Ode to my Stand Partner: Memories of GRS Violinist Steve Brook (1956-2022)
The Musicians of GRSMA were saddened to learn of the passing of former GRS Assistant Principal Second Violin Steve Brook in February. We are thankful that GRS Principal Second Violin Eric Tanner wrote a tribute to Steve for our newsletter.
I think we hit it off from the first time we met at my GRS audition. (Of course, later on, it helped that I married your cousin.) Not many people know this, but the first year we shared the front stand of the second violins, I sat to your left. Many times, I’ve wished we could return to this rightful seating.
You had the most finely-tuned ear for whether harmonies sounded right or not across the whole orchestra. Many conductors appreciated that you could identify wrong notes so efficiently and get it corrected. But enharmonics in our part drove you crazy – I made sure to reinforce that by fingering the new note differently.
You also had an uncanny knack for recognizing so many composers’ styles. We would be playing along, and out of the blue, when we got to a particular phrase, we’d lean towards each other and BOTH whisper “Brahms” at the same time. It’s amazing how much composers rip off from each other!
We constantly tried to outdo each other looking for misprints, poor spacing, foolish editing; in short, anything at all inconsistent in the music rarely got by us. So much so that eventually you became a professional music editor, and I became a national magazine editor! I even edited an issue of the GRS program book, all because we got caught backstage critiquing the previous latest copy and its errors. You loved it when corporate sponsors submitted photos of actors not holding their instruments correctly, or reversed images resulting in the violin being played backwards.
In our Nutcracker part, there were cat stickers on nearly every page, contributed by former GRSMA violinist Larry Herzberg, which helped those long nights fly by faster.
I amazed myself that I was able to fake you out several times by appearing to lift my bow and extend my fingers for an upcoming pizzicato passage, luring you into actually plucking upon seeing most any four-letter word that looked like “pizz.”! I never got tired of this joke and apparently neither did you.
For a while, I thought you just had a rather heavy hand with pencils. You’d go to mark a bowing or dynamic change, press a little too hard, and the pencil lead would break. After sharpening it during our break, it happened again, and it kept happening over many weeks with other pencils. We finally figured out it was a defective box! After that, we started using my stash, which had been an unexpected wedding gift from you. Speaking of our wedding, you forgot to sign our guest book. But, someone by the name of Jack Nicklaus signed it…in pencil.
To start rehearsals, you gave a thunderous clap, which was hard for me or anyone else to replicate during those few occasions when you weren’t present. Then there were the rare times when you went to clap, and your hands missed each other on purpose ... to get a cheap laugh, no doubt! Or to make an announcement that there would be no announcements.
Your stopwatch was often on the floor in front of our stand, especially if we were getting closer to quitting time. Without missing a beat (or note), we enjoyed many magical alignments of numerology – 10:00:00, 11:11:11, 12:34:56, etc. You took great pride in stopping your watch exactly on the even zeroes, and I was impressed how often you succeeded at that. One year, during the GRS Fifth Grade concerts, you started “timing” the increasingly long and elaborate instrument demos. If a conductor seemed totally oblivious to the upcoming ending time of a rehearsal, you would arise precisely at 10:00pm whilst playing, and switch to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or something equally incongruous. This typically shocked guest conductors and always brought down the house – classic Steve.
During dinner breaks, instead of eating supper, you would go on long walks all over downtown. Every day, you’d show me your coin haul from lurking around parking meters, and I was astounded by how much money you found, including so many quarters and dollar coins! What’d you spend it on - erasers?
Back stage, while everyone else was unpacking, tuning, or practicing tricky passages, you would instead loudly play your imitation of a Suzuki student's Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Another option was to run through sections of your extensive Wizard of Oz routine, or try out arrangements for your Classical Gas CD/tour. If there were choir members standing nearby waiting to line up, all the better – another captive audience for you to stroll by with a little extra scratchiness in your tone.
Sometimes in rehearsal, when everything came to a halt to locate music or fix some technical problem, it grew uncomfortably quiet while we waited. A cricket-chirping sound would emanate from somewhere (but interestingly always to my left), causing everyone to look around for the culprit.
Then there was the electronic-hiss overtone feedback from what seemed like an errant microphone – played on the string of your violin just below the nut on the fingerboard. You loved looking around at the reactions of your fellow musicians. Just when the incessant sound got too unbearable to endure any longer, it would mysteriously stop.
When former GRS Assistant Conductor John Varineau explained to our young audience members at the GRS Lollipops concerts that violins had four strings, right on cue, you’d sometimes do a sudden loud snap pizz and shout “Three”! John reveled in wearing his unique purple conductor’s shirt – the color of royalty. But while the kids reminded everyone it was also the color of Barney the Dinosaur, you would yell “Grape Sucker!”
I especially looked forward to the GRS Side-by-Side rehearsals with area high school orchestra students, because these antics and others were all the more likely to happen. Students everywhere could relate to your humor (what does that say about you?) and they realized that apparently not all classical musicians are serious, stuffy perfectionists!
Anything offbeat was right up your alley. When the conductor invited anyone up who wanted to trot like a horse across the stage during our GRS Holiday Pops performance of Prokofiev's Troika, you and former GRS bass player Michael Crawford actually took him up on it. I wondered if the paramedics were on speed-dial.
Mandolin parts for opera? Call Steve. One time, you forgot a pick, so for years, I carried an extra guitar pick in my case to tease you. It may still be there.
Then there was the time you were the soloist performing James Stephenson’s Cell Phone Concerto with the symphony. With an array of ancient flip phones, you masterfully performed ringtones such as the Nokia Waltz, etc. One night, somebody’s phone in the audience rang too. Afterwards, you bowed profusely, being presented with, not a bouquet of flowers, but a bunch of cell-ery wrapped in – you guessed it – cell-ophane. What a great career you could have had as a cellphonist!
TURNING THE PAGE
For 24 years, you made page-turning look easy. You curled the lower corner of the page just so for quick, quiet flips. You re-engineered parts with inserts so we wouldn’t have to turn back for repeats, and even printed new parts to compensate for the publisher’s gross oversights. After you left, I had no stand partner at all for the entire next season due to social distancing, so I had to turn all pages myself, gaining a new appreciation for the expert job you did for so long. To this day, you’re irreplaceable!
Through all this time, I was so constantly and pleasantly distracted by your irrepressible sense of humor, that I took for granted your terrific playing, incredible dedication, strong work ethic, and overall solid professionalism. Thanks for half a lifetime of great times together. In 24 years (which felt like 24 seconds – underwater), you most certainly exceeded Paganini in capriciousness!