After dinner every night of his childhood, Dennis Kordell had to practice the violin. His younger sister, Idee Kwak, remembers with sadness that her brother’s tears signaled the end of these sessions.
Their father, an amateur violinist and professional accountant, went to grueling lengths to ensure that his only son would have a superior musical career. Convinced his own childhood training had not been rigorous enough, Kordell’s father pushed him to the brink each night – and then pushed a little farther.
“It was over when he cried,” said Kwak, now a piano teacher in Austin, Texas. “I was amazed he became a musician.”
And yet he did. For nearly 40 years, Kordell played violin for the North Carolina Symphony. He died last month at age 68, leaving a legacy built as much on his kind spirit as his superb musical talents.
“This was the most generous man that I’ve ever met,” said Bruce Ridge, double bassist for the N.C. Symphony and a longtime friend of Kordell. Ridge is also chairman of the North Carolina Symphony Players’ Association and the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.
Among Kordell’s most appreciated gestures was his insistence on recording his friends’ favorite television shows just in case they were unable to watch them.
Mike Cyzewski, assistant principal clarinetist for the N.C. Symphony, remembers the summer he taught in rural Michigan without cable television. Kordell took it upon himself to mail Cyzewski tapes of all the baseball games of his favorite teams.
“Every other day I got a package of tapes from Dennis,” Cyzewski said with a chuckle. It was far more footage than he had time to watch, but the gesture was classic Kordell: He would do anything for a friend.
‘A person of extremes’
Kordell was born in New Jersey, and his family moved to Houston when he was starting high school. As a teenager in Texas he began his professional musical career, signing up for a union card and playing alto saxophone (he could play a number of instruments). His parents drove him to gigs at local lounges.
Kordell trained with many of the world’s greatest musicians, among them violinist-conductor Richard Burgin, violist-composer Lillian Fuchs and violist William Primrose. Kordell had potential to be a great soloist, but some, like his sister, think he could not shake the negative voice of his father enough to make that jump with confidence.
“Nothing was ever good enough,” Kwak said.
Kordell’s life was mapped by phases. He once took a vow of silence. There were a few years that he only wore purple shirts. And there was also an era when he was known as “Dennis of the washboard stomach,” who maintained a macrobiotic diet.
“Dennis was a person of extremes,” Ridge said.
“He was extraordinarily talented. I will never forget the passion with which he played music. But the sense of humor dominated everything.”
“He could make anyone laugh – including conductors!” Cyzewski said, though to some, Kordell’s humor was an acquired taste.
Even before the most serious concert, Kordell was often heard warming up to the whimsical tune of “The Whistler and His Dog” – hardly conducive preparation for an intense performance. Soon after his death the symphony played that song, a 1905 composition by trombone virtuoso Arthur Pryor, for a children’s concert. More than a few at the event were misty-eyed by the end.
“Every orchestra is a family. And no orchestra in the country is more a family than ours,” Ridge said.
Kordell helped foster that dynamic. For musicians, bonding often takes place in transit. The group spends an exorbitant amount of time holed up on a coach bus, logging the 18,000 miles it travels each year around the state for performances. During those trips, Kordell could talk to anyone about just about anything.
“He had no filter. He would tell you exactly what he felt,” Cyzewski said.
But even if he occasionally pushed your buttons or was a bit too honest, he would find a way to make it up to you.
“He’s somebody you really couldn’t stay mad at for very long,” said Marilyn Kouba, also a violinist with the orchestra.
An urge to give
Many times over the years Kordell had personality conflicts with orchestra management, and occasionally his position was in jeopardy. But his peers always voted to keep him on. Not only was he immensely talented, but he was also the kind of friend who was quick to volunteer to mow lawn or feed pets if a friend was out of town.
That urge to give to others was always there, his sister said.
“My mother must have bought him about 12 coats, because if he saw someone colder than him he would take off his coat and give it away,” Kwak recalled.
Though Kordell retired in 2011, he retained strong ties to the N.C. Symphony.
“I can state categorically that Dennis’ love for music was a constant in his life, even up to the end. His devotion to great music was inspirational to all of us in the NCSO,” said William H. Curry, resident conductor. “Some musicians once they are ‘off the clock’ rarely listen to music. Dennis was the opposite. He was the both the consummate pro and the unjaded amateur.
“Dennis was one of the lucky ones.”