It wasn’t always easy. Christopher Pulgram admits that. Atlanta seemed like a different place then, back when he was a kid. He got teased for playing the violin. He remembers times he wanted to play soccer with his buddies in Buckhead rather than put in another hour of practice on his instrument.
“I wanted to play the violin when I was 6 years old,” Pulgram said. “I didn’t always want to practice.”
But he stuck with it. He worked his way through lessons in Atlanta schools, both public and private. He played in youth orchestras, school orchestras. He even took his seat in a family string quartet with his sister on violin and his brothers on viola and cello.
At age 17, Pulgram surprised even himself when he decided he wanted to be a professional musician.
“I had this sound in my ear. I felt very determined to be able to produce that sound,” he said. “I’m sort of ambitious by nature – maybe a little competitive – and I wanted to be able to keep up with the best people I heard.
“I didn’t know how hard it would be. But I got pulled in. The more I worked, the more I wanted to work.”
He kept playing. He studied music in college, then headed off to Europe. After a few years, “I had a difficult decision whether I wanted to stay in the culture that supported the arts or whether I wanted to be close to my family.”
Family won. He returned to Buckhead in 1990. He knocked around for a while, trying out for jobs with symphonies scattered from Boston to San Francisco, he said. Then, in 1992, he was asked to play with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At age 48, he still plays violin with the ASO.
In some ways, music was his inheritance. When Pulgram’s father was young, he worked in opera houses in Vienna, where his job was to loudly applaud the performers, the son said.
Pulgram’s mother’s family was steeped deeply in music, he said. His grandmother taught piano from her home on Peachtree Battle for years, Pulgram said, and instructed generations of Atlantans. “[Long-time orchestra and choral conductor] Robert Shaw’s wife introduced herself to me by saying, ‘I studied piano with your grandmother,’” he said.
Now Pulgram’s taking another musical step. He and three fellow ASO performers – violinst John Meisner, violist Yang-yoon Kim and cellist Jennifer Humphreys – have formed a new string quartet. “This, I hope, will be the next level for me,” said Pulgram, who’s director of the group.
They call themselves the Peachtree String Quartet, joining the dozens, if not hundreds, of Atlanta things named Peachtree. “We thought ‘Peachtree’ would be recognizable here in Atlanta,” he said. “And we thought ‘Peachtree’ would be recognizable elsewhere as from Atlanta.
“Peachtree is our Champs-Elysees,” he said, referring to the iconic avenue in Paris. “And I live a block from it.”
He lives, in fact, in a neat and art-filled home on East Wesley Road, not terribly far from where he grew up.
The Peachtree String Quartet plans on giving its first formal public performance on April 22 at the Garden Hills Recreation Center, 335 Pinetree Dr. NE, which is just down the street from Pulgram’s home. Tickets cost $25 at the door.
Pulgram sees the choice of venue as a way of saying that this new quartet is grounded in the place where he grew up.
“We want to give something back,” Pulgram said. “We want to give something back to Garden Hills. If it goes well, we’d like to have three or four concerts a year there.”
About three decades after Pulgram listened to the sound he heard and left Buckhead to find his own musical world, he’s comfortably settled back in and ready to tackle something new in his hometown.
“I moved back to the US and I moved back to Atlanta,” he said. “What better place to start than in my own neighborhood?”