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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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