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2019-2020 Season

April 10, 2020: Get to know Francesco Lecce-Chong, music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, April 10, 2020

Ask Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong if classical music is dying, and he’ll be brutally honest. He acknowledges that the 300-year-old tradition got a bit too comfortable and was slow to adapt to a changing world.

Then he dismisses its death knell, sweeping it aside with his own unabashed passion for the art form.

“My personal opinion is that right now is the most exciting time for orchestras because ... we’re trying new things,” he told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2018 before leaving as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “Frankly, we’re just not that accessible sometimes, and we don’t show enough joy in what we do.”

Since being appointed to the Santa Rosa Symphony in March 2018, Lecce-Chong, 32, has proven himself both accessible and joyous, unassuming and brilliant, not only in his programming but in his interactions with the community, staff and musicians.

“We’ve all been getting to know each other this season,” said Joe Edelberg, the unflappable concertmaster of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “He’s friendly, respectful and demanding. My sense is that the orchestra developed trust in him pretty quickly.”

Over the past two seasons, symphony staff also have grown to value Lecce-Chong’s integrity, his collaborative style of leadership and his ability to relate to all ages, especially to young adults while leading one family concert a year, the first music director in the symphony’s history to take on that duty.

“Francesco’s positive impact and contribution has gone far beyond our admittedly high expectations,” said Alan Silow, the symphony’s president and CEO. “It includes creative programming, an articulate insight into the magic of new music and a major contribution to supporting our educational programs, which he deeply values.”

Audiences have taken note of the charismatic energy Lecce-Chong brings to the concert hall — that mysterious “it” factor — that makes the music viscerally and visually exciting, whether it’s an old warhorse like Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in January or the world premiere of Matt Browne’s Symphony No. 1, “The Course of Empire,” in February.

One of his motivations as a conductor is to connect people through the experience of live music.

“I have become so passionate about how an orchestra can be a center for people to come together,” Leece-Chong said. “It’s like a lifestyle. I have so many ideas to build on that, but it’s so exciting for me to go into a community (like Santa Rosa) that has a foot up in understanding this.”

Although the symphony’s final two concert programs of the season had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lecce-Chong did conduct a solid run of five concert sets from October through February and planned the 2020-2021 season, which will be the symphony’s second full season under his leadership.

Although the symphony’s final two concert programs of the season had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lecce-Chong did conduct a solid run of five concert sets from October through February and planned the 2020-2021 season, which will be the symphony’s second full season under his leadership.

“It’s beautiful to remind people that I’m part of the orchestra.” he said. “We’re just doing this together.”

Last December, Lecce-Chong “play conducted” the orchestra from a fortepiano in a program that opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 and closed with Mozart’s Requiem.

The transparent Haydn symphony — nervous and fleet, spare and elegant — came alive with bristled energy, mostly because of its perfect pacing.
“You can’t just play it perfectly,” Lecce-Chong explained. “There is one tempo that opens up the piece. When I do the perfect tempo, I can see the musicians smile.”

Setting the tempo is perhaps the most crucial job of a conductor, along with communicating feeling and dynamics with the body, giving cues for key entrances and coordinating the orchestra with soloists.

The high-energy Lecce-Chong admits he feels comfortable staying slightly ahead of the beat, like a pace car in a race, showing everyone where the music is headed.

“As a young conductor, it’s better not to be clear than to be late,” he said. “You always have to be on the front side of the beat.”

During Mozart’s Requiem, Lecce-Chong drew an amazingly professional performance out of the SSU Symphonic Chorus, especially on the enunciation of the consonants.

“When they rolled that first R, I knew it was going to be a good night,” he said. “I almost wanted to do a fist bump.”

The more he conducts, however, the more Lecce-Chong worries about the little details of a performance, he said. Perhaps he gave the perfect tempo, but then the orchestra slowed down. Perhaps he pushed the beat a little too much.

“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “The terrifying thing about being a music director is that you know it’s never going to be good enough.”

Looking ahead
Next season, Lecce-Chong will welcome some of his favorite soloists, such as the 19-year-old violinist Julian Rhee, recent winner of the 2020 Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, and some under-the-radar composers.

There are two world premieres planned, including the second installment of the First Symphony Project, showcasing a major work by Bay Area composer Gabriella Smith, a protegé of composer John Adams. New music and innovative ideas are never far from Lecce-Chong’s mind.

“Her big love is nature and ecology,” he said of Smith. “And we may have her lead some nature hikes.”

Behind the scenes, Lecce-Chong is working on his long-term goal of improving the sound in the hall by bringing back some of the risers that reach to the edge of the stage. New risers built by the symphony’s own stage crew are still a work in progress, but they reappeared during the February concert under the violins and violas on the outside of the stage, after being thrown out.

“The new risers have an opening at the top, so they act like an amplifier,” Lecce-Chong said. “Essentially, we’ve added an instrument on stage.”

It was the first time he put his foot down about anything. So far, he’s been pleased with the results.

“Now I can see them, and they can see me,” he said. “You can’t hide, even if you’re in the back. So people play better, and we’re together now.”

“These musicians are so brilliant, and we have a hall that is the envy of the world,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we work to improve the sound?”

At home in Sonoma County
As each concert program this season grew in complexity and risk-taking, the conductor established more stable footing in the community, getting to know the region better.

“I’m obsessed with Bodega Bay,” he said. “I drive out there to the beach and look at the ocean.”

For part of each month, he rents a Santa Rosa apartment he can retreat to between rehearsals.

“It’s nice to have a mailing address,” he said. “At a hotel, you can’t cook and you can’t get things delivered. Now I know I’m going to sleep well.”


Although he can be intensely sociable, Lecce-Chong said he’s also an introvert who needs down time to work and to plan. He tends to be private about his personal life, but that’s not always possible.

“I realize that part of selling my art form is selling me,” he said.

“My mother and childhood anecdotes always end up in my pre-concert lectures.”

For the past three years, Lecce-Chong has been visiting Miami to spend time with his fiancée, harpist Chloe Tula, who won a three-year Harp Fellowship with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas.

Since the 2018-2019 classical music season, he’s also commuted to Oregon to lead the Eugene Symphony, where he also serves as music director. Having two West Coast symphonies to lead has simplified his travel itinerary, at least when he doesn’t have guest conducting gigs.

“In one month, I usually spend a week here (in Santa Rosa) and a week in Eugene.”

In mid-March, Lecce-Chong was on the runway in Miami headed to Oregon when his remaining concerts of the season were postponed. He went to Eugene for a day, then returned to Tula in Miami, where they are hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although he feels fortunate to be able to work from Miami, the maestro confessed the scenario felt a little like “marriage boot camp.”

“You guys get to spend two months together in a one-bedroom apartment, and you can’t go out?” he joked. “It feels like a reality show, sometimes. Let’s see what happens to this couple.”

Meanwhile, the couple may have to postpone their mid-June wedding in Portland, Oregon, so guests don’t have to make the decision of staying safe or attending the party. Since some of his symphony concerts have been rescheduled for June, it’s not going to be easy to jam in a wedding, let alone a honeymoon.

Meanwhile, Lecce-Chong is excited about a new “at home” program on his personal webpage (leccechong.com/flc@home), where he is holding Happy Hour Watch Parties of famous performances and sharing Spotify playlists (including non-classical music he’s listening to like The Beach Boys) and posting educational videos he and Tula are working on together.

“I think it’s so vital that we find ways to stay connected with our audience, many of whom are most at risk,” he said. “Also, all these music students are at home, and parents are trying to deal with education ... so we’re doing a video each week.”

While he’s feeling good about having the time to connect with more audience members online, he also notes disappointment over the canceled concerts.
“I feel the weight of thousands of people who were looking forward to these concerts,” he said. “I thought I could connect people to this music, and suddenly I don’t have it anymore.”

Organic intro to music
An only child, Lecce-Chong was born in San Francisco to an architect father and artist mother. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado when he was 5, and he stayed there through high school. He considers himself a Colorado native, but his storyline has changed now that he’s based on the West Coast.
“My bio has gotten really confusing,” he said. “Now I’m a San Francisco-born, Colorado native.”

His parents met in New York City. His father, Curtis, studied architecture at Columbia while his mother, Catherine, studied visual art at Marymount College. Lecce-Chong is the only musician in his family.

“I was very fortunate that my parents were very arts-oriented, even though they weren’t musicians,” he said. “They had a few classical CDs — the Karajan Beethoven symphonies that I was obsessed with, and one or two others.”

More importantly, there was an old, upright piano from his grandmother in the house. One of his babysitters taught him to play his first little ditty — “Heart and Soul” — and he got hooked.

“I was so into it, and so relentless about it that my parents decided to give me formal lessons,” he said. “But everything about me becoming a musician was very organic.”

Initially enamored with baseball, Lecce-Chong never thought about a career in music — he was initially enamored with baseball — until he joined a Boulder youth orchestra. He played piano, violin and viola in the orchestra. By 16, he had started to conduct.

“The woman conductor there has always been my inspiration,” he said. “She gave lessons in exchange for helping her out. She believed in me when I didn’t know what I was doing.”

As soon as he conducted his first piece in public — the Russian Dance (Trepak) from “The Nutcracker” ballet — something clicked inside.

“I’ve always been as much of a people person as a musician,” he said. “As it turns out, I like working with a lot of people.”

A smooth trajectory
Lecce-Chong decided on the Mannes College of Music in New York City after he found a piano teacher there he wanted to work with. He studied composing and piano for a year, then dropped composing and transferred over to the conducting program, graduating with a double major.

Next, he won a fellowship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and studied with the legendary Otto-Werner Mueller, a German-born conductor who served as his mentor.

Lecce-Chong left Curtis early to take a job as associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and never looked back.

“I was so lucky,” he said. “I don’t know many others who have had as smooth a trajectory. ... I was always worried that I would not work, but I always worked.”

After four years in Milwaukee, he spent three years as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. There, he deepened his understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of a professional orchestra, talking to the musicians about what style of conducting worked for them.

In April 2017, he was chosen out of 200 candidates to lead the Eugene Symphony, following in the footsteps of renowned predecessors such as Marin Alsop. Almost a year later, in March 2018, the Santa Rosa Symphony board unanimously chose him as its fifth music director in the orchestra’s long history.

Along the way, Lecce-Chong has continued to guest conduct all over the world, from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to the New York Philharmonic. His debut leading the San Francisco Symphony in June 2019 was met with critical acclaim.

“Lecce-Chong’s energetic leadership, which made room as well for interludes of tender lyricism, was a constant source of excitement,” music critic Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Strong relationships
While local symphony supporters hope Lecce-Chong will choose Santa Rosa as his full-time home, the conductor is leaving that decision to his fiancée, who has been planning their wedding long-distance from Miami. The conductor maintains that no matter where they end up, his willingness to spend extra time in Sonoma County outside of rehearsals and performances is what really counts.

Since he joined the symphony, he has put in long days, pinballing between meetings with community members and donors, business leaders and school and college music programs. In between, he carries out administrative duties and makes the rounds of the symphony’s four youth orchestras.

Sonoma State University Orchestra Director Alexander Kahn, who serves as Lecce-Chong’s unofficial assistant during rehearsals, said he is impressed by the conductor’s constant high level of preparedness, with all of his scores carefully analyzed and often memorized.

“His conducting is always expressive and full of information, which allows him to show what he wants without wasting too many words,” Kahn said. “When he does speak, he expresses himself humbly and with self-deprecating humor in a way that lets the musicians know that he respects them and enjoys their company.”

If he could be faulted for anything, it might be that Lecce-Chong leans a bit heavily on the well-known standards in his programming. But performing cornerstones of the repertoire is a bit like speed dating for the young conductor, a fast and efficient way he can get to know the orchestra, and vice versa.

And his clear vision of the music makes even familiar pieces sound new again.

“I was really proud of the way the orchestra handled the Brahms this season,” Lecce-Chong said. “They proved they could take it to another level.”

Like many conductors, Lecce-Chong tries to find a balance between the traditional interpretation of a work and the desire to invent a new one, so that each concert adds to the audience’s understanding of the music.

“Classical music has the most history behind us, so it can be scary because we feel like we’re trying to preserve something,” he said. “But it should never feel like we’re preserving Beethoven’s greatness. The question is, how do we communicate how great it is?”

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

March 27, 2020: Santa Rosa Symphony postpones spring concerts

by Diane Peterson, Santa Rosa Symphonoy, March 27, 2020

The Santa Rosa Symphony has postponed all of its remaining 2019-2020 concerts until the summer in response to the county and state shelter-in-place orders. The postponed concerts include two Classical Series sets, one Family Series concert and one Pops concert.

The programming for all of the these concerts is unchanged, except that Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong will step in to conduct the Showcasing Contemporary Women series, which was originally planned for a guest conductor.

“In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever to have beauty in our lives — especially as we are unable to join together in person to experience art,” Lecce-Chong said.

All of the concerts will take place at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, with the exception of the Pops concert, which will be held at its usual place, the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

The Showcasing Contemporary Women classical series has been rescheduled from March 21-23 to June 6, 7 and 8, 2020.

Beethoven Lives Upstairs, the family concert, has been rescheduled from April 19 to June 14, 2020.

The Visions of Hope classical series has been rescheduled from May 2-4 to July 11, 12 and 13, 2020.

Remember When Rock Was Young — the Elton John Tribute Symphony Pops has been rescheduled from April 26 to Aug. 9, 2020.

In an unprecedented move, the Symphony Board of Directors has approved a plan that guarantees that any musician hired to perform services in March, April or May will be paid promptly for those services, even though the work will happen at a later date.

Ticket holders can keep their tickets for the originally scheduled concert dates to use on the new dates. If you cannot attend on the new date, you have three options, but you need to make your request by the Thursday before the new concert date: you can convert your ticket to a tax-deductible donation, request a ticket voucher for the next season or request a gift certificate, which never expires and may be used toward a season renewal or purchase of single tickets.

Pops ticket holders should contact the Luther Burbank Center’s box office at 707-546-3600.

March 6, 2020: Santa Rosa Symphony 2020-2021 season program broadens horizons

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, March 6, 2020

For its second full season under Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony will offer an expanded 2020-2021 season that will include a new opera offering — Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in concert — along with two world premieres, balanced by beloved masterworks by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The season will open on Oct. 2 with a gala honoring community icons Norma and Corrick Brown (Corrick Brown is the symphony’s conductor emeritus) and run through May 3. Returning guest artists include Russian pianist Alexander Toradze, cellist Zuill Bailey and violinist Elina Vähälä.

Lecce-Chong also will showcase a few of his favorite soloists: rising 19-year-old violinist Julian Rhee and clarinetist David Krakauer, who will perform traditional klezmer music and a world premiere of a klezmer clarinet concerto he co-wrote.

In keeping with the new standard of presenting two premieres every year, the orchestra will continue its First Symphony Project with a performance of a new symphony by Composer-in-Residence Gabriella Smith, the second of four composers commissioned over four years to write a major work. A short work by Smith, “Tumblebird Contrails,” will be performed in November.

“At this moment, this orchestra has five commissions over the next three seasons, all longer than 20 minutes,” said Lecce-Chong, who put together the private funding for the First Symphony Project, a collaboration between his two orchestras in Santa Rosa and Eugene, Oregon.

During the 2019-2020 season, Lecce-Chong said he intentionally programmed a chunk of American music written during the past 10 years to show its vitality and accessibility. This included eight contemporary works and two world premieres.

For next season, Lecce- Chong has sprinkled in some little-known gems, shining a light on composers who are no longer alive and not well known, such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg, whose “Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes” will open the first concert set.

“The big picture for this (new) season is the fact that I am now able to diversify a bit.” he said. “I wanted to kind of broaden our horizons.”

This November and December, the symphony will perform the final symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, back-to-back.

“This is the meat of the repertoire,” he said. “Audiences know them and the orchestra will have played them many, many times.”

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 will be performed with the SSU Symphonic Chorus for the holiday choral concert, a long-standing tradition that brings the community together.

“It hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance,” Lecce-Chong said of the sprawling, 70-minute work. “These days, there are so few things that people can come together over. This is one of those.”

While the 2019-2020 season will close with a new work that fuses mariachi and classical music, next season the orchestra will introduce another folk form — a concerto incorporating klezmer music — during the January concert set.

Clarinetist David Krakauer, once Lecce-Chong’s chamber music coach, made a famous klezmer recording, “The Dreams of Prayers of Issac the Blind,” with the Kronos Quartet.

“Klezmer music is part of the Jewish heritage and comes from the oral tradition of storytelling,” Lecce-Chong said. “To begin the concert, he has arranged traditional klezmer music. His concerto will be very eclectic, so it’s good to hear the traditional first.”

Lecce-Chong also is looking forward to the final concert in May, in which he will pair a contemporary work by Carolyn Shaw — an homage to one of Haydn’s string quartets — with Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 performed by violinist Julina Rhee. Rhee already has won several major violin competitions.

“We worked together when he was 16, and he played Brahms and knocked my socks off,” Lecce-Chong said. “I’ve been keeping a close eye on him. ... I love that his virtuosity is an afterthought. The first thing you recognize is the musicality and the warmth. Then you notice that the violin is easy for him.”

Picking up where his predecessor Bruno Ferrandis left off, Lecce-Chong is excited to add a special Opera in Concert, Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” for one evening only in April.

The concert will be a collaboration with the Santa Rosa High School’s ArtQuest program, which offers a school choir, string quartets and visual artists who will create a lively experience in the lobby before the concert.

“They are going to focus on the Enlightenment,” he said. “The opera was a very personal statement on the Enlightenment. ... It was about becoming your own person.”

This will be the first time the symphony will present an opera in concert, but probably not the last.

“We want to give people a chance to hear the orchestra play these great operas such as ‘Carmen,’ ‘La Boheme’ and ‘La Traviata,’” he said. “I am dedicated to growing and to filling a need in the community.”

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

March 6, 2020: Santa Rosa Symphony announces lineup for 2020-2021 season

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, March 6, 2020

There are seven Classical Series Concert programs and a new Opera In Concert program planned for the Santa Rosa Symphony’s 2020-2021 season. All are conducted by Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong except for the February concert set, which will be led by guest conductor Aram Demirjian.

Oct. 3, 4, 5: Pianist Alexander Toradze returns to perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2; Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Theme; and Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique.”

Nov. 7, 8, 9: Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä performs Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major; composer Gabriella Smith’s “Tumblebird Contrails”; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique”

Dec. 5, 6, 7: Brahm’s “Academic Festival Overture”; Vaughan Williams’ “Flos Campi” for Viola, Orchestra and chorus, featuring principal violist Elizabeth Prior; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, featuring the SSU Symphonic Chorus and soloists.

Jan. 9, 10, 11: Clarinetist David Krakauer performs traditional klezmer music as well as a world premiere of “The Fretless Clarinet Concerto,” which he wrote with Kathleen Tagg; Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

Feb. 13, 14, 15: Pianist Michelle Cann performs Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Second Rhapsody,” William Grant Skill’s “Darker America” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

March 20, 21, 22: Cellist Zuill Bailey performs Michael Daugherty’s “Tales of Hemingway”; Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña” from “Andalucia Suite”; Ravel’s “Bolero,” and Gabriella Smith’s Symphony No. 1 will get its second set of performances, just days after its world premiere in Eugene, Oregon as part of the First Symphony Project.

April 10: Opera in Concert: Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” a collaboration with San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows and ArtQuest at Santa Rosa High School.

May 1, 2, 3: Violinist Julian Rhee performs Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish”; Carolyn Shaw’s “Entr’acte” for String Orchestra; Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

The concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Weill Hall in the Green Music Center. Discovery rehearsals are held at 2 p.m. Saturdays.

In addition, the Santa Rosa Symphony will continue to offer a three-concert Family Series in 2020-2021, with Lecce-Chong conducting the spring concert; Pops Conductor Michael Berkowitz will conduct four Symphony Pops concerts at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

The symphony will also offer special, multimedia concerts at the Green Music Center this summer to be announced with the GMC’s summer season.

Classical Series subscriptions will go on sale Sunday. The subscription renewal deadline to retain the same seats is April 10.

New and current subscribers can renew their subscription in person at the Patron Services Office at 50 Santa Rosa Ave., by calling 707-546-8742, mailing in a completed renewal form (in season brochure for new subscribers) or faxing their form to 707-546-8742.

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

March 3, 2020: Simply Strings - Musical Instruction for Life

by Mayra Lopez, La Prensa, March 3, 2020

The music has impacted, in many ways, the students of the Simply Strings program at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School in Santa Rosa. With the guidance of the Santa Rosa Symphony, children are learning to play classical string music, while developing social skills and self-confidence.
 
Parents also benefit, as Ashley Cruz, a third-year student who plays the violin, says, "My parents like me to be learning violin, because they say that now they won't have to hire a mariachi anymore!"
 
Simply Strings was founded in 2013 by Christina Penrose, then a Master's student at Sonoma State University. Penrose was working to graduate in music education and felt inspired to start the project as part of her studies. She now directs the Institute for Musical Education of the Symphony of Santa Rosa.
 
Penrose created the program with the "El Sistema" model in mind. Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, "El Sistema" is a Venezuelan musical program aimed at social justice, created with the vision of bringing musical education to underserved communities. Initially it began in Caracas, Venezuela, and has spread throughout the world.
 
There are currently 61 students enrolled in Simply Strings, who receive free music education five days a week, and have access to the instruments. Participants are students ranging from second year (elementary) to high school, and the majority are students of the Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School. But the program is also open to other students.
 
One of the strongest elements of the program is its instructors and its staff, who patiently support and guide their students. “I am really impressed with the teaching staff, with how dedicated they are to teaching,” says Kate Matwychuk, Program Director.
 
The students are very expressive about the affection they feel towards their mentors. “They drive you, so you do it right,” says Gael Guzman, 9, who plays the violin. "Until when you think you can't."
 
Katherine Garcia, a fifth-year student who plays the cello explained, "You can tell them anything."
 
Many of the students said they joined Simply Strings because they wanted to learn something new. “I always wanted to learn to play the violin,” says Ashley. "I like how it sounds".
 
Students not only play for their classmates, they also do it at events, even at the Rohnert Park Green Music Center.
 
When I asked them if they ever got nervous when they played, the response was quick and strong: "Yes!" Julissa García, 9-year-old bassist, explained: "I'm always afraid of making a mistake."
 
Although they may have stage fright, children have also discovered that they love to play. “I like that we show people what we can do, we are sharing what we love,” he continued.
 
"It's amazing to see them learn and improve, face challenges," says Matwychuk. "Because that is also part of the concept."
 
Another success of Simply Strings is that parents and families also join the program. A parent association was formed to give more support to children, something that has come to distinguish them from other projects of "El Sistema." "They are very dedicated and committed," said Wendy Cilman, Director of Education at the Symphony of Santa Rosa. "This is unusual in the program "El Sistema."
 
According to her, Simply Strings seeks to “give students a sense of self-esteem, achieving it with hard work and discipline, but also having fun.”
 
Participants not only learn musical skills; They are also develop passion and discipline. They practice two hours a day, five days a week, after school.
 
When they are ready to graduate from elementary school, they are encouraged to continue participating in their musical education throughout high school and even later. Some Simply Strings alumni have continued to play with the Santa Rosa Youth Symphony Orchestra (SRSYO).
 
Cilman expects them to continue growing. "We would love to have more students," she says.
 
On March 15, students will meet for a unique performance. The ensemble will play an experimental and sensory show at the Green Music Center. "There hasn't been a concert like this before," explains Matwychuk.
 
For Cilman, the performances are more than just a show. "Students are reaching populations that are harder to reach with this type of music."
 
It is difficult not to smile, watching students practice seriously with their instruments. "I love to see the potential of children," she continues. "It's exciting to see them grow, develop as people and as musicians."

January 29, 2020: Santa Rosa Symphony gives world premiere of Matt Browne work in February

by Diane Peterson The Press Democrat, January 29, 2020

Composer Matt Browne grew up in a Monument, Colo., with all kinds of music swirling about his ears. He performed sax in his school band, his dad played in a rock band and his mom was a Bob Dylan fanatic.

But it was Browne’s two older brothers — one a fan of ’90s hip-hop and R&B, the other deeply devoted punk rock and metal — who pushed him toward the world of classical music.

“They fought each other and were always trying to vie for my musical allegiance,” he said. “Because I wanted to be the angry contrarian, I went the exact opposite direction. But I still love Boyz II Men and Bad Religion.”

The 31-year-old composer, who now lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, already has a list of nearly 60 classical works to his name. He will premiere his first symphony with the Santa Rosa Symphony under Francesco Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong in early February at the Green Music Center. The five-movement, 40-minute work will get a second premiere in March with the Eugene Symphony, also under the baton of Lecce-Chong, its music director.

The two premieres will mark the launch of Lecce-Chong’s ambitious First Symphony project, a four-year co-commissioning enterprise between the two symphonies and four young American composers, all chosen by the conductor. In addition to a full symphony apiece, each composer will also have a short work performed by each symphony, enabling them to connect with the communities through multiple residencies. (Browne’s short work, “How the Solar System Was Won,” was performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony in October.)

As a rising young composer, Browne knows only too well that the First Symphony Project presents a rare opportunity. He normally gets commissioned to write works of 10 minutes or less.

“I know that this project is a massive undertaking for both orchestras,” Browne said. “It takes someone like Francesco to really convince people that it’s worthwhile. ... I also know I’m setting the tone with the orchestra, the donors and Francesco. I am the first example of whether or not this was a good idea, so I do feel the responsibility.”

Browne, who majored in music compositions at the University of Colorado and got his master’s and PhD from the University of Michigan, based his Symphony No. 1, “The Course of Empire,” on a series of five paintings by 18th-century painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. The paintings depict a fictional landscape at different points of its natural and human development.

Replicas of the five paintings will be on display in the lobby before the performances, and Browne will be there too, to chat with concert attendees.

Earlier this month, Browne spoke by phone with the Press Democrat (this interview has been edited for length).
Q: What inspired you about those five paintings by Thomas Cole?
A: The scope of it made me think of Mahler. What I always loved about his music was his maximalism. He was really trying to take the orchestra and use it to its full potential. There will be 100 musicians on stage, and sometimes they will all play, and then there will be a 3-minute flute solo. ... There are small stories going on amidst these big stories, and it’s the same with these paintings.

Q: Some of these paintings depict elaborate buildings and bridges. Do you see a link between architecture and music?
A: I use a metaphor when talking about composers, conductors and performers. Composers are the architects. They have the crazy ideas and then they hand them off to the conductor and performers, who are like the foreman and the engineers who build the things.

Music and architecture are very similar because they are built by particular building blocks. There are certain styles of music and architecture, but there are still basic things — in architecture there are doors, arches and scaffolding, and in music, melody harmony and rhythm.

Q: Could you describe the dramatic arc of the five movements?
A: The general arc is the arc of humanity as we know it, with warnings about what the future could look like. There’s a big, upward trajectory through the first three movements, with everyone working hard and building and taking over. Then in the third movement, we have arrived and at the end, it’s like the end of a Tchaikovsky symphony. It could almost end there. But as an ironic statement, I go into the devastating fourth movement and from there, it deteriorates into madness and the fourth movement just peters the idea out. It ends just like it began.

Q: Does it feel different to be writing a long-form work, such as a symphony?
A: Yes, it feels different. I’ve been squeamish about using the word symphony, just because it has so many connotations for me and anyone listening. You think of Beethoven and Mozart. I eventually got past that. I’m 31 now, so I’ve been out of school for a few years, and I cultivated what I consider a ‘voice’ and a ‘style,” and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. ... Now I’m going to try some other stuff. But this big, massive orchestra piece is putting an exclamation point on what I’ve done so far.

Q: What may surprise the audience about this work?
A Just the fact that a living composer is having a 40-minute piece performed on an orchestra program is pretty unusual. I’ve written a lot of orchestra music, but they’re all 5 to 10 minutes long ... so you don’t have a lot of time. You have to front-load your ideas.

I think what people might be surprised by is how much time I take to unfold some of these ideas. In the first two or three minutes of the symphony, there is no harmony or melody. It’s just a building of a texture.

Q: The composing process is often mysterious. Can you talk about what it looks like for you?
A That’s tough because it is different every time. But how I get my inspiration is being away from anything musical and doing my own thing, reading books, looking at historical sites. Almost all of my music is based on something that piques my interest.
Then I think about how I could turn it into a piece. I sort of do it backwards. I think of the overall structure and form of the piece first ... and then I focus in on the key and the melody. Finally, I have enough information to sit down and write the piece.

Q: Is there a big difference between writing chamber and symphonic music?
A: I think of all of my music in some way as being theatrical. So if I’m writing for two cellos, I like to think of it as two actors on stage talking to each other. When I write for an orchestra, the drama comes from the breadth of the sound.

Q: This piece has a lot of percussion in it. Why are you drawn to that section of the orchestra?
A: Percussionists are some of my favorite people to work with because they are very adventurous in what they will try to do with you. I write a lot for saxophone, and percussion has the same issue — Beethoven never wrote for them. So their repertoire is being written right now. I just wrote a percussion quartet with four friends of mine, because I have all these strange ideas, and they will give it a try. There’s an insane amount of possibility, especially for orchestra.

Q: You incorporate a Welsh hymn into the symphony. Why did you choose that work?
A: The text of the hymn very much goes along with the message of the piece, which is anti-ambition. Look for happiness in what you have. But what I really loved about the hymn is that it is almost the national anthem of Wales, and they have one of the best rugby teams in the world. Every time they have a big, national game, the entire stadium will sing the hymn, in harmony. It’s an unbelievable community-building thing that I absolutely love.

Q: How much revision do you think you’re going to do?
A: I love revising, up until a point. During rehearsals, I can guarantee we are going to be making changes. After the performances in Santa Rosa, I’m going to be making changes for Eugene, and after that, I’ll make a few more changes. And then I’ll think, this piece is locked. In the meantime, I want to make the piece as good as possible.

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

November 29, 2019: Mozart's Requiem at Weill Hall

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, November 29, 2019

Mozart’s final work, the powerful Requiem in D minor, has always been cloaked in mystery.

The 35-year-old composer died before he could finish the work, and in the delirium of his final illness, he grew to believe he was preparing it for his own demise. After his death, his wife had it completed in secrecy so she could present it as Mozart’s work and collect the much-needed fee.

“What we have from Mozart himself is probably only 25% of the piece that we know,” said Francesco Lecce-Chong, music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “That means 75% was completed by people who may or may not have received directions from Mozart.”

Some students and friends of the composer ended up finishing the sketches and fragments left behind. Foremost among them was Franz Xaver Süssmayr, and his version has been the one heard in concert halls for more than two centuries.

“I’m like most people — the version that I fell in love with is the traditional one,” said Lecce-Chong, who will lead a newer arrangement of the beloved choral work with the symphony, four soloists and the Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus in early December.

Lecce-Chong is excited to be working from the score developed in the 1990s by Robert Levin, who he describes as “the greatest living Mozart scholar today.

“He has taken the Süssmayr (version) as the closest thing we have to Mozart, so he’s not trying to create a different piece,” Lecce-Chong explained. “This version simply clarifies and heightens the experience that we know and love.”

Although Süssmayr was a student of Mozart’s, apparently he was not a very skilled one. And Levin used that knowledge to make a few judicious changes, looking at the work from the point of view of Süssmayr himself.

“He asked, ‘If you were rushed and were not a good composer, what are the mistakes you would have made?,’” Lecce-Chong said. “There’s a lot of orchestration issues, text setting issues, and most importantly, Süssmayr cut some of the fugues short, because they are the hardest type of writing to do.”

In Levin’s arrangement, the “Hosanna” fugue is doubled in length and a brand new movement, an “Amen” fugue, has been added, Lecce-Chong said.
“Mozart always did a fugue for ‘Amen,’ and they found a fragment on the back of one of the manuscript pieces,” he said. “So Levin takes those 12 bars and turns it into a glorious fugue.”

Lecce-Chong, who performed the Mozart Requiem with the Eugene Symphony earlier this month, has personally purchased the parts to Levin’s arrangement of the Mozart Requiem and had them notated for how he wants the orchestra to play it, with tempi, dynamics and articulation markings.

“Owning the parts also allows me to make small, personal alternations in how certain instruments are used that will be completely unique to these performances,” LecceChong said.

The Santa Rosa Symphony’s December concert set, on Dec. 7, 8 and 9, will also include American composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City,” a tone poem based on her memories of growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s; and Haydn’s dramatic Symphony No. 39, one of the few pieces the composer known for his sunny disposition wrote in a minor key. Lecce-Chong will lead the Haydn symphony from the fortepiano.

October 31, 2019: Santa Rosa Symphony showcases banjo master Béla Fleck

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, October 31, 2019

Béla Anton Leos Fleck was named after three, 20th-century classical composers — Bela Bartok, Anton Webern and Leos Jánacek — so it’s not surprising that one of the world’s most versatile and virtuosic banjo players has written three solo concertos showcasing his own instrument.

“Juno Concerto,” which Fleck will perform this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony, is his third attempt at the genre and was written after the birth of his oldest son, Juno, now 6. The commission for the concerto allowed Fleck to spend more time at home with his family while refining his orchestration chops.

“When I wrote this new one, I had a better idea of what each instrument does well (in an orchestra.),” Fleck said in a phone interview from Mesa, Arizona, where he was on tour with a world music trio. “It plays down better, and it works.”

For the concerto, Fleck said, the challenge will be integrating his instrument’s natural rhythms with the orchestra.

“The notes come in a flurry, and you have to ride the waves,” he said. “It always depends on the conductor’s ability to listen and understand the speed.”

Throughout his career, Fleck has routinely broken new ground in the musical world, experimenting with new sounds, techniques and genres, particularly jazz.

During the 1980s, he performed and recorded with the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival. In 1988, he put together the Flecktones, an all-instrumental band blending elements of bluegrass, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues and world music. He also continued to collaborate with other musicians, including bassist and composer Edgar Meyer and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Over the years, he has won more than a dozen Grammy awards that span more categories than any other artist.

In one of his most interesting experiments, Fleck went on a pilgrimage to sub-Saharan Africa — the birthplace of the banjo — where his interactions with local musicians spawned a fascinating 2008 documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” and a 2009 companion album, “Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet.”

“If I had a mission, it’s to give the banjo a little more respect,” Fleck said. “It comes from Africa — it’s not the white, Southern joke instrument of “Dueling Banjos” and “Hee Haw.” It became pictured in a certain way, and that left out a central truth ... all the African music that was played on it, the banjo orchestras (of the late 19th century), and the music coming out of the New Orleans scene.”

Fleck first became aware of the banjo at age 5, when he heard bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs play the “Scruggs style” of picking on the country hit, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which became the theme music of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“It wasn’t just the banjo, it was the way he played it,” Fleck said. “There was something about that sound that went directly into me ... he played with three fingers, with elegance and grace.”

Scruggs had originally played with Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass,” alongside guitarist and singer Lester Flatt. The pair later peeled off to become Flatt & Scruggs, then split up to form their own bands.

“When Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined that band, that’s when bluegrass coalesced. Then they left, and the game was on,” Fleck said. “The bluegrass banjo is one of the great offerings bluegrass has made to American music. There’s nothing like that anywhere else in the world.”

Despite growing up in New York City, where there was “no folk or country music anywhere,” Fleck’s love affair with the banjo finally came to fruition when he was 15 and his grandfather bought him an instrument. He immediately picked it up, making progress with the help of a string of banjo teachers and his own, bottled-up passion.

“I would race through teachers and grab all I could, and they would send me to somebody else,” he said. “I was sponging up all this material, but I was definitely self-motivated.”

One of his most important mentors was the banjo player, Tony Trishka, who Fleck describes as “very jazzy and progressive and open-minded.”

“I tried to be like him,” he said. “And eventually, I realized I could find the things that suited my personality.”

When plucked rather than strummed, the banjo sounds similar to a classical guitar. For that reason, Fleck will have to amplify the instrument this weekend to be heard above the symphony.

“It’s not loud when you compare it to the other instruments,” he said. “I’m into attempting to draw a beautiful sound.”

Fleck wrote the three banjo concertos — plus other concertos for multiple instruments — because he wanted to stretch himself as a composer.

“In my first concerto, I tried a lot of stuff, and a lot of it was hard for the orchestra,” he said. “By the second concerto, I had played the first piece several times with orchestras in Philadelphia and Cleveland and Nashville, so I had the experience of being around all the orchestra instruments.”

As a composer, Fleck was inspired by Edgar Meyer, who writes for the string bass because there is a dearth of repertoire for that instrument.

“It seemed like there wasn’t a banjo concerto out there that I wanted to go out and play,” he said. “So I needed to create it myself.”

As preparation, he immersed himself in classical music he wasn’t familiar with, including works by Brahms and Bartok, as well as some of his favorites by Mozart and Beethoven.

A resident of Nashville since 1981, Fleck is married to banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, and the couple has toured together as a duo with their son, Juno, and a nanny. Now that they have another little boy, 16-month-old Theodore, touring has become more difficult.

Being a father was an eye-opener for Fleck, who felt the experience allowed him to “join the human race.”

“Before becoming a father, I was under this impression that music was the most important thing in the world, and everything else was secondary,” he said. “So it put me back into real life, and things that matter and taking myself a lot less seriously. All of a sudden I got demoted.”

As he has gotten older, Fleck has found it harder to pivot between the different genres of music he has played over the years. So he now takes his time and practices before each gig.

“I used to play on Thursday with the Flecktones, and on Friday with bluegrass,” he said. “Now I want preparation for each one.”

Although he’s not crazy about the “crossover” label, Fleck points out that music has always evolved and borrowed from other music. What’s more important is whether it’s good crossover or not.

“I think blending is a good thing to do, and hopefully you do it well, and it sounds good to people,” he said. “It comes down to the actual musicians and how good they are and if they can make it work.

“That’s my goal, and that’s what I battle for ... every day.”

October 6, 2019: Gaye LeBaron, Press Democrat columnist, honored at Santa Rosa Symphony gala

by The Press Democrat, October 6, 2019

Historic, really, was Friday night’s recital and dinner at Sonoma State University’s Donald & Maureen Green Music Center that launched the 92nd season of the Santa Rosa Symphony.

Present for the gala honoring premier Sonoma County history author, journalist and community conscience Gaye LeBaron were two founding pillars of the world-class performance hall that became the symphony’s home in 2012. Joining Green Music Center pioneers Don Green and Corrick Brown were more than 160 symphony champions, arts advocates and admirers of guest of honor LeBaron.

A reception in the music center’s Prelude Restaurant & Bar transitioned to the recital on the main stage by piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson.

He was introduced by Francesco Lecce-Chong, who begins his first full season as the symphony’s fifth music director. Ohlsson, the only North American to win the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, played selections by Brahms and Chopin.

He would go on to appear as guest pianist in the weekend and Monday performances that open the symphony’s new season.

From the recital, gala guests moved into the lobby for dinner and salutations to LeBaron, a longtime patron and chronicler of the Santa Rosa Symphony who declared it “the best in the whole world.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire led an auction, then a fund-a-need appeal that brought donations of nearly $245,000 to the symphony’s far-reaching Institute for Music Education.

October 3, 2019: Santa Rosa Symphony launches first full season under new maestro

by The Press Democrat, October 3, 2019

Francesco Lecce-Chong opened the season for the Eugene, Oregon, Symphony last week, then flew directly to Santa Rosa to start rehearsing for the opening concerts this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony.

The rising young conductor takes the fast pace in stride after spending a busy summer on the road. He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, opened the summer season of the San Diego Symphony and made his debut with the Xi’an Symphony in China. Not to mention conducting three summer concerts in Eugene and two in Santa Rosa.

“It’s amazing that this season worked out, because it’s always a jigsaw puzzle between the two orchestras,” Lecce-Chong said in a phone interview from Eugene. “It comes together in the course of a month — a period of time where I really dig in — so it’s a product of where I’m feeling musically at that moment.”

In April 2017, Lecce-Chong was chosen to lead the Eugene Symphony. In March 2018, he was named the fifth music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony in its 90-year history. This is his first full season in Santa Rosa and marks the first time Lecce-Chong has done all his own programming. His aim was to find “good music and a diversity of music.”

For diversity, he knew he wanted to include recently written music on every program to refresh the musicians’ and audiences’ idea of “new.”

“These are all pieces I feel strongly about,” he said.

“I don’t want to do new music that doesn’t communicate something, that’s either so wrapped up in itself or so foreign in its relevance that it has no meaning.”

Case in point: This weekend’s concerts at the Green Music Center open with “Masquerade,” a swirling, cinematic but brief work by English composer Anna Clyne. Commissioned by the BBC, the piece was inspired by the 18th-century, outdoor music and dance performances held at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London.

“It’s one of those beautiful, glorious pieces,” Lecce-Chong said.

“I was kind of shocked — it’s sort of become the token new music piece that’s being programmed around the orchestras this season.”

Providing a sneak peak of the February concert, when Matt Browne’s new symphony will get its world premiere as part of the First Symphony Project, Lecce-Chong will also introduce the young composer and his dynamic, 8-minute work, “How the Solar System Was Won.”

Browne will engage in the pre-concert talks with Lecce-Chong, so people can get to know him, before he returns in February for another week of residency.

“It makes a big difference when the audience has the flesh and blood of the composer right there,” Lecce-Chong said.

“Part of the success of the First Symphony Project is having the composer come out beforehand, so they can get to know the hall and the orchestra ... so when he comes out in the spring (February), there’s a connection.”

Beethoven’s No. 4
Representing the classics on the first concert program will be San Francisco pianist Garrick Ohlsson, performing a polished, gem of a piano concerto, Beethoven’s No. 4.

The conductor views such masterworks of the classical repertoire as a crucial part of his mission, since it allows the orchestra to work on ensemble together, then use that to build on in the future.

“The classics are something that is important, for all of us to get to know each other,” he said.

“Last year, I opened with the Beethoven 5th (symphony), which was very nice.”

This weekend, Lecce-Chong is really looking forward to the big showcase on the program, Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” well known to millions as the opening piece on the soundtrack for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

‘Play out like a soloist’
One of the things that makes this particular piece a challenge, he said, is that Strauss wrote individual music for each music stand of the strings, so everyone must play out like a soloist.

“All of the Strauss tone poems are really difficult,” he said. “But this one is just terrifying.”

Another part of Lecce-Chong’s programming philosophy is to make sure all the masterworks stand out on their own.

Although he enjoyed conducting the “epic and awesome” Mozart and Mahler program last January, he felt the 70-minute Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 overshadowed Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, a revolutionary work that got short shrift in rehearsal time.

“This season, I think the masterworks are going to shine,” he said.

“ ‘Zarasthustra’ will hold its weight and will really shine with the Beethoven concerto.”

In February, the conductor is looking forward to introducing a new, larger work by Browne, who will return for the world premiere of his 35-minute symphony, titled “The Course of Empire,” after a cycle of five paintings by Thomas Cole that inspired each of the symphony’s five movements.

“For me, this is a dream come true to have a chance to do something like this,” Lecce-Chong said. “It’s the riskiest thing, but it’s also the most important thing we can do. This is how the art progresses — through the larger statement.”

Almost by chance, the final concert of the symphony season in May will also feature a “massive world premiere” of a work commissioned for mariachi and orchestra.

“The project had stalled when they hired me,” he said.

“When they asked me if I wanted to do the project, I said, ‘I don’t want it to sound like a pops mariachi concert ... where the orchestra plays backup to the mariachi band, and it still sounds like mariachi music.”

So Lecce-Chong was thrilled when he first spoke with Mexican composer Enrique Chapala, who understood that the project would require both ensembles to explore new textures and new ways to interact with each other. For the new work, Chapala has chosen the theme of the bracero program, which brought millions of guest workers to the U.S. from 1942 to 1964.

“It (the theme) works so well for what I hope this piece can do,” Lecce-Chong said.

“This is a piece that has a chance to change the way we think about everything — how we relate to others, how we think about cross-cultural relationships.”

Meanwhile, the conductor will get a chance to flex his cinematic muscles at 3 p.m. Oct. 27 when he conducts “Halloween with Harry Potter” as part of the symphony’s three-concert Family Concert Series. The concert will include pieces from two “Harry Potter” movies, “Beauty and the Beast” and others.

“I’ve taken the entire series under my umbrella of things that I want to pass by me,” he said. “I feel so strongly about it, and I think this season is really strong for us ... ‘Harry Potter,’ great. ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ great. ‘Beethoven (Lives Upstairs),’ great. All the heavy hitters, all in one season.”

Light-hearted spirit
Like Leonard Bernstein, who led the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts, Lecce-Chong plans to keep the musical quality high for the kids while still providing a fun and light-hearted spirit.

“Let them hear the best that we can do,” he said. “Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ ballet is the kind of story that could have come out of Harry Potter.

“Normally you don’t have a chance to hear 25 minutes of Stravinsky, but at this concert, they will hear an entire masterpiece. The orchestra is going to help me narrate the story, so the kids get to meet the individual instruments that represent the prince, the bird and the evil creature.”

That same philosophy will be in play when Lecce-Chong guest conducts a family concert with the New York Philharmonic in early November, focusing on new American composers as well as Ives, Copland and Bernstein.

“This will be my debut there,” he said. “So I get to follow in the footsteps of Bernstein.”

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

August 30, 2019: Yale Abrams, leader at United Way of the Wine Country and Santa Rosa Symphony, dies at 78

by Chris Smith, The Press Democrat, August 30, 2019

Yale Abrams was a marketing whiz and former United Way leader who savored the Santa Rosa Symphony, community service performed collectively, Penn State football, romps with his three grandkids, “Pink Panther” movies and good laughs to bad jokes.
 
Given the way life tickled him, Abrams almost certainly would be amused that his final meal was one of his guilty pleasures: a hot dog at Costco.
 
The gentle-natured Sonoma County volunteer and management consultant to nonprofits and businesses was enjoying a food-court snack with his wife of 50 years, Terry Abrams, on Aug. 20 when he went into heart failure. He died a short time later in the emergency department at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
 
Abrams, a Philadelphia-born community booster who for decades brightened all sorts of benefit and cultural events in and around Santa Rosa, was 78.
 
“He had an incredibly beautiful sense of humor,” said friend and fellow Rotary Club of Santa Rosa member Cathy Vicini.
 
“And his heart! If you ever asked him to do something, or you needed a volunteer, his hand went up.”
 
Abrams’ constant, unpaid work for the greater good included an unmatched 40 years of service to the board of the Santa Rosa Symphony.
 
Its president and CEO, Alan Silow, was grateful to Abrams for sharing his historical perspective on the evolution of the symphony, based now at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.
 
Silow praised Abrams also for “his vast marketing knowledge that helped tremendously in our audience development strategies.”
 
Abram’s years of leadership on the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board, charged with promoting the county’s economic vitality through job creation and readiness, brought him a 2018 Spirit of Sonoma award.
 
He’d worked most of his career in sales and marketing when, in 1995, he became president-CEO of what is now called United Way of Wine Country.
 
He told The Press Democrat early in 1996 that switching from business to the nonprofit United Way, which grants donations from community members to a host of local programs and causes, was not difficult.
 
“I asked myself, ‘What do you really care about?’ And I decided that I’d rather spend my time working for my community than for myself.”
 
 
Abrams was born Nov. 8, 1940, in Philadelphia. He earned admission to the city’s Central High School, the second-oldest public high school in America, and upon graduation continued on to Penn State, where he became editor of the campus newspaper.
 
A student he’d dated introduced him in 1962 to Terry Salmon, who’d come to Penn State from New York. Little did they know that in 2019 they would make plans for celebrating 50 years of marriage.
 
Not long after Yale Abrams graduated in 1963 he was drafted into the Army. America’s war with North Vietnam was heating up as Abrams was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington as an intelligence specialist. He was honorably discharged in 1966.
 
He went to work as a helicopter parts buyer for the Boeing Co. in Philadelphia, and at the same time earned an MBA in marketing from Temple University.
 
Terry Salmon was living in San Francisco and carrying on a bi-coastal relationship with Abrams when he asked her, not for the first time, to marry him.
 
He launched that last proposal on July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. She said yes. He was over the moon.
 
The couple married Sept. 6, 1969, at the Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco. A short time later they set up housekeeping in San Francisco, and Yale Abrams began his career in marketing.
 
His and Terry’s first of two sons, Kim, was born in 1974.
 
It was two years later that an opportunity arose to move to Sonoma County. Abrams took up an offer from Canada-based Ecodyne to become marketing manager of its cooling tower division in Windsor.
 
The Abrams family settled into a home in Larkfield, just north of Santa Rosa. Son Dale was born in 1978.
 
Something profound happened to Yale Abrams early on in his tenure at Ecodyne. Higher-ups asked him to help out as a loaned executive to what was then United Way of Sonoma-Lake-Mendocino.
 
That introduction to the world of community nonprofits opened Abrams’ eyes to the vast need for — and rewards of — volunteer service and local philanthropy.
 
While advancing in his marketing career he immersed himself in the missions of a variety of community organizations. He was active over the years on the boards of the Sonoma County Family YMCA, Blood Bank of the Redwoods, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, World Affairs Council of Sonoma County and Sonoma State University Enterprises.
 
“He was all over the community,” said longtime friend and fellow Rotary Club member Rich de Lambert.
 
“He was a leader; just a pleasant guy, kind of rolled with the punches. You can’t say anything bad about him.”
 
In the mid-1980s, Yale and Terry Abrams became partners in Abrams Thompson, Inc., a marketing and advertising agency. That firm would become the current Abrams Consulting.
 
Yale Abrams, whose career also included working as a marketing executive at Data 3 Systems Inc. and teaching marketing at Santa Rosa Junior College, took a long break from corporate life starting in 1995. He returned to the regional United Way office as the operation’s president and CEO.
 
Abrams held that position until 2003, then rejoined his wife at Abrams Consulting. The two made plans to travel to Italy in October to celebrate a half century of marriage.
 
On the evening of Aug. 20, they stopped at the Costco in Santa Rosa for gasoline and Yale offered to treat his wife to one of his favorite meals: the warehouse store’s hot dog and soda deal.
 
As they were eating, Terry Abrams said, “I could see he was feeling discomfort.” She went for help.
 
Yale Abrams was taken by ambulance to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “He was actually awake and talking when I got there,” Terry said.
 
But a short time later his heart stopped. His wife of 17 days short of 50 years will go ahead with the anniversary journey to Italy, but will travel with her sister and brother-in-law.
 
In addition to Terry Abrams in Santa Rosa, Yale Abrams is survived by sons Kim Abrams of Oakland, Dale Abrams of San Jose and three grandchildren.
 
A memorial service will be private.
 
Abrams’ family suggests memorial donations to Santa Rosa Symphony, srsymphony.org or 50 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa 95404; Sonoma County Family YMCA, scfymca.org or 1111 College Ave., Santa Rosa 95404; Disability Services & Legal Center, mydslc.org or 521 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa 95401; or United Way of the Wine Country, unitedwaywinecountry.org or 975 Corporate Center Parkway, Suite 160, Santa Rosa 95407.

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