Wednesday, January 2

As the curtain rises on 2013, here’s a little collection of some memorable and auspicious beginnings from the world of classical music…  Works that right from the starting gate hint at the masterpieces that are to follow.

If you want to see whether you’re able to identify what those works are, click and drag over the blank spaces below to reveal the titles.

  1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
  2. Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 
  3. Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 “Classical”
  4. Stravinsky: Petrushka
  5. Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
  6. Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture
  7. Haydn: Symphony 104
  8. Bizet: Carmen Overture
  9. Strauss: Die Fledermaus Overture
  10. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
  11. Dvorak: ‘New World’ Symphony No. 9
  12. Grieg: Piano Concerto
  13. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
  14. Respighi: The Pines of Rome

Thursday, January 3

In an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts: Fantasia and Fugue. Both allow the performer (and composer) to show off their skills, but in a different way. A fantasia tends to be virtuosic, but at the same time should sound like it’s being improvised. A fugue, in order for it to work, has to also meet certain formal expectations. Especially important: the opening subject needs to be one that the listener will be able to recognize each time it enters, in ever thickening textures of other voices. Counter-subjects need to flow out of what precedes them, and be able to follow the rules of harmony and counterpoint when played at the same time as the subject. It all needs to make sense both structurally, and just as importantly, to the ear.

How one writes a fugue really depends on the starting material; there are going to be some techniques that will only be possible if the subject allows it. Bach was especially talented at knowing what permutations would be possible based on any given theme: with a fugue for three voices, he might have two counter-subjects, each showing up in a different part in turn. And then for the final statement, they might each come in earlier, ending up overlapping to build tension.

Here’s a quartet of singers (plus a string quartet) performing Glenn Gould’s “So You Want to Write a Fugue”:

The various entrances and individual lines of the four singers are fairly easy to follow – at least at the beginning – in an animated video you can see here.

Friday, January 4

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is Didon, Queen of Carthage, in Les Troyens (The Trojans) the sprawling opera by Hector Berlioz, which the Metropolitan Opera will be broadcasting live this weekend (you can hear it starting 9 a.m. Saturday on KDFC). The work isn’t frequently staged because of its length… Berlioz himself never had a chance to see it all performed, because its first run didn’t include the first two acts.

There’s more about the performance, which will also be part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series, simulcast in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

Even though she’s one of the stars, Susan Graham doesn’t have to arrive at the opera house until after it’s begun… Didon makes her first appearance in Act III. But Graham calls it a role that has everything: she’s a beloved queen, falls in love, has her heart broken, gets to have a mad scene and commit suicide, after bidding a farewell to her country and all that’s important to her.

Susan Graham has also sung the other operatic “Dido” from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Both were based on Virgil’s Aeneid, which tells the story of the ill-fated lovers. She says the Purcell is much gentler and introspective in nature – instead of the hordes of Trojan soldiers marching through the action in Berlioz’s Les Troyens.  Graham describes Didon as the Mount Everest of roles for her voice, and she’s received glowing reviews for her performances, including appearing on one of the few full recordings of the opera.

Monday, January 7

The members of the non-traditional Real Vocal String Quartet (Irene Sazer, Alisa Rose, Dina Maccabee and Jessica Ivry), sing while playing their violins, viola and cello. They recently returned from a tour that was also decidedly off the beaten path: Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia and Lithuania. The trip was part of a State Department cultural exchange program they applied for without knowing the itinerary. Violinist and quartet founder Irene Sazer says it was an amazing experience.

There’s more information about the group, including information about their recently-released CD, “Four Little Sisters” at the Real Vocal String Quartet website.

The night before the application was due, the group found out about the “American Music Abroad” program, which is sponsored by American Voices and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  They were able to submit it in time, one of about three hundred applicants, and after auditioning regionally, were one of a dozen groups accepted to the program.

Irene Sazer says the winter temperatures occasionally made them wish they’d been sent to Bali, or someplace a bit more tropical… “We got sent to Eastern Europe, which was incredible, it was enriching, it was beautiful and wonderful, and there were just a couple of moments in Latvia and Lithuania where we were like, ‘what are we doing here in December, in particular?'”

Here’s the Real Vocal String Quartet, playing in Latvia with a high school bell choir:

And here’s the group covering the Regina Spektor song “Machine”:

Tuesday, January 8

On an A-to-Z edition of “The State of the Arts”, it’s three 3 “G” instruments that are slightly off the beaten track – Gamba, Gamelan and Glass Harmonica. Early music fans know the viola da gamba: played between the legs (gamba is Italian for ‘leg’) like a cello, it differs by having frets on the fingerboard, more strings, and a different shape, including a broader neck. It was especially popular in England, where it was known as a ‘bass viol’ – and where it was fairly common to find matched sets of instruments, or ‘consorts of viols’ that could be taken out to provide ready entertainment for company.

Gamelan is really a shorthand to describe a gamelan ensemble, a group of traditional Indonesian instruments, played by multiple players, consisting of gongs, metallophones and drums. The exotic sounds and scales, along with their complicated cyclical patterns appealed to Western composers such as Debussy and Satie, when they first heard the music, at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Bay Area composer Lou Harrison is among the best known composers of recent times to write for an American variant of the gamelan.  Here’s an idea of what a traditional gamelan ensemble looks and sounds like:

Finally, the glass harmonica or armonica, the name Ben Franklin gave his invention, is a more practical arrangement for allowing a player to rub moistened fingers along the edges of tuned glasses or in this case, bowls of fine crystal.  Here, you can see a glass harmonica player in action (in Ben Franklin garb):

Wednesday, January 9

This Friday night, the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University has its inaugural concert, and KDFC will broadcast the performance live. It will feature the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, Frederica von Stade, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which is in residence there, as well as a variety of musicians from Stanford.

There’s much more information about the concert hall and the upcoming season at Stanford Live’s website.

Rik and Dianne will be hosting the broadcast of the concert, and in the hall, actress Anna Deavere Smith will host from the stage.

The hall is going to serve as both a top-notch performance venue for music and other performing arts, as well as being a working building for Stanford’s students. Although this concert launches the hall with the opening of Stanford Live’s season, it’s served as rehearsal space for the student ensembles since the beginning of the academic year. As a way of showing its role in the school’s music department, one of the first pieces on Friday’s concert will be a work by faculty composer Jonathan Berger, performed by a chamber ensemble as well as a school choir.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet, which is in residence at the university will play a late work by Franz Joseph Haydn. At a November media sneak-preview of the hall, St. Lawrence violinist Geoff Nuttall described the hoped-for intimacy of the Bing this way: “The concept is that there’s this beautiful living room, and there are ten of your best friends hanging out, and you’re sharing some music with them.”
He said their early rehearsals showed that the hall had just the right blend of warmth and definition: “It’s an incredible combination of clarity, and you can hear yourself. That was a cool realization. It wasn’t just ‘we’re going to sound warm and nice’ – it’s that ‘hey, maybe we can get better by listening to ourselves in this space.'”

The San Francisco Symphony will be performing Debussy’s La Mer, and John Adams’ “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and joined by Frederica von Stade for some Leonard Bernstein.

The KDFC special will begin sometime after 8 on Friday evening (joining the festivities after some of the initial welcoming speech-making, but in time for all the music.)

Thursday, January 10

Soprano Renee Fleming joins Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for an evening of French repertoire in three concerts from tonight through Sunday. At the center of her part of the program are brand new orchestrations, commissioned by the Symphony, of a set of songs by Claude Debussy .

There’s more information about the program at the San Francisco Symphony website.  Renee Fleming will continue to focus on all things French in a joint recital she and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will present at (also at Davies Symphony Hall) on January 16th.

“To come here and have this chance to add to the lexicon of soprano concert repertoire for orchestra is a thrill… because there isn’t enough,” Fleming says. The set of Debussy songs on the concert this week have texts by Paul Verlaine, a group of orchestrations by British composer Robin Holloway, called C’est l’extase. Debussy had originally written the songs for piano accompaniment. Fleming says she only has sung one of the set since her student days – “Mandoline,” with the original piano accompaniment provided by Jean-Yves Thibaudet on her album Night Songs. When she heard the works that Holloway would be reworking, she says “I didn’t know how it would turn out, and I expected it to be much heavier, because when one thinks of the juxtaposition between just piano and orchestra, one imagines a whole lot more sound to have to sing over. But in fact, rather than being heavier… it just adds more color.”

Fleming will also be singing selections from Joseph Canteloube’s extremely popular Chants d’Auvergne, and the orchestra will play Debussy’s Jeux and La Mer.

Renee Fleming with a KDFC Totebag

Friday, January 11

Symphony Silicon Valley and soprano Lisa Vroman present a concert of music by Kurt Weill tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon, including some of his well-known Broadway and popular songs – and the complete Seven Deadly Sins. Vroman says she’s loved Weill’s music since seeing the old Ava Gardner movie “One Touch of Venus” which included the song “Speak Low”.

There’s more about the concerts at the Symphony Silicon Valley website.

Vroman, known for her Broadway roles as well as frequent Bay Area concert appearances, hadn’t known Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins until her conservatory friend, conductor Keith Lockhart suggested it for her. “He called one day and said ‘I have a piece for you, I think it’s going to be a perfect fit, and you should learn it.'” At the time, she was nearing the end of her long run starring in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, so she was skeptical. “I looked at it, it’s a half hour of very dense difficult language, and I said ‘I’m doing a show every night, how am I going to learn this?’ And he said, ‘well, put it on an iPod, and when you ride the subway from Inwood to the Majestic Theater, you can learn it.’ Back and forth, and that’s what I did.”

Seven Deadly Sins is not as well known as many of Weill’s other works, even though it’s been sung by voices as different as Ute Lemper, Marianne Faithfull, and of course Lotte Lenya. Vroman describes it this way: “It’s sort of an opera, it’s an oratorio piece, it’s a concert piece – it was first staged with a dancer doing it. It’s one woman singing nine pieces, and the other one is dancing most of it, and says a few lines, but they are parts of the same person.” She says although there won’t be an actual dancer in the Symphony Silicon Valley concert, the role will be represented on stage.

Monday, January 14

Mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin will be singing at the Music at Meyer series tonight at the Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, in an appearance with Frederica von Stade, who’s been a fan and mentor of Rubin’s for many years. Blind since birth, Rubin’s new memoir ‘Do You Dream in Color’ shares its title with a poem she wrote, which was then set to music by composer Bruce Adolphe. It challenges assumptions about her life and those of other blind artists.

There’s more about tonight’s concert at the Music at Meyer series website, and more about the memoir, her music, and jewelry designs at Laurie Rubin’s website.

Rubin will be performing the 20-minute Bruce Adolphe work based on her poem at the concert tonight, along with pieces by Faure, Sibelius and Liszt, before turning to lighter, musical theater works by composers like Gershwin and Sondheim, and she’ll be joined by Frederica von Stade for a piece or two. When she was in her early twenties, Rubin was asked to sing a joint recital with von Stade: “I thought, ‘oh my God, how am I going to measure up to singing with this incredible star?’ But what happens is that when you sing with somebody who’s better than you, something happens in the synergy of your voices, and you just rise to the occasion. You start to sing better.”

Rubin says one of the particular frustrations she’s encountered in her career is a closed-mindedness based on misperceptions and assumptions. “It’s really hard in the performing world for directors to divest themselves of these stereotypes, to want to hire a blind person to play a romantic role, or a love interest, or anybody of some significant importance because there are so many negative implications toward the word blind or handicapped.” She says she’d like there to be a sexy blind person on TV: “We need to have that person who walks into the bar with their guide dog, and the guide dog just surreptitiously goes under the bar, and the blind person has a flirtation with somebody else!”

Laurie Rubin will also be appearing at a book signing for Do You Dream in Color at Modern Times Bookstore Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m.

Tuesday, January 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.

Wednesday, January 16

Edvard Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt isn’t the only musical treatment of the story, although it’s the most familiar. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are going to be playing Grieg’s incidental music, along with sections composed by Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway, plus actors, a choir, projections, and an evocative set design.

There’s more about the performance at the San Francisco Symphony’s website.

The title character owes much to traditional tales of adventure undertaken by an all-too-human hero… And the play itself was a cross between that tradition, and a bit of the modern world’s habit of self-examination. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas describes it as “a craggy and sprawling play about human identity.”  But, he says, “Grieg’s music does not give perhaps as big a sense of the terror, and uncertainty and cosmic nature of what the play really is.”  Some of that might have to do with the fame the music has had in the concert hall and in popular culture – eclipsing the story that it originally was written to accompany.

The two composers whose music will be joining Grieg on this concert are Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway… Each recognized that there was a lot of material in the five-act play, much of which is only touched on in the Grieg. Schnittke told the story in the form of a full-length ballet, with a more introspective point of view; and Holloway’s take on the long voyage that carries Peer Gynt around the world is just one excerpt of the larger work he wrote, obsessed by Ibsen’s tale (even without knowing whether his own version would find a performance in the concert hall).  Holloway says on his website: “I’ve put my ALL … into this huge affair, with next to no hope of its ever being realized.  If I’d not written it I’d have lived and died unused at the highest level to which I can aspire.  Will the white elephant ever be awakened from its sleep, yawn and stretch, blow its trumpet, sing and louder sing, before flying off into the azure on swan’s wings?”  The section that will get its premiere at the San Francisco Symphony tomorrow night was written over the course of more than a dozen years, from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s.

Thursday, January 17

Company C Contemporary Ballet‘s winter series of performances opens tonight in Walnut Creet, including three world premieres, in a program called “Brave New Ballets”. One of the new works, Brian Reeder‘s Being Served, is set to music by Benjamin Britten.

There’s more information about the program that opens tonight at the Lesher Center for the Arts, (and will also come to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in early February) at the Company C website.

Also premiering on the program will be Artistic Director Charles Anderson’s Polyglot, and Patrick Corbin’s For Use in Subhuman Primates Only, along with excerpts of Anderson’s Beautiful Maladies.

Brian Reeder’s work is set at a dinner party with a ‘Hitchcockian’ twist: the set includes a table and fashionably dressed dancers, some of whom appear to be up to no good. Although Reeder says the piece is first and foremost a dance, he says he has “a tendency to sometimes find a little bit of narrative, to pull it through for myself and the dancers, and I would say this has a slight storyline.”  There’s both a butler and the maid, who are doing the serving from the title, and although most of the dancing takes place upstage in front, Reeder gave those at the table in the background instructions for eating, drinking, and perhaps plotting.

His choice of Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” and the “Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings” was coincidental (this is the 100th year anniversary of Britten’s birth, and a lot of programs are including his works) but popped out to him as music that matched the mood he was trying to set. He says “it’s always odd when you don’t have music that was commissioned specifically for a new work… Sometimes if I’ve worked with a composer, I can say ‘this is where I see it going, I need a little hotter/colder here…’ This is a case where I obviously am using music that’s already pre-existing, and so the music was talking to me.

Friday, January 18

The new SFJAZZ Center opens its doors officially on Monday – with a jam-packed opening to a season that has its first (sold-out) gala concert on Wednesday the 23rd. That concert will include a who’s who of important players, including McCoy Tyner, Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano, Bobby Hutcherson, Chick Corea, and Esperanza Spalding.

There’s more about the new facility at the SFJAZZ website.

The groundbreaking for the SFJAZZ Center was in May of 2011 – and the ribbon-cutting will be on Martin Luther King Day at 11:30, starting the first two weeks of a very busy season.

The hall itself can accomodate a wide range of performances – with seating that can allow for a more intimate setting of 350, or up to 700, and the building is the first in the U.S. to be devoted exclusively to the art of Jazz – both performance and study. SFJAZZ is in its 30th Season, and they’ve scheduled a season that has the kind of variety that they’ve come to be known for: with small to large acts from around the world, and many different jazz traditions.

SFJAZZ Center's interior

Tuesday, January 22

As we begin the countdown from 100 to 1 of the KDFC Classical Music All-Stars, let’s not forget the wonderful pieces that make up the middle of the lists! Here’s a quick look back at some of the works that occupied the half-way point in years past.

You can follow along as we count down the top one hundred – one (or two) per hour until we’ve reached this year’s favorite, as chosen by you!

One of the advantages of having so many standout classical works on the ballot is that by the time it’s winnowed down to 100, you still end up with pieces like Schubert’s Symphony #9 “Great”, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”.

Wednesday, January 23

The New Century Chamber Orchestra launched the U.S. tour that’s taking them through the South and Midwest with a concert at Herbst Theatre earlier this month. This Sunday evening at 8, KDFC will air a special broadcast of the concert, featuring works by Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, and a concerto written especially for NCCO Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg by William Bolcom.

The KDFC special will be broadcast Sunday night at 8 p.m.; there’s more information about the group and tour at New Century Chamber Orchestra’s website. Plus, they’re keeping a blog of the tour.

The repertoire ranges from a very young Felix Mendelssohn (his String Symphony #10, written when he was a young teenager) to an anguished Richard Strauss – whose “Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings” was written in response to the allied bombing of the Munich Opera House, where many of his works had received their premieres, and Strauss’s father had played principal horn. In between, there’s “Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra” a concerto by American composer William Bolcom, commissioned by the ensemble. Plus Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, as arranged by NCCO favorite, Clarice Assad.

Executive Director Parker Monroe calls the New Century Chamber Orchestra “a success story among American orchestras, because of the perfect fit between this particular music director and this particular group of musicians. And that’s about trust, and it’s about respect, and inspiration, and performing concerts that audiences love and respond to with passion – and want to hear again and again.”

New Century Chamber Orchestra’s tour takes them to Danville, KY; Sewanee, TN; the Greenville in both North and South Carolina; Durham, NC; Winchester, VA; Bethesda, MD; before making return appearances at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL; and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Thursday, January 24

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida is the latest production by Lamplighters Music Theater, with a characteristically convoluted plot-line involving cross-dressing, a politically-motivated marriage contract, and an educated and emancipated woman… It opens in Walnut Creek this Friday, before weekends in San Francisco, Livermore, and Mountain View.

There’s more information about the production and showtimes at the Lamplighters website.

Princess Ida, after schooling has decided not to marry the Prince she was promised to when they were both children, and instead has opened a university which men are not allowed to visit. Her betrothed and two friends disguise themselves as women in order to be near her. Rick Willliams plays King Gama, Ida’s father, who he describes as “the most gnarly of the patter men in the traditional Gilbert and Sullivan canon. He comes on, he’s extremely disagreeable, in fact he announces that.” Williams says the reason Ida renounces men altogether has a lot to do with how awful the men in her own family are. But never fear, it being Gilbert and Sullivan, it ends happily.

Barbara Heroux, Artistic Director for Lamplighters, made a few slight alterations to keep some of the more blatant misogyny of W.S. Gilbert in check. She says one of the main themes of the work is “Gilbert making fun of the idea that women should be educated, which as a feminist director I had a little bit of a problem with. So that’s why some changes were made in the book.” Those changes didn’t seem to matter to the Buxton (England) International Festival of Gilbert & Sullivan, which gave Lamplighters several awards for this production of Princess Ida back in the mid 1990s.

The operetta was Gilbert and Sullivan’s only three-act work, and gets its plot — and use of unrhymed iambic pentameter — from an epic poem by Tennyson called The Princess.

Michael Desnoyers, David Sasse, and Chris Uzelac from Prince Ida

Friday, January 25

The iconic “Dutch Mona Lisa” is on display starting this weekend in a highly-anticipated exhibition at the de Young Museum. Girl With a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis includes 35 works from the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, that rarely leave The Hague. They also include such artists as Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius, and Jan Steen.

There’s more information about the exhibit at the de Young Museum website.

Hollywood’s depiction of the story of the Johannes Vermeer painting, in the 2003 film based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, brings to mind the score by French composer Alexandre Desplat – with a brooding and romantic theme associated the portrait’s subject. But for a sense of historical context, the music that Vermeer would have been most likely to hear in the mid 17th Century would be small chamber works with a much more early-Baroque sound. Women playing musical instruments  was a frequent subject for Vermeer – with lutes, and virginals, which can serve to remind the viewer that Bach hadn’t yet been born when the painter died in 1675.

Monday, January 28

The “Mozart Effect” – has been used to describe a link between listening to classical music and being “smarter” – even though the original studies were much more specifically focused on spatial relation tasks, and the boost in ability was only temporary. But a more recent study says there’s a longer term benefit to those who actually play or practice music, since it improves the listening skills involved in learning foreign languages and reading.

Whatever the neurological reason — whether it’s because certain pleasure synapses are firing when we listen to music we like, or the regularity of tempos and predictability of phrase lengths — there do seem to be at least temporary benefits to exposure, and for those who are already fans, whether science is or isn’t on their side probably doesn’t matter!

Tuesday, January 29

There’s a Lalo-palooza in San Francisco – well… that might be overstating it,  but music by Edouard Lalo is appearing on programs at both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet this week. Charles Dutoit is on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday through Friday, conducting Symphonie Espagnole (with James Ehnes as the violin soloist), and just up the street, Serge Lifar’s dance “Suite en blanc” features music from a score Lalo composed for his ballet Namouna.

There’s more information about the performances at the San Francisco Symphony’s website, and San Francisco Ballet’s website.

The other works on the Symphony’s program are Elgar’s Enigma Variations, and (fittingly) Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. SF Ballet, in their first program of 2013, will also include a world premiere by Wayne McGregor called Borderlands, and In the Night, which Jerome Robbins set to solo piano music by Chopin.

The ballet Namouna, the source of the score of “Suite en blanc” was given this appraisal by Debussy: “Among too many stupid ballets, Lalo’s Namouna is something of a masterpiece.” The movements that Serge Lifar used to set his 1943 scaled-down one act ballet include some of the highlights of the original, perhaps confusingly keeping their original titles, which no longer have any relation to the action on the stage (for example, “The Waltz of the Cigarette” – which originally took place as the title character, a slave girl on the island of Corfu, rolls a cigarette for her lover). A reviewer of a 2011 revival in the UK described Lifar’s work as “a ballet about ballet.”

Here’s some more background about Serge Lifar’s “Suite en blanc”:

Wednesday, January 30

Stanford is making sure to get its recently-inaugurated Bing Concert Hall off to a good start with their Beethoven Project – In the first season, the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra are presenting all of the symphonies of Beethoven – and with Stanford alum Jon Nakamatsu, all of the piano concertos as well. Music director Jindong Cai will be conducting the sold-out concert this weekend when they perform Symphony #8 and #2, and the second piano concerto.

There’s more information about the entire Beethoven Project at the Stanford Live website.

Cai’s love of Beethoven’s music, both for itself, and for the heroic and humanist spirit it represents, can be traced back to when he first heard a scratchy 78 record of the fourth symphony at a friend’s house in China. It was during the time of the Cultural Revolution, and so the curtains were drawn and the volume was kept low, since Western music was forbidden.

“I’ve been thinking since two years ago what we can put up for this season to be symbolic and meaningful,” he says, “and Beethoven is always a very special composer in my heart.”

The concerts, which also have lectures and other supporting programs are the Stanford music department’s contribution to the inaugural season of the Bing Concert Hall, which had its gala opening earlier this month.

Thursday, January 31

West Edge Opera is giving Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea an updating that’s still a bit retro – setting the intrigue of the Roman Empire under Nero in the early 1960’s. Poppea tells the story of the favorite mistress of the emperor Nero, who convinced him to banish his wife. Director Mark Streshinsky says in the program “What would have happened if JFK had divorced Jackie to marry Marilyn?”

There’s more information about the show at the West Edge Opera website.

The production of Poppea was adapted by Mark Streshinsky and Gilbert Martinez, artistic director of MusicSources, and conductor for these performances. Martinez says that the streamlining of the story (the original material included several subplots unrelated to the rise of Poppea) is joined by a return to more authentic musical accompaniment.  British conductor Raymond Leppard adapted the score for full modern orchestra, back in the day when there was less focus on historical performances; this ensemble includes two harpsichords, a theorbo, a gamba, two violins and harp.

“If you listen to recordings of the Leppard versions, you’re going to think ‘Wow, this covers four CDs of music, and it moves awfully slow!'” Martinez says. “In our case, suddenly these instruments become very attuned to what the singers are saying and doing on stage, and things move a lot quicker and become much more conversational and lighter.”

Christine Brandes as Nero, Emma McNairy as Poppea (left); Erin Neff as Nero’s wife Ottavia (right). Photos: Jamie Buschbaum

Christine Brandes as Nero, Emma McNairy as PoppeaErin Neff as Ottavia

The vocal ranges and genders of the characters is a little unpredictable, as can happen in early opera. Emperor Nero is sung by soprano Christine Brandes, wearing business suit and tie, and Emma McNairy is Poppea; countertenor Ryan Belongie sings the male role of Ottone (although he disguises himself in woman’s clothing at one point); and Bryan Thorsett plays Poppea’s trusted nurse in drag.