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Choir 'demo' launched career

Violinist now has 6 CDs to her credit; latest is 'Best'

Jenny Oaks Baker is part of the National Symphony's first violin section as well as a solo artist.
Jenny Oaks Baker is part of the National Symphony's first violin section as well as a solo artist.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

A casual comment set violinist Jenny Oaks Baker on the road to her recording career.

Back when Baker was a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, she was asked to perform an arrangement done by Lex de Azevedo of "Lead Kindly Light" with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Just before that, however, she was performing with Ballet West. There she happened to meet Kenny Hodges, who was producing CDs for Deseret Book. "I told him, 'Oh, I've always wanted to make a CD.'

"But it was just like, 'I've always wanted to go to Europe,' or 'I've always wanted to have a limo driver.' It was a fantasy, not something I thought I'd really do. But he said, 'OK, send me a demo.' I was really busy, so I told him to just watch the choir broadcast."

It's not everyone who gets to use the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a demo tape, "but that was what started it all." Now, nine years later, Baker has six CDs to her credit, her most recent being a collection of "greatest hits." Luck may have played a part in her first recording, but talent has kept her going.

Baker began playing the violin when she was 4. She attended a Mormon Youth Symphony concert where her older brother was playing the French horn, and she was so fascinated with the young violinists that her mother asked her if she would like to play the violin. "Mom was able to get me hooked up with Hiroko Primrose, who was the one that really got the Suzuki method off the ground here, and I started studying with her. Of course, I also did piano, dance, tennis, gymnastics and all the other things kids do, but one by one, I chose violin over them all."

She clearly had talent, "but my goal was only to develop my talents and reach my potential." It was not until she got her violin — a 1795 Vincenzo Panorino — that "I knew I was truly committed to being a violinist."

Baker attended the Curtis Institute and then received a master's degree from Juilliard. "My favorite thing about Juilliard is that was when I met my husband, Matthew."

She currently is part of the first violin section with the National Symphony, based at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and has soloed with orchestras throughout the world, including the Jerusalem Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, and was a featured artist at Carnegie Hall.

The Bakers are the parents of three daughters, Laura June, 4; Hannah Jean, 2; and Sarah Noelle, 8 months.

Having three children "definitely makes it harder to balance everything, but my family is very supportive." Plus, she says, "I grew up learning to work hard. In high school, I practiced four hours a day. In college, it was six to 10 hours a day. So, I've put in my time, and I've learned to accomplish more in less time."

Being able to "perform with world-class musicians and world-class guest artists on a daily basis is very rewarding," she says. "And, yet, I'm still able to be home most of the time with my family."

She has also enjoyed her visits back home in Utah, including a recent stop. "My music life in Washington is very different than my music life here. There, I'm part of the orchestra; here, I'm a solo artist. I enjoy both."

Baker also appreciates the variety of music she is able to play. Her latest CD, "The Best of Jenny Oaks Baker," includes everything from classical pieces to hymns and folk songs. There is one new recording in the collection, a version of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," arranged by Kurt Bestor.

Her favorite songs on the album are "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "Jesus Once Was a Little Child," which were arranged by Bestor and Greg Hansen, respectively. "I've been able to work with some of the best musicians around. The people here are amazing. It's a great tribute to our culture in Utah."

The best part about playing the violin, she says, is being able to "feel what the music expresses. There are so many emotions — the passion of Tchaikovsky, the reverence of hymns, the fun and exuberance of Copland.

"One of the most wonderful things about being human is that we can feel. Music — the best music — can help us feel. It can uplift. It can edify. It's very powerful."