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."