An Interview with Annebeth Webb: Concertgebouw player and mother of four violinists

 No, I never thought of becoming a soloist. I think it is also because I never grew up with the idea of being a musician. It may sound a rather practical, but I was just enjoying my study and then I realized I had to earn a living. This happened to be in the past and I happened to be happy, I mean, if I were not happy, I wouldn’t be in the orchestra. And I don’t think less of myself because of it. 

Annebeth the mother of four musicians

How did you come to study the violin? Why violin?

I have two older sisters and they were both already playing violin. I don’t come from a musical family in a sense that nobody else was a musician, but we got our music lessons, and as the youngest in my family, I wanted to do the same as my older sisters.

I see the same with my four children now (aged 6 to 12 years old). They all play violin. One starts and the other ones like it too and they want to do the same. Well as long as they enjoy it.

Such a musical family…

The family that my kids grow up in – the family that I formed – is more involved in music than the family I grew up in. But the love for music has always been there, in that sense I feel the same with my children now. I’m not necessarily expecting them to be musicians earning their living with music, but I want to give them the love of music. People ask me why all my kids play violin: well for me having to educate your children in music is just as normal as having your kids do some sort of sport. I can’t imagine raising children without teaching them music. To me it’s very sad and strange. Of course my husband (Hein Wiedijk clarinettist with RCO) and I are lucky enough to have the music so intense in our life, so if it’s not us, then who is going to give the music to our children?

Do you teach them yourself?

I don’t teach them myself. They have an excellent violin teacher, Natalia Gabunia, my best friend, but of course it’s very easy because I know I can always help them. If they played flute or cello it’d be much more difficult for me to help them. I always say to people that learning to play violin is very difficult as a child, but after that, if they want to switch to other instruments, it will be easy.

Is there competition among your children?

No, it goes in a natural way. I don’t judge them by level, but if I’d have to describe any sort of level, then the oldest one is on the highest level and the youngest one is on the lowest level. It’s not as if one is more talented by far than any of the others.

How did you introduce the music to your kids?

I played all the Mahler Symphonies at the Concertgebouw when I was pregnant with them. I suppose even then there was already some kind of connection. I’m sure the music went through somehow. And of course you practice at home and we always listen to classical music, so they are used to having music around them.

Annebeth the professional musician

When did you decide that you wanted to become a professional musician?

You see, since I don’t come from a musical family (my parents were both doctors, my sisters went to study law and my brother took chemistry) it was a scary decision for me to take. I didn’t even know anything about being a musician – I was just playing the violin. I was very lucky to get a chance to go to New York to study with Sylvia Rosenberg after I finished high school. She was then a teacher at Manhattan School of Music. We met each other in The Hague when I did a masterclass there as a child. We really clicked and she asked me if I would like  to go to New York and I was very lucky to get financial help to get me there. When I was in New York, I was in a big big swimming pool of musicians. There was no way out, so I dove head first into the deep pond of the music world. There was no way I was going to do anything else. In the end I stayed four more years in the US, and after that, when I was not even officially done with my study in the US, I was already replacing someone for a week at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO). So I really went straight from studying to the orchestra.

Can we say that you are lucky then?

I’m the first to say that I was very very lucky. It’s not that I think little of myself, but there are so many people out there who have at least the same level of playing as musicians in our orchestra and they are never lucky enough to get a job. Of course if you’re really good, you’ll pass, but there are also so many determining factors during the audition. It’s almost like a lottery. Of course you do everything you can to make it work, but there are other factors such as the time you play, who plays directly before or after you , who the jury members are, what they listened to before, even what they had for lunch, you know, all aspects which I think can make a different.

Honestly, I had to audition three times until I could join the orchestra. I was lucky because I was still studying, I didn’t have a family to support yet and I wasn’t dying for a job. I always believe that my first audition was the best, yet they didn’t hire me. The second time I failed. I worked so hard for my third audition and I was lucky that I got in. But I always tell people that if I hadn’t made it on my third audition, I would have never made it because as you get older, you lose a bit of trust. Also, you’re not practising 10 hours a day anymore and you start to live your own life, so it’s so difficult to get in.

Just wondering, did you ever want to be soloist?

No, I think it is also because I never grew up with the idea of being a musician. It may sound a rather practical, but I was just enjoying my study and then I realized I had to earn a living. This happened to be in the past and I happened to be happy, I mean, if I were not happy, I wouldn’t be in the orchestra. And I don’t think less of myself because of it.

Something that does really inspire me is chamber music. I want to play chamber music all over the world next to my orchestral job. Luckily this is easy for me to say because I have this steady job.

Could you recall the most memorable reaction from an audience during a live performance?

I’m always pleasantly surprised when I invite friends to a performance or when people who have not been to an orchestra concert come and listen to us. It surprises me in a positive way because they hear so much. They judge the atmosphere they get into from being in a concert. Sometimes they say they’re in tears from being so overwhelmed. In a way I’m jealous that they are so pure in their ears and their experience. When I listen to other orchestras myself, I always pay attention to details, so it’s hard to just sit there and enjoy the music and the sound.

Annebeth the orchestral player in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

You’ve been with the RCO since 2001, could you tell us about your life as a member of the orchestra?

I’m incredibly thankful every day that I’m with RCO. As I told you, I had to fight a little bit, and I’m also thankful for that, because if I hadn’t got in that way, maybe I wouldn’t have realised how thankful I should be. I realise how grateful I should be having such great colleagues and fantastic conductors, playing all these concerts in the best concert halls in the world. Of course like in life or marriage, there are times when it gets more intense and for me personally it’s not easy to be with so many orchestra members all the time. It’s like an intense family, but of all the time I have been in the orchestra there has never been a day that I have not enjoyed. I can honestly say this: it’s really a dream come true.

Do you still get nervous on stage?

In the beginning I was very nervous. It was strange in the beginning because I had to get used to the feeling of responsibility for the whole orchestra. I felt like if I did something wrong, I would lower everybody’s level. When you’re a student, even when you play chamber music or a solo recital, it is your own thing, you won’t screw it up for anybody else but yourself [chuckles]. In the beginning I was very nervous, but I’m now more used to it.

What about reviews?

I honestly am not worried about the reviews. I do my best, I don’t need to sell the orchestra and we know it depends on so many factors. I care more about my own joy and my own reaction of what I play, and of course I hope that the audience enjoys the performances. But I’m always flattered when people tell me that the recordings are so amazingly well done. As a member of the orchestra it is difficult for me to judge because I’m in the middle of it. Of course it is also because of the recording engineers and we’re just amazing players [chuckles]!

Could you tell us about your fondest recording(s) with RCO live?

The first time I played with the orchestra I was officially still a student and I basically didn’t know anybody. And the second time they asked me to play was in 1998 or 1999, playing Dvorák’s New World Symphony with conductor Mariss Jansons. I was practising so hard like as if I was playing a solo concerto for this symphony. There was such an abundant energy and the level of playing was so high. For me it’s so special that whenever we play it again, I have to think back to that second time ever playing with the orchestra. So this recording is special for me also for this sentimental reason.

I also treasure the Mahler Symphonies recordings: Symphony No. 1 because of the time when I played with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra when I was studying in the US. I believe when you learn a piece with a youth orchestra, you never forget it because it’s so intense. Nowadays in the RCO we have basically three days and you learn it. So when you play something from that youth orchestra time, you feel like you know it more than other pieces. And for my love of chamber music. I’m also very fond of The Symphony No. 4, I find it the most intimate.

Annebeth Webb in conversation with primephonic’s Rina Sitorus

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