Violinist Hilary Hahn (who's in town this weekend for a sold-out San Francisco Performances recital at the SFJAZZ center) has recently released a CD with an unusual pairing of repertoire: Mozart's fifth concerto, and Henri Vieuxtemps' fourth. The two pieces are linked for Hahn, because she began learning them both at the same time, 25 years ago, when she was 10.
The album is a tribute to two of her early teachers: Klara Berkovich, who she studied with from the age of 5 to 10, and Jascha Brodsky, who she studied with at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from 10 until he died seven years later. Hahn says Klara Berkovich was (and still is!) a great teacher. "I think she was being modest; she could have taught me everything from there on as well. But I think it takes a very wise teacher to know when a student could use another opinion. And I think it was more a matter of that than that she didn’t want to teach me any more, or that she couldn’t." And, she says, the transition between teachers was seamless, even though their approaches were different, because they were tailored to Hahn's needs. "When I started with Mr. Brodsky, there wasn’t much of a jolt in my training. It wasn’t like he had to start all over with me, retrain my technique. It was more that he took what she had taught me, and developed it from there."
Henri Vieuxtemps' Fourth Violin Concerto used to be an especially popular piece with Russian soloists, where the composer had great fame. " He was instrumental (no pun intended) in founding the violin school there in St. Petersburg," she says, "which is funny, because he’s Franco-Belgian. When you think of the Russian school of violin playing, the counterpart is the Franco-Belgian school, yet they came from the same place." She says of the concerto, "It’s this dramatic work, it’s very symphonic. Very operatic also. And it plays with the idea of solo versus collaborative. There are a lot of moments where an unusual combination of orchestra instruments will be playing with the soloist. And the solo part has to dovetail into what they’re doing, but then suddenly step forward and be soloistic again. It’s really like an ensemble play, or an ensemble opera performance."
Thursday, April 16
The term 'Tafelmusik' - which Georg Philipp Telemann used to call his three collections of quartets, trio and solo sonatas and concertos - had been around for about a hundred years, as a way of describing music that was appropriate to accompany a feast or banquet. On this A-to-Z edition, a look at some other Table Music, both figurative and literal.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber wrote a piece called Mensa Sonora, or The Sonorous Table in the 1680s, and it was already understood as a description for chamber works that weren't of a religious nature, which could be either instrumental or vocal.
Fast forward to the more literal recent past, when Belgian composer Thierry de Mey wrote a work for three percussionists to play using an amplified table:
A work that many attributed to Mozart (including the person who did this manuscript) is written in such a way that two players, across from each other at a table can read from the same score (the piece is also called The Mirror):
This duo is playing a longer version of the above, but you get the idea...
Wednesday, April 15
The San Francisco Girls Chorus will present the West Coast premiere of a cantata called Kinderkreuzzug, or "Children's Crusade," with a text by Bertold Brecht and music by the German-Kurdish composer Ralf Yusuf Gawlick. Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa explains that it tells a story of children in Poland during World War Two, orphaned by war, coming together to protect each other.
Lisa Bielawa founded the MATA Festival for young composers along with Philip Glass and Eleonor Sandresky back when, as she puts it, she was a young composer. And as a result made connections with other composers that have lasted since then. "Every year we had a call for scores, and young composers from all over the world send us things. And as a result, I’ve actually gotten to know hundreds and hundreds of composers of my generation, and it actually has given me an international community of colleagues, which is really tremendous. And one of the young composers whose work I was very impressed by was Ralf Gawlick... When I got the job with the Girls Chorus, I had a number of colleagues send me their choral works… actually I wrote to a lot of them and said, ‘hey, let me know if you have anything that might be of interest to us.’"
Gawlick's piece sets Bertold Brecht's epic poem Kinderkreuzzug for choir, and a chamber orchestra of strings, clarinet, and harp. "Children were orphaned by the circumstances of war," Bielawa says, "And those children in Brecht’s poem find each other, and form a kind of a roving unit of kids, of children, who come together to help each other survive. One of the things that is so poignant about this poem is that Brecht tells us that these children were from all sides of the war. They had in common that they were children, they didn’t have in common that they were all children of this or that nation, or this or that side of the war."
Tuesday, April 14
The Green Music Center has announced its schedule for the 2015-16 season, as well as its plans for both Weill and Schroeder Halls during the summer months. Co-executive Director Zarin Mehta says one of the guiding principals of programming the schedules was variety, with classical, world, jazz, and pop acts following eachother in close succession.
Just a random page in the brochure shows the varied programming, which Mehta says he prefers to seasons with a given theme. "To see this one after another: Chanticleer, Anoushka Shankar, then Chick Corea and Bela Fleck playing together, followed by Zap Mama and then Midori, and then Matthias Goerne doing Die Schöne Müllerin... We're slowly expanding the presentations, but trying to keep it eclectic as possible, so that you have people of different musical tastes coming to the center and talking about it, because word of mouth is the best advertising you can get." The season will begin with Lang Lang playing at the Gala, as he has done to kick off each of the previous 3 years. In the classical realm, there are other top pianists: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Andre Watts, Peter Serkin, and Yuja Wang; Daniil Trifonov will be playing with Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal with Kent Nagano conducting in March, and Cameron Carpenter will be playing the International Touring Organ in February; there are performances from violinists Joshua Bell, Augustin Hadelich, James Ehnes, and Midori; chamber ensembles include Philharmonia Baroque (2 other programs in addition to Messiah), Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Pacifica Quartet with pianist Manahem Pressler, the Juilliard String Quartet, Kahane/Swensen/Brey Trio; standout singers include Chanticleer, Soweto Gospel Choir, The King's Singers, as well as operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and bass-baritone Eric Owens. Other musicians who defy pigeonholing are sitarist Anoushka Shankar; Chris Thile, who'll play a program of Bach on his mandolin; Chick Corea and Béla Fleck together in concert, and the Belgian/African ensemble Zap Mama. The 'world' music has another African pairing, of Habib Koite and Vusi Mahlasela in March, and there are Irish, Scots, Indian, and Latin American performers too.
Schroeder Hall will be in use during the Summer (as will Weill Hall and its lawn, beginning with a Fourth of July concert) - with a Chamberfest series of performances of music by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, culminating with a performance of the Brandenburg Concertos in Weill Hall. The series is being led by Jeffrey Kahane, who told Mehta about a succesful program that he had curated back before the new hall had been built. Throughout next season, Mehta says, there will be three continuing programs making use of the smaller venue. "Having a 250 seat hall has allowed me to bring in things that I can’t put into a 1400 seat hall. Already I’m bringing things in a 1400 seat hall that should be in a 900 seat hall. But that’s OK. I accept that. But a young man coming in, doing a song recital in a 250 seat hall, it’s perfect." So there will be a Saturday cabaret series, 'Sundays at Schroeder,' as well as a compact series of four programs by Musicians from the 'Valley of the Moon Music Festival'. In an appropriate bit of programming, Margaret Leng Tan, 'the Queen of the Toy Piano' will be giving a concert in the hall named for the other champion of that instrument. She called Mehta, who responded with delight: "It was an ‘aha moment’, there’s no question about it. I didn’t even think twice about it, I said ‘You’ll have to close next season.’"
Monday, April 13
The Lavrova/Primakov Duo plays a recital this Saturday in Cupertino, through the Steinway Society Bay Area. Included on the concert will be one of the Two-Piano Suites by Anton Arensky, a set of works that was responsible for them not only becoming a performing team, but also deciding to start their own record label, LP Classics.
They met back in the late 1990s, when they were studying at Juilliard, but they were focused on their classes and beginning their solo careers. It wasn't until about four years ago, when a friend introduced Vassily Primakov to the two piano suites of Anton Arensky that they considered joining forces. "I have to confess," Primakov says, "I didn’t know those pieces at all, even though I’m Russian, and it’s kind of shameful. I knew of Arensky’s music, but wasn’t familiar with any of his 2-piano suites, and apparently there were four. I just fell in love with the pieces, and so I called Natalia, and I said, ‘Listen, I think we’ve got our project – if we want to do something together, this is it.’" They began to play together, starting with the Arensky suites, and after a few years, thought they should record them - since part of the reason they were a discovery to the duo is that very few recordings existed at that point. They contemplated seeking out a record label to make the recording, but finally decided on creating their own, LP Classics. Since they began, they've had two primary goals: recording under-represented repertoire, by young, up-and-coming performers, and re-issuing recordings of performers from the past - beginning with Russian pianist Vera Gornostaeva, whose recordings were suppressed during the Soviet Russia era.
The duo's program in Cupertino also includes works by Saint-Saens, Lutoslawski, Scriabin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, with a bit of a 'theme and variations' theme - the third of the Arensky Suites has the subtitle 'Variations', the second half opens with Lutoslawski's two-piano take on Paganini's famous caprice for solo violin, and Saint-Saens revisits a piano sonata in his 'Variations on a Theme of Beethoven', op. 35.
Friday, April 10
Symphony Silicon Valley will be providing the soundtrack to the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy in live performances next week in San Jose. The musicians, joined by the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, Cantabile Youth Singers and Ragazzi Boys' Choir, have been rehearsing the hours and hours of Howard Shore's through-composed score. General Director Andrew Bales gives a look at the logistics behind the concerts.
Accompanying classic films has become a popular way of introducing movie lovers to the concert-going experience, but as Andrew Bales describes it, the trilogy is "...this generation's 'Ring Cycle'. To take nothing away from Wagner's Ring Cycle, this is an epic of that same scale." And the preparations that have gone into the project are staggering. "Choirs, and orchestras… I mean, we’ll have 250 people performing for every one of these shows... You have to find the rehearsal time to do an entire season’s worth of music in two weeks. The score is some 12-hundred pages long. The length of music for each movie is effectively the length of what we would do at a Classic concert… two of them, so it’s two classic concerts each night, and you’re doing three of them. So that’s 6 programs of material."
Before the season began, this project wasn't part of the plan. In September, Andrew Bales heard that a production was being mounted on the east coast. "Once I heard it was being done in New York – there’s a Swiss orchestra coming in to do it, we called up and said: ‘Listen, we have to do it here.’ Symphony Silicon Valley, when we asked to do it, we realized, and in fact they realized, that it had never been put together this way. You had never tried to assemble all three movies, all the choirs, all the orchestras together, when they hadn’t already played them all before." Bales says the experience of all the action, sound effects and dialogue on screen with live accompaniment should be thrilling for fans of the film: "It's just a little sort of hyper-realism to have all that music coming at you."
Thursday, April 9
Cappella SF and Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin present a program called 'Symphonic a Cappella: Grand Repertoire for Voices' this Saturday night, at the Mission Dolores Basilica. The composers range from Gabrieli to Lidholm, plus a world premiere by their composer in residence, David Conte, with works that split the ensemble into as many as 16 independent parts.
The program is roughly chronological, beginning with Gabrieli's "Omnes Gentes Plaudite Manibus", taking advantage of the acoustics of the Mission Dolores Basilica by having four quartets of vocalists singing antiphonally to eachother. Then the Bach motet "Der Geist hilft uns'rer Schwachheit auf", and a set of three pieces by Josef Rheinberger from his opus 69, "Drei Geistliche Gesänge". Bohlin says: "And from there, we’ll go super Romantic, with Richard Strauss ‘Der Abend’ – his 16 part motet. It's a big piece. It starts with a serene high-G drone, for tenors and sopranos staying there forever forever, while the lush harmonies come in and out underneath it...A text by Friedrich Schiller, depicting a sunset as a meeting of the sun god and the sea god. Strauss didn’t write much choral music, but the few pieces that he did write are really masterpieces. It’s just super romantic and lush. If you like Strauss, you’re going to like this piece." Then there's a work by Krzysztof Pendercki, the Song of Cherubim, which was premiered at the 60th birthday gala concert for the Polish composer's Russian friend, Mstislav Rostropovich. "Where we’ve sort of done what we can within the tonal framework, that’s when we turn to Penderecki for something contrasting... It is in Church Slavonic, so it definitely has its musical roots in Orthodox, Byzantine music. You can hear the Western Christianity side of things, you hear remnants of Palestrina, Josquin… But it’s very Russian in a sense." Rounding out the program is a setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" by Bay Area composer Elliott Encarnación, and the world premiere of a work by Cappella SF's composer-in-residence, David Conte, called "Slumber Song."
Wednesday, April 8
Opera San Jose presents a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, running from the 18th of April to May 3rd. Director Brad Dalton says along with the memorable music, fun, and comedy, there are also some existential discoveries made along the way by the prince Tamino as he pursues the lovely Pamina.
When we first meet Tamino, he's slaying a dragon, and acting as a heroic prince might. But Brad Dalton says the journey and quest he has to go on for the remainder of the opera is harder: "‘Flute’ is an opera about growing into maturity, from sort of first-half of life ego to second half of life, getting outside of yourself, recognizing community… Of course it’s a fun opera, and there’s lots of lightness, and it’s just the funnest and most wonderful and joyous piece, but within that I’ve tried to emphasize that Tamino is living in a world of illusions." Namely, he comes to the realization that he's been lied to by the Queen of the Night and the three ladies who serve her. They told him Pamina was being held by the evil sorcerer Sarastro. "One of the things about Magic Flute that I love is that Tamino stops in the middle of act 1, two thirds of the way through act 1, and he realizes that everything he assumed is true in life is NOT true. And that is one of the most astonishing moments in opera, to me."
The stage design for the two acts represents this growth and realization. The opera opens in an elaborate set: "a very very beautiful Baroque theater with Baroque scenery, and flats and flying and it’s very charming, and it’s very quaint… And it sets up the whole fun of the theatricality of the first act, and doors opening and closing for comedy, and curtains going up and down, and things moving before your eyes. And then in the second act, things become much more spare. And it’s a beautiful beautiful place with a lot of reflective floors, a lot of mirrors." When they succeed in the trials that Sarastro puts them through, Pamina and Tamino don't just stay there in his realm, as is frequently the case. In the Opera San Jose production, Dalton wanted them to return to both the Baroque theater of the opening, and more importantly, to the real world, where they can use their new-found wisdom to rule well and make society a better place, in keeping with Enlightenment Era ideals.
Tuesday, April 7
Stanford's Cantor Arts Center has just opened an exhibit of works by American artist Jacob Lawrence, called 'Promised Land' - pieces that will remain part of their permanent collection, thanks to a gift by the Kayden family. Director Connie Wolf says they're particularly excited to have the works because despite his popularity, Lawrence hadn't been well represented in the Bay Area.
Lawrence had success in selling works beginning at a relatively early age, compared to the popular conception of the struggling artist, and was creative for decades, which makes the Kayden family gift all the more significant. "They got to know Jacob Lawrence very early on in his career, and stayed with him to collect work at every stage of his career," explains Connie Wolf. "So this is an unusual collection in that it spans so many decades. He was a very prolific artist, and so this exhibition of 56 works allows us a view of these different stages of his career." But although he sold works, and they might be very familiar, Wolf says he's not necessarily a household name. "His work was collected by the Museum of Modern Art, by the Whitney Museum of American Art, by the Philips Collection. He has had such a career on the East Coast, and yet here in the Bay Area, his presence has been really not very strong. Lawrence was an artist who was appreciated, but at the same time, wasn’t embedded into the sort of canon of Art History, American Art History… And yet there’s a kind of a renaissance of his work now." In fact, there's a show that also just opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that features his 'Migration' series.
Above is 'Construction' from 1952. Wolf says it's a theme that Lawrence returned to many times in his career, as he documented the African-American community. "On first glance, it’s about construction. But yet you recognize it’s about hard work, building a future. It’s about individuals making a difference, about individuals coming together to build something together, it’s about hope... It’s so meaningful… it’s got layers of information, and meaning and expression."
The haunting painting 'The Ordeal of Alice,' which was created at the height of the fight for Civil Rights, has a young African-American girl in a white dress, pierced by arrows, but steadfastly holding on to a pile of books. "So there’s a sadness, and yet there’s also a sense of hope. That’s what I feel is so powerful about his work. And the color certainly does create that sense of possibility. He uses such vibrant colors, and he takes those colors really from the street scenes of his life, whether he was living in Harlem, his travels to Africa, and later in his life when he lived in Seattle, Washington. And while the African American experience was his subject matter, it is powerful to see and recognize that it has meaning today for all people."
Monday, April 6
The Cypress String Quartet presents their 16th Call and Response concert this Friday night, at Marines Memorial Theatre, with a premiere of a work by French composer Philippe Hersant that was written to be paired with the other works on the program, a Beethoven 'Razumovsky' middle period quartet, and Bartok's Quartet no. 4. Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explains they share a source of inspiration: the outdoors at night.
The quartet has had an impressive roster of composers participate in the series, including Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts - this is Philippe Hersant's second time. "He was our Call and Response composer in 2012, he wrote an amazing quartet for us, the third quartet, and we immediately looked for an opportunity to commission him again." Despite a very full schedule, Kloetzel says, he agreed. "He’s been so busy, we were really lucky to get on his dance card. He told us he didn’t have time, but he would do it anyway. He just wrote a really great piece for the 850th anniversary of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and now he’s working on something for some big anniversary at Versailles, for next year. So he’s very popular in France." This piece,“Der gestirnte Himmel” means 'The Starry Sky' in German. Kloetzel says it has that title because of the inspiration for Beethoven's Op. 59 no. 2. "So much of Beethoven’s music, we’re not sure the exact inspiration, and this one, there are two sources, plus part of Beethoven’s conversation books that talk about the second movement coming from Beethoven taking a walk outside at night, in Baden. I’m imagining back to 1806, when you’re walking outside in Baden at night, how many stars you can see." At the same time he was writing this quartet, Beethoven was reading a work of the philosopher Kant that was all about 'The Starry Sky.'
And although Bartok never fully explained what it meant to him, he described several of his works, including his fourth string quartet as 'night music.' "There are usually lonely melodies, solitary lonely melodies, with held dissonant harmony, that’s number one, and number two, the sounds you would hear in the countryside in the summertime, so imagine crickets, owls hooting, peeper frogs…" The third movement, right in the middle of the five sections especially includes those kinds of sounds.
Friday, April 3
On an A-to-Z edition of "The State of the Arts", it's three 3 "G" instruments that are slightly off the beaten track - Gamba, Gamelan and Glass Harmonica. Early music fans know the viola da gamba: played between the legs (gamba is Italian for 'leg') like a cello, it differs by having frets on the fingerboard, more strings, and a different shape, including a broader neck. It was especially popular in England, where it was known as a 'bass viol' - and where it was fairly common to find matched sets of instruments, or 'consorts of viols' that could be taken out to provide ready entertainment for company.
Gamelan is really a shorthand to describe a gamelan ensemble, a group of traditional Indonesian instruments, played by multiple players, consisting of gongs, metallophones and drums. The exotic sounds and scales, along with their complicated cyclical patterns appealed to Western composers such as Debussy and Satie, when they first heard the music, at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Bay Area composer Lou Harrison is among the best known composers of recent times to write for an American variant of the gamelan. Here's an idea of what a traditional gamelan ensemble looks and sounds like:
Finally, the glass harmonica or armonica, the name Ben Franklin gave his invention, is a more practical arrangement for allowing a player to rub moistened fingers along the edges of tuned glasses or in this case, bowls of fine crystal. Here, you can see a glass harmonica player in action (in Ben Franklin garb):
Thursday, April 2
The organizers of the Switchboard Music Festival decided this year to end their 8 hours of new music at the Brava Theater in San Francisco with a new work, based on an influential piece celebrating an anniversary this season. In C by Terry Riley turns 50, and the festival will headline a collaborative re-imagination of the piece by more than fifty composers.
Co-founders of the festival Ryan Brown and Jeff Anderle, and co-director Annie Phillips seized the opportunity for a collaboration of this scope when they realized that the original In C, as influential as it has been, would have been the oldest piece of music they'd ever included, had they programmed it for the festival. Phillips says the original is made up of 53 'cells' - short phrases that are accompanied by a pulsing metronome-like high C ostinato. "We decided to get together with 51 of our best composer friends, and have everyone contribute one snippet. We start with Terry Riley’s original first cell, and everyone starts together, and everyone repeats the first cell as many times as they see fit, and then when they feel it’s time to move on to the second, they move on to the second cell." The cells were also written in the 'exquisite corpse' style: that is, each composer only saw what would either immediately precede or follow their own cell. Anderle says the contributors could really do whatever they wanted to: "We didn’t set any actual guidelines. Terry Riley had some key areas that he moved through, so the harmony does change as the piece goes on. There’s a section where the rhythm gets a little more complicated, as composers sort of wanted to use that, and it’s hard to know how much of that is their own style versus responding to the other cells that are there. The shortest one is a note – I think a single note, someone did just one note, and the longest one is ten or fifteen seconds, maybe, with sixteenth notes in it."
The communal nature of the piece - in both its original version, and this one - calls for players in whatever numbers, to play any instruments. And Ryan Brown says that made it a natural choice for the grand finale of the festival. "Part of the appeal of it was that we always have 8 hours’ worth of musicians on one of our festivals, so this seemed like a great way to encourage people to stick around and all come back on stage for one final piece together. So, it’s largely going to be made up of people who are performing that day anyway, with some selected guests."
Co-Directors Ryan Brown, Annie Phillips, and Jeff Anderle:
Wednesday, April 1
LINES Ballet will be dancing to music provided mostly by mother nature in the premiere of Biophony beginning this Friday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Specifically, to soundscapes that were recorded in the field by bio-acoustician Bernie Krause (with just a bit of orchestral help from composer Richard Blackford). Choreographer Alonzo King was immediately intrigued by the work that Krause has done, documenting the sounds of vanishing habitats. They'll also reprise their Concerto for Two Violins to music of Bach played by members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
Bernie Krause has spent his career in soundscape ecology recording and otherwise documenting complete natural habitats, and describes them as 'The Great Animal Orchestra' - he wrote a book of the same name, and collaborated with Richard Blackford on a symphonic piece to prove his point. "This is our proto-orchestra. This is where we got our music," he says. "These soundscapes are examples of the original scores. These are sonic narratives, from which we learned originally to dance and sing. The proto-orchestrations that we’ll hear in the ballet informed us about melody and rhythm and harmony and dissonance. You can see in a healthy habitat how each of the critter voices finds its own niche, whether it’s a frequency niche or a temporal niche. It’s that kind of organization of sound that we learned orchestration from." Alonzo King was eager to connect motion to these sounds. "Because they’re so deep and so natural, and also sound sometime like instruments, it inspires you to move in the way that drums do. Particularly when you’re a child and you hear drums, you move – there’s a part of a body, you know, they connect to the heart, you feel it."