Holiday Cheer at Raphael House


Raphael House is an organization founded in 1971 that helps at-risk families achieve stable housing and financial independence.

As families trickled in for the start of the program, Matt showed a young girl how to strum his viola strings. Elizabeth sat with another girl, side by side at the upright piano, creating an impromptu duet, even choreographing an ending where their hands rose up together off the keys. The quartet began with a series of holiday tunes encouraging a sing along. One surprise came in the form of Mi Burrito Sabanero for one of the ladies [she had asked at ESF’s previous visit for “Spanish songs”]. She and her entire family boisterously sang along to the music. After playing the slow movement of Schumann’s Piano Quartet, a mother with an infant in her arms said, “When you started playing, it was so beautiful it made me want to cry.” The families were invited to sign up for complimentary tickets to ESF’s season finale at Herbst Theatre April 16th. One mother excitedly shared, “That’s a few days before my son's birthday! That will be a nice way for us to celebrate.” The rousing finish was Jonah’s brand new Earth Wind and Fire arrangement of In the Stone, created for the audience at Raphael House. The holiday spirit was bright tonight and we wish the same for each of you during these final days of 2018!


Friendsgiving with ESF


Thank you to everyone that attended Opus 415’s inaugural Friendsgiving benefit at Manilatown Cultural Center in North Beach. It was a pleasure celebrating the gift of music with a reading with friends of Brahms Horn Trio and Dvorak Serenade for Strings (and one trombone with special guest Nick Platoff). Special thanks to photographer Scot Goodman!

It was a lovely venue and it made the whole experience very cozy and homey! I really enjoyed my first chamber concert experience!
-Serinna Chau

Opus 415 is the social club of ESF that fosters friendships with our audience.

Autumn Thanks

Photo credit: Alice Kao

Photo credit: Alice Kao

In the past month, there has been a flurry of fall time activity. Diving into rehearsals with pianist, Elizabeth Schumann has been a joy. She is bright and brilliant. Practice is full of laughter and hard work. It’s been a huge gift to work at her Noe Valley Schumann Music Studio. Plans are being made to record there and have a long awaited debut album available at our season finale at Herbst Theatre on April 16, 2019.

Reconnecting with old and new friends through performances at Throckmorton and SF Music Day has been energizing. Our hearts were warmed performing three outreach performances. September 17th we played for the Swindells Center for Adult Day Services, a program caring for participants living with conditions such as Alzheimer’s related dementia, Parkinson’s, and stroke. 

A woman in the front stared intently at me and we became instant smile buddies. Her enthusiasm grew and by the finale she was waving her arms, conducting the celebratory movement.

October 1st we played for 4th-6th graders at Thomas Edison Charter Academy, a public non-profit K-8 that serves low income students in the San Francisco Mission. We also played for students at De Marillac Academy, a school in the Tenderloin that unites philanthropists with low-income families to break the cycle of poverty through education. Now we are gearing up for our first annual Friendsgiving Benefit for ESF - A Chamber Music Gathering.

Seeing the different ways music moves listeners makes it very rewarding to share the gift, the gift which has given so much to each of us. Thank you for your friendship and support in all its many forms.

De Marillac Academy

De Marillac Academy

ESF Renewed

Just a few months ago, the ESF core gathered in a piano studio in Noe Valley to read Schumann. The joy was palpable. We are thrilled to announce our reentrance into the vibrant Bay Area music scene including a season finale at the historic Herbst Theater on April 16, 2019. What has ESF been up to during its hiatus? Read on to find out!

Jonah Kim

As many of you already know, my daughter was born last spring and I was blessed enough to be able to put the rest of my life on hold to focus on fatherhood for awhile. I want to start by thanking everyone for your lasting love, loyalty and steadfast support through this period. Not to worry, I have been practicing!

And teaching. Traveling and performing less has made it possible for me to dedicate more time to pedagogy and methodology. Nowadays, I am fascinated by the endless possibilities evolution reveals through the developing minds of younger generations!

Let me start by telling you about one of the highlights of my summer so far. I spent three weeks at Interlochen Center for the Arts working with young artists from all over the world. These young minds displayed tremendous potential and we developed a special bond very quickly. In my opinion, the future of classical music and the high arts in general have never been brighter.


One of my favorite analogies to use with my disciples is actually quite relatable even for people who have no musical background. Music is the closest thing to actual real life magic. Musicians send vibrations through the air and change the way people think and feel, physically, on a molecular level. Every song is a spell and every phrase affects the outcome of the spell.

This is where tradition comes into play. Certain spells are more effective when executed a certain way; these traditions are passed down from generation to generation, creating lineage and legacy, which is why going to a certain conservatory or studying with a certain teacher can be life-changing.

To get to spend our lives immersed in this world is a privilege. It forces us to live in a state of heightened awareness. Awareness of time, space, the resistance and densities of time and space, and more importantly the in betweens. The relationships and their qualities. For me, this is the greatest gift of music. It forces us to have to become better versions of ourselves.

Whether we are in line at the airport, driving through the parking lot looking for a free space, or playing a concert, what we are doing isn’t so important as how we do it. I’m convinced that art is more than a mere reflection of life. Art can be a guide to life, teaching us how to be the best possible versions of ourselves.

As I begin to perform more again, I feel I have a much deeper relationship with sound itself and the way it impacts and echoes through our lives. I am constantly working to engineer the energy of the sounds I create to emphasize sincerity and honesty, to help us all resonate at our most harmonious frequencies in all aspects of our lives.

The world is in a strange limbo right now. On one hand, we have never had more people spreading messages of love. Yet these very people are often the quickest to judge those who are not yet enlightened. Judgment leads to divisiveness, as can be expected when people feel defensive. Self-righteousness, in my opinion, is just as bad as, perhaps even worse, than ignorance.

To make a musical analogy, the world is one very large ensemble. This beautiful French word literally means ‘together’. Let’s say you don’t like the way your band mate is playing a certain lick. Compensating for their lack is the least helpful thing one can do. Instead, we must find a way to persuade them to find a better way without putting them down. Flexibility is maturity. Understanding is strength. The melody, the leader, can only phrase so much, in fact, only as much as the accompaniment allows. Honestly, the accompanying elements have far more influence over the outcome of the phrase than the melody. The same principles apply to life. Easier said than done, no doubt. But now that we are more aware, won’t you help me help us all help one another?

Presently, I find myself en route from Chicago to Festival Mozaic in the beautiful central coast of my home state California. I feel so very blessed to live this life, to have been born after Mr. Brahms, and especially blessed to get to share it with all of you. I so appreciate your ears and look forward to sharing song with you soon.

Moni Simeonov

I have kept busy performing. I played Chausson's Poeme and Ravel's Tzigane in two concerts with the Holland Symphony (MI). I also played a concerto with the CSU Long Beach Symphony. Performing in front of my students is always a challenge since I'm held to the highest standards - the ones I impose to my students. The Classic FM Symphony invited me to collaborate with the new concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic in a concert this season as well. Each of us played two solo pieces and then partnered up for the second half of the concert. The concert was broadcast live on TV. I have also assumed the position of Concertmaster for the newly formed Genesis Orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's a great excuse to go back home. The orchestra comprises Bulgarian musicians who live and work outside of Bulgaria and organizes 5 sold-out concerts per season. Because of its popularity, I have become a frequent guest of Bulgarian talk shows. 

I also spent a very busy week in Sri Lanka, performing and teaching alongside Midori. We visited communities throughout the island and performed over 20 times in one week. The final concert was recorded for TV and was attended by the prime minister. We also worked with schools for children and facilities for people with disabilities. 


Rebecca and I traveled to Beirut, which has become one of my favorite musical activities. Besides the mainstage concert, we traveled to a Syrian and Palestinian refugee camp and performed for the residents, but Rebecca has a much more detailed narrative on the topic.

I attended the Lake George Music Festival as a concertmaster of the orchestra, and one of our chamber performances is often featured on NPR. 

In the realm of the commercial scene (I live in LA, after all), I have had some fun as well. I arranged a few songs for British band Bastille (you may know them from the soundtrack for Will Smith's Netflix original "Bright") and recorded the music, as well as the music video with three of my students. The songs have accumulated more than 5 million views in just a few months. I can confidently say that this is the most anyone will ever watch me play the violin. I also recorded for a few HBO productions and contracted a string group for Showtime's Versace. 

I am also nearly finished with a publishing project, very meaningful to me. I look forward to putting the final touches and sending it into the world. 

Rebecca Jackson

I traveled with Moni to Beirut for one of the most unforgettable concerts of my life. It all began with instruction from American filmmaker and photographer Alejandro Gomez-Meade: “Here’s the location to tell your Uber or taxi. With lots of bright smiles and handshakes, we met Alejandro along with his fiancé Elisa Volpi Spagnolini (an Italian working for a small NGO) and our escort, a third generation Palestinian refugee from Shatila camp, Ahmad Halabi. We followed Ahmad across the street, up some steps and along the side of the structure. We walked through narrow alleyways, zig-zagging left and right. We picked our spot, one area where 3 alleys met. It was dimly lit, but a man jiggled some wires (yikes, there are lots of wires!) and like magic, there was light. In order to allow for passing foot traffic, the string trio had to get creative with spacing. Elisa had carried a small white stool for Ani to sit on. Ani and Moni were next to one alley and across from them I was beside a steep stairwell. We had received permission from the leader of the camp, but the residents had no idea we would be playing. As we began to play, a crowd formed. Alejandro remarked that in his one year living and working in the camps, during our concert he witnessed for the first time Palestinian, Syrian and Bangladeshi refugees standing together. High level diplomacy, international accords, formidable financial investment, peace keeping forces and altruistic volunteer efforts have all been tried in this war torn region over many painful decades. Music, this day, proved an incredibly powerful harmonizing influence. Listening, learning and connecting with Ahmad, Alejandro and Elisa, I realized something. In anticipation of this performance, I admittedly became anxious. I recognized the feeling which was similar to the one leading up to my first performance in juvenile hall. Despite all my travels, these were environments that felt especially foreign. I questioned how our gift of music could connect or seem relevant to the listeners. I am again reminded that despite seemingly endless complexity and tragedy in the world, the bottom line is that we are all humans with common aspirations. We share a desire for connection, belonging, significance and I think, most of all, love. After today I am thankful for so many things. One of those things is for the mighty gift of music to be a shared experience with people from all walks, from grand concert halls of San Francisco to an alleyway in Said Gawash.


Matt Young

I've been busy with my main gig playing viola in the SF Symphony, teaching, volunteering, and generally trying to keep up with the pace and quality of city living.

My teaching has been picking up and I had a student just win a tenure track position with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I'm so honored to get to work with such a talent. I really love sharing my instrumental and musical ideas, it activates a different part of my brain. Also because many of these ideas I gleaned from my own mentors too! I remember thinking that without the right words at the right time, it wouldn't matter how many thousands of hours I've practiced, no one can truly pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we all need help sometimes. We, as artists, are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of knowledge and are the current caretakers of these ideas, hopefully taking them forward.

Along those lines of being the current caretakers of centuries old intellectual property, I'd love to talk about my viola for a second. It was made in 1772 by Vincenzo Panormo and was played in the London Symphony for the 46 years preceding it finding me in 2014. The reason that's on my mind right now is that the LSO did the original soundtrack for Star Wars movies, and this very week the San Francisco Symphony is playing the Star Wars score while the film is being projected above us! So it is really fun for me that my viola did this in 1977 or so in London, and now I get to revisit the same score again tonight, and for the next three weeks...... I'm very disappointed that the viola didn't play the notes by itself though, I had to relearn them for the viola. Maybe I should send it back? Just kidding I love this viola.

Less than a week ago I performed in the SF Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. It was a real treat to see hundreds of people turn out, not for me, but for Flower Piano, an installation of several pianos throughout the garden. What a San Francisco day! Open air with wind and fog makes for a non-acoustic, but I got to play some favorite tunes for some favorite friends and neighbors in one of my favorite places. I need to practice more though, it was my first solo performance in a couple years I think?! 


Another musical connection on my mind is the newest addition to ESF personnel, Elizabeth Schumann! We used to occupy the basement of the Cleveland Institute of Music to practice for our weekly lessons and chamber music, it was a very intense and formative time. Elizabeth was one of the stars of the piano performance program there with the now legendary pedagogue Sergei Babayan, and I couldn't be more excited to make music with her. I do feel that's closing a musical loop in my life and can't wait to see the artistic sparks fly on and offstage in concerts and in rehearsal. 

From the beginnings of ESF, our outreach to audiences who can't come to us is what defines a major interest in the why of ESF. The how of ESF is easy, I get to play with people who lift me up musically, and from whom I learn so much and enjoy interacting with. That part is just fun. But the why of ESF, I think that's where we are versatile and nimble. We play at Juvenile Hall in Santa Cruz Co, SF County, the VA Hospital, Institute on aging, UCSF, the LGBT Center on Market St, we have done fundraisers for refugees, public school music education, teacher benefits, the DeMarillac Academy in the Tenderloin, and so many things I can't even remember! But for me to get off the stage and into places that won't hear this kind of music otherwise is something that feels great on a human level, something that can be more meaningful than a staged performance. Sometimes you see some audience members dozing off but then you'll see the ones on the edge of their chair, ugly crying, or accessing something that you are tangentially a part of, and it makes all of these donated hours truly rewarding.

I can't wait to get out there again and learn about myself and how to connect through music.




Opus 415

by Maria Karpenko

From "hello" to a chamber music club and more

A serendipitous “hello”

I enrolled in writing courses at Stanford University to test my potential as a writer in 2008. I had just graduated with a B.Sc. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Waterloo and was considering medical illustration or science journalism as the next step.

I was in California for the first time and didn't know anyone. So I picked up conversations wherever the opportunity came up, connecting with classmates, potential tennis partners, and arts lovers. I spent a lot of time at the Stanford Coffee House (CoHo) and that’s where I heard Christine McLeavey-Payne play the piano for the first time. I had no idea that muscling up the courage to say “hello” that time would blossom into a long-term friendship and eventually land me my first Board of Directors seat.

How Opus 415 started

With degrees from Princeton University and the Juilliard School of music under her belt, Christine was working on an MD/PhD at Stanford University at the time. I visited the Bay Area every couple years before I moved in 2014. Over the years, I got to know Christine as a talented and inspiring musician and she got to know me as someone who enjoyed entertaining and bringing people together around the arts. 

The idea to collaborate occurred to us at one of Christine’s house concerts. We co-hosted the Strawberry Social in June 2012. Over 50 PhDs, entrepreneurs, and creatives gathered for chamber music served up with strawberry-themed appetizers, desserts, and drinks. Christine co-founded Ensemble San Francisco (ESF) with clarinetist Roman Fukshansky in early 2013. Soon thereafter, violinist Rebecca Jackson suggested starting a chamber music club. That’s how Opus 415 started (4-1-5 is one of San Francisco’s area codes).

What is Opus 415?

ESF won over the hearts of many guests at its inaugural Opus 415 chamber music party, Jingle & Mingle, in December 2014. I had the pleasure of opening my home to ESF/Opus 415 musicians and everyone eager to hear them play and savour sparkling wine and delicious bites for Bach & Bubbly in January 2015. For the 2016 holiday season, we decided to gather to heal smiles worldwide by supporting Operation Smile with a Chamber Music Party to Benefit Operation Smile.

I’m excited to continue to work with ESF to develop Opus 415 into a thriving chamber music club in Silicon Valley. The concept is to make chamber music accessible and interesting to a modern audience with various levels of exposure to classical music. Musicologist Kai Christensen, guest speakers, board members, and ESF musicians provide relevant information to all musical pieces. Opus 415 is a place to enjoy quality chamber music in an intimate, relaxed, and social setting.

Join the Opus 415 community!

I’m so glad I said “hello” all those years ago. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the musicians, bringing people together, and making classical music a vibrant part of my life. I encourage you to join ESF at a main stage or outreach concert and bring a couple friends to an Opus 415 chamber music party - come say “hello”!

"Like" the Ensemble San Francisco Facebook page to stay in the loop.


Musically yours,

Maria Karpenko ~ Board Member, Ensemble San Francisco


About me

I’m tremendously grateful to my parents for a "renaissance" upbringing and their encouragement and support of all my creative pursuits. I was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to Germany at the age of 6 and to Canada at the age of 14. I started painting oil-on-canvas at the age of 9 and had my first exhibition at the age of 10, selling many paintings and making waves in local newspapers. In high school, I took up piano and dance lessons and got into fashion design and creative writing. Yet, I decided to formally study how two cells turn into 37.2 trillion cells and work cohesively together, making imagination and innovation possible. In the first year of undergraduate studies, I picked up graphic design and tennis and made it onto the varsity team in third year. Around the same time, I started looking for a creative angle to science. This led me to Stanford University for writing courses and then a Masters of Journalism at Harvard University. Fast forward and I’m back in Silicon Valley, leading marketing and design at a Stanford-StartX healthcare software startup.

Old and New: April 3 & 9

April 2016 ESF concludes its MainStage series with an epic program including Brahms Clarinet Quintet, Mozart Horn Quintet, and a new Sextet by Sheridan Seyfried. 

  • Sunday April 3, 6:30pm at Valley Presbyterian in Portola Valley
  • Saturday April 9, 5:00pm at St. Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco

Kevin Rivard, Rebecca Jackson, Moni Simeonov, Matt Young, Jonah Kim, and Christine McLeavey Payne will be joined by guests clarinetist Jose Gonzalez Granero and violist Joy Fellows. Read on to learn more about these seminal works from Kai Christiansen. 

This concert is made possible through a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.

The ESF Piano Quintet reunites in April! Left to Right: Matt, Christine, Rebecca, Jonah, Moni

The ESF Piano Quintet reunites in April! Left to Right: Matt, Christine, Rebecca, Jonah, Moni

Kevin Rivard 

Kevin Rivard 

Jose Gonzalez Granero 

Jose Gonzalez Granero 

Joy Fellows

Joy Fellows

Brahms, Clarinet Quintet

Early in 1891, supposedly retired, Brahms became intoxicated by the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld and was inspired by this fresh muse to compose once again. Between 1891 and 1894, Brahms composed a clutch of four final chamber works featuring the clarinet: a trio, a quintet and two sonatas in that order. These are positively magical works. Mellow, melancholy, warmly nostalgic and fleetingly dire, the music perfectly exploits each of these signature characteristics of the colorful clarinet for a composite mood that has often been called “autumnal.”

The first movement is a lengthy sonata of sweeping breadth where the initial theme appears in several closely related variations throughout with vivid contrasts between the powerful string ensemble and the intimate charm of the vulnerable clarinet.

The otherworldly adagio is undeniably the center of the quintet. A languid nocturne softly dreams of a warm summer night with a muted sheen of strings and the clear reedy bell of the clarinet sustaining long, quiet tones. The reverie all too soon gives way by to a much darker mood full of tension, protest, even despair. The clarinet takes center stage here with its full tonal and expressive range pushed to the edge of piercing stridency. Eventually, the mood shifts back again to the calm nocturne.

Brahms concludes the work with two much shorter movements that almost bind together into a single continuum. The third movement initially comes as a surprise; instead of a lively scherzo, one finds a moderately paced song, a vintage Brahms melody. This is a framing device that serves to introduce and conclude a lively scherzo nestled within. The finale is a theme and five variations where Brahms will eventually recollect the beginning: the first theme from the opening movement returns, perfectly dovetailing with the stream of variations. Despite all the ample warmth, the sweetly sorrowful nostalgia, the intimate and friendly tone of the clarinet, Brahms ends the quintet with a single, sobering chord: just beyond the warm Indian summer he seems to anticipate winter’s chill.

Mozart, Horn Quintet

Mozart wrote his horn quintet in 1782 for Ignaz Leutgeb, a horn player in the Salzburg orchestra who also inspired Mozart’s four horn concertos. The entire personality of the quintet is influenced by the horn, not only by its presence but also by the motifs and harmonies that so naturally, even affectionately, highlight its essence. (For rich variety of primary intervals, chord inversions, pedals and blending, this is an ingenious and supremely musical study). A work of grace and balance, it nonetheless demands much of the horn player to achieve an effortless effect, particularly if played on the valve-less “natural” horn of Mozart’s time.

The work is curiously scored for two violas rather than two violins. With the weight shifted to the lower voices, the horn enjoys a more kindred, warm accompaniment. In addition, the single violin becomes more prominent. The quintet might be considered closer to a concerto than a chamber work of equal players, but if so, the concertante ensemble that includes the violin as well. Much of the texture features the interplay of the violin and the horn against the backdrop of the lower strings. Upon attentive listening, the quintet reveals a constantly shifting texture featuring different sub-groupings: the string quartet and the horn, the violin and the horn, the pairing of the horn and the cello, and the string quartet alone.

The quintet has three movements. The first movement sonata features the antiphony between violin and horn. As is often the case with Mozart, it is the development in the recapitulation that is just as interesting than the development section itself. The return of the opening material is treated to delightful elaboration with elongated phrases, richer lines and a refreshing key change. The second movement is literally the heart of the work: it is a sweet and even longing andante with the truest chamber textures in the work in the full range of shifting alliances. The final movement restores the bright mood with a lively rondo, playful but always elegant. Its last episode and rondo refrain satisfy any want of chamber texture with excellent part writing including the final bow of each instrument in five-part imitation for a witty close.

-Program notes by musicologist Kai Christiansen

 Seyfried, Sheridan Sextet

The Sextet is a spirited piece that embraces a range of stylistic influences, including Beethoven, rock and roll, the blues and bluegrass. It uses a standard three movement fast-slow-fast pattern. The last thing I composed was the introduction to the first movement—writing an effective introduction is easier when you know where you’re going! The dark but highly energetic first movement is contrasted with a singing and lyrical second movement. This movement is the heart of the work. It features the interplay of melancholy music (clarinet and strings) and more hopeful music (piano and strings). The tension between the two forces (and instrumentations) is only resolved at the end of the movement. The drama gives way to an exuberant, joyous finale.

-Program note by Sheridan Seyfried


World Premiere Fall 2016

Through the generosity of Stanford Alum, David Kaun, ESF has commissioned award-winning Jose Gonzalez Granero to compose a triple concerto that will be premiered with Stanford Philharmonia, conducted by Anna Wittstruck at Bing Hall on Saturday November 12, 2016 at 7:30pm.

Music in May 2014/Photo by Scot Goodman

Music in May 2014/Photo by Scot Goodman

Above: Jose Gonzalez Granero introduces his String Quartet No. 1 at its premiere performance in May 2014. David Kaun was in attendance and it was that evening that the idea of the commission was first born. Read on to learn more about this project from interviews with David Kaun (DK) and Jose Gonzalez Granero (JGG).

David Kaun, UCSC Economics Professor & Philanthropist/Photo by Shmuel Thaler

David Kaun, UCSC Economics Professor & Philanthropist/Photo by Shmuel Thaler

You have been a huge part of bringing many new works to life. How did you get into this arena? Why is this something that excites you?

DK: I started taking clarinet lessons at the age of 9, and from then on music and sports have been an essential part of my life. Fortunately I can still play the clarinet, but football only vicariously via TV now (and as of late, Stanford has kept me smiling). I'm not sure when I got "hooked" on this commission idea... interestingly, I think it was when I sponsored the Turtle Island Quartet for a Stanford Concert. In conversation with David Balakrishnan, the idea of commissioning a piece just came to me. I've been fortunate in being able to continue this great pleasure. And as an amateur musician, this turns out to be a way for me to be a "professional" as well, via the talents of the group now on stage.

What is your personal connection to this project and the significance of this commission?

DK: As a graduate student here, I had the good fortune of playing in the Stanford Orchestra under the direction of a truly amazing conductor and human being, Sandor Salgo. Blend this with what I'd just said above and support and this evening's piece in this local is, as they say, a no brainer.

Jose Gonzalez Granero

Jose Gonzalez Granero

You are a primarily a clarinetist. How did you get into composing? 

JGG: I have always been interested in composing and I wrote off and on since I was a teenager. I always considered it a hobby, focusing primarily on the clarinet. After getting the San Francisco Opera job, my desire for composing grew and I decided to take it more seriously. I received a commission from Music in May to compose a string quartet and after that experience I was more driven to compose than ever before. I started taking private composition lessons.

How is being a composer different from being a clarinetist?

JGG: I feel composing is solitary. You sit in front of the piano and computer for hours just imagining how the piece would sound. There is not much interaction. Being a clarinetist, especially for an orchestra, involves working with other musicians, a conductor, singers, etc.

What is your personal connection to this project? 

JGG: My personal connection to this project is being able to work with the ESF musicians whom I admire profoundly. I have composed music for them in the past and I couldn't ask for better musicianship and level for my music.

Is this project unique from any other piece you have composed?

This commission is the most challenging piece I've written so far. I am very excited about it. After all the work, it will be great hearing this new piece come alive in Bing Hall!

For more information about Jose, visit his WEBSITE.

Premiere of Jose's String Quartet No. 1, "Noche Del Amor Insomne"

Chamber Music Deconstructed by Kai

Kai Christiansen is a musicologist and founder of Known for his engaging and passionate delivery, he is a sought after lecturer for many of the Bay Area's premier chamber music series. ESF is fortunate to have Kai a part of many of our events!

Kai Christiansen talks about Ravel Trio at an ESF concert, 2015/Photo: Scot Goodman

Kai Christiansen talks about Ravel Trio at an ESF concert, 2015/Photo: Scot Goodman

by Kai Christiansen

I have obsessively loved music all my life. I have explored many genres in great depth but have now come to spend most of my time with my favorite: classical chamber music. Let me share a few thoughts about it.

I start with the word “classical” because that immediately helps define the genre to most of us even with a very casual sense of musical culture.  To me, classical means a kind of “long form”, foreground music composed for a traditional palette of acoustic instruments primarily distinguished by the string family (violin, viola, cello and bass), colored by woodwinds, brass and reeds, and frequently incorporating the comprehensive expanse of the modern grand piano, in the case of each instrument, exploiting its full, virtuosic potential.

The classical canon, or repertoire, features the familiar, historical composers you likely know about (Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms . . .) as well as living composers still writing today. It is not a dead museum relic; quite the opposite. The idea of “long form” music just means a typical “piece” of classical music lasts between 20 and 40 minutes typically divided into multiple “tracks” called movements. In the modern world where one is constantly bombarded by an ever-changing sea of multi-media snippets, the capacity to concentrate on this long form is severely challenged. But, ultimately, this is music to be experienced in the foreground as the main attraction: no distractions, conversation, attendant activity, dancing, singing, acting, religious ritual or whatever. It is like watching a movie except you are listening with your ears. (Mobile phones OFF please.)

That classical chamber music tends to be predominantly instrumental and “merely” sensual—non-verbal, non-visual and essentially “abstract” without being illustrative or having any real “meaning” other that its own sonic existence—makes it all the more mysterious, magical and miraculous. It comprises a unique human experience.

Within this admittedly broad history, tradition and style of classical music lay a particularly intimate and intense sub-genre called “chamber music.”  Chamber music is simply classical music for a small group of players, typically two to six. Unlike the more popular classical music featuring a large symphony orchestra or, at the opposite end, a single, solo pianist, chamber music gathers just a few musicians where each individual instrument has its own completely vivid role within a very fine balance of intimate, highly interactive collaboration.  The music is clear, finely etched and meticulously crafted to highlight all the beauty and richly expressive nuance of each instrument as they combine into an elegantly integrated composite creating patterns, textures, forms and narratives of unparalleled artistic excellence. As with all music, at its core is a delicious and often profound emotional experience.

All the great composers wrote chamber music (Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms . . .), and some might argue that their chamber music is their finest music of any kind. As a genre and tradition, chamber music seems to draw the very best from its composers who often turn to it for their most personal, passionate and intellectually stimulating creations. Nonetheless, chamber music tends to be overshadowed by orchestral music, and classical music in general by far more popular forms. To the typical musical lover, it is largely if not totally hidden from view. Even a brief exposure does not do it justice: like any worthy musical genre of distinction, chamber music is rich and deep and offers much to explore, needing some time to get to know, to “open up.” As with tasting wine or respectfully pursuing a martial art, cultivation leads to greater capacity and ever-deeper satisfaction.

Fiercely dopting a quest to plumb the depths of this art for myself and to take on a mission of passionately sharing this extraordinary music with others, I chose to become a musicologist, meaning, I write and lecture about chamber music doing whatever I can to promote and highlight the genre. In the process, I have created a website that I call “the chamber music exploratorium” at Here, I have combined my skills as a professional software engineer with my love and knowledge of chamber music in an effort to give chamber music a “first-class” presence on the high-tech communication medium of our time: the web. In the end, however, it is all intended as a vehicle to take you right to the heart of the chamber music experience: a live performance right before your very ears.  

This brings me to the Ensemble San Francisco. I first met Rebecca Jackson, one of its founding members, in a bar in the mission district.  It’s not like it sounds: she and I were both at the Revolution Café hearing chamber music and started chatting about our shared interest. Ever since, I have worked with Rebecca for several seasons of her fabulous Music in May festival in Santa Cruz, and that has led to several collaborations with Ensemble San Francisco. I am an avid fan and admirer of ESF and welcome any opportunity to be part of their various wonderful enterprises. In particular, I enjoy their fresh ideas for making chamber music more accessible through creative programming, alternative venues, a flexible stable of musicians with a variety of instrumentation and their consistently outstanding musicianship.

ESF teamwork on display! Kai not only shared his insights at an ESF holiday chamber party, he also helped turn Jonah's pages.

ESF teamwork on display! Kai not only shared his insights at an ESF holiday chamber party, he also helped turn Jonah's pages.

This last point regarding musicianship and chamber music (and classical music in general) is worth emphasizing. Chamber music is, on one hand, “portable” music with great appeal for amateur performers in relaxed, domestic settings: it reflects the finest traditions of people making music for themselves and their friends. But the great chamber music masterworks make extraordinary demands on the musicians and have, since the time of Beethoven, been composed for the finest of professional players. The difference between an “average” and a stellar performance is vast and the best of chamber music demands truly great musicians who frankly need to leverage innate talent, passionate drive and years of disciplined practice and study to reach a state of professional capability and refinement. Ensemble San Francisco has consistently offered excellent live musical performances of the highest caliber and, as such, offers the finest way to experience this art of chamber music. As a vibrant and vital ensemble active and accessible in my very neighborhood, I applaud ESF for keeping chamber music alive in my life and dream with hope and excitement about how they will share this very special music with all of you too.