Thursday, January 2

As the curtain rises on 2014, 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

Friday, January 3

Composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty will be celebrating his 80th birthday in a special concert Monday night with the San Francisco Symphony. On the program will be several of his compositions, including a world premiere, plus singers Lisa Delan, Frederica von Stade, and Placido Domingo, who hasn’t appeared with the Symphony in 40 years.

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

The celebration for Getty (whose actual birthday was in late December) will include the premiere of A Prayer for My Daughter as well as earlier works for voice (Four Dickinson Songs) and orchestra (movements from his Ancestor Suite) – and the other music on the program reflects his tastes for vocal and choral works: Domingo and von Stade’s operatic selections, plus the beautiful Thomas Tallis motet, Spem in Alium, written for 40 independent voices in eight choral quintets. The Tallis is rarely performed because of its scope – it will be sung by the Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin.

Monday, January 6

On an “A-to-Z” edition, a Reflective look at Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody… The not-quite piano concerto that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote, inspired by the 24th of Niccolo Paganini’s Caprices – the theme and set of virtuosic variations originally written for solo violin (allowing the composer to show his prodigious talent). One of the reasons for the continued popularity of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is the beautiful 18th variation, with a melody quite unlike the theme at first glance.

It wasn’t the first time – nor the last time – the tune would be used by another composer. Liszt adapted the Caprices, and Brahms wrote two books of variations for the piano – just on the 24th alone. It had a lot going for it as a theme, as Paganini demonstrated in his variations, with a strong enough harmony suggested by only the violin, and a form that echoes each four bar phrase, a composer could change a lot, and still remain recognizable, and not make the audience lose its place in the tune.

For the 18th variation, Rachmaninoff took the opening theme and inverted it – going down when the theme went up, and vice versa – to discover the memorable lush melody that’s so memorable:

Theme and 18th variation melodies

(The eighteenth variation begins at 14:42 in this performance)

Tuesday, January 7

San Francisco Silent Film Festival is commemmorating the hundredth anniversary of one of the best known characters from the early days of the movies: Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’. They’re presenting a day-long tribute at the Castro Theatre, including showings of The Kid, and The Gold Rush, accompanied by members of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.

There’s more information about the day’s activities (including a Chaplin look-alike contest) at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Ben Simon, who’s been musical director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra for a dozen years, will be handing the baton over (for the first time) to another conductor for Saturday’s performances: to Timothy Brock, who arranged the scores for chamber forces. “Chaplin, although he never trained as a musician, and apparently couldn’t even read music, wrote scores for many of his silent films,” Simon explains. “He made the films and then sound came in, and he went back in and wrote music – quite beautiful and quite touching music – for a lot of his movies.”  The original scores, which went with the re-releases of the films, have been scaled down from the 40-60 player range to a group of 15 players.

The Gold Rush includes the famed scene of Chaplin as the Little Tramp eating his own shoes to fend off starvation, and using a pair of dinner rolls stuck on the ends of forks to do a tabletop ballet routine. But the character’s first screen appearance was in a short called Kid Auto Races at Venice from February of 1914 (he had actually filmed one feature earlier, but it was released a few days later.) You can see the first (camera hogging) performance here:

Wednesday, January 8

Composers Mason Bates and Ludwig van Beethoven were born a little more than 200 years apart, but their work will be played side by side at the San Francisco Symphony this week and next, in a festival that showcases (as Michael Tilson Thomas puts it) “two adventurous young spirits from different centuries”.

There’s more information about the two programs in the festival at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Mason Bates’ The B-Sides will be played tonight (with the composer providing live Electronica), along with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Romances for Violin, Bates says that he frequently finds his music on concert programs with history’s master composers. One of the things he does in his works is to have an underlying narrative to help define the form – something he says Beethoven did back in the Romantic era: “The story-telling available to a symphonic composer, particularly when expanded to include electronics, is very ripe. I’ve always admired Beethoven’s story-telling skills, and I do think that there are some similarities there, even though… there’s this stature anxiety that one always has by being set alongside somebody that great.”

The other large work Bates will present (in next week’s concerts) is called Liquid Interface – in which he’s able to use sounds of water in all its forms – from a glacier calving, to microscopic droplets, to a flooding torrent, with each movement tracing the ‘story’ of water as it heats up, and eventually evaporates. That will be on a program with some less-frequently played choral works of Beethoven: his Mass in C and excerpts from King Stephen.

Mason Bates discusses Beethoven, and his own approach in The B-Sides in this video by the SFSymphony:

Thursday, January 9

The term ‘Tafelmusik’ – which Georg Philipp Telemann used to call his three collections of quartets, trio and solo sonatas and concertos – had been around for about a hundred years, as a way of describing music that was appropriate to accompany a feast or banquet. On this A-to-Z edition, a look at some other Table Music, both figurative and literal.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber wrote a piece called Mensa Sonora, or The Sonorous Table in the 1680s, and it was already understood as a description for chamber works that weren’t of a religious nature, which could be either instrumental or vocal.

Fast forward to the more literal recent past, when Belgian composer Thierry de Mey wrote a work for three percussionists to play using an amplified table:

A work that many attributed to Mozart (including the person who did this manuscript) is written in such a way that two players, across from each other at a table can read from the same score (the piece is also called The Mirror):

Duet on One Sheet of Manuscript Paper

This duo is playing a longer version of the above, but you get the idea…

Friday, January 10

The Anderson & Roe Piano Duo began more than a decade ago, when Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe played together at Juilliard, but many who hadn’t heard of them before got to know them through a surreal music video of a performance of Schubert’s “Erl King” in a Steinway factory. They’ll be playing as part of the Steinway Society of the Bay Area‘s recital series this Sunday evening in Saratoga.

There’s more information about the concert at the Steinway Society’s website, and about the duo at their website.

The program will include Bach (an upcoming CD will be devoted to his works) and Mozart in the first half, then Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1 for Two Pianos, ending with their take on Johann Strauss, Jr. with the Blue Danube Fantasy. “It’s a piece that clearly highlights our interaction at one keyboard,” Roe says. “We take the dance aspect and blow it up so it explodes. It depicts the inner emotion of the dancers as they swirl through courtship and fall in love through the dance.”  They perform both at a single keyboard, as well as the traditional nested pair of pianos, neither of which, Anderson says, is like other chamber music configurations. “We’re literally touching one another, seated at the same piano, and much of our bodies are connected physically as we play… Or we’re just this huge distance apart, twelve feet, and we just have to close our eyes and listen, be in the moment, and trust that we’re going to be synchronized. It’s unusual, but it keeps us on our toes.”

More unusual was their “Erl King” video, which was filmed at the Steinway factory. “And the factory pianos come alive and devour us,” explains Greg Anderson. “We were trying to recapture some of the energy and spirit of the original song, ‘Der Erl König’, which is about death and pursual. Basically the German version of the bogey man, as it comes and takes a child.”

Monday, January 13

The KDFC Classical All-Stars Countdown has begun – with an ominous roiling of hooves and violin trills (not to mention the smell of napalm and victory). Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was voted number 100 in the countdown, marking a precipitous drop from 56 last year. But there’s plenty of staying power in the work, which has seared itself into our popular culture.

It’s hard to catalog the number of places it pops up in film and TV – going back to the very early days of film history, when it was used to accompany D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, but also forever associated with the helicopters rising over the horizon in Apocalypse Now.  It’s hummed by James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, and referenced in such unlikely TV shows as “Lost in Space” and “My Little Pony.”

It’s the opening of the third act of Die Walküre, which is the second of the four operas that make up Wagner’s massive Ring Cycle. The valkyries gather and greet each other – and it’s usually accompanied by some inventive staging, like in this, by the Metropolitan Opera:

Tuesday, January 14

Last October, the Peninsula Symphony learned that all of its funds had been removed from their account, making it doubtful that the season, which was just about to start would be able to go ahead as planned. Authorities are still trying to discover exactly what happened to the money, but in the mean time, Music Director Mitchell Sardou Klein says, pledges of support from the board, the musicians, and audience members have been able to ensure the season’s concerts.

There’s more information about this weekend’s concerts at the Peninsula Symphony website.

It’s a concert that features Menlo Park-native Taylor Eigsti, returning to play Rhapsody in Blue and his own works (with guest saxophonist Dayna Stephens), along with a tribute to his mentor, Dave Brubeck. “The intersection of jazz and symphonic music is an interesting little sidebar to the world of symphony orchestras in the U.S.,” says Klein. “Jazz is the great, distinctively, uniquely American art form, and it’s hard to ignore it if you’re a musician.”  There are also two overtures by Gershwin scheduled for the programs, which are in San Mateo Friday evening, and Cupertino the following night.

The Peninsula Symphony and Eigsti have played Rhapsody in Blue before, and Klein says of the soloist: “He does it in a way that I think Gershwin would have understood and probably liked a lot. Because it turns out that when Gershwin played this piece for the first time, it was mostly improvised on the keyboard. Nobody really knew what Gershwin was going to play that first time, and we don’t know exactly what Taylor Eigsti will be playing.”  Here’s Eigsti playing one of his original tunes with his trio:

Wednesday, January 15

Conductor Donato Cabrera now leads the California Symphony  (as well as the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and Green Bay Symphony). But he had to start somewhere… and he says the two instruments he began to play when he was younger helped give him the skills he needed when he picked up the baton.

This Sunday night at 8, you can hear Cabrera and the California Symphony playing Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on KDFC’s Bay Area Mix. It’s from a concert they gave last spring, before he had been named the orchestra’s Music Director, and was in fact auditioning for the job.

The piano and horn each had a particular contribution to his musical development: “I’m so happy that I had the initial training on the piano,” he says, “because it teaches you how to read more than one line of music simultaneously, and that’s obviously crucial for a conductor. But playing the French horn also gives you the necessary skill of transposing… To me, these were the two perfect instruments for my initial training for conducting.”

Cabrera says the horn also gave him an opportunity to experience symphonic playing from the other side of the podium. “The fact that I played an orchestral instrument, and an orchestral instrument that plays quite a bit, but not all the time, gave me the ability to really see how a conductor interacts with an orchestra, how it works, how it doesn’t work… I wouldn’t have beena  conductor if I hadn’t played the French horn.

Thursday, January 16

The next concerts by Marin Symphony fall one on either side of Martin Luther King Day, and celebrate his message with a program that includes Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World (Daybreak of Freedom). The narration of text from King’s speeches will be by Noah Griffin, who calls the part a great responsibility.

There’s more information about the Sunday and Tuesday concerts, which also include Aaron Copland’s powerful Third Symphony at Marin Symphony’s website.

Noah GriffinWhen he was 16, in 1962 Noah Griffin travelled to Atlanta with his mother (who had grown up with Martin Luther King’s mother) for the NAACP National Convention, staying at King’s parents’ house. “I got a chance to hear him speak at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and also meet him on the Quad at Spellman University,” Griffin says. “And the thing I was struck with is, for such a powerful speaker, he was very shy and diffident offstage.”

Schwantner’s work, written in the early 1980s, follows in the tradition of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, combining a narration of the historical speeches with an evocative orchestral accompaniment. One of the big differences, of course, between the two, is the familiarity of King’s voice, and cadence in delivery. “I take this very seriously as a sacred duty and responsibility: to represent as accurately, as authentically, and as movingly, his words.” But Griffin adds: “I have no intention of trying to duplicate his oratory. I think that is unduplicatable. However, I do mean to give it as much meaning as I can.

Friday, January 17

The iconoclastic organist Cameron Carpenter plays at Grace Cathedral next Friday evening for the first time – and it’s part of the SFJAZZ series. He’s not yet certain what the program will be, because he’ll need to tailor the program to fit the unfamiliar instrument.

There’s more information about the performance at the SFJAZZ website.

Although not set, the program is likely to include his own improvisations, some jazz-influenced tunes, and music to honor his friend, composer Terry Riley, who’ll be in the audience celebrating his wedding anniversary.  Riley is currently working on an organ concerto that Carpenter will premiere with the LA Philharmonic in April. “I’m not entirely sure yet, because I don’t know the organ, and that’s of course the plague of the pipe organ – every single pipe organ is different,” he says.

Carpenter says he wants to take advantage of the organ at Grace, because this is the last concert he’s going to be playing on a great American pipe organ before he launches what has been an ongoing project for the past ten years: the International Touring Organ. It’s an instrument which will allow him to travel and play with a state-of-the-art organ that will give a consistent sound, and perform predictably wherever he takes it. His upcoming album was recorded on it, and the launch in March will be at Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, January 21

With the Nutcracker behind them, the San Francisco Ballet is ready for its upcoming repertory season. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson says the range of choreographers involved in the eight programs is unheard of in one season, ranging from Liam Scarlett and Wayne McGregor to works by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, and opening with the ever-popular Giselle.

There’s more information about the season at the San Francisco Ballet’s website.

Giselle (Helgi Tomasson’s production) is always a crowd-pleaser, and one of several full-length ballets included in the line-up. There’s also a return of last year’s popular Cinderella, with music by Prokofiev, which the company took to New York City to critical acclaim. “We have over the years created so many wonderful works,” says Tomasson, “And there’s just not enough performing dates available to do everything I would like to do. So it comes down to choices – well, maybe this year, I don’t do that, but I will bring that one back.”

“One of the things that I’m very excited about is how many different choreographers are represented. We have Balanchine (Agon, Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet), we have a Mark Morris (Maelstrom), we have Christopher Wheeldon (Cinderella), Wayne McGregor (Borderlands). It’s wonderful in one season to have all these people and more. To me, it’s very exciting.”  The ‘and more’ include world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Val Caniparoli (and Tomasson himself) – along with works by Alexei Ratmansky – his Shostakovich Trilogy is a co-production with American Ballet Theatre, where he’s their Artist in Residence.

Wednesday, January 22

The series Brahms and Beyond, curated by pianist Emanuel Ax launches tomorrow night at Cal Performances, exploring some of the composer’s vocal music, sung by mezzo soprano Anne-Sofie Von Otter. The ‘beyond’ in the title is the other part of the series – commissioned new works by young composers, inspired by a motto of Brahms: “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy), using the motive of F-A-F.

There’s more information about the series at the Cal Performances website. Ax will return in February, with Yo-Yo Ma for a sold out continuation of the series, playing both cello sonatas, a violin sonata in transcription for cello, and a new work by Australian composer Brett Dean.

The vocal works of Brahms were new to Ax, so Von Otter chose the repertoire of leider and folksongs. “She was very much the guiding light, and I’m very much the one who’s practicing the stuff she told me to practice,” he says. “They’re incredible pieces, you know, so it’s a whole new area that’s opened up for me. I haven’t worked that much with singers, and to work with the greatest right off the bat, it’s marvelous.”

The commissioned works for this concert are Bolts of Loving Thunder by Missy Mazzoli, and So Many Things by Nico Muhly. Each used the thematic idea of F-A-F as a jumping off point, with Mazzoli writing a solo work for Ax, and Muhly setting text by Joyce Carol Oates and Constantine Cavafy.

Monday, January 27

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would be celebrating his 258th birthday today – so here’s a small sampling of some of the reasons his music and popularity live on. Can you name these twelve works?

(To see the answers, click and scroll down over the blank space)

  1. Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) mvt. 1 – Allegro
  2. Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) Overture
  3. Symphony No. 35 in D Major “Haffner” mvt. 1
  4. Clarinet Quintet in A Major  K581  mvt. 1
  5. Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major   mvt. 3 “Alla Turca”
  6. Symphony No. 41 in C Major “Jupiter” mvt. 1
  7. “Dies Irae” from Requiem
  8. Piano Concerto No. 21 in F, mvt. 2 (used in the film Elvira Madigan)
  9. Queen of the Night Aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
  10. Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major
  11. Serenade No. 10 for Winds in B-flat Major “Gran Partita” mvt. 3
  12. Symphony No. 40 in G minor, mvt. 1

Wednesday, January 29

The winter concert of the Oakland Youth Orchestra this Sunday in San Leandro will include a brand new work by composer Nathaniel Stookey, called Go. The ensemble commissioned the piece in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary season, and conductor Michael Morgan says it’s an energetic concert opener, paired on the program with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and Elgar’s Cello Concerto – with soloist Emil Miland, himself a graduate of the OYO.

There’s more information about the free concert at the Oakland Youth Orchestra website.

Specifically for their fiftieth anniversary, the orchestra commissioned Nathaniel Stookey, whose The Composer is Dead (with a text by Daniel Handler, also known as Lemony Snicket) has joined Peter and the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra as a frequently programmed entry piece for young audiences new to classical music. Conductor Michael Morgan describes the new work, called Go, this way: “It’s contrasting between almost techno-like rhythm in the percussion (which is ontinual really through the piece, but is not actually even the main point – although it does energize the piece). There are actually longer, more chorale-like structures, longer notes that are the main thing, if you will, with this very rhythmic underpinning. And the percussion are really central to the piece. In fact there are two snare drums that are positioned at opposite sides of the orchestra.”

It will lead off the performance, followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and the Elgar Cello Concerto, which features soloist Emil Miland – who’s a member of the San Francisco Opera orchestra, as well as a distinguished graduate of the Oakland Youth Orchestra. The concert is at 1 pm on Sunday at the San Leandro Center for the Arts, and is free to the public.

Friday, January 31

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is many things: an almost-concerto, a pianistic theme-and-variations showpiece, and… a ballet. Daniil Trifonov, soloist with the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Osmo Vänskä this week, says the storyline – with violinist and composer Paganini selling his soul to the devil for violin skill – is a helpful guideline to him as he plays it.

There’s more information about the performances tonight and tomorrow at the San Francisco Symphony website.

“This is probably his most programmic and philosophical work,”Trifonov says. Whether Rachmaninoff was thinking specifically of the Faust-like story as he wrote the Rhapsody is unclear, but when approached by choreographer Michel Fokine, Rachmaninoff suggested the recently completed work as ripe with possibility for the ballet, suggesting that Paganini himself might be the protagonist. “The main subject of it is the place of art in humanity. Paganini, who (according to the ballet version of Rhapsody) he sold to the devil his soul in order to know the secrets of perfect violin playing.”

There are hints of the demonic throughout the piece, with quotes from the medieval chant “Dies Irae” about the day of judgement from the Requiem mass – but Trifonov says in several of the variations, Rachmaninoff also associates that melody with jazz and popular culture of the day – developments in music that the composer didn’t see as progress. “At the same time, you have a different world of lyrical variations, which are kind of looking back to his older style, when he was still in Russia.”

Trifonov has more than a bit of that devilish talent himself – fellow pianist Martha Argerich described in the Financial Times this way: “What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It’s also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”  Here’s a preview from his newly released CD, “The Carnegie Recital”.