Margot Schwartz: Making Her Mark

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: MSO Musicians, Viola, Violin

Sitting in the biggest section of the orchestra, Margot Schwartz just has to be herself.

As a first violinist, “you don’t really lose your voice, but it can feel less personal,” she says. That’s one reason why she maintains an active chamber music schedule. She is the violinist for the Prometheus Trio, and Bowing Rogue, her duo with MSO associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen, has a concert on Monday at Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church.

In their five years of playing together, Schwartz and Setapen have discovered they have “the X factor” of playing with the same approach. “It’s like a dance partner,” Schwartz says. “You know what the other person is going to do before they do it, and then you’re like, yeah, that makes sense.”

Setapen, for her part, says, “We immediately felt we had a lot in common with our approach and our sound. It’s not always like that when you play with someone else.” The program next week will feature a world premiere by Kenosha composer Mark Petering and a “fiendishly difficult” violin duo by Eugene Ysaye that is rarely performed because “it’s so hard to put together. It’s really a feat of strength.”

How long has Schwartz been in the MSO? “Apparently this is my tenth year,” she jokes. “Someone told me that, and it was horrifying. I can’t believe I’m not one of the youngest people in the orchestra anymore.” She joined the orchestra as a second violin, then won an audition for the first section a few years later.

In auditions, “I did things my own way,” she says. “They tell you as a violinist to play inside the box, but you don’t have to play perfectly. You have to play convincingly. I’ve gotten away with some crazy stuff in auditions, like stopping and starting over.”

After she got her master’s degree from Yale, Schwartz spent a year living in Chicago as a freelancer, when she would “get on a plane every Monday and sub somewhere.” Playing as a substitute violinist in St. Louis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, she realized that “these orchestras are always looking for good subs, and I was needed. You’re taught that you’re not good enough, but I realized that I probably was good enough. It’s not as hard to get work as people think, if you put yourself out there.”

Even now, Schwartz sometimes uses vacation weeks from the MSO to play with other orchestras; last year she toured Russia with the National Symphony of Washington, DC. “Playing in other orchestras, you see how things work, and sometimes you see things that might work here,” she says. “Or, you come back to Milwaukee with a new appreciation.”

For instance, she said, a few years ago the St. Louis Symphony featured 50 musicians from its ranks as soloists over the course of a season, “and they showed the city they’re just as good as some soloists that come to town.” Here in Milwaukee, “I don’t think people even know how good we are. There’s tons of amazingly beautiful players in the string section.”

Many violinists experiment with the viola somewhere along the way, but Schwartz is unusual in maintaining it as a second instrument at the professional level. As she tells the story, when she was a middle-school violinist, her teacher handed her a viola and said, “Learn Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. The first rehearsal is next week. Good luck.” But following that abrupt introduction, she came to enjoy the instrument and to appreciate the inner voices of the orchestra, which still informs her playing today. And her versatility gives Bowing Rogue many more options for programming chamber music.

Schwartz lives in Bayside with MSO principal percussionist Robert Klieger. The two of them enjoy travel and experimental cooking with “kitchen gadgets and contraptions,” and she enjoys crafting as “something creative that doesn’t vanish into thin air when you’re done.”

She has exactly one private student (her next-door neighbor’s kid), but she loves coaching chamber ensembles. “Chamber music is the reason I’m still playing,” she says. “When I get in front of kids who want to be there, who are passionate about it, I know the right thing to say. It’s something that gives me energy rather than taking it away.”