within three years. "But at that time, it felt like I was going through such hardship!"
When he's not zealously playing violin for the Seattle Symphony, Shmidt plays for Music of Remembrance, an organization that puts on concerts that honor the memory of the Holocaust. He says he hasn't missed a show there for the last 17 years.
$15,000. That's how much it cost the Korean-born Canadian to immigrate to the US. The high price tag is partly due to the fact that Han had to pay all his filing fees twice. He says the immigration officer who reviewed his first application "didn't agree that musicians were technically classified as artists." The definition of an "artist," for this officer, was someone who shows work in a gallery.
Despite the fact that Han received a full ride to the prestigious Colburn School in Los Angeles, despite the fact that he'd continued his studies at the equally prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, despite the fact that he had played tons of shows around the country over the course of his 10 years here, and despite the fact that he had already secured a prestigious job at the Seattle Symphony, the reviewer dismissed his application on a technicality related to a job classification.
"It's absurd how expensive it is, how daunting it is, how stressful it is just to go through the process," Han says. "The whole thing took three and a half years."
Though he certainly had some troubles with paperwork, Han is quick to point out the sacrifices his mother made when she immigrated to Canada in the first place.
His mother was a piano player who dreamed of being a cellist. She passed down this dream to her son, who took up the instrument when he was 6. Three years later, his parents decided to immigrate to Canada so he could access Western schools.
"Having spoken zero English her entire 40 years of life, and then dropping herself into a foreign country with no real background, no real ability to communicate, and having to learn all these new laws and policies—it was a challenge for her. But she changed the world for me," Han says.
It's galling for Han to overhear some musicians groaning about Asian players "taking jobs" in US orchestras. Han says some people in his world claim that Korean, Chinese, and Japanese musicians "sound like Asian violinist[s]," but he doesn't know what they mean by that. "I really want to know some specific traits of 'Asian violinists,'" Han says, "but I honestly can't tell."
Still, he loves the networking opportunities available to him the US. In five years, he'll be eligible for citizenship, and he says he'll apply. "We'll see who gets elected president, though," he laughs.
Valerie Muzzolini Gordon—Principal Harp
Ten-year-old Gordon had been studying all year for her big audition. This harp recital was going to be held in front of a jury who'd judge whether she'd go on to the next level of studies.
After running through her set during dress rehearsal, her teacher asked her a question: "Do you see the wallpaper around you?" She was referring to the drab, 1960s brown and gray decor. "What you just did is as boring as that wallpaper," she said.
"It was a tough-love moment!" Gordon says, laughing. "But I love my teacher. I have a special relationship with her."
Gordon says she wouldn't use such a line with her own current students, but the strategy worked on her. She passed the audition and attended a special school that offered condensed academic lessons and three or four afternoons of dedicated practice in the conservatory.
She left her hometown of Nice, France, to do her undergrad at the Curtis Institute of Music, but she never thought she'd end up here: "Three years turned into five years, which turned into studies at Yale, which turned into this job at the Seattle Symphony," she says.
"When I grew up, I was taught in a very soloist way," she said. "But I didn't know I liked playing with people better than playing by myself. That I discovered in Philadelphia."
Artur Girsky—Second Violin
Girsky says his grandfather spied on the US for the USSR. He worked in the General Intelligence Agency ("the GRU, to be specific") and lived in San Francisco. For "an unknown reason," Girsky says, he quit his job and moved to Riga, Latvia, where Girsky was born.
Girsky's parents, both of whom were violinists, made him practice three hours a day. He hated it. "I boiled a kettle of hot water and would stick my finger in there to avoid practicing," he said.
He came to love the instrument much later, at 15 or 16, despite a typical tough-love relationship with his teacher, famed Russian violinist Maya Glezarova. "She would tell me I played so badly that even the worst restaurant in town wouldn't hire me," he said.
Girsky left Russia late, around 1997. He had a job playing in the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra, but he says it was "extremely hard and extremely underpaying." He realized he had to leave, so he secured a tourist visa and bought a one-way plane ticket to New York. He had some friends there, and thought the US was a pretty welcoming place.
He eventually got a job in Florida, where he met his wife, Seattle Symphony violinist Natasha Bazhanov. Tampa was "too weird," so he felt he had to get out of there. He didn't elaborate on Tampa's weirdness, and didn't need to.
Ayako Gamo—First Violin
Gamo started on the violin at 4. She's been a self-described "classical music nerd" ever since.
Every Sunday, she'd watch the broadcasts of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and in her first-grade yearbook, she wrote that her dream job was to play a role in the orchestra.
Her parents weren't musicians, but Gamo speculates their encouragement and extremely high expectations were influenced by the recent success of the Japanese violin prodigy, Midori.
The US wasn't her first choice for further studies (she'd have preferred somewhere in Europe), but her teacher in Tokyo knew a teacher in Boston. Three years later, Juilliard accepted her for graduate school.
She was living just across the river from Manhattan when two planes struck the twin towers on 9/11.
"It was unreal. I never felt that kind of danger in my life," Gamo said. She was ready to leave the States, but her eagerness to study overcame her desire to leave, and she decided to give the US another chance. "But if one more thing like this happens..." she said to herself, "I'm leaving."
Her parents died while she was finishing school. "Then I did not have a place to go back," she said. "I just had to find a job wherever I could."
She found one at the Oregon Symphony. In Oregon, she married an American citizen and had a couple of kids.
For the most part, she enjoys playing music here. "Back in Japan, it's all about how to fit together, how not to stick out. So sometimes you have to suppress yourself to work together," she said. "Here in America, I feel more free to perform."
Gamo's oldest child plays the violin, and she just started at the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra. "I want her to be able to appreciate the music," Gamo said. "I try not to be harsh or too demanding, but it's hard to control sometimes."
Michael Miropolsky—The John & Carmen Delo Assistant Principal Second Violin
When Miropolsky's family learned that the Germans were planning to invade Ukraine and exterminate all the Jews in the area, they fled to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (which was then Frunze). Miropolsky was born there in 1955.
At 7 years of age, his family took him for a music test. If he could showcase enough talent on the piano, he'd have a chance at very cheap schooling in a highly regarded field. "I was not into sport, and I knew I couldn't become a cosmonaut (Jews weren't allowed to be pilots), but music was there for us," he said. "Plus, I had a talent."
His plans to play the piano changed when he saw another little boy playing a scratchy-sounding instrument against a wall inside the school. He'd never seen a violin before, but he liked it, and so he told the instructors and his family that he'd rather play violin. His parents let him, despite the fact that they had to pay 50 rubles they really didn't have to buy the instrument.
A famous Russian teacher and talent scout named Julia Breitburg visited Miropolsky's school when he was 12, and she liked him so much she offered him a spot in her class in Moscow. "My mother didn't like the idea," Miropolsky said. "She was crying. I was the smallest in the family. But they understood that this would be a great opportunity for me."
By the late 1980s, the level of anti-Semitism was greatly increasing. He said the persecution of Jews in Russia goes back centuries, but during socialism it was an unwritten agenda. "For any economic woe, or anything that was going wrong in the country, they would blame the Jews," he said. Then he began to imitate a shopkeep from the era: "We don't have any chicken in the store, and we won't have it for a month. That's because the Jews poisoned all the chickens!"
The pharmacies were empty. Food was hard to come by. His wife was pregnant. He said she would give birth "anywhere but Russia." At the very last moment, Mikhail Gorbachev "opened up the gates" and allowed "refuseniks" (people—mostly Jews—who weren't allowed to emigrate) to leave the country.
Miropolsky said the Soviet government took their citizenship and replaced their passports with shoddy-looking credentials. They were only allowed to take one violin and a little bit of money with them because "everything appraised above 1,000 rubles belonged to the state." When they got to the border, a KGB officer gave them some trouble but eventually let them go.
"There's a fat red line," Miropolsky said. "And if you cross it, you're not in the USSR anymore. I crossed it, and I never went back. Too many memories."
They lived with his wife's sister in San Francisco for a year and a half, but they struggled to find jobs that paid well and offered health insurance, which they needed for their newly (and prematurely) born child. He ended up auditioning for the Seattle Symphony in 1991, and finally got the job.
In addition to his work at the symphony, he conducts three regional orchestras. "I'm not a bad cook, either," he said. A few years ago, he published a cookbook called Measures and Pleasures. He recently published his own memoirs, too: Theme and Variations: My Life, A Journey, which is currently available on Amazon.
You You Xia—Public Relations Manager
Xia says her father was a teenager during China's Cultural Revolution. A pianist herself, her family has deep musical roots. Xia says her father was a teenager during China's Cultural Revolution. He lived in a small region west of Shanghai. "He was fascinated by the violin, but feared he'd be beheaded if he was caught with one," she said. Probably for a similar reason, she said, his wealthy neighbors threw away their own violin. He picked the instrument out of the garbage and squirreled it away.
His job assignment from the communist government was to oversee a peach orchard, Xia says. The government issued him one ox. Every morning, he would wake up at 4:00 a.m. so he could ride his cow deep into the mountains, where he'd be able to practice the violin without being seen. He'd report to work at 7:00 a.m., finish work at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., and then go to bed right away. When he was released and the Cultural Revolution ended, Xia says he was assigned a job translating at a petroleum company. There, he was able to play for the company's regional orchestra.
Xia says her dad pressured her to play the piano when she was young. She suffered from stage fright, and she never liked memorizing music, but her father didn't give her much of an option. She had to play.
Her dad immigrated to the US so she could receive a Western education, holding out hopes that she'd become a concert pianist. Despite her reluctance, she got a full scholarship for piano. She eventually gave up the instrument, but says her father is proud that she's working for the symphony.
Gennady Filimonov—Second Violin
Filimonov's teachers chose his instrument for him. He was living in what's now Odessa, Ukraine. "They would look at our hands and then assign piano, cello, violin," he said. His hands were made for the violin, which he instantly fell in love with. As a kid, he says, he'd even sleep beside it.
Unlike many of his other colleagues, Filimonov left the Soviet Union early, in 1971, at the height of the Cold War. He was 10 years old at the time, studying at Pyotr Stoliarsky's prestigious violin school. His family was granted political asylum in Paris, France, where they completed immigration paperwork. The Jewish refugee organization HIAS assisted their transfer to New York City.
After settling in NYC, Filimonov says he demanded to attend the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. He pleaded his case at a special audition and was allowed in. Isaac Mizrahi and Wesley Snipes were among his fellow classmates, and he even made a few cameos in Fame, the major motion picture based on the school. He'd go on to appear in the premiere episode of Fame the TV show, and then as a soloist in the detective show The Equalizer, starring Edward Woodward.
Former music director of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, invited Filimonov to play at the Seattle Symphony in 1994. During his stay, a permanent position opened up and he nabbed it after "practicing for 15 hours per day."
Since he's lived here, he has founded the Odeon Quartet, played for symphonies all over, and has written articles on violin makers and dealers.
Natasha Bazhanov—Second Violin
Natasha Bazhanov contracted pneumonia when she was 4 years old. The doctors prescribed singing to strengthen her lungs, which is how her parents discovered her ability to sing in tune. After learning this, her parents put a violin in her hand.
Later, she'd move from her hometown of Sverdlovsk in the former Soviet Union to the Central Music School in Moscow, where she, like every other musician in her cohort, was trained to be a soloist.
She says her parents were relieved that she wanted to pursue music because it was a field where anti-Semitism wasn't as pervasive. Musicians were stars, they were respected, and "if you were a good violin player, you were that first," she said.
Bazhanov's family left the Soviet Union in 1991. A Jewish community in Cleveland sponsored her in the US. Six months after immigrating, she got a job in Florida, where she met her husband, Seattle Symphony violinist Artur Girsky.
She's never gone back to Russia. Nothing calls her back.