A day in the
Ellen Sanders greets me with what I soon discover is her trademark grin. Sheís quite a figure. Athletic and strong, her wild hair frizzes out on all sides. Sheís been rehearsing.
"The cello is the human voice," she announces. On the floor of Page Kluneís guestroom in Warm Springs lays Sandersí voice; a cello, made in Cremona, Italy, by American luthier Francis Kuttner. Up close, it looks like an underdeveloped bass, almost cute, like its owner.
"I have small hands," says Ellen, showing them to me for verification. This is ironic, because personality-wise, the 39-year-old lives large. There are simply not enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things she wants to do. Ellen Sanders is a whirlwind.
Itís early August, and Ellen is taking a rare couple of hours off from her busy schedule to talk with me.
This is Ellenís 13th season playing cello with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, and she has grown to love it here. "I know a lot of people," says Sanders. "Iíve attended church services at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood since 1993. Itís a beautiful community of people."
She has developed something of a routine during her time here. The first week, while sheís teaching music students with the Sun Valley Symphony Music Conservatory, she runs in the morning, "popping out of bed each day at 7 a.m.," before heading to Hemingway Elementary.
Other than playing the cello, teaching is her passion. "By the end of the year I will have taught approximately 12,000 first- and second-graders through the San Francisco Symphony Education Department.
"I play with a trio for 30 minutes, with two-minute excerpts of various music. Iím deep into that. They know itís hard to find a musician whoís a morning person. They have a goldmine in me. I show up, and Iím not cranky."
She admits, however, that it can be a struggle. "It is tiring to do the morning shift, then rehearse, then the concert. But the kids are so great."
However, when sheís not teaching, her early morning schedule has its benefits. "Iím up in the mountains at 7:30 a.m. I saw the paragliders taking off today. Then Iím back for the 10:30 a.m. practice; rehearsal at 3:30 p.m. and concert at 6:30 p.m."
Sanders tackles everything she does with a similar gusto. "If I wasnít a cellist, Iíd be a librarian." This statement, coming from this outspoken free spirit, is a surprise and she knows it. She throws her head back and roars with laughter. "I can rattle off Dewey Decimals: Opera M1001, Sonatas: M452. Those are from Oberlin. I did that as a work study for four years. Iím curious about a lot of things. I can always teach. Teaching has always informed my playing. I can connect with kids because Iím a perennial nine-year-old."
Itís easy to imagine Ellen as a nine-year-old tomboy, bow in hand, struggling with her practice but loving every minute of it. "The cello is not easy. But I always needed something challenging. Three decades of being challenged by the cello and Iím still curious."
Since 1992, the California native has traveled to Sun Valley to play with the symphony. Sheís seen changes in administration and leaders, and the steady growth of the largest privately funded, free symphony in the United States. Founded in 1985 as the Elkhorn Music Festival, the symphony has grown from 22 musicians to the more than 100 players who participate today. "This symphony is a blockbuster," Ellen says. "Itís amazing. Weíre so lucky this community wants to steward this idea."
She enjoys the personal as well as professional aspects, too. "I get to see friends here I donít get to see all year. These are really high-caliber musicians. The St. Louis group is so fun. Iím especially fond of them. And, I know who my boss is here. The board members," she laughs. "Alaisdar Neale (the symphonyís director) is a benevolent dictator. Heís authentic. He wants to be a good guy and guide us through the journey. Thatís why we all adore him."
Ellen is a 1989 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, home of a renowned music conservatory. In 1992, she graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory and was immediately invited to play for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony. "I havenít missed a year yet. Woohoo! Itís been a good run."
She is also principal cello with the Santa Cruz County Symphony, a member of Opera San Jose, San Jose Chamber Orchestra, a substitute for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and for the past five years has played two weeks at the Mendocino Music Festival. Between Sun Valley and Mendocino, she says, sheís spoiled for four weeks out of every year. "I love to play in Santa Cruz, as I get to surf with my husband. Some people think I have a phantom husband!" In fact, sheís been married for seven years to George Doxtator, "a contractor who I liked and got married to, in the house where we met."
Sun Valley holds a special place in Ellenís heart. "Itís so wonderful. I donít live like this when I go home. Five years ago, I felt like I hit a tipping point of interaction. It got to the point where I wanted to retreat. I just wanted to be anonymous. The feeling lasted two days," she says with a laugh. "Wait, I thought. These are my two weeks to just soak it up, especially the musicians who Iíve known for so long. There are people in the San Francisco orchestra I only see when I come to Sun Valley."
Whenever possible, she spends time hiking with friends on such far-flung trails as Shangri-La, Goat, Norton and Alice lakes, Pioneer Cabin and Trail Creek. "Sometimes I grab a nosh in town with friends; we do a lot of socializing."
Ellen considers herself a typical San Diego kid. She grew up with a pool in her backyard and the beach down the street. "My nickname is Fish." As we sit on a deck in Warm Springs, the afternoon air is warm. The mountainous backdrop is green and inviting. "I am acclimated to the ocean. I love water. I was always in the water doing something. But, I had to choose between swimming and cello. When I was young I heard (cellist Mstislav) Rostropovich. I said, ĎIíll do that.í My mother raised three kids alone. My sister, who plays viola, and I are both professional musicians."
Later in the day, Sanders wanders, or more precisely, hunts her way through the booths at the Sun Valley Center Arts & Crafts Festival, before reporting to the symphony tent for rehearsal. She eyes jewelry and pottery, finally settling for a few moments at the booth of leather goods maker Zalud. She picks up a wrist cuff, telling the proprietors she uses her hands a lot in her line of work and needs something loose.
She admits to having recently acquired a taste for opera, especially since operas often feature the cello. "The cello is matched to voices." Thatís one reason she likes the instrument. The other? "I sit in a pit ícause then I donít have to match my socks." But donít mistake her for a wallflower. This is no prim classical musician. "I want to reach across the cultural lives to kids who would otherwise be lost. Music brings light.
"In 1984, I was with the San Diego Youth Symphony. I was 17 and went to Yugoslavia, Belgium, Bosnia and Israel. The people loved us. They would come up to me and ask, ĎAre you Lebanese? Are you Syrian?í I loved my time spent in those cultures. Between the arts, food and wine, the world should just come together. I appreciate what I have in the U.S. I love this country. I became an officeróthe vice presidentóin the local 153 Musicians Union in San Jose. I take care of my brothers, and we take care of each other."
As we browse booths at the Sun Valley Arts & Crafts Festival before her eveningís concert, chatting and trying things on, Sanders greets more people than I do; impressive, as Iíve lived here year-round for 14 years. Kristy Pigeon, director of Sagebrush Equine Center for the Handicapped, knows her. She greets the "great" Tim Spears from Alameda, California, of the "bass bunch," with whom she plays volleyball. "The cello is a baby bass," she explains. "We all love each other up here, and we find ways to get together."
Soon, some of her young students spy her. Finally, she is still for a moment, settled on the grass to listen as folk musicians Carrie Rodriguez and Chip Taylor play at the afternoon arts festival. Friends come by, hailing greetings. Introductions are made and our group quickly enlarges. Her phone rings. Gesticulating wildly and talking at breakneck speed, she carries on a dozen conversations at once. People around are soon glancing our way. Why is this crazy-haired woman talking during the music? Little do they know that, in a few hours, they will be listening to her in awe.
The 2007 summer symphony season begins with the Edgar M. Bronfman Chamber Series, July 22-26. The concert season begins July 29 with performances most nights through Aug. 13. All concerts are free and begin at 6:30 p.m. on the Sun Valley Lodge Esplanade. Visit svsummersymphony.org for the complete schedule.