The Santa Cruz Symphony operates within what local musicians jokingly call the Freeway Philharmonic. The term refers to any orchestra in Northern California that isn’t the San Francisco Symphony or the San Francisco Opera.
“If you’re not in those two groups, you need to play in a variety of these things just to make a little bit—and then you have your day job,” says Daniel Stewart, conductor and artistic director of the Santa Cruz Symphony. “These are heroes, these musicians, because they are driving hundreds of miles all over the place just to do what they love and believe in, even though it pays squat. I know what it’s about, I’ve been in the trenches in that world. They’re heroes, and I love them.”
At the other end of the classical music hierarchy are the soloist stars—or in the case of Yuja Wang, superstars. The 30-year-old Chinese classical pianist began studying at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music at age seven, and winning international music competitions around the globe by 11. At age 15, shortly before she made her European debut with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, she began studying at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. She debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 2006, and some consider her breakthrough to have come a year later, when she played Tchaikovsky with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has been on a seemingly nonstop tour of performing with orchestras around the world. Meanwhile, Wang’s charisma and star power have earned her the oft-used description “the Beyonce of the classical world.”
So it was understandably a surprise when Wang traveled to Santa Cruz in February to perform concertos by Brahms and Prokofiev at two shows that were hailed as the biggest thing ever to happen to the Santa Cruz Symphony. The only thing more outrageous would be if Wang suddenly, out of nowhere, decided to come back to Santa Cruz again—which she will do on June 24 and 25, when she’ll perform another concerto by Brahms, and one by Beethoven.
“For Yuja to do two concertos on the same program with any orchestra in the world would be a big deal,” says Stewart. “For her to just play one concerto with a regional orchestra is something she doesn’t do. She doesn’t play with regional orchestras, she plays with the Berlin Philharmonic. So we had the two concertos here, and I thought ‘wow, okay, that’s great.’ And now two more? Four concertos with Yuja Wang in four months?”
Certainly the symphony’s musicians were shocked to hear that Wang would be paying another visit to the Freeway Philharmonic.
“You should have heard the orchestra’s reaction,” says Stewart. “I said, ‘Great job at the last concert, Yuja had a good time. By the way…’ I’ve never heard an orchestra gasp like that.”
Clearly, worlds are not expected to collide like this in classical music. But the real story behind “Yuja II,” as it’s being billed, is that these worlds are not as far apart as they initially seem. First, the 35-year-old Stewart has built the Santa Cruz Symphony’s reputation into something far beyond that of a typical regional orchestra. Second, he and Wang have a lot in common. They met a decade ago as musicians, while Stewart was making his name as an in-demand violist, and they went to school together at Curtis. Their bond has arisen from a shared obsession with the power, passion and relevance of the music they play, and a bit of a rebel streak in their attitudes about the culture around it. Dedicated and driven, they are, in their own ways, both redefining the classical music world.
But maybe don’t make Wang its Beyonce.
“I was hoping I’m Rihanna,” says Wang. “She’s younger and she’s more edgy.” She laughs. “I think people used to say I was the Lady Gaga of classical music. And now it’s Beyonce. I guess I got a little curvier.”
Like Wang, Stewart began playing at a young age; his mom signed him up for violin lessons at age 4. Growing up in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and then the North Bay’s Rohnert Park, it was just one of many interests he threw himself into.
“It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11, when I started playing in ensembles, that I said ‘wow, there’s this incredible chemistry and complexity and really rewarding fun social aspect to all this.’ Then I started paying more attention to getting better, and I developed,” he says. “I was playing more viola. I was bewitched by the timbre, the deeper sound. There’s some intoxicating draw to certain sounds, and I love that bass resonance.”
He played in some youth symphonies, and got his first professional job at 17 with the Santa Rosa Symphony. His reputation as a violist grew steadily, and in addition to scoring a major-label deal to record with Israeli conductor and violinist Maxim Vengerov, he saw a lot of the world at a young age.
“Music has been a passport. It took me to over 40 countries as a violist by the time I was 25,” he says.
After finishing his grad work at Curtis in conducting, he served as a “cover conductor” for a number of orchestras—Atlanta, St. Louis, L.A., New York—which meant that if the conductor got sick or couldn’t perform for some other reason, he was literally passed the baton.
In 2010, Stewart won the Aspen Music Festival’s James Conlon Conducting Prize, and in 2012, he was hired to be the first conductor of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
But 2012 was also the year that former music director and conductor John Larry Granger announced he was retiring from the Santa Cruz Symphony. That season, five conductors were invited to perform with the symphony by a search committee looking for his replacement. Stewart won the gig.
“I was at the Met, that’s a dream job. But then this opportunity came up,” he says. “So I asked my Met boss, James Levine, the music director, and he said ‘I absolutely support it.’ So I’d fly out here once a month, have a week of concerts, then fly back to New York. I would take the red eye on Sunday night, and be at rehearsal on Monday morning after the Sunday matinee here. I was just so happy to have a little thing in this gorgeous, wonderful town, with a scene, with a people and a vibe that I relate to so well. I know it, I love it, I get it.”
The Belief System
Stewart says he went after the job as conductor and artistic director of the Santa Cruz Symphony because he wanted to prove he could get world-class results from a small regional orchestra. But when he talks about his work there, it becomes obvious that he’s motivated by something even bigger than that: he wants to fill a void in both the players around him, and the audiences that come to see them perform. He wants to give people something to believe in. The word comes up a lot; for example, when he talks about the symphony’s musicians.
“‘Freeway Philharmonic’ is a useful term,” he says. “The sobering statistic that I like to give is that our guys make as much in a year with us as a San Francisco Symphony member makes in a week. The conditions are far from ideal, and it’s hard to get a result that you can really feel proud of or really believe in, that you want to invite all your friends to and say ‘this is something special.’ So that’s what my real goal was.”
He feels what he calls “an incredible cohesion, a unity and an accuracy” within the symphony now—despite the fact that members rotate around as their other jobs demand. As much as 30 percent of the ensemble may be different from week to week, which means long, tightly executed rehearsals to achieve the performances Stewart seeks.
“I want to bring out results from people that they didn’t even think were possible,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, is that we’ve taken folks who don’t have a lot of experience or fancy conservatory training, but through really intelligent planning and rehearsal process, you can encourage them and bring out a result that is something so much more professional and committed than even they had expected of themselves.”
The idea of belief comes up when Stewart speaks about the symphony audiences, as well, and the experiences he hopes to give them.
“Something I’m acutely aware of is that in any concert experience, the majority of the audience is going to be hearing this piece, whatever it is, for the first or the last time. Think of how vast the repertoire is,” he says. “So if you believe in it as passionately as we do, you want to give a performance that makes this lasting impression on somebody who’s going to hear it for the first time, and maybe it touches them in some way. Maybe it’s the last time someone’s going to hear it, and you want to give a piece its due. Because these pieces are so deep in their potential.”
Deep enough for their meaning to stretch across centuries, he says.
“It’s why people believe so passionately in a Beethoven symphony, which can seem to some to be so far removed from what life in 2017 is about,” says Stewart. “We feel this sense of emotion that shines through all the technical barriers. It means a lot to us. It’s as meaningful as it was 250 years ago.”
In the end, belief is the key to what the symphony has accomplished since he took over as music director in the fall of 2012: “Belief in the process. Belief in their ability,” he says. He credits Granger, who led the symphony for two decades prior to Stewart’s tenure, with drastically expanding the scope and ambition of an organization that began as an all-volunteer orchestra in 1958. Taking over in 1990, Granger earned the Santa Cruz Symphony a “4” rating from the California Arts Council, the highest rating for an orchestra of its size. He drew on his connections within the classical music community to bring in some acclaimed guests, announcing his intentions with a debut concert that featured Leonard Pennario, one of the best-selling classical pianists of the 20th century. Stewart is carrying on that tradition.
“My predecessor did amazing things, taking it over 20 years from a volunteer thing to a regional level,” says Stewart. “What I wanted to do was take it from there, from kind of ‘OK, kind of a pleasant week in Santa Cruz, we’ll play there’ to a thing where we get everyone else in Northern California to say ‘oh, they’re very serious about results here. I want to play here. I’ll forgo a higher-paying gig, because I know that this is going to be a serious week of music here.’ But you have to prove that it’s worth that.”
The Joie de Vivre
Considering Stewart’s intensity and focus, one would be forgiven for expecting him to be a harsh taskmaster. But in fact, he’s the exact opposite—in not only his conducting style, but also his general demeanor, it’s hard to imagine anyone with more joie de vivre. He brings a disarmingly empathetic warmth to every conversation, and when he smiles—which is often—it seems to take over his whole face.
Nothing seems to bring out this delight more than music. Not just classical music—he’s also a self-described “hip-hop head” who was known for his scratching ability in college, and still likes to DJ. But what he likes to do even more is conduct, and he doesn’t require an audience of hundreds at the Santa Cruz Civic. He’ll do it just about anywhere: at Burning Man; at a San Francisco nightclub; in the middle of a design studio; at juvenile hall, for incarcerated kids; in someone’s living room. He organized a flash mob on Pacific Avenue set to Beethoven’s Ninth. He’s arranged music by Radiohead and Verdi, the Beatles and Brahms.
“I don’t know, it all just seems to be so much the same thing,” he says. “It’s all part of this bigger musical picture.”
In symphony rehearsals, what comes across—even as he briskly battles the clock to get everything into a session—is his appreciation for the musicians, and his desire to explore beyond what’s on the music sheet. Before they play a passage, he’ll sometimes say something like “Let’s see what we can find in this song” or “let’s see what else we can discover.” And when he hears something new that he likes, he’ll say, “Let’s keep that,” or simply “Yes! Yes, yes!”
“He brings this friendly energy to rehearsal,” says Nigel Armstrong, who last fall came on as the symphony’s concertmaster—sort of Stewart’s right-hand man—and also leads the violin section. “He has this passion, this dedication. He knows what he wants to get from the orchestra.”
Modern classical music is continually moving toward Stewart’s style, says Armstrong, away from the classic image of the grim, authoritarian conductor.
“There’s much more appreciation now, it’s more collaborative,” says Armstrong. “But I think Danny is unique in his joyful exuberance.”
Stewart’s wife, In Sung Jang, can often be found sitting in on the Santa Cruz Symphony’s rehearsals. She is a first violinist in the San Francisco Symphony, and though they were married just last year, they dated for a decade before that, having met as musicians in Miami’s New World Symphony. In that time, she has watched Stewart evolve as a conductor.
“He’s a really energetic player to begin with, so he’s bringing that to the conducting,” she says. “It’s an extension of that exuberant playing.”
It’s not as easy as you might think for musicians to move into a conducting role; in fact, the two worlds are often quite separate. Musicians generally don’t have a larger vision for the orchestra, while conductors are not often known for their playing.
“Maybe they might play an instrument—but not well,” says Jang. “It’s hard for a really good instrumentalist to naturally become a conductor. They don’t have a lot of understanding of how an orchestra works. But it emerged naturally for Danny, from leading the section to leading the orchestra. He had so much experience with different conductors in different places, touring all around Europe.”
Yuja Wang, who has worked with Stewart many times since their days together at Curtis, says there’s a joke among classical musicians that “violists are always the ones who say yes to everything.” But with his subtle style, Stewart has flipped that on its head.
“He’s not up there demanding you do this,” says Wang. “He has this way—and not just in rehearsals, I’m telling you—of letting other people say yes to him. They realize, ‘Did I just … oh my god, I just totally succumbed to what he wanted me to do.’ He has a very charming way of doing that.”
At her upcoming Santa Cruz concerts—the first on June 24 at the Santa Cruz Civic, followed by June 25 at the Mello Center in Watsonville—Wang will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with the symphony. For Stewart, this has an important link to Wang’s last concerts in Santa Cruz.
“Last time, we did the last concertos of Prokofiev and Brahms. This time, we’re going to do the first concertos of Beethoven and Brahms,” he says, his hand moving, conductor-like, to indicate a circular quality. Of course, whatever connection he’s referring to is probably lost on most people. This is one of the things Wang loves about Stewart.
“We’re both such musical nerds,” she says.
While audiences here may be dazzled by her star power, the upcoming shows are important to Wang for entirely different reasons. She is going to play-conduct the five Beethoven concertos in Europe in the fall, and “Beethoven One” is the only one of those she’s never played. Learning such a piece in a short time is daunting enough that “people are like, ‘oh, you’re crazy,’” she says. “But for us, it’s like we have to get this. It’s this determination. We have to get rid of all the fears, and nothing else matters.”
Stewart and Wang could have set these shows up basically anywhere—in Europe, or a major U.S. city. For Stewart, doing it here was about continuing to build momentum for a program for which he is all in. For Wang, it was about … well, surfing, for one thing.
“Danny’s going to take me surfing, which I’ve also never done. I’m really, really looking forward to that,” she says. “Hopefully I don’t run into a shark or something.”
It’s no joke—the impact Santa Cruz’s natural beauty had on her in February was a big part of why she wanted to come back.
“Santa Cruz is such a beautiful place. The beaches are so lovely. Same reason I go to Santa Barbara a lot. Being close to nature is such a special part of being a musician, and we have less and less of that,” she says.
Wang can certainly pick where she wants to play. Before her Santa Cruz concerts, she played Brahms in London, and before that she did an acclaimed program of Bartok in L.A.—a run that epitomized the unheard-of-in-classical level of crossover success she’s reached.
“This week, there are just so many kids coming to my concert. I mean kids like 12, 13, little boys, girls. At one of the concerts, two little girls ran to the front row and asked me to give them an autograph while I was on stage. I didn’t know what to do, you know? That never happened to me while I was playing. I was bowing, about to play an encore. I was like, ‘Should I call security?” she says, with a big laugh.
Instead, she gave the autographs, sending the girls off deliriously happy.
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor and artistic director of the L.A. Philharmonic was on the stage, too, and later expressed amazement that such a thing would happen at a Bartok concert, of all places.
“Bartok is known for being really thorny and kind of unpopular,” Wang says.
Just as she was flying high from that experience, though, she got a reality check about the way pop culture works.
“I was feeling happy about having this sold-out concert. And then yesterday I went to Bjork’s concert. Same hall, the Disney Hall. And the audience was just so different. I mean, they jump up before she even started. I go there and nobody knew who I was. One person who did know was like ‘She’s a pianist.’ And it was like ‘Oh, is she a student from Colburn?’”
When she talks about Bjork’s show, she seems to be already planning how she can take her own performance even further out from the typical bounds of classical music.
“People will talk about my dress and stuff, but the way she dressed was this huge thing. Like, she has a mask! And lighting and everything. There’s just so much production behind the music,” says Wang. “Compared to that, a dress is nothing.”
And this is one of the things Stewart loves about Wang. “She’s so disarmingly candid,” he says. “She speaks what’s on her mind, and she has such clarity. The extent to which she’s developed the insane talent that she has? That’s why she’s so well regarded across the board in this profession. Her commitment to this freakish talent is extraordinary.”
Over the years, he’s seen how success affects and changes people, he says. But not her.
“She’s such a down-to-earth, fun, kind, sweet person. It’s amazing how unpretentious she is, despite being arguably the most renowned pianist working today. She’s just the same Yuja I knew 10 years ago.”
Both of them want to bring that same quality of groundedness and accessibility to the music they perform, to delight and surprise audiences. Stewart literally shudders at some of the stuffy clichés classical music has been saddled with, like someone getting glared at for clapping at the wrong time.
“Ugh, it’s terrible,” he says. “We don’t need any of that. That’s not what it’s about. It’s not what Mozart was about. It’s not what Verdi was about.”
Similarly, Wang hates the notion of classical music as some kind of “ivory tower where you can never get up to the sublime idea. It’s not that. The music is down-to-earth,” she says. “It’s written by people who are made of blood and meat just as we are—and probably enjoy surfing, as well.”
In fact, she may have stumbled upon the real reason Beethoven was so famously grumpy: “Because he couldn’t go surfing in Vienna.”
So if that’s what it takes for the world at large to notice their musical insurgency, then fine, go ahead and call Wang the Beyonce of classical music.
“As long as I haven’t turned into the Eminem,” she says, “it’s okay.”
The Santa Cruz Symphony’s ‘Yuja II’ shows featuring Yuja Wang are on Saturday, June 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and Sunday, June 25 at 2 p.m. at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville. Tickets are $29-$85; go to santacruzsymphony.com.