It’s easy to read the words “family business” and imagine something like a farm or a hardware store.
In the Ludwig-Eskin clan, which stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C., the family vocation has always been music, specifically orchestral and chamber music performed to a great degree with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
As the BSO heads into the holiday break of its 131st season, the orchestra counts among its musicians principal cellist Jules Eskin, his wife, violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, Eskin’s second cousin, violist Mark Ludwig, and Ludwig’s wife, freelance substitute French horn player Kate Gascoigne. Further, Mark Ludwig and his violinist brother Michael Ludwig, concertmaster for the Buffalo Philharmonic, played together with the Boston Pops; their late father, Irving, a longtime violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director for the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, was Eskin’s cousin, and trained with him in the 1950s at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer home in the Berkshires.
“This has been as natural to us as a craftsman giving his trade to his children,” Eskin says.
But while musical families aren’t a rarity, musical families that have good relationships both on stage and off can be very unusual. And for more than 50 years, the Ludwig-Eskins have managed to have a genuinely warm bond, no matter the setting.
When the family gathers in the Berkshires for downtime or a barbecue, instead of tossing a football, everyone brings a piece of music, tosses it on a pile, and between sips of wine and flipping burgers, sifts through them all to find something they haven’t played together. And then they perform it.
Timothy Hayes, former president of the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association, and director of the music business program at Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, says performing families “who work and play well together in music” are particularly rare in the classical music world because of the level of skill it takes to be accepted into that arena.
Auditions for symphonies and orchestras are typically conducted with musicians playing behind a screen for judges, so they can’t be seen and favored for any preexisiting friendships or family legacies.
“The fact that this family passed muster with one of the top symphonies in the world means that they’re not just extremely talented,” Hayes says. “But it says something about what music means to their family and maybe to their special bond. It may be why you see such closeness and family commitment in the classical genre.”
Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO, says that while the orchestra is something of a large family unit, as with any family, some members are more active than others, and “the Ludwigs and Jules and Aza are integral, active members.”
Volpe — whose father is a retired member of the Minnesota Orchestra, whose brother is a professional musician in Minnesota, and whose cousin plays for the Philadelphia Orchestra — compares the Ludwig-Eskin group to the de Pasquale family of musicians with a long, rich presence in the Philadelphia Orchestra, BSO, and orchestras in several other cities.
It’s no surprise given the close ties in the classical music world that the Ludwig-Eskins know members of the de Pasquale family, and respect them, Mark Ludwig says. “We definitely understand their bond and their commitment to each other through music.”
At 80, and in his 49th year with the BSO, Jules Eskin says he believes the family’s professional music tradition started with him and Irving Ludwig during their childhoods in Philadelphia.
“We both began our journey following encouragement from a parent,” Eskin says.
When Jules’s father was 13, he heard orchestral music coming from a church in West Philly, and stepped inside to observe. By the time he left the church, he had determined he would play violin.
Irving Ludwig’s father played violin as well, Eskin says.
And after they both spent nearly two decades honing their craft, and even serving in the military as musicians during the Korean War, Ludwig and Eskin settled down in Philadelphia and Boston, respectively.
“What can I say, it seemed like a natural progression,” Eskin says of his move to Boston.
And after nearly three decades in the city, Eskin got a little company in the form of his second cousin, Mark Ludwig, who joined the BSO as a violist in 1982.
Thirty years later, Ludwig, now 55, and Eskin are still at it.
Ludwig, meanwhile, has branched out from musical performance as a career to music performance as a public service — the latter by launching the Terezin Music Foundation in the early 1990s to honor Holocaust victims who were accomplished musicians and composers, and by working with the US State Department to organize charitable concerts and Holocaust education projects.
“As far as I can go back,” Ludwig says, “I remember hearing my father play violin or Jules playing the cello. They played summers at Tanglewood. Over time, as I got older, not only hearing them play but playing chamber music with them became a treasured activity.”
Eskin’s wife, Raykhtsaum, 62, is part of the Ludwig-Eskin clan by marriage. As she puts it, she and her husband “have been in love since shortly after we laid eyes on one another 30 years ago.”
Originally from St. Petersburg, Raykhtsaum is the first and only professional musician in her family. But she may never have developed an interest in music if her grandfather — a tailor by trade, just like her husband’s father — hadn’t played classical music on the family radio all the time.
It was easy, she says, for her to gravitate to and blend into Eskin’s family.
“When you love music, when your family loves music, it becomes something that conveys more than a career path,” Raykhtsaum says. “It can be that thing — the glue, perhaps? — that bonds a family.”
That “glue,” Gascoigne says, goes beyond musical performance or even performing together at work.