Kristin Oppenheim Mortenson was deciding whether to paint the trim around her newly installed windows when I called to talk to her. Normally she would do the job herself, but she is just completing recovery from an Achilles injury that kept her from running for too long. Did she want to be climbing on ladders all around the house, risking a setback? My counsel was to go with a painter. As you will see, however, Kristin will choose her own path.
Born into a remarkable family of musicians, Kristin’s journey has been full of twists and turns. The journey is far from over, but in the Year Of Our Pandemic, this Empty Nester remains fired by her passions for music and community. In some ways, she has lived her life for these moments.
Writers tend to undervalue adjectives, using them too casually. Commenting on a “remarkable” family of musicians could be a throwaway line. Not in this story. Martha Oppenheim, Kristin’s mom, was an eight year-old child growing up in Port Arthur, Texas who happened to be “advanced for her age” on the piano. As in, at eight years old, The Juilliard School felt that she should come to New York to study with them. So Martha and her family moved from Port Arthur to New York where Martha’s talent flowered under the best musical education this country can deliver. Martha played a solo recital on the Steinway Hall stage at age twelve.
On a trip to Austin, Texas to visit friends, Martha sought out a practice room on the University of Texas campus. A piano professor wandering by heard the music being produced and knew that the producer of that music was someone special. The professor recruited Martha to the U.T. School of Music, where she gained Bachelor’s and Master’s performance degrees before returning to Juilliard for for her Artist’s diploma. It might go without saying, but I will say it: An Artist’s Diploma from Juilliard is a rare thing, not easily earned.
While in Austin, Martha met another talented pianist, Russell Oppenheim. Russell also has an undergraduate degree in Piano Performance from U.T., but then he branched out to earn a Master’s in Music Literature. Earning that Master’s degree might stretch the truth a bit. Russell’s photographic memory and prodigious reading habits meant that he had the knowledge required for the degree before he ever started. They do not let people test out of a whole Master’s degree, so he had to put in the time. Russell’s talents should have come as no surprise; Kristin recently finished submitting to the International Music Score Library Project the unearthed compositions of Russell’s grandfather, Isaac Aaron Oppenheim.
Like many young men in the early 1960’s Russell ended up in the Army. They say Army intelligence is an oxymoron, but the powers that be were smart enough to spot a useful talent. The Army taught Russell Russian and put him to work translating Russian… Well, Kristin is not exactly sure what Russell was translating and is happy to leave it that way.
After the Army, Russell and Martha settled in San Antonio, Texas and established a life with music prominent, but not as their livelihood. Russell had to make enough money to specially reinforce the wall case holding his 5,000 albums. If he wanted to play an album, he had to remove it from the case. If he wanted to tell you about the album, he could just do that, because he had memorized the liner notes to all of them. So I stand by my “remarkable family” comment.
It was into this household that Kristin and her older sister Lauren were born. Lauren was first up and continued the Oppenheim tradition as an exceptional pianist. Here is the first twist. Kristin Oppenheim claims that she is not a pianist; in fact she describes herself as awful on the instrument, a comment I view with suspicion. Lauren had to practice on one of the family’s two Steinways for at least two hours a day. Given school work and no burning piano desire, that meant Kristin needed an instrument she could practice in her room while Lauren honed her skill. Cue the violins, as they say.
Kristin had skipped second grade and moved to public school. Her third-grade teacher was not the nicest. She practiced her violin, but maybe not with the fervor of an Oppenheim. In a second detour and after about a year and half, Kristin was ready to be done with the violin, a fact she communicated to her mother. Martha does not recall the conversation, but Kristin swears the response was that they could talk about moving on from the violin after Kristin had put in three years on the instrument.
Achievement obeyond participation ribbons means something in the Oppenheim family. Inexorably, Kristin began to improve. By the time she had put in the required time, quitting the violin was the last thing on Kristin’s mind. She had found what she was good at and like the Oppenheims before her and around her, she just kept getting better.
By sixth grade, when many Texas children are beginning their musical journey Kristin was in the North East Independent School District Orchestra; by eighth grade she joined the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio. Perhaps more important than becoming a virtuoso performer, Kristin had found her people. She started to learn what it was like to be with a group who could blend individual talent into something bigger. Or, if things went the other way on the cooperation front, a group that just made too much noise. She fit in and started the long trip to understanding the ethos of being a musician. By high school, if you asked Kristin who she was, she would tell you “I am a violinist.”
In her first orchestra, Kristin worked hard, but tried to avoid standing out too much. In the dreaded chair tryouts, her goal was to place fourth so she she could be second chair of the first violins. She traveled to Minnesota for summer intensives. There she learned “her people” were a global phenomenon. They spent summer days practicing long hours under the tutelage of music masters who might drive them all day and teach them to blow cigar smoke rings at night. It was fun and communal. At the end of the stay there would be beautiful music. Once immersed in this world, Kristin shed her performance shyness; nothing but the best was her new way of looking at things.
Kristin followed in her parents’ footsteps seeking a violin performance degree at U.T. On a freakish day with snow falling in Austin and suffering from a knee injury, she bummed a ride from a graduate student in the trumpet department, Gary Mortenson. Kristin basically willed Gary into calling her back for a date and the pair fell in love. It just took a snowy day in Austin to get there.
Gary was a young man in a hurry and in an unexpected detour on the path to performance glory, Kristin married Gary after her junior year in college. Gary accepted a teaching position in Louisiana and the young couple moved away from Texas and Austin. Louisiana is a wonderful place, but the move was a sacrifice for Kristin. She had been playing with the Austin Symphony from her freshman year forward and Gary’s employer did not have the resources of the nation’s richest public university.
Professionally stunted and unhappy, the music world reminded Kristin that it was a global community. Through her Baton Rouge Symphony stand partner, Kristin learned that an L.S.U. professor, Sally O’Reilly, knew who she was and had already determined that Kristin would be coming to L.S.U. to complete her formal violin education. After the two got in touch, that is exactly what happened. Sally O’Reilly turned out to be exactly the person Kristin needed in her life.
“She taught me to think like a violinist” is the way Kristin puts it. Apparently, there is more than one way to play a violin. Figuring out which fingerings and which bow strokes you need to make on that instrument varies from person to person. Sally did not tell Kristin which fingerings and bowings would work for her; she made Kristin figure it out. It was a skill that has lasted a lifetime; that transforms a violin practice session from repetition to inquiry. Kristin ended up with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from L.S.U. so her diploma wall looks a little difference from the rest of her family.
About that time Kristin and Gary added their first child, Leah, to the family. Gary moved up in the academic world by accepting a faculty position at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. The young family moved north. Kristin found herself adrift. She was still very young and unsure of her parenting skills. The realization set in that Gary’s work would heavily influence her opportunities. Family commitments limited what she could do in a time-consuming gig with the Wichita Symphony so she had to resign that post. For a few years, she was not herself.
Again, it was the music and the people in the music world that moved her forward. Through a connection made years earlier, she began collaborating with the Des Moines Symphony, five hours away. She often would would make the trip with Leah and her baby sister, Sarah, in tow. Despite the driving and difficult logistics, her role in Des Moines fit her better. The passion fired again and she treasured being part of a group.
The difficult logistics did something else for Kristin. The shorter time to be with the group and the longer solo practice sessions forced her to concentrate on what was going on within the orchestra, to understand where she fit in. The notes she needed to play and the notes she needed to stay silent on. Being part of the group was just like finding her people in junior high or in the Minnesota summer or in the lower reaches of Louisiana all over again.
As much fun as she was having, a 10-hour round trip is still a 10-hour round trip. And two growing girls are still two growing girls. Gary was ascending the ranks at K-State until he eventually became the director of the Music School there. With all that in the background, Kristin gave up her Des Moines job. While she regretted leaving Des Moines, she already had a new role lined up, as Associate Concertmaster for the Topeka Symphony Orchestra..
Topeka was much closer and offered Kristin a whole new challenge. Her new role meant that not only did she need to notice when she personally should play or not, she was now helping lead a group of people to make sure the result was beautiful music and not too much noise. As always, the musicians Kristin worked moved her journey forward. Kristin became more confident in identifying a vision for a piece and more understanding of how that vision becomes a reality. She thought that would be her legacy.
Kristin thought that because she usually looks forward rather than behind. Had she considered her history, she would have known life had more tricks up its sleeve. Baylor University came knocking on Gary’s door and eventually convinced him that he wanted to be the Dean of the School of Music. In 2015, Kristin returned to Texas, just up I-35 from San Antonio and Austin. In her early 50’s, she started all over.
The first step was an audition for the Waco Symphony. Symphony auditions take place with the musician behind a curtain, an innovation that was necessary to prove women can play the equal of men. It is a sad comment that the innovation was needed and it is sadder still that it remains needed after the point was proven. Nevertheless, Kristin and her violin had to stand behind that curtain and play.
Nerve wracking to her, but not to my readers. By now you are correctly confident that Kristin ended up where she should be. Waco has a much respected symphony and her membership, plus many contacts from her Texas roots and years of playing meant that Kristin was not just playing in Waco. She was guesting all over our large state. She had again found a home in Waco that nourished her love of music and community. even better it provided a launch point for other adventures.
In particular, Kristin made frequent trips to Fort Worth to play at the fabulous Bass Hall. As a metropolitan symphony, Fort Worth provides a myriad of opportunities. Even before appearing in one of the world’s great concert halls, Kristin has appeared on stage with legends-Dionne Warwick, Bob Hope, Bernadette Peters, Wayne Newton and Ray Charles to name a few. She has played some of the most beautiful music ever written, experiencing moments of transcendence that seem like magic but are really the product of talent, hard work and cooperation. Waco and Fort Worth provide her with the ability for more of that. With fingers in all those worlds, her children grown and thriving, and Gary leading a world-class program, Kristin’s musical journey seemed complete a place of contentment.
Then it stopped. The halls have been dark for eight months. Concerts by zoom are interesting, but transcendence seems a little hard to come by. One last twist. Through it all, Kristin never stopped learning. She is not going to stop now.
Music started for Kristin as a natural way to achievement and a validation of her family’s place in the world. She checked those boxes long ago. the first point that the pandemic drove home to Kristin is that she has to have the music for itself, telling me “it soothes me such that I crave it.”
Kristin struggles with arthritis and playing is a means for delaying the ravages of time. So the need is physical as well as a matter of soul. Despite the physical challenges; in the face of the absence of a group to practice with, Kristin learned two more things.
First, after five decades, she is still getting better. She still likes to play the scales, to get the etudes exactly right. The Empty Nester “Best Life” columns are about Empty Nesters who dare to dream, to aspire to something not yet achieved. Kristin has violin heroes and heroines just like a ten-year old collecting baseball cards. She perfects her craft just like the card collector hones his swing. We need more of that child-like wonder in our generation.
Second, as a musician Kristin can improvise. Her passion is music and the community that comes with it. To stop the pandemic from stealing that second part, Kristin started HeartStrings Waco. Simply put, if you cannot come to the music, she will bring the music to you. She is in the forefront of the smaller chamber groups and other combos that are starting to reappear and provide a joyful noise. She loves these groups for giving her an opportunity to play the smaller, intimate pieces that full symphonies and orchestras forego in favor of the big sound that audiences demand.
Kristin has dreamed big dreams and found a way to live them. She keeps living them. So I asked her for her ultimate musical dream day. The first part did not surprise me. Kristin sees herself on the Bass Hall stage playing with her idols: Itzhak Perlman, James Enhes, and Leonidas Kavakos, among others. The second part was all Kristin. After the main concert there is a late-night gig. She is now part of a smaller group jamming in support of the one and only Barry Manilow.
Don’t bet against Kristin. Tomorrow is always a miracle waiting to happen.