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X. Helen Altenbach, Cello

By Tom Lady

“The cello was not an attraction, but a way of survival in a turbulent time in Chinese history.”

A tenured member of the LA Opera Orchestra since 2010, Xiaodan Helen Altenbach hails from a family from the northeast of China that includes no less than eight professional cellists: from her father, uncle and several cousins down to her 13-year-old half-sister, who just joined her first professional orchestra for a five-month tour.

The “turbulent time” she refers to would be China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule. As Mao insisted on getting rid of all Western influences and ideas, the farming class rose up against the intellectuals, which led to brutal upheaval and mandatory relocation of the youth to rural areas to learn Communist ideals through hard physical labor.

Helen’s uncle, a skilled amateur violinist who taught his kid brother, Helen’s father, how to find his way around a cello, saw a solution for the brothers to continue playing music by joining one of Madam Mao’s theater troupes that propagated socialist values through music and storytelling. “Having this tie to a special skill, my father and his brother were able to avoid being sent away indefinitely and continued to build on their natural talents.”

She adds, “My mother’s father was an educated man from a family of some privilege. My mother, a teenager at the time, picked up a Chinese traditional instrument, the Pipa, in an attempt to show loyalty to her culture and in hopes of shielding her family from harm. She taught herself well enough to be accepted to one of the theater troupes as well.” Helen reflected, “I think this single act of service to her family empowered the rest of her life and lit up a path of self-advocacy and resilience for me.”

After Mao died in 1976, musicians like Helen’s parents were staffed in arts and culture organizations all over China based on skill. And as the years passed, Helen explains, “Subsequent generations in my family began passing down this free music education as a family inheritance, in addition to gaining advanced training.”

Helen was nine when her family immigrated to Russia, where she studied both cello and piano at the Moscow State Conservatory’s pre-college program. Arriving in New York City in 1998, the 14-year-old Xiaodan (as she was known at the time) hit the proverbial ground running by being accepted to both the Juilliard School Pre-College Division and LaGuardia High School for Music & Arts and Performing Arts.

College brought her out to Los Angeles. In the decade following her graduation from USC, Helen became the appointed principal cellist of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, New West Symphony (Thousand Oaks, CA), San Diego Chamber Orchestra and the L.A. Virtuosi Orchestra.

After settling into her LAO position in 2010, Helen gradually let go of the other orchestral engagements to make time to freelance as a Hollywood soundtrack recording musician. She can be heard on recent series like The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu and The Mandalorian on Disney Plus, with recent film credits including Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and this year's The Super Mario Brothers Movie and Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, to name a few.

When the pandemic shut the world down, Helen earned an online master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). Today she balances her music career with a newly launched second career in relational psychotherapy with a focus on multicultural family dynamics and individual identity development. As a Registered Associate MFT, Helen offers therapy in English, Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

When I asked how she views these two seemingly disparate careers, Helen explains, “Practicing psychotherapy requires one to hold multiple sets of ‘truths’ and find ways to make sense of and live with the uncertainties of life. Being a cellist requires that I cope with the uncertainty of my field daily while looking for ways to advocate for a better future for all musicians.”

Helen’s past experience as a contract negotiation committee member for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra inspired her to enroll in a Ph.D. program in Organizational Leadership at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Helen elaborates, “Organizational development focuses on people’s relationships to work and to each other at the workplace, all in the context of global culture and economy. I look forward to consulting with organizations and using research findings to inform stakeholders to help ensure the survival of the arts and the artists.”

During what downtime she can create between pursuing three careers, Helen and her Swiss-born spouse who, coincidentally, a long-time subscriber of LA Opera, enjoy spending time in nature. Back home, they have three affectionate kitties to keep them company: Marshy, Peanut and Pepper. On weekends, Helen loves a good hike and a podcast to go with it.

In the meantime, as the second half of LAO’s 2022-23 season gets set to kick off with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in February, I marvel that Helen would have any downtime at all.

Smiling, she says, “I’ll share a little secret. Sometimes, when I’m in a ‘performance flow’ state, maybe during the last act of an opera, I might just be wondering, ‘How to build a more sustainable art culture in the U.S.?’ I enjoy creative rumination, and I don’t mind having an operatic soundtrack to go with it.”

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Author: Thomas Lady
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