Monday, April 1

Some unwanted revisions and music inspired by Turkish soldiers today, as part of our occasional tour through the alphabet in an "A to Z" edition of the State of the Arts. The letter is J, and it's standing for Janáček, Jenůfa, and Janissary. Leoš Janáček had spent a decade writing the opera that many now call his first masterpiece – but its first performance was in Brno, rather than Prague. He would have to wait another dozen years, and allow the opera to be heavily edited by another composer before it would get the Prague premiere that sealed its reputation. For many years to follow, that was the version that was known in concert halls and recordings.

The opera tells the dark story of a young woman who bears a child out of wedlock as she waits for the father, only to have the baby drowned by the woman who is caring for her. It became a critical success in the version that had been reworked by Karel Kovařovic. All the more painful for Janáček, who in the space of just a few years had lost his young son, and then his 21-year-old daughter just as he was finishing writing Jenůfa.

The Turkish military band, sometimes called Janissaries, whose exotic sound Beethoven, Mozart and others tried to capture sounded like this, filled with drums, cymbals and a twisting and turning melody:

Tuesday, April 2

As of the beginning of May, Herbst Theatre will be closed until the summer of 2015 for major seismic renovations. One of the groups that has made Herbst its home is City Arts and Lectures, which has been doing renovations itself, on the nearby historic Nourse Auditorium, just around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall. The newly remodeled hall had an event last night – Sydney Goldstein, executive director of City Arts and Lectures took us on a tour a few months ago, when the seats were still being installed. 

There's more information about the hall at the City Arts and Lectures website.

The 1,700-seat hall, which is going by Nourse (pronounced like "Norse") Theatre, began its life as part of a high school in the 1920s, but has played host to musicians and performers as varied as Pete Seeger, Jim Morrison, and Alan Ginsburg. In the mid-1980s, it was converted into a makeshift courtroom, for a series of massive asbestos trials. Most recently, it's been a storage space for the school system, and shuttered from the public for over a quarter century. 

The overhaul of the Nourse could have been much more expensive, but Goldstein says the Fire Marshall's office determined that the renovations they were doing were largely cosmetic – although they've updated the lighting, acoustics, and the seats. Several of the performing organizations that have made their home at Herbst will be able have access to the venue, which, along with the new SFJAZZ center, continue to expand the performance spaces near the Civic Center. "We're making it available to all of the people who will be displaced by the Herbst closing," Goldstein says. "And other groups for which the Herbst wasn't big enough, or wasn't available.

Wednesday, April 3

Ernest Chausson's Concerto for Piano, Violin and String Quartet gets a chamber orchestra upgrade as it's performed this week by Anne-Marie McDermott, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. They'll play four performances, beginning tonight at Herbst Theatre; tomorrow they'll play in Berkeley, Palo Alto on Friday, and Sunday in Marin. 

There's more information at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website.

The name of the concert is "Anne-Marie McDermott Returns" – both to NCCO, and to this piece – which is now one of her favorites, although she says it was difficult enough when she was learning it that until she had a few performances under her belt, she apologized to her audiences. "I've played it many many times now. The first four or five times I played it werre completely daunting. So it took me time to kind of grow into the piece," she says. "And you have to really focus on capturing the French transparent sound."

She's collaborated with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg many times in the past 7 years or so… and says that they've built up an exceptional level of trust, and a shared musical intuition, which is needed for the Chausson to work as a piece. "But it feels great when Nadja and I come upon these solos with just the two of us. You feel like a bird in flight. The music just soars…. If you play it straight, it just doesn't come to life. You really need to have this back and forth, give and take." 

The concert will begin with the New Century Chamber Orchestra playing Last Round by Osvaldo Golijov, and then (in sharp contrast to the other concerto) McDermott will join them for a Mozart Piano Concerto (in A Major, K. 414). She says it just wouldn't work to play the Mozart at the end. "Because Chausson… You just lay it all… You pour it all out on stage, you leave nothing. It's over the top luscious, passionate… And at the end of Chausson your muscles are kind of like 'Hey, can I have a break, maybe for a few minutes?

Thursday, April 4

The San Francisco Girls Chorus has a long history of being a place where girls become musicians – and Lisa Bielawa, the new Artistic Director for the group spent several years in its ranks. She's gone on to be a very succesful singer and composer in her own right, and says singing in the SFGC was where she got a sense of her own musical identity apart from her family – both her parents were musicians.

There's more information about the ensemble, and Bielawa at the San Francisco Girls Chorus website.

Lisa Bielawa will be working with the new Music Director and Principal Conductor for the group, Valerie Sainte-Agathe. "As composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for a few years and various other capacities," Bielawa says, "I've been in a kind of collaborative artistic leadership role before, and I think it's a really exciting way to move forward."  But her role will be to provide artistic vision and pursue opportunities for the group, as tempting as having a first-class ensemble to write for might be for a composer. "My role with the Chorus is really sort of an advocate for exciting musical projects, whether or not it's my music. In fact most of the ideas I'm coming up with now have pretty much very little to do with my own music. I'm sure that will crop up, but I take very seriously the curatorial… The broad range of musics that really possible for a chorus."

She says in several ways this appointment, and returning to work with the Chorus has brought things full circle: "It was also the first time I started touring, and now I tour all the time, I'm on the road constantly!"  This May 3, SFGC will be premiering an oratorio by Gabriela Lena Frank (with text by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nilo Cruz, with members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joana Carneiro. A week later in Berlin, Germany, Bielawa will be premiering a giant work for hundreds of musicians called Tempelhof Broadcast – there will be a site-specific Crissy Broadcast here at Crissy Field in the Fall (more about that to come!)

Friday, April 5

The Chiara String Quartet was starting to record the complete quartets of Johannes Brahms when they decided to do something a bit unusual – they discovered they played better as an ensemble without their music stands in the way, and so began to play them by memory, or as they prefer to describe it, "by heart." Their CD doesn't have a release date yet, but they were in the Bay Area for a series of concerts recently playing Brahms. 

There's more information about the group at the Chiara Quartet's website

Violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Yoon, violist Jonah Sirota, and cellist Gregory Beaver all agree that they want to continue to approach new repertoire and performances this way – that the process improves their listening and interaction with eachother, and tightness as an ensemble. 

They have the score nearby during rehearsals – to doublecheck marked dynamics, or phrasings. "But sometimes it's just 'Rember that diminuendo there? You know the spot, close to rehearsal two?'" Rebecca Fischer says. "And if we've really studied the score as much as hopefully we have, to be able to record it and play it by heart, then we can kind of figure out what we're talking about."  Hyeyung Yoon says memorizing, although challenging, cuts straight to the soul of the music. "Playing by heart… really forces us to learn the music fast. Not in the sense of just notes, but learn the emotional content of it faster. Because if you're trying to remember something, you can remember the emotional content better than just the notes themselves."

Gregory Beaver says it's a more natural way of playing: "It takes out all of the unintuitive things. Because you can't remember something that's unintuitive. And so our phrasing becomes much more natural, much faster."  He says that the simple fact of not having a score separating them from the rest of the group heightens their focus – although he says it's a musician's 'sixth sense' rather than visual cues that keeps them together. "When we're most directly glued to someone,looking in the eyes, or watching the fingers, we often don't play quite as together as when we look off to the side…. [Otherwise] we end up being behind what we see."

The group has recorded the Brahms quartets for a future CD release.

Monday, April 8

Stanford professor and composer Jonathan Berger explores auditory hallucinations in a pair of chamber operas that were commissioned to be performed in the first season of the Bing Concert Hall. The program called Visitations, made up of Theotokia and The War Reporter takes advantage of the architecture and layout of the hall – and will surround the audience with sounds that the characters on stage are experiencing in their brains.

There's more information about the concert at the Stanford Live website.

The operas coincide with a cross-disciplinary symposium at Stanford called "Hearing Voices" set up by Berger's department, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. 

The first of the two operas, Theotokia, is an expansion of a song cycle that Berger wrote for soprano Dawn Upshaw – with a lead character who is schizophrenic, and has deeply religious hallucinations. "The Idea of the opera is that you're listening to the inner voices of this individual, rather than the narrative of what's happening in this individual's life," Berger says. And he's going to be achieving that by using electronics played back in very specific locations in the hall. "I wanted to take advantage of the particular architecture of the space, and I've gotten very interested in spatialized sound. So the idea for me was to place the audience virtually inside the skull, inside the brain of the protagonist. They're actually hearing computer generated and processed sounds, spatialized around them, that map very specifically to imaging studies of auditory hallucinations."

The second opera, The War Reporter, is based on the true story of photographer Paul Watson (who'll be at Stanford for the "Hidden Voices" symposium) – who won the Pulitzer prize for a photograph he took of the desecration of an American soldier in Mogadishu, that Berger says "also triggered a horrifying sequence of hallucinations that plagues him to this day."  

Dan O'Brien has written the librettos for each of the operas, which will feature soprano Heather Buck, bass Stephen Tramontozzi, the ensembles New York Polyphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Tara Helen O’Connor on flutePascal Archer, clarinetPedja Muzijevic, piano; and Steven Schick, percussion.

Tuesday, April 9

Opera San Jose's final production of the season is two of Giacomo Puccini's one acts, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Both have to do with wills and inheritances, but the first, set in a convent, is serious and religious; Gianni Schicchi is a comedy based on an actual incident in which a will was forged. Evan Brummel, who plays the title role, gives a bit of a preview.

There's more about the performances, which run from Saturday the 13th through the 28th at Opera San Jose's website.

The aria "O Mio Babbino Caro", which Lauretta sings to her father, Gianni Schicchi, is the best known moment from the opera – as she threatens to throw herself off of the Ponte Vecchio if she can't marry the young man she loves. That man, Rinuccio, is one of the members of the grieving family of the late Buoso Donati… who as they learn at the beginning of the opera, has left his money to the church.

"Gianni Schicchi devises a plan to pose as the dying Buoso Donati," Evan Brummel explains, "He brings in a notary to dictate a new will… However, the best items owned by Buoso he ends up bequeathing to himself and not the family."

It was this incident that won the real Gianni Schicchi a place in hell… Or at least in the thirtieth Canto of Dante's Inferno. (What might have had something to do with it was the fact that Dante's wife belonged to the Donati family that was still upset at the fraudulent will.)  "Not much is known historically about why Gianni Schicchi had done this, and so the opera is somewhat of a retelling of the story… explaining why he might have done what he did," Brummel says. And that reason (in the opera) was to bankroll the dowry that would allow the young lovers to marry.

Illustration of Dante's Inferno featuring Gianni Schicchi

Wednesday, April 10

A set of the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas is not a typical way to debut with a record label – but Leonidas Kavakos is glad that Decca agreed it was a good idea for him. The 3-CD set, Kavakos says, contains all the sides of Beethoven we know from the rest of his works, even though he switched his attention to focus on string quartets and the last piano sonatas during the 'late period' of his final years. 

There's more information about the discs at Leonidas Kavakos' management's website.

Leonidas Kavakos and his accompanist Enrico Pace were in San Francisco a while ago to play an all-Beethoven concert. He says that putting together a major recording project like the complete sonatas was the culmination of a long process of learning them individually: "This is repertoire that I grew up with. I started learning at a quite young age, and I performed, not as a cycle, but independently, practically all the sonatas within different programs for quite a few years. It helps very much to distill one's view when one performs not the whole cycle necessarily, but Beethoven in programs with different composers. So where does Beethoven stand next to Mozart? Where does he stand next to Shostakovich? Where does he stand next to Brahms?"

He says that even though they were mostly written in the earlier part of Beethoven's career, even the earliest sonatas have his DNA throughout them. "It's very obvious that we are entering a world that is full of the Beethoven power, Beethoven energy, Beethoven humor, Beethoven surprises, Beethoven imagination… Beethoven genius!"  To complete the set, Kavakos says the final sonata, Opus 96 finishes any remaining gaps in the artistic statement. "Even though I'm very sorry that chapter of Violin sonatas ended there, I can say that there is almost nothing missing from what we know from Beethoven, with the addition of the Opus 96."

Thursday, April 11

On an "A to Z" edition of State of the Arts, we're stopping at "K" to take a look at the evolution of Keyboard instruments, from the clavichord to the modern grand piano. As the instruments developed over time, they got bigger, louder, and capable of more nuance. 

One thing the clavichord is known for is just how quiet it is. It was never meant to be an instrument for performance, beyond a very intimate setting. It was relatively portable, though, and has the distinction of being a keyboard instrument that allows the player to use vibrato – since the "tangent" (the piece of metal attached to the key that makes contact with the string) acts as a finger would on a violin's string, and can be held as the sound fades away, or vibrated. (Although that technique isn't used in this example):

The virginal combines the shape of the clavichord with the "plucking" mechanism that's used by a harpsichord.  A "plectrum" (usually a bit of a quill feather) and one string per note, gave it a consistent, but still not so loud sound.

The harpsichord changed the orientation of the strings – rather than running parallel with the keyboard as on the clavichord and virginal, they go perpendicularly. (Some 'bentside spinets' had strings run at an angle somewhere between) On more elaborate harpsichords, there are multiple strings per key, and sometimes multiple banks of keyboards, which can be mechanically ganged together to create a beefier sound. 

Bartolomeo Cristofori's invention of the 'Gravicembalo col piano e forte' – which means 'harpsichord with soft and loud' – or piano around 1700 was a breakthrough because it allowed the player to be able to control, note by note while playing, the dynamics of each attack. The mechanism used hammers that would strike the strings and let them ring in a way that previous instruments couldn't.  (The music begins :30 into this video):

The fortepianos that were fine for Mozart needed to be stronger to withstand the kind of playing and writing that Beethoven demanded, and the science of piano making and the art of music written for the instrument continued pushing eachother on until the the late 19th Century, with the arrival of the modern, metal-framed grand piano we know today.

Friday, April 12

In April of 2005, a Chinese restaurant delivery man was trapped in an elevator in the Bronx for 81 hours, fearing the consequences of calling for help, because he was in the US illegally. A new musical called Stuck Elevator at American Conservatory Theater uses that story as a starting point for a look at immigration and the lives of those who, like the protagonist Guang, are trapped between worlds. Composer Byron Au Yong and lyricist Aaron Jafferis imagined the memories and fantasies of Guang as his hunger grows.

There's more information about the production at the ACT website.

Aaron Jafferis and Byron Au YongByron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis met when they were both in the graduate Musical Theater Writing program at NYU – Au Yong, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, says he saw the newspaper stories about the actual trapped deliveryman in 2005, and thought it would make an interesting subject. "We tried to figure out who the character was first, and I latched onto this because I had felt trapped in America, and I felt a kinship with the actual guy who was trapped, and so that became my question to try to figure out."  

Aaron Jafferis says they started with the basic facts of the real-life case: "He had a 60-thousand dollar debt to the snakehead, the human smuggler who brought him here; he had a wife and young son back in China who he was hoping to bring over here; he worked at Happy Dragon Restaurant in the Bronx; and he was undocumented. So his  difficulty in getting out was in part due to language barrier, in part due to his fear of being deported."

That fear, and their character Guang's imagination, provided the material that Au Yong and Jafferis needed: "What resonated with us was this idea," Au Young says. "What happens to someone when they're in a confined space for 81 hours? And so it started to become about hallucinations, dreams and memories, and then from that the music would expand."

Stuck Elevator at American Conservatory Theater

Monday, April 15

Simone Dinnerstein's newest album is a collaboration with an unusual musical partner – folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. They're going to appear together this Friday at the Montalvo Arts Center with repertoire from their CD called Night, which has tunes that Merritt has written, plus crossover classical adaptations of Schubert, Bach, Purcell, as well as songs by Brad Mehldau, Patty Griffin, Billie Holiday, and Johnny Nash. The unlikely pairing has been percolating for a few years, as they've developed repertoire together. 

There's more about the concert at the Montalvo Arts Center's website, and about the CD at Simone Dinnerstein's site (Note – audio begins playing automatically).

The project has taken both of them out of their comfort-zones. Tift Merritt says "Finding our language together was certainly a  challenge, and pushed both of us to places that we wouldn't have gone otherwise. I play by ear, and for me there certainly were a lot of challenges about playing with Simone, and playing classical music, and sounding like myself. There were so many leaps of faith." 

Likewise, the Juilliard-trained Dinnerstein, who became well known several years ago when her recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations became a best-seller, had to learn a new kind of playing: "Some of Tift's songs, she just gave me a chord chart, and then I had to try improvising," she says. "Tift was really helpful in showing me how she would do it if she was playing it on the piano, and then I would try to translate it into something that felt comfortable for me to do on the piano."  Also included on the CD is an arrangement by Daniel Felsenfeld of Dinnerstein's favorite song, folk singer Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" – which he called "The Cohen Variations" in a nod to her earlier disc.

They've been touring the disc, and have so far found very pleased and diverse audiences. Dinnerstein says: "It's a real combination of people that know Tift and that know me, but then also there seem to be people coming in that are just completely new. And I imagine that those people are interested in experimentation.

Tuesday, April 16

He's a double bass virtuoso, and an accomplished composer, but he's brand-new to writing for dance. Edgar Meyer is teaming up with Alonzo King LINES Ballet for an as-yet-unnamed new work that gets its premiere this Friday night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It will feature the composer (who will play his bass, and one section on piano) plus a cello and violin playing live for each performance.

There's more information about the performances, and the 30th Anniversary Spring season of the company at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet website.

Both King and Meyer said the title would have to wait. "I'm one of those guys who really feels that the baby has to be born before I name it… Marketing people hate that," says choreographer Alonzo King. "So I kind of like to wait until I see it on stage – but the working title is "the Edgar Meyer Collaboration," because all the names I came up with nobody liked."  The composer adds: "I've not come up with a title once in my life. My best titles were ones that were given to me by my friend Bela Fleck, and I've never come up with decent one myself, ever."

It was Meyer's Violin Concerto – specifically the slow middle movement – that first caught King's ear. He ended up setting it twice, as a pas de deux and then, with the Bejart Ballet, for a group of male dancers.  The two were introduced by their mutual friend tabla master Zakir Hussain. 

Alonzo King took music that Edgar Meyer had already written, and assembled it in a way to suggest a formal structure – as a sort of a blueprint to help Meyer, who says he's a stranger to the world of dance: "I have no knowledge of how dance works. Just not a bit. But Alonzo has made for an easy entry. It's the first time that I've felt completely comfortable with what the choreography is and what the music is. I feel it completely connects, and that's part of the fun – I couldn't have seen how it would happen."

And King is delighted to be working with Meyer: "There are so many levels to enter on – in Edgar's music there are also surprises. The expected is interrupted, and you're taken into another place… And that's fantastic for choreography!

Wednesday, April 17

The Tokyo String Quartet has been around for 43 years, but will be disbanding at the end of this season – the decision to do so was based on the plans for two of the longstanding members to retire. First violinist Martin Beaver says they decided rather than trying to simultaneously replace violinist Kikuei Ikeda and founding member and violist Kazuhide Isomura, they'd "tie things off gracefully". They'll play a concert at Herbst Theatre this Thursday, courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco.

There's more information about the concert at Chamber Music San Francisco's website, and about the group at the Tokyo String Quartet site.

Beaver, who joined the ensemble over a decade ago and is their newest member, says that even though there's a certain kind of immediate understanding that makes some discussion unneccesary, "We rehearse as if we were just starting out as a quartet. I would say that there is a level of intensity that hasn't really changed even over the years. We get to know one another's styles, and one another's quirks, I would say. But we always devote ourselves to rehearsing with the same seriousness that I imagine they did in the early days."

About violist Kazuhide Isomura who was one of the group's founders, Martin Beaver remains in awe. "To think that he's still going as strong as ever, and just touring like a champ after all these years, forty-three, forty-four years. Just incredible!"

Although the quartet is no longer going to be performing together, Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith will both be relocating to Los Angeles after the season of touring finishes. They're going to co-direct the String Chamber Music program at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, and are thinking about starting a piano trio, if they can find a good musical match with a pianist.

Thursday, April 18

This week's guest soloist with the San Francisco Symphony is violinist Augustin Hadelich – making his San Francisco premiere, with conductor Herbert Blomstedt. They're playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and one of the performances (tonight) will be at UC Davis, before returning for Friday and Saturday concerts at Davies Symphony Hall. Hadelich is also one of the featured players on KDFC's CD of the Week – "Histoire du Tango" with guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas.

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

Augustin Hadelich says the Beethoven is one of his favorites – it was the work that he played as a last-minute substitution for an ailing soloist when he had his debut with the New York Philharmonic many years ago. "I can't actually remember a time when I didn't know the piece," he says. "As long as I can remember I've been listening to the piece and studying it. And to play it with the San Francisco Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt is such a dream combination, so I couldn't be happier."

Hadelich, who won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006, says the concerto changes with each performance… "It's not just a piece where the violinist has the main role, and everyone's just accompanying. So as a result, every collaboration , depending on the conductor and the orchestra is actually quite different. So when I step on stage and hear the introduction, it sounds quite different from orchestra to orchestra, from conductor to conductor, and that then sets the stage."

Here's a video profile of Augustin Hadelich:

Friday, April 19

Composer Jennifer Higdon first wrote a piece for the Cypress String Quartet's "Call and Response" series of concerts a decade and one Pulitzer Prize in music ago… They're collaborating again, with a new piece that gets it world premiere at Herbst Theatre tonight (Friday). It's a setting of a series of poems by W.S. Merwin, played by the quartet and sung by soprano Christine Brandes.

There's more about the concert series at the Cypress String Quartet's website.

The new piece, called In the Shadow of Sirius sets five of Merwin's poems, in six movements. The ending is an entirely different setting of the text of the first poem, "The Nomad Flute". Jennifer Higdon says the other poems — "From the Start," "Parts of a Tune," "Grace Note," and "The Laughing Thrush" all share a certain musicality. Higdon says "They kind of have the essence of sound and music in the background, even if Merwin is talking about nature. He's a big nature guy, he lives in Hawaii, he's big into gardening, and so I thought a lot about that asI was writing, but I tried to find things that would resonate with the idea of the strings playing actually."

She says that unlike the first time, when she wrote Impressions for the Cypress Quartet in 2003, this time she knew the individual quartet members for whom she was writing – "I kind of had them all… their faces in my mind. I think when I did the last piece, I didn't really know them. I wrote the piece, I sent it off, and then I met them after they'd gotten the piece and been working on it. So it's a much more personal experience."  She did, however, have to bend the Call and Response rules a bit. Her 'Response' came first – because she was going to be starting to write an opera, and needed to get it done before that large project, as she describes it, "came moving into my head and took up all the room."  So the Cypress String Quartet selected the other works for the program to complement Higdon's piece, rather than the other way around.

Jennifer Higdon rehearsing the piece with the Cypress String Quartet (left to right: Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Jennifer Kloetzel, and Ethan Filner) and guest soprano, Christine Brandes.

Jennifer Higdon watching the Cypress Quartet and Christine Brandes rehearsing

Monday, April 22

San Francisco Choral Society, Volti, Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir and a 9-member dance company all take part this weekend in the West-Coast premiere of battle hymns, a work by David Lang. It's an ambitious work that looks back at the Civil War (and really all war) through texts by Abraham Lincoln, soldiers' letters home, and the lyrics of Stephen Foster – to haunting music by the Pulitzer prize-winning composer Lang.

There's more information about the performance at the San Francisco Choral Society website.

The performances will take place at Kezar Pavilion – the rehearsals for the concert had to accomodate the more than 175 participants, as choreographer Leah Stein (whose company danced in the premiere in Philadelphia several years ago) watched the formations and movements of the singers. Concert-goers  can choose to be in the 'active audience' for battle hymns – rather than sitting at one end of the hall, for a section of the work, they'll have an opportunity to sit and be encircled by the performers.

battle hymns rehearsal

Conductor Robert Geary says "The net result is there's a feeling of inclusion, that everyone's in this thing in sort of an equal or participatory way." He saw the world premiere in Philadelphia, and was bowled over by it.  "The first performance… was stunning. And I mean sort of literally stunning. We walked out of the performance, and I just didn't want to talk, because I wanted to let my mind and body absorb what I had just heard and seen.

Tuesday, April 23

Pianist Lara Downes launches a new concert series this week, called The Artist Sessions – informal evenings of conversation and music with performers at the jazz venue Yoshi's San Francisco. She'll be joined on stage with co-host Rik Malone, and the inaugural show will feature Quartet San Francisco. For the next one in May, From the Top host and concert pianist Christopher O'Riley will be the guest. 

There's more information about the series at Lara Downes' website, and at Yoshi's website.

Downes says the residency that she's had at the Mondavi Center has given her "windows into both sides of the presenter-performer equation," and says it's interesting to look around at, and re-think the way music is presented. 

"I'd played on the Yoshi's series a couple of years ago," she says, "and I loved the feel of that, and have really enjoyed taking my music into alternative venues or non-traditional spaces. And so wanted to look at bringing that back."

"I want it to feel like a party… I think that there is a huge cult of personality in the world. Everything you think of, from reality TV to politicians, everything, we think about personalities. And sometimes I think that my colleagues and I feel a little bit frustrated with the concert format because the question of personality sort of stops when you walk on stage.  On the Artist Sessions, you meet the person. You meet the artist and you meet the person at the same time. And you learn about what they do musically, what they think about, why they do it, and maybe then the experience is a different experience.

Wednesday, April 24

Dancer Hope Boykin calls it their "second, third or fourth home" away from home… Continuing a 30-year tradition, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back for a Cal Performances run of shows at Zellerbach Hall through Sunday. Their programs combine newer works by other choreographers with audience favorites by the late Alvin Ailey himself. Saturday's matinee is called "Ailey Classics" and features some of his best-loved works.

There's more information about the schedule at the Cal Performances website, and about the company at the Alvin Ailey site.

Alvin Ailey died in 1989 – Hope Boykin, who has been with the company for 13 years, says the care with which he passed on the artistic leadership role has kept it true to his original spirit. "He knew that the company needed a successor," she says. "So he chose Judith Jamison, who was a former company member, friend, and muse of his, to take over the company. And so she ran it for 22 years. But then she aslo knew if we wanted the vision to continue, and the legacy to continue to live, she would need someone to promote 21st-Century culture. And so she chose Robert Battle, and he's been Artistic Director for the last two years… A company that's been in existence for 55 years and has only had three directors is kind of awesome!"

Boykin describes Revelations as Ailey's masterpiece. It's on both the "Ailey Classics" program, as well as each of the other programs. "Choreographed in 1960, it's been seen by more people than any other dance work in the 20th Century. It's what we're known for, it's our signature. And my mother won't come to a performance if we're not doing it!"

Thursday, April 25

Get out your handkerchiefs… Today's "A to Z" edition of The State of the Arts sheds a tear or two for the letter L… which stands this time for Lute, Lachrimae, and Lament. John Dowland turned a melancholy lute solo into a bit of a franchise, as Lachrimae became "Flow My Tears" and then a set of Pavans, all based on the same melody and weeping gesture. Plus "Dido's Lament", the hauntingly beautiful, sorrowful aria sung in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

John Dowland's Lachrimae theme took many forms – along with the song "Flow My Tears", it became so popular that musicians would improvise on the theme as jazz players might on a 12-bar blues, or pop standard. Here's the way the song first sounded, as a lute solo:

And a heart-rending version of "Dido's Lament", as sung by Jessye Norman: 

Friday, April 26

Tomorrow's Metropolitan Opera broadcast (airing at 10 am on KDFC) is George Friderich Handel's Giulio Cesare, with a cast that features countertenor David Daniels in the title role, and Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra. It's a role that Daniels has grown into over the course of 13 years, and he says the current production by director David McVicar, which he's starred in three times now, really "gets to the bare bones of it"

There's more about the production at the Metropolitan Opera's website

The age discrepancy between Caesar and Cleopatra is something that Handel makes clear in his opera, and David McVicar's interpretation does too. "The first time I sang the title role was in 2000," Daniels says. "So we're talking quite a few productions over thirteen years now. You do bring new things to it. I think experience, with age, just brings a lot to this character. I'm able to do things differently, sing lines differently,  sing recitatives differently, sing colors of words differently than I would have thirteen years ago when I first sang this role."

Douglas says that McVicar allows the work not to take itself too seriously. "McVicar really gets to this piece – to the bare bones of it. And there is comedy in this, and there is time to laugh and to be lighthearted, even for Julius Caesar. I think Cleopatra's youthfulness and the age difference between the two of them really brings out the boyishness in Caesar. That's why I love being part of this production, because I'm sort of a well-rounded Caesar, and not just serious…'Conqueror Man'".

Here's an interview with director David McVicar:

Monday, April 29

Concert pianist Till Fellner makes his first appearance in the city with a recital at Herbst Theatre tonight, part of the San Francisco Performances series. His program will include Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Schumann. Fellner is back on the concert stage after a year's sabbatical that allowed him to follow some projects that reflect his other (rather varied) interests.

There's more about tonight's concert at San Francisco Performances' website.

Till Fellner, who was born in Vienna, took the opportunity of a less hectic schedule to do some things he's wanted to do, but didn't have the time for. "I did quite a lot of reading," he says. "I'm very interested in literature, and I'm also interested in film. I wrote kind of an essay about this Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and in particular about the music in his films."  It was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Zurich newspaper, earlier this month. "Music is really an essential part of his films, it's not just background music, you know?  …He knew exactly when and why to use music and which music to use."

Even though he was taking a break from performances, Fellner kept musically active: "Obviously I practiced the piano a little bit, I studied some new pieces. But I always wanted to take lessons in composition in a serious way. When you travel all the time, this is not possible. And last year I had the opportunity to work with a young composer, a very good composer on a regular basis."  Fellner says the goal of that study was more to help him understand the music that he's playing, rather than to start a new career as a composer himself. Although he adds that he did write his first work: a cadenza for Mozart's C minor piano concerto (K.491), which he has since performed in concert.

Tuesday, April 30

As a part of KDFC's "Beethoven By the Bay" week… Here's a little listening quiz to see how well you know his works. Can you name all twelve of them?

You can follow all of the Beethoven goings-on here.

And here are the answers to the pieces in the montage – click and drag over the space below to reveal them.

  1. Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"
  2. Symphony No. 5
  3. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor
  4. Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
  5. Symphony No. 2
  6. Coriolan Overture
  7. String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4 in C minor
  8. Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor"
  9. "Bei Männern" Variations (from Mozart's Magic Flute)
  10. Septet
  11. Sonata No. 8 "Pathetique" mvt. 2
  12. Symphony No. 8