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Heartstrings of the symphony

Alex Shum, violinist with the Kansas City Symphony, takes in the crowd moments before the 11th annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. Photo by Amy DeVault
Alex Shum, violinist with the Kansas City Symphony, takes in the crowd moments before the 11th annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. Photo by Amy DeVault

Lifetime of violin has struck a chord with Alex Shum

By Evan Pflugradt

There’s no doorstep, no doorbell. There’s no address. There’s no manmade structure for miles. But, armed with his instrument, he feels right at home.

His hands grasp his Italian violin — the one he’s had his hands wrapped around for 18 years and counting.

He raises his bow, and with each gentle sway of breeze rolling over the hills and sweeping through the tallgrass, Alex Shum sways with his violin.

His eyes follow the notes, line-by-line and page-by-page. Musical notes, harmonies, memories. And each time, even though he’s played the pieces more times than he can recall, he falls in love again.

“These notes bring feelings of a deep friendship,” Shum said.

He’s 62 years old now, and growing up as “just a kid in the orchestra,” Shum never gets tired of the melodies he plays again and again.

“As you get to know a piece, the music becomes like an old friend,” he said. “You always want to revisit it — get deeper, grow closer.”

When Shum hears the crisp notes roll off his violin, out of the all-white amphitheater and into the mounting hills covered in tallgrass, he feels euphoria. The miles of open pasture, he says, sing to him.

He’s been a lot of places; he never expected anything quite like this.

Hong Kong

His story starts in the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets in Hong Kong. Shum’s mother dragging his sister, age 7, to piano lessons. Shum said his mother wanted her children to have an outlet to express their creative energy.

After his 7th birthday, Shum’s mother asked him to choose an instrument to take up. In a rebellious manner, he named the only other instrument he knew besides the piano.

“Violin,” he told his mother.

Back then the notes sounded differently. They were slightly out of tune and a little off-tempo. He took lessons once a week – something he considers fairly common among children in Hong Kong. And although his sister’s piano talents were short-lived, he was too afraid to let go of his new friend, the violin.

The next step

It wasn’t until high school when the idea first popped into Shum’s head that humming notes from his violin could be carried into a professional career.

He would hear melodies from radio and television speakers. Notes from famous symphonies would help accompany the story of his favorite movies. His curiosity was stimulated.

That’s when opportunity struck.

In his high school years, the Hong Kong Philharmonic was an amateur orchestra – soon turned professional. Granted the opportunity, he was accepted as an amateur member.

He practiced the notes of symphonies from Beethoven, Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach; he grew anxious waiting to hear his notes blend with the orchestra.

“When you’re a kid, you hear the symphony notes come through the radio or television speakers, and they sound amazing,” he said. “When I was a part of the orchestra, I remember that light bulb going off in my head, ‘Wow, this is how it’s made.’”

Here, Shum notes, he learned the intricacies – every little phrase of sheet music — that helped carry his skills to a new high.

“This is the experience that first ignited the fire inside,” he said.

America

As a young man in Hong Kong he would dance around, moving with the music as he listened to the works of Tchaikovsky.

His “small,” “miniscule” memories, as he calls them, were enough to encourage him to pursue an education in music – much to his parent’s grim disagreement.

“My parents, at the time, thought a better profession might be a doctor or an engineer,” he said. “They did not encourage me to pick the route I did.”

He packed his belongings and headed for Minnesota where he would complete an undergraduate degree at Saint John’s University as a violin performance major.

His parents couldn’t help but watch their son pursue his dreams.

Holding back laughter, he chuckled, “I was more mature; they were a little more far away.

“I don’t know how willing, but they couldn’t stop me.”

In his early years at the university, his professional career became more clear. His interest for the violin grew swiftly, as did the time he spent with hands wrapped around his instrument.

He headed west for California, and earned his master’s degree in violin performance.

Kansas City

Six years after arriving in the United States, Shum was ready to settle down. And Kansas City seemed nothing like the right idea.

The year was 1978, the Kansas City Philharmonic was in search of section violinists, and Shum was more than qualified.

As he recalls it, the city was “somewhat depressed” and “kind of dismal.”

A few short months shy of celebrating 50 years, the Kansas City Philharmonic dissolved in 1982. It wasn’t enough, however, to keep a violin out of Shum’s hands and end his time as a professional musician.

In less than a year of the dissolution, R. Crosby Kemper, Jr., founded the Kansas City Symphony – a symphony that quickly expanded to 80 members. Shum wasn’t shy to quickly accept the offer to join. He joined as a founding member – the youngest member at the time – of the symphony, and he’s stayed ever since.

Today, the Kansas City Symphony performs in the 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall of the newly opened Kauffman Center — opened in 2011 — in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

“Downtown has come back, it is revived,” Shum said. “It’s a beautiful city. The arts have grown so much.

“I am so glad I stayed.”

The best audience

In the time following his arrival to Kansas City, Shum married his wife – the “love of his life,” whom he met while in college at Saint John’s. In less than a year, he was celebrating the birth of his first child, a daughter, Yola.

Shum started Yola on the violin when she was younger, but her interest in playing music never piqued like his did. He couldn’t help but feel like he was too strict of a father.

Shum and his wife had four more children — two daughters and two sons. He taught them how to play piano — which all occasionally enjoy playing — but he says as his parenting skills matured he learned to not encourage or discourage his children.

“I don’t want to influence them one way or another,” he said. “Whatever my children pursue, I’ll have great admiration.

“I don’t know how to be a doctor, I don’t know how to be an engineer. Living my life as a person of integrity, I can do my part.”

His oldest daughter, Yola, has married and has two daughters. Shum enjoys when his granddaughters visit from California; he likes playing his violin for them.

They’ll smile, and he’ll smile back.

“They make it all worthwhile,” he said.

Rainy day

If it weren’t for Mother Nature, Shum may not have a part in the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

The year was 2005, and the Symphony in the Flint Hills organization had partnered with the Kansas City Symphony for a performance. To bump ticket sales, they asked the Symphony to supply a four-person string quartet — two violinists, a violist, and a bassist – to join them in the Flint Hills for a photo-shoot.

The path to the site was gloomy, muddy and rainy — thunderstorms creeped into the area – and the van turned around, heading back to Kansas City.

Photos would have to come another day.

Things were rescheduled, but one of the original violinists had other arrangements at the new date, prompting the Kansas City Symphony to make other arrangements.

“They saw I was available, and I, though a little skeptical, came along,” Shum said.

Shum packed his violin and headed for the hills.

He had seen the overcrowded streets, air-polluted skies and high-rises in Hong Kong. He had seen the metropolitan, culture-driven downtown of Kansas City, Missouri. But as he drifted alone into the fields, deep into the tallgrass, those memories didn’t seem to matter.

“I looked out, as far as my eyes could see; all I saw was prairie, rolling hills,” he said. “No matter how far I looked out, I couldn’t spot a single building, not even trees.

“I had never seen openness or spaciousness like that before. It was a true eye-opener.”

Shum continued to drift away from the group. He met some cattle, grazing in the pasture. He greeted them with the strings of his violin.

He chuckled, “I think they liked it.”

South Clements Pasture

His calendar is separated into 42 weeks of venues, but his eyes look to June.

He may have missed a couple of performances in years past, but he eagerly grows with anticipation as the time ticks down to the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

Members of the Symphony gather, shuffling their things in white vans. As they approach the winding curves of Rock Creek Road, his heart beats a little faster. He worries, ever so slightly of the sounds he will produce.

He steps out of the van, grabs his instrument and everything changes.

“When I get to the Flint Hills, I see the openness I am so much more relaxed,” he said.

He breathes deeper, slower.

Out in the open space, the music is a different experience.

“There’s a beauty in the sunset, a beauty in the open space, the cattle and the grass” he said. “You need to look out, feel the open space, soak in the scenery and let the music fill you.”

The music flows from the cellos to the violas, the sounds surround him. The audience sings along as the Symphony finishes with “Home on the Range.”

“It’s heartwarming,” he said. “Simply, heartwarming.”

With a book of notes, withered strings, a dusty violin and a song in his heart, Shum feels right at home.