Southwest Florida music lovers are so fortunate that Reiko Niiya’s childhood plans to become a flight attendant never took off.
“Both of my parents played piano, and both came from quite musical families. Two aunts were concert pianists and one was a professional violinist. In my family, all girls were expected to play either piano or violin.”
When Reiko’s mother, a pianist and piano teacher, placed the instrument in her daughter’s hands, she had a vision. Reiko would study violin, go to all the best music schools, then move from her native Japan and become a violinist in America. And that’s exactly what happened.
Our illustrious and glamorous Concertmaster landed the SWFLSO job in 1982 after growing up in Tokyo, securing her Artist Diploma degree with the legendary Franco Gulli at Indiana University, and after a brief layover for her first orchestra job in Venezuela.
After touching down in Fort Myers, “people were so nice that I really wanted to stay. It was at a really early stage of my life here in Fort Myers that I knew I was going to be with this orchestra for a long, long, long time. I knew I would be with this symphony while it grew up.”
She performs on a wonderful 227-year-old Vincenzo Panormo violin from 1793! “I’ve had it since I was 16. It’s almost like a part of my body, like a baby,” says Reiko fondly.
Reiko has occupied the respected concertmaster position now for 38 seasons, and has become an iconic and beloved part of attending a Southwest Florida Symphony performance for her many fans. Says Roger Williams in a 2016 Florida Weekly article, “A celebrated concertmaster of long experience, Ms. Niiya is the model of disciplined, passionate, prepared play.” Reiko, occupying the Jane King Chair this season, describes her position. “ I think the concertmaster has to be the best example for every aspect of the orchestra.”
Berklee.edu further defines it as “simultaneously the most skilled and knowledgeable violinist of the orchestra while also the chief intermediary between the musicians
and the conductor
, the concertmaster is responsible for dictating bowings to the first violin section; playing solo passages in the absence of a guest soloist
; understanding the conductor’s ideas and communicating them in technical terms to the rest of the orchestra; leading the orchestra in tuning before rehearsals and performances; and assisting with aspects of the orchestra’s management.”
“While conductors may come and go—with differing styles and approaches—the concertmaster provides the orchestra with consistent and technically oriented leadership.”
Conductor Nir Kabaretti adds, “The same notes will sound differently when the orchestra uses different bowing, or people play on different parts of a bow. Sometimes the same tune can be played on different strings, and the color — the sound — is different.”
Making decisions and interpretations such as these and communicating them and Mr. Kabaretti’s other preferences to the entire orchestra is a big part of Reiko’s role as Concertmaster.
Reiko has performed with artists such as Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, Sarah Brightman and Aretha Franklin but enjoys a full life offstage also.
“My husband became one of my students. He had taken violin when he was a child, and wanted to see if he could learn to play again. I’m glad he did!” Besides enjoying her husband, grown sons and grandchildren, Reiko offers a highly successful teaching studio and was active with the Youth Orchestra for many years, sending many southwest Florida students into musical careers themselves.
One of her missions is to get more young people interested in classical music. And, she loves being talented and creative in the kitchen also! We are proud that Reiko was selected by WGCU Public Media to be featured in this 2013 interview, “Makers: Women Who Make Southwest Florida.”
A beloved part of our orchestra for the past 38 years, enjoy Reiko’s story here, and look forward to the opportunity to admire her poise, passion, and prowess again on the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra stage when our 60th Anniversary Season unfolds!