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Symphony Parnassus — a community orchestra

Sat, 14 Jan 2017 19:39:00
Article by:
Daniel Joseph Lilly
Orchestra violinists in rehearsal in 2014. Photo courtesy of Board President Sarah Smith, www.symphonyparnassus.org/
Already into its 27th season, which began November 6th, Symphony Parnassus plans to highlight the talent of local musicians with a schedule featuring works by Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Beethoven. Soloists this season include Silvie Jensen, Vivian Ling, Parker Van Ostrand, and Elliot Wuu. Their season will close with an original composition by the orchestra’s Composer In Residence, Stefan Cwik.
   
The ensemble that would become Symphony Parnassus began in 1965 as the Doctors’ Symphony, led by Lyn Giovanniello. This loose coalition of musicians played throughout the 1970s before giving way to the UCSF Orchestra, led by Jonathan Davis, which first performed in 1989. Under Davis, the orchestra began to develop its focus on community and local artists.
   
In 1998, Stephen Paulson was elected musical director of the UCSF Orchestra, but the orchestra was cut from the UCSF budget the next year. Paulson and others then reorganized into the nonprofit Symphony Parnassus. The orchestra is proud to support the local talent of emerging soloists and composers. Last season featured young cellist Elena Ariza, of Cupertino, and a new piece titled “The Sword in the Stone” by San Francisco-based composer Stefan Cwik, who has since been named Symphony Parnassus’ first Composer In Residence.
   
For the 85 musicians in Symphony Parnassus, classical music is a labor of love. While some of the musicians are semiprofessional, most are amateur, with full careers independent of their participation in the orchestra. Eight of these musicians also volunteer as the organization's Board of Directors, including Susan Smith, the board President and the orchestra’s second bassoonist.
   
Smith was a bassoonist with the UCSF Orchestra, having joined around the same time that Stephen Paulson became the music director. She said the transition to Symphony Parnassus after the group was cut from the budget, was relatively seamless under Paulson’s direction. According to Smith, one of the most noticeable changes was that they were now playing in better venues, such as the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Herbst Theater at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, instead of the UCSF gymnasium.
   
As a community orchestra, Smith emphasizes that Symphony Parnassus strives to find the best local amateur musicians. The orchestra is currently holding auditions for all musicians, but noted that they are especially interested in French horn and string players. Individuals interested in auditioning can find a contact form under the “About Us” heading on the website for Symphony Parnassus at www.symphonyparnassus.org/.
  
The orchestra also offers discounted tickets for students and senior citizens. Many of the musicians in Symphony Parnassus are also music teachers, and any of their students are able to attend the performances free of charge. The orchestra has also given free tickets to veterans and local family shelters. In regard to the community focus of Symphony Parnassus, Smith said, “My dream is that we wouldn’t have to charge admission.” She sees the orchestra as a way to broaden the outreach of classical music in the local community.
   
Doing so, however, would require either a major grant or a corporate sponsorship to subsidize the orchestra. Currently, ticket sales account for 40 percent of their operating costs, with the remainder made up mostly by individual donors. Seasonal subscriptions to professional orchestras have been in decline, and Symphony Parnassus also notes fewer subscriptions than in previous years.
  
In order to draw audiences, the orchestra tries to program ambitious work. This is where, according to Smith, music director Stephen Paulson’s experience and professionalism is particularly valuable. Paulson is also Principal Bassoon for the San Francisco Symphony, and he is a teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. According to Smith, Paulson’s musical insight a great asset to the orchestra, and he “makes us appreciate even more what professional level musicians are able to achieve.”
  
Despite occasionally uneasiness about the attendance of performances due to diminished seasonal subscription rates, Smith remains optimistic about the impact Symphony Parnassus has on the local community. The orchestra co-hosts a concerto competition with the Conservatory, and frequently features its students as soloists.
 
The orchestra also works with local visual artists for their marketing materials, including artists from Creativity Explored in the Mission District. They also collaborate with local composers such as Cwik, who is their first Composer In Residence. Cwik is working with the orchestra on a piece to be featured at the final performance of the 2016?2017 season. According to Cwik, the position involves a very close relationship with the orchestra. Once the piece is in rehearsal, Cwik works with Paulson as well as the players to further develop his compositions. He said that the players “are very willing to give constructive input, and they always prefer that the composer is there,” so that they are able to develop a closer bond with his music.
 
Working with Symphony Parnassus has been very influential in Cwik’s career as a composer. A few years ago, Cwik composed pieces that were performed by Symphony Parnassus, and the orchestra was able to provide him with recordings. According to Cwik, these were a major factor in his acceptance to The Julliard School, where he studied composition with John Corigliano, and graduated in 2013. Now a professor of Music Theory and Musicianship and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Cwik is “thoroughly grateful” for the opportunities Symphony Parnassus has presented him, as a local composer. This season will feature the fourth piece Cwik has composed in collaboration with Symphony Parnassus.
   
Tickets are available for the 27th season of Symphony Parnassus on its website, http://www.symphonyparnassus.org. Patrons may purchase a season subscription, or individual tickets to the performances on January 29, March 19, and June 11. The performance on January 29 will be the orchestra’s premiere performance at the Taube Atrium Theater, the new high-tech 299-seat theater on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Ave., next door to the Opera House. The performance on March 19 will be at the Herbst Theater, and the June 11 performance will be at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

 
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