If every crisis is also an opportunity, Michelle Chang has found a particularly mellifluous response to the pandemic.
The conservatory-trained opera singer and educator watched with dismay as Covid-19-induced restrictions left her musical friends and colleagues largely unemployed. Even in the best of times, many musicians working in chamber music and symphonic settings cobble together a living as “freeway philharmonic” contract players, traversing the region from weddings to corporate functions to concert halls.
Working largely as a voice teacher in Palo Alto, Chang felt compelled to help stanch the loss of gigs. “Something changed in me,” said Chang, who relocated from Zurich, Switzerland, to San Francisco with her tech-employed husband in 2016. “I wanted to organize something. The idea came very soon, so I changed from singer and educator to curator and impresario.”
In February she launched SF Salon Music, and in September she presented her first event, which paired classical guitarist Juri Yun (playing pieces by Scarlatti, Piazzolla, and Bach) with a talk by fashion scholar Leslie Rabine, “the ideal person to combine these two art forms,” Chang said. “She did a fantastic presentation about how fashion changed from the 18th to the 19th centuries to Levi Strauss in San Francisco. She described what someone might wear to a salon in Paris in the 1700s.”
The events are held at the Verdi Club, an overlooked Art Deco gem on Mariposa Street that has served as a social hub for more than a century. Chang’s idea is to create a series that makes chamber music and kindred traditions more approachable and sociable, combining musical performances with other creative pursuits. She modeled the format, with time to mingle, sip and nibble, with fellow patrons and artists before the performance, on her own love of sharing unexpected artistic experiences with people.
Chang presents her second salon, “Call and Response,” Sunday with a program featuring an unusual string duo of San Francisco cellist James Jaffe, a widely traveled player who serves as artistic director of the summer chamber music-focused Festival Rolland in Burgundy, France, and Alexandra Simpson, California Symphony’s recently appointed assistant principal violist who’s upcoming gigs include performances with the Modesto Symphony and Opera San Antonio. They’re paired with dancers Alex and Katie Roy, siblings who’ve been in ballet productions together since they were kids. She teaches classes in LINES Ballet’s Teens @ LINES program.
Chang, who lives in the Duboce Triangle, was intrigued by “this rare combination of viola and cello, which are both supporting instruments,” she said. “Alexandra arranged some music composed for violin, with some tango elements and some modern pieces. Their program invited me to think of dance, and I found two dancers who seemed perfect. The salon idea is that there is more than one dimension to expression. As a composer, I might write music about four seasons, and a pianist plays it, but a painter or a fashion designer responds to the idea of four seasons totally differently. I want to bring unexpected art forms together in one salon.”
It’s easy to see why Katie Roy appealed to Chang, as she’s no stranger to the idea of combining dance with other intellectual endeavors. She graduated from Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College with honors in both physics and mathematics, and returned to her alma mater in 2015 as a guest artist to premiere a work based on concepts in acoustic physics. She presented an early iteration of the piece in a collaborative salon with Professor L. Koss, exploring connections between differential equations and art.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Chang grew up studying piano and discovered her passion for singing in a children’s choir. After she graduated from a prestigious music and arts high school, her voice teacher suggested that the best path to continue her study of Western classical music would be in a Western country. At 19, the soprano moved to Germany. After a year of studying the language and music theory, she passed the entrance exam for Mannheim University of Music and Performing Arts, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance.
But like for so many college graduates, the path forward wasn’t at all clear. “I didn’t have a mentor to tell me what to do, how to go about having a career as a vocalist. I thought it might be a good thing to get an education degree. If something happens to my voice when I get older, I can teach.”
Armed with a master’s degree in education from Mannheim University, she started looking for performing opportunities, and hit paydirt in Zurich in 2006, when she signed a contract with the opera house and performed regularly over the next decade. She also co-founded the Volksoper Zürich, a performance series that served as a proving ground for the vision animating SF Salon Music.
“I always believed that music and art are supposed to be part of our lives, accessible to everyone, not just for the elite group,” she said. “It’s enriching our life. I already had that experience in Switzerland, so when I quit my job last February, I started SF Salon Music. I want to bring people together to discover music and art and talk about it and enjoy this experience.”
For now, Chang is doing all the work herself, booking the concerts, promoting the events, managing ticket sales. She’s hoping the Salon finds a following and financial support, though she knows “you need time to build trust. I’m not expecting people who don’t know me to give me a lot of money. I would like to have patron sponsors that regularly support the series so I can focus on creating my art, but I know I have to be patient and do good work.”