Karen Childress-Evans started playing violin in the fourth grade in Yakima, Washington. “I had a wonderful teacher there,” she says. “This woman started off a whole bunch of violinists, and I realized right off I wasn’t going to be able to sit first chair so I decided I would start off with viola.” She laughs; the quartet members find this funny as well. “No,” she says, protesting the unlikeliness of the situation. “It’s true. I decided to play the viola because I wanted to go to All Northwest and All State and All City. And if you’re just one of several violins…” She trails off. “And I wanted to go to all of them and I did. It was a wonderful experience.”
The 45-year-old Pacifica Strings director also plays with the La Jolla Symphony. She got her undergraduate degree in music at Washington State University and her graduate work at Western Washington State University in music education. “It was a double major,” she explains, “a music degree and an education degree. Up until this year I taught strings for 24 years. I teach in the La Mesa–Spring Valley School District, and I teach at Parkway Middle School. Several years ago, I went back and got my degree in social science so I can teach other subjects. They decided to take me out of strings and put me in social science for this year, and that broke my heart. So I decided to go back and proceed with my doctorate in educational leadership. I decided that since I can’t do what I love the most, and that’s teach strings, I’m gonna go be a principal and I’m gonna hire Gordon and Sarah and Ken.” This concept is met with much laughter and approval from her prospective employees.
“Fabulous!” Grubbs chuckles.
“I’m serious,” says Childress-Evans. “I wouldn’t have anybody else teaching my cellos. It will be the School of the New Century.”
“We go back,” she continues, “maybe ten years — well, a good seven or eight, but not in this incarnation. I found Sarah through an ad. We got Ken involved. We had another cellist at that time, and Ken brought Gordon into it. As Sarah says, this is our best group. Do we like each other? I like each other.” She chuckles at her grammatical negligence. “Gordon is kind of a pain in the butt, you know, but…” Again she trails off, joined by four-way laughter.
The rehearsal resumes.
“You’re gonna do the four,” Childress-Evans says to Jerahian about the “Ave Maria.”
“Actually, they should both do it,” says Grubbs. “You should both play in D.”
The violin and viola carve a five-note figure, which climbs half a step in key every time the phrase is completed. Beneath them, the cello sustains single-root notes anchoring the violin’s counterpoint to Agler’s slow, true soprano. “Ave Maree-eeeyaaahhhh.” The five-note figure falters as Childress-Evans and Jerahian tumble their notes onto each other in slightly separate tempos. The effect is supposed to be a flowing one but instead is that of a lurching vehicle with mismatched tires.
“It sounds as if this is a difficult piece to pull off,” I suggest.
“It is, but we have the skills,” laughs Childress-Evans. “Believe it or not.”
“We may have left them someplace,” says Grubbs, “but we have the skills.”
“Isn’t there something like three or four verses to this thing?” asks Jerahian.
“Yeah, but we’re not gonna do ’em,” announces the violist, and the others laugh with relief.
“Yeah, let’s not,” says Agler.
“I went to a wedding,” Jerahian recalls, “and a band was singing this, and in the second verse the guy’s voice broke, started cracking. I felt terrible for the guy.” He looks through his sheet music. “This says, ‘From Walter Scott’s “Lady in the Lake.”’ Which one is this?” asks the teacher/violist.
“This is the Schubert,” Agler explains. “I sang them both for her [their employer for the upcoming wedding], and she liked this one better. And this is easier for us to play.”
“Should we do this smoother? More legato?” asks Grubb. “Or maybe even, well, some kind of a brushstroke? Somewhere in between? As long as we stay together…”
“Let’s just do it smooth,” Childress-Evans suggests, and that seems to be the final word on the matter.
Another run-through and someone is striking sharp notes, though it is not apparent, at least to me, who it is.
“Sorry,” says the squinting violist, “I can’t read this.” Her sheet music is a Xerox copy; the musical text has shrunk and blurred.
Later, one member of the quartet will express dissatisfaction with Childress-Evans’s organization and handling of the sheet music.
“In terms of what music means to me in my life, that has changed over the years,” says Jerahian, the first violinist and former technician with Maxwell Laboratories. “When you do things for a living, sometimes it gets to be a grind, and you don’t enjoy it. Music now for me is just relaxation and enjoyment. I don’t use it to make a full-time living.
“I don’t know if anybody’s flat-out put it in an article, but the arts have never really been supported in San Diego,” Jerahian says. “The plays, the Old Globe, are too expensive, and there’s a lack of support for the San Diego Symphony. It’s not a poor town either; they can afford it, but their priorities go into other areas. We [the quartet] all have other jobs and don’t have time to get together as often as we’d like.”
When asked, Jerahian says his mother most influenced the violinist’s nascent career.
“She used to play the piano, nothing amazing, but she had an incredible love of music, especially the violin. I had three sisters who were all trained on the piano, so I was the one who got the violin. To be honest with you, I don’t really think I had a desire at first to play the violin. I was inspired by my mother. At one point it was a toss-up between electrical engineering and music, and I just so happened to go into music, not only because of my love of music, but I also received a music scholarship to the University of San Diego, where I went to school. It was a good opportunity to get an education and 99 percent of it was paid for, so I went that route. USD isn’t really a topnotch school for majoring in music; it’s good for minoring in music; it’s good for teachers; and throughout it’s a very good education, but nothing like a music conservatory.”