American tenor Bryan Hymel's CD, called 'Héroïque' begins with an aria from Rossini's Guillaume Tell that forever changed the way composers would write, and tenors would sing. It was the first time a high-C was sung with a full "chest voice" - not using falsetto, and it upped the stakes of opera-going for generations.
Bryan Hymel - although he's from New Orleans, his name is pronounced the French way, 'ee-MEL' - describes the over-the-top nature of the repertoire on the disc this way: "If you think of Hollywood blockbusters of opera… that would be the French grand opera. I mean, they all had a ballet, they were all five acts, they were all really long and it was all about the complete spectacle." And one of the reasons they're not as frequently performed as some of the other types of operas is they're prohibitively expensive to stage, because of lavish sets, but expecially finding the right casts, because there are a lot of important and difficult parts. "Certainly, you have to have a very strong cast," Hymel says. "Not just one or two really strong singers. You need four and five really top-notch singers, and it’s hard in this day and age to get a cast like that together, for them to be able to carve out that much time in their schedule, because you can’t put a Robert le Diable together in the same amount of time that you can a Carmen or a La Boheme."
The final high C in his aria from Guillaume Tell seems to go on forever, but he explains that it really was the result of a mispronunciation. He had completed one take for the recording, and thought he and the chorus would be moving on to the next aria, when the head of Warner Classics had a quibble with the pronunciation of the final word he had to sing. "I guess because I was so jazzed after thinking I had finished that piece, and was ready to go to the next one, I got an extra-long high C in there. I was particularly proud of that one. Someone wrote to me saying it clocks in at somewhere between nine and a half and ten seconds... If you’re going to hold it, you have to hold it in 4 measure increments, cause if you go halfway through, it’s just obvious, the music says ‘oh, he couldn’t hold it to the end of the next one.’"
Tuesday, May 19
On an "A-to-Z" edition, a Reflective look at Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody... The not-quite piano concerto that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote, inspired by the 24th of Niccolo Paganini's Caprices - the theme and set of virtuosic variations originally written for solo violin (allowing the composer to show his prodigious talent). One of the reasons for the continued popularity of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is the beautiful 18th variation, with a melody quite unlike the theme at first glance.
It wasn't the first time - nor the last time - the tune would be used by another composer. Liszt adapted the Caprices, and Brahms wrote two books of variations for the piano - just on the 24th alone. It had a lot going for it as a theme, as Paganini demonstrated in his variations, with a strong enough harmony suggested by only the violin, and a form that echoes each four bar phrase, a composer could change a lot, and still remain recognizable, and not make the audience lose its place in the tune.
For the 18th variation, Rachmaninoff took the opening theme and inverted it - going down when the theme went up, and vice versa - to discover the memorable lush melody that's so memorable:
(The eighteenth variation begins at 14:42 in this performance)
Monday, May 18
Oakland Ballet is celebrating its 50th anniversary season with a special show at the Paramount Theatre this Saturday afternoon called 'Five Decades of Dance Performance.' Artistic Director Graham Lustig says it will include some of the Diaghilev-era historical works that the company has staged, along with new 'birthday presents' by choreographers associated with them.
Lustig says the program honors the legacy of company founder Ronn Guidi, who was behind the historical restagings of works by Nijinsky and his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, Mikhail Fokine, and Léonide Massine, many of them having their first United States performance on the stage of the Paramount Theater, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Some of those works will make up the first half, including a complete version of Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. "But Mr. Guidi also nurtured Bay Area choreographers," Lustig says. "Val Caniparoli, Betsy Erickson, and artists like Alonso King were invited to make some of their early works. And in act two, we’re presenting what I’m I’m calling ‘birthday presents’ by Betsy Erickson, Val Caniparoli… I’ve made a new work, Michael Lowe has also made a new work." So have Robert Moses and Amy Seiwert, and there will be revivals of Ronn Guidi's The Secret Garden,Billy the Kid by Eugene Loring, Carlos Carvajal's Green, and Love Dogs by Alonzo King.
Friday, May 15
Tomorrow night Michael Tilson Thomas follows through on a comment he made to composer John Cage many years ago, at the premiere of a work called Renga. It was written for the U.S. bicentennial, but Cage said it could also honor an artist. MTT and the San Francisco Symphony will do so, using it as a "rainforest of sound" in a program dedicated to his works.
It will begin with an earlier work by Cage, from 1947, his The Seasons, which was written as the score for a Merce Cunningham ballet. It's a traditionally notated work, unlike the other piece on the program, Renga - which will be the orchestral backdrop for ten other works that will be performed by small ensembles around the hall. Academy Award-winner Tim Robbins will be participating, reading Cage's 'Lecture on Nothing' from his book called Silence. MTT says the piece, which is for 78 unspecified instruments or voices was written in 1976. "It’s a piece written to celebrate the Bicentennial originally, a kind of collage environmental piece… But he said it could also be used to commemorate a departed artist, or great sage, or a philosopher. And I actually kind of joked with him, all those many years ago, and I was present when the premiere of this piece took place, that one day I might do just that, and I would do it about him – and that’s exactly what we’re doing."
The "score" is entirely based on the musicians' interpretations of graphic notation that Cage created using sketches made by the writer Henry David Thoreau in his notebooks. In keeping with the idea of 'Renga' - a Japanese collaborative poetry tradition, the musical gestures are set within specific blocks of time, but what those gestures translate into (and even which instrument they're played on) is up to the individual performers. Meanwhile, there will be a video component to the concert, as well as these other works all happening: Litany for the Whale, Cheap Imitation, Sonata for Clarinet, A Room, Suite for Toy Piano, In a Landscape, Child of Tree, Ryoanji, and Hymnkus.
Thursday, May 14
A.C.T.'s new venue, the Strand Theater officially opens today - although the first performances there of Caryl Churchill's Love and Information won't begin until the third of June, and the neighborhood open house is on the morning of Saturday, June 13. Artistic Director Carey Perloff gave a tour of the theater, which includes two separate performance spaces, in a historic building just across from Civic Center on Market.
In the shell of a theater that began as 'The Jewel' in 1917, and which underwent several namechanges and ownerships before it became the Strand in 1928, the new spaces will serve as a more intimate and flexible alternative to the Geary Theater, to present both student and professional performances. "We wanted 300 seats, or less than 300 seats," Perloff says. "We wanted a sweet, intimate, but expansive theater that we could do a wide variety of work to nurture new artists, new audiences, new forms of theater, to introduce our incredible artists in training, and to complement the Geary." She also hopes that it will help invigorate the Central Market neighborhood, and act as a hub for the community.
The Toni Rembe Theater will seat an audience of 283, with no seat farther from the stage than 52 feet - and can transform easily into cabaret-style seating as needed. The Rueff Theater, located upstairs, can seat 140, and can either take advantage of the view of City Hall, or entirely black it out. Between the two, in front of the staircase in the two-story lobby, is a 28 x 18 foot LED video display, which Perloff describes as "not a movie screen... it's sort of an art screen."
Wednesday, May 13
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.
Tuesday, May 12
The mythological tale of Pandora, who opened the box that contained all the world's ills - leaving only hope - is the inspiration for a new cross-disciplinary work called Pandora's Gift, by composer Mark Winges. There's a libretto by Denise Newman, and choreography and stage direction by Erika Chong Shuch, who has been working with Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir for the performance.
There's more information about the performances at the Volti website.
The unusual work, which will have choir members as well as Robert Geary in motion, began as a suggestion from the conductor to Winges. "Bob wanted a piece that was more than a ‘stand-and-sing’ choral piece. So he wanted something with movement that had a plot or a story." After some back and forth, they came up with the idea of the Pandora tale, and enlisted both a librettist and stage director. Erika Chong Shuch says she feels her job is to provide another window into the music: "Sometimes it feels like the way to support the story of the music is to have a moment of really poised stillness, very specific stillness. Sometimes it’s a unison gestural vocabulary that brings everybody into the same experience, sometimes it’s a lot of chaos, acting like a lot of bugs scurrying across the floor… and we’re working with young people with good knees so they can do that."
Approaching the project, Mark Winges knew that there were going to be these other, non-musical aspects to the performance, and kept Erika Chong Shuch in mind. "In thinking of writing the music, I wanted to make sure there was room for her to do her work. And it’s been incredible to watch her work, because it’s a wonderful confirmation that I didn’t totally guess wrong. I think I’ve left room for the visual to happen." He says single character of Pandora is often taken up by the entire ensemble. "And while there are some passages that are solo singers, for the most part, it’s the whole group. And to me, I think that allows an audience to sort of project more of themselves in it, because you haven’t got the focus of a certain person that’s making sure you feel a certain specific way. It’s a little more general than that, in a very inviting way."
Monday, May 11
The Oakland-based Community Women's Orchestra is celebrating its 30th season this year, and included in their Spring concert on Sunday afternoon is the world premiere of a commission by one of their members: a Concerto for Four Bassoons by June Bonacich. They'll also play works by Schubert, de Falla, and Handel, led by musical director Dana Sadava.
The piece was commissioned by ensemble bassoonist Barbara Jones about a year and a half ago, and after Bonacich finished it, had been planned to be included in last Fall's concert, but it was decided to hold off on the premiere to coincide with their anniversary. "We’re celebrating 30 years in the community this year, so we’ve been partying all season, and this piece has kind of become the focal point of our celebration," Sadava says. "I think it’s really awesome – we’re so lucky to have our own composer-in-residence as a community orchestra. That’s incredibly rare, so it’s been an absolute privilege to work on this piece." Each of the bassoonists is given an opportunity to solo during the work, but they remain very much a quartet as well. And, Bonacich says, they even do some choreography.
Here's a picture from a rehearsal last week:
The concert will be held at the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland on Sunday afternoon at 4, and the program, called 'Sirens of the Stage' also includes Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony, the Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla, and 'Largo' from Xerxes by Handel. Dana Sadava, who was assistant conductor for the ensemble several years ago, is in her first year leading them. She's proud of her orchestra, and their priorities: "Commissioning new pieces, playing pieces that have already been written by female composers, and we also have an assistant conductor scholarship program, and promoting the women in our ensemble, because they’re the best treasure we have."
Friday, May 8
Pianist Stephen Hough will be presenting a solo recital through San Francisco Performances next Tuesday night at the SFJAZZ Center, with a program of Debussy and Chopin... and if by any chance he doesn't have an opportunity to warm up, he'll still be fine - thanks to a bit of advice he received when he was young.
Many performers have elaborate rituals that they go through before concerts -- Glenn Gould used to soak his forearms in hot water before performances -- but Stephen Hough has made a point of never depending on any of them. "My main teacher, Gordon Green," he says, "told me never to begin by doing exercises or warmups. He said ‘begin with a piece,’ because, he said, there will be a time when you’re travelling and playing, if you have a career (I was about 10 or 11 at the time) when you won’t be able to warm up, and you’ll have to walk out onto the stage and play cold." He says unexpected flight delays, traffic, any number of snags could mean that time isn't available.
But when he does set about practicing, he has another habit that has helped ensure no one part of the piece gets too much attention. "I very rarely begin at the begininning of the piece practicing. I came across this with the Chopin third sonata, the B-minor sonata. Both when I played it myself and when I was teaching it in a master class. I realized that people played the exposition, the first part of it, much better than they played the recap. And it was because they always practiced it more. They started there every time, and so by the time they got to the recap they’d kind of had run out of steam… and so they’d never given the same attention to that." Instead, Hough likes to mix it up: "If I’m practicing Brahms’ second concerto, I never begin at the beginning, and just go all the way through. Tuesdays I might just do the second movement, and then the third and fourth together, or start with the development of the first movement, and then go back to the beginning. So I’m actually making sure that everything is equally looked at and prepared."
Here's Stephen Hough discussing Chopin and Debussy, whose music he'll be playing on Tuesday:
Thursday, May 7
The program, set long ago, for the next concert this Sunday afternoon by the San Francisco Bach Choir, is called 'Love, Loss, and Landscape' - and given recent events in Nepal, Artistic Director Magen Solomon says they've decided to make it a benefit concert, with a portion of their ticket sales going to earthquake relief. The program stretches across centuries, including the Liebeslieder Waltzes by Brahms.
Magen Solomon was planning a program that would be a bit of a departure for the ensemble. "I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the repertoire that the Bach choir doesn’t usually get to do… We obviously do a lot of Bach, we do Baroque music, we do Renaissance music, but I thought it would be interesting to have a program that was based around a concept: how love and loss are often expressed using landscape as a way of talking about it – and this was of course particularly common to the Romantic poets." The concert begins with one of the very early pieces of notated music - 'Sumer is icumen in' - and ends with Brahms' Neiue Liebeslieder Waltzes (accompanied by Steven Bailey and Mai-Linh Pham on the piano.) In between, there's Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure, plus music by Haydn, Bartok, both Mendelssohns (Felix and Fanny) as well as settings of folk tunes.
The decision to contribute to earthquake relief was straightforward, Solomon says: "I was preparing for the concert, and this horrible news was coming from Nepal, and I thought, you know, we live in a landscape that is very prone to earthquakes, and our concert is about love and loss... and it just seemed like everything came together in a way to say this is something that we need to think about as well. It sounds incredibly corny, but I really do think music is something that crosses all the bounds, that connects people around the world. And this seemed like the right opportunity to say ‘we care… our music is somehow connected with the horrible situation that you’re dealing with.'"
Wednesday, May 6
When Irene Dalis retired after a 20 year career singing with the Metropolitan Opera, she returned to her hometown of San Jose... not realizing she would spend 30 years at the helm of the country's only resident opera company, Opera San Jose. Just before her death last December, she said she didn't want a funeral - but would like a fundraising concert to be held on the date that would have seen the vocal competition bearing her name.
There's more information about the Memorial Concert, including the lineup of alumni who will perform, at the Opera San Jose website.
Larry Hancock, the General Director of Opera San Jose says Irene Dalis always put great importance on the time she spent in northern Germany, after spending time in Milan on a Fulbright scholarship. It was an opportunity to learn by actually performing. "Her career, she always felt, was established by her two years at Oldenbourg, where she sang the roles that she was going to use the rest of her life." And so many years later, she took that as a model for the resident company she would create. She was lured out of retirement by San Jose State University, asked to teach an opera workshop, which became so successful, it prompted her to act: "She had so many professional caliber singers – 85 singers in the opera workshop – and she felt many of them were ready to launch careers, and what they were having to do was to go right back to Germany. There was just no place for a person who was ready to begin singing professional roles to start in this country – there just weren’t enough opera companies. And so she said, ‘well, you know what, I’m just going to make one.’"
Here's a profile of Irene Dalis that was produced by KTEH-TV:
Tuesday, May 5
It's that time again - your chance to sing the national anthem at AT&T Field, before the "Opera at the Ballpark" simulcast of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro on Friday, July 3rd. KDFC's Star Spangled Sing-Off video submissions can be uploaded here, where you can find complete rules. By way of inspiration, here's a selection of some of the contestants from previous Sing-Off competitions.
The performance of The Marriage of Figaro by the San Francsico Opera will be beamed across town to the ballpark, where in the past few years, more than 26,000 spectators watched La Traviata and Rigoletto on the outfield screen.
Monday, May 4
The program that Smuin Ballet is calling 'Unlaced' includes a world premiere by Adam Hougland, Helen Picket's Petal, and a pair of dances choreographed by the late Michael Smuin: Hearts Suite inspired by the music of Edith Piaf, and the Balcony pas-de-deux from his setting of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Dancing that duet are Erin Yarbrough and her fiancé, Jonathan Powell.
Erin Yarbrough danced in the pas-de-deux seven years ago, coached by Michael Smuin before his death. It's from a full setting of Romeo and Juliet that he choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet in the 1970s. "Although the choreography has been around for a while, it still is completely vibrant and so satisfying to watch," Yarbrough says. "I love Michael Smuin’s version. His choreography is beautiful, and has all that tenderness, but also exciting lifts… and it really expresses the music well." And Jonathan Powell adds: "From shyness and coyness and nervousness, to full-on passion." It's a demanding duet, that combines tenderness with athleticism. "I’m trying to be the character of Romeo, but I’m also trying to remember, ‘Don’t mess up this lift! Really throw her in the air or else it’s not going to work.’ I want her to be safe, so I’m not throwing her as hard as I can, but I have to throw her as hard as I can or else it won’t work."
The pair of dancers is a couple off-stage as well, engaged to be married this Summer. Powell says that helps in his performance: "I’m much older than Romeo’s… what, 16? So I try to act a little bit immature, and bright-eyed and optimistic about everything. And I’m really in love with her, so I get to feed off of that, which I hope the audience can see." And for her part, Erin Yarbrough, who joined the company 12 years ago, seven years before Powell, says that also agrees with her character: "Juliet was a little more mature than Romeo… and I have a little more experience than this Romeo. So it’s really been fun to watch him grow as a dancer and a partner."
Friday, May 1
The 78th consecutive Stern Grove Festival will continue its run of admission-free Summer concerts starting on June 14th, with its 'Big Picnic' kickoff featuring the Doobie Brothers and the California Honeydrops. Festival Executive Director Steven Haines says the 10 Sunday afternoon shows will bring together a range of acts from hip-hop, Hawaiian, and country to the San Francisco Symphony and Ballet.
Here's a quick overview of the 10 concerts (which all begin on Sunday afternoons at 2):
June 14th: The Doobie Brothers and the California Honeydrops
June 21: Pacific Mambo Orchestra, with guests Sheila E., Marlow Rosado and Salsamania
June 28: Randy Newman and Hot Club of San Francisco
July 5: San Francisco Symphony - Edwin Outwater conducting, with featured vocalist Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, soprano Julie Adams and mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier.
July 12: Amy Hānaiali‘i and the Stern Grove Festival Orchestra and Halau ‘o Keikiali‘i
July 19: tUnE-yArDs and DakhaBrakha
July 26: San Francisco Ballet
August 2: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bhi Bhiman
August 9: Morris Day and the Time and Con Brio
August 16: Talib Kweli and Zakiya Harris featuring Elephantine
The Festival is 78 years old this year - and as it has from the start, includes both local, as well as national and international performers. "We have no cookie-cutter approach to it," Steven Haines says, "but first and foremost we always ensure that every performance has a San Francisco/Bay Area artist, which is how our founder, Rosalie Meyer Stern envisioned this festival 78 years ago. It was really to give performance opportunities to Bay Area musicians." Making the arts accessible in unexpected places goes back to their roots as well, so they'll be continuing their outreach series of events too this year, including one this Mother's Day. "We created a program called ‘Grove on the Road’ – and it really was about creating these little pop-up mini Stern Grove Festivals. It was kind of this reimagining of what cultural space can be. It's similar to how Stern Grove Festival was created nearly 80 years ago, when Mrs. Stern said ‘Let’s put a performing arts center in the middle of a redwood and eucalyptus grove.’"