Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Carrie Hennessey in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On November 5, 2022, I will be conducting the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in a wonderful program featuring a West Coast première by Salina Fisher (from New Zealand), Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs with the superb soprano Carrie Hennessey, and Prokofiev's extraordinary Symphony No. 5. Below is a conversation I had with Carrie about our upcoming performance.

Christian Baldini: Dear Carrie, as always it is a pleasure to collaborate with you. Please tell me, what is your personal history with this marvelous work by Richard Strauss, and what do these beautiful songs mean to you personally?

Carrie Hennessey: Well as a young singer, with an old soul, growing into the big lyric voice, these were always the “one day I hope to sing these!”. I studied every version I could get my ears on.  I never knew if I’d have a chance to sing them with an orchestra so I have performed them many times in concert with piano. Now I am blessed to sing these a second time with an orchestra with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra! The first time was with conductor Danny Stewart. We performed in a venue in the redwoods, so the final movement was overwhelming. Watching the sunset while singing “Im Abendrot” is a treasured memory. It was difficult to not cry!

CB: Could you share with people what each of these four songs is about? What is your take on them?

CH: These songs weren’t originally grouped together as a set until later. The first Song “Frühling” or Spring elicits the trembling feeling of new, intoxicating smells and sights. In nature. In Life. This leads to “September”, summer shuddering and smiling at his dying dream of a garden. The golden leaves taking over and leading  into “Beim Schlafengehen”, or Going to Sleep. A poem of a soul tired, wearied and wishing for sleep, a soul free to live and fly freely into the magic night. Strauss first set the Eichendorff poem “Im Abendrot”, At Sunset, about a couple at the end of their journey together, seeing the sunset and asking “is this death?”, which became the last in the group. This for me, yes, can represent the literal last sunset but more viscerally for me is the sunset of a life gone by, the past leaving and walking through a metamorphosis. I see the people who have walked through it with me until this point, what I need to leave behind to bloom further and what lies on the other side of the incredible shift and change. These last two years have been filled with personal and collective transformation. These songs to me deeply represent that new discovery of who I am and what I have to offer the world, honoring the path I’ve taken thus far as well as letting go of what I don’t need in order to truly step into what lies ahead. 

CB: Which of the four songs is your favorite, if any, and why?

CH: I think I have to say Beim Schlafengehen, because it was the first I ever sang. The composer that helped bring me back to singing after 12 years away played this in a church service. We had exchanged stories of our love for Strauss and he slipped it into the prelude by surprise. I teared up, remembering what it felt like to truly sing with that kind of freedom. To soar freely as the text and music inspires. We performed it at a New Year’s eve service. A time to reflect on the past and look forward to shift and change. I was ever changed. 

CB: What would you recommend to someone who is not familiar with these songs, or with Richard Strauss? What should they listen for?

CH: I think the thing that stands out to me most is the general feeling of longing. Some specific themes to listen for are the “flying theme” violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen” that is then repeated in the voice with the words “the soul wishes to soar freely” and I LOVE how Strauss truly captures the sunset. The grand gesture at the end of “Im Abendrot” when the sunset has the deepest, fiery orange blazing through the pink sky, followed by the last birds singing their song,  in the flutes and piccolos, before sleep. Stunning writing!

CB: Thank you Carrie, and as always, I know our audience will be in for a treat!

CH: I am thrilled to be back making such beautiful music with you and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra!

Carrie Hennessey (courtesy photo)

Carrie Hennessey is a wayfinder through the deep, spiritual and technical discoveries of the voice.

Early success in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions led to high expectations, but singing after trauma in her early 20s dismantled the ease in her voice and presence. A top artistic mentor once reviewed, ‘This is not the same singer I heard 2 years ago. Go back home’, and a famous singer/coach exclaimed, ‘If you’d just sing like Renata Tebaldi…’ Hennessey left, losing her identity and voice.

Ms. Hennessey has since found her true voice and created a wildly unique and energized career path in theater, opera, symphony work, recital, and education, wearing with pride the hats of trauma-informed teacher and facilitator, producer, singer, actor, innovator and writer.

She is currently most known for her soaring voice and richly nuanced characters onstage, and has sung all over the world. Notable highlights include on the heels of Covid debuting as Kát’á in Kát’á Kabanová. Ms. Hennessey “in a vivid star turn in the title role…brought a wondrous blend of silvery tone and sinuous phrasing to her assignment…Hennessey’s performance touched perfectly on Katya’s anxiety, joys and uncertainty, all through a surge of Puccinian lyricism.”- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

On a vulnerable and delusional ride through the mind of Tennessee Williams and Blanche Du Bois in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Carrie “gave us a Blanche that let us burrow into her character’s soul, even into the darkest crevices…Hennessey, using a one-two punch of music and drama, made it resonate in a way that equaled the finest stage performances of the part I’ve seen.” (Fresno Bee). Carrie captivated audiences of both the Slow Food Movement and opera alike at Sacramento’s own, Magpie Cafe as Estelle in an immersive production of The Stronger, based on the intense Strindberg play.She channeled the physical comedy of Carol Burnett and fearless vocalism and sense of humor of Beverly Sills in the world premiere ballet by Darrell Grand Moultrie “On the Rocks, Please!”, bringing the Sacramento Ballet house to surprised belly laughter and then to its feet. Ms. Hennessey has also debuted with Houston Symphony, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Budapest, Reduta Hall in Bratislava, Rudolfinum Hall in Prague, the International Mahler Festival, the Concertgebouw in Bruges, Ypres, Belgium and at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart.

Carrie lights a fire in those around her teaching music education through lectures, workshops, Master Classes, and is joyfully dedicated to guiding people to find their true authentic voice in the world. Currently, Carrie is developing her one woman show about her life in singing, quitting for 12 years post trauma and creating from nothing a versatile and vibrant career steeped in authenticity. Want to be a part of this creative adventure? Subscribe to her email list and blog at and follow on social media @carriehennessey for updates!

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Sarah Wald in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On September 24, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the world première of Sarah Wald's work "After Brahms", which she wrote for the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento. On the same program we will also perform Brahms' Symphony No. 4, which Sarah knew about when I asked her to write the piece. I had the chance of asking Sarah some questions about her music, and below are the answers:

Christian Baldini: Sarah, it will be a pleasure to bring your music to life once more. Please tell us about "After Brahms". How did you decide to include material from Brahms' 4th Symphony into your new piece?

Sarah Wald: Both of the other pieces on the program, Elgar's Cello Concerto and Brahms' 4th Symphony, are in E minor. So, I decided to compose something in E minor as well—I liked the idea of an E minor extravaganza! Following that, I thought taking material from the end of the Brahms symphony would provide a neat bookend for the concert. So I used a slightly modified version of Brahms' last-movement theme as my repeating bass line. 

CB: What are some tips and pointers about your music, and about this piece in general that people should listen for? What would you say to someone who does not know your music at all?

SW: This particular piece is all about repetition, but repetition that is constantly subjected to three different processes: cycling through different keys, getting passed around different instrumental groups, and increasing in tempo. I was interested in how the same material could take on different characters in these different iterations.

CB: What do you try to communicate with your compositions?

SW: I think that really depends on the piece. Some of my pieces are programmatic, meaning that they're about extra-musical subjects. In my vocal music, I'm trying to support and enhance the text I'm setting. In some cases, I'm simply concerned with crafting beautiful or intriguing sounds (in some kind of logical order). But in most of my pieces, I'm very concerned with affect, or going on some sort of emotional/psychological journey.

CB: You are also a very fine performer (Sarah was for three years principal flute of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra) - can you tell us how being a performer has affected or influenced you as a composer?

SW: Thank you. Well, when I compose an orchestra piece specifically, I suppose I can't help imagining myself sitting in the flute section. What would it feel like? How would I hear my part in relation to the other parts? When playing orchestral repertoire, it's always fun to hear how you fit into the harmony, or to hear something you just played get picked up by another instrument, for example. So I think that perspective makes me think more carefully about how everything fits together.

CB: What advice would you give to young composers starting out? How do we connect with performers? What to do about choosing a good graduate program, or about getting commissions to write pieces? Anything else you would recommend?

SW: If you're in college or grad school, working with your fellow students/musicians can result in ongoing collaborative relationships years down the line. In a similar vein, attending summer music festivals or workshops is really invaluable, in my opinion: They offer additional performance/recording opportunities and broaden your network of potential collaborators. The Composer's Site is a good resource for finding various types of opportunities. And even basic Google searches for opportunities can help: When I was in college in NYC, I found out about the New York Youth Symphony's composition program just via Google search.

As far as choosing a good graduate program goes, I think it's mainly a matter of figuring out what you're looking for—what you want to get out of graduate school. Is there a particular teacher you want to study with? Are you interested in particular kinds of opportunities, like inter-departmental projects? Also, definitely talk to alumni of the programs you're interested in: You'll learn a lot about the program, good and bad, that you can't find out through any other channels.

CB: Thank you for your time, and I look forward to conducting the world première of this very imaginative piece that you have written for us!

SW: Thank you!

Sarah Wald was born in Chicago. She attended Columbia University in the City of New York for her bachelor’s degree in music with a focus in composition. While at Columbia, Sarah studied composition with Tristan Murail and Arthur Kampela, as well as with Robert Lombardo in Chicago. She also studied flute with Sue Ann Kahn.  Sarah then studied with Conrad Susa and David Garner at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for her master’s degree in composition. For her master’s thesis, she composed and produced  Elegy for a Lady: a Music Drama in One Act. As a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, Sarah was awarded a Graduate Scholars Fellowship for her first year. She recently finished her PhD in composition and music theory. Her dissertation advisor was Kurt Rohde.


Over the past several years, Sarah's music has been featured at various festivals and other programs, including the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival, the European American Musical Alliance in Paris, the New York Youth Symphony’s Composition Program, the nief-norf Summer Music Festival, the Brevard Music Center, the TALIS Festival, and the Bowdoin International Music Festival. Her work was also performed at Sävellyspaja in Finland and has been featured on radio stations such as WFMT (Relevant Tones) and CJSR.


Sarah has received several honors, awards, and commissions. She graduated from Columbia magna cum laude and also received Columbia’s Rapaport Prize in 2012. In 2015, she was awarded professional development grants from the Illinois Arts Council Agency and Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Her percussion quartet, Pas de Quatre, was selected by the University of Tennessee Knoxville for performance at PASIC 2015's New Literature Showcase Concert. Sarah has also received several individual commissions as well as commissions from Access Contemporary Music, the University of Tennessee at Martin Contemporary Music Group, and the Saint Xavier University Flute Choir. In 2016 and 2017, she was selected in calls for scores from New Music on the Bayou and Vox Musica. She was also a selected composer for North/South Consonance's call for scores in 2018 and the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in 2020. In January 2020, Sarah was selected to compose a score for the Sound of Silent Film Festival in Chicago.

Currently, Sarah is a Resident Artist with the concert platform Sparrow Live and a Teaching Artist with the San Francisco Opera Guild.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Susan Lamb Cook in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On September 24, 2022, I will have the pleasure of conducting the Elgar Cello Concerto with Susan Lamb Cook and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. I had the chance of asking Susan some questions about our program, and below are her answers:

Christian Baldini: Dear Susan, it will be a pleasure to collaborate with you once more as our soloist, this time with the beautiful Elgar Concerto. Can you tell me your history with this piece? When did you first come across it, and what are some of your fondest memories of playing it?

Susan Lamb Cook: I was first introduced to this piece when I was just finishing my studies at the University of Iowa.  After a friend shared with me the famous recording by Jacqueline Du Pré, I was so moved by this music that I felt I simply had to learn it.  It was not as easy to acquire sheet music at that time as it is today, so I had to wait some time before I could get started and, besides, I was in the process of moving to Europe to continue my studies and it took some time to get settled back into a serious practice routine.  Although I spent a great deal of time working intensively on this piece, it wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I had the first opportunity to perform it with orchestra, and that was in fact with Dan Kingman and the Camellia Symphony in 1989.  I had just returned to Sacramento from Europe and was thrilled to be able to perform this piece so dear to my heart back in my hometown with such fine local musicians.  A few years later, I was contacted by a colleague whom I had met in Vienna, and who was at that time the music director of the Cairo Symphony in Egypt.  Interestingly, I had already been to Egypt twice, once as a tourist and again as a member of the Ente Lirico Orchestra from Verona, performing Aida at the Luxor Temple. Obviously, I jumped at the chance to return to Egypt, especially to perform the Elgar Concerto with the Cairo Symphony and guest conductor Antoine Mitchell at the Cairo Opera House.  Many years later, I had the joy of performing the Elgar with the UC Davis Symphony in beautiful Jackson Hall at the Modavi Center, and now I have returned full circle to the Camellia Symphony!   

CB: Besides being a remarkable musician yourself, you are also a phenomenal cello teacher. What do you try to instill in your students' minds? What are some of the most important teachings that you hope they take away from you?
SLC: In our current environment in which everything seems to be moving at lightning-speed around us, it is hard not to expect that a skill like learning a musical instrument should come quickly and without much effort. However, for anyone who has stepped into this world of music, it becomes immediately apparent that patience, method, practice and above all time, are the essential ingredients for success.  Obviously, the physical aspect of learning an instrument is only one part of the equation.  Being fluent in music theory is important to understanding the relationships between notes and their function in the structure of the piece.  In addition to studying music theory, I encourage my students to learn as much as they can about the composers, their lives, and the history of the times in which they lived.  All of these ingredients add to a fuller and deeper understanding of the music we are hoping to interpret through our own voice and personal expression.    
CB: You are also very active performing chamber music with your wonderful colleagues. What are some of the pieces you would still like to perform, which you have not had a chance to yet?
SLC: When I founded the Great Composers Chamber Music Series in 2014, the programming was planned through the lens of a western European eye.  Because of my experience in Vienna, my comfort zone had always seemed to be within the realm of the European classical and romantic periods, so I therefore started off with a complete Beethoven series, followed by a complete Brahms series.  Obviously, each of these composers has a plethora of chamber music works to choose from, so it was not difficult to fill out each of those series.  Each year, I continued programming works which I considered to be by the “Great Composers”, mostly European men, however, it was only in more recent years that I realized how narrow my focus really was.  I am so thankful to colleagues who have encouraged me to open my eyes to lesser-known composers and their works that deserve to be programmed alongside what we might consider the “standard” repertoire.  It has been a fascinating and humbling journey as I discover, for the first time, wonderful chamber music works by women and composers of color whose works have been neglected over time, and I hope that the Great Composers Chamber Music Series will move forward as a platform embracing all great composers.
CB: What would be your advice for any young musician trying to make it in the profession? Any advice about auditioning for orchestras, being constant, and not losing hope when we (inevitably) fail during some auditions?
SLC: As I mentioned earlier, patience, method, practice, and time are essential ingredients to learning an instrument, but here I will also add the importance of working with excellent teachers, listening to others and, if one wants to go into the profession, getting performance experience, particularly through public recitals and competitions.  It is one thing to sit in one’s home environment practicing a piece, and a completely different experience when performing that piece in a competitive setting or in front of an audience.  Each one of us deals with the stress of performance in a different way, and the earlier one can figure out how to handle this very personal issue, the better.  Fortunately, the world of music offers many opportunities to those who want to make it their profession, so I believe that the more well-rounded one can be, the more likely one can create a sustainable life in music.  Many orchestral musicians also perform as chamber musicians, have active teaching studios, and participate in school or community presentations in order to create a sustainable income.  I think that it is important for students to understand that sitting and playing an instrument is only one thread of the fabric that will make up their life as a musician, but such a life is enriching beyond measure.

Susan Lamb Cook is Lecturer in cello and chamber music at the University of California, Davis, a member of the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera and the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, and director of the VITA Academy’s Great Composers Chamber Music Series at the Harris Center in Folsom. Her solo performances include those with the Sacramento Philharmonic, the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, the Reno Philharmonic, the Cairo Symphony (Egypt), the Paradise Symphony, the Camellia Symphony, and was featured as soloist in a Gala Concert in the Esterhazy Palace, Eisenstadt, Austria with the Classical Music Festival Orchestra. As an active performer and educator both nationally and internationally, Susan has completed five concert and teaching tours of China, has performed and given master classes at San Francisco State University, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, Marshall University in West Virginia, Austin College in Texas, and Dixie State University, Utah, and her performances have been featured on National Public Radio and Austrian National Television. She has served on faculty at the Saarburg International Music Festival in Germany, the Vianden Festival, Luxembourg, and on the artistic staff for the Classical Music Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria, and has performed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.  Susan performs regularly for the UCD Shinkoskey Noon Concert Series, the Westminster Music At Noon Series, and the Crocker Art Museum’s Classical Concert Series.

As Director Emeritus of the Sacramento Youth Symphony’s Summer Chamber Music Workshop, Susan spent 30 years developing this program which trains youth musicians in the art of chamber music and, in 2019, the Sacramento City Council awarded Susan a Resolution recognizing her work with young, local musicians.  In July 2020, Susan developed Sacramento Summer Music, an educational program for young chamber musicians which focused on under-represented composers including women composers and composers of the African Diaspora. This program ultimately developed into the Sacramento Summer Music Virtual Festival of Concerts, and “Concerts and Conversations” produced by the Great Composers Chamber Music Series in collaboration with the Sacramento Baroque Soloists and the Sacramento Guitar Society, all partner organizations of the Harris Center. Susan is a member of the Chevalier String Quartet and, in collaboration with clarinetist Deborah Pittman, created a multimedia project centered on the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges called the “Chevalier Project” which includes a film, study guide, and musical examples of the works of Saint-Georges.

Susan’s past performances can be found on YouTube at Susan Lamb CookConcerts and Conversations, and the UC Davis Music channel.


Sunday, May 29, 2022

Carrie Hennessey in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On June 4, 2022 I will share the stage with soprano Carrie Hennessey, who has been a frequent collaborator of mine. She will sing arias by Verdi and Dvorak, and duets by Offenbach and Delibes with mezzo-soprano Sarah Fitch. All of this will be with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in a program that includes Holst's masterpiece The Planets

Christian Baldini: Dear Carrie, I am always delighted to work with you and to share your amazing voice and musicality with our audience here in Sacramento. This time we get to do a couple of duets with you and Sarah Fitch, as well as two wonderful arias by Verdi, and one by Dvorak. Tell me, what is special to you about this program, these pieces, this collaboration?

Carrie Hennessey: Well, two of the arias are ones that I performed and advanced in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, Merce dilette amiche and Rusalka's Song to the Moon. The Dvorak holds a special place in my heart.  I am currently in the process of writing a one woman show about my singing life, the devastating 12 years away from singing and the coming back to it. This aria has its own tender scene in the show retelling the other worldly experience of my very first Met Audition. I also, of course, love singing with my dear friend Sarah Fitch, so the two duets will have me smiling from the inside out!

CB: How were your beginnings with opera? How did it all start for you?

CH: Growing up in MN, we were exposed really early on to choral, symphonic music and opera. My mother accompanied many local choirs and as a small child I was already memorizing all the parts! In high school I sang in the choirs, the musicals, solo competitions, and one year a famous conductor from the MN Bach Society came to our school to coach our school choir. My choir teacher had me sing a little Italian aria for him and he decided I should work on Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim” for the next competition. He accompanied me, brought in a professional trumpet player, and needless to say helped me develop some rather flashy ornamentation! The more I learned about opera, I loved the playful, collaborative nature of it all and the depth of the storytelling that was possible. 

CB: Why do you think opera is relevant nowadays? What would you like to convey to people in the audience with your wonderful artistry?

CH: Opera, by its nature, conveys deep emotional content. It’s larger than life and can truly house the tremendously big  emotions we all feel. Opera allows for the force of these emotions to move through us in a way that everyday life doesn’t allow. The release is visceral. The depth and breadth of storytelling in this tradition is vast and needed, especially now. My intent is always to connect first to the text and music, to find the universal truth and to take risks vocally and dramatically in order to serve it as best as I can. I intend to be the vessel for our communal, musical experience that we have been lacking during the pandemic. To feel the shared vibrations in these concert halls is a moving way to connect as humans. 

CB: Do you have any advice for young singers who are starting out? What are some helpful considerations? How does one deal with frustrations, failure, and hard decisions? (we have all gone through those!)

CH: Oh my goodness, do I! Seek advice and support from those who are doing the work, those you admire. Communicate clearly with mentors and teachers when things are getting frustrating and you find your needs are shifting. Only YOU know the kind of career you want, the only path is yours. Seek teachers who encourage you to look outside their studio, to be curious, to have questions. Don’t be afraid to ask, even if it seems like a risk. Artists want to support one another, and often we forget that.  I left singing for over 12 years because I didn’t have the tools to communicate as clearly as I needed, so I am a huge advocate in teaching my young vocal students to truly advocate for what they need, even if they think that the powers that be might shut them down, embarrass them or never hire them again. It is still so important to communicate needs so that we can be vulnerable in this rehearsal and performing space.

CB: Thank you so much Carrie. I very much look forward to our upcoming performance. I know that people will be in for a treat, as is always the case with you!

CH: Thank you, Christian! This will be a full and satisfying program indeed!

Carrie Hennessey - Photo by @cymberella

Known for her soaring voice and richly nuanced characters, soprano Carrie Hennessey is consistently thrilling audiences and critics in opera and concert appearances around the world. As Kát’á in Kát’á Kabanová,  “in a vivid star turn in the title role...brought a wondrous blend of silvery tone and sinuous phrasing to her assignment...Hennessey’s performance touched perfectly on Katya’s anxiety, joys and uncertainty, all through a surge of Puccinian lyricism.”- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle


The 2022/2023 season kicks off with Opera and Interstellar Voices with the Camellia Symphony, the Brahms’ Requiem and Happy Birthday, USA! with the Music in the Mountains Chorus and Orchestra, and appearances with the Bear Valley Music Festival and the Auburn Symphony.


Recent engagements include the title role in Kát’á Kabanová by Leoš Janáček and her illuminating the comic, awkward, and vulnerable Rose in At the Statue of Venus accompanied on piano by composer Jake Heggie. Ms. Hennessey performed the  inaugural season of the Capitol Public Radio Garden Concert Series, as soloist of operatic arias with the Cleveland Philharmonic, the world premiere of Bones of Girls by librettist, Cristina Fríes and composer, Ryan Suleiman, with The Rogue Music Project. And Yet She Persisted” is a visceral and heartfelt recital with long time collaborator Jennifer Reason of all female composers. Debuting as Estelle in a sold out run of an immersive production in the opera The Stronger was a highlight in the Sacramento restaurant Magpie.  Song of Sacramento , a benefit that also amplified the voices of local composers.


Notable opera highlights include Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Sarah Miles in the Bay Area premiere of Jake Heggie’s The End of the Affair and Elle in La Voix Humaine in NYC. Concert highlights include Strauss’ Vier Letzte Liedercollaborating in the development and performance of a world premiere ballet “On the Rocks, Please!”, “Bernstein 100” with the Colorado Symphony, Britten’s War Requiem, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 as well as debuts at the Concertgebouw in Bruges, in Ypres, Belgium and at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, Germany singing the soprano solo in the Verdi Requiem. Alongside the world-renowned composer Ricky Ian Gordon in the fall of 2016, Ms. Hennessey gave Master Classes and performed a recital of his original art songs. 


Hennessey has also performed with the Houston Symphony, at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Budapest, Reduta Hall in Bratislava, Rudolfinum Hall in Prague, and at the International Mahler Festival in the Czech Republic.


Ms. Hennessey continues to actively support music education through lectures, workshops and Master Classes in the communities in which she works, as well as nurturing a thriving private vocal studio. She is currently in the process of writing a one woman show about her early life in singing, walking away from a singing career for 12 years and coming back to create a unique, versatile and vibrant performing and teaching career. Subscribe to her email list and follow on social media @carriehennessey for updates in the creative process! 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Meredith Clark in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 30 I will have the pleasure of conducting the beautiful and rarely performed Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera with a wonderful soloist: Meredith Clark (who plays regularly as guest principal harp with the San Francisco Symphony). I had the opportunity to ask Meredith some questions about her love for her instrument and for Ginastera's music. Below are the answers.

Christian Baldini: Meredith, I am very excited to have you with us for this magnificent harp concerto. People don't get to see the harp featured as our concerto soloist very often, so this is particularly wonderful. Please tell me, why is Ginastera's Harp Concerto such a favorite piece of yours? (I asked you what your favorite concerto was several years ago backstage and you answered immediately "the Ginastera", and I have been planning on doing this piece with you since then!)

Meredith Clark: Thanks so much Christian! The Ginastera Harp Concerto is my favorite because of how lively and powerful you get to be as the performer. It's very rhythmic and dancelike, there's a high drama factor and it's a really amazing piece of music. My whole career, I've heard stereotypes of how angelic the harp is, and how beautiful it is (and don't you wish you played the piccolo?), and this concerto speaks directly to those things. It lets me show off what the harp is capable of, I can be loud, rhythmic, surprising even, and do things that no other instrument is capable of. I love the shock factor, and then it's almost more meaningful to have the more beautiful and intimate moments too. 

CB: This concerto, as well as most of the very important ones of the 20th century were commissioned by the same person. Edna Phillips was a maverick, she is the reason why so many great harp concertos exist. She also had a long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra. What can you tell us about this wonderful woman and the trailblazing work she did for the harp and harpists?

MC: Edna Phillips studied with Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute and became the Principal Harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930 under Leopold Stokowski. She was both the first woman in that orchestra, and the first woman to be a Principal player in any major American orchestra. She was 23, and had only been playing the harp for 5 years at that point when she auditioned for the job. She retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946, but continued to commission many concertos, including most famously the Ginastera. She commissioned Ginastera to write it in the late 1950's, and helped with some revisions though ultimately didn't perform the premiere. She was also instrumental in developing music programs in Philadelphia, and had a passion for philanthropy. I'm so grateful for the work she did, and the amazing legacy she's left behind for all of us today.

CB: How were your beginnings with music? Did you start on the piano, the harp, or something else?

MC: I started on piano. My mother is a pianist and organist, and we had a baby grand in the living room. When I was around 4 years old, my mom caught me trying to plunk out the theme song to Sesame Street, and she decided it was time to start lessons. She wisely decided not to teach me and enrolled me in a piano program at TCU. I played the piano happily enough for a few years until my younger brother started Suzuki violin. They had a Christmas concert one year that I went to, highlighting all of the different Suzuki instruments, and at one point there were harps on stage, and I was elbowing my mom telling her THAT is what I wanted to do. Eventually we got in touch with the teacher, rented a harp, and it took off. It was clear that harp was more my thing, and I never looked back!

CB: What are some of the wonderful unique features of the harp? What made you fall in love with it?

MC: Obviously it's a visually impressive instrument. It's large, glamorous, and maybe a bit intimidating. I love that there's a direct physicality of making music with the harp - there's my fingers on the strings, and how I pluck them is what makes the sound. With no bow, reed or mouthpiece necessary, it feels like an extension of myself when I'm playing. There are the mechanically tricky parts too, and having 7 pedals to navigate can be a challenge, but I love how it's a bit like a puzzle. I had a friend once describe sitting in front of harpists in an orchestra like being in front of a stampede of unicorns, and I love that analogy. 

CB: You have played under many of today's foremost conductors, including last week performing with the San Francisco Symphony Mahler's 5th Symphony with Gustavo Dudamel. What can you tell us about some of these incredible experiences of working at such a high level? What are some of your favorite recollections?

MC: Wow, I'm still taking last weekend in. Working with Dudamel was incredible, and for it to be on such an iconic piece for the harp was really special. Getting to play other Mahler symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony and MTT was always a treat - one time especially was a bit scary, as I had to play Mahler 10 and 1 with SFS at Carnegie Hall, without rehearsal. Until the night beforehand, I don't think I'd ever even heard Mahler 10! Sometimes you just have to trust your training, study the score, and go out there and make music. One of my favorite memories playing 2nd harp with the San Francisco Symphony was playing Strauss' Alpine Symphony with the recently-retired Principal Harpist Doug Rioth. That week we felt especially in sync, and it was almost as if we were one harpist making one giant sound, perfectly together. Playing unison with another harpist is very challenging, so having that kind of experience and connection is unforgettable! Getting to work with Esa-Pekka Salonen on things ranging from Beethoven to premieres of new works has been amazing, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the orchestra changes under his leadership. It's exciting to be a part of, and to share a commitment to bringing what's on the page to life for the audience. I'm still so grateful that we're back, getting to perform for live audiences. The audience is an integral part of what I feel on stage, and I'm so happy we can share that space again.

CB: Wonderful to have you with us dear Meredith, I can't wait to make music with you and showcase this beautiful and exciting music with our audience!

MC:Thank you so much Christian! I'm honored to be playing this piece with you and Camellia, and can't wait for the audience to hear it! 

Meredith Clark (courtesy photo)

Meredith Clark has established herself as the lead freelance harpist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently has the distinction of playing as guest principal harpist of the San Francisco Symphony, and holds positions with the Oakland Symphony and San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. She enjoys working under some of the most sought-after conductors in the world including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Michael Tilson Thomas, Gustavo Dudamel and many others. Meredith enjoys a varied career, having traveled around the world to play solo, chamber and orchestral music. She also can be heard on the soundtracks for many films and video games. During the Pandemic, Meredith co-founded a business called Boundless Musician, where she works with other musicians to help them feel more connected and gain confidence in their musical abilities through work away from the instrument, blending coaching and a more holistic approach. She aims to perform at the highest level while celebrating the fact that we’re all human, and there’s more life and beauty to be found when not attempting to be perfect. Meredith grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and studied under Yolanda Kondonassis at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland Institute of Music. 


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Amos Yang in Conversation with Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: On February 19 I will have the pleasure of welcoming one of the most outstanding cellists in the US to play Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto Op. 125 as our soloist with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. Amos is the assistant principal cello with the San Francisco Symphony, and has had a long and extremely successful career collaborating with some of the most important musicians of our time. Amos, can you start by sharing with us why this piece by Prokofiev is so important to you? And why do you think it is so rarely performed?

Amos Yang: It’s a tour de force for everyone on stage which I think makes it so much fun. The challenge for the orchestra is to balance the fine line between chamber music and full symphonic tuttis. For me, the scope of it is something I’ve always been in awe of and is a bit like Alex Harold climbing El Capitan free solo. The sheer forces and complexity of the piece are challenging but more and more people are playing this piece as our collective technique improves.

CB: Please tell us about your background. Do you come from a musical household? How did you get started with music? When did you decide/realize you would make this commitment of becoming a professional musician?

AY: My parents aren’t musicians but they LOVE music and wanted to share that love with all of their children. I started at the SF Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Irene Sharp. She was an amazing teacher and dedicated to all of us reaching our full potential. It wasn’t until my junior/senior year in high school though that I made the decision to make a go of it as a musician.

CB: As a cellist, chamber musician and member of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, what/who would you say have been the most inspiring experiences in your life?

AY: My colleagues inspire me daily with the level of playing they achieve. Touring the world with the orchestra is inspiring in and of itself. I love playing in different concert halls in different cities. It gives you perspective when you return home and while tours are brief, you get a feel for many new places and people.

CB: Who have been your most important mentors, and why?

AY: As a cellist Irene Sharp helped mold me from the age of 5. I became a cellistic mutt after that and owe a great deal to all my professors. Channing Robbins, Joyce Robbins, Paul Katz, Steve Doane and Joel Krosnick to name a few. Channing helped organize me, Joyce guided me as only a violinist could, Paul helped me greatly with sound, Steve inspired with his playing and Joel showed me what a true understanding of musical intent can convey.

CB: Why would you say performing music is important? What does it bring or add to our everyday lives? What is its role in society?

AY: It is a cliche but music really is a language without borders. It can bridge racial, cultural, social and monetary differences. Unlike languages that are usually organized with borders, music flows easily without these limitations. Because there aren’t words in much of music, the same music means something different to all who hear it. Yet, we perceive harmonies and melodies in a similar uniquely human way.

CB: What would be your advice for young musicians? What was helpful to you? How do they stay motivated, on track, and always in a growth mindset?

AY: For all young musicians I’d advise you to learn how to sing. Singing a phrase is by far the easiest and most natural way to figure out how you should shape an idea of music. Motivation is different from person to person. If you are like me, it helps to have a carrot for motivation. For me that meant competitions, auditions etc…For others that might be scheduling performances as goals.  It’s hard to stay motivated if one doesn’t have an audience to play for and share our music with.

CB: Lastly: what are three or four things that people should listen for in the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto? What would you say to someone who has never listened to a work by Prokofiev?

AY: Enjoy the banter between the soloist and the orchestra. Listen for dialogue as you might in a movie.

CB: Thank you very much for your time Amos. I very much look forward to our performance on February 19!

AY: Thank you I’m looking forward to it as well!

Watching San Francisco Symphony Assistant Principal Cello Amos Yang onstage, you’d never guess that his introduction to the cello was anything less than love at first sight. “My mother and I were going to sign up for violin lessons when we bumped into a family friend whose daughter had just auditioned for a wonderful new cello teacher,” he says. “My mom asked me if I wanted to try the cello, I shrugged my shoulders indifferently and off we went to the audition. It turns out the audition consisted of ‘bear hugging’ a tiny cello. As soon as I did that I was accepted into the studio and here I am forty plus years later still playing and hugging my cello most mornings.”

Amos’s is a uniquely San Francisco story. He studied with Irene Sharp at the San Francisco Conservatory and played with the SFS Youth Orchestra in its early days. “I was a bit of a challenge as an easily distracted eleven-year-old, but I'm glad they stuck with me. It was a terrific experience and training ground.” Amos’s studies weren’t limited to orchestral playing, however. “The San Francisco Boys Chorus also helped develop my physical and musical voice. I am constantly encouraging my students to sing and most of them are too embarrassed and inhibited to do this. If you can sing it you can play it!”

He went on to earn degrees from the Juilliard School before landing a post with the Seattle Symphony and performing as a member of the Maia String Quartet. Winning a position with the SFS in 2006 offered a rare and prized opportunity to join his hometown orchestra.

Amos’s return to the Bay Area continued the circle in more than one way. His son, Noah, also studies cello with Irene Sharp, while Amos teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory. He and his wife, violinist Alicia, are also parents to a daughter, Isabel, a budding violinist who sings in the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

The enormity of being part of the orchestra he listened to as a child isn’t lost on Amos. “Anytime we set foot in or draw the bow across the strings in a place like the Concertgebouw or the Musikverein, it's like a baseball player playing a game in Yankee Stadium or for a basketball player, the Boston Garden. It's a blessing and a privilege to share music with audiences in these settings.”