On the auspicious date of the “harmonic convergence” of 1987, Helen and Leonard Byrne began their married life amid harmonies of a different kind altogether.
Nearly half of the Spokane Symphony is composed of married couples; the majority of these, like the Byrnes, met and married after joining.
“You’re working nights, you’re working weekends. How do you meet anyone else?” said Leonard Byrne, the symphony’s principal tubist, sharing a look with his wife, Helen, the symphony’s assistant principal cellist who also plays with the Spokane String Quartet.
In their time with the symphony, during rehearsals or driving to and from, the pair have weathered professional and personal storms as a team. “We met under stress,” they recalled.
As a string player and a brass player, “on opposite sides of the social spectrum,” they laughed, the two rarely so much as shared eye contact until finding themselves set to work closely on the orchestra’s contract negotiating committee.
“We were working through a cantankerous negotiation, which happens often enough. I’m the numbers guy, trying to explain management’s position to everybody, staying collected … but you also need some fire,” he said. “Helen was the fire.”
When she agreed to serve as the orchestra’s union shop steward, she recalled, the president of the local union at the time said, “This is great, whenever someone has a question, we can tell them to ‘go to Helen Byrne.’ ”
“I had a whole bunch of engraved pencils made up with the phrase that year for Christmas,” her husband continued.
So, if you’re ever at the symphony and you spy a flame orange pencil on anyone’s music stand, you know exactly where it came from.
“I try to leave them on different organs around town,” she added. “That’s always a laugh.”
After four years of working together, he finally plucked up the courage to ask her on a date. Exactly 51 weeks later, they were married.
The Byrnes don’t remember who proposed, but they do remember sitting down with their calendars to set a date, and Sunday, Aug. 16, 1987 – right between a tuba festival and a conference of the American Federation of Musicians they had to attend because, at the time, Leonard was the national treasurer of the Regional Orchestra Players Association – happened to be the earliest available.
The couple had their uncomplicated wedding, attended by close friends and family, in the backyard of their recently purchased house, the reception dinner in its unfinished garage.
“I only cared about the music,” the brass player remembered.
The Spokane Falls Brass Band, then featuring Spokane Public Radio’s Verne Windham, symphony trumpet players Larry Jess and Chris Cook and three others, performed the couple’s hand-picked processional and recessional music: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kige’s Wedding March” and Peter Schickele’s “A Little Mosey Music.”
“We had a bit of an interesting start to being married,” he said.
All seemed well as the couple set off for what they jokingly called their “sort-of honeymoon” and the AFM conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But on the first day of the conference, he started feeling an unusually intense neck pain.
They returned to Spokane, scheduled a doctor’s appointment, and, after two weeks of pain, a round of tests and a biopsy, Leonard Byrne was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors estimated his chance of living past 2000 at no more than 10%.
“In sickness and in health,” he said, the corner of his mouth quirked slightly. “Two weeks in, her husband is diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.”
Marrying a cellist who also plays the piano has its benefits. Byrne explained that on the rare occasions he finds a solo worth playing, he never has to look for an accompanist. “I married my accompanist,” Byrne said, his smile brightening.
For the first year of their marriage, she accompanied him to doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, chemo treatments and experimental procedures at Stanford, all of which, against discouraging odds, worked.
“They don’t take these kinds of precautions anymore, but every time I would go to see him in the hospital, I would have to get all gowned up with a face mask,” she said.
“I had a very compromised immune system,” he explained. “I looked dead, completely white and bald … we got married in August, and the following August I was hardly functional.”
“But on our first wedding anniversary, in the hospital, he arranged with his parents to have a dozen roses sent to the place where I was staying,” she said, beaming. “He has done that every year since, regardless of where we’re staying.”
He once had roses delivered to her at a campground where they were vacationing on the Oregon coast. “That was hilarious – everyone was staring,” she remembered. Another year, he had them delivered to her onstage where she was playing in an ensemble during a chamber music program in Sandpoint.
“We did forget one year, but we both forgot,” she said. “The roses were a week late,” he added.
Today, after a successful bone-marrow transplant, more than 30 anniversaries worth of roses, and just as many years of music, you could say they’ve more than beaten those odds.
The Byrnes will perform in the SSO’s “Music for Valentine’s Day” concert this afternoon.
The symphony’s score of married couples
Musicians married to each other: 16 couples
Erica Uzcátegui Campíns (formerly Richardson), associate concertmaster/first violin – married to assistant conductor Jorge Luis Uzcátegui.
Jeanne Bourgeois, assistant concertmaster/first violin – married to Stephen Swanson, double bass
Margaret Bowers, first violin – married to Luke Bakken, bassoon
Jason Moody, first violin – married to Earecka Tregenza Moody, harp
Amanda Howard-Phillips, principal second violin – married to Chip Phillips, principal clarinet
David Armstrong, assistant principal, second violin – married to Sheila McNally-Armstrong, oboe
Nicholas Carper, principal viola – married to Rachel Dorfman, violin substitute
John Marshall, principal cello – married to Lynne Feller-Marshall, principal bassoon
Helen Byrne, assistant principal cello – married to Leonard Byrne, principal tuba
Daniel Cotter, clarinet and symphony general manager – married to Bethany Schoeff, director of artistic administration and orchestra personnel manager, and oboe substitute
Bruce Bodden, principal flute – married to Steven Radcliffe, freelance pianist with symphony
Skyler Johnson, bass trombone – married to Heather Johnson, Spokane Symphony digital marketing manager and flute substitute
Kevin Hekmatpanah, cello – married to Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, Spokane Symphony Chorale cirector
Larry Jess, principal trumpet – married to Carolyn Jess, Spokane Symphony Chorale pianist
Johannes Kleinmann, cello – married to Denika Kleinmann, cello substitute
Mateusz Wolski, concertmaster/lead violin – married to Dawn Wolski, soprano and general director of Inland Northwest Opera, who sings with the orchestra in opera productions
Married staff: Two couples
Brian Ritter, general manager of Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox – married to Kimberly Babb, Spokane Symphony director of Special Projects
Jake Ray, box office manager – married to Megan Ray, marketing coordinator
Symphony staff married to musicians: Two couples
Kim Larsen, human resources manager – married to David Larsen, saxophone substitute
Pam Meyer, sound engineer – married to Gary Edighoffer, saxophone substitute
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