Tuesday, November 29

Santa Rosa Symphony - Poetic BellsThe Santa Rosa Symphony presents 'Poetic Bells' this Saturday, Sunday, and Monday - with a program that was inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Music Director Bruno Ferrandis says they'll be joined by the Sonoma State University Symphonic Chorus and soloists for the choral symphony The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

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

It wasn't a work that Ferrandis was familiar with, but he wanted to build the concerts around a choral work: "So I met Jeffrey Kahane to have a cup of coffee, and I told him, you know, Jeffrey, I’m looking for an oratorio, I’m looking in the moderns, they are too difficult and the forces are too big. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you do The Bells?’  When I heard the piece, I was flabbergasted. It was such an incredibly emotional whooshing piece, you know, with shadows, and talking about death with the poems of Edgar Allan Poe." (It was written originally with a Russian loose translation of the poem; they'll be performing it in English, translated back to fit Rachmaninoff's phrasing.) Using Poe as a starting point, he looked for other works that would complement the Rachmaninoff. Poe, who was 'father of the detective story' was also a fan of codes and cryptography, so Elgar's Enigma Variations made a nice match. And he remembered that composer Augusta Read Howard had once based an opera on the Poe story 'The Tomb of Ligeia,' and another of her shorter orchestral works was called Prayer Bells, which will start the program.

Monday, November 28

ChanticleerThe end of Thanksgiving means only one thing for fans of Chanticleer: the beginning of their A Chanticleer Christmas tour, which this year has already taken them to performances at Spivey Hall outside of Atlanta, and at Durham, NC over the weekend. William Fred Scott, the ensemble's Music Director, says their return to the Bay Area will be from December 10th to the 23rd.

You can find out more about the area performances at the Chanticleer website.

Scott says the structure of the concerts will continue to carry on their tradition. "There’s a kind of joyous beginning, and then we take ourselves to the manger, and we look around and see who’s there. This is kind of the standard, you look around and you see the shepherds, and you see the blessed virgin Mary, and you see loving Joseph, and then you see the little baby, which is the reason for us being there." There follows folkloric music from a variety of European countries, including a new carol written for them by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, and then an American set, with works by William Billings from the 18th Century, through to contemporary composers like Steven Sametz. The concerts end with traditional carols, and their signature piece, Biebl's 'Ave Maria'. Scott says the tour is always "a lot of singing, a lot of staying in shape, and a lot of joy."

Wednesday, November 23

Sir Simon RattleSir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmoniker are touring the US, and tonight are playing a program of Brahms, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg at Davies Symphony Hall. He says since he began his tenure at Berlin (he'll be leaving in 2018) he's liked to mix the old and new, and this is repertoire that their sound was made for.

There's more information about the concert tonight at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Sir Simon began as principal conductor for the ensemble in 2002, with a concert program of music by Mahler and Thomas Ades, and for this tour, the other program (heard at Davies last night) was Mahler's Seventh and Eclat by Pierre Boulez. "It’s part of what we do. It’s the kind of mixture we do, from Bach and Rameau till yesterday. In fact, we’re only… I mean, the most recent piece is 1965. But they’re almost all pretty radical pieces. Pieces like the Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, together… it’s absolutely at the kind of center of what the orchestra plays, and what their sound is made for. But also it’s wonderful to be able to explore these pieces really in depth, particularly as less and less people are playing that." He says listening to works written by the generation that followed Brahms affects the way you hear his second symphony. "You just end up with your ears more open. You realize how fluid the piece is, but also how much Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, owed to Brahms."  

Tuesday, November 22

Ludwig van BeethovenAnother kind of Thanksgiving, to get us in the mood for the holiday: the beautiful middle movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, which he indicated in the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit" or "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity". It was one of the late quartets, written after he had finished his symphonies, and after he was totally deaf; it was a grateful response to recovering from what he must have assumed was going to be a fatal illness.

The slow sections of this movement, which are like prayerful chorales (and in the Lydian mode - F to F on the white keys of a keyboard, so without the B-flat that one would normally get in an F Major scale) alternate with more lively, dance-like sections in D Major, that are described in the score as "Feeling new strength". It's a look back to the past, in using older forms and scales - and the gratitude that Beethoven is expressing is rolled into an awareness of his mortality - which was all the more acute after recovering from his illness. 

Monday, November 21

A MajorThe key of A Major has been called sincere, confident, and full of hope. In fact, 19th Century musicologist Ernst Pauer said it "excels all the other keys in portraying sincerity of feeling." That may be, but as you can hear in the examples below, it also can be heroic, tender, and light on its feet. How many of them can you identify?

(Click and drag over the white space below to reveal the names of the works)
  1. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
  2. Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
  3. Bizet: Carmen Overture
  4. Chopin: 'Military' Polonaise, Op. 40, no. 1
  5. von Suppe: Light Cavalry Overture
  6. Mozart: 'La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni
  7. Berlioz: 'A Ball' from Symphonie Fantastique
  8. MacDowell: To a Wild Rose
  9. Mendelssohn: Symphony No 4, 'Italian'
  10. Tchaikovsky: Valse from Swan Lake, Act 1
  11. Schubert: 'Trout' Quintet, mvt. 3 (Scherzo)
  12. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 mvt. 4

Friday, November 18

Cirque du Soleil's 'Luzia'The big top of Cirque du Soleil has returned to San Francisco with a show called Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico. With a staging that includes (for the first time in a tent show) a rain curtain, and costumes, designs, and music inspired by Mexico, Luzia will run until the end of January, after which it heads to San Jose. Artistic Director Mark Shaub gives a preview.

There's more information about the show at the Cirque du Soleil website

Shaub says the aim of the show wasn't authenticity, as much as to evoke an impression. "The flavors that we love of Mexico, in the way that we create shows." So while there isn't traditional choreography, there's "the rich heritage and traditions of Mexican art, mythology, colors, music, everything about the culture. Music that is very very strongly influenced by Mexico, a set full of rich colors, costumes that have themes of Mexican folk art in them. All of the set, all of the designs on stage have this kind of folkloric look to them." That, in addition to the physical abilities of the performers. He says his job as Artistic Director is to keep things fresh and allow them to evolve as the show goes through its run. "Because we’re performing them between eight and ten times a week. We’re always trying to make it better, but always at the same time respecting the original concept that the creators had when they created Luzia."

Thursday, November 17

Perpetual MotionOne of the long-held dreams of amateur inventors - like building the proverbial 'better mousetrap' - is to come up with a way to create a machine that powers itself, without ever slowing down or stopping. The quest for Perpetual Motion isn't only limited to devices, though - it's also used as a musical concept, and it's the subject of an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts today... Composers such as Niccolo Paganini and Johann Strauss II have works that seem to go on and on without ever stopping...

Eventually, everything runs out of steam... or energy... or whatever is making it go. The laws of thermodynamics guarantee that. But try telling that to Yehudi Menuhin, who's playing Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" here with (long-suffering) accompanist Adolph Baller:

Or the Vienna Philharmonic playing "Perpetuum Mobile" by Johann Strauss II , conducted by Herbert von Karajan:

Wednesday, November 16

Classical RevolutionClassical Revolution has grown since it began as a group of instrumentalists gathering to play at each other's apartments ten years ago. They've got a regular gig at the Revolution Cafe, and have expanded this season (in honor of the anniversary year) to be able to play orchestral repertoire. They're playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony this Friday night at 7 at Grace Cathedral. Violist and Classical Revolution founder Charith Premawardhana gives the details.

There's more information about the concert at the Classical Revolution website.

"This past year, in celebration of our ten year anniversary," Premawardhana explains, "we’ve been putting all the musicians of our community together to form this Classical Revolution Orchestra. We’ve been performing all nine Beethoven symphonies since February, so we’re now culminating with the ninth, Friday at Grace Cathedral." That concert will also include an appearance by the Musical Art Quintet, a subset of CR players. The ensemble, which has hosted chamber music jams, has a core group of twelve to twenty players, which can expand and shrink as called for by the music. It started out when many of the players were either finishing or just out of music school. "We were getting together to play casually in our living rooms, and things like that. Then we would go play in the BART station for tips, for lunch money. And then we put that into the café setting, and so that’s when we started playing at Revolution Café, and it’s been ten years ago now. Since then we’ve been invited to perform in various venues around San Francisco, including you know, places like Yoshi’s, the DeYoung Museum, and the Legion of Honor." 

Tuesday, November 15

Xochitl and the FlowersThe Hands-on-Opera program of Opera Parallele is premiering another work written for (and including a chorus of) children this week. Xochitl and the Flowers, based on a book by Jorge Argueta, tells the story of a family from El Salvador that moves to the Mission and tries to make a new home there. Roma Olvera, the educational programs director for the ensemble, adapted the bilingual libretto.

The performances, one at 6pm on Thursday, and two on Saturday (11am and 1pm) will be at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. There's more information at the Opera Parallele website

The chorus is made up of kids from Alvorado Elementary school. "Those 44 third graders that are on stage have been speaking Spanish since kindergarten," Roma Olvera says. "And our conductor is bilingual as well, so they switch back and forth between Spanish and English the whole time. We look for a diverse population, because we want our opera company to look like our city, and our world looks. And Alvorado has that demographic. It’s also an immersion program, one of the oldest immersion programs in the city." In the story, the young daughter Xochitl, (the Nahuat word for 'flower') sells flowers in the Mission as her father tries to find a place for them to live. The landlord of a building they want to move into doesn't want them to move in, changing the neighborhood, until his heart is changed by Xochitl. "She looks at the backyard, and she says ‘Don Roberto, there are three things that a garden needs. It needs sunshine, and it needs birds, because birds come for a happy place to live, and it needs snails, because snails travel with their homes on their backs and look for new places to live. And your garden has all three, I know it’s going to work.'" 

Monday, November 14

Aaron CoplandAaron Copland was born on this date in 1900, and went on to write some of the most iconically American works of classical music, evoking the wide open spaces of the prairies, and babbling brooks of Appalachia... A far cry from his Brooklyn roots. With music for the concert hall, ballet and film scores, Copland's sound, with wide intervals and identifiable orchestration have become part of what we think of when we think of "American" works. 

Here are the works in the feature (click and drag over space below to see them)
  1. An Outdoor Overture
  2. Appalachian Spring
  3. Rodeo (Buckaroo Holiday)
  4. Rodeo (Hoedown)
  5. El Salon Mexico
  6. Clarinet Concerto
  7. Our Town
  8. Fanfare for the Common Man
  9. Lincoln Portrait
Copland was both a composer and conductor - and here's an appropriate arrangement he made of "Happy Birthday" for Leonard Bernstein's 70th (conducted here by Seiji Ozawa):

Friday, November 11

Friction Quartet and Jenny Q ChaiThe Friction Quartet and pianist Jenny Q. Chai play two piano quintets for Noe Valley Chamber Music this Sunday afternoon, one by Robert Schumann, and one that's freshly written for them by Andy Akiho. It features a 'prepared' piano (and in one of the movements, the cello as well) with certain strings dampened by a kind of soft putty, which gives a kind of 'muted bell sound.'

There's more information at the Friction Quartet's site, and the website of Noe Valley Chamber Music.

The new work was written with the members of the ensemble in mind: violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz. "Andy got to know us very personally before he started writing the core of the music," Rogers says. "And lots of different parts of the quintet reflect different parts of our personality. For example, Taija requested viola things with rhythmic play. And so Andy starts the piece with this huge viola solo with lots of syncopations and mixed meters, and if you just look at the fractions, It’s 7 over 3 over 2, and you don’t have to know music to know that’s complicated." The two works use the same instruments (or start out using them) but Otis Harriel says the similarity stops there. "Where Schumann’s probably the most classic piano quintet you could possibly play, and everyone is almost playing the entire time, always together, and then you have a piece like this which is for prepared piano, so the sounds are very very different than what you’d expect out of a piano, and for prepared cello. And often we’re playing in duets, or we’re playing alone, solo… It’s a very different texture than the Schumann."

Here's the quartet playing another work by Andy Akiho (with the composer on the steel pan):


Thursday, November 10

Jean SibeliusOn 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...

Wednesday, November 9

A to Z - Quartet and QuintetWhen you say Quartet or Quintet in classical music, you have to be a bit more specific. The most frequent instrumentation for four players in a chamber music setting is probably a string quartet - with a pair of violins, a viola, and a cello. It's a natural combination, because each instrument has a tone that's similar, but the ranges of each allow for the highest highs and lowest lows. It starts getting a bit more complicated when you talk about quintets... 

There are quintets that feature another solo instrument, like piano, or flute, but those really are more like scaled-down concertos, with a quartet sitting in place of the orchestra. When composers keep within one section, they can choose to add another violin, or, as Mozart popularized, another viola: 

Or do as Schubert did in his Quintet D.956 - and have a second cello:

You can also add a double bass to the usual quartet to strengthen its lower register. 

Brass ensembles tend to be made up of five players, as a rule - although it can vary whether they play trumpets or cornets for the top two parts, and flugelhorn, euphonium, French horn and trombone can all be found in the middle - with bass trombone, or most frequently, a tuba providing the support on the bottom. But although each has a slightly different sound, they're all essentially variations within the same brass family. The woodwind quintet, on the other hand, celebrates the differences in its instruments. As seen in the video below of Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet: the flute, which is made of wood or metal and blown across a mouthpiece, the two double-reeds oboe and bassoon with a French horn between - not a woodwind at all, and the single-reed clarinet. Together, despite their differences, they make up a miniature wind section, and blend beautifully, while each line keeps its distinctive timbre:

Tuesday, November 8

Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director candidatesThe Santa Rosa Symphony has announced the five candidates who are in the running to replace Bruno Ferrandis as Music Director, with a video in which they introduce themselves. This is the final full season for Ferrandis (he'll conduct two programs next season, after the candidates have each had a chance to lead the ensemble. 

There's more about the candidates at the Santa Rosa Symphony website.

The candidates are (in the order in which they'll be appearing): Francesco Lecce-Chong, Mei-Ann Chen, Andrew Grams, Graeme Jenkins, and Michael Christie. (Chen led a performance in January of 2016, and Christie the previous January.) They range in age from late 20s (Lecce-Chong) to late 50s (Jenkins), and reflect experience with organizations from Pittsburgh, Dallas, Chicago, Cleveland, and Minneapolis. There's particular opera expertise, with Graeme Jenkins leading Dallas Opera for more than two decades, and Michael Christie currently at the helm of the Minnesota Opera, where he presented the premiere of Kevin Puts' Silent Night in 2011, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Mei-Ann Chen, the lone woman candidate, was born in Taiwan, and last year was named by Musical America as one of 2015's 'Top 30 Influencers'. Andrew Grams played with the New York City Ballet orchestra while still a student at Juilliard, and was assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for three years. Frencesco Lecce-Chong was Associate Conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra before his current position of Assistant Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Here's the video the Santa Rosa Symphony made to introduce them:

Monday, November 7

Aida at San Francisco OperaVerdi's Aida returns to San Francisco Opera in a new production directed by Francesca Zambello, who says in a work that sometimes features onstage elephants, it's important to remember that it's actually "in many ways an intimate opera." The design team includes Los Angeles-based muralist and former graffiti artist Marquis Lewis, also known as RETNA, and runs through December 6th.  

There's more information about the production at the San Francisco Opera website.

Zambella says after staging several productions of Aida, she got to the point where she didn't want to see it again, but has since been wooed back by the depth of its music and story. "Aida is one of those operas, certainly for a director, that often leads to the director’s graveyard. It’s really… You know, it almost is a parody sometimes. But actually, we have to remember that Aida is in many ways an intimate opera. There is one huge scene, which I often think of as ‘the parking lot’ that landed in Memphis (as in Egypt)… and the rest of the opera is really small scenes. It’s two people, three people… So for the director, it’s really how do you create a world where the intimate, the basic storytelling can be told, and as well as also have a scene of spectacle that people are expecting." Part of that was with the visuals: "I decided to work with a very different kind of design team. I had seen the work of the artist Marquis Lewis, also known as RETNA. And his work is often featured in big murals. Very modern contemporary style, but the style uses an ancient hieroglyphic or calligraphy at its base. I thought that felt so much like writing that you would see on a pyramid wall, but also writing that might be contemporary graffiti."

Friday, November 4

Flashmob at Civic CenterA flashmob concert in support of Arts Funding yesterday at the Civic Center brought together musicians and dancers from several of the many arts organizations in favor of Proposition S, a ballot initiative that would call for specific allocations of funds from the city's hotel tax to benefit arts groups and try to prevent homelessness. 

The initiative spells out percentages of the hotel base tax that would go to the Arts Commission, the War Memorial, Grants for the Arts, the Cultural Equity Endowment and the Moscone Center. It would also call for the creation of the Neighborhood Arts Program Fund and the Ending Family Homelessness Fund. From the early 1960s, there had been a mechanism in place to use hotel tax money to help arts groups, but that had been scaled back for several years before all but disappearing a few years ago. Proposition S would not call for any new taxes, but would reallocate existing money that would otherwise go into the general fund. Critics of the measure see that as harming other possible beneficiaries of discretionary spending, but the arts organizations argue that by ensuring steady support, the city would bolster the financial security of culture in San Francisco, which makes it a more appealing travel destination.

Thursday, November 3

Ask the Sky and the EarthThe Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will present Ask The Sky & The Earth, an Oratorio-Cantata for the Sent-Down Youth this Saturday night. It's a musical recollection of the period during Mao's Cultural Revolution, when most of the young people in cities were sent out to the countryside to be 'educated' by rural farmers and workers. Music Director Urs Leonhardt Steiner and soprano soloist Yi Han Triplett (who was one such youth herself) give a preview.

There's more about the concert at the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra and Chorus website.

The piece was written by two other 'sent down youth' - composer Tony Fok, and lyricist Wei Su. Yi Triplett says they successfully evoked the working daily life, and rhythm of those days. "In the beginning, I was just so touched by it," she says. "Because it does talk about our life then, and brings a lot of old memories back. It was very difficult life, and hard work. You come home and every part of your body hurts. But we brought out pots and pans, make rhythms, sing some. Let your steam come out – to have some fun."  Urs Leonhardt Steiner was told about the piece when they were working with a Chinese choir for last season's performance of Beethoven's Ninth. It was going to be on a concert in Frankfort, Germany. "I happened to go to Switzerland and passed by and checked it out, because I was intrigued by the whole concept of the Sent-Down Youth, and the Cultural Revolution; a lot of these people I’m talking to are here with me, and so rarely you get to perform an important emotional moment in people’s lives directly."         

Wednesday, November 2

Masterworks ChoraleThe Masterworks Chorale takes on Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers, in two concerts this weekend in San Mateo. Artistic Director and conductor Bryan Baker says the otherwise unreligious composer managed to capture "the essence of a human quality of spirituality that's just wonderful." The concerts are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at St. Matthew Episcopal Church at 4:00 (remember to set your clocks back).

There's more information about the concerts at the Masterworks Chorale website.

Bryan Baker says you can hear the historical ties to Russian religious music in the Vespers: "These old chants which have a deep connection with the Orthodox tradition. And it does indeed ask the low basses to go down, down, down, until they reach a low B-flat. I think it was Rachmaninoff who said they’re as rare as hens’ teeth, finding those low basses. But we have a few, so it’s really nice. We actually get a nice ground-shaking quality down in the lowest notes in the bass." And they're singing the work (sometimes known as the All-Night Vigil) in Church Slavonic.  "Which is similar to Russian, but different," Baker explains. "And so we have two people in the chorus who are… one’s a long-time Russian teacher, and one’s from Russia. And we’re also getting help from two people who are Russian choral directors, and have worked a lot on the Vespers."

Tuesday, November 1

Mitchell Sardou KleinThe Peninsula Symphony opens its season this weekend with a triple-threat soloist, and a new initiative that shines a spotlight on living women composers. Music Director and conductor Mitchell Sardou Klein says they'll be joined for Schumann's Piano Concerto by Conrad Tao, on a program that also includes works by Carolyn Bremer and Edward Elgar.

There's more about the concerts at the Peninsula Symphony website.

Conrad Tao is hard to label; Mitchell Sardou Klein describes him as an "extraordinary young musician who happens to mostly be a pianist... He’s a composer of really significant accomplishment. He has commissions for major works, he’s a violinist, and then he is this just deliriously fabulous pianist. I heard him with San Francisco Symphony playing the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations about a year and a half ago, and several other Peninsula Symphony folks were in attendance, and we all said ‘we gotta get this guy,’ and fortunately now, we did!" Opening the concerts is Early Light by Carolyn Bremer, which is the first in their 'fortissima' series of works by living women composers. "We’ll have a piece by a living female composer on every program this year, and probably for a long time to come," Klein explains. "It’s a much ignored, unfortunately, segment of the repertoire, and that actually represents an opportunity for us, because there’s a huge amount of very interesting and diverse works there to choose from." And they'll close with Elgar's Enigma Variations, the set of works that depict in music his circle of closest friends. Their images and brief biographical sketches will be displayed as the Peninsula Symphony performs the work.