San Francisco and the Bay Area have some of the world’s best-known performing arts organizations and cultural offerings. As a listener-supported station, we think it’s important to let listeners know about activities, concerts, soloists and ensembles coming through the area, and with that we offer you this daily feature. The State of the Artson Classical KDFC airs weekdays, just before 8 am, 1 pm, and 6 pm. The features are produced by Jeffrey Freymann, a veteran of National Public Radio’s Arts Desk and Performance Today. Tune in, subscribe to the podcast, visit this page to hear the latest edition of Classical KDFC’s The State of the Arts! Or explore the archives of past episodes.
Nicola Benedetti plays music of Vivaldi and his contemporaries with the Venice Baroque Orchestra next Friday and Saturday at Cal Performances and the Mondavi Center. The Scottish violinist says her repertoire of Vivaldi concerti has been constantly growing each time she returns to the music of the Italian Baroque.
The centerpiece of the program is Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which Benedetti thinks is too often dismissed as overplayed. "It’s part of our duty to remember that everybody coming to the concert is not sitting, playing or listening to Vivaldi Four Seasons all day every day. They’re coming to hear something that, yes, they’re most likely familiar with, at least some themes, but there’s a great majority of the music within those four concertos that people don’t know all that well. I also didn’t play the Four Seasons until I was probably in my 20s, so that was a blessing, because I didn’t have the chance to get sick of it before I was even 20 years old!" She says in particular that new discoveries are in store at a VBO performance. "A lot of people reference Vivaldi violin concertos as sounding quite similar to each other, but the deeper you go into discovering his voice, that becomes kind of disproved more and more. And being surrounded by the members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and having any exposure to Andrea Marcon as a person, as a musician, as a harpsichordist, it’s impossible not to be pushed and pulled in an unexpected direction."
Thursday, February 16
The California Symphony decided about five seasons ago to launch Sound Minds, a music education program that would be in the style of the 'El Sistema' program that began in Venezuela. E.M. Downer Elementary School in San Pablo now has students in second through sixth grade learning violin, cello, and musicianship for free three times a week. Principal Marco Gonzales says it's improved their level of concentration and focus.
"It was an easy yes, without really knowing what we were going to get ourselves into," Gonzales says. "But just knowing that the kids would have the opportunity of a lifetime, something that we couldn’t provide through district funds or even through parents. And so, for me the magic here is that we’re exposing kids to music, and the arts, and creativity, and giving them the opportunity to think and do something that they probably never even imagined doing before the program arrived." The students build up slowly, beginning in the second grade. Amy Haltom teaches Strings and is the Sound Minds Program Co-ordinator. "Most kids don’t have specific musical experience when they come to the program," she says. "They do a curriculum on paper instruments first to sort of learn about what it means to focus together in a music class. They graduate from there to their real instruments, where they start learning some very basic elements of how to play the open strings, how to make a clear tone on the violin or the cello." Principal Gonzales says the reaction from teachers and parents has been consistent. ""'Oh, our kids can do that?' Because the opportunity wasn’t there before. It lifted up the whole school, I think, in a way of believing in the potential, and the power of our kids."
Wednesday, February 15
Just a few months before they disbanded last summer, the members of the Cypress String Quartet made one last recording, of the Brahms Sextets. They invited their friends, violist Barry Shiffman and cellist Zuill Bailey, and a small audience to join them at the Scoring Stage at Skywalker Ranch, and gave a live performance that was captured on their new CD. Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says recording it live helped capture the spirit they were going for.
The ensemble had played together for 20 seasons, including recording and playing complete Beethoven cycles, but as Jennifer Kloetzel explains, they wanted to fit more in: "We sat down to talk about the different passion projects that we wanted to make sure we completed before we finished. So, ‘we want to record this, this, this, this, and this…' We couldn’t do all of them, but the Brahms sextets were really important for us to do. Partly because we had been playing them for a number of seasons with these collaborators, with the amazing Zuill Bailey and Barry Shiffman, and it felt right." The decision to play with friends for the final CD led them to decide to invite an audience to join them. "We were going to make this project very intimate, so we’d invited good friends in to play with us for the sextets, we invited friends and fans to sit there with us and make the recording." And while intimate, they were also playing 'without a net': "If you’re recording for ten hours a day, you might be repeating a section dozens of times… You’re always seeking the best take, the perfect take. There was the extra stress of wanting the perfect take, but having to do it in front of a live audience, and in that one go. So, it was very exciting."
Tuesday, February 14
For Valentine's Day, a day of romance, a look at one composer's wide interpretation of what a "Romance" should sound like: Ralph Vaughan Williams covered the high, (very) low, familiar, and off the beaten path in four works with that name or description.
The first, and best known of them is the work known as "The Lark Ascending" - but its full title adds "Romance for Violin and Orchestra". The solo line floats above the orchestral accompaniment like a bird over the English countryside.
Vaughan Williams' "Romance for Viola and Piano" was only discovered among his works after his death - it shows that there's room for romance even for the much-maligned viola... But the two remaining works are for instruments that get even less respect (or less frequent opportunities to shine in front of an orchestra) - the harmonica, and the tuba. The 1951 "Romance in D-flat for Harmonica and Orchestra" was written for virtuoso Larry Adler, and it remains one of the few large-scale works in the repertoire. A few years later, in 1954, and a few octaves lower, the slow movement of the "Tuba Concerto in F Minor" is labelled "Romanza" (as he also called a movement in his fifth symphony.) Proving that for Vaughan Williams, every instrument deserves a little romance.
Monday, February 13
The Choral Project, with soloists including Frederica von Stade, perform Street Requiem, a work written to focus more attention on the problem of homelessness, and what can be done to end it. A portion of the proceeds from the performances, in San Jose on Wednesday night, and Santa Cruz on Saturday, will benefit non-profits that work to help the homeless in those communities.
The work was written by three Australian composers, including Kathleen McGuire, conductor laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, and founder of the SF homeless choir Singers of the Street. The Choral Project music director Daniel Hughes says Street Requiem begins like a Requiem mass. "It follows some of the template, but it very strategically pulls away from the traditional liturgy, also because the composers wanted the piece to feel extremely universal. So that anybody coming to a performance of it would feel like it’s speaking to them." The text includes directly addressing the audience about the problem. "Ubi Caritas: Where there is charity and love, there is God," Hughes explains. "It’s handled ironically, in that it’s the voice of a person on the street actually confronting a stranger, the audience, about what does it mean to be charitable. It actually says: “Why do you avoid my gaze, or pretend I’m not there when you’re leaving the concert hall?” It actually says that in there." Frederica von Stade has sung the work several times, including in the Bay Area, Dallas, and New York's Carnegie Hall. "So I was thrilled to be asked to do it again, I really love it. I think it’s a very meaningful, very easily accessible work, and I feel it is a desperately important subject for all of us to deal with."
Friday, February 10
John Adams will be turning 70 next Wednesday, so San Francisco Symphony is planning several performances to help celebrate. Tonight and Saturday, the composer will be curating a program called 'Emergent' at Soundbox, with his own works and those of three others. Next week, there's a production of his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and from the 22nd to the 25th, a large work for violin and orchestra called Scheherazade.2, written for soloist Leila Josefowicz.
The Soundbox program tonight and Saturday will include Adams' Hallelujah Junction, selections from John's Alleged Book of Dances, and Ragamarole, and will feature works by Andrew Norman, Ashley Fure, and Jacob Cooper.
"I wanted to write a passion story," he explains. "I had composed in 2000 one of my favorite works, El Niño, which is my Messiah. It’s a Good News piece. And then, 13 or 14 years later, I really had a need to tell the other story. It’s about death and crucifixion, and resurrection, and particularly about it from a woman’s point of view. So for me, composing really is a means of going deeper into myself and finding how I feel about something." He continues: "I'm not a church-going person, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about theology, or fine-tuning my spiritual awareness, but these stories, particularly the Passion story, because it involves something that has deeply upset me all my life, which is the practice of capital punishment, and also because it is about death and resurrection."
Scheherazade.2 (pronounced "point-two") he says, came at him from two directions. He wanted to write a work for Leila Josefowicz, who had played his Violin Concerto and his Electric Violin Concerto (The Dharma at Big Sur) and happened to see an exhibit in Paris about the famous storyteller. "And I thought we could have a modern Scheherazade, a woman that didn’t just tell an increasingly enchanting story to save her own life, but a woman who actually was empowered, who spoke back to tyranny... Without making a blatantly political piece, which Scheherazade.2 isn’t, it’s nonetheless a big romantic symphony/concerto but with a bit of a narrative about a very powerful young woman."
Thursday, February 9
Opera Parallèle couldn't have known two years ago when they scheduled it just how timely their production of Flight would be, but the Jonathan Dove opera is centered around a refugee unable to leave an airport. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement says it was inspired by the real-life story of the Iranian refugee who found himself stuck at Charles DeGaulle Airport, but has a cast of other travellers also stuck, waiting out a storm.
There's more information about the performances, this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at the Opera Parallèle website.
"The opera is really about the human condition," Paiement explains. "We have this refugee that is stuck... but it’s a lot about the people that… all these various people that come from various places in their lives that arrive at the airport. Everyone is stuck at the airport because of the storm." There's a young couple looking to rekindle their romance, a diplomat and his pregnant wife on their way to a new posting, a woman who believes a much younger man who suggested marriage will come to meet her at the terminal. As they interact and get to know eachother (along with a steward, stewardess, 'controller' and immigration officer) they change and grow. "At the beginning," she says, "the refugee asks for their help, because the immigration officer comes by, and no one is interested in helping him. And at the end of the opera, the immigration officer comes back again, and by that time, when he asks for help, everyone is wanting to help him. And so, it’s a great study of how people relate, and when you are put into a situation the community gets together and helps each other out."
Wednesday, February 8
Alessio Bax is back in the Bay Area for a series of concerts with the Santa Rosa Symphony this Saturday through Monday. He'll play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 on a Valentine's themed program (that has Prokofiev and Berlioz retelling Romeo and Juliet). He'll return next month to play a pair of duo works with Orion Weiss and the Symphony Silicon Valley.
Bax just this past weekend played a solo recital as part of the Steinway Society in San Jose. The Brahms he'll play in Santa Rosa is as he puts it, a 'cause for celebration' whenever he has a chance to perform it. It was written twenty or more years after the first piano concerto. "By the time he wrote the second concerto, he had mastered everything there was to master about orchestration," he says. "So, I love the first concerto, but it feels a little bit more raw and you have this constant feeling of a piano fighting with the orchestra, (and maybe that’s why it’s so exciting, and so wonderful too). Whereas in the second piano concerto, no matter how difficult it is in the piano, the orchestration is kept in a way that you don’t really have to fight, you’re working together toward the same goal. And once you learn the piece, and you’re comfortable playing it, it really becomes so rewarding." In a little over a month, he'll return for the duo-piano performance with Orion Weiss and Symphony Silicon Valley. "When it comes to 2-pianos and piano 4-hands, you really have to know each other’s playing intimately well – and otherwise it’s a very hard process to get things close to what should be ideal... But last season I had a collaboration with Orion for a Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, we played a concert at Tully Hall, and we both approached it with a lot of trepidation. Orion’s wife is also a wonderful pianist and they play together and we both were dreading the first rehearsal, and then it went really really well!"
Here's Bax playing a part of Brahms' earlier piano concerto:
Tuesday, February 7
Opera San Jose gives the West Coast premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night by Kevin Puts, beginning this Saturday. It retells the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce that (briefly) interrupted the carnage of World War I. Music Director Joseph Marcheso says it's based on the French film from 2005, Joyeux Noel, and keeps a cinematic approach to the story.
The original production from Minnesota Opera had a larger orchestra than could be accomodated in the pit at the California Theatre, but General Director Larry Hancock really wanted to bring it to San Jose, and so contacted Kevin Puts. "And he wrote a reduction that removed very little," Joseph Marcheso explains. "He really wants to accommodate, because this isn’t something unique to OSJ; regional theaters would love to do this, but there are certain limitations that even if they raised all the money in the world they couldn’t overcome." In addition to the slightly smaller forces, they also had the challenge of recreating the front lines of the war. "There’s a desire to be as cinematic as possible, to flash cut to this group, and flash cut to this group. And the original production solved that by having a rotating set. And we have approached it by having trenches that we would move in different permutations, so that you would know from the trench which group we’re talking about." He says this is the most ambitious project that OSJ has undertaken, and they're excited to be part of the work's history. "It’s not often that we get to be advocates for pieces. Usually people come in and they already know that they like the piece. But an opera at this stage in its trajectory, every performance matters because in every performance you convert new people to it."
Monday, February 6
One of America's best-known photographer's lesser-known works are on display as SFMOMA presents Diane Arbus: In the Beginning through the end of April. The works represent the first half of her already brief career of 15 years, taken in and around New York with a 35 millimeter camera, instead of the twin lens reflex camera that is held in front of the body instead of the eye. Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of the exhibit from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art says her style and talent were on display from the very beginning.
Rosenheim says the choice of camera makes a convenient midway point for describing her career, but these early works are in no way immature. "Arbus had spent 10 years loosely in the fashion genre, working with her husband, from around the end of WWII until 1956. But in 1956, she numbered a roll of film ‘number one,’ and that’s where we begin this exhibition... The salient characteristics, intimacy, centeredness, eye-to-eye relationship, begins at the beginning and is carried through." The exhibit includes some of the subjects from society's fringes that Arbus came to be associated with, but also just people caught being themselves on the streets of New York, and at Coney Island. But Rosenheim says she wasn't satisfied just being an observer. "I used to think that she chose her subjects. And now I believe, as often as she chose them, they chose her. She waited until people returned her gaze. Arbus wanted a direct, one-on-one centered relationship with her subject. So that is both psychological strategy and picture style coming together in one."
Friday, February 3
Musica Marin presents a house concert tomorrow in Belvedere, with several works by composer-in-residence Clint Borzoni, along with music of Schubert, Brahms, and Rossini. Singing the new works (which include two song cycles, two longer songs, and an arrangement of an aria from Borzoni's opera When Adonis Calls) will be two alums of the Merola Opera Program, Mark Diamond and Laura Krumm. Ruth Ellen Kahn, violist and Artistic Director, gives a preview.
Clint Borzoni's first collaboration with Musica Marin and the Merola Opera Program took place last year, when he wrote a work for baritone and string quartet that could be paired on a program with Samuel Barber's Dover Beach. This time around, he's written works for baritone and mezzo-soprano, each accompanied by the member of the string family that corresponds to their range, cello and viola. "I was figuring out what can I write for this concert, and I have a few poets, friends of mine, who have poetry that I’ve been dying to set for a long time," Borzoni says. "John Grimmett and Judith Wolf, they have little tiny poems, like one-liners that I fell in love with, and I fell in love with a lot of them. And I tried to create a song cycle based on these one-liners or two-liners. And the other two poets, Geoffrey Dillard and Sally Gall have really epic longer poems. So those became just one song each, while the other two poets have maybe five or six songs." The other performers on Saturday's concert are Kahn, cellist Jennifer Culp, and pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg.
Thursday, February 2
Kronos Quartet hosts its third festival at SFJAZZ beginning tonight; called 'Here and Now,' the three days will include ten works by artist-in-residence, Iranian-American composer Sahba Aminikia, including three premieres in the opening performance tonight. One of them is a an arrangement of songs by singer Mahsa Vahdat, who will join the quartet for The Sun Rises. Musicians from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts and the San Francisco Girls Chorus will also be guests tonight.
Aminikia was born in Iran, and studied there and in Russia before becoming a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "Do we actually belong entirely to one culture, 100 percent?" he asks. "I wasn’t born and raised like that, you know… I grew up in a society, I listened to Jazz, I listened to Classical Music, and Persian music, obviously. And I adore it at the same time, but I adore other music as well, so I would love to actually bring my own personality into the perspective here." The arrangements of Mahsa Vahdat's songs, with texts by Iranian poets, had him calling on much of that wide background, and leaving the rest to chemistry. "The experience was so overwhelming in a way, and challenging. Because putting two forces like Mahsa and Kronos together, it was the hugest challenge for me. And I left everything kind of unfinished to some extent, because I wanted them to get together and perform the music together, get a sense of eachother. You know, that’s how music should be played in any tradition, I think." Kronos founder, violinist David Harrington sums up the collaboration this way: "I’m a collector of great musical experiences, and I feel like Mahsa creates those, and so this is very special for us."