Friday, July 1

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.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 6

For the second year, Flower Piano returns tomorrow to the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. For twelve days, twelve pianos will be placed across its 55 acres, available for visitors to play, and listen to, with a program of performers slated to play during specific times over the two upcoming weekends.There’s more information about the installation at the Botanical Gardens website.

Flower Piano has the official approval of the city, but a few years ago Mauro Ffortissimo, the Half Moon Bay artist who came up with this project began by placing pianos up and down the coast without bothering to get the necessary permits. After the public showed interest, he and filmmaker Dean Mermell began to try to find legal ways to give the public a chance to both hear and play pianos in unexpected places. Brendan Lange is the Director of Visitor Experience and Marketing at the Botanical Gardens: “The first time we had no idea what to expect, we put the pianos out for the community to play, with some scheduled performances on the weekends as well, similar to what we’re doing this year. And the response from the community was just out of this world. I think it really struck a nerve with a number of things that the community was looking for.”  The 12-day event allows plenty of opportunity for discovery. “That is the true magic of Flower Piano,” Lange says. “The organic community building that kind of happens around the pianos – I mean, you’ve got seven-year-old kids that are taking piano lessons practicing, and you might have a professional concert pianist from Australia, like we did last year… It’s just this crazy melding of people of all ages, of all backgrounds, and the piano and the garden are kind of their meeting point… and people cheer each other on and encourage them to play songs that they know, and sing along, and it’s really amazing how people come together around this simple but beautiful idea.”

Thursday, July 7

The Mendocino Music Festival begins its 30th season this weekend, with 25 concerts between then and the 23rd. Founders Allan Pollack and Susan Waterfall give a preview of some of the artists who’ll be joining them, including Geoff Nuttall and Stephen Prutsman (playing violin sonatas by Bach), the Calder Quartet, pianist Gloria Cheng, and a wide range of world and jazz performers.There’s more information at the Mendocino Music Festival website.

Allan Pollack says there have been a lot of changes over the past three decades: “We had our first festival in 1987, there were four orchestra concerts, and four chamber music concerts… Thirty years later, and we’ve got a 16,000 square foot tent, perched on the edge of the ocean, with a huge stage, lighting, sound, everything, we’ve got a hall that seats 850 people, and we have 25 concerts.” It’s also moved away from being solely a classical music festival. “We still do tons of classical music, but both Susan and I happen to love all kinds of music, and so we have jazz, bluegrass, Celtic, Zydeco.You name it. If it’s good, we put it on.” They also have planned lectures, a production of a full opera (Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio) and a festival-ending performance of Bach’s Mass in B-minor. While they appear to have gone all-out this year, Susan Waterfall says it wasn’t just because of the anniversary year: “Every year we try to do the best possible festival, and… I mean, some people were probably were thinking in terms of ‘oh, this is the 30th year…’ but for us, it’s…we always do the best possible festival.”

Friday, July 8

The upcoming 79th season of the Carmel Bach Festival (which runs from the 16th to the 30th) has the theme ‘Bach Inspires’ – and in addition to highlighting the music of Johann Sebastian and several of his musical sons, Artistic Director Paul Goodwin has programmed music with direct links to his works. Plus, they pay tribute to the centennial of their host town, Carmel-by-the-Sea, with water-themed pieces of music.There’s more information at the Carmel Bach Festival website.

While we might think that all composers who followed him were influenced by J.S. Bach, it really might not have happened, if it hadn’t been for the efforts of one fellow composer eighty years after his death. “He fell off the radar for a while, until Mendelssohn picked him up in Leipzig, and brought him to the front. And of course, from then onwards, he’s inspired many people.” And so Goodwin programmed the ‘Reformation’ Symphony of the later composer. “Pieces that are directly influenced: I’m doing a Mendelssohn symphony that uses a particular chorale that Bach also uses. And so you have these lovely themes that go through that. And then that balances, I hope, with a tribute to Carmel-by-the-Sea on their hundredth. Where I’m putting together particularly themes of water and the sea, which go all the way through the festival.” In addition to the concert programs, there are performances of Bach’s B Minor Mass on period instruments, as well as a trimmed, semi-staged version of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

Wednesday, July 13

Transcendence Theatre Company
brings musical theater to Jack London State Historic Park each summer, with performers from Broadway and L.A. They’re presenting their ‘Fantastical Family Night’ program Friday and Saturday, and ‘Dance the Night Away” through most of August. Artistic Director Amy Miller and co-Executive Director Stephan Stubbins and a small group of actors began the company then toured the country looking for the ideal place to perform.There’s more information about the performances at the Transcendence Theatre Company website.

Their first theater space, which they were able to use for four months was donated to them in Baja, Mexico. The actors and singers then got in an RV, looking for the ideal spot. “After going around the entire country,” Stubbins says, “Texas, Florida, New York, Montana, we came down through Oregon, talked with all these leaders of theater the whole way, but came down through wine country right after that, and fell in love with this area.” It was a while before they hit on a way they might be able to afford it, since they had no money to speak of. The state of California also had budget problems.  “They announced they were closing 70 state parks, we decided we were going to come up and help save a park, and we played a part in helping to save Jack London State Park, and now we’re in our fifth season.”

The cast not only performs for the audience, they also welcome them to the space, which was part of Jack London’s ‘Beauty Ranch’ in Glen Ellen. Amy Miller says after a couple of hours of picnicking, with wine, food trucks, and entertainment, “You enter into the ruins of an old winery that was actually destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake, so it’s just the ruined walls, which makes the most extraordinary outdoor amphitheater.”

Transcendence Theatre Company

Thursday, July 14

The theme of [email protected]’s this summer is Russian Reflections, with repertoire from the country that co-Artistic Director David Finckel says has a musical history like no other. The appeal of music from Western Europe kept Russia’s own classical traditions in the shadows until into the 19th Century, when composers began to explore and solidify the sound of the nation’s music.There’s more information about the festival, which runs from this weekend to August 6th at the [email protected] website.

David Finckel says he and his wife, pianist Wu Han, who run the festival, knew the Russian pieces they wanted to program, and many of the cross-cultural pairings were natural to make. “Our Elegant Emotion program, that’s concert number 3, which pairs Tchaikovsky and Mozart… that was easy, because we wanted to have this beautiful Tchaikovsky Quartet. It is elegant and luminous and very classical in many ways, and it’s well known that Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer was Mozart – So it was very easy to pair Tchaikovsky’s Quartet with Mozart’s Quintet, which also happens to be in the key of D major.” Other composers, beginning with the rise of the group called ‘The Five’ began to find their own voice, which owed more to the Russian soul than Western tradition. “It was inevitable that of course this immense country, with a long, often very sad history, had an effect on the mood and the content of these composers’ works,” Finckel says. “The imagery that comes to mind when you hear this music, it’s inescapable. You know, you see the steppes and the plains, and you can feel the cold and the wind… And occasionally the warmth of a fire.”

Friday, July 15

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has played the music of J.S. Bach all of her life, and on her CD of Inventions and Sinfonias, shows them to be much more than just exercises in counterpoint. She says they’re almost ‘pure music’ – which teach, but are at the same time stand-alone pieces of great beauty.There’s more about her CD at Simone Dinnerstein’s website.

The purpose of the Two-Part Inventions and the Sinfonias (also sometimes called the Three-Part Inventions) was two-fold: they were a teaching tool as well as an example of what he was teaching. “He wrote a very nice description of them, as a preface,” Dinnerstein says, “where he writes that they’re ‘an honest guide to lovers of the keyboard, to show how to play pieces that are written for two voices and three voices.'” So they create independence in the hands. “Of course this is an invaluable skill to learn as a pianist. He didn’t know all the music that was going to come after him, but it’s something that you use when you’re playing Beethoven, and when you’re playing Rachmaninoff, and whatever you’re playing will require you to be able to hear multiple lines and control them.”

The Two-Part inventions especially distill the rules of counterpoint down into concrete examples – and have been played on many instruments, each playing its ‘melody’ in a singing, or cantabile style. “It’s almost like pure music, even though they… actually are quite pianistic, in the sense that they fit into the fingers in a good way. It’s really about musical lines rather than about something that’s instrument specific.” Simone Dinnerstein says they’re unique among Bach’s works: “They’re not pieces that are dances, though some of them may have some dance feelings to them, dance rhythms in them. They’re not about something, other than how they’re made. It’s kind of like seeing an X-ray of the music. This is what they are, the most essential components of counterpoint.”

Wednesday, July 20

The piano duo of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe return to Walnut Creek for a pair of performances – tomorrow night they’re taking part in the ‘Summer Sounds‘ series of free concerts on the Lesher Center Plaza, before going into the hall itself for a performance on Friday night. The pair, known for their videos almost as much as their playing, says four hands on a keyboard can often feel like four feet on a dance floor.There’s more about the concerts at the Diablo Regional Arts Association’s website.

The concert program outside tends to be more of the high energy pieces (to compete with the sounds of traffic), but they’ve got repertoire covering hundreds of years of music history for their Friday night recital, including Bach, Rachmaninoff, Piazzolla, and their own arrangements of chaconnes that mix baroque counterpoint with the music of Radiohead and Daft Punk, and ending with ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Let it Be.’  “From the beginning of our collaboration,” Roe explains, “we felt a sort of freedom in terms of our presentation and our repertoire, and thankfully both Greg and I are aligned in our tastes.” She also says they have always been keenly aware of the visual nature of their performances, “To find ways in performance, and also through our music videos, to share the excitement, and the dynamic visual aspect of our interaction.” In this case, it’s as they play music of Leonard Bernstein on a Steinway ‘Spirio’ player piano on location in New York.

Thursday, July 21

The two-week festival called pianoSonoma returns for its sixth season this Sunday, offering dedicated piano players an opportunity to have individual training, participate in masterclasses, as well as to work with chamber music artists-in-residence from Juilliard. Festival founders Michael and Jessica Shinn say it gives participants the opportunity to dive deeply into their repertoire.There’s more information about the festival at the pianoSonoma website and the Green Music Center website.

Michael and Jessica Shinn now both teach at Juilliard, and love the Wine Country – “We had already talked about starting a music festival, we said ‘Wow, what a perfect spot for it.’ We at the time had a group of adult piano students here in New York. We reached out to them and said ‘What about doing a festival out in Sonoma?’ They said, ‘Yes, we go out there all the time anyway, let’s do it!’” That spurred them to begin assembling artists-in-residence to collaborate with the pianists. “Our artists-in-residence are these young superstars, most of whom are from Juilliard, either current students or recent graduates… Once we determine who’s coming out, which we do pretty quickly in December, we then spend the winter holiday figuring out potentially good pairings, and groups of musicians. We  then have conversations with our artists-in-residence about repertoire that they might want to play, but then also repertoire suggestions based on the level of the participants with whom they’re working.” That gives all the musicians up to six months to learn the repertoire. During the two-week festival there are performances by the artists-in-residence on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Wednesday afternoons, there are masterclasses with the students that are free and open to the public.


Friday, July 22

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, July 27

Music in the Vineyards
returns for its 22nd season this Friday, with a four-week long festival, and four ensembles in residence: the Jupiter, Ariel, and Escher Quartets, and the San Francisco Piano Trio. Festival co-founders Michael and Daria Adams have planned programs in 13 wineries that include a complete cycle of Beethoven quartets and a co-commission premiere by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.There’s more information at the Music in the Vineyards website.″We do have an exciting season planned,” Michael Adams says. “And I think some of the most amazing talent stocked in one four week period that we’ve ever had, including four different ensembles in residence…One of them is doing the entire Beethoven Cycle on five successive nights to end the festival, that’s the Ariel Quartet.” This is also the first official appearance of the San Francisco Piano Trio – as a trio – at the festival – it formed after the members met and started to play together at Music in the Vineyards. Also making their debut: “The Jupiter Quartet, an unusual ensemble, a very tightly knit ensemble consisting of two siblings and a married couple. And they’ve already in their young life established themselves as a very major voice in the world of chamber music. They’ve won an Avery Fisher career grant, and numerous other competitions.”The festival runs through August 21st.

Thursday, July 28

For a quarter of a century, Marin Alsop has been conducting and championing new works as the Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. This year will mark her final season in that role, and they’re going all out with a program of works by a who’s who of current composers, including a festival commission called Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance, dedicated to Alsop by John Adams. A good conductor, she says, has to plan, adapt, and ‘listen to nothing…’There’s more information about the season at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s website.

There are eleven composers in residence this season; in addition to John Adams, they include Mason Bates, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Rouse, and Osvaldo Golijov. Alsop, who’s a much sought-after conductor of earlier repertoire too, has made contemporary music a specialty, with Cabrillo offering a unique opportunity to explore the newest of new music. She says conductors have to do the bulk of their job off the podium, before anyone is watching or listening. “Over the years, one develops a tactic and a technique, I think. I mean, I actually do practice conducting, but until you have the orchestra, you know, you can’t really adjust. That’s the tricky thing about being a conductor, is that about 95 percent of our work is done before we actually even get the instrument to practice with.”  And once the new work is fully learned, bringing it to life in front of an orchestra poses another challenge. “You have to hear everything, and listen to nothing. Because as soon as we as human beings are engaged in the process of listening, it becomes a passive experience, and a reactive experience. And as a conductor you can’t be listening and then reacting, because you’re late. So you have to hear everything, but always be driving the piece to the highpoints and the architectural goals that you’ve established.”

Friday, July 29

Redwood Symphony is joined by Masterwork Chorale for a performance this Saturday, July 30 of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which has the nickname ‘Symphony of a Thousand.’ That might be ambitious enough, but it will mark the completion of the second complete cycle of Mahler symphonies by the orchestra that conductor Eric Kujawsky founded 31 seasons ago.There’s more information about the concert, which will be at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, at the websites of Redwood Symphony and Masterworks Chorale.

The feat is made all the more impressive because the ensemble is an amateur orchestra. “I’ve done the Beethoven and the Brahms symphonies,” Kujawsky explains, “But you know, Mahler is generally considered the province of professional orchestras. So, for us to do something like that, it’s quite an opportunity for my players. And they know that they’re not going to get the opportunity anywhere else to do a Mahler symphony.” But over the past 31 years, they’ve performed all eleven symphonies (ten numbered, and Das Lied von der Erde, or The Song of the Earth) now twice. “We have a lot of players who’ve been with us through both cycles. For me, there’s an ease and a familiarity with it. You know, the first time one does a Mahler symphony, you can’t help but feel as if you’re on an out of control chariot, perhaps. And so it’s difficult to get through the first time, but now I feel very confident and relaxed.” The forces involved are extravagant – with additional players and singers, and Kujawsky says he put off this work until the end of the cycle because logistically it’s “something of a three-ring circus.”