Masterworks Chorale will present 2 concerts this weekend with a program called 'A Gathering of Light'. It will include the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, along with works by Morten Lauridsen and Ola Gjeilo. Music Director Dr. Bryan Baker says the concert will be dedicated to the founder of the ensemble, Galen Marshall, who died this past December.
Dr. Bryan Baker explains the programming, coming as it does just after the Spring equinox: "The main piece is the Requiem by Duruflé, and in Requiems we have ‘Lux Aeterna’ – the Eternal Light. And so we connected it with pieces that are also about light, like ‘Sure on This Shining Night,’ and ‘Luminous Light of the Soul’. The Duruflé is a lot about chant… Gregorian chant. And these other pieces have similar qualities, chant-like qualities in them." The programming had already been set long before the death last December of Galen Marshall, who founded the group more than 50 years ago. "And the last time Masterworks did the Duruflé, was with our founding director, Galen Marshall, and it was almost exactly 20 years ago in this same church. So it’s really a remarkable coincidence. We didn’t know. So we’re dedicating this concert to his honor. And so it’s really nice to be singing this piece for him. A little bit over a third of the chorus sang under him."
Here's a bit of the Baker and the Masterworks Chorale from a performance they gave last fall:
Friday, March 13
In honor of the approach of Spring, a sampling of "Birds in the Orchestra" - composers have long been writing instrumental imitations of birds... the cuckoo is probably the easiest to recognize, and it shows up in a variety of works - and since it was first possible to bring recordings into the concert hall, there have also been times when nothing but the actual sound of specific birds will do.
A cuckoo may have a fairly pedestrian birdcall, with only two notes, but Frederick Delius, Beethoven, and Handel all used it memorably (not to mention Laurel and Hardy's theme music). Ottorino Respighi called for a recording of nightingale songs to be played from the stage in his Pines of Rome, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara used field recordings of birds from the region to reflect the vast northern landscape of his Cantus Arcticus.
There are many other examples of composers taking their cues from the feathered set, famously the bird and the duck (flute and oboe, respectively) from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Haydn's Symphony #83 (The Hen); The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mahler's first symphony also has cuckoo calls, and Respighi wrote an entire work called "The Birds". But among the most fervent champions of trying to replicate the sounds of bird songs was French composer Olivier Messaien, with titles like "Oiseaux exotiques" and "Catalogue oiseaux".
Thursday, March 12
The San Jose Symphonic Choir is celebrating two milestones this season - the 30th anniversary of music director Leroy Kromm, and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the group. Their anniversary concert at the California Theatre on the 22nd will be a reprise (of sorts) of the first concert that Kromm led in 1985, pairing the Requiems of Mozart and Salieri.
The ensemble, which began as the Vallesingers in 1924, before changing its name to the San Jose Municipal Chorus, has grown to about 110 voices - and Leroy Kromm has now been at the helm for a third of their 90 years. He took the podium when, in the middle of the 1984-85 season, the previous conductor decided to step down. "I inherited the season that we were to present, and the next concert was the Missa Solemnis and the C minor mass of Mozart. And I thought… ‘No. There’s no way we can do both of these pieces.’" So he was looking for a solution to his programming problem when it found him - in the stacks of the Berkeley music library. "While I was perusing scores, I was looking in the S section, I thought… 'Schubert, maybe Schumann wrote something…' And from the top shelf, a score fell out and hit me, fell on the floor, and it was the Salieri Requiem." The concert that they're doing on March 22nd will echo that programming, with a slight variation... "It was decided on that fateful day, when the score hit me on the head, we would do the Salieri Requiem. So we’re in a sense recreating that concert, except instead of the C Minor Mass, we’re doing the two Requiems."
Despite the pair of Requiems (and their remaining concert in the Spring is Benjamin Britten's collossal 'War Requiem') the concert is celebratory. And Kromm says that Salieri wasn't commissioned to write the piece - it wasn't for anyone's death, although it was played at his own funeral years later. Rather, it was Salieri's way of bowing out of being a busy working composer. "He had been an extremely popular and celebrated opera composer, but he was so disillusioned by what was happening in music, it was the act of just saying ‘I’ve had enough.’ He actually wrote it… In a way, it was like the commemoration of the end of his career." Kromm describes the rarely-heard piece as sounding in parts like Haydn, sometimes like Handel, and often... like Mozart.
Wednesday, March 11
Jennifer Koh brings a recital of solo works for the violin to Hertz Hall through Cal Performances this Sunday afternoon, in a program called Bach and Beyond. It includes two unaccompanied sonatas by Bach, and two works that continue the tradition that he began: Luciano Berio's Sequenza, and a new work (and Cal Performances co-commission) by John Harbison called For Violin Alone.
Jennifer Koh began the project she calls 'Bach and Beyond' a few years ago - when she got over being intimidated about performing his solo works to an audience. "For a long time I did not perform Bach in public, actually, and I began to question why… I think for me, there was a great weight to the kind of performance tradition that had existed before. And I think the other part of it was also that it’s such personal music that I felt very vulnerable performing these works in public." She's able in the concerts to use the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas as natural bridges to the newer music that looks back to them. "The reason I created “Bach and Beyond” was in part to explore the weight of Bach both on performers as well as composers. And I wanted to create a historical journey of Bach’s influence on composers throughout history. That of course included the present, so I wanted to include newly commissioned works as well." Some of the composers whose works have been included in the project have been Missy Mazzoli, Phil Kline, Kaija Saariaho, and John Harbison, whose new piece will be on the program Sunday. Koh describes the Harbison piece this way: "His entire work is very much steeped in tradition, and he wrote his piece in the form of Partitas… they’re actually literally dance movements. But what’s interesting is he really contemporizes it, by pulling from American dance forms and American music."
One side benefit of the project, in addition to teasing out connections through music history, is that Koh is helping to create a larger body of solo works, which also helps her prove her case that, like the piano, her instrument has the richness and depth to sustain an unaccompanied recital program. She describes the earlier days of 'Bach and Beyond' in this video:
Tuesday, March 10
The Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra (formerly the San Francisco Sinfonietta) offers a concert called Old and New 'New Music' this Saturday evening at the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco. Conductor and group founder Urs Leonhardt Steiner gives a preview, as the ensemble continues to celebrate its 20th anniversary season.
The ensemble will be playing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, plus two brand new works by members of the orchestra: principal clarinetist Michael Kimbell's Barcarolle, and Metamorphosis by Stardust, who is the second oboe and English horn player. "I aked both of them, as a celebration to our name change, to write something short for us," Steiner says. "So we're going to celebrate that." He says the group grew out of their previous name. They're made up of both professionals and amateurs, and also have a chorus, (sitting out this performance, but they'll be in action for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which will be their next set of concerts in May and June.
On the decision to program Shostakovich for a community orchestra, Steiner says: "Classical music, you don't have easy pieces. They don't exist. And over the years, my experience hgas been that if you give people more difficult music, they will work on it really hard. If you give them music which they perceive as easy, they don't do so well. And on top of it, it's very difficult music for anybody. And we played it in 1999 for the first time, so we have... a few of us have been part of that."
Monday, March 9
Smuin Ballet brings a program called 'Untamed' to Walnut Creek this Friday and Saturday (then Mountain View and Carmel the following weeks) - with a new take on Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings by choreographer Garrett Ammon. Plus Amy Seiwart's Objects of Curiosity, and the return of Michael Smuin's retelling of the Frankie and Johnny story, with a Cuban setting. Artistic Director Celia Fushille gives a preview.
Garrett Ammon, who is the Artistic Director of the Denver-based dance company Wonderbound, has set the Tchaikovsky score that for eighty years has been linked with George Balanchine's piece Serenade. "I love that he was willing to do so, because it certainly deserves to be danced to," says Celia Fushille. "To see this modern treatment of it is just fabulous. It's a contemporary ballet - he picks up the whimsy, the humor, the sensitivity; it's a lovely piece on the company." She had wanted to work with Ammon for several years, and when Smuin was touring in Colorado a year and a half ago, she went to see his company. "They were rehearsing Serenade for Strings, and I got to see a complete runthrough of the work. Afterward I said, 'OK, great, how soon can we do it?' It was just one of those that I saw and thought 'this is a perfect fit for Smuin.'"
The program also brings back Amy Seiwert's 2007 production of Objects of Curiosity, with a score by Philip Glass and Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso, as well as company founder Michael Smuin's Frankie and Johnny - which moves the tragic story of doomed love to the streets of Havana, with an all-Latin score. Celia Fushille (who danced the role of Frankie in 1996) gives the brief synopsis, which is the same as the legendary song: "He does her wrong, and so she does him in!" (There is a "for mature audiences" notice in the program). Because many of the works that Smuin performs are more abstract, Fushille says they're really enjoying rehearsals so far - "It's lovely for the dancers to be sinking their teeth into character roles, so they're having a blast doing that too. It's been a while since we had a narrative, and Michael was just such a masterful storyteller!"
Friday, March 6
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has paired Ravel and Gershwin with a concerto written for her by Philip Lasser called The Circle and the Child on a new CD called Broadway-Lafayette. She says performing Rhapsody in Blue is as close to playing in a jazz band as most classical musicians get, and one of the few occasions both soloist and orchestra members get to be happy at the same time.
There's clearly an exchange of influences between Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel's Concerto in G Major... they share bits of American jazz and lush impressionist harmonies, with phenomenal parts for the soloist throughout. Simone Dinnerstein says putting them together makes sense: "It’s so natural. I’ve performed the two of them in concert together quite a few times, and you really hear the link between the two of them. Both played their own music, and that’s something that people used to do – is that the composers played their own music, and therefore it was written in a certain kind of style." It starts with the crack of a whip, but Dinnerstein prefers the contemplative second movement to the pyrotechnic outer ones: "It’s very reminiscent of Satie… and to me that’s the best part of the piece, is the slow movement. I think it’s just outstanding. It’s like a long dream."
She included an earlier work by composer Philip Lasser on another CD, and a few years ago commissioned him to write her a piano concerto, which he's called The Circle and the Child. "It took him about two years to compose the piece, and he would show it to me as he was writing it, which was really great and exciting. And so I got to see it come to life, and change and develop... It was very much written for me. I think that all of the different values, and the writing… tonally, and colors, the touch, the lyricism of it, the counterpoint in it, the way the piano and the orchestra interact… All of these things. It just feels like it was almost like a letter written to me. It’s just an incredibly beautiful, deep piece of music, and I loved it so much that I really wanted to make a recording of it. And that’s what sparked off the idea of this recording."
Thursday, March 5
Tonight through Saturday, the San Francisco Symphony presents a program of works having to do with the creation of the world. It will be guest conducted by composer Thomas Adès, whose In Seven Days is featured, complete with piano soloist Kirill Gerstein and video projection.
Along with his own piece, the concert will comprise Darius Milhaud's La Création du monde (The Creation of the World), Luonnotar by Sibelius for soprano and orchestra (sung by Dawn Upshaw) and Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. "The Milhaud and the Sibelius were very obvious pieces to put with it," Adès says, "because they were both on the same theme – creation myths, or narratives. The Ives puts us in this sort of question of 'how did we get here?' I guess that is what the Unanswered Question is, something like that, how or why, but particularly how in this concert."
For In Seven Days, the piece progresses through each of the days of creation, depicting each of them musically. Adès was inspired by looking further back than the best known translation of Genesis. "In the King James Version, we begin with the word void… which isn’t quite right because that implies there’s nothing. What the original has is more of a sense that everything is there, it’s just all in the wrong order. It’s not been joined up correctly at all, all the elements are jumbled. And that to me was in a way a more exciting idea of chaos than it being empty, because it’s also a fairly true description of what it can be like if you’re starting to write a piece. Everything is already there, but you have to then put it in a new order."
Wednesday, March 4
The New Century Chamber Orchestra plays four concerts this week, led by the violinist who was the longest-serving concertmaster at the New York Philharmonic before his retirement last year: Glen Dicterow. The program includes Mozart, Brahms, Holst, and Grieg. Dicterow says the ensemble has made him feel right at home, and they're "having a grand time."
The job of the concertmaster is to be the liason between the string section and the conductor, Dicterow says, in addition to deciding on bowings and playing the violin solos in orchestral pieces. "You’re basically like an ambassador or a diplomat, not only having to learn the parts and the solos, and everything like that, but sort of a go-between, and trying to make peace amongst a huge section. They have a huge string section, you have to get along with everybody and get the work done, get the job done." So what to make of a conductorless ensemble? His wife, violist Karen Dreyfus, used to play in the Orfeus Chamber Orchestra, and he attended some rehearsals, but it's taking some getting used to. "I thought it was extremely refreshing," he says, "not to just have somebody on a podium always telling you what to do. And being for 34 years in the New York Philharmonic, and 8 years in the L.A. Phil, it was totally alien to me to be able to have the whole orchestra, not just somebody in the first seat express their views... I was a little bit apprehensive about this kind of an arrangement, having done the other so many times, but I feel like part of the family."
The repertoire for the concert includes a one-to-a-part Brahms Sextet, a Mozart Divertimento, and Holst's St. Paul's Suite, which Dicterow says he had never heard before: "That’s something that was a surprise to me – that… Gee, where has been my whole life? Of course I’ve been a member of major orchestras, and you don’t generally shave it down to string orchestra." Also new to him, as well as the NCCO, was Grieg's Two Nordic Melodies. "I was captivated, absolutely stunned that such a piece, that I’d never even heard before in my life – I’d never played it in two orchestras… Another surprise was that the New Century Chamber Orchestra had not even done it… I said, ‘Wow! Something that they haven’t done!’ I mean, you look for string pieces, and it’s not a huge vast repertoire available."
Here's a video the New York Philharmonic produced leading up to Dicterow's final season:
Tuesday, March 3
The Knights - an orchestra that was started by two of the members of the quartet Brooklyn Rider - has had from its beginning a unique (and friendly) dynamic. Their new CD, The Ground Beneath Our Feet, traces the idea of the concerto grosso with music from Bach to Reich and beyond (including a brand new work for violin and a traditional Persian instrument). Colin Jacobsen says they're following their father's example of playing music with friends.
They call themselves an 'orchestral collective', and it began as a group of their musician friends. "Our dad played in the Metropolitan Opera for over thirty years, as a violinist," Colin Jacobsen says. "And he would play a show, and then come back with friends and play chamber music all night. And I think we saw there was a joy that had a very social element to it with music...So as soon as we were old enough, we started having house parties of our own, where we would just read chamber music all night. And out of those bonds of friendship, we decided to put together a string orchestra." By 2005 or so, they had been successful enough to include wind players too. They can grow or shrink as required by the music, and include among their friends and collaborators singer/songwriters, and several members of the Silk Road Ensemble. That's where Jacobsen met Siamak Aghaei, who plays the Santur, a traditional hammer-dulcimer like instrument from Ancient Iran. "I don’t think anyone has written a violin and santur concerto before, so that seemed like a corner of the world that needed to happen," Jacobsen jokes. Given the political difficulties of Aghaei travelling to the U.S., they worked together on the piece in Amsterdam (and when it was to be premiered in the States, a couple of senators had to help make his getting a visa possible during a federal government shutdown.)
The recording was made live in concert at Washington DC's Dumbarton Oaks, the mansion and museum that's celebrating its 75th anniversary. The disc includes the work of the same name by Igor Stravinsky (which, coincidentally, the Jacobsens' father played at the same site thirty years earlier) - a work influenced and inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. There's also a violin and oboe concerto by Bach himself, the title track, which several members of the ensemble composed (with an improvisatory feeling over a traditional bassline that repeats) and it begins with Steve Reich's Duet for two violins and strings. "I don’t know these days how many people sit down, put on an album, and listen to the whole thing through," says Jacobsen, "but I think if people were to do that with this album, they would feel a nice sense of progression between the pieces. And the Reich does sort of serve as setting the tone of the album. I always feel like that piece invites a listener in."
Monday, March 2
The Mobius Trio is one of the few ensembles playing music for three classical guitars - and because that's the case, they've taken it upon themselves to commission new works for the combination. They'll play a concert of some of them this Friday evening at the Old First Concerts series, including a world premiere by Aaron Gervais called Adderall (the first of an anticipated suite of six pieces each about a prescription drug).
The members of the trio, Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder met while they were students at the San Francisco Conservatory, and they realized just how limited the repertoire was for guitar trio after Fish commissioned a new work for them to play. Holmes-Linder explains: "Then we needed… we were students at the time, and we needed to put together a full program to premiere this piece. 'OK, there are five pieces that we know of written for guitar trio – they’re mostly pretty good, but that’s not even enough for a full program!'" Nance says that's why they've been so busy continuing to keep the new works coming. "Before we came along, I don’t think there was much more than about a dozen pieces for the guitar trio. And so we like to think that we’ve kind of created probably about 80 percent of the repertoire for guitar trio at this point."
One of the pieces that they'll be playing Friday is a work written by Brazilian guitarist Sergio Assad. "Mason and I were students of Sergio's," Holmes-Linder says, "and Rob rehearsed with us in our lessons, almost every lesson. So when we finally convinced him years later to write a piece for us, it was called Kindergarten. And it's about the three of us as Kindergarteners, (I'm the space cadet!) - There's a lot of personality and theater and playfulness in it." They say that some composers who are more used to the set roles of a guitar quartet - mimicking the string quartet's division of labor - need to learn that their dynamic is different. Other than the extra bass string on the guitar Mason Fish plays, they're equal partners. "I think it's really spatially on stage important for us to play in a relatively egalitarian way, in terms of the divide between melody and accompaniment. That kind of spatial play makes the music more exciting, I think, on the whole," Holmes-Linder explains.