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I just got back on Wednesday from playing Youth concerts with Symphony Silicon Valley, an excellent orchestra based in San Jose, CA. It’s considered to be one of the best orchestras in the San Francisco Bay area, after the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet and Opera ensembles.

Here’s a link about the orchestra: SYMPHONY SILICON VALLEY

The first rehearsal was last Sunday night. I left early that morning for Lafayette, where I stay with my dear violinist friend R.A. whenever I play in the San Jose orchestra. It’s about an hour’s commute each way. She plays there on a regular basis, so we often ride together.

I first met R.A. when she joined the Sacramento Symphony in 1984, and we’ve been “best friends” ever since.

She was carpooling with a couple of other musicians to the concert that afternoon; it was the orchestra’s final performance of that “set” which had begun with rehearsals earlier in the week. I decided to ride down with her and catch the concert. Our one rehearsal for the Youth concert program would take place a few hours later.

The Operations Manager, who’s also a horn-playing colleague, reserved me an excellent seat in the top balcony. Here’s a link with the history and pictures of the wonderful California Theater in downtown San Jose, where the Symphony Silicon Valley performs:


This is an almost-perfect concert space for the orchestra; intimate, beautifully decorated and with decent acoustics. Its only minor drawback are some “dead spots” for a few musicians onstage, which is the case with many concert venues. But overall the players like this performance space very much.

It certainly sounded great from the top balcony, often the best place to hear an orchestra; the sound has a chance to blend together.

Violinist/conductor Joseph Silverstein performed Vaughan-Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 while conducting the orchestra at the same time. The second half consisted of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” with Silverstein on the podium, sans violin.

You can read about him at the following link. Silverstein has some interesting perspectives about the state of classical music these days:


Symphony Silicon Valley does not have a regular conductor; they hire different ones for each concert set. The musicians generally like this arrangement, because they are exposed to many different conducting styles which keeps them on their toes. It is a very stimulating musical environment.

The musicians responded well to Silverstein and the orchestra sounded particularly glorious on the “Enigma Variations”, one of his favorite pieces to conduct.

I’m usually performing on stage, so this was a rare opportunity to hear my favorite orchestra from the concert hall audience. Listening to this music expertly and emotionally played by my old friends and colleagues makes me proud to work with this ensemble whenever I can.

Unfortunately this doesn’t happen often, as I am a substitute musician with the orchestra. I played with them in late September for their first set of the season, then again in December for a few Nutcracker performances, and most recently last week for these Youth concerts.

Staying with R.A. makes it possible for me to play in San Jose, which is nearly four hours’ drive from my home In The Woods. Otherwise it would be too much of a hassle.

Many musicians who play in the San Jose orchestra also perform in other orchestras scattered around the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the Central Valley.

This freelance scene is nicknamed “The Freeway Philharmonic” because Northern California musicians need to fill their calendars playing with a lot of different small symphonies to make ends meet; none of these orchestras provide a full-time wage. So these freelance musicians drive hundreds of miles each week to various gigs.

During my most recent time in this freelance world, I heard people talking about a special documentary about the Freeway Philharmonic which is now showing in selected Bay Area theaters, and will be broadcast on KQED Channel 9 on this coming Sunday and Tuesday.

You can read about it here and even see a short trailer:


I know most of the musicians featured in this documentary, and have heard of the rest. In fact, I will be working with horn player Meredith Brown in the Symphony Silicon Valley in mid-March for their next concert set.

It is quite a challenging life for classical musicians. I feel very fortunate that I don’t have to depend upon the Freeway Philharmonic as much as many others do (at the moment, at least), but it WOULD be nice to have a couple of gigs a month.

So far, I have not quite achieved this goal, but am approaching it as word is getting around that I am back in the area. Fortunately I am known as a solid, dependable horn player who is easy to get along with. So I hope to get more work this year.

I have just been hired to play with the Modesto Symphony in a couple of weeks. This will be my first time performing with that orchestra. I have relatives on my mother’s side there, so I may just “pop out of the woodwork” to say hello while I’m in town! It’s been many years since I’ve seen them.

While I’m working with the Modesto Symphony, James and I (and cat Rupert) will stay at my brother’s house in Sacramento, 80 miles away — which is much better than 160 miles from our place out In The Woods!

I wrote the following as part of a “thank you” email to R.A. for letting me stay at her house Sunday through Tuesday:

“As I wended my way down the tiny, switch-backed road amidst the beautiful snowy woods, I thought to myself how VERY LUCKY I am to have such a rich variety in my life these days — a combination of rustic serenity on one hand and musical stimulation amongst my excellent friends and associates on the other.

I am truly blessed.”