Photos by Michael Amsler
As North Bay symphonies prepare for the summer season, four conductors reflect on the state of the art
By David Templeton
Jeffrey Kahane Santa Rosa Symphony
JEFFREY KAHANE is telling a story. "I was reading this article," he explains, perched comfortably on his sofa, sipping strong coffee while a cloud-challenged sun throws intermittent splashes of midmorning light across Kahane's spacious Santa Rosa living room.
For an instant, a warm wave of sunshine washes over the family piano, illuminating the glowing white pages of two open songbooks: Bach's Passion of St. Matthew and The Best of the Beatles--currently opened to the music for Yellow Submarine.
"Some college in the East had started a program to punish students," Kahane is saying. "These are students who were having academic problems, and the punishment was that they were required, as an official form of detention, to go out and attend a symphony concert."
Kahane, the conductor and musical director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and also the conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, now laughs at the notion of classical music as state-sanctioned torture.
"My first reaction, though," he admits with a laugh, "was that I got really pissed off. I was infuriated. But then, of course, as I continued reading I had to chuckle. The article went on to say that a lot of those young people, after finally giving in and going to a concert, ended up saying, 'Hey! Wow! This is great!'
"But the idea that classical music would ever be conceived of as a punishment," he says, "is pretty appalling."
Kahane was already a world-renowned conductor and pianist when, in 1995, he came to Sonoma County to take over the Santa Rosa Symphony, which had been in existence since 1928.
Now the ninth largest orchestra ensemble in California, the symphony has seen a remarkable resurgence of local interest: ticket sales have more than doubled over the last five years, with a paid subscriber base of over 3,000 people. That's 2 percent of the overall population of Santa Rosa.
Demand is so great that Kahane has added a third performance night to every scheduled event and is looking at adding a fourth, an act that will make the Santa Rosa Symphony the only orchestra in America within its size and budget category to have to play four nights.
On top of that, this summer will see construction begin on the new concert hall on the grounds of Sonoma State University. When the hall opens in 2002, the symphony will host an international music festival featuring ensembles from around the globe.
"A lot of orchestras have rolled up into a ball and died in the last decade or so," says Kahane, "and many of those that are still alive are only barely so. But in Santa Rosa we are experiencing the exact opposite."
The reason for this culture boom, he says, is a combination of factors, including a high level of local affluence, a culturally ingrained appreciation of the arts throughout the North Bay, and a staunch refusal on the part of the symphony itself to be run-of-the-mill.
In fact, Kahane's ambitious choice of material--from last season's spectacular presentation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem to the recent program of radical works by Anton Webern--is far more likely to open eyes and ears and get the listeners' hearts racing than to put anyone to sleep.
"Of course, with the Webern, a small number of people absolutely hated it," Kahane says. "We even got one 'Boo!,' which was truly invigorating."
He's serious. Kahane loved getting booed.
"I'm not interested in towing the line down the middle of the road," he says, "keeping everybody happy. It's OK to annoy people once in a while. In fact, for an orchestra today, it's vital.
"See, one of the problems with classical music is that it's become too polite," he adds. "It's that old 'snob phenomenon.' It began a century ago, when symphonies somehow became the playthings of the wealthy, a symbol of status, a stuffy, upper-crust, upper-class, intellectual art form. But that's absolute baloney. Classical music was never conceived of or intended that way."
According to Kahane, the parts of the country where classical music is experiencing a resurgence, the North Bay included, are the very same places where young people are learning that classical music, often challenging and "in-your-face," is anything but stuffy.
"It's time," says Kahane, "for young people to take back the music."
Asher Raboy Napa Valley Symphony
ASHER RABOY has found what he's looking for. Rising from the floor, he waves the CD he's just extracted from the bottom shelf of a crammed music case. Gliding through his sunny, downtown Napa office, Raboy deftly sidesteps an antique Steinway piano and then maneuvers around a high-tech electronic keyboard-and-computer console on which he composes daily.
Next to his CD player sit the neatly stacked pages of a recent Raboy composition, "Orchestral Dances"--written for the 67-year-old Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra, of which Raboy has been musical director and conductor since 1990. The piece enjoyed its world premiere last month, in a rousing program that included an early work of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, a collection of French folk songs by Joseph Canteloube, and a symphonic tone poem by Antonin Dvorák.
Having loaded the CD into the player, Raboy steps back and waits. Two seconds later, the room is filled with the unmistakable voice and energetic melodies . . . of Bob Dylan.
"This is the CD that won all those Grammys a few years ago," notes Raboy, appreciatively. "It's really different for Dylan. It's like 1950s music."
Raboy, 43 years old and bursting with energy, hardly presents the staid, imperious, white-haired image one traditionally conjures up when thinking of a world-class symphony conductor. As adept at discussing the works of Bruce Springsteen as he is at dissecting Verdi's operas or Dvorák's symphonies, Raboy represents a new breed of classical conductor: young, feisty, and a little rebellious--definitely a child of the '60s.
"I'm a born rock-'n'-roller," he confesses. "But I was a lousy rock-'n'-roll musician."
Born in New York, Raboy began learning the piano at the age of 5. He's composed and conducted for orchestras around the nation, including the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.
As the director of the Napa Valley Symphony, Raboy has helped re-energize the North Bay music scene with distinctly unusual programming and performances that are designed to give classical music a shot in the arm. With a creative mix of old and new works--and irresistible events like the annual Labor Day Concert on the Bridge, where the full orchestra performs over the Napa River--the symphony has won increasingly enthusiastic fans.
With an aggressive outreach program in Napa Valley schools, Raboy hopes to inspire the next generation of classical rebels. Indeed, it's the lack of widespread musical knowledge in the country that concerns Raboy the most.
"A century ago," he says, "you were not considered civilized if you didn't play the piano. By the time you heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony performed by an orchestra, you'd had your own fingers in that piece of music hundreds of times. Nowadays, there's no pressing need to learn the piano because we can all just load our CD players instead. So the majority of people today no longer have a sophisticated knowledge of music."
But, according to Raboy, changes are a-coming, led largely by the living composers of orchestral music.
"The new composers will be the salvation of classical music," Raboy predicts, "because there's a new breed of classical music that is very much like the music we grew up with in the '60s and '70s, in that it speaks directly to people today, with lots of energy and vitality. There are conductors who are now looking for that music, and we're putting it on the stage, and the word is getting out.
"I think we're about to see a complete revitalization of classical music," says Raboy, grinning like a kid who just heard his favorite song on the radio. "You watch. The 21st century will be the century in which symphonic music moves to the forefront of the culture again."
Gabriel Sakakeeny Cotati Philharmonic Orchestra
GABRIEL SAKAKEENY is standing tall. Literally. The lanky conductor and musical director of the fledgling Cotati Philharmonic has playfully clambered up onto a wooden bench (a pew, actually) to demonstrate the acoustics inside the beautiful sanctuary of St. Joseph Church.
A soaring wood-framed ceiling rises to a tentlike point 50 feet above Sakakeeny's head. A series of orange-hued stained-glass windows saturate the 1,000-seat room with rich, coppery light. Birdsong floats through a shuttered opening in the roof.
"This is probably the best-sounding room in the county," says Sakakeeny, arms out to his sides, speaking oh-so-softly while remaining clearly audible from anywhere in the room.
"When the new concert hall is built at SSU, of course, the philharmonic will have to settle for performing in the second-best-sounding building in the county," he continues. "But I think we can deal with that."
Formed just last year, the Cotati Philharmonic is an all-volunteer orchestra that features some of the best professional musicians in the county, playing alongside highly skilled nonprofessional performers who come from far and wide for the opportunity to play full-blown orchestral music with a first-class ensemble.
Sakakeeny, who also donates his services, works full time as a video producer for Agilent Technologies, though his musical pedigree is outstanding. A former music director of the Houston youth ymphonies and ballet, Sakakeeny was also principal conductor of the Campanile Orchestra in Houston and has conducted with West Bay Opera and the Fremont Philharmonic.
When the idea of a Cotati orchestra was first posed in November of 1998, it was Sakakeeny who insisted the philharmonic be run as an all-volunteer organization--and that all concerts be free to the public.
The result of that decision is remarkable.
The first concert, held last July in the park--a program of American music, with works by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin--attracted over a thousand people. Subsequent concerts have filled the seats at St. Joseph, where attendees, ranging from homeless people to entire families to curious professional musicians, often marvel at the quality and passion of the philharmonic's spirited performances.
"I wanted people who would do this for love and not for money," says Sakakeeny, back on the ground again. "I wanted to see what could happen if we rid ourselves of the concerns of having to meet a budget."
Supported by a core group of like-minded musicians--including several who perform with other local symphonies--Sakakeeny and his associates drafted a charter that proclaims, "Our mission is to have the beauty of music and the power of community alive and available to everyone."
"We wanted to start from the ground up," says Sakakeeny, "to reinvent the symphony orchestra.
"This is a very musical little town, you know," he continues. "The residents of Cotati strongly identify themselves with music, from the accordion festival to the jazz festival, to the Inn of the Beginning and the whole local history of rock 'n' roll."
In this true community effort, orchestra rehearsals are held at nearby Congregation Ner Shalom. There is much mingling of orchestra and audience following performances. The performers can be easily persuaded to demonstrate their instruments for starstruck children.
"Who knows," says Sakakeeny, "the future geniuses of classical music may be inspired after their parents bring them to a free concert in downtown Cotati."
As Marin Symphony conductor Gary Sheldon has pointed out, exposure to the music is the first step toward keeping the art form alive.
"I think people are hungry for what art music has to offer," Sakakeeny muses, now sitting in the soft light of the sanctuary. "When you come into the presence of a great piece of art, your mind stops and you're just present to the beauty of the thing. You are in the moment and you feel a sense of respite in the middle of your day, a moment when you can be with something beautiful and be awed and overwhelmed and changed by it.
"That's what great music does."
Gary Sheldon Marin Symphony
GARY SHELDON, "between airports" for a few short hours, is walking-talking evidence that symphonic music is alive and well. It's so alive, in fact, that the mighty maestro can hardly rest for a minute.
After conducting the final concert of the season just last week, Sheldon--musical director of the Marin Symphony for the last 10 years--immediately hopped on a plane to Ohio, where he also runs the popular Lancaster Arts Festival and will be conducting a world premiere for Opera Columbus.
Following that, there are a dozen or so conducting opportunities that will send Sheldon around the world until next fall, when he'll be back in Marin to conduct Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor for the opening night of the Marin Symphony's new season.
A few weeks later, he'll be taking a sabbatical, during which he'll hit the road again to conduct a number of operas and ballets in Europe, while preparing several of his own compositions for publication.
"Believe me," he says, "classical music is thriving."
Even so, Sheldon is at the forefront of musicians who believe that without vigilant effort and ongoing education, classical music could well end up losing some of the steam that is powering his own musical enterprises.
"I'm confident that orchestral music will remain an important part of our society," he says, "but I believe it can only do that if we can find a way to keep up and keep pace with other types of entertainment--movies and television and computers and all the other forms of music that are out there. To that end, we are constantly reaching out to new audiences, looking for ways to draw first-timers into the concert hall."
Like other North Bay symphony organizations, the Marin Symphony has put tremendous effort into local educational programs. Among the most notable is Sheldon's own creation, a series of annual concerts for children based on the popular Carmen Sandiego video game.
Where in the World of Music Is Carmen Sandiego? incorporates history, geography, and classical music in an onstage extravaganza that has become one of the hottest tickets of the year. This season Sheldon also introduced the SEATS program: Symphony Education and Training in the Schools. In the ambitious three-step program, Sheldon and one of the symphony's soloists visit Marin County schools to make initial presentations, followed by a concert at the school by a string quartet or brass quintet, after which free symphony tickets are offered to all students.
"Exposure is even more important than education," says Sheldon. "Our principal challenge is to get people into the hall for the first time. After we get them in the seat, the music has a way of taking it from there."
He's seen it hundreds of times.
"When I talk to people, of any age, who've just come to their first concert," Sheldon proudly reveals, "the phrase I hear most often is 'I had no idea what I've been missing.' "
From the May 18-24, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.