Live from Here, hosted by the charming and talented mandolinist Chris Thile (a member of Punch Brothers, a featured musical group at SFCM’s Centennial Gala on March 19), is one of public radio’s most popular programs. Formerly known as A Prairie Home Companion, this two-hour variety show, which Thile started to host in the fall of 2016, combines storytelling, music, and conversation into a cohesive weekly presentation, a view of the nation, its people, and its culture through the lens of Americana. What you typically won’t see on Live from Here is a showcase of classical repertoire. However, that is exactly what was on the set list for the January 6 program recorded in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall.
Billed “Eugene Izotov and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music,” faculty members from SFCM including Jon Nakamatsu, Ian Swensen, Jay Liu, and Jennifer Culp (in addition to Izotov) banded together onstage for an exploration of instrumentation and multiple stylistic periods. Izotov, joined by Nakamatsu, performed works by Ravel and Poulenc, and Nakamatsu himself performed Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu to an awestruck crowd. The other SFCM faculty members, joined by Izotov, gave a beautiful performance of a movement from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major.
“I know the stage of Davies Symphony Hall very well since I make music there every day with my San Francisco Symphony colleagues,” says Izotov. “While in many ways that stage always feels like home, it was an unusual and wonderful experience to bring music from various classical repertoire to a really diverse audience at Davies Symphony Hall, as well as to thousands of listeners via live broadcast.
“Chris and I spoke between the rehearsals about the value of music, especially in today's world—it is so important to remember that no matter what ‘label’ society gives an individual musician or style, music remains a great, unifying, wonderful force that is so badly needed in our society. I think many audience members were surprised that they loved the music of Mozart and Ravel just as much as songs by Donna Summer and Glen Campbell. This was a great day of building bridges and connecting people.”
But it wasn’t only SFCM faculty who graced the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for this occasion. Pianist Charlotte Wong, a student of Corey McVicar in SFCM’s Pre-College, was asked to perform on the program. Upon hearing the news Pre-College Director Michael Roest that she was asked to be on the program—and only had a day to prepare—she set out to practice right up until the performance.
“As I sat next to my mom just outside the backstage, I could hear the audience roaring and cheering every few minutes. She told me that those were just recordings, that they weren't real people, like the laughs you hear when you watch a comedy show. But then as I went backstage a couple of minutes before my performance, I could see the hall packed with people like sardines. When Mr. Thile called me out to play, I tried to keep as calm as I could, knowing that I was prone to making mistakes if my hands were slippery with sweat. When I took a glance at the audience, I couldn't see anything. It was like staring at a black hole. I felt as if I were playing for nobody, yet I could feel the tension of the audience waiting for me to play my first note.
For this performance, Wong had prepared the last etude in Franz Liszt’s series of six Grandes études de Paganini. “Those six minutes I was on stage were the most amazing moments of my life. I felt so happy that I had gotten this once in a lifetime opportunity.”
What’s more, this show was not the only recent exposure SFCM received on National Public Radio. Just prior to the new year, SFCM Technology and Applied Composition student Benjamin Shirley told his inspiring story on the popular radio program Weekend Edition. Shirley’s story is a journey from a life of addiction on Skid Row to rekindling his passion for music and attending the Conservatory to build a new life for himself.
Shirley recently saw the premiere of his new work, We Need Darkness to See the Stars, at the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles—where he lived from 2011 to 2013—performed by the Street Symphony. In a review of the concert, which included works by other composers, The New Yorker noted Shirley “has a keen ear for harmony and instrumental color.”