Meet the Musician: Violist Elizabeth Pulju-Owen

Photography by Ning Fan

Where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family

I was born in Minnesota but grew up here in the DC area, in Fairfax, VA. My family is both musical and large. My mother is a pianist and church music director so we all played an instrument and sang in the church choir. We still like to sing together and often start singing whenever we have a family get together. "Happy Birthday " always has at least two harmony parts. I was never as good a singer as some of the others, though, so I guess I concentrated on my viola playing.

What is your position in the orchestra? When did you join?

I joined the orchestra as a member of the viola section in September of 1998. Prior to that I had been a member of the New Orleans Symphony and its successor orchestra-The Louisiana Philharmonic, for 8 years. I also played in the Alabama Symphony and Savannah Symphony for one season each.

What made you decide to play the viola (at first and professionally) and where did you do your musical studies?

I began on piano at age seven. Later, I wanted to play the drums in my elementary school band. However, my mother suggested that I play the violin instead as we already had one at home and didn't have the drum kit. To this day, I'm not sure if she really just didn't want to buy the drum kit, or didn't want to listen to me practice drums. I'm not sure beginning violin was much better. When I started high school, I made the decision to switch to viola. I found that I preferred the darker, lower tone of the viola and also enjoyed the role that it plays in the orchestra. Even though we don't get much glory, I like being in the middle of things. I can really be aware of all the other parts around me, and I enjoy fitting my sound into the mix. I wasn't sure at first if I wanted to pursue music as a career, so I started college as a double major in Music and English at the Catholic University of America. It wasn't long before I started resenting the time my academic classes were taking away from my practice hours, and I decided that I needed to focus on music and find out if I had what it takes to succeed in this highly competitive field.

You are a member of a chamber group that plays for children. What kinds of performances do you do?

Get ready for a long answer because this is one of the things I am passionate about. I perform with the groups Dynamic Duo and Presto! Karen Lowry-Tucker, a KCOHO first violinist, and I have been performing children's shows as the Dynamic Duo for ten years or so. We use music and storytelling, complete with costumes and props, to engage children while teaching about the music and instruments of the string family. When my husband, cellist Drew Owen, began a second career as a magician, we knew that we had the makings of another great show and Presto! was born. In our Presto! shows, magic is added to the music and story to create a memorable experience for our audiences. While the focus of our programs is music, our stories also provide life lessons about things like cooperation and friendship. Most of all, we hope to inspire children to find their own creativity, something we all need in our lives. Bringing music to children who may have never seen or heard a string instrument up close is one of the most important things I do. I'm incredibly lucky that it's also one of the most fun things that I do! I get to write stories (something I've done since childhood), make costumes and props, and then act out the stories. In Dynamic Duo's "Karen Builds a Violin" for instance, I get to be a chipmunk, swan, cat, horse, duck, and Karen's Grandma all in the space of thirty minutes! 

Photography by Ning Fan

Photography by Ning Fan

Over the years, we have performed for thousands and thousands of kids throughout the DC area, primarily in DC Public Schools. We have been lucky to be a part of the National Symphony Orchestra's In School Ensemble program which sponsors the performances in DC and in Title I schools in Maryland and Virginia. Performing for children is so important and I love the fact that we are bringing music to them in a way that really enables them to connect with us and what we are teaching. So many of the children we play for have little opportunity to hear live music. They haven't learned to think classical music is "uncool" and are excited to hear our music and learn what we are teaching. And they remember it! We played at a school last year that we had visited several times over the years. While we were setting up, some 4th grade students came in to get ready for their band class. When they saw us, they remembered that they had seen us perform when they were in the 1st grade, then proceeded to tell us what the story had been and what instruments we played! It wasn't the first time something like that has happened; it's great to know that we're having an impact. 

Photography by Ning Fan

What has been your favorite musical experience at the Kennedy Center or elsewhere? 

How can I not start with The Ring Cycle? That was a tremendous musical experience and I am very proud to have been a part of it. Wagner's music is incredible and every aspect of the production was top notch. It's also the hardest thing I have ever played. It felt like my version of Mt Everest-keeping all that music in my head and in my fingers, keeping my focus for each performance, and meeting the physical demands of performances up to five hours long. I also remember my very first opera here, Fedora, with Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo. What a great way to start my new job!

Do you have any hobbies outside of the orchestra? 

I enjoy gardening, hiking and flying stunt kites, though not at the same time. I also try to work out regularly. Mostly, I seem to spend my time driving my teenaged daughter to all her activities. I really do enjoy that, though. It's our time to talk and catch up on what's going on in her life.

What are you most looking forward to this season?

I'm really looking forward to Don Carlo and also to Hamilton, which I'll play this summer. My daughter knows the entire thing by heart and is teaching me the lyrics.