To witness a performance of the New York Philharmonic is to be enraptured and transported beyond time and place. Those lucky enough to have attended a presentation of one of the world's oldest and most prestigious orchestras have likely enjoyed the prodigious talent of violinist Sheryl Staples.
A resident of Haworth, where she lives with her husband, Barry, an accomplished percussionist, and their two musically inclined children, Staples is the principal associate concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, a position she has held since joining the orchestra in 1998.
Born and raised in the northern San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, Staples' proclivity for music presented early. The daughter of two musicians – a professional trombonist with The Lawrence Welk Show and an amateur pianist and flutist – Staples first held a violin at age 5.
"We happened to have a small 1/16 size violin in the house which had been in the family," Staples says. "My parents pulled this little gem out of the closet, broken strings and bow hair and all. I was fascinated and immediately drawn to it, so it wasn't long before it was fixed up and I was taking lessons."
However, it wasn't all smooth sailing.
"In the beginning," Staples says, "I was not so different from any other kid. Practicing is hard and can be frustrating, and I actually quit at the ripe old age of 6!"
Recognizing their daughter's innate abilities, Staples' parents switched teachers three times before discovering Robert Lipsett, whom Staples calls "one of her most important mentors," and with whom she studied from age 9 until she graduated from the University of California, now called the Thornton School of Music.
By age 12, Staples' commitment to the violin had taken root. Told that she would need a better quality instrument, Staples laughingly recalls her father's reaction to the price tags of the instruments being considered for her.
"As a trombonist, my father could never have imagined the cost of the instruments my teacher was considering for me," she says. "The finest violins in today's market go for millions of dollars. At that time we were only searching for a modest, good sounding instrument that still set back our middle-class family about $7,500. A few years later, a bow would be purchased for nearly as much!"
Staples spent what she calls "four precious years," ninth through 12th grades, at the prestigious Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, to which she received a scholarship.
"This experience was absolutely life altering for me," she says. "As far back as 13 years of age, I fell in love with the art of ensemble playing and began to envision it as a real possibility for a career."
Staples won the Los Angeles Philharmonic "Rising Stars" competition at age 15.
"Until this time I had always been the underdog, struggling to work my way up and to be taken seriously," she says. "Everything started to change for me after this."
By the age of 17, Staples won the coveted concertmaster seat for the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. Thereafter, she quickly became concertmaster at the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra at 20 and at the Asia America Orchestra at 21. By 24, she was appointed concertmaster of the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif., and at 26, she joined The Cleveland Orchestra as associate concertmaster – a move she describes as "my leap into the major orchestra world."
Staples came to the New York Philharmonic as principal associate concertmaster at age 28.
Since joining the orchestra in 1998, Staples has been featured many times as soloist, opportunities she describes as "truly unique and generally reserved for visiting concert artists and sometimes principals from within the orchestra."
Staples plays on a Guarneri 'del Gesu' violin made in Cremona, Italy, in the 1720s.
"This instrument was loaned to me by a private collector named Peter Mandell when I was 20 years old," she says. "It is on the level of a Stradivarius and, therefore, completely unaffordable for most musicians! It has been my partner and my voice throughout my professional career. And a few years back, the New York Philharmonic added this violin to its small collection of fine string instruments."
Staples traverses the globe with the philharmonic about seven weeks each year, and she also travels for solo engagements.
Upcoming solo performances for Staples include the La Jolla Summerfest Chamber Music Festival in California and the Salt Bay Chamber Music Festival in Maine during the summer of 2014. And in November 2014, she will be featured along with Cynthia Phelps as soloist with the New York Philharmonic in Mozart's Symphonia Concertante.
When she is not working, Staples enjoys "the quiet atmosphere" of Haworth, a town she and her husband chose for "its beautifully wooded dead-end streets, good schools and its neighborly feel."
Staples is grateful for her full life, both on and off stage.
"In addition to being a wife and mother," she says. "I feel truly blessed to make a living doing something that is so beautiful and brings joy to so many people."