Friday, February 1

The contemporary chamber music ensemble Earplay is including a couple of works of a slightly older vintage on their next concert Monday night. There's a Chamber Concerto written by Schoenberg (and arranged for an even smaller group by Anton Webern) and a 1940 piece by John Cage called Living Room Music, in which the players are asked to use 'ordinary things from a typical living room' as their instruments. 

There's more information about the concert at the Earplay website. This will be the first performance they give at ODC Theatre in the Mission.

Those two works, plus a 1987 flute solo called "East Wind" by Shulamit Ran represent the 20th Century – the rest of the program is from the 21st.  Daguerreotype by Michael Zbyszynski is for cello and electronics, José-Luis Hurtado's Intermezzo for prepared piano gets its West Coast premiere, and Berkeley composer Ken Ueno's 12.12.12 has its world premiere. The title is both a nod to Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone works, as well as the actual date the piece was finished. It's for flute and viola, but not just any flute, one with a 'glissando headjoint' – which allows the player to change the length (and pitch) of the flute while playing.

The concert has a John Cage quote for its title: "Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living…"  And with both a work for prepared piano, and Cage's own Living Room Music on the program, it's only fitting that when conductor Mary Chun explains that they've decided not to include the optional third movement of Living Room, she says they're leaving it to the audience's imagination.

Monday, February 4

Two world-class violinists are giving solo recitals on back-to-back nights at the end of this week: Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn will each present a wide range of music from the repertory, but they will also let their accompanists sit one out while taking on music by Bach – from his Partitas.  Hahn's very first recording was of the unaccompanied suites – and Shaham, although he played them as a student only began to perform them publicly later in his career.

There's more information about the Gil Shaham concert (at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday) at the San Francisco Symphony website, and about Hilary Hahn's recital (at Herbst Theatre on Saturday) at the SF Performances website.

Shaham will be playing Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, Israeli composer Avner Dorman's Niggunim (Violin Sonata No. 3), and William Bolcom's Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin — the latter two written specifically for him — in addition to Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major. 

Hilary Hahn's recital will feature music by Gabriel Fauré – his Sonata No. 1 in A Major, and selections from the encore pieces she's commissioned from dozens of contemporary composers, as well as the famous Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor. 

The Partitas of Bach, like the unaccompanied cello suites, are masterpieces that manage (when played well!) to sound simple, while simultaneously playing a melody, and an implied accompaniment. The player has to keep various strands of the harmony connected, including a bass line, and inner voices – jumping between them without sounding disjointed. They're a collection of dances, and can be both fiendishly difficult, and as Hilary Hahn says, so introspective that she sometimes feels she's inside her instrument.

Tuesday, February 5

Bass-Baritone Eric Owens gives a recital as a part of Cal Performances' Koret Recital series this Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall in Berkeley. The program includes Wolf, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel and Wagner. It was his singing the role of Alberich in Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010 that brought Owens great praise from both audiences and critics. But he's the first to say he doesn't want to be typecast.

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

Eric Owens was last in town last year to sing in the San Francisco Opera Production of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues, playing Juliet's father. The resonance of even his speaking voice would lead you to believe that he's always known he was going to be a singer, but he actually got his start in music as an oboist, playing chamber music for many years professionally (he still plays informally today). But the competition for a handful of orchestral jobs (and an obvious talent for it) led him to start his singing career… And as he points out, "having been an opera fan since the age of ten, this all worked out quite nicely!"  

Eric Owens as Alberich at the Metropolitan Opera

The art-song repertoire that he'll sing this Sunday in Berkeley doesn't begin to reflect the varied "soup-to-nuts" concert and operatic works he's performed; Owens created the role of General Leslie Groves in John Adams' Dr. Atomic, but also sung Haydn, Mahler, Verdi, Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven… As he puts it, he's not a Wagnerian… He's a singer, and a musician.

Wednesday, February 6

From the movie that inspired Walt Disney, to a less-well known classic from the director of Nosferatu, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is running its "Silent Winter" special day of films at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, February 16th. It's five programs with a little bit of something for everyone: swashbuckling, laughs and live accompaniment.  

There's more information at the SF Silent Film Festival's website.

Anita Monga, the Artistic Director for the festival outlines the lineup – starting with a morning showing of the 1916 Snow White featuring a 33-year-old Marguerite Clark in the title role. Snow WhiteIt was a movie a young Walt Disney saw in Kansas City at the premiere – and made enough of an impression to lead him to the same story for his first feature-length film.

Then there's a trio of Buster Keaton shorts: One Week, The Scarecrow, and The Playhouse. In One Week, Keaton and his bride assemble a pre-fabricated house – a wedding present that doesn't go exactly according to plan, when the numbers painted on the sides of the boxes are tampered with by a former beau of the bride.. 

At 2:30, Douglas Fairbanks' favorite film, The Thief of Bagdad – featuring magical special effects accompanying his physical stunts – and with musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Then Donald Sosin, who'll provide the piano score to the previous films on the piano will return for Mary Pickford's final silent, a comedy set in a store called My Best Girl

The Thief of Bagdad

Finally, at 9, Christian Elliott will play the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer to accompany F.W. Murnau's telling of Faust (1926). The tale of a deal with Mephisto, the devil, played by Emil Jannings, is filled with iconic images of gothic beauty.

Thursday, February 7

The cello concerto by Witold Lutosławski asks a lot of an orchestra (and the soloist) – cellist Lynn Harrell says the individual players are told by the composer not to play together – something that's hard to do after years of training to play in perfect synchronization. The Berkeley Symphony will be representing a repressive government, and the solo cello the individual seeking freedom – that's one way of looking at the work, which was written in 1970, behind the Iron Curtain in Poland. 

There's more information about the concert at the Berkeley Symphony's website.

Lynn Harrell with his signed score of the Lutoslawski concertoThere's also a world premiere – the third of four they'll perform this season – called Alfama, a work the Symphony commissioned from Portuguese composer Andreia Pinto-Correia, which musically depicts her native Lisbon – as well as Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, all conducted by Joana Carneiro.

The Lutosławski concerto was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, and although the composer tried to downplay the allegorical struggle that comes across in the music, Lynn Harrell sees it this way: "It's a little bit as if the solo cello represents truth and honor (and the fight for justice and the American way), and the orchestra represents the enemy – the fascist government, and how they go through dancing around each other and finally have a fight." 

Because the players' individual parts are specifically written to be rhythmically different from person to person, it's all the more powerful when the combined forces do play together. "We finally come down to the intensity of a black hole unison. And the whole string section plays unison for a few moments, and that erupts into the last three or four minutes… of total fear, helter-skelter, angst… It's an incredible journey for the audience."

Harrell describes the piece as having a "burning intensity" – fueled in part by its pacing. When the strings are allowed to be soulful, he says, "that has a remarkable effect, because of how long we wait for it.

Friday, February 8

Play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new – that was the original idea behind the Juilliard String Quartet, when it was founded in the 1940s at the school of the same name. They'll be giving a free concert at San Francisco State University, as part of their Morrison Artists Series this Sunday afternoon.

There's more information about the concert at the SFSU website.

This is the final season that violist Samuel Rhodes will be playing with the quartet, after an astounding 44 seasons with them. He says "It's been absolutely wonderful doing not only what I love to do most in the world, but also what my colleagues love to do. We've had a wonderful interaction, in constant contact in the most intimate way with the greatest music ever written."

The Juilliard String Quartet is playing all of the late Beethoven quartets this season – at the SF State concert, they'll be playing his Op. 131 in C-sharp minor, along with Mozart's K. 575, String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, and Elliott Carter's Quartet No. 5. Although it was the last quartet Carter wrote (when he was 87), he lived to be almost 104. Samuel Rhodes says "it brings the quartet dialogue of character into our own time. It deals with conflict between the voices and trying to resolve that. Maybe resolving it, and maybe not, because even when the group plays together, each one plays with his own voice and at his own speed."

Here's a preview of a documentary being made about the Juilliard Quartet: 

Monday, February 11

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra plays a series of concerts this week celebrating the "Essence of Classical Style" – with Nicholas McGegan conducting works by Haydn, Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach (the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach). In addition to their concerts at Herbst Theatre and at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, they'll also be presenting the program at Stanford's new Bing Concert Hall.

There's more information about the concerts at the Philharmonia Baroque website.

McGegan says the three composers are linked in an interesting way; Mozart was friends with both of the older composers and revered them, learning some of the "noble Classical elegance" from J.C. Bach, while at the same time studying the more rigorous counterpoint of the elder Bach.

The program begins with Haydn's "Trauer" Symphony #44, sometimes called the "Funeral" Symphony –  (Haydn requested that the slow movement be played at his own). Then two works by the younger Bach, a symphony and a Sinfonia Concertante – which will feature Marc Schachman on the oboe, and Danny Bond on the bassoon. Mozart's  Symphony No. 29 in A Major rounds out the program.

Tuesday, February 12

A fragmented tale told in flashbacks, Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar is the next production from Opera Parallèle, opening this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It tells the story of the last days of poet Federico Garcìa Lorca, who was killed by the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Conductor Nicole Paiement says Golijov is expanding the definition of opera, by breaking with traditions, and adding elements like Flamenco.

There's more information about the performances at the Opera Parallèle website.

The story of Ainadamar is told in flashbacks, from the point of view of Margarita Xirgu, an actress who had been a muse for Lorca, who remembers his last days as she is about to give her final performance of his play Mariana Pineda. The historical Mariana Pineda – who like Lorca also was a political martyr, plays an important part in Golijov's opera, as a symbol for the fight against government oppression. The Spanish-language libretto is by David Henry Hwang.

Nicole Paiement points to some of the unique characteristics of the opera: "When you have these very huge beautiful arias that would stop the time, and that basically speak about an emotion, tradition would be that it becomes a very big moment, and the orchestra joins in a big moment, flamboyant thing. Here, on the opposite, we go into great intimacy – the orchestra almost stops and the voice is very clearly heard." And rather than speeding along the plot during recitatives, she says the orchestra members "just basically float a texture underneath the voice."  Golijov weaves in both a traditional ballad as a recurring theme that separates the scenes – and eases in and out of the Flamenco textures using electronic sound effects like horses' hooves – which a keyboard player in the orchestra will be able to control with more nuance than a pre-recorded sound effect track.

The role of Lorca is written for a mezzo-soprano (Lisa Chavez in this production), and the other leads, Margarita Xirgu (Marnie Breckenridge) and Nuria (Maya Kherani) are joined by a chorus of "niñas" that will include members of the San Francisco Girls' Chorus… as well as La Tania's Flamenco dancers.

Here's a behind-the-scenes video of the opera in rehearsal: 

Wednesday, February 13

As a lead-up to Valentine's Day, a day of romance, a look at one composer's wide interpretation of what a "Romance" should sound like: Ralph Vaughan Williams covered the high, (very) low, familiar, and off the beaten path in four works with that name or description.

The first, and best known of them is the work known as "The Lark Ascending" – but its full title adds "Romance for Violin and Orchestra". The solo line floats above the orchestral accompaniment like a bird over the English countryside. 

Vaughan Williams' "Romance for Viola and Piano" was only discovered among his works after his death – it shows that there's room for romance even for the much-maligned viola… But the two remaining works are for instruments that get even less respect (or less frequent opportunities to shine in front of an orchestra) – the harmonica, and the tuba. The 1951 "Romance in D-flat for Harmonica and Orchestra" was written for virtuoso Larry Adler, and it remains one of the few large-scale works in the repertoire. A few years later, in 1954, and a few octaves lower, the slow movement of the "Tuba Concerto in F Minor" is labelled "Romanza" (as he also called a movement in his fifth symphony.)  Proving that for Vaughan Williams, every instrument deserves a little romance.

Thursday, February 14

>Pianist Stephen Hough joins the San Francisco Symphony to play Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 in a series of concerts through Sunday. Guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado will also lead the orchestra in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, and the West Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg's EXPO.

There's more information about the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Stephen Hough has played both of Liszt's piano concertos — sometimes even on the same concert programs, bookending other works, with a twenty minute break between the two. He says the first is a more "overtly virtuosic piece", and that in the second, Liszt is "just enjoying letting his lyrical vein have more of a say."  The entire work is an evolution of the opening measures, a very recognizable (although harmonically unexpected) chord progression. "Liszt was a great improviser," Hough says, "and I think you can hear him with the opening chords just sitting down one day and discovering this rather wonderful progression, and thinking he can do something with that, and then seeing the different melodic ideas that can come from it."

There are very few passages that the pianist is playing alone, but Hough says even without some of the flash of the other concerto, you have to remember the composer's personality, and the way he would have played it. "With Liszt, the pianist is never in the background," says Hough. "I mean, he would never allow that to happen!" 

Here's Stephen Hough giving a master class, with a student playing a Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt:

Friday, February 15

What was supposed to be a ten minute piece for string quartet became a 70-minute mini-opera called Green Sneakers. When composer Ricky Ian Gordon was asked to write a work for the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, he decided to return to poems he had written while grieving the death of his lover from AIDS, and set them into a dramatic song cycle for baritone, "empty chair" and string quartet. Jesse Blumberg will sing the West Coast premiere with the Del Sol Quartet at Fort Mason Center on Tuesday night.

There's more information about the performance at the Fort Mason Center website.

Ricky Ian GordonRicky Ian Gordon got the name for the piece from the pair of sneakers that he had bought for  his lover, Jeffrey Grossi – the texts of the poems are personal, tiny glimpses of ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances. "This was a set of poems I had sort of locked away in my deepest cabinet, so to speak, never dreaming I'd even bring them out," Gordon says. "They were painful, they were intimate, they expressed a particular moment, a particular time."  

There's the coughing fit that Grossi experienced at a department store's fragrance department, travel plans that needed to be cancelled because of his illness: "When he entered my life, it was like living in an emergency room for the entire time we were in a relationship, and I sort of loved him right out of this world. And it opened something inside of me, in terms of where I was willing to go to be a writer. And so Green Sneakers is a very rich piece for me, and a very rich time in my life."

Ricky Ian Gordon is perhaps best known for his opera The Grapes of Wrath (Jesse Blumberg had appeared in Grapes in the world premiere); he also wrote another work inspired by the death of Grossi, Orpheus and Euridice – the story in Greek mythology of Orpheus, who descends into Hades in order to return with Euridice, only to lose her when he turns around to make sure she is still following him.

Here's a trailer for the recording that Gordon, Blumberg, and the Miami String Quartet made of the work:

Tuesday, February 19

>A bit of a quiz today, to get in the mood for our "KDFC Goes to the Movies" countdown. Can you identify all seventeen films represented here?  

(To see the answers, click and drag below to make them visible)

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. Bridge on the River Kwai
  3. Rocky
  4. Jaws
  5. High Noon
  6. Psycho
  7. Diva 
  8. Out of Africa 
  9. North by Northwest 
  10. Star Wars 
  11. Gone With the Wind 
  12. Schindler's List 
  13. Cinema Paradiso 
  14. Robin Hood 
  15. The Great Escape 
  16. Dances With Wolves 
  17. The Magnificent Seven 

Wednesday, February 20

Listen Local! Kronos Quartet ends their 3-year residency at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with a program featuring Bay Area composers and arrangers this week. The concerts Thursday and Friday will include two world- and one West Coast-premiere, with works written and arranged for Kronos, which has been exploring new music for almost 40 years.

There's more information about the program at the Kronos Quartet's website.

"We thought it would be a great way to explore a little of what's happening right here in San Francisco," says Harrington. "What is currently being written by people that we find inspiring, and to give our audience kind of a sense of where the state of our music is right now."

One of the world premieres is by Pamela ZAnd the Movement of the Tongue, which takes edited audio clips of people speaking with accented English, and uses that as a sonic framework to support the quartet. She says that the motivic ideas for the ensemble also come from the inflections of the voices she recorded in interviews. The other is Nathaniel Stookey's String Quartet No. 3, which is subtitled "The Mezzanine" – after author Nicholson Baker's heavily-footnoted and digressive first novel about a 30-second elevator ride. Stookey says in the program notes: "The music really is about escalators, drinking straws, shoelaces, vending machines, and cigarette butts. If it doesn't sound that way to you, I can only say that I did my best with what I had. Describing a coffee dispenser in music is a bit like creating a self-portrait out of sea-foam!"  

Dan Becker's Carrying the Past looks back to the time and musical sensibility of the composer's grandfather, who was a trumpet player in big bands from the 1920s. Becker chairs the composition department at the SF Conservatory of Music, and this is the work's West Coast premiere.

The other pieces Kronos will play are arrangements of world music by Stephen Prutsman – about whom David Harrington says "Steve has been 'translating,' let's say, for Kronos for at least fifteen years now. And in that time he's made about forty different arrangements of music from many places in the world… There's so much amazing music in the world, and not all of it is, or has been written for string quartet. But there's a lot of things I want to play, and Kronos wants to play. And so we need a translator, and Steve is one of the very best!

Thursday, February 21

The 'Terracotta Warriors' – statues that were part of a giant army meant to protect the first Emperor of China in the afterworld – are at the center of an exhibit that opens tomorrow at the Asian Art Museum. There are 10 of the large pieces – eight 'soldiers' and two horses – which is as many as China will allow to be shown together outside of the country. The exhibit runs almost to the end of May.

There's more information about the exhibit at the Asian Art Museum website.

The discovery of the burial site of the Emperor who unified China happened by accident about 40 years ago, when farmers digging a well discovered some hand-carved fragments of clay. That led archaeologists to unearth the massive pits that contained about 8,000 of the larger-than-life soldiers, horses and chariots, whose mission was to be an army for the Emperor's use after his death. This is the first time since 1994 that any of the terracottas have been in the Bay Area – Museum Director Jay Xu is excited about being able to show another generation these 2000 year-old works: "You will never be so close to a Terracotta Warrior, no matter how many times one has seen [one]… The sense of immediacy, the sense of drama, I think, should be very impressive."

Terracotta WarriorTerracotta Warrior

The Museum is celebrating its tenth anniversary in its Civic Center location (before that it had been in Golden Gate Park) – and they added a bit of drama to the run up for the exhibit with an advertising and  social media campaign of helping a "Lost Warrior" find his army. (At the sneak preview, he finally was able to join them.) 

Terracotta WarriorTerracotta Warrior

Friday, February 22

The San Francisco Ballet helps celebrate the centennial of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with a new production choreographed by Yuri Possokhov on their next program. Martin West, Music Director for the Ballet, says however powerful the music is as a standalone symphonic work, it was written for the stage – "Once you see someone die to the music, it adds another layer to it, it really does!"

There's more information about the performances at San Francisco Ballet's website.

West says although he's conducted the work in the concert hall as well as the orchestra pit, and many of the musicians in the orchestra have played it elsewhere, this will be the first time that they've played it together. The forces are as they would be in a concert hall, although with slightly fewer violins. He says that because of the wide and thin layout of the pit, his role will be first and foremost to keep the musicians together; and to provide a solid foundation for the dancers to use.  "With a score as complex as the Rite of Spring," he says, "we play the music and they dance to it… All ballet is a mixture of accompanying and them dancing to the music, but I think on this particular occasion, it's going to fall more on them dancing to the music, as opposed to me following them." 

The program will also include a Mark Morris piece called Beaux, to the music of Martinu, and Ashley Page's Guide to Strange Places, with a score by John Adams.

Monday, February 25

San Francisco Wind Ensemble plays repertoire that falls between the smaller chamber music for winds, and the huge forces of a symphonic band. Artistic director Martin Seggelke approached top-notch players from all around the Bay Area to take part in the group, which was launched with a first concert last October. They'll play again this Saturday night at San Francisco State University.

There's more information about the concert at San Francisco Wind Ensemble's website.

Martin Seggelke says the history of this particular sort of ensemble only goes back about a century – with a tradition that evolved out of military- and larger symphonic bands, where much of the early repertoire was transcribed from orchestral music – giving the string parts to clarinets, and adding saxophones and larger brass for balance. There were some British composers who gravitated to writing for band, like Gustav Holst, and Percy Grainger (Grainger's Linconshire Posy will be on their concert this weekend). But Seggelke says many of the great early examples were by European expatriates who found themselves in the comparatively stable world of academia: "When a lot of composers came to this country – I'm thinking about Schoenberg or Hindemith, who were then able to find a position at a university here…and with that salary, they were able to say 'OK, I'm just going to write!'"

He says it was the Eastman School of Music's Frederick Fennell who really changed the landscape of the repertoire, by deciding to create a wind ensemble made up of individual players, rather than the orchestral model of a 'string section'. Seggelke explains the reasoning: "We're going to take essentially a symphony orchestra wind section the way it is… 3 flutes, 3 oboes, and all the auxiliaries, including a piccolo, english horn, bassoon and contrabassoon, clarinet with E-flat and bass clarinets, and so on… We're going to add saxophones, two alto, one tenor, one baritone, add an augmented brass section, just like you would find in a Mahler symphony, and really take this one player per part approach." Out of their initial outreach to players, San Francisco Wind Ensemble has created a database – with 180 or so players who want to take part. Having that many to call on is helpful, given the busy performance schedules that they all are juggling as working musicians. Any given concert, depending on the repertoire, is likely to need fifty to sixty instrumentalists.

"There are not very many wind ensembles in the country," says E-flat clarinetist Taylor Jordan, "and so a lot of audiences are not exposed to the repertoire that some of the great composers have created specifically for the wind ensemble. Holst and Grainger, some of their best works are these wind ensemble pieces. An orchestra or a symphony can't perform those pieces, and so a lot of them go unheard.

Tuesday, February 26

Scottish accordion player Paul Chamberlain began by playing traditional music – and still plays with a Ceilidh band – but at age 17, went to a festival in St. Petersburg where he first heard classical music played on the instrument, and returned home thinking "Wow! I want to do this!" He's in the the Bay Area for a brief concert tour, which will conclude with a free concert Saturday night in the 7th Avenue Performances series.

There's more information about Saturday night's San Francisco concert at the 7th Avenue Performances website, and Thursday's concert in Sacramento at the Crocker Art Museum's website, plus more at Paul Chamberlain's website.

Chamberlain studied with a Serbian teacher at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – he says that there's also a long tradition of classical music played on the accordion in Serbia, as there is in Russia, where it's much more of a mainstream instrument. There's no piano-like keyboard on either side of the bellows on the accordion he plays… rather, two sets of buttons. The usual pre-set chords that often are found on the left-hand side can be disabled, giving him essentially two independent sets of notes for melodies or chords.

Here's an excerpt from the piece called "Romance" by the French composer Franck Angelis, that Paul Chamberlain played when he came by the KDFC studio yesterday.

His CD also includes a Bach Prelude and Fugue transcription, as well as works originally for keyboard by Rameau, Moszkowski and Khachaturian, plus a sonata by Alexander Nagayev.

Wednesday, February 27

The Secret Garden, a co-production of San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances begins its world premiere run this Friday at Zellerbach Hall. The family-friendly opera is by composer Nolan Gasser and librettist Carey Harrison, and is based on the classic 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It also features visual design by Naomie Kremer that combines painting and video projection.

There's more information at the San Francisco Opera, and Cal Performances websites.

This is Nolan Gasser's first opera – he met with David Gockley, General Director of San Francisco Opera about the possibility of a commission, and was told that a full work for the opera house would probably not be possible for a few years, but Gockley could commission a family opera right away. Gasser says: "After two seconds of being slightly disappointed in not writing for the big stage, I quickly realized what a great opportunity this was. This was my first opera, so… it's nice to get your feet wet a little bit slowly." 

The experience has left him wanting to write another opera – he and librettist Carey Harrison have discussed possible subjects that don't have the constraint of being targeted to an audience that's younger, and perhaps less familiar with opera. "There is nothing grander as a composer than to take on this world," says Gasser, "The kind of world that an opera surrounds and creates. You've got a storyline. I've set texts many times, but there's something about it being in part of a story that gives it even further life."

He says the popularity of the story (including his daughter's reaction to it when she read it in the fifth grade) made it an ideal choice for setting. "It's such a universal story, for really all ages. You can talk to grandmothers and ten-year-olds, boys and girls, and they just… if they read this story, they fall in love with it!"

Here's a behind-the-scenes look with Naomie Kremer, produced by Cal Performances:

Thursday, February 28

Pianist Van Cliburn has died at the age of 78, with a lifetime of accomplishments, and a musical legacy that carries on in his recordings and the competition that bears his name. He had already studied at Juilliard and made his Carnegie Hall debut by the time he was 20, but it was three years later, in 1958 that his win at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow made him a household name.

There's more information about the pianist and his competition at the Van Cliburn Foundation website.

His win, at a time when America was feeling particularly threatened by Soviet accomplishments (they had successfully launched Sputnik into orbit the previous year) managed to both give Americans a cause for pride, as well has help soothe some of the tensions between the two nations. The Russians liked the lanky young American, who in turn said he found the Russians to be like his fellow Texans – ready to show you when they like you, and let you know when they don't.

The fame that followed his win – a ticker-tape parade in New York City (the only musician to have been so honored), Time Magazine putting his picture on their cover with the caption "The Texan Who Conquered Russia" – made him a most sought-after performer, especially playing two of the works he played in the finals of the competition: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Van Cliburn's recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto was the first classical record to sell a million copies – it was made very shortly after he returned triumphantly to the U.S., featuring the same conductor, Kiril Kondrashin, who led the orchestra in Moscow for his winning performance.

The competition that he helped create, and that bears his name takes place every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. The fourteenth (they began in 1962) will be held this May and June.