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Musician Spotlight

Dawn Harms, Associate Concertmaster

Dawn Harms Conducting - B&W

You may be the most important member of the orchestra, because you are Associate Concertmaster and stand partner to Music Director Nadja Salerno- Sonnenberg. What is involved in being Associate Concertmaster, and what is it like sitting next to Nadja for rehearsals and concerts?

Well, first of all I feel honored to be able to sit next to Nadja. There are a lot of different things that go into being Associate Concertmaster and sitting by her. I have to be strong and know how to lead, without leading. I have to be confident and sure of myself, and not be distracting to Nadja. I have to play out, and blend in at the same time. I have to make Nadja feel comfortable, and always try to know where we are and how many bars of rest we have before we come in. She is busy leading and worrying about the other parts, so she can’t always keep track of our part. I had better know where the heck we are.

Leading an orchestra and playing the first violin part at the same time is actually very difficult. I used to lead the Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra and I also love to conduct as well. I am here to tell you that conducting is a lot easier than trying to lead and play your instrument at the same time.

The other thing that I have to be ready to do, is to sit in Nadja’s chair and actually lead the group. Besides leading when she is soloing with us, I have had to lead the group in her absence. In fact, at the final concert of our last set, Nadja was very sick. So, I had to move up one chair, and be the concertmaster. By then we had had many rehearsals and three performances under our belt, so that helped me a lot.

We both take our different jobs very seriously, but at the same time we have a lot of fun. When you have a stand partner for many years, you really get used to certain things about them. Nadja hasn’t had too many stand partners in her life, because she has been mostly a soloist. But I have, and she is one of the best.

 Would you tell us about your instrument?

My violin was made in Cremona, Italy in 1804, by Giuseppe Ceruti. I call him Rudie Ceruti. I bought him in Philadelphia from a member of the Philly Orchestra 26 years ago. He has become quite a friend over the years.

You have been a member of the First Violin section of the San Francisco Opera for many years. How does it feel now to be performing an opera with the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows?

I am very excited to be playing Rita with the NCCO, because it is rarely performed, only an hour long (most operas are at least 3 hours), and it is unique to be performing an opera with a chamber orchestra and no conductor. It’s going to be quite an undertaking, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. We will have to listen like crazy and be ready to adjust to the singers musical whims at any point. But the singers will also have to listen a lot and be flexible as well… this will probably be the first time in their lives that they will have had to do this (laughs).

Of course they listen to the orchestra when there is a conductor. But because an opera has so many moving parts, you kind of need that traffic cop (the conductor) to keep it all together. I’m not sure if an opera has ever been performed without a conductor… If not, it has now.

It will also be fantastic for me, because I have worked with many Adler Fellows over the years now, and I have seen them grow into wonderful singers. They are on the cusp of launching their careers. I’m so happy that the NCCO can be a part of their launching pad.

How long exactly have you been a member of the opera orchestra? Do you have a favorite opera?

I have been in the First Violin section for 18 years. I used to not like opera at all. But I have grown to love it after playing with the Santa Fe Opera for five summers, and now as a member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

It’s hard to pick a favorite opera. It’s like picking a favorite child. But if I have to pick just one, I would have to say Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The music and story just cuts to my heart. There are some wacky parts in the opera, and the music gets crazy. But I don’t think there is another piece of music that is more exquisitely crafted than the trio at the end of the opera. It sends me to another place…

Congratulations on being recently named Music Director of the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony. Would you tell us about the orchestra and what’s involved in being Music Director there?

Thank you. It was very exciting when they called me and offered me the position for this fantastic orchestra. BARS is a community orchestra that offers a safe and supportive environment for gay and lesbian musicians to play in. Our goal is to have community visibility through artistic excellence. Of course, we have many straight people as well, around 30%. Everyone is welcome.

Since I have been in a string quartet for 11 years, and in an opera orchestra for 18, I have a variety of experiences to draw from as a conductor. Conducting to me is a culmination of everything I have done musically. I really think to be a successful conductor you need to know what it is like to be in an orchestra. For instance, I know what it feels like to not get cues, to have dull rehearsals, to have a conductor who talks too much. When I conduct, I really feel it is a collaboration with each and every musician in the orchestra. We work together, like in chamber music, and I am just the traffic cop, keeping it all together. I love this group, and love being able to mold and craft the music. The bottom line is — I have a blast conducting!

You have a very dynamic career as an educator, and travel performing for students. Would you tell us about the programs you present?

I have created and developed my own family show and have performed it in schools throughout the country for years. But my goal was always to perform it with symphony orchestras, because you have a built-in audience and you can reach more people that way. My show is now orchestrated, and I have been performing with many orchestras. It is a really fun show, playing everything from Bach to the Orange Blossom Special. Kids get to come up on stage and play the violin and compose with me. It’s great fun, very interactive, and educational at the same time. In fact, the week after this February New Century set, I head for Lincoln, Nebraska to perform my show with the Lincoln Symphony. I will be playing for 3,000 enthusiastic fi fth and sixth graders at once it’s like a rock concert! It will be my third time performing with them; I’m looking forward to it.

You also teach at Stanford. Please tell us about that, too!

Well, teaching is yet another one of the musical hats that I wear. I have been teaching at Stanford since 1998. I feel very fortunate to get to teach there, mainly because it has such incredibly smart students, as well as a beautiful campus. I love teaching my violin students because they come to me for fun, refreshment, and entertainment. They work very hard all week at their major with the left part of their brains, and I get to stimulate their right-brain, creative side. I actually pick most of their brains every week, to try and understand what they do, and how they incorporate music into their daily work and study. It fascinates me how much music can enhance their medical, engineering, biology, chemistry, and political science degrees. My goal is to make music fun and keep them interested in it, even if they won’t ever play professionally. My hope is that one day they may be a donors to the arts.

I’m proud to say that one of my students that I taught for four years, got one of three coveted jobs working at Apple alongside Steve Jobs. I was so proud of her, and we still keep in touch to this day. She comes to as many NCCO concerts as she can fi t in with her busy schedule.

What are one or two of your favorite memories of performing in New Century?

Well, getting to work with Simon Rattle for the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s 10th anniversary was quite a highlight for me. All three tours I have to say, without giving out too many details (what happens on tour, stays on tour), have to be the most memorable for me. I loved each and every one of them. Another very memorable NCCO moment was when I got to play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with Nadja in front of 37,000 San Francisco Giants’ fans for the seventh inning stretch. We had a ball, even though Nadja’s a Yankee fan.

 I hear you know why the Orchestra calls Nadja “The Chief”?

Well, I have developed several names for Nadja over the years of her being our leader. I have called her Caesar, boss, bro and the latest name, “The Chief.” The name came about on our very first tour, when we were stopped for a bathroom break while on the bus. We all mingled around the truck stop store, to see what we might buy, and right there before me were several beautifully carved walking sticks. The tallest one was a colorful Indian Chief’s head. It just struck me at that moment that Nadja was also our chief, and that she should have this. My dear colleagues Deborah Tien Price and Candace Guirao encouraged me to buy it. So, I made a big presentation on the bus, and it became a tradition on our tours, to try and find her a chief of some kind. On our tour last year to Washington D.C., we were able to get her a “Hail to the Chef (Chief)” apron.

This interview appeared in the February 2014 Donizetti’s Rita program book.