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Scion of Oakland's Cohen family musical dynasty will premiere a string quartet concerto with the Marin Symphony

  • October 24, 2012

By Cheryl North

Eisenach, Germany, had its phenomenal Bach family musical dynasty headed by Johann Sebastian back in the 17th and 18th centuries -- and now, Oakland has a musical family dynasty of its own. The Cohen family, headed by matriarch Eleanor, is a modern version. She is an accomplished pianist, soprano, teacher of voice and a highly esteemed emeritus professor of music at what was formerly called Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay). Her home and studio has long been a gathering place for myriad musicians, scholars and friends, as well as a respite for her three musical sons and their extended families.

Her youngest son, Jeremy, 55, is currently adding to his family's musical might with the world premiere of his latest composition, "Concerto Carnevale," a concerto for a string quartet (rather than a single soloist) performing as "soloist" with a full symphony orchestra. The Marin Symphony is presenting the work as the highlight of the two Italian-themed concerts to open its 60th season. Music director Alasdair Neale will conduct, with Cohen's Quartet San Francisco as the concerto's soloists. The Quartet's current members are Cohen on lead violin, second violinist Matthew Szemela, violist Keith Lawrence and cellist Kelley Maultsbach.

While Jeremy and his Quartet San Francisco cohorts dip frequently into the jazz genre, he has firm classical training -- Anne Crowden, the founder and longtime head of Berkeley's Crowden School, was one of his first teachers, and he later studied with the iconic Israeli-born violinist Itzhak Perlman. During past years, Jeremy could often be seen in the violin sections of local orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony, during performances of big, stage-filling masterworks such as the Mahler, Tchaikovsky or Bruckner symphonies.

Now his symphonic gigs are usually stage front-and-center as violin virtuoso. He has performed as soloist with many symphony orchestras, but he also performs at such jazz venues as Yoshi's. His jazz violin style, which is nothing less than breathtaking, has been compared to jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie South.

His primary passion at present seems to be Quartet San Francisco, an ensemble so good that in 2004, it was awarded first prize in the International Tango Competition in New York City. The tango, of course, is usually associated with ensembles of guitars, bandoneons and a lot of Argentines. So, for a string quartet of classical instruments to win any kind of tango prize, let alone an international first place, is quite an accomplishment. In addition to several successful tours worldwide, three of the Quartet's albums have received a total of five Grammy nominations. Future Bay Area appearances will be with Symphony Silicon Valley, and early next year in a concert dedicated to tango music with the Peninsula Symphony, which will include dancers from Jeremy's days as lead violinist in the touring "Forever Tango" troupe.

Jeremy's eldest sibling, Josh, even though he works as a high-tech consultant, keeps his bowing arm limber by playing occasional concerts with various Bay Area music groups and serving as conductor for the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra. Another brother, Joel, served as co-principal cellist with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1985, was principal cellist for the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He is now a member of the music faculty of the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, there's another generation of Cohen musicians tuning up. One of Jeremy's sons, Gabriel, has a stirring tenor voice and has been awarded a fellowship to study opera at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Another son, Zachary, who according to Jeremy loves music, works very hard at what he calls "a real job": He's the equipment manager for the Golden State Warriors, his proud dad says.

Jeremy's "Concerto Carnevale" has its world premiere with the Marin Symphony on a program that also includes Rossini's Overture to "The Barber of Seville," Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony and Respighi's "Pines of Rome." Concert time is 3 p.m. Sunday, followed by a gala celebration; there is a concert-only repeat at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Both take place at Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. Single tickets, $29 to $70 each, are at 415-499-6800 or

BEHIND THE SCENES: Ever wonder what it looks like backstage at the San Francisco Opera House and how its whiz-bang technologies create such marvels as dragons with smoke and fire spewing out of their snouts, monstrous whales and crumbling temple columns?

You can see and hear how such wonders happen, as well as participate in family activities such as prop-making, a scavenger hunt and two screenings, with a live introduction, of "Carmen for Families -- The Movie!" at a free Community Open House. There will also be music demonstrations from Nicola Luisotti, the opera's charismatic music director, the Opera Orchestra and Chorus, two of the stars of this season's "Tosca," and more. If you register at the opera's website beforehand, you will also be entered in a drawing to win four tickets to the opera's presentation of Nolan Gasser's family-oriented "The Secret Garden," a world-premiere co-presented with Cal Performances in March.

The open house is Nov. 10, running from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Call 415-864-3330 or go to for more information.


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