Thursday, May 12

Juraj ValcuhaThe San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Juraj Valcuha present a program with four 20th Century works that share the themes of drama and romance... One by Prokofiev, two by Richard Strauss, and one that shows his influence by Anton Webern. The Slovakian-born conductor is making his third appearance with the orchestra. The first performance will be this afternoon at 2:00, followed by concerts Friday and Saturday nights.

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

"It's a very operatic program," Valcuha explains. "As you can see, with two suites from operas… one from Rosenkavalier, one from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, which is absolutely marvelous music, very very difficult, very demanding, very virtuoso music. Don Juan was a very operatic character. And Im Sommerwind, it’s something in between... You can feel that Webern tries to tell something because it’s a symphonic poem written on a pre-existing poem. There is a text behind it. This connection to the text, the voice, and to the stage, you can find it in all four pieces."  Valcuha says Strauss straddled some of the major changes in music at the beginning of the last century; although he was ahead of his time (he wrote Don Juan at age 24), and his operas were very modern, he had an attachment to what came before. "You can really feel with Elektra, with Salome that he was an avant-garde, he was a contemporary composer. Of course, after 1913, after Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg and Webern, his Four Last Songs really sounds like the end of a world, of his world, of some kind of music. He lived before the 20th Century, and after… There was some evolution in his way of composing. But it really… it was more rooted in the 19th Century."

Wednesday, May 11

Contra Costa ChoraleThe Contra Costa Chorale is celebrating their 50th anniversary this season, and this weekend they're giving two performances that include the work that was on their first ever concert, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass. Director Cindy Beitmen will welcome to the podium the founder of the group when it began as the Richmond Symphony Chorus, Joseph Liebling for 'In Praise of Music.'

There's more information about the two concerts at the Contra Costa Chorale's website.

Cindy Beitmen, who's led the choir for four years, says the milestone presented them an opportunity: "Because the Chorale is celebrating its 50th anniversary, we thought we’d go back to the very first concert that the Chorale performed, and that was almost 50 years ago, they were actually founded in the fall of 1966, then known as the Richmond Symphony Chorus. Their first performance was in the spring of 1967. And they performed the Haydn Mass, the Lord Nelson Mass, and we thought, well, wouldn’t that be great to sort of reprise that for this concert, 50 years later?” They're going to be led in the first four movements of the Mass by the group's first conductor, Joseph Liebling. The remainder of the program is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, and a newly commissioned work by composer Stephen Main called Where Everything is Music, setting texts by the poet Rumi. The concert Saturday night is in Kensington, and Sunday at 5:00, in Walnut Creek.

Tuesday, May 10

SFMOMAThis weekend marks the re-opening of SFMOMA, after three years of construction. There's almost three times the gallery space as the former building, which allows more of the permanent collection to be on display, as well as many of the works they've recently aquired through the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and their Campaign for Art. Museum Director Neal Benezra says they want SFMOMA to "mean more to more people" than ever before, with more art, and more accessibility.

There's more information about the re-opening at the SFMOMA website.

They need the extra gallery space, since their collection has grown considerably since they moved to their SOMA location in 1995. "The cornerstone of any museum is its collection, and its exhibition program," says Neal Benezra. "And in 1995, SFMOMA had a good collection, of approximately 12,000 works. Today that collection has grown in number to 33,000, but more importantly it has grown immeasurably in quality." That's due to several initiatives, but mostly the partnership they've established with the Fisher family, whose Doris and Donald Fisher Collection of 1,100 works are going to be part of SFMOMA for a minimum of a hundred years. Another 3,000 works have been committed to the museum as part of their Campaign for Art, by collectors and artists. 

"We open with no fewer than 19 separate exhibitions, totaling 1,900 works of art on view. 270 of them from the Fisher Collection, 650 from the collection campaign, and the remaining 990 from the museum’s standing collection. With the addition of the Fisher Collection, and works committed through our Campaign for Art, SFMOMA can now offer all who visit an immersive foundation in the history of contemporary work. We’ve nearly tripled our gallery space, giving expanded presence to all of our collecting departments, and almost an entire third floor dedicated to photography." And more people will be able to explore the collection, with visitors 18 and under admitted free, and the first two floors of SFMOMA publicly accessible.

Monday, May 9

Philippe JarousskyPhilippe Jaroussky, the famed French countertenor, is known for singing the repertoire written for castrati in the Baroque era; but this Thursday night, he'll be singing repertoire from the late 19th and 20th centuries, settings of the poems of Paul Verlaine. The composers, several of whom set the same texts, include Debussy, Faure, Hahn, Chausson, Chabrier and Saint-Saens. Cal Performances presents the recital at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

There's more information about the concert at the Cal Performances website.

Jaroussky began his musical studies with another instrument: "Curiously, I didn't sing when I was a boy. I started with the violin. And it's probably because of this instrument, it's quite high. Maybe [if] I will be a bass player, maybe I wouldn't ever become a countertenor... I didn't want to sing with another voice. For me, it was quite obvious that if I had to sing, it will be in this head voice, this high register. For me it has always been something quite natural. Because I had pleasure to sing high, It was giving me a sort of excitement. I was feeling more alive." His career began when he was still quite young, with concert engagements at age 20 or 21. From then both the repertoire and schedule were grueling, until he took a break a few years ago. "I decided to stop to sing during eight months, to make a sort of sabbatical. It was also to finally find back the pleasure I had when I was starting to sing... When you sing a lot, quite difficult stuff, like the Baroque music, and the arias written for castrati, you try to do it, but you know that you can do better. And sometimes even the nerves, the muscles, they are used to working a certain way, becoming a reflex, and then if you want to change it, I think it's good to stop for a while, and after you can build again your technique." He's also taking his repertoire in new directions - while still releasing CDs and performing Baroque roles, last year he released a recording of the Verlaine songs as well.

Friday, May 6

Philip Setzer, Wu Han, and David FinckelMusic@Menlo's 'Winter Series' wraps up this weekend, with artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel joined by their longtime collaborator, Philip Setzer, for a performance of three piano trios. They've all played together for decades, and began to play the trio repertoire while Finckel and Setzer were members of the Emerson String Quartet together. 

There's more information about the concert at the Music@Menlo website. Wu Han and David Finckel will be playing a duo program on Saturday night at Cal Performances.

The 'Winter Series' concerts have a bit more latitude, David Finckel says, to be free-standing performances that don't need to follow a particular theme or thread: "Our summer festival is extremely context driven. Every festival has a title, this coming summer’s festival is all about Russia, and its music, and its music’s relation to music of the West. But these concerts in the Winter are stand-alones contextually, and we hope that people find them an interesting way to keep in touch with the festival, keep in touch with music and chamber music, without the broad context of the summer themes." This concert will begin with a trio by the composer who was the father of the form, Haydn - one of his very last; the c-minor trio of Mendelssohn follows, with movements that are reminiscent of his Songs without Words and Midsummer Night's Dream; and ends with a work that Brahms began as a young man, and revised 35 years later, "turning what was a great youthful inspiration into a really mature masterpiece."

Thursday, May 5

Jason VieauxGuitarist Jason Vieaux can play comfortably in a wide range of styles: tango music with bandoneon, new music, transcriptions of Pat Metheny, solo Bach; but in Dan Visconti's new concerto, called Living Language, he'll be playing his classical guitar with some of the techniques a blues-playing electric guitarist might. He'll be giving the world premiere performances Friday and Sunday with Donato Cabrera and the California Symphony, in Yountville and Walnut Creek.

There's more information about the performances at the California Symphony website.

Jason Vieaux has played Dan Visconti's solo work, called Devil's Strum for a few years now, and it also borrows the gestures of the blues, which is one of the few styles of guitar playing Vieaux didn't have 'official' training in... "I’ve always goofed around… you know, all your basic blues licks that you’d hear on Pink Floyd records, really. You grow up hearing that music and the Stones and that sort of thing, I mean, they’re basically playing a blues language. As a guitar player, if you’re listening to that music and as a kid you’re kind of goofing around and mimicking that stuff, you kind of know what it’s doing." Along with playing blues scales, he'll be bending notes in a way that's never done in classical repertoire. "An electric guitar, you can push the string up like about a half inch and you get a pretty wide pitch bend. On a classical guitar, you practically have to pull it off of the neck in the opposite direction." He'll be using special strings for the concerts. 

His tastes and abilities have blurred the line between genres - Shortly after Prince died, Vieaux posted this musical tribute, arranging five songs:


Wednesday, May 4

Jennifer HigdonNew Century Chamber Orchestra is dancing its way to the end of this season, with four performances of 'Delight in Dancing' - that includes a world premiere by composer Jennifer Higdon called Dance Card, which she describes as "not your normal, typical, orthodox dance."  Performances are Thursday through Sunday in Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Rafael. 

You can find out more about the concerts at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website

Higdon's suite is made up of five movements: Raucous Rumpus (a fanfare); Breeze Serenade; Jumble Dance (which she describes as people hanging on for their dear life while dancing); Celestial Blue; and Machina Rockus. "My music doesn’t really follow along the standard kind of dance forms," she explains. "So I thought, well, what if you had a bunch of crazy dances, but also some slow-moving kind of contemplative... so I guess these are unorthodox dances...There’s not any kind of standard foot pattern, and I am always changing the meter. That’s the thing – it’s a dance that’s a little uncertain. But it’s also a dance about the joy of the string sound."  While NCCO has played her music before, this is the first work they've commissioned from her. "One of the things I love about New Century, it just sounds like they’re having such a good time. I wanted to celebrate that, so this is kind of a… I don’t want to say it’s an out of control dance, but it’s kind of a joyous dance."

Jennifer Higdon had been writing her first opera, Cold Mountain right before she tackled this work, and enjoyed the freedom of not being bound by a libretto: "It felt kind of nice to exercise my… I don’t know, my musical muscles that weren’t following a character around on a stage… So there was something kind of joyous about that, kind of uplifting."

Tuesday, May 3

Cypress String QuartetThe Cypress String Quartet has been playing Beethoven's 16 quartets since it formed 20 years ago. In what was originally planned as a way of celebrating that anniversary, and the completion of their recordings of all those works, they're going to be presenting 'Beethoven in the City' - 16 free concerts beginning tomorrow. But since those plans began, they've decided that this will be the final season for the ensemble, so cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says it's also a hometown farewell tour.

There's more information about the concerts at the Cypress String Quartet website.

Each of the 11 Districts of San Francisco will have at least one concert, and five will have two. Jennifer Kloetzel says at first they were thinking of having a larger scale tour with a Beethoven cycle, but  then decided, "We live in San Francisco, we’ve lived and worked and been based here for 20 years. Let’s do them all in the city." And wanting to be complete as possible, they mapped out the places (many of them outdoors) where they wanted to play. "For years I’ve had people telling me they can’t ever get to our concerts because they’re too far away… well, now there’s going to be one in your neighborhood! Or they’re too expensive, or, you know, just not in their budget right now, well, they’re free! So it’s giving pretty much everybody an opportunity to hear us if they want to."

They're starting tomorrow at St. Anthony's Dining Room, in the Tenderloin, playing the first Quartet of Beethoven's opus 18, the first of the 'early' quartets to be published. Then the order doesn't progress chronologically (the Cypresses released their set of CDs of his late quartets first, then the middle ones, and are only now releasing their discs of opus 18.)  Preparing this much music is a daunting task: "Doing a Beethoven cycle is like training for a marathon… I mean, you have to train in that way. We did our first cycle in Europe last fall, and it was… for months ahead of time we were preparing. Because it’s a lot of music. I think it’s like 7 and a half hours of music total, and we’ve given ourselves the added challenge here of being outside for most of them." 

Monday, May 2

Lera AuerbachLera Auerbach is at least a triple threat - she's a concert pianist, highly sought after composer, and she also has written several collections of poetry and prose in her native Russian (and one in English, Excess of Being). One of the challenges of being both a performer and creater is figuring out how to do both - and sometimes that means working while others are asleep.

Other pianists, on tour, generally are thinking about the upcoming venue, and what repertoire they're playing. But Auerbach is usually facing composing deadlines too. "So after a full day of rehearsing, practicing, I also have to work on the new pieces," she says. "So I often stay way into the night and compose after the day of rehearsals and concerts." When possible, she arranges her schedule so that the time of the most concentrated composing is happening when she's not performing, and then she takes advantage of the night time. "When I'm in my writing period, usually what happens is the day and night switch completely. I wake up in the evening. I sleep through the day, wake up in the evening, I work through the evening, through the night, morning, go to sleep at midday. It's helping switch day and night, because there is a certain quietness in the night, and privacy, and feeling of concentration that the day doesn't allow for."

Her output has been considerable - with pieces for solo piano, sonatas for violin and cello, large scale symphonic and choral works, ballet (her Little Mermaid had its US premiere in 2005 at the San Francisco Ballet) and opera: Gogol was based on a stage play that she also wrote. But she still writes her music, at least to begin with, the old-fashioned way. "I do write by hand. Originally all my sketches are by hand. It's actually the same with literature. I write everything by hand. And it's something about the hand and mind coordination for me which is very seamless. It's almost like I don't notice the process itself." 

Friday, April 29

SFMOMAWith two weeks to go until they reopen, SFMOMA had a press preview to show some of the changes they've made. First and foremost is the amount of gallery space, with seven floors, tripling the capacity of the former building. (Museum offices will occupy floors eight through ten). In addition to the artworks inside, the look of the new structure is entirely different, complementing and flowing into the iconic Mario Botti design from 1995. 

There's more about the new building, and the reopening plans at the SFMOMA website.

The firm Snøhetta worked with SFMOMA to make a building that would allow them to show more of their collection, and be a place accessible to the community. To that end, they've designed a layout that will allow people to see many important works in the collection admission free, on the first two floors. They hope the reopened museum will serve as a meeting place for the neighborhood. It will be open seven days a week, and admission is free for those 18 or younger. The 'Living Wall' on the sculpture terrace is greenery that will be watered with collected rainwater. Staircases along the edge of the building are a transition zone between daylight and the LED lights inside, and the physical border between the two buildings -- the 'seismic gap' --can be seen via a window on the fourth floor. Here are just a few photographs from the press preview:

The SFMOMA OculusThe Living WallSeismic Gap and StaircasesFacade PanelsOculus Bridge

Thursday, April 28

Treasure Island at Berkeley RepThe story of an ordinary boy with extraordinary courage... Berkeley Rep presents the West Coast premiere of director Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Treasure Island. The Robert Louis Stevenson classic of pirates like Long John Silver, and the cabin boy Jim Hawkins gave her the challenge of figuring out "how to be on the ocean and do boats" in the theater.

There's more information about the production, which has been extended to June 19th at the Berkeley Rep website.

Mary Zimmerman went into a tiny library in a town on an island off the coast of Maine, where she has a house, and rediscovered Treasure Island in an old edition with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. ""The moment I started reading it, I’ve never had this experience before. Instead of experiencing it virtually and internally and sort of filmically, the way you do when you read, a kind of ever-flexible but real-felt image, I actually saw it on stage. Like, I saw it in a room, with actors, under lights, and that artificial …like, I just saw it that way." There have been many film and stage adaptations before, but she wanted to capture the serialized cliff-hanger sensation the book gave her. "What my main goal was was to try to see if I could make it feel on stage the way it does when you’re reading it, a kind of thrill of the adventure. And genuine scariness at times."

Wednesday, April 27

Philharmonia Baroque OrchestraThe Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will be closing out their 'home stand' of concerts this season with four performances of Hymns of Praise: Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Music Director Nicholas McGegan and the ensemble will be joined by soloists and choirs for works by the two composers, including Mendelssohn's 'symphony cantata' known as Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.

There's more information about the concerts, tonight at Bing Concert Hall, tomorrow night at Herbst Theatre, and Saturday and Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, at the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra website.

McGegan, who's finishing his 30th season at the helm of PBO, says the Mendelssohn is an appropriately celebratory work to end the regular season. It was written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type and the Gutenberg Bible. And although it's known as his Symphony No. 2, it's not. "The thing with Mendelssohn symphonies is that the numbers are all rubbish," he explains. "Because he wrote 12 of them before they even get numbered. The numbers are the order in which they were published, not the order in which they were written. So actually number two is the last to be written, and it was first performed in 1840 in St. Thomas’s, Leipzig." The soloists are Dominique LaBelle, Ashley Valentine, and Thomas Cooley, and they'll be joined by singers from Philharmonia Chorale and choruses from UC Berkeley and Stanford. 

Although this marks the end of their regular season, PBO will be going on tour starting next week, including a Carnegie Hall performance of the long-lost serenata by Alessandro Scarlatti called The Glory of Spring, which they premiered last Fall, and have just released on CD. They'll also be including the Green Music Center's Weill Hall on an upcoming tour in May with Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl.

Wednesday, April 20

Ingrid FliterIngrid Fliter joins the San Francisco Symphony, and guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado to play a Haydn piano concerto in three concerts this week, beginning tonight. The Gilmore Artist Award winning pianist is better known for her Chopin, but brings to her playing a knowledge of the earlier instrument Haydn would have known.

There's more information about the concerts, which also include the Beethoven Symphony No. 2, and works by Biber and Rameau at the San Francisco Symphony website.

"I love to do this period of music," Fliter says. "I’ve worked for many years on the fortepiano, and that opened me the doors of a different world… a beautiful rich interesting world to discover... If you don’t try those pianos, you don’t really know how people played at that time. The way they played, expressively, with their hands, with their body. You have to apply other kind of technique to be able to get from the piano all the voices, all the contrasts, all the colors that at that time they couldn’t create with the piano, because it was kind of flat.     You cannot use the piano in the way you would use it for Chopin or Rachmaninoff… It’s definitely another approach." The challenge is to create the same kind of intimate sound and environment in Davies Symphony Hall, with a modern piano. "I do believe that you can create a very big small world, with intensity, with intention, with ideas, that fly directly to the heart of people. That’s what I believe." 

Tuesday, April 19

Alasdair NealeThe Marin Symphony will present its final Masterworks concerts of this season Sunday afternoon, and the evening of April 26, with a program called Bolero... Music Director  Alasdair Neale says the French-themed concert is also 'a tale of two halves,' with a sacred work starting things off before finishing with a couple of orchestral showpieces.

There's more information about the concerts at the Marin Symphony website.

They'll be joined by soloists, the Marin Symphony Chorus, and San Domenico Singers for the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, "which is modeled on the Faure requiem, probably the better known of these two pieces," Neale says. "But the Duruflé has an important place in my heart since I first heard it as a student... It’s got this feeling of contemplative warmth, and very unique French harmonies. It deserves to be heard more often than it is." For the second half, two French interpretations of the music of Spain. "An entirely different kind of ethos and vibe altogether: excerpts from Carmen, including the Habanera and the Toreador Song, in Bizet’s colorful evocation of that whole world… And then at the end, Bolero, and who doesn’t love Bolero?" As the work builds over the course of 15 minutes, Neale says his job is to "keep a steady hand on the tiller" as the various wind players are especially featured. "Basically, Ravel takes care of it all. You just do what’s on the page, you play the dynamics, and it builds."

Monday, April 18

F MajorAlthough it's entirely subjective, and boils down to the choice of the composer, pieces are written in different keys for a reason. Music scholars and composers have weighed in over the centuries about the characteristics of the different keys, and rarely come to a consensus. For F Major, several descriptions include words like 'calm,' 'mild,' and 'contemplative.' There's also a bit of an association with rustic or pastoral scenes, helped along in no small way by Beethoven. 

Here are the 11 selections used (click and scroll down to make them visible):
  1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” 
  2. Dvorak: String Quartet  No. 12, op. 96  “American”
  3. Joplin: Solace
  4. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21, mvt. ii
  5. Ravel: String Quartet
  6. Vivaldi: ‘Autumn’ from the Four Seasons, mvt. iii
  7. Brahms: Symphony No. 3
  8. Chopin: Ballade No. 2, op 38
  9. J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 2, mvt. iii
  10. Schumann: Concertpiece for 4 Horns, op. 86
  11. Gershwin: Concerto in F (finale)

Friday, April 15

Streetcar Named Desire at Opera San JoseOpera San Jose presents Andre Previn's setting of A Streetcar Named Desire, opening tomorrow night and running through May 1st. Conductor Ming Luke says the Philip Littell libretto was very true to the original text by Tennessee Williams, and Previn used the rhythms of the dialogue in writing the music. 

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

The story of Stanley and Stella Kowalski, and what happens when Blanche DuBois joins them in their New Orleans apartment is an iconic part of American popular culture, and much of that has to do with the charged dialogue they exchange. Ming Luke says that's maintained in Previn's opera. " He wants to preserve the cadence of the language as much as possible – and so actually, it’s a very difficult job for me, because I have to be following the singers in their natural cadence of speech. Previn was very proud at the premiere when people told him, you know ‘I could understand every single word!’ He wanted to preserve the directness of the language, and the setting of the language for his audience." As Williams did by using an offstage blues piano, and the dance music (the Varsouviana) that reminds Blanche of a tragedy in her past, Previn accompanies the action with musical ideas that foreshadow and tie together the action. "Previn starts off with the train whistle blaring, and very loud from the full orchestra, and it appears many many times throughout the entire opera as a reminder of Blanche’s sordid past. In the very first bars, what you hear directly are the train whistles followed by a clarinet, playing basically a jazz riff. And their alternating between these two major themes happens over and over again. From the very beginning, actually, Blanche’s character is waffling between the idealistic past that she tries to maintain, and the reality of her actual very hard life."

Thursday, April 14

Roman RabinovichTwo local music series are grateful that pianist Roman Rabinovich was able to come on short notice to substitute for an ailing Nelson Goerner, who was scheduled to play for both the Steinway Society of the Bay Area and Chamber Music San Francisco. The Israeli pianist will bring a program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, and one special work written for him by composer/pianist Michael Brown.

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

The Uzbekistan-born Israeli pianist has toured extensively, and takes this kind of substitution in stride: "It happens quite often, you know… people get sick, and their colleagues come and help out. It’s quite common, I happened to be free this weekend, and I could do it." He was actually already scheduled to return the following weekend to play with his frequent recital partner, violinist Liza Ferschtman (also through Chamber Music San Francisco) but has to return to New York between the two appearances. His program includes the West Coast premiere of the piece called Surfaces by Michael Brown, which was inspired by another, non-musical passion of Rabinovich: "He wrote a piece for me based on my artwork, loosely based on visual gestures of my paintings. And it was fascinating for me to see the transfiguration of the visual gestures into musical ones... There’s a lot of similarity because there’s color, there’s textures, there’s tonalities, both in music and in visual art. But the idea of time is different, because music is… You play a note, and it evaporates. And painting stays. And you can come back to it in a year, and it will be the same. You change, but the painting will stay the same."

Wednesday, April 13

Areon FlutesThe trio called Areon Flutes has been playing together for eleven seasons now, all the while expanding the repertoire for their unconventional grouping of instruments. They've commissioned many new works, and they'll be adding five more to the repertoire this Friday evening when they perform at the Center for New Music through the Guerrilla Composers Guild.

There's more information at the websites of Areon Flutes, the Guerrilla Composers Guild, and Center for New Music.

The composers who have written works for the performance are Nick Benavides, Patrick Castillo, Eric Choate, Emma Logan, and Ryan Rey. "One of the things we’re really excited about with Guerrilla Composers Guild is that they’ve given us an opportunity and a platform to show more people – not just audience members, but also a group of composers – that this instrumentation is very diverse, and really is legitimate in its own right," Areon's Jill Heinke says. She, with Sasha Launer and Kassey Plaha (who's on maternity leave this season, with Meerenai Shim playing for her) formed the ensemble to build a greater awareness of the possibilites of within the flute family. Audiences sometimes are wary, Heinke says: "When people hear the words ‘three flutes’ I think that has certain connotations, and people don’t want to have their eardrums bleed at the end of the concert. But what we’re really capable of is so much more soundscape and beauty with all the different members of the flute family that we utilize in almost every piece... I feel like every composer who was working with us on this project really embraced that and really nailed it, because these are some really gorgeous and exciting pieces."

Tuesday, April 12

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, April 11

Oakland BalletOakland Ballet is trying something new - and old - for its next performances. They'll be accompanied only by unaccompanied singers, in a program called A Cappella - Our Bodies Sing. Artistic Director Graham Lustig has choreographed one third of the show, along with Val Caniparoli, the team of Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton, plus three area vocal ensembles.

There's more information about the performances, which start in Oakland, and have one show each in San Francisco and Hayward, at the Oakland Ballet website.

The three ensembles are Vajra Voices, which specializes in the music of Hildegard of Bingen, and will accompany the Garrett/Moulton dance; the Berkeley Community Chamber Chorus, part of the larger Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, and Nona Brown and the Inspirational Music Collective, an area gospel choir. "It’s so wonderfully enriching for our dancers, for our singers, and for our community to be doing something at this scale, at this level," Lustig says. "We actually have 33 singers in this production, 3 musical directors, 4 choreographers, and 12 dancers. We’re practically at 50 artists working together. And it’s exhilarating. It’s just completely overwhelming and beautiful." His own work, called Stone of Hope, is a West Coast premiere, although it includes brand new material for this performance by Nona Brown. The other two works are world premieres. "When we sing, and when we dance, it’s very much who we are. It’s part of our identity. There’s no instrument to be interpreted, you’re interpreting yourself.  And I think that’s the thing that most excited me about the idea of the program."

There are performances in Oakland this Thursday through Saturday, and additional performances in San Francisco on the 21st, and Hayward on the 23rd.

Friday, April 8

Joshua Roman and the San Francisco Girls ChorusMusic that circles and repeats has fascinated composers for hundreds of years... And with repertoire from the middle ages to a world premiere, the San Francisco Girls Chorus joins forces with cellist Joshua Roman for a program called Echoes of the Classics: Canons by Brahms, Franck, and Haydn this Sunday at Herbst Theatre.

There's more information about the program at the San Francisco Girls Chorus website

Joshua Roman, who has been friends with SFGC Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa for many years, worked with her and some of the young singers in the episodic opera she's composing for television called Vireo, and they began plans that resulted in this collaboration. He says the repertoire of canons (and near canons) is inspired. "It gives a focus for all of these different pieces throughout the program, and lets the cello become another one of the voices involved. So you get to see all of the different composers, sort of through the lens of this one form, and everyone treats it slightly differently, it’s a lot of fun." One of the composers is Roman himself, both in improvisations in some of the works, as well as a new piece called Our Voice, that offers a message of empowerment and possibility for the young singers. "It’s kind of about them saying, ‘we’re in control of who we are, you can’t really tell us what to be…’  When I first started writing the piece, the idea of a girls chorus, the first thing that comes to mind for me is this angelic sound, these cherubs. And I just wanted to fight that on behalf of them, and help give them a little voice, that they can be that, but they can be a lot of other things as well."

Thursday, April 7

Gil ShahamViolinist Gil Shaham will be presenting a recital of solo works by J.S. Bach, the Sonatas and Partitas, at Cal Performances on the 14th. The performance will be accompanied by original films by David Michalek. It's repertoire that Shaham shied away from performing live earlier in his career, but he's been playing them over the past dozen years, and recently released them on CD.

There's more information about the performance at the Cal Performances website.

The solo works for violin are a rite of passage for violin students - like the solo keyboard works, they're challenging, and show what is possible to acheive on the instrument. "This is music that I think violinists like myself, we all know from childhood," Shaham says. "My teacher had it as part of our regular curriculum. All the students played and studied the sonatas and partitas of Bach." But playing them in a lesson and rehearsal setting was a far cry from taking them on stage. "After I finished school, I have to confess, I avoided performing these pieces, and I’m not sure why, looking back. I think I was intimidated. People feel so strongly about this music, and I feel so strongly about this music. I guess I didn’t feel confident to present it for an audience. It was 12 years ago when I decided to make a concerted effort (no pun intended) to start playing them in concert. I figured if not now, when, and somehow if I don’t start playing them, they’re never going to feel more comfortable, they’re never going to improve."

But as he incorporated them into his concerts, they only grew more important to him: "I discovered what so many other musicians had learned before me. Which is that this is the greatest joy for a musician. There is no greater joy than playing Bach. Nothing is more fulfilling, nothing is more engrossing, nothing is more inspiring, and even today when I go to my practice room, if I’m going to practice some Bach,  I’ll set aside a maybe half an hour, and then an hour and a half later, I’ll be looking at the clock, and where has the time gone?  A friend who’s a violinist said: 'Whenever I play bach, I feel like I’m a better person that day. I feel like I’m a better violinist that day.' And that’s true, that’s true, I think Bach’s music has this effect on everybody around it – the listeners and the players."

Wednesday, April 6

Stile AnticoThe twelve voices of Stile Antico, the London-based early music ensemble, come to the Bay Area this Sunday afternoon to finish off the San Francisco Early Music Society's 40th anniversary season. They'll sing a program called 'Sacred or Profane,' pairing works for the church that were inspired by secular popular songs or motets. Alto Katie Schofield says this is also an anniversary year for Stile Antico, marking ten years as a professional ensemble.

There's more information about the group at the San Francisco Early Music Society's website.

The line between the two kinds of music wasn't as clear then as we might think it was, with composers feeling free to borrow and repurpose "earthly" music with more spiritual texts. "That’s one prism through which composers of sacred music were able to use secular tunes," Schofield explains. "They were writing for the church, so they were obviously going to set words that had a religious implication, but they wanted to use music that was relevant to people, that people would know. And that was one good way for them to kind of shoehorn popular tunes into their work. People would have known the origin of the music, and... it was done very deliberately."  Sometimes it was just a matter of changing a few words. "There are a couple of madrigals, the texts of which have been altered from love poetry that was hugely popular at the time, to kind of the love of Christ for the church, or that kind of religious fervor. It’s kind of close to the bone, because it takes all the passion of the madrigals in the context in which they were originally written, and transports that fervor into something which has an overtly religious connotation."

Stile Antico presented a 'Tiny Desk Concert' at NPR's Headquarters:

Tuesday, April 5

Clavichord and modern pianoOn an "A to Z" edition of State of the Arts, we're stopping at "K" to take a look at the evolution of the Keyboard, from the clavichord to the modern grand piano. As the instruments developed over time, they got bigger, louder, and capable of more nuance. 

One thing the clavichord is known for is just how quiet it is. It was never meant to be an instrument for performance, beyond a very intimate setting. It was relatively portable, though, and has the distinction of being a keyboard instrument that allows the player to use vibrato - since the "tangent" (the piece of metal attached to the key that makes contact with the string) acts as a finger would on a violin's string, and can be held as the sound fades away, or vibrated. (Although that technique isn't used in this example):

The virginal combines the shape of the clavichord with the "plucking" mechanism that's used by a harpsichord.  A "plectrum" (usually a bit of a quill feather) and one string per note, gave it a consistent, but still not so loud sound.

The harpsichord changed the orientation of the strings - rather than running parallel with the keyboard as on the clavichord and virginal, they go perpendicularly. (Some 'bentside spinets' had strings run at an angle somewhere between) On more elaborate harpsichords, there are multiple strings per key, and sometimes multiple banks of keyboards, which can be mechanically ganged together to create a beefier sound. 

Bartolomeo Cristofori's invention of the 'Gravicembalo col piano e forte' - which means 'harpsichord with soft and loud' - or piano around 1700 was a breakthrough because it allowed the player to be able to control, note by note while playing, the dynamics of each attack. The mechanism used hammers that would strike the strings and let them ring in a way that previous instruments couldn't.  (The music begins :30 into this video):

The fortepianos that were fine for Mozart needed to be stronger to withstand the kind of playing and writing that Beethoven demanded, and the science of piano making and the art of music written for the instrument continued pushing eachother on until the the late 19th Century, with the arrival of the modern, metal-framed grand piano we know today.

Monday, April 4

The Godfather from Symphony Silicon ValleySymphony Silicon Valley plays the unforgettable Nino Rota score to The Godfather this weekend, live in performance accompanying the film. It's just the most recent entry in their special films series, which last spring included the sprawling Lord of the Rings saga. Andrew Bales, president and general director of the orchestra says it's a different kind of concert-going experience.

There's more information about the performances at the Symphony Silicon Valley website.

"What we found from the audience reaction when we did Lord of the Rings is that there is an affinity for movies and the movie culture that is heightened when they hear it with the live orchestra. And that people who really want a special event out of their experience with these films love hearing it with the live orchestra," Bales explains. While this production will be less appropriate for children than some of the other past films they've accompanied (Bugs Bunny and Looney Toons shorts, Fantasia, and earlier this season, Raiders of the Lost Ark) he says as a means of entry into the world of symphonic music, film can't be beat.  "There is a willingness to experience the live music with a film that they already have a familiarity to, and having done that, there is this lingering hope that they’ll say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t such a bad thing to do, let’s see what else the symphony is doing.’ It sort of makes the musicians the stars."