Born to play: Pianist Parker Van Ostrand performs Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2 on Jan. 29

Parker Van Ostrand, piano

Parker Van Ostrand, piano

At age 3, Parker Van Ostrand knew he wanted to play the piano, and pestered his parents for a full year before they bought him one.

“They were puzzled about how I came to know about the piano at such a young age, especially since no one in our family or extended family plays the piano,” he says.  

It’s a good thing they paid attention to their persistent son.

One year after he began playing piano, at age 5, he won the gold medal at the American Association for the Development of the Gifted and Talented (AADGT) competition and was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. He has since returned to Carnegie Hall twice, and has also performed in various cities throughout the U.S., Japan, and Singapore. He was a finalist in the Mondavi Young Artist Competition in 2016, and currently studies with Linda Nakagawa and Natsuki Fukasawa.

On Jan. 29, Parker, 13, will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major with Symphony Parnassus at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco. “I am honored and excited to have the opportunity to perform with Symphony Parnassus. I hope the audience will enjoy the Beethoven as much as I do.”

Of the Beethoven, he says, “this piece is full of different characters, from charming at the beginning of the first movement to the beautiful melodies in the second movement to the lively dance in the third movement,” he said.

An 8th grader, Parker lives with his parents and two brothers in Sacramento, Calif. Though he was the first pianist in the family (one brother now plays, too), he wasn’t the first musician; his mom, Juliette Luong, studied cello at Eastman School of Music.

In addition to playing the piano, Parker enjoys running and runs for his school’s track team as well as the Pacific Racers Athletic Association. In the summer of 2016, he participated in the Junior Olympics. He also enjoys painting and learning Japanese.

'Awaken to the joy' of Mahler with singer Silvie Jensen

Silvie Jensen, mezzo soprano

Silvie Jensen, mezzo soprano

Mezzo soprano Silvie Jensen always knew that she wanted to be a singer, and recalls knowing as early as age 4 or 5. “The voice is everyone’s first instrument, and the depth of emotion one can express with it is what drew me to singing,” she says.

Silvie will perform in the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (the song, Das himmlische Leben, which presents a child’s vision of heaven), and in his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) four-song cycle at Symphony Parnassus’ season-opening concert on Sunday, Nov. 6 (3 p.m.) at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

“I love this music very much for the beauty of the melodies,” she says, “and for the depth of feeling — sad, happy, loving and tender, harsh and wounded, optimistic, yet despairing…and for its masterful use of the colors of the orchestra. I feel ecstatic being able to sing it.”

Silvie says she feels honored to perform with Symphony Parnassus. “I hope our performance moves people deeply,” she says. “The last line of (Mahler’s) Fourth Symphony says ‘The voices of the angels stir the senses, so that everyone awakens in joy.’ I hope both audience and performers will be so stirred, that we will all awaken into joy together!”

A native of Hollister, Calif., she currently lives in San Francisco, after having moved back from New York City last year to be closer to family and to participate in the Bay Area’s vibrant arts scene. She has sung with San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera, plus she has performed with many opera companies and symphonies in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and on tour and at festivals in Canada, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

She began singing seriously at age 10 and later went to Columbia University and also studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College of Music in New York. A highly sought oratorio soloist, she won 2nd place in the 2014 Oratorio Society of New York Solo Competition, and that year also made her solo debut at Carnegie Hall in a sold-out concert of Handel’s Messiah.

Composer Cwik's latest piece inspired by Arthurian legend

Stefan Cwik, composer

Stefan Cwik, composer

In The Sword in the Stone, a concerto for English horn and orchestra, composer Stefan Cwik uses the solo instrument as the “voice” of Merlyn the wizard, leading the way for magical adventures with talking animals and daring knights as he educates the future King Arthur in this famous story.

“The first thing I thought of with ‘The Sword in the Stone’ is that it has to be light, because the English horn is not a loud instrument,” he said, describing Merlyn’s voice as “low and lyrical, can be seductive, but is not shimmery or pretty.”

The challenge, he said, was for the English horn and the orchestra to “have a conversation without the soloist being drowned out.”

Cwik, 29, is no stranger to Symphony Parnassus, which has premiered his Concert Dances for Orchestra, as well as his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. He has a degree in composition from San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree in composition from the Juilliard School in New York, where he won the Juilliard Orchestral Competition for two consecutive years.

Originally from Chicago, Stefan came to San Francisco to study guitar performance at the conservatory, but found his true calling when he switched to composition. He cites influences such as Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He also likes a lot of American folk music, which finds its way into his compositions.

Though other members of his family played instruments, he is the first to have pursued a musical career. The son of a lawyer (his father), and a retired judge (his mother), Stefan said he feels fortunate that his parents valued education and encouraged his interest in music. He studied trumpet and guitar growing up. “I am lucky,” he said. “I got the extra push to do it, but no one ever had to make me practice. I always wanted to do it.”

Stefan Cwik, Stephen Paulson, and Russ deLuna discuss Cwik's English horn concerto during rehearsal

Stefan Cwik, Stephen Paulson, and Russ deLuna discuss Cwik's English horn concerto during rehearsal

English horn soloist deLuna leads 'wizardly' journey in new concerto

Russ deLuna, soloist

Russ deLuna, soloist

Russ deLuna, who performs the English horn solo in composer Stefan Cwik’s “The Sword in the Stone,” has been playing music since childhood, but his appearance with Symphony Parnassus marks several “firsts”: It is his first time working directly with a composer; his first time premiering a brand new work as soloist; and it is his first time as a soloist with conductor Stephen Paulson, his friend and fellow double-reed colleague at the San Francisco Symphony. 

“It’s fun to see (Steve) use his talents in a different way other than the bassoon,” Russ says. “It’s kind of a blast to watch him conduct. He’s a great musician.”

Russ calls Steve, principal bassoon with the Symphony, one of his “favorite players” in the orchestra, with whom he chats a lot about, well, music, but what else? Making reeds, a time-intensive side job and hobby for the double-reed players. The English horn, which is “not English, and not a horn,” Russ jokes, is the alto instrument of the oboe family.

English horn soloist Russ deLuna during rehearsal

English horn soloist Russ deLuna during rehearsal

He says he is excited to work with Cwik—also a colleague at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music—and is enjoying the process of being the first soloist to interpret the adventurous new piece in which, according to the composer, the English horn takes on the voice of Merlyn, the famed wizard of Arthurian legend.

“It’s so fun to know that I am the first to ever play it,” Russ said.      

Russ, a member of the San Francisco Symphony since 2007, occupies the Joseph and Pauline Scafidi Chair. He has appeared as soloist in such pieces as “Quiet City,” by Aaron Copland, and “The Swan of Tuonela” by Jean Sibelius. He played recently with the New York Philharmonic, and this summer, performs as a member of the Saito Kinen Orchestra in Matsumoto, Japan.