Classically Speaking / Virginia Barron and Buffalo String Works
Buffalo String Works students practice.
Photo by kc kratt
Many readers will recognize Virginia Barron’s name as that of the Classical 94.5 WNED announcer who recently left radio to devote more time to Buffalo String Works, a West Side after-school music program that she cofounded and directs with Yuki Numata Resnick. Providing a foundation for these more recent activities is her career as teacher and freelance violist; Barron played for more than fifteen years as sub and extra musician in the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago. She moved to Buffalo in order to be with husband Charles J. Smith, associate professor of music theory at the University at Buffalo. (“He had a tenured job; I did not.”) Those lucky enough to have played with her can attest to her spectacular musicianship and the value of both her presence in Buffalo and her work with Buffalo String Works (BSW).
Barron photo by Matt Dine
Barron grew up in Toronto, where her ninety-year-old mother still lives, and took advantage of the music instrument program offered in her junior high school: “I started on the cello, but realized after three months that that might not work with my need to wear a mini skirt—it was the late sixties, after all!” She switched to viola and never looked back.
At eighteen, she left home to study at the Manhattan School of Music. “My parents were not overjoyed at the prospect,” she recalls. “New York was a much tougher city than it is now, but... when my mother realized she could go to concerts at Carnegie Hall and that my father could go to games at Yankee Stadium, it was fine with them.” New York City’s energy and abundance of concerts and wonderful artists left a deep imprint on Barron—something she keeps in mind when working with the kids of BSW.
Barron is modest about her time in Chicago, but acknowledges that playing and touring with the Chicago Symphony provided opportunities to play under great conductors in remarkable concert halls through the United States and Europe. About Lyric, she’s more effusive: “I realize that not everyone is an opera fan, but I absolutely loved working there. To play in that orchestra, to hear great singing every day, to be part of that theatrical world—it was brilliant!”
Over time, the constant traveling of a freelance career, combined with maintaining a long distance relationship, took its toll, and, in 2008, Barron left the Midwest to share a home with Smith and their two big, ever-shedding dogs in Elmwood Village. She maintains a viola studio there for students of all ages.
It was Smith who informed her of an opening at WNED-FM. “People had told me that I had a good speaking voice, so, armed with some writing by [New Yorker music critic and author of The Rest Is Noise ] Alex Ross, I went to a local studio and recorded a few paragraphs,” says Barron, who was hired, and recently concluded a three-year adventure as radio host. “Live radio is challenging and scary, [but] working at WNED was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn about many things outside of being a musician.” Barron is particularly grateful to all the listeners who called in during her time at WNED, and to fellow radio host Stratton Rawson, whom she credits for teaching her the art of storytelling.
In March 2014, Barron, Numata Resnick, and two other musicians from UB played for the students of Buffalo’s International School, PS 45—a concert, incidentally, sponsored by Friends of Vienna. As Barron recalls, the children’s focus and enthusiasm were memorable. “When can we play?” the students asked. By September of that year, Buffalo String Works was up and running with fourteen after-school students. The program now has fifty-one students, and Barron aims for 100 within another three years. BSW currently draws students from PS 45 and West Buffalo Charter School, with plans to incorporate another nearby school soon. Most students are from refugee and immigrant families, and their humor and energy are irresistible.
BSW has recruited more than a dozen top-notch local musicians to instruct the students, and Barron is justly proud of them: “By cultivating our teachers’ pedagogical skills, and by affording them the opportunity to connect with our families on a personal level, we aim to provide a training ground for teachers who will carry on and expand comparable programs in our city and beyond,” she explains. The teaching staff lead their groups in the day’s lesson, and the hour ends with mini-performances by the students. Late afternoon after a full day of school is a tough time to focus, but the young students’ commitment is impressive. Of course, there’s joking around, but, by the end of the group lessons, sincerity of intent from both teachers and students carry the day. If BSW is indicative of the future of music and the future of Buffalo, we’re headed for a good place.
Buffalo String Works offers lessons twice a week in both violin and cello, with plans to add viola this September. Students pay one dollar per lesson, and the instruments they use are procured through donor gifts, which also allow for the nonprofit BSW’s very existence. “We plan to expand as we are able, to offer this gift of music to as many children as possible in the city of Buffalo,” promises Barron. For further information, see the organization’s website at buffalostringworks.org.
Edmond Gnekow plays bass in the BPO.