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.
Next month, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber - an adaptation by composer Bright Sheng of the most widely-read and studied 18th Century Chinese novel. He was also co-librettist (with David Henry Hwang) for the new work, which pares the sprawling story down to size by focusing on a love triangle. It was a San Francisco Opera commission, suggested by the Minnesota-based Chinese Heritage Foundation.
When faced with the challenge of transforming one of China's longest and most-revered books for the operatic stage, Bright Sheng says he looked at Prokofiev's setting of War and Peace as a cautionary tale: "Dream of the Red Chamber, the length of the novel is more than twice as long as War and Peace. And had over 40 characters, main characters, and over 400 small characters. [Prokofiev] wrote a five and a half hour version, and it has a lot of beautiful music, but as an opera it’s not successful. Because the story is about War and Peace. If you’re a composer, you think about writing an opera, you beef up the sideline story, which is the love story." The romantic triangle that he and David Henry Hwang focus on involves a pair of lovers who existed as a stone and a flower before coming to earth. The other woman comes between them as part of an arranged marriage to settle an imperial debt. "So it’s a very complex story," Bright Sheng explains, "But at the same time, a very simple story. Because I believe the opera cannot tell a very complicated story. You have to have a very up front story, that you can simply tell in about one sentence. And then you can have the other things, like the political intrigue, as a backdrop."
Thursday, August 25
The Chiara String Quartet has found that playing works 'by heart' — that is, from memory, without scores in front of them — helps them play together better, and makes for a deeper, more immersive interpretation. They've now released their second 'by heart' recording, this time playing the six quartets of Bela Bartok.
Even though they say it takes four times as long to learn to play the works without scores, they've found it makes a huge difference in their understanding of the music, and gives them new freedom. "It allows us to improvise, and come up with ideas that never occurred to us in rehearsal," cellist Gregory Beaver says. "And to respond more to the energy of the room than we would otherwise be able to…The essence of playing by heart has nothing really to do with memorization. It has to do with getting closer to the core of the music. That’s the payoff." And violist Jonah Sirota points out the folk tune inspired melodies make more sense this way. "Because it’s based on music that wasn’t written down, that was an oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation… For us, if we memorize this music, suddenly it takes on a much more 'oral tradition feel' to it, and the performances feel a lot more natural to us, and feel like we can be more improvisatory, which I think is a good goal for music that sounds like this."
Here's the quartet playing the finale of the String Quartet no. 5 by Bartok:
Wednesday, August 24
Fiddler Mark O'Connor stretches the definition of jazz, as he brings his latest group, the O'Connor Band to finish off the Jazz at the Lesher Center series this Saturday evening. (They'll also play at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage the following night.) It replaces the previously announced Hot Swing Trio, another of his many incarnations. Their recently released first album, Coming Home debuted at number one on Billboard's Bluegrass chart.
Since his early days as a teenage-champion bluegrass fiddler, to a pair of critically-acclaimed albums with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma, and writing concertos for fiddle, O'Connor has been comfortable in a variety of styles and genres - and even instruments. Before he settled on the fiddle, he was a sought-after guitar and mandolin player too. He sees the different facets of his musical life as all being related: "That draws a connection between all these American settings and styles and genres. And therefore, you don’t have have to have two brains to handle some of this stuff, you can just draw out the most important musical bridges which really helped create American music anyway. I mean, you wouldn’t have jazz without folk music, and you wouldn’t have bluegrass without the folk music that came before that." His newest ensemble is made up of some of his nearest and dearest: "My wife Maggie sings and plays the violin. And then my daughter-in-law, Kate Lee also sings and plays the violin, and then my son sings and plays the mandolin. We’re filled out by two excellent side men: guitar player Joe Smart, and bassist Geoff Saunders, who also doubles on the open-back banjo. We’re going to play in more of a bluegrass, contemporary 'New-grass/bluegrass' and Americana styles."
Friday, August 19
The San Francisco Choral Society presents one of the grand staples of the Choral/Orchestral repertoire, the Verdi Requiem tonight and tomorrow night at Davies Symphony Hall. Artistic Director Robert Geary describes it as an 'absolutely gorgeous' work, despite some early criticism that it was written in too much of the operatic style for which Verdi was known.
Robert Geary says this is the third time he's lead the ensemble in the sprawling work: "It’s amazing, because I always ask this question as we begin a new concert preparation. I say: ‘How many of you have never sung this piece?’ And it’s pretty much always like 50-50. So for a lot of them, it’s their first time, but then I can say: ‘How many of you have sung it twice?’ How many have sung it three times?’ And, you know, there are people that have sung it ten or twelve times, so it’s kind of fun to see whose hand is left in the air." There are four soloists (Hope Briggs, Edith Dowd, Noah Stewart, and Eugene Brancoveanu), off-stage trumpets, and the familiar and terrifying Dies Irae. "The chorus parts are inventive, and highly varied, extremely satisfying to sing," Geary says. "It’s fun to conduct too. It’s wonderful for the players, it’s wonderful for the singers, it’s wonderful for the soloists, it’s wonderful for the conductor, and it’s wonderful for the audience. It’s just plain a wonderful piece."
Thursday, August 18
The eight-voiced chamber choir called Gaude presents concerts in San Jose and San Francisco this weekend, with a program built on the themes of salvation and peace. The group's artistic director, Jace Wittig, and soprano Elizabeth Kimble give a preview of the program's repertoire, which spans eight centuries of the a cappella music tradition.
"I was actually very inspired by a piece of chant, Da Pacem Domine," Wittig says, "which has been used conceptually in a similar way, in the past by other ensembles, but I found a Mass that was based on that chant that I thought was really stunning." It's attributed to Josquin Desprez (although it might be by his contemporary, Noel Bauldeweyn) and Gaude will perform the chant, as well as three movements of that Mass. There are also works by Hildegard of Bingen, and contemporary American composer, Jan Gilbert, whose Grace to You was inspired by the sounds of the Greek Orthodox choral tradition, and resonates with Hildegard's style from eight centuries earlier. There's a set of pieces by Francis Poulenc, as well as a section from Herbert Howell's Requiem. As Jace Wittig explains, "Similar texts, texts that complement the text of the chant, ‘Give us peace o Lord, in our time, and who else but you would fight for us?"
Wednesday, August 17
Tonight cellist Maya Beiser premieres a work at SFJAZZ that was written to be a prequel to a piece she's played for more than a decade. Both pieces written for her by New York-based composer David Lang will be played on tonight's program: The Day, followed by World to Come. They're accompanied by video, and Beiser herself, in multi-tracked parts for cello and voice.
"World to Come was a piece that was commissioned from David Lang for me by Carnegie Hall 13 years ago," Beiser explains. "It’s a big piece, it’s a 25 minute piece with 24 pre-recorded cello tracks, and this beautiful video by Irit Batsry, and it’s become one of my favorite pieces… I’ve never done World to Come in San Francisco, believe it or not. Which is kind of crazy, cause I’ve been performing that piece for 13 years. But it’s the first time doing it in the Bay Area." Leading into it, though, will be the new piece. "David and I for a long time have been talking about creating a prequel for World to Come, because World to Come is… the idea is about a woman who dies, and the cello is the body, and the voice is the soul, and it sort of separates and then reunites. We wanted to create a piece that would be about who is that woman, and what was her life like. And so David created this piece called The Day, which is really about the day as a metaphor for one’s entire life." There's pre-recorded spoken text for that piece, which composer Lang created from searching for the term 'I remember the day that...' on the internet, and including memories from the earth-shattering to the mundane.
Beiser has also just recently released an album called TranceClassical, which begins with her nostalgic arrangement of Bach's Air, which she first heard on a scratchy LP of her father's, when she was a little girl on a kibbutz in Israel.
Friday, August 12
In an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts: Fantasia and Fugue. Both allow the performer (and composer) to show off their skills, but in a different way. A fantasia tends to be virtuosic, but at the same time should sound like it's being improvised. A fugue, in order for it to work, has to also meet certain formal expectations. Especially important: the opening subject needs to be one that the listener will be able to recognize each time it enters, in ever thickening textures of other voices. Counter-subjects need to flow out of what precedes them, and be able to follow the rules of harmony and counterpoint when played at the same time as the subject. It all needs to make sense both structurally, and just as importantly, to the ear.
How one writes a fugue really depends on the starting material; there are going to be some techniques that will only be possible if the subject allows it. Bach was especially talented at knowing what permutations would be possible based on any given theme: with a fugue for three voices, he might have two counter-subjects, each showing up in a different part in turn. And then for the final statement, they might each come in earlier, ending up overlapping to build tension.
Here's a quartet of singers (plus a string quartet) performing Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue":
Thursday, August 11
It's been called "the brightest and most powerful key" that expresses "joy, magnificence, splendor, and the highest brilliancy." E Major can sound shimmering, as violins can play their highest string without putting a finger on the fingerboard - but Beethoven never wrote a symphony in the key, and some of of the pieces with great Emajor melodies were middle and last movements of pieces in other keys.
Can you name these works? Click and drag over the white space below to highlight the answers:
Ponchielli: 'Dance of the Hours' from La Gioconda
Rossini: William Tell Overture
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, mvt. 3
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no. 2, mvt 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5, finale
Wagner: Tannhauser Overture
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Grieg: 'Morning Mood' from Peer Gynt
Chopin: Etude, Op. 10, no. 3 'Tristesse'
Vivaldi: 'Spring' from the Four Seasons
Rossini: William Tell Overture
Wednesday, August 10
Violinist Pinchas Zukerman is the subject of a giant new box set, 22 discs of recordings he made for Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, spanning the years 1974 through 1996. As someone who has been performing almost 50 years, he knows his way around a recording studio. But that wasn't always the case.
Zukerman is at least a triple threat: on these recordings, he's showing his chops as a violinist, violist, as well as conductor. When he was starting to record in the late 1960s, the sessions would usually come right on the heels of a concert performance, when that energy was fresh. "I didn’t play in a studio before I played in public," he explains. "I had to play… we had to rehearse, we had to play the concert at least once if not twice… Like for example with [the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with] Lennie Bernstein, I rehearsed it and played it and the next day I came into Avery Fischer, at that time it was Philharmonic Hall, and I recorded it." But he didn't have that luxury for his very first session, with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra. "They phoned me and said, ‘You’ve got to fly over because you’ve got to save our neck and record Tchaikovsky’. I said ‘WHAT? I don’t know the orchestra, I’ve never been in the studio, I…’ They said, ‘Look, you have to do it!’"
Friday, August 5
Lamplighters Music Theater presents a brand new take on one of the staples of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory: The Mikado, which was originally set in the ficticious Japanese town of Titipu. This production has moved the location, after recent protests in various cities around the country object to what they see as 'yellowface' performances with non-Asian casts. Stage director Ellen Brooks says this adaptation (with only minimal changes in the text) takes the story to Renaissance Italy.
The new production is called The new Mikado - Una Commedia Musicale, but Brooks says the comedy and music translate well. "What I’ve discovered in the rehearsal process is, it’s the Mikado. It’s still the Mikado, no matter what you put it in," she says. It was a hard decision to make, and Lamplighters outlined their process in a letter to their audience on their website. The original plan of setting it in Japan during the Meiji period, a time of great social upheaval (which was also when Gilbert was writing the story) had to be changed after a strong protest was made. "We ran into a big resistance from the Asian-American theater community," Brooks says. "And they said basically that the piece was racist, which I do not agree with. But it could be done, if it were done with an entirely Asian cast. We went through a lot of discussion with Theater Bay Area and a number of other consultants, and finally decided we had to take it out of Japan to make this work. We’d eliminate the problem by taking it out of Japan." She says she knows it's also controversial to change G&S canon: "You’re always going to have critics… We discussed that a lot. There are people who do not want to see any change whatsoever, because they grew up, or were first introduced to this Mikado that’s in their mind."
Thursday, August 4
The American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy gets underway this weekend, with the theme 'An Italian Journey.' But Music Director Jeffrey Thomas says while there's music of Vivaldi, Corelli (and of course Bach), there's also a very special U.S. premiere of a work by Handel called Parnasso in Festa. The 10-day long festival has master classes, lectures, and performances, most of which are at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Thomas says the Handel work, which will be performed Thursday the 11th and Friday the 12th, will be a highlight. "The thing that’s most exciting probably for all of us here at the Festival and the Academy, is believe it or not, an American premiere, yet another one that we’ve found, I don’t know how this is possible nowadays, of a really major Handel work. A full three-act… (well, we cheat and we call it an opera) it’s really a piece for a royal wedding, but it’s quite operatic, but no set." It was transcribed by Steven Lehning, who plays violone and contrabass with ABS. One of the reasons there hadn't been a performance was because there was no performing edition, with individual parts for musicians. Lehning transcribed from the 19th Century complete works of Handel edition by Chrysander, to be able to generate computer-printed scores for this premiere concert.
Wednesday, August 3
To help celebrate their 25th anniversary season, Festival Opera is returning to the work that they began with... by way of outer space. Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio is mashed up with an episode of Star Trek in an adaptation by director and librettist Josh Shaw. Michael Morgan and the Oakland Symphony join the Festival Opera Chorus in four performances this Friday through next Tuesday.
It came about as a way of spicing up a dated libretto, and being able to stage an opera economically, but Josh Shaw has had success in several cities with this hybrid production. "If you take the people who know of Mozart, the most popular composer of all time, and cross that with the number of people that know the franchise Star Trek, you’re going to hit a huge percent of the population," he says. He developed it, complete with Vulcan ears, Klingons and cheesy scenery during a festival when he had a cast of singers but a tight budget. Fortunately, so were the creators of Star Trek. "They were always in financial trouble, they were always worried of being cancelled, and basically their set was always a couple papier mache rocks or something borrowed from a western, or whatever, and I can relate to that!"
Shaw says the retro-update has attracted a mix of fans: "It’s been super successful in getting regular opera-goers in the door, but then a whole new group of people who will come because they see a couple of pictures with a Klingon and a Vulcan…It’s become more of a phenomenon and a greater success than I ever thought it would be. It was really just a way to do the show in a somewhat interesting way that we could do on a budget, and it’s become a lot more than that now in its fifth or sixth run since the premiere."