Monday, February 2

Mona Golabek takes on the role of her mother, Lisa Jura in the one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane which returns to Berkeley Rep tomorrow night. It tells the story, accompanied by piano, of Jura's experience as part of the Kindertransport, the attempt to rescue Jewish children during the Holocaust by taking them to the (comparative) safety of England. 

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

Mona Golabek's show is based on the book of the same title that she wrote, which researched and fleshed out the cryptic anecdotes her mother used to tell her during piano lessons. "She always told me that each piece of music tells a story," Golabek says. "We'd be in a Beethoven sonata, out of nowhere, as she was explaining to me about fortissimo and pianissimo, she would say, 'Well, did I ever tell you the time that Johnny King Kong read poetry to me at nighttime when the bombs came down?' And I thought, who is Johnny King Kong? Before I got an answer, we'd go right back into another passage, maybe we would switch to a Chopin Nocturne, and out of nowhere, she would say, 'well, what about when Aaron whistled the Grieg Piano Concerto to me?'"

It was while she was on a book tour, which often included performances of some of the works that are mentioned in the stories, that the idea of staging a show that would dramatize them. In the years since the book's publication, Golabek has been active in working with schools that read the book, and then see the staged performance, showing how music both saved her mother's life, and helped others. The role individual pieces played in her life are depicted in the play. "Clair de Lune played in her heart and soul as she was on the Kindertransport, the rescue train that brought her [from Vienna] to England. And she would describe to me in the piano lessons how she saw the moonlight coming through the turning of the windmills." 

Tuesday, February 3

Opera San Jose presents the world premiere of an opera based on a novel by E.M. Forster – Where Angels Fear to Tread, by composer Mark Lanz Weiser and librettist Roger Brunyate. It's a work that got its start while the composer was still a student, in the 1990s at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. There are six performances between Saturday's opening and the 22nd.

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

Mark Lanz Weiser says the opera's long path began several decades ago at music school; he's now on the composition faculty at USC's Thornton School of Music. "Angels was something that I started talking about with the Opera Director [Roger Brunyate] at Peabody when I was still a student there. And after getting rights to the novel, started working on it in the mid ‘90s." Practicality helped them to make some of their decisions. "We wrote the opera specifically for a Peabody performance," he says. "And one of the things that we took into consideration was the characters.There are a lot of female roles – a lot of sopranos and mezzos – and that’s because  music conservatories have an abundance of sopranos and mezzos that outnumber the men. What’s wonderful about it is, it has really grown since then, and has taken on legs that were beyond its initial conception." At first, Weiser had been thinking about taking on another Forster work, A Room With a View, until Brunyate pointed him toward Angels. "I noticed immediately it was more overtly dramatic than Room with a View, and might translate better into an opera." 

The plot, like Room With a View, centers around members of English society transplanted into Italy: as the family of an English widow who has married an Italian commoner tries first to protect her reputation, and then her child. "It’s set in 1905, it’s a romantic story in a lot of ways, so the vocabulary is very specifically neo-Romantic," Weiser explains. "But that being said, even though it’s neo-Romantic, opera allows you to write all kinds of music, and it depends on what’s going on dramatically. It starts out in this very… it’s primarily a comedy for a lot of it, and it’s very lush, and very romantic, but then there’s a dramatic turn at the end, and even parts in the middle, where I could write a very different kind of music. So it’s really very eclectic." The performances will be at the historic California Theatre in San Jose.

Friday, February 6

The NPR show From the Top will be coming to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, for a taping on Valentine's Day with a lineup of performers from their pre-college division, in addition to some special alumni guests. Soprano Lisa Delan and cellist Matt Haimovitz will be joined by an ensemble of student cellists for an excerpt from Angel Heart, and in the lead up to the taping they each have a concert that will also include host Christopher O'Riley. (The From the Top episode will air in early March.)

There's more about the program at the Conservatory of Music's website, and the From the Top site; the show airs on KDFC Sunday nights at 7.

Lisa Delan says the timing for all of these events was rather miraculous: "It was either serendipity, the good will of the universe, or my stubborn tenaciousness, but Matt was already going to come out and play on my concert on the 11th, since we’re premiering works that Luna [Pearl Woolf, Haimovitz's wife] had written for us, a cycle on Rumi poems." And she knew that both the Conservatory and From the Top wanted to arrange a taping of the show, focusing on the younger students.  "It seemed like the date was already in the air, it fit in perfectly, which also facilitated Chris coming out and to play the Rumi premiere, and Matt and Chris subsequently scheduling the Beethoven concert. So it was just a beautiful and unusual confluence of events that actually worked out." On Tuesday evening, Haimovitz and O'Riley will play works from their new CD, of the complete sonatas and variations which they've entitled "BEETHOVEN, period."  They'll join Lisa Delan the next night, for her Alumni Series recital in the new songs by Luna Pearl Woolf, on a concert that will also have Jake Heggie accompanying songs he wrote for her, and with pianists Kevin Korth and Robert Schwartz, pieces by Gordon Getty and David Garner. There wil also be a world premiere of a new work by John Corigliano, the first of a set that Delan, Haimovitz and O'Riley are curating that blends existing non-classical songs with new works. 

"We spent a long time coming up with a range of songs that all of us loved, but specifically were so strong both lyrically and musically that they could stand on their as lyrics or music," Delan explains. "For each of these songs, Chris is doing an arrangement for an instrumental cover (with himself and Matt) of the original music… And then we took the lyrics of each song to a composer who was not familiar with the original song, and asked that composer to set that as classical art song for soprano, piano and cello. I’m thrilled that the work we’re premiering on the 11th is Chris’s arrangement, and then John Corigliano’s setting of [Joni Mitchell's] ‘The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey’- which is from her ‘Mingus’ album, and it’s a fantastic piece with really compelling lyrics, and I know that John has really wrapped himself around those." They're hoping to record the collection this Fall, if the new works are ready in time. Delan's recital is dedicated to her longtime friend and accompanist, Kristin Pankonin, who was also an alumna of the Conservatory, and who died this past summer.

Friday, February 13

There's a pairing of the music of Venice and Buenos Aires in the next concerts by the Marin Symphony this Sunday and Tuesday, as they present "Eight Seasons" – with Vivaldi's four concerti, and Astor Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Music Director Alasdair Neale gives a preview of the concert, which will shine the spotlight on the soloist for both works, Jeremy Constant, celebrating his 20th season as concertmaster for the orchestra. 

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

The two works seem like a natural pairing, given the titles, but the Piazzolla works weren't originally conceived as a set, let alone a complement to Vivaldi's concerti. They started as individual tangos, which he would play (on the bandoneon) with his quintet. They came together as a natural pairing (including some winking quotations from the Vivaldi) when they were arranged for string orchestra in the late 1990s. Sometimes they're played on opposite halves of a concert, but Alasdair Neale wanted to alternate. "I think that’s the best way of really shaking things up – we see a season through Piazzolla’s eyes, and then we see the same season through Vivaldi’s eyes. I think it’s a better way of approaching doing those two pieces rather than doing…Vivaldi in one half and Piazzolla in the other. It provides more of a jolt." 

Jeremy Constant won't have a chance to rest during the performance. "It’s a tour-de-force," Neale says. "When I invited Jeremy to do that, I said ‘You need to think long and hard about it,’ and he said, I know, I know…’ I said, ‘Because this is you carrying the entire show, and that’s two forty minute pieces, but it’s a great opportunity for you to be showcased in your 20th year as concertmaster.’ And I’m very happy to say  he’s up to the challenge." And so are the other players in the orchestra. "The trick is going to be able to turn on a dime because obviously when you see the music through the filter of Argentine tango, that’s a very different stylistic and technical approach for everybody – not just Jeremy, but the rest of us too – than when you turn back and go to Vivaldi. It’s very easy to get complacent with a piece like Four Seasons, because we hear it in elevators all the time. It is a thoroughly original and gripping piece in the right hands. But I think it always helps to shed new light on it, and force the audience into viewing it in a different way."

Tuesday, February 17

A bit of a quiz today, to get in the mood as we begin our "KDFC Goes to the Movies" celebration. 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 18

This weekend, Jake Heggie's first opera, Dead Man Walking, makes its first return to the city since its premiere at San Francisco Opera 15 years ago. This production, by Opera Parallèle, takes the grand opera and focuses on its intimacy, with a reduced orchestration and production design that's made for the smaller Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. 

There's more about the production at the Opera Parallèle website.

Hegge and Opera Parallèle's Artistic Director Nicole Paiement worked on the slimmed-down orchestration for this production. "I’m thrilled that it’s coming back this way, in a smaller house, with a smaller production and a new reduced orchestration, which I think allows you to hear the piece, the essential piece even more clearly," says Heggie. "So that the focus can really be on the journey of the characters, which is really exciting to me. That there isn’t a lot of extra stuff going on on stage that takes your attention away from that essential journey." That story, based on the memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, tells of a convicted murderer on death row, and the nun who became his spiritual guide leading up to his execution. "The issue of the death penalty is a very vibrant issue right now," says Nicole Paiement. "So it's very easy, when you're inspired by something that is a subject matter that is so relevant, to make it your own and bring it into the 21st century."

They'll be playing to audiences at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this time, as opposed to the Opera House – and Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel has brought the set design to a more intimate scale as well – with projections and flying panels giving the sense of the confines of the prison. Paiement says that the decision to restage Dead Man Walking this season was made simple by several factors: it was the 15th anniversary of the premiere, and it hadn't yet returned to San Francisco; their history working with Heggie, as a composer who is both enthusiastic and local; and the subject matter of the work, which will likely intrigue both those who have seen it before, and who are coming to it with fresh eyes. Paiement says: "When Opera Parallele chooses to take a grand opera, which I think Dead Man Walking is part of that canon… and decide to bring it to a smaller space of 750 seats rather than 2000, we’re very careful that we choose works that actually have that intimacy." And for his part, Heggie has enjoyed watching his first opera "grow up" and evolve over the years: "It’s been really fascinating to watch how different people find something in it that I never heard. I’ve learned a lot about my piece that I never knew because of those productions, and I feel like I’m going to learn a lot from Opera Parallele, and experience it in a new way.

Thursday, February 19

The San Francisco Symphony presents an all-Brahms program tonight through Saturday, with Herbert Blomstedt conducting A German Requiem, organist Jonathan Dimmock playing chorale preludes, and Ragnar Bohlin leading the Symphony Chorus in the motet "Why is Light Given". Soprano Ruth Ziesak and baritone Christian Gerhaher are the soloists in the very personal and unusual Requiem.

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

Ziesak describes it as "a new kind of Requiem" – inspired by the death of his mother (and several years earlier his friend Robert Schumann) Brahms wrote the piece as an expression of consolation, rather than a strictly religious setting of the traditional texts. "The whole piece is to comfort people when they have lost somebody. This is for me the most important idea of this piece… He did not use the Latin text – he chose words of the Bible, but he gave the text a new… not meaning, but in choosing separate pieces from the New and the Old Testament, it has a very personal meaning also." So rather than setting the Kyrie, Dies Irae, and other movements, he chose more poetic passages like "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place".  And, Ziesak says, the relationship between the choir and the soloists is different too: "It’s a very important piece, and one of the greatest pieces for choir. And the soloists, the soprano and the baritone are not… well, they are important, but they are just part of the whole thing. There’s no aria – I have a dialogue with the choir."

This marks a return for Ziesak to San Francisco after a lengthy absence – she last sang with the Symphony when she made her debut here in the early 90's, singing in Mahler's Second Symphony with Herbert Blomstedt conducting. That performance was recorded, and nominated for a Grammy award… it was not only the first time Ziesak sang in the Mahler, but also her first ever vist to the United States.

Friday, February 20

The early music ensemble Musica Pacifica plays a program called 'Brandenburgs and More' tonight in Berkeley and Sunday afternoon in Sonoma. The 'and more' also refers to the guest artists, who'll be sitting in for the fourth and fifth Brandenburg concertos, as well as works by Telemann, Vivaldi, and Johann Gottleib Graun. Founding members Elizabeth Blumenstock and Judith Linsenberg give a preview.

There's more information about the concerts, at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley tonight at 7:30, and Sonoma on Sunday afternoon at 3 at the Musica Pacifica website and the Sonoma Classical Music Society site.

Among the guest players, they'll be welcoming baroque flute player Stephen Schultz, who will be featured in the fifth Brandenburg, and Frances Blaker, who will join Judith Linsenberg for the two recorder solos in the fourth. "I think it's kind of tidy the way the concertos have worked out," violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock explains. "We’ve got one for recorder and violin, one for recorder and flute, one for flute and violin, completing the circle of three, plus the fantastic harpsichord. And then just by adding one recorder, you get the two recorders and violin for Brandenburg 4. So it’s actually a very compact usage of our solo forces, and get a lot of concerto mileage out of that."  

Linsenberg says once they knew they'd have the extra players, the programming became a bit simpler: "Brandenburg 4 is an obvious choice for a group that has a recorder player and a violinist in it, because it has two solo recorder parts and an amazing solo violin part. And, although Elizabeth and I have played that together before, several times, we’ve never played it as Musica Pacifica." And they'll also be paired in a double concerto by Graun – who wrote many instrumental works, but whose opera-composing brother was better known. "I believe that this is probably the only…concerto for our two instruments. I wanted to play this piece because Musica Pacifica has been going now for heading onto 25 years… and I discovered this piece and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is perfect for us – we should do this, because Elizabeth and I have been spearheading the group for that length of time; so it seemed like right up our alley, and something that we really should do."

Monday, February 23

An exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center showcases some of the work of the prolific and groundbreaking designers/artists Charles and his wife Ray Eames. It's called Work and Play: The Eames Approach, and includes some of their iconic furniture, but also toys and games, films, and other pieces of their creative legacy. Also represented in the show are works by their daughter, Lucia Eames, and Llisa Demetrios, their granddaughter.

There's more information about the exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center's website.

Val Richman, Executive Director of the Petaluma Arts Center, says the process of Charles and Ray Eames reflected their insistence on quality: "Do it until it’s right. Do it a hundred times, or 200 times, and… you know, you might end up with the first one, the first design, but by having done it so many times, you’ve learned so much. So whether it’s an elephant or a chair, or a butterfly, or a wall of butterflies…The same work and design ethic." Their granddaughter, Llisa Demitrios, whose also has works and scale models in the exhibit, says it will help show a side that many don't realize they had. "Most people know them for their furniture, and this is a great way to show the toys, and some of the films, the photography that they took. This is just a small slice of their work, because their body of work is so large. But this is a chance to touch on some of the ways that they actually explored these ideas." The Eames website includes many of those films and further resources. 

"One of the most popular stations, I suppose, in the exhibit is the ‘Tops,’ Val Richman says. "The spinning tops. We’ve got a little place for… it was presumably for kids, but I’ll tell you, every adult who’s walked through there has stopped and spun some tops, and it is… It’s very tactile, and you think, ‘well it is design’.  Llisa Demetrios adds, "That’s Charles and Ray exploring what the top can do, and actually the top is a scale model for how planets move… the eye of the storm, and the Milky Way."

Tuesday, February 24

The American Bach Soloists will be presenting four almost entirely sold-out performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion this Friday through Monday, in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco and Davis. ABS Artistic Director and KDFC host Jeffrey Thomas says the work is an intricate combination of storytelling, Biblical commentary, and layers of drama.

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

First and foremost, it's a retelling of the story of the events that led up to the crucifixion of Jesus; two of Bach's Passion settings survive, Matthew and John. The "Evangelist" in this passion is not like an operatic role in the traditional sense. He is a narrator. "And like any storyteller, or anyone telling a story, the voice of the storyteller takes on other characters," Thomas says. "But then, there's the other layer of what was Bach's understanding of the single voice of Matthew? We have to learn what made Bach tick, why Bach chose to write an aria now, or a chorus then." And it wasn't simply a setting of the Biblical texts, when there was an aria. Rather, it was a well-thought out commentary – Bach's own theological beliefs expressed in music. "It's often a misunderstanding that arias are sung by onlookers, someone there in the scene back then steps forward and sings an aria. Well I don't think so," Thomas says. "What it really is, that's the person who's supposed to be like Bach's audience, that's the person who expresses what we are supposed to be feeling in the present." And further linking the current audience to audiences past and the original text, are the repeated chorale tunes, which would be simple and memorable, and sung by "…the great voice of all of us, the congregation. Chorales are simple poems written so that everybody, the common people, people who couldn't read or write back then, would have a way to remember what they're supposed to have learned."

Wednesday, February 25

Chamber Music San Francisco presents five concerts per season to audiences in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto, and nine in San Francisco… Director Daniel Levenstein says many of the ensembles he's most excited about inviting to either series, he was able to discover on scouting trips to Europe's festivals and concert halls. The next two programs coming up happened just that way.

There's more information at the Chamber Music San Francisco website. (Use the tabs to navigate between the three venues.)

Levenstein says the Casals Quartet particularly struck him as interesting because of the way their sound varies depending on what they're playing, and which of the violinists is playing the 'first' part. "In this case, the character of the ensemble changes radically," he says. "One violinist plays the lead for the earlier repertoire, for Haydn, and Mozart, and in that case they have a very pure, practically vibratoless sound. And when the other violinist takes over, it’s lush, romantic, lots of vibrato – so you get two for the price of one. I heard them do this in Wigmore Hall in London, and I was immediately captivated." Audiences at the Marines' Memorial Theatre in San Francisco will have a chance to hear both, with a program of Mozart, Brahms and Ravel planned for their February 28th concert. Here, they're playing some Haydn…

The next ensemble to play all three venues is the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio. "This is a group that I heard at the Concertgebouw on another one of my scouting missions. It’s led by Alexander Sitkovetsky, who’s a member of Russian musical royalty, practically. His uncle is Dmitry Sitkovetsky, his grandfather would have been Julian Sitkovetsky, who was married to Bella Davidovich. He’s kind of the new generation, and he’s wonderful. He’s made much of at Lincoln Center, and he has a thriving solo career, but he has this fabulous trio, which they’re very committed to. And as soon as I heard them I said ‘Yes, you’re welcome to San Francisco at the first opportunity.'" They'll be playing Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Brahms in Walnut Creek on March 7, San Francisco on the 8th, and Palo Alto on the 9th.

Thursday, February 26

Anne-Sophie Mutter returns to Davies Symphony Hall tonight for three performances of Brahms' Violin Concerto – a work she's been playing for most of her life. The San Francisco Symphony will be playing a fourth performance of the work on Sunday afternoon, but with young soloist Ye-Eun Choi, who will fill in for her mentor, as Mutter has to leave early to go on a European tour.

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

Although it's a work she's played for decades, Mutter says the Brahms Concerto remains fresh to her: "It’s like with every great piece of art, might it be a sculpture, or literature, or a painting. These pieces are so complex that you never stop being intrigued by what else you could shed light on, or what aspects of the piece you could bring out more than ever before. So it’s really a work in progress, I guess… This is really one of the pieces where the violinistic efforts are crowned with wonderful melodic lines… There's a very tender slow movement where you are in constant duet with the winds, and it has this fabulous Hungarian finale." 

Especially since commissioning new works, she's learned to approach this and other works in the traditional canon with a little bit more freedom. "Talking to living composers has kind of shown me, or reaffirmed my suspicion that truly there is no formula to a piece," she says. "There are many ways in which you can go about it…as long as it’s a personal viewpoint which, you know, reflects the characteristics of the piece.  Hopefully the life of a musician is a long one – and you have to re… not re-invent, but you have to rediscover the piece, and not only replay it.

Friday, February 27

Cutting Ball Theatre's production of Antigone combines a new translation of Sophocles' tragedy with music and movement that the cast and crew developed while working with members of Poland's Teatr Zar. Director Paige Rogers says the experience gave her an "enormous basket of tools to use." The play runs through March 22nd.

There's more information at the Cutting Ball Theatre website.

Rogers says a few years ago she wanted to direct Antigone, but after reading a dozen different translations remained confused: "Because you read one person’s version, and it’s like Kreon’s the most mean, mean person you’d ever want to meet in your life. You read another one, and it’s like, he has a point, he’s thinking, he’s trying to keep order."  So she brought on Daniel Sullivan to write an entirely new translation. Part of the difficulty is getting across references that might not seem obvious to modern audiences, but were easily understood by the ancient Greeks. "There’s one chorus in particular that has all kinds of stories that they would have known," Rogers says. "Stories like if I said to you 'Red Riding Hood,' we see the wolf, we see the basket… these sort of stories that were that well known. OK, then how do we translate that into modern-day time?" 

While the translation was coming together, the company raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to do a residency at the Grotowski Institute in Poland, where they worked with Teatr Zar actors learning new techniques. "If we hadn’t been able to raise the money to take us to Poland, it would have been a very very different production. Because the music that we learned, and the movement that was created, for me as a director, it’s really like an enormous basket of tools and things to use… The people who taught us knew that we were doing Antigone, and they based all of it off of… 'Now your assignment is to go and create three movements that would indicate the brothers fighting one another and killing eachother. Come back in ten minutes, and we’ll show eachother.' She says they've been able to avoid the hectic pace of a normal theater production schedule, and allow this production "to really stew."