You can usually find these four on stage accompanied by the full California Symphony. This year, they’re going solo… well, sort of. Read below to learn more about the members of the California Symphony String Quartet.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Jennifer Cho, Concertmaster: I’m originally from Los Angeles, CA. I went to college in New York City, NY and returned back to the west coast after I finished school. I actually grew up surrounded by doctors and nurses in my family.
Philip Santos, Principal Second Violin: I was born and raised in East Oakland. My dad was from Portugal and made a guitar on which he played folk songs by ear. My mom was from Germany and played the piano. I was also named after composer John Philip Sousa, who was half Portuguese and half Austrian. I had been taking piano lessons since I was seven, then the drums, but when I realized I was name after Sousa, I also wanted to play the trumpet. Sousa also studied the violin and that clinched it.
I started the violin when I was ten at the Oakland Public School from which I lived across the street. My first violin teacher at that school was the late Donn Schroder, who was a violist in the Oakland Symphony.
Marcel Gemperli, Principal Viola: I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York. While my mother played some piano and my father sang Swiss folk music, I only began playing an instrument through my public elementary school at age 8 and fell in love with the viola.
Leighton Fong, Principal Cello: I was born in Sacramento. It was a nice place to grow up. There was lots of music in our house. My mother was fond of Broadway musical recordings. I have three siblings, all of whom learned to play the piano at a young age. No doubt it was a ploy to keep us all in the house and out of trouble. At age 9, I started to learn the cello at my public elementary school.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
JC: I have began canning everything from the garden this year. It’s been really fun learning new ways to preserve home grown food and collect recipes from friends and family.
Nothing ever goes as planned – What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to you during a performance?
PS: The craziest thing that I experienced while performing with an orchestra was during a performance of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” The hall had an electronic organ. At one point, there was a malfunction, the organ sounded like a Theremin—weird sounds coming out of the speakers. The conductor started wildly flailing his arms to make it stop, to no avail. One of the speakers was near the bass section and a bass player tried to cover it up with the tails of his tuxedo coat. The problem was finally solved and the piece came to a transcendent end.
MG: While playing a performance of the touring Broadway musical The Color Purple, there was a very noticeable earthquake during the opening act! The touring cast had just arrived earlier that week from Chicago, and were not amused at all by the stage and set shaking during the performance. Welcome to San Francisco…
LF: My worst professional engagement was my first gig just after my daughter was born. I was unaccustomed to packing up my cello so I left my house with no bow in the case. I arrived in San Francisco at the wedding where I was supposed to play solo for the ceremony. I opened up my case, saw no bow, and realized that I was going to have to improvise to get through this job. I found a clothes hanger and dismantled the cardboard tube from the wire part. I loaded up the cardboard tube with tons of rosin. It worked, but it sounded horrible. I was dripping with sweat from the humiliation and embarrassment. Luckily, it was a wedding. Who listens to music at a wedding?
Tune in to hear the California String Quartet perform as part of our Second Saturdays @ California Symphony series in It’s a Cello-bration!, available to watch free online and on Walnut Creek TV on November 14, 2020 at 7 PM (PT).