The State of the Arts

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, 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.

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Monday, September 22

Jean SibeliusOn an 'A-to-Z' edition of State of the Arts, it's Sibelius and his Symphony of Swans and Silence... The Finnish composer (and national hero) Jean Sibelius was commissioned to write a symphony to commemorate his own 50th birthday - he ended up revising it several times before it came to the version we know today, but one of its most memorable themes came to him on a morning in April when he looked to the skies.

We know which morning, because he wrote in his diary (along with the theme that recurs in the horns throughout the final movement): "Today at ten to eleven, I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty. They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon." That was April 21st, 1915. A few days later, he would write: "The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to life... Strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me - nothing in art, literature, or music - in the same way as do these swans and canes and wild geese."

The final movement in this performance starts at 22:20...

 Previous Programs

Friday, September 19

Old HatsThe team that brought clowning to Broadway with Fool Moon twenty years ago returns in Old Hats at A.C.T. - Bill Irwin and David Shiner are joined by singer/songwriter Shaina Taub and her band for an evening of physical comedy that's mostly wordless. The just-opened production has already been extended to October 12th.

There's more information about the show at the American Conservatory Theater website.

Shiner and Irwin both have been clowns for decades - and students of all sorts of physical comedy. "It does take time, hours, years in the cockpit," Irwin says. "You spend a lot of your time, and then you just realize, 'oh, this is how you say this to an audience without words.'" David Shiner describes it: "You're storytelling with just your body. It's such a wonderful art form; once you start to tell stories with your body, it becomes second nature. Instead of using your voice, you're using your body. And you're putting the periods and commas, and the paragraphs and exclamation points and question marks, and all of that is coming through physicality." 

When they first got back together, some two decades after the success of Fool Moon, Irwin says it was as though they hadn't missed a beat: "Working together just seemed so easy. We stepped in the room, and it was just like peanut butter and jelly. What we didn't know was what in the world we should do. We didn't know whether we should do something that was like Fool Moon, or toally unlike Fool Moon, and how to proceed." Shiner says at first he was daunted by the thought of trying to top their earlier hit. "And when we finally let go of that idea, then the ideas started to flow, and we thought it would be fun to bring some routines back that we really loved, and change it... for two clowns that are twenty years older. How would this routine look with older guys?" With the help of director Tina Landau, Shaina Taub (replacing Nellie McKay, who performed with them in New York) and audience participants, they give a class in "the language of no language."

Thursday, September 18

Chanticleer's Gypsy in My SoulChanticleer begins a series of concerts tomorrow night with the name "The Gypsy in My Soul" - but it's an all-inclusive program, tapping into the "wandering spirit" that musicians have been depicting in songs and choral works for hundreds of years. The first concert is at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with additional performances in Lafayette, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and San Rafael.

There's more information at Chanticleer's website.

Assistant Music Director Kory Reid describes the program this way: "We like to think of it as a wandering spirit, and this wandering spirit could be in all of us. We undergo transformation, we experience different cultures, we have a sense of nostalgia... We love somebody, we lust over somebody. And there are all these events in our life that really shape us to who we are. There are a lot of different dimensions to being that wandering spirit, and experiencing different cultures that make these indelible experiences for you." The travelling life is nothing new to members of Chanticleer, who spend a total of about half of the year on the road. Kory Reid says about two weeks into any trip, he begins to feel that longing to return home. The ensemble, which spent much of August in Europe, will be going to Sweden next month. 

The repertoire for the "Gypsy in My Soul" concerts includes a true cross section of many of Chanticleer's specialties: early music and madrigals from the 16th and 17th Centuries, spirituals and popular music (some of which appeared on their recent album "Someone New"), and some of the classic arrangements by Joseph Jennings which remain audience favorites. There are also representative works from Eastern Europe, France, Brazil, and American Appalachia. One song, Peter Gabriel's "The Washing of the Water" was arranged for the group by Mason Bates last year. "Mason Bates is a fantastic arranger, and knows our voices so well," Reid says, "He really paints this picture of a river that's slightly moving... but in the middle of the piece, it throws you into a kind of Class-4 rapids! It's all these jarring rhythms and all these swung rhythms, and it's about the pain that someone is undergoing because he wants to be with this woman that he loves, but he knows it's not the best thing for him."

Wednesday, September 17

Anderson Collection at Stanford UniversityThis Sunday marks the official opening of the Anderson Collection at Stanford University - a new museum, located just next to the Cantor Arts Center, and home to the 121 works of art that had been in the private collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson ("Hunk" and "Moo") and their daughter, Mary Patricia Anderson Pence ("Putter"). They began collecting some fifty years ago, concentrating on works of post-War American artists. 

There's more information about the museum, and the collection at the 
Anderson Collection website

Richard Diebenkorn's 'Berkeley #26'The family's interest in art began in 1964, while on a trip to Paris, when they went into the Louvre. Jason Linetzky is the Director of the Anderson Collection: "Few could have imagined that upon stepping foot in an art museum, the Andersons' lives would have been changed, really forever. The Andersons had had very little exposure to art prior to that day, and forever since they have found new ways to engage themselves with art and the creative process. What began as a curiosity turned into a passion, and really led to the creation of one of the largest and finest collections of post-War American art in the country." That has involved doing the homework and discovery themselves - they've not had curators along the way, and had largely kept these works in their home. Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects says they tried to keep the layout of the collection in the same relaxed way in the new building. "The galleries are organized in a way that reflect these art historical movements, but to a very large extent also, we hope, reflect the way in which the Anderson family came to live with these objects over the course of the last five decades. It's intended to not have a prescripted path. There's no right or wrong way to do this, and the idea isto be able to see from space to space, and relate the collection to itself, and to make connections between the pieces that might otherwise not happen."

This is the second building to be completed in as many years, helping to establish the "Arts Corridor" that includes the Bing Concert Hall and the Cantor Arts Center. And construction is underway for one more building, which will be on the other side of the Cantor, the McMurtry Art and Art History Building, which will open next Fall.

Tuesday, September 16

Nicola BenedettiViolinist Nicola Benedetti looks to her native Scotland as the theme for the CD Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy. It opens with the title work by Max Bruch, then pays homage to poet and songwriter Robert Burns, before diving into the world of traditional folk music, complete with guest musicians on accordion, whistles, flutes and percussion. 

There's more information about the disc at Nicola Benedetti's website.

Many foreign composers have tried to capture the essence of Scotland - think of Mendelssohn's 'Scottish' Symphony - but Benedetti says that Bruch (who astonishingly never actually visited Scotland) did it convincingly, creating in the process one of the great works for violin and orchestra. "Bruch's Scottish Fantasty is based on four original Scottish melodies," she says, "He sort of writes almost a theme and variation style, especially with the third and fourth movements. It's quite a typical sort of slow fast slow fast structure to it... He had an ability to see a simple tune, and without altering it too much, or spoiling it, he managed to very much expand and develop, and romanticize it."

The new territory for Benedetti on the CD is playing the traditional tunes and dances. Her career and studies took her along another path. "Despite being a classical violinist that is Scottish, I played very little Scottish traditional music growing up, which is kind of odd, as the violin is one of the most integral instruments to any sort of Ceilidh band. But it just happened that way with the kind of teaching I received. So this was very much a kind of exploration back to my childhood, to all the tunes that I'd heard, but spent practically no time actually playing."

Here she is playing more music by Bruch, from his Violin Concerto:

Monday, September 15

Donato CabreraAfter one season at the helm of the California Symphony getting to know one another, Music Director Donato Cabrera says he wants to 'test the engine' of the orchestra, showcasing its musicians. To launch this season, he's turning to classics that were once frequently played in concerts, but now less and less so. It's a program called 'Orchestra Spectacular' this Sunday afternoon at the Lesher Center.

There's more information about the concert at the California Symphony website.

Last year's season was planned fairly quickly, because Cabrera had only been officially named Music Director in the spring before he was to take the podium. This time, he wanted to revisit works that are familiar, but not in the concert hall. "There are a lot of pieces that we all know and love that for whatever reason - maybe because of their popularity at one point, they're no longer programmed... Or very rarely programmed, shall I say." So on the concert program is Ravel's Bolero, Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances", the William Tell Overture, Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture, and Saint-Saen's "Bacchanale" from Samson and Delilah. "These pieces that are fifteen to twenty minutes long that don't quite fit into the world of the overture, and don't quite fit into the world of the symphony, and could take the place of a concerto but don't. The "Bacchanale"... a piece that I grew up hearing on various albums from one conductor to the next, but very rarely done, is just a little bit longer than a typical overture."

Donato Cabrera says his first year was fun: "Getting to know any new ensemble, there's an excitement from the orchestra, from myself and from the audience. Last year was a great way of getting to know one another, and feeling what it was like to perform with frequency out at the Lesher Center." This season, he says, he wants to "test the engine" and showcase the musicians - both in their full concerts and also a new program of house concerts of solo chamber music. "It's just one more way for our audience to really get to know these musicians on stage who they... I know they all love and admire, but to again explore repertoire that the typical symphony doesn't always explore."


Friday, September 12

Flyaway Productions rehearses 'Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane'The 'apparatus based dance' company, Flyaway Productions is presenting Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, a work that looks at the issue of homelessness among older women - and will be performing it high above the streets near the Civic Center, on the back of the Larkin Street parking garage of UC Hastings College of the Law. The free performances will begin tonight at 8 and 9, with shows running through the 20th. 

See the complete schedule at the Flyaway Productions website.

The project is actually the middle work in a planned trilogy - in 2012, choreographer Jo Kreiter staged the multimedia Niagara Falling on the side of the Hotel Renoir in the 6th Street corridor - comparing the economic conditions of the neighborhood with the community in upstate New York near Niagara Falls. "I loved making that piece," Kreiter says, "and I loved having a national perspective on urban poverty, and what people are doing to fight it. But I realized after the piece was done, or actually in the midst of making it, that I really wanted to tighten the feminist lens." She saw an article by Rose Aguilar in The Nation magazine called "Old, Female and Homeless" and found the focus of the new work. They interviewed half a dozen homeless women over fifty from the neighborhood where the performances will take place. "We asked them about what kind of stuff they chose to carry with them when they didn't have a place to go - we asked them what was hard, what was scary, what was difficult."  Snippets of the interview tape are woven into the score for the dance, by Pamela Z.

The name Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, Kreiter says, is making several points: "I wanted to conjure a title that reminded people that it could be you or me that's walking the streets. Anyone can become homeless, it's not such an us and them issue.So I chose very plain names, Mary and Jane, also because I knew we were focusing on older women, I chose names that are more common in the generation of women who are fifty and older... I'd like to think that this piece will draw people in again to a conversation about who is on the streets and why, and what we can do as a society to make this not happen."

Flyaway Productions rehearsing Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane
Flyaway Productions rehearsing Multiple Mary and Invisible JaneFlyaway Productions rehearsing Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane

Thursday, September 11

Derek BermelThe first concert program for the New Century Chamber Orchestra's season includes several works by their featured composer, who also happens to be a clarinetist: Derek Bermel. One of the pieces that a quartet will play with the composer is called A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed), which was inspired by the eponymous physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

There's more information about the concerts, which begin tonight in Berkeley, then Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Rafael, at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website.

Bermel spent four years in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, and having always been interested in physics, attended many lectures by Arkani-Hamed. "He's a really great communicator about particle physics, and about the universe, but a lot of Nima's lectures center around gravity," Bermel says. "This particular piece is based on some of his ideas about gravity, and so consequently you hear a lot of glissando in the piece: slides between notes." That turns out to be particularly ripe territory for a work played by string orchestra and clarinet. "You can do all kinds of things on a string instrument, because it doesn't have frets. You can move freely along the string. On the clarinet, you have keys, and it allows you to hit the notes with some specificity, but then you can also do all kinds of glisses using your mouth, as I learned when I learned a lot of jazz, and also studying different techniques, for example in Bulgaria."

With the idea of gravity in mind, he wrote the piece, making up his own rules along the way. "I was trying to kind of evince a gravity for the ears. So you have several different layers of tempo, which function as ways of thinking about space and time... In the first movement you hear a lot of 'boing' sounds... that's almost like a rebounding sound that you might experience if you were in a zone of lesser gravity and you bounced against something, and then kind of rebounded off that thing... When I was once talking with Nima Arkani-Hamed, he said to me, 'You guys [composers] are lucky, because you can go back and rewrite the rules. But we can't do that. We're describing the world, but you're inventing the world.'" 

Wednesday, September 10

Leif Ove AndsnesLeif Ove Andsnes returns to Davies Symphony Hall this week, in the intersection of two Beethoven projects: his own, which is a four-year exploration of the Piano Concertos called "The Beethoven Journey," and the San Francisco Symphony's ongoing focus on Beethoven's under-appreciated works. Tonight through Saturday they'll team, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, for the Piano Concerto No. 1.

There's more information at the San Francisco Symphony website.

The C major piano concerto is unfairly written off, Andsnes says, as an immature work. Actually, it actually was written after what we now know as the second concerto, but it was published first. "I often read, when I read about the five piano concertos that the two first ones are early works, kind of student works preparing for the great ones to come, and I don't agree with that at all," Andsnes says. "I think he was so much his own personality, and he had really found his language, especially when we get to this one." At the outset of his Beethoven Journey three years ago, the Norwegian pianist had played all the other concertos except this one, but has come to love it after playing it quite a bit (and recording with his ensemble, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra). "There is such confidence in his writing, and such joy in everything. The virtuosity - he clearly needed a very virtuosic piece, both in terms of composition and pianistic virtuosity, to show to his new audience in Vienna, where he had just moved."

Also on the program with the Beethoven, (repeating a pairing from a mini festival last season) is a work by area favorite Mason Bates, his Alternative Energy, which will feature his live  electronica, as well as an extended (and automotive) percussion section:

Tuesday, September 9

Maya Beiser UncoveredMaya Beiser's latest CD showcases the other kind of music in her life. She's studied and played classical cello since her childhood on a kibbutz in Israel, but she's been known to include encores by the likes of Led Zeppelin. Her last appearance in the Bay Area, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, split the repertoire down the middle. She's performing at Yoshi's tomorrow night with songs from her "Uncovered" disc. 

There's more about the performance at the Yoshi's San Francisco website.

Beiser and her arranger, composer Evan Ziporyn, have taken songs from a variety of classic blues and rock artists, each of whom has played an important part in Beiser's love of all music. "The person that really inspired this album is Janis Joplin," she says. "I was a Classical music teenager geek, growing up in Israel, performing exclusively Classical music, and heard Janis Joplin one day, and just completely blew my mind... She made her way into the shrine of the music that until then only had the likes of Bach and Beethoven and Schubert." Along with Janis Joplin (a reworking of her reworking of George Gershwin's 'Summertime,' there are songs by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Howlin' Wolf, King Crimson, Muddy Waters, and AC/DC. But in addition to loving the songs, Beiser makes the case that 'covers' aren't such a strange idea in the musical world she studied. "All of Classical music are covers. People don't like to think about it in this way, but it's all about interpretation... Here's the music that - it's really part of my inner landscape, inner musical landscape, and let's find a way to make it come alive with the cello in a way that pays homage to it, but also makes something new and interesting out of this music."

There are plenty of familiar guitar licks, but it's all done with the cello. "There are no guitars on this album. Everything that you hear is cello. The only other instruments are bass and drums on some of the tracks. And some of the tracks are exclusively cello, so it's like a one-woman orchestra kind of thing."  She also explores the vocal sounds possible with the cello, to "sing" the songs that Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Plant did. During the live shows, Beiser will go back and forth between the vocals and the guitar solos. She says the name of the album has several different interpretations. "It's uncovering other layers in this music... uncovering other possibilities within the cello, and it's uncovering this other side of me - which is this love for this music."

Monday, September 8

Antonin DvorakToday would have been Antonin Dvorak's 173rd birthday - the famed Czech composer who was able to capture the sound of not only his Bohemian homeland, but also America, during his time in the 'New World'. Here's a mash-up of some of his many works... 

Here are the pieces used (click and drag over the space below to reveal the answers):
  1. Symphony No. 6
  2. Slavonic Dance No. 10
  3. Symphony No. 9  ("From the New World")
  4. Violin Concerto
  5. Serenade for Strings
  6. "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka
  7. Slavonic Dance No. 8
  8. Humoresque No. 7
  9. Bagatelle No. 1, Op. 47 for String Trio and Harmonium
  10. Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66
  11. String Quartet No. 12, "American"
  12. Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Double Bass, Op. 44

Friday, September 5

Patricia Racette in SusannahThere are lots of activities at San Francisco Opera this weekend, with the Opera Ball and Norma opening on Friday night, and Opera in the Park on Sunday afternoon; between them, on Saturday night, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah opens, starring Patricia Racette. It's a retelling of the story "Susanna and the Elders" (from the Book of Daniel) updated and moved to a small community in rural Tennessee. It was an early work by the 88-year-old Floyd, who has been in town for the SF Opera company premiere.

There's more information at the San Francisco Opera website.

Carlisle Floyd didn't set out to write both the music and libretto to his best-known opera in 1955. He actually didn't know the story of 'Susanna and the Elders', other than having seen it depicted in old paintings. He says a friend approached him: "He asked me simply, had I ever thought of making an opera out of Susanna and the Elders, and updating it... He just gave me a few little hints as to what it was about, and it immediately struck me as having real dramatic potential. Iimmediately saw it transferred to a valley in the Tennessee mountains." The original story tells of an innocent woman, whose reputation is impugned after she's seen bathing naked by church elders. The story of Susanna Polk in the opera by Floyd goes much further, and can be seen as an allegory for the McCarthy Era in which it was written. Although he says he didn't suffer as a result of the anti-Communist fervor, he did see colleagues and students at Florida State University, where he taught, whose lives and careers were ruined by it. "It made me fiercely angry," he says. "And then I saw the play The Crucible, of Arthur Miller, which made a strong impression on me. And I thought, well, I'm going to do my own Crucible, and set it in a different time period, and also place. But still, the idea of mass coercion is the same in both. I wanted to make it a very strong, engrossing drama, but if it had a polemical aspect to it, then I thought, 'why not?' - Because persecution of the innocent, and also the individual is something that has been throughout history." 

Despite its having premiered almost 60 years ago, and continuing to be a frequently performed American opera, this marks the company debut of Susannah for the San Francisco Opera. Performances run through September 21st. Floyd, who has also written both the music and libretti for operas based on such classics as Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (Willie Stark), Wuthering Heights, and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, says he always believed in Susannah, his first big success: "It all came together, and I felt very confident of the piece from the beginning, stragely enough, because... Well, there's nothing like the confidence of being 28 and having nothing to lose. I had no reputation to lose, because I didn't have a reputation. So, it all congealed in a very very happy way for me."

Thursday, September 4

Piano MashupWith all the excitement surrounding the Symphony Gala and Opera opening nights, let's not forget about the many great pianists who will be performing in the Bay Area this season, each playing works from the vast keyboard repertoire. See how many of these twenty mashed-up piano pieces you can identify:   (Click and drag over list to reveal selections)

(click and drag over the space below to see the listings.)
  1. Satie: Gymnopedie #1
  2. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Aria)
  3. Stravinsky: Petrushka, Scene 1
  4. Schubert: "Wanderer" Fantasy
  5. Bach: Prelude #1 in C (from Well-Tempered Clavier, book 1)
  6. Mozart: Sonata #16
  7. Beethoven: Sonata #8 in c minor, "Pathetique"
  8. Brahms: Intermezzo
  9. Debussy: Golliwog's Cakewalk (from Children's Corner)
  10. Schubert: Impromptu #2 in E-flat
  11. Chopin: Nocturne, Op. 9, no. 2
  12. Joplin: Maple Leaf Rag
  13. Chopin: "Heroic" Polonaise, Op. 53
  14. Brahms: Waltz in A-flat, Op. 39, no. 15
  15. Liszt: Liebestraum ("Dream of Love")
  16. Debussy: Clair de Lune
  17. Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody #2
  18. Beethoven: "Moonlight" Sonata
  19. Rachmaninoff: Prelude in c-sharp minor
  20. Gershwin: Prelude #2

Wednesday, September 3

Season Openings part 2The second part of the overview of upcoming season-opening concerts, picking up on the 20th of September, with a Cal Performances Mariachi concert - to a recent work for orchestra and jazz quintet that the Oakland East Bay Symphony will play in early November. 

You can find out more about each season by clicking the links below.

Cal Performances actually got a jump on the season by hosting Yo-Yo Ma's performance of solo Bach at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley last month. But their next upcoming event, on September 20th, is the popular Mexican ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, who will perform at Zellerbach Hall. That's followed by a return of the Mark Morris Dance Group on the 25th through 28th for new works, and along with the unconventional jazz trio The Bad Plus, a reprise of the Rite of Spring-inspired piece Spring Spring Spring.

Symphony Silicon Valley's first concert has an Italian theme, with Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 2, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, and a ballet from Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi. Karen Kamensek will conduct, and Patricia Whaley is the viola soloist in the Berlioz.

Just in the past few weeks, the newest concert venue in the area, Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center, was inaugurated with ten concerts open to the public over the course of two days. The "Sundays at Schroeder" series begins on the 14th, with Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen at the keyboard for a recital of Grieg, Brahms and Chopin. The Weill Hall summer concerts that include audiences on the lawn are continuing through mid September before the formal opening of their fall season with two frequent collaborators and musical omnivores: mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, and double bassist and composer Edgar Meyer. There's also going to be a Frank Sinatra-inspired gala with pianist and crooner Michael Feinstein on the 28th of September.

Berkeley Symphony has guest soloist Jennifer Koh in their program called "Enigma" on October 2nd to play Sibelius's Violin concerto, on a program with Elgar's famed set of variations and a world premiere commission called Sea Shaped by Oscar Bettison.  There's also a Berkeley Symphony and Friends Chamber series concert on September 21st, with guests violinist Stuart Canin, cellist Bonnie Hampton, and pianist Sarah Cahill.  They'll perform works by Couperin, Adès, Beethoven and Schubert.

Cellist Steven Isserlis makes another appearance with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra this October 8th-12th, for concertos by Luigi Boccherini, and C.P.E. Bach (the ensemble continues celebrating his 300th birthday this season). There's also symphonic Haydn on the program. 

Bruno Ferrandis and the Santa Rosa Symphony begin their concert season with a program called "Heroes and Legends" with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin playing Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto, along with orchestral works by Strauss, Wagner, and Bela Bartok.

And Michael Morgan celebrates his 25th anniversary with the Oakland East Bay Symphony (last season the orchestra turned 25) with a lineup that begins with the West Coast premiere of Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James' work Brothers in Arts - a piece commemorating D-Day, and written for orchestra and jazz quintet. ALso on that program is Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Tuesday, September 2

Season OpeningsThis year's concert seasons are beginning - two of the biggies, the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera have their galas this week (tune in to KDFC tomorrow night to hear the live broadcast) and the other arts organizations are going to be following closely behind. Here's part one of two overviews of how and when the seasons will start around the Bay Area.

You can find out more about each season at the links below.

The San Francisco Symphony is celebrating Michael Tilson Thomas's 20th season as Music Director this year, and they're starting it off with a gala Wednesday night that brings together musicians from very different worlds: Yuja Wang will play Rhapsody in Blue, and the the orchestra has works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and Bonnie Raitt will sing from the Great American Songbook. They continue immediately at the end of the week, with the Russian repertoire, plus soloist Benjamin Grosvenor playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major.

San Francisco Opera opens its season with the Opera Ball, and a performance of Bellini's Norma on Friday, and then the following night, the company premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Susanna, with Patricia Racette in the title role. A Masked Ball and Partenope by Handel will follow in October, then Tosca, Cinderella, and La Bohème. This Sunday at 1:30, the tradition of 
Opera in the Park continues, with a free performance at Golden Gate Park of audience favorites by some of the singers who will be performing this season, and our own Dianne Nicolini will host.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music is getting its busy season off to a start with a joint Faculty Recital tomorrow night: Elizabeth Blumenstock, Elisabeth Reed, and Corey Jamason play early music by Purcell, Vivaldi, Corelli, and more. The Conservatory's Orchestra has its first concert on the 27th and 28th of September, with a program of Brahms, Berlioz, and Saint-Saens. There are guest artists planned for the year, including mezzo soprano Susan Graham, violinist Jennifer Koh, and the Pacifica Quartet, and in November, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism will bring some of the top Classical reviewers from the U.S. for a symposium on the state of criticism today.

New Century Chamber Orchestra and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will present "Carmen Returns" from September 11-14; with concerts in Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Rafael featuring the featured composer this season, who's also a clarinetist, Derek Bermel. Several of his works will be on the program, including the intriguingly titled A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed) which is inspired by String Theory (of the Physics kind...) There's also Arvo Pärt's Fratres, and the work referred to in the concert's name: the Carmen Suite for strings and percussion by Shchedrin, inspired by George Bizet's Carmen.

"Hooray for Hollywood" is the theme of the Waterfront Pops concert by the Marin Symphony on the 13th. They'll continue the recent traditions of playing outside at the lagoon, with a program of  film music, including Gone With the Wind, Braveheart, Titanic, Apollo 13, and many more - with fireworks to follow. Their first regular season concerts are on the 28th and 30th, with "French Reverie" - Alasdair Neale leading them in Bernstein's Candide Overture, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and guest soloist Zuill Bailey playing Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1.

Chanticleer, just back from singing in Europe, presents "The Gypsy in My Soul" - six concerts around the Bay Area beginning September 19th, that traces themes associated with the metaphorical gypsy: "longing for community, wanderlust, curiosity, and a reverence for the natural world around us, and the gypsy spirit that is somewhere within us all." They'll include works from the entire span of their repertoire, from early music, to some contemporary pieces that appear on their most recent album, "Someone New".

Donato Cabrera launches his second season with the California Symphony on Sunday, September 21st in a program called "Orchestra Spectacular" including Rossini's William Tell Overture, Ravel's Bolero, Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Grieg, and more. They've got a new Young American Composer in Residence this year, Dan Visconti, who will spend the next three years working with the ensemble, and has his first work premiered by the Symphony at a concert in May. 


Friday, August 29

A-to-Z Ostinato and Carl OrffAn A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts, stopping at the letter "O"... For Ostinato, Orff, and "O Fortuna"...  An Ostinato is a musical idea that's repeated with an insistent focus - it could be a repeated note, or rhythm, or motivic idea, maybe a repeated bass line that is played against an evolving melody. The word comes from the Italian for 'obstinate', since an ostinato refuses to give up, and can generate dramatic momentum with repetition. One of the many examples is the ever-growing "O Fortuna" in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana - as a choir chants over a determined and repeated accompaniment.

Classical Music is filled with repetition - what makes something an ostinato? It's really a question of intensity, and the way the gesture is being used. 

Gustav Holst used the low strings and percussion to create a rhythmic ostinato for "Mars, the Bringer of War" in his The Planets:

And here's the famous "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana, at :44 seconds in: 


Thursday, August 28

Rigoletto at Opera San JoseOpera San Jose opens their season with Verdi's ever-popular Rigoletto - the tale of a hunch-backed jester who tries to protect his daughter from the world, only to be done in by the curse of another father. Music Director Joseph Marcheso points out some of the reasons the opera continues to be among the best loved and most frequently performed. Performances at the California Theatre run from Saturday, September 6 - Sunday, September 21.

There's more information at the Opera San Jose website.

Marcheso, who's been with the company for years, but is just beginning his first as their Musical Director and Principal Conductor says there are many reasons for Rigoletto's enduring popularity. Even though it was composed in the middle of the 19th Century, it has a feature that's at the center of many of pop culture's current favorites. "Rigoletto is an anti-hero. The Duke is an anti-hero. It's a gritty story with black comedy centered around an unsavory, yet sympathetic character - like House of Cards would be, or Mad Men would be, or Breaking Bad. So it has that kind of sensibility that has proven to be extremely popular these days." It also has all of the mistaken identity, a prophetic curse, and plenty of familiar melodies, including "La donne e mobile" and "Caro nome." 

The mis-shapen jester has a secret, away from his work for the Duke, where he acts with impunity as "an emcee of licentiousness"... No one knows of his daughter Gilda, who, as Marcheso says "...he has kept cloistered in his home, because he is a man who thinks he's ugly, and sees ugliness in the world. And though he participates in it, he wants to save his daughter from that whole experience."  There's yet another reason the opera has lasted so well for so long, he says. "In Rigoletto, so long as we live at a time in which fathers are overprotective of their daughters and people work for SOBs (and become SOBs in the process) this story will appeal and be relevant."

Wednesday, August 27

Back-to-school timeThe approach of Labor Day can mean only one thing... it's back-to-school time. And since the piece of classical music most associated with school - Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" - is usually played at the end of the 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:

Friday, August 22

Schoenfeld String CompetitionThousands of miles from California, instrumentalists from around the world are in the northeastern part of China, in the city of Harbin, for the second annual Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition. The contest gets its name from the distinguished and longtime faculty members at the USC Thornton School of Music, who played both together and as soloists before their academic careers began.  

There's more information at the Schoenfeld Competition website.

The competition site in Harbin, ChinaKUSC's Gail Eichenthal is in China, covering the competition, and spoke with yet another California music professor: Jindong Cai, who is the Music Director and Conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, and who, like 93-year-old Alice Schoenfeld, is judging the young players in China this week. The competition takes place in Harbin, which has the longest history of Western Classical music in China. Cai says that the way Chinese students are taught is very different than in the US. "In China, the system is following the Russian system, almost like the sports in China. Conservatories have attached schools, so when they find the talented kids in the elementary level, then they can admit them to the elementary school attached to the conservatory. Probably some of the students study with the same teacher for fifteen years, from elementary school until they graduate!"  

Judges Lynn Harrell and the eponymous Alice Schoenfeld Which can have both good and bad consequences. "You have this consistency of technical facility... Chinese conservatories produce this kind of a machine-like technician. The bad thing is they... only have one way to interpret this music." Whenever he gives a master class, Cai points to the importance of having more than one teacher. "In the end you want to have your own interpretation... You have to study with different teachers because that opens your mind!" 

The competition runs through August 25th, with more than 200,000 dollars in prizes awarded.

Thursday, August 21

Sergei RachmaninoffOn an "A-to-Z" edition, a Reflective look at Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody... The not-quite piano concerto that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote, inspired by the 24th of Niccolo Paganini's Caprices - the theme and set of virtuosic variations originally written for solo violin (allowing the composer to show his prodigious talent). One of the reasons for the continued popularity of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is the beautiful 18th variation, with a melody quite unlike the theme at first glance.

It wasn't the first time - nor the last time - the tune would be used by another composer. Liszt adapted the Caprices, and Brahms wrote two books of variations for the piano - just on the 24th alone. It had a lot going for it as a theme, as Paganini demonstrated in his variations, with a strong enough harmony suggested by only the violin, and a form that echoes each four bar phrase, a composer could change a lot, and still remain recognizable, and not make the audience lose its place in the tune.

For the 18th variation, Rachmaninoff took the opening theme and inverted it - going down when the theme went up, and vice versa - to discover the memorable lush melody that's so memorable:

Theme and 18th variation melodies

(The eighteenth variation begins at 14:42 in this performance)

Wednesday, August 20

Schroeder Hall at the Green Music CenterThe more intimate Schroeder Hall, the performance space immediately next to the Green Music Center's Weill Hall has its inaugural concerts this weekend, with two full days of special events. There are ten concerts planned, which are free to the public with advanced tickets (they held some back for the weekend, because as expected, almost all were claimed when they were offered online). The venue, which will also be a working lecture hall for Sonoma State University, features a Brombaugh Opus 9 pipe organ and adjustable acoustics.

There's more about the weekend's events at the Green Music Center's website.

The Sonoma Bach Choir will fittingly begin the weekend's special concerts on Saturday at 11 am - it was the need for a good performance space for choral music that inspired the creation of the Green Music Center in the first place, but Weill Hall is better suited for larger orchestral forces, or other genres of music than a chamber music or choral performance. They'll be followed by a Faculty Jazz Ensemble from Sonoma State at 2, Jeffrey Kahane with solo works by Beethoven and Chopin at 4, organist James David Christie at 5:30, before David Benoit's 8 pm show, "Tribute to Charlie Brown." That will be a repeat of the private concert he'll be giving for Jean Schulz the previous evening, officially launching Schroeder Hall with a suitably Peanuts-themed program.

Faculty Members from Sonoma State will perform the first concert on Sunday, at 11 am; at 1 o'clock Trio Ariadne, which is in residence at Weill Hall will come next door to play works by students, and Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. At 3, more singing, with a student and alumni vocal recital; Trio Navarro, in residence at the University will play at 5, and to finish the festivities at 8 on Sunday, there's a Brass, Organ and Vocal recital.

Schroeder Hall

The rounded back wall of the hall serves several functions - outdoors, it helps diffuse the sound from Weill Hall, when the back wall is fully opened for the audience on the lawn - otherwise there might have been annoying echoes as the sounds bounced off of a flatter surface. And inside, it helps create what the architects describe as a "nave-like space: masonry, hard walls, tall, long, and narrow."  With the organ at the front and the reverberation at its fullest (there are drapes which can emerge and make a drier acoustic) it has the audio characteristic of a small to medium sized church, with a 3 to 5 second echo, ideal for choral works, or organ recitals. The drapes would be adjusted to several presets to accomodate different chamber ensemble configurations, as well as university lectures.

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