Monday, February 1

Kronos Quartet
presents its Festival 2016: Explorer Series at SFJAZZ Center this Thursday through Sunday. Violinist David Harrington says in addition to featuring guest performers from around the world, the quartet will be playing the first pieces of music commissioned through their 50 for the Future project – an ambitious five year effort that will add 10 new works a year to the repertoire, and then offered to quartets around the world.

There are complete details about the festival at the Kronos Quartet website.

Harrington says the festival will start off with a work from that commissioning project called Dance by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. “I just said, ‘Frangiz, you’ve known us for 25 years, you’ve written incredibly wonderful music for us… Just send a little bit of your DNA out into the universe, and make this for the future.’ And I think that’s what she did, and I’ve said the same thing to everybody.  And it’s going to be such an incredible high to kind of release this music out into the universe for every other group to play.” They’ve also got new works by the composer and balafonist from Mali Fodé Lassana Diabaté and pipa virtuoso Wu Man (who was to play in the festival, but an injury means she’ll only be attending as a special guest.)  They’ll colloborate with singers from the San Francisco Girls Chorus, as well as string and brass students from the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. “At this point in history and in our culture, it’s such an incredibly wonderful opportunity and time to be able to explore through music.”

Tuesday, February 2

Violinist Daniel Hope is guest concertmaster with the New Century Chamber Orchestra this week, with a program honoring the legacy of one of his mentors, Yehudi Menuhin. The program includes works that were associated with Menuhin – who would have been 100 this April – and range from Baroque double concertos to works by late 20th Century composers.Daniel Hope was mentored by Yehudi Menuhin at a pivotal point in his growth as a musician. “For ten years of my life in particular, from the time I was sixteen to about twenty-six… that’s the time where you start to form your opinions of these great works. And just the chance to tour with him and play the Brahms and Beethoven concertos, and the Elgars and the Mendelssohns, and to have his feedback, and to have his inspiration was absolutely incredible. And it remains with me until today.” He also had the chance to play with Menuhin both of the double concertos of Bach and Vivaldi that the NCCO will be playing this week. There are also works commissioned by him (by Philip Glass and Toru Takemitsu) as well as one piece that he helped make known from the 19th Century. “The great Mendelssohn D- minor concerto, which he said fell into his lap,” Hope explains. “In the 1950s, a collector knocked on his door and presented him with a manuscript of a violin concerto and a violin sonata by Mendelssohn…  He premiered it at Carnegie Hall, and then went on to make it his own. It’s also a piece that I worked an enormous amount on with him.”   Hope says it’s ‘doubly special’ to present these concerts in the Bay Area, since it was a 1923 performance with the San Francisco Symphony by a then 7-year-old Yehudi Menuhin that started his career with a huge success.

There’s more information about the concerts, and an open rehearsal tomorrow in San Francisco, at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website.

Wednesday, February 3

The next production by Opera San Jose (beginning on the 13th and running through the 28th) is Bizet’s Carmen – with mezzo soprano Lisa Chavez in the title role. She’s returning to the company where she was one of the resident ensemble for the past two seasons. It’s a role she’s sung before – and says Carmen is more complicated a character than some would assume.
There’s more information about the production at the Opera San Jose website.In this production, stage director Layna Chianakas is also an accomplished mezzo, who has sung the role many times – which Chavez says has helped her deepen her interpretation of Carmen. “It’s such a performed opera – in some way there are huge expectations from an audience of how they want it, and how they like to see the characters personified. But every director has just a different take on it, because you don’t want to see the same production every single time.”  This time, Chavez says, the character is more three-dimensional. “There’s a lot of complexity to her… Everybody just sees her as a seductress, and this fiery crazy gypsy woman, but she knows what she wants. She’s done a lot of soul-searching on her own, and she doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone. Now she makes crazy decisions, and ruins a lot of people’s lives in the process, but she’s not just a caricature of an idea of a gypsy, or an idea of a seductress.”

Thursday, February 4

Conrad Tao
joins Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach Hall tonight, with guest conductor Tito Muñoz, to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor”. The young soloist, who at 21 already has two discs on the Warner Classics label – is an accomplished composer as well (and if that weren’t enough, he also plays the violin). He says he approaches the sprawling Beethoven concerto much the same way as an actor would a role, with a “theatrical framework.”From its opening measures, with a rolling arpeggio up and down the keyboard, the concerto is painted on an imposing canvas. “I think what’s special about this piece is that it really goes, it’s literally out there,” Tao explains. “It opens with that huge presentational gesture, of ‘I am a virtuoso, look at me…’ which I find inherently so theatrical. So that tends to be how my brain works. Because it’s not necessarily in my default M.O. as a pianist to inhabit that world. So it becomes a character in a way.” And getting inside the head of that character is his challenge: “What is the character of the piece, or what is the character of the pianist who plays this piece? Because there’s something almost ostentatious about the way the piece is written, the way it sprawls… I like this fact that the piece seems to kind of insistently take up a lot of space. For me that’s poetic and interesting to explore as a performer. So that’s what a lot of the thought process is, sort of how do I really embrace that as a facet of the work… It’s such a grand piece – there is that grandeur built in. I actually find myself approaching it with some theatricality, or with a theatrical framework.”
There’s more about the concert at the website of Berkeley Symphony.

Friday, February 5

This weekend’s big game, and the preparations for it in the Bay Area call for a bit of an exploration of the links between Football and Music. The game has inspired more than just marching bands (although it was a college band from the University of Arizona – with trumpeter Al Hirt – that provided half-time entertainment at the very first Super Bowl in 1967). Here are some pieces of music, an opera, and and a group of up-and-coming musicians in Los Angeles that have close ties to the game.Charles Ives took the climax of a game, and depicted it musically in 1898’s Yale-Princeton Football Game. His sketches for the piece included details about the action, including ‘Dodging half-back,’ ‘First Down,’ ‘Close formation: Wedge’ plus Yale and Princeton cheers and fight songs, even the anticipatory roar of the crowd with swirling strings. Jake Heggie’s most recent opera, with librettist Terrence McNally, revolves around both an opera company, and football fans. “It takes place in… a large American city that has a struggling but respected opera company, and a thriving professional football team. And the main character, Ardent Scott has come back to help save her struggling home company than launched her.” Heggie says the opening night of the newly-discovered Bel Canto opera Rosa Dolorosa, Daughter of Pompei coincides with the Super Bowl, in which the local team is playing, on the other side of town.

Joining the rock band Coldplay at half-time will be young musicians from the Youth Orchestra of L.A., or YOLA, the program led by Gustavo Dudamel based on the ‘el sistema’ education and social program that was made popular in Venezuela. Here’s a video showing their preparations:

Tuesday, February 16

Ensemble Caprice
comes to the Bay Area for three concerts of their Salsa Baroque program – showing the distinct sound of music from Spain and Latin America. Matthias Maute, recorder player and founder of the group gives a preview. The San Francisco Early Music Society presented concerts will be in Palo Alto, Berkeley and San Francisco this weekend.

Matthias Maute says what gives the music its flavor is the voyage it took between the old and new worlds. “The music has been travelling. Most of the music in the 17th Century went from Spain to South America. And we take all the listeners on a trip – throughout the concert program, a story’s being told. And all the people in the hall, including the musicians on the stage, are part of the story… It comes from Spain, but has then been exposed to other influences. Like African influence, and of course the first nations in South America. And that all blends into a beautiful mix of exotic colors and flavors that are just very refreshing.” Some of the European composers used the indigenous languages and customs in their music, like Gaspar Fernandes’ Xicochi Conetzintle: “It’s very touching,” Maute says, “to play lullabies where the text is set in a Nahuatlin Indian language, and the music has European harmonies.” And Los coflades de la estleya, an African-inspired Christmas celebration by Juan de Araujo alternates between an Old World and New World approach.

There’s more information about the concerts at the SFEMS website.

Wednesday, February 17

Bruno Ferrandis
will lead the Santa Rosa Symphony in three performances of ‘Strokes of Genius’ this weekend through Monday. It’s a program that pairs Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with Rachel Barton Pine as soloist) and the final, unfinished symphony of Anton Bruckner. Ferrandis says Bruckner is infrequently programmed because of an unfair reputation for being boring.

Rachel Barton Pine has a long history with the Beethoven concerto, having composed and published her own cadenzas for the work (which she’ll be playing in the concerts) – Bruno Ferrandis says she’ll be putting her own stamp on the rest of the performance too: “She’s very specific in what she wants from the violin and the orchestra, and the way the orchestra accompanies her. She sent us tons of notes: ‘I want that bar to be like that,’ and the character, and what she wants to obtain from an orchestra. It’s going to be very interesting; I’m going to learn a lot, I’m sure.”  Programming one of the best-loved concertos is unlikely to ruffle feathers, but Ferrandis says that isn’t the case for Bruckner. “I decided a little against the flow, to bring Bruckner here. Because Bruckner, he has the reputation of being long, boring, a little bit over himself, you know, preposterous. And not at all for me.  Especially the ninth symphony, which is his farewell symphony… it has the particularity of not have been finished…” Despite there being many attempts by other composers to finish the work, he wants to let it stand as is.  “I decided to do only the three movements, and it’s an incredible piece… I think it will be great for the public to hear that piece.”

There’s more information about the concert at the Santa Rosa Symphony website.

Thursday, February 18

The true story of boxer Emile Griffith is told in Champion: An Opera in Jazz by trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard. Griffith killed a man in the ring in 1962, after his opponent, Benny ‘Kid’ Paret essentially outed him as bisexual during the weighing in. Nicole Paiement, founder and artistic director of Opera Parallele, gives a preview with Arthur Woodley and Kenneth Kellogg, two of the three singers who play Emile at different ages. The SFJAZZ and Opera Parallele co-production runs from tomorrow night through the 28th at the SFJAZZ Center.

The opera has an older Emile, in his final years and suffering from dementia, looking back on the path that took him from the Virgin Islands to New York, fighting for the Welterweight title, and leaving his opponent in a coma that led to his death. “The stage is a fragmented boxing ring – and each section of the stage represents a different level,” says Kenneth Kellogg, who plays Emile as a young man. “And we use those levels in a very interesting way. The top level being older Emile’s bedroom, so he’s there throughout the entire show, and everything happens on the other three levels, and he’s just watching as his life unfolds before his eyes.” The death of Paret haunted Griffith for the rest of his life. The opera Champion was first performed in 2013 (with the same ‘older’ Emile, Arthur Woodley) and this is a reorchestration by Blanchard for the forces of Opera Parallele, with orchestra, jazz trio, and gospel chorus.

There’s more information about the performance at the SFJAZZ website and Opera Parallele’s site.

Friday, February 19

– both the visual and musical kind – attempted to capture “Reflections in the Water…” as Claude Debussy did in his Images for solo piano. He also wrote a different work with the same title for orchestra. On this A-to-Z edition of “The State of the Arts” the “I’s” have it… including an impromptu look at the Impromptu.
Originally the term “impressionist” was a criticism of the group of artists that included Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They didn’t conform to the rules of composition, and although they often painted representationally, seemed to be no longer concerned with being “realistic”. The language of visual art was changing, and its purpose, as it became possible with photography to capture “perfectly” a moment. Instead, the mixing of colors and visible brush strokes could express something as ephemeral as sun reflecting on the surface of the water, or playing through the leaves of trees. And composers like Claude Debussy attempted to chart the same unfamiliar territory in sound.

The Impromptu, from its first appearance as a title in 1822, in a matter of a few decades went from being a piano piece that sounded “off the cuff” or like a sudden burst of inspiration of the composer, to the kind of knuckle-buster that continues to challenge solists today. Among the wide-ranging group of composers to write works with that title were Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin and Sibelius. Here’s one by Chopin, the ‘Fantasie-Impromptu’:

Monday, February 22

A bit of a quiz today, to get in the mood as we begin our “KDFC Goes to the Movies” celebration leading up to the Oscars this weekend. Can you identify all seventeen films represented here? (There are a few by our featured composer, John Williams…)

(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 

Tuesday, February 23

Music Director 
Alasdair Neale
leads the Marin Symphony and guest soloist, guitarist Robert Belinić in a program called ‘The Romance of Rodrigo‘ this Sunday afternoon and next Tuesday evening. The centerpiece of the program is the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, with stormy Brahms on either side: the ‘Tragic’ Overture and his Fourth Symphony.

Neale says he wanted to “complement the sunny feeling of the Rodrigo” with a more “darkly passionate color palate” – and so has chosen to bookend the concerto with two pieces by Brahms from fairly late in his career. “The Brahms pieces are extraordinarily mature masterpieces,” he explains, “[it] really sort of distills Brahms’s style of romantic style and classical roots in this symphony in particular, that is just a glorious display of Brahms’s art, really from first note to last.”  Rodrigo’s Aranjuez allows the soloist to range from an opening of solo flash to a middle movemement that is “haunting and evocative,” and “one of the famous melodies in all of Classical music.”

Here’s a sampling of soloist Robert Belinić playing a piece that was written for him:


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

Wednesday, February 24

Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires has her debut with the San Francisco Symphony this week, as she joins guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the orchestra for Beethoven’s third piano concerto. She says although she loves the first two, Beethoven had finally found his voice with the third, and it’s ‘full of wisdom’. The concerts are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

The third piano concerto has an interesting role to play in the arc of Beethoven’s career and output: “It’s very funny, because you have two, two, and one in the middle. And I love the first and the second also, but the third makes the real bridge between two different periods in Beethoven’s music. It’s the first probably real Beethoven concerto.” The contemplative middle movement also shows a mature and thoughtful voice. “Beethoven takes us to a different world – it’s very immaterial, very spiritual and completely full of wisdom that shows us something that we really don’t know in our daily life, so… it’s something that takes us to another reality and the truth, some… I don’t know…  Words don’t explain so well.”

For someone with as long and successful a career as a soloist, Pires is unexpectedly self-effacing. “Our personality, in the sense of the musician that plays, is not so important.  I should say that an interpreter is somebody who is serving the music  that was written somehow. It doesn’t mean that we are not there, of course somehow you will feel that we are there. But it should not be our goal to put from ourselves. I think we should be listening to what the music tells us, to what the music teaches us.”

You can find out more about the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Thursday, February 25

Elevate Ensemble
combines brand new music with an instrument most often associated with works from a much earlier time, the harpsichord, in a program called Ancient Sounds Meet Modern Minds. It includes recent works by Bay Area composers, as well as the Concerto for Harpsichord by Manuel de Falla. The concert is this Saturday night at SOMArts Cultural Center.

Artistic director and founder of the group, Chad Goodman says despite the rise of interest in early music, the harpsichord as an instrument for new music “deserves to continue to be explored.” This program includes two premieres, Fera Machina by Benjamin Sabey, and The Color Festivals by composer-in-residence, Nick Benevides. The latter was inspired by a century-old book of bedtime stories called Told by the Sandman, which was read to him by his father growing up. It tells a series of unexpectedly progressive stories, with female characters doing very well by themselves. “No prince, no savior, no glass slipper,” says Benavides, “But 1916, which I found very odd, and I think they’re really gorgeous, so I approached it as my own ‘Mother Goose Suite,’ in a way.” The harpsichordist for the concert is Derek Tam: “It really does give the opportunity for the harpsichord to be seen in a way that it usually isn’t – not a baroque instrument, not a supporting instrument.  I feel very fortunate to be in a more prominent role as a soloist, and sort of a lead collaborator, if you will.”  He’ll also be giving a talk prior to the concert, discussing the history of the harpsichord.

There’s more information about the concert at Elevate Ensemble’s website.

Friday, February 26

Mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital plays a concert at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto next Wednesday, as a part of his ‘Between Worlds’ tour – as a trio with accordion and percussion. Avital has become one of the best known players of his instrument after studies that involved playing with a mandolin orchestra in his home town.

“I first encountered a mandolin at my neighbor’s flat,” Avital says. “I had a neighbor who was a little bit older than I, and he played the mandolin. As a little kid, I really liked it – it’s a very approachable instrument, it’s a very immediate and user-friendly instrument.” That led him to find the teacher and ensemble that began his life in music. “After a couple of years, when I was eight, I asked my mom and dad to get me one, and I wanted to join the youth mandolin orchestra of my town… And there we played entirely classical music. The conductor, who was my teacher, of this orchestra… that was the way to educate kids to like classical music. By playing it. He would arrange, every year he would arrange a selection of compositions, from baroque to classical, always some Mozart, always some Bach, and romantic, some romantic music. And he would arrange that for us to play together as a mandolin orchestra. That was a very smooth, a very wonderful, I think, introduction for classical music. And so I guess I clicked with it right away.”

There’s more information about the concert at the Oshman Family JCC website.

Monday, February 29

Gioachino Rossini
was at the height of his popularity when, halfway through his life, and with 39 operas behind him, he stopped composing for the stage. The remainder of his life he spent composing for smaller forces, his best known religious works, and pieces to amuse himself. His birthdate left him a victim of the calendar: February 29th, 1792.

From his first produced opera, The Marriage Contract to his last, William Tell, Rossini was as prolific as he was fast at composing. He did frequently borrow from himself, and re-purpose material, but the staged works were written in astoundingly short periods of time. The Italian Girl in Algiers, La Cenerentola, and the Barber of Seville each in less than month, and this overture, to The Thieving Magpie, he wrote the day of the performance.