IN 2014, after four decades, violinist Roy Malan retired as founding concertmaster of the San Francisco Ballet orchestra, apparently—it would seem—to slow down. In eight days coming up he will play concertmaster/leader of the String Orchestra of Hidden Valley in Carmel Valley and Aptos, the Espressivo Orchestra in Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz Chamber Players twice in Aptos.
Like galaxies of the universe once thought to be slowing as they recede from one another, Malan’s career is, if anything, speeding up. The Espressivo program of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is demonically challenging. “I haven’t been able to say no,” he says. His wife, violist Polly, who will play in the first and third of these programs would like to rebel but is resigned to Roy’s high-energy life. “It’s his normal,” she says. In fact, he admits to a certain personal chaos that she manages somehow to contain.
Malan has a huge presence in the SF Bay Area and has long been the go-to concertmaster for Monterey Bay classical small orchestras and chamber music ensembles. His activities also include a lectureship in violin at UC Santa Cruz. It was there a couple of decades ago that music colleague Leta Miller alerted Malan about some feelers coming from a young viola player at Stanford. One day, answering a knock on his studio door, Polly came into his life. She specifically wanted lessons in playing contemporary music. “We were each going through awful divorces,” he told me. “Pretty soon we had lunch together to commiserate.” They discovered a mutual love of fine art as well as music. As their relationship grew more intimate, “it became our dark secret.” The secret was held until after Polly graduated.
They were married in 2001 at the San Francisco home of Jean-Louis LeRoux, co-founder of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players with whom Malan had a long association. Because of their age difference, about 20 years, “Some people were shocked,” Malan says.
Roy Malan was born in Pretoria, South Africa. His mother was a violinist and teacher. “She played a lot of string quartets. I would always listen. When I was three I told her I wanted lessons. She said wait till you’re five,” he recalls. “One day she brought home a new record of Bach’s E Major concerto and put it on the player. I said why are they playing in F? She went to the piano and confirmed it. I started my lessons immediately.” He calls the phenomenon Absolute Pitch, and, as many musicians who have it, or Perfect Pitch, he says it’s more of a curse than a blessing.
At 15, the family moved to London. Instead of graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1960, while he was still a teen, Oppenheimer, a South African gold mining company, awarded him a grant to study in New York. His teacher at the Juilliard School was the legendary Ivan Galamian. “I couldn’t stand New York,” he says, so he followed Galamian to his other class at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He switched teachers to Efram Zimbalist and completed his studies in three years. He then suggested to Zimbalist that someone should write a book about him. Zimbalist agreed and Malan suddenly found himself in the biography-writing business. “Actually, I took lessons from him for the rest of his life,” he says. When Zimbalist retired to Reno Malan joined the San Francisco Symphony. It took him 15 years to complete the Zimbalist biography, which got many favorable reviews. “Doing it gave me the chance to interview many major musicians, including Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gian Carlo Menotti and Gregor Piatigorsky.”
During his years with the SF Ballet, he also performed concertos and other concerts at a blistering pace. He is founding artistic director of the Telluride Chamber Music Festival. He still meets numerous commitments in the Bay Area, including Nicole Paiement’s Opera Parallèle.
Polly Malan plays violin and piano in addition to viola. Her credentials include the Interlochen Arts Academy, Bowdoin College in Maine, graduate studies at Northern Illinois University before Stanford and UCSC. “Love New England,” she says, though she was raised in Northern Illinois. At Bowdoin, “I majored in British history and music.” She studied with Bernard Vaslav, then of the Vermeer Quartet, and followed him when he went to Stanford. She now has a three-decade-long teaching career and is head of the string program at Santa Cruz Waldorf School.
The Malans make their home in Bonny Doon, with a view of the ocean. “We’ve built a Mendocino-type water tower with a deck on the top and stairs around the outside. It will house our art collection, and will require a dumbwaiter on the outside for shuffling up champagne,” Malan says. He calls his art-collecting an obsession. He favors California impressionists, American ceramics and ancient Chinese art pieces. They also have a summer home in Rockport, Maine. How all of Malan’s musical commitments can make room for everything else he does—like building a Mendocino-type water tower—boggles the mind. “Well,” he says by way of perspective, “we never had a honeymoon.”