How leaving the National Symphony 12 years ago has blessed Jenny Oaks Baker and her musical family
The Bakers are among several artists preparing to play for President Nelson’s 95th birthday celebration.
SALT LAKE CITY — About 12 years ago, Jenny Oaks Baker performed in her final concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Then she walked alone to her car in the parking lot where she closed the door and began a good long cry.
The Grammy-nominated violinist and daughter of a senior leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had recently delivered her fourth child. With her newborn son came a spiritual prompting that it was time to shift her focus more to motherhood.
Baker wrestled with the decision. She loved performing with the National Symphony Orchestra and didn’t want to give up everything she had worked so hard for in her career. But ultimately, she knew what she had to do.
“I planned to store my violin under my bed and thought maybe once in a while somebody will invite me to play at church,” Baker said. “I had to be comfortable with that because that was my future.”
But Baker’s music career didn’t end that day. Not only did she receive many offers to play, but she glimpsed a new opportunity she had never before considered — the idea of developing her children’s musical talents and performing as a family.
More than a decade later, the Baker family has performed in several countries from Europe to Asia, producing a family album, and on Friday, Sept. 6, they will join other artists in playing at their largest venue yet — the 21,000-seat Conference Center — for the prophet’s 95th birthday celebration.
“I should have figured it out because that was my dream, to figure out how I could be a mother that was present and attentive and still be a concert violinist,” Baker said. “The Lord knows our lives and our potential. If we just try to do what’s right and work really hard, beautiful things can happen.”
Baker first picked up a violin at age 4. She made her solo orchestral debut at age 8 and went on to receive her Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Over the years, she has performed as a soloist in venues like Carnegie Hall, collaborated with other prominent artists like Gladys Knight and recorded 14 albums.
Baker’s parents, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the late Sister June Oaks, served as strong pillars of support as she was growing up. Her mother encouraged practice and preparation while her father supported her financially, emotionally and spiritually. Since her mother’s death in 1998, her father and his second wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, have arranged their busy schedules to continue to be there for Baker and her family.
“My parents made sure I understood my gift was from God and I had a responsibility to develop and share it,” Baker said. “My faith and my music have always gone hand in hand.”
Baker’s parents made it possible for her to obtain her prized Italian Panormo violin.
When Baker was in her early 20s, she had a “good violin” but not “one that could sing to the back of a concert hall and be heard over an orchestra.” A concert violinist can usually only dream of an instrument like that because of the enormous cost, she said.
While performing in Chicago, Baker’s teacher suggested she visit a Bein & Fushi dealer to play a Guarneri del Gesu violin, then valued at $6 million. She played the instrument and was obviously impressed. Just for fun, Baker asked if the dealer had something almost as great but far less expensive. She was presented with two high quality instruments, a French Vuillaume and an Italian Panormo. She played both but took an instant liking to the Panormo, even though she knew buying it was out of the question. Baker respectfully declined to reveal the price.
“I fell in love,” Baker said. “It’s kind of like the Harry Potter wand. The violin chooses you.”
The dealer let her take the Panormo for a “test-drive” for a few weeks and she showed it to her parents. They had contrasting reactions.
“My mother was like, ‘Oh, Jenny, it’s amazing,’” Baker said. “My father was like, ‘Are you kidding? Why do you have this violin we can’t afford?’”
Amid some tears, the violin was sent back. But the dealer didn’t give up. He called back saying he really wanted Baker to have the instrument before someone else bought it. The dealer offered the violin again at a slightly reduced price.
The opportunity was too good to pass up. Baker’s mother paid for half of the instrument using inheritance received from her parents. Baker covered the other half by withdrawing her life savings, including money earned from babysitting, playing weddings and recordings, gifts from grandparents and securing a loan from her father.
Baker was able to pay her father back before her wedding and inherited the other half when her mother died. Having the Panormo violin has been a great blessing in her life, Baker said.
Baker said it was a “miracle” that her violin wasn’t stolen from their vehicle during a trip to Europe in 2017, she said.
In addition to helping his daughter get the violin she wanted, Baker said President Oaks gave her some wise advice in high school that prepared her for the decision to leave the National Symphony years later.
“Jenny, don’t spend too much time figuring out what you want to do because that may not be what you’re supposed to do,” he told her. “Just work your hardest and keep the commandments and the Lord will lead you to the life you are supposed to have.”
Baker received similar advice from a respected musician, critically acclaimed opera singer and fellow Latter-day Saint Michael Ballam, while attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“He said, ‘Jenny, your career may not follow the same path as your peers. The Lord has different paths for those who follow him. Your musical life may end up being different. Be prayerful, follow the Spirit and find your own musical path,’” Baker said. “That was really empowering and enlightening. It helped me relax when doors weren’t opening for me.”
In October 2007, President Oaks, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave a general conference talk titled, “Good, Better, Best,” in which he said, “We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better or best because they develop faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthen our families.”
Baker said her father’s message summarized what she had learned from her experience in leaving the National Symphony.
“The National Symphony was definitely a good thing, but it was not the best thing for me or my family at that time in our lives,” Baker said. “I am grateful that God inspired me to give up that very good career for the ultimate and best career of motherhood. It definitely strengthened our family.”
Baker married Matthew Baker in 1998 and then came the children that would later form a family piano quartet.
Laura, now 18, followed her mother in learning to play the violin. Hannah, 16, plays the piano. Sarah, 14, took up the cello, and 12-year-old Matthew plays classical guitar.
Jenny Baker originally tried to get her son to play the violin but he fought back. He changed his tune when she handed him a guitar. Ultimately, playing different instruments eliminated any sibling competition, she said.
It hasn’t been a cakewalk, but after years of diligent practice and rehearsals, the Baker children all play near or at a professional level. The Bakers have performed in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, England, Greece, Albania, Taiwan and Japan. They have plans to go to Israel this fall and possibly China next year.
Baker’s husband isn’t a musician but is a stalwart supporter who contributes marketing ideas and sometimes helps with the sound board. For one recording from “The Sound of Music,” he even became Capt. von Trapp.
What has been most fulfilling about playing music together is the strong family bond that has developed. The Bakers know in the next decade their children will leave home to attend college, serve missions and start new families. They are grateful for this window of time to travel, perform and spend time together.
“What we have now is precious and I’m so grateful for it,” Jenny Baker said. “I am so grateful that Heavenly Father inspired me to leave the National Symphony so I would have the time to devote to the development of our children’s talents so that we can make glorious music together.”
The Bakers released their first family album, “Jenny Oaks Baker and Family Four” on Sept. 3. It’s available at jennyoaksbaker.com.
On Sept. 6, the Bakers will join a host of other artists in performing for the 95th birthday celebration of President Russell M. Nelson. Sisters Laura and Hannah Baker say they aren’t nervous about performing in the Conference Center for the prophet. In fact, they can’t wait.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the prophet and all the other general authorities and playing music for them,” Hannah said.
It won’t be their first time performing for President Nelson. A few years ago when he was serving as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, President Nelson invited the Bakers to play for whole quorum at Christmastime.
When Jenny Baker was a teenager, President Nelson attended some of her concerts and even sent her kind handwritten notes afterward. President Nelson and the late Sister Dantzel Nelson also attended the Bakers’ wedding.
Jenny Baker said they are honored to perform alongside artists like Gentri, The Bonner Family, Nathan Pacheco, Donny Osmond and The Tabernacle Choir at this unique event.
“We’re grateful that we have the opportunity to honor President Nelson as a family and be some of the performers at this celebration,” Baker said.