Friday, June 12

Ojai at BerkeleyThe newly renamed Ojai at Berkeley launches next Thursday evening through Cal Performances, with a free outdoor concert at the Faculty Glade of music by John Luther Adams, whose percussion-filled Inuksuit opened the festival three years ago. The festival's music director this year is percussionist Steven Schick, who organized and directed that performance.

You can find out more about the festival at the Cal Performances website (use the tabs to find the full schedule of events.)

This is the first year the festival has been overseen by a percussionist, and Steven Schick says he's trying to bring to the role the somewhat unusual perspective he's found that they share. "For me, percussion is more than the instrument I chose – it’s a way of looking at the world, it’s a kind of system of knowledge acquisition. We’re a kind of confederacy of inspirations and sonic resources. And that’s very different from a pianist or a violinist, who has an instrument, and therefore, I think, a point of view. A percussionist naturally has a multiplicity of points of view, and that’s what we’ve tried to reflect in the programming this year."  He's honoring Pierre Boulez, (himself a former artistic director of the festival) who turned 90 this year, with a variety of his works, plus a piece called A Pierre Dream which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 'Beyond the Score' series premiered earlier this year.
"It’s live performances," Schick says, "...of excerpts from his most influencial pieces, with videotaped ‘testimony’ if you will, from Boulez himself, as a young composer, a middle aged composer, and as an older composer. There are actors who read lines aloud onstage – especially the texts from Mallarme that Boulez was so fond of.  It’s a fascinating combination of narrative, video and music."

There's also a natural emphasis on percussion, with Schick giving a solo recital on Friday evening, his ensemble red fish blue fish playing Chavez's Toccata for Percussion (on a concert with pipa virtuoso Wu Man playing the concerto Lou Harrison wrote for her,) and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion on Saturday afternoon.  "It both begins and ends with percussion sounds, and so percussion in the Bartok sonata is not merely decorative, it is thematic, it is a quartet. And that was a big change for percussionists." It's on a program with Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez, but lest that lineup scare would be audience members, Schick says: "It isn’t a sort of modernist, isolated castle with a huge moat saying ‘stay out…’  It’s in fact music that invites connections, and music that invites listeners. And it’s lush, and it’s beautiful and it’s… been misunderstood."

Friday, June 5

Susan Graham in Les TroyensLes Troyens (The Trojans) by Hector Berlioz opens this Sunday at San Francisco Opera, with a star who's sung the role of Didon (or Dido) twice before - which is unusual given how infrequently the sprawling work is staged. Susan Graham says she's gotten more comfortable in the role, which isn't one of lofty nobility in this production, but rather a "Queen of the people."

There's more about the production, which runs through July 1st at the San Francisco Opera website.

Graham says there's a special focus in this staging (by David McVicar, and directed by Leah Hausman) in having Didon be friends with her subjects, and the mezzo says she's finding that easy to do: "I’ve been singing at the San Francisco Opera for so long that I know these choristers, and I know these dancers, and I know these people so…when I come on at the beginning of Act III, and they’re all singing ‘Gloire, Didon,’ (Glory to Didon)  I really am so just completely gobsmacked, for want of a better word." Her part in The Trojans doesn't even begin until then, two hours into the five-hour running time. The first two acts cover the Fall of Troy, complete with giant Trojan Horse, and the remainder tells the story of the ill-fated love between Dido and Aeneas, (sung by Bryan Hymel.)

Graham says she's come a long way since the days two decades ago when she had a small role in a production of Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera. "I was just a kid, and playing the son of Aeneas, and I just thought, ‘This is such an epic piece… Wow, would I love to sing that part someday, but will I ever?’ you know, those things, you never know when you’re young."  Part of the reason she's gotten more comfortable in the role is because (despite its challenges) it suits her voice so well. "It doesn’t go clear up into the stratosphere, there’s a meaty quality in the middle that’s required, and a warmth in the middle. And you have to be able to sort of dip down in the low a little bit, but it doesn’t stay down there. People say ‘Berlioz was written for you!’ and I kind of am inclined and honored to agree."

Thursday, June 4

Real Vocal String QuartetThe Real Vocal String Quartet is made up of four classically-trained string players who sing, as well as improvise and compose... which is a good thing, because there really isn't any repertoire out there for a singing quartet. The founder of the group, Irene Sazer says they like to push each other to go a little bit out of the box. They're going to perform at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley next Thursday night.

There's more information about the ensemble at the Real Vocal String Quartet website.

Irene Sazer, fellow violinist Alisa Rose, violist Matthias McIntire, and cellist Jessica Ivry will be previewing tunes from a CD that they're going to be recording this summer. McIntire describes it as "an Americana CD, and it’s going to feature six songs that are mostly originals but they’re all sort of somewhat harking back to Americana styles, the Appalachian fiddle tunes, and I have a sort of jazz-inspired piece." But even with that theme, they're a bit out of the box, with one tune that mixes traditions from farther afield: "It’s a combination of a song from Kyrgyzstan, which is called 'Kyiylyp Turam,'" Jessica Ivry explains, "...and then Alisa did write an original Appalachian-sounding tune in the middle of it, that we call ‘Horse on the Mountain,’ cause they share some similar themes: leaving your rural life for the city to make a better life for yourself. We were singing in Kyrgyz, and then also we threw in a verse in English with similar themes."

Jessica Ivry has studied and performed music from the Balkans, and they all bring their own personal passions to the ensemble - making it a great opportunity for each of them as composers to experiment, and try new things. Alisa Rose says: "I think what’s really special about this group is we can all bring these influences in, and we all understand these outside influences from Classical music, but we also all have this strong attention to details, and about how we want a string quartet to work and sound too… as a band."

Wednesday, June 3

International Orange Chorale of San FranciscoThere are works about harvesting, summer rainshowers and mushrooms on a concert program the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco will present in SF and Berkeley this weekend. The group is being led by Interim Conductor Jace Wittig, and Assistant Conductor Elizabeth Kimble as Zane Fiala continues to recover from a serious motorcycle accident that happened earlier this year.

You can find out more about the concerts (at St. Marks' Lutheran Church in San Francisco Saturday night, and All Souls' Episcopal in Berkeley on Sunday evening) at this website, as well as the IOCSF's website.

Zane Fiala says he and Kenric Taylor had planned the programming for these concerts called 'Burning Light' - about nature and the changing seasons before his accident, but it became clear early on that he wouldn't have the stamina to be able to conduct them, so they brought in Jace Wittig. Fiala has been able to join them to sing - and he'll lead one of the works in the weekend's concerts. "My first rehearsal, which was three weeks ago, I was sitting in the back row, and watching Jace, and watching Elizabeth, our assistant conductor, leading the choir through things, and they would say something and I would think ‘That’s not how I would say that…’ And then, immediately after thinking that, I thought: ‘But their way was better, I should probably adopt that!’ And so you can learn a lot by watching someone else lead your group." 

The program includes two world premieres, by Chorale member Nicholas Weininger - of a setting of a poem in Russian; and Marielle Jakobsons, whose The Thread Beneath was inspired by fungi, as Elizabeth Kimble explains: "That piece is about the network of mushrooms that connects all the organisms in a forest. So it’s essentially how many organisms end up being one. And it actually has a very cool surround sound effect, and plays with harmonics, and it’s really beautiful." They're also going to be singing the West Coast premiere of a work by Kenji Oh, which depicts a Summer rain shower, pieces by Veljo Tormis, Frank Ticheli, and more - along with a piece called 'Harvest Home' that Elliott Carter wrote in 1937, and revised 60 years later. 

Friday, May 29

Mobius TrioThe Mobius Trio is one of the few ensembles playing music for three classical guitars - and because that's the case, they've taken it upon themselves to commission new works for the combination. They'll play a concert of some of them Sunday afternoon (May 31) at Noe Valley Chamber Music.

There's more information about the concert at the Noe Valley Chamber Music and Mobius Trio websites.

The members of the trio, Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder met while they were students at the San Francisco Conservatory, and they realized just how limited the repertoire was for guitar trio after Fish commissioned a new work for them to play. Holmes-Linder explains: "Then we needed… we were students at the time, and we needed to put together a full program to premiere this piece. 'OK, there are five pieces that we know of written for guitar trio – they’re mostly pretty good, but that’s not even enough for a full program!'" Nance says that's why they've been so busy continuing to keep the new works coming. "Before we came along, I don’t think there was much more than about a dozen pieces for the guitar trio. And so we like to think that we’ve kind of created probably about 80 percent of the repertoire for guitar trio at this point."

Mobius Trio

One of the pieces that they'll be playing Sunday is a work written by Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad. "Mason and I were students of Sergio's," Holmes-Linder says, "and Rob rehearsed with us in our lessons, almost every lesson. So when we finally convinced him years later to write a piece for us, it was called Kindergarten. And it's about the three of us as Kindergarteners, (I'm the space cadet!) - There's a lot of personality and theater and playfulness in it." They say that some composers who are more used to the set roles of a guitar quartet - mimicking the string quartet's division of labor - need to learn that their dynamic is different. Other than the extra bass string on the guitar Mason Fish plays, they're equal partners. "I think it's really spatially on stage important for us to play in a relatively egalitarian way, in terms of the divide between melody and accompaniment. That kind of spatial play makes the music more exciting, I think, on the whole," Holmes-Linder explains.

Thursday, May 28

San Jose Symphonic Choir - War RequiemThe San Jose Symphonic Choir will be ending their 90th season this weekend, with a Saturday performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem in Saratoga, on the anniversary of its first performance at Coventry Cathedral in England. Conductor Leroy Kromm calls the work "the best choral piece of the 20th Century, and a phenomenal piece of art."

There's more information about the performance at the San Jose Symphonic Choir website. (There's also Noon Arts & Lecture presentation about the piece on Friday in downtown San Jose at the First Unitarian Church.)

This has also been a special season for Leroy Kromm, who's been leading the ensemble for a third of its 90 years. "When the board of directors, bless their hearts, said ‘What would you like to do for your 30th anniversary, you can do whatever you want?’" Kromm says, "And I was like, ‘Oh! OK, how about the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten?’ And so the board, really not knowing what they were agreeing to, said ‘Sure, that sounds good!’ – It’s two orchestras, big chorus, childrens choir, and organ." It's a gigantic work that Benjamin Britten wrote for the opening of the re-built Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during World War II, and now stands as a reminder of the costs of war. With three soloists who sing the words of poet Wilfred Owen, written when he was in the trenches of the first World War, the choir and children's choir sing the text from the traditional Latin Requiem mass for the dead. This weekend's concert falls on the 53rd anniversary of the premiere, which also was on the traditional first Memorial Day of May 30.


Wednesday, May 27

Murmurations at NCCODerek Bermel is the featured composer this season with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and they'll be premiering his work called Murmurations this week in a series of concerts around the Bay Area, beginning in Berkeley tomorrow night. The piece gets its title from, and was inspired by, the movement of starlings in flight, when thousands of them fly as one in sunset displays of agility.

There's more information about the concert at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website.

The similarity between starlings in flight and an ensemble that doesn't use a conductor leapt out at Derek Bermel. "When I listen to an orchestra, and watch, especially watch a string orchestra, I’m very much reminded of the motion of a flock of birds. And that is partially visual, because their bows are all moving together… But it’s also to do with the way they relate to eachother, to the way they tune to eachother, this kind of synergy that they have." Each member of the group has to be working to the same end. The birds are able to create fluidly changing patterns in the air. "I tried to emulate that musically," Bermel says, "by creating very dense chords which would then move outwards, or all swoop in the same direction, or in opposite directions, and then it would create this sense of space and then come back into a very small pitch area." 

The movements have geographical names, of places where the starlings frequently return as part of their migrations: the first movement is 'Gretna Green,' after a village in southern Scotland that's a destination for both the birds and their fans; the second, lyrical movement is 'Algiers,' and the third is 'Rome,' where Bermel studied, and experienced the birds overhead firsthand. Starlings are among the most hated of birds too, he says. "Folks in the States tend to like to shoot them, because they are a nuisance. But it’s the yin and the yang, you know, they’re also incredibly beautiful, one of the most beautiful spectacles that we have in nature, and a marvel to behold."

Tuesday, May 26

Landfill Harmonic at SF Green Film FestivalLandfill Harmonic is a documentary that fills in the story behind the viral video about the orchestra of young musicians from Paraguay who play instruments made from recycled garbage. It will be shown at the Roxie Theater at 6 pm on June 3rd, on the closing night of the San Francisco Green Film Festival, which begins on May 28th. Director Brad Allgood says the success of the 'teaser' video has led to all sorts of unexpected opportunities for the children whose community is in the shadow of an enormous mound of garbage.

There's more information about all the films at the San Francisco Green Film Festival website, and more about this documentary in particular at the Landfill Harmonic site.

The film follows the efforts of Favio Chávez, whose job as an Environmental Technician was supposed to help the families of the 'gancheros' whose livelihood was provided by going through the landfill, salvaging what they could. He was also a music lover, and wanted to give the local children something other than a future of becoming a ganchero. So he began to offer free music lessons - and when the number of students outstripped the donated instruments, he and a ganchero with carpentry experience decided to make instruments using the wood and metal from the landfill. "Eventually they found materials that had the resonant qualities, the timbre, could stay in tune, and were made from materials that were readily available," Allgood explains. "I guess it took about four or five years of experimentation, they arrived at the instruments you see them playing today, so it was the combination of a good idea, a very skilled craftsman, and a group of dedicated kids that made everything possible."

The popularity of this video, which the South American producers of the documentary released as a teaser, has led to many experiences that the young players would never have thought possible. They had never left Paraguay before, and have since found themselves playing in front of large audiences all over the world - accompanied sometimes by their heavy metal heroes (they've played with both Megadeath and Metallica). "Even when we live in the most unfavorable conditions," their conductor Favio Cháves says in the film, "we must never stop dreaming. To have nothing is not an excuse for doing nothing." 

Friday, May 22

Two Women at San Francisco OperaIn June, San Francisco Opera will be premiering a new opera by Italian composer Marco Tutino, called Two Women (La Ciociara,) based on the Alberto Moravia novel that inspired the Oscar-winning film by Vittorio de Sica. At a press conference at the Opera House, the composer, his leading lady (Anna Caterina Antonacci), director Francesca Zambello, music director Nicola Luisotti, and general director David Gockley gave a glimpse of how the new work came about.

There's more information about the production at the San Francisco Opera website.

The opera came about after Marco Tutino and Nicola Luisotti worked together, and the conductor suggested he adapt a work for SF Opera. After a few other titles were considered (King Lear and Frankenstein among them,) Tutino suggested La Ciociara - which was a 1958 novel before being adapted for the screen. It tells the story of a period of Italian history that's not well known in the U.S., when after the Allies captured Monte Cassino, but before the arrival of American  soldiers, thousands of women and girls were sexually assaulted by Moroccan colonial troops of France. With that as the backdrop, Cesira and her daughter try to survive and find safety. Tutino says the structure of the opera remains intact, but he and his fellow librettist Fabio Ceresa added a villain:  "In the story, the original novel, we don’t have a bad character. Can you imagine an opera with a tenor who loves a soprano, without a baritone who tries to prevent this? It’s impossible!"

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci says as much of a cultural touchstone as Sophia Loren's 1960 performance was, she's going to make Cesira her own: "Well, it’s a big honor of course, but I have to detach me from her, and from her interpretation, because of course it has to be different." And Antonacci is going to have a busy summer season at San Francisco Opera - she'll also be singing the role of Cassandra in Berlioz' The Trojans during its run.


Thursday, May 21

San Francisco Silent Film FestivalThe San Francisco Silent Film Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary season, opens on the 28th and runs through June 1st at the Castro Theatre. Included in the lineup are several recent discoveries, examples of world cinema, and two films that are best known as talkies. Artistic Director Anita Monga gives a preview. 

There's more information, including a complete schedule of the films at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

The film that opens the festival is the much less-frequently seen silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front, released in 1930, and shot at the same time as its talkie counterpart, which won Oscars for both picture and director. "Many people are familiar with the sound version of All Quiet on the Western Front," Monga says. "The silent version is what we are showing, and many people consider it to be superior to the sound version... The pacing of the silent is a little different, necessarily different, and it moves with more passion, I think.   The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is creating a vibrant score, using everything at their disposal. They’re masters of working with big vivid sound effects, and so the battle scenes will be well-represented."  There's also Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair, a comedy who-dunnit. "The Donovan Affair was done as both a silent and a talkie – in fact was called ‘Capra’s First 100% all-talkie picture.' We’re NOT showing the silent version – that is lost, as far as we know. But also the sound version, the sound is lost." Anita Monga says they'll be doing what a New York film historian decided to do, after tracking down a partial shooting script (and recreating the rest by lip-reading the on-screen actors): they'll have actors performing the lines live, with live musical accompaniment and sound effects.

There will also be a presentation about, and then screening of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, which had an all African-American cast (led by vaudeville star Bert Williams), and was filmed in 1913, before sitting on a shelf, unedited for almost a century. New York's Museum of Modern Art assembled the footage into an approximate order, and curator Ron Magliozzi will introduce the film with background and production stills. Two recent restorations will be featured, both with SFSFF connections: Sherlock Holmes, the film adaptation showing the famed stage actor William Gillette (who personally convinced Arthur Conan Doyle to allow him to make the film); and When the Earth Trembled, which tells the story of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, only 7 years after it took place. The Festival's Board President, Robert Byrne took part in both those restorations in the past few years. And, as always, there are comedies, too, with showings of films by Charley Bowers, and Harold Lloyd, seen here in Speedy.
Harold Lloyd in Speedy

Wednesday, May 20

Bryan HymelAmerican tenor Bryan Hymel's CD, called 'Héroïque' begins with an aria from Rossini's Guillaume Tell that forever changed the way composers would write, and tenors would sing. It was the first time a high-C was sung with a full "chest voice" - not using falsetto, and it upped the stakes of opera-going for generations. 

There's more about the recording at the Warner Classics website. And the opening track with all those high C's is our featured Free Download of the Week, if you sign up for our weekly eNotes newsletter.

Bryan Hymel - although he's from New Orleans, his name is pronounced the French way, 'ee-MEL' - describes the over-the-top nature of the repertoire on the disc this way: "If you think of Hollywood blockbusters of opera… that would be the French grand opera. I mean, they all had a ballet, they were all five acts, they were all really long and it was all about the complete spectacle." And one of the reasons they're not as frequently performed as some of the other types of operas is they're prohibitively expensive to stage, because of lavish sets, but expecially finding the right casts, because there are a lot of important and difficult parts. "Certainly, you have to have a very strong cast," Hymel says. "Not just one or two really strong singers. You need four and five really top-notch singers, and it’s hard in this day and age to get a cast like that together, for them to be able to carve out that much time in their schedule, because you can’t put a Robert le Diable together in the same amount of time that you can a Carmen or a La Boheme."

The final high C in his aria from Guillaume Tell seems to go on forever, but he explains that it really was the result of a mispronunciation. He had completed one take for the recording, and thought he and the chorus would be moving on to the next aria, when the head of Warner Classics had a quibble with the pronunciation of the final word he had to sing.  "I guess because I was so jazzed after thinking I had finished that piece, and was ready to go to the next one, I got an extra-long high C in there.  I was particularly proud of that one. Someone wrote to me saying it clocks in at somewhere between nine and a half and ten seconds... If you’re going to hold it, you have to hold it in 4 measure increments, cause if you go halfway through, it’s just obvious, the music says ‘oh, he couldn’t hold it to the end of the next one.’" 

Tuesday, May 19

Sergei RachmaninoffOn an "A-to-Z" edition, a Reflective look at Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody... The not-quite piano concerto that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote, inspired by the 24th of Niccolo Paganini's Caprices - the theme and set of virtuosic variations originally written for solo violin (allowing the composer to show his prodigious talent). One of the reasons for the continued popularity of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is the beautiful 18th variation, with a melody quite unlike the theme at first glance.

It wasn't the first time - nor the last time - the tune would be used by another composer. Liszt adapted the Caprices, and Brahms wrote two books of variations for the piano - just on the 24th alone. It had a lot going for it as a theme, as Paganini demonstrated in his variations, with a strong enough harmony suggested by only the violin, and a form that echoes each four bar phrase, a composer could change a lot, and still remain recognizable, and not make the audience lose its place in the tune.

For the 18th variation, Rachmaninoff took the opening theme and inverted it - going down when the theme went up, and vice versa - to discover the memorable lush melody that's so memorable:

Theme and 18th variation melodies

(The eighteenth variation begins at 14:42 in this performance)

Monday, May 18

Oakland BalletOakland Ballet is celebrating its 50th anniversary season with a special show at the Paramount Theatre this Saturday afternoon called 'Five Decades of Dance Performance.' Artistic Director Graham Lustig says it will include some of the Diaghilev-era historical works that the company has staged, along with new 'birthday presents' by choreographers associated with them. 

There's more information about the performance at the Oakland Ballet website.

Lustig says the program honors the legacy of company founder Ronn Guidi, who was behind the historical restagings of works by Nijinsky and his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, Mikhail Fokine, and Léonide Massine, many of them having their first United States performance on the stage of the Paramount Theater, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Some of those works will make up the first half, including a complete version of Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. "But Mr. Guidi also nurtured Bay Area choreographers," Lustig says. "Val Caniparoli, Betsy Erickson, and artists like Alonso King were invited to make some of their early works. And in act two, we’re presenting what I’m I’m calling ‘birthday presents’ by Betsy Erickson, Val Caniparoli… I’ve made a new work, Michael Lowe has also made a new work." So have Robert Moses and Amy Seiwert, and there will be revivals of Ronn Guidi's The Secret Garden, Billy the Kid by Eugene Loring, Carlos Carvajal's Green, and Love Dogs by Alonzo King.

Friday, May 15

John Cage and the score for RengaTomorrow night Michael Tilson Thomas follows through on a comment he made to composer John Cage many years ago, at the premiere of a work called Renga. It was written for the U.S. bicentennial, but Cage said it could also honor an artist. MTT and the San Francisco Symphony will do so, using it as a "rainforest of sound" in a program dedicated to his works. 

There's more information about the concert at the San Francisco Symphony website.

It will begin with an earlier work by Cage, from 1947, his The Seasons, which was written as the score for a Merce Cunningham ballet. It's a traditionally notated work, unlike the other piece on the program, Renga - which will be the orchestral backdrop for ten other works that will be performed by small ensembles around the hall. Academy Award-winner Tim Robbins will be participating, reading Cage's 'Lecture on Nothing' from his book called Silence. MTT says the piece, which is for 78 unspecified instruments or voices was written in 1976. "It’s a piece written to celebrate the Bicentennial originally, a kind of collage environmental piece… But he said it could also be used to commemorate a departed artist, or great sage, or a philosopher. And I actually kind of joked with him, all those many years ago, and I was present when the premiere of this piece took place, that one day I might do just that, and I would do it about him – and that’s exactly what we’re doing."

The "score" is entirely based on the musicians' interpretations of graphic notation that Cage created using sketches made by the writer Henry David Thoreau in his notebooks. In keeping with the idea of 'Renga' - a Japanese collaborative poetry tradition, the musical gestures are set within specific blocks of time, but what those gestures translate into (and even which instrument they're played on) is up to the individual performers. Meanwhile, there will be a video component to the concert, as well as these other works all happening: Litany for the WhaleCheap Imitation, Sonata for ClarinetA Room, Suite for Toy PianoIn a LandscapeChild of Tree, Ryoanji, and Hymnkus.