Concertmaster and soloist in January’s TAKE FLIGHT Jennifer Cho talks with us about playing The Lark Ascending, about her life outside of music (with her 14 feathery friends), and why performing over a swamp isn’t necessarily the greatest idea.
This article was originally published in December 2018. Updated January 2022.
As Concertmaster, the audience is used to seeing you seated in the front of the violin section, immediately to Donato’s left as he conducts. Can you tell us more about what the role of Concertmaster involves?
An orchestra rehearsal is a very unique thing that I don’t believe has many comparisons in other fields. Fifty plus musicians are given the program and access to the music, and on the first day of rehearsal, everyone shows up prepared to play. The trust that is involved in this is phenomenal.
The fact that a group like the California Symphony can begin working at such a high level is the reason that we are able to produce a concert within a few days. As Concertmaster, I bow and learn parts (not just mine!) ahead of time so that I can be prepared to help Donato make the most of the rehearsal time that’s available.
Jennifer Cho has a finesse and elegance to her playing, a subtle quality that I love.”—Music Director Donato Cabrera
You chose Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in collaboration with Music Director Donato Cabrera. What appeals to you about the piece?
Learning and playing The Lark Ascending every day has been a gift. No matter what, it always manages to uplift my spirits and help me think beyond my own small existence.
After the first performance, a critic said ‘the music is that of the clean countryside, not of the sophisticated concert-room’. It’s such an apt description of the magical nature of Vaughan Williams’ music. It transports us up and away from our day to day lives and gives us a birds eye view over our world. And in that view, no matter what, there is beauty that can take your breath away.
I’m very excited and honored to play with my colleagues at the California Symphony! I feel really lucky to be part of this group and it’s fun to get to play a different role.”—Jennifer Cho, Concertmaster
What do you do when you’re not playing the violin? We hear you keep chickens?
I grow food! I tend to get a little obsessed with my hobbies. It’s how I ended up here!
I am in the process of creating a food forest in our little 1/10th of an acre home in Petaluma. It is a designed system that minimizes inputs (labor, money) and maximizes yield (fruit, vegetables, flowers, eggs). So far we have over a dozen fruit trees, half a dozen berry varieties, an infinite amount of kale.
And of course, we have chickens! We were able to get five baby chicks during the first lockdown as our quarantine hens. Then, a friend who was moving away needed a home for their five chickens, bringing our total up to 14. I think we have reached our maximum number here but are very grateful for the abundance they bring.
It is so therapeutic as a musician to work on something tangible. We work all the time, but you can’t really hold a concerto in your hands and give it to someone to look at. I love being able to share all the food and flowers we grow.
There are also so many lessons to learn in the garden. It teaches us about the seasonality of things, that everything has its time in the spotlight and also its rest. Yet it also highlights how hard work and patience can be rewarded exponentially. We always overestimate what we can achieve in the short term and underestimate what can be done in the long term.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you in performance?
I was Concertmaster, performing Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade on a warm summer evening in Charleston, CA. I’m not sure who decided to build a stage over a swamp, and have outdoor concerts in the evening. The sun went down, and the stage lights turned on. Those lights were a beacon to every flying insect in all of Charleston.
The sheer variety and volume of bugs on the stage was mesmerizing.
I made the mistake to squash some of these insects by my feet. This rang the dinner bell for the carnivorous bugs present, and the smorgasbord that followed was truly memorable. There was also a very vocal goose that was present for the concert. I suppose my solos sounded very inviting to the goose as it responded enthusiastically every time I played.
Now, no matter what happens during a concert I can always tell myself, “it could have gone worse…”
Born in Glendale, California, Jennifer Cho joined the California Symphony as Assistant Concertmaster in October 2013. She was appointed as Acting Concertmaster by Donato Cabrera for the 2016-17 season, and has been a member of the San Francisco Opera first violin section since 2011. Jennifer began her studies at the age of 7 and decided to pursue a career as a violinist in high school while studying with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Associate Concertmaster Alexander Treger. She attended Crossroads School in Los Angeles before venturing east to The Juilliard School. At Juilliard, Jennifer earned Bachelors and Masters degrees while studying with Stephen Clapp and Robert Mann. For her graduate studies, she was chosen by the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to be a Graduate Scholar. This JKC Foundation financially supported her studies until she graduated with a Master’s Degree in 2008.
Jennifer is married to bassist Mark Wallace and lives in Petaluma California with her son, two cats, and fourteen chickens. Read more about their food forest garden in A Year in Petaluma with Jennifer Cho and watch her 2019 Bay Area People interview with KTVU Channel 2 here.
Jennifer Cho performs Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with the California Symphony in TAKE FLIGHT at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 7:30pm and Sunday, Jan. 30 at 4pm. Music Director Donato Cabrera leads a free, 30-minute pre-concert talk for ticket holders, starting an hour before each show. You can also visit with Lindsay Wildlife Experience animal ambassador Houston the Barred Owl in the lobby before concerts.
Main floor tickets start at $44 and $20 for students 25 and under with valid Student ID.