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Strings keep family harmonizing


Families that play together stay together. And enjoy successful careers.

That, more or less, is the musical lesson offered by the Adkins family of Denton, Texas. Out of eight siblings, six are professional string players.

As the Adkins String Ensemble, they give several popular concerts each season in Dallas; the rest of the year, they are busily engaged with their respective orchestras. And quite an impressive roster of orchestras too.

Madeline Adkins is in her second season as assistant concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (the third highest position in an orchestral string section). Since 1983, Elisabeth Adkins has been associate concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington (the second highest position).

One of their brothers is principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Another sister is in the first violin section of the Houston Symphony; another brother is assistant principal cellist of the Dallas Opera Orchestra. One more sister is a free-lance musician in the Dallas area.

The remaining siblings -- "the black sheep," Madeline says with a laugh -- studied string instruments, too, when they were kids. But they ended up pursuing other paths. One is an executive with an entertainment company, the other a singer and actress.

Two members of this instrumental version of the Von Trapp family -- Madeline, 24, and Elisabeth, 44 -- will be the featured soloists in the BSO's concerts this week in Meyerhoff Hall. The opportunity to collaborate delights both violinists.

"Elisabeth had gone off to graduate school when I was 1," Madeline says. "So I only saw her at Christmas and during summer vacation. Now that she lives nearby, we've been able to become much closer."

Elisabeth remembers how difficult it was to be close when Madeline was a kid.

"The story in the family is that I was back home from college for a visit," Elisabeth says, "and when I came stumbling out of my room in the morning, Madeline said, 'Mommy, that big girl is up.' "

Eventually, music provided a firm bond for the sisters. (Half-sisters, technically. Elisabeth was one of two children her mother had from a previous marriage before marrying Madeline's father, who also had two children from another marriage.)

"Both my parents were music history professors at the University of North Texas," Madeline says. "My mom would sit and practice with me every single day until I was 12. Then my older sisters would help me."

The family rule

Avoiding a string instrument was pretty much impossible in the Adkins household.

"My mother had been a church organist," Elisabeth says, "so she always had to play by herself. She started me on strings because she thought it would be good for me to play with others. And string players had an easier time making a living than wind or brass players; an orchestra always needs strings."

There were occasional attempts to break with the family tradition.

"Almost everyone rebelled at some point," Madeline says. "I wanted to play clarinet, but my parents wouldn't let me. I also wanted to do gymnastics when I was a kid, but they worried I would hurt my wrists."

Madeline, who confesses a weakness for 1970s disco when she isn't immersed in classical music, did manage to get in voice lessons for six years. But the violin remained her focal point.

The deal was that each child had to keep studying until the age of 18; then they could choose whether to continue.

"I didn't realize when I was a kid that it is unusual for a whole family to be involved in music," Madeline says.

The Adkins brood tended to be as gifted academically as it was musically. Madeline entered the University of North Texas at age 16. Elisabeth did her graduate work at Yale, Madeline at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Elisabeth received her NSO appointment in 1983, a remarkable achievement for a musician in her early 20s.

"Elisabeth is of enormous importance to the NSO," says music director Leonard Slatkin. "Her musicality and leadership are things that all the members of the orchestra draw upon. That she is able to combine these traits with outstanding solo abilities is a great plus for the musical community here."

Madeline joined the BSO right out of grad school ("Isn't that special?" she asks with another of her easy laughs); occasional substitute work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was her most significant previous experience.

"She possesses a beautiful sound," says BSO assistant conductor Lara Webber, who will conduct the sisters this week and has often been on the podium for pops and youth concerts when Madeline has served as concertmaster.

"Everything's there technically, and her leadership is strong whenever she's in the concertmaster chair. I've rarely encountered a musician with sharper or more refined ears; she hears everything in the orchestra. She's so good it's scary. She's also a lot of fun."

Madeline takes her success in stride.

"I was pretty much raised on playing in orchestras," she says. "That gave me a big head start. I knew what they would be looking for at auditions. And I had played in competitions, so I had done a lot of performing under pressure."

Still, trying out for an orchestra filled with older, more experienced violinists can unnerve anyone.

"I was intimidated to a point, probably a healthy point," Madeline says. "It made me try harder. I hoped that after they saw me in action, they would agree that I deserve to be there."

Performing together

Elisabeth, a finalist for the job of NSO concertmaster last year, is a founding member of the American Chamber Players (which performed last night for Candlelight Concerts in Columbia). Her husband, Edward Newman, is pianist in that ensemble.

Newman also joins the siblings of the Adkins String Ensemble in performances of such diverse repertoire as the Piano Quintet by Frank Bridge. The group, which got its start in 1993, is very much a family affair.

"It was my mother's dream that we all perform together," Elisabeth says. "We played a charity benefit concert in Dallas that turned out to be so successful that we thought we should do some more concerts.

"Now my dad and elder sister take the ticket money at the door. And my mom is always trying to find obscure repertoire for us to play."

At rehearsals, Elisabeth and Christopher no longer enjoy an edge, being the oldest, most experienced members.

"They were guiding us at first," Madeline says, "but the youngest are asserting themselves more now. Theoretically, we're all equal."

Elisabeth agrees.

"We're now all on equal professional status," she says. "There's more trading off on who plays first violin."

Madeline and another sister regularly switch to viola when the siblings team up.

"When I was 14," Madeline says, "they handed me a viola and told me, 'This is a fun game -- you get to learn a whole new clef.' "

Madeline and Elisabeth would like to find a way to introduce the Adkins String Ensemble to the Washington-Baltimore area.

"But scheduling is such a nightmare," Madeline says. "And funding is an issue for any musical group."

Meanwhile, the group has recorded some CDs, which will be available for sale on a Web site currently under construction.

For this week's BSO program, the sisters will divvy up works that the orchestra's former concertmaster was to have performed.

Elisabeth will play Schubert's elegant Rondo. She also will serve as guest concertmaster for half of the program, as well as all of the BSO's annual Naval Academy concert on Tuesday in Annapolis.

"It's such a luxury to play concertmaster with another professional orchestra," Elisabeth says. "You get used to the routine of your own orchestra. It's interesting to see different violin bowings."

Madeline's solo turn will be Vaughan Williams' exquisite The Lark Ascending.

"I love to play it," she says.

"And I really enjoy this job. The orchestra has been friendly with me from the start, and [music director Yuri] Temirkanov is amazing to work with. Hopefully, I haven't let them down."

The Adkins sound

What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: $26 to $68

Call: 410-783-8000

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