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Marvin Gruenbaum, Viola

Marvin Gruenbaum is a charter member of the Kansas City Symphony viola section since its inception in 1982. He is also an eclectic string player, having gained notoriety as a bluegrass fiddler and a jazz violinist. Additionally, he has taught violin, viola and alternative fiddle styles privately for the past 30 years, and he has served as a clinician for fiddle workshops, violin and viola master classes as well as jazz camps. Gruenbaum's violin studies, which began in elementary school, eventually led to an interest in improvisation during high school, where he also served for two years as concertmaster of his high school orchestra. After high school, he studied cultural anthropology and Asian philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, while playing violin in the Washington University Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. During these years, Gruenbaum was introduced to bluegrass and mountain music, and he also developed a keen interest in the jazz violin styles of Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grapelli. Disenchanted with the prospect of a career in the social sciences, Gruenbaum decided in 1974 to pursue his musical interests more fully, transferring from Washington University to the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). He received his bachelor's degree in music (violin emphasis) in 1978, and he continued at UMKC for a Master in Music in viola performance in 1981. The acoustic four-piece band produced four CDs that focused primarily on Top 40 "Oldies" played in bluegrass style and on jazzy original "New Acoustic" arrangements in the style of David Grisman. Later albums also included some classical "hits" such as Rossini's Overture to "William Tell," Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5, and Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," all arranged with a bluegrass twist. During his time at the Conservatory, Gruenbaum continued to hone his improvisational skills, and he even added Indian raga styles to his repertoire. He began a short career as a country/western fiddle player after graduation, until winning and accepting a viola position with the Kansas City Symphony in 1982. During his tenure with Kansas City, Gruenbaum has been featured as a "fiddle" soloist with the Kansas City Symphony on jazz and country/western arrangements, most notably on his own arrangement of Ervin Rouse's "Orange Blossom Special" on several occasions. Concurrently with his Kansas City Symphony tenure, Gruenbaum has played "hot" fiddle at bluegrass festivals from 1986 to 2007 with the bluegrass group, Spontaneous Combustion. During the winter and spring of 1990, his bluegrass talent took him to Japan for six months with the "Texas Rangers," on leave from Kansas City Symphony. Gruenbaum is currently playing fiddle with the western swing band, "3 Trails West," and he is gaining notoriety all over town as the "hottest jazz violinist in Kansas City." He plays regularly with "A La Mode," often with pianist Bram Wijnands and with his own group, "The Hot Strings.

Ten questions about me:

What is your earliest musical memory?

When I was in Kindergarten, I was asked by the teacher to conduct a "band" for a performance for parents. It was basically a percussion section that sounded like a bunch of rattling pots and pans as I recall. I remember wearing a bow-tie and taking my assignment very seriously! Other than that, I guess it would be listening to 50's Rock and Roll and singing along with tunes like "Hound Dog" and "Bird Dog" as a 4 or 5-year-old.

How did you choose your instrument?

As a clueless 3rd-grader, I was introduced to the violin by the school music personnel and my parents. I was considered to have a pretty good ear and the violin was thought to be a good fit for me. I played all through my school years (though nearly quit in 7th grade) and in college. As a violin student at the UMKC Conservatory, I was introduced to the viola by my teacher, Prof. Hugh Brown. Although reluctant at first, I soon developed an affinity for the warm sound and range of the viola, and went on to study it as my primary instrument in graduate school.

When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?

During my sophomore and junior year at Washington University, I was working several nights a week at a dinner theatre. I was the manager of the kitchen as well as a strolling minstrel at the "Royal Dumpe," a King Henry VIII themed dinner and show. Showbiz seemed natural and desirable. In time, I became disillusioned with my studies in the social sciences. I found them very interesting, as I still do today, but not as a career path. Sometime during my fall semester in 1973, it hit me that I could make a living in the music business and be happy doing so. I discontinued my studies in Anthropology and transferred to the UMKC Conservatory.

What is your favorite thing about performing music?

My favorite thing about performing music is the profound interplay between instruments, coupled with the satisfaction that comes from executing a difficult solo or orchestral passage really well. In jazz, it is the exhilaration of improvising over complex chord changes and really putting together a cohesive and brilliant solo. It's what you always strive for anyway: to hear something inspiring in your head and having it come out on the instrument the way you conceive it. In Classical music, it's taking a beautiful, intricate passage and playing it the way you want it to sound, with all the dynamics and expression you are aiming for.

What is the most challenging work for your instrument?

There are quite a few challenging works for the viola. Considering solo works, I always enjoyed the Bartók Viola Concerto. As far as orchestral music goes, there are many very difficult works that don't seem worth extensive effort, and some that do. Some of the recent American repertoire can seem like so much noise and really hard to play. Other works, due to the beauty of the music, give a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you can get a handle on them. The best examples are probably the tone poems of Richard Strauss.

Other than your Kansas City Symphony concerts, where else can audiences catch you performing in town?

I hope that you'll find me in Jazz Clubs. I am trying to increase the number of dates that I play with my new band, The Hot Strings, in clubs like Jardine's. I also will be playing some outdoor events like Plaza Live, Zona Rosa Jazz Series, art fairs, etc.

What is your most memorable performance with the Kansas City Symphony?

About 4 or 5 years ago, the orchestra played a "killer" Till Eulenspiegel lustige streiche by Richard Strauss with Michael Stern. Other than that, perhaps my premier performance as soloist with KCS playing my arrangement of Orange Blossom Special in 1984, or the Pops concert about 12 years ago featuring Mark O'Connor, in which we played an unaccompanied duo on Limerock.

Which composer would you most like to have dinner with? And what would you serve or where would you eat?

I would love to have dinner with Brazilian composer Antônio Carlo Jobim, eating some exotic tapas in a cafe in Portugal while he scribbles a soon-to-be-famous new song on a napkin.

Tell us about your family and your hobbies.

My wife, Christy, is an awesome baker, and a voice talent. A former DJ for country music stations, you might hear her on TV and radio commercials. My oldest son Joseph is a very talented pianist and a scholar, a senior in HS currently pusuing an IB Diploma and applying to top colleges, possibly to study International Relations. He is President of his school's debate team and involved in NHS, YIG, French Club and Spanish Club. My younger son, Benjamin is an eighth-grader, plays violin, and loves dance and skateboarding as well as basketball and football.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

My greatest accomplishment is being a father of two wonderful sons!