Violinist Vivian Ling finds friendship amid music in her adopted home of San Francisco

Vivan Ling, violin

Vivan Ling, violin

Imagine being barely in your teens, and traveling halfway around the world by yourself to live in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language.

Five years ago, that’s what faced Boxianzi “Vivian” Ling, 19, when she left China to come to the U.S., continuing her violin studies at Fei Tian Academy of the Arts in San Francisco, and graduating from high school at San Domenico High School in San Anselmo.

“When I first got here, I was alone and lonely,” she said. “I feel much better now. I can talk to people. I have a lot of friends and I play in an orchestra.”

Many of those friends and colleagues are her fellow musicians at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is a freshman studying violin performance with teachers Wei He (who acted as her guardian when she first moved here), and Ian Swensen.

Vivian Ling in rehearsal

Vivian Ling in rehearsal

On March 19, Vivian—winner of the 2016 Parnassus–San Francisco Conservatory of Music Competition—will perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major with Symphony Parnassus. 

With its lyrical melodies and dramatic passages, the Beethoven is a beloved concerto that presents plenty of challenges for its soloist. “It looks simple, but it’s very hard to control everything technically or emotionally,” Vivian said. She has played it once before, and estimates that she will probably spend between three and six hours a day practicing for the concert.

Vivian looks forward to the concert; it is just her second time performing with a full orchestra. “I’m really excited to play with Symphony Parnassus,” she said.

Vivian was born in Hunan province in southern China, and began studying violin at age 5. She said that “right away” her teacher knew she had a gift, and told her parents to send her to Shanghai or Beijing to study music.

Her parents stayed behind in Hunan because of their jobs, but she left home at age 7 with her grandmother to live in Shanghai, where she attended a prestigious elementary school affiliated with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. At age 12, she was featured on China National TV playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto; she has also soloed with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra.

Her musical background comes from both sides of the family: Her mother “plays a little piano,” and has taught music; her father likes to sing and is a music lover who played a lot of classical music recordings when she was growing up. Mozart is her favorite composer because “it reminds me of my childhood in China. My dad liked to play recordings and Mozart was his favorite.”

The musical lineage goes further back to her grandmother, who was a dancer, and a grandfather who was a conductor who played a Chinese instrument similar to a small violin.

Winner of the Young Artists Concerto Competition with Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra in 2012, Vivian served as concertmaster of San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra from 2014-2016. She participated in the SFSYO European tour, performing in the Berlin Philharmonie and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  

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