Just a few months ago, the ESF core gathered in a piano studio in Noe Valley to read Schumann. The joy was palpable. We are thrilled to announce our reentrance into the vibrant Bay Area music scene including a season finale at the historic Herbst Theater on April 16, 2019. What has ESF been up to during its hiatus? Read on to find out!
As many of you already know, my daughter was born last spring and I was blessed enough to be able to put the rest of my life on hold to focus on fatherhood for awhile. I want to start by thanking everyone for your lasting love, loyalty and steadfast support through this period. Not to worry, I have been practicing!
And teaching. Traveling and performing less has made it possible for me to dedicate more time to pedagogy and methodology. Nowadays, I am fascinated by the endless possibilities evolution reveals through the developing minds of younger generations!
Let me start by telling you about one of the highlights of my summer so far. I spent three weeks at Interlochen Center for the Arts working with young artists from all over the world. These young minds displayed tremendous potential and we developed a special bond very quickly. In my opinion, the future of classical music and the high arts in general have never been brighter.
One of my favorite analogies to use with my disciples is actually quite relatable even for people who have no musical background. Music is the closest thing to actual real life magic. Musicians send vibrations through the air and change the way people think and feel, physically, on a molecular level. Every song is a spell and every phrase affects the outcome of the spell.
This is where tradition comes into play. Certain spells are more effective when executed a certain way; these traditions are passed down from generation to generation, creating lineage and legacy, which is why going to a certain conservatory or studying with a certain teacher can be life-changing.
To get to spend our lives immersed in this world is a privilege. It forces us to live in a state of heightened awareness. Awareness of time, space, the resistance and densities of time and space, and more importantly the in betweens. The relationships and their qualities. For me, this is the greatest gift of music. It forces us to have to become better versions of ourselves.
Whether we are in line at the airport, driving through the parking lot looking for a free space, or playing a concert, what we are doing isn’t so important as how we do it. I’m convinced that art is more than a mere reflection of life. Art can be a guide to life, teaching us how to be the best possible versions of ourselves.
As I begin to perform more again, I feel I have a much deeper relationship with sound itself and the way it impacts and echoes through our lives. I am constantly working to engineer the energy of the sounds I create to emphasize sincerity and honesty, to help us all resonate at our most harmonious frequencies in all aspects of our lives.
The world is in a strange limbo right now. On one hand, we have never had more people spreading messages of love. Yet these very people are often the quickest to judge those who are not yet enlightened. Judgment leads to divisiveness, as can be expected when people feel defensive. Self-righteousness, in my opinion, is just as bad as, perhaps even worse, than ignorance.
To make a musical analogy, the world is one very large ensemble. This beautiful French word literally means ‘together’. Let’s say you don’t like the way your band mate is playing a certain lick. Compensating for their lack is the least helpful thing one can do. Instead, we must find a way to persuade them to find a better way without putting them down. Flexibility is maturity. Understanding is strength. The melody, the leader, can only phrase so much, in fact, only as much as the accompaniment allows. Honestly, the accompanying elements have far more influence over the outcome of the phrase than the melody. The same principles apply to life. Easier said than done, no doubt. But now that we are more aware, won’t you help me help us all help one another?
Presently, I find myself en route from Chicago to Festival Mozaic in the beautiful central coast of my home state California. I feel so very blessed to live this life, to have been born after Mr. Brahms, and especially blessed to get to share it with all of you. I so appreciate your ears and look forward to sharing song with you soon.
I have kept busy performing. I played Chausson's Poeme and Ravel's Tzigane in two concerts with the Holland Symphony (MI). I also played a concerto with the CSU Long Beach Symphony. Performing in front of my students is always a challenge since I'm held to the highest standards - the ones I impose to my students. The Classic FM Symphony invited me to collaborate with the new concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert this season as well. Each of us played two solo pieces and then partnered up for the second half of the concert. The concert was broadcast live on TV. I have also assumed the position of Concertmaster for the newly formed Genesis Orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's a great excuse to go back home. The orchestra comprises Bulgarian musicians who live and work outside of Bulgaria and organizes 5 sold-out concerts per season. Because of its popularity, I have become a frequent guest of Bulgarian talk shows.
I also spent a very busy week in Sri Lanka, performing and teaching alongside Midori. We visited communities throughout the island and performed over 20 times in one week. The final concert was recorded for TV and was attended by the prime minister. We also worked with schools for children and facilities for people with disabilities.
Rebecca and I traveled to Beirut, which has become one of my favorite musical activities. Besides the mainstage concert, we traveled to a Syrian and Palestinian refugee camp and performed for the residents, but Rebecca has a much more detailed narrative on the topic.
I attended the Lake George Music Festival as a concertmaster of the orchestra, and one of our chamber performances is often featured on NPR.
In the realm of the commercial scene (I live in LA, after all), I have had some fun as well. I arranged a few songs for British band Bastille (you may know them from the soundtrack for Will Smith's Netflix original "Bright") and recorded the music, as well as the music video with three of my students. The songs have accumulated more than 5 million views in just a few months. I can confidently say that this is the most anyone will ever watch me play the violin. I also recorded for a few HBO productions and contracted a string group for Showtime's Versace.
I am also nearly finished with a publishing project, very meaningful to me. I look forward to putting the final touches and sending it into the world.
I traveled with Moni to Beirut for one of the most unforgettable concerts of my life. It all began with instruction from American filmmaker and photographer Alejandro Gomez-Meade: “Here’s the location to tell your Uber or taxi. With lots of bright smiles and handshakes, we met Alejandro along with his fiancé Elisa Volpi Spagnolini (an Italian working for a small NGO) and our escort, a third generation Palestinian refugee from Shatila camp, Ahmad Halabi. We followed Ahmad across the street, up some steps and along the side of the structure. We walked through narrow alleyways, zig-zagging left and right. We picked our spot, one area where 3 alleys met. It was dimly lit, but a man jiggled some wires (yikes, there are lots of wires!) and like magic, there was light. In order to allow for passing foot traffic, the string trio had to get creative with spacing. Elisa had carried a small white stool for Ani to sit on. Ani and Moni were next to one alley and across from them I was beside a steep stairwell. We had received permission from the leader of the camp, but the residents had no idea we would be playing. As we began to play, a crowd formed. Alejandro remarked that in his one year living and working in the camps, during our concert he witnessed for the first time Palestinian, Syrian and Bangladeshi refugees standing together. High level diplomacy, international accords, formidable financial investment, peace keeping forces and altruistic volunteer efforts have all been tried in this war torn region over many painful decades. Music, this day, proved an incredibly powerful harmonizing influence. Listening, learning and connecting with Ahmad, Alejandro and Elisa, I realized something. In anticipation of this performance, I admittedly became anxious. I recognized the feeling which was similar to the one leading up to my first performance in juvenile hall. Despite all my travels, these were environments that felt especially foreign. I questioned how our gift of music could connect or seem relevant to the listeners. I am again reminded that despite seemingly endless complexity and tragedy in the world, the bottom line is that we are all humans with common aspirations. We share a desire for connection, belonging, significance and I think, most of all, love. After today I am thankful for so many things. One of those things is for the mighty gift of music to be a shared experience with people from all walks, from grand concert halls of San Francisco to an alleyway in Said Gawash.
I've been busy with my main gig playing viola in the SF Symphony, teaching, volunteering, and generally trying to keep up with the pace and quality of city living.
My teaching has been picking up and I had a student just win a tenure track position with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I'm so honored to get to work with such a talent. I really love sharing my instrumental and musical ideas, it activates a different part of my brain. Also because many of these ideas I gleaned from my own mentors too! I remember thinking that without the right words at the right time, it wouldn't matter how many thousands of hours I've practiced, no one can truly pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we all need help sometimes. We, as artists, are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of knowledge and are the current caretakers of these ideas, hopefully taking them forward.
Along those lines of being the current caretakers of centuries old intellectual property, I'd love to talk about my viola for a second. It was made in 1772 by Vincenzo Panormo and was played in the London Symphony for the 46 years preceding it finding me in 2014. The reason that's on my mind right now is that the LSO did the original soundtrack for Star Wars movies, and this very week the San Francisco Symphony is playing the Star Wars score while the film is being projected above us! So it is really fun for me that my viola did this in 1977 or so in London, and now I get to revisit the same score again tonight, and for the next three weeks...... I'm very disappointed that the viola didn't play the notes by itself though, I had to relearn them for the viola. Maybe I should send it back? Just kidding I love this viola.
Less than a week ago I performed in the SF Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. It was a real treat to see hundreds of people turn out, not for me, but for Flower Piano, an installation of several pianos throughout the garden. What a San Francisco day! Open air with wind and fog makes for a non-acoustic, but I got to play some favorite tunes for some favorite friends and neighbors in one of my favorite places. I need to practice more though, it was my first solo performance in a couple years I think?!
Another musical connection on my mind is the newest addition to ESF personnel, Elizabeth Schumann! We used to occupy the basement of the Cleveland Institute of Music to practice for our weekly lessons and chamber music, it was a very intense and formative time. Elizabeth was one of the stars of the piano performance program there with the now legendary pedagogue Sergei Babayan, and I couldn't be more excited to make music with her. I do feel that's closing a musical loop in my life and can't wait to see the artistic sparks fly on and offstage in concerts and in rehearsal.
From the beginnings of ESF, our outreach to audiences who can't come to us is what defines a major interest in the why of ESF. The how of ESF is easy, I get to play with people who lift me up musically, and from whom I learn so much and enjoy interacting with. That part is just fun. But the why of ESF, I think that's where we are versatile and nimble. We play at Juvenile Hall in Santa Cruz Co, SF County, the VA Hospital, Institute on aging, UCSF, the LGBT Center on Market St, we have done fundraisers for refugees, public school music education, teacher benefits, the DeMarillac Academy in the Tenderloin, and so many things I can't even remember! But for me to get off the stage and into places that won't hear this kind of music otherwise is something that feels great on a human level, something that can be more meaningful than a staged performance. Sometimes you see some audience members dozing off but then you'll see the ones on the edge of their chair, ugly crying, or accessing something that you are tangentially a part of, and it makes all of these donated hours truly rewarding.
I can't wait to get out there again and learn about myself and how to connect through music.