Behind the Scenes at FRENCH IMPRESSIONS

Soloists Kelly Guerra, Molly Netter, and Alexandra Smither take their bows after their performance of Illuminate by Katherine Balch.

From a foreign national anthem, to a groundbreaking world premiere that was immediately heralded by critics as “a masterpiece,” and unusual intermission on Sunday afternoon, this weekend’s concerts were almost as drama-filled as the Oscars.


Music Director Donato Cabrera motions for the audience to stand for the Ukranian National Anthem

Both concerts this weekend opened with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem, in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and the back of the stage remained lit up in yellow and blue for the duration of the concert.

If you didn’t have chance to speak with volunteers Yelena and Matt on Saturday, or Alona and Nadia on Sunday, you can find out more about the important humanitarian work being performed by Nova Ukraine at

Subscriber Appreciation Weekend

A love note to subscribers

We say it all the time. Subscribers are some of our favorite people. We’re all so grateful for your commitment to the success of this orchestra and your loyalty in coming back, concert after concert. As a token of our esteem, signed cards from one of the musicians on stage were at each subscriber’s seat.

Who did you get?

Seeing Double?

“Dueling Orchestra” setup for the Ades piece.

At the outset of the Thomas Adès’ Couperin piece, Donato explained that the orchestra was split into two mini orchestras that were almost the mirror image of each other. Included in the English composer’s innovative arrangement of Couperin’s studies for harpsichord were some rarely seen instruments including the bass flute, alto flute, and a 5-octave marimba, which is about 30% bigger than ones you might normally see. 

Have you ever seen a bass flute or an alto flute?

Quick Change Artists

As soon as the Couperin piece ended, the crew leapt into action to reconfigure the stage for Katie’s piece. Librarian Drew Ford and the team ensured everyone had the right music at the right music stands.

World Premiere Wow

Katherine Balch accepting her framed artwork on her composition titles.

The premiere of Katherine Balch’s two-year-delayed “Illuminate” happened! Sopranos Alexandra Smither and Molly Netter plus mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra were our featured in the song cycle, which flowed from spring through summer, fall, and winter, before returning to spring again with the words of French poet Rimbaud, “Oh sweetness! Oh world! Oh music!”  At one point, Kelly sang an aria as Molly and Ally became tiny fish in a puddle, dancing along… 

Katie addressed the audience to explain that the text becomes sonic material in this piece, and the intention was to evoke feelings, and how she experienced the subject matter.

SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman put into words how we were feeling in his glowing review.

“You listen to the sounds, but you also feel them crawling up your calf, tickling your funny bone and popping implosively somewhere just behind your head. It’s a joyous, immersive roller-coaster ride.”—SF Chronicle

Work of Arts

Katherine’s gifts extend way beyond music. She’s also a talented artist who illustrates her pieces and uses color and images to literally sketch out a piece.  (Flash back to Katie composing in color in 2018.)

We framed the three illustrations from her commissions to date with us and presented the finished piece to her.

Katherine Balch backstage with her framed artwork.

Percussionists at Work

Sohrab bows a cymbal while Allen dips a smaller antique cymbal into water to bend the pitch during Katie’s piece.

Between the Balch piece and Ravel’s charming Ma mère l’Oye in the second half, our three percussionists Allen Biggs, Sohrab Bazargannia, and Divesh Karamchandani had quite the work out this weekend. Here’s what Principal Percussionist Allen Biggs had to say.

Principal Percussionist Allen Biggs

“It was an exciting week-end of performances for us at the California symphony. For Illuminate, composer Katherine Balch asked the musicians to use unusual techniques to produce sound on our instruments.  For instance, I rubbed a super-ball across a large drum, which sounds a bit like a gray whale.  We used bows, but unlike our colleagues in the string section, we used them on cymbals, vibraphone and even crotales.  She also asked me to submerge these antique cymbals in water, which bends the pitch.  It was a challenge to not splash water on my colleagues, and to not drop my dog’s water dish while performing this piece! Another question that came up was how to play a glass bottle forcefully without breaking it (the answer is—VERY carefully).  

Illuminate also calls for us to play flower pots, stones, ceramic tiles, a brake drum—items not generally considered musical instruments.  For me, a good composer explores the tapestry of sounds in the world, and helps us broaden our musical perspective—and Katherine Balch has certainly done that.   And judging by the response of the audience, the audience was inspired by her music too.

This set of concerts was a splash of orchestral color.  Just consider—from the percussion section you heard marimba, timpani, xylophone, shakers, triangles, cymbals of all types, drums large and small, slap-stick, and a tam-tam, as well as all the unusual items mentioned above.  It is thrilling to combine our percussive world with the wonderful music coming from our dedicated colleagues in the brass, wind and string sections!   Ravel was a master of  painting with sound, and it was wonderful to end the week-end with his lush sounds.  And if that was not enough for some fans—they also got  to hear a fire alarm on Sunday!!”

Backstage, packing the percussion with mom

Al Fresco Intermission

Which neatly leads us to the events of Sunday afternoon. Right as Katie had come back out on the stage to take her bow with the soloists, a fire alarm sounded and patrons, musicians and staff all evacuated the building. The Fire Dept came and as soon as it was declared a false alarm, patrons were allowed back into the hall to resume the concert.

We are grateful to our patrons and musicians for their calm and cheerful cooperation through the episode. THANK YOU!

Post Script: A Wild Patience

On Sunday evening, Katie said that someone told her she must feel like the unluckiest composer in the world. Her response warmed our hearts.

“Are you kidding? I just got to hear the premiere of a piece that I wrote two years ago, after a global pandemic, and a fire alarm went off immediately AFTER my piece? I’d say I’m pretty lucky!”

To quote Illuminate, “A wild patience has taken me this far”—Adrienne Rich. We think it will take you a lot further, Katie.

Photos from Concert Weekend


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