n the corner of Fifty-seventh Street and Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan, New York, two blocks south of Central Park, stands an elegant, red-brick building with architectural details in terra-cotta and brownstone.
On my desk lies a lopsided toy piano made of cheap plywood and stained an unnatural cherry hue. One of its legs is lost (hence its crooked stance), and when the lid opens it plays The Blue Danube
waltz. When the lid closes, the music stops.
Perhaps the story begins in that celebrated hall, opened in 1891 and named after Andrew Carnegie. Or with that decrepit music box. But in reality, the story probably starts with one of Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse’s late-night, out-of-the-blue telephone calls, her husky, unidentifiable accent crackling through the receiver. I was 15 years old, and a woman I did not know was beseeching me to move to another country without my family. She told me that I must join her. She told me that one day I would play in Carnegie Hall.
Those who knew Rittenhouse well are familiar with those midnight calls. She was notorious for rousing young musicians from sleep to ask them if they would come on her next tour to Siberia or South Africa, or if they could help her find a bassoon player for a Lincoln Center performance. She even once called me in the night to ask if “the baby had arrived.”
There are countless young musicians whose first contact with Rittenhouse was that urgent, melodic voice gushing across the wires. Pavel Tomenko was living in Stavropol, Russia, when Rittenhouse called. In total, five Tomenko siblings eventually relocated to the United States to join the orchestra, and two of them married musicians they met through Rittenhouse. When Rittenhouse called Jose Oviedo (a trumpet player who lived in Mexico City) to study at Washington Adventist University (WAU) on full scholarship, he thought that it was a prank call. Preston Hawes was living on a family farm in Saskatchewan when Rittenhouse asked him to travel to Russia as a violin soloist. Each musician has a similar story. Needless to say, I did move to Maryland at the age of 16 to join the New England Youth Ensemble (NEYE), playing violin and piano.
A Small Start
As she liked to tell audiences, Rittenhouse started the ensemble in 1969 with a group of five young “kids” in her living room in Sterling, Massachusetts. During a time period of more than 30 years she took her orchestra to more than 40 countries, including China, Poland, Russia, Iceland, and Thailand. Those who knew her are likely to speak of her in saintly terms: how she donated the ensemble’s offering money to AIDS orphans in Harare, Zimbabwe, or her untiring devotion to her students (once she told me that she couldn’t play in Carnegie Hall because she had to drive six hours to listen to one of her protégé’s recitals). But I remember too the oddly outlandish details of her personality—her insatiable love for adventure, whether it be four-wheeling through the African brush on a night safari or visiting some remote medieval fortress in Austria. I recall her truly unique method of conducting the orchestra, using her exquisite violin bow as a baton. Of course she was “saintly” when it came to giving concerts in the perilous regions of Soweto and Lesotho, but she was also saintly in the details: such as buying the entire orchestra tickets to visit Windsor Castle after a tiring performance, or once penning a note I found in my mailbox, written on a scrap of red paper: “You will play magnificently tonight. Always know that I love you.”
We who are not so upright in the banal spectrum of our everyday lives, those of us who toil away in office cubicles or are enmeshed in classrooms or hospital corridors—who can imagine going overseas but never eventually go there—can discern how extraordinary it is for a girl born in a minuscule town in Alberta, Canada, not simply to perform before presidents and queens, but to enable hundreds, maybe thousands, of young musicians the opportunity to travel to other countries and propagate her singularly unselfish mission to the world. The curious thing about the woman who took countless artists under her wing, at the same time catering to audiences of thousands, is how acknowledged and understood, how loved
, every musician who happened to cross paths with her was bound to feel. Hawes, who served as concertmaster of NEYE for many years and is their artistic director, said that Rittenhouse called everyone in the orchestra her “kids.” “Everything she did was out of love for us, love for the mission of the orchestra, love for God,” Hawes stated.
A Musical Experience
Not only was Rittenhouse a supremely gifted and giving human being—she also was a musical and organizational powerhouse who almost single-handedly arranged performances for NEYE in some of the most prestigious venues on the globe, and in a number of locations that have not conventionally hosted classical music concerts. The group has performed at Lincoln Center, Sydney Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and countless other concert halls, as well as more surprising places such as a safari lodge in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the ancient Jerash Amphitheater in Jordan, Bethlehem Square in Israel, and even a Finnish cruise ship that sailed through the fjords between Helsinki and Stockholm.
One of the experiences that Rittenhouse loved to recount took place in 1997, when the ensemble visited Russia and performed in SKK Arena, the largest roofed sports stadium in Europe. Jet-lagged and hungry, the orchestra stepped into the sports complex and were greeted by an eager audience of more than 15,000 people. “I had no idea what we were getting into,” Rittenhouse later said. “Hundreds of people swarmed us afterward, lining the stage with flowers.”
Six years after the fall of Communism I was not yet 20 years of age, and this Russia trip was one of my first visits out of North America. I was in awe of the petite and poised woman who piloted an entire orchestra of young people overseas. Though she was more than a half century my senior, I felt an affinity with her: we both played violin and piano; our birthdays were two days apart; we were both born in small towns in rural Canada; we both studied at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute (I took music lessons there while studying at WAU, then Columbia Union College; she was awarded the first Doctor of Music degree ever conferred by that conservatory). Yet I believe she made everyone she encountered feel an immediate and specific attachment to her no matter their background, just as she attained a unique empathy with audiences. She could read a crowd instantaneously, instinctively feel out what program would make the most indelible impression, what music would move them.
Born on October 15, 1922, in Lacombe, a tiny oiling town in central Alberta, Rittenhouse was imbued with a lifelong love of travel, probably in part because of her early years abroad and in Africa where her father, George E. Shankel, was president of South Africa’s Helderberg College. She would go on to teach at Walla Walla College and Atlantic Union College (AUC). After marrying Harvey Rittenhouse in 1950, they relocated to Jamaica, where Harvey practiced medicine and she taught music. They later returned to the New England area and AUC, where she started the NEYE.
International tours with NEYE were always a constant jumble of beautiful chaos and adrenaline. Ted Losey, who played violin and viola in the orchestra from 1992 to 2002, recalled an incident at Newbold College when some of the ensemble’s musical instruments had been inadvertently locked in a practice room. “Most people would have sent for someone with a key,” Losey said, “but the first words out of her mouth were ‘Can you break in?’ ” Rittenhouse possessed an invincible streak that could surpass even the exuberance of a young person a quarter her age. It is said that she would sometimes ask Dr. Harvey, her husband of more than 60 years, to drive the opposite direction on a roundabout because, she said, “It’s faster!”
Even John Rutter, the decorated English choral composer, was in awe of Rittenhouse’s indomitable spirit. “She had tireless energy. And dedication to music, to her students, and to her faith, which shone like a light.” In 1988 Rittenhouse joined forces with MidAmerica Productions, a company that brings choirs to New York City to perform in Carnegie Hall. For the past 10 years I assisted her in managing the Carnegie concerts, and saw her frequently in Manhattan, not to mention the many phone sessions we shared, often in the wee hours of the night. NEYE has performed hundreds of times at Carnegie, more often than any other orchestra in the world. This led to an ongoing collaboration with Rutter in subsequent concerts in Carnegie Hall.
Rachelle Berthelsen Davis, who was involved with NEYE for more than a decade as a concertmaster and teacher, noted that four of the nine major North American Division Adventist college orchestras are directed by musicians who played in Rittenhouse’s ensemble: Naomi Burns Delafield at Canadian University College, Hawes at WAU, Lori Redmer Minner at Southern Adventist University, and Davis, who is the Music Department chair at Pacific Union College. “She has certainly kept the voice of classical music strong and alive and inspired two generations of musicians to give back something of what she gave them, whether it was to their own children, or through their support and/or leadership of youth ensembles in their community.”
It is unquestionable that she defined the course of many artists—careers they chose, cities they eventually inhabited, even the people they married. But many musicians I spoke to were most grateful for what she shared with them: an irrepressible love of music. A quote Rittenhouse shared repeatedly at concerts and rehearsals was written by Johann Sebastian Bach: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
“The most beautiful thing about Dr. Rittenhouse was that she believed that the ability to perform such music itself was a gift from God,” said Wolfram Koessel, cellist of the world-renowned American String Quartet. “She prayed before every Carnegie concert. Even for the New York musicians who did not believe in God, it was moving to see.”
Amid the adulatory public narratives of other individuals who held her in the same love and esteem is the undeniable fact that a woman who changed the face of Adventist mission and education has passed her blazing energy to generations and generations of young people.
“She was fearless and brave, very smart, funny, and kind,” Rutter shared. “She expected plenty of those who worked with her, but never any more than she was prepared to give herself. I shall miss her terribly.”
On my desk that lopsided music box still somehow stands. The ballerina that used to dance inside the wooden piano is long lost, the veneer chipped and pale. Rittenhouse handed it to me as a wedding gift a few years ago. “Just a little something,” she said in her gravelly but exquisite voice. “Just a little thing,” she repeated before embracing me, waving her hand in front of her face in her distinctive way when she wanted to deflect attention from herself, never fully taking credit for her own magnanimous ways.
Almost everything about that miniature piano is broken—one leg snapped off, the spinning surface cracked, even the velvet inside ripped apart by tiny hands (my daughter plays with it now). It looks like it can never play another note. But when it is open, you can still hear its music. Even though Rittenhouse is gone, her music continues to beguile us. That gift that she imparted to the world.
Jennifer Mae Barizo is an award-winning writer and musician. She lives in New York City. This article was published December 8, 2011.