Seattle is a (West) Coastal Haven for String Players

Seattle’s geographical location, removed from the traditional musical centers of the East Coast, has not prevented the region from forging ahead with significant advances in the cultural sphere

By Thomas May | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

“To describe the beauties of this region will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task to the pen of a skillful panegyrist,” reported Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Vancouver led the first European expedition to chart Puget Sound—as he dubbed what would become the US portion of the larger Salish Sea long inhabited by the Coast Salish indigenous peoples. Many of the British place names conferred by Vancouver have endured, but the area’s best-known city, Seattle, founded by white settlers in 1851, stands apart as being named after an indigenous leader, Chief Seattle (using the Anglicized version of his actual Lushootseed name, Siʔaɬ).

Fast forward to the present day, and any description of Seattle that aims to account for its cultural as well as its natural beauties cannot overlook the city’s advantages as a haven for string players—and for those who love to listen to their art in live performance.

Seattle Opera
Seattle Opera. Photo: Sean Airhart.

Seattle’s geographical location in the northwest corner of the nation, at a remove from the traditional musical centers of the East Coast, has not prevented the region from forging ahead with significant advances in the cultural sphere—despite (or perhaps even because of) what some commentators have diagnosed as a periodic tendency to experience a cultural inferiority complex. 

The Seattle Symphony (SSO), for example, was founded in 1903, predating the establishment of such flagship ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. Having a hometown orchestra marked a significant step beyond gigs playing at wedding dances atop gigantic tree stumps—as string bands were sometimes depicted at the time in photos and ads calling attention to the Pacific Northwest’s formidable timber industry. (Portland, about 180 miles to the south, even gained the nickname “Stumptown.”) 

“I feel very lucky to have had a great career with the Seattle Symphony,” says Susan Gulkis Assadi, who retired from her position as principal violist at the end of last season after 32 years. A native of Southern California, she had spent a brief period working in Europe after earning her degree at the Curtis Institute and then decided to return to the US.

Gulkis Assadi recalls being fully content with her position playing principal viola with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in the early years of Donald Runnicles’ tenure as music director. But after a guest stint, Gerard Schwarz, who helmed the SSO from 1985 to 2011, persuaded her to try out Seattle. She commuted back and forth for about a year and eventually auditioned for the SSO’s principal chair position. One of the advantages of being a member of the SSO, according to Gulkis Assadi, is the additional responsibility of playing for Seattle Opera, whose orchestra comprises SSO musicians. 

Susan Gulkis Assadi playing viola
Susan Gulkis Assadi. Photo: James Holt/Seattle Symphony.

“What I’ve really loved about having a career in Seattle is the chance to play concerts and opera and also the many opportunities for chamber music,” Gulkis Assadi says. She refers to her ongoing participation in the Seattle Chamber Music Society as well as in Sound Salon, an imaginatively programmed chamber series founded by the harpsichordist Byron Schenkman that cultivates diversity within the framework of an early music focus. Having played for Sound Salon for years, Gulkis Assadi recently joined its board. She says she enjoys “seeing how all this works from ‘the other side’ as well.” 

Violinist Simon James is another veteran of the SSO who sings the praises of life as a string player in Seattle—while pointing out that the circumstances “certainly have changed over the years.” A transplant from Melbourne, he concluded his 30-year career as second assistant concertmaster in 2021 and joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music but remains based in Seattle.

James spent years supplementing his SSO work with gigs organizing a pickup orchestra of local musicians—from seasoned pros to eager students—to record film scores and video game soundtracks. He fondly recalls the golden years of this period: “The busiest month of my entire life was in the summer of 2009, when I was concertmaster of the Ring cycle at Seattle Opera and at the same time had 40 recording sessions.” These took place at the Bastyr University Chapel in nearby Kenmore Washington—a favorite recording studio for the industry where James played on such soundtracks as Mr. Holland’s Opus, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and The Incredible Hulk, as well as the hugely popular World of Warcraft


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Emerald City Music venue in Seattle
Emerald City Music. Photo: Carlin Ma.

Seattle’s popular music world has likewise opened up opportunities for string players. Cellist and composer Lori Goldston gained prominence as a session player and on tour with Nirvana in the mid-1990s, to cite a famous example. “I played with all these great Seattle bands that needed a string section: Soundgarden and Alice in Chains,” says James.

To characterize Gulkis Assadi as “retired” is misleading. Along with her participation in the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra each summer in Wyoming (which has offered a chance to continue working with the conductor she admires most, Donald Runnicles), she mentions her passionate connection to another chamber music-related project: the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance (MOR), an organization founded more than a quarter century ago by Mina Miller to restore voices silenced by the Holocaust.

MOR presents programs that revolve around ad hoc chamber ensembles, often used to accompany vocal compositions or even small operas. “Increasingly, MOR has taken on topics of other groups who have been excluded or persecuted, so that it’s become even more relevant to what’s happening today,” says Gulkis Assadi. 

As her involvement in endeavors like MOR and Sound Salon suggest, options for Seattle-based string players in the realm of chamber music are especially varied. The late cellist Toby Saks (among the first women to join the New York Philharmonic), started a substantial new chapter in local music history when she founded the Seattle Chamber Music Society (SCMS) in 1982. She passed directorship of the organization on to the eminent violinist James Ehnes in 2011.

Tekla Cunningham, Eva Lymenstull, and Cynthia Keiko-Black perform on string instruments at Whidbey Island Music Festival.
Tekla Cunningham, Eva Lymenstull, and Cynthia Keiko-Black perform at Whidbey Island Music Festival. Photo: Dennis Browne.

The annual SCMS summer festival—in which Ehnes started playing while he was still in his teens—lasts an entire month and has established itself as arguably Seattle’s most consistently satisfying musical series. The festival attracts SSO musicians on their brief summer break as well as many top-tier players eager to make the pilgrimage to Seattle during its serenely beautiful summers.

Several enterprising chamber groups cover the spectrum from early to contemporary music. Baroque violinist Tekla Cunningham, a native Seattleite, is a key figure in the Northwest’s vibrant early music scene. She founded and directs the Whidbey Island Music Festival (WIMF), which presents indoor and open-air performances on period instruments in an idyllic location on the largest island in Puget Sound, to the north of Seattle.

The festival has offered audiences a way to combat the loneliness that intensified during the Covid shutdowns and can even support healthy aging, says Cunningham. She adds: “I think this sense of connection and community is important for all organizations to cultivate, rather than just to focus on producing amazing performances. We should be asking: what opportunities can we provide to the audience for a deep connection?”

Cunningham also serves as concertmaster and co-artistic director of Pacific MusicWorks (PMW), established in 2008 by the lutenist and conductor Stephen Stubbs. PMW has been notably innovative in presenting early music in a way that stamps this repertoire with a contemporary sensibility. The organization also experiments with unconventional venues, as does Emerald City Music (ECM), whose artistic director Kristin Lee, a renowned violinist and member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, shows a flair for attracting younger audiences.

Along with a shorter festival in winter, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has been further defining its role in the region’s musical life through year-round activities facilitated by the acquisition of a permanent home downtown, the Center for Chamber Music. It’s located just a few blocks from Benaroya Hall, the complex housing the main SSO concert hall and the cozier Nordstrom recital hall used by SCMS, Sound Salon, and Music of Remembrance for their regular seasons.


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The Triple Door music venue in Seattle
The Triple Door. Photo courtesy of The Triple Door.

The Center serves as a space for rehearsals, master classes, and more intimate salon performances. It’s also the headquarters for the Academy for Chamber Music at SCMS, in which experts like Gulkis Assadi mentor precollege musicians. This work of passing along not just technical skill but musical knowledge plays a central role in Seattle’s string culture. 

Simon James lights up with enthusiasm when discussing his students at the Coleman Violin Studio in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood. The studio was cofounded by Kent Coleman, former chair of the string department at the Academy of Music Northwest and a highly influential teacher. (Among his protégées is Rachell Ellen Wong, concertmaster of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, who splits her allegiance between Baroque and modern violin.) 

Since Coleman’s sudden death in 2007, his widow Jan and James have been teaching collaboratively to continue the studio. “People move from all over the country just to come and take lessons here,” says James. They’ve gone on to win top awards at the Yehudi Menuhin, Stradivarius, Stulberg, and numerous other prestigious competitions.

The Seattle region also boasts some prominent instrument collectors and luthiers. In the process of liquidating his astonishing collection of more than two dozen Cremonese old master instruments, former tech entrepreneur and violinist David Fulton ensured that these treasures ended up in the right hands—including his “Marsick” Stradivari from 1715, which James Ehnes initially borrowed and was eventually able to purchase.

Understanding how essential it is for students to have the opportunity to learn on an instrument of high quality, the Carlsen Cello Foundation loans out fine instruments acquired by founder Ray Carlsen at international auctions. Some 75 students currently play these cellos on long-term loan from the foundation, which is directed by Seattle-based cellist Miriam Shames.

Seattle Symphony concertmaster Noah Geller alternates between his Postacchini and a modern violin made by local luthier Alina Kostina. Another highly praised violin maker is Michael Reis, a former engineer who learned the craft later in life. Rafael Carrabba, whose parents were part of Seattle’s vibrant jazz scene at the old clubs on First Avenue, grabbed headlines when he successfully restored the “General Kyd; ex-Stern” Stradivari cello played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal after it was recovered from a theft. 


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Baked goods at Saint Bread in Seattle
Saint Bread. Photo: Ryan Warner.

Port Townsend, a seaport rich in maritime heritage on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Seattle, is internationally recognized as a center for bow makers thanks to a lineage of archetiers (three generations now) based at the town’s famed Kanestrom Bows studio. Their work has given Port Townsend a reputation as “the Mirecourt of bow making” in the New World. 

There isn’t space to mention the many other ensembles, festivals, venues, teachers, and artisans who make this corner of the world such a richly satisfying environment for string players. The most important element may well be the one of community, so ruptured by the pandemic, on which Tekla Cunningham has been focusing her energy. “My mission now is to find ways to build up the community spirit again, getting people together to play and then discovering paths forward from there.”

Five Restaurant Tips

The Pink Door, 1919 Post Alley
Still whimsical and delightfully eccentric after more than 40 years in Pike Place Market—ground zero for first-time tourists—this Seattle institution combines hearty Italian fare with acrobatic entertainment, and, if you’re lucky enough to get a table on the terrace, views of Elliott Bay.

The Triple Door, 216 Union St.
Located in an erstwhile vaudeville house right across the street from the Benaroya Hall venues, the Triple Door is itself a performance lounge that presents an eclectic variety of live music (indie, folk, or international) and shows accompanied by a menu from the nearby pan-Asian icon Wild Ginger. 

Saint Bread, 1421 NE Boat St.
Both the picturesque Portage Bay setting and the precision-tuned pastries make this unique bakery and sandwich spot—which doubles as a community space—well worth a leisured detour en route to Meany Center at the nearby University of Washington campus (one of Seattle’s central venues for chamber music). 

Ray’s Boathouse & Cafe, 6049 Seaview Avenue NW
The pleasures of Pacific Northwest seafood are an essential part of the Seattle experience, and Ray’s benefits from a reliably excellent crew of chefs. Romantic views of Shilshole Bay, where the ship canal begins, and lingering sunsets over the Olympic Peninsula make for a genuinely special evening out.

Sushi Kappo Tamura, 2968 Eastlake Ave E
An inspired marriage between Japanese culinary principles and Pacific Northwest ingredients gives this sushi restaurant special marks. A priority on sustainability practices, including homegrown produce from the rooftop, clinches the deal.