It seems the diaspora of SFCM alumni, in a period of just a few short years, have risen to and conquered the challenge of playing with some of the world’s top ensembles as orchestras across North America have recently seen a number of musicians who have studied at the Conservatory join their ranks. Students who majored in strings, especially, have been hired by high-profile orchestras as section players and principals.
Violinists Ani Bukujian ’18, Maria van der Sloot ’19, Douglas Kwon ’15, Joshua Peters ’15, Cassandra Bequary ’12, and Jing Zheng ’13 have all won jobs in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and Houston Symphony, respectively. (Bukujian and Peters won the principal and assistant principal positions in the 2nd Violin sections of their respective orchestras.) Violists Meredith Kufchak ’16 and Linda Numagami ’18 also won spots in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. (Kufchak also won a second position with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.)
SFCM faculty member Ian Swensen is quick to point out that most of these students went through the Conservatory’s highly collaborative chamber music program. Students who enter that track are opened up to a host of performance opportunities unparalleled among music schools.
“The [chamber music] group as a whole is extremely self-motivated and independent,” says Swensen. “They’ve played with a lot of guest artists and with faculty. They’ve also worked with each other a lot, basically running the gamut of all the different people to work with. It’s a very intensive forum.”
The opportunity to perform with those great artists is a boon for those students, as well. “Anytime someone gets to play with Menahem Pressler or with the St. Lawrence, Pacifica, or Telegraph quartets, it’s a big deal in their education,” Swensen notes.
That chamber music experience often pays off for musicians seeking orchestral jobs. When Jing Zheng was auditioning for the spot she now occupies in the Houston Symphony, she was asked to play Beethoven quartets as part of the audition with then-concertmaster Frank Huang (now the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic) and other orchestra members. After breezing through them with a relative ease, Huang turned to her and asked where she learned to play the Beethoven quartets.
“He was shocked,” Swensen remembers with a laugh. “She said, ‘Well, I studied with Ian Swensen and [deceased faculty member] Mark Sokol at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.’”
Swensen notes that playing chamber music during an orchestral audition is becoming more and more common. With the need for orchestras to be more nimble these days, it’s no wonder that ensembles are seeking talent that can perform all types of music.
“The skill of learning to work with people, of listening, of being flexible, of spit-second musical adjustment, is one of the main things you need if you’re going to sit next to someone and play symphonies,” he says.
When auditioning for a position in a professional orchestra, a successful performance takes more than just “luck and good juju,” notes SFCM student Maria van der Sloot. Van der Sloot, a graduate student double majoring in chamber music and violin, recently won a 1st Violin section spot in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. As many alumni have pointed out, SFCM’s environment of collaboration and rigor has allowed them to reach the next levels of their careers, many right after graduation and, in Van der Sloot’s case, during her studies.
“My education at SFCM has been very focused and tailored around my goals as an ensemble player, and I think that’s something that’s hard to find, particularly in a generalized program,” she says. “I’ve also received a lot of support from different departments across the school to allow me to take auditions, travel for concerts, perform frequently, and stay healthy. There’s a lot of flexibility here, and I’m grateful for it.”
Private instrumental studies and large ensemble playing, supplemented with chamber music training, appears to be a perfect concoction. For Ani Bukujian, who recently completed the concertmaster track at SFCM, the opportunity to perform with and be coached by her teachers shifted her budding career into high gear.
“From the very start, I was given a lot of opportunities and felt very active as a performer both in orchestra and chamber music,” Bukujian recounts. “Ian Swensen, Dimitri Murrath, and Paul Hersh, as well as the rest of the chamber coaches, helped me see chamber music in a totally different way, and my recent achievement of becoming the Principal Second Violinist of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra would be impossible if I did not have the support of my private teacher Sasha [Alexander] Barantschik as well as my excerpt class teacher Catherine Van Hoesen.” (Barantschik, who is the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, privately instructs all concertmaster track students.)
Swensen sees a perfect symbiosis between the chamber music and concertmaster programs at SFCM.
“The relationship between the chamber music and concertmaster programs at SFCM is one of cooperation,” he says. “We all work with the students and aren’t territorial. Sasha’s students can take lessons with me and visa versa. No problem.”
And, of course, Swensen infuses a bit of fun every now and then for his students. He occasionally hosts reading parties where students let loose and play together in a relaxed environment.
“At these parties, we’re joined by the Telegraph Quartet [SCM quartet-in-residence] and sometimes members of the Kronos Quartet as well as visiting alumni,” he says. “At the last reading party this spring, Maria van der Sloot was playing first violin on Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 4 quartet.”
What happened afterward was serendipity.
“I believe the next day or two days later, she played it for her Calgary Philharmonic audition as a solo. The group wasn’t all there and they asked her to play first violin part alone. She played it well and was chosen to be in the orchestra!”