Meet the Artists with Alina Kobialka and Oliver Herbert

Bay Area natives Alina Kobialka and Oliver Herbert  joined us to talk about growing up with parents who were professional musicians, their pre-concert rituals, and to reminisce about their shared history with Donato Cabrera and the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

You’ll be joining forces to perform Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello. How does preparing for and performing a double concerto differ from performing a solo concerto on your own?

Alina: Preparing for a double concerto requires sensitivity towards the other soloist as well as the orchestra. In Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, the violin and cello play interweaving melodies and harmonies, and Oliver and I have to be aware of when to play “out” and when to decorate what the other is playing. In a solo concerto, I project fully to ensure that I am heard above the orchestra, but in this piece, I have to be aware of the balance between the violin and cello, and when it is appropriate for me to project or to play more quietly.

Oliver:  The fun challenge of a Concerto like this is that the end goal is for Alina and me to be one big instrument between the two of us! The Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello is a piece with a very broad scope and landscape, so there is a lot of score study involved to really be familiar with both solo parts as well as all of the orchestra parts. The next step is to figure out how to blend the cello and violin parts together so that the music flows seamlessly. There are many moments where both instruments become one, and also moments where each instrument stands alone to project a distinct character. The combination of those two elements is what makes the Concerto for Violin and Cello so exciting to work on. A lot of work regarding the violin and cello dialogue in the piece happens through rehearsing alone with Alina. We actually were both in the Bay Area visiting around the New Year which gave us the luxury of getting a head start on this process!

I always like to bring a violinist and cellist together who know each other…to create the same sense of reunion that this piece embodies.” – Donato Cabrera

Tell us about the instruments you will be playing.

A: I am playing on a Michelangelo Bergonzi violin, made in the early 1700s. 

O: The cello I’m playing on is a 1769 cello made in Turin, Italy by Guadagnini. The instrument has a very unique history because it was owned by great 20th century cellist, Antonio Janigro. Janigro’s family now generously loans the instrument to me, and I feel immensely lucky and grateful every time I take it out of its case. It’s a humbling feeling to know that your instrument has played all of these masterpieces of music hundreds of times before you were even born.

You both grew up with parents who are professional musicians. Do you think that made it easier or harder for you to study music and embark on a solo career?

Alina Kobialka

A: My father was former principal second violin of the San Francisco Symphony, and my mother is currently a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony. Like any situation, it has both positive and negative aspects. When I was younger, having parents who were both accomplished musicians put a lot of pressure on me to succeed, and there were times when I had to figure out whether music was something I only did because of my parents, or something that I truly loved. Ultimately, I discovered (or re-discovered) that I love being a musician and that, even though my parents are in the same field as me, I am creating my own path as an artist. I could not be happier with where I am today, and I am grateful that I get to share my passion with the world. 

O: Growing up, my dad was Principal Timpanist in the San Francisco Symphony, and my mom was a freelance violinist and wonderful teacher, both privately and in the public schools as a Teaching Artist for the SF Symphony’s Music and Mentors program. Now, my dad holds the same position with the Chicago Symphony, and my mom still actively performs in the Bay Area. In fact, she is playing in the orchestra for our BRAHMS FEST performances this week! I have felt incredibly lucky to have these parents because of the access to music they gave me from such a young age. Instead of getting babysitters, I would just come and watch rehearsals! My mom was my first music teacher on violin, and I took piano lessons from my grandmother. As I grew up and started playing cello, my parents always had great connections to mentors who were perfect for me at different points in my development. I believe all of these things contributed to my natural path of falling more and more in love with music throughout my childhood. Despite having such an intensely musical family, I was also never pushed or forced to do it, so I am also grateful that they allowed me to pursue my passion at the pace most natural for me.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals or superstitions?

A: I usually like to allot 20-30 minutes before going onstage to ensure that I have enough time to warm up. I also like to drink green tea – the caffeine energizes me, while the tea gives me a sense of calmness and tranquility. I also do breathing exercises and stretches, as well as walk around to keep myself energized for the performance ahead. I used to prefer being in my own bubble before a performance, but now I enjoy interacting with other people before going onstage – I find it helps me to get out of my own head and, ultimately, I perform better! 

O: I like eating a banana if there is one around, but it’s not a dealbreaker! The main thing that I do is remind myself how much of a privilege it is to share this music with people, and that tends to make me a lot less nervous when I go on stage.

When you’re not listening to classical music, what do you listen to?

A: I enjoy a wide variety of music, and it usually depends on what I feel like listening to. Recently, I have been listening to traditional Romanian gypsy music by the group Taraf de Haidouks, as well as heavy metal music by Avenged Sevenfold and Metallica. 

O: All sorts of things, but lately a lot of Joni Mitchell!

When I travel to Shanghai, the locals tell me that I look young but I speak grandma Shanghainese!”

What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?

A: I am half-Chinese, and I speak two dialects – Shanghainese and Mandarin. My mother is from Shanghai, and I grew up speaking the dialect with her and my grandparents. Although I am fluent in Shanghainese, some of the “lingo” that I use is from 30-40 years ago because that is when my mother and grandparents immigrated to the United States. When I travel to Shanghai, the locals tell me that I look young but I speak grandma Shanghainese! 

O: When I am at home, I am cooking constantly. It took someone else pointing this out for me to realize that, in fact, cooking is my hobby.

Bonus question: You were both members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra while Donato Cabrera was Music Director. Are there any fun memories of Donato you’d like to share?

A: I have many fond memories of Donato! I joined the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) when he became Music Director, and the experiences that I had there really cultivated my love for classical music. We went on tour together with the SFSYO through Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg, and we performed in some of the continent’s most prestigious halls, including the Berlin Philharmonie. I also made my debut with the San Francisco Symphony for their 100th Anniversary Concert, as well as with the Las Vegas Philharmonic with Donato at the baton. He was a huge part of my musical development, and I am so excited to make music with him again at the California Symphony! 

Oliver Herbert in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

O: I have such wonderful memories from when Donato was my Music Director at the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. We played so many great pieces of music during my time there, from Haydn to Strauss, Ravel, Schumann, Nielsen and Takemitsu. Alina was concertmaster and I was the principal cellist, so we sat right across from each other back in those days!

Alina Kobialka and Oliver Herbert perform Concerto for Violin and Cello by Johannes Brahms, paired with Brahm’s Hungarian Dances No. 5 and 6, and Symphony No. 3 at the California Symphony’s BRAHMS FEST February 1 at 8 PM and February 2 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Tickets as low as $44 ($20 for students 25 and under), available online or through the Lesher Center Box Office at 925.934.7469.


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