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A Small Town Girl With Big City Ambitions

Dallas Symphony Orchestra violinist Lydia Umlaf grew up on the farm, but now that she's in the big city she's trying to bring music to the masses.

by Hady Mawajdeh 27 Apr 2017
Lydia Umlauf

Lydia Umlauf is a 25-year-old professional orchestral violinist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She is one of the youngest members of the orchestra. Umlauf hails from a small community in Northwest Indiana called Rensselaer. Her music life began around age five when she began playing the violin and continued through college. Umlauf attended Indiana University's Jacob School of Music where she studied with DSO's concert master Alexander Kerr.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Lydia Umlauf in a moment of joy during "Mozart in the Bar" performance. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Lydia Umlauf in a moment of joy during “Mozart in the Bar” performance. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

It’s a Wednesday night at Black Swan Saloon in Deep Ellum. The place is packed with 20 and 30 somethings. And about two dozen more are waiting in line outside.

The room is a buzz, and it’s pretty difficult to hear anything besides the voice of the person standing nearest to you. At the front of the bar, near the entrance, are six classical musicians warming up. As they begin to run bows over the strings of their instruments, the crowd starts to grow silent.

A tall, willowy woman carrying a violin in one hand and a bow in the other stands front and center and begins to speak.

“Hi guys! Welcome to Black Swan. [Cheers] And welcome to Mozart in the Bar. We’re going to play some Brahms for you tonight. [More cheers]”

That’s Lydia Umlauf. She’s a violinist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She organized this performance with a few friends from the DSO.

“I think classical music can be very serious, very sobering and very beautiful,” Umlauf says. “And I think a lot of times it’s too serious.”

Umlauf is 25. She joined the DSO about two-and-a-half years go. She’s only just started organizing shows like the one at Black Swan. It’s quite a switch from performing at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Photo of the people that couldn't get into the Mozart in the Bar performance. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Photo of the people that couldn’t get into the Mozart in the Bar performance. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

“I love that in this setting we can just relax, play beautiful music and play it well,” Umlauf says. “We can have fun with each other and we can kind of let loose.”

Umlauf says performing in a chamber group gives her the freedom to improvise. That’s not always the case with orchestral performances.

“Sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating because you really have no power over the interpretation of the music,” Umlauf says of performing with an orchestra. “It’s really all up to the conductor.”

Though she does admit that following the conductor and performing with a full orchestra, like the DSO, is pretty special, too.

“It’s an amazing thing when you’re playing a big masterpiece and you all feel movement with each other, like in tandem. That’s an amazing movement. Those movements don’t happen super often, but often enough that you’re sitting there thinking, ‘Wow!'” Umlauf says.

A lot of people may miss that moment because they fear classical music. Umlauf says misconceptions about the players don’t help either.

“We get on stage and we play the concert and then we get off stage and we leave,” Umlauf says. “We don’t really interact with the audience. So they see us maybe in a way as removed, separated and inaccessible.”

Lydia Umlauf performing in a sextet with fellow DSO members. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Lydia Umlauf performing in a sextet with fellow DSO members. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Before Umlauf started playing in bars, she was on a traditional path for a concert musician. She started playing violin at age 5 and studied it in college. Music wasn’t her only passion though.

“She’s always had a really diverse set of interests,” Alexander Kerr says. He’s the DSO’s concertmaster and a critically acclaimed violinist. He was Umlauf’s instructor at Indiana University. “She was very curious about everything, not even just music, but outside of music. So it was sort of interesting to teach somebody who was just so curious about life in general.”

Most music students are hyper focused on their instruments. Umlauf was, too, but she cared about a lot of other things – like photography or audience engagement. That made her different.

“With Lydia, it was much more about dialogue considering the fact that she was so well-versed in so many different things. We could actually speak about different subjects on a pretty high level,” Kerr says.

That’s why he’s not surprised that Umlauf decided to branch out. In fact, he’s even joined the chamber group at Black Swan.

Photo of Mozart in the Bar. Shot at Black Swan Saloon. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Photo of Mozart in the Bar. Shot at Black Swan Saloon. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

“In a concert hall, you’re truly playing out to 2,500 people,” Kerr says. “In a bar setting, you’re really playing for you know 50 or 75 people that are right in front of you and sort of right in your face. You can feel their breath. So it’s a really different experience.”

These concerts reach a younger audience than the DSO usually attracts. Kerr says that’s crucial for the future of the art form. And Umlauf has other ideas, too. She’d like to start a blog where people can find suggestions for listening and information about the music that she plays at shows like Mozart in the Bar.

“I just want to let people know that classical music isn’t just for this stuffy concert hall and you don’t have to get all dressed up,” Umlauf says.

She says it’s an accessible art form that speaks to the human spirit. It’s easy to love. You just need to hear it first.

Lydia Umlauf and her 1916 Carl Becker violin. Photo: Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Lydia Umlauf and her 1916 Carl Becker violin. Photo: Dallas Symphony Orchestra

How does being in North Texas affect the production of your art?

Wow, [pause] hugely. I call Dallas a frontier for classical music. We have a great orchestra. We have a great opera orchestra. We have SMU and the many amazingly talented students there. We have amazing concert series, too. But really – all in all – there really isn’t that much going on in terms of classical music. So in that way, it’s so amazing. It’s also amazing because there’s not a lot of competition in terms of doing cool stuff like “Mozart at the Bar.” But because there’s not a lot of people doing stuff like this, there’s a lot of appreciation.

In a place like New York, there’s just so much stuff everywhere all of the time. There’s so many different kinds of music. Lots of classical music and so many events, performances, ballets, operas, you name it. But, because people are so used to having all of that at their finger tips, it almost becomes overwhelming. Here people aren’t used to having all of that. And that’s why I think this whole “Mozart in the Bar” thing has been so successful. People are literally like, ‘Whoa! Classical music in Deep Ellum! What is this?’ I love it. I just think that’s amazing. Everyone is ready to go and hang out. I mean, that’s a big reason I wanted to start doing this whole thing — to bring people together. Dallas has a great community, and I wanted to bring people together who might not normally do so. I think music and cocktails are great for that.

I like to ask people about the sorts of music they listen to while they work. Your work is music. What do you listen do when you’re not performing?

Hmm. . .There’s just so much stuff that I listen to. I can say that I do not listen to violin music when I am trying to relax. That’s for sure. I do listen to a lot of electronic music. I’m also into neo soul right now. I listen to a very broad range of music though. But one thing that I have been listening to for a really long time is the soundtrack to the movie “Drive.” It’s a great movie, but the soundtrack is really amazing.

Below you can listen to a playlist curated by Lydia Umlauf

What do you do to maintain balance in your life?

I love to read, so I do that a lot. I recently picked up tennis. That’s been a new past time. I play ultimate Frisbee as well. Although, I guess that’s not something you really do when you’re relaxing, but it kind of is for me. Growing up, I wasn’t really into sport, and it’s not really because I wasn’t athletic, but I just didn’t play sports that often. So this has been really fun. There are a few others in the orchestra that are playing, too.

When did you start calling yourself a musician?

Umm…uh…I guess I’ve always called myself a musician? I don’t know that “musician” was always my only identity growing up. I guess if I really think about it, I actually only started calling myself a musician after I got a job. Before I had a job, people would ask me questions like ‘What are you studying?’ And I would reply, ‘I’m studying music,’ or ‘I’m studying violin.’ But now, people ask ‘What do you do?’  And I reply, ‘I am a violinist,’ or ‘I’m a musician.’ That’s a tough question.

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Are you creatively satisfied? 

Yes. Absolutely. At this point in my life? Definitely. I don’t know that’s always going to be the case, but right now I am extremely grateful for what I have.

Have you had to let go of anything to pursue being a professional concert musician?

In high school, I was involved in other stuff like the speech and debate club, ski club; I played piano, and I was in the drama club. But, I had to drop all of that stuff in order to have the time I needed to go to the Music Institute of Chicago. During college, it didn’t feel like so much of a sacrifice, but we didn’t have as much time to just do whatever. We were in school from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. a lot of the time, because we had classes, but on top of that, you have three hours of practice, quartet rehearsal, orchestra rehearsal, new music ensemble rehearsal or opera orchestra  rehearsal. So I guess I had to sacrifice time and maybe other activities that normal students had time for, but we didn’t. Now, it’s not so bad. I have time to do things now.

What makes you different and sets you apart from others doing what you do?

Ha! At the risk of sounding [arrogant], right? Haha. Well, I guess the thing I would say is that I am willing to go out there and do things like make friends with a bar owner so that I can get a concert series like this one going. I’m willing to take the time and to meet people and to try things out. It’s always been fairly easy for me to meet people and for me to form relationships. I like going out. I like being in the action. I like the feeling I get in a city that’s buzzing and I use that to my advantage. So I guess that’s the thing that makes me different.

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Can you share something with me that would surprise people about what it’s like to be a professional concert violinist?

I guess it’s that we’re all extremely normal people. I think that’s something that’s lost a little bit in orchestral concerts. We get on stage and we play the concert and then we get off of the stage and leave. That means we don’t really interact with the audience. So they see us in a way that is sort of removed. We’re separated and a bit inaccessible. And we’re not really like that. Luckily, our marketing department tries to do human interest stories about people in the orchestra. For example, there’s a woman in the orchestra who is really into baking pies and another guy who’s obsessed with cycling. We’re just normal people, and we like to do fun stuff and keep up hobbies. I guess that’s probably the most surprising thing to people. Thankfully, we have a concert series called the “Remix Concert Series” where we perform at the Dallas City Performance Hall, and afterward, we all go out into the lobby after the concert and get to talk with the audience. I wish we did that more often.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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