The San Francisco Symphony hosts the ensemble The Swingles (who used to be known as The Swingle Singers) this week to perform a work that was written for them almost 50 years ago by composer Luciano Berio: his Sinfonia for Eight Solo Voices and Orchestra. It's a piece that blends spoken word and quotations from other composers, and draws on their special vocal skills. It's on a program celebrating a history of Italian music at Davies tomorrow through Saturday nights.
The piece was written in honor of the New York Philharmonic's 125th anniversary, in 1968, a few years after The Swingles' early popularity with jazzy versions of Bach. Since then, it's been a staple of their repertoire, handed down to successive generations of singers in the group. "We’ve all been in the group for different lengths of time," soprano Joanna Eteson says, "but have always performed the piece quite regularly throughout that time, so… I’ve been in the group for ten years, this will be my 31st performance of the piece." With all of the quotations, from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, to Ravel's La Valse, Debussy's La Mer, and lots of Mahler, tenor Oliver Griffiths describes it as a quintessential music nerd's piece of music. "And I think one of the biggest joys of it is that the more you sing it, the more you see and find in it. It’s such an incredibly well crafted piece of music with so many references that we just all geek out over it."
It's a very complex work, not least because of some of the special notation Berio used to create special choral effects. Here's a photo of a section from the score, when the singers are only using consonant sounds:
Tuesday, September 20
Smuin Contemporary American Ballet opens its season with a trio of works set to classical pieces: Michael Smuin's response to 9/11 called Stabat Mater, using Dvorak's setting of the text; the West Coast premiere of Indigo, from choreographer Stanton Welch (Vivaldi cello concertos); and the world premiere of Madness, Rack, and Honey by Garret Ammon (Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante.) Artistic Director Celia Fushille gives a preview.
There's more information about the performances, which open this weekend in Walnut Creek before coming to San Francisco at the Smuin website.
Celia Fushille says the company's founder, the late Michael Smuin decided to abandon a work to music by Schubert in favor of the Dvorak after the 9/11 attacks. "He was just so devastated, as we were as a nation, and thinking about why are the arts relevant? The Stabat Mater is Latin for 'sorrowing mother', and thinking of the Virgin Mary, watching her suffering son on the cross. But Michael just intended it to represent all of the people that lost a loved one, whether it was a child, a son, a fiancée, a husband, a spouse. And so he was just intending it to represent all of those people that were lost." Indigo is the first work by Stanton Welch that the company has performed. He's the Artistic Director of Houston Ballet, and chose Vivaldi for the score. "There are whimsical moments and humorous moments," says Fushille, "but just really solid dancing on top of that." The unusual title of the world premiere by Garret Ammon comes from a book of poetry lectures by Mary Ruefle he encounterd at a literary retreat. "He borrowed the title, because he thought it applied to dance. We’re mad about our art form, we put ourselves on the rack to stretch, stretch our feet, and the work that it takes, and then… Like the arts, it’s sweet as honey. So he just thought this is such a perfect title."
Monday, September 19
Measure + Dido is a world premiere co-production of NapaShakes and the Folger Shakespeare Library coming to the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center and the Green Music Center this weekend. It brings together Sir Derek Jacobi, director and co-star Richard Clifford, and members of the Folger Consort in a blending of Shakespeare and Purcell.
The production is based on an adaptation that critic Charles Gildon made in 1700, which takes two disparate works and combines them. "He added some lines to suggest that the Duke for example, Angelo for example, Isabella were going off to listen to the opera and then come back to make a decision about a question that had been posed earlier." Richard Clifford says the complete Dido and Aeneas will be performed, with selections from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. "It is very much a concert evening," Clifford explains. "We have four actors, and on top of that, we have two of the opera performers also performing as actors. But it is very much a concert." They've worked with the Folger Consort several times before, in adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice. "[Folger Consort artistic directors] Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall are very interested in not only the sung word, but alos the spoken word, so it's been a very healthy collaboration."
Friday, September 16
The California Symphony's 30th season gets underway this Sunday afternoon at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, with a concert that also celebrates the flute and a past composer in residence. Music Director Donato Cabrera will be part of a live stream as he gives his pre-concert talk, and then the stream will continue long enough to hear the first work on the program, Network by Kevin Puts.
The California Symphony has had a very successful string of 'Young American Composers in Residence,' including the Pulitzer Prize winning Kevin Puts and Christopher Theofanides. Each of the programs this anniversary season will include a work by one of them. "The music that these composers not only composed for us, but have composed since then," Cabrera says, "are just wonderful compositions. And this piece, Network, already shows the signs of a composer whose voice is so well-grounded, and meaningful, and engaged." On the program with Network is the Mozart Flute concerto, played by up-and-coming performer Annie Wu, who used to be in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and Rachmaninoff's second symphony. In the lead-up to the concert, there will be food trucks and an 'instrument petting zoo' on the Lesher Center Promenade, and the same behind the scenes video stream that people at home are seeing will be visible on screens outside as well.
Thursday, September 15
The San Franciso Conservatory of Music holds their special Kick-Off Weekend with six concerts beginning this Friday evening, involving many fields of study, and centered around the theme this year of Music, Politics, and Social Justice. Kate Sheeran, Provost and Dean at SFCM gives an overview of the weekend, which includes a concert with more than a hundred guitarists.
There's more information about the weekend at the SFCM website.
The first concert, on Friday, is of chamber music for strings and piano, as well as solo piano works. Pre-college division students will present a recital at 5:30 on Saturday, before the first orchestral concert of the season. "It’s with our new orchestra music director, Eric Dudley," Sheeran says. "They’ll be doing Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, John Adams’ The Chairman Dances, and Beethoven’s Third Symphony." The repertoire on each of the programs relates to the over-arching theme, including the historical performance program's presentation called 'The Good Old Dollar Bill,' of songs from early American and British musical theater and vaudeville. The concert with the most attention getting name is 100 Guitars on Sunday afternoon. "The most fun about this was brainstorming with the faculty. We’d throw out the craziest ideas we possibly could, and [guitar department chair David Tanenbaum] said, there are these two pieces…One calls for at least 50 guitars, and one calls for at least one hundred, and both of them are great fits for this, and there’s this element of spectacle and celebration that go along with them."
Wednesday, September 14
The surprising chamber Piano Concerto number 13 of Mozart with guest soloist Inon Barnatan helps launch the New Century Chamber Orchestra's 'silver season' - the ensemble is celebrating its 25th year (and the final season with Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg as Music Director) as their season begins tomorrow night in Berkeley. Barnatan says Mozart Piano Concertos hold a special place in his repertoire, among his most satisfying to play.
Barnatan says the simplicity of the concerto is part of its appeal for him: "One of the unbelievable things about Mozart is how close it is to being ordinary. There's really, on the face of it, nothing extraordinary about this or that moment, or this or that harmony. But the way that they unfold, you can't help but be tremendously moved. That' is one of the things that makes Mozart so impactful, is how pure and simple the mode of expression is, but how deep and meaningful and all-encompassing the meaning of it is." This is one of three chamber concertos, which Mozart himself adapted for solo piano and strings. His joy in playing the concertos - especially with a small ensemble - comes from the many facets of music you can get from one piece. "It brings together what it is to play chamber music, to play with an orchestra, to be a singer," Barnatan says. "They're all together when you play these pieces... It's hard for me to express, but I can tell you that the happiest moments that I have had as a performing musician have been at the keyboard of a Mozart Piano Concerto."
Tuesday, September 13
Here's a whirlwind tour of the Wind Instruments, or Woodwinds (even though many of them are no longer made of any wood). Unlike the strings, which as a section have a continuous and uniform sound across their ranges, wind instruments have individual personalities and characteristic sounds that are so distinctive that there are often only two or three oboe players in an orchestra, balancing a few dozen violins.
This isn't by any means an exhaustive list - a number of additional instruments extend the ranges of each example, but these are some of the most frequently found in an orchestra, and the wind instrument players will frequently be asked to "double" on other instruments, so a piccolo part will be played by a member of the flute section, English horn by an oboist, etc.
There's a wonderful series of videos by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra introducing their instruments:
Monday, September 12
A project that began 10 months ago has brought Steuart and Michelle Pincombe all over the US (and even into Canada) travelling with their dog in a vintage trailer from 1959. Music in Familiar Spaces began as a project to allow them to spend more time with each other, and play music to new and unconventional audiences. Steuart Pincombe will play solo Bach at Harmonic Brewing in San Francisco on the 19th.
They were living in the Netherlands - with Steuart was frequently touring, and Michelle working at an international court in The Hague. (She had studied voice at Oberlin, where they met.) They were frustrated and decided on the project. "We thought, 'OK, what can we do where both of our energy is used well, and that puts us together?' So we decided to go into this extreme of living in a very small space together for a year, working as a team to bring music to more everyday people than what classical concerts usually attract." Their approach was kickstarter-funded, and venues were decided by suggestions from fans, and friends. And they decided to try to see if they could make an Indy rock band approach work for classical music. "We’re not encouraging other classical musicians to run around the planet in a trailer," Steuart explains. "Musicians who are in a place can be encouraged to do something in their town, which is a much easier feat. But we’re happy to get our hands dirty in this project to try to pave a way for other people."
Friday, September 9
The Symphony Gala and Opera celebrations aside, there's a slightly slower Rollout to the Arts Season this Fall, with many groups not getting underway until October and later; but here's a brief roundup of some of the other ensembles and organizations that are hitting the ground running this month.
You can find more information to the seasons at the links below.
The Steinway Society - The Bay Area presents a Sunday evening recital in Saratoga with Jon Nakamatsu playing Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, and Chopin; they have 7 more concerts through May, including artists like Beatrice Rana and Alessio Bax. Chanticleer has six concerts in five locations of a program called 'My Secret Heart' that runs from the 17th to the 25th of September. They'll return with their Christmas program, and in the spring will have another joint performance with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which begins its season with guest soloist Inon Barnatan playing Mozart from the 15th to the 18th. This is the ensemble's 25 season, and the final one with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as music director. The season will end with a festival in her honor in May. Redwood Symphony will be presenting a semi-staged version of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht on the 24th of September. Their season includes six regular concerts, plus one for Halloween and a free outdoor concert in June. Stanford Live begins its season on the 29th with the complete Etudes of Philip Glass in concert, with the composer himself joined by five other pianists to play the 20 pieces. And Cal Performances presents the world premiere of a new collaboration between Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble: a new telling in movement and music of the ancient Persian tragic love story of Layla and Majnun.
Thursday, September 8
Opera San Jose begins its season tomorrow with a production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, with a new member of the resident company of principal artists, Korean-born soprano Sylvia Lee in the title role. It's a part she's now sung on several continents, but the first time she sang Lucia, she had to think of butterflies to convey her famous 'mad scene.'
Her first opportunity to sing the role of Lucia came when she was still a student at the Mannes School of Music in New York City. The International Vocal Arts Institute chose her to play the lead in a production in a summer festival in Tel Aviv. "I got really excited, and then also very worried," she explains, "because I think the most difficult thing to portray Lucia is her madness, and of course I’ve never been crazy, so it was hard to connect her feelings with mine." So working with her director, she had to tap into one of her own qualities. "Lucia sees ghosts, which I’ve never experienced, but I know what makes me scared – I have lepidopterophobia, which is fear of butterflies… and the director taught me how to use this phobia to illustrate her madness…" Lee will be playing a prominent part in the rest of the Opera San Jose season, making her role premiere of Mimi in La Boheme in April, and also appearing in the West Coast premiere of Kevin Puts' Silent Night in February.
Wednesday, September 7
Tonight's San Francisco Symphony gala concert is just the beginning of a jam-packed season. We'll be bringing it to you live beginning around 8 o'clock, with Dianne and Rik hosting, and Hoyt helping to set the scene. The special guests will be Renee Fleming and Susan Graham, joining Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra.
The gala sets off with a program featuring Fleming and Graham, singing repertoire of American songs and operatic arias, plus some surprises... and there's a work by Steve Reich which gets a jump on the 80th birthday celebration MTT and the Symphony will be presenting later in the week, which includes a Sunday 'American Mavericks' concert with guest artists Eighth Blackbird and Kronos Quartet. The season includes several other birthday celebrations - John Adams' 70th is in February, and will be observed with a performance of his Gospel According to the Other Mary, and Leila Josefowicz will play Scheherezade.2, the work he wrote for her. In the middle of September, there's a program including Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that will lead up to a special 'Discovery Concert' on the 18th with MTT exploring and explaining the work with musical examples and a multimedia presentation, and in November they'll be touring Asia with Yuja Wang. Full season details can be found at the Symphony's website.
Tuesday, September 6
San Francisco Opera gets out of the gate quickly this year, with a number of events starting on Friday, with the Opera Ball followed by the opening of Andrea Chénier, set during the French Revolution... On Saturday, it's the world premiere of Bright Sheng's opera Dream of the Red Chamber, and Sunday afternoon they'll present the free Opera in the Park concert in Golden Gate Park. New General Director Matthew Shilvock gives a preview.
"The opening weekend is always a really exciting rush of activity," says Shilvock. "To do two openings, one of which is a world premiere, and to do the big park concert in which we showcase some of our finest talent to the general public is an incredible way to start." The first of the productions to open might seem familiar, even if it isn't. "Two things that strike me about Andrea Chénier: first is, think Puccini. This music is very contemporary with Puccini, Puccini and Giordano, who wrote Andrea Chénier, actually bought a sportscar together in the early 20th Century. They were good friends. And you will hear strains of Puccini’s music throughout Andrea Chénier. The second is, think PBS or BBC historic drama. The attention to detail that David McVicar and his design team have created in this production is sumptuous. The elegance, the realism, the authenticity that they have brought to Andrea Chénier and this time of the French Revolution is incredible. So I would say Puccini meets period drama."
Friday, September 2
There 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.
Thursday, September 1
September is 'National Piano Month,' so here's a little quiz with some familiar keyboard works. Give a listen and see how many of these twenty mashed-up piano pieces you can identify: (Click and drag over the blank space below to reveal selections)
(click and drag over the space below to see the listings.)
Satie: Gymnopedie #1
Bach: Goldberg Variations (Aria)
Stravinsky: Petrushka, Scene 1
Schubert: "Wanderer" Fantasy
Bach: Prelude #1 in C (from Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1)
As August winds down, there's no avoiding it... it's back-to-school time. And since the piece of classical music most associated with education - Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" - is usually played at the end of the school year, here are a few other works that also signal the world of academia.
There's a metaphorical School For Scandal, in the overture for the play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which Samuel Barber composed when he was still a student himself... There's the Haydn symphony that got the nickname "The Schoolmaster" for a wagging figure motif in the second movement.
One that keeps showing up is the tune that Johannes Brahms used to give the big finish to his Academic Festival Overture - A tune called "De Brevitate Vitae" (On the Shortness of Life) that's been used as an anthem of sorts at all sorts of colleges around the world. It's better known by its opening lyrics: Gaudeamus igitur / Iuvenes dum sumus. (Let us rejoice, therefore / While we are young) The 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may' or 'carpe diem' message is often accompanied by the raising of a toast of beer.
And here's the complete overture, with that theme beginning with a cymbal crash at 9:11:
Friday, August 26
Next month, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber - an adaptation by composer Bright Sheng of the most widely-read and studied 18th Century Chinese novel. He was also co-librettist (with David Henry Hwang) for the new work, which pares the sprawling story down to size by focusing on a love triangle. It was a San Francisco Opera commission, suggested by the Minnesota-based Chinese Heritage Foundation.
When faced with the challenge of transforming one of China's longest and most-revered books for the operatic stage, Bright Sheng says he looked at Prokofiev's setting of War and Peace as a cautionary tale: "Dream of the Red Chamber, the length of the novel is more than twice as long as War and Peace. And had over 40 characters, main characters, and over 400 small characters. [Prokofiev] wrote a five and a half hour version, and it has a lot of beautiful music, but as an opera it’s not successful. Because the story is about War and Peace. If you’re a composer, you think about writing an opera, you beef up the sideline story, which is the love story." The romantic triangle that he and David Henry Hwang focus on involves a pair of lovers who existed as a stone and a flower before coming to earth. The other woman comes between them as part of an arranged marriage to settle an imperial debt. "So it’s a very complex story," Bright Sheng explains, "But at the same time, a very simple story. Because I believe the opera cannot tell a very complicated story. You have to have a very up front story, that you can simply tell in about one sentence. And then you can have the other things, like the political intrigue, as a backdrop."
Thursday, August 25
The Chiara String Quartet has found that playing works 'by heart' — that is, from memory, without scores in front of them — helps them play together better, and makes for a deeper, more immersive interpretation. They've now released their second 'by heart' recording, this time playing the six quartets of Bela Bartok.
Even though they say it takes four times as long to learn to play the works without scores, they've found it makes a huge difference in their understanding of the music, and gives them new freedom. "It allows us to improvise, and come up with ideas that never occurred to us in rehearsal," cellist Gregory Beaver says. "And to respond more to the energy of the room than we would otherwise be able to…The essence of playing by heart has nothing really to do with memorization. It has to do with getting closer to the core of the music. That’s the payoff." And violist Jonah Sirota points out the folk tune inspired melodies make more sense this way. "Because it’s based on music that wasn’t written down, that was an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation… For us, if we memorize this music, suddenly it takes on a much more 'oral tradition feel' to it, and the performances feel a lot more natural to us, and feel like we can be more improvisatory, which I think is a good goal for music that sounds like this."
Here's the quartet playing the finale of the String Quartet no. 5 by Bartok:
Wednesday, August 24
Fiddler Mark O'Connor stretches the definition of jazz, as he brings his latest group, the O'Connor Band to finish off the Jazz at the Lesher Center series this Saturday evening. (They'll also play at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage the following night.) It replaces the previously announced Hot Swing Trio, another of his many incarnations. Their recently released first album, Coming Home debuted at number one on Billboard's Bluegrass chart.
Since his early days as a teenage-champion bluegrass fiddler, to a pair of critically-acclaimed albums with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma, and writing concertos for fiddle, O'Connor has been comfortable in a variety of styles and genres - and even instruments. Before he settled on the fiddle, he was a sought-after guitar and mandolin player too. He sees the different facets of his musical life as all being related: "That draws a connection between all these American settings and styles and genres. And therefore, you don’t have have to have two brains to handle some of this stuff, you can just draw out the most important musical bridges which really helped create American music anyway. I mean, you wouldn’t have jazz without folk music, and you wouldn’t have bluegrass without the folk music that came before that." His newest ensemble is made up of some of his nearest and dearest: "My wife Maggie sings and plays the violin. And then my daughter-in-law, Kate Lee also sings and plays the violin, and then my son sings and plays the mandolin. We’re filled out by two excellent side men: guitar player Joe Smart, and bassist Geoff Saunders, who also doubles on the open-back banjo. We’re going to play in more of a bluegrass, contemporary 'New-grass/bluegrass' and Americana styles."
Friday, August 19
The San Francisco Choral Society presents one of the grand staples of the Choral/Orchestral repertoire, the Verdi Requiem tonight and tomorrow night at Davies Symphony Hall. Artistic Director Robert Geary describes it as an 'absolutely gorgeous' work, despite some early criticism that it was written in too much of the operatic style for which Verdi was known.
Robert Geary says this is the third time he's lead the ensemble in the sprawling work: "It’s amazing, because I always ask this question as we begin a new concert preparation. I say: ‘How many of you have never sung this piece?’ And it’s pretty much always like 50-50. So for a lot of them, it’s their first time, but then I can say: ‘How many of you have sung it twice?’ How many have sung it three times?’ And, you know, there are people that have sung it ten or twelve times, so it’s kind of fun to see whose hand is left in the air." There are four soloists (Hope Briggs, Edith Dowd, Noah Stewart, and Eugene Brancoveanu), off-stage trumpets, and the familiar and terrifying Dies Irae. "The chorus parts are inventive, and highly varied, extremely satisfying to sing," Geary says. "It’s fun to conduct too. It’s wonderful for the players, it’s wonderful for the singers, it’s wonderful for the soloists, it’s wonderful for the conductor, and it’s wonderful for the audience. It’s just plain a wonderful piece."
Thursday, August 18
The eight-voiced chamber choir called Gaude presents concerts in San Jose and San Francisco this weekend, with a program built on the themes of salvation and peace. The group's artistic director, Jace Wittig, and soprano Elizabeth Kimble give a preview of the program's repertoire, which spans eight centuries of the a cappella music tradition.
"I was actually very inspired by a piece of chant, Da Pacem Domine," Wittig says, "which has been used conceptually in a similar way, in the past by other ensembles, but I found a Mass that was based on that chant that I thought was really stunning." It's attributed to Josquin Desprez (although it might be by his contemporary, Noel Bauldeweyn) and Gaude will perform the chant, as well as three movements of that Mass. There are also works by Hildegard of Bingen, and contemporary American composer, Jan Gilbert, whose Grace to You was inspired by the sounds of the Greek Orthodox choral tradition, and resonates with Hildegard's style from eight centuries earlier. There's a set of pieces by Francis Poulenc, as well as a section from Herbert Howell's Requiem. As Jace Wittig explains, "Similar texts, texts that complement the text of the chant, ‘Give us peace o Lord, in our time, and who else but you would fight for us?"
Wednesday, August 17
Tonight cellist Maya Beiser premieres a work at SFJAZZ that was written to be a prequel to a piece she's played for more than a decade. Both pieces written for her by New York-based composer David Lang will be played on tonight's program: The Day, followed by World to Come. They're accompanied by video, and Beiser herself, in multi-tracked parts for cello and voice.
"World to Come was a piece that was commissioned from David Lang for me by Carnegie Hall 13 years ago," Beiser explains. "It’s a big piece, it’s a 25 minute piece with 24 pre-recorded cello tracks, and this beautiful video by Irit Batsry, and it’s become one of my favorite pieces… I’ve never done World to Come in San Francisco, believe it or not. Which is kind of crazy, cause I’ve been performing that piece for 13 years. But it’s the first time doing it in the Bay Area." Leading into it, though, will be the new piece. "David and I for a long time have been talking about creating a prequel for World to Come, because World to Come is… the idea is about a woman who dies, and the cello is the body, and the voice is the soul, and it sort of separates and then reunites. We wanted to create a piece that would be about who is that woman, and what was her life like. And so David created this piece called The Day, which is really about the day as a metaphor for one’s entire life." There's pre-recorded spoken text for that piece, which composer Lang created from searching for the term 'I remember the day that...' on the internet, and including memories from the earth-shattering to the mundane.
Beiser has also just recently released an album called TranceClassical, which begins with her nostalgic arrangement of Bach's Air, which she first heard on a scratchy LP of her father's, when she was a little girl on a kibbutz in Israel.
Friday, August 12
In an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts: Fantasia and Fugue. Both allow the performer (and composer) to show off their skills, but in a different way. A fantasia tends to be virtuosic, but at the same time should sound like it's being improvised. A fugue, in order for it to work, has to also meet certain formal expectations. Especially important: the opening subject needs to be one that the listener will be able to recognize each time it enters, in ever thickening textures of other voices. Counter-subjects need to flow out of what precedes them, and be able to follow the rules of harmony and counterpoint when played at the same time as the subject. It all needs to make sense both structurally, and just as importantly, to the ear.
How one writes a fugue really depends on the starting material; there are going to be some techniques that will only be possible if the subject allows it. Bach was especially talented at knowing what permutations would be possible based on any given theme: with a fugue for three voices, he might have two counter-subjects, each showing up in a different part in turn. And then for the final statement, they might each come in earlier, ending up overlapping to build tension.
Here's a quartet of singers (plus a string quartet) performing Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue":
Thursday, August 11
It's been called "the brightest and most powerful key" that expresses "joy, magnificence, splendor, and the highest brilliancy." E Major can sound shimmering, as violins can play their highest string without putting a finger on the fingerboard - but Beethoven never wrote a symphony in the key, and some of of the pieces with great Emajor melodies were middle and last movements of pieces in other keys.
Can you name these works? Click and drag over the white space below to highlight the answers:
Ponchielli: 'Dance of the Hours' from La Gioconda
Rossini: William Tell Overture
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, mvt. 3
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no. 2, mvt 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, finale
Wagner: Tannhauser Overture
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Grieg: 'Morning Mood' from Peer Gynt
Chopin: Etude, Op. 10, no. 3 'Tristesse'
Vivaldi: 'Spring' from the Four Seasons
Rossini: William Tell Overture
Wednesday, August 10
Violinist Pinchas Zukerman is the subject of a giant new box set, 22 discs of recordings he made for Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, spanning the years 1974 through 1996. As someone who has been performing almost 50 years, he knows his way around a recording studio. But that wasn't always the case.
Zukerman is at least a triple threat: on these recordings, he's showing his chops as a violinist, violist, as well as conductor. When he was starting to record in the late 1960s, the sessions would usually come right on the heels of a concert performance, when that energy was fresh. "I didn’t play in a studio before I played in public," he explains. "I had to play… we had to rehearse, we had to play the concert at least once if not twice… Like for example with [the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with] Lennie Bernstein, I rehearsed it and played it and the next day I came into Avery Fischer, at that time it was Philharmonic Hall, and I recorded it." But he didn't have that luxury for his very first session, with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra. "They phoned me and said, ‘You’ve got to fly over because you’ve got to save our neck and record Tchaikovsky’. I said ‘WHAT? I don’t know the orchestra, I’ve never been in the studio, I…’ They said, ‘Look, you have to do it!’"
Friday, August 5
Lamplighters Music Theater presents a brand new take on one of the staples of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory: The Mikado, which was originally set in the ficticious Japanese town of Titipu. This production has moved the location, after recent protests in various cities around the country object to what they see as 'yellowface' performances with non-Asian casts. Stage director Ellen Brooks says this adaptation (with only minimal changes in the text) takes the story to Renaissance Italy.
The new production is called The new Mikado - Una Commedia Musicale, but Brooks says the comedy and music translate well. "What I’ve discovered in the rehearsal process is, it’s the Mikado. It’s still the Mikado, no matter what you put it in," she says. It was a hard decision to make, and Lamplighters outlined their process in a letter to their audience on their website. The original plan of setting it in Japan during the Meiji period, a time of great social upheaval (which was also when Gilbert was writing the story) had to be changed after a strong protest was made. "We ran into a big resistance from the Asian-American theater community," Brooks says. "And they said basically that the piece was racist, which I do not agree with. But it could be done, if it were done with an entirely Asian cast. We went through a lot of discussion with Theater Bay Area and a number of other consultants, and finally decided we had to take it out of Japan to make this work. We’d eliminate the problem by taking it out of Japan." She says she knows it's also controversial to change G&S canon: "You’re always going to have critics… We discussed that a lot. There are people who do not want to see any change whatsoever, because they grew up, or were first introduced to this Mikado that’s in their mind."
Thursday, August 4
The American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy gets underway this weekend, with the theme 'An Italian Journey.' But Music Director Jeffrey Thomas says while there's music of Vivaldi, Corelli (and of course Bach), there's also a very special U.S. premiere of a work by Handel called Parnasso in Festa. The 10-day long festival has master classes, lectures, and performances, most of which are at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Thomas says the Handel work, which will be performed Thursday the 11th and Friday the 12th, will be a highlight. "The thing that’s most exciting probably for all of us here at the Festival and the Academy, is believe it or not, an American premiere, yet another one that we’ve found, I don’t know how this is possible nowadays, of a really major Handel work. A full three-act… (well, we cheat and we call it an opera) it’s really a piece for a royal wedding, but it’s quite operatic, but no set." It was transcribed by Steven Lehning, who plays violone and contrabass with ABS. One of the reasons there hadn't been a performance was because there was no performing edition, with individual parts for musicians. Lehning transcribed from the 19th Century complete works of Handel edition by Chrysander, to be able to generate computer-printed scores for this premiere concert.
Wednesday, August 3
To help celebrate their 25th anniversary season, Festival Opera is returning to the work that they began with... by way of outer space. Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio is mashed up with an episode of Star Trek in an adaptation by director and librettist Josh Shaw. Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony join the Festival Opera Chorus in four performances this Friday through next Tuesday.
It came about as a way of spicing up a dated libretto, and being able to stage an opera economically, but Josh Shaw has had success in several cities with this hybrid production. "If you take the people who know of Mozart, the most popular composer of all time, and cross that with the number of people that know the franchise Star Trek, you’re going to hit a huge percent of the population," he says. He developed it, complete with Vulcan ears, Klingons and cheesy scenery during a festival when he had a cast of singers but a tight budget. Fortunately, so were the creators of Star Trek. "They were always in financial trouble, they were always worried of being cancelled, and basically their set was always a couple papier mache rocks or something borrowed from a western, or whatever, and I can relate to that!"
Shaw says the retro-update has attracted a mix of fans: "It’s been super successful in getting regular opera-goers in the door, but then a whole new group of people who will come because they see a couple of pictures with a Klingon and a Vulcan…It’s become more of a phenomenon and a greater success than I ever thought it would be. It was really just a way to do the show in a somewhat interesting way that we could do on a budget, and it’s become a lot more than that now in its fifth or sixth run since the premiere."