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He's Passionate About His Supporting Role

Music* As principal second violinist of the Pacific Symphony, Zakarias Grafilo, 26, seeks to help 'make the first violins sound great.'


Some members of an orchestra are more visible than others. The concertmaster--head of the first violin section--makes an entrance after the other musicians have taken their places onstage. He or she receives a separate round of applause, plays solos and performs critical duties that warrant respect.

The principal cellist plays solos too and can easily be seen in the leading role.

But what about the head of the second violin section, obscured by all those first violins? How critical is this position?

"He's the heartbeat of the orchestra," says Pacific Symphony concertmaster Raymond Kobler. "He plays a critical part because he's caught in the middle, coordinating with all the other parts."

The Pacific's principal second, Zakarias A. Grafilo, who turns 27 on Monday, replaced Amy Sims, who become concertmaster of the Omaha Symphony.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Grafilo also was concertmaster of the Stockton Symphony, juggling both roles until he made a total commitment to the Pacific.

He was born and raised in San Francisco, and his mother enrolled him in a Suzuki violin program at San Francisco State when he was 4.

"It was like a new toy," Grafilo said. "I don't think I was the kind of kid who showed a lot of promise on the instrument. I practiced, but I was a little bit indifferent toward it."

Still, he pursued further study in a young musician preparatory program at the San Francisco Conservatory. That led to lessons for four years with Serban Rusu, a student of legendary pedagogue Josef Gingold, and also membership in the San Francisco Youth Orchestra.

"Rusu completely changed how I played the instrument. He got me to think about what it means to play, not necessarily just technically. There were a lot of philosophical lessons he gave to me," says Grafilo, citing advice as mundane as how to plan a daily practice schedule and as sage as how to compare working out something in a piece of music to working through a problem of life. "You could sit down and look at it objectively."

Moved Up Through

the Orchestra's Ranks

The orchestra experience also proved pivotal.

"I learned everything you need to learn about playing in an orchestra, from how you sit to the way you carry yourself in rehearsal, to how you mark your part."

He joined when he was 13, and by the time he was a high school senior, he was concertmaster.

"I moved up through the ranks. I didn't feel like I was anything out of the ordinary, but I felt passionate about what I did. I enjoyed playing chamber music, and that's how I always look at playing music. Even in an orchestra setting, I feel that's just a huge chamber ensemble, and the same principles apply."

For all that, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do as a career. He went to UCLA, first as a music student and then as an undeclared major. But he kept working--in the university orchestra, the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra and the American Youth Symphony.

"I knew I loved what I did, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to pursue a career in music because I knew it would be difficult. I didn't feel like I was the kind of violinist that I wanted to be. I didn't think of myself as one type of person. I would hear how somebody sounds and I would try to emulate it.

"I went through this whole Heifetz phase where I wanted to sound like him. I think a lot of violinists do. There were times I would listen to recordings of Oistrakh or Milstein or Grumiaux, and I would just fall in love with what they were doing on these recordings, and I would want to try to emulate that. They're all very different in how they approach the instrument. There's a lot of tradition there that I picked up on, a lot of artistry."

After UCLA, he returned to San Francisco and its Youth Orchestra, but working on the administrative side. "I was thinking about going into arts management. But music was still in the back of my head. One of the main things that changed how I wanted to pursue my life was chamber music. I started a quartet. We got this residency at San Francisco State. The Alexander Quartet, which was in residency there, helped us out. That got my fire burning again."

He auditioned for the Stockton Symphony in 1999, winning the concertmaster position. A year later, he auditioned for the Pacific Symphony, initially getting a position in the back of the first violin section and then principal second in May when that position opened up. He played his first concert in the new role on July 4.

Because the Pacific holds "blind" auditions--with candidates playing behind a screen to ensure no favoritism or prejudice--his colleagues didn't know he was trying out. But they were delighted when he won.

"My section has been responsive to what I'm doing up there," he said.

After traveling back and forth for two years, he resigned from Stockton in June.

He's Come Full Circle

With His Ex-Mentor

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