No one can ever accuse Marianne Williams Tobias of being one-dimensional. In fact, even those who think they know her may not be fully aware of the extent of her multi-faceted career, myriad of interests and the passion that drives this dynamic musician, community leader and philanthropist.
A native of Indianapolis, Tobias attended The Orchard School and Tudor Hall from which she graduated in 1958. In 1962, she graduated cum laude from Harvard University and received summa laude in European History in her junior year. She also received an artist diploma from Longy Conservatory of Music of Bard College in Cambridge. While in the Boston area, she worked a year and a half for Julia Child at WGBH, the public television affiliate, and illustrated lectures on American history for sailors on Polaris submarines
Tobias lived in Minneapolis, Minn. for 19 years, during which she received her MFA and DMA from the University of Minnesota where she worked as an assistant to Dominick Argento, Pulitzer prize-winning American composer (“Postcard from Morocco”). While in Minneapolis, she also taught at the U. of Minnesota and St. Paul Academy and Summit School and worked for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
In 1986 Tobias moved back to Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter she was hired by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a pre-concert lecturer and in 1988 became its resident program annotator and still is today.Also a member of the ISO’s board of directors, Tobias, a pianist, performs for fundraisers regularly with members of the ISO.
Tobias has written four books for Indiana University, including “Classical Music Without Fear” (2003), “Opera for All Seasons” (2010), “C. David Higgins: Tribute to a Master” (2011) and “The Art of Descant and Free Harmonization” (2013). Tobias is currently collaborating on a book to celebrate 150 years of Crown Hill Cemetery which will be published in September 2014 and is working on another book for I.U. titled “The History of Ballet Theatre for Indiana University.”
Besides the ISO, Tobias also serves on the boards of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, International Violin Competition of Indianapolis Board, Crown Hill Foundation, Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, IndyBaroque, Fine Arts Society Advisory Board, Visiting Committee of Jordan College of Fine Arts at Butler University, and Deans Advisory Council at IU, Jacobs School of Music, IU Foundation, and Dance Kaleidoscope.
And if Tobias does not have enough on her plate, she also manages to serve as a certified legal translator (Spanish), for which she studied at the University of Chicago and she volunteers as a certified veterinarian tech twice a month at the Cat Care Clinic.
What do her close friends says about Tobias? ISO Conductor Laureate Raymond Leppard says “Marianne is a dear friend, a generous spirit full of vitality who lives life to the fullest. She’s a true music maker who I can testify lives for music.”
ISO cellist Geoffrey Lapin says, “Marianne, who I consider my BFF, and I have known each other…I don’t even know how long. We are kindred souls on many levels not only musically but also for our love of the same things and same sorts of people. Marianne is a regular, normal, fun person and that is why I love her so much. As far as her musicianship — she is the consummate musician. She is prepared for absolutely everything. She has such finesse and panache and has a heart where she cares about what she is doing in the music. I think a lot of it is for her own soul because she always wants to do the best she can and she always does.”
Tobias’ friend Dinah Montgomery, who is a violinist with the ISO and plays frequently with her, says, “She’s a wonderful friend. We’ve been through thick and thin. We’ve known each other for 20 years and have been playing together for all that time in trios and sonata type things. I can’t say enough about her. She is loyal. She genuine. She has so much integrity in her musicality. As a friend she will always be bluntly honest with me but always there for me. Marianne is a true friend.”
Ruthie Linsmith (Mrs. Doulgas F.) says, “Marianne used to introduce me as her 'oldest' friend.” (They go all the way back to their school days at Orchard). “I finally have gotten her to say 'my friend of longest standing.' Marianne has a genuine inquisitive interest in all people. She has a great conversational ability with people of all generations, from the toddler to octogenarian. She is continually learning, from being a cats' veterinarian assistant, to learning the cello, to mastering Spanish to enable her to translate legal documents and of course her love for her piano. Above all, she is sincere, generous to a fault, but a dear, wonderful friend.”
Recently Examiner.com met with Tobias at her warm and inviting home on Indy's northwest side where we chatted about her world and the people and things in it she cares about the most.
What is your approach to writing program notes for the ISO?
“Many people ask this. But it will be depend on the era. But usually 90% of the time, I go online to Petrucci Music Library and look at a score. Then listen to it on YouTube and follow it with a score. I don’t write a thing. Then I listen to what strikes me. Then I always believe that contextualizing a piece of music is one way to make a bridge to the audience. Contextualizing is putting it in the context of the works of that composer, in the context of the times ——what was happening? Was the composer upset? Was he sad? What was the atmosphere and when this was composed? Then make some remarks about how is it different from the standards of the day or within the works themselves.
“Then the thing to use is to always go to primary sources. You find letters and reviews of the times. The more primary sources you can go to, the more informed you’re going to be. But you think to yourself — what is notable? And what does it sound like to you? I think one of the other important things is to create your own voice. If you just go around reading other people’s notes you won’t develop your own voice. Sometimes, for example, with very modern composers, it’s a very different sort of approach, because, first of all, if it is a living composer, I’ll call them up and talk to them. Like William Brittelle, co-director of New Amsterdam Records. He had a piece that was premiered here last season.”
You called and interviewed him?
“Yes. Sure. You do this all the time. You’ll call their agent and you’ll make a phone appointment. Usually they are very receptive because you are going to be the one that sells their piece. And so they are going to be very nice to you. Usually they’ll call you back. William was a little bit late getting back to me so I called his mother(laughs). I found her working at an art shop in North Carolina and he lives in NYC. It was very funny. She said ‘What, Billy did not get back to you?’ I was calling him Mr. Brittelle. He was on the phone in a half an hour. There was a cellist here I talked to backstage that had a new work for cello who said, ‘Are you going to call my mother?’ (laughs). ‘We heard about you.’ Since then, Billy Brittelle and I have become fast friends. We went out drinking that night after his premier last season. It was a really funny experience. We joked about it and I write to his mother now from time to time. You never know what is going to happen.”
Because taste in music can be so subjective, were you insecure in the beginning about stating your opinions?
“Very much. I look back at my early program notes. I was so cautious. It’s not that I am not cautious now. I am meticulous about scholarship and notation and certainly about quotes and where they’re from. So scholarship is there in the most old fashioned way.”
Your notes are not bogged down with jargon and are easy to follow. Does that come natural to you?
“No. In writing the notes, I read them out loud to my cats actually,(laughs), which is a very good way to find all your mistakes in English. I work very hard to cleanse them of a lot of musical terms because it’s not the way I would state to Maestro Urbanski, or to Maestro Leppard, or to my music friends about a piece, but I am never talking down to anyone. I am pulling them into my world. I’m trying to attract them to it and if I build a bridge via the English language this is just going to work. I don’t need to impress anybody with fancy words because it never, never, never works — ever. This is about communication.”
What kind of feedback have you received over the years?
“I’ve always received good feedback. In fact there was a letter that came to me the other day from a man in Remington, Ind. I have it upstairs and they sent it from the symphony and it said, ‘What I’m going to miss from the symphony is reading your notes.’ So I’ve written him back. Generally people like them.”
Have you ever had anyone tell you that they keep the ISO programs with your notes for reference purposes?
“Yes. I know they use them in Butler. In a program note class Lisa Brooks (Dr. Brooks is professor of violin) has used them. Different people use them in their teaching materials. And down at Indiana University they use them for different things in the music department. I am involved in writing my fifth book now for Indiana University. One of the things they’ve liked about what I’ve done and it goes back to ‘Opera for all Seasons.’ They like the way I use the English language, I guess. My vocabulary.”
How is it that you and the ISO found each other?
“I moved back to Indianapolis on June 30, 1986. I called up the Symphony. I think it was September and I talked to Mike Runyon (ISO librarian). I said, ‘I’m here and is there anything at the ISO? I want to get involved’. And when he heard about my background and said, ‘O.K. What do you know about the ‘Missa Solemnis?’ I said, ‘Well, let me think on it,’ (laughs) and he said, ‘Well that’s fine. I want you to come down and give a talk on Thursday and then a week from that I want you to talk about the “Greek Piano Concerto.”’ I had played with the symphony here when I was 12 years old under Fabien Savitsky. So I said, ‘Mike, the last time I played it was with the ISO in 1952,’ (laughs). Anyway, I went down and we just hit it off and the rest is history. It’s been very exciting. I have been very, very fortunate in the way that the symphony has taken me in and it’s my emotional and social home. It’s everything.”
It must have been very difficult for you during last year’s strike?
“It was terrible. It was one of the most convulsive periods of my life. I don’t want to have to live through something like that again. I think we are on very stable footing now. We just had some really good board meetings and things have straightened out. There was the sudden demise of Simon Crookall, the walk out, and then the lock out. It was just ghastly but we managed. The ship is moving ahead now. It’s going to be fine.”
Tell me about your own music performances.
“I play a lot with Dinah Montgomery. I have an upcoming concert with Sylvia Scott. She’s a pianist with the orchestra. Usually these things are benefits for the ISO so as Raymond always says ‘We sell ourselves.’ So Raymond and I are going to be doing a concert here (her home) in which people are paying ridiculous amounts of money but it seems to sell. We are also doing a benefit for Dance Kaleidoscope on Dec. 7th at Shrott Auditorium at Butler. There are lots of things like that that work out during the year.”
It sounds like you are constantly rehearsing?
“Well, there are four stacks of music over there on the top of the piano. Each one is a different concert.”
Would you say you are a working musician?
“Yes. I think there is something you need to know. I am a paid employee of the Symphony. I am a member of the musicians union and people always seem surprised by that but it’s the way it is and has always been. Some people say, ‘oh, you are just going to give it away,’ but no — actually not. One of the wonderful things about the ISO is that on one side I am on the board and I’m a donor and on the other side I’m with the musicians and I am an employee.”
Do some people perceive your dual-involvement with the ISO, a conflict?
“Yes. Bob Jones did and at one point when he was the CEO and he said, ‘You are going to have to choose,’ and I said, ‘I’m with the musicians so I will resign from the board right now.’ So I did. I was off the board for about a year and a half and then they decided they’d have me back. And if you ask the musicians — a lot of them feel that I am their link to the board and maybe a spokesmen for them. I see that as what I bring to the board — a perspective that people who aren’t living as musicians have. I do think I am the skunk at the lawn party, however. I have very much been an abstainer on a lot of the most controversial issues and voted no on others. Also, there was one thing I was supposed to do and it involved crossing the picket line of my musician friends and I refused to do that. I think it was very clear about where I stood.”
So you do regular performances for the ISO that are fundraisers?
“Yes, I love to have people here in my home. As you can see, there are two pianos. We have a lot of fun playing them. They go out back in the garden. We have a lovely dinner. It’s always fun. They’re good fundraisers and we have a nice time here.”
What is your take on the state of the performing arts in Indy?
“Well, they are better than they used to be but we have followed the general downdraft of our country's culture and that of Europe, and South and Central America. It’s no different, I believe. Let’s talk about two performing arts organizations — Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. One I am pretty new to and that is Dance Kaleidoscope whose board I recently joined. I have admired what David Hochoy has done — his discipline, talent and the way he has made DK so accessible to schools and in concerts and touring so he has reached out in this city. He has also kept a very sane budget so he has had a lot of discipline.
“Then there is the Symphony which is a much bigger operation. Not only are there the classical and pops series but also Yuletide and those at Connor Prairie. We are out in the community and doing lots of things for free everywhere — at schools, at parks and so forth. And another way the ISO is massively moving ahead in its outreach to the community is having extraordinary ‘Happy Hour Concerts,’ which are always successful. Very down to earth concerts, to which people come and meet each other, have drinks and free food and they hear a nice concert for about 15 bucks.”
As far as outreach, you recently made a gift to Wishard Hospital? What is your interest there?
“A few years ago, my son, Jim Ullyot, who is going to be 45, nearly died. He is a lead developer for Interactive Intelligence. He had been taken to a level one trauma center in Florida. It was that kind of a place, like Wishard, that saved him. I realized the unique status of a level one trauma center as opposed to a regular hospital and that we need one here. Also, Wishard serves so many of us — all different types of people in Indianapolis and we have extraordinary high quality of care and I feel I want to do something for a level one care center like the one which saved.”
What was your gift?
“I am underwriting a special music project for Wishard. They’ve never had one. They think this is going to be the first real music program in a public hospital in the United States. I just bought them a Yamaha piano the other day which is going to go out there. I worked up the program with Dr. Lisa Harris and Ernie Vargo, head of development at the Eskenazi Health Foundation. This is going to be reaching new audiences. In the beginning it will take place once a month and it will be of a classical nature and it will be beamed into patient’s rooms so it will be like bringing a concert to them. It will be free so that people who are in the hospital can stop in and hear or people can hear it in their rooms. People who go to Wishard probably don’t go the symphony a lot so I’m going to bring classical music there. I am going to lead off and give the first concert.”
Tell me about your family.
“I have two children. Besides Jim, I have a daughter, Dr. Kathryn Hundley, a professor of Spanish at the University of Chicago laboratory schools. I have ten grandchildren: five blood and five honorary Tobias grandchildren —ages 19-5 years old and they are all fantastic.”
Since you are a donor to feline research at Purdue University and volunteer at the Cat Care Clinic you also obviously love cats too, right?
“Yes, I have two rescue kitties. Patches is a 4-year-old dilute calico and Isabel is a 3-year-old shiny black kitty with emerald green eyes.”
What is your purpose?
“I have never ansered that. I’m still working it out. I just want to be as good as I can be to everyone I meet so that when I leave I will feel I’ve left something good behind, Something good.”
Sounds like your legacy may be good things you’ve done for music and cats?
“I’m still working on that (laughs). I think about it. Especially now at age 73. Things change.”
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