From the very first notes of the Prelude, we enter the world of Bach’s cello suites with wonder – it’s almost like walking out on a perfectly clear night and seeing the sky full of stars. Oh, to be a cellist with the mastery to play in that sonic universe!
Pianist Eleonor Bindman has felt that amazement and has distilled it for you into a piano edition that is perfect for amateur pianists – and for anyone who loves Bach and wants to learn more.
“Anybody who plays [Bach becomes] a channel for his amazing spirit,” says Bindman. “You really feel like you’re getting something more than just the enjoyment of music: it can be a very transformative, spiritual experience.”
Bindman has arranged several of Bach’s works, including the Brandenburg Concertos (for piano duet) and selections from cantatas and orchestral suites, as well as favorites from the music of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. As a teacher, she is a committed advocate for amateur music-making, and says of amateur musicians, “You’re doing something you love – it’s not your job, you don’t have to do it – so you need to have repertoire that you love to play, and that isn’t going to take you weeks and months to learn.”
AMN concurs! And we are looking forward to exploring the starry skies of Bach with her on September 25.
We know you have all heard the terribly sad news about Oakland Symphony music director Michael Morgan, who died on August 20 from complications of a kidney transplant. Our music community has lost a great musician and tireless advocate. AMN founder Lolly Lewis counts herself very fortunate to have had the chance to work with Michael over the years in various capacities and had come to know – and be profoundly influenced by – how deeply committed he was to making music that not only upheld the highest artistic standards, but that included and energized the local community through his programming. Oakland Symphony’s concerts at the Paramount brought out people from all walks of life. It was thrilling to see how powerfully Michael and the Symphony built those deep connections, resulting in a sense of excitement and shared musical joy through symphonic music.
Michael Morgan was an inspiration and we will all miss the powerful impact of his presence in our music world.
This wonderful profile of a young Michael Morgan was broadcast on ABC’s 20/20 in 1986.
Amos is a San Francisco musician to the bone! Born and raised in San Francisco, he and his violinist brother Perrin were child stars in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s prep department. Amos has a long affiliation with the San Francisco Symphony, too: He was in the SFS Youth Orchestra when it was first formed, has been a regular member of the Symphony since 2006, and currently holds the position of assistant principal cello. He’s a dedicated chamber musician as well as a passionate educator, and he balances all these musical paths with an avid enthusiasm for sports and the outdoors.
In our two-session workshop on July 10 and 17, Amos will talk about how following an intense program of physical training has made him a better musician.
Get to know Amos in these videos and join us this month to tune up your own musical athleticism!
Amos and Lolly preview the workshop.
Amos talks about growing up in San Francisco, his Chinese heritage, and how music can bring us together and help heal what divides us. Then he and Symphony colleague Charles Chandler perform an excerpt from Bariolage, a work commissioned for them by composer Shinji Eshima.
Join us online on July 10 and 17 at 2pm for two hour-long sessions with Amos. We’ll focus on body awareness, musical confidence, and how to channel stress into more effective and satisfying playing.
Calling all string players! Our May 8 workshop, At Home with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, is designed to inspire you and boost your playing to a new level. SFCO calls itself “San Francisco’s friendliest ensemble,” and good-humored conductor Ben Simon sets the tone. We talked with Ben recently about his life as a violinist turned violist, about why he switched to conducting (“the dark side,” he joked), and what we can expect from the May 8 workshop.
Tell us about your musical beginnings. When did you first pick up an instrument?
My mother had been a cellist and pianist who quit music in high school to spite her mother, and regretted it later. She was determined that all four of her children would have music in their lives. And we do! My brother’s a percussionist, one sister plays flute, and my other sister plays the cello. But I’m the only one who became a professional musician. I began taking violin lessons when I was 6.
When did you switch from violin to viola?
I spent my first eight years in San Francisco, and my first violin teacher—Manfred Karasik, who played with the San Francisco Symphony—was actually a violist. We used to play Béla Bartók duos together. My family moved to New York, and I continued to study violin there. We returned to the Bay Area when I was 15, and when I left again, to attend Yale, Karasik gave me a viola and said, “This might come in handy.”
And did it?
It did, but not at first. I was pre-med at Yale, with no intention of becoming a musician. But I missed the violin so much that I dropped my pre-med studies and became a music major. During my second year, the Yale School of Music hired Raphael Hillyer, a brilliant violist who’d been the Juilliard String Quartet’s original violist. I was very lucky: He took me on as a student—it was a turning point in my musical life.
While I was still in school I auditioned for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, which used students as well as professional musicians. There were a lot more violinists than violists, and the conductor asked whether any violinists played viola. In my youth and inexperience I said yes. I got the job as a violist, and I’ve never looked back.
What appeals to you about the viola?
Many composers have called the viola the intellectual voice of a string quartet. You’re playing the inner lines that control the rhythm and harmony. Also, the sound is richer and more mellow than the violin, and you don’t have to worry about that pesky E-string. It suits my personality really well.
How about conducting? Does it also suit your personality?
I’ve always been interested in score-reading and analysis. I had studied conducting since high school and had conducted a few little things here and there. Then, in my mid-40s, I became the director of The Crowden School in Berkeley—I succeeded Ann Crowden, the founder. The best part was getting to conduct the school’s orchestra. It was my first time conducting since college, and I loved it! In 2002 I was offered two jobs: as music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, a fabulous strings-only youth orchestra; and as the conductor of the professional San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. I’m more of a mentor and coach than a boss—we’re all friends. I make the process as collaborative as possible.
And have you continued to play the viola?
I practice every day, and I play with friends and colleagues when I can.
We’re thrilled that the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra will play for us in the May 8 workshop. Will you be performing together or in separate Zoom rooms?
We’ll be together, live, at the composer Paul Dresher’s studio in West Oakland. It’s an industrial warehouse with some renovations that make it sound better, and with wonderful theatrical lighting. We’ll run through the Praelude of Grieg’s Holberg Suite together, and then the section leaders will talk about the musical challenges of each individual part. At the end, we’ll go back to the top and do a little performance together. It’s a brilliant movement, and everyone gets a chance to shine.
You’ve played in orchestras and string quartets. What’s the main difference?
Playing in orchestras is a good way to make a living and a terrible way to make music. Playing in string quartets is the opposite: a great way to make music—it’s a collaborative effort—but a very difficult way to make a living!
What’s the secret to making music fearlessly and joyfully? In our April 24th online workshop, Dr. Lynn Kuo—assistant concertmaster of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra and founder of Violin with Dr. Lynn —will talk about what it means to be a “Musical Ninja”: how to harness harmony as your secret weapon in order to develop musicality.
We reached Lynn at her family home in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where she returned as a professor in early 2020 and where she is currently staying during the pandemic-forced cancellation of the National Ballet of Canada season and of her freelance work in Toronto.
You came to the violin relatively late, didn’t you?
Yes, my first instrument was the piano, which I began playing at age 7. At the time, my family lived in the small town of Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador, which had formerly been home to a U.S. Air Force base. I began taking violin lessons later, when I was 9, from a local fiddler. I started formal Suzuki method training when my family moved to St. John’s [the provincial capital]. Most Suzuki students start much younger, at 3 or 4. When I started violin, I could already read music, because I’d had two years of piano training.
I continued both my piano and violin studies until I was 17. I then entered into my bachelor of music degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland. All first-year music students were required to participate in choir, and I fulfilled the requirement by accompanying the choir on the piano, even though I was a violin major!
You’ve been in the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra for more than 20 years. How did you get the job? Were you especially interested in ballet?
I went in completely inexperienced! I had never even seen a ballet when I auditioned for the orchestra. I was still in school, in the second year of my master’s degree at the University of Toronto. I was aiming to win a section violin position in the orchestra, and I used the assistant concertmaster audition the week before as a dress rehearsal for the section violin audition. For my own selection piece, I chose to play the Bach Chaconne. What was I thinking? To my surprise, I won the assistant concertmaster audition!
How is playing in a ballet orchestra different from playing in a symphony orchestra?
In a pit orchestra, it’s imperative to keep your eyes on the conductor at the end of every number. Unlike symphonies, operas and ballets require the conductor to coordinate very tightly with performers onstage. Ballet dancers need very specific tempi and musical flexibility. The conductor watches for what the dancers need onstage: do they need a little extra time to finish a lift? Did the dancer land earlier than usual?
In traditional ballet repertoire, which can be extremely tightly choreographed to the music, experienced pit musicians will know to watch the conductor very closely at final cadences. Otherwise, it’s tempting to go on autopilot and end up playing in an empty hole in the music, when the conductor is pausing to coordinate the music with a final movement onstage. More-contemporary ballets may not be so tightly choreographed to the music in this way. As you gain experience, pit musicians will know when it’s important to stay particularly alert on the job.
Do you have a favorite ballet?
Yes! I love Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.
You also practice karate and you’re a salsa dancer! How do those activities mesh with your musical life?
I started martial arts in 2017. I was never really a sporty or athletic person, and I only started exercising as a young adult. After years of fitness classes, I found myself tagging along with a friend to a karate class at a dojo. Initially, I felt out of my element and overwhelmed, but I found myself returning for the next class. After all, they had given me a free gi and white belt! I never stopped going—we’ve been training online during the pandemic—and it’s now been three and a half years.
My dojo has a lot of musicians and dancers, and we’re all very respectful of each other. The other students know I need to protect my hands! Martial arts training is not about punching and kicking; it’s about cultivating respect, discipline, courage, and perseverance. I love the training because it instills these values, which I also bring to my teaching as a violin educator.
Eight months after starting karate, I walked into the salsa studio next door, and I became a beginner salsa dancer.
That sounds brave!
My motto is “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” It’s the title of a book by Dr. Susan Jeffers that peak performance psychologist Dr. Don Greene assigned me to read. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” has helped me approach the violin—and life—with a sense of fearlessness. I apply it to performing, in the dojo during a belt exam, in dance class when I’m learning a new step. It also helped when I returned to St. John’s last year to become a first-time professor. As a full-time orchestral musician, I was accustomed to being obscured in a pit or in a sea of other orchestral musicians onstage. All of a sudden, I was standing in front of university violin students looking to me for direction.
I also took this mentality while pivoting again during the pandemic. After my teaching contract ended, I ventured again into the unknown and turned myself into an online educator and entrepreneur. I now teach violinists exclusively online, and I’ll be leading my third Violin Bootcamp for advanced violinists between July 5 and August 28, 2021.