There really is nothing like performing. Whether it’s alone or in an ensemble, each concert is the culmination of uncountable hours of training. For a handful of SFCM students—oboists, violinists, harpists—their training took on a new dimension when they were asked to perform with the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.
“Playing with the San Francisco Symphony has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my time here in the city,” says oboe student Timothy Daniels ’18. “Not only do I get a taste of the professional lifestyle, I get to do it sitting Eugene Izotov!”
Izotov, a faculty member at SFCM and principal oboe of the San Francisco Symphony, met Daniels when he was an undergraduate at Oberlin Conservatory and also worked with him at the Aspen Music Festival. When Daniels decided to pursue his graduate studies at SFCM, Izotov was delighted to take him as his student.
“I am extremely pleased that we have such a strong oboe studio here now,” says Izotov. A few students, including Casey Kearney ’19 and Liam Boisset ’19, have played with the San Francisco Symphony several times. “We expect our guest players to be of the highest quality. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the right people who can work with us at a moment’s notice.”
Daniels fit the bill perfectly. Izotov says, “It’s been noted by my colleagues at the Symphony how well our substitutes have been playing. I certainly appreciate those comments and I pass them along because it is very encouraging for them.”
Daniels joined the Symphony for a concert titled “Pursuits of Passion,” featuring Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau), and Janáček’s Taras Bulba, along with performances of Handel’s Messiah and other holiday concerts. “The Symphony’s sound is at once vast and agile,” he says. “Being a part of it is thrilling. Playing with them has taught me to hold myself to an even higher standard, and I carry that with me in all of my current musical endeavors.”
For SFCM violin student Vivian Ling ’20, the call came to not only perform, but to solo with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. The piece, Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, was not new to Ling, but the demands were high.
With only three weeks’ notice, she was asked to cover for all seven performances of the work because Cordula Merks, SFCM faculty member and concertmaster of the Ballet Orchestra, was scheduled to give birth the week of the performances. Ling would have to step in at a moment’s notice to play the concerto, and she did.
The three weeks leading to the performances were intense. “Both my teachers, Chen Zhao and Ian Swensen, gave me a lot of support,” she says. “Chen helped me get borrow a Vuillaume violin from the assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, Jeremy Constant. Practicing with that violin helped me feel more and more confident.”
Zhao and Swensen attended every rehearsal and provided invaluable support and feedback. When the time came, she was asked to step in for five concerts in four days. “Both my teachers and I felt that my playing got better and better every time because I felt more and more comfortable with the orchestra … I started to have fun with the music!”
“She has grown so much as a musician during this week of performances,” commented Zhao during the run. “It was an amazing feeling to be sitting in the audience. She is an incredibly talented and inspiring young artist.”
Looking back, Ling can’t help but note how important the experience was for her. “It was unforgettable,” she says. “After Saturday’s concert, a few people said they cried because the music was so beautiful and touching. That’s what inspires me. I want to share the beauty, excitement, happiness, sadness, and all the other emotions with the audience through the sound of my violin.”
The first time playing with a major orchestra is something a musician never forgets. Douglas Rioth, SFCM faculty member and principal harp of the San Francisco Symphony, still recalls the feeling he had playing third harp in Stravinsky’s The Firebird with the Cleveland Orchestra. “It was a life changing experience for me … I was completely blown away,” he reflects.
Today, Rioth gets to watch as his students reach similar milestones. SFCM student Madeline Jarzembak ’18 has stepped in for Rioth on several occasions. “When filling in for Doug, I of course feel the pressure to perform at the highest level,” she says. “But I also experience a sense of pride knowing that he has trusted me to play in his place. I am always happy to introduce myself as ‘Doug’s student.’”
When asked what it takes for a student to play with a major orchestra, Rioth said, “Their playing must be effortless and they must be with the orchestra and be able to follow the conductor.”
For Jarzembak, these experiences have reinforced her love for what she does. “Pursuing a career in music is difficult and I certainly feel overwhelmed sometimes when I think of the distance between where I stand now and my goals. Being given the opportunity to taste these goals gives me the fire to keep working, even when things get hard.”