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  1. Behind the Scenes at EPIC FINALE

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    Soloist Nathan Chan performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto at California Symphony’s EPIC FINALE concert.

    We did it! Together, we navigated ever-changing health and safety standards and shifting community sentiments around attending in-person concerts again to deliver all ten concerts in the 2021-22 season, featuring amazing soloists like pianist Adam Golka, violin sensation Alexi Kenney, our own wonderful Concertmaster Jennifer Cho.

    This weekend’s EPIC FINALE concert was a fitting exclamation point on the season, as audiences got to hear Viet Cuong’s Next Week’s Trees (live and in-person, not on a screen!), Nathan Chan’s beautiful rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s triumphant Symphony No. 5.

    Thank you for being there to share these magical performances!

    Here are a few highlights, pictures, and stories from backstage…

    Who Moved the Basses?

    Our big, beautiful bass section can usually be found on the right side of the stage or on risers at the very back. For EPIC FINALE, keen orchestra-watchers may have noticed that they were all the way to the left. Not only that but the cellos were switched with the viola section. 

    Donato decided to set up the orchestra in this configuration to emulate how the Mariinsky Theater orchestra, which premiered his Symphony No. 5, was set up during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, and which is still performing in this configuration to this day. 

    A Week with Resident Composer Viet Cuong

    Viet Cuong takes a bow after California Symphony’s first live performance of Next Week’s Trees at EPIC FINALE

    He’s been our resident composer since August 1, 2020, but we’re still getting to know Viet in the flesh because of You Know What. It was wonderful to spend time with 3-D Viet, and to honor the uplifting piece he wrote for our online finale one year ago with the in-person orchestra performance it deserved.

    San Francisco Chronicle said Next Week’s Trees “combined Philip Glass’ harmonies with a punchy, unpredictable rhythmic palette.”

    We said, “WE LOVED IT.”

    NOTE: By popular demand, we will be sharing the full video of Next Week’s Trees soon! Subscribers, donors, and EPIC FINALE ticket holders will receive the link via email first, ahead of everyone else. 

    Prodigy and Mentor, Reunited

    Maestro Donato Cabrera and EPIC FINALE Soloist Nathan Chan snap a quick selfie before hitting the stage.

    This was a Bay Area homecoming for cellist Nathan Chan, whose relationship with Donato goes back more than a decade, when Donato led the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

    Take 3 minutes and 34 seconds out of your day to enjoy this high-energy, foot-stomping rendition of Ginastera’s Estancia Suite, performed by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra in January 2011, and see if you can spot Nathan in the cello section.

    And if you’ve been coming to California Symphony concerts for a while, in the same ensemble, you might also recognize previous guest artists violinist Alina Kobialka, flutist Annie Wu, and the exuberant Alexi Kenney as concertmaster, pirouetting at the end of the piece.

     Glissando with a Capital G


    glis·san·do/ɡləˈsändō/ noun MUSIC

    1. a continuous slide upward or downward between two notes.

    In the first half of the twentieth century, a 1934 recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was considered the gold standard. It was an age when conductors and instrumentalists still performed with much greater freedom of tempo and used very expressive gestures like glissando, in a style that was very similar to what Tchaikovsky would’ve been used to hearing.  This was a significant factor in Donato’s interpretation of the piece this weekend and the result is just a little more…epic.

    Listen to the recording of Stokowski’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

    Says Donato: “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a part of the standard repertoire for almost every orchestra musician. They’ve played it multiple times and they know it well, so the challenge is to keep it sounding fresh – for musicians and audiences alike. Switching up the orchestra seating and adding these nuances keeps it interesting for everyone.”

    Bonus Chills

    Donato shared his fondness for the 1934 Philadelphia Orchestra recording with the orchestra during rehearsal on Thursday.

    A member of the cello section then piped up that her grandfather had played cello on that very recording.

    That Horn Solo by Meredith Brown

    The French horn solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 never sounded better than this weekend.

    The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a truly magnificent horn solo — firm, pliable and clear-eyed — from principal Meredith Brown.”

    Hornist Meredith Brown during Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony at EPIC FINALE

    Soloist Turned Super Sub

    Right after his astonishing performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Nathan quietly assumed a spot at the back of the cello section for the Tchaikovsky piece, covering for a California Symphony musician who had got sick. Did you see him?

    Loved It? So Did the Critics

    We love your feedback! Whether it’s comments relayed to staff and musicians as you leave, phone calls, emails, or social media posts, we love to hear what you think.

    As for the critics, their verdict was clear.

    “Chan revealed both a profound technical gift and an expressive directness that many a better-known virtuoso could only envy. His string tone is rich and dark-hued, his intonation is fearlessly precise, and his mastery of musical narrative unfolds with unerring clarity.”—SF Chronicle

     “The chemistry between soloist and conductor was evident at every point, as Cabrera’s supple baton beautifully telegraphed Chan’s moves to the orchestra.”—San Francisco Classical Voice

    Your Next California Symphony Fix…

    SYMPHONY ROYALE: Saturday, June 18 at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland

    Your final in-person California Symphony event of the 2021-22 season is Symphony Royale, featuring Sweden’s Queen of Swing Gunhild Carling and members of the orchestra. Cocktails, dinner, a gourmet dinner by McCall’s of San Francisco, dancing, and live and silent auction excitement… We are all so ready to celebrate the season with you! 

    Tickets and tables are on sale now and a portion of your ticket sale is a donation, for which you’ll receive a tax receipt after the event. Attend with friends or come by alone and we’ll seat you with other music-loving symphony supporters.

    View the invitation here and join the party here.

    2022-23 Season on Sale Now

    Current subscribers—if you want to keep your seats, you have until May 31 to renew. (And if you want to switch seats, it’s still a good idea to renew early so you’re higher in the seat change priority order.)

    New subscribers—3, 4 or 5 concerts subscriptions are currently available for as low as $99.

    Renew online or call the office for assistance at 925.280.2490.

    More California Symphony Dates for Your Diary…


    Episode 8 – the final episode of the season – features the 2018 season opener, BEETHOVEN & BERNSTEIN. Charlie Albright plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

    FRESH LOOK: Tuesday evenings in July at Lafayette Library

    Award-winning instructor Scott Foglesong returns with an updated 4-week course for classically curious adult learners. Pre-register now to be notified when Fresh Look goes on sale.

    Putting You in the Picture

    And finally, photos!

    We had so much going on last week… Here are photo albums from the two concerts and our donor events of EPIC FINALE weekend.

  2. Behind the Scenes at FRENCH IMPRESSIONS

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    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 NovaUkraine.org.

    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