The latest opera by Jake Heggie and his frequent collaborator, librettist Gene Scheer is Out of Darkness, a commission from the Seattle-based Music of Remembrance. The world premiere will take place in Seattle over the weekend, with two performances in San Francisco at the Conservatory of Music next Wednesday and Thursday nights. It's a reworking, and integration of three Holocaust-themed pieces they'd written into a new full-length opera.
Jake Heggie says the genesis of the new work was when the executive director of Music of Remembrance, Mina Miller contacted him almost ten years ago. "Her organization commissions pieces to commemorate creative voices lost in the Holocaust. Not only Jewish voices, but she wanted to explore lots of other voices that were silenced... She contacted me about writing a piece about the persecution of gays during the Holocaust. I was touched and moved by that and hugely challenged, and we wrote a piece called For a Look or a Touch." It tells the story of Gad Beck, who survived the war, but lost (and was haunted by the loss) his first love, 19-year-old Mannfred Lewin, who died with the rest of his family in Auschwitz. Heggie and Scheer were approached again by Mina Miller, and wrote a monodrama called Another Sunrise, telling the story of Krystyna Zywulska, who was in the camp for political reasons, but chronicled in poetry and lyrics the experiences of her fellow prisoners. Scheer then made a poetic translation of some of Zywulska's texts, which became Farewell, Auschwitz.
"So now we had these three survival pieces, ghost stories, in effect, that existed as separate entities," Heggie says, and they agreed the components cried out to be a single work. "Let’s make two acts, one based on Krystyna’s story, and one based on Gad’s story. But let’s share characters, let’s overlap. So that they are real operas. They are real stage pieces. Where there is interaction. The ghost voices speak. These people have to decide what they’re going to remember, what they’re going to choose to forget." The resulting Out of Darkness, Heggie says, is so much greater than the sum of the three.
Thursday, May 19
A Venetian opera that premiered more than 300 years ago -- and has been hidden away in a library ever since -- gets its second run this weekend, as Ars Minerva presents The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles at the Marines Memorial Theater. Artistic director Céline Ricci says its original production was lavish, with a cast of hundreds including horse-riding armies.
The elaborate first production was to help inaugurate a private theater (which is the subject of the prologue to the work) and as a way of showing off just what was possible and might be expected for operas to come. The story that is told in the opera itself is filled with a Queen and her Amazon warriors, a Sultan and his Moorish army, and the issues of love and war as they play out after the two meet on the titular Fortunate Isles. "It’s a comedy, of course," Ricci says, "But there is a moment of tragi-comedy as well. We can see really that at that time they liked a lot of fast entertainment, which here are translated by short scenes, very different from each other. Some very funny, and suddenly a twist, and something that is sad."
Last year Ars Minerva presented the modern world premiere of La Cleopatra, a 1662 work by Daniele da Castrovillari. The re-discovery of lost musical gems is just the beginning, Ricci says: "As a Baroque singer, it’s really part of my core value to bring back music to life. And to me, it was not only about the music, but it was really a human adventure, bringing back history, anthropology, archaeology, and it’s bringing back a part of us."
Wednesday, May 18
The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra presents its Spring Concert this Sunday afternoon, featuring the winners in two competitions: Simon Han, who will solo in a movement of Vieuxtemps' Fourth Violin Concerto, and Grant Griffin's work Russian Overture, the winner of the Young Composers Competition. Omid Zoufonoun, who conducts the ensemble, says there aren't enough opportunities available to composers who don't have a long resume to write for an orchestra.
This is only the second year of the Young Composers Competition. "There are all these organizations like ours that help train young musicians to play," Zoufonoun explains. "So there’s no shortage of good players. You go to any regional area or any major city or anything, and they’re just littered with really talented, hard-working kids that have been put in private lessons since they were young, and this orchestra’s no exception. But there’s not as much that happens to promote creating music and writing music." As a fine cellist who has played in both this ensemble and now plays in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, Zoufonoun says Grant Griffin is surrounded by high-caliber musicianship, and also aware of what ensembles can handle. "So that gives you a lot of insight into what’s realistic, and what you can get away with writing, and what’s going to bring the most out of the players... You want to challenge everyone, you want to write cool, fun parts to everyone, you want to make the piece sort of take advantage of the different sections of the orchestra, and at the same time the last thing you want is for it to fall apart in performance cause it’s unplayable, or to just have angry musicians cause you wrote something that’s awkward."
Tuesday, May 17
On an A-to-Z edition of "The State of the Arts", it's three 3 "G" instruments that are slightly off the beaten track - Gamba, Gamelan and Glass Harmonica. Early music fans know the viola da gamba: played between the legs (gamba is Italian for 'leg') like a cello, it differs by having frets on the fingerboard, more strings, and a different shape, including a broader neck. It was especially popular in England, where it was known as a 'bass viol' - and where it was fairly common to find matched sets of instruments, or 'consorts of viols' that could be taken out to provide ready entertainment for company.
Gamelan is really a shorthand to describe a gamelan ensemble, a group of traditional Indonesian instruments, played by multiple players, consisting of gongs, metallophones and drums. The exotic sounds and scales, along with their complicated cyclical patterns appealed to Western composers such as Debussy and Satie, when they first heard the music, at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Bay Area composer Lou Harrison is among the best known composers of recent times to write for an American variant of the gamelan. Here's an idea of what a traditional gamelan ensemble looks and sounds like:
Finally, the glass harmonica or armonica, the name Ben Franklin gave his invention, is a more practical arrangement for allowing a player to rub moistened fingers along the edges of tuned glasses or in this case, bowls of fine crystal. Here, you can see a glass harmonica player in action (in Ben Franklin garb):
Monday, May 16
It's that time again - your chance to sing the national anthem at AT&T Field, before the "Opera at the Ballpark" simulcast of Bizet's Carmen on Saturday, July 2nd. KDFC's Star Spangled Sing-Off video submissions can be uploaded here, where you can find complete rules. The deadline is this Sunday, the 22nd at 11:59 pm (Pacific) By way of inspiration, here's a selection of some of the contestants from previous Sing-Off competitions.
This Sunday afternoon, the Mission Chamber Orchestra of San Jose and soloist Jon Nakamatsu give the world premiere of a piano concerto by Lee Actor, and are joined by the San Jose Symphonic Choir for Beethoven's Ninth, and 'A Song For Our Planet' by Henry Mollicone. Conductor Emily Ray founded the Mission Chamber Orchestra twenty years ago, as an ensemble that would be dedicated to more serious playing than many community orchestras.
The programming of the concert grew outward from the new concerto. "We wanted to do something special for our 20th anniversary," Emily Ray says, "and we had in the past commissioned Lee Actor to write some pieces for us. I think we’ve only commissioned him to write concertos for us, but he wrote them for chamber orchestra. I approached him with the possibility of writing a piano concerto, because I love working with Jon Nakamatsu." In his symphonic works, composer Lee Actor likes to make use of a larger woodwind, brass and percussion sections, and hoped to do the same in this new concerto. Knowing a bigger ensemble would mean performing in a bigger venue, Ray contacted the San Jose Symphonic Choir. "I talked to Leroy Kromm, their director a year or so ago, and told him what I had in mind, and he mentioned that it was going to be Henry Mollicone’s 70th birthday, and he would like to do Song for Our Planet, and since we have the choir, why not do Beethoven’s Ninth?"
The concert, 'Joy from Planet Earth to the Firmament' is at 3 pm at the California Theatre, with a pre-concert lecture featuring both Henry Mollicone and Lee Actor beginning an hour before.
Thursday, May 12
The San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Juraj Valcuha present a program with four 20th Century works that share the themes of drama and romance... One by Prokofiev, two by Richard Strauss, and one that shows his influence by Anton Webern. The Slovakian-born conductor is making his third appearance with the orchestra. The first performance will be this afternoon at 2:00, followed by concerts Friday and Saturday nights.
"It's a very operatic program," Valcuha explains. "As you can see, with two suites from operas… one from Rosenkavalier, one from Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, which is absolutely marvelous music, very very difficult, very demanding, very virtuoso music. Don Juan was a very operatic character. And Im Sommerwind, it’s something in between... You can feel that Webern tries to tell something because it’s a symphonic poem written on a pre-existing poem. There is a text behind it. This connection to the text, the voice, and to the stage, you can find it in all four pieces." Valcuha says Strauss straddled some of the major changes in music at the beginning of the last century; although he was ahead of his time (he wrote Don Juan at age 24), and his operas were very modern, he had an attachment to what came before. "You can really feel with Elektra, with Salome that he was an avant-garde, he was a contemporary composer. Of course, after 1913, after Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg and Webern, his Four Last Songs really sounds like the end of a world, of his world, of some kind of music. He lived before the 20th Century, and after… There was some evolution in his way of composing. But it really… it was more rooted in the 19th Century."
Wednesday, May 11
The Contra Costa Chorale is celebrating their 50th anniversary this season, and this weekend they're giving two performances that include the work that was on their first ever concert, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass. Director Cindy Beitmen will welcome to the podium the founder of the group when it began as the Richmond Symphony Chorus, Joseph Liebling for 'In Praise of Music.'
Cindy Beitmen, who's led the choir for four years, says the milestone presented them an opportunity: "Because the Chorale is celebrating its 50th anniversary, we thought we’d go back to the very first concert that the Chorale performed, and that was almost 50 years ago, they were actually founded in the fall of 1966, then known as the Richmond Symphony Chorus. Their first performance was in the spring of 1967. And they performed the Haydn Mass, the Lord Nelson Mass, and we thought, well, wouldn’t that be great to sort of reprise that for this concert, 50 years later?” They're going to be led in the first four movements of the Mass by the group's first conductor, Joseph Liebling. The remainder of the program is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, and a newly commissioned work by composer Stephen Main called Where Everything is Music, setting texts by the poet Rumi. The concert Saturday night is in Kensington, and Sunday at 5:00, in Walnut Creek.
Tuesday, May 10
This weekend marks the re-opening of SFMOMA, after three years of construction. There's almost three times the gallery space as the former building, which allows more of the permanent collection to be on display, as well as many of the works they've recently aquired through the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and their Campaign for Art. Museum Director Neal Benezra says they want SFMOMA to "mean more to more people" than ever before, with more art, and more accessibility.
They need the extra gallery space, since their collection has grown considerably since they moved to their SOMA location in 1995. "The cornerstone of any museum is its collection, and its exhibition program," says Neal Benezra. "And in 1995, SFMOMA had a good collection, of approximately 12,000 works. Today that collection has grown in number to 33,000, but more importantly it has grown immeasurably in quality." That's due to several initiatives, but mostly the partnership they've established with the Fisher family, whose Doris and Donald Fisher Collection of 1,100 works are going to be part of SFMOMA for a minimum of a hundred years. Another 3,000 works have been committed to the museum as part of their Campaign for Art, by collectors and artists.
"We open with no fewer than 19 separate exhibitions, totaling 1,900 works of art on view. 270 of them from the Fisher Collection, 650 from the collection campaign, and the remaining 990 from the museum’s standing collection. With the addition of the Fisher Collection, and works committed through our Campaign for Art, SFMOMA can now offer all who visit an immersive foundation in the history of contemporary work. We’ve nearly tripled our gallery space, giving expanded presence to all of our collecting departments, and almost an entire third floor dedicated to photography." And more people will be able to explore the collection, with visitors 18 and under admitted free, and the first two floors of SFMOMA publicly accessible.
Monday, May 9
Philippe Jaroussky, the famed French countertenor, is known for singing the repertoire written for castrati in the Baroque era; but this Thursday night, he'll be singing repertoire from the late 19th and 20th centuries, settings of the poems of Paul Verlaine. The composers, several of whom set the same texts, include Debussy, Faure, Hahn, Chausson, Chabrier and Saint-Saens. Cal Performances presents the recital at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley.
Jaroussky began his musical studies with another instrument: "Curiously, I didn't sing when I was a boy. I started with the violin. And it's probably because of this instrument, it's quite high. Maybe [if] I will be a bass player, maybe I wouldn't ever become a countertenor... I didn't want to sing with another voice. For me, it was quite obvious that if I had to sing, it will be in this head voice, this high register. For me it has always been something quite natural. Because I had pleasure to sing high, It was giving me a sort of excitement. I was feeling more alive." His career began when he was still quite young, with concert engagements at age 20 or 21. From then both the repertoire and schedule were grueling, until he took a break a few years ago. "I decided to stop to sing during eight months, to make a sort of sabbatical. It was also to finally find back the pleasure I had when I was starting to sing... When you sing a lot, quite difficult stuff, like the Baroque music, and the arias written for castrati, you try to do it, but you know that you can do better. And sometimes even the nerves, the muscles, they are used to working a certain way, becoming a reflex, and then if you want to change it, I think it's good to stop for a while, and after you can build again your technique." He's also taking his repertoire in new directions - while still releasing CDs and performing Baroque roles, last year he released a recording of the Verlaine songs as well.
Friday, May 6
Music@Menlo's 'Winter Series' wraps up this weekend, with artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel joined by their longtime collaborator, Philip Setzer, for a performance of three piano trios. They've all played together for decades, and began to play the trio repertoire while Finckel and Setzer were members of the Emerson String Quartet together.
The 'Winter Series' concerts have a bit more latitude, David Finckel says, to be free-standing performances that don't need to follow a particular theme or thread: "Our summer festival is extremely context driven. Every festival has a title, this coming summer’s festival is all about Russia, and its music, and its music’s relation to music of the West. But these concerts in the Winter are stand-alones contextually, and we hope that people find them an interesting way to keep in touch with the festival, keep in touch with music and chamber music, without the broad context of the summer themes." This concert will begin with a trio by the composer who was the father of the form, Haydn - one of his very last; the c-minor trio of Mendelssohn follows, with movements that are reminiscent of his Songs without Words and Midsummer Night's Dream; and ends with a work that Brahms began as a young man, and revised 35 years later, "turning what was a great youthful inspiration into a really mature masterpiece."
Thursday, May 5
Guitarist Jason Vieaux can play comfortably in a wide range of styles: tango music with bandoneon, new music, transcriptions of Pat Metheny, solo Bach; but in Dan Visconti's new concerto, called Living Language, he'll be playing his classical guitar with some of the techniques a blues-playing electric guitarist might. He'll be giving the world premiere performances Friday and Sunday with Donato Cabrera and the California Symphony, in Yountville and Walnut Creek.
Jason Vieaux has played Dan Visconti's solo work, called Devil's Strum for a few years now, and it also borrows the gestures of the blues, which is one of the few styles of guitar playing Vieaux didn't have 'official' training in... "I’ve always goofed around… you know, all your basic blues licks that you’d hear on Pink Floyd records, really. You grow up hearing that music and the Stones and that sort of thing, I mean, they’re basically playing a blues language. As a guitar player, if you’re listening to that music and as a kid you’re kind of goofing around and mimicking that stuff, you kind of know what it’s doing." Along with playing blues scales, he'll be bending notes in a way that's never done in classical repertoire. "An electric guitar, you can push the string up like about a half inch and you get a pretty wide pitch bend. On a classical guitar, you practically have to pull it off of the neck in the opposite direction." He'll be using special strings for the concerts.
His tastes and abilities have blurred the line between genres - Shortly after Prince died, Vieaux posted this musical tribute, arranging five songs:
Wednesday, May 4
New Century Chamber Orchestra is dancing its way to the end of this season, with four performances of 'Delight in Dancing' - that includes a world premiere by composer Jennifer Higdon called Dance Card, which she describes as "not your normal, typical, orthodox dance." Performances are Thursday through Sunday in Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Rafael.
Higdon's suite is made up of five movements: Raucous Rumpus (a fanfare); Breeze Serenade; Jumble Dance (which she describes as people hanging on for their dear life while dancing); Celestial Blue; and Machina Rockus. "My music doesn’t really follow along the standard kind of dance forms," she explains. "So I thought, well, what if you had a bunch of crazy dances, but also some slow-moving kind of contemplative... so I guess these are unorthodox dances...There’s not any kind of standard foot pattern, and I am always changing the meter. That’s the thing – it’s a dance that’s a little uncertain. But it’s also a dance about the joy of the string sound." While NCCO has played her music before, this is the first work they've commissioned from her. "One of the things I love about New Century, it just sounds like they’re having such a good time. I wanted to celebrate that, so this is kind of a… I don’t want to say it’s an out of control dance, but it’s kind of a joyous dance."
Jennifer Higdon had been writing her first opera, Cold Mountain right before she tackled this work, and enjoyed the freedom of not being bound by a libretto: "It felt kind of nice to exercise my… I don’t know, my musical muscles that weren’t following a character around on a stage… So there was something kind of joyous about that, kind of uplifting."
Tuesday, May 3
The Cypress String Quartet has been playing Beethoven's 16 quartets since it formed 20 years ago. In what was originally planned as a way of celebrating that anniversary, and the completion of their recordings of all those works, they're going to be presenting 'Beethoven in the City' - 16 free concerts beginning tomorrow. But since those plans began, they've decided that this will be the final season for the ensemble, so cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says it's also a hometown farewell tour.
Each of the 11 Districts of San Francisco will have at least one concert, and five will have two. Jennifer Kloetzel says at first they were thinking of having a larger scale tour with a Beethoven cycle, but then decided, "We live in San Francisco, we’ve lived and worked and been based here for 20 years. Let’s do them all in the city." And wanting to be complete as possible, they mapped out the places (many of them outdoors) where they wanted to play. "For years I’ve had people telling me they can’t ever get to our concerts because they’re too far away… well, now there’s going to be one in your neighborhood! Or they’re too expensive, or, you know, just not in their budget right now, well, they’re free! So it’s giving pretty much everybody an opportunity to hear us if they want to."
They're starting tomorrow at St. Anthony's Dining Room, in the Tenderloin, playing the first Quartet of Beethoven's opus 18, the first of the 'early' quartets to be published. Then the order doesn't progress chronologically (the Cypresses released their set of CDs of his late quartets first, then the middle ones, and are only now releasing their discs of opus 18.) Preparing this much music is a daunting task: "Doing a Beethoven cycle is like training for a marathon… I mean, you have to train in that way. We did our first cycle in Europe last fall, and it was… for months ahead of time we were preparing. Because it’s a lot of music. I think it’s like 7 and a half hours of music total, and we’ve given ourselves the added challenge here of being outside for most of them."
Monday, May 2
Lera Auerbach is at least a triple threat - she's a concert pianist, highly sought after composer, and she also has written several collections of poetry and prose in her native Russian (and one in English, Excess of Being). One of the challenges of being both a performer and creater is figuring out how to do both - and sometimes that means working while others are asleep.
Other pianists, on tour, generally are thinking about the upcoming venue, and what repertoire they're playing. But Auerbach is usually facing composing deadlines too. "So after a full day of rehearsing, practicing, I also have to work on the new pieces," she says. "So I often stay way into the night and compose after the day of rehearsals and concerts." When possible, she arranges her schedule so that the time of the most concentrated composing is happening when she's not performing, and then she takes advantage of the night time. "When I'm in my writing period, usually what happens is the day and night switch completely. I wake up in the evening. I sleep through the day, wake up in the evening, I work through the evening, through the night, morning, go to sleep at midday. It's helping switch day and night, because there is a certain quietness in the night, and privacy, and feeling of concentration that the day doesn't allow for."
Her output has been considerable - with pieces for solo piano, sonatas for violin and cello, large scale symphonic and choral works, ballet (her Little Mermaid had its US premiere in 2005 at the San Francisco Ballet) and opera: Gogol was based on a stage play that she also wrote. But she still writes her music, at least to begin with, the old-fashioned way. "I do write by hand. Originally all my sketches are by hand. It's actually the same with literature. I write everything by hand. And it's something about the hand and mind coordination for me which is very seamless. It's almost like I don't notice the process itself."