Old First Concerts welcomes back pianist Samantha Cho

Virtuoso enjoys ‘heightened’ feelings of hybrid performances

Solo pianist Samantha Cho, appearing in San Francisco this weekend, has no qualms about hybrid performances that have become popular during the pandemic. She likes them.

“When it’s both live and broadcast, it’s definitely more pressure, but I think that it’s healthy for the artists, because when so many people are listening, you feel more heightened emotionally,” says Cho, who plays an Aug. 15 socially distanced concert in San Francisco’s Old First Church that will be live-streamed.

In a program spanning eras and genres, the dazzling Los Angeles-born chamber recitalist will perform Scarlatti’s Sonatas in C major and D minor; Mozart’s Rondo in A minor and Sonata in B-flat major; Brahms’ “Intermezzi”; and Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Toccata Troncata” and “Invention.”

Initially, Cho thought the concert would be solely virtual, and intended to play only works by Mozart and Gubaidulina, but she altered the program to better accommodate a hybrid audience.

Although the pieces range from the sweet delicacy of Brahms to the haunting intensity of Gubaidulina, Cho says there’s a level of “intimacy” and “inwardness” throughout the program, parts of which strike a personal note.

The Sonata in B-flat major, she says, “was my very first piece by Mozart, so that’s very nostalgic for me to bring it back after all these years.”

On the other hand, Gubaidulina, considered one of the foremost Russian composers of the second half of the 20th century, was a new discovery for Cho. The female composer’s pieces are characterized by strong spirituality, unusual instrumental combinations, intense chromatic moves and symbolism.

Cho, a music instructor at Pierce College and Southwest College in Southern California, has taught pre-college chamber music at San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is a frequent visitor to The City, logging performances with San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox series and, with violinist Florin Parvulescu and cellist Eric Sung, at Old First Concerts in 2019.

Old First Concerts Director Matt Wolka, who admires her musicality, expressiveness and technical abilities, asked Cho back to perform works by woman composer.

“She also has a real curiosity about her programs and really researches the music carefully,” says Wolka, who’s headed up the 51-year-old concert series since 2017.

In 1970, a pastor and amateur musician from Old First Presbyterian Church began the series with a desire to present affordable concerts in the neighborhood. The series has since separated from the church to become an independent nonprofit, but maintains its original mission.

Old First Church, which was established in the mid-1800s and destroyed and rebuilt following the 1906 earthquake, has long been active in social causes. And during the pandemic, even with the church closed, Old First Concerts found ways continue to connect to the community.

“We took the initiative to buy equipment in order to create live-stream concerts, and we have created our internet capability. We live-streamed concerts from June of 2020 until May of this year,” says Wolka.

In the spring, hybrid concerts – which received “tremendous” response — were introduced. Wolka is grateful for the loyal audience throughout the pandemic and traces much of the series’ success to patrons who gave financial support or tuned into livestreams.

“Our average audience for the four (hybrid) concerts we’ve done so far has been around 75 — so very good audiences,” he says.

Welcoming back audiences has been rewarding not only for patrons.

“Musicians want people to hear their music, especially when there’s a live audience to get immediate feedback and energy from the people in the room. Even with the mask and with the separating, it’s just wonderful to have people in the space again,” says Wolka, who hopes the venue can open more fully in December for audiences in time for holiday concerts — safety guidelines permitting.

IF YOU GO

Samantha Cho

Presented by Old First Concerts

Where: Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St., S.F.

When: 4 p.m. Aug. 15; also live streamed

Tickets: $25

Contact: (415) 474-1607, oldfirstconcerts.org

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