Monday, June 3

The Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys gives a preview of their upcoming tour of Spain in a concert this Sunday afternoon at 3:00. It's part of the celebration of the hundredth season of the choir in its combined makeup of boys and men. Canon Director of Music at the Cathedral Ben Bachmann says the tour will take them to several Spanish cities, with performances in each – including a monastery in Montserrat that boasts the oldest continuous boys choir.

There's more information about the concert and tour at the Grace Cathedral website.

The group, which is made up of 25 boys and about a dozen men, will sing a program that includes some of the staples of music written for the Anglican Church – by composers like Herbert Howells (his Requiem) and Charles Villiers Stanford (his setting of 'For Lo, I Raise Up' for choir and organ) along with American works and some — appropriately enough for their upcoming trip — by Spanish composers Victoria and Morales.

Ben Bachmann anthropomorphizes Grace Cathedral itself when he describes performing some of their repertoire: "The building tells you what music it likes," he says. "The building is interested in really big gestures. And so the traditional English music, espcially that was written in the 19th and 20th Centuries, that's the music the building really loves. You can feel it really flexing its muscle."

Tuesday, June 4

Eighteen-year-old pianist Conrad Tao's new album is called Voyages – and includes music by Meredith Monk, Sergi Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, and… Conrad Tao. He's also an award-winning composer, as well as a violinist who's played in orchestras and in front of them as a soloist. His debut CD from EMI Classics is released next week, to coincide with a festival of new music he's curating in New York City, called UNPLAY Festival.

There's more information about the pianist/composer at Conrad Tao's website.

The other repertoire on "Voyages" came after his own set of pieces called vestiges. "I wrote those pieces in early 2012," he says. "They were inspired by dream images that I had had the previous fall. I wanted to set these dreams to music, if you will, and that's where this album started." The other works on the disc include five preludes by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, plus a short piece by Meredith Monk called Railroad (Travel Song). "The album became much more about change and the process of getting from one place to another, but the unpredictable stuff that happens during that process."

The final piece on the disc is also by Tao, called iridescence, for piano and iPad. He uses an app on the iPad that can generate sound, as well as manipulate the sound of the piano in real time. Here's a video showing a performance of iridescence

Wednesday, June 5

When writing his Little Women and Lysistrata, composer Mark Adamo was taking works familiar to many and translating them onto the operatic stage. His latest work, which gets its world premiere at San Francisco Opera this month is The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which has as its source the Gnostic Gospels: other versions of Biblical events that were contemporary with the books of the Bible, but not generally accepted into the canon.

There's more information about the premiere at the San Francisco Opera website, and Mark Adamo's website.

Mark AdamoAdamo became interested in writing this opera after reading an article in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella about the Gnostic Gospels – and especially the role of Mary Magdalene. He saw the opportunity for "telling a new version of the New Testament," as he puts it, "in which its previously marginalized women characters would have as eloquent a voice as the male characters. And more excitingly, that it could be based on the same texts that the traditional stories were based on. Obviously I could not say 'it happened this way…' but equally obviously, no one could say it didn't happen this way because it's based on the same matrix of scriptures about which editorial decisions were already made, which is how we have the New Testament that we do."  

Because he also wrote the libretto, Adamo had to do a considerable amount of research and study to prepare for the task. "I had to turn myself into something of a reasonable simulacrum of a Biblical scholar before I could even begin this," he says. "If you're adapting something like Little Women, you have the text, you have the history of its dramatic adaptations, you have your own connection to the material and how that sings…"  But here, he knew that he had to write a work that would be consistent with the Gnostic texts, and still stand as a drama. He says despite their role as icons, the Biblical figures of Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the others in their stories remain out of the realm of the world which we know, and Adamo wanted to help them become characters. "The process itself was both the most logical and the most satisfying, because what I was doing is the basic operatic task, which is to take a two-dimensional figure, and to give them three-dimensional life."

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene premieres on June 19th at San Francisco Opera.

Thursday, June 6

The performance that the Ragazzi Boys Chorus is presenting this Sunday at the Bing Concert Hall is called "Sing It Forward: A Silver Celebration", 25 years after the group was formed in a peninsula living room. Artistic Director and founder Joyce Keil says the group has grown from 7 boys to more than 160, and several different ensembles that now make up Ragazzi.

There's more information about the concert at the Stanford Live site, and about the group at the Ragazzi Boys website.

Joyce Keil says the concert will also be a reunion of sorts, with the 8-voice group of 'graduates' from the program, called Ragazzi Continuo performing, as well as about 50 former singers who will join to celebrate the 25th anniversary season. The group, which appeared on a Grammy-winning CD with the San Francisco Symphony in 2000, began in 1987, when Keil was recruiting singers for the San Francisco Boys Chorus. She says a mother from the Redwood City area told her 'It's really hard to get [there] from down here, so why don't you start a boys chorus?'. As she puts it, "So seven people met in her living room, and we began!"

The focus is on strong musical training mixed with fun… Which Keil says matters more to prospective parents than the group's accomplishments. "They don't choose Ragazzi because they think we're good," she says. "They choose us if we're providing a fun environment for their boy. And then there's that transition to where we can say, 'we've won all these awards, we've gone on these tours… we do all these great things' – and that's what keeps them later."

This Sunday's Ragazzi Boys Chorus concert  is at 5:00 at the Bing Concert Hall in Stanford.

Friday, June 7

Planning this year's Ojai North! Festival, choreographer Mark Morris, who's the festival's Music Director programmed some of his favorite American composers – and particuarly those associated with the West. His company will also be presenting the world premiere of a new dance, "Spring, Spring, Spring" with the trio The Bad Plus playing their arrangement of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

There's a complete listing of the festival's events at the Cal Performances website.

Morris says that some of his musical choices are similar to the San Francisco Symphony's Maverick Series – with a focus on 20th and 21st Century Americans. "I'm doing a big push on the great friend of mine, the late composer Lou Harrison," he says, "There's a lot of Henry Cowell, there's some John Cage, there's some Ives, and John Luther Adams."  It was John Luther Adams' work Inuksuit – a sprawling outdoor work for dozens of percussionists spread over the Berkeley Faculty Glade – that opened last year's festival. This year two pieces will get similar outdoor performances:  Strange and Sacred Noise on Wednesday, and Songbirdsongs on Friday.

But Mark Morris will also be presenting his take on Stravinsky's iconic work, accompanied live by the trio The Bad Plus – who have adapted the now 100-year-old Rite of Spring for piano, acoustic bass, and drums. Morris says "it's super hard, complicated, and fabulous and interesting, and this band, The Bad plus has those chops."  When he was putting together the program, he didn't realize the significance of the anniversary year: "Being me, I didn't notice," he says, "that everyone in the world is doing a Rite of Spring, cause it's the centennary. I don't notice things like that.  It's another one to add to the pile of Rites of Spring, and it's going to be harrowing, I can tell you that.

Wednesday, June 12

The one-man show George Gershwin Alone is one of a series of stage plays in which pianist Hershey Felder inhabits the role of a famous musician. This is the first time the show has come to the Bay Area, and will run at Berkeley Rep through June 23rd. He says part of the challenge of the role (beyond playing a composer who was an amazing pianist) was telling the story of the Gershwin's life in a way that worked as a drama, and would have the approval of his estate.

There's more information about the run of the show on the Berkeley Rep website, and more about his other projects at Hershey Felder's site.

Felder says he originally wanted to do a similar show about Chopin (which he's since done – Monsieur Chopin) but someone suggested Gershwin would be more popular with American audiences, and that  he bore a bit of a resemblance to him. "This started off as a fantasy, mixing theater and music," he says. "I was an actor on one side, and I studied concert piano, and was a pianist. There was no reason for me to think that I'd be doing anything other than piano and composing and conducting."  But the show got the necessary approval from the estate, as well as critical success to bring it to London, Broadway, and cities across America and around the world. "I thought a few relatives would come and see me perform the role of Gershwin, and play the Rhapsody [in Blue] and so on and so forth… As it turns out a lot more people came, and it wasn't just relatives and friends. And that was some three and a half thousand performances ago!"

The other musical subjects beyond Gershwin and Chopin that he's played so far are Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein… And he's planning a new show about Franz Liszt.  Hershey Felder found a description that George Gershwin once wrote about the music of the United States – and it informed the voice he gave the "character" George: "'American music should be made to snap and cackle'… And he meant cackle, not crackle. Like laugh, like it's funny, like the opening of the Rhapsody. 'It should never ever ever sound as if it were Chopin!'  Which I thought was very funny. That's how I sort of fashioned his voice, with this idea of snapping and cackling, and never sounding like Chopin.

Thursday, June 13

The singers of Chanticleer close out their 35th anniversary season with a series of concerts called "La Serenissima" – a name given to Venice during the Renaissance, when it was a republic, and one of the creative musical capitals of the world. The concert program is divided between sacred and secular works by some of the composers who wrote for the famous acoustics of San Marco Cathedral: Giovanni Gabrieli, and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi, Adrian Willaert, and Cipriano de Rore, to name a few. Their remaining concerts are tomorrow night in San Jose, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco on Saturday night, and Sacramento on Sunday.

There's more information about the concerts at Chanticleer's website.

The site of their final San Francisco concert this season has an appropriate bit of symmetry – it was where it all began, 35 years ago: "Ending in Mission Dolores is a poetic way to close out the season," says Interim Music Director Jace Wittig, "because of course the very first Chanticleer concert was in that space. It was next door, in the small Mission, not in the Basilica, but fortunately we've grown to need a few more seats, so it's always a wonderful experience to sing there, and I think it's very fitting that we're closing it out this year in that place.

Friday, June 14

Alfred Hitchcock called silent films "the purest form of cinema" – and made ten of them himself. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is screening "The Hitchcock 9" this weekend at the Castro Theatre (one film from 1926 has been lost).  Artistic Director Anita Monga says it's an opportunity to watch the young filmmaker develop his story-telling abilities. Beginning with Blackmail tonight, and running through the weekend, the silents include some unexpected genres, with a frothy romance and a dark look at the world of boxing, along with other more "Hitchcockian" storylines.

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

Monga says from his directorial debut onward, he shows his filmmaking DNA: "The incredible thing about Hitchcock is that Hitchcock was Hitchcock from the first moment. From the start, The Pleasure Garden (1926), the opening scene is this amazing point-of view shot from a lascivious guy in the audience looking at the showgirls' legs."  There are visual innovations, like camera shots refracted through glassware, and some of the themes that would reappear in later works. In 1927's Downhill, Monga says, "there's an amazing scene when the main character is descending the subway stairs… Almost nauseating. What Hitchcock achieved in Vertigo, he achieved in this trip down the escalator in the London subway."

There were actually two versions made of Blackmail (1929) – the silent one which leads off the mini-festival tonight at 8, and one with sound, which Anita Monga says is a little clunky because of the early talkie technology. (The leading lady, Anny Ondra was Eastern European and 'dubbed' in real time by British actress Joan Barry). Although he famously later worked with composer Bernard Herrmann, and made full use of advances in sound, Monga says "I think of Hitchcock as a natural-born filmmaker, and in the early days of cinema, the rules were being ade. He knew instinctively how to tell a story with images.

Wednesday, June 19

The Summer Solstice occurs on the longest day of the year – and this Friday, New Music Bay Area will celebrate with a concert that's become a tradition… the Garden of Memory concert, held throughout the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Pianist Sarah Cahill says the labyrinth-like layout of the mausoleum and columbarium allows audience members to wander from performer to performer, following the music. More than 50 musicians will be taking part in the concert, which runs from 5 pm until 9 pm.

There's more information about the concert at the Garden of Memory website.

The concert, which has taken place annually since 1996, takes full advantage of the unique layout and look of the chapel, which was designed by architect Julia Morgan.  "With gardens, lots of beautiful gardens with ferns and palm trees, and various beautiful things growing," says Sarah Cahill, "it's sort of like Where the Wild Things Are, in a way, things growing up to the ceiling, and then stained glass skylights."  And it's meant to be an unusual concert-going experience. "Part of what makes it work is that it's not a sit in your seat and be quiet kind of concert, and listen intently and sit there for two hours or four hours. You don't have to sit down, you can run around, kids can find what they want, and zero in on that."  There are going to be some interactive opportunities, including Maggi Payne, a professor at Mills College who will have a theremin the public will be invited to try.

The number of participants and audience has grown over the years – and with so many alcoves and hidden spaces, Sarah Cahill says it's become necessary to give people a map to be able to find them all. "My initial idea of the event was just make it a discovery, make it an exploration, and you just come across things here and there, but people then said 'I'm coming from seven to eight, and I need to hear this person.' So we give you a program with a map… or you can just put the map aside and wander around, which is really the way to do it.

Thursday, June 20

A brand new musical celebrating the life of Harvey Milk will get its world premiere in a series of concerts next week by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. After the program's first half of works inspired by the gay-rights leader's legacy, there's a 12-movement piece called "I Am Harvey Milk" – a part Broadway musical/part oratorio by Andrew Lippa, who will sing the title role, joined by Tony-winning soprano Laura Bananti, and Noah Marlowe (from Broadway's Mary Poppins) as the young Harvey. 

There's more information about the Harvey Milk 2013 program at the SFGMC's website.

Chorus conductor and Artistic Director, Dr. Timothy Seelig says because the first public performance coincided with the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (an impromptu performance that evening, on the steps of City Hall) they've focused on this 35th anniversary season on works to celebrate the memory of Milk, and pass it along to future generations.  "We decided to put out a call via YouTube and other social media, for young people, different artists to submit work of their own about the legacy of Harvey Milk." They received works like 16-year-old Julian Hornik's song called Altoona, Pennsylvania – inspired by the call that Milk received shortly after his historic election, from a Pennsylvania teenager who saw it as a cause for hope.

The second half of the concert, though, will be Andrew Lippa's music and text, taking on the title role, joined by a 27 piece orchestra, other Broadway singers, and the 290 members of the chorus. "It turned into something way larger than we ever imagined," says Seelig, "with a full-scale Broadway style musical/oratorio. I know that sounds strange, but it defies description, and I couldn't be more thrilled." Lippa, who's composed several musicals, including The Wild Party and The Addams Family, has a special attachment to this project, Seelig says. "Harvey was 48, gay, from New York and Jewish. Andrew is 48, gay, Jewish from New York. He thinks he is Harvey Milk, and we're not going to tell him any different… 'til July."

Friday, June 21

San Francisco Opera will honor mezzo soprano Zheng Cao with a memorial and free concert Monday afternoon from 3 pm until 5. Cao died at age 46 in February, after a long battle with cancer. Her diagnosis came shortly after she created the role of Ruth Young Kamen in the 2008 production of The Bonesetter's Daughter, with music by Stewart Wallace, and a libretto by her friend, Amy Tan

There are more details about Monday's event at the San Francisco Opera's website.  Doors will open at 2:30, and there will be slideshow between then and 3.

Cao was born in Shanghai, and came to the US in 1988 with next to no money. She went through the Merola program and was an Adler Fellow, making her reputation in such roles as Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. Along the way, she became close friends with many of those who'll be paying tribute to her on Monday – including fellow mezzo Frederica von Stade, sopranos Patricia Racette and Nicolle Foland, and composer Jake Heggie. The Bonesetter's Daughter was her final production with San Francisco Opera, although she continued to sing, especially at fundraising events for cancer. 

Writer Amy Tan says they chose Zheng Cao for the role of Ruth "on the basis of not just her incredible voice, but her incredible personality. We needed a very strong personality, and that was Zheng."  Tan says she grew close to Cao as they worked on the role, incorporating aspects of the mezzo's own experience into the part.  "The enormity and perfection of her voice, then combined with her personality. The level of heart, you know – when you saw the opera, so much of that came through. The character had a big huge change to go through, and a reconciliation, and she did that so beautifully and so naturally." Tan thinks the mood on Monday will include some sadness, but only a bit. The family has asked that people attending wear some red clothing: "It's going to be the spirit in the room of everybody who loved her… Zheng was all about happiness and love, and she used to sign all of her emails 'love love love' – and that's going to be there on Monday."

Wednesday, June 26

West Side Story, the classic musical retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet transplanted to New York City gets a rare complete concert performance this week by the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas wants to return the work to its Broadway roots, with stars Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber as Tony and Maria. The performances run Thursday through Sunday, with a final show next Tuesday.

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

The score they'll be using for the performances reflect the final tweaks that Bernstein made while preparing the recording from the mid-1980s, so it was his last word on the music. But as MTT says, the upcoming performances will have voices more suited to musical theater, giving audiences a chance to hear it performed under ideal musical conditions.  "Because the only so-called complete recording was made by Bernstein himself, and it was made with mega-opera stars. [Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras] were great from the marketing point of view of the recoding, but did not in all cases…. perhaps really posess musical qualities which  the composer and his team had in mind when the piece was written."  

The Symphony will be joined by the Symphony Chorus, as well as the other singing roles – Michael Tilson Thomas says he expects them to have the best of both worlds: "We're really trying to get back to the piece in its American Broadway origins, and of course we're going to have the sumptuousness of the Symphony at our disposal… But the guiding principle of it will be to have that wonderful lean on the expression quality that that repertoire and that tradition represents.

Thursday, June 27

Poet Allen Ginsberg was not only writing revolutionary works like 'Howl' during his formative years – he was also taking photographs of some of the other members of his circle. Those pictures form the basis of an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum that runs through September 8 called "Beat Memories: the Photographs of Allen Ginsberg".

There's more information about the exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum's website.

The museum's new Executive Director, Lori Starr says the images are much more than simply a historical glimpse into the world of the Beats. "Photographs that Allen Ginsberg took as he travelled with Jack Kerouac and his group, Neal Cassady, all of the Beat poets and thinkers and musicians, he took these photographs of them when he was a very young man. The photographs themselves are so tender. You can tell that he's taking photographs of people who he loves – both as human beings and also as intellects and as artists."  Ginsberg studied painting, and as Starr observes, was a very skilled photographer.

But what makes the exhibition especially interesting are the notes that Ginsberg added – by hand – to the images. "Later in his life, he went back into his archive, and he annotated each photo. So we are displaying a large number of photographs where he's sharing his memories of the context in which the photo was taken, the actual photographs he wrote on," Lori Starr says. "So we not only understand Allen Ginsberg for the first time as also a visual artist, but we understand him as a human being, and as a friend, a lover, a mover and shaker of all new ideas."

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac in the Fall of 1953

There's also going to be a Ginsberg Festival in July, that will focus on the time the poet spent in San Francisco, and is a companion to the CJM exhibit. 

Another show, which has just opened, is called "Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art" – which draws from the collection of SFMOMA, and runs through the fall.

Friday, June 28

One of the long-held dreams of amateur inventors – like building the proverbial 'better mousetrap' – is to come up with a way to create a machine that powers itself, without ever slowing down or stopping. The quest for Perpetual Motion isn't only limited to devices, though – it's also used as a musical concept, and it's the subject of an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts today… Composers such as Niccolo Paganini and Johann Strauss II have works that seem to go on and on without ever stopping…

Eventually, everything runs out of steam… or energy… or whatever is making it go. The laws of thermodynamics guarantee that. But try telling that to Yehudi Menuhin, who's playing Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" here with (long-suffering) accompanist Adolph Baller:

Or the Vienna Philharmonic playing "Perpetuum Mobile" by Johann Strauss II , conducted by Herbert von Karajan: