Composer Jennifer Higdon didn't grow up expecting to be a musician... She started teaching herself to play the flute when she was 15, and when she then wanted to study music, it was to become a performer. But she caught up with some of her more precocious peers, and is now among the most sought-after composers. She's won the Pulitzer prize, and her first opera of Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, is currently premiering at Opera Santa Fe.
Higdon says the first time she was asked to write a piece of music - by her flute teacher, she was hooked: "Just the act of putting notes to the page and then handing them to someone to perform, it resonated in such a way that I thought, 'oh, I might want to do this.' And after writing a second or third piece, I knew without doubt that that's what I wanted to do."
Her late start hasn't seemed to keep her back - on the contrary, she says it gave her a different point of view, and approach to composition: "It meant that I was exploring things when I was at a more mature age. And I also had kind of a hungry enthusiasm that some of my classmates didn't have... For me it was all brand new, and to this day it still feels a little brand new."
Here's a Piano Trio movement called "Pale Yellow" that she wrote in 2003 - part of a complete work with a different color for each movement.
Wednesday, August 12
Pianist Cyrus Chestnut returns to the "Jazz at the Lesher Center" series that's running through the month of August, with a pair of shows on the evening of Saturday the 22nd in Walnut Creek. The Baltimore native is a product of both the Peabody Institute (he began in their preparatory program when he was nine) and the Berklee College of Music in Boston - but he says his real awakening came when he got a record by Thelonious Monk.
Cyrus Chestnut says his formative years at Peabody were helped by their academic focus: "Instead of taking basic theory, they had a course called 'Musicianship'. It would seem to be a lot more composition oriented. And as I think about it in retrospect, it really kind of started the ball rolling as far as composition - spontaneous composition, formal composition, writing things down." And he was exposed to the formal classics. One of his pieces, called "Baroque Impressions," begins with a quote from J.S. Bach's Two Part Invention in D minor:
"I remember studying Gregorian Chants, and various different periods of music at the Peabody," he says, "and then our assignment was to write something based on what we studied." But a record he got at a five-and-dime - because the cover had a piano player on it - introduced him to the music of Thelonious Monk, one of many influences and piano heroes: "I have to go back to Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Ray Bryant, Junior Mance, Tommy Flanagan, and the list goes on and on and on... and that's just the pianists."
Friday, August 7
The American Bach Soloists begin their ten day Festival and Academy tonight - with a French flair. Music director Jeffrey Thomas says they'll have concerts (including a U.S. premiere of a 1609 opera by Marin Marais) lectures, discussions, masterclasses, and even a couple of free Baroque 'marathons' presented by the up-and-coming musicians of the Academy.
Jeffrey Thomas says the sound of a French Baroque orchestra is different from German or Italian ones - thanks largely to the royal residents of Versailles. "One thing we do know for sure is that Louis XIV and Louis XV knew exactly what they loved, and they got it. That’s one reason why French Baroque music remained with some traditions a little longer than other countries. Music in Italy and Germany was evolving… It’s just wonderful to know how just because of the tastes of the king there, we have these tremendous riches." So instead of cellos, there are viola da gambas, and the works of such composers as Marin Marais, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Jen-Féry Rebel approach the blending of the orchestra in a different way, with multiple violas and lots of unisons between the sections. "It’s just so wonderfully rich, and the flutes contribute this sweetness to the sound, and the oboes tuning with the violins. It’s a very melody-centric kind of composing."
There are — it is the American Bach Soloists, after all — two performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor on Sunday the 9th and 16th, and what's not only the North American premiere, but outside of France, the world premiere of Semele by Marin Marais, which was first performed in 1609. "It was at a point in time, there had been a famine, and people were unhappy… It was just not a good time to put on a new opera, so it wasn’t received terribly well. Probably very few people went to hear it. Well, it went unperformed for centuries. Not lost, but just unperformed," Jeffrey Thomas explains. Recently, some French early music ensembles decided to rescue it from the shelf, and the performances by the American Bach Soloists next Thursday and Friday (the 13th and 14th) will continue that effort.
Thursday, August 6
The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music opens tomorrow night in Santa Cruz, with a concert called Haunted Topography. There are three works on the program, including the U.S. premiere of the Percussion Concerto No. 2 by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Music Director and conductor Marin Alsop says she puts together the festival's programming like a "hypothetical jigsaw puzzle."
The MacMillan concerto features soloist Colin Currie, also from Scotland, playing a wide range of instruments that span the entire front of the stage. Alsop has long been a fan of MacMillan's music, and it was playing one of his pieces that brought Currie to the Cabrillo Festival for the first time many years ago. "There are certain composers now whose work I so adore," Alsop says. "It’s like when you see an author whose books you absolutely love, and you say ‘I’ll buy that because I know it’s going to be good.’" She planned the rest of the concert around the concerto, which somewhat unusually also has a big part for the orchestral percussionists. Mason Bates' Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is inspired by a story by Jorge Luis Borges, and like the MacMillan, gives the percussion section a workout.
The piece which will open the concert is the one that gives the program its name, David T. Little's Haunted Topography. "It's dramatically different," Alsop says, "but very very compelling." Little was a participant in the composer's workshop at the festival several years ago. The network of contemporary composers is a tight one, and Alsop says she gets help in programming the festival just by staying in touch with them. "I just try to see what they have coming up, you know, and of course everybody lets me know what’s new and hot off the press. It’s a …hypothetical jigsaw puzzle, and trying to build a picture out of it."
Wednesday, August 5
The Merola Opera Program's production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale gets an updating to Rome in the 1950s, and a few more quirks and foibles for the title character. Director Nic Muni, who has staged works with the young singers, coaches, and directors twice before, says it's a great opportunity to take the time to do comedy the right way.
There's more information about the production, which runs tomorrow and Saturday night at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, at the Merola website.
Don Pasquale, a very old and very rich man, has decided to arrange a marriage for his nephew, but he's in love with another woman, a widow named Norina. "Don Pasquale cooks up this plot to punish his nephew," Nic Muni explains, "where he will get married himself, and thereby produce an heir, to cut his nephew out… His doctor, who in our production is his analyst, tries to dissuade him at first, but then sees that the man is set in his ways and he then concocts this scheme to choose a false bride, and substitute Norina to play that bride." In this production, though, the older gentleman lives in an antiseptic and colorless house, because he's got severe OCD, he's a hypochondriac, and he's also got chromophobia - with a terror of any color other than white, black, or gray. Nic Muni says this gives the character someplace to grow. "If he starts this way, with this severe mania/control freak situation, then over the course of the evening, he’s pushed out of his comfort zone by making this choice to get married. And he’s gradually exposed to ‘the world’ and he finds out that he’s OK. And that he’s happy."
Muni says even though it's a training program, he approaches this Don Pasquale as he would any other opera. But he does say that the schedule for producing it gives them more time, which is a valuable difference. "I think what’s great about this program, one of the many things that’s great about it, is the time that you have to actually – without calling it that – teach as you create a production... You are instructing as you’re going. But it’s sort of embedded in the creative process." One of the lessons to be learned is just how much rehearsal is needed to pull off comedy without it just being farce. "To be very precise with the movements, and the takes and the looks and the sharpness of it, and at the same time connect it to something real just takes time. Cause you sort of have to isolate those skills for a while and then reintegrate them. So time is our friend."
Friday, July 31
Music in the Vineyards begins its 21st season with a performance tonight at Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford - one of 18 Napa locations. Founder (and violist) Michael Adams says the four-week festival will include an idea they came up with last year - of multiple concerts happening at the same time, in what they're calling a "2 by 2" weekend.
Until last year, Music in the Vineyards had run for three weeks in August, but as part of their 20th anniversary, they decided to add another, which Michael Adams says gives them more, and cozier performances. "This lets us get into some smaller venues, that are a little bit more intimate, which is kind of attractive to us. Chamber music was not intended to be the spectator sport that it’s become in a lot of these large halls across the country. Mozart and Haydn would have been astonished to see their string quartets being performed for 15 hundred people, so we try to downsize things, and get them back to a more intimate setting, as it was intended." Their venues include wineries, as well as the Lincoln Theater, Napa Valley College, and Napa Valley Museum. "Travelling around the valley as we do," Adams says, "we actually make it kind of hard to find us, we’re violating Marketing rule 101. Every concert for us is in a different venue, and audiences, strangely, are kind of attracted to that. Often they get into wineries that aren’t open to the public, or get to experience the barrel room spaces that aren’t normally accessible to tasting tours and the like."
Long-time festival participants returning this year include the Pacifica Quartet, which will give a performance on the 19th at Markham Vineyards, with a program of Mendelssohn, Puccini, Piazzolla, and a recent work by Shulamit Ran they commissioned called Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory. And Michael Adams says a quartet that they're mentoring at Indiana University will be there as well: "The Verona Quartet, who’s been tearing it up on the competition circuit out there, they’ve just won some top prizes in London and in Melbourne Australia." Another young ensemble, the Horszowski Trio, makes their Music in the Vineyards debut with a concert at Merryvale Vineyards on the 12th.
Thursday, July 30
The first big success of Gilbert and Sullivan was H.M.S. Pinafore, which Lamplighters Music Theatre will present in Walnut Creek opening tomorrow night, before additional runs in Mountain View, San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and finally in Livermore. Stage director Phil Lowery gives a preview of the tale of love and duty, and very polite and courteous sailors.
The early success of the operetta stretched across the Atlantic, with performances in the U.S. (including the opening of the Napa Valley Opera House, with none other than John Philip Sousa conducting) as the London run went beyond 500 performances. Phil Lowery says they were more careful after that. "For the next show, which was the Pirates of Penzance, they rehearsed in secret with a secret title, and Sullivan came over and premiered it in New York, while Gilbert stayed in London so they could have simultaneous premieres and basically secure the equivalent of copyright on both continents."
The usual combination of poking fun at the shortcomings of the upperclass, and balancing love and duty proved a winning combination. "The subjects that Gilbert writes about never really grow old," Lowery says. "Incompetent bureaucrats working their way… not WORKING their way up through the ranks, but rather buying their way up. The Lord Admiral of the Navy in this show doesn’t know anything about ships. The only ship he says that he’d ever been involved in was the partnership in a law firm." And yet, he might win the hand of a fair maiden: "Josephine, the heroine is torn between the love of the sailor, Ralph, who won her heart, or this arranged marriage with the Lord Admiral, which would make her father very happy, and her very wealthy." All this set against a crew of a ship acting rather against type: "It’s a ship full of sailors who are polite to ladies. These are sailors who do not swear. And when their captain utters a swear word, everyone is shocked, including the sailors – scandalized, because their Captain is swearing."
Wednesday, July 29
Living up to their tag line of 'Remarkable Operas... Unexpected Places,' West Edge Opera has staged the operas that make up their festival season in three varied venues. General Director Mark Streshinsky, after deciding on the repertoire, wanted to choose "kind of bizarre and subversive" locations for each, that would be in keeping with the tone of the opera... which is how the abandoned 16th Street train station is the backdrop for Alban Berg's Lulu.
Streshinsky says last year they performed all three operas at the Ed Roberts Campus right above the Ashby BART station, essentially in the atrium of an office building, and he wanted to deepen the experience for the audience. They're performing Berg's Lulu, Monteverdi's Ulysses, and As One by Laura Kaminsky, which had its world premiere only last September at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Each has a very different feel - the Kaminsky is an intimate chamber opera, accompanied by string quartet, with two singers - male and female - representing one character who is undergoing gender reassignment. It's being staged at Oakland Metro, a smaller space near Jack London Square. The Monteverdi is at American Steel. But the down-at-its-heels train station seems ideal for Lulu.
"The first time we walked in," Streshinsky explains, "we kind of looked at it, and said ‘we’ve gotta do this, and we’ve just gotta figure out a way to make it work.’ The place is amazing, I mean, it’s built in 1912, Beaux Arts design, it’s immense, though not really immense. And you walk in that place, and you just feel like this sense of history, and at the same time, decay. Lulu’s fascinating – I mean, it’s about sex and power, and the music is twelve-tone. People always say ‘it sounds inaccessible.’ I don’t think of it as inaccessible music. I think of it as really interesting, actually very beautiful music. Definitely not tuneful, but not ugly in any sense of the word. Complicated. Difficult. Intense." Getting the station prepared for live performances was no small feat: "The paint is peeling off the walls, they’ve scrubbed off most the graffiti on the inside, but kept it on the outside. There’s no running water or electricity, so we’ve brought in a generator about the size of a small boat, and porta-potties...We actually carpeted the entire place. We were fortunate to be connected to a company that does carpeting for conventions. And they were throwing out a lot of their carpet, and it’s really nice carpet, and they were thrilled to not have to pay the dump fees." Here's Mark Streshinsky in the station with an overview of the festival:
Friday, July 24
Post:Ballet offers a 'Six Pack' in a program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts tonight and tomorrow night (7/24-25) with two world premieres (with scores by Samuel Adams and Nicole Lizeé, played by members of The Living Earth Show), a West Coast premiere, and three returning works. Robert Dekkers created the company six years ago, and has made a point of collaborating with a wide range of artists from multiple disciplines.
This is the second collaboration between Dekkers and Samuel Adams, but the first with Post:Ballet. The dance is called Pitch Pause Please. "We both kind of wanted to make a solo work for some of our favorite artists, so he chose Andy [Meyerson], and I created this solo for Jessica Collado, who’s danced with Post:Ballet a lot, and also is a first soloist with Houston Ballet." Meyerson is the percussionist half of the duo The Living Earth Show. "It’s two soloists, but even though it’s a musician and a dancer, there’s a really strong connection between the two of them. Andy always plays without sheet music, and so he’s really able to connect with the dancers in a way that a lot of musicians who use sheet music aren’t able to, cause their focus is elsewhere."
While Adams was fleshing out the score, which also includes electronics, Dekkers was going to travel to Houston with a draft of the music to work on the choreography with Jessica Collado. But a leg injury made that difficult, as he explains: "So I choreographed this whole solo from a chair, which for me is very different. I’m used to moving around, creating movement with the dancers. And so, I always start with a base phrase, sort of like a vocabulary that I can share with the dancers, and we use it to build our work with." That base phrase began (more or less) as a frustrated text message to Collado with 17 emoji faces. "So we started by creating these 17 facial expressions, then building movements and gestures with the body that amplified the facial expressions."
Here's a promo for the Post:Ballet Six Pack program:
Thursday, July 23
For the past thirty years, Redwood Symphony has been performing orchestral music that conductor Eric Kujawsky says "are normally considered too difficult, ambitious or contemporary for orchestras like ours." That is, non-professional. They'll be celebrating the end of their anniversary season Saturday night with a concert of two milestones of 20th Century music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Orff's Carmina Burana.
The ensemble will be joined in the performance by the Masterworks Chorale and Peninsula Girls Chorus, as well as three vocal soloists for the Orff. Kujawsky says the performance might be a "feat of strength," but they're up to it. "For us this will not be a stretch in terms of our playing ability so much, cause we’ve done both of these pieces before, it’s just a matter of getting through it in one concert. But I think the audience will love it, and we will too." He's made ambitious programming one of the staples of the group, from the very beginning. "We’ve done a couple of Mahler symphony cycles now, we’ve done Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, and the Berlioz Requiem, and lots of things by Stravinsky, John Adams, Bartok, and Corigliano and other contemporary composers."
"We want to have a community of players," Kujawsky says, "and also we want to take the stigma out of the word amateur. Amateur, of course is from the word to love, and of course we all love music, and many of us are professional level – but the fact that we’re not getting paid for it doesn’t mean that we’re not as good as a professional orchestra." But they are less hierarchical, and he feels that helps raise the quality of their players. Instead of assigned seats and stands in the string sections, they rotate, and the winds and brass are all 'co-principals.' "Normally in a community orchestra, when you’re not paying people, the principal player will be really good, and then it’s hard to find good players for the second or third spots, because they never get to play principal. Well, by making a co-principal, we actually attract much better players, because they all get a chance to shine."
Wednesday, July 22
The thirteenth season of Music@Menlo explores Franz Schubert in depth, with concerts, master classes, lectures, and 'Schubertiades' - the term that describes a musical get-together of friends to play all kinds of music by the prolific composer. Co-Artistic Director David Finckel says this year's programs chart his life and career - which ended when he was only 31.
There's more information about the festival, which runs through August 8th at the Music@Menlo website.
David Finckel says because Schubert wrote more than a thousand works - including hundreds of songs, programming the three week festival was no problem: "If you asked me to build this festival again next year, I could do it twice and have all different pieces, and there’s enough of them. So that’s reassuring and inspiring, and so far, I think we’re in for something unforgettable and will, in the end do justice to the life and the music of Schubert." The convivial and diverse nature of the Schubertiades seemed to be a perfect fit with the spirit of the festival; for the first one last Sunday morning, there were works for piano and violin, piano and voice, a string trio, and solo piano. "I was confident of it, but you know, until you hear the concert happen, until you’re in the room, it’s all just print on paper, and a lot of planning, so all of these things are… as much as I try to imagine them, they’re still surprises... The variety of timbre, instrumentation, mood… the endless wealth of harmonic surprise and melodic inventiveness is… It bears out the whole project, I think."
Schubert first played music with his family members, and was eventually a student of Salieri... "being encouraged to write Italian operas and forget about the German language… Instead composing 150 songs in 1815, and sticking to his guns and his belief in the German poets." He aspired to be the kind of artist that Beethoven was, and (although they likely never met) after serving as one of the torchbearers at his funeral, took seriously the question that was asked, who might be his musical successor? Though he lived only one year after Beethoven's death, Schubert packed a lot into it, Finckel explains: "In that final year of his life, he poured all of his energy into composing works of enormous depth, significance and scale, and he really did climb the summit, and wind up there at the top next to his mentor and role-model."
Friday, July 17
The Valley of the Moon Music Festival runs for the next three weekends in Sonoma, focusing on a particular period of music that people don't usually think of as "early" - but festival founders Tanya Tomkins and Eric Zivian will bring period instrument performances of music from the Classical and early Romantic eras to audiences - as well as providing a training ground for apprentices, beginning this weekend.
Eric Zivian and Tanya Tomkins wanted to create a festival that would shine a light on a period that was defined by changing instruments and rules of music. The composers who will be represented - ranging from Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven through Mendelssohn and Schumann - get played frequently, but it's usually on modern instruments, which affects the balance in a chamber music setting. "As a string player, and especially as a cellist," Tomkins says, "most of my life I have been trained to play as loudly as I possibly can to be heard a little bit over the huge Steinway piano in, say, the Schumann piano quartet. But when you play it with the right piano, suddenly it solves all the balance problems, and you can focus much more on making different colors, and you can play with more nuance, and you don’t have to be forcing your sound all the time." She and the other string players in the festival will be playing on gut strings, and using older bows, and Eric Zivian will be playing a copy of a 1795 fortepiano for the earlier works, and an original 1841 keyboard for the later ones. Tomkins explains: "It just makes you play differently when you’re playing with that piano, and you’re playing on the gut strings. And the instruments themselves are going to be a combination of people playing on slightly too early setups for the time, and possibly slightly later setups for the time, but it was a very transitional time of setting up instruments, this Classical and Romantic era. It was just between and right before it all changed and became the uniform instruments that we know today."
Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock (and many of the other featured performers and teaching artists) are known for being Baroque specialists. She says that's going to help this music sound as revolutionary and fresh as it was at the time: "It’s not just the instruments that are wildly transitional during these several decades – but the music itself is essentially in transition. That’s one of the lovely things about all of us who have played Baroque Music, coming to this music from that, because we’re doing it in the right order, as it were... It’s really fun to come at this music in the way that musicians from that time would have done. New music would appear on their stands, and they would be coming to it with the understanding that they’d grown up with from the earlier repertoire."
Thursday, July 16
The Midsummer Mozart Festival returns beginning tonight with a performance at the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford - they'll bring that same program to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, and have a different program at the same venues next week. Conductor George Cleve will be conducting, in his (and the festival's) 41st consecutive season.
The finale of the first program - fittingly - is Mozart's final symphony, his number 41, the 'Jupiter.' It will be played with with the Oboe Concerto in C Major, the Horn Concerto no. 2, the overture to The Impresario, and two arias. With so much music to choose from, George Cleve says he tries not to just choose the 'hits': "I have always tried to combine the well-known… I wouldn’t say the top ten, but maybe the top 150, with some of the works that have never been performed in the area, in a couple of cases, never been performed!"
Next week's concerts have the familiar 'Haffner' Symphony, German Dances, more arias and duets, plus the Piano Concerto #27 with a long-time friend as the soloist. "We welcome back one of our favorite guest pianists, Seymour Lipkin," Cleve says. "Seymour and I also go way way back, in fact, when I was 17, and a student at Tanglewood, he was my first conducting teacher. Although he had already won the Rachmaninoff prize at the age of 18, he had gotten much more into conducting, studied with Koussevitsky and Szell… and then subsequently I studied piano with him for about ten years."
Wednesday, July 15
The 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.
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
This 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.
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 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.
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
Starting 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.
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
The 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 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.