The San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas are joined by violinist Leonidas Kavakos for concerts tonight through Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall, playing a work near and dear to his heart - the concerto by Jan Sibelius. The middle movement is one of those moments in music, he says, "when time doesn't matter."
He's played the concerto many times since he began to learn it in 1983. One of the very first times he played it in front of an audience was when he travelled from his native Greece to Finland in 1985, to take part in the Sibelius Violin Competition, which he won. The piece as is played today is a revision; in the first version, Sibelius, who was a violinist, went a bit overboard. "The first version, it was the same material, but he was so obsessed with violin playing and showing what he thought the virtuoso should be," Kavakos says. "When he forgot about all this, and brought all this into balance, we have an amazing symphonic composition." And the importance of this piece to Sibelius - who never wrote a piano concerto - was clear. "He composed what he felt, and what he could not do. Because his dream was to become a virtuoso, which he could not, and he didn’t. He’s watching a certain Sibelius in the mirror that he could not be… You know, on the other side of the mirror, there’s somebody looks like him, is him, but in fact, it’s somebody that he can not be. He cannot be on both sides of the mirror."
Thursday, November 12
The Mill Valley Philharmonic presents three free concerts this weekend, with a timely title: Rain Dance. The ensemble's director and founder, Laurie Cohen has put together a drought- and water- themed program with music by Virgil Thomson, Debussy, and Brahms, plus a Coast Miwok descendant, who will sing rain blessings for the area.
There's more information about the concerts at the Mill Valley Philharmonic website (The performances are at the Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church in Mill Valley, Friday at 8 and Saturday at 4 pm, and Sunday at the Osher Marin JCC at 2).
Laurie Cohen founded the community orchestra 16 years ago, and she enjoys the freedom of being able to program concerts without having to conform to expectations: "Being able to get ideas, which I often do when I’m walking, actually in the woods, but… Get ideas, and begin to explore the music first, rather than the idea first." She's been planning this concert for more than a year, but unfortunately, the drought is a topic that remains timely. In addition to the traditional blessing, which will call on the water spirit and the spirit of Mount Tamalpais, the group will play a section from Virgil Thomson's score to The Plow that Broke the Plains - the 1936 documentary about the devastation of the Dust Bowl - and on to Debussy's Nuages (Clouds), and Brahms' water-inspired Third Symphony. Cohen's hopes for the concert?: "Through people’s emotional experience of the music, that they’ll gain greater awareness, and it’ll be in the context of a really expansive community setting, so… can we actually affect the drought? Remains to be seen!"
Wednesday, November 11
Anonymous 4 is making its farewell tour this season, and the last concert they'll present in the Bay Area is this Sunday night at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, presented by San Francisco Performances. Founding singer Marsha Genensky explains the program '1865' is one of the three strands of repertoire they've been exploring over the past almost 30 years.
The ensemble found a niche for itself early on, singing medieval music that had previously been performed by male singers: "We had been singing together in various Renaissance vocal chamber ensembles in New York," Genensky says, "And we thought, you know, what about some older stuff? The polyphony was written for equal voices, and so we could potentially sing it with women’s voices." They kept to that repertoire, but it wasn't limiting. "For the longest time, we stuck with medieval music, which might sound like a really narrow thing to do… but when you think about how long the middle ages lasted, and about how broad it was geographically, there’s kind of a lot of stuff out there." Composer Richard Einhorn approached them for his project Voices of Light, which began the second area of repertoire - new music and pieces written for them. And then in 2004, they released American Angels, a "sudden left turn into American music."
The program 1865, commemorating 150 years since the end of the Civil War celebrates music that was popular in the country that year - both for those who could afford and read sheet music, as well as those who passed songs down through the oral tradition. Collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky, they've finished their trilogy of Americana albums just as they're finishing the run of the ensemble.
Tuesday, November 10
Ending a program called 'Lost Romantics' by the Oakland Symphony is a work by the Danish composer Victor Bendix, that Music Director Michael Morgan says will start a cycle of the many works from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries that are rarely performed, but worth discovering. The program will also have two soloists: tenor Brent Turner, and pianist Llewellen Sanchez-Werner.
Although Victor Bendix's works aren't actually lost, they've all but disappeared from the concert hall - and the Third Symphony was new to Michael Morgan: "I stumbled across this piece, as one does these days when you’re killing time on YouTube, basically, and you stumble across all sorts of things you’ve never heard of... Victor Bendix is a Jewish composer from the end of the 19th Century, Jewish-Danish composer, and the fact is that that entire society is sort of gone because of the holocaust." The appeal of his music makes it a good starting point for a planned cycle of similarly neglected works. "There are a lot of them," Morgan explains, "from the end of the latter-half of the nineteenth century, and on into the very beginnings of the 20th. But they’re very romantic, mainstream Romantic pieces that we just don’t play anymore. The Victor Bendix was the great one to start with, because it is immediately engaging… Everyone will love it right away, and so I thought it was the best thing to use to kick off the series."
Monday, November 9
One of the long-held dreams of amateur inventors - like building the proverbial 'better mousetrap' - is to come up with a way to create a machine that powers itself, without ever slowing down or stopping. The quest for Perpetual Motion isn't only limited to devices, though - it's also used as a musical concept, and it's the subject of an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts today... Composers such as Niccolo Paganini and Johann Strauss II have works that seem to go on and on without ever stopping...
Eventually, everything runs out of steam... or energy... or whatever is making it go. The laws of thermodynamics guarantee that. But try telling that to Yehudi Menuhin, who's playing Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" here with (long-suffering) accompanist Adolph Baller:
Or the Vienna Philharmonic playing "Perpetuum Mobile" by Johann Strauss II , conducted by Herbert von Karajan:
Friday, November 6
The choral ensemble Cappella SF presents Songs for the Earth - a program of works that are inspired by, and show the need to preserve natural resources. Artistic director Ragnar Bohlin gives a preview of the concert, which will take place Saturday night at Mission Dolores Basilica, in collaboration with the environmental organization Food & Water Watch.
Bohlin says that he's wanted to do a program with this kind of theme, and he had plenty of choices deciding upon the repertoire: "Our choral literature is filled with gems and masterpieces that speak about the beauty of nature. About sunrises, sundowns, and the beauty of the forest, and lake, etc. So why not choose wonderful masterpieces with that theme and sing about the beauty of nature, and then intersperse that with readings in between?" They'll read passages between the pieces of music from a variety of sources, that they and Food and Water Watch selected: "Quotes from Pope Francis, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Dalai Lama, speaking about our responsibility for the earth, for nature, and for thinking about future generations."
The program will include works by Monteverdi, Shakespeare songs by Vaughan Williams, "Autumn Landscapes" by Veljo Tormis, "Biegga Luothe" by Jan Sandström, Eric Whitacre's "Cloudburst," and the premiere of two "Madrigals for the Season" by Cappella SF's composer-in-residence David Conte.
Thursday, November 5
Lines Ballet begins its Fall home season Friday night, with a new work in collaboration with Grammy award-winning singer Lisa Fischer, who was one of the artists profiled in the acclaimed documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. Choreographer Alonzo King has created a piece called The Propelled Heart, that has Fischer interacting with the dancers, and the dancers singing.
Lisa Fischer is no stranger to being on stage - she's toured with the Rolling Stones for decades, and with many other bands that regularly sell out arenas. But this kind of dancing is new for her. "When I was little," she says, "you did the after school ballet classes, so… from a young age you get an appreciation and a desire for just the beauty of the line, and understanding alignment within your body. Meeting Alonzo, and actually seeing Lines at the Joyce Theatre in New York, it kind of sparked that old childhood feeling." King says that he was immediately impressed by how game she's been for the project, and wanted to be sure to protect her: "The starting point is safety, so that the artist feels comfortable, because she’s going to be taking a lot of risks, and it’s going to possibly be unfamiliar… Maybe not unfamiliar to her dreams, but unfamiliar to work that she may or may not have been doing recently, because we wanted to create something (as usual) that’s never been created before."
Wednesday, November 4
Violinist Itzhak Perlman turned 70 at the end of August, and as part of the celebration, there's been a wave of reissues in two gigantic boxed sets: his current label, Deutsche Grammophon has released a 25-disc collection, and Warner (which now owns EMI, Erato, and Teldec) has a 59-album/77 disc box. But there's also a brand new release that Perlman has recorded with pianist Emanuel Ax, of sonatas by Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss.
Perlman says that the Fauré and Richard Strauss sonatas have been a part of his repertoire for as many as 40 years, but that he'd just never gotten around to recording them. "So I said ‘Ah! That’s a good opportunity to try to do it,' and one of the dinners that I had with Emanuel Ax, I said, 'You know, we should record something,' and then I said, 'How about these two pieces?' And he said, 'How about doing some Mozart?' and I said, 'How about these two pieces?” … And I prevailed!” His career has included all of the major works for violin, and not long ago was listed as one of 5 classical artists who could always completely fill a hall (the others were Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, and Renee Fleming).
In addition to performing all over the world, he continues to make teaching an important part of his work - and he advises students to keep an open mind as they pursue their dreams: "Career opportunities have evolved – they have changed. It’s still difficult to have an interesting career if you just think about one thing that you want to do. If you think, ‘I’m going to practice, and then I’m going to play concerts with major orchestras.’ That may happen, or that may not happen. So I always say to them, be imaginative. Be creative in your career. If one thing doesn’t work, you can do something else, as long as you are enthusiastic about what you do, which is being a musician."
Here's how many Americans first were introduced to Perlman, in an appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show when he was only 13 years old.
Tuesday, November 3
When you say Quartet or Quintet in classical music, you have to be a bit more specific. The most frequent instrumentation for four players in a chamber music setting is probably a string quartet - with a pair of violins, a viola, and a cello. It's a natural combination, because each instrument has a tone that's similar, but the ranges of each allow for the highest highs and lowest lows. It starts getting a bit more complicated when you talk about quintets...
There are quintets that feature another solo instrument, like piano, or flute, but those really are more like scaled-down concertos, with a quartet sitting in place of the orchestra. When composers keep within one section, they can choose to add another violin, or, as Mozart popularized, another viola:
Or do as Schubert did in his Quintet D.956 - and have a second cello:
You can also add a double bass to the usual quartet to strengthen its lower register.
Brass ensembles tend to be made up of five players, as a rule - although it can vary whether they play trumpets or cornets for the top two parts, and flugelhorn, euphonium, French horn and trombone can all be found in the middle - with bass trombone, or most frequently, a tuba providing the support on the bottom. But although each has a slightly different sound, they're all essentially variations within the same brass family. The woodwind quintet, on the other hand, celebrates the differences in its instruments. As seen in the video below of Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet: the flute, which is made of wood or metal and blown across a mouthpiece, the two double-reeds oboe and bassoon with a French horn between - not a woodwind at all, and the single-reed clarinet. Together, despite their differences, they make up a miniature wind section, and blend beautifully, while each line keeps its distinctive timbre:
Monday, November 2
This Saturday, Davies Symphony Hall is the site of the Dia de los Muertos Community Concert, with special guest Lila Downs joining the San Francisco Symphony inside the concert hall... But in the lobbies, an hour before each of the two performances at 2 and 8, singers from two senior choirs of the Community Music Center will be giving their own concerts of Latin American music.
There's more information about the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony website. And more informations about the choirs at the Community Music Center site.
Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, who leads the Solera Singers and the 30th Street Chorus, won't be conducting on Saturday, because of her other duties with the concert - Jennifer Peringer will be leading them in the lobbies from the accordion, joined by flute, bass and guitar. Rodriguez-Salazar explains: "It’s going to be 50 singers singing together Latin American music…We have been rehearsing with them for the past four years, or such, and they’re very enthusiastic. They love singing music from their countries, so it’s going to be a selection of all music in Spanish." The singers are all over 55, and clearly enjoying taking part in the celebration: "Being together, being active, having performances outside, I mean, for them, it’s like a dream for them. To be able to sing at the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall is something that they never ever imagined that they could ever do."
Friday, October 30
San Francisco Performances presents a concert of works for two pianos - including a pair that was written for a single player piano - tonight at Herbst Theatre. Composer Thomas Adès has arranged two studies by Conlon Nancarrow, as well as one of his own works, and he'll be joined by Gloria Cheng in a program that also includes a large work by Messiaen, and an early Sonatina by Ligety.
Composer Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano have a precision and complexity that would daunt most live players, but Thomas Adès has long been a fan, and wanted to see them performed more: "It’s difficult to present [them] as a concert piece with player pianos, getting them all over the world, and I looked at these two studies in particular and I thought, well, this is perfectly playable on two pianos. I mean, it all fits, four hands on two pianos. There’s not a single note that had to be omitted in the whole thing. (And there are a lot of notes!) So I thought, well, I just simply transcribe it." Until recently, he'd played both parts, thanks to a different kind of technology, as Gloria Cheng explains: "What’s fun about this is the fact that Tom has always played it with a video which required him to play it with a click track, to keep all synchronized. So we have no safety net, and it was kind of working things up from the ground up."
And here's a solo version of a segment of the "Concert Paraphrase" that Adès wrote based on his opera Powder Her Face... Tonight at Herbst Theatre, he and Gloria Cheng will play a two piano version.
Thursday, October 29
The Asian Art Museum is the final stop of a tour of the exhibit Looking East: How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh and Other Western Artists. It was organized by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and brings together works that show just how influential Eastern design and traditions were to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The show opens on Friday, and runs through early February.
Japan had been almost entirely closed to trade and travel for more than a hundred years when they emerged from ‘seclusion’ in the mid 19th Century. And their prints, which flooded into a Western world hungry for all things Japanese, found kindred spirits in collectors, designers, and fine artists. The exhibit, which pulls from the MFA's large collection of both Japanese and Impressionist works, places them next to each other, which makes the similarities and borrowings more apparent. Ideas of composition, subject matter and approach began to appear in works by those such as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Monet, whose bridge over ‘The Water Lily Pond’ resonates with Hiroshige's depiction of the Kyobashi Bridge from his ‘Hundred Famous Views of Edo’
Wednesday, October 28
Certain masterworks are very tempting for artists to return to - Glenn Gould famously bookended his recording career with very different interpretations of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Cellist Matt Haimovitz has an entirely new take on the quintessential solo work for his instrument with The Cello Suites According to Anna Magdalena, very different from the recording he made of the Bach suites in 2000.
Beyond the fact that this time around he's got gut strings on his cello, a baroque bow (and uses a 'cello piccolo' with five strings for the sixth suite), he's also made his phrasing decisions based on the manuscript that was copied by J.S. Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, which differs considerably from the other manuscript edition written by Johann Peter Kellner. "It seems very esoteric, and very tedious work to figure out exactly what Bach meant with all these articulations, but once you start looking at those details, it affects the contour, the rhetoric of the line, it affects the grammar of the line," Haimovitz says, and he feels her notation is more faithful to the spirit of Bach.
It seems clear, he says, that Bach intended the final suite to be played on the cello piccolo: "The five string just makes it so much easier to actually do what Bach intended. So a lot of the chords that are actually unplayable on a four string cello suddenly in the Sarabande, suddenly it’s much easier… It’s also just a haunting instrument… It’s a more intimate instrument, it resonates beautifully but it’s not as thick or rich as a modern four string. There was some confusion at the start, cause after playing the sixth suite for thirty years in a certain way, you have to make all kinds of changes with keeping track of strings, and left hand fingering and that kind of thing, but it was worth the effort, and in the end I don’t ever want to go back to the four string cello for that sixth suite."
Tuesday, October 27
The San Francisco Girls Chorus presents a program this Friday and Sunday of "Music from Behind Convent Walls" - performing works that were written by young women living a cloistered life. As music director Valerie Sainte-Agathe explains, one kind of freedom lost gave them an artistic freedom that would likely not have been possible to them in the outside world. They'll be joined by 3 singers and 3 instrumentalists from the early music ensemble called Tenet for the concerts.
Given the ages of her singers, Valerie Sainte-Agathe says this repertoire is especially relevant for them: "It was just interesting for us to see that this music was written by women for women, in those convents. We are working with young women, about the same ages of those composers. And how interesting it is to see how free those women were, even if they were behind those walls of the convent, and how they could compose and have everything right there to be able to produce music, to perform music." Given the limitations and expectations that society put upon them, convent life could be a path to an artistic career: "It was almost like an opportunity for those women. Some composers decided just to stay – you know, some of them arrived really really young in those convents, and decide to stay – they could publish music, they could perform it. They had the singers, they had the musicians, they had just… everything, they had this community. So it was freedom, actually."
Monday, October 26
There's a pair of blockbuster works on Marin Symphony's "Russian Spectacular" program, getting their Masterworks series off to a start on Sunday and the following Tuesday. Alasdair Neale will lead them in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and, with soloist Gleb Ivanov, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.
"Either of these two pieces could stand as the main part of a program," says Alasdair Neale. "But in effect what I’m doing is doubling down on the Russian-ness of the whole thing… It’s like, why not put these two monumental Russian pieces back to back for full on effect. They both have tremendous amount of emotional depth to them, they both go from a sort of contemplative minor world to major key bombastic closes. So they do have a certain amount of things in common, but there’s also plenty of differences to enjoy along the way." The knuckle-busting 'Rach 3' will be the concert opener with Gleb Ivanov joining the orchestra, before the Tchaikovsky, which Neale says he's had a long history with. "I think I’ve probably conducted it more than any other single symphony in the repertory, but I’m always excited to come back to it and look at it with fresh eyes and fresh ears and to revel in Tchaikovsky’s miraculous orchestration and this incredible emotional sweep that he brings."
Friday, October 23
The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra presents a program they're calling "In Praise of Love" tonight through Sunday, as their mainstage season begins. Music director Benjamin Simon says the work on the second half of the concert, Leonard Bernstein's Serenade, is a concerto for chamber orchestra and violin, and the soloist will be SFCO concertmaster Robin Sharp.
The highfalutin full title of the Bernstein piece is Serenade (after Plato's Symposium). "It’s in five movements, and they all correspond with… kind of loosely with Plato’s Symposium," Robin Sharp explains, "which is just a… basically a dinner party for philosophers talking about different aspects of love." Benjamin Simon thinks title aside, it's really acting as a concerto. "I think Bernstein was being a little too erudite in a way. You know, bringing Plato into the conversation with a classical music piece is gilding the lily a little bit. This is a huge violin solo, it’s sort of a written through violin concerto from beginning to end, for the solo violin and strings only, plus six percussionists and a harp. It made a very nice challenge to put the rest of the program together without using woodwinds." So they'll begin the program with Debussy's Sacred and Profane Dances, and then a short set of works for percussion only before the Serenade.
Thursday, October 22
The U.S. State Department has been conducting cultural diplomacy for decades, offering American musical talent like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong in overseas concerts. But OneBeat, with an afternoon of free concerts at Montalvo Arts Center this Sunday, brings young musicians from all over the world together for a collaboration-filled residency and tour. Bay Area violinist and setar player Saideh Eftekhari is one of 25 chosen for the fellowship this year.
Eftekhari's background, although unusual, fits in perfectly with the spirit of OneBeat. She was born in Tehran, but grew up in Wichita, Kansas, before coming to the Bay Area. A classically trained violinist, she'll be playing her traditional Iranian lute called the setar as she works with the fellows - including a Malaysian theremin player, Colombian and Indian percussionists, a Senegalese kora player, and other musicians from a total of 17 countries and territories. "A lot of people, I think, in our program also have created hybrid music," Eftekhari says, "and have collaborated with artists from diverse backgrounds and musical leanings, so it definitely attracts that kind of musician. I think that’s why it works so well." She prepared for the residency by doing some homework: "I had read everyone’s biographies prior to the start, just generating so much excitement about all these different traditions and people coming from all around the world. It was like a reunion – it felt like a reunion and I had just met all the other musicians, and everyone’s so excited to be there, and to collaborate, and to learn from one another and then to share that with a wider audience."
Wednesday, October 21
If you're a brass player, chances are good you know the 1968 recording called The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli. It brought together a supergroup of instrumentalists from the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra. That recording inspired a concert last year, and a new CD called Gabrieli by the National Brass Ensemble, made up of 26 players from 9 top American orchestras.
The idea for the project was in the works for many years - since David Stull (now President of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, who is a tuba player and formerly taught at Oberlin Conservatory) and Cleveland Orchestra principal trumpet Michael Sachs were having lunch a few years ago. "Within short order," Sachs says, "we got to our favorite recordings, and our favorite players, and this iconic recording of Gabrieli from 1968 with the ensembles from the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra came up." Sachs and fellow players from around the country, including Michael Mulcahy (who's played trombone with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 25 years) began trying to find a window of time that would allow them to come together for the performance and recording. But this ensemble would include players from 9 orchestras - including the San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago and Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras.
"This was a Rubik's Cube just to get all these individuals in one place at one time. It took the better part of about three years to find this magic week when everybody could do it," Sachs says. Michael Mulcahy says the 1968 LP was groundbreaking: "Even for non-brass players, it's an acoustically spectacular experience to listen to. And it probably inspired more than a few thousand people to either take up a brass instrument or continue playing a brass instrument!"