Urs Leonhardt Steiner was raised in Chur, a city in Switzerland with civilization dating back as far 3900 BC, which may explain why he carries passion from the ages when conducting. As a child, his musical parents taught him and his nine siblings to sing on pitch, and the family sang in harmony every day. Urs showed talent early on, and as a teenager he studied classical guitar in Zurich and Berlin, and later came to the United States to study classical performance, composition and conducting at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
After more than 30 years leading the Community Music Center Orchestra and the San Francisco Sinfonietta, Urs combined the two to create the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (GGSOC) where amateurs and professionals perform together. In January, a new Benicia chapter began with a spring performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with full orchestra, and in November Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. On December 14, the Benicia chorus will join the orchestra again to perform Handel’s Messiah oratorio at Northgate Church.
BM: What are some of your guiding principles as a conductor?
Urs: My orchestra is both amateur and professional, which is a big deal. It has 60% amateurs and 40% professionals. Amateurs bring an energy and love for the music. Music is very emotional, and that’s something we don’t need to train for. We just need to open the door. When you put the emotions into it, playing and singing becomes a lot easier.
BM: What made you decide to bring a chorus to Benicia?
Urs: Larnie and Bodil Fox, who live in Benicia, have been in my chorus in San Francisco for more than 20 years. With their help about five years ago we did Mozart’s Requiem here at the Clocktower and it was very successful. So, this year we tried Carmina Burana, and about 32 Benicia members joined. It’s very important that Gaspard Mbole was able to become the music director here. He is my assistant in San Francisco. I knew that the chorus would be in good hands with him.
BM: What is your vision for the Benicia site?
Urs: I would like to invite more people to come and sing, and to establish this chorus and orchestra as part of the yearly cultural experience in Benicia. In the spring we will do an homage to Frida Kahlo. She was in love with the indigenous music of Mexico, and Russian music too. We’ll culminate the performance with a fashion show. At the end of the season we’ll be working on a big oratorio by African American composer Udine Smith Moore in honor of Martin Luther King.
BM: What would you say to those singers who are beginners and may feel intimidated about joining the chorus?
Urs: The most important thing is that if you love to sing, you are at the right place. We know how to train singers, and we have the tools to help you out. The music is serious, but the experience can be lighter. The key to becoming a singer is singing! You need to be willing to do the work. Over the past 30 years I have had probably 2,000 singers in the chorus, and about 40% of them had struggles. But now 97% of them are still singing.
For more information about upcoming concerts:
Handel’s Sing it Yourself Messiah
December 9, Herbst Theater, San Francisco, 7:30pm
December 14, Northgate Church, Benicia, 7pm