The San Francisco Symphony announced its 2014-15 season this week, with a year that celebrates the 20th anniversary of Michael Tilson Thomas as Music Director... as well as his 70th birthday. There's a focus on American music that echoes his very first season, and it ends with a Beethoven festival that will recreate the famous "marathon concert" of 1808.
From a gala opening concert with Yuja Wang playing Rhapsody in Blue and singer Bonnie Raitt interpreting classic songs, there are more than 20 works by American composers represented throughout the season. Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Griffes, and Ives will be joined by Steven Stucky, Lucas Foss, John Cage, and three different composers named Adams: Alaska-based John Luther Adams (The Light that Fills the World), John Adams (Grand Pianola Music, which will be recorded for an upcoming SFS Media disc,) and Samuel Adams (Drift and Providence will be part of their tour this November, and another new work in 2015). Mason Bates' Alternative Energy will also be recorded for its first commercial release.)
A new performance space at Davies Symphony Hall will be called SoundBox, and offer a smaller, more intimate, and more experimental venue. It will use Meyer Sound's "Constellation Acoustic System" which will actually allow the acoustics of the space to be changed during the performance.
The popular Film Series of the Symphony accompanying movies live continues with performances of The Godfather,The Wizard of Oz, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
As MTT has done for the past several years, there will also be a spotlight on Beethoven next season, with a multi-week festival in June. There will be concert versions of both the Missa Solemnis and Beethoven's opera Fidelio, as well as a recreation of the legendary concert that launched his Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral", Fourth Piano Concerto, movements from the Mass in C Major, and the Choral Fantasy that was an early working of some of the themes that would later appear in the Ninth Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra will be joined by pianist Jonathan Biss for that hugely ambitious concert. (For those without enough stamina, the repertoire will also appear in standard length concerts that week.)
In looking ahead to his 20th season as their Music Director, MTT says about his orchestra, "We've learned so much from one another. It can be that when a conductor conducts a performance, that a great deal of what he's doing is not so much controlling, but if all things have gone well, it's more like he is confirming with the musicians certain things which already are well understood."
Monday, February 24
The Bay Brass presents a concert tonight at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music called "Moving Pieces," which includes the premiere of The Bay Suite by composition student Nick Benevides, for which they'll be joined by student performers. Also on the program led by guest conductor Edwin Outwater, works by Gabrieli, Brahms, Debussy, and Rob Mounsey. Founding member of the group Jonathan Ring gives a preview.
The group, which was founded in 1995, is run by consensus, without a music director; guest conductors through the years have included Donald Runnicles, MTT, Donato Cabrera and many others. Jonathan Ring says that arrangement gives rehearsals a very different feel. "It obviously gives us a chance to do things we don't do in our day jobs, because it really is a labor of love. I mean, we do this because it's fun." They've made a point of commissioning new works. "To keep pushing the brass repertory further," Ring says. "Because as brass players, because of when our instruments developed, we're sort of either relegated to playing arrangements of things for other instruments, or newer music. And we believe that the new music is really where the excitement is." Their Grammy-nominated CD from 2011, "Sound the Bells" consisted of works that had not yet been recorded.
The players in the group all play in other ensembles - Ring is Second Horn with the San Francisco Symphony - and many of them teach at the conservatory, so they'll be playing with their students during The Bay Suite. The sound of the group, which usually has thirteen players can more than fill a hall with sound. "It's almost the closest thing you can get to rock and roll in the classical world," Ring says. "Because we can put out a lot of sound. And that's fun in and of itself. But... we can also play really quietly, and beautifully... But to have that extreme... I mean, I love string quartets, but they don't hit you in the face like a brass ensemble does."
Friday, February 21
Conductor Ragnar Bohlin leads the new ensemble Cappella SF in its debut performance Saturday night. The 24-voice choir presents a concert that will give a taste of what Bohlin plans for the group: "Our aim is to do the entire spectrum of a cappella music, from all epochs," he says. The concert at St. Mary's Cathedral will reach back as far as the Baroque, and as recently as just a few weeks ago.
Ragnar Bohlin, who is also the Chorus Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, says that Cappella SF will sing all kinds of repertoire: "from the Bach motets through the Brahms motets, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger, Rachmaninoff Vigil, the Strauss motets, and the entire 20th Century, Poulenc, Schnittke, up to Arvo Part and contemporary music as well, and commissions." The opening concert features a brand new work by Fredrik Sixten called A Spiritual for Peace, which sets the prayer of St. Francis. "He finished it only a few weeks ago," says Bohlin, who has conducted many of Sixten's premieres. "It's a beautiful piece, it does have some traces of gospel elements, sometimes almost a little bit of blue notes - bluesy - but it also has certain characteristics of Fredrik Sitxten's tonal language." Other recent works are by Americans Mason Bates, Eric Whitacre, and David Conte ("O Sun" - the middle movement from the larger orchestral work September Sun, that's a meditation on the events of September 11). The earlier "epoch" is represented by "Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen" by Heinrich Isaac, with variations by Michael Praetorius and J.S. Bach, a piece by Heinrich Schütz, and the motet by Brahms "Warum ist das Licht gegeben."
Bohlin is very excited about working with the choir, which only formed in the past few months. "These are cherry-picked, really top-notch singers. So a lot of them know each other from before. But not all, so it's a new group... I'm impressed by the speed at which they've managed to develop an ensemble feel and then function as one unit."
Thursday, February 20
The next program by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra is called "The Storytellers" - comprising a pair of folktales with narration by Joel ben Izzy: Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) with the story acted out by puppets, and a brand new work that conductor Ben Simon commissioned from composer and cantor Stephen Saxon, called Luck vs. Wisdom, based on a ben Izzy story.
Conductor Benjamin Simon says the commission for the new piece was based on the reduced forces for the Stravinsky, which was written during World War I, for a seven-instrument ensemble. "What's nice about the Stravinsky, not only nice musically, but also for our budget is that it's only seven players. So it's three winds, three strings and percussion. It's a forty-minute Faustian tale about a soldier coming back from war, and the Devil meets up with him, and gets him to trade his violin for his soul." The 'actors' for Soldat are puppets, from the Lewis Mahlmann puppet company, known for performances at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. Joel ben Izzy will provide the narration.
Luck vs. Wisdom tells the tale of an argument between gods who personify Luck and Wisdom, about which is the more important attribute for a person to possess. "And they decide to place a bet. There's the birth of a young boy right at that moment. It's a wonderful fable, sort of Klezmer-influenced, but it's going to be very theatrical, and I think it's going to be lovely, and it will be a perfect companion - these are both sort of adult fairy tales." Ben Simon has and the chamber orchestra have worked with Joel ben Izzy before, and Simon says his children grew up listening to recordings of his stories.
Wednesday, February 19
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein plays concerto repertoire, chamber music, and recitals... "As a cellist, I don't have a luxury of a specialty. I have to do everything!" she says. She'll join the San Francisco Symphony tonight through Saturday for the Joseph Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, led by guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
There's more information about the concerts, which also include an early Haydn symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade at the San Francisco Symphony website.
Weilerstein, who at the age of 31 has already been compared to Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pre, and was the recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" prize in 2011, is known for her emotional playing of some of the great Romantic and modern repertoire. But she says that's mostly due to the scarcity of cello concertos in the Classical era. "There's just not enough material, and I love this stuff... I love Haydn." The concerto she'll be playing was hiding in a Prague museum unidentified for most of the time since it was written. "It was lost until around 1960, which is quite remarkable, nearly 200 years. And they rediscovered it, and thank goodness, because cellists had next to no Classical repertoire that was really, let's say, world-class."
In the past few years, Weilerstein has released recordings of the Elgar and Carter concertos, and her latest release, also on Decca, is an all-Dvorak CD, with his Concerto in B minor plus works for cello and piano... including the song "Lasst mich allein", which was the favorite of his sister-in-law, whom he secretly loved. "When he was writing the Cello Concerto, he was nearly finished with it, and he heard that his sister-in-law was dying. And once he did, he completely changed the ending and incorporated her favorite song into it." Here's a trailer for her new CD:
Tuesday, February 18
On an 'A-to-Z' edition of State of the Arts, it's Sibelius and his Symphony of Swans and Silence... The Finnish composer (and national hero) Jean Sibelius was commissioned to write a symphony to commemorate his own 50th birthday - he ended up revising it several times before it came to the version we know today, but one of its most memorable themes came to him on a morning in April when he looked to the skies.
We know which morning, because he wrote in his diary (along with the theme that recurs in the horns throughout the final movement): "Today at ten to eleven, I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty. They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon." That was April 21st, 1915. A few days later, he would write: "The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to life... Strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me - nothing in art, literature, or music - in the same way as do these swans and canes and wild geese."
The final movement in this performance starts at 22:20...
Friday, February 14
Even though percussion instruments are probably second only to the human voice in how long they've been used to make music, the idea of a solo percussion recital is a comparatively new idea - Steven Schick — who performs tonight at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — says all the repertoire he plays is younger than he is.
Schick says although John Cage wrote a piece for solo percussionist before it, the first major work that was actually played in performance was Zyklus by Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1959. It's included in his recital program, fittingly called "Origins". To play it, he gets into the center of a circle of instruments. Schick says the early works by post-War Europeans were created as civilization and art were rising again after devastation. "So when you step into this habitable domain, you're really in the midst of a kind of constructed world. A world that runs on laws that are much saner than the real world some times. So one could imagine that those composers were incredibly attracted to percussion solo music because it was a way of constructing a world that made sense to them."
Schick makes a compelling case to those who might not immediately see the appeal of a percussion recital: "It's fascinating from the sense of color, because there are so many instruments, so there's this kaleidoscopic orientation of musical color. There's rhythmic energy, of course. And then there's a visual element... moving around installations of percussion instruments, some of which have twenty to thrirty instruments and up, the percussionist in essence dances. There's a choreographic and sculptural aspect. So it is a kind of total sensory experience."
Thursday, February 13
Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden is making his debut this week with the San Francisco Symphony, in a program of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Mozart. "With Valentine's Day coming up, I think it's a program about love, it's a program about sorrow, it's about human emotions."
Jaap van Zweden is now the Music Director for the Dallas Symphony and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He got his start as a violinist, earning the prestigious job of Concertmaster for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam at the age of 19 - the youngest player ever to hold that position. For 17 years it gave him the opportunity to work with some of the world's finest conductors. "When I go on stage, it doesn't matter what program it is, I carry so many experiences from them with me. And at the same time, I will never make a replica from any conductor. It's just that the important thing is that I got, I think, the right inspiration from them."
Among those he worked with closely was conductor Kiril Kondrashin, who played with Yevgeny Mravinsky, longtime leader of the Leningrad Philharmonic. So he's steeped in the Russian tradition of playing Tchaikovsky - whose Symphony No. 4 is on this week's program. "This is not in my head, it is also not only in my heart, it is in my DNA. I did these pieces since I was a young boy... so I was brought up with these pieces. I prepared it out of the legacy of Mravinsky."
Van Zweden was to conduct the Symphony last season, but was unable to. The soloist for the concert, Simone Lamsma, is playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. She's also Dutch, and has been championed by Van Zweden, who says she is one of the big newcomers on the world stage, and really deserves to be in the spotlight.
Wednesday, February 12
Abraham Lincoln was born on this day in 1809, and in honor of his birthday, here's a look at some of the many recordings of the Aaron Copland work that celebrates the 16th president, Lincoln Portrait. It was written during World War II, as a commission from conductor Andre Kostelanetz, and since then has been a go-to piece for celebrations of American patriotism, and an opportunity for narrators to shine, reading texts pulled from speeches and works by Lincoln.
For the first half of the work, the orchestra has all the work. Copland's thematic ideas are mixed with folk songs and Americana. Then the texts begin, and are framed by some basic historical facts - his height, where he was born and raised, his demeanor, and the repeated phrase "This is what he said. This is what Abe Lincoln said." One of the better known recordings, with Copland conducting and Henry Fonda as narrator, is delivered with the sincerity audiences expected from the actor who played "Young Mr. Lincoln" in 1939. A more recent one, with Gerard Schwarz conducting, features James Earl Jones.
The texts come from his 1862 message to Congress, the Gettysburg Address, and this, from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle."
Adlai Stevenson, who was an orator himself, twice a presidential candidate, and had been Governor of Illinois, recorded the work with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:
Tuesday, February 11
A bit of a quiz today, to get in the mood for our "KDFC Goes to the Movies" countdown. Can you identify all seventeen films represented here?
(To see the answers, click and drag below to make them visible)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Bridge on the River Kwai
Out of Africa
North by Northwest
Gone With the Wind
The Great Escape
Dances With Wolves
The Magnificent Seven
Monday, February 10
Organist Paul Jacobs returns to Davies Symphony Hall for a recital this Sunday, with music by Bach, Mozart, Felix Alexandre Guilmant, and Max Reger. He's no stranger to the Ruffatti organ there, but says one of the challenges of playing the organ is the constant need for flexibility, since each program needs to be tailored to the instrument on which it will be played.
Organists are able to claim a closer bond to J.S. Bach than other musicians, Paul Jacobs explains: "The organ was Bach's most prized instrument, shall we say. This was the instrument that he not only knew as a great virtuoso, but he also occupied himself consulting about the construction of instruments, and knew about the design inside and out. This is something that occupied a significant part of Bach's entire life. So to play his organ music, and know that this is the medium perhaps that was nearest and dearest to his heart, provides a thrill unlike any other."
Paul Jacobs has a wide repertoire that has included marathon concert series of the entire organ output of Bach and Messaien, as well as taking part in the the avant garde music of San Francisco Symphony's "Mavericks" series. "The modern organist plays hundreds of years of music - from the fifteenth and sixteenth century right up through the fresh contemporary repertoire. And organ design varies quite dramatically in that period. So organists have to know not only musical style, but the style of the instrument."
Paul Jacobs says he can't fit an organ into his small Manhattan apartment, and has to practice at New York Churches or Juilliard, but one was able to fit into the cozy confines of this NPR "Tiny Desk" Concert:
Friday, February 7
An unusual dream was the inspiration for choreographer Aszure Barton's work Awáa, which will be presented tonight and Saturday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through San Francisco Performances. The work evolved over the course of an artistic residency with Barton and her dancers at the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies.
Aszure Barton is originally from Western Canada herself, and a protege of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has described her as 'one of the most innovative choreographers of this generation.' She was working individually with her dancers on an as-yet unformed piece. "A couple of weeks into the process, I had this amazing dream... I woke up in the morning and I thought... huh. Well, I could let that one go, but it was too beautiful to not acknowledge." She found herself describing it to the director of Theatre Arts at Banff: "I know this is crazy, but I had this dream that I was underneath water, sitting in a rocking chair." That image inspired movement from the dancers - as well as video images, and water themes throughout. The name of the piece is from a Native Canadian word for Mother.
Awáa has a score composed by Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin and Curtis Macdonald - "Who are completely polar opposites," Barton says. "One is strings and heart-melting, heart-wrenching feminine energy, and the other is this very Earth-mothery, but very dense and percussive... I'm really interested in rhythm and what it can do to you emotionally... so there's a lot of percussive energy in the work."
Thursday, February 6
Tonight Berkeley Symphony and conductor Joana Carneiro will premiere a Violin Concerto by Samuel Carl Adams, with soloist Anthony Marwood. The piece, which was commissioned by the orchestra, is a bit of a departure for the young composer - he describes it as "one that both looks really intensely at tradition, and at the same time looks away from it." Also on the program are Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, and Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony.
Adams says the decision to write a concerto came about through serendipity - other ideas had been suggested that would make use of electronica, which he has used in several works. When Executive Director of the ensemble, René Mandel suggested the possibility of a concerto, Adams' first reaction was no... "Because that's crazy, and I didn't think that would be so smart. Then, like many things that happen in my life, I end up in a context that I'm not ready for - and then before I knew it, I was looking for a soloist. And it just so happened that a mutual friend of Anthony and myself said that he was looking for a young composer to work with."
He did what he described as 'psychological research', listening to some of the masterworks of the Violin Concerto repertoire - Beethoven, Bach, but also György Ligeti and Stravinsky, before diving in to the composition. "To get the piece up and running, I started working on the violin line first. That's really the most important thing in a violin concerto, is to have the soloist... to give them something really compelling and worthwhile to chew on." He says he didn't have too much contact with Anthony Marwood while composing, or after delivering the score. "He really wanted to make his own interpretation and really feel strongly about it befreo I went and muddled everything up," Adams jokes. "It was good that that was the way we did things, because he's really made some very strong decisions about how he's going to play the piece. And it's a better approach than what I would have suggested because I'm just a silly composer, I'm not an intelligent performer."
Adams grew up listening to Berkeley Symphony, and is thankful for both the opportunity of the commission, as well as their focus on contemporary music. "It's really a treat to be able to work with Anthony and with the Berkeley Symphony... I'm so appreciative of how they understand how important it is to support music that's happening right now."
Wednesday, February 5
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra presents an unusual double concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach this week - in a series of concerts, and a special multimedia event called 'Sessions' this week. Guest soloists Robert Levin and his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang will play the harpsichord and fortepiano, respectively for the work that conductor Nicholas McGegan describes as a 'romp'.
The concerto, which was composed very late in C.P.E. Bach's life, was commissioned by Sarah Levy, who had a salon, was a keyboard student of both C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and also was the great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn. Robert Levin says it's an interesting piece that couples two contrasting instruments - one of which had already reached its popularity's expiration date. "The interest here is in particular the character, the sound character of a harpsichord, which of course has extraordinary varieties of touch. It responds to articulation wonderfully. It is not an instrument that can get louder or softer, which is of course the trump of the newer instrument." Almost everyone had switched to playing and writing for the fortepiano - Levin says that the way the two instruments echo eachother, and the material that C.P.E. Bach chooses to give only one of them points to the strengths of each instrument.
The sold-out "Sessions" event on Thursday night at SFJAZZ is a new venture for Philharmonia Baroque - with the aim of digging a little bit into the history and context of the music - with discussion, multimedia and examples played on each instrument. "It's designed for people who know about music, and it's also designed for people who know absolutely nothing, but are just curious," Nicholas McGegan says. "This music is very funny. It's written for people who clearly were going to listen very carefully - otherwise you don't get the jokes... It's not 'We're going to explain the jokes' - It's just going to be fun, and to look a little bit, raise the curtain and see how this stuff was written, how it's put together."
Tuesday, February 4
Kronos Quartet will be giving the premiere performances this week of a new work they commissioned called Bombs of Beirut, by composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, the most recent winner of their 'Under 30' commissioning project. The piece includes recordings of interviews Kouyoumdjian conducted with family and friends who lived through the Lebanese Civil War - along with the sounds of that war.
Mary Kouyoumdjian grew up in the Bay Area - she lives in New York City now, where she composes, and has a contemporary music ensemble called Hotel Elefant - but her family lived in Lebanon during the civil war. "This is a piece that I had wanted to do for a few years now, but I hadn't found the perfect home for it," she says. "Kronos Quartet every few years does have this application process for their 'Under 30 Project.' I've applied more than once, and this time it was really wonderful to get selected." The process of applying for the commission involved submitting recordings of her works, along with an essay. After the ensemble chose her, she had a long conversation with quartet founder David Harrington about ideas for her piece. "I mentioned that I'd really love to do something about this Civil War, and Kronos, being an ensemble that's so open to political music and world music, just really was warm to the idea."
The work includes a pre-recorded audio track, with snippets of interviews with family and friends about their lives during wartime, as well as actual sounds of the fighting, recorded by a relative in Beirut over the course of the war. Although the music has some gestures from the Middle East, like using a distinctively wide vibrato, Kouyoumdjian says it doesn't quote any actual folk tunes, but was inspired by traditional music "...that I grew up listening to on my parents' records. But that said, I grew up here in the States, and I played a lot of Western music. and I studied contemporary and experimental music. So I think (at least I hope) that I'm using that kind of contemporary Western language to pull in that Middle Eastern sound."
Monday, February 3
A musical rivalry that might be hard for us to imagine today is at the heart of an upcoming program by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. The composers George Frideric Handel and Nicola Porporo were in London, writing operas featuring two competing castrati, Carestini and Farinelli, and the audiences were the ultimate winners.
Jaroussky, whose most recent CD is a collection of arias by Porpora, thought the program would show some of the drama that was going on off stage in the world of Baroque opera. "These two beautiful singers, they hated eachother so much," he says. "From the beginning, they were rivals. And this big rivalry, I really think it's interesting -- even if I'm just one singer -- I think it's interesting for the audience to hear these two different ways to compose." Jaroussky says he doesn't try to perform the works differently, but they do play to different strengths. Carestini, the soloist Handel was writing for, was reportedly an outstanding actor - something that Farinelli was not; and Farinelli's voice was so celebrated that audiences couldn't wait to hear him sing whatever Porpora would write. "We can not compare the quality of the music from Porpora to Handel - Handel is one of the biggest geniuses of the history of music. But Porpora was one of the most amazing teachers, and he knew perfectly how to use the quality of the voice. And of course Farinelli was his most famous student."
In much the same way that music industry feuds still fascinate audiences, and add to musicians' popularity, the conflict back in London did the same. "To put all these people in confrontation was to get the best from everybody," Jaroussky says. "Because Porpora wrote in London probably one of his most beautiful operas, Polifemo, and that was really probably the best part that Farinelli has to sing on stage... If Porpora and Farinelli were not in the theater in front of Handel, maybe Handel wouldn't compose one of his most popular operas."