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!)
Monday, March 31
The end of March and beginning of April mark the birthdays of two major composers: Haydn's is today — his 282nd — and tomorrow would have been Sergei Rachmaninoff's 141st. To honor both of them, and share the spotlight, here's a little mashup of some of their works...
And here are the pieces that went into it (click and drag over list to see them):
Haydn: “London” Symphony #104, mvt. 1
Rachmaninoff: Symphony #2, mvt. 3
Haydn: “London” Symphony #104, mvt. 4
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3, mvt. 1
Haydn: “La Reine” Symphony #85, mvt. 3
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #2, mvt. 1
Haydn: “The Joke” String Quartet Op.33 no. 2 mvt. 4 (just one phrase)
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto, mvt. 3
Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C# minor
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Haydn: “Surprise” Symphony #94
Friday, March 28
San Francisco Ballet presents programs five and six in its repertory season next week, with an all-evening tribute to Shostakovich, and a trio of works that are 20 years old, one year old, and brand new. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, whose Caprice is premiering, says it's always tricky planning a season with never-before-seen works. Even when they're one's own.
Shostakovich Trilogy is a co-production with American Ballet Theatre, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky (who's in residence at ABT). "It's loosely based on the life of Shostakovich," explains Tomasson. "It's not a story ballet in the traditional sense, but it gives us a feeling of Shostakovich's life through those three works." Namely, his Symphony No. 9, Chamber Symphony, and first Piano Concerto. This will be the West Coast premiere - it had a run in New York in 2013.
The other program has Tomasson's Caprice, a return of last year's Rite of Spring (as choreographed by Yuri Possokhov), and Mark Morris's Maelstrom, which was his first of many collaborations with the company, first performed in 1994. Caprice will use music from Saint-Säens' second and third symphonies (the organ part rescored for winds). The creation of the work follows an interesting timetable: it's slotted into a program before it exists, is choreographed during the Summer and Fall, and then tucked away. "Because once we get into the season, after Nutcracker, there is no time to create anything," Tomasson says. "I did my work in the Fall, so it's already there, on a DVD disc, to bring it back just before we have to perform it."
Shostakovich Trilogy opens on Wednesday, and The Possokhov/Morris/Tomasson program begins its run a week from tonight.
Thursday, March 27
The San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Chorus School are presenting the Benjamin Britten opera Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood) this Saturday. 350 girls will be singing — with the younger students representing all manner of animals — joined by soloists and a chamber orchestra. Music Director and Conductor Valérie Sainte-Agathe says it's accessible for both audience and performers by design.
The piece, which despite its Medieval spelling and inspiration only dates from 1958, was written by Benjamin Britten to be sung by children with varying degrees of training and singing experience. "We have 350 girls, from seven years old to seventeen, and they're all part of the Chorus School, so we have different levels - and each of them is singing a kind of animal," Sainte-Agathe says. "The little ones, the seven-year-olds, it's just really new for them. They're part of the animals, and you have the oldest group, Chorissima, who can have solo parts, much more difficult. And that's great with Britten because he's not saying 'well, they're kids so we're going to write easy music.' No, you have those tricky intervals and they have to sing it!"
The soloists are Joe Damon Chappel (Noye); Silvie Jensen (Mrs. Noye); and Carey Perloff, herself Artistic Director of A.C.T. as the Voice of God. The orchestra, which includes strings, percussion, two pianists on one piano, and brass and wind instruments, creates the sounds of the coming flood, and a trilling recorder imitates the dove that returns to the ark with an olive branch. The model for the opera was the mystery plays of old, in which Bible stories were told simply and clearly, and were truly interactive for the audience. "Everybody could participate," Sainte-Agathe explains, "It was something very popular. So it's an opera, you have recitative, you have arias, wonderful arias and choral parts - but it's also something accessible to everybody. As an audience, but also as a performer." In that spirit, Britten included three hymns that would be familiar to the audience that they're invited to join in on.
Wednesday, March 26
The Fremont Symphony Orchestra presents another concert this Sunday evening, as their 50th anniversary season continues with 'A Celebration of Fremont.' Music Director Gregory Van Sudmeier says the program pays tribute to the history of the area, and also looks to the future, with a young cello soloist, and a montage of original works by area students arranged by a professional orchestrator.
The ensemble began as a community orchestra, but it's grown into a fully professional group with union players. Music Director Gregory Van Sudmeier says the programming for the concert pays tribute to a few of the area's early claims to fame, which might not be so well known today: as a home to lots of silent movies, and one of the last legs of the Intercontinental railroad. In fact the concert will start with pianist Jon Mirsalis improvising an accompaniment to one of the "Broncho Billy" movies that were made by Essanay Film Company in Niles. "There were hundreds, hundreds of Broncho Billy, and a few Charlie Chaplin films, filmed right in Niles Canyon - so the whole budding world of film came to life right here in this area!" And the Eduard Strauss polka "Bahn Frei" means appropriately enough "Clear the Track!" - the scenic beauty of the train tracks was part of the movie-making draw. Young soloist Connor Kim plays Dvorak's Cello Concerto with the orchestra, and a pair of dancers from Diablo Ballet will join them for a duet during a full-length performance of the ballet version of Copland's Billy the Kid.
Budding filmmakers and film composers from this generation will also be featured, in a multimedia show that starts the second half of the concert, called Musical Visions. "A couple of years ago, there was an idea to give the Fremont School District kids cameras, and then shoot video. Whatever stories they want - just 'here's the camera kids, shoot what you want.'" They've combined that with a competition that the Symphony has every year, for young composers. "We have anywhere between twenty to thirty different compositions, just scribbled on music paper," Sudmeier says, "Sent in by the students of the Fremont School District. I go to work, and choose six of the best, and we've had the best writers in the business score these for the kids. For the kids to hear what is possible to do with their simple little melodies, it just creates such excitement."
Here's a Broncho Billy film shot in Niles...
Tuesday, March 25
The Chiara String Quartet was starting to record the complete quartets of Johannes Brahms when they decided to do something a bit unusual - they discovered they played better as an ensemble without their music stands in the way, and so began to play them by memory, or as they prefer to describe it, "by heart." Their CD recorded this way is released today.
Violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver all agree that they want to continue to approach new repertoire and performances this way - that the process improves their listening and interaction with eachother, and tightness as an ensemble.
They have the score nearby during rehearsals - to doublecheck marked dynamics, or phrasings. "But sometimes it's just 'Rember that diminuendo there? You know the spot, close to rehearsal two?'" Rebecca Fischer says. "And if we've really studied the score as much as hopefully we have, to be able to record it and play it by heart, then we can kind of figure out what we're talking about." Hyeyung Yoon says memorizing, although challenging, cuts straight to the soul of the music. "Playing by heart... really forces us to learn the music fast. Not in the sense of just notes, but learn the emotional content of it faster. Because if you're trying to remember something, you can remember the emotional content better than just the notes themselves."
Gregory Beaver says it's a more natural way of playing: "It takes out all of the unintuitive things. Because you can't remember something that's unintuitive. And so our phrasing becomes much more natural, much faster." He says that the simple fact of not having a score separating them from the rest of the group heightens their focus - although he says it's a musician's 'sixth sense' rather than visual cues that keeps them together. "When we're most directly glued to someone,looking in the eyes, or watching the fingers, we often don't play quite as together as when we look off to the side.... [Otherwise] we end up being behind what we see."
Monday, March 24
Conductor Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony have explored many musical traditions, in what's become a tradition of their own: the "Notes From..." concert. The next one, coming up this Friday night, is Notes From India - with two works by Ravi Shankar, a world premiere by a young Indian-born composer, and a masterwork of Western Classical music, a symphony by Beethoven.
The work that's being premiered is called ...where shadow chases light, by Juhi Bansal, a composer who was born in India and raised in Hong Kong. She now is based in Los Angeles, where she also conducts, and is one of the Artistic Directors of the New Lens Concert Series.
The two pieces by Ravi Shankar give the orchestra a flavor of Indian traditional rhythms and inflections, but the most idiomatic sounds come from the sitar (which will be played by ethnomusicologist and student of Shankar, Stephen Slawek.) The Concerto for Sitar dates from the early 1970s, and the composer was the first soloist for the piece. Encountering new and unfamiliar sonic landscapes is one of the interesting challenges for the OEBS. "Every time we do one of our 'Notes From...' concerts that really comes from a different tradition, we do end up spending a lot of time on tuning, and matching scales with the soloists," Morgan says. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is also on the program, as are excerpts from Passages, the 1990 collaboration between Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass.
Michael Morgan says these concerts, beyond just spicing up the season's programming, are part of the orchestra's effort to build connections with new audiences of all backgrounds. "We have been visiting a series of communities, which are all part of our bigger Bay Area community. That is, there's a lot of interesting Indian music, there's also a very large Indian population in our East Bay. And so we honor them by playing the music, and hopefully adding them to our Oakland East Bay Symphony family."
Friday, March 21
In celebration of Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday, here's a little quiz. Can you identify these ten of his works?
To see the answers below, click and drag over the white space...
"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (from Cantata BWV 147)
"Aria" from the Goldberg Variations
"Air on the G String" (Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, mvt. 2)
Toccata in D minor (arranged for Brass Quintet)
"Badinerie" (Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, mvt. 7)
"Erbarme dich, mein Gott" (from St. Matthew Passion)
Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major
Minuet in G Major from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, mvt. 1
"Siciliano" (Flute Sonata No. 2 in E flat, mvt. 2)
Thursday, March 20
The British visual artist Andrew Goldsworthy inspired ODC Dance choreographers and co-Artistic Directors Brenda Way and KT Nelson in their collaboration called Boulders and Bones. It's a creative work about the process of creation, and will have a score played live by cellist Zöe Keating, who creates evolving layers of music in real time by adding solo lines cumulatively.
There's more information about the performance, which opens tonight and runs through March 30th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at the ODC Dance website.
The project is only the second collaboration between Brenda Way and KT Nelson (their previous piece, Triangulating Euclid, which they made last year with Kate Weare is program B of this series). It came about after Way was impressed by the characteristics of Goldsworthy's work: "I was struck by the parallel between the ephemerality of his work, and how it is impermanent, and the nature of dance, which is also impermanent. It happens in time, then disappears." The production, in ten scenes for eleven dancers, also includes video footage of the time-lapse construction of a Northern California Goldsworthy installation. Way and Nelson say they approached Boulders with less of the precise planning that usually goes into their pieces. "Our process was scary," Nelson says, "because Brenda and I have collaborated before, but we had decided exactly the shape of the work, and what the music was going to be - this time we went in much more blind."
Keating also is leaving her comfort zone this time: "Normally I make these very strict rules for myself, and I never break them... I make my box tiny, and I have to explore the contents of that tiny box. So normally that box is one cello, entirely live, and no effects to extend it or make it crazy sounding. With this, I just let myself do whatever was in service of the work. Which was actually really scary for me, still is very scary, and also liberating at the same time."
Here's Zöe Keating playing on a specially constructed stage that can move from place to place, in front of a scrim with the time-lapse of Goldsworthy's work:
Wednesday, March 19
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will premiere a work called Tyler's Suite at its next concerts, next week at Davies Symphony Hall. Inspired by the incident of cyber-bullying that led to the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, the work is in eight movements, each by a different composer. The concerts called 'Luster', led by Dr. Timothy Seelig will also showcase the 20th Century American Songbook.
The suicide of Tyler Clementi sparked the first real media attention to the topic of cyber-bullying. Clementi jumped off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a laptop's webcam to see Clementi and another man kissing, and tweeted he was going to stream a video feed the next time it happened. Seelig says the Chorus, which has recently performed works celebrating the "It Gets Better" project, and the life of Harvey Milk, was a natural fit. "Who better to set this story to music than the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Because that's what we do - we create music about current events, and not-so-current events."
The Tyler Clementi Foundation, and his family agreed to the project, and librettist Pamela Stewart spent time with them, ultimately coming up with eight texts that are inspired by Tyler's story. Stephen Schwartz, who had worked with the group for "Testimony," setting lyrics from the "It Gets Better" videos suggested several New York City composers: John Corigliano, John Bucchino, Lance Horne, Ann Hampton Callaway, Craig Carnelia (and wrote a movement himself), and two Bay Area composers joined them, Jake Heggie and Nolan Gasser. It's scored for men's chorus, piano, and solo violin. "Becuase Tyler was a violinist," Seelig explains. "He went to Rutgers on a violin scholarship... I would say that the hundreds of men singing with the solo violin soaring above it is spectacular."
Tuesday, March 18
Chanticleer and the New Century Chamber Orchestra team up for a series of concerts in the next week called "Atlantic Crossing." They'll be performing works from the 1930s and '40s by European composers who emigrated to New York, and the American composers who made up the musical scene there.
NCCO Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg says that she has an obsession with singing, and says it's been her biggest musical influence since she was very little, and yet one of the reasons that the collaboration has taken so long to happen was a purely practical one. "It's been years in the making because there's absolutely nothing for male chorus and string orchestra," she says. That might have been the case before, but they enlisted Brazilian composer and arranger Clarice Assad, who has written several works in the past for New Century (she was their featured composer several years ago, and is their go-to arranger). "She was able to do this, and anow we have an entire evening. It's just an amazing adventure, and it's unbelievably fun putting this together." Outgoing Executive Director for the NCCO, Parker Monroe says he's glad to see the ensemble continuing to develop in new directions: "I like that New Century Chamber Orchestra is getting its roots even more deeply into the soil of San Francisco and the Bay Area, by collaborating with wonderful organizations like Chanticleer, which has just been a fabulous partner."
The Ensembles will each have works by themselves in the first half. "They'll play, we'll sing, they'll play, we'll sing," says Chanticleer's interim Music Director Jace Wittig. "Until the end, when we're going to sing this fantastic arrangement of "Mack the Knife." Which is, Salerno-Sonnenberg points out, is "an eight measure song, and it doesn't even have a bridge." But she convinced Assad to spin a ten minute fantasy out of it, which ends the first half. There's more ensemble collaboration in the second half, with Assad arrangements of medleys by both Gershwin (from Porgy and Bess) and Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn.
Monday, March 17
The San Francisco Opera's Costume Shop is having a sale next weekend - only the fifth time such a sale has taken place in its history, with an opportunity for the public to view and buy a bit of opera history. Christopher Verdosci, the Opera's Assistant Costume Director gives a preview of some of the sale items.
Verdosci says the purpose of the sale is both to make room for more recent costumes, and to give a home to clothes that have served their operatic purpose well. They expect a lot of interest from opera and fashion fans alike, with prices ranging from under ten dollars to many hundreds for some of the more ornate pieces. Some, like the 'mad scene' gowns for Lucia di Lammermoor might not be suitable for every occasion (other than Halloween): "She's just been forced to marry someone she does not want to marry, and in opera's greatest panic attack ever, she murders him. Hence the blood!" (One of the Lucia gowns is in the rack below.)
There are actually several of the gowns, splattered with blood. Most of the lead roles, especially for major works in the SFO's repertory have multiple iterations of the costumes. "When we have new singers cast, if they're not the same size, we do another costume. So, for example, I think we have six sets of Tosca herself, because every time we've done it, it's been a completely different size. Also, very often, shows are double cast."
Verdosci says this is an ideal city for this kind of sale. "We want these garments to have a life after this company, and there is really no better place than San Francisco, because we must have, what, fifteen costume events a year?" In thinning out their collection, they've donated a lot of the contemporary costumes to Good Will and Out of the Closet, and other thrift stores, and worked with smaller opera companies who might really need 10 matching 18th Century peasant outfits, or soldier's uniforms.
Each costume reflects a great deal of work from a dedicated crew of artists. "So much of our passion and energy ends up in these clothes," Verdosci says, "that to see them, to see someone else fall in love with them, it's really rewarding."
Friday, March 14
Cellist Maya Beiser presents an unusual concert program called All Vows next week at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The first half reimagines rock and roll songs, with Beiser joined by Wilco's drummer Glenn Kotche, and the second half has a pair of interpretations of the ancient Jewish prayer, Kol Nidre, by two contemporary composers, and several multimedia works with video by Bill Morrison.
Maya Beiser, who was raised on a kibbutz in Israel (her father was Argentinian and her mother was French), now lives in New York City, where she's been an active part of the "Bang on a Can" series. She says the idea for the show came out of an early collaboration with Morrison: "Bill and I first worked together when he created - as a gift for Steve Reich's 70th birthday - a video of me playing all the parts of Cello Counterpoint, which is a cello piece that Steve wrote for me." All Vows - the piece, its name a translation of Kol Nidre - has video by Morrison, and music by Michael Gordon. The other take on the prayer is by young Palestinian Muslim Mohammed Fairouz, for cello and pre-recorded sounds, and includes the complete sung text of the prayer in Aramaic.
She says splitting the concert in half thematically might encourage the possibly different target audiences to overlap. "Secretly, I want to bring all these people who love rock and roll, and say 'Hey, you like that? Listen to this too, because I think you're going to like the other side.' And I think they will, because for me all great music connects to each other, and all these boundaries that we have are not really that relevant."
Thursday, March 13
In honor of the approach of Spring, a sampling of "Birds in the Orchestra" - composers have long been writing instrumental imitations of birds... the cuckoo is probably the easiest to recognize, and it shows up in a variety of works - and since it was first possible to bring recordings into the concert hall, there have also been times when nothing but the actual sound of specific birds will do.
A cuckoo may have a fairly pedestrian birdcall, with only two notes, but Frederick Delius, Beethoven, and Handel all used it memorably (not to mention Laurel and Hardy's theme music). Ottorino Respighi called for a recording of nightingale songs to be played from the stage in his Pines of Rome, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara used field recordings of birds from the region to reflect the vast northern landscape of his Cantus Arcticus.
There are many other examples of composers taking their cues from the feathered set, famously the bird and the duck (flute and oboe, respectively) from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Haydn's Symphony #83 (The Hen); The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mahler's first symphony also has cuckoo calls, and Respighi wrote an entire work called "The Birds". But among the most fervent champions of trying to replicate the sounds of bird songs was French composer Olivier Messaien, with titles like "Oiseaux exotiques" and "Catalogue oiseaux".
Wednesday, March 12
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is hosting this year's International Chamber Music Festival, with visiting musicians from its sister-city (and sister school) the Shanghai Conservatory. There are two concerts, Thursday and Friday evening, with students and faculty from both schools performing. Earlier in the week, there are master classes and composers' workshops.
The program on Thursday evening has a Mozart Piano Quartet and Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio, along with a world premiere from each school: David Garner's String Quartet, and Minzuo Lu's String Trio. On Friday, there's a Brahms Quartet, the Mendelssohn Octet played by faculty from both conservatories, and Kenji Oh's String Trio, and Guohui Ye's Quartet. "We commissioned four pieces for this festival," says SFCM Violin faculty member Wei He. "Two from Shanghai Conservatory, two from San Francisco. And our performing artists will be playing Shanghai composer's work, and vice versa."
This is the fourth year of the Festival, which alternates host cities. The visiting Han Quartet, which makes up half of the ensemble playing Mendelssohn's Octet in the Friday concert, has been part of each year's performances. One of the reasons for programming the Octet, says Wei He, is because of this year's theme: "Celebrating the relationship of both conservatories. So we chose pieces that were more celebratory, like the Mendelssohn Octet, that you often hear at Festivals." The interplay between the performers, with duets frequently crossing the "quartet" boundaries also makes it a natural selection.
Tuesday, March 11
Yuja Wang returns to Davies Symphony Hall tomorrow night, joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, playing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. The piece is famous for being technically demanding for the soloist, but Wang says that the bigger challenge is keeping up the intensity of her performance as the piece winds through many smaller episodes.
The soloist and conductor have a history with this piece - they recorded it live in concert at the beginning of last year, in Caracas, with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. "We didn't have a conductor meeting or anything," Wang says. "We didn't talk about it, we really just felt it in the blood. It's almost like really physical, and with Russian works, it's perfect in terms of emotions, and just expansive huge sound."
It's not the finger-twisting complicated passagework that Yuja Wang considers the hardest part of the piece. "People say it's the most technically challenging piece. Yes, that is, but also just to have the whole scope, the whole picture of what's going on, all the details of each episode. Details, but at the same time, keep the line going, and just let it grow naturally in an organic way, until the very end. It's almost like reciting a Russian novel, which is going to take hours and hours, but it's that kind of intensity."
Monday, March 10
Organist Cameron Carpenter has toured the world playing instruments in cathedrals and concert halls - but what he's not been able to do until now is play the same organ wherever he goes. That's been made possible by the project that has occupied him for a decade: the International Touring Organ. He unveiled it over the weekend at Lincoln Center, in a daylong festival, and it will be the star of his first disc on the Sony Classical label this Spring.
"The thesis behind it is the creation of an absolute great organ that hybridizes many of the styles of the great organs that have influenced me the most," Carpenter says. "A design which combines the aesthetics of the American cathedral organ with the Wurlitzer organ as we know it from Radio City Music Hall, for instance. So it achieves a sonic and musical diversity that's not to be found in any one pipe organ." The Touring Organ will have two complete audio systems - one in Europe, and one in the U.S., and the modular console, or keyboard section, will be able to cross the Atlantic as needed. The organ and sound system can travel from place to place in a 36-foot truck. "Wherever the organ is set up, it is representative of an ideal listening experience. And not just in that hall, but represents the identity of that organ, which doesn't change from hall to hall."
After the concerts at Lincoln Center, Carpenter will be taking the instrument "on the road" - promoting its first recording on Sony Classical called "If You Could Read My Mind." Included on it are such unlikely works as his elaboration of a Bach solo cello suite, a Scriabin Piano Sonata, Bernstein's Candide Overture, a set of variations by Marcel Dupré, and Carpenter's arrangements of such eclectic pop songs as "Pure Imagination" from the musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Patsy Cline's "Back in Baby's Arms", and the Gordon Lightfoot song that gives the CD its name.
Here's Carpenter describing the International Touring Organ:
Friday, March 7
The Cypress String Quartet will give its fifteenth "Call and Response" concert next Friday, with music by Schubert, Webern, and the world premiere of George Tsontakis's String Quartet No. 6, inspired by the other music on the program. Although it's the premiere performance, music students around the Bay Area have had a chance to hear a bit of it played by the quartet in their classrooms.
Earlier this week, they were giving a presentation in Oakland to a class at Westlake Middle School taught by Music Director Randy Porter. They played musical passages by each of the three composers on the concert program, answered questions, and got the students thinking about some of the connections between the works. Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says that the students make some of the best audiences. "I find them more open than any other audience in listening to this music, so whether it's the Webern, which is unusual, and a lot of adults don't want to hear that slightly atonal music, these kids, they're like, 'This is like rock and roll, this is really interesting!' And the brand new music? It's music of their time."
The quartet has been commissioning a new work for this series from almost the very beginning of their existence. The impressive roster of composers who have become better known in the intervening years includes Jennifer Higdon, Philippe Hersant, Kevin Puts, and the Grawemeyer Award-winning Tsontakis, whose 5th and 6th quartets have both been Cypress commissions. Involving young musicians in the program (they're bussed to the concert, which is in no way 'dumbed down' for them) is part of the way the ensemble is trying to get rid of some of the preconceptions people might have about their interest. "We were in a school in Oakland," says Kloetzel, "the kids had been reading through the Webern Five Movements for Quartet, because they were so fascinated by them. They said, 'Can we have the score? Can we look and see how these are put together?' and the teacher came up to us afterwards and said, 'Thank you for showing me that I can teach these middle schoolers this music, because I never would have!'"
Thursday, March 6
Pianist Angela Hewitt had already recorded all of the works for keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach (including two different recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier) before she began to play his late and complex work, The Art of Fugue. She'll be performing it at the SFJAZZ Center on Sunday evening, through San Francisco Performances.
Angela Hewitt's hesitation to start playing the large work was based on at least two factors: first, because of the layout of the manuscript, in four independent staves, it doesn't look like the other music that Bach wrote to be played on a single keyboard. "You can debate forever whether it is actually a keyboard piece, because it can also be played of course by many different instruments, a string quartet, or whatever," Hewitt says. "Bach himself never stipulated that it was indeed to be played by two hands at one keyboard, although it's very possible." And then there was the music itself. "Every time I'd heard extracts from it... It sounded rather boring to me. And I couldn't believe that he had gotten to the end of his life and finally written something boring. So I was determined to really bring it to life, and indeed, it doesn't have to be boring."
She says the 20 or so pieces (the work was unfinished at the time of Bach's death) all use the same theme in the same key, which poses another challenge for the performer, to give each movement its own personality. "He writes a musical textbook of all that you can do with a subject. So you have fugues just on that theme, you have double fugues, where he combines the theme with another subject; you have triple fugues, two whole pieces that he writes in one way and then flips the whole thing upside down, I mean, that's quite amazing."
Hewitt has recorded The Art of Fugue for the Hyperion label, and it will be released later this year. She's also going to be playing tonight in San Jose, in a benefit concert for the American Beethoven Society, a program of Beethoven sonatas.
Wednesday, March 5
Now that Mardi Gras has passed, the Carnival has ended... There are lots of Classical works with Carnival in their titles... Can you name the eight that appear in this festive montage, and the composers who wrote them?
(To find out the answers, click and drag over the space below)
Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on Carnival of Venice
Robert Schumann: Carnaval
Camille Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals
Antonin Dvorak: Carnival Overture
Hector Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Darius Milhaud: Le Carnival d'Aix
Johan Svendsen: Norwegian Artist's Carnival
Peter Tchaikovsky: The Seasons: "February - Carnival"
Tuesday, March 4
On an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts, Anne Akiko Meyers playing Vivaldi on Vieuxtemps' Violin. That is, the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesu that was crafted in 1741, the same year that Vivaldi died. It had been stored under a collector's bed in London for fifty years, and Meyers' most recent CD marks the first time it's been recorded.
Meyers was already playing a 1697 Stradivarius, but It's very rare for such well known instruments to come on the market, and she ended up not being able to pass up the chance to play it. "These kinds of violins always go directly to a museum," she says, "And so, hesitatingly I tried it, and completely was blown away. To smithereens. This violin belonged to Henri Vieuxtemps, in the 18-hundreds, the 19th Century violinist and composer who was the biggest violinist after Paganini. And he loved this violin so much he actually had it carried on a pillow behind his hearse on his funeral day."
The "Vieuxtemps" hadn't been shown that kind of love by its last owner - "It was sitting under a very discriminating bed of the collector in London for the last five decades, so it really hasn't been performed on much. And the violin just craves to be played. And it's just such a joy to perform on it. How could something hot and cold... and the moon, the stars, and the sun all exist in one piece of wood? How is it possible?"
Here's a teaser for the new album that includes the Four Seasons, as well as the Concerto for Three Violins by Vivaldi - all played on the "Vieuxtemps" by Anne Akiko Meyers:
Monday, March 3
The Vienna Philharmonic was in residence at Cal Performances not too long ago - but they're coming back this week, during their cross-country American tour, giving three concerts and taking part in a program that studies the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. Matias Tarnopolsky, Director of Cal Performances, says it will be an immersion into music, history and culture.
"In the three concerts, we have an incredible array of music that is really embematic of the repertoire of this mighty orchestra," Tarnopolsky says. "With Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Brahms' Third Symphony, a new piece by Johannes Maria Staud called On Comparative Meteorology, Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, Haydn's Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale, you begin to see a really magnificent survey of the great Classical and Romantic repertoire." There will also be discussions and free symposia with UC Berkeley faculty and visiting scholars to help give the historical background of the anniversary. Matias Tarnopolsky says growing up in England, World War I received much more focus in history classes than it seems to today in America. "I guess it's understandable that the First World War would figure less, both in today's generation and in America, but if you think about it, World War I was the defining moment of the Twentieth Century, also for America."
The Vienna Philharmonic will be led by a different eminent conductor for each of the concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday: Lorin Maazel, Andris Nelsons, and Franz Welser-Möst, who will give a talk on Sunday after his concert, entitled "The Responsibility of Artists." Members of the ensemble will also be working closely with students and musicians on campus during their residency. "In the space of five days, we have an incredibly deep and rich immersion in music and history and culture, which makes a profound statement, and I think will be unforgettable for the audiences who come."