AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Meet Violinist, Fiddler, and Composer Alisa Rose

Are you a classical violinist looking to extend your musical horizons? A bluegrass musician who wants to go deeper? Then our March 13 online workshop with Alisa Rose is for you. Alisa trained as a classical violinist and branched out into bluegrass; her compositions blend elements of both genres. We spoke with her to learn more about her background and interests.

Alisa Rose

When did you start playing music?

I grew up in Verona, Wisconsin, near Madison, with two older sisters who played the violin. I insisted on playing the violin too, and my mother was nice enough to accommodate me! I started with the Suzuki method when I was 3, and when I was 5 I began entering local fiddle contests at little fairs, Hometown Days, that sort of thing.

What did you play in your first contest?

I remember playing “Boil Them Cabbages Down.” We were also supposed to play a waltz, but I hadn’t learned one, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

What came next?

I played in a high school string quartet and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. I was also in the Southwest Wisconsin Oldtime Fiddlers Association. Then I came to California to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At that point I was interested in folk music but not bluegrass specifically, but within a couple of years I’d joined a bluegrass band. I liked the melodics of bluegrass, and also how social it is—people hung out and played together. I liked that energy.

Who were your musical influences?

Darol Anger [the American fiddler, composer, and founding member of the David Grisman Quintet] was a big influence—he really brought me into bluegrass. I didn’t take lessons, I just listened and picked things up. At one point I lived near the beach in a big house with a bunch of Conservatory kids who were interested in bluegrass. We had a weekly jam—I learned so much from that. And I went to festivals like the Strawberry Music Festival [in Grass Valley, California], the Grass Valley Father’s Day Music Festival, and my favorite, the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado.

We haven’t been able to attend festivals or concerts for a year now. How have you been spending that time?

I’ve been teaching Zoom classes—I’m glad that’s possible. And I’ve been composing. I got a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to write a concerto on the theme of inclusivity, based on interviews I did with members of Bluegrass Pride. There will also be a string-quintet version. The concerto was supposed to be performed by the Bay Area Rainbow Orchestra at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in June, but it may have to be rescheduled.

What can participants expect to learn in your March 13 workshop?

I’m going to teach a great fiddle tune by ear. They’ll learn how to use the bow in a more rhythmic way—the bow is what drives the music in bluegrass, as opposed to that beautiful singing lyrical tone of classical music. The left hand is important, too: you can get a lot of expression from slides and double-stops.



While doing background research for this interview we found a story in the July 3, 1988, edition of the Wisconsin State Journal that mentioned young Alisa’s performance at a Dane County, Wisconsin, fiddle festival. “The 9-year-old Rose, wearing red bows in her long black hair, fiddled, while Herb Swingen, on string bass, and Ron Kittleson, on guitar, both of rural Mount Horeb, accompanied her. She captivated listeners when she played ‘Boil Them Cabbages Down,’ her favorite. Rose, who was fiddling at her 5th festival said she has been playing the violin since she was 3 and fiddling since she was 5. She said she prefers fiddling to playing classics by Mozart or Bach. ‘It’s fun,’ Rose said with a grin. ‘I guess the other things seem pretty regular.’”

AMN mentors Brass and Horns Workshops

Meet trombonist Nick Platoff

The first time we hosted a workshop with trombonist Nick Platoff, in January 2020, we were able to play together in person at the Drew School in San Francisco. We had so much fun that we’ve invited Nick back to lead an online workshop for low brass players on February 27. We reached Nick in Philadelphia, where he’s been temporarily living with his family while working on new musical projects.

Nick Platoff

You were appointed associate principal trombonist at the San Francisco Symphony in 2016, when you were just 23. Obviously you had an early start in music. What’s your musical background?

I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. My dad, John Platoff, is a musicologist, and he introduced me to a lot of classical, pop, and world music. As a family, we’d sing together, mostly in the car. This was around the time that minivans started to have TV screens and my friends were all watching SpongeBob. My parents did not want us to do that, so we sang—mostly rounds, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I started playing the recorder in third grade, and around that time I went to a local high school’s jazz band concert. They played a James Bond medley that I thought was the coolest thing ever. So in fourth grade I started studying trombone with Jim Fryer and Terrence Fay at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven. Jim Fryer made it all about having fun from the very beginning, so that was super awesome.

You’re an educator yourself now. [Nick is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Franisco Symphony’s Youth Orchestra.] What qualities are important in a music teacher?

The better teachers have taught me to see and hear differently. Michael Mulcahy was my primary trombone teacher at Northwestern University. He stressed the importance of listening—I heard him play a lot. He also encouraged me to have lots of teachers, to take lessons from different kinds of musicians. As a teacher myself, the number-one thing I want to impart is that music is a joyful and human thing, not just an exam or a contest. It breaks my heart when people get too stuck on their intonation or their sound quality, or some other thing that some person told them that’s getting in the way of them loving this profound, special, magical thing called music. If my students don’t become professionals, that bothers me a lot less than them having a bad, twisted, perverted relationship with music.

You’ve performed at Burning Man. What was that like?

It was totally life changing! I was there in 2017 and 2018. The first year I played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with a group called Art Haus. Our dress rehearsal took place during a duststorm that knocked out all of the electricity we were using. We were mic’ed up and plugged into a board, and the board went down 15 minutes before we were supposed to start. The conductor, my friend Brad Hogarth, told us, “Let’s not freak out and tell everybody that the board is down. We’ll just pray that it goes back on.” They say at Burning Man that “the playa provides,” and sure enough, by some crazy playa miracle the board went back on and we had a spectacular performance. Something like 10,000 people were there. Some of them knew the music, but probably most of them didn’t. That’s something that’s really appealing to me: taking the music in its purest form, outside of the context of tuxedos and concert halls and expensive tickets. It was very raw and cool.

How have you been spending your time during the pandemic, now that touring and in-person performing are out of the question?

I’ve used the time in two areas. The first is focusing on my health in every aspect—nutrition, exercise, sleep, meditation. [Watch Nick’s video about overcoming cellphone addiction. Warning: Not for the prudish!] The other big pillar of the pandemic for me has been working on my own composition projects. The craziest thing I did was a song-a-day challenge last April. It was more music than I’d written in my whole life. I was living with some friends in this hippie cryptocurrency commune in Silicon Valley, with no quiet studio space. But my friend Joel owned a limousine that wasn’t going anywhere, so I brought my laptop and mini-keyboard and Zoom recorder out to the limo and sat there every day in April and wrote songs. I’ve been working ever since on developing those songs into an album, which I hope will be ready sometime this year.

AMN mentors Composers Talking about Music Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

Meet composer Jake Heggie

We’re very much looking forward to hosting an online dialogue on February 20 between two people we admire greatly: David Landis and Jake Heggie. David is the president of Landis Communications Inc. in San Francisco and a member of AMN’s advisory board. Jake is one of the premier vocal and opera composers of our era; his compositions include the operas Dead Man Walking (2000) and Moby-Dick (2010). Over email, we asked them to give us a foretaste of their conversation.

Jake Heggie. (Photo: James Niebuhr)

David: We met when I was the public-relations director for the San Francisco Symphony and Jake was doing in-house public relations for the San Francisco Opera.

Jake: I started there as a writer in April 1994. I don’t remember exactly when we met, but it was very shortly after that.

David: The San Francisco Opera’s PR department has brought us some great talent! Besides Jake, there’s Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City.

Not many serious composers have a background in public relations like yours, Jake! What did you learn about music, and musical institutions, from working in PR?

Jake: It actually started for me in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. I had suffered a hand injury, focal dystonia. That forced me to stop playing piano, which was pretty traumatic. While I was reeducating my hand with an entirely new technique—starting with scales!—I had to find a way to make a living. I discovered I could write well about music and the arts. I got a job at the UCLA Center for the Arts as the PR and marketing writer, and then moved to Cal Performances [at UC Berkeley] and finally the San Francisco Opera. It was a great education. I met people from every corner of the arts: administration, donors, artists, stagehands, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, front of house, box office, art managers, writers, press, publicists. That education has served me well through the years because I learned early about the totality of the business—not just one perspective. Also, my job at the San Francisco Opera was to write about every corner of the opera house and what was going on in it, and relate that to the world somehow. It was heaven! I attended everything, met the most amazing people, took them to interviews, spent time with them … and then started writing songs for the great singers coming through. It was the best apprenticeship ever for an aspiring opera composer … except I didn’t even know I was an aspiring opera composer at the time! 

David, you used to sing in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Have you ever sung any of Jake’s works? Any insights from the singer’s point of view?

David: You give me a lot of credit! I think I only got into the Symphony Chorus because they knew I did PR for the symphony and thought I could help promote the chorus! Sad to say, but I have never sung any of Jake’s works. Let’s put that on my bucket list, please! What I will say as an observer and an audience member is that I’m always impressed with the lyricism of Jake’s music. I think that would be so gratifying as a performer.

Jake, can you tell us a little about what it’s like to receive a commission for a new work?

Jake: A commission is a gift of possibility and a vote of confidence to an artist. It’s the opportunity to find and create something meaningful: to collaborate with great colleagues and go on a wonderful adventure together. I don’t think I’ve ever been told what to write; I’m usually asked what inspires me in the moment. Because if I’m not inspired, it’s not going to be good! It has to be something that gives me musical shivers—where I don’t necessarily know what the music is, but I know the music is there. So I’m asked to create something for a specific occasion, singer, ensemble, company—whatever—and we explore what inspires me that also inspires the company. From there, I suggest the writer, director, conductor, and singers that I want to work with—again, people who inspire me and the team. It’s all about having the right people on the team. One weak link can bring the whole thing down.

Singers like Nick Phan, who has also led an AMN workshop, are huge fans of your work, Jake. Do you write for particular singers’ vocal ranges or abilities?

Jake: I always write for specific singers. Their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and voices are what help me write something specific, clear, and strong. Imagine you’re a screenwriter and you’re asked to write a script for a movie about [former US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright. You think, hmm, OK, Madeleine Albright. And then they say, “Oh, and we have Meryl Streep as Madeleine Albright.” Well, HELLO! Now, just about anything is possible, right?

David, you’ll be moderating the online conversation on February 20. Want to give us any hints about what you’re planning to ask Jake?

David: I’m always curious not just about the past but about the future. So maybe we can persuade Jake to look into his crystal ball and give us some juicy tidbits that point to the future.

AMN mentors Composers Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Six things you should know about Lisa Mezzacappa

Our February 13 online workshop, “At Home with Lisa Mezzacappa: A Jazz Listening Session,” is a guided tour of jazz history conducted by one of the Bay Area’s most inventive and versatile musicians. An acclaimed composer, bassist, bandleader, and producer, Lisa Mezzacappa has collaborated with filmmakers, dancers, visual artists, and neuroscientists, and has worked with groups from duos to large ensembles.

But there’s a lot more to Lisa Mezzacappa than that brief introduction. Here are six more things you should know about her.

Lisa Mezzacappa. Photo: Heike Liss.

She grew up in a working-class family in Staten Island, New York.

Lisa started playing the clarinet in fourth grade and became a youth symphony star. In junior high school she took up the electric bass, dyed her hair blue, and “jammed with dudes in garages,” as she puts it.

She planned to become a biologist.

She majored in biology at the University of Virginia before adding a second major in music. Eventually, though, science took a back seat to music: Lisa came to the Bay Area and received an MA in ethnomusicology in 2003. Science still informs many of her compositions, most notably “Organelle,” which Mezzacappa calls “a ‘set’ of pieces inspired by diverse scientific processes – some enormous and unfathomable, others impossibly microscopic – that form a whole through the insights and explorations of master improvisers.” In 2019, “Organelle” was awarded the Pauline Oliveros New Genres award from the International Alliance for Women in Music.

The score for “Cambium,” one of the movements of “Organelle.” Cambium is a tissue layer in plants.

In 2005, she toured with 1960s folk-rock star Donovan.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury News in 2014, Richard Sheinin called the tour “a rare above-ground gig” for this prolific underground musician.

She based an album on themes from film noir and detective fiction.

Written for her sextet, avantNOIR (2017)—an homage to the crime stories of Dashiell Hammet and Paul Auster—uses clues, imagery, and quotations from the novels as well as acoustic and electric sounds, field recordings, and composed and improvised material. From the liner notes: “The musicians find themselves in a room at the Alexandria Hotel on Kearney Street, where they are encouraged to sit and have a drink with the wily Caspar Gutman, explore various objects and personages in the room, ride the elevator, make a phone call, holler to someone in the street below for help, or get the heck out of there.” (Listen to “The Ballad of Big Flora” from avantNOIR.)

She won a 2020 Bay Area Jazz Award.

San Jose Mercury News jazz writer Andrew Gilbert bestowed the puckishly titled In Case NASA Needs a Resident Composer Award” on Lisafor her “antic, playful, and often poignant settings for the album Cosmicomics,” a project inspired by “the whimsical celestial fables of the Italian writer Italo Calvino.”(Listen to the Lisa Mezzacappa Six play “Solar Storms” from CosmiComics.)

Her latest project is a radio opera.

“The Electronic Lover” was released as a podcast in nine episodes. Listen to the first episode here.

AMN mentors Vocal and Choral Music

Meet Hope Briggs, operatic soprano

How does a musical-theater teen and aspiring Contemporary Christian singer find her way to the grand opera stage? In our January 30 online conversation, soprano Hope Briggs will talk about her musical education, her musical mentors, and how she became an acclaimed interpreter of Verdi roles. As an overture, Hope chatted with us from her home in San Bruno, California, about “how opera found me.”

Hope Briggs

What was your introduction to music? Did you listen to opera when you were growing up?

I grew up in a musical household in San Francisco and later on the San Francisco Peninsula, but my interest in opera came later. My mother, my father, my sister, and my brother all sang, and we often sang together—my mother would play the piano. I was so shy as a child that I would stand in the closet and sing from there!

My father was a minister, and I sang in the church choir, and occasionally I sang a solo. My mother involved me in various children’s groups: tap, ballet, theater. As for opera, my mother had a few classical albums, and I enjoyed listening to Leontyne Price’s Christmas album, but I wasm’t very interested in her operatic work. I was more interested in Broadway musicals. And I liked Contemporary Christian music, which suits my voice better than gospel.

For some reason, I was asked to join my high school’s jazz band, even though I didn’t know a lot about jazz. We went to the Reno International Jazz Festival and did quite well.

Did you know from an early age that you’d make a career of music?

At Skyline College [in San Bruno, California], which I attended after high school, I didn’t focus on music, although I did take a vocal workshop, which is where I developed a real love for jazz. My teacher saw something in me and told me I could get a full scholarship to USC if I studied opera. I said, “No, thank you.” I didn’t want to do that. I had a sense that it would be hard to make a living in music. So I was thinking about pursuing law or writing or maybe psychology.

Then, out of the blue, a high school friend dropped by my house unannounced and said, “I want to talk to you. You’re not doing what you do best, which is singing.” It was out of character for her—she wasn’t an especially bold person. She just cared enough to come over and tell me that. It got me thinking. I began looking into schools with good music programs. Cal State Fullerton, which had an excellent jazz band, was on my list.

I called the music chair, Jane Paul Hummel, and told her I was thinking about applying. She said, “Are you good?” That was a surprise! I said, “Yeah, I’m good!” She invited me down for an audition. What’s amazing to me is that she picked me up at the airport and hosted me—I stayed at her house. She had me sit in on a vocal workshop. She had a student take me out to dinner. She took me under her wing.

She sounds like the perfect mentor.

She started from square one with me. I’d never had a formal music lesson at that point.

What was your audition like?

For my audition, I sang “Cry Me a River” and a Contemporary Christian song, “We Shall Behold Him.” They asked me if I knew any opera. The only thing I knew was the “Habanera” from Carmen, so I sang that.

They offered me a full scholarship, and Jane offered to teach me. By my third year I was entering competitions and doing apprenticeship programs. And I was singing opera—I didn’t have a choice, studying with her. I fell in love with it. Although I did sing a few times with the jazz band.

We did a little research and found a review in the Los Angeles Times of a Cole Porter revue at Cal State Fullerton. The reviewer singled you out for praise: “Of the better singers, Hope Briggs stands out with a voice that is strong and mellowed and put to good use on the torchy ‘Hothouse Rose.’”

I still love musical theater! Last April, I watched the Stephen Sondheim 90th-birthday concert—I love Sondheim’s lyrics—and since then I’ve been watching a lot of musicals on YouTube and looking again at my musical theater pieces. In many ways the pandemic has removed the barriers between classical and popular music.

Are there any operatic roles you haven’t yet sung but would like to?

I’d like to sing Elvira in Ernani. One of the things I like about Verdi is its agility, which suits my voice. I have a dark-colored voice, and people don’t expect it to move as fast as it does.

I’d also like to get into some Handel. When I was working with Sheri Greenawald, and she told me, “You have to do Handel—your voice loves it!” [Read about our July 2020 conversation with singer and mentor Sheri Greenawald.]

What are some things you’ve been doing since performances and touring were put on pause?

I’ve been rediscovering my love of writing—poetry, short stories, personal essays. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some online singing. Nicole Heaston, who sang Countess Almaviva in San Francisco Opera’s Figaro in 2019, put together a collaboration of 65 African American opera singers singing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

And I also started my own YouTube channel, “Bringing Hope 2U.” I felt the need to bring hope and peace and encouragement to people during this difficult time. I’m giving myself permission to be me, to not be put in a corner. I’m saying, This is Hope, and Hope loves music.