SALT LAKE CITY — The summer she turned five, Madeline Adkins' parents put a violin in her hands. She squealed with delight. Until a month later, when she announced she was done.
Not so fast, she was told, keep at it until you’re 18, then you can choose.
Her parents, Cecil and Alis Adkins, didn’t run a gulag at their home in Denton, Texas, but they did run a family music academy, and, as little Madeline soon found out, they were serious about it. Especially by the time she came along — the eighth in a line of musical prodigies. Putting a bow in her arms was like giving a Manning a football.
Viewed through the clear lens of perspective, Adkins at 39 tells the story of her upbringing with obvious relish. Because not only did she make it to 18 and choose to keep on going, but because that little girl from Texas is now concertmaster for the Utah Symphony — leader of the violin section in one of America’s most prominent orchestras, and conductor Thierry Fisher’s de facto second in command.
More than 100 people applied for the position a year ago when Ralph Matson announced he was stepping down after 31 years as concertmaster. (Matson remains with the Utah Symphony as associate concertmaster.) Adkins, who had served as associate concertmaster at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 2005, was among 14 finalists brought to Salt Lake for “blind” auditions. She passed the talent test and the in-person leadership interviews that followed to emerge as the final choice — and join a small, prestigious fraternity.
There are just 15 concertmasters in the country at a Tier 1 (52-week, full-time) symphony, and she’s one of them. Only three are female.
It would only be right, she asserts, if she could fit her entire family alongside her on the stage at Abravanel Hall. Figuratively if not literally, she’s standing on all their shoulders.
Growing up the last in a long train of accomplished musicians, also known as her brothers and sisters, made the path to those 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell has made famous easy to find and follow.
Her parents were music history professors at the University of North Texas in Denton. “They couldn’t afford much for eight kids, just shoes and food,” Adkins says. “But they could give us a love of music.”
The girls, five of them, played violin and the three boys played cello. Cecil and Alis weren’t string players themselves — she played organ, he played everything else — but they loved the sounds the instruments made. And there was a practical side to it. The demand for violinists and cellists, they told the kids, “was somewhat more than tubas,” remembers Madeline.
In the afternoons, after school, the Adkins house sounded like a giant tuning factory. “Sometimes it was hard to find a place to practice,” Madeline says. Her father did the cooking and her mother, to keep the littler ones focused, “practiced with us every day until we were teenagers.”
Everywhere Madeline looked were good examples to follow. When she was 6, her left arm still aching from holding up the violin, her big sister Elisabeth was appointed associate concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. She was just 26.
Today, all grown up, six of the eight Adkins siblings — Elisabeth, Christopher, Clare, Anthony, Alexandra and Madeline — make their living as professional musicians.
Like the rest of the Adkins kids, Madeline went to college at North Texas, where her parents got a professor’s discount. After that she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston to earn her master’s degree in music. Soon after graduation, she was snapped up by the Baltimore Symphony. After six years, she was promoted to second chair in the violin section — associate concertmaster. She was just 27.
Her star-studded career has included first prizes at the Stulberg International String Competition, the ASTA National Solo competition and the New England Conservatory Concerto competition. She has released four CDs as part of the acclaimed Adkins String Ensemble, a group made up, as you may have guessed, of six of Cecil and Alis’ offspring, plus one brother-in-law. Adkins has also been guest concertmaster for orchestras in Hong Kong, Indianapolis, Oregon, Baltimore and Chicago.
She attests that the decision to leave Baltimore — the only permanent stop in her professional life and a city she loves — wasn’t an easy one, but the Utah Symphony’s allure was too tempting to ignore. When the concertmaster position opened, she threw in her hat.
It seemed like a bad omen a year ago when, after a performance in Baltimore, she caught a late flight to Salt Lake City for her audition and the airlines lost her luggage.
Armed with only her violin, she showed up at Symphony Hall the next morning dressed in her sweats. Fortunately, the audition was blind — members of the selection committee sat hidden behind a black drape — so the curious looks Adkins got from the other finalists didn’t much matter.
When she found out she’d advanced to the next round, she ran to the mall and bought some proper clothes for her next performance that afternoon, expecting that it would be an open audition.
But when she learned that the second audition would also be blind, Adkins decided to again perform in her sweats. Why mess with a winning formula?
Even after the successful auditions and face-to-face interviews, the job still wasn’t all hers. Standard procedure in choosing a position as important as concertmaster calls for a probationary period. Adkins’ lasted through a three-week phase last fall. She passed with flying colors, freeing her and her husband, John Forrest, a software engineering manager, to begin house shopping in the Salt Lake Valley.
Avid hikers, they chose a home in the foothills, close to the city. Adkins still can’t quite believe her neighborhood. “You drive to the grocery store and you see the mountains,” she gushes. “You can’t beat it.”
Her game plan as leader of the string section is a simple one. “Bring a lot of energy and lead by example,” she says. “I need to earn everyone’s respect. It’s already a great orchestra; they just want to be inspired.”
While her official tenure as concertmaster began in September to kick off the Utah Symphony’s 2016-2017 season, Adkins performed as guest concertmaster four times last spring, twice in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, once in Illinois and finally at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Her father died last November, but Madeline made all the arrangements so her 80-year-old mother could make the trek from Texas to New York for that concert.
There, in the world’s most famous music hall, Alis Adkins watched her youngest daughter sit in first chair as concertmaster for a major orchestra, holding the violin she said she was through with when she was 5.
“They told me I could quit,” Madeline says with a smile, “I just had to wait 13 years. I’m so grateful for my family and the way I was raised. For me, it was just right.”