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.
Getting inside Mozart's dramatic side this week with the San Francisco Symphony is famed Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, who will play the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. He calls Mozart one of the most dramatic composers, and one who loved life. The concerto is paired with the Symphony No. 2 of Brahms, and (with the men of the Symphony Choir and the Pacific Boychoir) Allegri's "Miserere".
Buchbinder says while Beethoven was one of the most sensitive and Romantic composers, Mozart, having written Don Giovanni, was one of the most dramatic. "Mozart, he understood [how] to live. He loved the life, he loved women, he loved to gamble, he lost all his money as you know. I mean, he could have been a rich man, but he had to borrow money all the time, always through his whole life. But he understood to live. And you can feel this in his music." And finding the heart of a composer's music can be helped by exploring the life of the composer. "I tell my students, it doesn’t matter if they play Mozart, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky or anything. Before you play a piece from this person, read a book about him, and then you can start to work on it. And it helps a lot to know the person as a human being and as a composer.I think also in his music you feel the mood… In which mood he has been at the moment when he wrote certain pieces. If he was in love, if he was unhappy, whatever. You can feel this in the deepness, and sometimes the tragedy in his life."
Wednesday, October 26
Violinist Evan Price is comfortable in a number of styles - he's played standard repertoire, gypsy jazz with the Hot Club of San Francisco, and spent ten years with the eclectic Turtle Island Quartet. This weekend, he'll be soloist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in a concerto they commissioned from him for jazz violin. Music Director Ben Simon has paired the new work with Stravinsky's neo-Classical Pulcinella Suite.
The Stravinsky pairing came first - once Ben Simon knew that Price wanted to write for more of a symphonic set of instruments than just for strings. "Neo-Classicism turns out to be the theme of our concert," Simon explains, "because Pulcinella is Stravinsky’s first major neo-Classical work, which was a blend of modern and old. Stravinsky was inspired by some Baroque pieces, and then put it through the prism of his own intelligence, and came up with this absolutely remarkable hybrid piece." In that same way, he says, Evan Price is taking the traditional concerto structure and trappings and filling it with his own harmonic language and jazzy melodies. "It’s a violin concerto, and there are certain expectations of that," he says. "I have to play at least some of the time with kind of a commanding sound, and it needs to show off a little bit without being superficial… I did have to visualize being in front of an orchestra and understanding what would make me comfortable as an accompaniment, what would make me comfortable as an improviser, knowing that I would have a very different back-up band than I’m used to." The three admission-free concerts concerts, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon are in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley.
Here's Evan Price wearing another hat, with the Hot Club of San Francisco:
Tuesday, October 25
As we're taking a look at 'Love at First Listen' stories, here's one from someone whose entire life changed after hearing not one, but a set of thirty-two works for piano. It's Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, whose career path was decided after he heard the sonatas by Beethoven. He was only three or four years old, but desperately wanted a multi-LP box set of the complete set after hearing them, and made the decision then and there to become a musician.
There are many popular sonatas by Beethoven: the 'Moonlight,' 'Hammerklavier,' 'Waldstein'... but it wasn't any one in particular that drew Goodyear in. "I heard these pieces all the way through when I was around 3 or 4 years old," he says. "I begged my mother to buy me a box set of 13 LPs of the complete Beethoven sonatas. So it’s really going back to childhood. It was that day when I first heard these sonatas that compelled me to be a classical pianist...It hit me on such a gut level. It really did change my life. I was frightened by the music, I was enthralled, I was moved, I laughed at loud at some of the humorous aspects… I was hooked from that day." And he continued to be fascinated by them, learning to play them all (he released a boxed set of his own a few years ago) and also playing what he calls 'Sonatathons,' with all 32 performed in chronological order in one day. "It feels like the sonatas are a very personal diary, and you’re looking into the soul of Beethoven. There are a lot of confessions written out. There are even more personal qualities in those late works… It’s almost as if he’s looking very much inward, and nothing matters except heart and mind."
Here's Stewart Goodyear playing the Beethoven sonata number 26 in E-flat Major, 'Les Adieux':
Monday, October 24
A pair of concerts through San Francisco Performances brings double bassist and composer Edgar Meyer to Herbst Theatre twice this Sunday. First will be a family concert at 11 am, where he'll be playing alone, and that evening will join the Dover String Quartet on a program that includes his String Quintet. (At the family concert, adults and kids are welcome to wear costumes.)
The feeling of the family concert will be relaxed and informal - and as Meyer points out, there's not a whole lot of repertoire for unaccompanied bass, although he plays the cello suites on the instrument (see below), and as both a composer and improviser, can play a lot of his own works. He's touring with the Dover Quartet, playing on a Rossini duo for cello and bass, and his own work from the mid 1990s. "It’s a lot of fun for me, cause I haven’t done anything with it for 15 years or something. And the Dovers are a marvelous bunch of instrumentalists. It’s just a joy to work on the piece with them, and see where we can take it." The piece has his characteristic mix of melodies and rhythms that have their roots in bluegrass and improvisation, which used to need a bit of explanation, but less so now. "15 years later, the younger people are comfortable with some of the rhythms and some of the means of expression that, they’re just more common now. Back then, classical players playing things with less lyrical expression and with more rhythmic emphasis was less common."
Friday, October 21
The Rubin Instititute for Music Criticism returns to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with some of the top classical critics in the country, from the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, and our own Joshua Kosman, who will be guiding student fellows who are honing their craft. SFCM President David Stull gives an overview of the symposium, which piggy-backs on concerts that are taking place through the weekend.
Stull says the Institute began at Oberlin (where he was before coming to the Conservatory here) and takes place every two years. "We bring critics from top institutions in the country: Alex Ross, and John Rockwell, and Tim Page and Heidi Waleson, and Josh Kosman from here in town, and also Anne Midgette from the Washington Post. They work with a set of young students that come to us from Stanford, from Berkeley, from the Juilliard School, from Oberlin, from Yale and from here at SFCM. And these are young students that are excited about writing music criticism." The panel of critics will be giving pre-performance talks for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra tonight, San Francisco Symphony tomorrow, and San Francisco Opera Sunday afternoon. "They have seen a great many things unfold in the world," Stull says, "And to have an opportunity to hear from them and discuss the discussion of music with them is an exciting thing."
Thursday, October 20
San Francisco Performances was founded 37 years ago by Ruth Felt, who built it up from six performances the first year to more than sixty this year. To celebrate her retirement, they're presenting a Concert of Gratitude this Sunday, with special musical guests who have been long friends of hers: the Alexander String Quartet, Midori and Marc-Andre Hamelin.
Ruth Felt began her career in presenting arts behind the scenes at UCLA, before coming to San Francisco, where she was Kurt Adler's assistant at San Francisco Opera. She spent several years becoming familiar with the artists and organizations that would later come and perform for her young organization. She was urged by a pair of neighbors (who happened to be lawyers) to make the plunge and file the paperwork to begin the non-profit. They said to her: "We’re three founding directors, that’s all you need. One thing, Ruth… you have to come up with a name." She hadn't thought about that, and said, “Well, San Francisco Performances. It’s where it is and what it is. And we’ll choose something more clever later." San Francisco Performances' very first concert in November of 1980 was an Andre Watts recital at the newly-built Davies Symphony Hall, which he gave without charging them a fee.
Wednesday, October 19
Alisa Weilerstein returns to the San Francisco Symphony, for some Romantic Schumann this week. Tonight through Saturday, Pablo Heras-Casado will guest conduct a program that has symphonies by Mozart and Dvorak on either side of what Weilerstein calls "the most Romantic cello concerto that exists."
Not performed until after Schumann's death, the cello concerto mirrors the storminess and changeability of his final years. "I would be hard pressed actually to find any work of Schumann’s where you don’t feel this inner conflict and angst," says Weilerstein. "Even when the cello has this very searing, long lyrical melody there’s always this kind of… agitation in the orchestra. It’s not a nervousness, really, but it’s just a perpetual rhythm underneath it that gives it this thickness and multi-dimensional kind of character." She describes the one-movement work this way: "It’s extremely personal, and very vulnerable, and so lyrical. It’s characterized by this yearning lyricism, and kind of nostalgic lyricism all the time, and so it’s an extremely romantic kind of music... Very typical of Schumann, it’s very capricious, and modulations [and] the moods can shift very suddenly... before you know what’s happening."
Tuesday, October 18
New Century Chamber Orchestra is celebrating its 25th season this year, and at the end of the season, Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg will be stepping down as music director. In order to help keep creative continuity and allow the search committee enough time to find a replacement, the ensemble has announced that Daniel Hope will be 'artistic partner' for the next three seasons, playing with them for several of their concert series.
"It was very clear to us that this was going to be a multi-year search," explained Executive Director Philip Wilder. "That it was going to take a lot of time, that we wanted to date heavily before we got married… But we are in a different place now as an organization, and we didn’t really want to lose the artistic momentum that Nadja has provided for us over the last... better part of a decade." So they're following a model that a few other ensembles have found to work well. "The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and also the Australian Chamber Orchestra were particularly helpful in this. And they have been having artistic partners with major artists who have come and gone over the last decade or so for both of them, which seemed like a really exciting model for us, is to try to find the right sort of fit with an artist who could come now and work with us while we go through this search process." Daniel Hope, for his part, says the experience working with New Century earlier this year made the invitation easy to accept. "When I arrived here in January, the first rehearsal, the first minutes that I shared with my colleagues, I noticed an incredible energy that came right back at me. And it was a beautiful week of making music together. It was like chamber music, but on a grand scale. From that moment, that feeling of collegiality in music hasn’t left me."
Monday, October 17
San Francisco Opera gave the US premiere of Leos Janacek's The Makropulos Case fifty years ago this fall, and they're staging it again now through the 29th. In the lead as beautiful and eternally youthful singer Emilia Marty, is German soprano Nadja Michael. She sees the role as one of several strong-willed female characters that Janacek wrote.
Nadja Michael says Janacek took a more feminist view of Emilia Marty than Karel Capek, the author of the play upon which the opera is based. "He turned the plot slightly around, actually, as has done Verdi with Macbeth, for instance, who put the lady much more in the center, and who gave her much more space. The same actually did Janacek with Emilia Marti. Because he gave her a human being heart, a human being fate, and put her needs, let’s say, in the center." The heroine, who has lived for more than 300 years (her alchemist father tested a potion for eternal life on her) is sometimes summed up too simplistically: "The cliché is it’s a fatal woman," she says. "It’s a woman who lives forever, she’s a vamp, everybody falls for her. Every man. But actually it is not right. Because she doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t want them to fall. She wants something for herself, which she needs. She needs to renew her eternal power. But she doesn’t want men to fall for her. No, she’s very annoyed about it."
Monday, October 10
Imagine the sensation of realizing that you're unprepared for a test - that you've been studying the wrong subject. It was sort of like that when pianist Maria Joao Pires heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra begin to play Mozart's D minor piano concerto. She had thought she'd be playing a different concerto by Mozart on that mid-day concert. The resulting confusion was caught on tape, as part of a documentary.
Here's the segment, from Frank Scheffer's 'Attrazione d'Amore", which is the documentary about the orchestra, and conductor Riccardo Chailly. (The scene begins :42 into the clip)
Friday, October 7
San Francisco Performances begins its second year of the concert series called "PIVOT: New Adventures in the Performing Arts" with Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, in the program 'Time Present and Time Past.' It brings together works from the 16th to the 20th Centuries, from William Byrd to Kaija Saariaho and Steve Reich.
Esfahani is less concerned with 'period practice' and 'early music' (a term he likens to root canal) and more with making his chosen instrument one that's taken more seriously by all music lovers. "When I first heard the harpsichord on a recording, when I was a kid, I heard the harpsichord and I thought, I want to spend my life with this instrument. It doesn’t mean that I knew that I was going to be a professional harpsichordist, I mean, that was a very distant thing. I thought the best thing that I could do was maybe hear a harpsichord in concerts, maybe I could have the sort of job that would allow me to buy a harpsichord. I had that sort of obsession with the harpsichord." With programming that includes Lou Harrison and Toru Takemitsu beside Bach, Scarlatti, and Byrd, he's ruffled some feathers, but remains determined: "There’s something about the harpsichord where the jury is still out on what makes this instrument expressive. We have room, I think we have room, or I have room, at least to continue being innovative. My goal is to leave the harpsichord different from how I found it."
Thursday, October 6
Bruno Ferrandis begins his final full season at the helm of the Santa Rosa Symphony with a special guest soloist: his brother Jean Ferrandis, who will play Mozart's Flute Concerto in G Major, and a work written by Leonard Bernstein, dedicated to the memory of an Israeli flute player. There's also Benjamin Britten and Beethoven on the program called 'The Magic of the Flute' this Saturday through Monday.
The program begins with the 20th Century repertoire - Benjamin Britten's 'Four Sea Interludes' from his opera Peter Grimes, followed by Bernstein's Halil, which is the Israeli word for flute."It’s dedicated to a young Israeli flutist who died during the Yom Kippur war between the Egyptians and the Israelis on the Canal of Suez," Ferrandis explains. "It is very moving, of course, and Lenny in his dedication says very clearly he didn’t know Yadin Tenenbaum, but to his memory he dedicates the piece. So it’s very touching... Lots of percussion, lots of very interesting rhythm, and shadow of the flute, because in the background, you have an alto flute, and a piccolo flute who double from afar, they are like an echo, a ghost of the flutist, of the dead soldier, Yadin." The second half goes back to the Classical era, with Mozart's concerto, ending with the eighth symphony of Beethoven.
Wednesday, October 5
Two special concerts from the White House allowed audiences (and the sitting presidents) to witness a show-stopping arrangement of themes from Bizet's Carmen that were a signature piece of a piano master...
It was Kiev-born piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, who triumphantly returned to perform at the White House at the request of then President Jimmy Carter, who called the proud naturalized citizen a "National Treasure". The East Room concert was aired as a PBS special, and it marked the 50th anniversary of Horowitz's debut in America. When he had played at the White House for the first time, for President Herbert Hoover, the pianist ended his recital with his own pyrotechnic arrangement of themes from the opera Carmen, which he did again for President Carter.
The Horowitz version of the Carmen Variations remains popular to this day - Here's Yuja Wang in a practice room, giving it a go...
Tuesday, October 4
A look today at the key of E-flat Major, which has more than its share of memorable masterpieces. Perhaps thats because as one musicologist described it, the key "boasts the greatest variety of expression... At once serious and solemn, it is the exponent of courage and determination and gives the piece a brilliant, firm and dignified character."
The pieces heard in the montage are listed below. To reveal them, click and drag over the white space.
Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, 'Emperor'
Bernstein: Candide Overture
Mozart: Magic Flute Overture
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto
Mussorgsky: "The Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition
Elgar: "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations
Schumann: Symphony No. 3, 'Rhenish'
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, 'Eroica'
Monday, October 3
Oakland Symphony begins its season with a program of Romantic music, with a dash of the political... Music Director Michael Morgan welcomes baritone Hadleigh Adams for some Mahler songs, there's an infrequently performed triple concerto, "Southern" music by Elgar, and an election-themed premiere by a Berkeley composer. The concert is Friday, October 14th at the Paramount Theatre.
"We’re starting with a piece by Berkeley composer Clark Suprynowicz, who wrote this piece, Red States Blue States some time ago," Morgan explains. "It was read by the Berkeley Symphony, but it hasn’t been performed publicly yet. And so, it ties in with the election year, so, I thought it was the thing for us to start with." They'll follow that with the guest ensemble Delphi Trio, who'll play Russian-born Swiss composer Paul Juon's Episodes Concertantes. Morgan describes it this way: "Sort of edgy, end-of-Romanticism, headed into the 20th Century but not quite there yet sort of a piece. It’s very big. What the trio is asked to do, particularly the piano, the piano part is ridiculous." Former Adler Fellow Hadleigh Adams will sing Mahler's Rückert Lieder with the orchestra, before they take on Elgar's Italian vacation postcard, In the South. Morgan describes those works as "three very different views of Romanticism."
Friday, September 30
Add Nora to the list of musical superstars with just one name... At least, she's an internet musical superstar. She's the featured soloist in a performance of a work by a Lithuanian composer called 'CATcerto...' for obvious reasons.
Mindaugas Piečaitis was inspired to orchestrate the random (but gentle) pawings of 'Nora, the Piano Cat' from an uploaded YouTube video, giving them harmonic context and structure. The piece has received several live performances, accompanied (on video) by a patient Nora.
She became an internet celebrity, with her own webpage and was named "Cat of the Year" in 2009 by the ASPCA.
Here are the composer and soloist: Mindaugas Piecaitis and Nora the Piano Cat (with an unidentified feline fan).
Thursday, September 29
The traditional Middle Eastern story of Layla and Majnun gets a world premiere adaptation this weekend at Cal Performances, as the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble collaborate in a staging with traditional Mugham singers from Azerbaijan, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. It's the tenth Cal Performances commission of a Mark Morris work, helping to launch their new season.
The 7th Century Persian tale of the ill-fated lovers was made into an opera by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in the early 20th Century, using traditional instrumentation, and has been adapted by Silk Road Ensemble members Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, with singer Alim Qasimov. "Layla and Majnun, throughout the middle East, North Africa, South Asia, everybody knows this story, it’s part of the culture," Mark Morris says. "The character is actually named Qays, Layla and Qays. But because he’s so… he’s driven mad by his love for Layla from childhood… He’s labelled crazy." Because of his odd behavior, Layla's parents refuse his request to marry their daughter. Morris wanted to set the piece in this multi-discipline form (sets and costumes are by the Bristish artist Howard Hodgkin) to help the rest of the world learn of this story. "It’s such beautiful, profound moving music, and wouldn’t suffer from staging and choreography, it would actually enhance it – and make it more comprehensible for a non-Azerbaijani audience to get the message of it, which is a message of course of profound, abundant, eternal love."
Wednesday, September 28
A work that Igor Stravinsky wrote in the 1920s has inspired the programming for Elevate Ensemble's next concert, this Sunday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His Octet is scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone, and bass trombone; Artistic Director Chad Goodman and Executive Director Aaron Gervais chose works for different combinations of those instruments, and include two new works that use the same orchestration.
The Octet is the centerpiece of the concert, says Aaron Gervais: "The way we decided to structure this program is we wanted to feature each of the instrumental combinations within the octet separately, and then bring them all back together into larger pieces, including the Octet." Gervais wrote two pieces that will have their premieres Sunday, Puppies!!!, a duet for the trombones, and an expansion of that duet for all eight instruments in the second half, called Don't Look At. "It’s a quote that’s mis-attributed to Richard Strauss: ‘Don’t look at the trombones, you’ll only encourage them.’ He actually said something more like ‘When you cue brass instruments, make sure it’s brief and direct,’ but everyone remembers it the wrong way." The other new piece using all the instruments (plus one more) is Nick Vasallo's Atum: Everything and Nothing, It's a piano concerto, with the ZOFO piano duo playing four-hands one piano accompanied by the octet.
Tuesday, September 27
Cappella SF premieres a work by composer Mark Volkert this weekend, called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, in concerts in Saratoga and San Francisco. The composer is also an assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, where Ragnar Bohlin first heard one of his pieces. The ensemble will be joined by organist Jerome Lenk for a few works, in a program called Immortal Fire: A Musical Tribute with Voices and Organ.
The work that Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin heard the Symphony play was called Pandora. "And that just blew me away," he explains. "I loved it – so I stepped up to Mark after that and asked him if he ever wrote for choir, and he said no, he hadn’t done that, but he would be willing to try." The piece is a setting of a poem by Thomas Campion, called Sic Transit. Volkert says, "I’ve written some choral music, but this is kind of a new venture for me, so I appreciate any suggestions that he makes, and he does such a beautiful job shaping the chorus and making the most out of the music. And so I couldn’t be happier with what they’re doing." For the work, they'll be performing in 'surround sound' encircling the audience at St. Andrews in Saratoga on Friday, and at the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco Sunday afternoon. The other works on the program are J.S. Bach's Jesu, Meine Freude, Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, and a solo prelude and fugue by Maurice Durufle played by Jerome Lenk, who will accompany the singers for Arvo Part's Salve Regina, and Jonathan Dove's Seek Him That Maketh the Seven Stars.
Monday, September 26
Philip Glass wrote twenty Piano Etudes over the course of about twenty years - first just a few, as a birthday gift for conductor Dennis Russell Davies, then as a way of improving his own playing. The composer and four other pianists will be playing the complete collection this Thursday as Stanford Live launches their season at the Bing Concert Hall.
The other pianists who'll be joining Glass are Anton Batagov, Sarah Cahill, Aaron Diehl, and Jenny Lin, each playing two from the first 'book' of ten, and two from the second. Glass says that after the first few of the etudes were written, he decided to write 20, and use them for their original pedagogical purpose: "I picked things that were difficult to do, and I made pieces out of them." Writing operas, symphonies, and film scores kept him from finishing the set until just a few years ago. Now, he describes the experience of hearing all of them played together as being like a musical biography, unintentional, but unavoidable. As his 80th birthday approaches at the end of January, he's continuing a busy schedule, taking time last week to be awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.