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An Interview With Redwood Symphony's Eric Kujawsky

(The following is an interview conducted by David Meckler, Professor of Music at Cañada College and Redwood Symphony Board Member, with Dr. Eric Kujawsky, Founder and Music Director of the Redwood Symphony. It previews this Saturday's performance at Cañada College).

The Redwood Symphony
David Meckler: Hello, Maestro Eric! This interview is being posted on the Cañada College website for all staff and students, as well as the other San Mateo Community College District campuses. I bet they'd be pleasantly surprised to know that one of the Bay Area’s most notable symphony orchestras is not only based at Canada College, but is free for all SMCCD campus staff and students. Here's your chance: What can you say about Redwood Symphony that would make them want to come to one of your concerts, such as the one coming up on April 13 in the Canada College Main Theatre? 
Eric Kujawsky: Having taught at all grade levels, from kindergarten to college, I have seen firsthand that so many people grow up with the absolutely false idea that classical music is boring, and too "upperclass."  I do absolutely agree that the way it has been traditionally marketed has been counterproductive! Redwood Symphony concerts are meant to be a reenergized approach to a very old art form, one which happens to have a huge library of wonderful works written by men and women still writing today.

When I founded Redwood Symphony in 1985, it was my intention that we would be a very non-traditional kind of orchestra.  We've tried to innovate in every possible area, from programming to how we dress to concert format.  In addition to standard repertoire, we feature music written by living composers, and we also do music that is generally considered too risky or ambitious for an all-volunteer group, especially Mahler symphonies, Stravinsky, Bartok, Adams, etc.   Our concerts aren’t stuffy, but they are really engaging, informative and eye-opening—so to speak—and our audiences are trending younger and more casual than you’ll see at most orchestra concerts.  We're attracting a healthy combination of both experienced and non-experienced listeners, all ages, who share an appetite for a range of music.  Check out to find out what we've accomplished (mostly at Canada College; thank you, CC!), sometimes with very little financial resources.  There are free downloadable tracks from our six CDs (available at iTunes and and a complete listing of what we've performed in the past, including many premieres and big projects.  Also, please check out Redwood Symphony's Facebook page and "friend" the orchestra!  It's a good way to get the latest classical music news and information on upcoming concerts and to see a bust of Beethoven in various disguises.

We made our second appearance at Davies Symphony Hall last summer, to great reviews.  In our future is this Saturday's concert at Canada’s theatre, and then two concert performances of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on June 1 and 2, and free outdoor concert in Redwood City on June 29 and an all-Beatles appearance at Redwood City's Fox Theatre on August 10 with the White Album Ensemble:  all original Beatles arrangements with additional symphonic orchestrations.
David Meckler: The program this Saturday, April 13 at 8 p.m., brings together arrangements of Persian music, a new symphony by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, and a practically unknown major early work of impressionist composer Claude Debussy. How did this combination happen?

Eric Kujawsky: I found the Theofanidis through a review in the San Francisco Chronicle by Joshua Kosman. He liked the piece, so I listened to excerpts on iTunes, bought it, and loved it enough to put it in front of a long line of pieces that have been waiting many years to get played! It is such a brilliant work. Its originality comes mainly from its wonderfully alive, shimmering kind of sound, not quite as much as its musical content, which is very accessible without seeming to be derivative. I believe that Theofanidis' first symphony is a potentially popular work, especially for its delightful second movement, a graceful dance done up in an enchanting, faux-Mantovani orchestration that I love because it sounds retro and new at the same time.

I know Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai from when she sang in our recent concert production of Mozart's great opera Don Giovanni ("Don Juan"). She brings an emotionally complete involvement into whatever she sings and I always enjoy working with her. David Garner is the wonderful composer who is bringing this music to life with a symphony orchestra. I always love to perform works in this ethnic, or folk category, as evidenced by many inclusions of Bartok, Kodaly, Lutoslawski, Lou Harrison, etc. Great stuff! These Persian songs, which we're doing with English supertitles, are dynamite in Raeeka's performance. Every rehearsal with her is a revelation.

I can't leave out the opening Petite Suite, by Claude Debussy. He wrote it very early in his career, for piano four hands. A colleague of his orchestrated it years later, and it is one of the most beautiful works by Debussy I know of, a real find. Considered together, the three pieces - Persian, Theofanidis, Debussy - are a great example of the kind of unusual programming that we're known for doing. What we have is really quite a fresh program, music that is uniformly delightful for any concert - goer.

Did I mention that almost all of Redwood Symphony's concerts are free for everyone 18 and under?


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