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Music Is for Everyone With Ben Simon and the SF Chamber Orchestra

February 10, 2020

Ben Simon wouldn’t hide his considerable arsenal of viola jokes somewhere in his comfortable Rockridge District home in Oakland. He has a right to them, after training on that instrument at Juilliard and succeeding appointments as a guest with the New York Philharmonic, a principal with the Buffalo Philharmonic, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a member of the both the New World and Stanford string quartets, and a principal with the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra. Along the way he also taught at Stanford and worked as a studio musician.

As music director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra since 2002, Simon runs a viola joke in each monthly issue of his e-newsletter, Simon Says. And now he’s bringing even more fun to bear on the programming of the SFCO, with a series dubbed “Classical with a Twist,” circling the Bay starting on February 21. The energetic, animated Simon discussed his mission in his Rockridge living room.

SFCO presentations have always seemed lively to me.

We’re actually building on the success we’ve had in connecting with audiences. Earlier this season, we did Beethoven’s Fifth, and I was telling the audience what I like about the music, like the fantastic transition in the Scherzo, where the drum is beating this little tattoo and the orchestra is having these little pianissimo chords, changing the harmony from C-minor to A-flat to G. We had a very brief theory lesson, where we played the chords, and later we played the whole piece. And people were coming up to me and going, “I’ve heard Beethoven’s Fifth all my life, and I never knew what was going on!”

You’ve been delivering delight.

Because classical music suffers from a seriousness problem! We dress up and pay a lot money for seats, and we sit quietly, and we’re not supposed to laugh or cough or move for two hours. And I think that’s a disaster for classical music, I really do! Everything the SFCO has been doing for the last 18 years, we’re trying to get away from that model. “Classical with a Twist” is just my attempt to go a little bit further in breaking down the wall between the orchestra and the audience, which is left out of the fun too much of the time. I think music’s great gift is being able to create a community. 

I can recall getting that feeling from watching Leonard Bernstein’s TV broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic, when I was a kid.

I was in New York as an elementary school student, and used to go to Carnegie Hall with my mother and my siblings, and we used to watch Leonard Bernstein. Then when I was at Juilliard, he came and conducted us, and later I was lucky enough to play in the Philharmonic. He just exuded that love and enthusiasm for the music, which I’m trying to tap, because I think I have it myself. We try to follow in his footsteps.

What will you be bringing audiences anew with your Twist series?

The conceit is, it’s a radio show. We’re going to have a red light that goes on and off — on-air, off-air — and Greg van der Veen, our stage manager, will sort of be the clown in the show: He’ll have the “APPLAUSE” sign. We’re going to be dressed informally, because since it’s radio, it doesn’t matter how we look. But we do have a real theme for the show, which is Theme and Variations, which I find is one of the most accessible and playful of musical forms.

What makes it so?

I’ll talk about this at the top of the show. I almost went to medical school, before I got sidetracked by the viola, and I’m interested in neuroscience and how the brain works. They’ve found that music lights up more parts of the brain than any other musical activity. We’re pattern-recognition, machines: It’s how we read, how we talk, and also how we listen to music. Sometimes the patterns can be rather obtuse, like in the sonata form, but you can recognize a theme in the variations on that theme: they’re the same but different, threaded like a braid.

And that’ll be perceived in the music you’re programming for this series.

We’ll basically be playing themes that the audience will know. Our first piece [performed by SFCO pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi] will be Mozart’s variations on the French folksong [“Ah, vous dirais-je, Maman”] that we know as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. And the variations are absolutely delightful! Then we’re going to have a young quartet from the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra [of which Simon is music director], because they deserve a chance. They’re going to be playing the famous Kaiser Variations, which Hadyn wrote for the emperor, and is actually the [Austrian] national anthem now. The theme doesn’t change, but he passes it off between the instruments, and that changes the accompaniment around it.

A bit like what Britten did with Purcell in the Young Person’s Guide.

Very much. Then we’re going to the “Trout” Quintet, Schubert’s wonderful piece named after the variations movement, based on a song he wrote, called “Die Forelle,” or The Trout. We’re going to have soprano Ann Moss sing the song, and then have a quartet of SFCO “All-Stars” play the theme and variations movement with Keisuke, so the audience will hear how the theme grows and changes through that fantastic movement. When you play the Trout, very few groups will actually have a singer come in and sing the song for you.

Unorthodox but pleasing programming!

We have a fourth piece; do you know Peter Heidrich’s Happy Birthday Variations? He was a violist in a well-known German string quartet [the Benthien], and when his best friend, the cellist, turned 50, he wrote a set of variations on the birthday song. It’s in the style of various composers: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák. And then he wrote variations in different styles: a Viennese waltz, a tango, schmaltzy Hollywood film music, a Hungarian dance. We’re trying to show the audience how much fun classical music can be, composers being super creative but also amazingly playful with a theme.

Isn’t this more fun for you and your musicians, too?

Music is serious, you have to take lessons and study and practice, and Brahms and Tchaikovsky are oh, so serious. But none of us would do it if weren’t a great deal of fun, particularly getting out of your practice room and playing with others.

In the material you sent SFCV, you’d mentioned a couple of radio shows as inspirations: Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! and A Prairie Home Companion.

They’re so clever, so fast, I’ve been doing classical music trivia quizzes in my Classical at the Freight series [monthly, at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley], which are silly but still informative. So for “Classical with a Twist,” we’re going to pit a team from the audience against a team of so-called experts from the professionals at the concert. I’m going to make sure the audience wins. We’re going to play a classical Name-That-Tune game, as well. Maybe I’ll get the kids to play as a team. We’re going to have Keisuke play one note of a famous theme, and we’ll see if anybody can guess it. Then we’ll do two notes, and we’ll see how many notes it takes. But it’ll be recognizable. I’m not going to play the second theme from the third movement of Mahler’s Ninth.

I assume there’ll be prizes for winners, even if the game is fixed in favor of the audience. Aside from the fun factor, do you have a mission of expanding your audience?

More than young-old, I think the big split has been between people who are regulars and consider themselves classical aficionados, and the other 99 percent that really hasn’t been exposed to classical music, or when they have been exposed, they’ve had less than an ideal circumstance. Maybe they went to a concert that was boring. I’m encouraging people to bring the friends who wouldn’t normally go to a classical concert.

Shouldn’t that include potential fans from financially disadvantaged communities?

Because our concerts are admission-free, we’re reaching out to everybody. We’re very much into community-building, particularly with our family concerts, and we collaborate with all sorts of arts organizations from different ethnic and cultural groups.

Have you bolstered your modes of outreach?

We don’t have the advertising budget of some of the larger ensembles, but we have wonderful Facebook and Instagram and Twitter accounts, and found a fantastic “digital native,” Corinne Rydman, to work in our office.

Will there be more “Twists”?

Budgetarily, the Twists are much easier for us to put on. In the future, I’m trying to break them off from our mainstage program, so I can hire the orchestra for the mainstage — in April we’ll be featuring a world premiere by our composer-in-residence, Mike Gilbertson — and find more intimate venues [for the Twists] where the audiences are closer and can get a beer while they’re watching the show. I would love to do them in areas where we don’t do mainstage concerts; we could go to Marin, to Walnut Creek. Each Twist will be different: It might be ethnic, it might be another form like the rondo, which I personally like. And for each show, I’m going to bring someone from the wider community, so that people get to know behind the scenes. For this month's show, I’m inviting my good friend, a master violin maker, Anthony Lane from Petaluma, who’ll talk to people about what making a violin is all about. And in the future, I’d like to invite a recording engineer or a stage manager or a librettist or a producer, all these wonderful people you never get to see. The more you know about it, the more interesting it is.

And will you be sustaining the viola jokes at this inaugural Twist and beyond?

I’ll offer a prize to anyone who can tell me a viola joke I haven’t heard before.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.