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Young composer premieres first symphony with Santa Rosa Symphony

If You Go

What: Santa Rosa Symphony led by Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong performs with guest pianist Olga Kern. The concert features a premiere of Gabriella Smith’s first symphony, “One.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Monday. A Discovery Rehearsal will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday. There will be no pre-concert lectures, and concessions will be limited to water only. All COVID-19 protocols will be in place and strictly enforced.

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $24-$87; Discovery Rehearsal is $18 adult, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-564-8742 or srsymphony.org

Gabriella Smith, a native of Berkeley who recently moved to Seattle, started piano lessons as a young child, then took up the violin at age 8.

“I wasn’t very good at either,” she said. “When I was 8, I started writing, and when I was 11, I started showing compositions to my piano teacher. After that ... I became better and better in writing music and worse and worse in piano.”

Now 30, Smith already is considered one of the brightest stars in the firmament of up-and-coming classical music composers. She has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to write an organ concerto, scheduled to premiere on Feb. 22 at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

And this weekend, she’ll premiere her 30-minute symphony, “One,” with the Santa Rosa Symphony at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.

“Gabriella’s buoyant and energetic music is like a gust of fresh air and carries with it a hint of what our future American music can be,” said composer John Adams, who has mentored Smith ever since she came to his Berkeley home with stacks of scores at age 15.

Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong will lead this weekend’s program showcasing “One,” which was co-commissioned by the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Eugene Symphony Orchestra for Lecce-Chong’s ambitious four-year First Symphony Project to commission and premiere the first symphonies of four American composers.

“One” is a reference to the project, Smith said, but also a reminder to humans that we are just one of millions of species on the planet and each plays an important role in a healthy ecosystem.

“We need to come together as one in order to fix the imbalance that humans have created,” she said. “These are the things I was thinking about when I was writing the piece. ... It’s really about getting excited about the solutions and how we can all be a part of this in a joyful way.”

First symphony project

Smith is the second of the four composers for the project, which began in Santa Rosa in February 2020 with composer Matt Browne’s impressive first symphony, “The Course of Empire.” A month later, the pandemic forced the symphony to cancel the rest of its season, then pivot to scaled-down virtual concerts in 2020-2021, which delayed the premiere of Smith’s work.

But the Santa Rosa Symphony audiences were able to hear Smith’s unique musical voice during the season-opening concerts in October with her short but mesmerizing work, “Rust.”

That piece exemplifies the disparate elements Smith attempts to synthesize in her works: a rhythmic drive bridging the classical works of Beethoven and the minimalism of Adams, an experimental bent that elicits new soundscapes from old instruments and a pared-down approach to harmony inspired by the baroque world and minimalism. (In contemporary music, “minimalism” refers to music that often features short phrases repeated many times.)

And if that isn’t enough, the composer often asks the musicians to improvise randomly, adding complexity to the overall sound.

“It is a very naturally unique voice,” Lecce-Chong said of Smith’s music. “She has carved out a unique feeling to her music because it has combined so many elements.”

The symphony will open this weekend’s program with Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of “Lohengrin,” a Romantic opera first performed in 1850. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” performed by Olga Kern, will close the program.

In programming pieces to accompany the new works for the First Symphony Project, Lecce-Chong tends to choose composers who are thinking in new ways for their time.

“I like to think about highlighting creativity,” he said. “I want to remind people that we’re constantly in this creative process.”

The conductor chose to open the concert with the Wagner work because its structure pushed people to think about music in new ways.

“It’s the most groundbreaking eight minutes of music,” he said. “(Wagner) has one continuous phrase that starts and ends, with one gorgeous climax in the middle. ... It changed the game for composers and audiences who heard it for the first time.”

Meanwhile, Beethoven broke every rule in the concerto book with the “Emperor” piano concerto, brashly writing a duet for piano and timpani and doing away with the traditional orchestral introduction.

“Soloists were not supposed to come in at the beginning of the concerto,” Lecce-Chong said. “Here, the pianist is flying up and down the keyboard from the first moment.”

If You Go

What: Santa Rosa Symphony led by Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong performs with guest pianist Olga Kern. The concert features a premiere of Gabriella Smith’s first symphony, “One.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Monday. A Discovery Rehearsal will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday. There will be no pre-concert lectures, and concessions will be limited to water only. All COVID-19 protocols will be in place and strictly enforced.

Where: Weill Hall, Green Music Center, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $24-$87; Discovery Rehearsal is $18 adult, $10 youth

To reserve: 707-564-8742 or srsymphony.org

An environmental bent

As a teen, Smith’s primary passion was not music but the natural world of biology and ecology. She attended summer camp at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay and volunteered for five years with the Songbird Research Project in Point Reyes.

“I really thought that’s what I was going to do,” she said. “But I also loved music, and it took over at a certain point.”

At the urging of her teachers, Smith applied to the prestigious, tuition-free Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and was accepted. There she studied music with well-known composers Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, the grandson of pianist Rudolf Serkin.

“Francesco and I went to Curtis together,” she said. “He had already done his undergrad (degree), but we hung out, and he conducted two orchestra pieces that I wrote when I was there.”

Now she’s working on a combined master’s and doctoral degree at Princeton University. She’s worked all over the world, from an artist’s colony in northeast Brazil to the south of France and Norway, where she has lived with her partner for the past four years while he pursued his doctoral degree.

Living abroad also allowed the environmentalist to get closer to nature, from the rocky cliffs of the Mediterranean to the lakes and tundra of Scandinavia.

“In Norway, the nature is extraordinary,” she said. “We hiked up to the top of the highest mountain in Scandinavia, and from the top, everything you see is glacier.”

In 2019, she made an album, “Lost Coast,” with cellist Gabriel Cabezas and violist/producer Nadia Sirota in a studio in Reykjavik, Iceland.

“We went there and recorded for one week, right around the summer solstice, and another week around the winter solstice,” she said. “It was maybe the best musical experience of my life.”

“Bard of a Wasteland,” the album-opening ballad, features a creative video made by their friend, Daren Donovan Thomas.

The genre-bending album was inspired by a backpacking trip Smith took on the Lost Coast of California. It makes use of found objects for percussion, like the tea strainer she picked up at her partner’s father’s home. Smith also sings on most of the tracks.

“We got some reviews in classical (publications), and others categorized it as folk,” she said. “I actually like that. It’s sort of neither, but it makes it both. All my music is like that, in a way.”

Her compositions often exhibit a sense of humor, she said, which will be noticeable in one of the movements of “One.”

“I think it reflects my personality,” she said. “It’s like Haydn, who is kind of cheeky, but not in a sarcastic way. In a fun way.”

“One” is written in four movements, so it’s inspired by the traditional symphonic form. Getting to write a longer piece was a great opportunity, Smith said.

“Any composer would be itching to get a chance to write the big piece on the program,” she said. “Normally, these kind of commissions are reserved for DWEM (dead white European men). Francesco had the idea to give other composers the opportunity to write the big piece.”

Over the past 10 years, Smith’s attitude has shifted about her ability to change the world, she said.

“For a long time, it felt selfish to be a musician,” she said. “But in a way, I can have a bigger impact being a musician. ... We need to change our culture and to continue on that path and accelerate that. And art is a big part of how you change the culture.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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