Mark Dix gives orchestral music in the Valley an edgy twist. The violist for the Phoenix Symphony is the founder and director of The Downtown Chamber Series, which pairs orchestral performers with art gallery settings, for a transfixing aural and visual experience. The 43-year-old Phoenix resident won his Phoenix Symphony position in 1995, and then started Downtown Chamber Series in 2000. The Colorado native is also a talented violinist who teaches violin and viola and moderates the Phoenix Symphony String Ensemble Classroom Concerts.
Catch the next stunning Downtown Chamber Series concert Tuesday, June 10 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale. The concert features Ben Sollee, a cellist/singer-songwriter, along with a string quartet and clarinet.
Learn how Dix hopes to contribute to the Valley through his music, and watch him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley, below.
What brought you to Arizona?
Orchestral musicians don’t pick the city we want to live in and then move there, because there are so few jobs. We open the union newspaper, called the International Musician, and in the back are listings of job openings for orchestras. We then fly at our own expense to those cities and take a rigorous audition. If we win, we move.
The year I was auditioning, in ’95, there were openings in Buffalo (N.Y.), Phoenix and another city. I moved here from New York City after going to grad school at the Manhattan School of Music. I also have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
What’s your first memory of being interested in music?
My brother played the violin, but he hated it. I started playing, too, and I think as a younger brother, I took glee in doing something he was doing and enjoying it. I remember passing him up – I would get his hand-me-down books, and each page I would turn would be dirty because it was marked up with notes, and one day, I reached a page that was clean. That was a nice day.
I was a highly disciplined kid, and I liked the work ethic and accomplishment of learning stuff and getting better. I loved playing in orchestra as a kid, but it was really in high school when I started to work on Mozart violin concertos, and I remember it being a refuge for me.
When I was 18, I was invited to the Congress of Strings, a national music festival run by the American Federation of Musicians, which selected a couple students from each state. I represented Colorado, and it was the first time I played a Mahler symphony surrounded by kids from all over who were professionally bound. That’s when I knew I had to follow it as far as I could.
Even though my parents were very supportive of the arts and taking me to lessons, my dad – and my teachers – always made sure I knew going into music was not a stable profession financially, but OK to do on the side. That kept me humble, and I never thought I was going into something that would be lucrative. But, I had some artistic experiences, like playing in orchestras, where I realized it was totally what I wanted to do professionally.
What is it about orchestral playing that appeals to you?
I like the community of people. The isolated life that’s required to learn an instrument, where you’re basically locked in a practice room, appeals to me because I’m a very self-disciplined person who could get a lot of work done there. I’m very self-critical and hard-working. But this becomes a psychological vacuum.
I’m very social and outgoing and feed off other people’s energy and spirit, so being in an orchestra environment, where you’re surrounded by 70 people, and you’re all dressed in black and have to be humble and cooperate to create one sound, is a very intense feeling.
In the musical sense, it’s sort of like swimming in ocean waves, where you have this incredible sense of power and connection, but you’re also incredibly small. I think some of the arts tend to be very ego-driven, which is necessary to a point, but it can also eclipse the artistic product. I like the anonymity of it, like being a tile setter in the creation of St. Peter’s Basilica.
How has the Downtown Chamber Series evolved?
When I came to Phoenix, I was told it was a city that wasn’t very culturally focused and that had a very diffused community. A lot of people were complaining to me about the Phoenix arts scene and Phoenix in general.
When I moved downtown, I discovered First Fridays and all the amazing gallery owners. Not only were their spaces and the visual art being presented really interesting, the people who ran these places were so passionate, and they didn’t fall into the hater camp I had exposure to. Combining chamber music with visual art was appealing to me.
The Downtown Chamber Series began in 2000 with one concert at Modified Arts for 70 people. Now we’re doing concerts for 300 people at The Icehouse or Phoenix Art Museum or the Musical Instrument Museum. The performances consist of orchestral instruments in small groups with no conductor and can be as predictable as a Beethoven string quartet, or something as unpredictable as 13 percussionists playing a piece by Steve Reich. We have had more than 140 concerts in a dozen different galleries with a huge roster of musicians. It is an invaluable artistic outlet, and I love it.
Why should people check out a Downtown Chamber Series show?
Tickets are affordable, only $15, and at most of our shows, full-time students are free. You’ll see interesting urban art spaces and fabulous visual art, have close proximity to the performers who share some background on the pieces, and hear a wide range of virtuosic repertoire. It’s really a party environment.
What’s your typical week like?
Monday’s are off for most orchestras across the country, then we have daytime rehearsals Tuesday through Thursday, often on several different programs, and then concerts Friday through Sunday. The Phoenix Symphony has more than 150 concerts a season.
Downtown Chamber Series has five programs a year, typically two concerts each. If we have a performance coming up, I’ll be working on the website, ticketing and customer service and preparing logistics. If I’m performing, rehearsals and practice time is squeezed in amidst the symphony schedule.
What’s your favorite piece of music?
It changes depending on what emotional bubble I’m in. At work, I looking forward to performing composers like Beethoven, Prokofiev and Mahler.
I tend not to listen to classical music much outside of work. I am drawn to bands like Coldplay for their amazing lyrics and emotional content and singer-songwriters like Joe Pug, and I also stream old-school hip-hop.
My tastes change throughout my life. With a daughter who loves piano and singing and a son who plays drum set, it is a noisy household.
What’s the most difficult piece of music you’ve played?
The hardest have been Bartók’s string quartets. He wrote six of them, and we’ve done five of them for Downtown Chamber Series, and they are blisteringly difficult. Doing something very hard takes my mind to a different place, and that creates something in the performance that is pretty intangible and awesome. It is like standing in front of a huge painting comprised of tiny dots. There is a unique power in witnessing the human labor behind an art form.
Why is orchestral music important to the Phoenix community?
Orchestral music is everywhere. It’s in our movies, and it’s the backbone of most of the major music we hear in our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.
We’ve become so digitalized in everything we do, we have lost this organic sense of what it’s like to go to a live concert, where we’re captive and really paying attention to something that is emotionally powerful. That is something an orchestra can do so masterfully, across a huge range of styles. It is incredibly retro: the only difference between an orchestra performance 200 years ago and now is we have electric stand lights and wear different clothes.
Orchestral pieces are also longer, which gives us a chance to center. All of us are pulled in many different directions in our lives, so classical music is this meditational moment in one room with all these engaged souls, performers and audience alike, where something really memorable happens.
What physical considerations are there for symphony performers?
The small muscles and tendons we use for our job take a lot of abuse. When you have a job in an orchestra, your body is doing the same task from age 25-70. Thus, repetitive strain syndrome is really common. Moderation is the solution, but the hardest thing for me – there’s so much I want to do in this short life. I can’t play every concert I want to play, and at certain points in the orchestral season, I’m careful not to program additional pieces for myself that might be pushing things too far.
The big muscles must be strong enough to support the small ones, so being in shape is important. But staying in shape without hurting instrument-related muscles is not simple. For instance, yoga is a fabulous discipline, but it’s an awful one for me, because it often involves wrist poses which can be very injurious to someone who plays the viola for a living.
Biking, swimming and construction work seem to work for me — as long as I don’t lose a finger on my table saw.
What are your goals?
At this phase in my life, as a single full-time working parent with two young kids, my goal is just to keep my mouth above the water line. I have built up a lot here, and maintaining it all is a goal in itself, to not let anything fall off the back of the bus.
But, long-term, I would like the Downtown Chamber Series to expand into the educational realm and partner with schools and programs for the elderly.
I also would like to finish my restoring my damn house, a 1919 bungalow, so I don’t wake up to open wall studs, and have my ’61 VW Bug lit up in the holiday festival of lights parade.
Do you see yourself staying in Arizona?
I do. Orchestral musicians by and large are not transient, as our careers are for life, so we stay put. I sometimes envy the mobility of friends who move around, careers aided by technology which allow them to work anywhere. But I have found that sometimes such technology makes them reluctant to sink roots and develop civic pride. I strive to build that community here, and have found no shortage of inspiring people and opportunities in Phoenix.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to be a professional orchestral musician?
From what I can tell, there are three things that must converge for success in any field: discipline, opportunity and talent. Each of these areas might be of a different size, but where they all overlap is success. If a player has a lot of talent and opportunities, a lack of pure discipline to practice will be the deal breaker.
The advice I have for other aspiring orchestral players is to get out of your practice room and perform for as many other musicians you respect as possible, regardless whether they are students or professionals or play your specific instrument. This will toughen your nerves and broaden your wisdom far more than isolation in the practice room. There are so many places to perform. Be creative in finding opportunities, and these experiences will fuel your desire to improve and love your art form.