Pittsburgh Symphony retirees find the music goes on

| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Performing music is a consuming profession. The mental concentration and physical precision and accuracy required are intense. And after thousands of hours in childhood spent mastering an instrument and many thousands more in rehearsals and performances, retirement can be an appealing prospect.

Yet, music is also a calling, and the decision to retire is not easy. Life after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been good to musicians who retired in recent years. Some simply enjoy retirement, while others use the time to develop early but neglected enthusiasms, discover new professional activity or find a better balance in life.

Time for football

“I'm embracing the freedom to not practice every day,” says cellist Gail Czajkowski, who was a member of the symphony from 1979 to 2014 and still plays her instrument from time to time. “There are concerts every weekend, and you have to perform at the highest standards. So I enjoy not having to maintain that.”

Finally in retirement Czajkowski is able to indulge her enthusiasm for the Steelers.

“I'm a huge fan. I'm not just saying that,” she says. “I'm happy to be able to watch all the Steelers games on Sunday because I don't have to work. They had a good season, in spite of everything.”

With leisure time on her hands, the cellist has picked up knitting again, which used to earn her money in college.

“Now I volunteer making ‘knitted knockers' — prosthetics — for breast cancer survivors,” she says.

Traveling has been part of her mix. But she does miss being surrounded by “all those great musicians and playing great music.”

Other side of the microphone

Oboist James Gorton thought about retiring for a long time before he did. He joined the symphony in 1971 for the opening concert at Heinz Hall and left in 2012.

“One main reason is that I had heard too many people, even mentors and idols of mine, oboists, stay too long,” he says. “They played wonderfully for throughout their careers but hung on and hung on.”

He decided to leave at 65 while feeling really good about his playing. He now has the time to visit his children and grandchildren as he wants. His daughter, Heidi, is the principal harp of the Toronto Symphony, and he has other children in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Chicago.

Gorton has taken up recording work in his retirement and already has made several commercial releases.

“I have been interested in it since high school, when I would make reel-to-reel tapes. My interest was spurred when Gretchen recorded concerti in Sofia, Bulgaria,” he says. His wife, Gretchen Van Hoesen, is principal harp of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

He was de facto producer for those sessions, making all the travel arrangements, finding the music, conductor and hall and seeing the process through to the finished product.

Final editing and mastering was done in Pittsburgh with Ricardo Schultz, who edited Pittsburgh Symphony broadcasts for many years.

“To see him do that was just fabulous,” Gorton says. “He has been my recording mentor.”

As a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Gorton was on the other side of the microphone working with conductors Andre Previn, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Marek Janowski and Manfred Honeck.

He's proud that concertmasters Noah Bendix-Balgley and Andres Cardenes have been happy with his work.

But he gets real satisfaction recording videos for student violinists.

“These are college applications and contest applications,” he says. “When I am able to make a great-sounding and good-looking video, the students have a tangible record of their playing that they can keep forever. It is like a time capsule or an heirloom. For instance, one 14-year-old was able to send her video to her grandparents in Japan so that they could see her play in the moment.”

Gorton does not miss the day-to-day pressure of playing in the orchestra.

“The caliber of the Pittsburgh Symphony is so high, most people don't realize that the orchestra sounds as good as it does in concert every single day,” he says. “And because the individual players are so great and work so hard, the onus is on everyone.”

He sometimes goes back to Heinz Hall and play with the orchestra, but now has a couple of weeks to prepare. It's not a daily grind.

But he misses hearing his colleagues every day and goes to many concerts. “I really enjoy sitting out there. It is fun to get to hear the orchestra from an audience member's standpoint. While it's really great to be right in the middle of all that sound, it's more realistic to be out in the audience and get the full effect.”

Concert series in the country

John Soroka joined the Pittsburgh Symphony as principal percussionist and associate principal timpanist in 1978, but while he officially retired in 2008, he ended up playing two more seasons while the symphony searched for a new principal timpanist after Timothy Adams' departure.

Once the symphony hired Edward Stephan as principal timpani, Soroka and his wife, Kathy, moved to Foxburg, 90 miles north of Pittsburgh.

“We acquired this property 22 years ago. It has been a long standing dream of ours to live in the country,” he says. “This is also close enough that it allows us to continue our professional lives in the city. It's 90 miles door to door to Heinz Hall.”

Three years ago, Soroka became executive director of the Allegheny Riverstone Center for the Arts in Foxburg. It presents about two dozen concerts a season, ranging from “Bach to Rock.” Its annual budget is $120,000, plus another $20,000 for the affiliated Red Brick Art Galley.

“One of the reasons I became a fit for this position after the organization did a national search is not heavily related to my playing in the orchestra but reflective of a wider experience I had during the time I was in the PSO,” he says. “I served on virtually every committee that we had in the orchestra and several board committees, so I had familiarity with governance.

“For 15 years, I was on the financial advisory committee of the Pittsburgh Musicians Union, which gave me good budgetary and spreadsheet experience. And I had been a contractor, hiring orchestras for Heinz Hall management for Broadway shows and also for the Mendelssohn Choir.”

Soroka describes himself as “in transition,” but then that's how he views life generally. He considers himself fortunate to continue performing with the symphony, teaching at Duquesne University and running his new organization.

“I'm wearing different hats. It does involve some juggling but I never pictured myself in retirement sitting on my hands,” he says. “It's a different kind of happy from being a member of the orchestra. I'm very grateful that Kathy and I have been able to live in good health to realize this dream of living up here.”

Retirement renaissance

The most musically active of recent retirees is Cardenes, who was hired in 1988 by Lorin Maazel to be concertmaster and retired in 2010. He maintains an active career as a violin soloist and as a conductor and is head of orchestral studies and university professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Music. He is busy making recordings, with CDs of Hindemith sonatas and all of Franz Schubert's music for violin and piano already in the can. Later this year, he'll start on the complete Beethoven violin sonatas.

Cardenes, 58, laughs at the idea of full retirement, saying it's not in his genes. “If my violin playing stops being what it should be, that will be the end of playing it publicly. But it won't be a retirement from music.

“Everything I've every started out doing, I assumed there would be an expiration date. I've never gone into anything thinking it was a lifelong job,” he says. “I didn't know when my first three-year contract was over if I'd be back. The next contract was for five years, and I thought I'd be done after that. I managed to hang on for 21 years.”

He thinks the timing of his retirement was “perfect,” young enough to do many things.

“I'm enjoying the fruits of my experience of playing 25 years in orchestras,” Cardenes says. “I feel like I'm in a renaissance, like I've been reborn. I'm filled with energy and enthusiasm for all the work that I do. The symphony actually helped me to get there, but it used up a certain portion of my ability and enthusiasm. I needed a change. Teaching is great fun. I have an incredible class, so many talented kids and so hard working.”

Cardenes says his conducting keeps getting better and that he's been offered music directorships.

“I don't know that's where I want to be,” he says. “I enjoy my freedom.”

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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