Thursday, January 12

Ride of the ValkyriesThe KDFC Classical All-Stars Countdown will begin next Tuesday morning - and with an ominous roiling of hooves and violin trills (not to mention the smell of napalm and victory). Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is likely to make the list. There's plenty of staying power in the work, which has seared itself into our popular culture.

It's hard to catalog the number of places it pops up in film and TV - going back to the very early days of film history, when it was used to accompany D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, but also forever associated with the helicopters rising over the horizon in Apocalypse Now.  It's hummed by James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause, and referenced in such unlikely TV shows as "Lost in Space" and "My Little Pony." 

It's the opening of the third act of Die Walküre, which is the second of the four operas that make up Wagner's massive Ring Cycle. The valkyries gather and greet each other - and it's usually accompanied by some inventive staging, like in this, by the Metropolitan Opera: 

Wednesday, January 11

Marc Taddei and the Vallejo SymphonyThis Sunday's Bay Area Mix includes a performance from Vallejo Symphony's season-opening concert with their new Music Director Marc Taddei. When scheduling the three concerts of their season, he chose a trio of early Haydn symphonies reflecting 'Morning,' 'Noon,' and 'Night'. They were written as a way for Haydn to get off to a good start with the family that would be his longtime patrons, as well as the musicians in his orchestra in the palace.

There's more information about their remaining concerts at the Vallejo Symphony website, and about this performance of 'Morning' at our Bay Area Mix page.

Marc Taddei, although raised in New Jersey, has established a musical home in New Zealand, currently leading the Wellington Orchestra, and before that, the Christchurch Symphony. When he was appointed the Music Director in Vallejo, he wanted to inspire audiences to come to more concerts by linking them across the season. "I’m kind of a put-everything-on-red or put-everything-on-black kind of guy. I’m all in, in terms of programming. So what I like to do is create programs that individually are attractive, but if you go to more than one you start seeing the links that connect the programs. Audiences gain more resonance from going to more concerts. They don’t have to, of course, but if they do, I think they’ll gain a deeper understanding and hopefully a deeper sense of pleasure from the links we provide." So in addition to the Haydn Morning, Noon and Night, each of the concerts will have a Russian (or Soviet) concerto, as well as a symphonic masterwork. For their next concert, on January 29th, they'll be joined by cellist Zlatomir Fung to play the first Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, followed by Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony. Their season ender in March will feature Kay Stern, concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra playing the Kabalevsky Violin Concerto, followed by Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique', Symphony No. 6.


Tuesday, January 10

On Beckett at the Strand TheaterBill Irwin is no stranger to the works of Samuel Beckett, with multiple appearances in his major works, including a pair of Broadway revivals of Waiting for Godot and A.C.T. productions of Endgame and Texts for Nothing here several years ago. His newest work, opening tomorrow night at the Strand Theater is called On Beckett, and uses texts by the Irish avant-garde dramatist and author, interspersed with Irwin's thoughts about the works. 

There's more information about the production at the A.C.T. website.

"It’s a conversational evening, at least that’s the way I think of it," he explains. "I have a series of passages from Samuel Beckett’s plays, prose, maybe his poetry to share, and they’re short – they’re between three minutes and eight minutes each. In between, I’ll offer some thoughts on them, because I’ve done a lot of thinking about it." Irwin says to the many who were confused trying to read Waiting for Godot in high school, he knows the feeling: "I’m as befuddled often as anybody by Mr. Beckett’s writings, even though it’s meant a lot to me and I’ve immersed myself in it. It can be daunting. People use the word ‘opaque’ about Beckett sometimes, and sometimes they put a little edge on it, like ‘it’s opaque!’. But it is such gorgeous language, and so active. He is so nimble and quick and funny, and he’s looking at these huge, but also very basic, small everyday questions. But he’s looking at them… with the lightest touch." He says he keeps returning to Beckett's works, and doesn't have a choice in the matter. "These are passages of language that have gone viral. Not necessarily in the internet sense, we use that word now, but like, in my head… in my heart, in my psyche. They won’t let… I won’t speak for anybody else, but they won’t let ME alone once I’ve worked with them."

Monday, January 9

Simone DinnersteinPianist Simone Dinnerstein has played the music of J.S. Bach all of her life, and on her CD of Inventions and Sinfonias, shows them to be much more than just exercises in counterpoint. She says they're almost 'pure music' - which teach, but are at the same time stand-alone pieces of great beauty.

There's more about her CD at Simone Dinnerstein's website.

The purpose of the Two-Part Inventions and the Sinfonias (also sometimes called the Three-Part Inventions) was two-fold: they were a teaching tool as well as an example of what he was teaching. "He wrote a very nice description of them, as a preface," Dinnerstein says, "where he writes that they're 'an honest guide to lovers of the keyboard, to show how to play pieces that are written for two voices and three voices.'" So they create independence in the hands. "Of course this is an invaluable skill to learn as a pianist. He didn't know all the music that was going to come after him, but it's something that you use when you're playing Beethoven, and when you're playing Rachmaninoff, and whatever you're playing will require you to be able to hear multiple lines and control them."

The Two-Part inventions especially distill the rules of counterpoint down into concrete examples - and have been played on many instruments, each playing its 'melody' in a singing, or cantabile style. "It's almost like pure music, even though they... actually are quite pianistic, in the sense that they fit into the fingers in a good way. It's really about musical lines rather than about something that's instrument specific." Simone Dinnerstein says they're unique among Bach's works: "They're not pieces that are dances, though some of them may have some dance feelings to them, dance rhythms in them. They're not about something, other than how they're made. It's kind of like seeing an X-ray of the music. This is what they are, the most essential components of counterpoint."

Friday, January 6

Marie-Pierre LanglametBruno Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony bring a 'Heavenly Harp' to the Green Music Center's Weill Hall this Saturday through Monday, as Mary-Pierre Langlamet joins them for Debussy's Danses Sacree et Profane, and the Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera. Rounding out the program are Rossini's Overture to The Thieving Magpie, and the Suites from Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel. 

There's more information about the concerts at the Santa Rosa Symphony website

Ferrandis was inspired to program the concert by his friend, who is principal harpist with the Berlin Philharmonic. "Why did I invite Marie-Pierre? Not only because she’s a great harpist and a great player, but also because she’s the first harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. So I said to myself, 'Why not have my friend, the best, (or one of the best) harp players in the world come to Santa Rosa?'" She will be playing the piece that took Alberto Ginastera so many years to write (ultimately with the advice of the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, who ended up playing the premiere) that the player who commissioned it had retired from her position with the Philadelphia Orchestra by the time it was done. Langlamet's personality inspired the operatic programming of Rossini, and the French take on the subject of ancient gods in the Debussy led Ferrandis to include Daphnis and Chloe.

Thursday, January 5

Stephen HoughPianist Stephen Hough will be playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the New York Philharmonic next week... and if by any chance he doesn't have an opportunity to warm up, he'll still be fine - thanks to a bit of advice he received when he was young.

Many performers have elaborate rituals that they go through before concerts -- Glenn Gould used to soak his forearms in hot water before performances -- but Stephen Hough has made a point of never depending on any of them. "My main teacher, Gordon Green," he says, "told me never to begin by doing exercises or warmups. He said ‘begin with a piece,’ because, he said, there will be a time when you’re travelling and playing, if you have a career (I was about 10 or 11 at the time) when you won’t be able to warm up, and you’ll have to walk out onto the stage and play cold." He says unexpected flight delays, traffic, any number of snags could mean that time isn't available.

But when he does set about practicing, he has another habit that has helped ensure no one part of the piece gets too much attention. "I very rarely begin at the begininning of the piece practicing. I came across this with the Chopin third sonata, the B-minor sonata. Both when I played it myself and when I was teaching it in a master class. I realized that people played the exposition, the first part of it, much better than they played the recap. And it was because they always practiced it more.  They started there every time, and so by the time they got to the recap they’d kind of had run out of steam… and so they’d never given the same attention to that." Instead, Hough likes to mix it up: "If I’m practicing Brahms’ second concerto, I never begin at the beginning, and just go all the way through. Tuesdays I might just do the second movement, and then the third and fourth together, or start with the development of the first movement, and then go back to the beginning. So I’m actually making sure that everything is equally looked at and prepared."

Wednesday, January 4

A to Z - meterIt's an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts looking at Meter and Measures - the composer's tools for organizing time and beats in their works. Most of Western classical music uses the same building blocks of groups of twos or threes to make up meter, with the bar line going in front of the emphasized first beat. In 4/4 or common time, there are four beats per measure; 'cut time' or 'alla breve' has two; there are dances like waltzes and minuets that are in triple time with three. Once you have a predictable and steady pulse, it's possible to add syncopation and other rhythmic patterns that play off of that pulse.

Here's the "Ode to Joy" section from the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the famous melody of which is in 4/4:

The "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker - The 3/4 meter begins at 1:12 -

And here's the 6/8 meter alternating between different accents in Leonard Bernstein's "America" from West Side Story

Tuesday, January 3

Auspicious BeginningsAs the curtain rises on 2017, here's a little collection of some memorable and auspicious beginnings from the world of classical music...  Works that right from the starting gate hint at the masterpieces that are to follow. 

If you want to see whether you're able to identify what those works are, click and drag over the blank spaces below to reveal the titles.
  1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
  2. Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 
  3. Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 "Classical"
  4. Stravinsky: Petrushka
  5. Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
  6. Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture
  7. Haydn: Symphony 104
  8. Bizet: Carmen Overture
  9. Strauss: Die Fledermaus Overture
  10. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
  11. Dvorak: 'New World' Symphony No. 9
  12. Grieg: Piano Concerto
  13. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
  14. Respighi: The Pines of Rome

Friday, December 23

A-to-Z Table MusicThe term 'Tafelmusik' - which Georg Philipp Telemann used to call his three collections of quartets, trio and solo sonatas and concertos - had been around for about a hundred years, as a way of describing music that was appropriate to accompany a feast or banquet. On this A-to-Z edition, a look at some other Table Music, both figurative and literal.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber wrote a piece called Mensa Sonora, or The Sonorous Table in the 1680s, and it was already understood as a description for chamber works that weren't of a religious nature, which could be either instrumental or vocal.

Fast forward to the more literal recent past, when Belgian composer Thierry de Mey wrote a work for three percussionists to play using an amplified table: 

A work that many attributed to Mozart (including the person who did this manuscript) is written in such a way that two players, across from each other at a table can read from the same score (the piece is also called The Mirror):

Duet on One Sheet of Manuscript Paper

This duo is playing a longer version of the above, but you get the idea... 

Thursday, December 22

Jennifer KohViolinist Jennifer Koh had a great success at the Tchaikovsky International Competition when she was a teenager, including an award for the best performance of his concerto - but for a long time she'd taken a break from that repertoire. On her most recent CD, she plays the Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, with the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and the same conductor from the finals of that long-ago competition, Alexander Vedernikov.

You can find out more about the recording at Jennifer Koh's website.

"I took a break from performing Tchaikovsky in public," Koh explains. "And it was amazing when I came back, it was like, ‘this is so weird, this is really great music, I really love Tchaikovsky!’  I think it’s a surprise to a lot of people that I did this CD, because I’m known for doing super crazy stuff. I don’t think it’s crazy, but I’m used to doing more, let’s say, experimental things." Things like commissioning contemporary composers to write unaccompanied works that could be played in a series called 'Bach and Beyond', and piano sonatas inspired by Beethoven's, for 'Bridge to Beethoven.'  But rediscovering Tchaikovsky inspired her when she and Alexander Vedernikov found themselves performing the concerto twenty years after the competition. "Even though we had developed completely separately musically, and we have changed as human beings, that musical connection through the music of Tchaikovsky was still very present, and that was kind of amazing to me. So we just decided kind of on the spot that we had to record all of the Tchaikovsky works." So in addition to the concerto, there's the Sérénade mélancolique, Valse-Scherzo, and Glazunov's orchestration of Souvenir d'un lieu cher.

Wednesday, December 21

SF Unified School DistrictDonn Harris is the first-ever Executive Director of Creativity and the Arts for the San Francisco Unified School District. He's run two arts schools, and is the chairman of the California Arts Council. He's been brought on to finish a transition that's been planned for a long time: the renovation and construction of their properties in the Civic Center area to house an Arts High School and Arts Center.

Harris says they have great plans for the space they already have: "We have this wonderful block, bordered by Franklin, Van Ness, Fell, and Hayes. Worth about, I believe, 30 million dollars on the market, and we own three buildings on it, and the lot in between, and we want to build it out to be exactly what it should be: the Arts High School at 135 Van Ness." There have been plans in development for a long time, with money approved by voters (although there will be more needed to be raised privately) "My position, if you look at the org chart, is not connected to anything. I’m off to the side, as almost a separate thing. Superintendent Carranza, before he left, made sure I didn’t have too many duties attached to me so I could get this done. This is not an easy thing, to raise that kind of money, sell it to people, get everybody excited, and do it right. And at the same time, meet the needs of the school district. So my real job, the thing that I was hired to do, was to get the school down here, get the institute built, and get the whole arts eco-system up and running." The fact that it will be right in the heart of the Arts district, next to Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House and Herbst Theatre is hugely important. "The artistic energy, the greenhouse effect that you’re going to see when this finally happens is going to be amazing. And for kids, even more amazing. Even with the all the arts agencies down here there isn’t one central spot. This institute that we’re building at 170 Fell, that’s going to be the central spot. The hub."


Tuesday, December 20

Vireo by Lisa BielawaVireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser evolved over the course of 20 years or so, as it changed from a traditional three-act opera into a new episodic streaming-video format that will be premiering this spring. Composer Lisa Bielawa and librettist Erik Ehn met at a workshop in New York City, and began writing a work about a young girl who has visions, and whose story stretches through history. For the past two years they've been filming it scene by scene. 

You can find out more about the production at the Vireo website.

Freed of the confines of the opera house, the production has filmed in a variety of locations (including Alcatraz) and with many guest artists appearing in each episode. The first includes Kronos Quartet, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which Bielawa is the Artistic Director. In the title role is Rowen Sabala, who was 16 when they began, and a student at the Orange County School of the Arts. "What we’re doing is we’re focusing on this very time in young girls’ adolescence," Bielawa says. "Because the story itself is based around teenage girls who had visions (who were around Rowen’s age) who had these sort of visionary experiences over the course of hundreds of years of western history. So it’s definitely an opportunity for us to let that speak through a real girl." This is a new approach to opera, but for all of the technical hurdles, it actually makes some aspects of the performance easier. "If there’s a chorus in an opera, and you’re in an opera house, then the same 24 people or however many... has all these different costumes, and has to function as all these different crowds of people. But if you have a different crowd in every episode, you can actually have a different crowd. It can be a cast of thousands while still being light on its feet. In fact, suddenly it flips it on its head. It makes it easier for it to involve more people than to involve the same people."

Monday, December 19

Music NotationOn an "A to Z" edition of The State of the Arts, a look at musical Notation... which, like any writing, allows one person to transmit an idea to another without having to meet in person. A composer today can, it's true, make a recording, or even Skype into a rehearsal and let the players or conductor know how the performance should go... But the system of notation that's developed since the middle ages means that composer should be able to send a score off knowing it will be performed more or less as intended.

The standard of music notation that we use today is efficient - on a conductor's score, each individual line corresponds to an instrument or section of the orchestra; reading from left to right, you're moving forward in time... and at any point along the way, reading the page vertically will give a snapshot of the harmony being played.

Manuscript of Gregorian ChantThe standards of notation have been slowly refined over the years, although some of the principle ideas are very similar to the time of Gregorian Chants - when musical scores began to have an early "staff", and the direction of melodies were determined by the placement of the noteheads.  The shapes and groupings of the noteheads indicated their duration, and how the pitch would be approached - connected or detached from the note that came before, or with an ornamental melisma. But the text determined the rhythm and phrasing, and since they were sung in unison, dividing the melodies into measures wasn't necessary.

Bach ManuscriptHere's an example of J.S. Bach's handwritten manuscript, using notation that's much more familiar to anyone who's studied music. The staves are joined into a treble and bass grand staff, which is used for keyboard music, although this looks like one of the many Chorales that Bach wrote or reharmonized - which could be either played or sung. There are barlines separating the measures, and each of the four independent voices has a different rhythmic feeling. The melody in the soprano is slow and even, the bassline "walks" at a steady clip, and the tenor  voice has 'dotted' rhythms of long notes followed by short ones, in almost a heartbeat dah - - dit, dah - - dit pattern.

Chopin ScoreThis single measure from Chopin's Nocturne, Opus 2 No.1 trips off the fingers of a well-trained pianist, with a pattern of 22 notes meant to take the same amount of time as the 12 notes in the left hand. By not making the notes line up exactly, he creates a slightly relaxed and rhythmically free feeling (rather than one that tries to exactly work the math out precisely.) 

In Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, he does away with the barlines altogether at times; the piece is fiendishly difficult (but fortunately, it's only for one performer, and not an ensemble that has to stay together!)


Friday, December 16

Aulos EnsembleMusic at Kohl Mansion welcomes the New York-based Aulos Ensemble with soloist soprano Julianne Baird for a Baroque infused Holiday Gala this Sunday evening. Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy says the concert benefits their yearlong program called 'Kohl for Kids' which reaches about 7500 kids in Peninsula schools through concerts and workshops. Earlier in the afternoon, the Young Chamber Musicians program will be presenting a free concert of piano trios and string quartets in the Mansion's library. 

There's more information about the concert at the Music at Kohl Mansion website.

The Aulos Ensemble has become a favorite at Kohl Mansion, This is the third time in a dozen years that they've performed there, in the unique venue, which Moy describes this way: "A hundred-plus-year-old Tudor mansion in Burlingame, and it’s absolutely gorgeously bedecked for the holidays. It’s a beautiful rose-brick building that has quite a history, and it’s been everything from a private home to a convent to a high school, to an event venue to a concert hall. Of course the acoustics at the Kohl Mansion are the draw. And we’ve had every artist, especially the Aulos Ensemble, in fact, tell us that it is the acoustically most pleasing venue for them as artists to work in, because of the sound that comes back to them on the stage." They'll perform works by Rameau, Couperin, Scarlatti, Corrette and Bach, benefitting Kohl for Kids. It will be preceded by a pre-concert talk by musicologist Kai Christiansen, and earlier in the afternoon, the talented artists of their Young Chamber Musicians program will present a free concert of piano trios and string quartets in the Mansion's library.