Thursday, March 1

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is presenting four concerts beginning tonight with a pair of concertos for mandolins on the program: one by Vivaldi, with soloist Caterina Lichtenberg, and one composed and performed by Mike Marshall. His background in bluegrass and hers in the gut-stringed traditions of the Baroque make for an unusual pairing – but they  often perform together on stage, rather than back-to-back, as they will be with the NCCO.

There's more information about the performances at the New Century Chamber Orchestra website.

Friday, March 2

The San Francisco choir called Volti specializes in new music – and that sometimes can involve singing works that have unconventional scores – instead of traditional notes and measures, sometimes they look like a set of directions. It's helpful then, when the composer is available to work with them, to make sure the original intent gets across. Music director Robert Geary was working with two of the composers represented on their upcoming concerts – one in person, one via the internet.

There's information about the concerts this weekend on Volti's website.

This is what the opening measures to Robin Estrada's "Paghahandog" look like…
The Opening to Robin Estrada's

Monday, March 5

>Today's the anniversary of the death of Sergei Prokofiev… which happened to coincide with the death of someone who made his life more difficult than it should have been: Joseph Stalin. Despite having to follow the whims of the Communist party regarding what kinds of music would be permissible, Prokofiev managed to keep his music always recognizable as his own. The San Francisco Ballet will be dancing Romeo and Juliet to his music this week.

Tuesday, March 6

The San Francisco Symphony's 2012-2013 season keeps the momentum of its centennial year, with a multi-media choral tribute to Beethoven, an observance of the hundredth anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and a concert staging of the complete West Side Story, (until now hamstrung by getting permission from the four rights holders). Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony will also be touring Asia, and presenting a full line up of concerts and soloists.

There's full information at the San Francisco Symphony's website.

Wednesday, March 7

The American Mavericks Festival launches this week, including a trio of vocalists performing John Cage's idiosyncratic Song Books – 90 or so "songs" to be sung, acted, or manipulated electronically. The score is actually three books, the third of which is a set of instructions for performing the works in the first two. Singer and Cage collaborator Joan La Barbara will be singing the work with Jessye Norman and Meredith Monk, each known for their very different styles of vocal expression and technique.

There's a complete listing of the American Mavericks Festival at the San Francisco Symphony website.

Thursday, March 8

The long career of concert pianist Murray Perahia has taught him much about the interpretation of the great composers. But it's also taught him to keep studying – that there's still plenty to learn. He's currently in the middle of editing an edition of Beethoven's sonatas with the publisher Henle – and in the midst of editing a sonata he'll play in Berkeley this weekend, he recently discovered what he thinks was Beethoven's original idea for a certain passage. 

There's more about the concert this weekend at Cal Performances' website.

Friday, March 9

If you know a concerto by Robert Schumann, it's probably the famous one he wrote for the piano. But Steven Isserlis wants you to also get to know and love the cello concerto written late in Schumann's troubled life. He'll be performing it with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra this weekend. Isserlis made a documentary film for British TV several years ago that in part blamed the relative obscurity of the cello concerto (and the violin concerto that was written even later) on the presumption that his subsequent madness made them inferior pieces.

There's information about the concerts at Philharmonia Baroque's website.

Monday, March 12

>What started as the childhood wish to be able to play songs by Stephen Sondheim on the piano led Anthony de Mare to a commissioning project that's called Liaisons – with composers from the classical, pop, avant garde, theater and film worlds taking a song and reimagining it. de Mare will play a selection from the titles already completed (eventually there will be 36) at a concert tonight in the Music at Meyer series in San Francisco.

There's information about the concert at Congregation Emanu-el's website. And about the project itself at Anthony de Mare's site.

Tuesday, March 13

Russian-born composer, pianist, poet, playwright Lera Auerbach already knows what she's going to be working on in 2016; Time is a major theme that runs through her work, and her life. Her schedule involves performance and touring, but also needs to include long stretches when she can stay in one place and compose. She gave a poetry reading last weekend, and Wednesday night she'll perform her works in a San Francisco Performances concert at Herbst Theatre with cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

More details about the concert are at SF Performances' website.

Lera Auerbach points to the childhood trips she took to Russian cemeteries with her nanny as the beginning of her awareness of mortality. But also that death was an inevitable and ultimately beautiful part of life. She’s since written several Requiems, and can point to the themes of time and death running through her work, but, as she would be quick to point out, not in a morbid way. Her most recent large-scale work for the Staatskapelle Dresden and their choir was a Requiem with the subtitle “Dresden: Ode to Peace”.  Her influential nanny came into her life this way:

“She was just someone whom my grandmother found on the street, they were sitting on the bench talking, and she asked to come for the weekend to help with the child, and this lady came, and stayed with us for the rest of her life, and became a member of the family.”

The demand for new works from Lera Auerbach can be seen by just how busy she already knows she’s going to be in the coming years:

“The schedule of commissions runs quite far ahead, which is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Now I know what I will be working on in 2016, which is on the one hand is wonderful, but on the other hand, four or five years is a very long time.”    

Wednesday, March 14

"Avant cellist" Zoe Keating will provide live accompaniment for one of the works in ODC Dance Company's season opening concerts. Keating will be recreating live three of her compositions for the dance called "Breathing Underwater". Her pieces start with improvisation, building layer by layer the phrases she plays on the cello, then instantly loops with the aid of a computer. Joining her for part of the performance will be members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.

There's more information about the ODC/Dance Downtown performances on Dianne's Top 5.

For the ODC performance, she’ll be playing pieces that already exist, which means a slightly different mindset than her usual approach. She’ll still be performing each part, but the pieces need to be to the same length as the recordings that the dancers had been rehearsing to. Zoe Keating describes the way she puts all of the phrases together as kind of like a musical game of Tetris, since they have to make sense melodically (horizontally) and harmonically (vertically) at the same time… and will be repeated and played with whatever follows and comes before them:

“Since I have to perform all the parts sequentially as I record them, they all have to fit together, I can’t have any wasted effort, I can’t just go off and do some solo that isn’t going to have anything that will fit with anything else later, so it’s kind of like this experiment in efficient movement… also something like dance.”

ODC / Dance Downtown runs between March 15-25 at the Novellus Theater of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Breathing Underwater is part of Program 1.  

Zoe Keating rehearsing with ODC

Thursday, March 15

The Cypress String Quartet has made a priority of commissioning new works during their 15 years together, and for the past 13, they've offered a concert series with the name "Call and Response." They commission a new work from a composer that reacts to the other works on the program. This season's composer is Philippe Hersant, and the pair of "jumping off-point" pieces are late Beethoven and early Haydn.

There's more information about the concert at the Cypress Quartet's site.

The quartet chooses who they'll commission works from using a blind listening test… Violist Ethan Filner burns CDs of works by a wide range of composers, and then he and Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, and Jennifer Kloetzel all listen together. Violinist Tom Stone:

"We have composers from America and Europe, at every stage of their career. And as we listen, there's music that really stands out for us and strikes us. And when that happens for all four of us, we listen to more music by that composer and try to figure out how we can commission them."

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says a big part of their original conception of the Call and Response series was to introduce music to younger audiences.

"Being incredibly optimistic (as we still are, I like to think) we thought why don't we take this music into schools and to community centers and see if we can create a new concert audience? We fundraise for free tickets for the students. Anybody who hears us in one of these outreach presentations are given free tickets, and our concert audience is about half of these outreach participants, and then the other half regular concertgoers."

Philippe Hersant has written two string quartets before, but the last one he wrote in 1988. He told the quartet he's excited to come back to the form, because he now feels less constrained by what as a younger man he felt like he had to do.

Friday, March 16

The upcoming inaugural season at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University boasts a big-name roster of musicians to play in the new Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons. Included are Lang Lang and Alison Krauss, who'll play in the season opening special performances; the Santa Rosa Symphony will be the resident ensemble, and there will be four visits from the San Francisco Symphony to the hall, which is designed – like Tanglewood – to be able to expand into the open air with a back wall that opens to the lawn.

There's more information about the season and the Green Music Center at their website.

Monday, March 19

Aside from Sci-fi movies, the works of Olivier Messiaen, and the odd Radiohead concert, it's fairly rare to come across an ondes martenot… The early electronic instrument looks like a keyboard, but one hand plays notes while the other presses a bar that determines the sort of attack and volume. The contemporary chamber music ensemble called Earplay will have two works that feature ondes martenot on their concert tonight at Herbst Theatre.

There's more information about the concert at Earplay's website.

Mary Chun, who'll be playing the ondes martenot during the concert, was at first self-taught (later she had training from Olivier Messiaen's sister-in-law Jeanne Loriod); she agreed to play the solo parts during a Messiaen festival with conductor Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony… before knowing how unlike any other keyboard it is to play.

Here she demonstrates using the "ribbon" – wearing the ring that lets the player slide through all the pitches in a free glissando, which Messiaen liked to use to imitate the calls of birds:

And here she shows the non-intuitive technique of coordinating the right hand for notes and vibrato, with the left hand for volume and attack:

Tuesday, March 20

A woodwind quintet called the Golden West Winds will be giving a free concert in Berkeley tonight, and they've been giving performances at area schools. They're part of the Air Force, and represent the service in concerts as well as community outreach in five western states. At their concert at the Emerson School in Berkeley yesterday, they played selections highlighting each of their instruments, and with a student volunteer on triangle, played Sousa's "Liberty Bell March".

There's more information about tonight's concert at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse's website.

Wednesday, March 21

The 327th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach isn't the roundest of numbers, but by way of celebration, KDFC's host of Baroque by the Bay, Jeffrey Thomas gives a preview of the concert his American Bach Soloists will be presenting at the end of the month: double concertos (and more) by Bach, plus the third Brandenburg Concerto, which he describes as "a three-cubed concerto…"

There's information about the concerts at the American Bach Soloists website.

Thursday, March 22

The last time Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon was shown in the United States, more shows had to be added at New York's Radio City Music Hall. But there are only going to be four performances when the epic film is presented in Oakland, at the historic Paramount Theatre, with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in his score. Film historian Kevin Brownlow became interested in Napoleon as a young boy, when he was able to buy a few reels of the silent film at a market.

There were supposed to be six films telling the life story of Napoleon; Abel Gance spent the budget for all of them on this, the first. The current version, re-incorporating many lost scenes, with new title cards and newly tinted and cleaned, runs over five and a half hours. The premiere at the Paris Opera was edited down to 3 and a half hours; when it was originally shown in the US, it was cut to under an hour and a half.  Brownlow worked with Gance in his efforts to gather footage from archives around the world, and since the French filmmaker's death in 1981, used scripts, notes, edit lists to recreate the film as originally intended, but never realized.


One reason the film has been seen so rarely in the US (the last time was a generation ago) is the expense of mounting not only a series of long performances with live orchestra, but also of finding a venue with a layout that will allow for the climax of the film: a twenty minute sequence using three synchronized projectors, in the first use of wide-screen in film history. Carl Davis recalled that while working on his score in the 1980s, he was only given a video of the middle screen, and he knew the moment he saw the actual "polyvision" triptych that he would need to rework that section to be as grand as the scope of the three screens (first, he added an organ to the orchestra).

Davis says that the tight deadline of only three and a half months when he was first assigned the film made it clear that for much of the score he should follow the tradition of silent film musicians of the 1920s, using music that already existed, and tailoring it to match the picture. Beginning with the composers of the era depicted (Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven, whose Eroica symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon) Davis was able to mix in patriotic songs of France, Corsican folk melodies, and his own, sweeping and Romantic themes. In 1927, much the same approach was used by the composer Arthur Honegger, who wrote original music, but also assembled appropriate works for the score.

There's more information about the shows at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Friday, March 23

David Finckel, longtime cellist with the Emerson String Quartet, recently announced that he'd be leaving the ensemble at the end of the season. But he and his wife, pianist Wu Han have plenty to juggle when that part of his schedule becomes free: their record label ArtistLed, concerts as a duo, and in various other chamber configurations, plus the continuing duties as Artistic Director of both Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music @ Menlo, Finckel and Wu Han appear in Berkeley this Saturday evening at a Cal Performances recital called "Schubert through Brahms: the Romantic Legacy".

There's more information about the concert at the Cal Performances website.

About keeping track of all the demands on their time, as performers, administrators, and mentors, David Finckel says they know the danger of stretching themselves too thin:

"Any musician will tell you that it's easy to accept two dates back-to-back in 2015, and then when you actually get to the time that it's happening, and you're flying from Missoula, to Columbus, Ohio in one day, and trying to do it, you ask yourself 'why did I do this?'  So, I don't think you'd find a musician that is not going to come up with a story of having accepted something that turned out to be a little bit bigger bite than they could chew, so it's kind of a dance, and we all do this dance in the business."

But fortunately, he says, as far as duo performances go, they've got an easier time of preparing for concerts and tours than other combinations of instruments:

"There is not so much repertoire for the piano and the cello that we like to play – the true duo repertoire – that we can't keep almost all of it in our fingers at once. And the only thing that we try to avoid is playing wildly different programs night after night on a tour, which is the only reason that one limits repertoire during a season. Otherwise, I'd be very happily playing all the cello repertoire all the time.

Monday, March 26

In honor of Spring, a sampling of "birds in the orchestra" – composers have long been writing instrumental imitations of birds… the cuckoo is probably the easiest to recognize, and it shows up in a variety of works – and since it was first possible to bring recordings into the concert hall, there have also been times when nothing but the actual sound of specific birds will do. 

There are many other examples of composers taking their cues from the feathered set, famously the bird and the duck (flute and oboe, respectively) from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf; "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; Haydn's Symphony #83 (The Hen); The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams; Mahler's first symphony also has cuckoo calls; Respighi wrote an entire work called "The Birds". But among the most fervent champions of trying to replicate the sounds of bird songs was French composer Olivier Messaien, with titles like "Oiseaux exotiques" and "Catalogue oiseaux".

Tuesday, March 27

This May, the conductor Alasdair Neale and the Marin Symphony will be giving the world premiere of a work by composer Rob Kapilow called Chrysopylae – the Greek word for "Golden Gate" – to help commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bridge. It will also take a broader look at the sounds that have existed there from even before the bridge's construction. He's called in the assistance of sound effects expert Fred Newman, who has built a soundscape from recordings made on and around the bridge to accompany the orchestra and chorus in concert. 

There's information about the concert and surrounding activities at the Marin Symphony's website.

Kapilow says because of just how iconic the visual image of the bridge is, when he started his research for the project, he decided to focus on what the Golden Gate sounds like… which led him to Fred Newman. The sound-effects whiz for "A Prairie Home Companion" had collaborated with Kapilow before, for a commission for the Young People's Chorus of New York City, called "Crosstown M42". But where that piece taught the performers how to make effects with their mouths, the way Newman does on "Prairie Home", Chrysopylae will feature a series of layered sound effects made with audio recordings.  

There's metal on metal, explosive rhythms created by the sounds of the bridge's machine shop, evoking the construction process, wind and foghorns, bird calls; all will blend with what Alasdair Neale and the orchestra and chorus will be doing. Among the texts that Kapilow set are words from the native languages of those who fished and lived by the water, diary entries from explorers upon their arrival, and suicide notes from those who took their lives by leaping from the bridge.

The work gets its premiere on a celebratory May 6th concert that is paired with Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Wednesday, March 28

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is bringing a very different pair of programs to Berkeley this weekend, with the common theme of exceptional women. Conductor Marin Alsop built her season around a single (very large) work she wanted to put on in Baltimore – Arthur Honegger's Joanne d'Arc au Bucher (Joan of Arc at the Stake). The Maid of Orleans is the subject of a Richard Einhorn cantata called "Voices of Light" the BSO will be performing with UC choral ensembles, accompanying the 1928 Carl Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Friday night's concert is a 20th Century collection of orchestral works, including the  pairing of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" with Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman".

There's more information about the concerts at the Cal Performances website: Friday's concert and Saturday's program.

It's entirely coincidence that two masterpieces of silent film with modern scores are being performed just down the road from eachother on Saturday, with Abel Gance's Napoleon having its second-to-last screening in Oakland.

Alsop's season-long celebration of the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc has her featuring works by revolutionary women – including Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower in Friday's concert. Alsop herself fits the title of Tower's fanfare – she was "uncommon" as a trailblazer in the growing world of major women conductors when named Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony, and actually was the dedicatee of Tower's piece. She's now also just begun as Chief Conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.

The Baltimore Symphony will be concluding their West Coast tour with performances in Oregon.

Thursday, March 29

The Switchboard Music Festival is an annual marathon concert  that features music that defies genres: there's classical, jazz, rock, world, and as Ryan Brown, one of the founders and directors of the festival describes it, the "things that fall between the cracks". Thirteen acts will perform in sets ranging from fifteen minutes for some of the acts earlier in the day to 45 minutes for the evening headliners, contemporary choir Volti and the singing/storytelling folk duo Faun Fables. There will be a re-imagining of Stravinsky's Les Noces, electronica, drums and electric guitars, but also classical chamber groups. The organizers present it as a showcase for audiences to discover groups and sounds they might otherwise not hear.

There's complete information at the Switchboard Festival's website.

Volti was previously featured on a State of the Arts feature here.

Friday, March 30

This weekend, there are two composers having birthdays: Haydn's (280) is Saturday, and Rachmaninoff's (139) is Sunday. In honor of the occasion, and not being able to choose one to give the spotlight to, here's a blending of some of their works… 

And here are the pieces that went into it  (click and drag over list to see them):

  1. Haydn: “London” Symphony #104, mvt. 1
  2. Rachmaninoff: Symphony #2, mvt. 3
  3. Haydn: “London” Symphony #104, mvt. 4
  4. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #3, mvt. 1
  5. Haydn: “La Reine” Symphony #85, mvt. 3
  6. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto #2, mvt. 1
  7. Haydn: “The Joke” String Quartet  Op.33 no. 2 mvt. 4  (just one phrase)
  8. Haydn: Trumpet Concerto, mvt. 3
  9. Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C# minor
  10. Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
  11. Haydn: “Surprise” Symphony #94