Music Director and Conductor of the Stockton Symphony and Folsom Lake Symphony
Q: When did your passion for music begin?
A: My parents introduced me to popular music, folk, jazz, rock, and the classics. My mom taught me how to read the notes. My dad brought home a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. There wasn’t a separation between classical music and popular music for me. Back then we had transistor radios and I loved listening to the Supremes, James Brown, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Iron Butterfly, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. There was an amazing spectrum of popular music at the time. To this day, that’s why I enjoy conducting pop concerts as well as classical concerts.
Q: What’s your primary instrument?
A: My parents thought it would really be great if I would play an ensemble instrument. I was playing the piano and didn’t want to switch, but they suggested that I give the violin a try for six months. If I didn’t like it, back to piano. Well, after playing it for six months, my major instrument became the violin.
Q: How did you come to choose College Prep as your
A: I think what I was looking for was a place where not only the teachers really cared, but where the students really cared, too. That’s what I really liked about CPS. We really cared. I’d already made the connection to music, playing in the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, so the fact that CPS’s music program didn’t have an enormous chorus or an enormous orchestra wasn’t a drawback. CPS had everything else that one could really want—not just to be a serious student, but to be engaged and nurtured. I had fun, too. I didn’t mind the fact that it was amazingly small at the time.
Q: In what ways do you think College Prep prepared you for a career in music?
A: I always felt really comfortable with math and music, but my English and history professors were really demanding and those subjects were a little bit out of my comfort zone—they would force me to write papers. Back then there was no correcting ribbon. No word processor. They would insist that I think cogently and turn in good papers. The school really imprinted substance and rigor on me and you could apply that to any field—music, neuroscience, astronomy—to help you be more successful at whatever you wanted to become.
Q: How did you become a symphony conductor?
A: During a summer at Tanglewood after I graduated from Oberlin College, I auditioned for a Canadian orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was back then called the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. It was my first professional job. I was hired as the third chair, but the group was undergoing labor negotiations. The first two players decided they didn’t want to be part of this unstable situation. So all of a sudden, there’s this kid fresh out of college, me, and I’m promoted to acting concertmaster with a whole section behind me, most of whom could have been my parents’ age. Halfway through the year, Andor Toth—my violin teacher from Oberlin, who had moved to Stanford to conduct their Symphony—asked me if I wanted to be one of his teaching assistants. A little voice in my head said, Okay, maybe this is for me. Up to that point, every time I’d come home from a rehearsal, I’d want to go to the piano and duplicate the whole orchestra. It felt like it wasn’t enough that I was just playing my own part. Toth was an amazing teacher, full of Hungarian fire, and the opportunities with him were actually going to be better than I would ever get at Juilliard or the Curtis Institute of Music. That was the moment I decided to go into conducting.
Q: In what ways have the symphonies you work for innovated during the pandemic?
A: Until very recently, I was actually conducting three orchestras: the Auburn Symphony, the Folsom Lake Symphony, and the Stockton Symphony, and with all three of those orchestras, we were doing mosaic performances (large Zooms with individual musicians playing in each square). [Jaffe recently retired from Auburn; he’s still going strong in Stockton and Folsom.] Then we were making documentaries blending live audience Zoom sessions with some pre-produced material. For the Stockton Symphony, we also put on series of small ensemble performances called Meet the Players and Gatherings, where a quartet or a quintet plays for a small, safe, socially distanced audience. We’ve been trying to view this time as an opportunity for experimentation.
Q: What does reopening the symphony doors look like at this moment in time?
A: We used to advertise an entire season, which is similar to an academic calendar. Now we’ve decided we’ll just advertise a fall season [which has since begun], and then when we’re ready, a spring season. And that way, we’re not eroding trust in our subscribers, and we’re keeping in touch with them. What’s been really heartwarming during this whole time is that the philanthropic dollars continue to come in from people who really love the symphony. That’s really helped us stay alive.
Q: What do you think is the key to keeping the passion for classical music alive among young people?
A: If anyone knew the answer, that would be the golden ticket! Engaging young people is harder than ever because of the sidelining of music in the national educational curriculum—so much has to do with exposure. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein would go on black and white TV and have educational concerts broadcast nationwide, it wasn’t as if the entire population or 200 million people became symphony subscribers. But that, plus the experience students got in school, was enough to move the needle. We don’t have that exposure now, so it’s easy to regard us just as being elitist. There are ways we try to connect with young people: we can feature young soloists and play repertoire that’s connected to what they like to listen to—the performance makes them feel something—that’s how you get them started. It’s not the magic bullet. It’s not like we’ve cured the sustainability problem for orchestras, but we keep thinking about the question you asked all the time.
Q: How do classical musicians make a living within the orchestral world?
A: Playing in a professional orchestra, the competition is fierce. I have some friends who have committed themselves to being on the audition circuit for seven years, and they finally land that magic full-time job. There is only a handful of full-time salaried, professional orchestras in the country. Musicians get into what we call the “Freeway Philharmonic” where you start juggling the schedules of two, three, four . . . I even have one player who is in seven of these different orchestras. You drive all around the freeway and juggle the schedules. These musicians cobble together their living at a very high level of artistic excellence by doing a lot of driving and showing up for different rehearsals and performances.
Q: What pieces are you currently working on?
A: In January, we’re going to start off with a piece by Chen Yi, a Chinese composer—she has written a piece called Sprout. In February, we’re offering a program with a mariachi band and Ballet Folklórico. In May we’re featuring astronaut José Hernández—he’s going to tell his life story, and we’re going to play a little bit of Star Trek. This coming April, I’m collaborating with somebody I’ve known for decades, Victoria Bond—she’s both a composer and a conductor. She is composing for us a narrational piece inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so it’ll have words of the famous Supreme Court Justice spoken while the orchestra is playing. We have a great tradition of launching premieres—in 2009 we presented Ansel Adams: America, co-composed by Dave and Chris Brubeck. While the symphony was playing, you saw over a hundred photographs by Ansel Adams.
Q: What advice do you give students who are interested in making classical music their career?
A: The advice that I would give anybody is, be prepared to do what CPS teaches you, which is that no matter what you do, you’re going to have to work really hard! Maintain a standard and shoot for the moon. There’s never a ceiling and you can always do better. Most important is to do what you love.