Q&A with Conductor & Philanthropist Paul Schrage

Paul Schrage

Swords to Plowshares is hosting its 2nd annual Summer Solstice Symphony Concert on June 19, 2018 with Paul Schrage at the beautiful and historic Herbst Theater at the Veterans War Memorial Building & Performance Art Center. Schrage is an orchestral conductor, concert pianist, and musical director for Symphonia Caritas, a San Francisco bay area orchestra whose mission is to improve the lives of those in need through benefit and free symphony concerts. We asked him about his music and community work.

We were fortunate to begin a partnership with Symphonia Caritas for our inaugural concert in 2017, but how did the organization find its start?

We started in 2015 with a benefit concert for the Lima Center, a daytime shelter for the homeless in Pacific Heights. Since then we have been very fortunate to establish close relationships with incredible organizations like Swords to Plowshares. The orchestra always puts on a beautiful, professional concert to be enjoyed by both people steeped in and new to classical music. For each performance, our expectation is either to raise more than it costs to put on the concert, or to bring the beauty of the performance more directly to those in need and without means to otherwise experience the beauty of a classical orchestra concert. For example, we have performed for the guests of the Gubbio Proejct, St. Vincent de Paul, and the residents of Swords to Plowshares.

What led you to Symphonia Caritas? Tell us more about your role with the organization.

I handle everything that is necessary to pull off a great concert on stage. I hire musicians, select repertoire and secure parts, and conduct the rehearsals and concert. When we’re not in concert mode I’m busy fundraising for the orchestra and building relationships with our partner organizations. The partner organizations cover all the outreach, marketing, and sales to ensure the concerts are well attended, in the right venue, and meeting fundraising goals. Therefore, it’s very important that Symphonia Caritas and our partners are completely in sync. This requires planning and coordination, so pulling off just one concert is the result of a year of work.

We love that Symphonia Caritas puts together music and good causes. Why is hosting benefit concerts so pivotal to the Symphonia Caritas mission?

Benefit concerts provide a much-needed opportunity for an organization to connect with their supporters. Part of this is raising money and part of it is strengthening the community and sense of connection between the organization and supporters. This also creates space to grow that community, as donors have another compelling way to introduce friends and acquaintances to the beneficiary organization.

How do you approach coordinating and selecting musicians for Symphonia Caritas projects? How do you get professional musicians that hail from different symphonies and outfits invested in the cause of each benefit concert?

I’ve been living and working as a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade, and I’m fortunate to have so many wonderful colleagues who I know well and work with regularly. Having said that, we don’t ask them for favors. All the musicians are paid for their services. So while most musicians feel that our benefit concerts are a little extra special, it’s still a professional gig and they bring their A game. Most of our budget goes to paying the musicians.

I am extra thankful to our soloists who play with us. These are incredibly busy musicians, travelling and performing all year round, and I’m asking them to play an entire concerto for only one night. They practice for weeks and months before the concert, just for that one performance, while juggling busy careers. Ian’s performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto last year was the results of hundreds of hours of work. And Jeff this year is making the same commitment. It’s an honor to be able to work closely with musicians who have this level of dedication.

We’re thankful to Symphonia Caritas for helping us raise critical funds for veterans. Why did Symphonia Caritas choose to establish a partnership with Swords to Plowshares and the veterans we serve?

Veterans constitute an outsized proportion of the overall homeless population, and we’re proud to partner with Swords to Plowshares in raising money to heal wounds of war, restore dignity, hope, and self-sufficiency, and prevent and end homelessness and poverty among all veterans in need. We knew the reputation of Swords to Plowshares as an organization. I was always confident Swords to Plowshares had the ability to execute on all the dimensions a benefit concert requires. We provide the music, but our partner organizations own the event. We never had any doubt Swords to Plowshares would make the most of the opportunity and put on a world-class event.

Can you speak more to your personal support of veterans? Why is it important to you that this concert raises money for services provided to veterans?

As Americans, my wife and I are deeply grateful to the veterans who have sacrificed for our protection and defense. In addition, I have always felt a close connection to the military. My father was a Vietnam-era veteran, and my family members have served in almost every conflict since WWII. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have more directly impacted our generation, and I have close friends who served in both. So anything I can do to give back to those who served in the armed services is personally very satisfying to me.

What can the audience at the 2nd Summer Solstice Symphony Concert expect to hear? Does the concert’s music selection align with the concert’s mission in any way?

The centerpiece of the concert is Jeff La Deur performing Frederic Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Jeff and I discussed repertoire for weeks before deciding what he would play. We had a shortlist of concertos, and he actually played through the shortlist before we decided on the Chopin. The concerto matches Jeff’s artistry so well that it was the clear winner. After the concerto we will perform Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which he wrote as an imitation to a Haydn symphony. It’s very accessible and a great introduction to the composer. The concert opens with a Mozart overture, which is a wonderful welcoming to the set.

This range of pieces speaks to the range of the human experience, and the beauty that can be found throughout. From the poorest among us to the richest, we all feel love and despair, triumph and tragedy; and this music expresses that which we all share as humans. As with so much in life, we must devote attention to the music to appreciate the depths of its beauty. Coming together in an auditorium with a whole community of listeners to hear the music performed live enables this attention and appreciation far more than iTunes can. All this music was written for live audiences; a whole orchestra of musicians physically coming together to perform for an eager audience.

Is there anything else you’d like our audience to know about the concert?

I think there’s a sense among many people who are not already fans of classical music that you need to be knowledgeable about it to enjoy it. That may be true of some corners of the repertoire, but I carefully chose pieces that were accessible, and whose intended excitement, sorrow, sweetness, suspense, and tranquility shone through even to the uninitiated. Some members of the audience might be lifelong fans of classical music, and perhaps musicians themselves, and we are sure they will enjoy the concert. But even if you have never gone to an orchestra concert before, I encourage you to just trust your ears. Don’t worry about knowing what is “right”– just come have a good time, and you will.


Join us for the 2nd annual Summer Solstice Symphony Concert with Paul and Symphonia Caritas. Get more info about tickets, sponsorship, and the event on our Summer Concert page.