Musician Spotlight

Michael Yokas, Violinist

How did you hear about New Century, and how did you get started with the group?

I was at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1999 getting my masters, and Deborah Tien Price, who was also there, invited a few of us to a New Century concert at Herbst Theater. I remember violists Lynne Richburg and Linda Ghidossi-DeLuca were playing the sixth Brandenburg Concerto, and the orchestra also playing a piece by Kurt Rohde. I was amazed they were able to play Kurt’s music without a conductor! The orchestra sounded incredible. I kept thinking throughout the concert that this is a group I would love to play in. I took the next audition and joined the group in September 2001.

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

Without a conductor, it’s like a big chamber music group, and you get to be a part of the musical decision-making. In a conductorless orchestra everyone has to be more responsible—everyone is listening and reacting to each other, just like in chamber music. Of course, with 19 of us, there’s a lot of give and take during rehearsals, and you have to make compromises once in a while. In terms of preparation you not only have to know your part, but also really have to know the score, so you know who’s playing what and when. We all write a lot of cues in our parts and if the music is really complicated we play directly from the score.

Can you talk a little bit to the audience reading this about what else you do when you’re not performing with New Century?

For the last two years, I’ve been Principal Second Violin in the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra, just outside of Berlin, Germany. I moved to Berlin in 2004 with my partner, Matthias Erbe, also a violinist, who I met at the San Francisco Conservatory. Before that, I was freelancing as concertmaster in several orchestras in Berlin and Brandenburg. I also play in a string quartet and have my private students.

How is playing different in Germany and the United States?

Since I came here I’ve had to adjust my playing style a little, especially in Baroque and Classical music. The articulation is different, and I’ve had to be flexible. It isn’t better or worse than what we have in the United States, just different. In general there’s a lot more separation between notes which gives the music more clarity and structure. And the tuning is higher here. The Brandenburg symphony tunes the A to 443.5—they’re very exact. New Century tunes to 441.

Can you talk a little about what it was like playing with former MD Krista Bennion Feeney?

I learned a tremendous amount from Krista. She had such a warm sound and a very unique Baroque and Classical style, which the orchestra developed.

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

The orchestra has taken on this blood-passion! Every player has caught her energy and commitment— it’s just infectious. And we’re doing so much great stuff together. Two CDs so far, the new DVD, and we’re taking our third tour with Nadja next January. It’s been incredible.

If you had one wish for the NCCO, what would it be?

You know, living in Germany where the arts are funded mostly by the government, it just makes me wish the audiences and donors continue their support so that we can continue to make music.

Would you tell the readers a little bit about growing up in Massachusetts and how you got started in music? And the teachers who were most influential to you?

I grew up in Peabody, Massachusetts, a half-hour north of Boston. I started playing violin when I was seven years- old. There was a music demo at school, and I was drawn to the violin. So I went home and told my mom, and she was surprised, but happy. My mom’s dad had played violin in a Greek band. I started with his violin, and played on it through high school. I was at the New England Conservatory of Music’s preparatory division for nine years, an did my undergraduate studies there as well. My most influential teachers were Camilla Wicks, who I studied with at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Catherine Van Hoesen, violinst in the San Francisco Symphony.

Tell us about your violin.

I just bought a new violin last year. It is a Stradivarius model built by Joachim Schade in 2009. He was a famous violin maker in former Eastern Germany. Violinist David Oistrakh was said to have often visited Joachim Schade and take back instruments from him to Moscow for his students.

What do you like to do when you’re not making music?

I like to spend time reading and going to the gym. And I love the museums here, the ballet, the opera, and the theater. Berlin’s a fantastic cultural city with three opera houses, 4 orchestras, several theaters—so there’s always something to do every night!

This interview appeared in the May 2012 Zwilich World Premiere program book.