Staging two works as one in performances at the end of the week, Opera Parallèle combines Kurt Weill's Mahogonny-Songspiel with Francis Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Music Director Nicole Paiement explains the structure of the adaptation, which will be performed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Mahogonny-Songspiel is a sort of hybrid form, with songs (in German, and two in English) connected by instrumental interludes. "The Weill was called a 'dramatic cantata,' it wasn't really a true opera," Paiement explains. "They were experimenting in developing an opera basically, and that's why it works so well to have it as an overture to a true opera." It serves as a framing device, with the six characters in the Weill as a company of performers travelling through the desert, looking for an audience, and when they find one, they present Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tirésias). Poulenc based the opera on a surrealist play by Guillaume Apollinaire, with a plot that takes on gender and social issues in an unexpected way: Tirésias is a woman who decides she's going to become a man, and bring about gender equality. Meanwhile, her husband takes on the child-rearing, giving birth to more than forty-thousand babies in one day.
"Poulenc, he only wrote three operas," Paiement says. "I think it's too bad that he didn't write more, because he's such a good opera composer! This piece is all of what you expect of Poulenc: it has the lush melodies, it has the rich harmonies that are sort of jazzy, and there's a lot of humor. But then there are moments of profound thought. So it's all of Poulenc in 55 minutes. It's a great gem."
Nicole Paiement and Director Brian Staufenbiel give a preview:
Friday, April 18
The new exhibit, "Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records" at the Oakland Museum of California concentrates on more than just music, and is immersed in the community of record enthusiasts - kicking off the show (which officially opens tomorrow, to coincide with Record Store Day) with a sneak peek combined with a Record Swap tonight.
The exhibit was organized by Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman, who says their interest in creating a show like this was fueled by both national trends in the continuing popularity of vinyl, but also because the community of collectors mirrors our digital habits in a more down-to-earth way. "We realized that this was more than just a music story," he says. "This was something that was really broadly relevant to our times. The growth of technology and information is about search and social. Search: trying to find out about the world, and Social: about getting together with people. So these things that we seek in records is what we seek in general right now." He says social media sites like Spotify and Facebook try to recreate the experience of discovery and sharing new finds with friends that used to happen in record stores and around turntables.
There are a lot of events that will run in tandem with the exhibit, which is on through July 27th, including workshops and audience participation - beginning with the Record Swap tonight. An installation that requires audience involvement is this work (below) by MacArthur "genius" grant winner Walter Kitundu, which is a hand-cranked sculpture that both moves the bird into a recreation of flight - and also powers the record player built into it. Kitundu says it's built out of "square wooden dowels, glue, and time and patience." And he likes the combination of physicality and feedback it gives. "You get to really feel and see and hear the results of the physical energy that you're putting into the piece, and you get rewarded by the movement of the bird, and by the sound that you get back."
Thursday, April 17
Tonight at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, pianist Jeffrey Siegel presents another in his series of 'Keyboard Conversations' - with the name "Russian Rapture," featuring music by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. His concerts are meant to break the wall between performer and audience, with introductions to each of the (complete) pieces he plays.
Jeffrey Siegel gives these presentations around the country regularly in about 20 cities; he was inspired to start after he was approached by an audience member after a concert many years ago. "[She] came up to me and said, 'You know, I hear the orchestra every week, and I listen to the radio station constantly, and I have a large collection of recordings, but I wish my listening experience could be more meaningful and more enriching than the music going in one ear and out the other...' What she called an ear-wash of sound." On the other hand, there were also people who would regularly tell him how much they wished they knew anything about Classical music, but didn't have a way in. Over the years, he's tried to shape the performances so they'll reach both audiences - the avid fan, as well as the complete novice.
He introduces each piece first, often with musical illustrations - putting it in context for the audience, in relation to the other pieces on the program, or what was happening in the composer's life at the time it was written. "And then when I sit down to play the piece straight through, I have the feeling that the listener is actively listening, rather than passively. And they're getting more out of the music, and it's more accessible, and this is the great joy for the performing artist, and I hope it is for the listeners as well." Here's Siegel, with a little tidbit about one of Beethoven's well-known works:
Wednesday, April 16
Decca has recently released a 15-disc box set called: Herbert Blomstedt: The San Francisco Years, reissues of recordings he made with the San Francisco Symphony when he led them between 1985 and 1995. The Conductor Laureate was back in town recently to take the podium again (you can stream that concert by going to our On Demand page) and spoke about the collection.
During his ten years as conductor here, Blomstedt recorded much more than his predecessors had, including works of composers that the Symphony was less familiar with, like Franz Berwald and Carl Nielsen. "I have very fond memories of what the orchestra did... they were an amazing group of people," he says. "Much of this music was new to them, as in the case of Nielsen, for instance. And it was just a marvel. Music they never had heard, or had never had any idea about it, sounded fresh and relevant." Here's the lineup of the discs:
Bartok: Kossuth (Symphonic poem); Concerto for Orchestra
Nielsen: Symphony No. 2 "The Four Temperaments"; Symphony No. 3 "Sinfonia Espansiva"
Orff: Carmina Burana
Schubert: Overture in C Major "In the Italian Style"; Symphony No. 9 "Great"
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 7; Tapiola
Strauss: Don Juan; An Alpine Symphony
Tuesday, April 15
Stanford's Cantor Arts Center has just opened an exhibit that combines sculpture with the study of anatomy - building on the idea of hand surgeon and professor Dr. James Chang, and a class he's taught inspired by their Rodin Sculpture Garden. He noticed that many of the sculpted hands had diagnosable medical problems, and has used them as case studies for his class "Surgical Anatomy of the Hand, from Rodin to Reconstruction."
Dr. Chang says he spent a lot of time with his family at the Cantor Center's Rodin Sculpture Gallery when he was a surgery resident at Stanford, and noticed the similarities between the hand problems he saw in the bronzes and the patients whose cases he was getting to know. "Some of them have a ganglion or a growth here, or are curved in a specific way that really mimic exactly the patients I was operating on." He continued to come back to the bronzes when he had students of his own: "I would tell my surgical trainees that this is a patient with fingers in a scissoring position, where the fingers would overlap, and that's because the patient had metacarpal fractures."
He eventually began to teach a course (designed to cross-pollinate between the medical and non-medical students) that would use the sculptures in the Cantor, along with real-world exposure to the 3-dimensional anatomy of cadaver arms. The class inspired this exhibit: "Inside Rodin's Hands: Art, Technology, and Surgery" - which uses technology (computer renderings from actual scans of some of the Rodins) to allow students and museum attendees alike to see the inner anatomy that's suggested by the poses, bumps and shapes of the hands. The exhibit runs through the beginning of August.
Monday, April 14
Aurora Theatre's production of Wittenberg by David Davalos imagines Hamlet as a college student (unable to decide on a major), with a couple of impressive teachers: Dr. Faustus and Martin Luther. Director Josh Costello gives a preview of the play, making its Bay Area premiere and running until May 11th.
Much like Tom Stoppard's play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Wittenberg came about because David Davalos was immersed in Hamlet. "The playwright was playing Rosenkrantz in a production of Hamlet," Josh Costello says, "which means you have a lot of time backstage to listen to the play, and one of the things that he started thinking about was Wittenberg." The German university where the young prince is studying when he learns of his father's death was a pivotal location, according to Costello. "Wittenberg to an Elizabethan audience, to Shakespeare's original audience, would have sort of been like UC Berkeley to an audience in the 1960s. It's a place of learning, and a place of expansive knowledge and free speech and new ideas."
The church there was also where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, which launched the Protestant movement... And the University was the setting for the Faust story, in which the scholar sells his soul to the devil for complete knowledge of the world. So the overlapping setting proved irresistible to the playwright: "We have Hamlet as an undergraduate, entering his senior year at Wittenberg. His two professors are Martin Luther, professor of theology, and Dr. Faustus, his professor of philosophy. Hamlet is unable to decide on a major, and both of them are trying to get Hamlet to come around to their way of looking at the world."
Friday, April 11
The 1971 opera Postcard From Morocco by Dominick Argento is now being presented at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in a first-ever co-production with a professional company... namely, Portland Opera. Curt Pajer, who heads the opera program at SFCM had been trying to bring director Kevin Newbury to the school to collaborate on a project, and Postcard happened to be scheduled in Portland at just the right time to allow it to happen.
Pajer says he wanted to bring Newbury to town to work with his students since he's been on faculty. "At first it didn't look too promising, because he's very busy, and he really only had these two and a half weeks free, but once we started talking about the possibility of a co-production with Portland, everything fell into place, and here we are." That means the sets, costumes, and plan for the production will be the same as it was just staged at Portland Opera. Kevin Newbury called the timing serendipitous, because it happens to be a great piece for young singers, with seven characters (there are two casts for the Conservatory performances) and a pit orchestra of eight players that Pajer is leading.
In the original staging, Argento called for puppets and cardboard cutouts, and for singers to play multiple roles, but Newbury's version is more stripped-down. He describes the synopsis this way: "A kind of existential story, very Beckett-like, Waiting for Godot or Endgame, where you have all these characters in a train station waiting room, waiting for something to happen. And all seven characters have a very complete journey - they're all on stage for the whole time, so it's a very ensemble-based storytelling." And Pajer says it's a true ensemble piece for the pit musicians too (solo strings, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, piano and percussion) too: "The music is fascinating, because it's a mixture of so many different styles. The mezzo-soprano sings a jazz number, there's a march for the baritone and the bass-baritone, an operetta duet for the tenor and the soprano, and the centerpiece of the opera is a vaudeville number that's only instrumental...Argento weaves in melodies from several Wagner operas. So it's a little something for everybody."
Monday, April 7
Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili has played in concerto performances with the Symphony, but this weekend she'll have her recital debut through Chamber Music San Francisco at Marines Memorial Theatre on Saturday night, and the next evening she'll be at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose for a Steinway Society concert. Along with Liszt and Chopin, there will be Stravinsky and Ravel on the program.
She says she chose the Liszt and Chopin for her program because they've been a part of her repertoire since her early days: "Since I started to play my first recitals and my first concerts. It means my first touch with stage was related to these composers. So first of all I had more time to realize why they're so important to me, and secondly, they're simply interesting because they're from the Romanticism period, when individualism started to be very important for composers." The distinct styles of Chopin (she'll play his Sonata number 2) and Liszt (his B minor Sonata) come alive in their music, regardless of what preconceptions people might have. "People usually like to classify them in some kind of frames: like Liszt is more virtuoso, Chopin is more Romantic and intimate and so on... Bit I think it's actually through music that you can discover, because through music you can find your own connection with the composer."
She says each of the pieces that she's playing tells a story - there's also the Ravel La Valse and Stravinsky's Petrushka - and shows a different side of her playing. The Georgian pianist says she feels especially comfortable with Liszt, though. "Liszt is a composer where I completely can be just myself. It just allows me to be natural in the way of virtuosity or phrasing, or musical thinking." Here's a sample of her playing a Liszt arrangement of the Schubert lieder Ständchen:
Friday, April 4
The final concert in Marin Symphony's Masterworks series, called "Sacred and Secular," brings together a pair of works for large forces that includes choir and soloists. Music Director Alasdair Neale says Carl Orff's Carmina Burana and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms make a nice pairing, despite the fact that in some ways they're polar opposites.
There's more information about the concerts, which are this Sunday afternoon at 3 and Tuesday at 7:30 at the Marin Symphony website.
Carl Orff's sprawling Carmina Burana is probably best known for its opening and closing moments - the 'O Fortuna' - with a relentless repeated motive sung by the choir in almost a whisper, and then growing into a full-voiced fortissimo. "Everybody knows how Carmina goes... at least how it starts," says Neale. "Everybody knows that one because it's in every action movie that you've ever seen, and every car commercial probably at some point. But the Bernstein, which dates from the mid 1960s, when he was on sabbatical from the New York Philharmonic, really devoting himself to composition, is a beautiful piece." A beautiful piece that's not so well known.
"It's a really lovely piece, and provides the perfect foil to the Orff. Orff is actually kind of a hard piece to program. It in itself is easy to program, but you have to do something else, and finding the right match with it is not always easy. But I think in this case we've got an interesting combination." They'll be joined by the Marin Symphony Chorus for the performances, along with soloists Brian Asawa, Nikki Einfeld, and Eugene Brancoveanu.
Tuesday, April 1
An April Fool's Day look at some of the ways that humor has been used in Classical music over the years, by both composers and performers. Some might imagine the world of the great masters to be too serious to 'let their hair down,' but there's plenty of that going on in the concert hall.
The composer who probably has the greatest reputation for having a sense of humor is Haydn - who played games with the expectations of an educated audience in such works as his "Joke" quartet, which doesn't seem to know just when it's ending, And there was the "Farewell" Symphony, in which, to prove a point about the musicians of the orchestra being rather overworked, ends with a slow reduction in the number of players down to just two violins - originally played by Haydn and the concertmaster at the Esterhazy Court. And if that's too subtle, there's the jarring "Surprise" of his Symphony No. 94's second movement.
Mozart's "A Musical Joke" pokes fun at some of the habits of lazy composers, and horn players who, although well-meaning, have perhaps put the wrong crook, or length of tubing into their instruments, putting them in the wrong key. (You can hear that in the recording below at 5:07 and elsewhere!)