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 Arts on Classical KDFC airs weekdays, just before 8 am, 1 pm, and 6 pm. The features are produced by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, a veteran of National Public Radio’s Arts Desk and Performance Today. Tune in, subscribe to the podcast, or visit this page to hear the latest edition of Classical KDFC’s The State of the Arts! For the complete archive by month, click here.
Guitarist Miloš Karadaglić plays at the Bing Concert Hall for the first time next week, wrapping up the Stanford Live summer concert series with a solo recital. He's also got a recent CD called Aranjuez, with music by two of the great master composers for his instrument: Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla.
The importance of Rodrigo to the classical guitar repertoire can't be denied - "He wrote the most recognizable piece of guitar music in the world," Miloš says. "And he wrote a lot of other pieces like the Invocation and Dance (which is on the record), and a lot of other solo pieces and a few other oncertos... But he, with the Concerto put the guitar on the map, and made it stronger, and made it more proud next to other instruments on the international concert platform." The Concierto de Aranjuez, with the rhythmic flourishes of its opening movement, and melancholy adagio are instantly recognizable, and sound like they fit the instrument perfectly. But in fact, Rodrigo was a pianist, and as Karadaglić explains, "that's why he famously writes things which are almost impossible on the guitar. But at the same time, he keeps the sound of the guitar so perfectly, and so naturally that it feels like he was a fluid guitarist himself."
Wednesday, July 30
The three-weekend Lake Tahoe Summerfest begins its third season this Friday night, with a program of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Britten, with guest soloist, tenor Matthew Polenzani. Leading them is Artistic Director Joel Revzen, who conducts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where 17 of the 40 orchestra members play). The festival will also feature pianist Simone Dinnerstein during its second week.
Joel Revzen says the orchestra's players have been so impressed with the experience of the festival that practically all of them have returned each of the three years - and that he's frequently asked by members of the Met orchestra whether there might not be openings for more players. Currently there are about 40 in the ensemble, and they play their concerts in a 500-seat acoustically designed tent and shell. "To hear music played in a really compelling way in a small space, an intimate experience," Revzen says, "I think creates an emotional response that you don't get when you're in a twenty-eight hundred seat hall, and sitting that far away from the music."
The players, which also include principals from Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle, Dallas, Vancouver, Toronto, and one from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, gather for a concentrated burst of music-making. "We do six orchestra programs in the first three weekends in August, and we do three programs that we call 'Meet the Music, Meet the Musicians,' which is a chamber music format, but we try to create an event around each of these Sunday concerts," Revzen says. Each of them has a unifying theme, and this year, it's a city that has inspired the music on the programs: Vienna, Paris, and London. "We also do children's concerts on Sunday morning (both the second and third Sundays). We've invited the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, so kids performing for kids. And the third Sunday, we're doing the Britten Oboe Quartet, and Poulenc's L'Histoire du Babar, The Story of Babar, the little elephant."
Friday, July 25
ODC/Dance will be presenting three performances next week of their 'Summer Sampler' - the first of which will be a benefit for their musical collaborator, cellist Zöe Keating, whose husband was diagnosed with metastatic cancer earlier this spring. They'll dance to a recording of Keating's original music, which she played live for the premiere of choreographer Brenda Way's Breathing Underwater two years ago. Also on the program is Way's Lifesaving Maneuvers, along with musical guests, the Magik*Magik Orchestra and Pacific Boychoir Academy. Scramble, another work choreographed by KT Nelson will appear on the other two programs, and danced to a recording of another cello work - Bach's unaccompanied suite no. 6.
Zöe Keating, who has been called an "Avant Cellist", creates her music with a combination of acoustic cello and computer technology. For the premiere of the piece Breathing Underwater, she accompanied the dancers live, playing one part on the cello, and building up an evolving set of musical layers with her computer. "Here I have a phrase," she explained in 2012, "and now I'm going to play another phrase, and another. And those prases are both melodies and parts of a whole. And it's very organic and incremental in that the phrases have to go together, work vertically and horizontally, and I just really like that process of fitting them together. It's kind of like a game of Tetris." Keating also provided accompaniment for a dance ODC performed this year, called Boulders and Bones, choreographed by Brenda Way and KT Nelson. She said the way she composes is like dance itself, growing out of improvisation. "I've seen dancers work where they have their little phrases that they're working on, and they become enamored with a particular phrase, and then they might build an entire piece around that phrase - and that's how I do it. Since I have to perform all the parts sequentially as I record them, they all have to fit together. I can't have any wasted effort: I can't just go off and do some solo that isn't going to have anything that will fit with anything else later. So it's kind of like this experiment in efficient movement. Also something like dance."
Here's a video showing her process of layering ideas:
Thursday, July 24
Music@Menlo's theme for their festival this summer is Around Dvorak... But as in past years that had a composer as the focus, the programming isn't limited to his works. In fact, one of this season's special guests (who will be leading an 'Encounters' series presentation tonight) isn't a musician at all - but is historically connected to the works that will be performed on Friday and Saturday nights: William Lobkowicz, whose ancestor, the seventh Prince Lobkowicz was a benefactor and dedicatee of Beethoven, Haydn, and others.
William Lobkowicz came to be invited to take part in this year's festival after forming a friendship several years ago with co-Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han. The musicians were travelling in the Czech Republic, and went into the palace that bears his family name. They asked if they might be introduced to someone from the family (as Finckel says, to express their gratitude for the music the patronage allowed to be written) and hit it off. William Lobkowicz had grown up in the U.S. (his father had come to the States as a refugee from the Nazis, and then the Communists in Czechoslovakia) and only was able to return to reclaim his family's property and belongings after the Velvet Revolution. Miraculously, the collection of 4,500 musical scores, 65,000 books, three to four million documents (including letters from kings and queens, and Beethoven), three castles and a palace weren't destroyed either by the Nazis or Communists. "What we're doing really is trying to take the mantle of this family history, but it's really a world history, and present it for the world... Because none of these things were ever open to the public before," he says. They don't have the benefit of the riches that the Seventh Prince had, despite all the treasure in the collection. Their hope is to create a center for European Cultural Heritage, since the reach of the family goes back far before current geopolitical boundaries existed - through the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empire, back to when what is now the Czech Republic was just a part of Bohemia.
The music on the program Friday and Saturday nights is Haydn's Quartet in G, Op. 77, no. 1; Beethoven's first Quartet (Op. 18, no.1) as well as the tenth, (Op. 74) known as "Harp", which will be played by the Danish String Quartet. Baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Gilbert Kalish will also play An die ferne Geliebte. Those were just a handful of works that were dedicated to Lobkowicz (as well as the Eroica, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Triple Concerto). William Lobkowicz says his ancestor might not have been fully rational when he decided to spend his fortune that way, but, "What is a patron? A passionate, really crazy person who just said, 'You know, the money is just the money. We have to do this. I have to do this. I have to do these things."
Wednesday, July 23
The trio Time for Three is made up of a pair of violinists and a double bassist (Zachary DePue, Nicolas Kendall, and Ranaan Meyer) who met when they were studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. What began as a bit of spontaneous 'jamming' in various styles has led to a successful career for the group as artists-in-residence with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and a brand new self-titled CD through Universal. They'll be playing at Yoshi's on the 30th, and then at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in early August.
Renaan Meyer says that their collaboration was, at first, just a way to play together and let off steam while at music school: "We got a gig to play down in D.C., and we were told we needed to put 25 minutes of music together. We were already jamming, just having a good time after orchestra rehearsals, and we were getting paid a little money, and getting a limo ride down to the gig.. Really we were doing it for all the perks as college kids, because we just wanted to have some fun." But he says the reaction they got made them take things a bit more seriously. "We played, and the audience loved it, and they wanted us to do an encore. We didn't have an encore, and we're shrugging our shoulders thinking, 'Man, this is really going well, maybe we should do this again.' And we did - and we had a similar reaction. So then we thought: 'this started organic, and that's all great, but now let's maybe put some thought and time into this and see what happens.'"
Their career as a trio got a boost when they were named Artists in Residence at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Zachary DePue has ben Concertmaster since 2007. They've been in that position for five seasons, curating a "Happy Hour" concert series there that appeals to younger audiences, as well as stretching the boundaries of expectations of Classical Music. Some of the collaborations that they've had over the years are revisited on their new CD - with Alisa Weilerstein, Branford Marsalis, Jake Shimabukuro, and singer songwriter Joshua Radin appearing, with others. "We thought that the most authentic way to put our foot forward," says violinist Nick Kendell, "was to introduce the world to our natural affinity towards collaboration with artists that are as varied and diverse as our own musical tastes as a group."
Friday, July 18
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!)
Thursday, July 17
This marks the fortieth consecutive season of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, which opens with a concert at the Bing Concert Hall this Saturday night - which fittingly includes the 40th Symphony of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (Or, as Music Director George Cleve points out, K. 550). There are concerts at Stanford and Berkeley this weekend and next, and San Francisco on Friday the 25th.
George Cleve says the idea for the festival was inspired by a local opera production he was involved with: "Some forty years ago, I was conducting a production of Seraglio with San Francisco Spring Opera, and after the rehearsal, some of the players and I would get together... and the gist of what we were talking about was 'This really is the best music, you know -- wouldn't it be fun to actually have a Mozart festival?'". Since that first year, he's been programming works that are both familiar and new. "I've always tried to combine the well-known, I wouldn't say the top ten, but maybe the top 150 with some of the works that have never been performed in the area, and in a couple of cases never been performed!" So for example, this year's first program, along with Mozart's 40th symphony and the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, there are two arias: "Chi sa, chi sa" and "Vado, ma dove" which were written to be inserted into another composer's opera.
The second program, which will also have a San Francisco performance on the 25th at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, will include the San Francisco Boys Chorus for Missa Brevis in C Major (Spatzan Mass) and selections from the Magic Flute, along with Laudate Dominum, a piano concerto with Seymour Lipkin as soloist, and pointing back to the festival's origins, the overture to Abduction from the Seraglio. Cleve describes his love of Mozart this way: "I feel a certain at-homeness with Mozart. I believe it was Artur Schnabel, the great pianist, who once said that 'Mozart is too easy for children, and too difficult for adults.' In answer to people who say 'How come it comes so naturally to you?' I say, 'Well, probably because I've remained a teenager all my life.'" There will be a wind serenade from last season's Midsummer Mozart Festival on this Sunday night's edition of Bay Area Mix.
Wednesday, July 16
Tomorrow night the Merola Opera Program class of 2014 gives gives the first of their two Schwabacher Summer Concerts at Everett Auditorium in San Francisco - a program they'll repeat at Yerba Buena Gardens in a free event on Saturday afternoon. Two of the singers, Alexander Everett and Talya Lieberman give a bit of a preview.
There's more information about the program and events at the Merola website.
The program will include scenes from Amboise Thomas' Mignon, Handel's Semele, Verdi's Luisa Miller, Rossini's Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and Bizet's Carmen. It's the half-way point in their season, which has included two perfomances of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, and in two weeks a staging of Don Giovanni.
The so-called 'Opera bootcamp' gives the singers (as well as the apprentice coaches and stage directors) an opportunity to be immersed in opera training that's tailored to their strengths and needs. "There's a little bit of something for everybody," Alexander Elliott says. "But the nice thing is, no matter what your experience or your age, there's going to be plenty to improve on while you're here. We're working with extremely talented coaches, pianists, conductors, directors." And Talya Lieberman describes it this way: "It's kind of heaven... I mean, we get to work with the best of the best of the best all the time. It can get a little stressful as a young singer, to have a lot of opinions coming at you, but I think that's part of what we're doing now... sifting through what works for us and what doesn't, and finding our own voice."
Friday, July 11
The Sphinx Symphony Orchestra will be in residence at Napa Valley's Festival del Sole for its ten day run, made up of talented young black and Latino string players. They've provided both mentorship and accompaniment for the young participants in the annual Sphinx competition. In addition to smaller concerts at the festival's various venues, the full ensemble will play a pair of concerts with Pinchas Zukerman, one at the Lincoln Theater, and the other at the Green Music Center.
Sphinx Organization Executive and Artistic Director Afa Sadykhly Dworkin says the 60-piece orchestra (and various smaller incarnations, including their Sphinx Virtuosi chamber group) will be playing in many concerts - accompanying Pinchas Zukerman and tenor James Valenti in their major concerts, as well as Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and the Bouchaine Young Artist concerts. (One of those will feature the winner of the 2014 Sphinx Competition's Senior Division, bassist Xavier Foley.) Leading the Zukerman concerts will be young conductor Alondra de la Parra.
Here's a bit of background on the revolutionary Sphinx project, with its aim of increasing diversity in symphony orchestras by promoting education and mentoring:
Thursday, July 10
On an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts, Anne Akiko Meyers playing Vivaldi on Vieuxtemps' Violin. That is, the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesu that was crafted in 1741, the same year that Vivaldi died. It had been stored under a collector's bed in London for fifty years, and Meyers' most recent CD marks the first time it's been recorded.
Meyers was already playing a 1697 Stradivarius, but It's very rare for such well known instruments to come on the market, and she ended up not being able to pass up the chance to play it. "These kinds of violins always go directly to a museum," she says, "And so, hesitatingly I tried it, and completely was blown away. To smithereens. This violin belonged to Henri Vieuxtemps, in the 18-hundreds, the 19th Century violinist and composer who was the biggest violinist after Paganini. And he loved this violin so much he actually had it carried on a pillow behind his hearse on his funeral day."
The "Vieuxtemps" hadn't been shown that kind of love by its last owner - "It was sitting under a very discriminating bed of the collector in London for the last five decades, so it really hasn't been performed on much. And the violin just craves to be played. And it's just such a joy to perform on it. How could something hot and cold... and the moon, the stars, and the sun all exist in one piece of wood? How is it possible?"
Here's a teaser for the new album that includes the Four Seasons, as well as the Concerto for Three Violins by Vivaldi - all played on the "Vieuxtemps" by Anne Akiko Meyers:
Wednesday, July 9
The Mendocino Music Festival celebrates its 28th season this year, with a lineup that includes a healthy dose of classical offerings... plus music from a wide range of other traditions: blues, bluegrass, Celtic, big band, jazz, and even flamenco. There's also a series of events celebrating Bach (and the importance of beer to him and his contemporaries), all under (or near) the big tent overlooking the coast. Festival co-founder and Artistic Director Allan Pollack gives a preview.
Allan Pollack began the festival with his wife, Susan Waterfall (still Associate Artistic Director) and the late Walter Green, who was a longtime principal bassoonist with the San Francisco Symphony. The first season was in 1987, and began solely devoted to classical music. "Since the beginnings as a classical music festival," Pollack says, "we have expanded, and we have all different kinds of music, from blues to bluegrass. We have a big band concert on one of the evenings this summer - we're doing a tribute to Aretha Franklin." That concert will star jazz singer Kim Nalley. Among the classical soloists this season are Bay Area favorite Frederica von Stade and pianist Stephen Prutsman, who'll play both Mozart and Bach concertos; the Calder Quartet and father and son Paul and Stefan Hersh will play chamber music, as will the principals of the Festival Orchestra. And there's also a staged performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
The Claire Lynch Band will play bluegrass, April Verch Band brings a Canadian take on Celtic music, and Juncal Street, the Flamenco group of Fanny Ara will give an evening performance in the tent concert hall. Allan Pollack says the diversity of the programming comes from his and his wife's own tastes - classically trained as a conductor and composer, Pollack also was a jazz player for many years in the Bay Area. "We're a bunch of peolple that love every kind of music. I mean, we'll sit down at night and listen to a Mahler symphony, we'll listen to an opera, we'll listen to Aretha Franklin, we'll listen to Michael Brecker. People tend to want to put things in boxes... It's a wonderful festival, and anybody from San Francisco that loves practically any kind of music can come up and hear it."
Thursday, July 3
The percussion section stretched its definition a bit in 1880... When Pyotr Tchaikovsky decided the best way to commemorate a military victory over the forces of Napoleon would be to use actual cannons to amp up the volume and excitement of battle. And so, in the 1812 Overture, there between the percussion and the string sections, is a part for the Cannon player. Considering its reputation, it's surprising that there are only 16 blasts of the 'instrument' in the entire work.
The score is interesting to look at as well, to see that Tchaikovsky asked for three different dynamics for the 'notes' the cannon is to play. The first five, during the statement of La Marseillaise, France's national anthem (although not in use by Napoleon at the time of the campaign to Moscow) are marked ff - fortissimo. It's not until the final flurry of the conclusion (when firework shows generally are pulling out all the stops) that he asks the player to play fortissississimo... ffff.
You can see some of the spectacle of the finale in this performance from the Proms at Royal Albert Hall:
Wednesday, July 2
This summer's Opera at the Ballpark on Saturday, July 5th will bring San Francisco Opera's production of La Traviata (starring Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello as Violetta and Alfredo) to an expanded audience at AT&T Park, watching from the outfield and stands. The husband-and-wife leads have also just released a CD called Love Duets.
Beaming the production to the DiamondVision scoreboard at the park means the opera will be seen by a larger, and in many cases newer audience than at the opera house. Stephen Costello recommends keeping your eyes on the singers. "For a newbie opera person, I would say... forget about the subtitles and just try to see how much you can understand visually. By their interactions, and by the music. Because Verdi does a great job of painting a picture in the music. You can kind of just realize what's going on - maybe not word for word, but you'll get a good understanding of it. And I think you'll walk away enjoying it a lot more."
Pérez and Costello (who have been described as the "Beyoncé and Jay-Z of opera" by Vanity Fair) each have been successful on their own - they both were awarded the Richard Tucker Award, given to promising young artists 'poised on the edge of a major national and international career'. Costello was memorable as Greenhorn in Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, and Pérez has made Violetta one of her signature roles. They've had a chance to play opposite each other in La Traviata several times before. "From the downbeat of act one," Pérez says, "you can hear this strain of tragedy in the violin, in the interludes... Verdi wrote this musical moment where the world stops, right before Alfredo begins his line 'Un dì felice...' This magical moment when he just appears and declares his love. Not only his love. I think that what really transforms this story from any other is that he talks about this universal love: this love that makes even the universe stick together."
Friday, June 27
The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of both ending its season, and celebrating Benjamin Britten's centennial - with a semi-staged multimedia performance of his opera Peter Grimes, and shining the spotlight on what was originally incidental music from that work: his Four Sea Interludes. Video artist and filmmaker Tal Rosner has used the music to create a visual work that use images of bridges and water from the hometowns of four orchestras, essentially 'scoring' with visuals the music that Britten wrote.
The project had its seeds in a piece Tal Rosner created several years ago, when the New World Symphony's hall in Miami was just being built - and the orchestra was looking for examples of video pieces, based on musical works that could take advantage of their built-in projectors and screens. "I chose 'Sunday Morning' from the Four Sea Interludes," Rosner says. "It's a piece that I knew quite well, I knew the opera, it's one of the first operas that I was introduced to, and I knew... the ins and outs of it." Flash forward several years, and with the Britten 100th anniversary being celebrated this past season, the San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony were joined by the L.A. Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra in a commission for a multimedia piece to be a part of the commemoration.
This is the west coast premiere of the work, which takes the four movements, "Dawn," "Sunday Morning," Moonlight," and "Storm" and treats each as a tribute to each of the locales of the commissioning orchestras. Rosner will be able to mix the video live as the orchestra is playing, because each visual cue is created to be able to transition smoothly into what follows, allowing for differences in tempos by the various conductors (he worked with multiple recordings while putting the video together, and got a sense of where the music might contract or expand.) "The intimacy of my relationship with the piece just grows every time I perform it," he says. "Because ... I just really know it by heart, without being able to read music, because I've listened to it so many times!"
Thursday, June 26
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...
Friday, June 20
The Stern Grove Festival's concert season begins this Sunday afternoon with what they call the "Big Picnic" - the admission-free concert that starts it all off will feature R&B legends Smokey Robinson and Patti Austin. Executive Director Steven Haines gives a preview of just some of the performances that they've planned for this summer.
Steven Haines says they're expecting 12-thousand people or more to come to the opening concert - which continues the 77-year tradition of free performances in that location, down the hill from 19th Avenue and Sloat. The line-up this year includes: Allen Stone and Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna (June 29); Edwin Outwater conducting the San Francisco Symphony in an American-themed concert (July 6); a New Orleans-themed show with the Funky Meters and Sugar Pie DeSanto (July 13); Pupy y Los Que Son Son and Vieux Farka Toure (July 20); Rufus Wainwright and Quartet San Francisco (July 27); Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory along with Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors (August 3); Darlene Love and the Monophonics (August 10); Sergio Mendes and LoCura (August 17); and The Zombies and Vetiver (August 24).
Here's a little introduction to the Stern Grove Festival experience (including none other than KDFC's own Rik Malone):
Thursday, June 19
The Lyric Theatre presents a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic The Mikado this weekend and next at the Montgomery Theater in San Jose. Director Mark Blattel says the plot, although complicated, is about things that aren't limited to the times of Victorian England... like poking fun at the pompous.
Both Blattel and Assistant Director Laurie Hupman joke that (although complicated) the plot of The Mikado is refreshingly coherent - there are no "dangling bits" that leave the audience asking questions. Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado, is in love with Yum-Yum, who is ward of (and engaged to) Ko-Ko, who has been named the Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu. Ko-Ko was to have been beheaded, but since being named Executioner, can't carry out his own sentence, thwarting the romance of Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo (who is disguised as a wandering minstrel.) Mark Blattel says frequently it helps to know some of the intrigue and gossip of Victorian England to understand W.S. Gilbert's lyrics, but less so in this case. "What he was aiming his satirical arrows at was, I think, a little more general than he may have been in some of his other shows, and so what he's making fun of: pompous, overbearing officials - they're timeless."
Wednesday, June 18
The Ojai North! Festival begins at Cal Performances tomorrow night, running through Saturday night. One of the highlights is a very unusual comic opera, with a libretto by pianist Jeremy Denk, and a score by Steven Stucky. Its characters include no less than Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and has as its inspiration a famous book about music theory and analysis, its namesake: The Classical Style, by musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen.
Jeremy Denk was friends with Charles Rosen, who died in 2012, and who (like Denk) was a performer, writer, and thinker about music. His adaptation of the material departs quickly from the original text, with the characters of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (bored with Scrabble games in heaven, and feeling less and less relevant in today's musical world) coming across the book by Rosen, and then going to search for the author himself. "It was a really weird idea, I thought," says composer Steven Stucky, who Denk wanted to collaborate with. "I had no idea how to do it. It would have been, and now is, my first opera. So I kept giving them phone numbers of other composers. And then Jeremy started sending me pages of the libretto, which would make me fall off my chair laughing. And I was hooked pretty quickly."
The opera is just one of the features of the festival, which also includes performers like the orchestral collective known as "The Knights" - the chamber music group that includes the quartet Brooklyn Rider and their collaborators; Uri Caine and his ensemble will re-imagine works of Mahler with a jazz sensibility; there's Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins from Storm Large; Denk himself will play works by Ligeti, Ives, Janacek and more. Here he gives an overview...
Friday, June 13
Composer Jennifer Higdon didn't grow up expecting to be a musician... She started teaching herself to play the flute when she was 15, and when she then wanted to study music, it was to become a performer. But she caught up with some of her more precocious peers, and is now among the most sought-after composers. She's won the Pulitzer prize, and her just-finished opera of Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, will premiere in 2015.
Higdon says the first time she was asked to write a piece of music - by her flute teacher, she was hooked: "Just the act of putting notes to the page and then handing them to someone to perform, it resonated in such a way that I thought, 'oh, I might want to do this.' And after writing a second or third piece, I knew without doubt that that's what I wanted to do."
Her late start hasn't seemed to keep her back - on the contrary, she says it gave her a different point of view, and approach to composition: "It meant that I was exploring things when I was at a more mature age. And I also had kind of a hungry enthusiasm that some of my classmates didn't have... For me it was all brand new, and to this day it still feels a little brand new."
Here's a Piano Trio movement called "Pale Yellow" that she wrote in 2003 - part of a complete work with a different color for each movement.
Thursday, June 12
Cinnabar Theater's staging of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro has three more performances this weekend - with an intimate set, chamber-sized orchestra, and a convoluted plot (sung in English) of intrigue on the wedding day of a pair of servants to nobility. The Count and Countess in the production, Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek and Bharati Soman, tell about this production.
This is a homecoming of sorts for Bharati Soman, who not only lived in the Bay Area before moving to Washington, D.C., but who sang the role of the Countess in a Cinnabar production (also directed by Elly Lichenstein) of Figaro nine years ago. While that was a traditional staging, this version has been updated to the time of the 1920s. She and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek say that the size of the theater means that the audience really feels drawn into the production, and so do they. "It's nice to be this close to the audience, in such an intimate space, because you get to hear every little reaction," Soman says. There's no need to worry if you turn your back to the audience, your voice doesn't disappear - and a real whisper is all you need, rather than a traditional 'stage whisper.'
The 10-piece orchestra, led by Music Director Mary Chun is able to play a chamber-music arrangement of the score without it feeling that way. "It feels like I'm still hearing all the same music," Smith Kotlarek says. "It doesn't feel like there's anything missing," Soman adds. "It's a full sound, it's a good sound from such a small orchestra." There are performances this Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. They've already 'extended' their run by adding one more show last night.
Wednesday, June 11
If you're a brass player, chances are good you know the 1968 recording called The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli. It brought together a supergroup of instrumentalists from the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra. That recording inspired a concert that will be held tomorrow night at the Green Music Center by the National Brass Ensemble, made up of 26 players from 9 top American orchestras.
Here is more information about the concert, which is being presented by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, and the Green Music Center.
The idea for a concert (and CD that they're recording this week) has been in the works for many years - since David Stull (now President of the SFCM, who is a tuba player and formerly taught at Oberlin Conservatory) and Cleveland Orchestra principal trumpet Michael Sachs were having lunch a few years ago. "Within short order," Sachs says, "we got to our favorite recordings, and our favorite players, and this iconic recording of Gabrieli from 1968 with the ensembles from the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra came up." Sachs and fellow players from around the country, including Michael Mulcahy (who's played trombone with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 24 years) began trying to find a window of time that would allow them to come together for a performance and recording. But this ensemble would include players from 9 orchestras - including the San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago and Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras.
"This was a Rubik's Cube just to get all these individuals in one place at one time. It took the better part of about three years to find this magic week when everybody could do it," Sachs says. They'll be playing some of the repertoire from the iconic album, as well as new arrangements by SFS principal trombonist and SFCM faculty member Tim Higgins of more music by Gabrieli, and a brand new piece by John Williams, who has worked with many of the players as both a conductor and composer (he wrote a trumpet concerto for Michael Sachs in 1996). Michael Mulcahy says the 1968 LP was groundbreaking: "Even for non-brass players, it's an acoustically spectacular experience to listen to. And it probably inspired more than a few thousand people to either take up a brass instrument or continue playing a brass instrument!"
Friday, June 6
Cellist David Finckel has spent his entire life as a cellist, and plays his instrument constantly - but he avoids the routines that he's seen colleagues develop. "I try almost without fail to never do anything habitually," he says. "It scares me, the idea of habit." Instead, he tries to be ready to adapt to the needs of the moment.
Finckel -- who was the long-time cellist with the Emerson String Quartet -- and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have been at the center of the chamber music world for decades, as players and administrators. They're co-artistic directors of both Music@Menlo and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But he says he doesn't believe in any set 'warmup routine.' "I find that being on stage, and being comfortable on stage involves a lot of adaptability. I've watched colleagues... make themselves miserable over years by becoming more dependent on routines, and certain conditions: lighting, temperature, instrument adjustment, chair. I've learned that's not the right road to go down for me."
David Finckel doesn't need any convincing to play, though. "I personally like to keep my fingers moving, but that's also because I love playing the cello. I love the way it feels... For me it's a sensuous experience, and it's also kind of a toy, like a game....I love having it in my hands, I'm looking at it sitting there in the case, and I'm looking so much forward to getting it out and getting my hands on it."
Thursday, June 5
Returning to Berkeley Rep a season after his success with the one-man show about George Gershwin, actor and pianist Hershey Felder presents Maestro - a performance in which he takes on the larger-than-life personality of Leonard Bernstein, who as conductor, composer, and educator changed the way Americans thought about Classical music.
Felder says the fact that Bernstein is remembered by so many people, and his work is so well documented meant he needed to approach the 'role' differently than he had for Gershwin, Chopin, or Liszt. "What do you do when you have miles and miles and miles of film of somebody? How do you create that character? I think the most important thing is that you evoke. You don't imitate, you don't impersonate. As it turned out, surprisingly it made everything so much easier, because there is so much there available." And even though much of Bernstein's career was spent on the podium, Felder says there's as much piano playing in this as any of the other shows. On the 'Omnibus' television show that he began in the 1950s, he would both conduct the orchestra in the studio as well as play examples on a piano keyboard. An imaginary 'Omnibus,' TV studio is the setting of the play, which includes Bernstein exploring some of his own works in the way he did those of other composers.
Wednesday, June 4
Pianist Kirill Gerstein, who solos with the San Francisco Symphony in a series of concerts this week, has followed an unusual parallel study of both Classical music and jazz...both of which will inform his performance of Beethoven's second piano concerto. Tonight through Saturday, the Symphony has three concerts at Davies Symphony Hall, and Thursday night they'll be at Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit.
Kirill Gerstein says his interest in jazz (which brought him to this country from Russia, to become a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston) came first through recordings that he heard and wanted to imitate. He still plays Gershwin and other jazz-inflected works in concert, but also says he brings that sensibility to his other repertoire: "What I do and concentrate on is Classical Music, but I think these different things such as jazz that draw me help me to be a more rounded person and a more rounded musician. And I think that affects the way I play Beethoven or Rachmaninoff."
He's been recognized twice by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival - once as their Young Artist in 2002, and winning their prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2010 - and deciding to spend the considerable prize money on something that will last: commissioned works. "I thought that commissioning pieces would be an interesting and good way to spend the money, so I've done a series of commissions from very different people, such as Oliver Knussen, and a young American, Timo Andres. Also a couple of commisisions that are jazz-related. Brad Mehldau wrote a big piece for me, Chick Corea wrote a piece for me, and Gary Burton [percussionist and faculty member at Berklee]". His latest CD, just out, is called Imaginary Pictures, and includes the 'visually inspired' works by Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition), and Robert Schumann (Carnaval).
Tuesday, June 3
The Belgian early music choir called Vox Luminis makes its United States debut this week in a pair of concert programs this Wednesday and Thursday nights at the Berkeley Music Festival and Exhibition. Artistic Director Lionel Meunier began the one-voice-to-a-part group with friends in 2004, and they've received raves for their recordings, including their 2012 disc of music by Heinrich Schutz, which was Gramophone Magazine's overall Recording of the Year.
About ten years ago, Lionel Meunier wanted to form an ensemble specifically because of one piece - which they'll be singing on Thursday night's program. Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, which is written for 10 parts, but he had just sung with a 40 voice choir. "I was at home looking at this Stabat Mater, and I thought this should be sung with ten soloists!" Meunier recalls. "Without having made any research, it was just from the ears, I felt a bit frustrated sometimes to have to share that part with three or four colleagues. These lines are so pure, you do feel you want alone to be taking care of your line really carefully." So the ensemble sings one voice to a part. They never have more than a dozen singers, and a few instruments. What began as a two concert per year schedule has only gotten busier with their popularity. "Three years ago we had twelve concerts... We have fifty-five this year, including tours, plus recordings, plus rehearsals."
And in addition to their recordings, for fans (and concert presenters) they make a habit of posting videos online: "When we rehears... we like to have a little camera going on, and we like to post on YouTube full tracks, meaning a piece how we sing it, from beginning until end. No working with filters on the sound, this is just how we sound. Many of the festivals do invite us after listening to those videos, because they think 'OK, I know how you sound live already!' So they are not scared and wonder 'this CD sounds so fantastic, but how is it going to be live?'"
You be the judge - here's some rehearsal footage from their YouTube channel:
Monday, June 2
The Imani Winds woodwind quintet joins jazz pianist Jason Moran at the SFJAZZ Center on Thursday night, to play works that he wrote for them - a suite called Cane and a sextet called Jump Cut Rose which he'll play with them. Also on the program is an astonishing arrangement of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Mariam Adam, clarinetist with the ensemble, says three of the five of them went to the Manhattan School of Music at the same time as Jason Moran, and he was on their short list of composers to commission as a part of a project that began to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary as a group. "That friendship stayed over the years as everybody went their own way artistically... the meandering life of an artist. But fortunately, we were in a position, each of us, to welcome the other onto the stage if and when we could." Cane was one of three pieces commissioned from jazz players that appeared on their CD Terra Incognita... the other composers were Wayne Shorter, and Paquito D'Rivera.
Mariam Adam says one of the things that sets them apart as a group is the range of timbres they can achieve - and that's one reason they enjoy arrangements of works originally meant for larger forces: "We have a pretty wide range of sound. We're not satisfied with just that kind of small 'wind quintet' sound." Here's a demonstration of that range, a piece by their flute player Valerie Coleman, Red Clay and Mississippi Delta.