Monday, July 1

Checking in at the first leg of KDFC's Summer of the Great Composers series – with a bit of a mashup of the first 11 represented in our list of 40… A list that you're invited to help round out to an even 50, by nominating your favorite composer here! Our list, and your chance to request a work by any one of them is here.

The works in the mashup are listed below – click and scroll over the space next to the number to see them…

  1. Brahms: Symphony No. 4
  2. Prokofiev: "Dance of the Knights" from Romeo and Juliet
  3. Telemann: Tafelmusik, Concerto for 3 Violins
  4. Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 4
  5. Elgar: Cello Concerto
  6. Dvorak: Symphony #9, "From the New World"
  7. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor
  8. Johann Strauss II: "Wiener Blut"
  9. Puccini: "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot
  10. Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, "Winter"
  11. Debussy: Arabesque #1

Tuesday, July 2

The new production of Romeo and Juliet at Orinda's California Shakespeare Theater has a cast of just seven actors – all but the title characters play multiple roles in the telling of the star-crossed lovers. Director (and former Cal Shakes Associate Artistic Director) Shana Cooper says that casting decision strips the play down to its essential characters, and adds to the already fast pace of the play's events.

There's more information about the play (which begins previews tomorrow through Friday and opens Saturday) at the Cal Shakes website.

Shana Cooper says the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda is an ideal setting for the play – there are many references in the text to birds, the sky, and other elements of nature, which – as in Shakespeare's day at the Globe Theatre – are right there for the audience to experience. The first act of Romeo and Juliet takes place during the hot Italian dayime, with tempers running as hot as the temperatures. In fact, Cooper says, the famous (nighttime) Balcony scene takes place as the sun is setting in Orinda, which works beautifully – and it's only the party which comes before it that poses a staging challenge by not being fully night yet.

Cooper says she finds something new each time she returns to the play, and says the job of the actors, especially in a work that's so iconic and beloved, is to "re-hear" it, and make the audience do so as well, By treating the words as though they're being said for the first time, and trying to forget the many interpretations we've heard before, the text will come through: Shakespeare's capturing perfectly the feeling of falling in love for the first time.

Wednesday, July 3

The percussion section stretched its definition a bit in 1880… When Pyotr Tchaikovsky decided the best way to commemorate a military victory over the forces of Napoleon would be to use actual cannons to amp up the volume and excitement of battle. And so, in the 1812 Overture, there between the percussion and the string sections, is a part for the Cannon player. Considering its reputation, it's surprising that there are only 16 blasts of the 'instrument' in the entire work.

Today, coincidentally, is Tchaikovsky's turn in KDFC's "Summer of the Great Composers"

The score is interesting to look at as well, to see that Tchaikovsky asked for three different dynamics for the 'notes' the cannon is to play. The first five, during the statement of La Marseillaise, France's national anthem (although not in use by Napoleon at the time of the campaign to Moscow) are marked ff – fortissimo.  It's not until the final flurry of the conclusion (when firework shows generally are pulling out all the stops) that he asks the player to play fortissississimo… ffff.

You can see some of the spectacle of the finale in this performance from the Proms at Royal Albert Hall:

Wednesday, July 10

This year's Festival and Academy of the American Bach Soloists will include — along with the lectures, chamber music concerts, panels and master classes — some large-scale masterworks by Biber, Handel, and Bach himself. ABS Artistic Director, KDFC's own Jeffrey Thomas gives a preview of two of the highlighted pieces: a Mass that Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber wrote for the acoustics of the Salzburg Cathedral, and Handel's re-worked oratorio, Esther.

There's more information about the Festival, including a full schedule of events at the American Bach Soloists' website.

The sold-out concert of Biber's "Salzburg" Mass (Missa Salzburgensis, in 53 parts) will also include other works by Biber using smaller forces. Jeffrey Thomas says like the music of Gabrieli was tailor-made for Venice's San Mark's Cathedral, which seemed to make antiphonal music an inevitability, Biber crafted his Mass for a smaller space, but also thinking spatially. There will be nine 'choruses' of various instruments in the hall when they perform it at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "All together, there are 53 lines, 53 independent lines of music," Thomas says. "And some of them are assigned to viols, to trumpets – there are ten trumpets, two timpani, about 16 independent vocal parts, recorders, sackbuts, cornettos, you know – everything!"

Handel's oratorio Esther actually started out as a Masque, a small dramatic entertainment that Handel wrote for his employer, the Duke of Chandos… That was put away after a few private performances, only to be revived more than a dozen years later, in a new form. "Handel would come back to the work when his Italian opera fans weren't fans any more," Thomas explains. "In London, they got sort of tired of Italian opera seria, and Handel remembered that he had this beautiful composition, and thus was started – the whole idea, the official idea of the English oratorio."

There's a special evening concert by cellist Tanya Tomkins, as part of the festival's Distinguished Artist series – and she'll also be giving two free lectures on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week about the unaccompanied cello suites of Bach. And on each of the Sundays during the run of the festival, there will be Masterwork Series performances of Bach's monumental Mass in B Minor.

Thursday, July 11

This year's Napa Valley Festival del Sole spans ten days, includes more than 100 wineries, and welcomes musicians like Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Audra McDonald, Sarah Chang, and the Russian National Orchestra. Thibaudet, who comes from the Burgundy region of France himself, calls it an amazing and unique festival – he'll perform Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Egyptian") with the RNO twice, once at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville, and then at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.

There's more information at the Festival del Sole website.

Jean-Yves ThibaudetThe Saint-Saëns concerto isn't very frequently played – but Thibaudet has been a champion of the work since he heard his teacher Aldo Ciccolini play it many years ago. It was originally written for a concert celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the composer's debut as a pianist. "We have the case of a remarkable pianist writing a piano concerto," Thibaudet says. "And in his case, he wrote it for himself to show off his technical wizardry, because he really was amazing."  The moment that stands out the most is from the second movement, which is written using using a technique that gives the piano an other-worldly color – sounding much like a prepared piano. "It's just a little bit crazy, just a little bit out of the ordinary, which is why I like it. Saint-Saëns found some incredible colors in both the orchestra and the piano; he created some moments where people are going to think that I'm playing another instrument."

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is happy to return to Festival del Sole, which runs through the 21st of July. He says the food and wine there go perfectly with the music: "Every day, people have all the different tastings, you have access to a lot of vineyards to try the wine, beautiful lunches and dinners and lectures — there's all kinds of things going on, and exhibits, then of course at night, usually around 6 pm, you have a concert every day."

Friday, July 12

Kronos Quartet will be performing this weekend at Stern Grove Festival, on a program that also includes the Real Vocal String Quartet, and the band Geographer (backed up by the Magik*Magik Quartet). Violinist David Harrington founded Kronos in 1973, inspired by a piece of music by George Crumb called Black Angels. Forty years later, they're still going strong, with more commissions, and celebrations planned throughout the season. Here's a glimpse into how Harrington begins his musical day, another in the series "Practicing Musicians."

There's more information about this weekend's concert at the Stern Grove Festival website, and about the ensemble at the website of Kronos Quartet.

Harrington approaches his violin each day with deference: "For me… Dealing with the violin – I deal with it, you know. It's not easy for me to play the violin. It's a very tough task-master, and the violin always wins. So what I try to do is make friends with it when I take it out of its case."

His approach is almost meditative – he says he gradually eases into playing, starting by concentrating on bowing 'in sync' with his violin. "I generally play a long, long tone – I try to get my body used to what it's going to need to do that day to deal with the instrument."  And it's only then that the left hand gets involved. "I generally play something like a low note, and then I slide up on various fingers up an octave, and I try to play on every string, and I try to be sure the bow is my friend."

Wednesday, July 17

The Merola Opera Program presents its summer Schwabacher Concerts – this year, the first will be tomorrow night at Everett Middle School, and the free outdoor performance on Saturday afternoon will again be at Yerba Buena Gardens. Among the scenes presented will be the end of Verdi's Otello, with Philadelphia tenor Isaachah Savage in the title role. He's been learning the part and performing small portions of it over more than a decade – saying it's a role young tenors need to approach with care.

There's more information about the concert at the Merola Opera Program website.

The "Merolini" will be staging Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro in the beginning of August (there was already a production of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia earlier this month). The operas represented on the Schwabacher concerts are Don Giovanni, Don CarloL'italiana in AlgeriLucia di Lammermoor,  L'amico Fritz along with Otello.
Merola Opera Program Class of 2013

Thursday, July 18

The "pit orchestra" for some of the films in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which opens tonight will consist of one performer: pianist Stephen Horne, who's accompanied films for 25 years. His early experiences prepared him for what many might consider the stuff of nightmares – having to play a continuous score for films he had never seen before.

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

Stephen HorneThese days, with greater access to screener copies of films, Stephen Horne says he's able to prepare more, but he still enjoys experiencing the film with the audience, reacting to the on-screen action in the moment. "My approach has always been essentially improvisatory when it comes to the music," he says. "That's how I started 25 years ago. Usually I hadn't seen the film before the public screening, just because that's how it was at the first place that I played, which was the National Film Theatre in London." Over the years, he's become familiar with a huge library of films, but says even before that, he's had a certain kind of intuition that tells him where the moods are going to change, and how. (He says the danger of accompanying a film without having seen it is if there's a specific song referred to – on a piece of sheet music, or in the title cards.)

Although piano is his principal instrument, he'll also add flute and accordion for different musical colors. He sees his role as important – but not too important. "What you have to remember is that if the film is good, and your music is not disastrously wrong, generally speaking, people get into the movie. As musicians, we can tend to get a little bit up ourselves, and think that you're more important than you are. But if you're doing the job well, they forget about what you're doing, and you become the score, you become the soundtrack.

Friday, July 19

The San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Teddy Abrams are playing a lot of music this week, in a variety of locales: there was a Beethoven concert at Davies last night, tonight they return for an All-American program, Saturday night will have them at the new America's Cup Pavilion playing Tchaikovsky, and Sunday afternoon they'll play repertoire from each of those in a free concert in Dolores Park. Abrams says it was seeing the Symphony play an outdoor concert at Stern Grove years ago that inspired his career.  

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

The concerts are a homecoming for Teddy Abrams, who as a young clarinetist played with the Symphony's Youth Orchestra: "Coming back to work with people that I've known since I was a kid, it's both very reassuring, but also a little scary, because these were people that were coaching me in Youth Orchestra, and now I'm working with them as a conductor. But honestly, I respect and really love these people so much, it means then when I'm conducting them, it feels like family in a way, and I hope they feel the same way."  Since his time here, he's been Assistant Conductor at the New World Symphony, and he's currently in that position with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Tonight's All-American concert at Davies includes works by Copland, Bernstein, John Williams, and Rogers and Hammerstein; Saturday's at the America's Cup Pavilion will be an all-Tchaikovsky program with guest soloist violinist Nicola Benedetti, and this Sunday's free concert in Dolores Park will be hosted by KDFC's own Hoyt Smith!

Wednesday, July 24

This summer's Music @ Menlo is now well underway – and the theme of the festival is "From Bach…"  Two of the performers who are veteran chamber musicians, but at Menlo for the first time this year are violinist Soovin Kim and violist Mark Holloway. They're both being kept busy, and appear in tonight's concert called "String Variations," which begins with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and then continues to explore works for string ensembles by Mozart, Richard Strauss and Shostakovich.

There's more information about the festival, which runs through August 10th at the Music @ Menlo website.

The festival includes evening concerts, which each start this season with a work by J.S. Bach – but many quickly leave the Baroque behind as they trace his influence on other composers. "There's such a deep spirituality, a deep symmetry, and structure to his music in ways that we can only begin to comprehend," says Soovin Kim. "So it's a wonderful theme for the festival, and it allows the possibility of very broad programming." He got off to a very busy start, appearing in the first concert, called "Piano/Piano" that included a Bach Concerto (for 2 pianos), Schubert, Schumann, and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Kim gave a marathon solo recital on Sunday morning showcasing works that had been written for unaccompanied violin, by Biber, Telemann, Bach, through Paganini, Ysaye, Bartok, Harbison, Salonen, to German composer Jorg Widmann. He also gave a master class and coaching session to some of the younger performers and students at the festival. "It's a very hectic intense schedule for everyone, but I think it's also exhilirating," he says.

Mark Holloway's festival schedule is also full, with teaching and playing – including tonight's Brandenburg performance, which features three violins, three violas, and three cellos. "We love it, audiences love it. And it's a nice way to meet with colleagues at a music festival, because sometimes you don't really get to play with certain people, but then you can all come together for the Bach." It affords him the opportunity to work with two other violists – occasionally a string quintet will feature a pair of them, but when his colleague Paul Neubauer decided during rehearsal to keep a secret from the violins, he was able to call a rare "viola huddle'.

Thursday, July 25

Composer Lisa Bielawa was in the process of writing a gigantic work that was to be premiered at Berlin's former Tempelhof Airport (now a park)… when she realized that her home town had a similarly re-purposed airfield, and began to envision a second work. Tempelhof Broadcast involved about 250 musicians, and Crissy Broadcast this October is likely to have more than 800 performers. 

There's more information about the project at the Airfield Broadcasts site, and the San Francisco Symphony's Community of Music Makers has information for individuals who want to participate.

This weekend, Bielawa took part in a panel discussion preview (Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr was the moderator) with some of the team that's helping to make the performance a reality: her Director for Civic Engagement, Marc Kasky; Adam Fong, co-founder of Center for New Music; Rozella Kennedy, Executive Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players; and Livia Camperi, who is a member of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and sang in the Berlin performance. It was clear that mounting a project like this can't be done lightly. "People say to me: 'Wow, there are so many logistics, all the stuff you have to do," Bielawa says. "'You have to get permits, and you have to talk to the rangers, doesn't it drive you crazy, that you can't get to the work?' – That is the work." 

She is mapping out the choreography of the musicians, as she did for Tempelhof, using layers of tracing paper over a detailed map of Crissy Field. Each group of musicians (there are lots of school and amateur groups, as well as professional ensembles) will be moving outward from the center of the field, with their progress and cues kept in line with atomic clock-syncronized watches. "There's a lot of erasing involved," she says, "and there's also a lot of going to the field with my stopwatch and walking, and realizing, you know what, that's not going to work, because it's going to take them eight minutes to walk from there to there, so it has to be someone else who does this." She's also taking into account that people will be relying on wind to help carry musical cues – so that also affects who needs to be where. She's also planned one of the performances in October to be early enough in the day to (hopefully) have accompaniment from the foghorns nearby – she's written a section of the piece based on the notes they use.

Crissy Field, photo credit: California Department of Transportation

Friday, July 26

Mauro Di Nucci (who also goes by Mauro Ffortissimo) is a Half Moon Bay artist who frequently works with cast-off pianos. He and a filmmaker decided to place a dozen of the instruments up and down the San Mateo Coast – giving passers-by the opportunity to play them in a beautiful surrounding, making music for dolphins, whales, or any other marine life nearby. The installation was a bit abbreviated – Di Nucci was aware that it would likely be, because he didn't have the necessary permits. But there will be another opportunity for a more urban installation this Fall, when he hopes to bring a dozen pianos to Market Street (with the City's permission.)

There's more information about him at Mauro Ffortissimo's website, and the project's (fully funded) Kickstarter page gives some more of the background.

The first piano that he brought to the shore in February had several "concerts" and was available to be played until it had to come down – that piano, with a bit of controversy, was 'cremated' at the end of its life – although Di Nucci is quick to point out that it was beyond repair, and the burned remains were used for art projects. These pianos, will have less dramatic ends – he's found homes for the ones that he's not keeping in storage. "All the pianos that I use are recycled – given to me, or I buy," he says. "School districts get rid of pianos all the time. I repair them, I clean them up, a good friend of mine is a tuner, we fix them up. Often I pass them along, I give them to people that don't have pianos."

He says while playing in February, he saw whales migrating between Mexico and Alaska, and saw similarities between them and the large instruments, that are also not as common as they used to be.  "The idea of 12 pianos was – because it's a large coast, from Montara to Santa Cruz to Waddell Beach, beautiful locations, to bring people out to witness, and be part of this amazing landscape, to bring a bit more awareness of the fragility of the coast and also the marine mammals.

Wednesday, July 31

In their operetta Iolanthe, Gilbert & Sullivan add the world of the supernatural to their usual skewering of British society – as members of the House of Lords become enmeshed with fairies. Lamplighters Music Theatre begins a month-long multi-venue run of Iolanthe this Friday in Walnut Creek, led by Music Director Baker Peeples, who first joined them in the chorus in 1975.

There's more about the schedule of performances in Walnut Creek, Mountain View, San Francisco, and Livermore at the Lamplighters' website.

Baker PeeplesBaker Peeples describes the typically convoluted plot of Iolanthe as "an effervescent and pretty combustable mixture," as the noblemen (in full ceremonial regalia) enter into the world of the fairies. "When you have the Peers, of course, they're very posh, and Gilbert's pretty clear in painting them all as a bunch of imbeciles. The inbreeding has left not much more than good manners and good grammar." There's a love story, of course, between a shepherdess and a young member of parliament who's half-mortal and half-fairy.  The two worlds are represented by the chorus: "The chorus is always very important, and I think has a specific character – as opposed to many operatic choruses where they're townspeople or something," Peeples says. "Here all the womens' chorus are fairies, all the men's chorus are peers, they're all the House of Lords. They're not just a semi-circle around the principals making pretty sounds. That was something that was new with Gilbert. He wanted the chorus to be a character."

Peeples' knowledge of the works of Gilbert & Sullivan is fairly encyclopedic, after conducting all but one of them with Lamplighters over the years (and having sung many of the leading roles before taking over as conductor in the mid 1980s). But that hasn't kept the material from remaining fresh. He says: "After all this time, they're still brand new to me. There are things I notice about them that I hadn't noticed before, and the jokes are just evergreen.