Six SFCM Grads and Alumni Win California Symphony Spots

Donato Cabrera and the California Symphony. (Credit: Kristen Loken)

Donato Cabrera and the California Symphony. (Credit: Kristen Loken)

A look at who will be joining the California Symphony this fall, plus advice for audition musicians.

By Alex Heigl

The California Symphony is beginning to look like an SFCM reunion.

Six recent grads and alumni scored wins with the nearly 40-year-old symphony orchestra, under the leadership of Music Director Donato Cabrera since 2013. Alexandra Simpson (Assistant Principal viola, ‘21), Sam Weiser (Assistant Concertmaster, ‘19), Mitso Floor (viola, ‘19) Natalia Badziak (viola, ‘19) Katie Allen (violin, ‘22) and Daniel Tan (violin, currently a second-year master’s) will be headed to the acclaimed ensemble, which the Mercury News said “may be the most forward-looking music organization around.”

The win is an especially triumphant one for Simpson, who last year candidly shared her doubts about her path with the SFCM Newsroom. “I'm most afraid of failure,” she said. “It's never going to be easy to give your heart to something and fail at it, even small failures.” But, she added, “Everything is a learning experience. It all adds up to something. You could compare it to chiseling yourself into a perfect statue–everything that chips away is just making you closer to looking like Michelangelo’s David.”

Violin faculty Cordula Merks extolled the virtues of her two students headed to the Symphony. “Katie is a wonderful performer and, in addition to the standard repertoire, has an interest in more unusual pieces: For example, she introduced me to some violin pieces by women composers that I didn’t know yet,” Merks added. “Daniel records himself in every single lesson and in every studio class; he listens back and is very smart about deciding what to practice next and bring up in our next lesson.”

Merks continued, “An audition like this is a great opportunity to focus on a very particular repertoire—in this case, the exposition of a Mozart concerto [the opening few minutes of the concerto where the themes of the first movement are introduced in the tonic key] and some excerpts. Orchestra excerpts always have very particular challenges—each excerpt is asked for a reason—and it’s a tremendous challenge to try to play them as perfectly as possible both technically and musically.”

Allen, who had her final recital and audition for the Symphony a little under two weeks apart, said that Merks "has completely changed my playing,” adding, "she's really helped me find myself as a musician." (She did allow that, while it wasn’t the most music she’s learned in the shortest amount of time, it was “the most stressful.”) “A couple of the excerpts were kind of new to me,” she added. “It was interesting having to learn so many in such a short amount of time. Other times I’ve had to do that, it was more casual, but this time it was like, ‘No, you need to learn this now and perfect this, every day counts.’”

Tan said that his time with Merks has gone deeper than just the physical aspects of playing his instrument. "She's really helped me to better express my ideas in performance. When you spend so much time practicing how to play with a straight bow, how to play in tune, all these basic things in terms of playing your instrument, you kind of forget to be an artist sometimes, and she's been very good at helping me shift my mindset back to ways that I can maximize that element of my playing."

Though taking auditions for the sake of some real-world practice can be a part of a musician’s approach, Tan says it’s one he’s avoided. "I never do an audition just for the sake of doing it, because I think there has to be some part of you that wants to win in order to make it a worthwhile experience. If your only reason for taking it is just to see what it's like, then I think you're just not going to put the same amount of energy and effort into it.”

The Symphony shares personnel with the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and San Francisco Ballet, among others, and is based in Walnut Creek at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

Learn more about studying violin, viola or strings at SFCM.