Monday, March 11, 2024

Salomé Ospina in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On March 17, I will have the pleasure of conducting the Grieg Piano Concerto with Salomé Ospina with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, as part of our "Rising Stars" concert series. On the same program we will also feature the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Suni Norman. Below is an interview with Salomé:

Christian Baldini: Salomé, welcome, it has been very fun to have you in rehearsals with us and to make music with you. Tell us, what are some of your favorite things about the Grieg Piano Concerto? What would you say to someone who's never listened to it? What should they listen for? What will they encounter in this music?

Salomé Ospina: Thank you so much for having me! It has been an honor to play with the Camellia Symphony orchestra and you for the past couple of weeks. I honestly love every single moment in the Grieg concerto. One of my favorite moments in the entire piece is during the slow part of the third movement. I have a solo with the first cello accompanying me as well during this section. I was actually unaware that it was only the first cello until the first rehearsal with the orchestra. This is so meaningful to me because my mother, Maria Hoyos, plays first cello in this orchestra. This duet is so beautiful and I believe it encapsulates all the love and support she has given me over the years. I also really enjoy the last two sections of the third movement because this is the "grandioso" section of the piece. I get to accompany the brass players for a great solo and it is the moment where the tension from the entire piece is finally released. I would describe this piece as adventurous and beautiful. I would listen to the recurring themes especially in the first and third movement. They are everywhere! They get subtly changed throughout the piece but are truly resonant. They will encounter a beautiful journey through this music. I hope that they really enjoy this piece!

CB: You started playing the piano as a young child. Who have been your most important mentors, and why?

SO: Some of my most important mentors have been: Kirsten Smith, Helen Mendenhall, Tatiana Scott, Betsy Collins, and Joe Gilman. They have all guided me for many years with private instruction and are one of the main reasons that I am where I am today musically. They have really helped me develop my technique and love for music as well. I am so grateful to have had these wonderful people in my life.

CB: What are other works and other composers you love playing,  and why?

SO: I really enjoy playing Brahms and Chopin because their harmonic structure is just so beautiful. Also the storytelling that goes on within their pieces is incredible. I recently played the Brahms Piano trio no. 1, and it was incredible because of the complex harmonies and especially because of the interaction between the strings and the piano as well. I also really enjoy listening to Sibelius’s Symphony no 5. 

CB: Do you play other instruments? Do you branch out into other music styles besides classical?

SO: I do not play any other instruments. My mother tried to teach me cello at the age of three, but I decided that piano was what I preferred. I am deeply passionate about playing jazz as well as classical. I love to play in both combos and big bands and I am starting to begin composing as well! I also enjoy playing a variety of styles from latin america with my parents such as boleros, cha-cha-cha, salsa, and many more! I love to listen to music by Hector Lavoe, Duke Ellington, Oscar Petterson, Oscar De Leon and many more!

CB: What is a typical day like for you? How much do you practice in addition to all your other activities? You are still in high school, right?

SO: I am actually still a junior in high school! I typically spend my time in jazz band and concert band at school as well as in some other challenging classes. I typically go home after lunch time at school and usually have a rehearsal with a jazz combo or a private lesson. I try to practice for 2 to 3 hours in a day, but it really depends on how much schoolwork I have. I love to spend time on the weekends with my friends as well. 

CB: What are your plans for the future? Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?

SO: I hope to become a music teacher or a French or Spanish teacher. I really am not sure about where I see myself in ten years. I can envision myself branching out into many things. However, I see myself the most as a teacher of some sorts, and hope to be a performer on the side. 

CB: Both of your parents are musicians, right? Your mother is of course Maria Hoyos, our wonderful principal cellist with the Camellia Symphony. I am sure it will be extremely special to both of you to be playing this concert together. How has it shaped you to come from a musical family?

SO: Being around music constantly is such a privilege for me. I am so grateful to have such wonderful, loving parents. My mom plays cello with the Camellia Symphony and my dad plays saxophone and flute. Being around parents that are practicing exposed me to so much music from a young age and inspired me to become who I am now. This concert means so much to both of us and I can’t believe that I am going to be able to play as a soloist in a concert with my mom as the first cellist. This has been my mom’s dream for many years now, and I am very excited to be playing!

CB: Are you fully bilingual? How have languages shaped or influenced you as a person and as a musician?

SO: Yes, I actually only speak Spanish at home with my parents! Being around two different cultures at once has influenced my view on the world and especially on my values. I try to get the best from both cultures and try to often combine values in order to try to achieve a more balanced lifestyle. I have been introduced to so much music because of them and because of that, I have a love for many different genres. 

CB: Thank you Salomé, I look forward to making music with you and sharing your talents with our audience in Sacramento very soon!

SO: Thank you for this opportunity and for having me!

Salome Ospina is a junior at Rio Americano High School. She currently studies with Kirsten Smith for classical piano and Joe Gilman for jazz piano. She has also previously studied with Helen Mendenhall, Tatiana Scott, Betsy Collins, and Craig Faniani.

Salome debuted as a soloist with the Saint Saens Piano concerto no 2 in November 2022 with the “Sinfónica Joven de Colombia” in Medellin. She has been a part of the Placer County Youth Orchestra, and has performed with the Sacramento Youth Symphony as well. The Summer of 2022, she toured Austria and the Czech Republic with the Rio Americano Jazz and Concert Band. Salome enjoys accompanying other students for performances. 

In February, she went to New York to participate in the Charles Mingus High School Jazz Competition with a small jazz combo from Rio Americano. Salome is a part of The New Traditionalists, a jazz combo that has gone to perform in Orlando and New Orleans. In 2023, Salome was selected as one of 6 people nationwide for the Monterey Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo. This group had the opportunity to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 2023 and Berklee College Music January 2024. Salome was chosen as one of the winners for the 2024 National YoungArts Award for jazz piano. 

Suni Norman in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On March 17, I will have the pleasure of conducting Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Suni Norman with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, as part of our "Rising Stars" concert series. On the same program we will also feature Salomé Ospina playing the Grieg Piano Concerto. Below is an interview with Suni:

Christian Baldini: Welcome, Suni. I am delighted to feature you as our soloist with our orchestra. Tell me, what are some of the features of the Sibelius Concerto that you enjoy the most? What would you say to someone who does not know this piece, what should they listen for?

Suni Norman: Sibelius Violin Concerto is one of my favorite concerti — this concerto has the perfect amount of soaring melodies and virtuosic passages. Sibelius wanted to be a professional violinist, but due to starting at a late age he was never good enough to fulfill his dream of joining the Vienna Philharmonic. This piece encompasses Sibelius’s failed dream to become a professional violinist. He includes virtuosic techniques from Paganini and Wieniawski, and some Bach-like material can even be heard throughout.

CB: Besides the Sibelius Concerto, what are some of your other favorite pieces, and why?

SN: My favorite pieces are always changing, but right now I love listening to Mozart! I love listening to Mitsuko Uchida’s Mozart Piano Concertos. Mozart’s music is very bright and happy — at the end of the day it gives my brain a break from all the music I’m playing.

CB: You were born in Utah, and you have studied with wonderful teachers, and have been a laureate of important competitions including the Stradivarius one. How did it all start for you with music? Who have been your most important mentors?

SN: I had a computer game when I was 3 years old called JumpStart Toddlers. In the game there was an interactive orchestra and if you clicked on the instruments they would play a song. The violin played the beginning of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and I thought it was the coolest thing (probably because it was one of the only tunes I recognized). I ended up starting years later, and decided it was what I ultimately wanted to have a career in. My most important mentors have been my violin teachers Soovin Kim and Chen Zhao.

CB: You are a supernumerary with both the San Francisco Symphony and the Utah Symphony. What can you tell us about playing with these two wonderful orchestras? Do you have some specific favorite projects with them and different conductors that you could share with us?

SN: One of my favorite performances was Mahler 6 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. It was inspiring to play with a conductor and ensemble who know the Mahler symphonies like the back of their hand.

CB: What is your advice for young musicians? How do you best deal with challenges, frustration and adversity?

SN: My advice for young musicians is to take it slow and relax. Enjoy the process and know progress isn’t always a steady slope up. Sometimes we need bad days to appreciate when we sound good!

CB: Thank you for your time Suni, and I look forward to making music with you in Sacramento!

SN: Thanks Maestro, looking forward to a fun Sibelius Concerto!

Suni Norman is an accomplished violinist from Tooele, Utah. She is a laureate of multiple violin competitions including the Stradivarius Competition. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from New England Conservatory and an Artist Diploma from San Francisco Conservatory. Norman has participated in festivals such as New York String Orchestra, Music Academy of the West, Colorado College Festival, Heifetz and Kneisel Hall. 

Norman has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across the United States. Notably, she has recently collaborated with eminent musicians including Ben Beilman, Robert Mcdonald, Marcy Rosen, Shai Wosner, as well as quartets such as Borromeo, Miro, Takács and Fry Street. 

Suni Norman is currently a supernumerary for San Francisco and Utah Symphony orchestras. She is also featured on an episode of PBS’s Now Hear This (Copland: Dean of American Music). 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Dagenais Smiley and Susan Lamb Cook in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On February 17, 2024, I will have the pleasure of collaborating with violinist Dagenais Smiley and cellist Susan Lamb Cook bringing to life together the beautiful Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra by Brahms. This will be in Sacramento with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. After intermission, we will perform  Bruckner’s 5th Symphony. Here is a conversation we had with Susan and Dagenais, in preparation for our performance.

Christian Baldini: Welcome, Susan and Dagenais, it will be a real treat to do this double concerto with you. Please tell me, what are some of your favorite features about this piece? Why is this such an important piece in the repertoire, and what do you love about it?

Susan Lamb Cook:  I have always been a fan of the music of Brahms and have studied and performed much of his chamber music repertoire, from the wonderful cello sonatas, to his string quartets, quintets, sextets, piano trios, quartets – the list goes on.  So, having the opportunity to perform the Double Concerto is truly a highlight for me, especially with my dear friend and colleague Dagenais Smiley as well as with you, Christian, and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra.  So often, concertos begin with a long orchestral introduction but in this case, Brahms launches immediately into a cello cadenza, similar to the opening of the Elgar Concerto which I had the pleasure of performing with you and the CSO last season.  In Brahms’ opening cadenza, he soon has the violin join in, creating a conversation between the two instruments which gives a preview of what is yet to come.  The Brahms Double is an expansive work containing technical and musical challenges not only for the soloists but for the orchestra as well.  This was Brahms’ final symphonic composition, and one can hear the luscious textures which Brahms is so famous for throughout this monumental work.

Dagenais Smiley: As a violinist, I always love playing the works of Brahms, from the symphonies to the string quartets, and his violin concerto is one of my favorites. He always writes incredible melodies, and intense textures, which is thrilling to perform.  I haven’t had the pleasure of working on the Double Concerto before now and it’s been an incredibly rewarding undertaking.  It’s a unique experience to share a concerto with another instrument, especially the rich voice of the cello, and as Susan already mentioned, it’s like having a conversation with a colleague.  It is technically demanding while still presenting beautiful, soaring melodies.  It’s interesting to note  that it wasn’t immediately a hit upon its presentation, but it has now become a favorite amongst both cellists and violinists.  I am extremely excited to be performing this work with Susan and with you, Christian, and the Camellia Symphony!

Christian: As you know, composers (and especially followers in their circles) had rivalries, and this was also the case between Brahms and Bruckner. Constantin Floros states that “In the last third of the 19th century Brahms and Bruckner were regarded as antipodes.” For different reasons, this was also the case at times with performers. Brahms and the famous violinist Joachim (for whom the Double Concerto was written, together with cellist Hausman) had had a fallout. Brahms offered this concerto as an olive branch to Joachim. In fact Clara Schumann wrote in her diary that after Joachim, Hausmann, and Brahms had tried out the piece for friends, “The Concerto is a work of reconciliation. Joachim and Brahms have spoken to one another again.” - My long related questions to both of you are: What does music mean to you? Is it possible to alter/affect the human spirit through music? Which kind of atmosphere does it communicate, or which kind of spirit inhabits this particular concerto?

Susan:  The world of music, and specifically the cello, has been a part of my life ever since I can remember, so I feel as though the cello is simply an extension of who I am.  My cello and I spend so much time together – in the practice room, in the teaching studio, on the concert stage – that I really can’t imagine my life not being filled with music and the art of music making.  As to whether or not music can possibly affect the human spirit, my answer would be absolutely, yes.  It is interesting how we each seem to be drawn to different styles or genres of music, composers, artists etc., and sometimes we can all listen to the same piece of music but each has a completely different reaction to it.  Our reactions can include joy, excitement, sadness, despair, but the fact is that we react or respond to the way in which the music touches us emotionally.  I do hope that, through our performance of the Brahms Double, we will be able to stimulate reactions from the audience members, perhaps a feeling of excitement from the powerful opening statements of both the first and last movements, as well as a sense of affection and joy from the gloriously optimistic melody of the second movement.  This monumental work leaves me breathless, so I hope it will do the same for our audience members.

Dagenais:  My relationship with my violin and with music is much like a relationship/friendship with a fellow person.  Sometimes it’s filled with joy and humor, sometimes sadness and even a bit of frustration, but it’s always there and as Susan has already stated, I can’t imagine a life without playing music. I had the opportunity to play Mahler 4 recently and during some of the rests, I looked out into the audience and saw how rapt the audience was, and some attendees were even in tears, so yes, I do believe that music has the ability to affect our spirit.  I have favorite pieces I gravitate towards when I’m in a certain mood, as I’m sure we all do, and part of why I love performing (any type of music), is the connection with the audience.  It’s very rewarding to bring the joy, beauty, emotion, sadness, etc. of music to new people.  I’ve talked to some who have never attended a concert before and they were so excited and moved by what the music made them feel.  I look forward to sharing this great piece with the audience and I also look forward to hearing the Bruckner!

Christian: You are both wonderful educators, and colleagues of mine at the University of California, Davis. What are some of your favorite things about working with young people and helping them grow as musicians and human beings?

Susan:  Teaching brings me great joy - I really love working with my UC Davis students as well as my adult and my pre-college students.  Many of my students at UC Davis have chosen fields of study other than music, like animal sciences, engineering, environmental science, etc., but they truly love and value their connection to music through their cello. I am pleased and honored to assist them in becoming better players so that they will have the life-long ability to continue expressing their passion for music through their cello playing.  I continue working with pre-college students through my Rising Stars of Chamber Music Program which takes place each year over the winter holiday.  The students in this program are advanced players who are passionate about chamber music and are totally committed to their music making,  As these students study some of the great works in the chamber music repertoire, I can see them develop as musicians through their understanding of musical lines and phrases, and more importantly, I can see them develop and use tools of cooperation and collaboration while working with their group members, which ultimately allows for wonderful friendships to be formed.  This is one of the greatest benefits of being a musician. 

Dagenais: As Susan mentioned, many of the students we have are majoring in other challenging disciplines yet they want to maintain that connection to music and their instruments.I help them with time management and give them suggestions on how to practice efficiently with limited time and I love seeing the excitement in my students’ eyes when they realize how much progress they’ve made over the quarter.  I am very proud of my students when they are able to master a new technique or play a piece they never thought they would be able to before through their hard work and diligence.  It’s rewarding seeing how important music is to them despite how busy they are in their other fields and I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with them on their musical journey.

Christian: Lastly, what would be your advice for young musicians? We have all felt challenges in life. Most people have thought about quitting, multiple times in many cases. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their musical development?

Susan:  There is no doubt that succeeding in music takes a great deal of time, effort, and commitment, and I can certainly remember that, when I was younger, there were periods of time in which I simply wanted to give up.  I was fortunate, though, to have had wonderful teachers along the way, not to mention my parents who were always encouraging me to continue practicing and not be discouraged if things did not always go as I had hoped (in performances, competitions, etc.).  As musicians, we are always putting ourselves on the line, baring our souls to the listener and opening up an often intimate and very personal part of ourselves. Not an easy thing to do.  I always tell my students, though, that every performance is a dress rehearsal for the next performance, with the thought that we are always practicing, doing our best to improve and, of course, always striving for the perfection that we may never achieve.  Some great advice that I received early on was to surround myself with those who were better than me so that I could always continue learning.  This advice has served me well, not only in the area of music. 

Dagenais:  My approach to teaching is to be encouraging, but also realistic and understanding.  One of my students was struggling with the motivation to practice,  so we had a chat about it and I acknowledged that student’s feelings (we’ve all been through that struggle in our life) and gave them some advice on how to move forward. I think it’s important to recognize when something is a struggle and to accept and acknowledge those feelings rather than try to erase them. I try to teach my students to have patience with themselves (something that I struggled with in school). It’s ok to take a day off practice when you’re in a negative head space and return the next day feeling refreshed and excited to begin again. It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of trying to achieve perfection and the rat race of gigging so much that we can sometimes get frustrated and lose the joy of performing. It’s important to take the time to remember what music means to us. Sometimes it can be a wonderful change to attend a concert rather than performing in one to remember how powerful it can be to experience live music.

Christian: Thank you both very much for your time, and especially for your wonderful musicianship that I will be delighted to share with our audience in Sacramento!

Dagenais Smiley, a Northern California native, earned  her bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory  under the direction of Milan Vitek and her masterof music from the USC’s  Thornton School of Music, studying with Ms. Kathleen Winkler. An active orchestral and chamber musician, Dagenais performs with the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera, and is currently acting Associate Concertmaster with the Modesto Symphony, often stepping in as Concertmaster. She recently became Assistant Concertmaster of the Reno Philharmonic and also performs with the Stockton Symphony, the Monterey Symphony, the Fresno Philharmonic, and other various Northern California  orchestras. Ms. Smiley currently teaches violin at UC Davis and maintains a private violin studio. She enjoys skiing, hiking and playing Pokemon Go in her spare time.