Musicians find captive but thankful audience at prison

MONROE — Unfamiliar sounds — rich, precise and uplifting — filled the remodeled chapel at the Washington State Reformatory.

Soothing strains radiated around 70 inmates in their identical prison-issued garb.

Some closed their eyes, their expressions rapt. Others leaned forward, almost out of their seats, transfixed.

On stage, musicians from the Seattle Symphony also were lost in the moment. Their bodies gently swayed as bows sailed across strings. Their passion showed, even beneath the magnifying glass of corrections officers and security cameras trained on their audience. As one violinist joked, this was not the kind of captive audience they are used to.

“I don’t know what any of these people have done to end up in jail, but when I’m performing for them, I feel a kinship,” said Steve Bryant, a violinist with the Seattle Symphony.

Bryant was at the prison performing with the Seattle Symphony’s Community Connections program through a partnership with the Washington State Library.

“It’s a powerful experience to share this music — this great music, Beethoven, Mozart and all the others — with prisoners,” said Bryant. An hour-long workshop preceded the performance, pulling the offenders out of their chairs to sing, clap rhythms and improvise melodies.

“I especially like bringing music to people who don’t get it all the time,” said Amy Rubin, the composer, pianist and educator leading the workshop.

Atop a piano bench, getting a boost from a thick book borrowed from the prison chapel, Rubin’s slight frame belied the fearlessness and zeal she brought to her performance. Whether hammering out Gershwin on the piano or moving through the room bringing prisoners to their feet to sing a round or stomp a beat, Rubin engaged the gathering with determined energy.

“We are privileged to reach out to people who don’t normally get what we have to offer, and to bring that to them, and to make a difference,” said Rubin, who on a prior visit to the prison had performed a smaller workshop in a classroom.

This time, the addition of more musicians and a high level of interest among inmates meant more space was needed.

The best option was the prison chapel, a building closed for more than a year after corrections officer Jayme Biendl was killed by an inmate Jan. 29, 2011. Byron Scherf was convicted of murder in 2013 and is on death row.

On this evening three years later, the chapel brimmed with renewal and sonorous goodwill.

At the end of the performance the musicians fielded inmate questions ranging from “Is this your first time in a prison?” — a ‘yes’ for most of the symphony members — to “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?” That answer came musically in some fiery fiddling from Bryant’s violin. In short, the instrument is the same, only the execution is different.

Music is a powerful force in Bryant’s life, and he wants to use it to relate to others. “I could be in jail. I could have gotten caught doing something illegal or made a bad choice. I look at them as myself — you know, there isn’t so much difference.”

The evening was about making a connection between professional musicians and convicts serving time for many different crimes, including theft, assault and sex offenses.

“If you looked at their faces, they were illuminated, and they were entranced and delighted,” Rubin said.

He would get no argument from Lydia Katz, who has been locked up at the reformatory since January 2013 for a sex crime in King County.

“This has been a beautiful night. We don’t get a lot of solid music in here,” Katz said. “This is the first bit of live music I’ve been able to see in months. It’s the most music consecutively I’ve been able to hear in a year.”

As the quartet played a piece by Beethoven, Katz’s eyes closed as he traced the notes through the air with his hands. He knew the piece from recordings, but hearing it played live was different.

“It was truly a blessing,” he said.

Mark Mulligan: 425-339-3462, mmulligan@heraldnet.com

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