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Wisdom, wit, and fantasy football: Susan Lewis picks highlights from her artist interviews

Susan Lewis interviewing Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, solo English hornist of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Susan Lewis interviewing Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia,solo English hornist of The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The interviews I’ve conducted over the years have often surprised, challenged, and enriched me — and made me laugh. There is joy in curiosity, compassion and connection. Here are just a few words of wisdom about creativity and humanity that have stayed with me. They come from a wide variety of artists in different genres from Philadelphia and beyond.

Philadelphia Orchestra solo English horn Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia(pictured above) describes her instrument's distinctive sound and role in the repertoire. “I’m the only English horn player in the Orchestra; the position is a lot like the kicker on the football team.” She also talks about its misleading name: “It’s neither English nor a horn!”

Susan Lewis with actor Dule Hill at WRTI in 2017.
Susan Lewis with actor Dule Hill at WRTI in 2017.

Actor Dule Hillon playing Nat King Cole in 2017: “His voice was so enchanting.. But really started attracting me to him was that grace…. Underneath grace there’s always fire. Look at these artists, especially from years back. That passion, that power, that fire, they would put into their songs, their voices, the tunes they would play. That’s the fire that allowed them to extend the grace, daily.”

The Crossing’s Donald Nally,on how to keep singers singing in 2020:“I went to the ocean and I listened to the ocean talk to me — because that's what people have done as long as people have written about walking by the ocean, to gain some clarity.... I came up with this idea that we should create a sound system where we can sing outside, isolated and safely distant.”

Bassoonist Monica Ellisfrom Imani Winds (which means faith in Swahili), in 2021, on the importance of faith in the future: “Faith that we will all get back to what we love. On the stage you have no control, but in the best of ways: the spontaneity, the music, the energy from the audience, that's what we look forward to.”

Composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalison how music fuels his optimism: “Music stretches across time, so it's always helping. Even if it's just light entertainment music with very little actual nutritional value, it can help you get through a day. It can help you laugh or it could just help you with whatever. My daddy always said, if you made a judgmental comment about somebody: ‘Leave people alone, it's hard enough out here.’”

Susan Lewis interviewing Jeffrey Curnow, principal associate trumpet in The Philadelphia Orchestra and as a popular cartoonist whose work appears regularly on NPR Classical's Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Susan Lewis interviewing Jeffrey Curnow, principal associate trumpet in The Philadelphia Orchestra and a popular cartoonist whose work appears regularly on NPR Classical's Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Principal Trumpet Jeffrey Curnowon the synergy between music and his cartooning for NPR Classical: “It's kind of weird to say, but my trumpet playing has been helped by the process it takes for me to think of a cartoon and put it together from beginning to end. I now look at trumpet playing that way. And so the trumpet playing enhances the cartooning, and the cartooning has certainly enhanced the trumpet playing and the way I look at music in general.”

Composer Kile Smithon listening to nature:"Something else that I'm doing a lot of now – that's working outside in the yard. When you're outside, you notice things. You'll hear things and you'll think, oh, I know that sound. … So you stop what you're doing and look, and you'll say, oh, it's just a cardinal, or it's a bluejay, just kind of regular birds that you know, but then you'll see other things."

Guitarist Sharon Isbinon masks and mediation:“I started [wearing a mask] about 17 years ago, when SARS 1 became an issue ..And I discovered that it just kept me healthy all the time. It's also important to value other things like meditation. I've been practicing Transcendental Meditation since I was 17. It's a fantastic way to release stress so that you're not encumbered by it, and to access your own inner core, your own creativity. It really helps, in my case, as a musician, for focus, mental stamina, creativity, all of those things, and it's something I recommend for anybody.”

Tenor Laurence Brownleeon finding balance:“I want to be the best [opera singer] that I can be. But if you talk to me, Larry, the regular guy, I absolutely love sports. I'm very into American football. I'm so happy that the football season is playing. I'm also into fantasy football. And I spend hours in the week doing research and on the waiver wire and trying to pick players and trying to find the best match up.”

Susan Lewis in a Zoom interview session with Sarah Chang

Violinist Sarah Changwhose favorite activities include walks with her dog: “It recenters you; it’s such a treat to get this chance to have a little bit of normalcy” — but who also goes skydiving! "I think part of it is that performers are used to that adrenaline rush, being on stage and playing for live audiences and having that excitement generate from the hall. You feel it from the stage and it literally tingles through your entire body. And then, in your free time, with the whole 'work hard/play hard' mantra, you try to look for that elsewhere too."

Pianist Lara Downesabout the idea of the ‘American dream’, embodied in her album,American Again: “We have this spirit to us that keeps us trying big things, and falling down, and getting up again. I think for me, the music is really reconnecting us with what is beautiful and true and essential about American life.”

Susan with Lara Downes in WRTI's Performance Studio, 2019.
Susan with Lara Downes in WRTI's Performance Studio, 2019.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.