The Virtuoso

ae ireneIrene Herrmann lives the sound of music  

Fresh from a concert in Tangier, Morocco, Irene Herrmann was busy whipping up a dish of quail in tamarind sauce when I stopped to visit. A highly sought-after piano teacher and chamber music coach, Herrmann is also known in the Santa Cruz community as the mandolin player with long platinum tresses who performs at the Westside farmers market most Saturdays, along with Paul Rangell and Emily Abbink. She has premiered countless avant-garde piano and cello compositions at equally countless New Music Works performances. An astonishingly facile sight reader, Herrmann performs and accompanies vocal ensembles such as the UCSC Concert Choir and the Westside Community Choir. If music’s involved, she’s there.

Herrmann is a restless pragmatist with a Master degree in Performance Practice from UCSC. She believes that music, like food, is a universal language, and she walks the walk by packing her calendar with concert travel throughout the year.

“I tell people that I’ll do a concert for free if they just pay my travel costs,” she says with a laugh. Much of her performing over the past decade has been influenced by her role as interpreter of the modernist music of Paul Bowles, best known as the author of The Sheltering Sky. Visiting with Bowles in his Tangier home during the last decade of his life, she became a friend and then ultimately the heir of his musical archives.

“At the Tangier concert, I did what I usually do—I play something first,” Herrmann explains, “and then I say something about it. I tell a story.”

On the road as much as she is in residence here in Santa Cruz, Herrmann makes music a big part of every journey. “I have a good ear and I can sight read quickly, so I can join in with whatever people are playing,” she says.

She believes that music crosses all boundaries, and she’s as fluent with mandolin, cello, piano, and fiddle as she is with the traditional music of France, Greece, Poland, and Italy. “I also play classical music,” she reminds me, most recently with a string quartet from the Bay Area.

Herrmann is convinced that playing “old time” music is “completely different socially than playing classical. It’s more inclusive. Everybody can appreciate it. I love finding the harmonies, the short repetitive refrains. We all have such a bond. I know all of my musical colleagues well, and have for a long time.”

One summer, she and her daughter worked on an organic farm in Italy, eating with the family. “After that I promised myself that making noodles from scratch would never be too much trouble,” she says.

“Music is bonding,” says the mother of two daughters who are themselves expert performers on cello and violin. After the Italian tour, Herrmann will wrap up her summer the same way she has for 30 years. “With a chamber week in Vermont, with 45 other high level players. And we’ll just play and play until 3am.”

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in journalism, painting, music, woodworking, winetasting, trail running, reiki, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir.

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