One of the Spokane Symphony’s many married couples, assistant concertmaster Jeanne Bourgeois and double bassist Stephen Swanson, might easily have met during their studies at Northwestern University.
But it wasn’t until later when celebrated French conductor Pierre Boulez invited them to play together at the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2004 that the two finally crossed paths. “We went to grad school together … but we had to go all the way to a music festival in Switzerland to actually meet,” Swanson said.
One year later, Swanson won a place in the Spokane Symphony’s bass section. When Bourgeois completed her doctorate in violin performance at the Eastman School of Music, an assistant concertmaster position brought her to Spokane, as well.
“It’s a small enough place that you still feel like you’re really an important part of the community,” Swanson said.
“But at the same time, it’s a big enough city that we have all the resources of a big city. And we have so much fun playing for the audience here.”
Both raised in musical families, each began their studies early.
“I started with the Suzuki method when I was 3,” Bourgeois said, joking – somewhat – that she’s barely skipped a day practicing her violin since then.
It took Swanson a little longer to settle on a particular instrument. He played piano and clarinet before the bass finally sparked his passion between fifth and sixth grade.
“But I knew the very first time I heard a bass,” Swanson said, remembering hearing noted bassist Jeff Bradetich perform. “I knew I had to study with him.”
And, years later, he did.
Now happily settled in Spokane after years of education had them moving from state to state and between countries, Bourgeois and Swanson have begun raising a musical family of their own. Their daughter, Roslyn, has started studying violin and piano.
It’s always best to start early, they said, and sometimes it takes a little bribery.
“She loves to play, but she also gets to watch a little TV every time she practices with me,” Swanson said. “So, of course, she wants to practice multiple times a day.”
During rehearsals, which are occasionally attended by Roslyn, Bourgeois and Swanson find themselves paying extra attention to each other’s musical instruments.
“Listening to the bass really helps tighten the ensemble for the upper strings,” Bourgeois said, explaining how they’re able to support each other whether they’re practicing at home or onstage performing.
“I mean with Jeanne playing the violin and me playing the bass, we’ve kind of got the string section covered right there,” Swanson said.
In addition to their own practice time, Bourgeois and Swanson each have a long list of private students, most of whom they’ve been able to keep teaching through the pandemic.
“We do group classes over Zoom,” Bourgeois said, explaining how she’s appreciated seeing her students communicate and support each other over the last year.
Looking forward to leaving behind Zoom lessons and livestream performances, Bourgeois and Swanson eagerly prepared for last weekend’s Labor Day concerts and look forward to the symphony’s season opening Sept. 18-19 featuring Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto and Johannes Brahms’ second symphony.
“No one could possibly hear the ending of that piece and not just feel exalted beyond all imagination,” Swanson said of Brahms. “There’s an ecstatic joy to the ending that seems to not be of this earth. It’s one of the most glorious pieces of music ever written, and I’m so glad we get to start our Masterworks season with it.”
Needless to say, the couple is thrilled to begin with Brahms, but they’re just as excited for the Pops concert lineup, and in particular, speaking of things not of this earth, “Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert.”
To aspiring musicians, the couple had the following advice: Start when you’re young, practice and listen to as much music in as many genres as possible.
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