Monday, December 1

The 9-voiced male choir called Cantus comes to Berkeley this Thursday night through Cal Performances for a presentation of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 – essentially a musical radio play that tells the story of when a spontaneous celebration of Christmas interrupted fighting for a few hours during the first World War.

There's more information about the show, which will be at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley at the Cal Performances website.

The events are told by actors from the company Theatre Latte Da, which like Cantus, is based in the Twin Cities. Paul John Rudoi explains how it came to be: "Peter Rothstein, the director, had the idea for… a radio drama. So he went over to Europe and studied up on the truce, and came back with a bunch of materials, really great materials, letters and diaries, and different accounts of this Christmas truce that happened during World War I in 1914… The vast majority of the material that they used is accounts from those diaries – it's really all from these individuals who were at that moment when a man stepped out into No-Man's Land and didn't get shot. It's a pretty profound message."  The young soldiers hadn't expected the fighting to be so intense, or so long. "The men were told they're going to go and have some fun in war for a moment, and then come home for Christmas," Rudoi says. "They realize they might not come for Christmas, they also realize that they actually will get shot." So to raise their spirits, they begin singing carols. "They realize that the enemy is also celebrating Christmas, and they sing the same songs." Cantus bass Chris Foss continues: "They were sitting in their trenches, shivering because it was cold, but they would sing Christmas Carols at eachother from each trench. That's kind of how it started, a little bit. Still from the safety of the trench." Paul John Rudoi says for him, the highpoint of the show is both simple and brave, when a soldier dares to enter No-Man's Land: "That moment when he stands up and walks out is just such an amazing thing, because all it is is just a solo singing 'Silent Night'. The fact that that is the apex of the show just blows my mind, it's so meaningful." They've decided to make this season – which marks the anniversary of 100 years since the events took place – the last time they'll perform All Is Calm, for the time being.

Tuesday, December 2

Ron Carter didn't start as a hall-of-fame jazz bass player… He actually began his music career as a classical cellist, moving on to the double bass before going to get his undergraduate degree from the Eastman School of Music – and a masters at the Manhattan School of Music. But along the way, he became a go-to session player as well as being part of many ensembles. He'll bring his trio to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto this Thursday, as part of their "Jazz Giants" series.

There's more information about the program at the Oshman Family JCC website.

Carter will be joined by guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega for the program. Throughout his long career (by the early 1960s he was playing in Miles Davis's Quintet) Ron Carter has kept at a lot of things he learned in music school studying classical music. "We've got the same notes," he says. "I think when we understand that the notes aren't different, the differences are non-existent. One of the things I do maintain… was the discipline of how to practice. When you have lessons that are due every week, by teachers who insist on a high quality of performance, it makes you have to monitor your time, and make sure your practices are valuable and constructive." Likewise, whether you're playing bass in a symphony orchestra with a hundred other players, or exposed in a trio, there's a lot that's the same. "The responsibilities of musicianship are the same whatever size the group is. If you have a smaller band, there are fewer choices to be concerned with, and more responsibility spread around among fewer people. When you have players like Donald Vega on piano and Russ Malone on guitar, as I'm happy to have, the responsibilities are moer of a pleasure trip rather than a job." 

Wednesday, December 3

This time of year, there are more and more performances of The Nutcracker, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Handel's Messiah… If you don't have the kind of time it takes to attend full shows in person, here's a cut-down and mashed up sampler-plate for you.

Certainly there are other seasonal "chestnuts" (roasting on an open fire) but these three in particular seem to be perennial crowd-pleasers, and for some, the holiday season isn't complete without seeing one or more of them. 

Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors has the distinction of being the first opera ever written specifically for television, and had its premiere on Christmas Eve, 1951. It tells the story of a young shepherd boy and his mother, who offer the three kings a place to stay on their way to Bethlehem.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is a seasonal mainstay of almost every ballet company – with dances associated with the movements of the Suite, plus plenty more – including an enormous Christmas tree, dancing mice, and the title Nutcracker, who is actually a prince. 

Handel's Messiah was written in an astonishing 24 days (although he did borrow from music he'd already written), and remains a towering example of oratorio. One of the popular ways audiences can experience Messiah is by participating in a sing-along performance, as part of the chorus.

Thursday, December 4

There are three seasonal performances of "Wintersong" – a program by the Ragazzi Boys Chorus this weekend and next, in San Mateo, Redwood City, and San Francisco. The group's Artistic Director and co-founder, Joyce Keil, says the unchanged voices will be joined by the Young Men's ensemble (and the older singers will have another SF concert, with the San Francisco Symphony a week from tomorrow.)

There's more information about the program at the Ragazzi Boys Chorus website.

The concert will include traditional tunes like 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and Elgar's 'The Snow,' along with 'Eatnemen Vuelie' from the movie Frozen. Joyce Keil describes it this way: "There's a kind of a chant, a Norwegian chant, underneath a very ethereal, beautiful melody." She says the favorite by Franz Biebl, 'Ave Maria' will be sung by the Young Men's ensemble, and both groups will sing together: "We're doing a double choir arrangement of the Miserere, the Allegri Miserere, which used to be owned by the Vatican, and Mozart came in and wrote it down, and took it out into the world. So it's a really exciting boy choir piece, but it does require men too, so we do some things together." 

Here are some highlights from a winter concert they gave a few years ago:

Friday, December 5

In a different kind of stage appearance, Yo-Yo Ma will be doing more speaking than playing on Wednesday night – as part of UC Berkeley and Cal Performances' new program called Berkeley Talks: In Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. The famed cellist will discuss the role that culture, arts and sciences play in all of our lives, as cultural citizens.  

There's more information about the program at the Cal Performances website.

The series, which is a new collaboration, will bring various "international thought leaders, public scholars, creators and innovators" to Zellerbach Hall to share their unique points of view… and Yo-Yo Ma has spent much of his career and life as a cultural ambassador, as well as explorer. Beyond the traditional concerto, chamber music, and solo repertoire, he's been a champion of world music, as seen in his enthusiastic collaborations with the Silk Road Ensemble, which is made up of virtuoso players from different musical traditions. He's explored jazz, releasing a disc of Cole Porter tunes with French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, and duets with Bobby McFerrin. New and bluegrass-influenced works by Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor and the 'Goat Rodeo Sessions' that was released a few years ago with mandolinist Chris Thile show an interest in the world of Appalachian music. And he's played for presidents from Kennedy to Obama (with former president Eisenhower in there as well). 

Monday, December 8

American Bach Soloists will present three performances of Handel's Messiah at Grace Cathedral (on the 16th, 18th, and 19th) as well as this Sunday at the Mondavi Center, and the following Sunday at the Green Music Center. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas says Handel would make changes at every performance, depending on his singers' strengths.

There's more information about the performances at the American Bach Soloists' website.

"Handel conducted Messiah so many times in his lifetime, and each time it was different," Thomas says. "Every single time he would customize the arias to make the best use of the singers that he had at his disposal… Nowadays most performances are kind of a conflation, kind of a mixed sort of bag."  For these Bay Area performances, they'll be presenting the 'Foundling Hospital Version' of the work – which also is a bit of a moving target. "There are at least a half a dozen "Foundling Hospital Versions' because he conducted it there at least that many times. So it just points towards the later performances, things had become more consistent from year to year, you no longer have an aria that sounds completely different than what we're used to hearing."

Tuesday, December 9

The Civic Center Arts Corridor will have another venue as of this weekend, with what had been Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall A at Davies Symphony Hall made over into a new space known as SoundBox. The sold-out first program, 'Extremities' (curated by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas) gives an idea of some of the adventuresome programming that the hall will be offering in the coming months.

There's more information about the program and the venue at the SoundBox website.

There's a theme to the programming of both revolutionary innovation and also the breadth of western music, from Gregorian chants to works by Steve Reich and Meredith Monk. What will be on display — in addition to voices from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus — is the Meyer Sound 'Constellation' audio installation, which allows the perceived acoustical space to be modified in real time. So the choral works from the Renaissance will sound as though they're being sung in a cathedral, and intimate chamber works will have a less reverberant, clearer sound. When the SoundBox project was being described at the Symphony's season announcement earlier this year, composer Sam Adams enthusiastically described the possibilities of the technology – a single piece could take advantage of multiple sound spaces, giving composers new the ability to think in new spatial ways. There's video projection in the new space, and to show that off, they'll show the work by Steina and Woody Vasulka from the SFMOMA collection called Voice Windows, with images reflecting the vocal gestures of Joan La Barbara. 

Wednesday, December 10

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein is comfortable in front of an orchestra and playing chamber music, but her new album from Decca is just her alone. Fittingly, it's called Solo – and she decided to highlight works that have all been written for unaccompanied cello in the past hundred years, by Zoltán Kodály, Gaspar Cassadó, Osvaldo Golijov, and Bright Sheng. 

There's more information about the CD at Alisa Weilerstein's website.

For many casual classical music listeners, solo cello repertoire might not be very familiar. But Weilerstein says there's much to explore. "The Bach suites are of course incredibly familiar to the general audience, and there was this vacuum – there's no really good solo cello music that was written in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century, we have this embarassment of riches." The first work on the disc, the earliest, from 1915, is Kodály's Sonata, opus 8, "which was this really groundbreaking piece, that was really the first piece of its kind for the solo cello. Thirty-five minutess, stretching the technique to the highest it had ever really been stretched, and just really an emotionally satisfying, wonderful celebration." It uses the technique called scordatura, with two strings intentionally tuned differently than is standard for the instrument. "The lower two strings are tuned down a half step, each of them are," she says. "Which means that not only can you play chords which are simply not possible to play with a normal tuning, but it creates a kind of different sonority. The cello vibrates differently when the strings are tuned down to that pitch." It also means the range is extended.  

All the works on the disc owe a debt to folk traditions. Kodály, who along with Bartok studied the melodies of gypsies they encountered in the Hungarian woods, Gaspar Cassadó (who was a cellist himself) borrowed from Catalan and Spanish folk dances in his Suite for Cello. Osvaldo Golijov, whose parents were Eastern European Jews, was born in Argentina. "And the Omaramor is a kind of long tango," Weilerstein explains. " In fact the cello is supposed to be walking through the streets of Buenos Aires. Sometimes these are rough, sometimes these are very melancholic, very nostalgic memories." Finally, there's Bright Sheng's Seven Tunes Heard in China. "Little vignettes, based on some ancient Chinese folk songs… also inspired by ancient Chinese instruments. And you also hear some more modern Chinese and Tibetan songs." For that work, the cello channels such traditional instruments as the erhu and pipa. 

Weilerstein describes the recording process in this video: 

Thursday, December 11

Smuin Ballet's annual tradition continues this year with 'Uncorked' – the name they're giving to their Christmas Ballet, which just opened in Mountain View and runs through Sunday, before coming to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from the 18th to the 27th. Dancer Weston Krukow (who also is choreographer for a new work premiering this season) gives a preview.

There's more information about the program at the Smuin Ballet website

As it has been each year, the show is split into two halves, with different moods, as well as color schemes: "The first half is Classical Christmas, and so we're in white," Krukow says. "It's great, aesthetically it's beautiful, and then the second half becomes the Jazzy Christmas… Men in red tunics, women in red leotards with red fringe… red hula dresses, red party dresses, just a ton of red." This is only the second year with Smuin for Weston Krukow, who says he's been able to have more fun this year, because a lot of the many scenes he had to come up to speed on last year are returning. "Last year was so overwhelming, because you're learning so many different pieces, that this year, although there are new fresh ones, there are still staples that I didn't have to worry about."

One of the 'fresh' pieces he choreographed: Mean and Green. "It's about a pessimistic, green, vindictive… individual, who has three sidekicks. They're dogs. And it's very straightforward… simple. I choreographed it with kids in mind." There's also a new work to music of Chanticleer by choreographer in residence Amy Seiwert, "Nicole Haskins is doing I Saw Three Ships [with music by James Galway] for the first act, and Ben Needham-Wood is also doing a Frosty the Snowman, but it's the Zee Avi version, so it's all in minor chords. Very cool, I kind of get a swanky vibe from it." And the returning favorites include Santa Baby, as sung by Eartha Kitt, and Leon Redbone's Christmas Island. Krukow will be having a solo that he first watched as a spectator. "2012 was the first time I saw the Christmas Ballet, and one of the pieces, [Lou Rawls'] Little Drummer Boy… It captured my imagination, and I immediately dreamed of that role since that day, and I actually get to do it this year."

Friday, December 12

Today, in recognition of this twelfth day of December, a re-working of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" for the Classical music lover… From Steve Reich's Drumming, to William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices,  Haydn's Parisian "Hen"… and beyond.

 Here are the days (click and drag across the blank areas to reveal the suggested pieces of music to accompany them) 

12 drummers drumming…

Steve Reich: Drumming

11 pipers piping…

Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise

10 lords a-leaping…  

Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces, Book 4 (Op. 47 no. 6): "A Leaping Dance"

9 ladies dancing…  

Jacques Offenbach: "Can-Can" from Orpheus in the Underworld

8 maids a-milking…  

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Adele's "Laughing Song" from Die Fledermaus 
Georges Bizet: "March" from Fair Maid of Perth

7 swans a-swimming…  

Sibelius: Fifth Symphony, mvt. 3
Saint-Säens: "The Swan" from Carnival of the Animals
Tchaikovsky: Scene from Swan Lake

6 geese a-laying…  

Maurice Ravel: "Empress of the Pagodas" from Mother Goose Suite
Eugene Goosens: Concerto in One Movement, Op. 45

5 gold rings…

Wagner: "Ride of the Valkyries", from his Ring Cycle's Die Walküre

4 calling birds…

William Byrd: Mass for Four Voices

3 French hens…

Haydn: Symphony 83 (one of the Paris Symphonies) known as "The Hen"

2 turtle doves…  

Ralph Vaughan Williams: "The Turtle Dove"

A partridge in a pear tree…   

John Jeffreys: "The Little Pretty Nightingale" (sung by Ian Partridge)
Arvo Part: Arbos

Monday, December 15

On an A-to-Z edition of "The State of the Arts," it's harmonious music by Handel… The popular theme and variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith — a nickname Handel never gave it — is the final movement to his Suite No. 5 in E Major for harpsichord.

The name seems to fit, with an insistent pulsed beat that continues throughout, and in at least one of the variations, a note that is struck repeatedly. But the popular story that Handel took shelter from the rain at a Blacksmith's forge, and was inspired by the hammering, or whistling of the proprietor wasn't the case. It wasn't until much later, when an entrepreneurial music publisher who had been born into a family of blacksmiths released the theme and variations as a standalone work that it came to be known by that title.

Tuesday, December 16

In honor of Beethoven's Birthday (his 244th)…here's a little listening quiz to see how well you know his works. Can you name all twelve of them?

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

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

Wednesday, December 17

The art of photography was changed by the groundbreaking 1959 book The Americans – in which photographer Robert Frank offered 83 images of our country like none before. The exhibit that runs through January 5th at the Stanford's Cantor Arts Center called Robert Frank In America includes 22 from that collection, with more than a hundred others, some rarely or never shown before. 

There's more about the exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center website

Connie Wolf, Director of the Cantor Arts Center, says even though Frank's 1959 collection is well known, most of this show will likely be new to even those quite familiar with his work. "It will really fill out people's understanding of Robert Frank, and his view of America at such a critical moment in our history." In the mid-1950's, the Swiss-born photographer got a grant, and a used car, which he used to travel into areas of the country that had never been documented before, certainly not in this way. "You can't help but think about contradictions," Wolf says. "The notion of a booming economy, of people finally having their own cars, having their own independence, having and building a new life in Post-War America, but at the same time you see isolation, and you see challenges of what it means, and the struggle of what it means to be alive."

Robert Frank, Detroit 1955

 Connie Wolf says Frank's juxtapositions showed that there's no one way to see this country. "He was a foreigner looking at America, and discovering in a sort of poetic way the complexity of what it meant to be alive and struggling in this moment… There he is thinking about race issues in American in the 1950s… and his views I think, are very powerful in how he puts these cultures together or sees them in a new way.

Thursday, December 18

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has played the music of J.S. Bach all of her life, and on her CD of Inventions and Sinfonias, shows them to be much more than just exercises in counterpoint. She says they're almost 'pure music' – which teach, but are at the same time stand-alone pieces of great beauty.

There's more about her CD at Simone Dinnerstein's website.

The purpose of the Two-Part Inventions and the Sinfonias (also sometimes called the Three-Part Inventions) was two-fold: they were a teaching tool as well as an example of what he was teaching. "He wrote a very nice description of them, as a preface," Dinnerstein says, "where he writes that they're 'an honest guide to lovers of the keyboard, to show how to play pieces that are written for two voices and three voices.'" So they create independence in the hands. "Of course this is an invaluable skill to learn as a pianist. He didn't know all the music that was going to come after him, but it's something that you use when you're playing Beethoven, and when you're playing Rachmaninoff, and whatever you're playing will require you to be able to hear multiple lines and control them."

The Two-Part inventions especially distill the rules of counterpoint down into concrete examples – and have been played on many instruments, each playing its 'melody' in a singing, or cantabile style. "It's almost like pure music, even though they… actually are quite pianistic, in the sense that they fit into the fingers in a good way. It's really about musical lines rather than about something that's instrument specific." Simone Dinnerstein says they're unique among Bach's works: "They're not pieces that are dances, though some of them may have some dance feelings to them, dance rhythms in them. They're not about something, other than how they're made. It's kind of like seeing an X-ray of the music. This is what they are, the most essential components of counterpoint."

Friday, December 19

With the approach of Christmas, the singers of Chanticleer have returned from their after-Thanksgiving tour, and are back for their final holiday concerts in the Bay Area. They'll be singing live in San Francisco this Sunday night at St. Ignatius, but they'll also be on KDFC's Bay Area Mix, in  a concert recorded at another St. Ignatius church, in New York City earlier this month. 

There's more information about their Christmas concerts at the Chanticleer website

The group just announced that they've got a new Music Director Designate, William Fred Scott, who served as Guest Music Director for their season opening concerts in September. He'll begin as Chanticleer's fifth director next season. For the Chanticleer Christmas program, the Guest Music Director has been Ragnar Bohlin, best known to Bay Area audiences as leading the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Given the decades of Christmas programs Chanticleer has presented, one might think there wouldn't need to be too much preparation – beyond just the endurance for more than 20 concerts in less than a month. "The repertoire wasn't such that everybody had done all the pieces in the past," Bohlin says. "I would say that more than fifty percent of the repertoire is new to more than fifty percent of the group." Because the group doesn't perform with a conductor, the Music Director plays the most important part in the shaping of the interpretation early on, during rehearsals. "My role for the new pieces would be more or less like a regular choral director. You conduct, you get the music under the belt of everyone. And then, as soon as you can, you try to step back and not conduct." When it came to works that the singers knew, he kept a light touch. "I tried to be careful not to barge in, and to hear first what was the take on it from the past, and learn from that, and then to see what was there, and delicately work from there."

The program A Chanticleer Christmas on Bay Area Mix will include highlights from their tour repertoire, sung in Latin, early Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, German, English and French, and – naturally, the work that they've made their own, especially at this time of year, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria". You'll be able to hear the program on demand beginning at midnight Sunday night, for two weeks at the KDFC on demand page.

Monday, December 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 one of the guest pianists performing in the MTT Birthday concert  in January that includes Liszt's Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra. (The other pianists are Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yuja Wang, and Michael Tilson Thomas himself.)

Hamelin's 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 progress 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."

Tuesday, December 23

Violinist Nicola Benedetti looks to her native Scotland as the theme for the CD Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy. It's one of our top CD's of 2014, and opens with the title work by Max Bruch, then pays homage to poet and songwriter Robert Burns, before diving into the world of traditional folk music, complete with guest musicians on accordion, whistles, flutes and percussion. 

There's more information about the disc at Nicola Benedetti's website.

Many foreign composers have tried to capture the essence of Scotland – think of Mendelssohn's 'Scottish' Symphony – but Benedetti says that Bruch (who astonishingly never actually visited Scotland) did it convincingly, creating in the process one of the great works for violin and orchestra. "Bruch's Scottish Fantasty is based on four original Scottish melodies," she says, "He sort of writes almost a theme and variation style, especially with the third and fourth movements. It's quite a typical sort of slow fast slow fast structure to it… He had an ability to see a simple tune, and without altering it too much, or spoiling it, he managed to very much expand and develop, and romanticize it."

The new territory for Benedetti on the CD is playing the traditional tunes and dances. Her career and studies took her along another path. "Despite being a classical violinist that is Scottish, I played very little Scottish traditional music growing up, which is kind of odd, as the violin is one of the most integral instruments to any sort of Ceilidh band. But it just happened that way with the kind of teaching I received. So this was very much a kind of exploration back to my childhood, to all the tunes that I'd heard, but spent practically no time actually playing."

Here she is playing more music by Bruch, from his Violin Concerto: