by Carole Verona
Twenty hours a week, you’ll find Linda Baldwin working as a cashier at the 100-year-old Kilian’s Hardware store in Chestnut Hill, as she has for the past eight-and-a-half years. Much of the rest of the time, you’ll find her playing the violin with the Adult Chamber Players, the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia, the Independence Sinfonia Orchestra or in her own or someone else’s living room.
To say that Baldwin is passionate about music is definitely an understatement. Her love for music came from her 96-year-old mother, who plays the piano and flute and recently started learning the cello.
Baldwin began taking piano lessons when she was 7 and never really liked the violin until she attended Temple University. “We were required to learn several instruments, so I decided to study the violin and the clarinet. I was determined to learn! The violin I’m playing today I found at a Freeman’s Auction for $27.50, and I’m still playing it,” she said.
Born and raised in Elkins Park, Baldwin received a B.A. in music education with a major in piano from Temple University in 1964. She lived in Chestnut Hill for 10 years during the 1970s and had a piano studio in her home at that time. She then lived in Wilmington, North Carolina for five years, where she was a substitute teacher. She returned to Philadelphia for a couple of years, moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and finally returned to Chestnut Hill, where she now resides.
Baldwin, who says her age isn’t relevant, started playing in orchestras as soon as she could find them. “At first, I played in the BACK of the second violin section and eventually moved up to the FRONT of the second violin section. I’m at the point where I want to play first violin, and I’m working at it,” she said. She is taking lessons this summer with violinist Caeli Smith, who also lives in Chestnut Hill.
On a recent Sunday afternoon that stretched well into the evening, Baldwin rearranged all the furniture in her house so that she could host 16 string players for intimate performances of Bach, Mendelssohn and Mozart. The highlight of the day was the performance of a composition for four string quartets by Dutch composer Johannes Bernardus van Bree. “We had excellent players, and the sound was incredible,” Baldwin said. “I thought, ‘Could this really be happening in my living room?’”
Baldwin admits that she dislikes practicing and rarely does it. “I only practice because I’m playing in the Independence Sinfonia Orchestra with Jerome Rosen, a very discerning conductor who played under George Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra. He knows the sound he wants, and he tells you how to get it. When I leave rehearsal, I feel like I’ve had a violin lesson. I practice for this orchestra because if I don’t practice a difficult ‘lick’ (pattern of notes) over and over to get the placement of the fingers in the correct position to get the right sound, that’s not good.”
Baldwin would like to see more people from Chestnut Hill discover the Sinfonia, which performs in nearby Dresher. “I’ve played in a lot of amateur orchestras. This is absolutely the best. It’s high-quality music making,” she stressed. She also plays with the Orchestra Society of Philadelphia every Friday, 7:30 p.m., at the Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. “This group plays a variety of music under different conductors. We get together strictly for the fun of sight-reading. We don’t rehearse; we just play.”
On Monday nights, Baldwin often plays the French horn with another group that also meets at Temple University. And every other Tuesday, Baldwin performs with the Adult Chamber Players at Settlement Music School in Willow Grove, a group coordinated by Settlement’s Marka Stepper. “There are at least 60 regular participants. Marka sends an email each week, letting you know who will be playing in your particular group that week. When you get there, everything is ready for you … the music and the stands are there. You just show up with your instrument, and you play.
“Marka goes a good job of matching people based on their experience and skill level. There are mostly strings, pianists, a handful of wind instruments and horns. There are about 15 or 20 musicians at my level, so there’s some variety when Marka places us. Usually, I’m thrilled with the groups. I’m a take-charge person but here I often have to take the back seat! You learn tolerance, patience and a lot about working together with other people.
“Every time I play I think about how grateful I am to have this gift and to be able to do this. People who don’t play music can’t begin to comprehend what a pleasure and joy it is. I’m not a religious person, but this is as spiritual as I get. When I play Mozart, I’m up there somewhere.”
Baldwin’s daughter Emily Clark, a realtor with Prudential Fox & Roach, also lives in Chestnut Hill. Baldwin has three grandchildren: Zach, Andrew and Samantha.