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.”