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2018-2019 Season

March 1, 2019: Santa Rosa Symphony announces 2019-2020 season

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, March 1, 2019

The Santa Rosa Symphony has announced its 2019-2020 season — the first season programmed and conducted by new Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong — with a lineup that ranges from well-known masterworks by Brahms and Beethoven to new works by living composers, including two world premieres.

“We’ve clearly laid down the road map for how to keep our art form alive and relevant,” Lecce-Chong said about the season. “We’ve done this by programming these less-familiar works in ways that connect them with masterworks from the past.”

Other highlights of the seven-concert series season include the December set, when Lecce-Chong will conduct a Haydn symphony from the harpsichord and the Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus will join the symphony in Mozart’s Requiem in D minor.

As part of the launch of the First Symphony project, composer-in-residence Matt Browne will premiere his co-commissioned work during the February set.

The symphony in collaboration with Mariachi Champaña Nevin will give a world premiere of a work by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela Barba during the final concert set in May.

The 2019-2020 Santa Rosa Symphony Classical Concert Series runs from October through May at Weill Hall at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center and includes seven concert programs, each with three performances. (7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Mondays.) The symphony also offers a Discovery Dress Rehearsal Series at 2 p.m. Saturdays that are reasonably priced working rehearsals. Lecce-Chong will conduct all the concerts, with the exception of the March set, which will be led by guest conductor Gemma New.

Here are the concert programs for the 2019-2020 season:

“Unmasking the Stars”: Opening concerts Oct. 5 to 7 feature Bay Area favorite Garrick Ohlsson performing Beethoven’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 4. Strauss’ epic tone poem, “Also sprach Zarasthustra,” part of the soundtrack for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” will be paired with “How the Solar System Was Won,” by First Symphony Project composer Matt Browne. The concert opens with “Masquerade,” by London-born composer Anna Clyne.

“Master of the Modern Banjo”: Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck will perform his own “Juno” Concerto, an homage to Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” during the Nov. 2 to 4 concert set. Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from “Rodeo” and Mussorgsky’s dramatic “Pictures at an Exhibition” round out the program.

“Mozart’s Swan Song”: The Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus and four vocal soloists will join the symphony Dec. 7 to 9 for Mozart’s searing Requiem in D minor. Lecce-Chong will conduct from the harpsichord for an authentically inspired Haydn’s Symphony No. 38. Jessie Montgomery’s jazz-folk “Records from a Vanishing City” completes the holiday, vocal concert set.

“Shadows and Sunshine”: Rising young violinist Simone Porter will perform Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor on Jan. 11 to 13. American composer Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) and Brahms’ pastoral Symphony No. 2 bookend the concerts.

“Riveting Rachmaninoff”: The Feb. 8 to 10 concerts open with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3, followed by Rachmaninoff’s thorny Piano Concerto No. 3 performed by Natasha Paremski. After intermission, Composer-in-Residence Matt Browne will unveil the first premiere of the four-year First Symphony Project, jointly commissioned with the Eugene Symphony and a group of patrons.

“Showcasing Contemporary Women”: With “Down Under” guest conductor Gemma New on the podium March 21 to 23, the symphony will honor women artists with Katherine Balch’s “like a broken clock” and feature violin virtuoso Jennifer Frautschi and her “ex-Cadiz” Strad in Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastorale,” will end the concert on a bucolic note.

“Visions of Hope”: Thanks to a commission by the symphony, the season finale on May 2 to 4 will feature a world premiere of a work for mariachi, orchestra and four vocalists by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela Barba to be performed with Mariachi Champaña Nevin. Two popular tone poems by Respighi — “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome” — close the season with a sonic evocation of the City of Seven Hills.

Symphony subscriptions will be available beginning March 4 and can be purchased at the Symphony’s Patron Services Office at 50 Santa Rosa Ave. or by calling 707-546-8742.

February 18, 2019: Arts Endowment Grants Back Bay Area Organizations

by Peter Feher, San Francisco Classical Voice, February 18, 2019

Most days of the year, a conversation about the federal budget is nothing but a source a grief. But there was some decidedly good news on the government-funded end of things last week. On Feb. 13, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced a big roster of grant recipients, with a sizable number of Bay Area arts organizations on the list.
Among the awarded institutions: San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, and SFJAZZ. Because NEA grants are allotted for specific projects and not general operating costs, the money received by each organization will be in service to a set purpose. S.F. Opera’s grant will underwrite performances of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. S.F Symphony receives support for two separate youth programs. And SFJAZZ will continue to strengthen the mission of its Collective.
Other beneficiaries include Voices of Music, in support of the ensemble’s “Musical Crossroads” program; Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, for the production of a new opera titled Artemisia; and Kronos Quartet, who will stage their fifth-annual Kronos Festival this year. Music at Kohl Mansion received funding for the Bay Area iteration of “Violins of Hope,” and the Santa Rosa Symphony, with its second NEA grant within a year, will collaborate with violinist Elena Urioste. Some notable Bay Area festivals — CAAMFestSFFILM Fest, and the Silent Film Festival — also secured NEA support, via their parent organizations.
A full list of recipients, sorted geographically, can be found here. Nationally, the NEA proffered over $27 million in grants to artists from all 50 states, as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. California received 152 grants, totaling more than $3.5 million.

February 11, 2019: SR Symphony plans four-year project for new music

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, February 11, 2019

The Santa Rosa Symphony in collaboration with the Eugene Symphony in Oregon — both under the leadership of Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong — are embarking on an ambitious, four-year commissioning project with four, young American composers that represents the largest such project in the history of both orchestras.   The First Symphony Project will launch in the fall of 2019 during Lecce-Chong’s first full season as the conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Over the course of four years, each composer will have a short work performed in the fall by both orchestras, then return in the spring for the world premiere of their first-ever symphonic work.

“I believe we are in a Golden Age, and composers have found a music to reach their audience,” said the 31-year-old Lecce-Chong, who studied composing himself. “It’s not music from the 1970s or ’80s. It’s from the past five years. As an artist, I have to believe the best is yet to come.”

The project is being co-commissioned by both regional orchestras plus nine patron families. Fulfilling the goal of community engagement, composers will be embedded in the community during multiple residencies, presenting master classes for local colleges, speaking to youth orchestras and sharing the creative process with their local patrons.

“When people can put a face to the music, it becomes much less intimidating,” Lecce-Chong said. “The multiple residencies will allow us to not only celebrate these new creations but bring us closer to their creators.”

“It touches all the bases that we would hope for in a new commission,” said Alan Silow, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “It’s very community based, because Francesco wanted it to be commissioned by local patrons … and he’s one of the donors, which is rare and admirable.”

Lecce-Chong said he has been personally fundraising for the project for the past nine months. He also selected the four composers and recruited eight patron families — four in Santa Rosa and four in Eugene. Today, most new music commissions depend on nonprofit or government grants, but Lecce-Chong specifically wanted to seek out individuals.

“Francesco is almost harkening back hundreds of years ago when composition was a collaboration between composer and conductor and patron,” Silow said. “It’s introducing new music in a new model.”

Lecce-Chong selected two male and two female composers for the project — Matt Browne, based in New York City; Gabriella Smith, based in the San Francisco Bay Area; Puerto Rican-born Angélica Negron, based in Brooklyn, and Michael Djupstrom, based in Philadelphia. The conductor is acquainted with each composer and admires them for their openness to collaboration and feedback.

“They are just young people like me. They are doing innovative stuff, and they believe that music builds community,” Lecce-Chong said. “Basically, I want to treat these people like the rock stars that they are.”

Donors from Santa Rosa who are Emeritus Board members include Nancy and David Berto, Chuck and Ellen Wear and Creighton White, all of Santa Rosa. Current board member Gorden Blumenfeld is also a patron of the project.

“It’s a great idea to do this, and it aligns well with our overall goal of making this a first-class, regional orchestra,” said White, who has been involved with the symphony since 1996. “This will give these young composers a chance to bring a full symphony into the 21st century. Most commissions are not of that scope.”

Ellen Wear of Santa Rosa said she and her husband were honored to be asked to support the project, which she views as emblematic of a new day dawning for both the symphony and community.

“It’s such a unique concept that Francesco has created ... and it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” she said. “Symphonies aren’t commissioned very often, and these are all young composers. They are just ecstatic to have this opportunity.”

Next season, the Santa Rosa Symphony will welcome composer-in-residence Matt Browne for the first concert set in October, when the orchestra will play one of his smaller works. His commissioned symphony will receive its first world premiere in February 2020, then be repeated in Eugene at a later date.

With Lecce-Chong at the helm, donors said they did not have qualms about the success of the project.
“It’s an exciting project, and we have an exciting new music director to make sure it works,” White said. “He’s the kind that can make things happen.”

For his part, Lecce-Chong said he was thankful for all the support he has received so far.
“I never thought with orchestras of this size that you could do something like this,” he said. “I’m hoping to set a trend.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

November 29, 2018: Kick off the holidays with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Vivaldi's Gloria

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, November 29, 2018

When the Santa Rosa Symphony was searching for an Italian choral piece for this weekend’s “Viva Italia” program, they picked the brain of Jenny Bent, choral director of the symphony and director of choral activities at Sonoma State University.

Bent suggested Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major, a hybrid work that is part concerto, part opera . The Latin text dates back to the fourth century and is part of the Ordinary of the Mass, so it is often performed at the holidays.

“They wanted a piece 25 minutes in length that had minimal soloists,” she said. “For this time of the year, it seemed like a good fit.”
The work, which will feature two sopranos and a countertenor as soloists, is one of Vivaldi’s best known sacred works, a joyful hymn divided into 12 brief movements. While providing striking contrasts, from deep sadness to sunny brilliance, the movements also exhibit a cohesive structure, with the signature octave leaps of the first movement returning in the penultimate movement.

“The opening movement is probably one of the most familiar ... a lot of people recognize it, and it has an overall jubilant, joyful feel,” said Bent, who has been preparing the chorus since August. “The second movement has a little more of a mournful sound. It’s in the minor key.”
Although Vivaldi is believed to have composed the work around 1716, it was consigned to oblivion for two centuries after his death. In the 1920s, the Gloria in D Major was rediscovered in a pile of discarded Vivaldi manuscripts. It was finally performed in its original version in 1957.
Guest conducting the work this Saturday through Monday will be Jayce Ogren, a rising star in both the symphonic and operatic worlds. For the rest of the program, the symphony will a perform Rossini’s Overture to “Guillaume Tell” and Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” featuring viola soloist Nokuthula Ngwenyama.

“Jayce wanted this to be more of an intimate experience for the performers, so it’s a smaller choir than what we’ve had in the past,” Bent said of the chorus, made up of 65 singers from SSU and 25 singers from the Santa Rosa Junior College Chamber Singers. “And it will be a smaller orchestra than we used in the past.”

Due to the smaller ensemble, chorus will stand onstage, directly behind the orchestra, rather than in the choral loft behind the stage.

Vivaldi originally wrote the work for the choir of the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls who were the illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen and their mistresses. Vivaldi spent most of his career there as priest, music teacher and virtuoso violinist.
Back in Vivaldi’s time, the girls sang from the upper galleries of the church and were hidden from view, to protect them from corrupted noblemen and visitors to the city.

As for Stravinsky’s alleged criticism of Vivaldi — “Vivaldi did not write 400 concerts; he wrote one concerto 400 times” — Bent begs to differ.

“‘The Seasons’ is an early example of program music that is more associated with Romantic composers like Berlioz,” she said. “I consider him ahead of his time ... He was also operating within a time when you don’t have as broad a palate of chord progressions. It’s harmonically limited.”
Although she has sung Vivaldi’s Gloria before, this is Bent’s first time conducting the work. With Ogren’s help, she said the performance will follow the modern-day Baroque style while using modern pitch and instruments.
“It’s not too heavy with the tone and has specific articulations that are typical, such as a line that will swell into a dissonance and then release when it dissolves,” she said. “A hallmark of Baroque music is that it is very decorative and ornate, which is what baroque means, so you see a tapestry of various textures.”’

Bent is particularly excited about the three soloists, who all have strong connections to SSU: sopranos Esther Rayo and Jennifer Thuman were freshman in 2006, when Bent first started teaching there.

“They are starting out their careers now, and it’s fun to see that come full circle,” she said of the singers, who are also best friends. “Just to see them perform professionally is very exciting.”

The third soloist, countertenor Chris Fritzsche, lives in Santa Rosa and is a graduate and former vocal teacher at SSU. He has sung in the a cappella ensemble Chanticleer and is a founding member of the vocal ensemble, Clerestory.

“He is fabulously talented,” she said. “He’s a fixture in the Bay Area.”

The Santa Rosa Symphony, led by Guest Conductor Jayce Ogrenwill , will perform “Viva Italia” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1; 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3, at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. Tickets are $24-$87. To reserve: 707-546-8742;; or at the patron services office at 50 Santa Rosa Ave..

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

October 30, 2018: Sharon Isbin’s Villa-Lobos in Santa Rosa

by Jeffrey Freymann, KDFC, October 30, 2018

Guitarist Sharon Isbin joins the Santa Rosa Symphony this Saturday through Monday, playing the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto, as part of a program called ‘Dancing Across Time.’ The Grammy Award-winning Isbin, who founded and runs the Guitar department at Juilliard, actually started studying the instrument by chance when she was a child – what she really wanted to do was study science and rocketry.
Isbin says the Villa-Lobos concerto originally lacked one of its most memorable moments. “It was written for [Andrés] Segovia, and when Villa-Lobos first presented it to Segovia, he was a little disappointed, because it didn’t have a cadenza. So he insisted that that be added. And it ended up being one of the best cadenzas ever for a guitar concerto. So it’s kind of the prize of the piece… It comes at a moment where you are just poised to hear the guitar, in all its virtuosity and lyricism.” She’s spent her career expanding the repertoire of music written for the guitar, with a dozen or more concertos written for her, as well as many chamber works. But were it not for her brother backing out of lessons, she might not have begun. “Our family moved to Italy for a sabbatical year when I was nine, and at that time my oldest brother said he wanted guitar lessons. So my parents were amazed to find that twice a week, a fellow would commute from Milan, who had studied with Segovia and was concertizing all over Italy. So brought my brother for the interview. He said, ‘Classical? No way!’, and I volunteered to take his place…My passion really was science and model rockets. And my father used to say, ‘You can’t launch your rockets until you put in an hour of guitar playing.’ And so that’s how they bribed me to keep it up…The turning point really was when I won a competition to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra for ten thousand people. I remember walking out, I was 14 years old. I thought, “You know, this is even more exciting than seeing my little worms and grasshoppers go up into space. I think I’ll switch gears and become a guitarist,” and that’s what happened.”

October 26, 2018: Starting Early: Family Concert Series continues SRS effort to make a good first impression on young fans

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, October 26, 2018

When Francesco Lecce-Chong started his tenure as Music Director with the Eugene Symphony in Oregon last season, he launched a new family concert featuring preconcert activities in the lobby where he could hang out with the kids.

“By the time I got on stage, there was already a great buzz,” Lecce-Chong said. “We’re going to have fun … but it’s going to be serious.”
When the conductor was named as the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Music Director last spring, he embraced the organization’s 6-year-old Family Concert Series with botharms, insisting on conducting the third of three concerts aimed at elementary kids and their families. When that program rolls around in April — he chose to lead “The Composer is Dead” by children’s author Lemony Snicket — he will make history as the symphony’s first music director to take on that duty.
“Our new music director brings huge experience and enthusiasm for music education for young people,” said Alan Silow, the symphony’s president and CEO. “It harks back to his memory of Leonard Bernstein doing the Young People’s Concerts.”

One of the attractions for Lecce-Chong is that he gets to make an impression on the entire family, not just the kids. And he can let everyone know, including the orchestra, that he takes the quality of the performances seriously.
“Family concerts for me are the No. 1 thing that is important for a music director to do,” he said. “Bernstein was the first to do it, and for some reason, no one has followed his lead. That’s disappointed me.”
The symphony’s Family Concert Series started in 2012 when the orchestra first moved into its new home at the Green Music Center and its beautiful, wood-lined Weill Hall.
“The Luther Burbank has a long-standing family concert series of their own, so we never wanted to compete with them,” he said. “When we entered the Green Music Center … I didn’t want it to be enjoyed only by the Classical Series patrons.”
Series debut program
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, this season’s Family Concert Series kicks off with “The Conductor’s Spellbook,” written and narrated by Santa Rosa native Paul Dooley, who also wrote “Sonoma Strong,” a piece commissioned and performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony at its season-opening concerts earlier this month.

Dooley, who teaches music composition at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor, played percussion in the Santa Rosa High School band and sang with the choir when Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Laureate Jeffrey Kahane was actively collaborating with local high schools.
“I got to sing with the orchestra,” Dooley recalled. “And Jeffrey Kahane would come to the high school and do rehearsals with us.”
Dooley describes “The Conductor’s Spellbook” as “Harry Potter meets ‘Peter and the Wolf.’” In the 35-minute work, the composer not only introduces the instruments of the orchestra but explains the science behind how each of them works.
Dooley said he wrote the piece, which has already been performed by the Detroit and Singapore symphonies, because he feels strongly about giving kids an early taste of classical music. His kindergarten experience of attending the San Francisco Symphony not only affected his choice of a future career but inspired him to write his own family work.
“It’s the first time for most kids hearing an orchestra live, so it’s an important moment to teach and capture their imagination a bit,” he said. “It’s nice to have a concert experience that’s been created for them.”
Costumes welcome
At this Sunday’s concert, where children are encouraged to wear costumes, there will be a photo booth as well as an instrument petting zoo, where children can get a hands-on experience to help pique their interest and excitement in the music.
The family concerts often feature audience interaction and collaborations with other performing artists to help keep the young people’s attention. The first two concerts will be led by Bobby Rogers, the symphony’s new Youth Orchestra conductor.
“We keep ticket prices purposely low for the series,” Silow said. “Sometimes parents come, and sometimes grandparents. I think it’s emotionally rewarding for them to have that kind of family experience … and everyone can discuss it.”
Broadening audience
A few years ago, Silow broadened the symphony audience by offering free tickets to the Classical Series to children between 7 and 17 accompanied by a paid adult ticket. That opened the way for older kids to attend concerts in an affordable manner.
“We’re well aware of the cost of the tickets … and a lot of adults have a difficult time attending our concerts,” he said. “So we wanted to make it easy for the parents and encourage them to expose their children to a lovely night out hearing classical music.”
Young adults attending Sonoma State University and the Santa Rosa Junior College can also attend the symphony’s Classical Series for $10, through a student rush discount offered one hour before each performance.
Santa Rosa family physician Parker Duncan and his wife, Paola Diaz, have brought their two highschool- age sons — Justin Diaz and Nathan Garcia-Diaz Kaz , an oboeist and English horn player with the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra — to the Classical Series for the past three years.
“I think that’s one of the coolest things going,” Duncan said. “We would probably find a way to take them anyway, but that really enhances it.”
Both parents grew up in musical families and look upon the local orchestra as a good way to support and participate in the local community. For Nathan, he said, the symphony’s diverse array of educational programs have been a gift.
“Seeing the symphony shows him that this is one way that people can have a day job or a night job,” he said. “And his youth orchestra participation has launched him as a teen finding his way in the world.”
Jennifer and John Foley of Sebastopol have also taken advantage of the family discount deal for the symphony’s Classical Series, bringing along their two sons: Owen, 13, who plays the violin, French horn, sax and piano; and Evan, 11, who plays the cello, trumpet and sax.
When her youngest begged to play the cello, Jennifer joined him in the symphony’s String Orchestra Workshop, an entry-level training program open to both kids and adults. She’s now in her third year of cello studies.
“Evan just skyrocketed ahead of me,” she said. “They took him out … and I had to stay behind. It’s me and the little kids, but I feel age doesn’t matter. I’m just one of them. The little kids teach me.”
Because the two boys are both enrolled in the symphony’s youth orchestras, the family also gets free tickets to the Discovery Rehearsals that take place on the Saturday afternoon before each Classical Series opens.
“They really get to see the conductor from a different vantage point, because you hear him talking,” Jennifer said. “They can appreciate all the work that goes into each piece.”
Model for musicians
After attending the rehearsal, the Foley family goes back on Saturday evenings to listen to the concert, sitting in the third-floor balcony above the stage where the boys can look down on all the action.
“There’s so much going on,” she said. “The music makes them feel good, and they can appreciate the real symphony so much.”
Wendy Cilman, the symphony’s director of education, said the organization now offers six youth orchestras, including the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra for advanced students. But it’s crucial to connect them to the professional orchestra so they can see what they’re striving for.
“It’s great modeling,” she said. “We’re just so lucky to have the Santa Rosa Symphony as a resource … it’s exciting for them to see their coaches onstage and their teachers perform.”
Due to its rich array of programs, Cilman said the Santa Rosa Symphony has become nationally known as one of the finest music education programs in the country.
“There is no program that is like this north of Los Angeles in California,” she said.
“We’re working hard to reach out to the community and let people know what resources they have in us.” 
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@ On Twitter @dianepete56

October 3, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony’s New Music Director

by Jeffrey Freymann, KDFC State of the Arts, October 3, 2018

Francesco Lecce-Chong takes the podium for his first concerts as Santa Rosa Symphony's new Music Director this Saturday through Monday. The 31-year-old is only the fifth conductor to occupy that post in the 90 years of the orchestra's history. In April, after the announcement was made, an audience at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall at Sonoma State University had a chance to begin to get to know him.

There's more information about the upcoming concerts at the Santa Rosa Symphony website.

“This was the most beautiful hall I'd ever conducted in in my life, and now it's to be home for me. And it's unbelievable, really. I'm so grateful, and so thrilled, and truly humbled to have an opportunity to be here with you all, make music, and connect with you all.” Community is very important to Lecce-Chong, who also conducts the Eugene Symphony. “Making great music is one of the great joys obviously of being a conductor. But for me, I can make great music by myself, I can listen to great music. But what really is great about [being] a conductor is the people that you get to make it with, and the people that you get to share it with. And that to me is always the number one thing that brings me back to what I do… I want people to come to concerts not in spite of the fact that they have to sit there with a thousand other people, because they get to experience music with a thousand other people.” He says having to wait from October, when he auditioned (and his final concert was cancelled because of the fires) until the Spring was very difficult, because he immediately felt such an outpouring of friendship. “You have something exceptional here. It is incredible. It is beyond what I thought was possible, and certainly beyond where I ever thought I would land. You have a community that is so supportive, so generous, and most importantly, so engaged with what is going on with this orchestra.”

September 29, 2018: New conductor to open Santa Rosa Symphony season with fire-inspired composition

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, September 29, 2018

Anyone who experienced last fall's tragic wildfires will never forget the sound of the hot, erratic wind swirling about, scattering leaves and more in its path. It was as if the witches had decided to call a sabbath on the Mayacamas Mountains instead of on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Bald Mountain.”

What kind of music would you come up with if you were asked to commemorate the Wine Country wildfires and the community’s rise to recovery?

Paul Dooley, a composer who grew up on the west side of Santa Rosa and now teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, accepted that difficult assignment from the Santa Rosa Symphony last year. His challenge was also to work within the confines of a succinct, six-minute work.

“I wanted to do something in two parts — a little more reflective — but also, have a celebratory and emotional ending that was more joyous,” he said. “So the challenge was trying to do that in a short amount of time.”

To simulate the wind at the start of the piece, he employed some unusual instruments known as a tuned whirlies, which create a whistling sound through corrugated tubes as you swing them around.

“Visually, they look like a siren spinning, so there’s an analogy to that, but they sound very nice,” said Dooley, who started out as a percussionist and pianist. “I set those against a long, lyrical trumpet solo, then I add strings. For some reason, when the trumpet is in the low register with lots of vibrato and there are long, meditative strings, that has a very California sound to me.”

The Santa Rosa Symphony, which debuted Dooley’s “Sonoma Strong” for Orchestra this summer during its free mariachi concert, will perform it again on Oct. 6, 7 and 8 at the Green Music Center during the season-opening set under new Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong. The work was a last-minute addition suggested by Santa Rosa Symphony Executive Director Alan Silow.

“Alan had mentioned the piece, in case I was interested in adding it,” Lecce-Chong said in a phone interview from Miami, Florida. “It’s such a great way to start off the season. It will open the second half, and I’m pairing it with Beethoven’s 5th (symphony), which is fascinating."

The theme of both pieces, he explained, is personal struggle and overcoming hardship. Beethoven’s entire existence was a struggle, he noted, but the composer was able to transcend his suffering in his fifth and most famous symphony.

The iconic work, which has become synonymous with the composer’s life, ends with the triumph of C major over C minor. That’s exactly the kind of high note Lecce-Chong is aiming for in the symphony’s season opener.

“I think of this program as bringing people together for a celebratory start to the season,” Lecce-Chong said. “Alan made the executive decision (last year) that if we finish the season in the red, that’s OK. They gave free tickets to people (who lost their homes), and they were able to finish in the black, yet again, because the ones who could give continued to give.”

Last October, Lecce-Chong was the first music director candidate to audition for the post when the fires broke out. He and the soloist left a day early after the third concert was cancelled on Monday, Oct. 9. Before he left, he handed the keys to his hotel room to Symphony Board Chair Jamei Haswell, who lost her home to the firestorm.

“It seems more and more surreal the more I look back on it,” he said. “It was such a stressful week anyway. You’re dealing with so many events, and then at the end, you have the concerts, you step it up and put everything on the line. I was so exhausted every night.”

Although he had turned his cellphone off Sunday night in order to sleep in, his parents in San Francisco managed to call the hotel and wake him up around 9 a.m. Monday. He turned on the TV, and it showed photos of the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which had burned down. For a moment, he feared it was his hotel, the Doubletree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country.

“I thought, do I need to run out right away?” he recalled. “That was really freaky for a moment. Then I looked out my window, and I couldn’t see the trees across the parking lot. That was the moment I realized we were not going to have a concert that night. It’s right here. In our back yard. OK.”

Toured fire areas
Later, when he returned in April for a welcome reception, Lecce-Chong toured the neighborhoods affected by fire and spoke with staff and board members who had lost their homes.

“You don’t think about what it’s like to lose your home,” he said. “At the same time, they’re so feisty and dedicated. It’s unbelievable to me how much energy and willpower they have in the face of everything they’ve had to deal with.”

During the early morning hours of Oct. 9, composer Dooley was in Michigan, communicating with his parents via his cellphone. He started to receive text messages around 4 a.m., when the fires were still raging through Coffey Park.

“My parents said that ‘Santa Rosa is on fire.’ What? The whole town”? he recalled. “So I went online … and was able to see some video in real time.”

It wasn’t until the morning of Oct. 10, however, that the gravity of the situation hit home for him and many others. He went online and watched a video by a drone flying over Coffey Park.
“That’s when people really figured out what had happened,” he said. “This is an all-time devastating fire.”

At that point, Dooley had already been in touch with the symphony about his young people’s work, “The Conductors’ Spellbook,” scheduled to open the symphony’s Family Concert Series on Oct. 28 at the Green Music Center. A few months later, Silow called him back and asked him to write a commemorative piece to address the impact and recovery from the October wildfires.

At home for Christmas, Dooley took photos of the fire-impacted areas, including Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, where his dad works at Keysight Technologies.

“They just went back to work there three or four weeks ago,” he said. “My dad has to drive through a moonscape on his way to work.”

Delecate texture
For his commissioned work “Sonoma Strong,” Dooley decided to open with a transparent, delicate texture because he feels that small, intimate works sound best in the acoustically sensitive hall.

“It’s very thin for the first few minutes, and the strings just sneak it,” he said. ‘It evolves into an emotional climax, and then it transitions to the second half. The first time the woodwinds come in signals a rebirth — Part II.”

With the help of the percussion section, the piece gains energy and rhythm in its second half as it moves toward a big, celebratory ending.

“It’s very heartfelt,” Lecce-Chong said of “Sonoma Strong.” “It represents what I love about new music. It’s present and now and has a different way of connecting with people.”

The first half of the concert will open with another contemporary work, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s exuberant “Celebration,” then will showcase a favorite workhorse: Brahms’ Concerto in D Major for Violin performed by French violinist Arnaud Sussman.

Lecce-Chong said he is looking forward to giving the pre-concert lectures — it’s one of his favorite things to do — but he likes to change it up so people don’t know what to expect.

“I like to have a little time with the guest artists to get some of their insights, but it varies depending on the program,” he said. “There are programs where I will spend the entire time at the piano, and other times I’ll do audio or video clips.”

Especially during times of deep loss, when housing and other necessities seem more pressing, Lecce-Chong believes that live music plays a crucial role in demonstrating the importance of the arts.

“I think the opening concert will bring back a lot of memories,” Lecce-Chong said. “I’ve become so passionate about how an orchestra can be a center for people to come together … the fact that the symphony was able to get through this year as well as they did, with financial stability and good attendance, that says something about the community and how much they wanted this in their lives.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56

August 31, 2018: Santa Rosa Symphony's Simply Strings program gives all students a chance to shine

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, August 31, 2018

As a second-grader, Juliana Avalos was one of 20 fledgling students learning the violin through the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Simply Strings program offered at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School.

  That was in 2013-2014, the first year the program offered free instruments and free instruction— two hours a day after school, five days a week — through the social-action music program modeled after the famous El Sistema of Venezuela.

“I was in Mexico when they introduced it, and when I got back, I found out they had one more spot open,” said Juliana, 12, who just started seventh grade last month. “I made a lot of friends, and I learned how to be social.”

That first year her math grades went up dramatically. By the end of that year, she had performed at the Green Music Center side-by-side with Santa Rosa Symphony members, and her confidence began to soar as well.

“It’s made me more confident and has given me more experience,” she said. “Now, I know what I want to do in the future. I want to do some teaching and present concerts ... I am thinking of UC Berkeley. We had a concert there three years ago, and I loved everything about it.”

“It was so emotional for me when she played for the first time at the Green Music Center, ” said her mother, Florita. “With everybody playing together, the sound was so strong. I was crying.”

Like other El Sistema-inspired programs across the country, the goal of the program is to improve access to music education for underserved children while sparking positive, communitywide social change. L.A. Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel got his start in classical music through El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu of Venezuela, who used his 2009 TED Prize to train 50 fellows to teach and administer the program in the U.S. and beyond.

‘Transforming experience’
Here in Santa Rosa, the Simply Strings program was proposed by Christina Penrose, who earned a master’s degree in music education for social change from Sonoma State University and now serves as project manager of Simply Strings.

“It’s so clear there’s a social justice issue in music education,” Penrose said. “Most of the programs have a large portion of funding coming from parent groups ... We need to create an access point and break down that socioeconomic barrier so there’s a path to high-quality music education.”

When the Santa Rosa Symphony’s new music director, Francesco Lecco-Chong, auditioned with the orchestra last fall, he dropped by a beginning class of Simply Strings, where the students start out by learning how to carry and care for a cardboard violin made by their parents. He returned to the same class last spring to work with the budding musicians, who had advanced to playing scales on real violins.

“It is a transforming experience,” Lecce-Chong said during a reception at the Green Music Center. “Any time I need a dose of inspiration, I’m going to drive over there.”

The 31-year-old conductor, who is committed both to the educational and community engagement role of an orchestra, lit up and “made magic” when he worked with the young students, Penrose said.

“He’s creative and likes to experiment with new things,” she said. “That’s what it takes to be really responsive to the community.”

The El Sistema-inspired music programs tend to succeed because they are matched by a high degree of commitment from everyone involved. The program makes a seven-year commitment to each of its students from grades 2 to 8 — with all training provided for free — after which time the young musicians can audition for one of the symphony’s three youth ensembles and apply for need-based financial aid.

“Our hope is they will go into our youth orchestras and go all the way up,” Penrose said. “The reason music is an excellent social program is because of the nature of the relationships. It helps students set a goal and work hard to reach it. It teaches students to dream big.”

Intense commitment
For participating students, the commitment is also intense: two hours a day, every day of the school week, from grades 2 to 6.

“When we got home, we had to eat dinner and go to bed,” Juliana recalled of her elementary school experience. “But there was less homework.”

This year, a Simply Strings musician — cellist Joshua Huertas — is going to become the first from the program to audition for the symphony’s youth ensembles.

“We can take them through the youth orchestras, and through their life, to professional musicianship,” Penrose said. “Even if they don’t become professionals, they will appreciate music, and hopefully their input will help us remain relevant.”

Simply Strings is different from other music training in that it is a social program first and a training program second. It also embraces all kinds of music, not just classical music.

Some of the coaches specialize in jazz, and all of them are expected to perform as “teaching artists,” a standard first defined by El Sistema.

“Their role as a musician is just as visible as their role as a teacher,” Penrose explained. “So they play for the students.”

A handful of Simply Strings students, including Juliana, also take part in a vibrant mariachi program created by SSU graduate José Soto as a partnership between Cook Junior High and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

“The mariachi music is faster,” Juliana said. “I am Mexican, so the singing is easy.”

Program expanding
Over the past five years, the Simply Strings program has grown and evolved with its burgeoning student body. Last year, the parents formed a support association and donated money. This year, more staff is being added. In addition to seven coaches for musical literacy and musicianship, there will be a new site coordinator, Enrique Rojas, running day-to-day operations, and Jerome Flegg, director of instrumental music at the Santa Rosa Junior College, who will lead the orchestra of both beginning and advanced students.

Also, for the first time, enrollment has been opened to all of the Roseland District schools, not just Sheppard.

“It’s all about opening doors for our kids,” said Jenny Young, principal of Sheppard Elementary School. “It’s an incredible opportunity for students ... Oftentimes, sports isn’t their thing, so they have an opportunity to express themselves in music.”

As one of the advanced students, Juliana is looking forward to serving a leadership role in the orchestra and mentoring younger students.

“Juliana is very into giving back,” Penrose said. “She’s extremely dedicated and a very good role model.”

“No matter what she puts her mind to, she takes it to another level,” Young said. “You know her future is bright. She just sparkles.”

On her calendar at home, Juliana keeps track of all her rehearsals, recitals and concerts, because she enjoys being organized and on time.

But she also enjoys the freedom of being a kid, hanging out with family on the weekend, and hanging out with friends at orchestra rehearsals.

“We always get to learn new techniques and skills, and we eat pizza and have fun,” she said. “It’s extra fun when you’re with your friends. In our school, it’s cool to play music.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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