Monday, April 14

Wittenberg at Aurora TheatreAurora Theatre's production of Wittenberg by David Davalos imagines Hamlet as a college student (unable to decide on a major), with a couple of impressive teachers: Dr. Faustus and Martin Luther. Director Josh Costello gives a preview of the play, making its Bay Area premiere and running until May 11th.

There's more information at the Aurora Theatre website.

Much like Tom Stoppard's play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Wittenberg came about because David Davalos was immersed in Hamlet. "The playwright was playing Rosenkrantz in a production of Hamlet," Josh Costello says, "which means you have a lot of time backstage to listen to the play, and one of the things that he started thinking about was Wittenberg." The German university where the young prince is studying when he learns of his father's death was a pivotal location, according to Costello. "Wittenberg to an Elizabethan audience, to Shakespeare's original audience, would have sort of been like UC Berkeley to an audience in the 1960s. It's a place of learning, and a place of expansive knowledge and free speech and new ideas." 

The church there was also where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, which launched the Protestant movement... And the University was the setting for the Faust story, in which the scholar sells his soul to the devil for complete knowledge of the world. So the overlapping setting proved irresistible to the playwright: "We have Hamlet as an undergraduate, entering his senior year at Wittenberg. His two professors are Martin Luther, professor of theology, and Dr. Faustus, his professor of philosophy. Hamlet is unable to decide on a major, and both of them are trying to get Hamlet to come around to their way of looking at the world."

Aurora Theatre production of Wittenberg

Friday, April 11

Postcard From Morocco at SFCMThe 1971 opera Postcard From Morocco by Dominick Argento is now being presented at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in a first-ever co-production with a professional company... namely, Portland Opera. Curt Pajer, who heads the opera program at SFCM had been trying to bring director Kevin Newbury to the school to collaborate on a project, and Postcard happened to be scheduled in Portland at just the right time to allow it to happen.

There's more information about the performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music website.

Pajer says he wanted to bring Newbury to town to work with his students since he's been on faculty. "At first it didn't look too promising, because he's very busy, and he really only had these two and a half weeks free, but once we started talking about the possibility of a co-production with Portland, everything fell into place, and here we are." That means the sets, costumes, and plan for the production will be the same as it was just staged at Portland Opera. Kevin Newbury called the timing serendipitous, because it happens to be a great piece for young singers, with seven characters (there are two casts for the Conservatory performances) and a pit orchestra of eight players that Pajer is leading.

In the original staging, Argento called for puppets and cardboard cutouts, and for singers to play multiple roles, but Newbury's version is more stripped-down. He describes the synopsis this way: "A kind of existential story, very Beckett-like, Waiting for Godot or Endgame, where you have all these characters in a train station waiting room, waiting for something to happen. And all seven characters have a very complete journey - they're all on stage for the whole time, so it's a very ensemble-based storytelling." And Pajer says it's a true ensemble piece for the pit musicians too (solo strings, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, piano and percussion) too: "The music is fascinating, because it's a mixture of so many different styles. The mezzo-soprano sings a jazz number, there's a march for the baritone and the bass-baritone,  an operetta duet for the tenor and the soprano, and the centerpiece of the opera is a vaudeville number that's only instrumental...Argento weaves in melodies from several Wagner operas. So it's a little something for everybody."

Monday, April 7

Khatia BuniatishviliPianist Khatia Buniatishvili has played in concerto performances with the Symphony, but this weekend she'll have her recital debut through Chamber Music San Francisco at Marines Memorial Theatre on Saturday night, and the next evening she'll be at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose for a Steinway Society concert. Along with Liszt and Chopin, there will be Stravinsky and Ravel on the program. 

There's more information about the concerts at the Chamber Music San Francisco and Steinway Society websites.

She says she chose the Liszt and Chopin for her program because they've been a part of her repertoire since her early days: "Since I started to play my first recitals and my first concerts. It means my first touch with stage was related to these composers. So first of all I had more time to realize why they're so important to me, and secondly, they're simply interesting because they're from the Romanticism period, when individualism started to be very important for composers."  The distinct styles of Chopin (she'll play his Sonata number 2) and Liszt (his B minor Sonata) come alive in their music, regardless of what preconceptions people might have. "People usually like to classify them in some kind of frames: like Liszt is more virtuoso, Chopin is more Romantic and intimate and so on... Bit I think it's actually through music that you can discover, because through music you can find your own connection with the composer." 

She says each of the pieces that she's playing tells a story - there's also the Ravel La Valse and Stravinsky's Petrushka - and shows a different side of her playing. The Georgian pianist says she feels especially comfortable with Liszt, though. "Liszt is a composer where I completely can be just myself. It just allows me to be natural in the way of virtuosity or phrasing, or musical thinking." Here's a sample of her playing a Liszt arrangement of the Schubert lieder Ständchen:

Friday, April 4

Marin Symphony's Alasdair NealeThe final concert in Marin Symphony's Masterworks series, called "Sacred and Secular," brings together a pair of works for large forces that includes choir and soloists. Music Director Alasdair Neale says Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms make a nice pairing, despite the fact that in some ways they're polar opposites.

There's more information about the concerts, which are this Sunday afternoon at 3 and Tuesday at 7:30 at the Marin Symphony website.

Carl Orff's sprawling Carmina Burana is probably best known for its opening and closing moments - the 'O Fortuna' - with a relentless repeated motive sung by the choir in almost a whisper, and then growing into a full-voiced fortissimo. "Everybody knows how Carmina goes... at least how it starts," says Neale. "Everybody knows that one because it's in every action movie that you've ever seen, and every car commercial probably at some point. But the Bernstein, which dates from the mid 1960s, when he was on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, really devoting himself to composition, is a beautiful piece." A beautiful piece that's not so well known. 

"It's a really lovely piece, and provides the perfect foil to the Orff. Orff is actually kind of a hard piece to program. It in itself is easy to program, but you have to do something else, and finding the right match with it is not always easy. But I think in this case we've got an interesting combination." They'll be joined by the Marin Symphony Chorus for the performances, along with soloists Brian Asawa, Nikki Einfeld, and Eugene Brancoveanu.

Tuesday, April 1

The comedic Mozart...An April Fool's Day look at some of the ways that humor has been used in Classical music over the years, by both composers and performers. Some might imagine the world of the great masters to be too serious to 'let their hair down,' but there's plenty of that going on in the concert hall.

The composer who probably has the greatest reputation for having a sense of humor is Haydn - who played games with the expectations of an educated audience in such works as his "Joke" quartet, which doesn't seem to know just when it's ending, And there was the "Farewell" Symphony, in which, to prove a point about the musicians of the orchestra being rather overworked, ends with a slow reduction in the number of players down to just two violins - originally played by Haydn and the concertmaster at the Esterhazy Court. And if that's too subtle, there's the jarring "Surprise" of his Symphony No. 94's second movement.

Mozart's "A Musical Joke" pokes fun at some of the habits of lazy composers, and horn players who, although well-meaning, have perhaps put the wrong crook, or length of tubing into their instruments, putting them in the wrong key. (You can hear that in the recording below at 5:07 and elsewhere!)

Find more programs in the SOTA Archive