San Francisco and the Bay Area have some of the world’s best-known performing arts organizations and cultural offerings. As a listener-supported station, we think it’s important to let listeners know about activities, concerts, soloists and ensembles coming through the area, and with that we offer you this daily feature. The State of the Artson Classical KDFC airs weekdays, just before 8 am, 1 pm, and 6 pm. The features are produced by Jeffrey Freymann, a veteran of National Public Radio’s Arts Desk and Performance Today. Tune in, subscribe to the podcast, visit this page to hear the latest edition of Classical KDFC’s The State of the Arts! Or explore the archives of past episodes.
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:
Thursday, September 3
The Golden Gate Bridge is the most-photographed bridge in the world. And that magnetic attraction for cameras extends to Hollywood, too. Whether it's as a backdrop, a pivotal plot point, or being attacked by the elements (or giant sea-creatures) the bridge has proved irresistible to film makers, with several more added to the list this past summer, including San Andreas, Terminator: Genisys, Ant-Man, Pixels, and even Inside Out.
The iconic bridge, still going strong more than 75 years after it was built, has been used as a shorthand to establish a Bay Area setting.
In the movie Foul Play, after she's driven down the coast accompanied by the Barry Manilow song 'Ready to Take a Chance Again," Goldie Hawn's character rounds a bend in her yellow VW Bug and a helicopter shot reveals the span ahead of her.
More recently, it's appeared in both of the two "Planet of the Apes" reboots - with an attack on the cars crossing the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and ten years later, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, weeds and moss cover some of the familiar and iconic International Orange paint, as mankind has been all but obliterated.
In 1978's Superman, the Man of Steel keeps a schoolbus full of children from falling into the water after an earthquake caused by Lex Luthor rocks and damages the Golden Gate.
The climactic fight between James Bond and the evil Max Zorin (played by Roger Moore and Christopher Walken) takes place atop one of the towers, to which his blimp is tethered, in A View to a Kill.
Here's a trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which features the bridge prominently...
And It Came From Beneath the Sea, which pits a giant octopus against the Golden Gate:
Wednesday, September 2
On an "A to Z" edition of The State of the Arts, a look at musical Notation... which, like any writing, allows one person to transmit an idea to another without having to meet in person. A composer today can, it's true, make a recording, or even Skype into a rehearsal and let the players or conductor know how the performance should go... But the system of notation that's developed since the middle ages means that composer should be able to send a score off knowing it will be performed more or less as intended.
The standard of music notation that we use today is efficient - on a conductor's score, each individual line corresponds to an instrument or section of the orchestra; reading from left to right, you're moving forward in time... and at any point along the way, reading the page vertically will give a snapshot of the harmony being played.
The standards of notation have been slowly refined over the years, although some of the principle ideas are very similar to the time of Gregorian Chants - when musical scores began to have an early "staff", and the direction of melodies were determined by the placement of the noteheads. The shapes and groupings of the noteheads indicated their duration, and how the pitch would be approached - connected or detached from the note that came before, or with an ornamental melisma. But the text determined the rhythm and phrasing, and since they were sung in unison, dividing the melodies into measures wasn't necessary.
Here's an example of J.S. Bach's handwritten manuscript, using notation that's much more familiar to anyone who's studied music. The staves are joined into a treble and bass grand staff, which is used for keyboard music, although this looks like one of the many Chorales that Bach wrote or reharmonized - which could be either played or sung. There are barlines separating the measures, and each of the four independent voices has a different rhythmic feeling. The melody in the soprano is slow and even, the bassline "walks" at a steady clip, and the tenor voice has 'dotted' rhythms of long notes followed by short ones, in almost a heartbeat dah - - dit, dah - - dit pattern.
This single measure from Chopin's Nocturne, Opus 2 No.1 trips off the fingers of a well-trained pianist, with a pattern of 22 notes meant to take the same amount of time as the 12 notes in the left hand. By not making the notes line up exactly, he creates a slightly relaxed and rhythmically free feeling (rather than one that tries to exactly work the math out precisely.)
In Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, he does away with the barlines altogether at times; the piece is fiendishly difficult (but fortunately, it's only for one performer, and not an ensemble that has to stay together!)
Friday, August 28
The new orchestra called California Sound Collective presents its inaugural concert Sunday the 30th in Benicia's Community Congregational Church. The ensemble is conducted by David Ramadanoff, but he's not the music director; it's a cooperative effort with the diverse programming selected by the artistic planning team.
David Ramadanoff, who ended his tenure at the Vallejo Symphony at the end of last season, was approached by some of his colleagues: "There are some wonderful musicians, some of the finest players in some of the orchestras in the Bay Area who had been interested for some time in forming an orchestra that was self-governed, and that could also be flexible in size… and could do a mixture of classical and non-classical music." There will be 35 players in their first concert, but Ramadanoff says they hope to be able to perform works for as few as two and as many as 90 players, eventually. They're also hoping to partner with communities in the northern East Bay, and would like to be able to have a festival of some sort by next Summer. This concert is the first public step in the process. "We wanted to get the feel of what it would be like to do this together," Ramadanoff says. "To go through the planning process, to get to know each other in this new role. I’m working with players in a way that’s very different. And that’s very exciting."
The program will show the variety of repertoire the group is capable of, with two contemporary pieces: Gridlock by Dan Becker and the first movement of Doug Opel's Soul Settings Triptych; "We really felt we needed to do some good, fun standard repertoire, so we’re doing a Mozart D major Divertimento, which is just full of joy throughout; our wonderful harpist, Anna Maria Mendieta, has made almost a second career, in addition to playing in orchestras, of doing tango music. And so we’re doing two movements of a Piazzolla tango suite." To wrap up the concert, there's Jaques Ibert's Divertissement. Ramadanoff says they know they're fighting for any potential audience's attention, but concerts are special: "Let’s go to a concert as a communal experience, rather than experiencing it in our headphones and sharing about it on Twitter. We’re trying to find ways of providing programs in doses and in variety that will attract people."
Thursday, August 27
Conductor Teddy Abrams, who got his musical start in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, began as music director of the Louisville Orchestra at the beginning of last season at the age of 27. The PBS web series Music Makes a City Now traces his introduction to the community, and how he's tried to make the orchestra relevant throughout his first season at the helm.
The ensemble has a history going back to the mid-1930s, but it made a big name for itself in the late '40s into the '50s as a result of an unprecedented commissioning project. The charismatic mayor of Louisville was a fan of contemporary classical music, and he was able to move a project along that had composers like Virgil Thomson, Darius Milhaud, Ned Rorem, Roy Harris, and William Schuman (and dozens more) writing works that would be premiered and recorded by the orchestra. (The documentary that tells this early story and inspired the new web series can be seen here.) The group has faced economic difficulties again and again (even as they were being invited to play a program of commissions at Carnegie Hall in New York, they were on the verge of bankruptcy, and did reorganize under Chapter 11 in 2011.
They pinned their hopes on the energetic protege of Michael Tilson Thomas, Teddy Abrams, whose views of music are all-inclusive: "If we all just approach it as 'we’re just going to make music together,' it doesn’t really matter what the person is, it matters just what they bring to the table musically The music that has been around for 300 years, or 400 years is the same essential language – it gets to the same kind of core of what musical tones mean to us as something like jazz, or even most pop music. It’s all sort of in the same kind of connecting language." So on a season with Mahler and Beethoven, there was also the "Time for Three" trio, and a bluegrass inspired composition in the tradition of a double concerto. As he says in the first episode, "the direction we should be going with music is one where we show people person to person why what we do is important. Why what we do is meaningful, and changes lives."
Wednesday, August 26
The piece Benjamin Britten decided to count as his first opus is part of the program called 'An English Portrait' as the concert series called Curious Flights returns for another season this Saturday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Artistic Director and clarinetist Brenden Guy says the other works on the concert all come from England of the first half of the 20th Century.
The aim of the series is to shine a light on lesser known, and new works - this concert is made up of English vocal, choral, piano, and chamber works. Guy says he wanted to celebrate for this particular program, "kicking off the season, almost like a party. We’ve got so many different artists, and a variety of different instruments and ensembles." Soprano Julie Adams will sing John Ireland's set of Songs Sacred and Profane; the St. Dominic's Schola Cantorum choir will perform a set of pieces by Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Gerald Finzi; there's a Sonata for Two Pianos by Arnold Bax, as played by Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi.
Herbert Howells' 'Rhapsodic Quintet' was written for clarinet and string quartet, and Brenden Guy will play it with the One Found Sound quartet. "Howells is pretty much known for his choral works," Guy explains. "This work was influenced by Vaughan Williams… It’s very lush and romantic, tonal, but not in a necessarily predictable way. The famous [quintets] from Brahms and Mozart – I wouldn’t try to compare them, necessarily, but this one certainly stands up as a piece that really should be far more well known than it is." Wrapping up the concert is the piece that Britten decided should mark the beginning of his official output, his Sinfonietta, Opus 1. "He was only 18 at the time, and it was sort of a statement of his belief in the piece, to call it his opus one, because it really – to him, he believed it was worthy of kickstarting his catalogue. It actually demonstrates a highly mature approach to composition, and in fact if you listen to it and his subsequent works, you can really hear the seeds for what was to come."
Friday, August 21
Saturday the 22nd is the birthday of Claude Debussy, the quintessential French composer who blazed a trail into the 20th Century, abandoning traditions of scales, orchestration, form and structure. His music, which he didn't like to be called "Impressionist", nonetheless does get coupled with the works of painters like Monet, who were experimenting with new ways of capturing the play of light and shadow. Debussy in his works did sonically capture an 'impression' or an atmosphere, rather than trying to tell a story, or being constrained by bar lines or traditional rules like sonata form.
Debussy began studying at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 10 - and won the Prix de Rome for composition while in his early twenties. It was the landmark work Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, though, inspired by a Symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, that as musicologist Harold Schonberg put it, "set twentieth-century music on its way" in 1894. In it, beginning with a solo flute that floats through time, Debussy challenges notions that had been followed from the Baroque through the Classical and Romantic eras. Here's Leonard Bernstein conducting a performance:
His only opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, showed him taking another direction, rejecting Wagner and the German tradition, and creating a new French one. He had plans to compose another opera based on the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edward Allan Poe.
Here's a performance of one of Debussy's most famous works: the closest he got to writing a symphony, the depiction of the sea called La Mer, conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Thursday, August 20
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:
Wednesday, August 19
The Slavyanka Russian Chorus presents three performances of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, (sometimes just called his Vespers) music that was written a century ago at a time when not just Russia, but the entire world was rapidly changing. With the first World War underway, and the Russian Revolution ahead, Rachmaninoff wrote a work that was deeply tied to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Although he wasn't an overtly religious man, Rachmaninoff grew up surrounded by the music of the Orthodox church, especially the chants and bells, both of which are incorporated into the Vigil. Artistic Director of Slavyanka, Irina Shachneva says there was a sense of continuity in those traditions. "A hundred years ago, the world was in a war. Rachmaninoff, as all genius people, composers, poets, artists… they felt very strongly the atmosphere of the particular time, and Rachmaninoff himself felt that something will be happening to his motherland...The old chants – from their understanding – keep this direct connection with God, because it’s not been broken for a thousand years. It was like a huge message to generations… From generations and to all generations right now, that might be a human prayer for peace."
One of the founders of Slavyanka, Paul Andrews, says the work holds a special place in the Russian Choral repertoire. "The only thing comparable to it, I would say, would be the B Minor Mass [of Bach]. Because it’s this… It’s a great liturgical piece that’s obviously meant for more than a Sunday service. It has this sublime, other-worldly kind of feeling to it, that’s really heavenly. And that’s a different kind of spirituality than I think most of us are used to in the West." Irina Shachneva points out that it was composed very quickly: "He wrote this for just two weeks… and then he said himself later, ‘I didn’t know that I wrote myself such beautiful piece…’ so he was surprised. I think he had some helper above to create this music just in time."