Second Violin

Dan Carlson

Principal Second Violin, Dinner & Swig Families Chair

Dan Carlson, who joined the SFS in 2006, is Principal Second Violin and occupant of the Dinner & Swig Families Chair. He previously served as rotating concertmaster for the New World Symphony and he has made solo appearances with the Phoenix Symphony, Chicago String Ensemble, New World Symphony, and the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra. He has also performed chamber music extensively throughout New York. A graduate of the Juilliard School, Mr. Carlson is Concertmaster of the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.

(October 2017)

Paul Brancato

Assistant Principal

Paul Brancato
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.

Helen Kim

Associate Principal Second Violin

Helen Kim joined the San Francisco Symphony as Associate Principal Second Violin, occupying the Audrey Avis Aasen-Hull Chair, in the 2016-17 season. She was previously a member of the Saint Louis Symphony from 2011 to 2016. She has spent her summers teaching and performing at festivals including Aspen, Yellow Barn, Luzerne, and the Innsbrook Institute. Ms. Kim received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California, where she was Presidential Scholar, and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music. 

(March 2018)

John Chisholm

Acting Assistant Principal, 2013-14 Season

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

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.

Other interests:
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.

Favorite composers:
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.


Raushan Akhmedyarova

Raushan Akhmedyarova
Member since 2006
Hometown: Almaty, Kazakhstan

Musical influences:
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.

Favorite composer:
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. 

David Chernyavsky

David Chernyavsky, who joined the San Francisco Symphony in 2009, was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He began violin at the age of six and at eleven gave his first solo recital. After winning prizes in competitions in Russia and France, he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In 1997, Mr. Chernyavsky came to the US to study at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and, later, at the Juilliard School. Mr. Chernyavsky has recorded several CDs with the Saint Petersburg Quartet and with the Joel Rubin Klezmer Music Ensemble, and he has released a solo CD, Klezmer Violin. He also performs and teaches with the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.

(March 2018)

Cathryn Down

Cathryn Down
Member since 2001
Hometown: Saratoga, CA

Musical influences:
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.

Favorite recording:
On a desert island I would have the Busoni transcription of the Bach Chaconne, played by Artur Rubinstein. 


Darlene Gray

Amy Hiraga

Amy Hiraga studied at the University of Cincinnati College–Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School. She has been a member of the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Ms. Hiraga spent one year as a member of the SFS before returning to the East Coast with her husband, SFS Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick. She worked as a freelance musician in New York and joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1991, then rejoined the SFS when she and Mr. Wyrick returned to San Francisco in 1999.

(January 2018)

Kum Mo Kim

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.

Kelly Leon-Pearce

Kelly Leon-Pearce
Member since 1990
Hometown: Grosse Pointe, MI

Musical influences:
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!

Favorite recording:
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. 

Profiled in our Meet the SFS Musicians series, Kelly Leon-Pearce discusses how she makes time for family both in music and in the kitchen.

Eliot Lev

SFS violinist Eliot Lev Eliot Lev, occupant of the Isaac Stern Chair, joined the SFS violin section in 2014. Previously, he was a member of the first violin section and acting assistant concertmaster of the Utah Symphony and associate concertmaster with the Charlotte Symphony. He studied with Vadim Gluzman at Roosevelt University and later joined the New World Symphony. He plays on a 1910 Neapolitan violin and an Ouchard bow, generously purchased by the Carey family of Boston, MA. Mr. Lev is proud to be the first openly transgender musician in a major American orchestra. For more on Eliot Lev, visit

(January 2018)

Chunming Mo

Chunming Mo
Member since 1991
Hometown: Shanghai

Music studies:
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.



Polina Sedukh

Isaac Stern Chair

Polina Sedukh, a native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, is a graduate of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where she studied with Savely Shalman, Lev Ivaschenko, and Vladimir Ovtcharek. Ms. Sedukh also holds an artist diploma from the Longy School of Music in Boston. Before joining the SFS, Ms. Sedukh was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She has also appeared as soloist with Saint Petersburg State Symphony, Boston Virtuosi Orchestra, Newton Symphony, and Saint Petersburg Cappella Orchestra, and was a prizewinner at the Ludwig Spohr International Violin Competition.

(March 2018)

Chen Zhao

Shanghai native Chen Zhao 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 and gave his first public performance at the Shanghai Children’s Palace at age six. He went on to study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Crossroads School for Art and Sciences, Curtis Institute of Music, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the New World Symphony, before joining the San Francisco Symphony at age twenty-five. His teachers include Jiyang Zhao, Heiichiro Ohyama, Felix Galimir, and Camilla Wicks. 

Chen Zhao has performed at the Ravinia, La Jolla, Sun Valley, Round Top, Santa Fe, Pacific Music, Evian, BBC Proms, and Lucerne festivals, and he has appeared as a soloist with the Curtis Symphony, Oslo Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony (in the 2008 Chinese New Year Celebration), San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the Stanford Symphony. An avid chamber musician, Mr. Zhao has performed with Martin Lovett, Miriam Fried, Paul Neubauer, Robert Chen, Gilbert Kalish, Jorja Fleezanis, Geraldine Walther, and studied with members of the Amadeus, Guarneri, Vermeer, Juilliard, and Borodin quartets. 

Chen Zhao has been mentoring young violinists in the Bay Area since 2000. He is a violin professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and serves as an orchestral training coach for both the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

(January 2018)