Back to Press Room

Articles & Interviews

Jonathan Vinocour: for San Francisco Symphony’s Principal Viola, it's all in the family

May 12, 2015

When we caught up with the San Francisco Symphony's Principal Viola, 36-year-old Jonathan Vinocour, he was busy preparing for a quick getaway to Las Vegas with his wife, Jessica Valeri, who plays horn in the San Francisco Symphony.

"Jessica is pregnant with our first child, and our new son is due very soon. This may be our very last chance for a very long time to just do a couple of things," Vinocour said with a laugh. "We'll be relaxing by the pool, going to see Cirque du Soleil's O, hopefully eating out at romantic restaurants. In fact, right after this conversation we're running to the doctor to make sure everything's OK for the trip!"

In addition to the flurry of activity a new child brings, Vinocour will be preparing to headline the SF Symphony's performance of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, one of the most beloved and intimate pieces in the classical repertoire, with the SF Symphony Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik. "It's a masterpiece," Vinocour says. "One of the true showpieces for the viola."

Vinocour, originally from Rochester, New York, fell for music at a very young age, and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his passion. He played piano and even drums until he settled on the viola for its more personable qualities and rich sound — and the fact that it was more intriguing to him than the violin or cello.

"The range of the viola is close to the familiar human one," Vinocour says. "It can sing, but more often it adds color to a piece of music, drawing you in and making you curious to hear more. It's used to add dimension and a bit of mystery."

"The viola was also the instrument of choice for many composers," he continues. "The timbre has a way of expressing their inner voice that they could later embellish with the full spectrum of an orchestra. Mozart was one of those composers. He had a love affair with viola that lasted throughout his life. He composed on it and he played it on tour as a very young performer. You can go see his viola displayed at his home in Salzburg."

Vinocour studied viola through college at Princeton, where he earned a chemistry degree. "I have a very analytical side that helps me figure out a piece of music," he said of his unique combination of talents. He left the field of chemistry — although he said it still shines through in his love of cooking — and went on to perform as principal viola of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa in Japan, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, in which his colleague, friend, and now wife Jessica also played.

Just as he moved to San Francisco in 2009 to join the Symphony, Jessica also made the jump. "It was a complete coincidence that we both joined the San Francisco Symphony from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the same time. We didn't start dating until much later, but it was this really funny thing we shared," Vinocour says.

As for the Sinfonia Concertante, it's one of the most recognizable pieces Mozart wrote for viola, showing up in famous novels like Sophie's Choice and several movies." All three movements of the piece are wonderful — it's Mozart, after all — but it's the second movement, the Andante, that people usually remember most. Mozart sets up an intricate conversation between the viola and the violin, almost like a couple talking. It's very emotional, but also a quintessential piece of musical one-up-manship that continues into the third movement," Vinocour explains.

"Sasha [Barantschik] and I have such a familiarity with each other's style, we enjoy the parts of the piece that are more spontaneous. We don't plot out every detail, because the Sinfonia should come out sounding elegant and graceful, but also free-feeling and very natural." 

And what about Vinocour's new son? Being born to two professional musicians, are there expectations that he'll take up an instrument at an early age? Vinocour laughs. "Well, we wouldn't be too upset if he got into music. But we're hoping it will be something like the piano, rather than the violin or clarinet — we'd prefer an instrument that doesn't sound so... let's just say "awkward" to other people around you as you're first learning it." 

If you Go:

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas leads San Francisco Symphony Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour and Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloists in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in concerts that also include Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, 8 p.m. May 20 & 23, and 6:30 p.m. May 22. An open rehearsal takes place May 20 at 10 a.m. at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org