ON THE SCENE: Sinfonietta gets happy with maestro Malina

Stuart Malina (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

For the last four Sundays at 5 p.m., patrons and fans of the Lake Placid Sinfonietta have had the delightful opportunity to meet musicians from the orchestra in an informal virtual setting as they share their musicianship and information about themselves while the take a break this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Sinfonietta Happy Hour with Stuart Malina,” the maestro, has demonstrated that he’s as deft at conducting interviews as he is at playing the piano and leading an orchestra.

Malina, leaves no statement sit alone, as they are always followed by a “What makes you say that?” or “How did that make you feel?” or “What do you love about that?” or “That seems hard to do, is it and, if so, why?” Attendees also see and hear the musicians perform a musical selection that’s special to them.

Insightful though this is, and there is one last one to come on Sunday, Aug. 16, no question Malina would rather be in Lake Placid with his musicians and equally beloved audience; his and their extended summer family.

“It’s such an odd time,” said Malina Friday, Aug. 7 during a phone interview. “It’s dispiriting as the weeks go by, and I think what would have happened if things had been a bit more normal. As for the impact of COVID, I am doing fine because I’m in the enviable position of having a job; I’m not freelancing. I’m sad because the concerts are canceled. I feel like a part of me has been removed because I am not allowed to make music for a public, which takes a big emotional toll. When I talk to my friends who are performers, they all say the same thing. We all want to be back on stage.”

Malina said that the musicians in the Sinfonietta and the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, where he is also the music director and conductor, are in mixed circumstances. For all of them, what they earn from their orchestra is a piece of their income. Those who make their living freelancing are hurting. Many depend on unemployment insurance and, thus, like millions of other Americans, they just lost the bulk of that income, if not all of it. They are concerned.

Those who have teaching jobs are doing a bit better, though teaching music online is not easy because of sound delays and the quality of sound is not exact. Also, students learn from and are inspired by their classmates with whom they usually perform. That crucial aspect is missing. Good news that they have some work, bad is they can’t perform. Malina said all his musicians and others he knows all share the emotional toll of not playing together and for an audience.

As for the Sunday events, while here too, the sound is mediocre, the opportunity to learn about the musicians’ backgrounds, passions and lives is not.

“The videos of them performing isn’t perfect, but the interviews have been great,” said Malina. “The musicians are fascinating people. Their stories are unique and interesting. They’ve been very forthcoming in sharing their stories. The people watching are privy to what makes a musician tick. When the audience comes back next summer to see these players, they’re going to have a new connection to what’s going on onstage.”

Violinist Diana Pepelea and her husband clarinetist Amitai Vardi did not disappoint. Now living near Cleveland, their presentation also introduced the audience to their squirming young son. He is already thinking about what instruments he likes; instruments that range from a clarinet and bassoon to a spider, the latter sparking a wonder to what precisely the young talent has in mind. Spiders beware.

Violinist Pepelea grew up in communist Romania in a family and extended family of musicians. Her parents sensed that her future opportunities for avoiding working in a factory were either becoming a gymnast or a musician. They chose the latter as she could study at home and under her father. Fortunately, she took to the violin at a young age and did so well that she was invited to study at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.

Pepelea’s husband, clarinetist Amitai Vardi, was born in the United States to Israeli parents and grew up in Israel. At the time, his parents were in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father, a professional cellist, was studying at Yale. After completing, Vardi’s parents moved back to Israel, where he lived until he was 12. Then they moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1990 when his father was hired to teach at the university there. Vardi started playing the piano at age 5, but around age 7 or 8, he heard the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and decided to switch instruments.

“Music was always very natural for me growing up in a musical household,” said Vardi. “In a way, it was a given for me. But I remember my father saying if I could see myself doing anything but music, I should just because it’s such a crazy and difficult profession. I think it was his way of saying I should only go this route if I was one hundred and ten percent sure.”

A professor of clarinet at Kent State University, Vardi holds the position of principal clarinet with the Blue Water Chamber Orchestra and the Erie Philharmonic and often performs with the Cleveland Orchestra. Diana Pepelea is a member of the Cleveland Ensemble, Canton Symphony, City Music Cleveland, and the Blue Water Chamber orchestra. She also serves as concertmaster for Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Pit Orchestra for traveling Broadway shows and performs with the Akron Symphony and Alabama Symphony.

Vardi said overall, their life is a bit of a Ying and Yang experience. He said that’s been difficult being away from music, Lake Placid and other places they were scheduled to perform, but they are enjoying spending so much time together in the same place and time with their son. “It’s been wonderful to be together without having to rush to one gig or another,” said Vardi.

“My parents were both musicians,” said Pepelea. “My uncles and aunts are musicians, so music was all I knew. My dad started me on the violin when I was 4.” Later, she recounted how different the educational experience was at Interlochen.

“In Romania, we don’t get to choose our classes,” she said. “Classes go by grade; whatever grade you are in, you get a schedule and are told what you are taking. Getting to Interlochen, the adviser asked me what classes I wanted to take. That didn’t make sense to me.”

What does make sense to Pepelea and Vardi is being in Lake Placid.

“It’s such a big part of our lifestyle now,” said Pepelea. “The two of us are some of the most recent additions to the orchestra. Most have been coming there for decades. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them, but it’s strange not to be there for us. We adopted the lifestyle of being there very quickly.”

“The community, the friendships we’ve built there. Even though we’ve been there a very short time, it feels like home,” said Vardi. “We love the people, the atmosphere, and connecting with the audience members after the performances. It feels like no other; I haven’t ever experienced that type of intimacy with the audience, the community, and the orchestra, it all being part of a whole, that’s very special.”