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.
The Peninsula Symphony opens its 66th season this weekend with a pair of concerts featuring guest soloist Jon Nakamatsu playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1, plus the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Music Director Mitchell Sardou Klein gives a bit of a preview to the concert.
There's more information about the performances, which are this Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon, at the Peninsula Symphony website.
It's Mitchell Sardou Klein's 30th anniversary season - which is hard for him to believe: "My predecessor, my one and only predecessor as Music Director of the Peninsula Symphony [Aaron Sten] was there for 36 years, and now the orchestra is in its 66th year, so if you do the math... But it certainly wasn't planned out that way. I'm happy that it worked out that way - it's been great for me, because I'm one of the lucky few conductors who gets to establish a home." And after last season's tulmutuous events - with the orchestra's funds embezzled, and their solvency re-established after their audiences and musicians rallied to their help - Klein says he wanted to make this season "a tribute and love song" to the audience that stuck by them. So he's programmed crowd-pleasers for their first concert, and they allowed audiences to vote for a work that will appear on a concert in the Spring.
Guest soloist Jon Nakamatsu will play a work he has a clear lineage to: Tchaikovsky's first Piano Concerto. "Jon Nakamatsu, who hit the headlines in 1997 when he won the Van Cliburn Competition," says Mitchell Sardou Klein. "And then you think back to Van Cliburn's newsworthy triumph when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition a few decades earlier, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. All of these things are kind of tied in together." Also on the program is Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and the Maurice Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The concerts will be at the Flint Center in Cupertino Saturday evening at 8pm, and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Capuchino High School Theater.
Monday, October 20
Here's a whirlwind tour of the Wind Instruments, or Woodwinds (even though many of them are no longer made of any wood). Unlike the strings, which as a section have a continuous and uniform sound across their ranges, wind instruments have individual personalities and characteristic sounds that are so distinctive that there are often only two or three oboe players in an orchestra, balancing a few dozen violins.
This isn't by any means an exhaustive list - a number of additional instruments extend the ranges of each example, but these are some of the most frequently found in an orchestra, and the wind instrument players will frequently be asked to "double" on other instruments, so a piccolo part will be played by a member of the flute section, English horn by an oboist, etc.
There's a wonderful series of videos by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra introducing their instruments:
Friday, October 17
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":
The various entrances and individual lines of the four singers are fairly easy to follow - at least at the beginning - in an animated video you can see here.
Thursday, October 16
In the spirit of our Musical Mystery Tour, here's a whirlwind globe-trotting exercise. Can you name the geographically-themed pieces that are mashed together? There are eleven pieces and thirteen locations, since two of the works are doing double duty.
(To see the answers, click and drag over the blank space below!)
George Gershwin: An American in Paris
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir of Florence
Ludwig van Beethoven: "Turkish March" from The Ruins of Athens
Camille Saint-Saens: Africa, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on Carnival of Venice
Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
Aaron Copland: El Salon Mexico
George Enescu: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1
Leonard Bernstein: "America" from West Side Story
Xian Xinghai: Yellow River Piano Concerto
Wednesday, October 15
This week San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Stéphane Denève play a program of three works from the era of World War II, which share geography and the reflective mood of the times. They'll play tonight, Friday and Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall, and tomorrow night at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall.
Soloist Isabelle Faust will play Benjamin Britten's early Violin Concerto - Denève says he's pleased to be working with Faust for the first time here, odd because she's from Stuttgart, where Denève leads the Radio Symphony Orchestra. Britten's concerto was written for a Spanish soloist, and Denève says it carries some of the feeling of Spain in its rhythms and effects, but also sounds unmistakeably like Britten's own voice. "It has an amazing last movement, a passacaglia, which is repeated the same motive, again and again - but with such an intensity, and a very special dark tone." It had its premiere in New York City in 1940, where Rachminoff was working on his Symphonic Dances, which would be his final orchestral work, and premiere the following year in Philadelphia. The Symphonic Dances included all sorts of symbolism, including Rachmaninoff's frequent use of the 'Dies Irae' melody. But Denève says he also made peace with an early personal failure - a symphony he destroyed after its premiere. "In the first movement [of the Symphonic Dances], Rachmaninoff quotes himself, with his first symphony. But at the time he composed that, his first symphony was a big failure in his life. When he quotes this, actually, he knows that nobody else would know it." It was only later, when the symphony was reconstructed that people discovered the quotation.
The other work on the program is Barber's Adagio for Strings, which also had its first performance in New York, with Toscanini conducting (it had originally been a movement from Barber's String Quartet). "The three pieces have been composed or premiered in New York within less than two and a half years," Denève says, "And also have something to do with the War, with the fear, and the three of them are a kind of requiem in their tone."
Tuesday, October 14
San Francisco Opera's production of Partenope by Handel opens tomorrow night, starring Danielle De Niese in the title role. Although this is her first time in this role, De Niese has gained some of her worldwide reputation singing other Handel leads, and calls him one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived.
Her first solo CD was a collection of Handel arias in 2007, and she sang his arias from her early days as a student. "I do have quite a good history with Handel and Baroque music," she says. "Quite by accident, actually. It was just due to my European debut as Cleopatra when I was 21 years old, that it all took off from there." She calls the role of Partenope "a big sing" and a Cleopatra-esque role. But in this comedic opera, there isn't as much of a character arc as in the heavier dramas. Nonetheless, she says: "We've done a really fantastic job, I think, of finding the humanity to this character, who is a queen of society, as it were. This production is set in the '20s in Paris. Partenope was the Queen of Naples, the founder of Naples, but she here is the sort of doyenne of society, of French, Parisian society. And she is adored by everyone, and as a result, she lives alone on a pedestal... She's somebody who picks and chooses the loves of her life based on who's the 'it boy' of the moment - who's the new poetic thinker, who's the new prince who's come into town?" The cast of Partenope also includes Daniela Mack and David Daniels, and runs through November 2nd.
Here's Danielle De Niese in rehearsal as Partenope:
Monday, October 13
The Tasmanian composer Peter Sculthorpe wrote many string quartets, but because he wanted to respect Aboriginal culture, he didn't begin to write for the unlikely combination of quartet and didjeridu until he was asked to by an indigenous musician in 2001. Del Sol Quartet has just released a CD set with Stephen Kent of the four Sculthorpe Quartets with Didjeridu, a project many years in the making.
The ensemble first had a chance to work with the composer (who died this August) in 2006, as part of the "Other Minds" Festival, where they premiered the revised version of Sculthorpe's String Quartet No. 16 with Stephen Kent on the didjeridu. "Stephen just brings out so much soul," violist Charlton Lee says. "His part is not specifically notated, but he's reading off the score, so he knows what we're about to do, and he is able to then adjust his playing to create something that supports us well." Cellist Kathryn Bates, who usually provides the bass notes for the quartet says "It's always an interesting dynamic when you introduce another instrument, and obviously this is within my sound world. And so we joke that Steven and I fight for overtones and frequency ranges." The didjeridu, for all its simplicity - it is, essentially just a hollowed section from a eucalyptus tree - is able to achieve quite a variety of sounds: a droning bass, percussive effects, as well as higher complex overtones that can imitate many sounds of nature.
The quartets deal with real issues confronting the world, and Australia in particular. Number 12, called From Ubirr was originally an orchestral piece called Earth Cry - and is about climate change, as is his 18th. "It starts, and you hear the insects and you hear the birds," Kathryn Bates explains, "And in each movement progressively the land actually dies, and the birds go away. In the last movement, Peter Sculthorpe, who was always very optimistic, offers up the hope that the Earth can rejuvenate itself, with or without us... and so the birds actually return in the last movement." There's also a harsh look at the treatment of Afghan immigrants in his 16th quartet, inspired by a book of letters in Australian immigration detention centers called From Nothing to Zero, and the 14th quartet was inspired by a legend of mistreatment of native peoples by Tasmanian colonists. "The legend," Lee says, "is about a group of Aborigines who were pushed, chased to the edge of this cliff by colonial soldiers, and then given the choice to either jump or be shot... I think that story stuck with [Sculthorpe] for a very long time, and finally manifested itself in this piece. It's really a very powerful piece, and at the same time, there's still this sense of hope, some sense that, yes, there was this tragedy, and despite that, we can still somehow find a way to better ourselves."
Friday, October 10
The Santa Rosa Symphony presents Heroes and Legends, their first concert program of the season, with Music Director Bruno Ferrandis conducting, along with guest soloist, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin. The performances are tomorrow and Monday night, and Sunday afternoon at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall.
Bruno Ferrandis says the concert begins with a 'legendary' work by Richard Strauss, who was born 150 years ago: "I had to play some Strauss to honor this anniversary, and I found Till... Till Eulenspiegel. Till is a sort of a crook, you know, he's a farcical guy, a prankster." Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks tells in music his antics and their consequences. Yevgeny Sudbin is soloist for Beethoven's heroically-scaled Piano Concerto No. 5, the 'Emperor' which is the centerpiece of the concert, and its longest work - as Ferrandis describes it, "the big cherry on the small pie, because it's bigger by its architecture." The overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser follows, with Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin, a suite based on a pantomime ballet to close the concert. "It's a very sensual, even sexual story: the Mandarin is attracted to that girl... and he's attracted by this woman to death. The virtuosity, the orchestration is sublime, and the sensuality of that piece haunts me."
Thursday, October 9
Australian harpist Alice Giles presents a program this Sunday night called Alice in Antarctica, courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. It combines music performance and multimedia from her experiences presenting a harp recital at Mawson Station in 2011, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the first Australasian Expedition to the continent, for which her grandfather served as meteorologist.
Giles learned that there were arts grants available to travel to Antarctica, and it was only when she received one, to give a concert there, that her plans began to take shape. "I wasn't really thinking at that time about taking my instrument, or anything, and it turned into a kind of an adventure of taking harps - I took a large harp and a small harp on the ship as part of the re-supply voyages that leave from Australia." The concert (inside) on her 'electro-acoustic' blue harp included music that her grandfather, Cecil Thomas Madigan would have known - plus new works. "I found my grandfather's diaries," she says, "which I hadn't read before then. They'd been in the family, but hadn't been shared around, so I got to read them. He talks about music, and how that touched him while he was down there, so I used some of that music, and I also commissioned some new pieces by Australian composer, and I interspersed this with readings from the diaries." Her performance at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco Sunday night will also include some of the footage that she took while down there:
Wednesday, October 8
Cellist Steven Isserlis joins Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for two concertos this week, playing Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Luigi Boccherini, both composers he adores. Nicholas McGegan leads the concerts, at the SFJAZZ Center tonight, Bing Concert Hall tomorrow, and a pair of Berkeley concerts this weekend... plus a special "Sessions" event at ODC Theater on Friday, co-presented by KDFC and Philharmonia, hosted by Hoyt.
Isserlis has been a frequent soloist with Philharmonia Baroque, and this time helps the ensemble continue to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of C.P. E. Bach - the son of Johann Sebastian who was an inspiration to some of the great composers of his generation. "He ws a huge influence," Isserlis says. "I think Haydn said that without C.P.E. Bach, he would never have been a composer, or something likt that. Mozart also. He was probably more of an influence on those two than J.S. Bach was. He was a very original figure, but I think he's too off the wall for some people. He could be very strange. This is one of his more normal pieces, I think." It's a concerto in A Major that's now best known in its guise as a work for cello, but originally it was for harpsichord -- and the efficient C.P.E. also worked it for flute as well. Isserlis says that it's not overly cello-ish, given its origins, "but it's such a beautiful piece that one tries to surmount its difficulties. It's worth playing, it's so beautiful, so original too, and fresh." The concerts will also include Boccherini's Cello Concerto No. 7 in G Major, as well as Haydn Symphonies 57 and 67.
The "Sessions" event, called "The Nights of Madrid" at ODC Theater in the Mission on Friday night is a more informal concert setting, with a multimedia component, and discussion by Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Steven Isserlis. The first of the events, earlier this year, featured soloists Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, playing examples of the music before the full pieces were performed, and invited both questions from, and social media participation by the audience.
Tuesday, October 7
It's an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts looking at Meter and Measures - the composer's tools for organizing time and beats in their works. Most of Western classical music uses the same building blocks of groups of twos or threes to make up meter, with the bar line going in front of the emphasized first beat. In 4/4 or common time, there are four beats per measure; 'cut time' or 'alla breve' has two; there are dances like waltzes and minuets that are in triple time with three. Once you have a predictable and steady pulse, it's possible to add syncopation and other rhythmic patterns that play off of that pulse.
Here's the "Ode to Joy" section from the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the famous melody of which is in 4/4:
The "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker - The 3/4 meter begins at 1:12 -
And here's the 6/8 meter alternating between different accents in Leonard Bernstein's "America" from West Side Story:
Monday, October 6
San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley announced on Friday that he would be retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season, and the search for his replacement is underway, with the hope that he or she will be in place in a year's time so there can be a season of overlap before Gockley's departure. He did assure members of the press that he wouldn't be a lame duck.
At the announcement, Gockley said he'd told key board members early on that it was his intention to stay as General Director for only ten years, plus or minus. At the time of his projected retirement it will have been ten years and seven months. "I think that in a mature organization, a C.E.O. should stay ten years. It gets a little predictable, and new energy and new vision, and new ideas, I think is very healthy for an organization, healthy for a community. (That probably is my thinking, even more than self-protection!)" The remainder of his time at the helm will be spent shepherding those operas already in the works, and planning the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, which will include in the summer of 2018, a staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
Filling Gockley's shoes won't be easy... As Music Director Nicola Luisotti said at the announcement, he's like an artistic parent. "As an Italian guy," Luisotti said, "we have in mind all the time the parents - and Mom and Dad never retire. They are Mom and Dad for all their life, and they are never getting old. And there is another person in my life that will never get old. This is David. He is a legend, and what he has done for the opera world is impossible to describe." Among many other achievements, he will have commissioned nine operas for San Francisco Opera, including the co-commission of Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, and counting his time with Houston Grand Opera, has been responsible for the creation of more than 44 new works. San Francisco Opera Association President Keith Geeslin said that the search for a new General Director would begin immediately, and that he was optimistic, because it was truly one of the "best gigs in the opera world," and likely to attract the strongest candidates. "Being offered the opportunity to succeed David at one of the big three opera companies in the United States, which is artistically vibrant and fiscally in very good shape, with tremendous community support is just not an opportunity that comes along every day."
Friday, October 3
The San Francisco Girls Chorus opens its season in a pair of concerts this weekend called 'The Romantic Imagination' - with a program of Lieder arranged specifically for them by Alexander Blachly, and with guest soloist (and for a few selections, accompanist) Jon Nakamatsu. Music Director and conductor Valerie Sainte-Agathe says the Romantic spirit that was behind the composers of Lieder survives to this day.
"The program is about Romantic music, and specifically around Lieder," says Sainte-Agathe, with works by Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms and others in new arrangements specifically for the Girls Chorus by Alexander Blachy. "We're going to start first with three Leider of Amy Beach - we have an American woman composer who wrote those Lieder, inspired by poems from Browning, the really Romantic poet: 'God is in Heaven, and all's right with the world!'" They'll be joined by Jon Nakamatsu, who will play solo Liszt transcriptions of songs by Franz Schubert, and then accompany the girls for other Schubert Lieder, in addition to playing a new work for solo piano and "drone" by Artistic Director of the ensemble, Lisa Bielawa. "For me it's a way to say that Romantic music, it's contemporary too," Sainte-Agathe says. "We can all be Romantic now, you know? Express... give... be generous. And go around the world and express things."
Thursday, October 2
Berkeley Symphony presents its first Zellerbach Hall Series performance tonight with 'Enigma' at 7 o'clock. Music Director Joana Carneiro leads the orchestra in the program that includes a commissioned world premiere by Oscar Bettison, the Sibelius violin concerto with guest soloist Jennifer Koh, and the set of variations by Edward Elgar that gives the program its name.
The world premiere is called Sea Shaped, by Oscar Bettison, the British composer Berkeley Symphony commissioned; it's a work that was inspired by the way the ocean changes the shape of the land - and as Bettison himself said, "I was born on a little island... Everywhere I've lived has been close to the sea, so somehow, I feel that I'm kind of sea-shaped." Bettison frequently uses electronics and percussion in unexpected ways. He asked Joana Carneiro if his work could be on a program with music by Sibelius, which led to the programming of the violin concerto. Jennifer Koh had been a soloist several years ago with the orchestra (and also made an appearance as Einstein in Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach when it returned to Zellerbach).
Elgar's Enigma Variations is a set of works based on a theme, each section describing another of the composer's friends. But the Enigma in the title isn't the challenge of identifying the subjects... that was made easy by the use of initials and wordplay. For example, the beautiful movement known as 'Nimrod' was dedicated to the music publisher August Jaeger, which is the word in German for 'hunter,' and Nimrod was a famed hunter from the Bible. Elgar hinted at an overarching puzzle, a hidden theme that is suggested by the one that is played. Many have made guesses, but so far there's no consensus that anyone has been correct.
Wednesday, October 1
Ragnar Bohlin's new choral ensemble, Cappella SF, which launched in February of this year presents their second program in two concerts this weekend, called "Autumn Light". The concerts will be in Palo Alto and San Francisco, with a program that ranges from Bach to Arvo Pärt and Ingvar Lidholm, and reflects the change of the seasons.
The program begins with two works for double-choir, Singet dem Herrn by J.S. Bach, and a high Romantic mass in E-flat major by Joseph Rheinberger. "We're going from light to darkness, representing the change of seasons. and the change of mindset that that may instill in us." The first of those darker pieces is De Profundis, by Ingvar Lidholm, "De Profundis is from the 1980s, and it's one of two a cappella pieces from an opera, A Dream Play, with text by August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright." The texts (and title) come from the Biblical passage "From the Depths we cry to thee, O Lord".
Arvo Pärt's Seven Magnificat Antiphons follow, as Bohlin describes: "Also quite austere texts, some of them are quite dark: 'Please free us from the fetters of darkness' to more light, comforting texts." And finally, the last two of Alfred Schnittke's Psalms of Repentence, which were written after the composer suffered a hemorrhage that left him clinically dead. Bohlin says the works by Schnittke after his medical trauma were dark and introspective.
The Palo Alto concert is at All Saints Episcopal Church on Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday's concert will be at 6pm at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco.