Friday, August 1

Beginning this Sunday, the chorus called Slavyanka will host a week-long International Russian Choral Music Festival, which is the first of its kind on the West Coast. Irina Shachneva is the Artistic Director for Slavyanka, and was involved in the two Boston festivals that this one is modeled after. The aim is to celebrate the music, bring singers together, and will include concerts as well as workshops and presentations.

There's more information at the Russian Music Festival website, and more about Slavyanka here.

The choral tradition of Russia differs from that of Europe – which is one of the reasons people don't know as much about it. "In Europe, since the Renaissance," Irina Shachneva says, "the music spread out of the Church of the middle ages, an it was developed into a lot of instrumental music, different kinds of cantatas and Masses, and secular and sacred music. It was not the same in Russia. In Russia, the music has been folk music or liturgical music." And although it influenced the composers we know for their orchestral writing: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, that influence isn't overt and widely known in the West other than in Rachmaninoff's Vespers.

Slavyanka began in 1979, named after the Russian name for what we now call the Russian River near Fort Ross. Founding Director Paul Andrews had sung with the Yale Russian Chorus (Alumni singers from that group will be among the ensembles participating in this week's Festival). He says: "There's so much depth in Russian music that we don't find in so much Western music. It's very different and wonderful that way." He also applauds the leadership of Shachneva. "Irina is taking us to a whole new level of what we've been doing before. And a whole different level for Russian music in the Bay Area, frankly. For choral music, this is going to be a wonderful kind of gathering of all that energy, we hope.

Wednesday, August 6

This is the 20th anniversary season for Music in the Vineyards, and to celebrate, Michael Adams, who co-founded the festival with his wife Daria, says they've planned a suitably huge celebration. The concerts began on the first of August, and this year will run until the 24th, with more than 40 musicians playing concerts at 18 Napa Valley wineries. They've got special guests and one jam-packed weekend they're calling 'Three By Three'.

You can find out more about all of the festival's programming at the Music in the Vineyards website.

Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider"Our big 'get' this year was soprano Dawn Upshaw," Michael Adams says, "who's coming in to sing some selections from the piece that was on the CD that won the Grammy for Best New Classical Composition this year." That CD, called Winter Morning Walks, had works by composer Maria Schneider, with the title piece played by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, played by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where Daria Adams is a violinist. "And in recording the piece, my wife got this inspiration that given how the piece was orchestrated, she thought it would make a better, more intimate piece for a sextet of players and soprano. So Maria Schneider said, 'Sure, I'd be into trying that!'" Upshaw will sing the world premiere of the chamber arrangement of some of the pieces this Saturday night at Silverado Vineyards.

The 'Three By Three' concept for the weekend of the 15th through 17th of August means that they'll have three concerts instead of one each night, at three separate locations. Repeating programs allowed Adams to choose smaller venues: "We usually try to play halls that will hold 150 and above, and usually below 300. This time we're going for a little more intimate feel: some of the places will hold fifty to 120. So that's going to be a different experience, cause people will be right up on top of the musicians and very close to the action.

Thursday, August 7

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, August 8

One of the more memorable YouTube clips that blends the world of classical music with the always-popular-on-the-internet genre of cat videos is a work called Catcerto, inspired by, and featuring a feline soloist, playing with a chamber orchestra.

The work is by Lithuanian composer Mindaugas Piečaitis, who was inspired to orchestrate the random (but gentle) pawings of 'Nora, the Piano Cat' from an uploaded video, giving them harmonic context and structure. The piece has received several live performances, accompanied (on video) by a patient Nora.

She became an internet celebrity, with her own webpage and was named "Cat of the Year" in 2009 by the ASPCA.

Here are the composer and soloist: Mindaugas Piecaitis and Nora the Piano Cat (with an unidentified feline fan).

Mindaugas Piecaitis and Nora

Wednesday, August 13

This is the time of year when a lot of people are finishing up their summer vacations… If you're in the mood to travel, but can't actually hit the road, here's a whirlwind globe-trotting exercise. Can you name the geographically-themed pieces that are mashed together?  There are eleven pieces and thirteen locations, since two of the works are doing double duty.

(To see the answers, click and drag over the blank space below!)

  1. George Gershwin: An American in Paris
  2. Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras
  3. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir of Florence
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven: "Turkish March" from The Ruins of Athens
  5. Camille Saint-Saens: Africa, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
  6. Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on Carnival of Venice
  7. Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
  8. Aaron Copland: El Salon Mexico
  9. George Enescu: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1
  10. Leonard Bernstein: "America" from West Side Story
  11. Xian Xinghai: Yellow River Piano Concerto

Thursday, August 14

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:

Friday, August 15

The Golden Gate Bridge is the most-photographed bridge in the world. And that magnetic attraction for cameras extends to Hollywood, too. Whether it's as a backdrop, a pivotal plot point, or being attacked by the elements (or giant sea-creatures) the bridge has proved irresistible to film makers.

The iconic bridge, still going strong more than 75 years after it was built, has been used as a shorthand to establish a Bay Area setting.

Foul PlayIn the movie Foul Play, after she's driven down the coast accompanied by the Barry Manilow song 'Ready to Take a Chance Again," Goldie Hawn's character rounds a bend in her yellow VW Bug and a helicopter shot reveals the span ahead of her.

More recently, it's appeared in both of the two "Planet of the Apes" reboots – with an attack on the cars crossing the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and ten years later, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, weeds and moss cover some of the familiar and iconic International Orange paint, as mankind has been all but obliterated.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In 1978's Superman, the Man of Steel keeps a schoolbus full of children from falling into the water after an earthquake caused by Lex Luthor rocks and damages the Golden Gate. 

The climactic fight between James Bond and the evil Max Zorin (played by Roger Moore and Christopher Walken) takes place atop one of the towers, to which his blimp is tethered, in A View to a Kill
Here's a trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which features the bridge prominently…

And It Came From Beneath the Sea, which pits a giant octopus against the Golden Gate:

Wednesday, August 20

The more intimate Schroeder Hall, the performance space immediately next to the Green Music Center's Weill Hall has its inaugural concerts this weekend, with two full days of special events. There are ten concerts planned, which are free to the public with advanced tickets (they held some back for the weekend, because as expected, almost all were claimed when they were offered online). The venue, which will also be a working lecture hall for Sonoma State University, features a Brombaugh Opus 9 pipe organ and adjustable acoustics.

There's more about the weekend's events at the Green Music Center's website.

The Sonoma Bach Choir will fittingly begin the weekend's special concerts on Saturday at 11 am – it was the need for a good performance space for choral music that inspired the creation of the Green Music Center in the first place, but Weill Hall is better suited for larger orchestral forces, or other genres of music than a chamber music or choral performance. They'll be followed by a Faculty Jazz Ensemble from Sonoma State at 2, Jeffrey Kahane with solo works by Beethoven and Chopin at 4, organist James David Christie at 5:30, before David Benoit's 8 pm show, "Tribute to Charlie Brown." That will be a repeat of the private concert he'll be giving for Jean Schulz the previous evening, officially launching Schroeder Hall with a suitably Peanuts-themed program.

Faculty Members from Sonoma State will perform the first concert on Sunday, at 11 am; at 1 o'clock Trio Ariadne, which is in residence at Weill Hall will come next door to play works by students, and Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. At 3, more singing, with a student and alumni vocal recital; Trio Navarro, in residence at the University will play at 5, and to finish the festivities at 8 on Sunday, there's a Brass, Organ and Vocal recital.

Schroeder Hall

The rounded back wall of the hall serves several functions – outdoors, it helps diffuse the sound from Weill Hall, when the back wall is fully opened for the audience on the lawn – otherwise there might have been annoying echoes as the sounds bounced off of a flatter surface. And inside, it helps create what the architects describe as a "nave-like space: masonry, hard walls, tall, long, and narrow."  With the organ at the front and the reverberation at its fullest (there are drapes which can emerge and make a drier acoustic) it has the audio characteristic of a small to medium sized church, with a 3 to 5 second echo, ideal for choral works, or organ recitals. The drapes would be adjusted to several presets to accomodate different chamber ensemble configurations, as well as university lectures.

Thursday, August 21

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 22

Thousands of miles from California, instrumentalists from around the world are in the northeastern part of China, in the city of Harbin, for the second annual Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition. The contest gets its name from the distinguished and longtime faculty members at the USC Thornton School of Music, who played both together and as soloists before their academic careers began.  

There's more information at the Schoenfeld Competition website.

The competition site in Harbin, ChinaKUSC's Gail Eichenthal is in China, covering the competition, and spoke with yet another California music professor: Jindong Cai, who is the Music Director and Conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, and who, like 93-year-old Alice Schoenfeld, is judging the young players in China this week. The competition takes place in Harbin, which has the longest history of Western Classical music in China. Cai says that the way Chinese students are taught is very different than in the US. "In China, the system is following the Russian system, almost like the sports in China. Conservatories have attached schools, so when they find the talented kids in the elementary level, then they can admit them to the elementary school attached to the conservatory. Probably some of the students study with the same teacher for fifteen years, from elementary school until they graduate!"  

Judges Lynn Harrell and the eponymous Alice Schoenfeld Which can have both good and bad consequences. "You have this consistency of technical facility… Chinese conservatories produce this kind of a machine-like technician. The bad thing is they… only have one way to interpret this music." Whenever he gives a master class, Cai points to the importance of having more than one teacher. "In the end you want to have your own interpretation… You have to study with different teachers because that opens your mind!" 

The competition runs through August 25th, with more than 200,000 dollars in prizes awarded.

Wednesday, August 27

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 28

Opera San Jose opens their season with Verdi's ever-popular Rigoletto – the tale of a hunch-backed jester who tries to protect his daughter from the world, only to be done in by the curse of another father. Music Director Joseph Marcheso points out some of the reasons the opera continues to be among the best loved and most frequently performed. Performances at the California Theatre run from Saturday, September 6 – Sunday, September 21.

There's more information at the Opera San Jose website.

Marcheso, who's been with the company for years, but is just beginning his first as their Musical Director and Principal Conductor says there are many reasons for Rigoletto's enduring popularity. Even though it was composed in the middle of the 19th Century, it has a feature that's at the center of many of pop culture's current favorites. "Rigoletto is an anti-hero. The Duke is an anti-hero. It's a gritty story with black comedy centered around an unsavory, yet sympathetic character – like House of Cards would be, or Mad Men would be, or Breaking Bad. So it has that kind of sensibility that has proven to be extremely popular these days." It also has all of the mistaken identity, a prophetic curse, and plenty of familiar melodies, including "La donne e mobile" and "Caro nome." 

The mis-shapen jester has a secret, away from his work for the Duke, where he acts with impunity as "an emcee of licentiousness"… No one knows of his daughter Gilda, who, as Marcheso says "…he has kept cloistered in his home, because he is a man who thinks he's ugly, and sees ugliness in the world. And though he participates in it, he wants to save his daughter from that whole experience."  There's yet another reason the opera has lasted so well for so long, he says. "In Rigoletto, so long as we live at a time in which fathers are overprotective of their daughters and people work for SOBs (and become SOBs in the process) this story will appeal and be relevant.

Friday, August 29

An A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts, stopping at the letter "O"… For Ostinato, Orff, and "O Fortuna"…  An Ostinato is a musical idea that's repeated with an insistent focus – it could be a repeated note, or rhythm, or motivic idea, maybe a repeated bass line that is played against an evolving melody. The word comes from the Italian for 'obstinate', since an ostinato refuses to give up, and can generate dramatic momentum with repetition. One of the many examples is the ever-growing "O Fortuna" in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana – as a choir chants over a determined and repeated accompaniment

Classical Music is filled with repetition – what makes something an ostinato? It's really a question of intensity, and the way the gesture is being used. 

Gustav Holst used the low strings and percussion to create a rhythmic ostinato for "Mars, the Bringer of War" in his The Planets:

And here's the famous "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana, at :44 seconds in: