A couple of weeks ago, the new session of the book group I lead at Book Passage had its first meeting. That’s where I met Barbara Bogatin—who had read not only the book we would discuss with its writer, but her previous book, delighting the author, needless to say. Even more impressive, Bogatin told us she plays cello with the San Francisco Symphony. Led by Michael Tilson Thomas since 1995, this orchestra is truly one of the best in the country.
When I asked Bogatin where she lives, she said, “Corte Madera.” That’s how I came to learn (and you will) about the interesting life of a professional musician.
It takes years, of course, to attain the skills required by a topnotch orchestra. Bogatin started down that road as a child in Philadelphia. Remember music education? In those days, a national program called Young Audiences, founded in 1952 to promote arts education, regularly sent professional musicians to perform in public schools, and even an inner-city elementary school like Bogatin’s had a student orchestra. (Actually, Young Audiences is still alive; its website says it reached five million children last year.)
When she saw a local string quartet perform, Bogatin told her parents, “I’d like to play one of those,” pointing to the violins and cello. The school, which loaned instruments to its student musicians, had already handed out the violins; so she became a cellist, “partly by choice and partly by chance.” Playing a diminutive cello, she eventually performed in a city-wide orchestra, even in a little quartet. (She got a standard cello in high school.)
When we set up our interview, Bogatin sent me this photo with Yo-Yo Ma—or rather, Yo-Yo Ma! the great cellist of our time. It was taken last month after Ma’s most recent performance with the symphony. Turns out the two have known each other since they were at Juilliard, the renowned school of music, dance, and drama in New York. “You could tell he was a whole lot better than anyone else around,” says Bogatin. “Even then, the talent and emotion and raw ability were absolutely present.”
Ma went on to Harvard (where, in an unbelievable coincidence, he was in the same dorm as the man Bogatin married years later). Bogatin went on to the peripatetic life of a freelance musician. Over the years and sometimes concurrently, she played in the American Ballet Theatre orchestra; for the Martha Graham Dance Company; in a Baroque music group called Aston Magna (for which she played Baroque cello and the even more baroque viola da gamba), on cruise ships with a string quartet; even for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
It’s funny to picture a classical musician performing at a wedding in the afternoon and in a Broadway show that night, but—yes. Bogatin was a substitute player in the Broadway pit orchestra for the original Sweeney Todd, for instance, and for Evita when her former Juilliard colleague Patti LuPone was the star. Meanwhile, for 10 years she was a regular substitute and toured all over the world with the New York Philharmonic; she subbed in the esteemed Metropolitan Opera orchestra, too.
Here she met her old friend James Conlon, whom she’d known at Juilliard: He conducted one of the then three orchestras and dated a friend of hers. Bogatin happened to be subbing at the Met when Conlon made his debut there, conducting La Bohème.
Fast-forward some 20 years. Bogatin has left freelancing behind (“I wanted to have a life”), married, had two children. After eight years as principal cellist with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and two years as acting principal cellist with the Milwaukee Symphony, Bogatin joined the San Francisco Symphony in 1994 and moved to Marin.
Next week, she will perform in a program with guest conductor James Conlon. This concert features epic work by two Russian composers: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14—11 linked settings of poems for soprano, bass, string orchestra, and percussion—and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s most famous work (originally written for solo piano), Pictures at an Exhibition.
“That’s such a fun piece,” Bogatin says of the latter, “so evocative and so colorful. Each movement represents a different painting, with themes played by the brass that take you walking through the galleries in between. The pictures come to life if you’ve seen them, and if you haven’t, it’s easy to imagine them. And Jimmy is a wonderful conductor.”