Cellist finds a way back to the stage after career-ending accident
August 28, 2012
Second act: Kris Williams renews promising musical career 34 years after accident that cut it short
By Carol Schmidt
MSU News Service
BOZEMAN - Kris Williams knows that hope is a thing with strings, and that second chances can sound very sweet.
Williams, who now lives in Bozeman, is a cellist who had the promise of a high-level career until an accident took away her ability to play 34 years ago. She is returning to music with a "re-debut" concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, in Montana State University's Reynolds Recital Hall. She'll perform with Julie Gosswiller, MSU piano instructor, and Greg Young, director of the MSU School of Music and a clarinetist.
It was Gosswiller and Young who arranged the concert at MSU after both heard her play as well as learned about her unusual story.
Williams, who is now 61, was at the zenith of a musical career when she suffered a broken back at the age of 27. The list of her accomplishments at the time filled an entire page of a resume. At the time of her accident she had an offer to audition for the prestigious Kronos Quartet and had been invited to play for Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian cello master. A native of Seattle, she attended the University of Washington and the University of Southern California, she won the cello award at the Music Academy of the West. She also won a national audition for a string quartet residency in New York and was a member of the Acadia String Quartet.
Then, the accident brought her career to an end.
"I was in so much pain," Williams recalls. "It was impossible."
Shortly after the accident she met her husband, Ralph Williams, who helped her through the difficult time.
"They say everything has a silver lining and if there was a silver lining in the accident, it was meeting him," Williams said. Eventually, she transferred her audio artistry to visual art. She became a flower designer for interior decorators in her native Seattle and a visual merchandiser for high-end stores. She said at first it almost hurt too much to listen to music.
"Then the love of music was inescapable," she said.
Ralph Williams makes western-style holsters and leather goods, so the couple looked for a place to move more in line with his work. They drove through Bozeman, knew it was what they were looking for, and moved to the state nine years ago. Kris got a job as a designer in a local flower store. Yet, she said her connection to music "never left me."
"About two years ago I decided that the pain was never going to go away completely, so what would it be like if I just gave everything I had and tried to come back."
She went to a local Bozeman music store and ordered a new cello. "I had sold my beautiful French cello after the accident," she said. "It was such a beautiful instrument. It deserved to be played." And then she began the slow process of teaching herself to play again.
"I was like a beginner," she said. "I had to start all over again."
She said the process of relearning the instrument was "like peeling layers. Some things are better because I have more wisdom now. Other things were difficult. Coming back was not easy."
She went to the Bozeman Symphony office to find an accompanist and Sherry Linnerooth, MSU's French horn instructor, referred her to Gosswiller. Shortly after, Gosswiller brought in Young.
"When Julie told me about (Kris), I was intrigued, and upon our first conversation the idea of playing the beautiful Brahms trio (in concert) came up," Young said. "Kris has a hauntingly beautiful sound and one can only imagine what her career path might have been had she not been injured when she was a rising star, over 30 years ago."
Williams said that the three will play the Brahms Clarinet Trio at the performance and she and Gosswiller will also play pieces by Prokofiev and Dvorak. She said her father is flying in for the performance. Her mother died earlier this year.
"Two years ago, when she was bedridden, I played for her and she cried and cried," Williams said. "Somehow, I think she will be listening (during the performance)."
Williams said she has no idea what her next step will be musically after the concert. She is teaching again and is open to more performances.
"I'm taking it one day at a time, but the pieces are coming together," she said. "This opportunity is just so wonderful and unbelievable. I'm enjoying every minute of it."
Tickets to Williams' performance are $10, $5 for students, and will be available at the door. The Reynolds Recital Hall is located on South 11th Avenue, across from the MSU Duck Pond.