Thursday, August 1

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut launches the "Jazz at the Lesher Center" series that runs through the month of August, with a pair of shows on Saturday night in Walnut Creek. The Baltimore native is a product of both the Peabody Institute (he began in their preparatory program when he was nine) and the Berklee College of Music in Boston – but he says his real awakening came when he got a record by Thelonious Monk.

There's more information about the series, which will feature singer Stacey Kent, Eliane Elias, and a "Stride Piano Summit" later this month at the Jazz at the Lesher Center website

Cyrus Chestnut says his formative years at Peabody were helped by their academic focus: "Instead of taking basic theory, they had a course called 'Musicianship'. It would seem to be a lot more composition oriented. And as I think about it in retrospect, it really kind of started the ball rolling as far as composition – spontaneous composition, formal composition, writing things down." And he was exposed to the formal classics. One of his pieces, called "Baroque Impressions," begins with a quote from J.S. Bach's Two Part Invention in D minor:

"I remember studying Gregorian Chants, and various different periods of music at the Peabody," he says, "and then our assignment was to write something based on what we studied." But a record he got at a five-and-dime – because the cover had a piano player on it – introduced him to the music of Thelonious Monk, one of many influences and piano heroes: "I have to go back to Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Ray Bryant, Junior Mance, Tommy Flanagan, and the list goes on and on and on… and that's just the pianists.

Friday, August 2

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music boasts another season of world- and West Coast-premieres, visiting composers, and guest artists like Kronos Quartet – but they've also got some guest conductors filling in for Marin Alsop, the festival's Music Director, who injured her wrist at the beginning of July. Carolyn Kuan is taking on the duties during the first weekend, and Brad Lubman will conduct on the 10th and 11th. For Kuan, who's in her twelfth season at Cabrillo, it meant learning a lot of very new music very quickly… and she says she's having a fantastic time.

There's more information at the Cabrillo Festival website.

Carolyn Kuan, who is Music Director of the Hartford Symphony, first got a call from Alsop's ensemble in Brazil, the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, to see if she could lead a concert of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky in place of the injured conductor in late July. It was only after agreeing to do so that Alsop's doctor said she'd need time for physical therapy, and wouldn't be able to conduct at Cabrillo. "Had I known that I'd be doing this," Kuan says, "I probably would have said 'maybe I should skip Brazil' – just so I'd have more time. Because all of these are world premieres, U.S. premieres, music I'd never seen before." There is one piece she doesn't have to learn – she has performed Mason Bates' Alternative Energy before.

But Alsop sent Kuan her scores, with her notes and markings, which has enabled Kuan to learn the music much faster than she would starting from scratch. She is particularly excited about the world premiere Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts, on the program tonight. "I remember getting the score late at night, and I started looking at it, and I went to bed. And the next day I woke up and… Remember when we were kids, and you get up and you can't wait to go have pancakes? I couldn't wait to get back in front of the score – That's how… right away I just fell in love with the music."

Here's Kevin Puts introducing the work, which will be played by flutist Adam Walker:

Wednesday, August 7

When Daria and Michael Adams started their Music in the Vineyards festival 19 years ago, he says they approached it sort of in the style of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie: everyone pitching in to put on a show. And ever since, it remains a labor of love, as they've brought chamber musicians to Napa Valley wineries each season, to play concerts that are each "a unique acoustical event." 

There's a complete schedule of the festival, which runs through the 25th at the Music in the Vineyards website.

Michael and Daria Adams - photo by Chick HarrityMichael Adams, who's a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, sees chamber music as "a great way into a composer's soul. A lot of times, composers write their chamber music to be performed with their friends, by their friends, or for their friends, and it can be very personal."  He says we've come a long way since the days of composers like Haydn and Mozart, and not necessarily all for the better: "They'd be horrified if they realized it's become the spectator sport that it has become today, with these giant halls of a thousand people… Which is why we try to keep our venues very intimate: 200 or less, and recreate the atmosphere of chamber music for which it was intended, which is very small, intimate audiences."

Those concerts take place at a changing roster of participating vineyards – although there's a core group they return to again and again: "We play in barrel rooms, we play in tasting rooms, we play in wine caves. It's a real interesting travelogue of the entire Napa Valley, to be able to go to every one of our concerts and then you get a different experience, not only with a different program, but with different wine."  One venue that he says they've played each year is the 'cave theater' at Clos Pegase. "The back wall of the stage is a parabola, and the way it focuses sound is quite unique… You get this unbelievable intimacy even at the last row in the cave. You can hear every whisper in there. Audiences seem to love it."

Here's a picture of that unusual performance space, with the Pacifica Quartet, who'll return to the festival (and Clos Pegase) again this year.
Pacifica Quartet at the Clos Pegase Cave Theater - photo by Chick Harrity

Thursday, August 8

Music @ Menlo is nearing the end of its three-week run, but not before a Friday and Saturday concert called "The Solo Voice" – which continues its exploration of the music of J.S. Bach, and the way it influenced every composer who followed him. David Finckel describes some of the unexpected places the Bach-inspired programming led… including the festival's first all-percussion concert.

There's more information about the festival, including archived video and the remaining concert information at the Music @ Menlo website.

David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han are the Artistic Directors of the festival, which is just wrapping up its eleventh season. In addition to the main-stage programs that have each taken one way of looking at Bach (with titles like "Piano/Piano", "Quartet Dimensions", "Preludes and Fugues" and "French Connections") there have also been master classes and coachings for young professionals, lectures and discussions, and recitals. Finckel says there was almost too much choice for repertoire of music that shows the lasting impact of Bach: "It was a self-generating process, because all one has to do is to start to look through the vast variety of Bach's works and all the different genres for which he wrote, and you realize that the innovations that he had have continued throughout musical history."

Friday, August 9

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has a good track record with its New Works Festival – last year, one of the featured plays was "The Loudest Man on Earth" – which just finished a critically-praised run on the main stage as part of their regular season. And the musical Memphis, which won 4 Tony Awards in 2010 got its start at the festival. So Artistic Director Robert Kelley is excited about the collection of works that will be performed during the next week, through the 18th. 

There's more information about the festival, including a complete schedule at the TheatreWorks website.

There are three (somewhat comedic) plays this year, including a new farce by Beth Henley called "Laugh" – described as a madcap comedy that "evokes the slapstick comedies of Hollywood's Roaring 20s"; Laura Marks' "Gather at the River" brings a liberal New Yorker to Bible belt Kentucky; and "The Great Pretender" looks at the host of a Kiddie TV show's reaction to the death of a puppeteer. 

And there are two musicals: Robert Kelley is directing "Mrs. Hughes" – a dramatic work that tells the complicated story of the love triangle of poet Sylvia Plath, her husband Ted Hughes, and the woman who would become his mistress, Assia (Sharon Kenney wrote the music and lyrics, and Janine Nabers wrote the book); and "Cubamor" blends the rhythms of Cuba with a cross-cultural love story – (music and lyrics by Charles Vincent Burwell, book and lyrics by James D. Sasser.)

 This is the 12th festival TheatreWorks has put on. Robert Kelley says: "The idea is to take works that are really just getting underway, they've been fully written, some of them have had readings already, some readings in other theaters, others in people's living rooms as they're getting ready for shows that we fully expect will move on to performances all around the country.

Wednesday, August 14

In his final years, Franz Joseph Haydn wrote two large-scale oratorios for orchestra, choir and soloists: The Creation, and The Seasons. This weekend, San Francisco Choral Society will give two performances of The Seasons, which doesn't take its story from the Bible, but rather from an English poem (translated into German and adapted by Baron Gottfried van Swieten. This follow-up has never had as much popularity as The Creation, although it deserves it, says conductor Robert Geary: "I feel like there's not a weak musical moment in it!"

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

The soloists for this weekend's performances are soprano Marcelle Dronkers, tenor Brian Thorsett, and bass Eugene Brancoveanu – who are playing familiar stock rural characters, like those of Italy's Commedia dell'Arte. Brian Thorsett explains: "They're the German 'singspiel' characters; and I think in Haydn's time these characters would have really been known to everybody in the audience. It's lost on us now, but for people who went to the theater all the time, I think these characters would have been recognized by them." Most oratorios tell stories from the Bible, but these country characters of a farmer, his daughter, and her suitor named Lukas are depicted over the course of a year. "Lukas actually does have a small arc in this," Thorsett says. "He wants the girl, he's trying to woo her, and he sees the seasons change, and he grows up and acquires knowledge through it."

Soprano Marcelle Dronkers calls The Seasons "totally delightful and unusual… different than anything I've ever sung as an oratorio. I constantly turn the page and say, 'wait, whoa, this is an oratorio?' I sing an adorable little ditty at the end, as pure entertainment factor… I actually tell a story, the chorus joins in, and there's a narrator, a female figure and a nobleman… Not your average oratorio!

Thursday, August 15

The Lincoln Theater – shorthand for the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater – didn't go into bankruptcy when the Napa Valley Symphony did more than a year ago, but Ming Luke, who's their Music and Education Director, says their approach will be different with their new orchestra in residence: Symphony Napa Valley, which debuts in September with a program called "The Phoenix Rises" – and includes 11 young resident fellow players.

There's more information at the Lincoln Theater website, as well as the Symphony Napa Valley site.

The plan involves greater community outreach and involvement, turning the public image of the theater into more than just a performance space that visiting ensembles can rent: "Since the Lincoln Theater is exactly in the center of the Valley," Ming Luke says, "Napa's to the south of us, and St. Helena, Angwin and Calistoga are to the north of us — it becomes a great hub for arts and arts education in the Valley." And one project that he says will help make that happen is their Orchestra Institute Napa Valley fellowship program.  Modelled after some of the best known residency programs, it brings 11 young professional musicians in to Napa Valley for a year, as part of the resident orchestra, but also able to combine into various chamber combinations. "It worked out very nicely, actually – a string quartet, a woodwind quintet, a harpist and a percussionist."  They'll be able to reach out to area schools as well.

The return of a resident orchestra to the Lincoln Theater will be made official on September 21st, with their "Phoenix Rises" concert – featuring a program that includes guest singers Denyce Graves and Marnie Breckenridge, as well as the auspiciously titled Firebird Suite of Igor Stravinsky, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5, "The Reformation."  Ming Luke (who just recently stepped down from the podium of the Napa Valley Youth Symphony) will be conducting.
Ming Luke

Friday, August 16

For the final performance in this summer's Stern Grove Festival, San Francisco Opera and special guests Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello will bring Verdi, Wagner and Britten to the outdoor stage. The soprano and tenor are married (and incidentally have each won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award), and will be giving a bit of a preview of La Traviata, which they'll be singing together at the opera house next summer. 

There's more about Sunday afternoon's free performance at the Stern Grove Festival website

Ailyn Pérez is an alumna of the Merola program, and made her San Francisco debut in the role that she'll be returning to next year: Violetta in La Traviata.  Stephen Costello was "Greenhorn" – the tenor lead in Jake Heggie's Moby Dick last season, which marked his first SF Opera role. They'll sing selections from a number of Verdi works, including La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra, and Rigoletto, in honor of the composer's bicentennial this year. The orchestra and Adler fellow soloists will also be performing pieces by fellow 200-year-old Richard Wagner, and centennial birthday boy Benjamin Britten. 

Wednesday, August 21

When you say Quartet or Quintet in classical music, you have to be a bit more specific. The most frequent instrumentation for four players in a chamber music setting is probably a string quartet – with a pair of violins, a viola, and a cello. It's a natural combination, because each instrument has a tone that's similar, but the ranges of each allow for the highest highs and lowest lows. It starts getting a bit more complicated when you talk about quintets… 

There are quintets that feature another solo instrument, like piano, or flute, but those really are more like scaled-down concertos, with a quartet sitting in place of the orchestra. When composers keep within one section, they can choose to add another violin, or, as Mozart popularized, another viola: 

Or do as Schubert did in his Quintet D.956 – and have a second cello:

You can also add a double bass to the usual quartet to strengthen its lower register. 

Brass ensembles tend to be made up of five players, as a rule – although it can vary whether they play trumpets or cornets for the top two parts, and flugelhorn, euphonium, French horn and trombone can all be found in the middle – with bass trombone, or most frequently, a tuba providing the support on the bottom. But although each has a slightly different sound, they're all essentially variations within the same brass family. The woodwind quintet, on the other hand, celebrates the differences in its instruments. As seen in the video below of Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet: the flute, which is made of wood or metal and blown across a mouthpiece, the two double-reeds oboe and bassoon with a French horn between – not a woodwind at all, and the single-reed clarinet. Together, despite their differences, they make up a miniature wind section, and blend beautifully, while each line keeps its distinctive timbre:

Thursday, August 22

Marc-André Hamelin is a sought-after piano soloist, appearing in concert halls around the world in recital and concerto performances. But that doesn't mean that he gets to stop practicing. If you're someone who remembers minutes or hours of playing tedious scales at the piano while keeping a close eye on the clock, he says it needn't be that way. Instead he sees practice as 'self-teaching' – and a way to learn how to best get inside the workings of a piece.

Marc-André Hamelin will be making three area appearances next season through San Francisco Performances: in November, he'll join the Pacifica Quartet, there's a solo recital in January, and another chamber music concert with violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinetist Martin Fröst in April.

His schedule doesn't always allow him as much time to practice as he might like, and he says that he doesn't really have a regimen: "I  just go to the piano simply because I'm naturally attracted to it, not because I ever feel I have a task to accomplish. Well, I do in a way, but only in the sense that it's just continuing a journey with a certain piece, or with a number of pieces at the same time." And the proress that he then makes is two-fold… He builds muscle memory in his fingers while connecting with the composer's intent. "It's instilling a growing awareness of what the piece contains and what is needed in order to bring it to life. Either emotionally, or purely physically."

Hamelin says more important than spending a given amount of time practicing, is making incremental progress: "I just feel my way, I do a little bit each day, and each day my ability to communicate the message of the piece will get more and more fluent… This is really heresy for most piano teachers, but I don't believe that you should calculate, or you should figure out, or you should go into the practice room saying 'I'm going to practice so many hours.' To me, that's kind of useless. Because what you really should set out to do is better your understanding of the piece, and development of your own equipment, whether artistic or physical."

Friday, August 23

Cellist Joshua Roman has had several chances to fill the spacious sanctuary of Grace Cathedral with his playing – he provided the musical score to a series of monologues Anna Deavere Smith performed when she was artist in residence there last year, and this Spring he performed a concert in conjunction with artist Anne Patterson's installation of light and colorful ribbons hanging from the ceiling. In both cases, he called upon Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello.

Joshua Roman will be next appearing in the Bay Area playing Aaron Jay Kernis's Dreamsongs (which was written for him) in three performances with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in late October.

Grace Cathedral's acoustics, in which sounds continue to echo for more than 8 seconds, is ideal for certain kinds of music – choral anthems and organ, especially. But Joshua Roman had to consider that reverberation when programming the concert for March. "It's quite an incredible experience, and it's very different, obviously because of the 8.5 second delay. And so you have to take that into account. But I tried to pick pieces that had a slower harmonic movement, even when the notes were moving quickly. And I think that the Prelude from the Fourth Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach is the perfect example of that." 

"It is arpeggios that just sort of slowly move through and create this beautiful sonority, and I think that sort of music works very well in the space."  You can hear a touch of that reverb in this video that he shot while practicing for the concert – the experience is more of a wash of harmonies when heard from a distance.

"When you're actually in there, hearing that, it's nice to get your ears outside of you own sound and listent, and feel the space and play with it," Roman says. "When you end a phrase, sometimes if the resolution takes a little longer because of the notes hanging in the air, letting that end of the phrase take as long as it needs to, taking a breath, and then going on, it's fun. It's very fun.

Wednesday, August 28

The approach of Labor Day can mean only one thing… it's back-to-school time. And since the piece of classical music most associated with school – Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" – is usually played at the end of the year, here are a few other works that also signal the world of academia.

There's a metaphorical School For Scandal, in the overture for the play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which Samuel Barber composed when he was still a student himself… There's the Haydn symphony that got the nickname "The Schoolmaster" for a wagging figure motif in the second movement.

One that keeps showing up is the tune that Johannes Brahms used to give the big finish to his Academic Festival Overture – A tune called "De Brevitate Vitae" (On the Shortness of Life) that's been used as an anthem of sorts at all sorts of colleges around the world. It's better known by its opening lyrics: Gaudeamus igitur / Iuvenes dum sumus. (Let us rejoice, therefore / While we are young)  The 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may' or 'carpe diem' message is often accompanied by the raising of a toast of beer. 

And here's the complete overture, with that theme beginning with a cymbal crash at 9:11:

Thursday, August 29

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)

Friday, August 30

Mandolin player Chris Thile doesn't have to prove to anyone that he's a virtuoso player – but he's mostly known for bluegrass, folk and traditional styles – with bands like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers… On his new CD, he approaches some solo music that J.S. Bach wrote for the violin – with two sonatas and a partita (and the title of the disc suggests it's only the first volume, with more to come.)

Chris Thile's interest in Bach goes back a long way – he said recently that musicians all agree that Bach is the best composer, that the fights begin over who was second best. But he also sees little distinction between some of the licks he plays in a Bluegrass style, and the driving and often dancing rhythms of the Baroque.