Musician Spotlight

Anna Presler, Violin

New Century Chamber Orchestra violinist Anna Presler met with Executive Director Parker Monroe at a café in Berkeley in April 2013.

Anna with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Can you talk just a little about what appeals to you about being in a conductorless orchestra? How is your role as an orchestra musician different? How are rehearsals and concerts different? Do you prepare differently?

Since I rarely play in orchestras, either with or without conductors, one interesting thing for me in New Century is playing in a section and trying to unite my voice with the other people in the section. I like the challenge of joining the sounds together that way.   Having Nadja lead the orchestra is really interesting because she has such a clear image in her head of the sound she wants, and an intuitive and clear sense of the structure of the music, how she wants phrases to build and arrive.

One of the reasons I wanted to be in this kind of group was to have a chance to experiment with sound colors. It seemed to me that big orchestral string sections have amazing unrealized potential to make lots of distinctive, specific and varied sound colors but there is always such a time crunch, so color doesn’t end up being a big priority. Large symphony orchestras have just a few rehearsals, barely enough time to try to play together, without getting mixed up with lots of color experiments.  I thought, with a chamber orchestra, with nine rehearsals a set, we’ll have plenty of extra time to experiment with sound and work out a whole new palette. Of course, that turned out to be a little unrealistic; we are still using all the rehearsal time for whatever repertoire we are working on!

You’re an extremely busy person.  You are the Artistic Director of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble.  Please tell our readers a little about the Ensemble, and what’s involved with being the Artistic Director.

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble is a flexible mixed ensemble that plays five concert programs a season in San Francisco and Marin.  Our programs link contemporary and old chamber music, because the experience of playing new works illuminates older music, and vice versa. We want to give our audiences that same enjoyment that we experience from this blend. So we might play a masterpiece like Beethoven’s opus 131 String Quartet alongside new pieces we commissioned as companion works, or play new and old pieces that all have links to visual arts, including new pieces with works by “impressionist” composers.  Recently we presented a program of music about water with pieces like “Voice of the Whale” and “Toward the Sea.”  Next season I’m planning a program of new and old works inspired by literature.

When you play new music, you have to figure out the composer’s musical dialect and figure out how to make the music come off the page.  You can’t rely on received wisdom about the composer’s style, of course, since there isn’t any yet.   That freedom and immediacy are really exciting. On the other hand, when you play great old masterpieces that have been sending you over the moon since you were a kid, you bring a great depth of feeling to that music.  So Left Coast brings that kind of commitment to new music – that depth of feeling – and brings a sense of freedom to interpreting old music.  Those two things feed each other.   That is what we want to share with our audiences. 

I started being Artistic Director of the group about five years ago.  Before that, Kurt Rohde did the job; he’s also in NCCO, of course, and still plays in Left Coast too.

It involves a lot of practical things, of course, scheduling the concerts, going to board meetings, grant applications, fundraising, budgeting.  It brings me into contact with a lot of interesting people, like the people on our board of directors, people with all kinds of different experiences in their professional lives.  Also because a lot of them love music in an incredibly intense way, that’s also a real education for me.   


For instance, they explain to me what live music means to them, how intensely a great concert affects them. If you are a musician, slogging along, doing this rewarding but difficult thing of performing, of course you know music matters a lot to you and your colleagues. But it is amazing to hear that it matters so much to people who aren’t musicians!

How many hours a week do you think you spend on the job?

Yikes, I don’t know but in addition to the daytime hours, I lie awake thinking about it in the middle of the night probably a little too often! 

I am really excited about a program that’s coming up very soon at San Francisco Conservatory on June 3rd and Mill Valley on June 6th called Cello Squared.  It features our two cellists – Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong.   We’re playing the Arensky Quartet Op. 35, richer than a typical quartet with two violins because it has a violin, a viola and two cellos!  It’s a lush, expressive very romantic piece.  And then, as is typical for Left Coast, we also have some new music on the program: there’s a piece by a young composer named Matt Schumaker that will be for bass, two cellos and electronics.  And there’s a piece by Kurt Rohde called “…maestoso…misterioso…” for violin and viola that he and I are playing that also involves electronics.  Actually it’s for “electronics and assorted items,” so we using harmonicas, gongs and all kinds of stuff.  And that piece is pretty amazing! 

You’re also on the Music faculty at Sacramento State University.  Please tell us about your position and what you do.

I started working there a little before I started with New Century, first as a member of the Sun Quartet, the faculty quartet in residence.  Anna Kruger, New Century Chamber Orchestra Principal Viola, is in the quartet now too.   After a while the chair of the department asked me to teach a few classes, and a few violin students, so that is how it started.

The teaching is also interesting because I get to discuss music with a group of 70-80 students every semester and many of them have little experience of classical music concerts.  I send them to concerts and have them write concert reviews.  This gives me a whole new perspective on the concert experience.  They often find it peculiar, for instance, that people just come out and play without saying anything. They would really prefer to be spoken to before the concert.  And it seems a little alienating to them that musicians bow, play, bow again, and walk off without ever saying anything.  So the rituals we take for granted are actually a little strange. Which music they love is also completely unpredictable. Half of them will love the Debussy, and a third will adore the brand new piece on the program.  Most of them come with very open minds and most of them go home amazed by the possibilities of live music.

I’m teaching a class about American music. We spend a lot of time on forms, so they’re learning about the blues, Tin Pan Alley songs.  Verse refrain forms.  Kinds of repetitions and patterns you hear in music all the time.  We also look at the history of music and technology, how American music has developed and how it’s spread, and also the business of music.  We also look at identity and music, because your sense of identity often has a big influence on what kind of music you like. 

And I teach violin there, about a half dozen students. That is one of my favorite things to do.  They are so serious about music, and grow so much during the time I know them.

Your husband, Leighton, is also in Left Coast and is a busy free-lance cellist in the Bay Area…

Luckily I get to play with Leighton quite a lot. He is one of those cellists that can create a great sense of energy in a group. He plays with so much conviction and is game to play any kind of music. 

Our daughter Maria was born in 1999.  I think she was the first New Century baby.  Krista was Music Director then, and she already had kids, but I think Maria was the first baby born to someone playing in the orchestra.  So after they were done rehearsing one day in late May at St. John’s in Berkeley, a bunch of New Century musicians walked to Alta Bates Hospital and visited me and a very new Maria.  It was so sweet.  And Paula sent the most beautiful little outfits for Maria to wear!  Now she’s nearly grown up –almost 14 – drawing, doing geometry and drama and playing viola at school…

Can you talk a little about what it was like playing with former Music Directors Stuart Canin and Krista Bennion Feeney?

Krista uses her bow in a way that’s different from almost anybody else, and it was just fun to try to copy that because it was such a beautiful, distinctive way of playing. I loved trying to learn how to use the bow the way she does.

 You know, the way a violin speaks, communicates, has a lot to do with what people do with the bow.   So if you can catch a hold of how someone whose playing you respect is using the bow, it gives you a new way to speak, and be rhythmic, and make colors and all those things.  It also changes your way of hearing.  The person who was most influential for me in this respect was Eugene Lehner, who was in the Kolisch Quartet.  He coached me at Tanglewood when my group was working on Bartok First Quartet. He changed the way I thought about articulation and phrasing.

And can you talk a little about the new directions you think Nadja has taken New Century and how she has changed us?

Nadja has really helped the group because she has tons of determination and courage, and she leads very clearly, which makes it easy for us to know just where she is trying to go.  When she played the Chausson last month it sounded so wonderful.  I’ve heard so much great playing from Nadja, but I think this was the most beautifully I have ever heard her play.  And the whole time she had some awful inner-ear infection!   And it absolutely didn’t slow her at all.  The audience had no idea that she was suffering up there.  Instead, she was playing just as beautifully as you can imagine.   That piece really showed off her sound and the way she could shape the phrases and control the colors.  That was just a fantastic experience!

This interview appeared in the May 2013 Auerbach World Premiere program book.