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Throughout her career, Judy Geist has performed in recital and with leading ensembles. Her list of credits is an indication of her versatility in a vast musical network. She joined The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1983 under the baton of Riccardo Muti. Her arrival marked a milestone in the Orchestra’s history when she became the first woman to chair in the viola section since the ensemble was formed in 1900. In 1992 she attained the position of fourth chair and later served as acting assistant principal under Music Director Christoph Eschenbach.
A native of Long Island, Ms. Geist began playing the violin at age seven, inspired by the musicianship and beautiful sound of Zino Francescatti performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her first teacher was Elizabeth Birnbaum; she continued studying violin and viola with Lilo Kantorowicz Glick. Ms. Geist attended the Curtis Institute of Music from 1969 to 1974 as a student of Joseph dePasquale and was coached by members of the Guarneri, Budapest, and Hungarian string quartets. She played orchestral music under Eugene Ormandy, William Smith, and guest conductors of The Philadelphia Orchestra, including Riccardo Muti for his Orchestra debut. During a summer break in 1970 she was soloist in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with violinist Gerard Elias on a European tour with the Long Island Youth Orchestra.
After graduating from Curtis Ms. Geist joined the Audubon Quartet in 1975. Based in Binghamton, New York, and in residence at Marywood College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, she attained a master’s degree at S.U.N.Y. in Binghamton. She appeared as a guest artist with the Lenox Quartet, which led the school’s unique string quartet program. She then became principal viola with the National Ballet of Canada, touring throughout that country and the United States performing solos that accompanied dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Karin Kain. Performances included extended engagements at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. In 1977 Ms. Geist settled in New York City, where she continued serving as principal viola with other international dance troupes. She performed seasonal runs with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and played with American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center.
Ms. Geist was principal viola of the Philharmonia Virtuosi and the Soviet Émigré Orchestra. She recorded and premiered works with Parnassus, the Philadelphia Composers Forum, the American Composers Orchestra, Orchestra of Our Time, the Composers Conference in Vermont, and in the International Women’s Arts Festival in New York. She performed frequently with Orpheus and with the New York Philharmonic. She presented recitals at Merkin Concert Hall, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and later at the Ethical Society and the Curtis Institute of Music with pianist Hugh Sung. She performed in the Music Project, as a frequent guest of the American Chamber Ensemble, and participated in festivals including Mostly Mozart, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Madeira Bach Festival in Portugal, and the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1978 she performed with Chick Corea on an 11-week world tour in his 13-piece band. Ms.Geist also played principal viola in a small chamber orchestra that was contracted to film Aaron Copland conduct his music.
Ms. Geist played in such Broadway musicals as A Little Night Music, On the 20th Century, and Sweeny Todd. She was exposed to the American theater process by working with Comden and Green; directors Hal Prince and Eva Le Gallienne; composers Stephen Sondheim, Cy Green, and Charles Strouse; conductor Paul Gemignani; and actors including Kate Burton, Madeline Kahn, Kevin Klein, Imogene Coca, Carol Channing, Jean Simmons, and many others. She also played on commercials, films, recordings, and TV.
After relocating to Philadelphia, Ms. Geist performed with the Network for New Music. She premiered Philip Maneval’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Libby Larsen’s chamber piece In the Light, and Bernard Rand’s Concertino, composed for Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Oboe Richard Woodhams. In 2001 composer and teacher Janice Giteck invited Ms. Geist to be a guest resident at Cornish College in Seattle, and to introduce the viola to composing students and perform their work in recital. She also commissioned and premiered a piece by composer Hannibal Lokumbe, When the Peace Comes, for solo viola and spoken word. In the Philadelphia Orchestra Chamber Music Series, she has collaborated with Chantal Juillet, Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Jean Yves Thibaudet, Christoph Eschenbach, the Society Hill String Quintet, and members of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
After the release of the documentary Music from the Inside Out in 2005, Ms. Geist was invited by violinist Michael Nutt to present a chamber music concert at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA) on their Double Feature Series. Ms. Geist and musicians Paul Arnold, Kathryn Picht Read, Don Liuzzi, Adam Unsworth, and guest pianist Natalie Zhu performed a variety of pieces. In another Double Feature Series concert at WICA, paired with the film Amadeus, she appeared with violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn in the Adagio from Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante with the Saratoga Chamber Orchestra. With support from local residents, Ms. Geist formed EnSemBle M, a chamber music consortium, and presented a series of concerts for Island audiences in homes and public venues. In 2009 EnSemBle M performed its first series, Boccherini and Beyond, at the Clyde Theatre in Langley, Washington. In 2010 she reunited with Curtis alumni violinists Lucy Chapman, Carol Cole, and cellist Judith Serkin to perform string quartet programs on the Island.
In May 2012 EnSemBle M premiered at the William Way Community Center (WWCC) in Philadelphia; the group included Ms. Geist and Philadelphia Orchestra members Ricardo Morales and Amy Oshiro-Morales, and the Cole Duo from the Conservatory of Music at Lynn University. The event was called Art and Androgyny and the concert was paired with a slideshow of photos. During The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Tour to China in May 2012, Ms. Geist performed string quartets at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with Orchestra colleagues, and at the Ullens Contemporary Art Museum in a program collaborating with artist Yun-Fei Ji. In January 2013 she performed a recital with pianist Chin-Yun Hu at WWCC performing music by Jennifer Higdon, including her Sonata for Viola and Piano.
Ms. Geist is also a visual artist whose work has appeared in galleries and publications and is among private collections. She is known for pairing concerts and exhibitions with common themes to enhance people’s appreciation of musical and visual art.
Photo: Jessica Griffin