Wednesday, July 15

Golden Gate International Choral FestivalThe 10th Golden Gate International Choral Festival is currently underway, with about 600 singers participating from 20 choirs representing 8 countries. The festival is hosted by the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, led by Robert Geary, who says although it's a competition, it's also a chance for the musicians from around the world to meet each other and sing together.

There's more information including a full schedule at the Golden Gate Choral Festival website

Each choir will be competing in a Historical and Folk competition, and there are optional categories for Contemporary music, Vocal Solo, and for the first time this year, Gospel and Spirituals. The festival lives up to its international name, with groups from Indonesia, Finland, China, Poland, Austria, and two from Estonia and Canada, in addition to the American ensembles. Representing this area are the Cantabella Chamber and Honors Choirs from Livermore, the Marin Girl's Chorus from Novato, and the host Piedmont and East Bay choirs, and there are groups from Alaska, New York City and Los Angeles. Robert Geary says there are two main goals for the festival: "Competition festivals can be pretty barren and sort of tough – but we’ve built this festival so that it’s kind of equal parts competition and equal parts making music together and trying to create opportunities for choirs and conductors and administrators to become colleagues and create relationships that can literally span the globe."

So each day that they're in the Bay Area, along with preparing for their own choir's competition concerts (most of which are free and open to the public) they also are spending time rehearsing for the final performance, which will bring all 600 or so singers together on one stage. One piece that they've been rehearsing was written especially for this event by Piedmont East Bay choir alum Eric Tuan. "The piece that was commissioned for the festival," Robert Geary explains, "takes texts from the Kalavala, which is the epic that is part of both Estonian and Finnish culture, it’s an English translation, and it talks about how rare the opportunity is to come together and sing together."

Friday, July 10

Festival del SoleThis season marks the tenth anniversary of Napa Valley's Festival del Sole - with the return of the Russian National Orchestra, and soloists including soprano Deborah Voigt and violinist Midori, trumpeter Herb Alpert and his wife, Brazil '66 vocalist Lani Hall, as well as Kevin Spacey, who'll also sing at a gala. Executive Producer Charles Letourneau says that's all in addition to the festival's usual blend of food, wine, and celebration. 

There's more information and a complete schedule at the Festival del Sole website

Charles Letourneau has been with the festival since it began. "It’s been… just an incredible adventure to see it growing from very humble beginnings to see where we are at this point, where I would say that we are one of the most important performing arts and lifestyle festivals in the world. The tenth anniversary, we tried to make it even more special, but every year has been extraordinary." He says they knew from the start that they wanted to avoid just being one of more than 400 performing arts festivals that take place each summer. "Here we are in the middle of wine country, arguably the most important center for wine and foods in North America, and an incredibly beautiful place... Why don’t we bring the best music, the best art, the best dance, the best theater, and create essentially a ten-day sensory extravaganza that cannot be replicated anywhere else?" 

The Russian National Orchestra has a history with the Festival del Sole - frequently they'll arrange their touring schedule to coincide with the dates. But not this year. "[They're] making a trip to the US just for us," Letourneau explains. "They’re not on tour in the United States; they’re flying from Russia, a hundred piece orchestra, just to play at Festival del Sole, then they’re going home.  We’re doing Beethoven’s ninth symphony, Midori is coming, which is a fantastic coup for us, again, getting one of the greatest violinists alive today playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto." On the concert that features Beethoven's 'Choral' symphony, the ensemble Volti will also premiere new works by composer Gordon Getty.  Charles Letourneau says balancing the arts and lifestyle sides of the festival is an enjoyable challenge: "Start in the morning with Yoga in the Vineyards, and then you go to a lunch at a very exclusive winery for, you know, just a few dozen people, cooked by a celebrity chef, and with the best wines that this winery has to offer. Then you go to a performance with a great artist, and then it’s followed by dinner at another legendary winery… You do that for ten consecutive days, and what could be better?"

Thursday, July 9

Festival Opera's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'Festival Opera in Walnut Creek presents two performances of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos this weekend, a work of high and low art connected by what conductor and stage director Michael Morgan describes as music of "stunning beauty." The shows are tomorrow evening and Sunday afternoon at the Lesher Center's Hofmann Theater.  

There's more information about the performances at the Festival Opera website, as well as the Lesher Center's site.

Michael Morgan describes the 'backstage comic drama' this way: "Two troupes of performers — one serious and operatic, and one comic — have shown up for an event at a very wealthy person’s home, and it’s decided along the way that there’s not really time to hear both the serious opera and the comic piece, and so the master of the house decides, 'Well, to save time, we’ll just play the two at the same time.'" This is established during a prologue, in which the composer of the 'opera within an opera' argues against the plan with the master of the household. "The prologue is in English," Morgan says, "because there’s actually quite a bit of spoken text, and I didn’t see the reason for having a whole bunch of spoken German given to my audience in Walnut Creek, so… It also puts forward the story – we do all that in English and then the opera is in German… But both halves will have surtitles, so you can understand all of it." 

The opera pairs Richard Strauss with his frequent librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. They had previously worked together on Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra. "Hofmannstahl was not a comic writer in the sense of 'laugh out loud funny' sort of a thing," Morgan explains "[He] was a very serious person with a very... why don’t we say dignified sense of humor." Featured singers are Othalie Graham in the title role, Robert Breault as Bacchus, Shawnette Sulker as Zerbinetta, and Catherine Martin as The Composer.

Wednesday, July 8

Sunset Piano Op. 4 - Flower PianoStarting tomorrow and running through the 20th, a dozen pianos will be scattered around the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Golden Gate Park, part of an ongoing project called Sunset Piano. This installment is called "Opus #4: Flower Piano." What began as an attempt to serenade whales off the coast of Half Moon Bay has grown - and now has the proper permits too. Mauro ffortissimo, as artist and musician Mauro Dinucci calls himself, is joined in this project by documentary filmmaker Dean Mermell.

You can find out more about the installation at the Botanical Garden's website, and the Sunset Piano website.

The project started when ffortissimo was given an old piano a few years ago. He has made sculptures using pieces of pianos that are beyond repair, and it occurred to him that his home and studio were close enough to the coast that he could play the instrument outside. "We started with one piano, there by the beach, playing for whales, and people came with cell phones." He played it every evening at sunset, and after several weeks gave a final concert and burned the instrument, with plans to use the charred wood and pieces of metal in pieces of art. But the enjoyment of playing out in the open, and making pianos available for others to play had inspired him. "And after that event, I came up with the idea of putting 12 pianos on the San Mateo coast." Dean Mermell became interested in the project early on, and began filming for a documentary. "This mammoth installation, using the whole San Mateo coastline as our canvas... We had grand pianos, and uprights and all kinds of pianos in all these amazing locations. Incredible views, mountain tops, the most insane places you could ever imagine having a piano." They ran slightly afoul of the law, though, not getting the proper paperwork, and having to move the instruments from their perches after a short stay. Then last year they were invited by the city to bring a dozen pianos to Market Street, and their Botanical Garden installation is not only approved by the park, but it will include Steinway artist Lara Downes as one of the scheduled performers.

Thursday, July 2

Tchaikovsky's 1812 OvertureThe percussion section stretched its definition a bit in 1880... When Pyotr Tchaikovsky decided the best way to commemorate a military victory over the forces of Napoleon would be to use actual cannons to amp up the volume and excitement of battle. And so, in the 1812 Overture, there between the percussion and the string sections, is a part for the Cannon player. Considering its reputation, it's surprising that there are only 16 blasts of the 'instrument' in the entire work.

The score is interesting to look at as well, to see that Tchaikovsky asked for three different dynamics for the 'notes' the cannon is to play. The first five, during the statement of La Marseillaise, France's national anthem (although not in use by Napoleon at the time of the campaign to Moscow) are marked ff - fortissimo.  It's not until the final flurry of the conclusion (when firework shows generally are pulling out all the stops) that he asks the player to play fortissississimo... ffff.

You can see some of the spectacle of the finale in this performance from the Proms at Royal Albert Hall:

Wednesday, July 1

Opera at the BallparkOpera at the Ballpark has proven to be a successful mix in the years that San Francisco Opera has been simulcasting a live performance into AT&T Field... But how about the other way around? What happens when baseball goes to the opera house? The Marx Brothers made Verdi take a left turn into "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in their movie A Night at the Opera... and American composer (and baseball fan) William Schuman adapted the famous poem "Casey at the Bat" for his opera The Mighty Casey.

There are more details about Friday's free (but tickets are required) event at San Francisco Opera's website. Hoyt and Dianne will be at the ballpark (and on Diamondvision) hosting the simulcast from War Memorial Opera House to the stadium - which will let fans take to the outfield and seats to watch a performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

William Schuman's The Mighty Casey isn't the only classical work inspired by baseball - Charles Ives was a fan as well as a player, and wrote a series of improvisations for piano that depicted various scenarios on the baseball diamond.

Opera at the Ballpark