By Tim Munro
Piano notes tiptoe quietly, careful to not wake a lulling child. A voice drifts: “Sleep, little one…sleep, my little morning star.” Tenderness and joy and sadness converge.
This song, “Nana,” by Manuel de Falla, has become an obsession for Beth Guterman Chu, SLSO Principal Violist. “That soothing, that questioning—it’s what I as a person need right now,” she says. “This song is so timeless and haunting.”
Beth finds herself wanting to hear the song again and again. She plays the voice part on viola. Her husband, Assistant Principal Violist Jonathan Chu, and their two children have learned the piano part. “We’ve been playing it together. It has become this grounding, soothing thing.”
To talk to Beth—even over a rough Zoom connection—is to encounter a voice full of the light and joy of childhood. A voice rounded by maturity, intelligence, and a deep passion for music.
In this moment of silence, she is seeking “the soul-searching side of music.” This quest led her to Bach. “There’s no showiness,” she says, and at its core his music is the direct communication of emotion. “It almost doesn’t matter how well you play, you still have the same sensation.”
For the first time, Beth is playing Bach for an audience of one: “myself,” she says. “When I’m preparing for concerts, I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to say to my incredible audience?’” Now, her emphasis has shifted. “It has been freeing and honest and has made me feel truthful.”
Beth is happy to be home, to be playing solo, to be practicing with her sons. Even so, she tells me about the joy of communication onstage between the musicians of the SLSO. “When things are right,” she says, “it’s electric, it’s hair-raising.”
Playing in the SLSO “is like a giant puzzle,” one where Beth collects data, and turns that data into emotion. For instance: “What [percussionist] Alan Stewart is doing on the cymbals can change what I’m going to do two bars later, and that can change what the clarinets do in three bars.”
That energy is why Beth goes to concerts, that is what she lives for. “There’s something so profound about sound, that it affects us in such an emotional way. I miss it.”
But Beth has found joy in this quarantine period. “For the first time, ever, we had no time constraints,” she says. “We hiked, we biked, we baked. We got into streams and got dirty and wet. It was really memorable and amazing.”
Household chaos has multiplied. “We do three loads of dishes a day. It’s crazy.” And because her kids are in school online, Beth has to practice in small chunks. “I practice viola for ten minutes, then run around to computers and iPads, getting the right kid to the right class.”
Music can still overtake this chore-world. One day, she found herself lost in the wonder of sound, of music. “And one of my kids missed a class,” she says, laughing, “because I accidentally kept playing!”
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.