Wednesday, June 3

There are works about harvesting, summer rainshowers and mushrooms on a concert program the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco will present in SF and Berkeley this weekend. The group is being led by Interim Conductor Jace Wittig, and Assistant Conductor Elizabeth Kimble as Zane Fiala continues to recover from a serious motorcycle accident that happened earlier this year.

You can find out more about the concerts (at St. Marks' Lutheran Church in San Francisco Saturday night, and All Souls' Episcopal in Berkeley on Sunday evening) at this website, as well as the IOCSF's website.

Zane Fiala says he and Kenric Taylor had planned the programming for these concerts called 'Burning Light' – about nature and the changing seasons before his accident, but it became clear early on that he wouldn't have the stamina to be able to conduct them, so they brought in Jace Wittig. Fiala has been able to join them to sing – and he'll lead one of the works in the weekend's concerts. "My first rehearsal, which was three weeks ago, I was sitting in the back row, and watching Jace, and watching Elizabeth, our assistant conductor, leading the choir through things, and they would say something and I would think ‘That’s not how I would say that…’ And then, immediately after thinking that, I thought: ‘But their way was better, I should probably adopt that!’ And so you can learn a lot by watching someone else lead your group." 

The program includes two world premieres, by Chorale member Nicholas Weininger – of a setting of a poem in Russian; and Marielle Jakobsons, whose The Thread Beneath was inspired by fungi, as Elizabeth Kimble explains: "That piece is about the network of mushrooms that connects all the organisms in a forest. So it’s essentially how many organisms end up being one. And it actually has a very cool surround sound effect, and plays with harmonics, and it’s really beautiful." They're also going to be singing the West Coast premiere of a work by Kenji Oh, which depicts a Summer rain shower, pieces by Veljo Tormis, Frank Ticheli, and more – along with a piece called 'Harvest Home' that Elliott Carter wrote in 1937, and revised 60 years later. 

Thursday, June 4

The Real Vocal String Quartet is made up of four classically-trained string players who sing, as well as improvise and compose… which is a good thing, because there really isn't any repertoire out there for a singing quartet. The founder of the group, Irene Sazer says they like to push each other to go a little bit out of the box. They're going to perform at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley next Thursday night.

There's more information about the ensemble at the Real Vocal String Quartet website.

Irene Sazer, fellow violinist Alisa Rose, violist Matthias McIntire, and cellist Jessica Ivry will be previewing tunes from a CD that they're going to be recording this summer. McIntire describes it as "an Americana CD, and it’s going to feature six songs that are mostly originals but they’re all sort of somewhat harking back to Americana styles, the Appalachian fiddle tunes, and I have a sort of jazz-inspired piece." But even with that theme, they're a bit out of the box, with one tune that mixes traditions from farther afield: "It’s a combination of a song from Kyrgyzstan, which is called 'Kyiylyp Turam,'" Jessica Ivry explains, "…and then Alisa did write an original Appalachian-sounding tune in the middle of it, that we call ‘Horse on the Mountain,’ cause they share some similar themes: leaving your rural life for the city to make a better life for yourself. We were singing in Kyrgyz, and then also we threw in a verse in English with similar themes."

Jessica Ivry has studied and performed music from the Balkans, and they all bring their own personal passions to the ensemble – making it a great opportunity for each of them as composers to experiment, and try new things. Alisa Rose says: "I think what’s really special about this group is we can all bring these influences in, and we all understand these outside influences from Classical music, but we also all have this strong attention to details, and about how we want a string quartet to work and sound too… as a band."

Friday, June 5

Les Troyens (The Trojans) by Hector Berlioz opens this Sunday at San Francisco Opera, with a star who's sung the role of Didon (or Dido) twice before – which is unusual given how infrequently the sprawling work is staged. Susan Graham says she's gotten more comfortable in the role, which isn't one of lofty nobility in this production, but rather a "Queen of the people."

There's more about the production, which runs through July 1st at the San Francisco Opera website.

Graham says there's a special focus in this staging (by David McVicar, and directed by Leah Hausman) in having Didon be friends with her subjects, and the mezzo says she's finding that easy to do: "I’ve been singing at the San Francisco Opera for so long that I know these choristers, and I know these dancers, and I know these people so…when I come on at the beginning of Act III, and they’re all singing ‘Gloire, Didon,’ (Glory to Didon)  I really am so just completely gobsmacked, for want of a better word." Her part in The Trojans doesn't even begin until then, two hours into the five-hour running time. The first two acts cover the Fall of Troy, complete with giant Trojan Horse, and the remainder tells the story of the ill-fated love between Dido and Aeneas, (sung by Bryan Hymel.)

Graham says she's come a long way since the days two decades ago when she had a small role in a production of Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera. "I was just a kid, and playing the son of Aeneas, and I just thought, ‘This is such an epic piece… Wow, would I love to sing that part someday, but will I ever?’ you know, those things, you never know when you’re young."  Part of the reason she's gotten more comfortable in the role is because (despite its challenges) it suits her voice so well. "It doesn’t go clear up into the stratosphere, there’s a meaty quality in the middle that’s required, and a warmth in the middle. And you have to be able to sort of dip down in the low a little bit, but it doesn’t stay down there. People say ‘Berlioz was written for you!’ and I kind of am inclined and honored to agree."

Friday, June 12

The newly renamed Ojai at Berkeley launches next Thursday evening through Cal Performances, with a free outdoor concert at the Faculty Glade of music by John Luther Adams, whose percussion-filled Inuksuit opened the festival three years ago. The festival's music director this year is percussionist Steven Schick, who organized and directed that performance.

You can find out more about the festival at the Cal Performances website (use the tabs to find the full schedule of events.)

This is the first year the festival has been overseen by a percussionist, and Steven Schick says he's trying to bring to the role the somewhat unusual perspective he's found that they share. "For me, percussion is more than the instrument I chose – it’s a way of looking at the world, it’s a kind of system of knowledge acquisition. We’re a kind of confederacy of inspirations and sonic resources. And that’s very different from a pianist or a violinist, who has an instrument, and therefore, I think, a point of view. A percussionist naturally has a multiplicity of points of view, and that’s what we’ve tried to reflect in the programming this year."  He's honoring Pierre Boulez, (himself a former artistic director of the festival) who turned 90 this year, with a variety of his works, plus a piece called A Pierre Dream which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 'Beyond the Score' series premiered earlier this year.
"It’s live performances," Schick says, "…of excerpts from his most influencial pieces, with videotaped ‘testimony’ if you will, from Boulez himself, as a young composer, a middle aged composer, and as an older composer. There are actors who read lines aloud onstage – especially the texts from Mallarme that Boulez was so fond of.  It’s a fascinating combination of narrative, video and music."

There's also a natural emphasis on percussion, with Schick giving a solo recital on Friday evening, his ensemble red fish blue fish playing Chavez's Toccata for Percussion (on a concert with pipa virtuoso Wu Man playing the concerto Lou Harrison wrote for her,) and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion on Saturday afternoon.  "It both begins and ends with percussion sounds, and so percussion in the Bartok sonata is not merely decorative, it is thematic, it is a quartet. And that was a big change for percussionists." It's on a program with Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez, but lest that lineup scare would be audience members, Schick says: "It isn’t a sort of modernist, isolated castle with a huge moat saying ‘stay out…’  It’s in fact music that invites connections, and music that invites listeners. And it’s lush, and it’s beautiful and it’s… been misunderstood."

Wednesday, June 17

The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of a celebration of Beethoven, leading up to Saturday's sold-out recreation of the famous 1808 marathon concert that introduced the world to the fifth and sixth symphonies, the fourth piano concerto, the Choral Fantasy, as well as movements from the Mass in C Major. One of the soloists for the concerts, Jonathan Biss, is in the middle of his own celebration of Beethoven. 

There's more information about the concerts in the series at the San Francisco Symphony website

Jonathan Biss says: "Since I've played music, I've played Beethoven. And Since I've played Beethoven, I've been pretty consumed by him." Enough so that he's recording all of the sonatas over the course of nine years – he recently released volume 4 of 9. The concerts leading up to Saturday's concert include the same repertoire, in a more manageable scale, with the Fourth Piano Concerto tonight and Friday, paired with the 'Pastoral' Symphony. Biss says that concerto never stops being astonishing. "The other thing which I find really miraculous about the fourth concerto is that it’s so often referred to as the most poetic of the concertos, which is true, but that’s moment to moment. If you look at it as a whole, it’s actually an incredibly grand statement. Its architecture is enormous while finding a way to accommodate these very, very intimate moments of magic, sort of throughout the piece." 

On Thursday night, on a program with the iconic Fifth Symphony, Biss will play the 'Choral Fantasy' – with orchestra and chorus, as well as a solo piano Fantasy, which is going to approximate the block of the 1808 concert that we can never actually recreate. "The program just said ‘solo improvisation’ which by its very nature means it was never written down," Biss explains. "And the Fantasy is… among all of the published works of Beethoven, it comes closest to telling us what his improvisation must have sounded like." And while the Choral Fantasy pales in comparison with the Ninth Symphony (which it has thematic links to,) Biss says it's always struck him as an 'occasion' piece. "The occasion was that concert… a marathon, Herculean undertaking which involved orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, pianist… And it made then sense for all of them to come together in this big, wonderful, unsubtle statement about brotherhood at the end."

Thursday, June 18

Pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane calls it the chamber music festival of his dreams: the inaugural ChamberFest at the Green Music Center will run from next Wednesday through Sunday, with a first-year focus on the "three B's" of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. There will be nine concerts in five days, most in the more intimate Schroeder Hall, ending with a performance of all the Brandenburg Concertos in Weill Hall. 

There's more information about all the performances at the Green Music Center's website.

One of the reasons the long-awaited Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center was so anticipated was because its intimate size made it ideal for chamber music performances by smaller ensembles. Kahane and Zarin Mehta, the co-executive director of the GMC, had a discussion about the possibility of a curated festival. "Zarin gave me the opportunity to create the chamber music festival of my dreams, here at the beautiful Green Music Center," Kahane explains. "We’re going to have eight concerts in the intimate space of Schroeder Hall, and one very spectacular finale in Weill Hall, featuring all the Brandenburg Concertos.   Essentially, I picked up the phone and called a great number of my closest friends and wonderful colleagues all over the country, invited them to come, and we put together, I think, what is an extraordinary series of programs devoted to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms."

Those friends include soloists like violinists Jennifer Koh and Benjamin Bowman, pianist Natasha Paremski, the Miro String Quartet, and organist Malcolm Matthews.  Kahane says he and the other performers will be introducing works from the stage, and available to interact with audiences afterward. Although (or because) there are hundreds and hundreds of pieces to choose from with a (mostly) three-B program, he chose works that he loves the most: "Pieces like the great horn trio of Brahms, the two Brahms cello sonatas, one the of the Beethoven cello sonatas, Beethoven string quartets. And putting them together along with works of Bach, to show the influences of Bach on Beethoven, of Bach on Brahms." They've also got Bach in transcription for two pianos: "We’re doing a couple of the beautiful Kurtag arrangements of Bach Chorale Preludes, I’ll be playing that with the amazing young pianist Natasha Paremski, who’s also going to be featured in the Brahms G minor piano quartet. And in a very unusual program, she’s  going to be doing a kind of musical conversation with a wonderful young organist; Schroeder hall has an absolutely exquisite organ, and they’re going to be doing a program of music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in a conversation between the piano and the organ." The festival concludes on Sunday the 28th, with the Brandenburgs in the larger Weill Hall, which Kahane says should be a fabulous space for them, "both acoustically and atmospherically."

Friday, June 19

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, in their final performance before leaving on a European tour, will be playing Bruch, Berlioz and Bates tomorrow afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall. Music Director Donato Cabrera says the tour repertoire will also include works by John Adams and Gustav Mahler. You can also hear them play the Mason Bates work, Garages of the Valley this Sunday night on KDFC's Bay Area Mix.

There's more information about the concert at the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra website, and here's the Bay Area Mix page.

Flute player Apoorva Rangan was with the orchestra when they last toured Europe three years ago. "I think my first tour I was kind of… I don’t know, I had my mouth open a lot of the time," she says. "I was just staring at stuff and sinking it in that I was where I was. Now, hopefully I’ll be able to take more information with me as well to make it more of a rich experience." The trip will take them to several venues across Europe — the next time they play Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique after tomorrow afternoon's concert, it will be in Milan — including two history-rich halls on consecutive days, Berlin's Philharmonie, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. "These are august venues," Donato Cabrera says."I really have to not only pace myself because we’re playing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony back-to-back, but it’s a matter of really making sure that the Youth Orchestra is paced and ready to play at their very best, which I know they will at both of these venues… It’s almost at the point where I can’t think about it. We performed and recorded Mahler Symphony No. 1 in the Philharmonie at the last tour, and even that is still almost beyond my comprehension that I’ve made a recording in this fantastic hall. So to go again, and do another Mahler symphony? Why not?"

Rangan, who will be heading to Harvard next year, says the experience of playing with the Youth Orchestra has been invaluable: "It’s been one of the most collaborative experiences that I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve had the pleasure to play with incredibly talented peers, and also receive feedback from some of the most passionate and caring professional musicians. Where else in the nation are you going to get an experience where it’s four flute players your age, and a San Francisco Symphony member giving you advice on how to make music as beautiful as possible?"  Donato Cabrera has an idea of what he can expect from the upcoming concerts: "Each tour is slightly different than the next, or the last one. But in general, what I’m sure I’ll experience is the wonderful energy that this youth orchestra will bring on a minute-to-minute, second to second basis." 

Wednesday, June 24

Today is the 80th birthday of composer Terry Riley – an anniversary that's been celebrated throughout this year by artists paying tribute to one of the groundbreaking pioneers of minimalism. Kronos Quartet is hosting a festival in honor of the occasion, at SFJAZZ this Friday through Sunday. Violinist David Harrington says the group has worked closely with Riley since they first met more than 35 years ago.

There's more information about the festival at the Kronos Quartet website.

David Harrington says they've learned a lot from the composer over the years – about sound, musical color and rhythm – but they take particular pride in helping to convince him to write down his music, which he's done in more than two dozen commissions for the quartet. They first met after he had firmly established his reputation with his best known work, In C. "For many of us who heard that for the first time," Harrington says, "it changed our whole sense of the world. It was kind of like The Rite of Spring from the 1960s."  It was followed by the electronics-infused A Rainbow in Curved Air (which inspired the opening to The Who's "Baba O'Riley").  David Harrington describes their first meeting: "He kind of happened by a rehearsal at Mills College, and he just loved the process. We were doing a pulse to try to get our rhythms more precise, and we were critiquing each other, and it was this give and take on how to do rhythm. The thing that captivated me was his friendliness, his generosity, and his love of music." But it took some doing to convince Riley to write for them, because he had been going in the direction of jazz and Indian music, with long, improvised parts that he would play himself. "Terry was not notating his music. He’d given up on it. Basically, where do you go from In C? Where do you go from A Rainbow in Curved Air? I felt that we needed his spirit, his kind of imagination, his generosity in the world of our music, and so for a year or so, it was me against him. He was going one way, and I needed to convince him to go another way… He eventually realized that it could be incredibly fun to have other people interpret his music.   He could be able to fix moments of imagination in a way that you can’t do when you’re improvising, and then it’s kind of gone into the ether."

The festival will include several premieres, including one by Yoko Ono, and a set of minute-long pieces in his honor by friends and composers who have been influenced by his work. There are also special guests who will be performing: Zakir Hussain, Kala Ramnath, Wu Man, and the guitar-percussion new music duo 'The Living Earth Show' will join Kronos for the world premiere of a new arrangement of A Rainbow in Curved Air

Thursday, June 25

This week's KDFC CD of the Week is a recording by pianist Orli Shaham called Brahms Inspired, which puts Johannes Brahms in the center of a timeline of music stretching from Bach to Avner Dorman. Shaham says rather than being either a historicist or a visionary, he was both a student of what came before, and a pioneer for what would follow. 

You can find out more about the disc at our CD of the Week page, as well as Orli Shaham's website.

She sums up the idea of musical influences that infuses the album this way: "It doesn’t matter how great the music is, and how great the composer is (and to me there isn’t any greater than Brahms, especially late Brahms). They never compose in a vacuum. They live in the world. And they’re inspired by what’s come before them, and they create a path towards what will be."  At the center of the disc are the three late opuses of Brahms, numbers 117, 118, and 119. They're each sets of pieces, three Intermezzi, and two sets of Klavierstücke. They're intermingled with works by composers that Brahms knew in depth as both an editor and performer: Bach, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin, as well as Arnold Schoenberg's "Sechs kleine Klavierstücke" (Six Little Piano Pieces) and 3 works by living composers, Bruce Adolphe, Brett Dean, and Avner Dorman.  "I love that about this disc," Shaham says, "Living in that world, and seeing how the pieces speak to each other. It’s so clear that one composer picked up on something that the other composer did, and took that in a different direction, or took it further in the same direction, and that creative process is so fascinating."

When Brahms edited Chopin's works, he looked at every single note, deciding why Chopin had chosen one note over another, and analyzed the compositional process. "Brahms did this with a lot of music, and it informed everything that he did in his day," Shaham says. "And at the same time, he was pushing boundaries. Opus 119 number 1 to me is one of the most shocking examples of how far tonality might go, and it doesn’t get fully realized until the middle of the 20th Century, what it was that Brahms was pointing at." 

Friday, June 26

Aurora Theatre's production of Detroit takes a look at the recent economic crisis in miniature – two couples who live next door to each other in a suburban neighborhood city get acquainted over that most American of all institutions, the barbecue. Amy Resnick plays Mary, the wife of a recently fired banker; they meet their surprising neighbors, and discover more about them in their backyards.

There's more information about the performance, which runs through July 19th, at the Aurora Theatre website. (Extended to July 26!)

Despite the show's title, playwright Lisa D'Amour describes the location only as a "first ring suburb outside of a mid-sized American city." But she says Detroit's local history as a place where fortunes changed and left a lot of people behind mirrors the national economy's recent tumble. She was also inspired by the rebuilding of her family's home and neighborhood in New Orleans after Katrina. Amy Resnick says her character and her recently-fired husband have to show that same kind of resilience. "We’ve come in to try to buy a house for cheap, and attain our middle-class life. We’ve lost our income, we’ve lost our old house, and these two teach us about life without possessions… It’s very funny, it’s very bawdy. It is a really really fun journey. It’s about stepping into uncertainty."

But, Resnick says, it's also about the way our whole notion of community has changed over the years. "Where do we find a place to come together? It was church, it was the Moose Lodge, it was softball if you’ve got kids. But what really connects us? What’s our social fabric?We’ve lost connections with our neighbors. No one goes to borrow a cup of sugar anymore. We live behind these fences, we spend so much time buried in a screen, on our phones, our devices, and so fractured, and so distracted. We don’t look into each other’s eyes enough. We don’t have real conversations anymore. Ultimately, I think that’s what this play reveals. We need each other. We need community. We can’t do it on our own."