Tuesday, March 3

The Knights – an orchestra that was started by two of the members of the quartet Brooklyn Rider – has had from its beginning a unique (and friendly) dynamic. Their new CD, The Ground Beneath Our Feet, traces the idea of the concerto grosso with music from Bach to Reich and beyond (including a brand new work for violin and a traditional Persian instrument). Colin Jacobsen says they're following their father's example of playing music with friends.

You can find out more at The Knights' website.

They call themselves an 'orchestral collective', and it began as a group of their musician friends. "Our dad played in the Metropolitan Opera for over thirty years, as a violinist," Colin Jacobsen says. "And he would play a show, and then come back with friends and play chamber music all night. And I think we saw there was a joy that had a very social element to it with music…So as soon as we were old enough, we started having house parties of our own, where we would just read chamber music all night. And out of those bonds of friendship, we decided to put together a string orchestra." By 2005 or so, they had been successful enough to include wind players too. They can grow or shrink as required by the music, and include among their friends and collaborators singer/songwriters, and several members of the Silk Road Ensemble. That's where Jacobsen met Siamak Aghaei, who plays the Santur, a traditional hammer-dulcimer like instrument from Ancient Iran. "I don’t think anyone has written a violin and santur concerto before, so that seemed like a corner of the world that needed to happen," Jacobsen jokes. Given the political difficulties of Aghaei travelling to the U.S., they worked together on the piece in Amsterdam (and when it was to be premiered in the States, a couple of senators had to help make his getting a visa possible during a federal government shutdown.)

The recording was made live in concert at Washington DC's Dumbarton Oaks, the mansion and museum that's celebrating its 75th anniversary. The disc includes the work of the same name by Igor Stravinsky (which, coincidentally, the Jacobsens' father played at the same site thirty years earlier) – a work influenced and inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. There's also a violin and oboe concerto by Bach himself, the title track, which several members of the ensemble composed (with an improvisatory feeling over a traditional bassline that repeats) and it begins with Steve Reich's Duet for two violins and strings. "I don’t know these days how many people sit down, put on an album, and listen to the whole thing through," says Jacobsen, "but I think if people were to do that with this album, they would feel a nice sense of progression between the pieces. And the Reich does sort of serve as setting the tone of the album. I always feel like that piece invites a listener in."

Wednesday, March 4

The New Century Chamber Orchestra plays four concerts this week, led by the violinist who was the longest-serving concertmaster at the New York Philharmonic before his retirement last year: Glen Dicterow. The program includes Mozart, Brahms, Holst, and Grieg. Dicterow says the ensemble has made him feel right at home, and they're "having a grand time."

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

The job of the concertmaster is to be the liason between the string section and the conductor, Dicterow says, in addition to deciding on bowings and playing the violin solos in orchestral pieces. "You’re basically like an ambassador or a diplomat, not only having to learn the parts and the solos, and everything like that, but sort of a go-between, and trying to make peace amongst a huge section. They have a huge string section, you have to get along with everybody and get the work done, get the job done." So what to make of a conductorless ensemble? His wife, violist Karen Dreyfus, used to play in the Orfeus Chamber Orchestra, and he attended some rehearsals, but it's taking some getting used to. "I thought it was extremely refreshing," he says, "not to just have somebody on a podium always telling you what to do. And being for 34 years in the New York Philharmonic, and 8 years in the L.A. Phil, it was totally alien to me to be able to have the whole orchestra, not just somebody in the first seat express their views… I was a little bit apprehensive about this kind of an arrangement, having done the other so many times, but I feel like part of the family."

The repertoire for the concert includes a one-to-a-part Brahms Sextet, a Mozart Divertimento, and Holst's St. Paul's Suite, which Dicterow says he had never heard before: "That’s something that was a surprise to me – that… Gee, where has been my whole life? Of course I’ve been a member of major orchestras, and you don’t generally shave it down to string orchestra." Also new to him, as well as the NCCO, was Grieg's Two Nordic Melodies. "I was captivated, absolutely stunned that such a piece, that I’d never even heard before in my life – I’d never played it in two orchestras… Another surprise was that the New Century Chamber Orchestra had not even done it… I said, ‘Wow! Something that they haven’t done!’ I mean, you look for string pieces, and it’s not a huge vast repertoire available."

Here's a video the New York Philharmonic produced leading up to Dicterow's final season:

Thursday, March 5

Tonight through Saturday, the San Francisco Symphony presents a program of works having to do with the creation of the world. It will be guest conducted by composer Thomas Adès, whose In Seven Days is featured, complete with piano soloist Kirill Gerstein and video projection. 

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

Along with his own piece, the concert will comprise Darius Milhaud's La Création du monde (The Creation of the World), Luonnotar by Sibelius for soprano and orchestra (sung by Dawn Upshaw) and Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. "The Milhaud and the Sibelius were very obvious pieces to put with it," Adès says, "because they were both on the same theme – creation myths, or narratives.  The Ives puts us in this sort of question of 'how did we get here?'  I guess that is what the Unanswered Question is, something like that, how or why, but particularly how in this concert." 

For In Seven Days, the piece progresses through each of the days of creation, depicting each of them musically. Adès was inspired by looking further back than the best known translation of Genesis. "In the King James Version, we begin with the word void… which isn’t quite right because that implies there’s nothing. What the original has is more of a sense that everything is there, it’s just all in the wrong order. It’s not been joined up correctly at all, all the elements are jumbled. And that to me was in a way a more exciting idea of chaos than it being empty, because it’s also a fairly true description of what it can be like if you’re starting to write a piece. Everything is already there, but you have to then put it in a new order."

Friday, March 6

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has paired Ravel and Gershwin with a concerto written for her by Philip Lasser called The Circle and the Child on a new CD called Broadway-Lafayette. She says performing Rhapsody in Blue is as close to playing in a jazz band as most classical musicians get, and one of the few occasions both soloist and orchestra members get to be happy at the same time.

There's more information about the CD on Simone Dinnerstein's website.

There's clearly an exchange of influences between Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel's Concerto in G Major… they share bits of American jazz and lush impressionist harmonies, with phenomenal parts for the soloist throughout. Simone Dinnerstein says putting them together makes sense: "It’s so natural. I’ve performed the two of them in concert together quite a few times, and you really hear the link between the two of them.  Both played their own music, and that’s something that people used to do – is that the composers played their own music, and therefore it was written in a certain kind of style." It starts with the crack of a whip, but Dinnerstein prefers the contemplative second movement to the pyrotechnic outer ones: "It’s very reminiscent of Satie… and to me that’s the best part of the piece, is the slow movement. I think it’s just outstanding. It’s like a long dream."

She included an earlier work by composer Philip Lasser on another CD, and a few years ago commissioned him to write her a piano concerto, which he's called The Circle and the Child. "It took him about two years to compose the piece, and he would show it to me as he was writing it, which was really great and exciting. And so I got to see it come to life, and change and develop… It was very much written for me. I think that all of the different values, and the writing… tonally, and  colors, the touch, the lyricism of it, the counterpoint in it, the way the piano and the orchestra interact… All of these things. It just feels like it was almost like a letter written to me. It’s just an incredibly beautiful, deep piece of music, and I loved it so much that I really wanted to make a recording of it. And that’s what sparked off the idea of this recording."

Monday, March 9

Smuin Ballet brings a program called 'Untamed' to Walnut Creek this Friday and Saturday (then Mountain View and Carmel the following weeks) – with a new take on Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings by choreographer Garrett Ammon. Plus Amy Seiwart's Objects of Curiosity, and the return of Michael Smuin's retelling of the Frankie and Johnny story, with a Cuban setting. Artistic Director Celia Fushille gives a preview.

You can find out more about the performances at the Smuin Ballet website.

Garrett Ammon, who is the Artistic Director of the Denver-based dance company Wonderbound, has set the Tchaikovsky score that for eighty years has been linked with George Balanchine's piece Serenade. "I love that he was willing to do so, because it certainly deserves to be danced to," says Celia Fushille. "To see this modern treatment of it is just fabulous. It's a contemporary ballet – he picks up the whimsy, the humor, the sensitivity; it's a lovely piece on the company." She had wanted to work with Ammon for several years, and when Smuin was touring in Colorado a year and a half ago, she went to see his company. "They were rehearsing Serenade for Strings, and I got to see a complete runthrough of the work. Afterward I said, 'OK, great, how soon can we do it?' It was just one of those that I saw and thought 'this is a perfect fit for Smuin.'"

Smuin Ballet 'Frankie and Johnny'The program also brings back Amy Seiwert's 2007 production of Objects of Curiosity, with a score by Philip Glass and Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso, as well as company founder Michael Smuin's Frankie and Johnny – which moves the tragic story of doomed love to the streets of Havana, with an all-Latin score. Celia Fushille (who danced the role of Frankie in 1996) gives the brief synopsis, which is the same as the legendary song: "He does her wrong, and so she does him in!" (There is a "for mature audiences" notice in the program). Because many of the works that Smuin performs are more abstract, Fushille says they're really enjoying rehearsals so far – "It's lovely for the dancers to be sinking their teeth into character roles, so they're having a blast doing that too. It's been a while since we had a narrative, and Michael was just such a masterful storyteller!"

Tuesday, March 10

The Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra (formerly the San Francisco Sinfonietta) offers a concert called Old and New 'New Music' this Saturday evening at the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco. Conductor and group founder Urs Leonhardt Steiner gives a preview, as the ensemble continues to celebrate its 20th anniversary season.

There's more information about the concert at the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra website.

The ensemble will be playing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, plus two brand new works by members of the orchestra: principal clarinetist Michael Kimbell's Barcarolle, and Metamorphosis by Stardust, who is the second oboe and English horn player. "I aked both of them, as a celebration to our name change, to write something short for us," Steiner says. "So we're going to celebrate that." He says the group grew out of their previous name. They're made up of both professionals and amateurs, and also have a chorus, (sitting out this performance, but they'll be in action for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which will be their next set of concerts in May and June.

On the decision to program Shostakovich for a community orchestra, Steiner says: "Classical music, you don't have easy pieces. They don't exist. And over the years, my experience hgas been that if you give people more difficult music, they will work on it really hard. If you give them music which they perceive as easy, they don't do so well. And on top of it, it's very difficult music for anybody. And we played it in 1999 for the first time, so we have… a few of us have been part of that."

Wednesday, March 11

Jennifer Koh brings a recital of solo works for the violin to Hertz Hall through Cal Performances this Sunday afternoon, in a program called Bach and Beyond. It includes two unaccompanied sonatas by Bach, and two works that continue the tradition that he began: Luciano Berio's Sequenza, and a new work (and Cal Performances co-commission) by John Harbison called For Violin Alone.

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

Jennifer Koh began the project she calls 'Bach and Beyond' a few years ago – when she got over being intimidated about performing his solo works to an audience. "For a long time I did not perform Bach in public, actually, and I began to question why… I think for me, there was a great weight to the kind of performance tradition that had existed before.  And I think the other part of it was also that it’s such personal music that I felt very vulnerable performing these works in public." She's able in the concerts to use the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas as natural bridges to the newer music that looks back to them. "The reason I created “Bach and Beyond” was in part to explore the weight of Bach both on performers as well as composers. And I wanted to create a historical journey of Bach’s influence on composers throughout history. That of course included the present, so I wanted to include newly commissioned works as well." Some of the composers whose works have been included in the project have been Missy Mazzoli, Phil Kline, Kaija Saariaho, and John Harbison, whose new piece will be on the program Sunday. Koh describes the Harbison piece this way: "His entire work is very much steeped in tradition, and he wrote his piece in the form of Partitas… they’re actually literally dance movements. But what’s interesting is he really contemporizes it, by pulling from American dance forms and American music."

One side benefit of the project, in addition to teasing out connections through music history, is that Koh is helping to create a larger body of solo works, which also helps her prove her case that, like the piano, her instrument has the richness and depth to sustain an unaccompanied recital program. She describes the earlier days of 'Bach and Beyond' in this video:

Thursday, March 12

The San Jose Symphonic Choir is celebrating two milestones this season – the 30th anniversary of music director Leroy Kromm, and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the group. Their anniversary concert at the California Theatre on the 22nd will be a reprise (of sorts) of the first concert that Kromm led in 1985, pairing the Requiems of Mozart and Salieri.

There's more information about the concert at the San Jose Symphonic Choir website.

The ensemble, which began as the Vallesingers in 1924, before changing its name to the San Jose Municipal Chorus, has grown to about 110 voices – and Leroy Kromm has now been at the helm for a third of their 90 years. He took the podium when, in the middle of the 1984-85 season, the previous conductor decided to step down. "I inherited the season that we were to present, and the next concert was the Missa Solemnis and the C minor mass of Mozart. And I thought… ‘No. There’s no way we can do both of these pieces.’" So he was looking for a solution to his programming problem when it found him – in the stacks of the Berkeley music library.  "While I was perusing scores, I was looking in the S section, I thought… 'Schubert, maybe Schumann wrote something…' And from the top shelf, a score fell out and hit me, fell on the floor, and it was the Salieri Requiem." The concert that they're doing on March 22nd will echo that programming, with a slight variation… "It was decided on that fateful day, when the score hit me on the head, we would do the Salieri Requiem. So we’re in a sense recreating that concert, except instead of the C Minor Mass, we’re doing the two Requiems."

Despite the pair of Requiems (and their remaining concert in the Spring is Benjamin Britten's collossal 'War Requiem') the concert is celebratory. And Kromm says that Salieri wasn't commissioned to write the piece – it wasn't for anyone's death, although it was played at his own funeral years later. Rather, it was Salieri's way of bowing out of being a busy working composer. "He had been an extremely popular and celebrated opera composer, but he was so disillusioned by what was happening in music, it was the act of just saying ‘I’ve had enough.’ He actually wrote it… In a way, it was like the commemoration of the end of his career." Kromm describes the rarely-heard piece as sounding in parts like Haydn, sometimes like Handel, and often… like Mozart. 

Friday, March 13

In honor of the approach 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. 

A cuckoo may have a fairly pedestrian birdcall, with only two notes, but Frederick Delius, Beethoven, and Handel all used it memorably (not to mention Laurel and Hardy's theme music). Ottorino Respighi called for a recording of nightingale songs to be played from the stage in his Pines of Rome, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara used field recordings of birds from the region to reflect the vast northern landscape of his Cantus Arcticus.

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; the "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, and 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".

Monday, March 16

Masterworks Chorale will present 2 concerts this weekend with a program called 'A Gathering of Light'. It will include the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, along with works by Morten Lauridsen and Ola Gjeilo. Music Director Dr. Bryan Baker says the concert will be dedicated to the founder of the ensemble, Galen Marshall, who died this past December. 

There's more information about the concerts on the Masterworks Chorale website.

Dr. Bryan Baker explains the programming, coming as it does just after the Spring equinox: "The main piece is the Requiem by Duruflé, and in Requiems we have ‘Lux Aeterna’ – the Eternal Light. And so we connected it with pieces that are also about light, like ‘Sure on This Shining Night,’ and ‘Luminous Light of the Soul’. The Duruflé is a lot about chant… Gregorian chant. And these other pieces have similar qualities, chant-like qualities in them."  The programming had already been set long before the death last December of Galen Marshall, who founded the group more than 50 years ago.  "And the last time Masterworks did the Duruflé, was with our founding director, Galen Marshall, and it was almost exactly 20 years ago in this same church. So it’s really a remarkable coincidence. We didn’t know.  So we’re dedicating this concert to his honor. And so it’s really nice to be singing this piece for him. A little bit over a third of the chorus sang under him."

Here's a bit of the Baker and the Masterworks Chorale from a performance they gave last fall:

Tuesday, March 17

The program for the Peninsula Symphony's concerts this Friday and Saturday will visit each of the 7 continents, with music by Borodin, Vaughan Williams, Ron Miller, Saint-Saens, Villa Lobos, Copland, and Sibelius. Music Director Mitchell Sardou Klein is returning to a work that was written for the Peninsula Youth Orchestra when they were touring Australia, called Aurora Australis, with a solo part for didgeridoo.

There's more information about the concert at the Peninsula Symphony's website.

The didgeridoo soloist for Aurora Australis will be Zachariah Spellman, who's Principal Tuba for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. "You have to be able to circular breathe, and you have to be able to produce these unbelievably complicated overtones on a didgeridoo," Klein says, describing Spellman as a mesmerizing performer. The other soloist is pianist Heidi Hau, who will play Camille Saint-Saens' Africa, a "mini piano concerto" written by the Frenchman after he lived for a few years in the northern part of that continent. Asia is represented in the concert by Alexander Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, and South America by Heitor Villa-Lobos: from his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, the movement called 'The Little Train of Caipira.' For Europe and North America, which are always well represented in the concert halls, there are Finlandia by Sibelius, and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. The farthest flung destination is Antarctica, which Ralph Vaughan Williams depicted in his 7th Symphony, with the subtitle 'Sinfonia Antarctica' – they'll play the Scherzo movement. 

Wednesday, March 18

American tenor Bryan Hymel's new CD, called 'Héroïque' begins with an aria from Rossini's Guillaume Tell that forever changed the way composers would write, and tenors would sing. It was the first time a high-C was sung with a full "chest voice" – not using falsetto, and it upped the stakes of opera-going for generations. 

There's more about the recording at the Warner Classics website.

Bryan Hymel – although he's from New Orleans, his name is pronounced the French way, 'ee-MEL' – describes the over-the-top nature of the repertoire on the disc this way: "If you think of Hollywood blockbusters of opera… that would be the French grand opera. I mean, they all had a ballet, they were all five acts, they were all really long and it was all about the complete spectacle." And one of the reasons they're not as frequently performed as some of the other types of operas is they're prohibitively expensive to stage, because of lavish sets, but expecially finding the right casts, because there are a lot of important and difficult parts. "Certainly, you have to have a very strong cast," Hymel says. "Not just one or two really strong singers. You need four and five really top-notch singers, and it’s hard in this day and age to get a cast like that together, for them to be able to carve out that much time in their schedule, because you can’t put a Robert le Diable together in the same amount of time that you can a Carmen or a La Boheme."

The final high C in his aria from Guillaume Tell seems to go on forever, but he explains that it really was the result of a mispronunciation. He had completed one take for the recording, and thought he and the chorus would be moving on to the next aria, when the head of Warner Classics had a quibble with the pronunciation of the final word he had to sing.  "I guess because I was so jazzed after thinking I had finished that piece, and was ready to go to the next one, I got an extra-long high C in there.  I was particularly proud of that one. Someone wrote to me saying it clocks in at somewhere between nine and a half and ten seconds… If you’re going to hold it, you have to hold it in 4 measure increments, cause if you go halfway through, it’s just obvious, the music says ‘oh, he couldn’t hold it to the end of the next one.’" 

Thursday, March 19

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will be joined by three soloists and the choir Volti tonight and Saturday for Death with Interruptions, a new chamber opera by Kurt Rohde, with a libretto by Thomas Laqueur. It's based on a surreal novella by Nobel Prize winning Portuguese author José Saramago. Fittingly, the concert will open with a movement from Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet.

There's more information about the performance at the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble's website.

The project came to be because of the research that UC Berkeley historian (and this work's librettist) Thomas Laqueur has been doing for the past several years, on the topic of death, and what societies think about it. He received grant money that included funding for a new opera, and knew members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble – as an amateur cellist himself, Laqueur has studied with Leighton Fong, the featured soloist in the opera. Kurt Rohde had never written an opera before, but wasn't intimidated by the prospect. "I know what I don’t like in opera, and I know very specifically what I do like in opera… Also it’s such a great story. The words are just fantastic, so it was just very easy, it was very natural to just dive in, and it worked."

The adaptation covers the final third or so of the novella, when Death (who had decided to stop killing the people in an Iberian country) begins to kill again, but doing so in a new way: each person to die receives a letter with a week's notice. "One of the notes doesn’t get delivered, and it’s the note to the cellist, and it gets returned to her. And she is now in a conundrum, because once she says someone’s going to die, they have to die… She starts to observe him, and gets intrigued by him, and then what he does, and the music that he’s making, and over the course of her visits to him, she begins to become transformed, and fall in love with him."  The singers (Nikki Einfeld as Death, Dan Cilli as the Cellist, and Joe Dan Harper as the Scythe/Dog/Narrator) interact with the musicians on stage, since, as Rohde says, in this opera music is death's catalyst: "The way that music operates in this incarnation of the story, it is the force by which she is transformed from nothingness into something full, and her fullness is becoming a human woman. And a perfect human woman.

Friday, March 20

Every hour during the day on Saturday, we'll be playing music of Johann Sebastian Bach — to help get the birthday celebration started, here's a little quiz. Can you identify these ten of his works? 

To see the answers below, click and drag over the white space…

  1. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (from Cantata BWV 147)
  2. "Aria" from the Goldberg Variations
  3. "Air on the G String" (Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, mvt. 2)
  4. Toccata in D minor (arranged for Brass Quintet)
  5. "Badinerie" (Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, mvt. 7)
  6. "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" (from St. Matthew Passion)
  7. Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major
  8. Minuet in G Major from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach
  9. Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, mvt. 1
  10. "Siciliano" (Flute Sonata No. 2 in E flat, mvt. 2)

Monday, March 23

Extending the birthday celebrations a little bit, violinist Gil Shaham will be presenting a recital of solo works by J.S. Bach, the Sonatas and Partitas, at the Green Music Center this Friday night. The performance will be accompanied by original films by David Michalek. It's repertoire that Shaham shied away from performing live earlier in his career, but he's been playing them over the past dozen years, and recently released them on CD.

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

The solo works for violin are a rite of passage for violin students – like the solo keyboard works, they're challenging, and show what is possible to acheive on the instrument. "This is music that I think violinists like myself, we all know from childhood," Shaham says. "My teacher had it as part of our regular curriculum. All the students played and studied the sonatas and partitas of Bach." But playing them in a lesson and rehearsal setting was a far cry from taking them on stage. "After I finished school, I have to confess, I avoided performing these pieces, and I’m not sure why, looking back. I think I was intimidated. People feel so strongly about this music, and I feel so strongly about this music. I guess I didn’t feel confident to present it for an audience. It was 12 years ago when I decided to make a concerted effort (no pun intended) to start playing them in concert. I figured if not now, when, and somehow if I don’t start playing them, they’re never going to feel more comfortable, they’re never going to improve."

But as he incorporated them into his concerts, they only grew more important to him: "I discovered what so many other musicians had learned before me. Which is that this is the greatest joy for a musician. There is no greater joy than playing Bach. Nothing is more fulfilling, nothing is more engrossing, nothing is more inspiring, and even today when I go to my practice room, if I’m going to practice some Bach,  I’ll set aside a maybe half an hour, and then an hour and a half later, I’ll be looking at the clock, and where has the time gone?  A friend who’s a violinist said: 'Whenever I play bach, I feel like I’m a better person that day. I feel like I’m a better violinist that day.' And that’s true, that’s true, I think Bach’s music has this effect on everybody around it – the listeners and the players."

Tuesday, March 24

As we celebrate 'With a Little Bit of Pluck' during our Carnival of the Instruments, a look at how one of the top guitarists working today got his start – largely by chance. Miloš Karadaglić didn't come from a particularly musical family, and as a child in Montenegro didn't have musical aspirations – until he heard what Segovia could do.

Miloš, as he is known, has released several CDs now, both playing solo recital repertoire, as well as accompanied by orchestra. But he didn't feel the pull of a musical career early on… and benefitted from an instrument that happened to be at his house. "I didn't fancy to play the violin, or piano, or anything like that. I remembered we had a guitar, I had a good voice. I wanted to sing and play the guitar, strum a couple of chords, and that was it. And that's why I was attracted to the guitar. And I think that's how everybody's attracted to the guitar in the beginning." He says he almost gave up the instrument in the early days of his studies, "…until the time when I heard the guitar played by Segovia, and I wanted to be able to create the music on the guitar which sounded like that."

You can find out more about the KDFC Instrument Drive here.

Wednesday, March 25

Actor and voice-over artist Peter Coyote will be joining Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Symphony Napa Valley for a concert this Sunday afternoon that includes two narrated classics: Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland, and Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. He says he'll approach both as he would any other narration, letting the content guide his delivery.

There's more information about the concert, which is included in their Free Tickets for Students program at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center website.

The actor has known Sitkovetsky for many years now, and they have collaborated musically before. "He’s one of my best friends. He conducts an orchestra out in North Carolina. I’ve been out there, I’m going out there in the Fall to do the Lincoln piece again… We just look for any opportunity to get together." And although Coyote has had a long interest in music himself, he says " I can’t read the score that well, but I have good ears, am listening to it, I know when to get ready, and I’m actually cued by the conductor."

The important thing in doing a narration, he says, is not to treat the words – even history-making ones – as more than they should be in order to get the message across. "It doesn’t help you, actually, to think of it as iconic. That will explain why all bible movies are so bad.  Because nobody’s talking like a human being, they’re talking like icons. They’re forgetting the fact that Jesus was once alive and so were the disciples, and it’s important to be a living person.  I approach it like any other narration. It brings pictures up in my mind, and those pictures generate feelings, and I try to translate those feelings to the audience."

Thursday, March 26

While we highlight our Carnival of the Instruments this week, let's take a look at the evolution of Keyboard, from the clavichord to the modern grand piano. As the instruments developed over time, they got bigger, louder, and capable of more nuance. 

One thing the clavichord is known for is just how quiet it is. It was never meant to be an instrument for performance, beyond a very intimate setting. It was relatively portable, though, and has the distinction of being a keyboard instrument that allows the player to use vibrato – since the "tangent" (the piece of metal attached to the key that makes contact with the string) acts as a finger would on a violin's string, and can be held as the sound fades away, or vibrated. (Although that technique isn't used in this example):

The virginal combines the shape of the clavichord with the "plucking" mechanism that's used by a harpsichord.  A "plectrum" (usually a bit of a quill feather) and one string per note, gave it a consistent, but still not so loud sound.

The harpsichord changed the orientation of the strings – rather than running parallel with the keyboard as on the clavichord and virginal, they go perpendicularly. (Some 'bentside spinets' had strings run at an angle somewhere between) On more elaborate harpsichords, there are multiple strings per key, and sometimes multiple banks of keyboards, which can be mechanically ganged together to create a beefier sound. 

Bartolomeo Cristofori's invention of the 'Gravicembalo col piano e forte' – which means 'harpsichord with soft and loud' – or piano around 1700 was a breakthrough because it allowed the player to be able to control, note by note while playing, the dynamics of each attack. The mechanism used hammers that would strike the strings and let them ring in a way that previous instruments couldn't.  (The music begins :30 into this video):

The fortepianos that were fine for Mozart needed to be stronger to withstand the kind of playing and writing that Beethoven demanded, and the science of piano making and the art of music written for the instrument continued pushing eachother on until the the late 19th Century, with the arrival of the modern, metal-framed grand piano we know today.

Friday, March 27

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents a production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) next week, in two performances that will give audiences a chance to see where the opera department is headed. Stage directing is Jose Maria Condemi, who will be the Conservatory's new Director of Opera beginning in July. The performances, sung in Italian, will be next Thursday and Saturday evenings.

There's more information about the performances at the Conservatory website.

Condemi is transporting the story to the 1950s in middle America: "The concept is not very radical, but it goes well with the light-hearted comedy of the piece. The Elixir of Love comes from the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, which is a very old Italian tradition of stock characters and stock situations that repeat themselves. We find them a lot in opera." As with most of the Bel Canto comedies, there's a clever young soprano, this time named Adina. "She’s more sophisticated and cultured, she likes to read a lot and flaunt her reading skills," Condemi says. "And Nemorino, he’s the tenor, and a little bit of a country bumpkin…and he’s in love with her, and he thinks that maybe she’s a little out of his reach. A travelling doctor called Dulcamara shows up, selling this… what he calls a magical elixir that cures all illnesses, and of course Nemorino wants to find out if the elixir will help him win the heart of Adina. Unbeknownst to anybody, the elixir is nothing but cheap wine. So of course, Nemorino buys the elixir, and just by virtue of being tipsy, or a little more loose, he gains confidence. And that prompts Adina to look at him with new eyes."

Scott Sandmeier will be conducting the orchestra for the performances – during the piano rehearsal, Curt Pajer, whose new title will soon be Musical and Managing Director of Opera for SFCM, said the opera was chosen in part because of its popularity, and its good fit for young voices. And Condemi adds, it can help the singers refine their acting. "The music is fantastic – but theatrically it really is a challenge because these characters, because of where they come from, which is Commedia dell’Arte, they are drawn a little too broadly sometimes. So a lot of the fun, and a lot of the training opportunity becomes how to make them real while retaining the comedy that of course they have to have."

Monday, March 30

In a concert program called 'Passion,' the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will present a pair of world premieres, and the Bay Area premiere of a chamber opera by Jake Heggie called For a Look Or a Touch – with baritone Morgan Smith and actor Kip Niven telling the story of an ill-fated gay relationship under Nazi rule in Germany. Artistic Director Dr. Timothy Seelig gives a preview.

There's more information about the concert at the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus website.

The work by Jake Heggie has had a couple of incarnations – it began as a song cycle, as part of the 'Music of Remembrance' project, telling the story, based on diaries, of the love between two men, one who survived, and one who was killed in the death camps under Hitler. "Four years ago, I went up and heard the world premiere of the male choral version," Timothy Seelig says. "It had been written before that for Morgan and a small chamber ensemble. And so I heard it, and knew I had to have it…because it is so incredibly poignant and beautiful." The libretto is by Gene Scheer, who teamed with Heggie for Moby Dick

On a lighter tone, but with touches of poignancy, the SFGMC will be premiering #twitterlieder: 15 tweets in 3 acts, by composer James Eakin and librettist (140 characters at a time) Charles Silvestri. Seelig says although brief, it covers the gamut: "You know, it goes from birth to almost death… we never quite get to death, but the 15 tweets take you from the day you were born through high school graduation, through the creepy guy in biology class that asks you to prom, and you couldn’t even think of anything worse, with sad face and hashtags all the way through." There are mundane observations, rants and frustrations mixed in with the more important things, ending with "Mom and brotherhood… and finally about gathering the treasures of life. The end is called ‘Treasures,’ and it’s about gathering all of those treasures, from birth until the end."

Tuesday, March 31

The Demo is a new multi-media performance by Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill that will have its premiere this week at the Bing Concert Hall through Stanford Live. It takes as its point of departure a groundbreaking 1968 demonstration by Douglas Engelbart, of the Stanford Research Institute, that introduced publicly many of the concepts that we've since come to take for granted in computing. 

There's more information about the project at the Stanford Live website.

Mikel Rouse says Ben Neill came across the video of the original presentation and sent him the link. "When he sent it to me, I thought this was an elaborate spoof on the internet. It looked like someone could go to a lot of trouble to make it look like this was where this all started. But then as you go through the SRI website, it becomes pretty clear that this is real." Not only real, but revolutionary. Engelbart manages in the hour-plus demonstration to show the audience the 'mouse' that he'd invented a few years earlier, and such essentials of modern computing as cutting and pasting, and even teleconferences… since it included interaction with images and computers 30 miles away in Menlo Park, where Bill English, part of the technical team (and who'll be 'played' by Neill in The Demo) was stationed. "Even though they looked at it as a demonstration, and not a performance, it’s maybe one of the first times that video is used in the context of a performance… so for me it was just natural. There was a natural link to all the other multi-media pieces that I’d done, and the operas I’d done," Rouse says. "During the ‘68 demo, Engelbart was in front of a computer, and then this 20 foot screen was behind him, and it offered the shots of what he was typing on his computer, it also offered a shot of him, so that the larger 2000 seat audience could see him – but it also had over the shoulder shots so that you could see the mouse that he invented, the original keyboard, and the keyset." Rouse will be recreating Engelbart's moves in real time, for the piece, which like its predecessor, defies pigeon-holing. "We consider this like a performance-demonstration, as opposed to just a performance or an opera, for lack of a better term. And we do that pulling back and forth between 2015 and 1968. But at all times using the 1968 demo as what we kind of consider the ultimate sample."