Portola Valley pianist's Ensemble San Francisco performs Sunday

Striving for a connected world -- no high-tech needed

Concert: Ensemble San Francisco performs at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 26, at Christ Church, 815 Portola Road in Portola Valley. Tickets ($25 for general admission and $15 for seniors and students) may be purchased at EnsembleSanFrancisco.com or by calling (415) 758-0373.

By Renee Batti | Almanac Associate Editor

We live in a connected world. Or so the sloganeers tell us. But what standard do we apply when we speak of our connection with the world and with other people? The Internet? Our smartphones?

Portola Valley resident Christine McLeavey Payne and her colleagues in Ensemble San Francisco, which she co-founded, aim to connect with others in an entirely different way, no wireless accouterments or tech savvy needed. For the last 18 months, the musicians have taken their instruments and considerable talent out into the community -- into hospitals, juvenile hall, schools, nursing homes and private homes. Even to a modern-day emblem of "connection" -- Facebook in Menlo Park.

Made up of nine fresh-faced players -- some of whom are also members of the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet and Opera orchestras -- the ensemble is also on a mission to return to the original concept of chamber music, composed for smaller ensembles and often performed in homes and other less formal settings.

As violinist Rebecca Jackson puts it, the group is trying to break through the stereotype of "boring" classical music that confines you to a concert hall seat, fearful of breaking the rules by applauding at the wrong moment or dropping your program during the solemn pianissimo passage. While "never compromising on the high level of playing," she says, "we're trying to be modern, but trying to go back to old ways" of sharing music they love, in more intimate and comfortable settings.

Ms. Payne, who is the ensemble's pianist and leader, notes: "We're very respectful of the music, but we're just not respectful of the rules that don't affect the music. I'd be happy to have people dancing in the aisles."

In its short history, the ensemble has created the environment to do just that. In one concert, guest artist Tamara Mudarra of San Jose Ballet danced during a tango performed by Ms. Payne and cellist Jonah Kim. The concert ended with a piece called "Armando's Rhumba," and Ms. Mudarra danced with audience members, Ms. Jackson recalls.

Ensemble San Francisco has engaged local audiences with its energetic style of music-making on several occasions, including four house concerts in Portola Valley and Atherton, and a January performance at Valley Presbyterian Church.

On Sunday, April 26, the ensemble will perform music by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Barber and Tchaikovsky at Christ Church in Portola Valley.

In addition to Ms. Payne, Ms. Jackson and Mr. Kim, ensemble players include co-founder and clarinetist Roman Fukshansky, violinist Moni Simeonov, violist Matt Young, oboist Mingjia Liu, hornist Kevin Rivard, and bassoonist Rufus Olivier.

Changing the dynamics

During an afternoon interview at Konditorei coffeehouse in Ladera, Ms. Payne and Ms. Jackson spoke of their vision for the ensemble, and their hopes for "changing the face" of chamber music, particularly in the eyes of younger people who may be intimidated by classical music.

Whether in a small concert hall, such as at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, or in private homes, there's more interaction between audience and players during their performances, creating a new dynamic in a musical tradition often viewed as staid and, for listeners, passive. Ms. Payne says each piece is introduced before being played. "Sometimes we'll talk about why we fell in love with the piece."

The ensemble's official debut concert was at the Conservatory in October 2013, and the group has returned several times since. The ensemble experimented last year during a concert there, inviting audience members to text questions to a designated member between pieces. The response was overwhelming, Ms. Payne said.

Another Conservatory concert had a Parisian theme, and the ensemble began Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" in the dark. The lights gradually turned on as the music, signifying the beginning of the world, began. The ensemble ended the concert with a "Piaf Potpourri" -- an arrangement by cellist Jonah Kim of Edith Piaf songs.

The program reflected the musicians' trademark style of creating a less formal environment for their music and allowing more spontaneity in response on the part of players and audience.

During the interview, Ms. Jackson speaks about a 3-year-old girl who sat enthralled during an ensemble concert at UCSF earlier that day. "I look at these kids (who show up at performances) and remember what drew me to music to begin with," she says. "We genuinely love to play music, and also to hang out and be together. ... I think we are trying to tap into our 3-year-old selves ... when we fell in love with music. We're tapping into that energy."

In addition to outreach concerts, the ensemble connects with the community by nurturing younger musicians. It recently sponsored a pre-college student competition, and the winning students will perform in next Sunday's concert in Portola Valley, as well as one the night before in San Francisco. The winners include cellist Elena Ariza, who is a student at Menlo School.

Opus 415

The ensemble last fall launched another enterprise, called Opus 415, that focuses on smaller, more social performances in people's homes. Maria and Kate Karpenko, sisters who live in Atheron, are helping out with developing the program, which is still in an experimental phase, Ms. Payne says.

The Karpenkos are young women "who are enthusiastic about sharing their love of music and the arts with other young professionals," Ms. Payne says. "We generally perform a 45-minute concert, introducing each piece and also answering audience questions informally, and then the rest of the evening is people mingling, sometimes playing music informally in the background."

Ms. Payne says her eagerness to introduce people outside the arts world to the pleasures of music stems in part from having been a part of the scientific community at one time. A Juilliard-trained pianist and a prizewinner at the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition, Ms. Payne also graduated from Princeton University as valedictorian with a degree in physics.

The house and small-venue performances are all part of the musicians' efforts on behalf of creating a flesh-and-blood community. "As connected as we are through the Internet, a lot of us feel a disconnect," Ms. Jackson says. "So much of our days are spent at a computer or on a smartphone.

"One of our goals is to help people reconnect -- to build a community based on personal interactions, and to break down the barrier between audience and performer. We like to hang out with our audience post-show, and to feel like we're all connected through music."

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2 people like this
Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Apr 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm

The concert at Christ Church (which I attend) was outstanding. It started with Samuel Barber's Sonata for Cello and Piano Opus 6 (Web Link) which Jonah Kim started with sonorous strokes. Its haunting tunes went on to the brilliant third movement - Allegro Appassionato - as Kim's vivacious, appropriately passionate playing was brilliantly accompanied by Christine Payne.

For Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-Flat Opus 47 (Web Link), Jessica Chang (educated at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music and now at Dropbox) introduced the piece. Pianist Leyla Kabuli was remarkable for a 10th grade student and San Francisco Symphony player, Elina Lev, joined Kim on cello.

Over brownies and cookies, concert attendees discussed the music in the interval.

Playing resumed with the delightful Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor Opus 49 by Mendelssohn (Web Link). I was reminded how relaxing Mendelssohn's music can be, when played by relaxed players. Christine Payne on piano joined Elina Lev (violin) and Jonah Kim (cello) and played the rippling accompaniment with incredible fluidity. The string melodies were echoed precisely by the perfectly synchronized trio. I practised piano from my old copy of Mendelssohn's Song Without Words the next day - it was a remarkably inspiring performance.

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's String Sextet in D Minor Opus 70, "Souvenir de Florence" (Web Link) which has one spirited movement for two violins, two violas and two cellos. Youth talent was showcased with vibrant playing from cellist Elena Ariza, a junior at Menlo Upper School, and violist Deanna Badizadegan, a Stanford Management Science student.

The vivacious playing deserves a larger audience - including the players and helpers there were about 50 at Christ Church. Next time the group plays locally it would be great to include children who are starting out on the piano or stringed instruments as they will surely be inspired.

Thank you for this great article and thank you to all in Ensemble San Francisco. Save the date June 14th for the next Portola Valley appearance of these extraordinarily talented artists.

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