Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Flipped Interview: Chase Spruill Interviews Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: Chase Spruill is the concertmaster of the Camellia Symphony since 2019. He's also a widely sought-after soloist, educator, and a wonderful person that I have had the pleasure to work with and to call a friend for many years now. Instead of the usual interview in which I interview our guest artists, I accepted Chase's proposal to flip the interview, and to have him interview me this time. Chase will perform as our soloist twice in the coming two weeks. On June 3, he will perform Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 1 with the UC Davis Symphony, at the Mondavi Center. On June 10, he will perform Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. Below is the record of what happened:

Chase Spruill: The Maestro and I met for coffee back in the Summer of 2018, and I believe that was our first chance to meet face-to-face.  I'd seen him on the podium as an audience member, or occasionally came across videos of some of his performances with various orchestras, and we had similar connections through cross sections of artists we both knew and loved.  This particular conversation was going to be about working with him in the Camellia Symphony Orchestra, but I don't think I knew he was interested in me for the position of Concertmaster at the time.  A lot of the conversation was about life, interests, bonding over being a Dad, and then we came around to music.  I think we were a few weeks into our first rehearsals, and somewhere online appeared a video of him surfing, and I immediately felt underqualified at any attempt to try and be cool in this life.

Working near Christian on the podium is a unique experience to watch him quickly jot down notes in his score, or sing a phrase under his breath, or ask himself or someone nearby a question in multiple languages.  If you're not sitting there, or standing there talking with him at break time, there are some things you might be fascinated to know.  We couldn't nearly cover all of them today, but for the longest time, I've been curious to hijack his interviews and flip the script to ask him some questions I've been curious to know in general.

Chase Spruill: Maestro, thank you for taking part in this flipped interview...

Christian Baldini: Well dear Chase, thank you, the pleasure is mine, and what a treat it is to have a good conversation with you, always, whether it is about music or anything else!

CS: This is a big year for CSO celebrating its 60th Season.  In my own estimation, the programming was particularly huge and diverse.  How do you begin to think ahead of your seasons in order to program, and what are some of the factors you take into account while you're brainstorming?

CB: Most people may imagine that programming is one of the most fascinating and most active parts of being a music director.  I really try to think of many aspects in a natural, holistic way. I take into account factors that are important for the orchestra, and also for the audience members. An orchestra's history, its relationship with the community, whatever may be happening at the moment in public life, in politics, a particularly important event, an anniversary, a discovery. The inspiration by a poet or a painter, or a collaboration with a ballet company or a choral organization. All of this falls into place when planning a season with integrity, beyond thinking "I'll choose a nice overture, a fun concerto with a great soloist, and some random symphony that I feel like doing". It is very easy to fall in that trap. It is lazy to think that way, it is simplistic and it undermines the value of what we do. Music is not mere entertainment. It is part of our shared culture. It adds something to people's lives. It enriches us, it inspires us, it makes us curious. So when we promote the work of a composer that was at some point (or even now) forgotten or denied access to the concert hall, we are creating a space for healing, for uniting us, for inspiring our future generations to think more inclusively, more generously, more globally. And yes, finding music that I strongly believe in is very important. My word is my bond with our audience members. So yes, I enjoy finding concepts, connecting threads, and ideas that will make a program more powerful, and an entire season more coherent. 

CS: Have you ever had an experience mid-season where you're working on a particular piece with the orchestra, and somehow the accomplishment of the group strikes a new idea inside of you for a future program?  What are some instances you can remember where that might have happened?

CB: Definitely! I remember many instances, for example when we performed the Sacramento premiére of Amériques, by Edgard Varèse. This was a massive work, written for a humongous orchestra including 14 percussionists, quintuple woodwinds, etc. Our orchestra played exceptionally well, and the audience (who had come to the performance to listen to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with a wonderful Russian soloist) gave Amériques a very long standing ovation. I was blown away by the extremely positive response this music got, both from the musicians and from the orchestra. This experience very much motivated me and inspired me to keep looking for challenges and very ambitious projects for our orchestra. It was very clear from this that our musicians are eager to learn new things, they are always open to absorb new languages, new paths, and to navigate them together, with trust and love for what we do. And the same was clear for our audience members. Many people talked to me after the performance, telling me they had never heard of Varèse, and had only come because of Tchaikovsky, but they were now going to go and look for more works by this French master. A truly beautiful thing!

CS: The season finale of the 60th season is called LIGHT OF THE WORLD.  In addition to the expansive and emotional Faure Requiem and a deeply touching Elegy for Strings from Elliott Carter, you chose to program The Lark Ascending, a romance for violin and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Vaughan Williams was one of many composers drawn to nature and landscape as inspiration.  It was much later in our working relationship when I started seeing photos of you during treks through forests, or out on choppy ocean waves.  I'm curious, what role does being out in the world's natural landscape play for you in your life?  What does it do for you personally?  Does it inspire you musically?

CB: What an excellent question! Many of the composers that I love have been inspired by nature, from Sibelius to Brahms and Schumann, going through John Luther Adams and Kaija Saariaho. I must say I never realized how important nature was to me until I moved to Buenos Aires. I grew up in a smaller coastal city called Mar del Plata about 250 miles south of Buenos Aires. This is right by the Atlantic coast. My parents' house was only 6 blocks away from the beach. I took the beach for granted. It was gorgeous, incredibly beautiful, and always there for me. When I moved to Buenos Aires I really missed the ocean, going to the beach to do body boarding and being able to walk or run along the coast. I remember going back home to visit my parents and taking a stroll to the beach with my manuscript paper, a pencil and an eraser. I would stay hours in front of the ocean, just by myself, drinking mate (my favorite infusion, pretty much like an espresso green tea), and composing. Only then I realized the level of influence that nature, and the ocean in particular had had on me since I was a child.
With regards to our upcoming program, "Light of the World", I think it is going to be a very beautiful and invigorating program. The music in it is varied, and simultaneously also quite related. The atmosphere of this program is about healing, about acceptance, about sharing the beauty of life with other humans. Post-pandemic, this is one of the most comforting programs I could possibly think of. I sense it almost like a representation of generosity of spirit, all done through the gestures and means of expressions of these three master composers: Carter, Vaughan Williams and Fauré. I keep reminding myself about how fortunate we artists are to be able to share and express these emotions with other human beings.

CS: What are some of your first memories of natural habitats you loved visiting at a young age or otherwise?  Do you remember the impression it left on you, and if it did, why so?

CB: I remember vividly our family holidays when I was a child, going to Patagonia with my parents and my sister. Spending the day by the various lakes, surrounded by beautiful mountains with snowy tops. Seeing wild animals, kayaking in the lake, bathing in the icy cold water. All of this is incredibly invigorating to me. I love camping, making a fire, cooking with fire. Still to this day, this is one of my favorite things to do. It is almost like a primal instinct. I will also bring my guitar and enjoy a bit of music around the campfire. What a treat!

CS: In addition to conducting and composing, you're also a devoted educator.  So much of your time is spent pouring into people as they strive to know themselves and challenge themselves musically and academically.  Have you ever had to challenge a collaborator-learner in your classroom or rehearsal hall to think outside of the notes on the page or in the score?  Where do you point them in order to encourage them to think about intention and drama beyond the manuscript and the textbook?

CB: As a student I really thrived when my mentors challenged me and pushed me. I grew leaps and bounds whenever someone encouraged me to think outside the box, and to experiment and go well beyond my comfort zone. This is not always the case. But to me, I was very grateful to those mentors that were not afraid to speak and share with me their brutal honesty. I am not saying it is good to be mean, or that I am a masochist. Not at all. But I think that sugarcoating critique and feedback hinders growth. We absolutely need honest feedback. We also need to point them in any kind of direction that will help them open their curiosity and awaken interests in different things that they may not be considering. A book, a movie, a song, an experience, whatever helped us grow or have that "eureka" moment, we must share with our students. We need to respect our students as we would like to be respected. We need to treat them with compassion, but also with honesty, admiration and respect. Our students are really our younger colleagues. It is a wonderful thing when you see one of those former students grow and develop into masters, and to one day share the stage with them, and/or to première one of their compositions. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see someone I helped from the beginning thrive and achieve greatness. It essentially has nothing to do with me. I am there just to support them and help them discover how wonderful they already are.

CS: We're coming up on the Summer.  How do you typically spend your time before the seasons begin in the Fall?

CB: Summer is usually a time when I love finding moments to connect with nature again. To recharge. To go on hikes, to explore lakes and mountains, and to spend as much time as possible enjoying the ocean with my board. Summer is -paradoxically- also a time when I get to experience winter in the Southern hemisphere. So indeed this summer I will spend some time with my sons enjoying nature, and I will also spend some time conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in Buenos Aires, in the middle of their winter. This is an orchestra which I have been conducting for many years, and I admire and respect them very much because it is one of the orchestras that nourished me as a young aspiring musician. I would go to see their concerts every week. I studied with some of the maestros in the orchestra. And as a young professional when I first conducted this orchestra they were very welcoming to me, and since then we have done many concerts together, even national tours and recordings. It is always good re-connecting with our origins. This for me is literally going back home, to my family, to my home country, and to one of the orchestras that taught me so much as a young musician.

CS: I've really enjoyed this opportunity to get to know more about you, and I know there are a few people reading this who know things about you now that they didn't know before, so I really appreciate you taking the time and for letting me take over your interviews and ask you some questions.  I'm looking forward to being near you on the podium again in these next few weeks!

CB: What a pleasure dear Chase, thank you for your insightful conversation, and for being such a dedicated, inspiring and wonderful leader. I very much look forward to making music with you this week, next, and for many years to come!

Charles “Chase” Spruill, IV is forging a unique path connecting the fields of contemporary chamber music, music education and public service. He was an artist-in-residence and founding violinist of Sacramento State University’s resident contemporary ensemble before accepting a permanent residency as a core faculty member at the Nationally celebrated Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island which The New Yorker hails as “…a revolutionary organization in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.” He’s collaborated with and performed alongside notable artists in the field such as composer/electric guitarist Steven Mackey, composer Alexandra Gardner, violinist Johnny Gandelsman of Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Project with Yo-Yo Ma, British composer and pianist Michael Nyman, and most recently, Kronos Quartet. In 2014, Chase began touring as a duo with pianist and longtime director of the Philip Glass Ensemble Michael Riesman. Together, they are premiering new concert works for violin and piano arranged from film scores by Philip Glass housing iconic monsters of cinema. The pair made their debut at the 2014 Festival of New American Music and are continuing throughout North America and Europe. The performance of “Glass & Blood” at (le) Poisson Rouge with Michael Riesman marks his New York City recital debut. Future plans include premieres and performances of a newly commissioned concert work for violin and piano by Michael Nyman and the premiere of collaborative string quartet arrangements with composer Nico Muhly.

Chase Spruill and Christian Baldini after rehearsal at the Mondavi Center

Chase Spruill and Christian Baldini in rehearsal at the Mondavi Center

Monday, April 24, 2023

Anyssa Neumann in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 29, 2023, Anyssa Neumann will perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Franz Liszt with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. I will have the honor of conducting this beautiful program, which also includes Florence Price's Andante moderato, and Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4. Below is an interview with Anyssa, who is visiting from the United Kingdom.

Christian Baldini: Anyssa, please tell us what is so special to you about this particular concerto? What should people listen for in it?

Anyssa Neumann: My favourite pieces seem to be the ones I've heard great performances of, and this is no different. I vividly remember hearing a friend perform the Liszt E-flat concerto with orchestra when I was 18, and it was love at first listen. It's such a fun concertoserious music that doesn't take itself too seriously, full of spark and fire and shimmering magical fairylands. And it moves between sections so rapidly that you can't get bored. This concerto sometimes gets a bad rappeople think it's too flashy and shallow, not substantial enough. I disagree. Liszt as composer (rather than pianist) often took a beating from the critics, and he agonized over finalizing his written works before subjecting them to public scrutiny. This concerto, on which he worked for 25 years, starts with a stentorian theme in the strings and winds, a nine-note phrase to which he (and possibly his son-in-law Hans von Bülow) later attached the words, “Das versteht Ihr alle nicht, haha!” (“None of you understand this, haha!”) in rebuttal to those critics. A musical cocking-a-snook, as the Brits say!



CB: How were your beginnings with music? I know you also played the trumpet when you were growing up. Was there a time when you played both instruments with equal emphasis? When/how/why did you decide to quit the trumpet in favor of the piano?


AN: I hated the piano for most of my childhood. I wanted to play the violin, but my parents wouldn't let me (to be fair, beginner violin isn't the most melodious of sounds). When I was 9, I decided to play trumpet in the school band (thrilling my parents, no doubt). I liked trumpet much more than piano, but I was quite happy playing second (or third) chair. To be a professional brass player, you have to really want to be in the spotlight, to play all those high notes. I didn't. But trumpet allowed me to be part of a musical community in a way that solitary piano never did. I played trumpet in the Sacramento Youth Symphony from ages 11-16, and that, more than anything else, kept me interested in and engaged with classical music during my piano-hating years.



CB: What does music mean to you? How does music (and more specifically classical music such as the Liszt Concerto) fit into today's society?


AN: Good grief, where to start?! I think I'll paraphrase what an old teacher of mine once said: "a life with music is better than a life without." I have thought about changing careers many times, doing something that actually pays well, something I can leave at the office. (Fact: musicians don't get weekends.) But the thrill of making music, the portals that these sounds open up to other times and places, that feeling of emotional and physical aliveness, and that communal experience with other musicians and audienceswell, you can't beat that.



CB: You grew up in Sacramento, played trumpet in the Sacramento Youth Symphony while growing up here, and you have now been based in the UK for a while. What are some of the things you miss (if any) about living in the US?


AN: Old-fashioned donuts. Deli sandwiches. Mexican food. In that order. I also miss the wonderfully varied landscape and the smell of summer. And, of course, my friends and family.



CB: Besides being a wonderful concert pianist you are also a musicologist, and an Ingmar Bergman scholar.  You are currently completing a Postdoc at Uppsala university in Sweden. How do you manage it all? Would you mind sharing some thoughts about your Ingmar Bergman work?


AN: Most of the time it feels like I'm not managing any of it! Once the pandemic hit, I was very glad that I hadn't put all my eggs in the performing basket—I actually had an academic job during many of those fallow months when musicians suffered the most. Becoming a musicologist was sort of accidental. I was interested in academiaand being a student was the only way I could get visas to live in other countries. So I just kept climbing the degree ladder until I finished a PhD. I fell into Bergman by way of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which Bergman uses in his film The Silence (1963). I wrote a paper on it, discovered that nobody else (at the time) had written much about Bergman's use of music, and that if I ever did a PhD, that would be my topic. I love cinema, I love storytelling—stories are how I make sense of the world. So studying the interaction of film and music was a natural fit for me.



CB: Do you have any advice for young musicians? At certain times in life we all face challenges, competition, and many musicians have thought of quitting more than once. What has helped you in your trajectory, and inspired you to keep going forward?


AN: It's a tricky one, giving advice. I'm not sure I have anyonly a few statements I find to be true. The classical music industry can be absolutely brutal. The pay is crap, the work is relentless, your dreams of soloist stardom will probably come to naught, and you will struggle with feelings of inferiority and failure throughout your entire career. If you don't want to do it anymore, then don't—it's ok to do something else. In fact, if doing something else makes you happier, do that instead! I'm selling it well, aren't I? The important part is this: you don't have to be a full-time professional musician to play or enjoy music. Music is for everyone. It's part of our legacy on this planet. It's the best of humanity. So take it seriously, learn it, listen to it, play it, understand it, make it part of you, pursue a career in it if that's what calls to you. I think we sometimes get so caught up in the competitive culture of classical music—the commercialism, the perfectionism, the comparisons, the number of likes and listens—that we forget what music actually is: a way of communicating something about the beauty and urgency of life. I love what Donna Tartt writes in her novel The Goldfinch about the lasting qualities of art: “And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn't touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this [art] down through time—so too has love. (...) It exists; and it keeps on existing.” A glory and a privilege—gets me every time. 


CB: Lastly, what are some of the most inspiring experiences (or people) in your life, and why?

AN: My most inspiring experiences have come from artist residencies, particularly those at the Banff Centre in CanadaGetting to know other musicians (or artists more generally), working and living alongside them—with the right people and the right surroundings, an alchemical transformation occurs, of excitement, solidarity, support, understanding, openness, inspiration, collaboration, realness. I'm inspired by people who are real, who don't hide behind a facade of perfection or control (even as I type this I feel the need to maintain my own facade!). Obviously, vulnerability can be uncomfortable, so there's a time and a place, and trust is essential, but...we're all human. We all make mistakes, in music, in life. We all feel, at various times, that we have no idea what we're doing. Can't we just be honest about that? We're all in the same boat. It's better to journey together than not.



CB: Thank you very much Anyssa, we very much look forward to featuring you as our soloist!

AN: Thanks for having me!

Raised in Sacramento and based in the UK / Sweden, pianist Anyssa Neumann has been praised for the “clarity, charm, and equipoise” of her performances, which span solo and collaborative repertoire from the Baroque to the 21st century. Recent highlights include concerto performances with the NYKO Sinfonietta (Sweden) and the Lompoc Pops Orchestra (USA); Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Sweden and Norway; solo recitals in Rome, London, Uppsala, the Pacific Northwest, and throughout California; and artist residencies at the Banff Centre (Canada), Avaloch Farm (USA), and the Bergman Estate (Sweden). During the Covid-19 pandemic, she video-recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations at home, calling the project #IsolationVariations; the playlist of all 32 videos, accompanied by short essays, can be found on YouTube.


Recent projects include a Don Quixote-inspired song program with British bass-baritone Timothy Dickinson and a concert tour of New Mexico and California with American soprano Rena Harms. Other collaborative partners include soprano Emma Tring (BBC Singers), mezzo-soprano Katherine Nicholson (BBC Singers), violinist Yolanda Bruno (Toronto Symphony), cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio (Eroica Trio), and the London Chamber Collective. She has also performed as guest pianist with the Sheba Ensemble and appeared on NPR’s Performance Today, Sirius Satellite Radio, Swedish Radio P1 Kultur, Estonia National Radio, and David Dubal’s radio program The Piano Matters, which featured her solo debut album of works by Bach, Beethoven, Messiaen, and Prokofiev.

After studying with Natsuki Fukasawa and Richard Cionco in Sacramento, Anyssa attended the Manhattan School of Music (BM) and University of Oxford (MSt) before continuing further studies with Fabio Bidini in Berlin and Paul Stewart at Université de Montréal. She has additionally worked with Thomas Adès, Rita Wagner, and András Keller at IMS Prussia Cove, and with Mitsuko Uchida, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg, Marc Durand, Julian Martin, Ronan O’Hora, Anton Kuerti, Andre-Michel Schub, Joseph Kalichstein, and Russell Sherman in master classes.


She earned her PhD in musicology from King’s College London in 2017, focusing on pre-existing music in the films of Ingmar Bergman, which she then developed into a lecture-recital and presented in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Madrid, Helsingborg, Lund, Uppsala, and Fårö, culminating in a live broadcast from the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa as part of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2021. She currently holds a postdoctoral position in the Engaging Vulnerability Research Program at Uppsala University. For more information, please visit




Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Alexandra Simpson in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On Sunday, March 19, 2023, I will have to pleasure of conducting a program featuring two wonderful Rising Stars on works for violin and orchestra (with Ani Bukujian), and viola and orchestra (with Alexandra Simpson), to crown the program with both of them together in Mozart's beloved Sinfonia Concertante. This will be with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento. I had the chance of asking Allie a few questions, and below are her answers:

Christian Baldini: Allie, what a pleasure it is to be making music with you again! And I am also excited about the wonderful work that you have chosen: the Rhapsody Concerto by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Please tell me, how did you choose this work? What are some of the things you like the most about it? There is an interesting connection between this work and the San Francisco Symphony, and our region. Please tell us, what will people love about this work?
Alexandra Simpson: Such a pleasure to be back!! I have always wanted to perform this piece- it has such soaring, gorgeous melodies but also a lot of emotional depth a virtuosity. There are also some really intense moments that are almost like heavy metal rock! It does have a very interesting connection to SFS- it was commissioned by the Principal Violist at the time, Jascha Veissi. He was from Ukraine originally and his beautiful deSalo viola inspired Martinu with its sound like a human voice!

CB: In addition, we will also get to perform the beautiful Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart with you and Ani as our soloists. What are some of the things you like the most about this piece?
AS: Mozart never wrote a concerto just for viola, so it’s such a thrill to play a Mozart concerto- and this one is just one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. I’ve always loved it- it has such playfulness and joy, like two puppies chasing each other. It shows off the virtuosity of both instruments without being too over- the-top, and the slow movement is just divine. 

CB: How is it to collaborate with another soloist on a concertante piece? What qualities do you look for in such a partner? What can you tell us about Ani and her role in this piece?
AS: As a violist, I’m often serving as a mediator of sound between violin and cello, so it’s so fun to be in a collaborative solo position. Ani is so incredibly inspiring to work with- just hearing her and trying to blend to her sound makes me a better player. She has that rare combination of world-class technical ability and soulful playing that I always love to hear and play with. 

CB: What would be your advice to young musicians who are starting off with a professional career in music? What are some of the challenges we face, and how do we deal with them?
AS: I would tell young musicians that everyone fails, but the people who achieve great things know how to recover from failure and keep trying! So many things can happen thanks to luck, so your odds are better if you’re willing to learn from mistakes and keep working. 

CB: Thank you very much for your time, I look forward to this new collaboration with you!
AS: so excited to work with you and this beautiful orchestra!


Alexandra Simpson has traveled the world as a performer and educator: from Bucaramanga, Colombia to Cornwall, England. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, freelancing as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player- primarily as the Assistant Principal Violist of the California Symphony.

Alexandra has appeared as a soloist with Camellia Symphony Orchestra, Marin Symphony, SFCM New Music Ensemble, and Classical Music Institute Chamber Orchestra. As a chamber musician, Alexandra travels frequently to festivals to perform, learn, and teach. Alexandra has participated in the Prussia Cove International Musicians’ Seminar, Kneisel Hall, Glenn Douglas Memorial Chamber Festival, Bard Music Colombia, Musikiwest Chamberfest in Pebble Beach, and Classical Music Institute in San Antonio, Texas. As an orchestra musician, she has played with San Francisco Symphony and SFOpera, and served as Principal Violist for OPERA San Antonio Fresno Symphony, Stockton Symphony, One Found Sound, and Merced Symphony.

Alexandra performs regularly in the Bay Area, and has given chamber music concerts at Herbst Theater, Old North Church, Berkeley Piano Club, Piedmont Center for the Arts, and with Benicia Chamber Players. She accompanied international superstar DJ Kygo at the closing act of Outside Lands in 2019, and in 2022 at BottleRock in Napa. She has appeared in music videos for Chuck Prophet and Mercury Soul, and appeared in Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's keynote for the 2020 Build Conference, as well as advertisements for Microsoft Teams. Alexandra also joined the string sections for Michael Buble, Josh Groban and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and performed at The Queen's Ball: A Bridgerton Experience.

Alexandra earned her Bachelor of Music studying with renowned and Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian at New England Conservatory, with the Donald Green and Lotta Crabtree Scholarships. She received both a Master of Music and Master of Musical Arts from Yale School of Music. While at Yale, Alexandra taught New Haven schoolchildren through the Yale Music in Schools initiative and developed a passion for teaching in underserved communities. Festivals such as Classical Music Institute and Bard Music Colombia have allowed her to develop this passion all over the world. In addition to teaching privately, she also teaches in underserved schools of Daly City through the Harmony Project.

While studying chamber music at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she received coachings and lessons from world-class musicians, including Dimitri Murrath, Ian Swensen, Bonnie Hampton and the Telegraph Quartet. She had the opportunity to receive masterclasses from Kim Kashkashian, Hsin-Yun Huang, and Milena Pajaro-van-de-Stadt, and participate in residency performances with Tessa Lark, Owen Dalby, Norman Fisher, and Itamar Zorman.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Kinga Augustyn in Conversation with Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: Dear Kinga, it will be a pleasure to feature you as our soloist with the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento in Korngold's beautiful and unusual Violin Concerto, in a program that includes Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 and the world première of a work by composer Trey Makler. What does this concerto mean to you, and what would you recommend for people to listen for?

Kinga Augustyn: It is a gorgeous work with lots of singing lines, oftentimes derived from Korngold’s film music, and with some violinistic acrobatics that are super fun to hear and watch! I would encourage people to check out some films such as “Another Dawn” or “The Prince and the Pauper” where we can hear the themes that Korngold later used in his awesome Violin Concerto. Then I would listen for them during the concert. 

Korngold was an immigrant, like myself, and that automatically makes me understand many of the feelings and emotions in his music. Also, the concerto was composed after some initial persuasion of a great Polish violinist Bronisław Hubermann, who was also an immigrant. In fact there are quite a few connections here that make me feel very close to the piece. Above all, however, I just love it, and I cannot wait to perform it in a few days! 

CB: You are an extraordinary violinist, with an international career, multiple recordings, and a true status as a virtuoso on your instrument. How did you get there? Who have been your most important mentors?

KA: Everything is always a build-up and a combination of choices and events in one’s life, not necessarily only music related. Consistency is important, as well as prioritizing things in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to actually get something accomplished. Constant growth is a must and is certainly possible. 

My Juilliard teachers Mr. Cho-Liang Lin and Ms. Naoko Tanaka have definitely been among some very important figures in my life. Not only did I learn a lot from both of them that has benefited my violin playing and music learning, but they have also shaped some of my life journey. 

CB: How was your childhood, growing up in Poland? You came to the US when you were 18 to study at the prestigious Juilliard School. How did your life change then? Was it difficult to adapt to a different culture?

KA: my childhood was great, although my father died when I was 6 and that complicated a couple things including that I could not start learning the violin till almost 8 years old. My mom, nevertheless, a strong and independent woman, made sure that I had all I needed to be content and to follow my dreams. I was always surrounded by music, art and books. I had the best violin that was available in my city (although, frankly, in the US it would be considered a low standard, but hey, a $500 fiddle that was the love of my life at that time and got me to Juilliard, got me scholarships and, indirectly, took care of me? Can’t go wrong with that! As a child I often attended master classes abroad and they were also very helpful to my musical growth. When I moved to the US I did face quite a lot of difficulties to adopt to a completely new life. Having been babysat by my mom for a long time, suddenly I was on my own, swimming in a big ocean and having to fight for myself! As they say “what doesn’t break you, will make you” so what did in fact break me first also helped me grow more than I would have grown otherwise. In New York there are many different cultures, and there is “everything”, meaning both good and bad, and one just really has to search for and find what one is looking for. Juilliard has a large community of international students, so I was not lonely or special in that regard. Without a doubt, however, it took quite some time to feel like I truly belonged somewhere, and I think it was only when I became American, fairly recently, that I, deep down, didn’t feel like an outsider any more. Now, a dual citizen, I feel good both in the US and anywhere in Europe. I belong where the music takes me. 

CB: Thank you for sharing that. What are some works you have not performed yet, but that you would love to perform?

KA: There are many and the list is actually growing, as more music is constantly being composed, and many composers and great works are being rediscovered. Of the standard repertoire one of the great pieces I hope to perform in the upcoming years is the beautiful Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, and of the lesser known pieces are the seven Violin Concertos by Polish female composer Grazyna Bacewicz. 

CB: What is some advice you would give to young musicians who are starting off on the violin? What would you say people can do when they feel frustrated or are on the verge of quitting?

KA: Well, if you absolutely hate it then quit! But there is a 99.9% chance that you will regret such a decision, as most people who quit do, so don’t quit just because it got hard. The truth is that it will always be “hard” in some ways, so get over it and accept the challenge. Studying violin or any other instrument will certainly always keep you occupied and on your toes, and will never be boring, if you really get into it. Realize how blessed you are to play music! And by the way, any other profession is also going to be difficult in one way or the other. The most important thing is to do what you love, so if you do love music, turn any frustration into motivation and go practice, go to a concert, if you need inspiration, and be happy. If you radiate happiness, you are making the world a better place, and what’s more important than people’s happiness? 

CB: Thank you for your time. We look forward to featuring your remarkable talent with our audience in Sacramento!

KA: thank you Christian. I could not be more excited to make music with you and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra! See you soon!

Polish-American Kinga Augustyn is a versatile New York City-based virtuoso concert violinist and recording artist. “Stylish and vibrant” (The Strad Magazine), and “beyond amazing, one hell of a violinist!” (The Fanfare Magazine), Ms. Augustyn has performed as a soloist with orchestras in the United States, Europe and Asia, and they include the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, Queens Symphony Orchestra, Catskill Symphony Orchestra, Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Magdeburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra Leopoldinum, and the Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra. She has toured China and performed at China’s most prestigious venues such as Beijing Poly Theater and Shanghai Oriental Art Center. As a recitalist and chamber musician Kinga has appeared at the Stern Auditorium and the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Aspen Music Festival, the Chicago Cultural Center, Teatro Ristori and Gran Teatro La Fenice. In addition to concerti with orchestras and recitals with piano, Ms. Augustyn frequently performs unaccompanied solo violin recitals and is also a member of the Baroque Virtuosity trio with lutist Christopher Morrongiello and harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky.

Kinga Augustyn is often praised for her musical interpretations, profundity, deft phrasing, beautiful tone, mastery of the bow, perfect intonation, and for unique programming ideas. “With completely secure technical control, she couples a tapestry of tone color to her innate musicality” (The Fanfare Magazine). Music Web International describes her recording of the Bruch Violin Concerto with Janacek Philharmonic as “extremely moving and expressive,” characterized by “beauty, richness and smoothness of her tone,” and as “music she responds to on a deeply personal and emotional level.”

Ms. Augustyn’s repertoire includes music both standard and lesser–known, stylistically varied and ranging from early baroque to contemporary. Kinga is an advocate of new music and has performed and recorded multiple world premieres of works written especially for her. She also researches and brings awareness to lesser-known composers, including those of her native Poland. Up to date, Augustyn has recorded three albums of Polish music. Grażyna Bacewicz: A Portrait was released in 2022 on Centaur Records. The other two albums, released on Naxos, are world premieres by the contemporary Polish composer Romuald Twardowski (b. 1930), recorded with the Torun Symphony Orchestra and Mariusz Smolij, and the Polish Violin Music, a highly praised, “fascinating” (The Strad) album of lesser-known Polish works.

In 2021 Augustyn released on Centaur Records Turning in Time, a critically acclaimed album featuring 20th and 21st Century unaccompanied solo violin works by Krzysztof Penderecki (world premiere of Capriccio), Debra Kaye (world premiere of Turning in Time), as well as other works, significant in the violin repertoire, by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Isang Yun and Grażyna Bacewicz. Gramophone calls the album “remarkable” and praises Augustyn for “vibrant intensity, caressing the phrases and bringing bold focus to the electric unfolding of creativity”.

Augustyn’s expanding discography also includes the Paganini Caprices, which music critics consider as convincing as Perlman’s or Midori’s, and an “an enduring benchmark” (Classical Net); La Pasión, featuring 6 Tango-Etudes for Solo Violin by Astor Piazzolla; Telemann 12 Fantasias for Solo Violin (Centaur Records), in which “her interpretations are convincing in every piece here, and the Baroque spirit of the violin and Telemann’s mastery abiding throughout” (Music Web International); and Glen Roven’s Runaway Bunny Concerto performed with Catherine Zeta-Jones as a narrator and featuring Kinga Augustyn’s Solo Violin Cadenza (GPR Records).

Ms. Augustyn has won international awards, including First Prizes at the Alexander & Buono International String Competition (USA), Artist International Presentations (USA), and the J. S. Bach String Competition (Poland), as well as other top honors that include prizes at the Johannes Brahms International Competition (Austria), the Kloster Schoental International Young Artist Competition (Germany), Michael Hill International Violin Competition (New Zealand), and the Kosciuszko Foundation Wieniawski Violin Competition (USA).

Ms. Augustyn studied at The Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay, Cho-Liang Lin, and Naoko Tanaka, and earned there both the Bachelor and the Master degrees as a full tuition scholarship recipient. She holds a doctorate from the Stony Brook University, where she was also awarded a full-tuition scholarship and assistantship and worked with Phil Setzer and Pamela Frank.

On a regular basis Kinga Augustyn plays a violin made by Joseph Gagliano in 1774, generously on loan to her from a private collector. When playing early music in a historically informed style, she plays Lukas Wroński’s uniquely designed violin inspired by the famed statue Venus de Milo.

Trey Makler in Conversation with Christian Baldini

Christian Baldini: I am thrilled that young composer Trey Makler has written a new work that we will perform with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, in a program that includes Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 and Korngold's Violin Concerto with Kinga Augustyn. Working closely with a composer on a world première is always a very exhilarating experience. In this case, we have had the luxury of having Trey in several rehearsals, which was very helpful for a work of the nature of "false starts, missed connections", in which Trey has orchestra members inhabit quite a different world from what they are usually asked to do in more 'traditional' settings. Trey, in this work you ask orchestra members to sing, play in unsynchronized ways, and you also make unusual and beautiful requests with regards to character and/or sound production, such as "flickering", "stutters", "a mobile with many parts", etc. Please tell us, what is behind this work? How did you come up with these beautiful and very free ideas?

Trey Makler: Thanks, Christian. It's been an exciting journey working through this piece with everyone. I commend the orchestra on all of their efforts, especially with the new techniques! In many ways, this work was made as a joke with myself. I've been writing quite a bit of music over the past year, and this is actually the second piece for orchestra during that time. Writing for orchestra is daunting—there are so many moving parts, and I feel it's really important to try and give every player something interesting to do so that everyone can feel that their role is valuable in bringing the music to life. This final version of false starts, missed connections is actually my fifth or sixth attempt at the piece, so pushing through my initial block became the impetus for the entire piece: gestures will burn bright and quickly die out, or players will have quasi-unisons that never seem to align. All of my decisions were channeled into writing a piece about how hard it is to write a piece, and finding some joy and playfulness in that situation. 
     As for some of the techniques and free gestures, I go back and forth between writing fixed and free music. I have only ever written really tight, heavily notated music for orchestra, but my chamber music has gotten far more open. So, I wondered what it would be like to give a large ensemble a more open approach that isn't so reliant on rigorous precision and virtuosity; in many ways, I turn precision and virtuosity on their heads in this piece, and reimagine them in radically different contexts. With this approach, I get to be a little bit more involved in rehearsals, too, and I think that's extremely important, that I'm not just a random person dropping off a score and parts and then circling back to hear the result at the end. 
     And finally, I spend an incredible amount of time determining the language I use in the score. Notes are rarely enough, and in the whole creative process I will discover these tiny bits of phrases, descriptors, or images that act as mental placeholders for the music, so that I can quickly recall ideas. We're all people with rich and varied lives, so I like to think that precise and colorful language allows the players to more fully imagine the music, whether it be melodies, textural gestures, or the full narrative unfolding of the piece.

CB: What should people know about your music in general? What are your main goals, and what defines you as a composer?

TM: I try to always take a risk, and to treat every piece as an opportunity to grow. Recently, nearly all of my music has featured the voice, despite there rarely being a vocalist. There is so much beauty in hearing a person's normal, everyday, singing-in-the-shower voice, and it always brings me back to memories of my grandma working around the house and singing or humming under her breath. I think we can all relate to each other through singing. 
     Formally speaking, I keep accidentally stumbling into writing pieces that are essentially in two, mostly unrelated, parts. false starts, missed connections is like this, too! I think this has something to do with imagining a before-and-after in a narrative, with some sort of rupture that occurs and changes everything. If a main "theme" comes back, it's often quite disfigured and fragmented, like a memory that keeps getting further away. 
     I'm defined by a desire to write serious music that doesn't take itself too seriously. My music is always playful and has a sense of humor, and I think it's important that everyone involved is able to enjoy themselves through the music—the audience can always hear if the players are in it, or if they're just playing the notes, and I think this responsibility is in part on the composer to curate a positive experience. The world is a really scary, challenging place sometimes, so I try to resist replicating that darkness in my music. It's just not interesting to me; I'd much rather imagine a sparkly utopia that shows hope on the horizon. 

CB: Who are some composers from the past that you love, and why?

TM: Stravinsky always comes to mind immediately. Everything he did was so bold, and no matter what "style" he wears, be it Russian, neoclassical, serial, etc., it sounds like Stravinsky. He is one of the first composers that I spent considerable time with when I began formal study in college, and I have made so many meaningful relationships through his music. Lully is really fabulous, it's such bouncy music with lots of frills and ornaments, which have absolutely rubbed off onto me. Ligeti has been deeply impactful, too, particularly his approach to color, texture, and gestural freedom. 
Sort of a "hidden gem" for me is Henning Christiansen, who was a Danish composer associated with the Fluxus and New Simplicity movements. I did a research project on his music when I first began my PhD at UC Davis, and I was blown away by the clarity of his vision, and his concern for making music that didn't seek to emotionally manipulate the audience. Plus, some of it is really wild! There's a great story about his dismissal from the Royal Danish Academy of Music that I won't recount here, but find me after the concert and I'll share it with you! I think my gravitation towards musical mobiles comes in part from his music. 
And while not a composer per se, I also heard a lot of oldies growing up; my grandma had an Aretha Franklin greatest hits album that she would play constantly. I love the declarative melodies, extended harmonies, and high-energy rhythms, and they creep into my music every now and then. 

CB: Who are some living composers that you admire, and why?

TM: Hans Abrahamsen is definitely one of my favorites. Another Danish composer and a student of Ligeti, he composes with such intention and restraint. Schnee, Let Me Tell You, and his wind quintets are such incredibly intense pieces, but it's a different intensity, really unlike the typical approach. Often quiet, really delicate.  His music is always evocative to me, conjuring mental images of vibrant, snowy landscapes.  Plus, he interacts with the past in really interesting ways that draws attention to the constructedness of composition; composers can wear all sorts of styles, and sometimes more is more.
     Gloria Coates, particularly her String Quartet no. 9, is stellar. She detunes half the quartet by a quarter tone, and repeats these haunting melodies over and over again until they're eaten up by glissandi to create a Shepard's tone. It's otherworldly and I can't get enough of it. 
     Steve Reich is another go-to of mine. I think I have a bit of a minimalist urge when I'm writing, and I blame his music! It's infectious, and if you keep listening these gorgeous hidden melodies start to reveal themselves from the repetition, even in his early tape music. If I had to pick a favorite piece of his, it would probably be Tehillim.
     I have to also mention that I was absolutely obsessed with Japanese Role-playing Games (JRPGs) as a kid, so the music from video games like the Final Fantasy series (Nobuo Uematsu, and others more recently) and Chrono Cross (Yasunori Mitsuda) has a deep impact on me. Also, all of the cute little melodies from the early Pokemon games (Junichi Masuda). When you're playing a game of this genre, there is all of this musical repetition, and tons of themes. It's almost like a Wagner opera! But you will hear them so often that they become a part of you, and to this day I can recall so many emotional narrative arrivals from these games that are really uplifted through their scores. 
   Talking composers can turn into purgatory because it will never end, so I'm exercising some restraint, but of course this list can go on and on and on.

CB: Tell us a bit about your education. You and I met at UC Davis, where you are now completing your Ph.D. in composition. You came with a very strong background having studied at the Juilliard School in NYC. What are some of the most important formative experiences you've had? Are there any mentors that were particularly positive in your early stages?

TM: Well, I grew up on ten acres off a gravel road in rural southeast Missouri, and fell into music by accident. I played oboe and a bunch of other instruments in concert/jazz/marching bands throughout middle and high school, and then joined choir towards the end of high school. I was a little scared of going too far away from home for college, so I ended up at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) for my undergraduate study, which is another hidden gem. It has an incredibly well-supported new music initiative, plus was the first music school in the country to offer a certificate in music entrepreneurship. Of course, I had no idea what any of this really meant at the time—I didn't really know anything from the "canon" as we think of it in classical music, nor did I have any concept of what a professional life in music looked like outside of teaching high school band, which was my initial calling. I just liked making music, and I had twiddled my thumbs in Finale, a music notation software, for several years. The first mentor that I shared this secret hobby of mine with was my high school choir director, Sue Bauche. She encouraged me to apply to the composition program at Mizzou, and helped record and premiere my very first piece, which was for choir, so that I could have at least one real recording for the application. She unfortunately passed away from cancer the summer after my freshman year of college, but I think of her often. She is a huge reason why I am on the path that I am. It's worth noting that after I realized how I would approach false starts, missed connections, I got very emotional on a drive home thinking of her, and that inspired me to include the singing at the end of the piece. 
     During undergrad, I had two composition teachers who were really impactful: W. Thomas McKenney, and Stefan Freund. Tom was so sweet and supportive, which I really needed to get over my imposter syndrome. I think any young artist has to face those demons, and it's so much easier to do it when you have a mentor with a lifetime of experience who recognizes that you really can make your dreams come true through hard work and dedication. Stefan was really important in linking me up to the greater "new music scene," as he is a member of Alarm Will Sound and that gave me a glimpse of the long term new music life. Plus, he guided me through some dark mental health struggles, particularly during my graduate auditions, which can be such a grueling process.
     I did my Masters at Juilliard, where I studied with Pulitzer Prize winner Melinda Wagner. She was absolutely the best part of my experience in New York City. She pointed me towards John Waters movies, deepening my appreciation of camp, and showed me the joy of taking inspiration from things that might not be so serious. In one lesson, she explained how she was inspired by cartoons from her childhood in writing a piece of hers, Wick, that I really love. She also told me to take risks, because when one puts their neck on the line, the universe recognizes that and responds. She's such an amazing composer, too; I just recently heard a relatively new piece of hers, Dido Reimagined, performed by Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw in San Francisco, and it was one of the most powerful pieces of new music I've heard in a long time. 
     Mindy was also the person who recommended UC Davis to me, and now, here I am in year four of my PhD! We have five composers on faculty, and they all bring something different and vital to the table. I've had the luxury of working with them all in some way or another, and they've done an excellent job of creating a wonderful, welcoming, and supportive environment. Mika Pelo instilled in me some work ethic strategies, like approaching composition twice a day: in the morning with a clear goal to achieve, and in the evening with no expectations, just presence and curiosity. Pablo Ortiz offered a flood of support during Zoom-school, which was a really challenging time for everyone, and was a period of trying new things for me, with some successes and some failures. He has this really poetic way of approaching music that resonates with me, and he's also really fun and brilliant. Sam Nichols is currently shepherding me through improving my electronic music chops, which has been arduous, but he's a really patient and attentive pedagogue with a great sense of humor. It really helps to be able to laugh off the things that I find really challenging, and I find myself always revisiting his metaphors. Laurie San Martin was my guide through my qualifying exam, and I deeply respect her directness. There have been moments where she helped me reorient and find my path forward, and probably didn't even realize she was doing it. We're always sharing little laughs and chatting about pieces (if only there was time to listen to all that music!). My current teacher and dissertation advisor is Kurt Rohde. He has helped me understand what my process is, why my process is, and truthfully pulled me back from an edge where I wondered if composition was really the path for me. I am grateful to have a mentor with whom I can be fully vulnerable and transparent, which has direct implications for my dissertation project, too. I couldn't have embarked on this final journey in my education with just anyone because it's so deeply personal. Through our work together, I have found who I am as a composer in a way that feels intentional and honest, which is really important to me, yet has always felt difficult to articulate. Kurt is truly my safe space, which is absolutely invaluable for a young composer.

CB: Lastly, what is your advice for young composers, what has been most helpful to you?

TM: We are often told that our careers are advanced through luck. I don't buy it. It is through dedication, relentless overcoming of obstacles (some of which we erect ourselves), nurturing relationships, and showing up for yourself. Composition has this mythology of being a purely isolated, lonely activity, but when I look back on my life as a musician, I see a kaleidoscope of friends and near-strangers who have helped me clear hurdles when I felt that I couldn't, and who believed in me whenever I found it hard to believe in myself. Make the music you want to make, and find joy in what you do, and never back down. If making music brings you joy first, it will radiate out and bring joy to those who play and hear your music. I know it's cheesy, but I believe that music transforms lives, and it has transformed mine. 

CB: Thank you for sharing your wonderful insight; I very much look forward to conducting your beautiful music in Sacramento!

TM: Thank you, Christian, and I'm looking forward to hearing the orchestra bring false starts, missed connections to life!


The music of composer Trey Makler explores the human situation of musicking while imagining alternative worlds and bonds.  Melodies and other musical objects are conceived almost as people, with their own socio-musical interactions and identities shaped by circumstance and environmental influence.  These objects are woven together playfully, and often rest within hyperactive mechanisms that are activated through dense counterpoint, rhythmic vitality, and long, expressive lines. 

Trey’s music has been performed by Alarm Will Sound, Berlin PianoPercussion, Empyrean Ensemble, The Great Noise Ensemble, Juilliard Orchestra, NEO Sound Orchestra, The University of Missouri Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Workshop, and members of the St. Louis Symphony; he has received commissions from Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Mizzou New Music Initiative, the New York Choreographic Institute, Camellia Symphony, and Vallejo Symphony.  Notable presenting venues have included Alice Tully Hall, Areté Venue and Gallery, the Empress Theatre, National Sawdust, Sheldon Concert Hall, and the Jewel Box in Forest Park (St. Louis), among others.  Trey has been the recipient of the Arthur Friedman Prize in Orchestral Composition (The Juilliard School) and the Sinquefield Prize (University of Missouri), and was selected as the winner of the first annual Boston New Music Initiative Young Composers Competition.  His dissertation research on the aesthetics of AIDS and the lived experience of musical form has been generously supported by a Bilinski Educational Foundation Dissertation Writing Fellowship.

Trey is a PhD candidate in Music Composition and Theory at the University of California, Davis.  He holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the University of Missouri.

Trey Makler (courtesy photo)