Dawn Harms is conducting Symphony Parnassus in a spring concert this weekend with guest artist Frederica von Stade at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Harms also plays violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and is Associate Concertmaster of New Century Chamber Orchestra. She spoke with The Opera Tattler on March 19, 2012.
How did you come to be a violinist?
My parents always wanted a violinist in the family. My sister played cello, my brother played viola, and my mother was a voice teacher. I still remember a lot of the etudes and exercises she taught me. She was my accompanist when I was growing up too.
So you are from a musical family! I heard that one of your cousins is Tom Waits, is that true?
Yes, our mothers are sisters. Tom is a great guy. I've played on three of his albums. He'll often tell me that my playing is too sweet, and that I should play more like a child, rough it up more. He really loves the weirdest sounds!
How did you start playing for the opera?
I was in a string quartet in Amarillo, Texas, and that's only 4 hours away from Santa Fe Opera, so I auditioned and played there for 5 summers. The atmosphere there is really something.
How did you meet Frederica von Stade?
It was actually in Santa Fe, and because of recycling. It was early in the morning after a party, and I was recycling some bottles. I happened to see Flicka and introduced myself. She was and is so gracious and down-to-earth.
When did you come to San Francisco?
San Francisco Opera had an opening for the principal violist. I auditioned, and actually, I didn't get the position, the current principal, Carla Maria Rodrigues, did. She couldn't start right away though, so I played principal viola for one season, and then switched to violin.
What appeals to you about opera?
Who doesn't love drama? My favorite operas are Der Rosenkavalier and Peter Grimes. I tend toward the more dramatic. I'm a Puccini freak and also I love Jake Heggie's music.
How is working with other string players different than working with singers?
Playing a string instrument is similar to singing. It is an analogy I use with my students at Stanford, and I have them sing phrases. It helps them connect to the music and emote. The bow is like a vocal cord.
How did you start conducting?
I studied conducting in 2008 at Aspen, for an intensive 9 weeks. It was great to conduct such a fantastic orchestra.
What do you like about conducting?
A lot of people think conducting is about power and egotism, but I would say it is a bit more like dance. It is expressing music through movement, and the whole orchestra becomes your instrument.
Tell me about Symphony Parnassus.
It is a community orchestra made up of doctors, health care workers, and students from UCSF. People have to pay dues in order to join, and they are there for the love of the music. They are very devoted, rehearsing every Monday night after a full day of work.