Wright Words: Violinist Jenny Oaks Baker stuns Pennsylvania crowd

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Acclaimed violinist Jenny Oaks Baker performs in Harrisburg, Pa., on April 20, 2012.

Matt Baker

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I always wonder what audiences think anytime I’m on the same program with Jenny Oaks Baker. The acclaimed violinist is known for many things: Julliard, topping the Billboard charts, a Grammy nomination and performances around the world in the finest concert halls.

I’m known for a love of gummy bears and making faces on stage.

Despite this almost criminal talent disparity, we’re often on the program together on Friday nights at Time Out for Women events around the country. Jenny plays selections from her 10 albums that bring people to tears. I tell embarrassing stories about myself that bring audiences to the realization that they’re in pretty good shape after all.

Trust me, you’re missing a spiritual feast if you’ve never heard Jenny play live. If heaven released a soundtrack, it would come from the strings of Jenny’s violin.

A few weeks ago in Harrisburg, Pa., a sold-out hall of 1,200 women witnessed this firsthand. They bought tickets to be moved by Jenny’s music, but when the lights went down, they got much more than they paid for. What unfolded was brand new for the woman who’s played countless concerts since her very first at the seasoned performance age of 4.

The drama began as Jenny performed Gabriel's Oboe, composed by Ennio Morricone for the original score of the 1986 movie "The Mission." It’s easy to hear why it’s one of Jenny’s favorites, and her own twist on the piece appears on her 2008 album, “Silver Screen Serenade.”

Jenny was accompanied on the piano by Jessica Lee, a phenomenally talented performer in her own right, and the two form a striking pair on stage. As Jenny was approaching the cadenza — a section that invites the performer to improvise and add her own flavor — she experienced a first during a live performance. Her E string popped. The ping from her rare Vincenzo Panormo violin, handcrafted in 1795, could be heard from every corner of the hall, and a spotlight caught the lonely string wandering and wondering what had happened.

Jenny didn’t miss a beat — literally. She played on, trying her best by instinctively playing the E string notes higher on her A string. It worked for a few lines until it became clear to her that she couldn’t play and pay the piece the respect it deserved.

So she looked to the crowd and said, smiling, “I can’t play this piece without an E string!” Then she dashed behind a curtain.

I also scurried backstage to see if I could help. Because when people think of urgent, mid-show antique violin repair, they think of me.

In just a few minutes, Jenny had the instrument restrung and ready to go. It would have been easy to skip the song and move ahead with her program, and someone backstage suggested she should. But Jenny insisted on picking up where she’d left off and asked the sound engineer to start her background track at the spot where the string broke. Then she glided back on stage and eased into the music. She performed the rest of the piece as if nothing had happened.

Another presenter that night, Heidi Swinton, the dynamic biographer of President Thomas S. Monson, turned to me and said, “That happens to all of us, doesn’t it? We’ve all broken strings, haven’t we?”

We have. And before the night was over, I was already scratching column notes in my writing journal.

We should all marvel at Jenny’s ability to bounce back by calmly recognizing the problem, stepping aside to address it and retaking the stage to finish the performance. But was it that singular moment we should admire, or the mountain of moments that led to it?

Why was she able to rebound and recover so quickly? It’s because she had invested hours, days and years to practice. With the help of loving parents, she identified talent at an early age and began to cultivate it. She invested time and tears in becoming the best.

Her journey took her to places like Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, Strathmore Hall, the Jerusalem Symphony, the San Diego Symphony and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. As a wife and mother, she spent seven years as a first violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra before resigning to devote more time to her family.

In other words, she moved her gift to a different shelf in life. It didn’t become less important or less fulfilling, it simply required a new lens to view it in the proper light. Today, she strokes a melodic balance between motherhood and world-class performer, and the result is as lovely as the music she plays.

That night in Harrisburg, she was the runner who got up not because of the moment but because of the miles before it. The rebound and recovery were made possible because she’d earned it through prayer and preparation. It was truly an evening to remember. But more importantly, it's a lifetime to admire.

I wonder: Am I prepared to break a string today?

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or www.jasonfwright.com.

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