Violist Samantha Rodriguez Talks Inspirations and New Chapters

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2020.21 Season, MSO Musicians

When the COVID pandemic upended every musician’s life in the spring of 2020, Samantha Rodriguez was able to seize an opportunity.

Rodriguez, who joined the Milwaukee Symphony as assistant principal third chair viola in the fall of 2018, had spent two years practicing hard, learning the routines of the MSO and her colleagues, and earning tenure with the orchestra. But with no performances or rehearsals on the horizon, she moved to Bondurant, Iowa, to be with her long-distance partner, Brendon Iler.

“It was actually kind of a blessing,” she says. “It was nice to step away and be with the people I want to be with. It’s been really lovely to have this time here.”

Like many musicians, she found it hard being away from performing for a long time. But, at the same time, “especially being new to the orchestra and going through the tenure process, I didn’t do anything but music for so long. So I had a chance to figure out what makes me happy and where I fit in the world.” Cooking, taking walks, and playing with pets (“I brought the cat, he brought the dog”) gave her some space to reflect.

Time off from her instrument was also good for her body. “To play the viola you need good posture,” she said. “I’m constantly reminding myself to pull back my shoulders and open up my chest. It’s a lifelong struggle for me, and I think for every violist.”

Now that musical performances are starting up again, Rodriguez is looking at another life change. She gave up her apartment in Milwaukee when the remainder of the MSO’s 2020 season was cancelled, and in recent months she has commuted back and stayed with friends when she has a performance. When the symphony starts a full season in the fall (fingers crossed), “it’ll be another tricky transition.”

She and Iler met at a restaurant in Brainerd, Minnesota, a popular summer tourist destination, where she was playing the Lakes Area Music Festival. She was part of the festival’s original string sextet in 2009, along with her Eastman classmate Scott Lykins, the founder and artistic director. “I really do love that festival so much,” she said. All concerts are free, but it now draws musicians from many of America’s top orchestras.

Rodriguez chose to play viola in third grade, making her an unusual professional who did not start out on violin. “There was something sad about the viola that was calling out to me and needed me. There’s that melancholy low sound to it,” she said. “And I like being the cream in the middle, the center of the music.”

She is also an enthusiastic singer, serving for years as an alto section leader at a church choir in Rochester, New York, where she attended college and later won a job in the Rochester Philharmonic. “As a child, my father sang to me a lot, and I grew up being soothed by and appreciating that lower-middle range,” she said. “He’s not a trained musician, but he has a beautiful voice and loved all things Motown. Listening to and singing with him certainly helped inspire my affinity for that cream in the center sound.”

She sees a symbiotic relationship between singing and playing a string instrument. “I like to think of my breath in my bow,” she said. “Your voice is the instrument you were born with, and it’s important to start there to understand music. I’ll usually sing a phrase I need help understanding. A phrase can get chopped up into upbow and downbow, but if you think of an unending stream of air, you can connect the ups and downs and make it less fragmented.”

When she won the Milwaukee audition in 2018, “it wasn’t a difficult decision,” said principal violist Robert Levine. “It was pretty clear she had prevailed, and she had a lot of good experience.”

Playing third chair viola involves sitting directly behind the principal, and in Uihlein Hall, Levine was “looking for someone to connect me to the rest of the section. Basically, I was playing chamber music with the person next to me and the person behind me – I couldn’t hear anyone else – and I depended on the third chair to be my link to the back of the section. Samantha does that really well.”

On the stage of the Bradley Symphony Center, however, the acoustics are better – and Rodriguez is now the acting associate principal following the departure of Nicole Sutterfield.

“Orchestras are full of people who play really well,” Levine said, “but they’re not always full of people who play really beautifully, and Samantha plays beautifully. There’s a level of artistry and a lovely quality to her playing. It challenges me to play better.”