Wednesday, August 1

Michael Morpurgo thought it was a crazy idea at first, when he heard that his book War Horse was to be adapted as a play for Britain's National Theatre… using puppets for the horses. But he was convinced when he saw a test video of a giraffe made by the Handspring Puppet company of  South Africa. He says he'll never forget how quickly he suspended disbelief completely. The stage production opens this week in San Francisco for a month at the Curran Theatre.

There's more information about the performance schedule and the play at the SHN website

Michael Morpurgo says "my wife is a great horse rider, my daughter is a great horse rider. I am not. I fall off horses."  He had never given them much credit for intelligence, or even thought much about them. But  a charity he runs opens up the farm where he lives in Devon, England to children from the city so they  can spend time in the company of animals and nature. He says the children's interaction with the horse especially, made him reconsider: "Bit by bit, I began to see how a relationship develops between this sentient creature, who I condemned as being stupid – which they're not!  But what I was priveleged to witness was the growing trust, and even intimacy in terms of friendship between a horse and its rider."

He comes by his knowledge of the military from experience, too – he attended Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point, with an eye toward a career as a soldier. He realized during an exercise with "the enemy" in trenches across a no-man's land, when he was reminded of the famous Christmas Eve truce of 1914 that brought together Germans, British, and French soldiers "…that's what I really believe in. I believe in reconciliation, peace. What am I doing here? And so I left." Morpurgo values the time he spent at Sandhurst, though. "I knew what it was to be amongst comrades who were soldiers, that you lived for them, you lived for each other. I learned about companionship, I learned about trust, I learned not to be arrogant."

Here's a "TED Talk" by the founders of the Handspring Puppetry company, discussing the evolution of the design of the puppets used in War Horse:

Thursday, August 2

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music has spent half a century focusing on the brand new and what's coming next… But this anniversary season there are occasional glimpses into the rear-view mirror. Music director and conductor Marin Alsop says that the opening weekend multimedia world premiere of Hidden World of Girls helped to set the stage for the festival. Four women composers contributed music to a work that included stories collected by NPR's "Kitchen Sisters" (producers Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva).

There's more information at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music website. And more here on the Hidden World of Girls project.

The three-week festival in Santa Cruz, which runs through the 12th of August, will also include world premieres by Scottish composer James MacMillan, John Wineglass, Dylan Mattingly, and Mason Bates, West Coast premieres by David Krakauer, Huang Ruo, Michael Ippolito; open rehearsals; two major works that were written for the festival by past luminaries: Discovery by Carlos Chavez, and the Third Symphony by Lou Harrison.

Here's some rehearsal video with the contemporary chamber ensemble eighth blackbird, from a past season of the Cabrillo Festival: 

Friday, August 3

A world premiere string quartet called Love Notes to Napa by composer Daniel Brewbaker will have its first performance (appropriately enough) at the Clos Pegase Winery this Sunday evening, in Calistoga. It's part of the Music in the Vineyards festival, now underway. Jan Shrem, who founded that winery, and his wife Maria Manetti Shrem commissioned the work after they heard the Borromeo Quartet play another piece by Brewbaker at last year's festival.

There's more information about all of the festival concerts and activities at the Music in the Vineyards website. And about the venue of Sunday's concert at the website of Clos Pegase.

Brewbaker's piece, Love Notes to Napa is divided into four movements, each dedicated to individuals from the area: 

  • Chasing Muses  (Jan Shrem)  – "Dedicated to Jan, as he is a kind of expert on the nine Greek muses…"
  • Painting Sunflowers  (Margaret Mondavi)  – "Margaret paints sunflowers, and I think it is also reflective of her personality, bright and bringing sunlight…"
  • Tending Roses (Maria Manetti Shrem) – "Maria has an estate called 'Villa Mille Rose', the villa of a thousand roses… and indeed there are, if not a thousand, hundreds of roses on the property, and she very carefully tends them…"
  • Enjoying the View (Rick & Giovanna Brennan) – "It has the sense of being in a train, being exhilirated by the passing scenery…

The Borromeo Quartet will be performing the work; last year at the festival they played Brewbaker's earlier quartet called Dance for My Fathers.

Composer Daniel Brewbaker

Wednesday, August 8

Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week at the age of 68, was an award winning composer, pianist and conductor. But one of his claims to fame was almost single-handedly bringing Scott Joplin's music to a wide audience with his adaptation of ragtime classics for the soundtrack of the 1973 film The Sting. The same year that his song and score for the movie The Way We Were won Oscars, so too did his Joplin orchestrations, giving him a clean sweep. 

Despite the fact that the rags were written in the first decade of the 20th Century, and the action of the movie takes place during the Depression-era 1930s, director George Roy Hill knew that's what he wanted for the soundtrack. When he contacted Marvin Hamlisch, the composer's first instinct was to say no:  "I thought: Please… I don’t do adaptations. I’m a composer. I write my own music. But once again I heeded the biblical injunction that 'pride goeth before a fall.'"  It turned out to be the right decision. Hamlisch's performance of "The Entertainer" earned him a Grammy award for "Best Pop Instrumental Performance".  As he put it: "Who would have guessed that a ragtime single would bounce to the top of the charts?"

Hamlisch described Joplin as feeling like a long-lost brother, and his commitment to Joplin's music is evident in the fact that the most recent posting on Hamlisch's website before his death was about the ragtime composer and his legacy.

Thursday, August 9

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:

Friday, August 10

A drawing-room comedy in the great outdoors… California Shakespeare Theater's production of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit is on the stage of the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda until September 2nd. A writer decides to research séances for a book inadvertently brings back his dead first wife – who can't be seen by anyone else, including his second wife. Director Mark Rucker, who staged Coward's Private Lives at CalShakes two years ago, says the sparkling and so very British dialogue is one of the delights of the play – which had a record-setting run in London during WWII.

There's more information about the show and its performances at the California Shakespeare Theater's website.

Director Mark Rucker says the first performance in front of an audience (there are three previews before the official opening night on Saturday) was reassuring for him and the cast: "It was so great to have people – because when you do a play the audience is the final character to arrive, so we didn't realize how hungry we were for them. When you're working on a comedy, when you get to about the fourth week, everybody in the room is thinking, 'This isn't that funny, is it?' and then the audience comes, and they remind you 'Yes it is!'"

The drawing room interior looks a little out of place during the daytime, but director Mark Rucker says that while the sun finishes setting as the first act begins, the audience is drawn into the action of the play

The set for 'Blithe Spirit' at the Bruns Amphitheater

Wednesday, August 15

There's more than one "dying swan" in classical music… But instead of being portrayed by a tutu-wearing ballerina, the one featured in the San Francisco Choral Society's semi-staged production of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana will be sung by tenor Brian Staufenbiel. He's also stage directing the performance, which will include costumes, lighting, and additional dancers and the Contra Costa Children's Choir at Davies Symphony Hall. Conductor Robert Geary says the familiar "O Fortuna" movement that begins and ends the work (and appears in countless movies and advertisements) serves as heavy bookends for a piece that's otherwise a celebration of love and beauty.

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

Also on the program is a Emma Lou Diemer's Songs for the Earth, a work the Choral Society premiered in 2005. 

In this staging of this Carmina Burana, the choir members have individual lights and masks – giving the opening "O Fortuna" an extra touch of drama. Conductor Robert Geary, who says he's more used to straight-ahead concert performances of the work, thinks it's the right balance of visuals to music. The concerts are this Friday and Saturday evenings, on stage at Davies Symphony Hall.

Thursday, August 16

They're both operas set in Japan, and currently have productions playing locally… but that's about where the similarities end. Lamplighters Music Theatre is presenting The Mikado at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Verismo Opera has the tear-jerker Madama Butterfly in Vallejo this weekend.  Gilbert and Sullivan set their operetta in the fictional town of Titipu, with a convoluted plot of promised marriages, concealed identity and impending death sentences; but the story had more to do with poking fun at Victorian Britain than an accurate portrayal of Japan or its people. 

There's more information about the performances at the Lamplighters' website and Verismo Opera's site.

Puccini based Madama Butterfly on a play he'd seen in London – from story that had been in an American magazine. The cultural divide between Cio-Cio San and the American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton adds to the tragedy, even though like Sir Arthur Sullivan, Puccini didn't try to make the score sound anything other than his own style – certainly not anything approaching a Japanese tradition.

W.S. Gilbert added the word "poohbah" to the dictionary, through the character of Pooh-bah, given the official title of "Lord High Everything Else" (other than the duties of the Lord High Executioner) and the popularity of the operetta has made it one of the most frequently performed English language operas. The success of Madama Butterfly came only after Puccini made multiple revisions over the course of three years, first changing the structure, from two to three acts, and making other changes along the way.

Friday, August 17

There are more than seventy entries in KDFC's Star Spangled Sing-Off contest – here's a quick sampling of some of them. You can hear all the individual entries by going to the contest page. The winner (as selected by our judges, who will be able to see how listeners have voted) will have the chance to sing the national anthem before the special SF Opera in the Ballpark event on September 15th. 

You can cast your vote here!  You can vote once a day, and all votes have to be in by the end of the day, Sunday, August 26th, 2012. See you at the ballpark!

Wednesday, August 22

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Claude Debussy, the quintessential French composer who blazed a trail into the 20th Century, abandoning traditions of scales, orchestration, form and structure. His music, which he didn't like to be called "Impressionist", nonetheless does get coupled with the works of painters like Monet, who were experimenting with new ways of capturing the play of light and shadow. Debussy in his works did sonically capture an 'impression' or an atmosphere, rather than trying to tell a story, or being constrained by bar lines or traditional rules like sonata form.

Debussy began studying at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 10 – and won the Prix de Rome for composition while in his early twenties. It was the landmark work Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, though, inspired by a Symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, that as musicologist Harold Schonberg put it, "set twentieth-century music on its way" in 1894.  In it, beginning with a solo flute that floats through time, Debussy challenges notions that had been followed from the Baroque through the Classical and Romantic eras.  Here's Leonard Bernstein conducting a performance: 

His only opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, showed him taking another direction, rejecting Wagner and the German tradition, and creating a new French one. He had plans to compose another opera based on the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edward Allan Poe.

Here's a performance of one of Debussy's most famous works: the closest he got to writing a symphony, the depiction of the sea called La Mer, conducted by Valery Gergiev: 

Thursday, August 23

Winston Churchill in a bathtub? An opera premiering tomorrow night gets its subject matter, and much of its libretto from history, but composer Lisa Scola Prosek describes Daughter of the Red Tzar as a "surreal tragi-comedy."  It retells the events of Churchill's visit to Moscow in the summer of 1942, seeing his opportunity to forge a careful alliance with the Soviet Union, and secure for the allies the oil Stalin had available in fields in Baku.

There's more information about the performances at Lisa Scola Prosek's website.

Singing the role of Churchill will be a tenor who's no stranger to operas based on actual events… John Duykers, who created the role of Mao twenty-five years ago for the premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China. Scola Prosek says that she was given the six-volume set of Churchill's memoirs about the Second World War, and found it a fascinating read – and thought the particular encounter described in the new work would be perfect for opera: a father, a daughter, a guest, playing mind games and jockeying for power with real-world consequences. When her husband told her that Stalin's daughter had not only emmigrated to the US, but had written a book as well, the composer knew she had an opera to write. 

The cast also stars Scott Graff as Stalin, and Crystal Philippi as his daughter Svetlana; there are also spies and other inner-circle Soviet characters like Lavrenty Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov. Martha Stoddard will be conducting the six performances at Thick House that run through the second of September.

Here's tenor John Duykers singing in a concert-performance of one of Churchill's arias:

Friday, August 24

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.

Wednesday, August 29

A comedy about the dangers of translation and mistranslation was inspired by a sign in China for a handicapped-accessible bathroom that read "Deformed Man's Toilet"David Henry Hwang wrote Chinglish, which opens tonight at Berkeley Rep, as a bilingual play despite only having a small knowledge of Mandarin. He says it actually helped put him in the vantage point of most of the members of the audience, who need to rely on surtitles to see when and how ideas are getting lost in translation.

There's more information about the play at Berkeley Rep's website.

This is the west coast premiere of the play, which tells the story of an American businessman trying to win a contract to make well-translated signs in China, instead of the famously error filled ones that abound. He has to navigate through the hurdles in protocol and bureaucracy that are needed to accomplish anything, as well as attempting to learn how individuals can and can't speak to eachother. 

Making changes in any of the Chinese dialogue during initial rehearsals, Hwang says, required a whole chain of events to take place.  The Hong Kong-based playwright who provided the translations would have to make the change, and because some in the cast read Chinese characters, and others the Romanized system known as pinyin, both whould have to be added to the script (there was a person whose job it was just to keep the script legible and correct) then they'd need to get the amended line to the surtitle projection people. He says "it wasn't quite as hard as putting a new musical number into a musical, but it was more elaborate than doing a regular play."

Sign that inspired

The play will run through October 7th, and then have a southern California run over the winter before traveling to Hong Kong for their Arts Festival in the spring. David Henry Hwang says he'll be particularly interested in seeing the reaction there, where the entire production, English and Mandarin will be subtitled.

"Most my plays have been done in Asia, though not in China proper," he says. "In our experience so far, it seems like the people who embrace the play most enthusiastically are those who have had some experience, either traveling there, or dealing with cultural misunderstandings, and Hong Kong is a place that was built on that, so I'm hoping that in the best possible scenario that means they'll like the show."

Just last week it was announced that David Henry Hwang had won the $200,000 Steinberg prize for playwriting, for his long career, featuring such works as the Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly.

Thursday, August 30

Carlo Gesualdo and Thelonious Monk might appear to be at opposite ends of the musical spectrum – but trumpet player Mario Guarneri has come to see common ground between the Renaissance choral composer and the Bebop jazz pianist. Tomorrow night Old First Concerts series presents Guarneri's group, tbd – a quartet, along with special guests, The Monteverdi Brass, playing different traditions of music with a kindred spirit.   

There's more information about the concert at the Old First Concerts website, and about the groups at Mario Guarneri's website and the site of the Monteverdi Brass

Mario Guarneri says on Friday's concert his quartet will "morph" from a work played by the brass quintet into the jazz standard "All the Things You Are". Here they are doing the same, from an opening solo keyboard work by Bach: