The Mendocino Music Festival celebrates its 28th season this year, with a lineup that includes a healthy dose of classical offerings... plus music from a wide range of other traditions: blues, bluegrass, Celtic, big band, jazz, and even flamenco. There's also a series of events celebrating Bach (and the importance of beer to him and his contemporaries), all under (or near) the big tent overlooking the coast. Festival co-founder and Artistic Director Allan Pollack gives a preview.
Allan Pollack began the festival with his wife, Susan Waterfall (still Associate Artistic Director) and the late Walter Green, who was a longtime principal bassoonist with the San Francisco Symphony. The first season was in 1987, and began solely devoted to classical music. "Since the beginnings as a classical music festival," Pollack says, "we have expanded, and we have all different kinds of music, from blues to bluegrass. We have a big band concert on one of the evenings this summer - we're doing a tribute to Aretha Franklin." That concert will star jazz singer Kim Nalley. Among the classical soloists this season are Bay Area favorite Frederica von Stade and pianist Stephen Prutsman, who'll play both Mozart and Bach concertos; the Calder Quartet and father and son Paul and Stefan Hersh will play chamber music, as will the principals of the Festival Orchestra. And there's also a staged performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
The Claire Lynch Band will play bluegrass, April Verch Band brings a Canadian take on Celtic music, and Juncal Street, the Flamenco group of Fanny Ara will give an evening performance in the tent concert hall. Allan Pollack says the diversity of the programming comes from his and his wife's own tastes - classically trained as a conductor and composer, Pollack also was a jazz player for many years in the Bay Area. "We're a bunch of peolple that love every kind of music. I mean, we'll sit down at night and listen to a Mahler symphony, we'll listen to an opera, we'll listen to Aretha Franklin, we'll listen to Michael Brecker. People tend to want to put things in boxes... It's a wonderful festival, and anybody from San Francisco that loves practically any kind of music can come up and hear it."
Thursday, July 3
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 2
This summer's Opera at the Ballpark on Saturday, July 5th will bring San Francisco Opera's production of La Traviata (starring Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello as Violetta and Alfredo) to an expanded audience at AT&T Park, watching from the outfield and stands. The husband-and-wife leads have also just released a CD called Love Duets.
Beaming the production to the DiamondVision scoreboard at the park means the opera will be seen by a larger, and in many cases newer audience than at the opera house. Stephen Costello recommends keeping your eyes on the singers. "For a newbie opera person, I would say... forget about the subtitles and just try to see how much you can understand visually. By their interactions, and by the music. Because Verdi does a great job of painting a picture in the music. You can kind of just realize what's going on - maybe not word for word, but you'll get a good understanding of it. And I think you'll walk away enjoying it a lot more."
Pérez and Costello (who have been described as the "Beyoncé and Jay-Z of opera" by Vanity Fair) each have been successful on their own - they both were awarded the Richard Tucker Award, given to promising young artists 'poised on the edge of a major national and international career'. Costello was memorable as Greenhorn in Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, and Pérez has made Violetta one of her signature roles. They've had a chance to play opposite each other in La Traviata several times before. "From the downbeat of act one," Pérez says, "you can hear this strain of tragedy in the violin, in the interludes... Verdi wrote this musical moment where the world stops, right before Alfredo begins his line 'Un dì felice...' This magical moment when he just appears and declares his love. Not only his love. I think that what really transforms this story from any other is that he talks about this universal love: this love that makes even the universe stick together."
Friday, June 27
The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of both ending its season, and celebrating Benjamin Britten's centennial - with a semi-staged multimedia performance of his opera Peter Grimes, and shining the spotlight on what was originally incidental music from that work: his Four Sea Interludes. Video artist and filmmaker Tal Rosner has used the music to create a visual work that use images of bridges and water from the hometowns of four orchestras, essentially 'scoring' with visuals the music that Britten wrote.
The project had its seeds in a piece Tal Rosner created several years ago, when the New World Symphony's hall in Miami was just being built - and the orchestra was looking for examples of video pieces, based on musical works that could take advantage of their built-in projectors and screens. "I chose 'Sunday Morning' from the Four Sea Interludes," Rosner says. "It's a piece that I knew quite well, I knew the opera, it's one of the first operas that I was introduced to, and I knew... the ins and outs of it." Flash forward several years, and with the Britten 100th anniversary being celebrated this past season, the San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony were joined by the L.A. Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra in a commission for a multimedia piece to be a part of the commemoration.
This is the west coast premiere of the work, which takes the four movements, "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," Moonlight," and "Storm" and treats each as a tribute to each of the locales of the commissioning orchestras. Rosner will be able to mix the video live as the orchestra is playing, because each visual cue is created to be able to transition smoothly into what follows, allowing for differences in tempos by the various conductors (he worked with multiple recordings while putting the video together, and got a sense of where the music might contract or expand.) "The intimacy of my relationship with the piece just grows every time I perform it," he says. "Because ... I just really know it by heart, without being able to read music, because I've listened to it so many times!"
Thursday, June 26
The term 'Tafelmusik' - which Georg Philipp Telemann used to call his three collections of quartets, trio and solo sonatas and concertos - had been around for about a hundred years, as a way of describing music that was appropriate to accompany a feast or banquet. On this A-to-Z edition, a look at some other Table Music, both figurative and literal.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber wrote a piece called Mensa Sonora, or The Sonorous Table in the 1680s, and it was already understood as a description for chamber works that weren't of a religious nature, which could be either instrumental or vocal.
Fast forward to the more literal recent past, when Belgian composer Thierry de Mey wrote a work for three percussionists to play using an amplified table:
A work that many attributed to Mozart (including the person who did this manuscript) is written in such a way that two players, across from each other at a table can read from the same score (the piece is also called The Mirror):
This duo is playing a longer version of the above, but you get the idea...
Friday, June 20
The Stern Grove Festival's concert season begins this Sunday afternoon with what they call the "Big Picnic" - the admission-free concert that starts it all off will feature R&B legends Smokey Robinson and Patti Austin. Executive Director Steven Haines gives a preview of just some of the performances that they've planned for this summer.
Steven Haines says they're expecting 12-thousand people or more to come to the opening concert - which continues the 77-year tradition of free performances in that location, down the hill from 19th Avenue and Sloat. The line-up this year includes: Allen Stone and Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna (June 29); Edwin Outwater conducting the San Francisco Symphony in an American-themed concert (July 6); a New Orleans-themed show with the Funky Meters and Sugar Pie DeSanto (July 13); Pupy y Los Que Son Son and Vieux Farka Toure (July 20); Rufus Wainwright and Quartet San Francisco (July 27); Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory along with Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors (August 3); Darlene Love and the Monophonics (August 10); Sergio Mendes and LoCura (August 17); and The Zombies and Vetiver (August 24).
Here's a little introduction to the Stern Grove Festival experience (including none other than KDFC's own Rik Malone):
Thursday, June 19
The Lyric Theatre presents a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic The Mikado this weekend and next at the Montgomery Theater in San Jose. Director Mark Blattel says the plot, although complicated, is about things that aren't limited to the times of Victorian England... like poking fun at the pompous.
Both Blattel and Assistant Director Laurie Hupman joke that (although complicated) the plot of The Mikado is refreshingly coherent - there are no "dangling bits" that leave the audience asking questions. Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado, is in love with Yum-Yum, who is ward of (and engaged to) Ko-Ko, who has been named the Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu. Ko-Ko was to have been beheaded, but since being named Executioner, can't carry out his own sentence, thwarting the romance of Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo (who is disguised as a wandering minstrel.) Mark Blattel says frequently it helps to know some of the intrigue and gossip of Victorian England to understand W.S. Gilbert's lyrics, but less so in this case. "What he was aiming his satirical arrows at was, I think, a little more general than he may have been in some of his other shows, and so what he's making fun of: pompous, overbearing officials - they're timeless."
Wednesday, June 18
The Ojai North! Festival begins at Cal Performances tomorrow night, running through Saturday night. One of the highlights is a very unusual comic opera, with a libretto by pianist Jeremy Denk, and a score by Steven Stucky. Its characters include no less than Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and has as its inspiration a famous book about music theory and analysis, its namesake: The Classical Style, by musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen.
Jeremy Denk was friends with Charles Rosen, who died in 2012, and who (like Denk) was a performer, writer, and thinker about music. His adaptation of the material departs quickly from the original text, with the characters of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (bored with Scrabble games in heaven, and feeling less and less relevant in today's musical world) coming across the book by Rosen, and then going to search for the author himself. "It was a really weird idea, I thought," says composer Steven Stucky, who Denk wanted to collaborate with. "I had no idea how to do it. It would have been, and now is, my first opera. So I kept giving them phone numbers of other composers. And then Jeremy started sending me pages of the libretto, which would make me fall off my chair laughing. And I was hooked pretty quickly."
The opera is just one of the features of the festival, which also includes performers like the orchestral collective known as "The Knights" - the chamber music group that includes the quartet Brooklyn Rider and their collaborators; Uri Caine and his ensemble will re-imagine works of Mahler with a jazz sensibility; there's Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins from Storm Large; Denk himself will play works by Ligeti, Ives, Janacek and more. Here he gives an overview...
Friday, June 13
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 just-finished opera of Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, will premiere in 2015.
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.
Thursday, June 12
Cinnabar Theater's staging of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro has three more performances this weekend - with an intimate set, chamber-sized orchestra, and a convoluted plot (sung in English) of intrigue on the wedding day of a pair of servants to nobility. The Count and Countess in the production, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek and Bharati Soman, tell about this production.
This is a homecoming of sorts for Bharati Soman, who not only lived in the Bay Area before moving to Washington, D.C., but who sang the role of the Countess in a Cinnabar production (also directed by Elly Lichenstein) of Figaro nine years ago. While that was a traditional staging, this version has been updated to the time of the 1920s. She and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek say that the size of the theater means that the audience really feels drawn into the production, and so do they. "It's nice to be this close to the audience, in such an intimate space, because you get to hear every little reaction," Soman says. There's no need to worry if you turn your back to the audience, your voice doesn't disappear - and a real whisper is all you need, rather than a traditional 'stage whisper.'
The 10-piece orchestra, led by Music Director Mary Chun is able to play a chamber-music arrangement of the score without it feeling that way. "It feels like I'm still hearing all the same music," Smith Kotlarek says. "It doesn't feel like there's anything missing," Soman adds. "It's a full sound, it's a good sound from such a small orchestra." There are performances this Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. They've already 'extended' their run by adding one more show last night.
Wednesday, June 11
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 that will be held tomorrow night at the Green Music Center by the National Brass Ensemble, made up of 26 players from 9 top American orchestras.
Here is more information about the concert, which is being presented by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, and the Green Music Center.
The idea for a concert (and CD that they're recording this week) has been in the works for many years - since David Stull (now President of the SFCM, 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 24 years) began trying to find a window of time that would allow them to come together for a 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. They'll be playing some of the repertoire from the iconic album, as well as new arrangements by SFS principal trombonist and SFCM faculty member Tim Higgins of more music by Gabrieli, and a brand new piece by John Williams, who has worked with many of the players as both a conductor and composer (he wrote a trumpet concerto for Michael Sachs in 1996). 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!"
Friday, June 6
Cellist David Finckel has spent his entire life as a cellist, and plays his instrument constantly - but he avoids the routines that he's seen colleagues develop. "I try almost without fail to never do anything habitually," he says. "It scares me, the idea of habit." Instead, he tries to be ready to adapt to the needs of the moment.
Finckel -- who was the long-time cellist with the Emerson String Quartet -- and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have been at the center of the chamber music world for decades, as players and administrators. They're co-artistic directors of both Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But he says he doesn't believe in any set 'warmup routine.' "I find that being on stage, and being comfortable on stage involves a lot of adaptability. I've watched colleagues... make themselves miserable over years by becoming more dependent on routines, and certain conditions: lighting, temperature, instrument adjustment, chair. I've learned that's not the right road to go down for me."
David Finckel doesn't need any convincing to play, though. "I personally like to keep my fingers moving, but that's also because I love playing the cello. I love the way it feels... For me it's a sensuous experience, and it's also kind of a toy, like a game....I love having it in my hands, I'm looking at it sitting there in the case, and I'm looking so much forward to getting it out and getting my hands on it."
Thursday, June 5
Returning to Berkeley Rep a season after his success with the one-man show about George Gershwin, actor and pianist Hershey Felder presents Maestro - a performance in which he takes on the larger-than-life personality of Leonard Bernstein, who as conductor, composer, and educator changed the way Americans thought about Classical music.
Felder says the fact that Bernstein is remembered by so many people, and his work is so well documented meant he needed to approach the 'role' differently than he had for Gershwin, Chopin, or Liszt. "What do you do when you have miles and miles and miles of film of somebody? How do you create that character? I think the most important thing is that you evoke. You don't imitate, you don't impersonate. As it turned out, surprisingly it made everything so much easier, because there is so much there available." And even though much of Bernstein's career was spent on the podium, Felder says there's as much piano playing in this as any of the other shows. On the 'Omnibus' television show that he began in the 1950s, he would both conduct the orchestra in the studio as well as play examples on a piano keyboard. An imaginary 'Omnibus,' TV studio is the setting of the play, which includes Bernstein exploring some of his own works in the way he did those of other composers.
Wednesday, June 4
Pianist Kirill Gerstein, who solos with the San Francisco Symphony in a series of concerts this week, has followed an unusual parallel study of both Classical music and jazz...both of which will inform his performance of Beethoven's second piano concerto. Tonight through Saturday, the Symphony has three concerts at Davies Symphony Hall, and Thursday night they'll be at Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit.
Kirill Gerstein says his interest in jazz (which brought him to this country from Russia, to become a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston) came first through recordings that he heard and wanted to imitate. He still plays Gershwin and other jazz-inflected works in concert, but also says he brings that sensibility to his other repertoire: "What I do and concentrate on is Classical Music, but I think these different things such as jazz that draw me help me to be a more rounded person and a more rounded musician. And I think that affects the way I play Beethoven or Rachmaninoff."
He's been recognized twice by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival - once as their Young Artist in 2002, and winning their prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2010 - and deciding to spend the considerable prize money on something that will last: commissioned works. "I thought that commissioning pieces would be an interesting and good way to spend the money, so I've done a series of commissions from very different people, such as Oliver Knussen, and a young American, Timo Andres. Also a couple of commisisions that are jazz-related. Brad Mehldau wrote a big piece for me, Chick Corea wrote a piece for me, and Gary Burton [percussionist and faculty member at Berklee]". His latest CD, just out, is called Imaginary Pictures, and includes the 'visually inspired' works by Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition), and Robert Schumann (Carnaval).
Tuesday, June 3
The Belgian early music choir called Vox Luminis makes its United States debut this week in a pair of concert programs this Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Berkeley Music Festival and Exhibition. Artistic Director Lionel Meunier began the one-voice-to-a-part group with friends in 2004, and they've received raves for their recordings, including their 2012 disc of music by Heinrich Schutz, which was Gramophone Magazine's overall Recording of the Year.
About ten years ago, Lionel Meunier wanted to form an ensemble specifically because of one piece - which they'll be singing on Thursday night's program. Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, which is written for 10 parts, but he had just sung with a 40 voice choir. "I was at home looking at this Stabat Mater, and I thought this should be sung with ten soloists!" Meunier recalls. "Without having made any research, it was just from the ears, I felt a bit frustrated sometimes to have to share that part with three or four colleagues. These lines are so pure, you do feel you want alone to be taking care of your line really carefully." So the ensemble sings one voice to a part. They never have more than a dozen singers, and a few instruments. What began as a two concert per year schedule has only gotten busier with their popularity. "Three years ago we had twelve concerts... We have fifty-five this year, including tours, plus recordings, plus rehearsals."
And in addition to their recordings, for fans (and concert presenters) they make a habit of posting videos online: "When we rehears... we like to have a little camera going on, and we like to post on YouTube full tracks, meaning a piece how we sing it, from beginning until end. No working with filters on the sound, this is just how we sound. Many of the festivals do invite us after listening to those videos, because they think 'OK, I know how you sound live already!' So they are not scared and wonder 'this CD sounds so fantastic, but how is it going to be live?'"
You be the judge - here's some rehearsal footage from their YouTube channel:
Monday, June 2
The Imani Winds woodwind quintet joins jazz pianist Jason Moran at the SFJAZZ Center on Thursday night, to play works that he wrote for them - a suite called Cane and a sextet called Jump Cut Rose which he'll play with them. Also on the program is an astonishing arrangement of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Mariam Adam, clarinetist with the ensemble, says three of the five of them went to the Manhattan School of Music at the same time as Jason Moran, and he was on their short list of composers to commission as a part of a project that began to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary as a group. "That friendship stayed over the years as everybody went their own way artistically... the meandering life of an artist. But fortunately, we were in a position, each of us, to welcome the other onto the stage if and when we could." Cane was one of three pieces commissioned from jazz players that appeared on their CD Terra Incognita... the other composers were Wayne Shorter, and Paquito D'Rivera.
Mariam Adam says one of the things that sets them apart as a group is the range of timbres they can achieve - and that's one reason they enjoy arrangements of works originally meant for larger forces: "We have a pretty wide range of sound. We're not satisfied with just that kind of small 'wind quintet' sound." Here's a demonstration of that range, a piece by their flute player Valerie Coleman, Red Clay and Mississippi Delta.