Meet the SFS Musicians: Violinist Sarn Oliver

SF Symphony Violinist Sarn Oliver explains how his myriad hobbies—including rock climbing and composing—feed his passion for playing music.

Sarn Oliver

Violin
Member since: 1995
School: Juilliard

Early musical influences: My dad is a composer and taught at different universities so when I was a child we moved almost every year. As a result I studied with many different teachers early on, including Elmar Oliveira—he is amazing and hearing his concerts was inspiring—Ron Neal, Ivan Galamian, and Sally Thomas. I was also lucky to have great chamber music coaches such as Josef Gingold, Felix Galimir, Lev Aronson, and Mischa Schneider. The love of music they conveyed was infectious and very personal.

Favorite composers: Beethoven (especially the string quartets), St├ęphane Grappelli, Miles Davis, Berg, and Bach. I also like nerdy violin-centric composers like Paganini and Ernst. I love modern music.

Favorite part of being in the SFS: To a large extent the Symphony is my family. My wife (violinist Mariko Smiley) and her brother (violinist Dan Smiley) and his wife (violinist Suzanne Leon) and her sister (violinist Kelly Leon-Pearce) are in the orchestra. SFS Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick I've known since Juilliard Pre-College and Meadowmount, and his wife SFS violinist Amy Hiraga I also knew from Juilliard. And that’s just the start!

San Francisco Symphony cellist Amos Yang Oliver, who dabbles in instrument making, tries out a violin after manually carving wider holes in its bridge.

Recent SFS highlight: I really liked Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz—a really interesting composition with fresh colors and ideas given a great performance.

Out and about: I’ve recently taken up climbing with my son Sean. We climb in a local gym but also get to Yosemite or Red Rock Canyon (near Las Vegas) to climb outside. Sean used to come on all the Symphony tours so he and I have managed to surf in Japan, Barcelona, Hawaii, and a number of other places together.

Other musical activities: I have been composing for fifteen years and I enjoy seeing these new works come to life. I also have a recording studio, SarnWorks, and I have recorded myself, many colleagues, and artists such as Emanuel Ax. My interest in recording was sparked by my early experiences turning pages for Cho-Liang Lin in sessions at the old RCA studios in New York and also my friendship with Adam Abeshouse, a colleague of mine back in the New Jersey Symphony who I think is one of the best recording engineers in the business. I’m also interested in violin and bow making. I love studying the great makers, comparing new and old work and getting a grasp on how the instruments work from a physics perspective. It's a wonderful field that combines science, art, and function in the most beautiful way.