Friday, April 1

Florence Foster Jenkins
– the legendarily untalented soprano who has been amusing new generations of audiences since the 1940s – is having a major renaissance this year. Two major motion pictures and a documentary will be added to the already long list of works inspired by her quixotic musical career. But the longevity of her career proves that she did have a talent… Maybe just not the one she imagined.

The first of the two films, Marguerite, which has just been released, was inspired by Jenkins’ story, but is set in the Paris of the 1920s, with a society dame setting her mind to making a grand public concert. Amid the comedy, there’s the self-delusion of a woman unaware of how her voice sounds to others. Later this year, Meryl Streep plays Jenkins herself, closer to the facts of the story, but focusing on the humor. Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato is also involved in a new documentary also expected this year.

Her recordings, which were originally made to be sold to her numerous friends for $2.50 a piece, began to become cult classics. As president of numerous opera-appreciation societies and social groups, she had performed in small-invitation only recitals, frequently wearing eloborate costumes. But word had spread by the time of her final concert, in October of 1944, when she rented Carnegie Hall, and sold it out. The audience, which included much of New York society, tried to drown out their laughter with cheers and applause, not wanting to hurt her feelings.

Monday, April 4

Symphony Silicon Valley
plays the unforgettable Nino Rota score to The Godfather this weekend, live in performance accompanying the film. It’s just the most recent entry in their special films series, which last spring included the sprawling Lord of the Rings saga. Andrew Bales, president and general director of the orchestra says it’s a different kind of concert-going experience.

There’s more information about the performances at the Symphony Silicon Valley website.

“What we found from the audience reaction when we did Lord of the Rings is that there is an affinity for movies and the movie culture that is heightened when they hear it with the live orchestra. And that people who really want a special event out of their experience with these films love hearing it with the live orchestra,” Bales explains. While this production will be less appropriate for children than some of the other past films they’ve accompanied (Bugs Bunny and Looney Toons shorts, Fantasia, and earlier this season, Raiders of the Lost Ark) he says as a means of entry into the world of symphonic music, film can’t be beat.  “There is a willingness to experience the live music with a film that they already have a familiarity to, and having done that, there is this lingering hope that they’ll say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t such a bad thing to do, let’s see what else the symphony is doing.’ It sort of makes the musicians the stars.”

Tuesday, April 5

On an “A to Z” edition of State of the Arts, we’re stopping at “K” to take a look at the evolution of the Keyboard, 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.

Wednesday, April 6

The twelve voices of Stile Antico, the London-based early music ensemble, come to the Bay Area this Sunday afternoon to finish off the San Francisco Early Music Society‘s 40th anniversary season. They’ll sing a program called ‘Sacred or Profane,’ pairing works for the church that were inspired by secular popular songs or motets. Alto Katie Schofield says this is also an anniversary year for Stile Antico, marking ten years as a professional ensemble.

There’s more information about the group at the San Francisco Early Music Society’s website.

The line between the two kinds of music wasn’t as clear then as we might think it was, with composers feeling free to borrow and repurpose “earthly” music with more spiritual texts. “That’s one prism through which composers of sacred music were able to use secular tunes,” Schofield explains. “They were writing for the church, so they were obviously going to set words that had a religious implication, but they wanted to use music that was relevant to people, that people would know. And that was one good way for them to kind of shoehorn popular tunes into their work. People would have known the origin of the music, and… it was done very deliberately.”  Sometimes it was just a matter of changing a few words. “There are a couple of madrigals, the texts of which have been altered from love poetry that was hugely popular at the time, to kind of the love of Christ for the church, or that kind of religious fervor. It’s kind of close to the bone, because it takes all the passion of the madrigals in the context in which they were originally written, and transports that fervor into something which has an overtly religious connotation.”

Stile Antico presented a ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ at NPR’s Headquarters:

Thursday, April 7

Violinist Gil Shaham will be presenting a recital of solo works by J.S. Bach, the Sonatas and Partitas, at Cal Performances on the 14th. The performance will be accompanied by original films by David Michalek. It’s repertoire that Shaham shied away from performing live earlier in his career, but he’s been playing them over the past dozen years, and recently released them on CD.

There’s more information about the performance at the Cal Performances website.

The solo works for violin are a rite of passage for violin students – like the solo keyboard works, they’re challenging, and show what is possible to acheive on the instrument. “This is music that I think violinists like myself, we all know from childhood,” Shaham says. “My teacher had it as part of our regular curriculum. All the students played and studied the sonatas and partitas of Bach.” But playing them in a lesson and rehearsal setting was a far cry from taking them on stage. “After I finished school, I have to confess, I avoided performing these pieces, and I’m not sure why, looking back. I think I was intimidated. People feel so strongly about this music, and I feel so strongly about this music. I guess I didn’t feel confident to present it for an audience. It was 12 years ago when I decided to make a concerted effort (no pun intended) to start playing them in concert. I figured if not now, when, and somehow if I don’t start playing them, they’re never going to feel more comfortable, they’re never going to improve.”

But as he incorporated them into his concerts, they only grew more important to him: “I discovered what so many other musicians had learned before me. Which is that this is the greatest joy for a musician. There is no greater joy than playing Bach. Nothing is more fulfilling, nothing is more engrossing, nothing is more inspiring, and even today when I go to my practice room, if I’m going to practice some Bach,  I’ll set aside a maybe half an hour, and then an hour and a half later, I’ll be looking at the clock, and where has the time gone?  A friend who’s a violinist said: ‘Whenever I play bach, I feel like I’m a better person that day. I feel like I’m a better violinist that day.’ And that’s true, that’s true, I think Bach’s music has this effect on everybody around it – the listeners and the players.”

Friday, April 8

Music that circles and repeats has fascinated composers for hundreds of years… And with repertoire from the middle ages to a world premiere, the San Francisco Girls Chorus joins forces with cellist Joshua Roman for a program called Echoes of the Classics: Canons by Brahms, Franck, and Haydn this Sunday at Herbst Theatre.

There’s more information about the program at the San Francisco Girls Chorus website.

Joshua Roman, who has been friends with SFGC Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa for many years, worked with her and some of the young singers in the episodic opera she’s composing for television called Vireo, and they began plans that resulted in this collaboration. He says the repertoire of canons (and near canons) is inspired. “It gives a focus for all of these different pieces throughout the program, and lets the cello become another one of the voices involved. So you get to see all of the different composers, sort of through the lens of this one form, and everyone treats it slightly differently, it’s a lot of fun.” One of the composers is Roman himself, both in improvisations in some of the works, as well as a new piece called Our Voice, that offers a message of empowerment and possibility for the young singers. “It’s kind of about them saying, ‘we’re in control of who we are, you can’t really tell us what to be…’  When I first started writing the piece, the idea of a girls chorus, the first thing that comes to mind for me is this angelic sound, these cherubs. And I just wanted to fight that on behalf of them, and help give them a little voice, that they can be that, but they can be a lot of other things as well.”

Monday, April 11

Oakland Ballet
is trying something new – and old – for its next performances. They’ll be accompanied only by unaccompanied singers, in a program called A Cappella – Our Bodies Sing. Artistic Director Graham Lustig has choreographed one third of the show, along with Val Caniparoli, the team of Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton, plus three area vocal ensembles.

There’s more information about the performances, which start in Oakland, and have one show each in San Francisco and Hayward, at the Oakland Ballet website.

The three ensembles are Vajra Voices, which specializes in the music of Hildegard of Bingen, and will accompany the Garrett/Moulton dance; the Berkeley Community Chamber Chorus, part of the larger Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, and Nona Brown and the Inspirational Music Collective, an area gospel choir. “It’s so wonderfully enriching for our dancers, for our singers, and for our community to be doing something at this scale, at this level,” Lustig says. “We actually have 33 singers in this production, 3 musical directors, 4 choreographers, and 12 dancers. We’re practically at 50 artists working together. And it’s exhilarating. It’s just completely overwhelming and beautiful.” His own work, called Stone of Hope, is a West Coast premiere, although it includes brand new material for this performance by Nona Brown. The other two works are world premieres. “When we sing, and when we dance, it’s very much who we are. It’s part of our identity. There’s no instrument to be interpreted, you’re interpreting yourself.  And I think that’s the thing that most excited me about the idea of the program.”

There are performances in Oakland this Thursday through Saturday, and additional performances in San Francisco on the 21st, and Hayward on the 23rd.

Tuesday, April 12

On 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, April 13

The trio called Areon Flutes has been playing together for eleven seasons now, all the while expanding the repertoire for their unconventional grouping of instruments. They’ve commissioned many new works, and they’ll be adding five more to the repertoire this Friday evening when they perform at the Center for New Music through the Guerrilla Composers Guild.

There’s more information at the websites of Areon Flutes, the Guerrilla Composers Guild, and Center for New Music.

The composers who have written works for the performance are Nick Benavides, Patrick Castillo, Eric Choate, Emma Logan, and Ryan Rey. “One of the things we’re really excited about with Guerrilla Composers Guild is that they’ve given us an opportunity and a platform to show more people – not just audience members, but also a group of composers – that this instrumentation is very diverse, and really is legitimate in its own right,” Areon’s Jill Heinke says. She, with Sasha Launer and Kassey Plaha (who’s on maternity leave this season, with Meerenai Shim playing for her) formed the ensemble to build a greater awareness of the possibilites of within the flute family. Audiences sometimes are wary, Heinke says: “When people hear the words ‘three flutes’ I think that has certain connotations, and people don’t want to have their eardrums bleed at the end of the concert. But what we’re really capable of is so much more soundscape and beauty with all the different members of the flute family that we utilize in almost every piece… I feel like every composer who was working with us on this project really embraced that and really nailed it, because these are some really gorgeous and exciting pieces.”

Thursday, April 14

Two local music series are grateful that pianist Roman Rabinovich was able to come on short notice to substitute for an ailing Nelson Goerner, who was scheduled to play for both the Steinway Society of the Bay Area and Chamber Music San Francisco. The Israeli pianist will bring a program of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, and one special work written for him by composer/pianist Michael Brown.

There’s more information about the performances at the websites of the Steinway Society, and the Chamber Music San Francisco.

The Uzbekistan-born Israeli pianist has toured extensively, and takes this kind of substitution in stride: “It happens quite often, you know… people get sick, and their colleagues come and help out. It’s quite common, I happened to be free this weekend, and I could do it.” He was actually already scheduled to return the following weekend to play with his frequent recital partner, violinist Liza Ferschtman (also through Chamber Music San Francisco) but has to return to New York between the two appearances. His program includes the West Coast premiere of the piece called Surfaces by Michael Brown, which was inspired by another, non-musical passion of Rabinovich: “He wrote a piece for me based on my artwork, loosely based on visual gestures of my paintings. And it was fascinating for me to see the transfiguration of the visual gestures into musical ones… There’s a lot of similarity because there’s color, there’s textures, there’s tonalities, both in music and in visual art. But the idea of time is different, because music is… You play a note, and it evaporates. And painting stays. And you can come back to it in a year, and it will be the same. You change, but the painting will stay the same.”

Friday, April 15

Opera San Jose
presents Andre Previn’s setting of A Streetcar Named Desire, opening tomorrow night and running through May 1st. Conductor Ming Luke says the Philip Littell libretto was very true to the original text by Tennessee Williams, and Previn used the rhythms of the dialogue in writing the music.

There’s more information about the production at the Opera San Jose website.

The story of Stanley and Stella Kowalski, and what happens when Blanche DuBois joins them in their New Orleans apartment is an iconic part of American popular culture, and much of that has to do with the charged dialogue they exchange. Ming Luke says that’s maintained in Previn’s opera. ” He wants to preserve the cadence of the language as much as possible – and so actually, it’s a very difficult job for me, because I have to be following the singers in their natural cadence of speech. Previn was very proud at the premiere when people told him, you know ‘I could understand every single word!’ He wanted to preserve the directness of the language, and the setting of the language for his audience.” As Williams did by using an offstage blues piano, and the dance music (the Varsouviana) that reminds Blanche of a tragedy in her past, Previn accompanies the action with musical ideas that foreshadow and tie together the action. “Previn starts off with the train whistle blaring, and very loud from the full orchestra, and it appears many many times throughout the entire opera as a reminder of Blanche’s sordid past. In the very first bars, what you hear directly are the train whistles followed by a clarinet, playing basically a jazz riff. And their alternating between these two major themes happens over and over again. From the very beginning, actually, Blanche’s character is waffling between the idealistic past that she tries to maintain, and the reality of her actual very hard life.”

Monday, April 18

Although it’s entirely subjective, and boils down to the choice of the composer, pieces are written in different keys for a reason. Music scholars and composers have weighed in over the centuries about the characteristics of the different keys, and rarely come to a consensus. For F Major, several descriptions include words like ‘calm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘contemplative.’ There’s also a bit of an association with rustic or pastoral scenes, helped along in no small way by Beethoven.

Here are the 11 selections used (click and scroll down to make them visible):

  1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral” 
  2. Dvorak: String Quartet  No. 12, op. 96  “American”
  3. Joplin: Solace
  4. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21, mvt. ii
  5. Ravel: String Quartet
  6. Vivaldi: ‘Autumn’ from the Four Seasons, mvt. iii
  7. Brahms: Symphony No. 3
  8. Chopin: Ballade No. 2, op 38
  9. J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No 2, mvt. iii
  10. Schumann: Concertpiece for 4 Horns, op. 86
  11. Gershwin: Concerto in F (finale)

Tuesday, April 19

The Marin Symphony will present its final Masterworks concerts of this season Sunday afternoon, and the evening of April 26, with a program called Bolero… Music Director  Alasdair Neale says the French-themed concert is also ‘a tale of two halves,’ with a sacred work starting things off before finishing with a couple of orchestral showpieces.

There’s more information about the concerts at the Marin Symphony website.

They’ll be joined by soloists, the Marin Symphony Chorus, and San Domenico Singers for the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, “which is modeled on the Faure requiem, probably the better known of these two pieces,” Neale says. “But the Duruflé has an important place in my heart since I first heard it as a student… It’s got this feeling of contemplative warmth, and very unique French harmonies. It deserves to be heard more often than it is.” For the second half, two French interpretations of the music of Spain. “An entirely different kind of ethos and vibe altogether: excerpts from Carmen, including the Habanera and the Toreador Song, in Bizet’s colorful evocation of that whole world… And then at the end, Bolero, and who doesn’t love Bolero?” As the work builds over the course of 15 minutes, Neale says his job is to “keep a steady hand on the tiller” as the various wind players are especially featured. “Basically, Ravel takes care of it all. You just do what’s on the page, you play the dynamics, and it builds.”

Wednesday, April 20

Ingrid Fliter
joins the San Francisco Symphony, and guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado to play a Haydn piano concerto in three concerts this week, beginning tonight. The Gilmore Artist Award winning pianist is better known for her Chopin, but brings to her playing a knowledge of the earlier instrument Haydn would have known.

There’s more information about the concerts, which also include the Beethoven Symphony No. 2, and works by Biber and Rameau at the San Francisco Symphony website.

“I love to do this period of music,” Fliter says. “I’ve worked for many years on the fortepiano, and that opened me the doors of a different world… a beautiful rich interesting world to discover… If you don’t try those pianos, you don’t really know how people played at that time. The way they played, expressively, with their hands, with their body. You have to apply other kind of technique to be able to get from the piano all the voices, all the contrasts, all the colors that at that time they couldn’t create with the piano, because it was kind of flat.     You cannot use the piano in the way you would use it for Chopin or Rachmaninoff… It’s definitely another approach.” The challenge is to create the same kind of intimate sound and environment in Davies Symphony Hall, with a modern piano. “I do believe that you can create a very big small world, with intensity, with intention, with ideas, that fly directly to the heart of people. That’s what I believe.”

Wednesday, April 27

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra will be closing out their ‘home stand’ of concerts this season with four performances of Hymns of Praise: Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Music Director Nicholas McGegan and the ensemble will be joined by soloists and choirs for works by the two composers, including Mendelssohn’s ‘symphony cantata’ known as Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.

There’s more information about the concerts, tonight at Bing Concert Hall, tomorrow night at Herbst Theatre, and Saturday and Sunday at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, at the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra website.

McGegan, who’s finishing his 30th season at the helm of PBO, says the Mendelssohn is an appropriately celebratory work to end the regular season. It was written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type and the Gutenberg Bible. And although it’s known as his Symphony No. 2, it’s not. “The thing with Mendelssohn symphonies is that the numbers are all rubbish,” he explains. “Because he wrote 12 of them before they even get numbered. The numbers are the order in which they were published, not the order in which they were written. So actually number two is the last to be written, and it was first performed in 1840 in St. Thomas’s, Leipzig.” The soloists are Dominique LaBelle, Ashley Valentine, and Thomas Cooley, and they’ll be joined by singers from Philharmonia Chorale and choruses from UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Although this marks the end of their regular season, PBO will be going on tour starting next week, including a Carnegie Hall performance of the long-lost serenata by Alessandro Scarlatti called The Glory of Spring, which they premiered last Fall, and have just released on CD. They’ll also be including the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on an upcoming tour in May with Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl.

Thursday, April 28

The story of an ordinary boy with extraordinary courage… Berkeley Rep presents the West Coast premiere of director Mary Zimmerman‘s adaptation of Treasure Island. The Robert Louis Stevenson classic of pirates like Long John Silver, and the cabin boy Jim Hawkins gave her the challenge of figuring out “how to be on the ocean and do boats” in the theater.

There’s more information about the production at the Berkeley Rep website.

Mary Zimmerman went into a tiny library in a town on an island off the coast of Maine, where she has a house, and rediscovered Treasure Island in an old edition with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. “”The moment I started reading it, I’ve never had this experience before. Instead of experiencing it virtually and internally and sort of filmically, the way you do when you read, a kind of ever-flexible but real-felt image, I actually saw it on stage. Like, I saw it in a room, with actors, under lights, and that artificial …like, I just saw it that way.” There have been many film and stage adaptations before, but she wanted to capture the serialized cliff-hanger sensation the book gave her. “What my main goal was was to try to see if I could make it feel on stage the way it does when you’re reading it, a kind of thrill of the adventure. And genuine scariness at times.”

Friday, April 29

With two weeks to go until they reopen, SFMOMA had a press preview to show some of the changes they’ve made. First and foremost is the amount of gallery space, with seven floors, tripling the capacity of the former building. (Museum offices will occupy floors eight through ten). In addition to the artworks inside, the look of the new structure is entirely different, complementing and flowing into the iconic Mario Botti design from 1995.

There’s more about the new building, and the reopening plans at the SFMOMA website.

The firm Snøhetta worked with SFMOMA to make a building that would allow them to show more of their collection, and be a place accessible to the community. To that end, they’ve designed a layout that will allow people to see many important works in the collection admission free, on the first two floors. They hope the reopened museum will serve as a meeting place for the neighborhood. It will be open seven days a week, and admission is free for those 18 or younger. The ‘Living Wall’ on the sculpture terrace is greenery that will be watered with collected rainwater. Staircases along the edge of the building are a transition zone between daylight and the LED lights inside, and the physical border between the two buildings — the ‘seismic gap’ –can be seen via a window on the fourth floor. Here are just a few photographs from the press preview:

The SFMOMA OculusThe Living WallSeismic Gap and StaircasesFacade PanelsOculus Bridge