Tuesday, January 20

Angela Lansbury in 'Blithe Spirit'Stage and screen legend Angela Lansbury is in San Francisco for a two week run of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit at the Golden Gate Theatre, reprising the role for which she won a Tony award in 2009. She plays the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, who manages to summon the ghost of a writer's dead wife - who then haunts him, and his second wife.

There's more information about the production at the touring show's website.

Lansbury's incredibly varied acting life actually began in film: her first movie role was in Gaslight (for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and then the following year she received another nomination for The Picture of Dorian Gray. But despite those early successes, her career wasn't living up to its promise. "I understand now why I wanted to get back to theater, having started in movies, and discovering that I was not easy to cast... My early movie career, except for the first three or four movies that I made was a washout really... It was not good." She was introduced to Broadway in 1957, playing opposite Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso. But she also kept making films - her chilling portrayal of the politically power-hungry mother in The Manchurian Candidate won her another Oscar nomination. But she 36 at the time, only three years older than her 'son'. "I really wanted to escape from that. And that was when I went off to New York and became a big Broadway musical comedy star, which was a terrific turnaround."

Lansbury has a special love of the role of Madame Arcati, who is significantly less sinister than her characters in Manchurian Candidate or Sweeney Todd... "I think the thing about Arcati is that she is totally earnest and honest. It's those qualities that I find such fun to play, because you can't NOT believe her, finally. Even though her modus operandi is pretty extraordinary. So I love playing her. She's just terrific."


Friday, January 16

Lera AuerbachLera 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 (her first book in English, Excess of Being is just out). 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.

For more information about her upcoming concert with Philippe Quint and Joshua Roman at the SFJAZZ Center, visit the San Francisco Performances website. She'll also be having a book signing at the 9th Avenue Green Apple Books on January 19th.

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." And when not actively writing a piece, she says, her mind is still working on it in the background. "I always have several projects at the same time. In a way, it's unavoidable because some of them are very large projects, which take a year to complete... So, one way or another they all stay with me on a subconscious level, so I feel like they've been 'cooking' even if I don't directly work on them. So by the time I get actually to notate them, they're just waiting to be notated."

Thursday, January 15

John AdamsThere'll be no shortage of pianos at Davies Symphony Hall this week, with the gala celebrating Michael Tilson Thomas's 70th birthday tonight calling for no less than five of them... and two pianos will be acting as one giant instrument in Grand Pianola Music by composer John Adams, who will conducting the piece Friday through Sunday with members of the San Francisco Symphony and pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham.

There's more information about the concert, which also includes MTT conducting Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale (with Elvis Costello as the narrator, and Malcolm McDowell as the Devil) at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Grand Pianola Music had its premiere with the San Francisco Symphony, although John Adams describes it as "one of the more chaotic, if not catastrophic premieres in history." The venue was the Japan Center Theater, which in those days, he says, "was a funky and dirty place, there were fast food wrappers in the dressing room, and coffee stains on the floor" which, combined with the mistaken casting of operatic singers for the three ethereal female voices, left him unsure as to the quality of the work. But he made many changes in it, and in the more than thirty years since, it's become one of his most popular pieces.

It has at its core an image that Adams saw twice — once while asleep, and once under the influence of 'controlled substances' — of elongated pianos. It's scored for winds, percussion, and two pianos, which play off of each other to create a larger sounding instrument. When he was in his early 20s, he went to a rehearsal of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy at the Marlboro Festival. "I saw Rudoph Serkin playing this grand piano, and it looked to me like it was about twenty feet long." Then, after he moved to California, it returned. "I had a dream of being in a car on some interstate highway, and a couple of limos coming up and driving... and they turned into long pianos. So for some reason, the sort of R. Crumb craziness of these images suggested this piece." He calls the piece "an entertainment" - which alludes to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, and other grandiose works for the keyboard, but doesn't follow what was in vogue and had the most respect in classical music circles in the early 80s - dissonant works like those by Elliott Carter. "Here comes this piece," Adams says, "which is sort of a melange of minimalism, and Liberace and John Philip Sousa and Wagner... In 1983, a lot of music people, particularly composers, were uncomfortable with the idea that a composer could entertain as well as elevate."

Wednesday, January 14

Peninsula SymphonyThe Peninsula Symphony will be joined for their upcoming concerts by the period-authentic dancers of the Academy of Danse Libre, in a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood musicals. Music Director Mitchell Sardou Klein says the repertoire of music from the 1930's, 40's, and 50's is more than just the soundtrack to movies - with interesting works written by some of the great American songwriters showing off their orchestral chops.

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

Mitchell Sardou Klein says they teamed with the Academy of Danse Libre several years ago for a Vienna themed concert, and says the visuals made quite an impact. "Everybody knows all the waltzes, and that's delightful, but to actually see a Viennese ball in authentic ballgowns, and see the choreography happening on stage... that was so much fun, and the audience just loved it. So we've been plotting this idea for a while." The concert will include a few works that the Symphony will play alone: Gershwin's American In Paris, Richard Rodgers' 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue' from On Your Toes, and Max Steiner's 'Tara Theme' from Gone with the Wind.

"Hollywood musicals of the thirties, forties and fifties beloved by everybody, and brings us to a lot of very interesting music by Gershwin and Rodgers that is very much symphonic," Klein says. They'll play the Carousel Waltz, from Carousel by Rodgers, as well as Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which was featured in Broadway Melody of 1940 - one of the series of filmed tributes to the Great White Way.

Tuesday, January 13

Kenneth Renshaw21-year-old violinist Kenneth Renshaw is currently studying at the Juilliard School in New York, but the Bay Area native has already travelled extensively, as a soloist and in competition. His performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the California Symphony from the Spring of 2014 will be featured on this Sunday night's edition of KDFC's Bay Area Mix.

You can find out more at our Bay Area Mix page.

Renshaw won the Menuhin prize in 2012 in Beijing, and has appeared on NPR's 'From the Top', before Juilliard, he was at the New England Conservatory, and before that, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The March, 2014 'Catch a Rising Star' concert he played with the California Symphony was a bit of a homecoming for the former Concertmaster of the San Fransico Symphony Youth Orchestra. "It was a very very fun experience," he says. "Particularly because the Music Director, Donato Cabrera, I had worked with in the Youth Orchestra. He was the Music Director for my last year in the orchestra there, so I knew him personally, and really enjoyed working with him." Renshaw says he honed important skills while in the first chair of the large ensemble. "The orchestra really opened up the way I listened to other musicians around me, because I'd been doing chamber music before, which is a much smaller scale, and with a smaller group of people who you get to really know well intimately, and try to match the sounds. But with an orchestra of a hundred people, you have to listen to your section, as well as listen to and blend in with the other sections of the orchestra, and know how your section's part relates to other parts."

He learned the Mendelssohn concerto when he was 12, and describes it as the sort of piece violinists return to on and off throughout their lives. He's managed to do that already a few times, putting it away for several years before bringing it back out again. "And that's been very helpful for me, because every time I come back to it, it feels like a completely new piece, because I have different ideas and notions of how I want it to soudn, and what I think Mendelssohn was getting at each time. And it grows and it develops, and turns into something different each time."

Monday, January 12

New Music GatheringThe first of its kind New Music Gathering takes place this week, hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One of the four founders, Lainie Fefferman says it's part conference, part festival, but mostly a way of providing the community of composers and performers of contemporary music with an opportunity for support and networking.

There's more information about the events at the New Music Gathering website.

The gathering will bring more than 200 registered attendees to three days of seminars, panels, and concerts from all corners of the new music community. It got its start with a question posed by composer Matt Marks on Facebook - pointing out that individual instruments and other genres, like opera and early music have such conferences, but "is there something for us?" Daniel Felsenfeld suggested that there should be - and with Fefferman and Mary Kouyoumdjian, began to organize the event. Submissions poured in from people who wanted to take part, either in performance, or giving presentations, or just as attendees. "If you look at the topics that we're going to cover, a lot of it is 'What do we do?'" Fefferman says. "Just the basics of... 'OK, you want to write music? What do you have to do to get that done? Hopefully everyone's going to help everyone else answer those questions."

Each evening of the gathering, there will be a concert - with many short performances, headlined by flutist Claire Chase on Thursday, pianist Sarah Cahill on Friday, and the Living Earth Show on Saturday (including special guests Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man.) Fefferman says each night will be like a variety show: "We have choirs, we have soloists, duos, electronics, bagpipe rock bands... There's no style or theme. Quite purposely we didn't have a theme or a sound or a style in mind. We just... We're throwing together wildly different acts, and hoping that everyone will enjoy the crazy contrast that they hear."

Friday, January 9

First Classical All-Stars of 2015The KDFC Classical All-Stars countdown got off to an impressive start this week, and we'll continue to play your selections until we reach number one next week. Here's a quick catch-up if you've missed some of the earlier entries in the list! You can find the complete list that will be updated until we reach the end here

Since the selections go by fairly quickly, and might not be easily recognized, we'll hide the titles, but give you the ranked number of each selection. Click and scroll over the blank space below to reveal the titles.
  1. (100)  Williams: Theme from Star Wars
  2. (94)  Handel: Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
  3. (88)  Mozart: Symphony #25
  4. (87)  Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
  5. (85)  Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 
  6. (95)  Brahms Symphony No. 1  (95)
  7. (80)  Schubert:  Symphony No. 9 “Great”
  8. (82)  Mozart: Don Giovanni Overture
  9. (98)  Khachaturian: Spartacus Adagio
  10. (83)  Dvorak:  “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka
  11. (91)  Delibes: “Flower Duet” from Lakme
  12. (92)  Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
  13. (78)  Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
  14. (77)  Brahms: Symphony No. 4
  15. (84)  Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1
  16. (99)  Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  17. (81)  Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.  4
  18. (89)  Puccini: Nessun Dorma

Thursday, January 8

Ensemble VermillianThe early music group called Ensemble Vermillian plays a program of music by German composers of the 17th Century in San Francisco and El Cerrito this weekend, joined by guest artists, soprano Margaret Carpenter and her fiance, organist Nicolas Haigh. There will be works by Buxtehude, Biber and more, including 2 cantatas, and solo works. 

There's more information about the concerts here.

The players in the ensemble vary according to the repertoire they're performing, but at the heart of the group are sisters Frances Blaker (recorders) Barbara Blaker Krumdieck (baroque cello), and David Wilson (baroque violin.) The addition of a singer is fairly rare, but Margaret Carpenter was living in Charlotte, near where Krumdieck lives, and played together there in small ensembles. (Carpenter met her Haigh, originally from England, when they were in school together). "We were having a little brainstorming session this summer," Krumdieck says, "and decided we wanted to do a recording project of 17th Century German music. And we had fairly recently fallen in love with Margaret and Nick, and wanted to include them in our project."

They'll also be playing music by Heinrich Biber, both as an ensemble (although without vocals) and, David Wilson says, he'll take advantage of a tuning trick that Biber - himself a violin virtuoso - was known for. "A technique called 'scordatura', where you tune the strings of the instrument differently than normal. Other people have done this, but no one quite as dramatically as Biber." It's customary in their concerts for the players to have a solo turn -  "I thought," he continues, "why don't I do the Biber Rosary Sonata that's in the same tuning as the ensemble piece that we're doing. That turns out to be Sonata 10, "The Crucifiction", from the Rosary Sonatas... Just changing one note changes the whole sound of the instrument. Depending on how you tune the violin, it makes double-stops that are impossible in normal tuning suddenly possible."

The concerts are Friday night at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, and on Saturday, the Hillside Community Church in El Cerrito.

Wednesday, January 7

Unfinished WorksThere are many Unfinished Works in the world of Classical music, for many reasons... whether they were put off to be completed later, abandoned as unworthy, or in some cases, left behind after the composer's death. Depending on how decipherable sketches were, some of them have been completed, and others stand as they were written, even trailing off into a single final note, as in J.S. Bach's Art of Fugue.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the Symphony that has the nickname "Unfinished" - Franz Schubert's work that, despite the name, has two complete movements - which are played that way in concert performances. It's only because it's the 'front end' of the expected form (and because sketches exist for the remaining two movements) that it goes by that name.  Even though he died very young, Schubert lived for several more years after leaving that work behind - so it wasn't something he was working on as death approached. Likewise, the manuscript of the final movement of Bach's Art of Fugue trails off as though it was his final act, but he was dictating revisions to the complicated set of fugues after his sight failed him. 

Puccini's final opera, Turandot, was only completed through half of the third act - ironically just as the slave girl Liu's dead body is taken off stage by the chorus - and although at the premiere an ending existed, (written by Franco Alfano, based on Puccini's sketches) conductor Arturo Toscanini put down his baton, and told the audience at La Scala "Here the Maestro laid down his pen..."  But what happens when there isn't that kind of a line of demarcation? Mozart's Requiem remained unfinished at the time of his death (Amadeus on stage and screen notwithstanding) and the job of completing it fell to his student, Franz Xaver Sussmäyr. But Mozart had only completed about a third of it, with sketches for choral parts, and other clues for various movements as a starting point. There have been several other notable efforts to complete it, including by musicologist Robert Levin, who's been a scholar of Mozart's work and musical voice for decades. 

Sometimes the composer doesn't want to release work into the world, and would rather have it destroyed - such was the case of Jan Sibelius, who after several years of working on a planned Eighth Symphony, promising it to conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra fed the manuscript to the fire. It was only comparatively recently that musicologists discovered tantalizing sketches in the Finnish National Library's collection of Sibelius's papers that date from the time he was working on the piece. Fragments were recorded by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, although they haven't been released yet on disc. 


Tuesday, January 6

The StrandIt's going to be re-opening this Spring as the newest of A.C.T.'s stages, but the original building housing The Strand already has quite a story. Carey Perloff, Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater says the location, on what used to be San Francisco's 'Great White Way', will help make it a hub for a variety of artists and art forms.

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

The theater is located right next to the costume shop of A.C.T., on Market Street opposite UN Plaza, and Perloff says it's changed a lot in the past hundred years. "This was originally a vaudeville house, and a movie house, and a porn theater, and then it was sealed by the SFPD. When we first entered it, the shell of it was still the bones of a wonderful theater... This was the Great White Way of San Francisco. There were vaudeville houses and movie houses all up and down the block. It was thrilling, and then it all went away. And this will be, I hope, a catalyst to bring a lot of that back." The 285-seat main stage will be complemented by another, smaller 'black box' theater upstairs, which will provide an even more intimate venue for a variety of area performances. "I'm hoping that this will be a hub," Perloff says, "...and an amazing gahering space for many different branches of the community to come together in terms of conversation and live performance. And to actually help activate a neighborhood that could really use the arts as a catalyst."

The lobby for The Strand will have a two-story window looking on to Market Street, a cafe that will be open through the day, and a giant LED screen (18 by 28 feet) that will display program information, as well as video art, which Perloff says will also be a 'community billboard'... fitting since the headquarters of Twitter are just a few blocks away. Here's how the artist rendering imagines the finished space looking:
The Strand

The Strand interior

You can follow the progress of the construction at A.C.T.'s flickr page  

Monday, January 5

Auspicious BeginningsAs the curtain rises on 2015, here's a little collection of some memorable and auspicious beginnings from the world of classical music...  Works that right from the starting gate hint at the masterpieces that are to follow. 

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