The Mendocino Music Festival begins its 30th season this weekend, with 25 concerts between then and the 23rd. Founders Allan Pollack and Susan Waterfall give a preview of some of the artists who'll be joining them, including Geoff Nuttall and Stephen Prutsman (playing violin sonatas by Bach), the Calder Quartet, pianist Gloria Cheng, and a wide range of world and jazz performers.
Allan Pollack says there have been a lot of changes over the past three decades: "We had our first festival in 1987, there were four orchestra concerts, and four chamber music concerts... Thirty years later, and we’ve got a 16,000 square foot tent, perched on the edge of the ocean, with a huge stage, lighting, sound, everything, we’ve got a hall that seats 850 people, and we have 25 concerts." It's also moved away from being solely a classical music festival. "We still do tons of classical music, but both Susan and I happen to love all kinds of music, and so we have jazz, bluegrass, Celtic, Zydeco.You name it. If it’s good, we put it on." They also have planned lectures, a production of a full opera (Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio) and a festival-ending performance of Bach's Mass in B-minor. While they appear to have gone all-out this year, Susan Waterfall says it wasn't just because of the anniversary year: "Every year we try to do the best possible festival, and… I mean, some people were probably were thinking in terms of ‘oh, this is the 30th year…’ but for us, it’s…we always do the best possible festival."
Wednesday, July 6
For the second year, Flower Piano returns tomorrow to the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. For twelve days, twelve pianos will be placed across its 55 acres, available for visitors to play, and listen to, with a program of performers slated to play during specific times over the two upcoming weekends.
Flower Piano has the official approval of the city, but a few years ago Mauro Ffortissimo, the Half Moon Bay artist who came up with this project began by placing pianos up and down the coast without bothering to get the necessary permits. After the public showed interest, he and filmmaker Dean Mermell began to try to find legal ways to give the public a chance to both hear and play pianos in unexpected places. Brendan Lange is the Director of Visitor Experience and Marketing at the Botanical Gardens: "The first time we had no idea what to expect, we put the pianos out for the community to play, with some scheduled performances on the weekends as well, similar to what we’re doing this year. And the response from the community was just out of this world. I think it really struck a nerve with a number of things that the community was looking for." The 12-day event allows plenty of opportunity for discovery. "That is the true magic of Flower Piano," Lange says. "The organic community building that kind of happens around the pianos – I mean, you’ve got seven-year-old kids that are taking piano lessons practicing, and you might have a professional concert pianist from Australia, like we did last year... It’s just this crazy melding of people of all ages, of all backgrounds, and the piano and the garden are kind of their meeting point… and people cheer each other on and encourage them to play songs that they know, and sing along, and it’s really amazing how people come together around this simple but beautiful idea."
Friday, July 1
The percussion section stretched its definition a bit in 1880... When Pyotr Tchaikovsky decided the best way to commemorate a military victory over the forces of Napoleon would be to use actual cannons to amp up the volume and excitement of battle. And so, in the 1812 Overture, there between the percussion and the string sections, is a part for the Cannon player. Considering its reputation, it's surprising that there are only 16 blasts of the 'instrument' in the entire work.
The score is interesting to look at as well, to see that Tchaikovsky asked for three different dynamics for the 'notes' the cannon is to play. The first five, during the statement of La Marseillaise, France's national anthem (although not in use by Napoleon at the time of the campaign to Moscow) are marked ff - fortissimo. It's not until the final flurry of the conclusion (when firework shows generally are pulling out all the stops) that he asks the player to play fortissississimo... ffff.
You can see some of the spectacle of the finale in this performance from the Proms at Royal Albert Hall:
Thursday, June 30
Opera at the Ballpark has proven to be a successful mix in the years that San Francisco Opera has been simulcasting a live performance into AT&T Field... But how about the other way around? What happens when baseball goes to the opera house? The Marx Brothers made Verdi take a left turn into "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in their movie A Night at the Opera... and American composer (and baseball fan) William Schuman adapted the famous poem "Casey at the Bat" for his opera The Mighty Casey.
There are more details about Saturday's free (but tickets are required) event at San Francisco Opera's website. Hoyt and Dianne will be at the ballpark (and on Diamondvision) hosting the simulcast from War Memorial Opera House to the stadium - which will let fans take to the outfield and seats to watch a performance of Bizet's Carmen.
William Schuman's The Mighty Casey isn't the only classical work inspired by baseball - Charles Ives was a fan as well as a player, and wrote a series of improvisations for piano that depicted various scenarios on the baseball diamond.
Wednesday, June 29
In 1876, a musicologist described the key of G Major as a "favorite key of youth... [It] expresses sincerity of faith, quiet love, calm meditation, simple grace, pastoral life, and a certain humor and brightness." As can be heard from the selections below, it does seem to work well whether one is suggesting elation or contemplation.
Here are the pieces in the medley: (Click and drag down to highlight and make visible)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Tchaikovsky: Russian Dance (Trepak) from Nutcracker Suite
Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik K.525
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 (mvt. 3)
Offenbach: Can-Can from Orpheus in the Underworld
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 ('Pathetique') mvt. 3
Haydn: Piano Trio No. 39 ('Gypsy Rondo') mvt. 3
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Dvorak: Symphony No. 8, mvt. 4
Bach: Goldberg Variations - Aria
Grieg: Holberg Suite
Friday, June 24
Retiring from San Francisco Opera after a decade long tenure as General Director, David Gockley was honored with a gala and concert called 'Celebrating David' last week. Along with the arias sung by many of the biggest names in opera, Gockley himself presented Renee Fleming with the San Francisco Opera medal, and encouraged his successor, Matthew Shilvock to continue the efforts to "make the operatic garden grow."
David Gockley began his career at Houston Grand Opera, where he helped establish that company's national reputation, as well as commissioning a large number of new works, many of which have become contemporary classics. He was there for more than three decades, but when he came to San Francisco, he said at the outset that it was his plan to remain in charge for no more than ten years. It was announced recently that he will continue on as General Director emeritus, but the leadership role will go to Matthew Shilvock, who he described this way in remarks during the gala concert: "My right hand for 14 years, who is so deservedly becoming my successor. As I have said, there is nothing positive that has happened here over the last ten years that does not have his fingerprints all over it."
KDFC will be airing the concert, which was hosted by Thomas Hampson and Frederica von Stade, as its August San Francisco Opera broadcast. Performers included Renee Fleming, Patricia Racette, Heidi Stober, Brian Jagde, Michael Fabiano, Eric Owens, Rene Pape, Sasha Cooke, and Dolora Zajick, among others.
Thursday, June 23
A piano concerto written for Yefim Bronfman has its U.S. premiere performances tonight through Saturday night with the San Francisco Symphony. It's Trauermarsch for Piano and Orchestra by composer Jörg Widmann, and a co-commission with the Berlin Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It's on a program with symphonies by C.P.E. Bach, and Johannes Brahms.
This is the second piece written for Bronfman by Widmann - the first was a commission that he premiered for solo piano at Carnegie Hall back in 2008. The composer has commented that it's hard to believe Bronfman has only ten fingers, given the ease with which he played the very challenging Eleven Arabesques. But bringing the second performance, and U.S. premiere to San Francisco after the Berlin world premiere just continues the learning curve. "The second performances are sometimes more difficult than the first ones," Bronfman explains. "I always… I’m very careful that, you know if you had a big success, and you had a very good performance the first night, but the second night there’s no guarantee that it will be the same way, so, I prepared for those concerts as if it was the first time. That’s a beauty of playing new music, that you know, it’s a discovery for everyone. And for me also, even today you know, I have had a premiere about a year and a half ago, and I basically had to re-learn the piece, but with having had some experience of it, I was a step ahead, of course."
Wednesday, June 22
This is the second year ChamberFest at the Green Music Center. Artistic Director Jeffrey Kahane says they've planned a jam-packed festival of chamberworks by Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn for this season. "You could easily do nine weeks, instead of one week devoted to them," he says. There are six concerts in Schroeder Hall before Sunday's finale in Weill Hall, devoted to Mozart concertos, and accompanied by the Santa Rosa Symphony.
Following last year's program of works by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Kahane says they went with another trio of beloved and prolific musicians: "We decided that we would take a similar approach, but with three different composers, this time Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. Who, between the three of them, created a very substantial number of the greatest chamber works ever written. Zarin Mehta and I worked together to create seven programs that I think wonderfully represent a mix of the towering masterworks that pretty much every music lover, or every lover of chamber music knows, with some works that are less familiar." So alongside the Mendelssohn Octet is another of his works for piano four-hands, which Kahane will play with Jon Kimura Parker, "this beautiful Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brilliante, which is very little known and absolutely spectacular." Other artists performing this week include the Miro Quartet, violinists Benjamin Beilman and Angelo Xiang Yu, violist Paul Neubauer, clarinetist David Shifrin, and cellist Hai-Ye Ni, who's principal with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Friday, June 17
The California Symphony presents a fundraising event and concert on Saturday the 18th, but don't call it a 'Gala'... They'll be joined by acrobats and circus performers for a program they're calling Cirque du Symphonie. Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer says she and Music Director Donato Cabrera wanted the event to be both focused on the talents of the orchestra, and fun and accessible to all.
This follows last year's end-of-season event, called 'Speakeasy Symphony' that had a 1920's theme, and took place outdoors in a park. Audrey Bergauer says they were looking for another way to break with tradition: "We stopped using the word ‘gala’… that word is now out of our vocabulary, and we started using words like ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining…’ Cirque de la Symphonie is the name of the Cirque troup who has experience performing with orchestras. They have world champions, Olympians, former Cirque du Soleil artists. They’re just the best." Cabrera had worked with them before, and together they were able to devise a program: "The first thing was to choose repertoire that would showcase the orchestra in a really exciting and virtuosic way. And we had a long list of works that had been choreographed already by the Cirque de Symphony, and I was able to choose from that list what we could put together in an alluring concert format."
Thursday, June 16
Stern Grove Festival begins its 10-week run this Sunday afternoon, with their 'big picnic' followed by their first admission-free concert of their 79th season, with Jenelle Monae and opening local band Midtown Social. Chair Doug Goldman, whose great-grandmother began the festival in the 1930s (after giving the land to the city), says the lineup continues to reflect the diverse musical tastes of their audiences.
The concerts begin at 2:00 each Sunday between June 19th and August 21st. The lineup:
June 19: Janelle Monae / Midtown Social
June 26: George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic / Bayonics
July 3: Hieroglyphics / Mix'd Ingrdnts, Golden State Breakers
July 10: San Francisco Symphony (Edwin Outwater conducting)
July 17: Joan Osborne's Soul Revue / John Brothers Piano Company
July 24: Julieta Venegas / La Misa Negra
July 31: San Francisco Ballet
August 7: The O'Jays / MJ's Brass Boppers
August 14: Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor / Afrolicious
August 21: The New Pornographers / Astronauts, etc.
Doug Goldman says: "People will come to see the music that they like, so therefore, for us to present a spectrum across those ten concerts that represents a wide diversity, and that’s what we try to reflect." In 2005, there was a major renovation in Stern Grove, and one of the responsibilities of that renovation was 'not to screw it up,' by over-building, or changing the landscape too noticeably. "It still has that sense of tranquility about it. It’s a fascinating space, you’re 150 feet below the grade of the community. You have to consciously think about the fact that you are smack dab in the middle of an American Urban landscape when you’re there, because you feel so removed from it. And that’s special."
Wednesday, June 15
Ojai at Berkeley returns tomorrow night to Cal Performances, with three concerts celebrating powerful women from history, and today. Music director Peter Sellars describes the programs that shine a light on French philospher Simone Weil and Josephine Baker, as well as female voices of protest in The Sounds of Tahrir Square, Cairo by contemporary Egyptian musician Dina El-Wadidi and her band.
Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone is an oratorio, sung by soprano Julia Bullock (with the International Contemporary Ensemble and the vocal group Roomful of Teeth) that tells the courageous story of French philosopher Simone Weil. Peter Sellars says she put her body where her beliefs were: "Simone Weil and her family got to America in 1942, and she lasted six weeks in New York. And she has to be the only refugee, I think, who just turned around, got on a boat and went back to Nazi-occupied France. She said ‘I can not sit here in a café while people are suffering’. She challenged everyone with everything. And as the first female philosopher of absolutely equal standing with men, when the world was facing evil in really pure intense forms, the men were taking refuge in abstract questions of language. She starved to death in London in 1943, surrounded by friends, food, and doctors. But she refused to have one more bite of food than her fellow countrymen in the deathcamps. And it was her fast and her vigil of conscience." On Friday, Dina El-Wadidi and her band perform. Sellars describes them as"courageous, brilliant young musicians of the new generation of Egyptians, who are in the streets, and who are there for positive, thrilling change." Julia Bullock returns for the final night on Saturday, to sing Tyshawn Sorey's Josephine Baker: A Portrait. The African-American singer and dancer challenged notions of race, even as she found a welcoming audience in Paris. "I think most people don’t realize that Josephine Baker is not just the woman in the banana dress," Sellars says. "She’s the only woman who Martin Luther King asked to speak at the March on Washington, at the Lincoln Memorial."
Friday, June 10
The next generation of Early Music enthusiasts has a chance to explore arts and culture of the Baroque era at the Music Discovery Workshop, a camp that blends music performance with a variety of other disciplines for grades 1-12. Director Yuko Tanaka has also been a harpsichord faculty member of the six-day workshop offered by the San Francisco Early Music Society.
The program has been in existence since the mid 1990s, when it was started by Lee McRae, who was also a founder of SFEMS. Yuko Tanaka says the idea was to give an introduction to both the music as well as cultural history of the time of the Baroque and before. Each day (from 9 until 4) is quite full: "We have group instrument or voice lessons, we have a session of arts and crafts, baroque dance, a session of chamber music for any kid that’s not in Youth Collegium, and then we have musicianship, games, which is having fun outside, cause we all need that, and the theater." It builds over the course of the week, with Arts and Crafts projects including the costumes (this season including making tunics and masks for the Commedia dell'Arte play, which will include music by Lully). The older kids who have ensemble experience can take part in the Youth Collegium, which goes deeper into playing with strings, harpsichord, and recorders.
Thursday, June 9
Cinnabar Theater's production of Mozart's TheMagic Flute takes Tamino, Pamina and Papageno and the rest into a staging influenced by the 1960s (complete with the 'Three Ladies' who are dressed and dancing like the Supremes). Director Elly Lichenstein says before she knew how she was going to stage it, she'd been describing it as 'the original Magical Mystery Tour...'
There's more information about the production, which opens tomorrow night and runs through the 26, at the Cinnabar Theater website.
"The Magic Flute is sort of open to any interpretation, which is the beauty of it," Lichenstein explains. "When we put it on the website, you know, a hundred million years ago, we said that we were doing 'the original Magical Mystery Tour. And all we were doing was just putting out the word, and all of a sudden, it was sort of like, well, duh… If it’s the original Magical Mystery Tour, let’s set it like the Magical Mystery Tour! We went for a 60s kind of take, and our Tamino is dressed like Sgt. Pepper, and we have a Yellow Submarine, but you have to come and see it to believe it." As the original production took place in an intimate theater, and used German to make the jokes understandable, she says they're singing in English, and have the benefit of being close to the audience. "Our whole meaning here at Cinnabar is intimate connection. When the laugh comes, it needs to come out of the joke, not out of the supertitle. And conversely, when the tears come, it comes from that person on stage."
Wednesday, June 8
Violinist Kenneth Renshaw and pianist Audrey Vardanega will play the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms this Friday night, as part of the Old First Concerts series. The two are still students (at Juilliard and Columbia University, respectively) but have each been playing concerts in the Bay Area (and around the world) for many years. They first met when they both attended the Crowden School in Berkeley.
Although their last concert playing together was back in the Crowden School days, Renshaw says they have played together informally: "A while back we were just reading sonatas, and we read some of the Brahms, and we said ‘This is great, we should actually try to play all of them some time, perform all of them.' That then developed into 'OK, well, where are we going to do that, how are we going to do that?'" Vardanega had played at Old First Church, and suggested it as an ideal venue. It did mean learning the sonatas while juggling studies, and her own repertoire: "I play a lot of solo works by Brahms, and it’s interesting to take a step back and act as the foundation as well as the solo voice every once and a while, and see how Brahms uses the piano in a way to bolster the violin sound. And that’s really helped me and informed my playing of Brahms’s solo works as well... It’s a huge project, learning all three, because each of them is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of … a lot of thinking, also. It’s not just you have to learn the notes, it’s like you have to completely wrap your mind around where he’s going." Kenneth Renshaw says despite having the same composer and setting of instruments, each of the sonatas is a world of its own. "They all have a very distinct character, but at the same time I think when you listen to them from A to Z, you really get the story of kind of the later part of his life, when he was writing these."
Friday, June 3
It's the return of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, which every two years brings the best of the Early Music world to the East Bay for concerts (both mainstage and 'fringe'), symposia, and networking. San Francisco Early Music Society Executive Director Harvey Malloy says this year's theme is 'In Concert and In Consort" bringing together international musicians with the deep pool of local talent.
Just some of the musical matchmaking that went into the programming this year: the Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis, which made its festival debut two years ago, returns for a "Bach family" concert, and will be joined by Philharmonia Baroque Players and Concerto Palatino when they celebrate Purcell and Handel in the final mainstage concert, on the 12th. Juilliard 415, the period instrument group from that conservatory, will join Nicholas McGegan's chamber group for a Shakespeare-themed performance on Saturday the 11th. Baroque violinist Rachel Podger plays with Voices of Music, including a double concerto with local favorite Elizabeth Blumenstock on the 9th - and Podger is also scheduled to play a joint concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout, the famed early keyboardist. Malloy describes it as "an extraordinary opportunity for our local patrons to be able to hear these two really great performers playing in quite an intimate setting, which they would have not had the opportunity to do anywhere else."
Thursday, June 2
The San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy will play a program of Russian music tonight through Saturday, although he says especially Shostakovich's music rises above any definition that's described by nationality. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony will be paired with the first Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, with soloist Alexey Stadler.
Ashkenazy, whose career path began as a concert pianist in Soviet Era Russia, was able to hear the Cello Concerto in its first, pre-premiere performance when he was still a Conservatory student. Mstislav Rostropovich was accompanied by a pianist. "First performances of important composers were announced, people told us, 'if you have time, Shostakovich’s first cello concerto will be performed with Rostropovich and his accompanist in the Union of Soviet Composers'... Many people came, many composers, many musicians, and Shostakovich sat in the front row by himself, nobody around him for a couple of rows. He was very modest, and very shy… Rostropovich played, of course, magnificently." Ashkenazy had a few more brushes with the composer: "He was a wonderful person. I played once for him his Trio. I played it with my very good friends from the Conservatory. And he was terribly nice, he said ‘Very good, very good… would you like some tea?’ We said, ‘Maybe you’ll say something about the performance?’ ‘No no, it was very good, you want some tea?’ So we drank tea and left! Never criticized, never said anything – he was very modest, and very devoted to his music."
Wednesday, June 1
The Irving M. Klein International String Competition gives players between the ages of 15 and 23 an opportunity to come to San Francisco and compete with the next generation of performers. Mitchell Sardou Klein is the Artistic Director of California Music Center, founded by his father, the namesake of the competition. He says the 9 semi-finalists will play Thursday, and three will be selected to play in the finals Friday evening.
It marks the first time in the competition's 31 year history that they'll be teaming with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performing in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. This year's semi-finalists include six violinists, two cellists, and a double bassist. "We have no violists this year," Klein says. "Violists have done exceedingly well in the competition, we’ve had quite a number of violists win, and they are now principle violas in places like Boston and Toronto. This year, there weren’t any violists that made the cut, but a bass player, and we’ve only had bass players get into the semi-finals I guess five times in the past thirty years, so each year has a little different flavor." All nine will perform Thursday, from about 3 until 9, and Thursday night the finalists will be named, who'll continue on to Friday night's concert. "The semi-finalists all play programs that include unaccompanied Bach, a commissioned work, this year written by Giancarlo Aquilanti from Stanford University, and they play a major concerto, and a sonata... By the time we get through the Thursday programs, the semi-final programs, we’ve started to really get to know each of them."