A musician’s life can be filled with creativity and adventure, but it also involves long hours of rehearsal, performing and, for some, a good deal of traveling. Executive Director for IRIS Orchestra Marcia Kaufmann says, “You often go where the jobs take you.” This is quite true for her. Marcia grew up in Northwestern Ohio yet decided to spread her wings and head to New York City to study violin at the Manhattan School of Music. Degree in hand, she began traveling with a string quartet with performances everywhere from Louisiana to Arizona and Mexico to Russia. Her travels then continued to Washington State, where she founded and operated the Icicle Creek Chamber Music Institute, then to Colorado, where she was executive director of the Breckenridge Music Festival, and then to Oregon, where she was executive director of Portland Baroque Orchestra. Two years ago, an opportunity arose through a friend, which brought her to the Bluff City. We are delighted to introduce this week’s FACE of Memphis, Marcia Kaufmann.

"Music gets you back to the things that matter. Music reminds you of the things that make you happy and the things you love. It can also touch your deep sorrows and your grief, and it has a message for you that gets you back in touch with yourself," says Marcia Kaufmann, Executive Director of IRIS Orchestra and today's FACE of Memphis.

Marcia Kaufmann, Executive Director of IRIS Orchestra and today’s FACE of Memphis

Give us some background on the IRIS Orchestra.

This is the orchestra’s 19th season, and we’re approaching our 20th anniversary. It started when the city of Germantown built its new performing arts center, the Germantown Performing Arts Center, GPAC, which is our home base, and the gentleman running it had a grand vision of having an orchestra here.

Our conductor Michael Stern, the son of violinist Isaac Stern, is known internationally and is the music director of the Kansas City Symphony. He got together with the director of GPAC and eventually put together a concert featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It was such a great event and people loved it, and they wondered why we couldn’t have an orchestra here. It’s been a labor of love to keep great music happening here.

How did you become involved with the orchestra?

Well, music is like an international brotherhood, almost. Some friends were musicians who did concerts for us at the Breckenridge Music Festival. David DePeters is a percussionist I met there, and he was the executive director for IRIS before I took over the position. He needed a development director. He had spent quite some time with the IRIS position and was transitioning to something else. I had never been to Memphis, and he said, “What would you think about joining IRIS?” I visited in the summer when it was hot and humid, but that didn’t dissuade me, so we came to Memphis.

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What does your position entail?

We’re a small arts organization, and so everybody needs to be, hopefully, multi-talented, but also exercise a lot of skills. I work with the board of directors to direct the business side of the organization. I work with the music director and conductor on the artistic side of what we’re doing. I work with our education director for developing our outreach and education programs around town. I write the grants, do some of the bookkeeping and work on the financial side of the operation.

“My piano teacher used to say, ‘Math is fine, but music is better for training your brain.’ Music teaches you so many life lessons, as well as skills,” says Marcia.

“My piano teacher used to say, ‘Math is fine, but music is better for training your brain.’ Music teaches you so many life lessons, as well as skills,” says Marcia.

How many members are in the orchestra?

Our orchestra is kind of unusual in that we have a roster of performers who don’t necessarily live in the Memphis area. At the end of our season, we begin preparing for the next season and send out a letter to our entire roster of musicians letting them know the dates of next year’s concerts and ask them about their availability. Our musicians live all over the country, and they work with other entities. We are just one part of their music portfolio. We have a whole spreadsheet of who’s available when and what instruments we need for the programming, and so each concert we have a different set of personalities. A lot of them have played together in our orchestra or other orchestras, but our combination is always different. Our roster is about 180, but on stage, we have about 40 to 50 performing.

What is it like bringing in different musicians throughout the season?

The freshness of it is excellent. I think one of the pitfalls of professional music can be, and often is, in a standard orchestra situation, that there’s not enough change, and you’re working with the same colleagues and restrictions, and it’s hard not to get jaded about something you do love. The nitty-gritty of putting on a concert can get to you. In this situation, everyone arrives just delighted to see everybody, the rehearsals are an enjoyment, and there’s the pleasure of sharing. There’s a delight in music-making. This is a break from their home patterns, and they focus on the music.

Do you still play violin?

I don’t. At one point, I developed some osteoarthritis in my hand, but there are other ways to keep music in people’s lives, so that’s what I’m doing now.

What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

I listen to classical because I love it. I start my day with Mozart, then I will perhaps go to world music, like African. It’s really interesting to me. I like jazz quite a bit. There are so many things that are similar and different in jazz from classical, and the whole idea of people being able to improvise is astounding to me, so I love to listen to jazz.

“Memphis is such different place than I’ve ever lived. It’s fascinating getting to know it,” says Marcia. “I’m really excited about the level of commitment Memphians have towards their city. So many good things are happening here, and it’s really fun that music can be part of that.”

“I’m really excited about the level of commitment Memphians have towards their city. So many good things are happening here, and it’s really fun that music can be part of that,” says Marcia.

If you could have a different career, what would it be?

I would like to start writing fiction. I love reading, and I love the way reading transports you and gives you new ideas. To be able to create those worlds in fiction would be a lot of fun.

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What local places do you like to visit?

Shelby Farms Greenline is a fabulous place for running or biking or walking. Crosstown Concourse is another place I like to visit. I also need to get back to the National Civil Rights Museum.

What is your best piece of advice?

Stay open to new things — the stuff you didn’t plan on, the accidental discoveries or the detours that you get sent on. If you just stay open, life can be much more interesting.

Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.

Coffee, the great outdoors and a stack of good books

Thank you for sharing, Marcia! To learn more about IRIS Orchestra, visit irisorchestra.com.

And thank you to Mary Kate Steele of Mary Kate Steele Photography for these beautiful photos. 

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