Associate Principal, Second Violin, Audrey Avis Aasen-Hull Chair
Acting Principal, 2013-14 Season
Member since 2006
Hometown: Chicago, IL
I left home when I was fourteen to go to Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, and I remember being around two Russian violinists there who were extremely advanced. Music was so second-nature to them, such a part of their blood, that they weren’t just learning how to play the violin—their perception of music was deeper than that. So I latched onto them and listened to them practice and play. That was the perfect age for me to be around players who had such a deep approach to music.
If I had to go to an island and could take one composer’s music with me, it would be Haydn’s. He has wonderful harmonies and interesting ideas that pushed the envelope. His music is filled with surprises, ideas that seem to come out of nowhere and yet make so much sense.
I love old films—anything by Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock—and also the films of Wong Kar-wai. His In the Mood for Love was really powerful, but I’d say Fellini’s 8 1/2 is my all-time favorite.
In your CD player:
Led Zeppelin IV. What those four guys did together in their music is mind-blowing: the creativity of their ideas, and the way they brought different sounds and styles together. I think they are tremendous artists.
Assistant Principal Second Violinist
Acting Associate Principal, 2013-14 Season
Member since 1980
Hometown: Bronx, NY
On becoming an orchestral musician:
I was in my mid-twenties when I decided I wanted to play in an orchestra. I had taken piano and violin lessons growing up, and I sang Renaissance music in college. Then I dropped out—it was the sixties—hitchhiked to California, and lived in a small dome in the woods of Mendocino. I was a hippie for three years and made music on the guitar and shakuhachi. Eventually I began playing Irish fiddle music. When I got tired of being broke I figured it was time to get serious, so I began to practice and take auditions. A year later I won my first job playing for the Oakland Symphony.
Other career paths:
I’ve always loved classical music, but as a kid I also listened to a lot of rock ‘n roll. In fact, at age five, after about six months of piano lessons, I played and sang “Maybe” by The Chantels for my teacher. He didn’t respond with much enthusiasm to the piece—if not for that, I might have been a rock musician!
On being in the Orchestra:
I think the SFS is better now than it’s ever been. We’ve really gotten good at pieces we’ve done with MTT over the years, like Mahler 8. Our experience together makes performing feel so natural. It’s been a great experience; I can honestly say I love coming to work.
SFS member since: 2001
Hometown: Erie, PA
Music school you attended: Eastman School of Music
Began playing music: At age 11
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Hiking, backpacking, cooking French food
Recent reading: Sodom and Gommorah, volume 4 of In Search of Lost Time, by Proust
On my CD player/iPod: Mabel Mercer, Noël Coward, Beethoven piano sonatas with Artur Schnabel
Favorite things to do in the Bay Area: Hiking, exploring restaurants
Dan Nobuhiko Smiley
The Eucalyptus Foundation Second Century Chair
Member since 1990
Hometown: Mill Valley, CA
On being in the Orchestra:
A lot of it comes to family—I work with my wife (SFS violinist Suzanne Leon), my sister (SFS violinist Mariko Smiley), my sister-in-law (SFS violinist Kelly Leon-Pearce), and my brother-in-law (SFS violinist Sarn Oliver). It’s literally family for me here, and the Orchestra is a very tight-knit community. The audience is also very special—they’re so supportive, generous, and enthusiastic, and that makes a difference to the musicians. We feed off the audience and are creating something together, and that’s really exciting.
I got very interested in astronomy at a young age, and have since become an amateur astronomer. I’ve done a lot of observation with my telescopes, and some of my astro-photography has been published in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines.
I find that great composers write great second violin lines. Sometimes, the way you treat the second lines can offer real insight into a composer. I often say Haydn is one of my favorites and I would love to play all the Haydn symphonies. Every time we do a new Haydn symphony, it’s always a blast. In 2007, we played Symphony No. 67 with conductor Leonard Slatkin, and it was very charming—[SFS Concertmaster] Alexander Barantschik and I played the solos and afterwards Slatkin gave us each a dollar bill! Haydn’s music has such humor, and it was so appropriate. Mahler is also wonderful. You can really sink your teeth into his works, and we’ve done a lot of fantastic Mahler here.
Member since 2006
Hometown: Almaty, Kazakhstan
My major musical influence was my late father. He was a huge impact on my life. He was a very famous musician in Kazakhstan who played a folk instrument called the dombra. He was an iconic figure, and left a huge legacy of music—he composed over 300 pieces—including audio and video recordings and books. I’m trying to collect some of his music this year and possibly transcribe some for the violin. I want to honor his memory and his musicianship, and say thank you. Who I am today I owe to my father.
One can never get tired of Bach, especially with the fast-paced life that we live today. I think Bach’s music is becoming more and more alive, and almost necessary to keep some kind of balance and stay grounded. And when you play Bach, it’s a good way to check your level of musicianship and artistry.
Advice for aspiring musicians:
Playing in the orchestra can be viewed as a joy or a job, but it’s wise to make it a joyful job. Remember that no job ever really employs you completely; we all must love what we do, and no job is worth doing for money alone. Here at the San Francisco Symphony, I feel that the musicians project beautiful artistry and uplift so many spirits. That’s an important mission, so we should always keep in mind, especially for young musicians, that it’s not just a job, you must really love what you do.
On being in the Orchestra:
The SFS musicians deliver the most exquisite performances; they stay so focused, and are so highly aware of one another. When you are surrounded by that energy, your own playing improves. When I went back to Kazakhstan people complimented me on my playing. I have to thank my colleagues for that.
SFS member since: 2009
Hometown: St. Petersburg, Russia
Music schools I attended: Indiana University, the Julliard School of Music
Began playing music: At age 6
Musical inspirations: My mother
If I were not a professional musician, I might be: Some kind of engineer
Favorite composers: Prokofiev, Glazunov, Chopin, Rachmaninoff
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Babadjanian, Piano Trio; Beethoven, violin sonatas; Glazunov, Violin Concerto
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Surfing, riding motorcycles, shooting hand guns and other stuff like that
Recent reading: Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
On my CD player/iPod: I don’t have an iPod!
Favorite thing to do in the Bay Area: Ifly (indoor skydiving)
David Chernyavsky has served as a Symphony mentor in the SF Symphony Community of Music Makers program.
Member since 2001
Hometown: Saratoga, CA
My mother teaches the violin and was a student of former SFS Concertmaster Naoum Blinder. I deeply appreciate all she did for me to help me achieve my dream of playing in the SFS. Zaven Melikian was my inspirational primary teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory. I was nineteen when I joined the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, which was a pivotal point in my musical life. Zoya Leybin and Jorja Fleezanis were wonderful violin coaches and major influences when I played in the YO. The spirit of the organization was amazing; we were treated like professionals from the first rehearsal.
On playing in the Orchestra:
As a young child I knew I wanted to be a professional musician, and my dream was to play in this orchestra. Our overseas tours and the Mahler project are highlights for me. MTT's spontaneity in conducting Mahler makes playing it an extraordinary experience.
Advice to aspiring musicians:
Be open to influence. You may not understand or agree with all you hear, but someday it may resonate with your inner voice. Cultivate rich personal experiences and let go of emotional pain. You will need to call on your feelings and experiences to express the emotions in the music, while staying grounded in the moment.
What inspires you:
I love being surrounded by beautiful symphonic music, played by a wonderful large orchestra. Playing in the second violin section allows me to express myself in the most natural way, by playing interesting harmonies in a supportive and dynamic context. I enjoy the camaraderie of orchestral playing.
On a desert island I would have the Busoni transcription of the Bach Chaconne, played by Artur Rubinstein.
Member since 2005
Hometown: Seattle, WA
When Yo-Yo Ma was here for his Project San Francisco artist residency, he gave a master class over at the SF Conservatory for a quartet of SFS Youth Orchestra musicians. I went to see the class because my daughter Mariko was playing cello—Yo-Yo was just amazing. Watching him work with the students was so much fun.
Other musical activities:
I play a lot of chamber music. My husband Peter [Wyrick, SFS Associate Principal Cello] and I are co-directors of the Ruby Mountain Chamber Music Festival in Nevada.
Life outside the SFS:
I’m always going running on the trails in Marin. I was a gymnast when I was young, and being active is my way of keeping in touch with the coordination I built up. Sports and music are similar in that each is a discipline: In either case, it’s about staying present, and being aware of your body and your surroundings. Otherwise, I enjoy baking bread from sourdough. It becomes kind of an obsession because you have to feed and take care of the starter—it’s kind of like having a little kid around! I also make jewelry, which definitely comes in handy around holidays and birthdays.
SFS member since: 1975
Hometown: Seoul, Korea
Music schools you attended: University of Michigan, Juilliard School of Music
Began playing music: At age 5
Musical inspirations: My family
If I were not a professional musician, I might be a: Dancer
Favorite composers: Early Romantic composers
Favorite works featuring my instrument: Romantic concertos and show pieces
When I’m not working, I enjoy: Ballroom dancing. It’s good exercise and all varieties of music. I listen and move my body according to the mood of different music.
Recent reading: Biography of Chung trio in Korean (Mrs. Chung was a truly great mother!); The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross
On my CD player/iPod: Because I play symphonies so much, I listen to mainly chamber music and solo violin/piano works
Favorite thing to do in the Bay Area: The weather is so beautiful here, I love enjoying outdoor walks in the beautiful nature areas.
Plus: I have been invited to participate in the Asia Philharmonic for the last six summers. All different Asian musicians from all over the world (Korea, Japan, and China) get together and play. Maestro Myung-Whun Chung’s goal of this endeavor is to unify all Asian peoples.
Member since 1990
Hometown: Grosse Pointe, MI
Aside from my teachers and the artists that I heard growing up, playing music with my older sisters has always been great. Suzanne also plays violin in the SFS, and Stephanie is an incredible pianist. Through the years, we learned a lot about working together and about the way the music fits together.
On being in the Orchestra:
It's exhilarating to be in the midst of such a wonderful and luxurious sound, and being able to communicate with an audience and share intimate moments with them is incredible. The Mahler symphonies are especially powerful that way: You go through so many emotions, and to be able to share that with the musicians and the audience is very meaningful.
Favorite works to play:
I enjoy the challenge of playing unaccompanied Bach. While the music is very structured, it's also gorgeous and soulful. It can be very difficult to get all the different lines to speak the way you want them to, but when you do, it’s very satisfying. Also Mozart—it’s so beautiful, and it sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard to play well.
Aside from playing in the Orchestra and playing chamber music, I love to be in the kitchen; whether it's trying new recipes for dinner parties or baking delectable treats for my colleagues and family. My kids are active, award-winning classical musicians, as well being in a rock band called Crunchy Frog: both of which gives me and my husband plenty to do!
I love the Budapest String Quartet recording of the Debussy and Ravel string quartets. It takes me back to when I was little. We would have that recording on late at night and go to sleep listening to it.
Member since 1991
I had the privilege of auditioning for the Shanghai Conservatory when China held its first ever open auditions. Before that, they always accepted you based on your family background. After the auditions, they put a big sign outside in calligraphy that listed who got in and who didn’t. I was accepted and began attending the Conservatory in middle school. This was a truly exciting time in my musical career.
On coming to San Francisco:
I had some connections here before I joined the Orchestra. When Isaac Stern visited China in 1979, I played in a master class that was in his movie From Mao to Mozart. I first came to this country for a sister-city exchange program with the conservatories of Shanghai and San Francisco. The late Symphony patron Agnes Albert sponsored my stay in San Francisco.
Advice for aspiring musicians:
Practice! You’ll be freer to express yourself and your musical ideas if you aren’t struggling with technical issues, and the only way to get past such difficulties is through practice and hard work. Also, we live in a place with so much culture—San Francisco is amazing. If you try to absorb at least some of those cultural influences, it will help build your musicality. This is something that I’m always telling my daughter.
Isaac Stern Chair
Member since: 2009
Hometown: Saint Petersburg, Russia
I remember my parents playing from infancy. My father, who has been my core teacher, is the treble violin soloist and violinist with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Formerly with the Kirov Opera, he often admits that his heart still belongs to opera, and he exposed me to beautiful rare recordings. My mother, who was a choirmaster and now is a piano teacher, started me on theory at age three. I begged for a little violin and then received one as a present a year later. Being four years old, I didn’t realize my present came along with a life and career plan!
Playing in an orchestra:
To be in an orchestra, a musician must learn the enormous flexibility to work with another hundred people to create a convincing musical image: one that balances the conductor’s vision and the performers’ individual interpretations.
On being in the SFS:
I find it inspiring that no matter where in the Orchestra I sit and play, I always feel powerful waves of energy coming towards me. Every member of the SFS is putting in their best, and it’s very contagious.
Favorite composers and works:
My favorite composers are Stravinsky, Beethoven, and Bartók. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of my favorites—it unleashes indescribably wild emotions. Stravinsky’s music immerses me in the mysterious world of Russian fairy-tales that I read as a child. And Shostakovich, who was my favorite composer in my teenage years, still stirs my feelings.
I am mesmerized by Gagaku, a classical Japanese music. I also love two movie scores; Vertigo, by Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen, devilish and frightful music that gives me goose bumps. I would love the Orchestra to play it for one of the movie nights!
Chen Zhao joined the San Francisco Symphony in August 2000. A native of Shanghai, he is the son of painters Weiliand Zhao and Lina Nie. He showed an early interest in music, playing a makeshift violin (a chopstick and pencil box) until his parents gave him a 1/8-size violin on his fourth birthday. He studied with his uncle Ronghao Nie, who also composed music for him, since sheet music by foreign composers was not readily available in China in 1978. Chen Zhao gave his first public performance at the Shanghai Children’s Palace at age six, and at ten he entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. In 1987 he moved to the US with his parents and became a scholarship student at Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, studying with Heiichiro Ohyama. He went on to attend the Curtis Institute of Music, where he worked with Felix Galimir, and he moved to San Francisco in 1996 to study with Camilla Wicks at the San Francisco Conservatory. In 1999 he joined the New World Symphony in Miami; the following year he appeared as concertmaster with that orchestra in a performance at Davies Symphony Hall, just months before joining the SFS.
Chen Zhao has toured throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, and performed at the Ravinia, La Jolla, San Juan Islands, Sun Valley, Round Top, Santa Fe, PMF, Evian, and Lucerne festivals, and the BBC Proms. As a soloist, he has appeared with San Francisco Symphony, Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and Oslo Chamber Orchestra. He is featured on the soundtrack of the film Xiu Xiu, for which he worked closely with film director Joan Chen. He has received prizes including the ARTS in Miami, and he was nominated for the White House Presidential Scholar Program. Also an avid chamber musician, Chen Zhao has performed with Martin Lovett, Miriam Fried, Paul Neubauer, Gilbert Kalish, Bonnie Hampton, Jorja Fleezanis, Andre Emelianoff, and Geraldine Walther, and has studied with members of the Amadeus, Guarneri, Vermeer, Juilliard, and Borodin quartets. He also performs frequently with his Symphony colleagues in Chamber Music Sundaes in Berkeley.
Chen Zhao has been a violin coach for the SFS Youth Orchestra since 2003, and he also serves on the orchestral training faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has served as a coach with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.