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Arts & Entertainment

Sonoma summer music fest plays Beethoven the way he wanted you to hear it

Co-Festival Director Eric Zivian performs at the keyboard of his 1841 Viennese pianoforte | Courtesy Sandra Martin-Dent/Valley of the Moon Festival

The Valley of the Moon Music Festival has all the right ingredients for a compelling performance series: gorgeous wine country backdrops, alfresco music with food and wine, talented musicians playing beloved compositions. 

Yet there’s something else that sets this outfit apart, making it unlike any other classical music offering. 

The musicians play on strings made of gut, with bows of different shapes. The festival has multiple pianos onstage, including a fortepiano from the early 19th century, which yields a softer sound with more varied tones. 

The performers and organizers do all this in an effort to play the music in the most authentic way possible—on the exact kind of instrument that would have been available to Brahms and Beethoven and Schubert when they composed their music. 

“It changes all this familiar repertoire,” said Tanya Tomkins, a cellist and the festival’s co-director. “It affects everything, completely changing your phrasing and what the music means.” 

The summer music festival is now in its ninth season and remains firmly committed to presenting Romantic and Classical-era repertoire, which is roughly from 1750 to 1940. 

The goal is to perform the music the way it would have been when it was written. It all results in a fresh take on beloved masterpieces, with a more intimate listening experience. 

Festival Co-Directors Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian perform together | Courtesy Margot Moritz/Valley of the Moon Festival

“People notice the difference,” said co-director Eric Zivian, who also plays the fortepiano.

The festival will include six afternoon performances at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma over three weekends in July as well as casual weekday evening concerts alfresco that have food and wine. 

Highlights are shows at the scenic Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and the press house at the historic Buena Vista Winery—by some counts, the oldest winery in Sonoma Valley. The festival also sponsors an apprenticeship program, which presents five emerging artists as students each season. 

Apprentices Toma Iliev, Jessica Park and Eugenio Solinas pose with faculty member Liana Bérubé | Courtesy John Hefti/Valley of the Moon Festival

The fact that musicians play on period instruments means that, at times, the festival has up to three different pianos onstage: one from the early 19th century and one from the mid-19th century as well as one from the early 20th century. 

“Transporation is an important part of our production,” Tomkins said. 

But lugging around so many instruments is well worth the end results of a commitment to authenticity. 

“A whole world of color becomes available,” Tomkins said.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at