Concertmaster, Naoum Blinder Chair
Alexander Barantschik, occupant of the Naoum Blinder Chair, began his first season as Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony in September 2001. Previously, he was concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Born in Saint Petersburg in 1953, Mr. Barantschik attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. After emigrating from Russia in 1979, he served as concertmaster of Germany’s Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Through an arrangement with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Mr. Barantschik has the exclusive use of the 1742 Guarnerius del Gesù violin.
Associate Concertmaster, San Francisco Symphony Foundation Chair
SFS member since: 1980
Hometown: Rockville Centre, NY
Music schools you attended: Juilliard School, pre-college division, Curtis Institute of Music
Began playing music: At age 5
Musical inspirations: My parents and older sister
If I were not a professional musician, I might be a: Chef
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Brahms, Violin Concerto; Schubert, Duo Op. 162; Beethoven, string quartets (really too many pieces to choose favorites)
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Cooking and walking
Recent reading: My Year of Meats, by Ruth Ozeki
On my CD player/iPod: Sibelius music for violin and piano; Lyle Lovett
Favorite things to do in the Bay Area: Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, because it is so beautiful, dramatic, and invigorating; hiking in the East Bay hills; going out for Indian food
SFS member since: 1972
Hometowns: Milwaukee, WI, St. Paul, MN
Music school you attended: Stanford University
Began playing music: At age 11
Musical inspirations: My church choir director
If I were not a professional musician, I might be a: History or German teacher
Favorite composers: J.S. Bach, Frederick Delius
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Goldmark’s and Delius’s Violin Concertos; “Erbarme dich,” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; any piece by Fritz Kreisler
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Going to the race track (Golden Gate Fields); watching college football and People’s Court on TV
Recent reading: Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores, by Alan Tyson (I don’t read fiction)
On my CD player/iPod: Coon-Sanders Nighthawks and Gus Arnheim Cocoanut Grove Orchestra (both from early 1930s)
Favorite thing to do in the Bay Area: Go for walks. The East Bay Regional Park system is wonderful!
Member since 1984
Hometown: Toronto, Ontario
I got my pilot’s license in 1996, and went on to build my own airplane. It is an experimental Vans RV7A that took 7 ½ years to complete and it passed the FAA inspection, receiving its airworthiness certificate in November of 2010. It’s been a blast, and a huge project.
Music and flying:
Musical performance and flying a plane are similarly all-encompassing. And there’s certainly risk in both, though as Flying magazine writer Lane Wallace observed, “In performance you may feel like you could die, but in the end, unlike flying, it’s a death you can live with.” A lot of people focus on the risks, but both activities are about feeling joy.
On being in an orchestra:
What made me first love orchestral playing was this idea of having more than 100 people working toward exactly the same thing. When those 100 people and the conductor are really good, the performance can spontaneously change and the orchestra will still be together. It’s the closest thing we have to telepathy. Playing in an orchestra is an inherently uplifting activity and I’m very grateful that I’m able to make a living doing something that I view as a fundamentally positive endeavor.
I often listen to internet radio service Pandora. I have a station I programmed with everything from Santana and Led Zeppelin to Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Billie Holiday. And Bach is always in my CD player—his music clears my mind and reminds me of what got me interested in music in the first place.
Jeremy Constant discusses his hobby, building aircraft, and how it relates to playing the violin.
Violin, Paula and John Gambs Second Century Chair
Member since 1982
Hometown: Mill Valley, CA
On being in the Orchestra:
The mix of personalities in the Orchestra is always fascinating to me—I really enjoy that. It’s so educational to communicate with people not just through conversation, but also by interacting musically. It’s a very enlightening way of getting to know someone.
I remember when Rostropovich came to San Francisco just after he had left the Soviet Union. He played the Dvořák concerto. I think I was 15 at the time, and some friends and I found seats near the front. That was a really memorable occasion, plus musically it was so wonderful.
I love to teach; right now I’m on staff at UC Berkeley, and it’s something I’d like to carve out more time for in the future. I also do a lot of chamber music wherever I can fit it in. I play in the SFS Chamber Music Series, and in Berkeley, and I used to play in the Aurora Quartet with my Symphony colleagues.
I enjoyed the New and Unusual Music Series we did in the ’80s. I like to play new or lesser-known compositions every now and then. A lot of the music I didn’t necessarily love, but I like the variety, and the idea of bringing all sorts of music to all sorts of audiences.
On being a musician:
It is interesting to be around people who think so much about music, and who are really immersed in it. After family, music is our first priority—it always comes back to that. You always have a piece of music going through your head; you are always thinking in musical terms. That’s simply how your brain works. You might say we are obsessed with one thing; it’s true, but hopefully it’s true in a good way.
Mariko Smiley has served as a Symphony mentor in the SF Symphony Community of Music Makers program.
SFS member since: 1998
Hometown: Plymouth Meeting, PA
Music schools you attended: Juilliard School of Music
Musical inspirations: Hearing classical music on the radio and always picking out the violin as the instrument I wanted to play—I just always thought that would be my career.
If I were not a professional musician, I might be a: Travel Photographer/journalist or a child developmental psychologist
Favorite composers: This is like asking your favorite dessert—sometimes I’m in the mood for chocolate and sometimes peach/blueberry cobbler—I can’t answer this question!
Favorite works featuring my instrument: There are too many pieces I enjoy for violin solo, chamber and orchestral.
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Spending time with my daughter, traveling, photographing, relaxing!
Recent reading: I have a toddler—by the time I have time to pick up a book, I’m too tired to read it! Ask me in a few years.
On my CD player/iPod: I really love listening to NPR, but also like jazz and chamber music for a change from orchestral literature.
Favorite things to do in the Bay Area: I recently moved to walking distance of Golden Gate Park and love taking advantage of all it has to offer, from free mornings at the Japanese Tea Gardens to walks at Stow Lake, lawn time at the Conservatory of Flowers (especially when the Dahlias are in bloom), pop-ins to the deYoung, where I am a member, and visits to the Academy of Sciences (where I will become a member) and the Botanical Gardens. I also love taking walks at Crissy Field and occasionally visiting my old hang outs in North Beach. Outside of SF I love going up to the wine country, walking at Muir Woods or nearby areas in Marin, visiting the ranch where I used to ride horses in Fairfax or escaping down to Palo Alto to escape the foggy summer days in the city.
Member since 2002
Hometown: Shanghai, China
On joining the SFS:
I started playing violin when I was four years old. My first teacher was Jing Liang Liu, the father of Yun Jie Liu, who is Associate Principal Violist in the Symphony. I studied with him for many years. I came to the United States and I was studying in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California when Jie Liu told me there was an opening here. I practiced hard for two months and got lucky at my audition.
I like Romantic composers—Richard Strauss, Mahler, Brahms. With the Orchestra, some of my favorite works are Mozart and Haydn symphonies. I especially like the way those composers wrote for string sections. The music is fun to play, and we get a very rich sound.
On being in an orchestra:
I’m always learning from the musicians around me and from the conductors. If I play a piece one year and then again the next year, I try to hear it differently the second time. My experience is growing, and also the way I listen to the ensemble changes: Sometimes I focus on the winds, sometimes on the lower strings, or the violins. I find something new each time.
Member since 1973
Hometown: Seattle, WA
My husband (SFS Principal Cellist Michael Grebanier) and I own tribal art pieces from Ontong-Java that Jack London collected in 1909 during his sailing cruise to the South Seas, and so I started reading his log of the voyage.
It’s wonderful to go sailing on our boat; we've had some great coastal sailing adventures. I also like to bushwhack in our garden. My doctor calls me his "favorite poison oak patient.”
I feel very lucky to be in the Orchestra. There have been many highlights, beginning with the 5-week tour to Europe and Russia with conductor Seiji Ozawa—that was amazing. I'll never forget cellist Mstislav Rostropovich teaching us the Russian national anthem in Moscow, the throngs of people at the stage door greeting us, exchanging pins with them, and how they waited for us at the end of the concert. We also toured Japan with Seiji and he was treated like a rock star! I loved playing Don Juan under conductor Fabio Luisi.
Other musical activities:
I was in the Aurora Quartet for more than twenty years and did several recordings; I especially liked recording the Prokofiev quartets.
Naomi Kazama Hull
Member since 1998
Hometown: Yokohama, Japan
I left Japan when I was 18 to study at the Vienna Hochschule. I was planning to be there for just three or four years to finish school. But then I started to do a lot of chamber music, and to get more involved in orchestral playing, and three years became nine years. I was pretty much set to live there for my whole life, until I got the opportunity to come to Florida and play in MTT’s New World Symphony.
On being in the Orchestra:
Playing in an orchestra, you get so many different ideas from the musicians and conductors around you. In doing that, your vision gets wider. If you play solos all the time, you develop your own strong sense of how you want to play; but here, you have to be more flexible, and I like that. After we play a really great concert, it is a great feeling to know that I contributed one little part to something that became a really fine production.
I love the music of Brahms. I think that his pieces are well-structured and complex, and also have such beautiful melodies. To me Brahms’s music is very romantic and I get emotional playing it.
Catherine A. Mueller Chair
Member since 1993
Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
I studied with a wonderful teacher in Japan, named Takiko Ohmura. She was the first Japanese violinist to enter the Juilliard School and she came back to Japan because of World War II. Later, I studied with Jascha Heifetz at the University of Southern California, and I taught as his assistant. He was a tremendous influence, as was cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who was also teaching at USC.
On being in the Orchestra:
The feeling of community in the San Francisco Symphony is amazing. I admire the myriad of talents and the musicianship of my colleagues; in concerts, we completely focus on listening to each other and on experiencing the music together. And we are supportive of each other both in and out of music—a special quality that has been noticed by some out-of-town friends.
I enjoy teaching at home. I practice the pieces my students are studying, and some are very difficult and keep me busy!
I enjoyed John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction very much. We have played his Harmonielehre, which was also recorded live. I thought the piece was so beautiful and also enjoyed reading Adams’s explanation of his use of titles like Meister Eckhart and Quackie in our program notes. Now I want to see all his operas! I have been privileged to have played in many of the productions of Adams’s work at the Symphony, including the beautiful El Niño and A Flowering Tree.
Yukiko Kurakata has served as a Symphony mentor in the SF Symphony Community of Music Makers program.
Member since 1990
Hometown: Grosse Pointe, MI
I was very fortunate to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Symphony of the Redwoods—that concerto is one of the gems of the repertory. And I love anything by Prokofiev.
It was incredible studying with some of the best teachers in the world at Curtis. The Curtis orchestra would rehearse whatever the Philadelphia Orchestra had programmed, culminating with their guest conductors leading us in rehearsal by the end of each week. I was inspired by Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache, and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, to name a few.
Yoga, alternative medicine, chamber music, and organic food are all big interests of mine. I like trying new recipes from gourmet cookbooks, including The French Laundry Cookbook and The Babbo Cookbook. Practicing violin daily and doing homework with my youngest son keeps me very busy.
Advice for aspiring musicians:
Find the best teacher you can, immerse yourself in music, and practice, practice, practice!
Member since 2003
Hometown: Tel Aviv
Important musical influences
My violin teacher since I was eight years old, Igor Polesitsky, is a major influence. When I was old enough, I would take a bus, have a lesson, stay overnight, and have another lesson. It was fantastic. Igor would often invite musicians over and we would play chamber music, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. Igor taught me to always seek the true essence of the music while reading what’s in the score.
Becoming a musician
My father is a physician and a classically trained lyric tenor. He took me to my first opera when I was three years old. After moving to Siena, Italy, he taught me music notation, and brought me a quarter-size, Chinese-made violin from Florence when I was six. I was twelve when I had my, let’s say ‘debut.' From then on I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
SFS member since: 1984
Hometown: Braintree, MA
Music schools you attended: Boston University, Eastman School of Music
Began playing music: At age 10
Musical inspirations: My parents
If I were not a professional musician, I might be: in finance
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Bach solo violin sonatas
When I’m not working, what I enjoy doing most is: I’m almost always working
Recent reading: The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis
Plus: I especially enjoy working with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra as part of their coaching team. I also teach at San Jose State and enjoy playing chamber music
Name: Sarn Oliver
SFS member since: 1995
Hometown: New Haven, CT
When I was at Juilliard there was a group of students and professional musicians that got together for these great chamber music parties at cellist and friend Daven Jenkins’s apartment. You never knew who’d be there; it was so much fun. Those parties were a big influence on my concept of what music is really about: playing for the sheer joy of it.
I’ve branched into other careers, including being a recording engineer and producer. I have a recording studio now, and SFS Recording Engineer Jack Vad has been a great mentor. I’ve been learning about microphones, how to edit, how to master and produce CDs, all of which has affected how I listen to music. You start to understand how things are pieced together, and how musical decisions can be made during the editing process. I’ve also been composing a lot.
I play in chamber music groups including the Tilden Trio and a violin duo called Tangled with my wife, (SFS violinist) Mariko Smiley.
SFS member since: 1999
Hometowns: Bucharest, Romania; New York
Music schools you attended: Juilliard, Peabody Conservatory
Began playing music: At age 6
Musical inspirations: My parents
If I were not a professional musician, I might be a: Visual artist
Favorite composers: Bach, Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven, Bruckner, Franck, Stravinsky, Nielsen
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Brahms, Violin Concerto; Franck, Violin Sonata; Bach and Beethoven sonatas
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Going out with friends and having lively discussions
Recent reading: Hemingway
On my CD player/iPod: Nielsen, Symphony No. 5; crossover genres
Favorite things to do in the Bay Area: Lake Tahoe (biking, skiing, hiking, swimming)
Plus: Have traveled to Asia and performed in China
Victor Romasevich has served as a Symphony mentor in the SF Symphony Community of Music Makers program.