Tuesday, January 3

Auspicious BeginningsAs the curtain rises on 2017, here's a little collection of some memorable and auspicious beginnings from the world of classical music...  Works that right from the starting gate hint at the masterpieces that are to follow. 

If you want to see whether you're able to identify what those works are, click and drag over the blank spaces below to reveal the titles.
  1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
  2. Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 
  3. Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 "Classical"
  4. Stravinsky: Petrushka
  5. Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
  6. Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture
  7. Haydn: Symphony 104
  8. Bizet: Carmen Overture
  9. Strauss: Die Fledermaus Overture
  10. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
  11. Dvorak: 'New World' Symphony No. 9
  12. Grieg: Piano Concerto
  13. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
  14. Respighi: The Pines of Rome

Friday, December 23

A-to-Z Table MusicThe 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):

Duet on One Sheet of Manuscript Paper

This duo is playing a longer version of the above, but you get the idea... 

Thursday, December 22

Jennifer KohViolinist Jennifer Koh had a great success at the Tchaikovsky International Competition when she was a teenager, including an award for the best performance of his concerto - but for a long time she'd taken a break from that repertoire. On her most recent CD, she plays the Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, with the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and the same conductor from the finals of that long-ago competition, Alexander Vedernikov.

You can find out more about the recording at Jennifer Koh's website.

"I took a break from performing Tchaikovsky in public," Koh explains. "And it was amazing when I came back, it was like, ‘this is so weird, this is really great music, I really love Tchaikovsky!’  I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people that I did this CD, because I’m known for doing super crazy stuff. I don’t think it’s crazy, but I’m used to doing more, let’s say, experimental things." Things like commissioning contemporary composers to write unaccompanied works that could be played in a series called 'Bach and Beyond', and piano sonatas inspired by Beethoven's, for 'Bridge to Beethoven.'  But rediscovering Tchaikovsky inspired her when she and Alexander Vedernikov found themselves performing the concerto twenty years after the competition. "Even though we had developed completely separately musically, and we have changed as human beings, that musical connection through the music of Tchaikovsky was still very present, and that was kind of amazing to me. So we just decided kind of on the spot that we had to record all of the Tchaikovsky works." So in addition to the concerto, there's the Sérénade mélancolique, Valse-Scherzo, and Glazunov's orchestration of Souvenir d'un lieu cher.

Wednesday, December 21

SF Unified School DistrictDonn Harris is the first-ever Executive Director of Creativity and the Arts for the San Francisco Unified School District. He's run two arts schools, and is the chairman of the California Arts Council. He's been brought on to finish a transition that's been planned for a long time: the renovation and construction of their properties in the Civic Center area to house an Arts High School and Arts Center.

Harris says they have great plans for the space they already have: "We have this wonderful block, bordered by Franklin, Van Ness, Fell, and Hayes. Worth about, I believe, 30 million dollars on the market, and we own three buildings on it, and the lot in between, and we want to build it out to be exactly what it should be: the Arts High School at 135 Van Ness." There have been plans in development for a long time, with money approved by voters (although there will be more needed to be raised privately) "My position, if you look at the org chart, is not connected to anything. I’m off to the side, as almost a separate thing. Superintendent Carranza, before he left, made sure I didn’t have too many duties attached to me so I could get this done. This is not an easy thing, to raise that kind of money, sell it to people, get everybody excited, and do it right. And at the same time, meet the needs of the school district. So my real job, the thing that I was hired to do, was to get the school down here, get the institute built, and get the whole arts eco-system up and running." The fact that it will be right in the heart of the Arts district, next to Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House and Herbst Theatre is hugely important. "The artistic energy, the greenhouse effect that you’re going to see when this finally happens is going to be amazing. And for kids, even more amazing. Even with the all the arts agencies down here there isn’t one central spot. This institute that we’re building at 170 Fell, that’s going to be the central spot. The hub."


Tuesday, December 20

Vireo by Lisa BielawaVireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser evolved over the course of 20 years or so, as it changed from a traditional three-act opera into a new episodic streaming-video format that will be premiering this spring. Composer Lisa Bielawa and librettist Erik Ehn met at a workshop in New York City, and began writing a work about a young girl who has visions, and whose story stretches through history. For the past two years they've been filming it scene by scene. 

You can find out more about the production at the Vireo website.

Freed of the confines of the opera house, the production has filmed in a variety of locations (including Alcatraz) and with many guest artists appearing in each episode. The first includes Kronos Quartet, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which Bielawa is the Artistic Director. In the title role is Rowen Sabala, who was 16 when they began, and a student at the Orange County School of the Arts. "What we’re doing is we’re focusing on this very time in young girls’ adolescence," Bielawa says. "Because the story itself is based around teenage girls who had visions (who were around Rowen’s age) who had these sort of visionary experiences over the course of hundreds of years of western history. So it’s definitely an opportunity for us to let that speak through a real girl." This is a new approach to opera, but for all of the technical hurdles, it actually makes some aspects of the performance easier. "If there’s a chorus in an opera, and you’re in an opera house, then the same 24 people or however many... has all these different costumes, and has to function as all these different crowds of people. But if you have a different crowd in every episode, you can actually have a different crowd. It can be a cast of thousands while still being light on its feet. In fact, suddenly it flips it on its head. It makes it easier for it to involve more people than to involve the same people."

Monday, December 19

Music NotationOn an "A to Z" edition of The State of the Arts, a look at musical Notation... which, like any writing, allows one person to transmit an idea to another without having to meet in person. A composer today can, it's true, make a recording, or even Skype into a rehearsal and let the players or conductor know how the performance should go... But the system of notation that's developed since the middle ages means that composer should be able to send a score off knowing it will be performed more or less as intended.

The standard of music notation that we use today is efficient - on a conductor's score, each individual line corresponds to an instrument or section of the orchestra; reading from left to right, you're moving forward in time... and at any point along the way, reading the page vertically will give a snapshot of the harmony being played.

Manuscript of Gregorian ChantThe standards of notation have been slowly refined over the years, although some of the principle ideas are very similar to the time of Gregorian Chants - when musical scores began to have an early "staff", and the direction of melodies were determined by the placement of the noteheads.  The shapes and groupings of the noteheads indicated their duration, and how the pitch would be approached - connected or detached from the note that came before, or with an ornamental melisma. But the text determined the rhythm and phrasing, and since they were sung in unison, dividing the melodies into measures wasn't necessary.

Bach ManuscriptHere's an example of J.S. Bach's handwritten manuscript, using notation that's much more familiar to anyone who's studied music. The staves are joined into a treble and bass grand staff, which is used for keyboard music, although this looks like one of the many Chorales that Bach wrote or reharmonized - which could be either played or sung. There are barlines separating the measures, and each of the four independent voices has a different rhythmic feeling. The melody in the soprano is slow and even, the bassline "walks" at a steady clip, and the tenor  voice has 'dotted' rhythms of long notes followed by short ones, in almost a heartbeat dah - - dit, dah - - dit pattern.

Chopin ScoreThis single measure from Chopin's Nocturne, Opus 2 No.1 trips off the fingers of a well-trained pianist, with a pattern of 22 notes meant to take the same amount of time as the 12 notes in the left hand. By not making the notes line up exactly, he creates a slightly relaxed and rhythmically free feeling (rather than one that tries to exactly work the math out precisely.) 

In Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, he does away with the barlines altogether at times; the piece is fiendishly difficult (but fortunately, it's only for one performer, and not an ensemble that has to stay together!)


Friday, December 16

Aulos EnsembleMusic at Kohl Mansion welcomes the New York-based Aulos Ensemble with soloist soprano Julianne Baird for a Baroque infused Holiday Gala this Sunday evening. Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy says the concert benefits their yearlong program called 'Kohl for Kids' which reaches about 7500 kids in Peninsula schools through concerts and workshops. Earlier in the afternoon, the Young Chamber Musicians program will be presenting a free concert of piano trios and string quartets in the Mansion's library. 

There's more information about the concert at the Music at Kohl Mansion website.

The Aulos Ensemble has become a favorite at Kohl Mansion, This is the third time in a dozen years that they've performed there, in the unique venue, which Moy describes this way: "A hundred-plus-year-old Tudor mansion in Burlingame, and it’s absolutely gorgeously bedecked for the holidays. It’s a beautiful rose-brick building that has quite a history, and it’s been everything from a private home to a convent to a high school, to an event venue to a concert hall. Of course the acoustics at the Kohl Mansion are the draw. And we’ve had every artist, especially the Aulos Ensemble, in fact, tell us that it is the acoustically most pleasing venue for them as artists to work in, because of the sound that comes back to them on the stage." They'll perform works by Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti, Corrette and Bach, benefitting Kohl for Kids. It will be preceded by a pre-concert talk by musicologist Kai Christiansen, and earlier in the afternoon, the talented artists of their Young Chamber Musicians program will present a free concert of piano trios and string quartets in the Mansion's library.