Tuesday, November 11

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios: Cabinet of CuriositiesCirque du Soleil returns to San Francisco, opening this Friday with Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. The storyline is a steampunk-inspired visit to the workshop of an inventor and explorer known as 'the Seeker'. Show writer and director, Michel Laprise says they've returned to some of the basics with this production, which will run through January 18th, in the big top near AT&T Park.

There's more information at the Cirque du Soleil website.

Michel Laprise spent four or five years casting shows for Cirque du Soleil, but this is the first bigtop show he's directed. "I learned to just shut up and listen to the artists, look at the artists, and developed a knowledge of what they do." He says that background helped him as he was casting this production, and that shows in each of the performers. "They're glowing... There's a joy on the stage that is genuine. It's not something that you play, it's something you are." The show has a different feel from its predecessors. "It's all in this palette of sepia colors, cause we wanted to have something super human, low-tech as well... and the aesthetic of the show is steampunk... You are in this laboratory/Cabinet of Curiosities of that "Seeker" - he's a scientific man, who traveled the world, and he brought from the four corners of the world some objects that are fascinating for him." It's through these objects that the Seeker (and the audience) are carried to another realm. "The Valley of the Possible Impossibles. This is where all the dreams are waiting before we dream them. And this is also where all the crazy ideas that we have on Earth, and we abandon... When you abandon them, where do they go? They go into that valley."


Monday, November 10

Apollo's FireClaudio Monteverdi's Vespers for the Blessed Virgin has become a signature work for the Cleveland-based early music group Apollo's Fire. The ensemble will be performing it this Thursday night at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley through Cal Performances. Founder and Artistic Director Jeannette Sorrell describes the opening of the landmark work as being "like a supernova."

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

Sorrell, who began Apollo's Fire 23 years ago, says there are competing theories about the origin of the work, but she believes it to have been written for a royal wedding in Mantua in 1608. "There are historical records that a very grand and festive Vespers service with lots of music took place on a certain date during those wedding festivities," she says. It was an important event, both socially and culturally: "If you think of the pomp and circumstance of, say, the wedding of Princess Diana, that's the kind of excitement that I think was around this piece. And I think that's why Monteverdi pulled out all the stops." The Vespers aren't frequently performed live, in part because of just how big a work it is, going from the single voice of a sung plainchant to full orchestra, to solos, duets and intricate choruses. It was written just as the Renaissance was ending: "Monteverdi is sort of a revolutionary, and so he's forging the new Baroque Style as he writes this piece... It's a little bit, I think, like the music of Beethoven. You can hear a sense of struggle in there as he's creating a new style by sheer force of will."

Friday, November 7

Gil ShahamThe San Francisco Symphony will soon be on the road, on a cross-country tour that will take them to the Midwest, Northeast, and Miami. They'll be bringing with them violinist Gil Shaham, whose history with the orchestra goes back almost 25 years. He'll play concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev, with concert programs that they'll play at Davies Symphony Hall through Sunday.

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

These two programs, (with Samuel Adams' Drift and Providence, Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel, and Liszt's Mephisto Waltz), along with the Mahler Seventh Symphony that they played at the end of October and beginning of this month, will be on tour from the 12th to the 22nd. They'll stop in Kansas City, Ann Arbor, Cleveland, Boston, Princeton, New York City at Carnegie Hall, and end in Miami. Gil Shaham, who first played with them 24 years ago, says it's going to be like a family trip. "Some of these people I went to school with, and we've grown up, we've known eachother for 30 years! It should be a lot of fun." His first experience as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony made him very nervous, because it was the first big American orchestra he played with. Peter Pastreich, who was then Executive Director calmed his nerves. "He said: 'You'll enjoy it. This will be fun.' And it's still true today. It's such a pleasure to play with this orchestra."

The Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 belongs to a group of works especially dear to Shaham's heart, which he's spent the last several years performing and drawing attention to. "There was a confluence of great concertos by various composers in the 1930s," he says. "And there really is a spike. Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith and Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Darius Milhaud, Karol Szyminowski... I'm leaving out many! Everybody seemed to write a concerto for violin in that decade. And not even in ten years, but in eight years, from 1931-39. Suddenly these amazing treasures for the violin were all created."

Thursday, November 6

'Breakfast With Mugabe' at Aurora TheatreAurora Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of a play that explores the mind of Robert Mugabe, who has ruled in Zimbabwe since 1980, when British rule came to an end. The play, Fraser Grace's Breakfast With Mugabe, stars L. Peter Callender as the despot, who visits a white psychiatrist in an effort to be free of an ngozi, or ghost who is haunting him.

There's more information about the play (which opens tomorrow night, and has been extended through December 14th) at the Aurora Theatre website.

The story, Callender says, about the real-life President Mugabe, was inspired by a news story. "Fraser Grace wrote this wonderful play based on an article he read, that Robert Mugabe was seeing a psychiatrist for a haunting that he was experiencing... Mugabe is hauted, he is angry, he is thoughtful, he is pensive - and lots of things come out in the play about his life, about his former wife, his former comrades, Josiah Tongogara, who he believes is the ngozi that's haunting him."  Mugabe, whose path paralleled Nelson Mandela's up to a point—both were revolutionary freedom fighters working in Southern Africa toward their homeland's independence, and both became national leaders—has been seen as a one-dimensional villain. But Callender says he has to try to get inside Mugabe's head: "I've played Richard the Third, I've played despotic characters in my career, and you've always got to think, 'they can't think of themselves as that way.' Robert Mugabe is a proud, black African who does not wish the country that he was born in, fought for, had comrades die for... go back to colonialist rule. He will not have that. And he is fighting to maintain that by whatever means necessary.

L. Peter Callender as Robert Mugabe in 'Breakfast With Mugabe' at Aurora Theatre

Wednesday, November 5

Dan TepferJazz pianist Dan Tepfer never planned to learn Bach's complete Goldberg Variations, but ever since he heard them played by Glenn Gould on his famed 1981 recording, he kept returning to them, both in their original form, and as inspiration for improvisations. This Saturday night at the SFJAZZ center, he'll present the program Goldberg Variations/Variations through San Francisco Performances. It alternates between the Bach and his own responses to each of the 30 variations and the aria that bookends them.

There's more information about the program at the San Francisco Performances website.

His interest in the Goldbergs came about after he was "hooked" by hearing Gould's recording, and he kept coming back to them both as a listener, and eventually a player as well. "I was doing concerts here and there," Tepfer says, "where I would play a selection of them, and usually no more than eight or ten. And I would play really long improvisations off of each one, very kind of stream-of-conscious." In fact, when the recording project began, he hadn't learned the second half of the original variations yet. He realized the large-scale architecture of Bach's work is so important, it would be wrong to not do them all - so he learned the rest of them. That helped him decide to make his improvisations roughly the same length as their inspirations. "One of the biggest challenges for me is to take the long view. When I was first performing this project, I would tend to really rush into wanting to kind of give it all away in the early variations. And I've had to really think like a marathon runner. Part of that is keeping my own improvised variations to a reasonable length, and keeping them really concise and focused." 

There have been jazzy reimaginings of the Goldberg Variations before, but Tepfer's is unique in presenting both the original and his work side by side. And he feels his approach is in keeping with Bach's own habit of rule-breaking. "Bach was an improviser... Bach was mainly known in his time as an improviser, so you have to think it's OK to use the structure, but also break it at times. I feel like like more and more I'm actually taking my cue from Bach in this project, even though I'm always first of all trying to keep my own voice."

Tuesday, November 4

Rubin Institute at SF Conservatory of MusicA quorum of America's top classical music critics will be taking part in this week's Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with panels, lectures that connect with performances of some of the Bay Area's top arts organizations. Fellows in the program will have a chance to work directly with the writers panel, and concert audience members will be able to submit their own brief reviews for consideration in a competition called "Everyone's a Critic."

There's more information about the symposium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's website.

The who's who of writers includes Alex Ross from the New Yorker, Heidi Waleson from the Wall Street Journal, John Rockwell and Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times, Anne Midgette from the Washington Post, and Tim Page, who had that job before her, and now teaches at USC. The San Francisco Chronicle's Joshua Kosman will be acting as host as the 'Critic in Residence'. Most of the critics involved also took part in the first symposium two years ago, when it was held at Oberlin. The Institute's namesake, Steven Rubin, president and publisher at Henry Holt & Co. will also be taking part, as will student 'fellows' from the SF Conservatory of Music, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Oberlin Conservatory, and Yale School of Music. In addition to the activities at the Conservatory, they'll be focusing on four performances: Thursday's San Francisco Symphony concert with soloist Gil Shaham; Philharmonia Baroque with guest conductor Julian Wachner and countertenor Andreas Scholl on Friday;  Tosca at San Francisco Opera on Saturday, and Dvorak's Stabat Mater at Cal Performances on Sunday, with the Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonic Choir.

Tim Page offers some advice for those taking part in the "Everyone's a Critic" competition (open to concert ticket holders, limited to 400 words, and with a 9am the next day deadline): "I have a very simple secret for becoming a much much better writer, which is just to read your work aloud. Listen to it, record it if you can, read it to somebody. You'll catch all sorts of things, such as word repetitions, or boring sentences, or peculiar tics that your language has...Try to explain what you thought about the performance. I'm really not interested in just summary judgments like 'This was good, this was bad.' I'm really interested in how they came to that conclusion, much more than the conclusion itself."  He says he's looking forward to spending time with the other critics, who are all very friendly with eachother: "That's one of the nice things about being with these colleagues. We've disagreed on everything at one point or another. You know, they'll love some artist I wont, they'll love some composer, or I'll love some composer. And the thing about that is you just learn that, 'Well, that's my opinion, that's your opinion,' and it doesn't interfere with our friendship."

Monday, November 3

Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James with OEBSThe Oakland East Bay Symphony starts its season with a brand new piece for jazz ensemble and orchestra that looks to the past. Brothers in Arts: 70 Years of Liberty was written by Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James, to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day. The West Coast premiere will be at Friday night's concert (which will also be simulcast on the Great Wall of Oakland), sharing the program with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

There's more information about the concert at the Oakland East Bay Symphony website

The work carries across the generations and the Atlantic Ocean, as Michael Morgan, Music Director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony explains: "Chris Brubeck, Guillaume Saint-James and I were all doing concerts together in France two years ago, and we realized -- they realized in the course of conversation, that both of their fathers had been involved in D-Day. And we were at that point coming up on the  70th anniversary of D-Day, so they decided to write a piece together to commemorate the D-Day invasion, and that's really how all of this started."  Brothers in Arts will include both composers in performance - with Brubeck on bass trombone (and piano in one movement) and Saint-James on saxophones - plus bass, accordion, drums, and singers. "It's a jazz quintet, ... the three singers are coming from the Oakland School for the Arts, from their group Vocal Motion. They're like the Andrews Sisters. It's that kind of a piece. It's very much nostalgic, of course, because it's about D-Day and the second World War."

The Tchaikovsky symphony usually would finish a concert - but Morgan says programming it along with, and placing it before the new jazz-heavy work was done for a reason. "It just shows our versatility, and also Tchaikovsky is specifically on there because, after all, the Russians were our allies at that point. So I thought it made sense to do a major Russian work...Unusually, we're doing the Tchaikovsky on the first half, because I really think that the big jazz piece can not be followed, even by Tchaikovsky Fifth." The concert, which is at the Paramount Theatre at 8 pm on the 7th, will be hosted by KDFC's own Dianne Nicolini.