“It has been a wild ride the last six months,” says violist and conductor Ben Simon. That’s because after 21 seasons, he is preparing for his final bows with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO). His farewell concerts at the podium will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 30 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, and at 3 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2023, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.
A Bay Area native, Simon has forged an impressive career. Initially enrolled as a pre-med student at Yale, he switched to music and went on to graduate school at Juilliard. After that, his career as a violist flourished, and he has worked with small and large ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New World String Quartet, New Century Chamber Orchestra, and the Stanford String Quartet. He has been on the faculties of Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the Crowden School in Berkeley.
In 2002, Simon took over the baton from Edgar Braun, founder of the SFCO, after Braun passed and has maintained the ensemble’s tradition of presenting all of its concerts for free. At the same time, Simon has also served as the music director of an award-winning youth ensemble, the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra.
Speaking with SF Classical Voice recently, the conductor displayed boundless enthusiasm for his tenure with the SFCO and shared his deep love for chamber music, new music, working with young musicians, and making music available to everyone in the community.
The Crowden School was your first formal conducting gig. How did that come about?
Anne [Crowden] and I had been longtime friends, and I called her and said I would like to visit the school because my son was going into the fourth grade, and she said, “Of course, come over.” I walked in with my son in tow, and Anne met me at the door, and literally with no preamble, she said, “Ben, I’m retiring. Do you want to be the director of the Crowden School?”
At that time, I needed a job, and I respected Anne and knew so much about the school, so I just said yes before I thought too much about it. I have always been interested in conducting, but conducting the Crowden Orchestra was really the first time I had conducted more than just a one-off with a youth orchestra somewhere.
How did you wind up at the SFCO?
I really liked Crowden, but it turned out not to be the right fit, so I was thinking about what I could do next. I went to visit Edgar Braun, a very lovely, smart, generous man whom I had known for many years. My family always used to go to his New Year’s Eve concert, and he invited me to play the viola with the orchestra when I was in college. He knew that I had been at Stanford and Crowden, and I said, “Edgar, I’d like to do a little bit more conducting. What do you suggest?” And he said, “Why don’t you conduct one of the SFCO concerts?”
In those days, the chamber orchestra had two sets of concerts, both in San Francisco. It was a total of four concerts, two different programs. Edgar conducted one program, and I conducted the other. I had a great time, and apparently I did well and the musicians liked me. The next year, Edgar got sick, and I ended up conducting both concerts, and then he asked me if I wanted to be music director. So again, somebody offered me their job with no audition. I have been very fortunate.
Tell me about all the different concerts you do now.
We have expanded to four mainstage series of three concerts each, which also includes Palo Alto, so we have membership bases in all three cities — San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto. We also started family concerts, which we had never done before. These are very friendly 45-minute concerts with a small string or wind orchestra, and they are all based on musical concepts and themes like “Meet the Woodwinds” or “What Does a Conductor Do?” We play and we talk and we interact, and we are in small venues where we are usually on the floor right in front of the kids.
You have done a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, including working with the Sphinx Organization. Tell me about that.
It is important for me to offer opportunities to musicians of color, which I’ve tried to do all through my career at the SFCO. When I first heard about the Sphinx Organization, I was blown away. So I called up Andre Dowell, who was the director, and I asked him how I could get a Sphinx artist to come out and play a solo, and for the past 10 years, we have featured one of the Sphinx Competition winners, either junior or senior, as one of our debut artists, making their first appearance with a professional orchestra.
And this year we started a diversity fellowships program. We teamed up with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to identify mostly graduate students to play in our orchestra. We got two or three young people of color, whom we paid the same as our pros, to augment the orchestra. It was very successful, and I think we will be continuing that in the future.
Also, our General Manager Darcy Rindt has connected with a program [the Emerging Black Composers Project] at the SF Conservatory of Music, and we are commissioning pieces from them. These are young, soon-to-be-professional composers bringing new voices to the SFCO, so we are very excited about that.
Tell me about the new music director.
I am so excited about the choice of our new music director. Cosette Justo Valdés is a young Cuban woman who is conducting all over the place now and really wants to make a commitment to the SFCO. She’s bright, she’s intelligent, she’s musical. I think she’s just the right person to lead the SFCO into the future. I will be introducing her to the audiences at our upcoming New Year’s Eve concerts.
You have been with the SFCO for 21 seasons. What has kept you there for so long?
It’s such a thrill to rehearse and perform with this amazing ensemble. I’m a violist by training and a chamber musician by heart, so my philosophy was to run the orchestra like a chamber ensemble, which is as collaborative as possible, and to make everyone feel like their voice counted. And not just their musical voice but also their opinions. So we have come together as a community, we like each other, we respect each other, and we love to play with each other. I feel so fortunate to have had 21 amazing years with them.
What are the accomplishments that you are most proud of at the SFCO?
I started the Classical at the Freight series in Berkeley, and that’s been a wonderful outlet for chamber music. Another thing I am very proud of is all the commissions we have done at the SFCO. That was the direction I wanted the orchestra to go. Over the past 21 years, we have done around 30 commissions and world premieres with the orchestra — a lot of crazy, kooky, wonderful stuff with modern music. Many of the composers are from the Bay Area but some are also from all over California and around the country.
Why are you retiring?
It’s a bittersweet moment for me, of course, but it was time for me to start the next chapter of my life. You don’t want to die with your sailboat in your driveway, so it’s time for me to get on my sailboat (which I don’t have) and have some new adventures. That’s the way I am looking at it.
My wife and I want to do some things while we are healthy and able to travel, so it’s just time to open up some space in our lives. I have been so lucky, and I love my jobs, but after working with two small nonprofit organizations for 21 years, I tell people I look forward to getting up and not having 40 emails to answer before breakfast.
Tell me about the closing concerts.
Three years ago, we featured a 14-year-old violinist, Amaryn Olmeda, as our debut artist and soloist performing Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, so inviting her to be our soloist on this very special concert was an obvious choice for me. I was delighted to agree to her suggestion of playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as it’s an all-time favorite of mine, and teaming up with Amaryn will be a real treat.
The rest of the program revolves around time, from the symphony that Schubert died too young to finish [Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”] to the symphony that PDQ Bach was born too late to start [Unbegun Symphony] to the obvious choice to end this concert: a wonderful symphony from a composer I have come to love as much as any, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, the “Farewell.”