Tuesday, May 1
Pianist Lara Downes brings the set called 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg to the Old First Concerts Series this Friday: thirteen contemporary composers revisiting and re-imagining their own responses to the Aria that forms the start and end to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The project was originally commissioned by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Competition in 2004, and was intended to have 13 new pieces, but one of the original composers wasn’t able to write a short enough work to be accepted as a submission; instead, Bach’s own 13th variation had been substituted.
When she decided to play the collection, Lara Downes turned to San Francisco composer Ryan Brown and commissioned a new variation. “I had heard another piece of his,” she says, “that he had written uniquely in the top two octaves of the piano, and I loved that soundscape of the extreme treble, and I thought it would make such an interesting contrast with the rest of these pieces and with the aria itself, which is so firmly located in the middle register of the piano.” Ryan Brown’s effort, called “Ornament”, plays with the turns and appogiaturas of the aria. Some of the other composers from the original commission include Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, David DelTredici and William Bolcom.
Bolcom’s variation (entitled Yet Another Goldberg Variation) was written for his friend Gary Graffman, and so only for the left hand. Downes describes it as having “twists and turns” but being a fun piece to play. With a single running line, it follows Bach’s original example, and explores the bassline of the aria as the point of departure. Downes also likens its texture as “echoing the other Bach” – the suites he wrote for unaccompanied cello.
Here’s a taste of 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, from a performance last fall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis:
Wednesday, May 2
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is going to be presenting “Trio Appassionato: The Lives of Robert & Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms” in two sold-out performances this Sunday and Monday. It’s the brainchild of Lotfi Mansouri, the former General Director of San Francisco Opera, who wanted to tell the story of the celebrated trio and their complicated lives using the music they wrote. With the help of singers from the Conservatory, and “Hostess” Frederica von Stade, the feeling is less of a recital, and more of a conversation about the twists and turns of the intertwined lives.
There’s more information about the new work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music website.
Mansouri says that he hopes audiences will become curious enough about the Schumanns and Brahms to seek out biographies and recordings. But he also sees the value in the students getting to know the songs they’re singing. “It’s an incredible learning process for these young artists to go through this repertoire,” he says. “And all of a sudden they learn about communication, they learn about how to use the text, how to really use a prelude, an interlude. All of these details, musical details have a dramatic function. ”
Frederica von Stade says she was new to much of the repertoire the students are singing. She describes the entanglements of Clara, Robert and Johannes (which included forbidden love, fidelity, a suicide attempt and Robert’s ultimate insanity) this way: “It’s three geniuses, and geniuses never go in a predictable way. Whatever part of it contributed to their compositional inspiration is magic. If they sparked one song, it’s already a gift to the world.
Thursday, May 3
Composer Rob Kapilow‘s world premiere that celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge is coming together… The Marin Symphony and the Marin Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, have been rehearsing Chrysopylae, and working out the kinks of the sound-rich piece. By the second rehearsal with the orchestra, Kapilow was feeling much relieved and optimistic – after an initial rehearsal that he described as “absolute chaos” and plagued by technical difficulties.
Part of the reason for the first rehearsal’s problems is the scope of the piece – for orchestra, chorus, and an accompanying sound design track that needs to be played and mixed with the other elements on the fly. There are special instruments that need to be tuned, and played in a certain way to blend properly with sound effects recorded at the site of the Golden Gate Bridge.
You can hear the earlier feature in the State of the Arts Archive, by scrolling down to March 27.
Friday, May 4
On an A-to-Z edition of The State of the Arts, it’s a look at Diminished Chords… A Swiss-Army knife for the composer, they’re chords that desperately need to resolve, and can go in several different possible directions. Because of the way the chords are formed (building up in minor thirds) there are only three different diminished-seventh chords you can play before you repeat yourself.
The reason for this is that it takes 12 half-steps to make an octave – the white and black keys from C to C, for example. And each minor third is three half-steps (C, C#, D, E-flat). This means that there’s a diminished chord that starts on C that contains C, E-flat, G-flat, and A (technically it’s B-double-flat). There’s also one beginning on C#, with E, G and B-flat; and one that’s D, F, A-flat, B (really C-flat). The next in the series would start on E-flat, but contain the same notes as the first.
The “tritone” – sometimes called the Devil’s interval (the first two notes of “Maria” from West Side Story) is known as either a diminished-fifth, or an augmented-fourth… That’s because it’s exactly half of an octave, which is why the diminished chords work the way they do. There are actually 2 tritones in each of the chords… C to G-flat, and Eb to A, and depending on which way the ear is listening (or is fooled into hearing by the composer) either of them can resolve in different directions.
Monday, May 7
The piano team known as ZOFO duet (Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi) play “one-piano-four-hands” – that is, side by side, rather than on two separate pianos. They’ve got a new CD out, called “Mind Meld”, which describes the way they play… it involves a certain amount of choreography too, since their parts frequently cross or overlap.
There’s more information about the CD and the players at ZOFO duet’s website.
The pair began with solo careers, but a little over two years ago, an injury sidelined Nakagoshi for several months, during which Zimmermann played several of his booked concert dates. As he turned pages for her, he liked her playing, and suggested they try a long held dream of his: to read through the piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which the composer did with Claude Debussy in Paris a hundred years ago.
ZOFO actually stands for 20FO, or “Twenty Finger Orchestra”, which you can see on display here, as they are playing the “Hesitation Tango” from Souvenirs by Samuel Barber:
Tuesday, May 8
The San Francisco Symphony recreates and tells the story of the artistic landscape in the time between the Gold Rush and the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915) in a program called Barbary Coast and Beyond. As director James Robinson explains, the great artists of the day were attracted to San Francisco for its “nutty, culture-hungry” residents, and their ability to spend lavishly on entertainment. The host of the show will be Bay Area staple, actress Val Diamond, and guests include Laura Claycomb, Vadim Gluzman, Cameron Carpenter, and the US Air Force Band of the Golden West.
There’s more information about the performances at the San Francisco Symphony website.
Director James Robinson describes the evening as “a celebration of the sort of wild and wacky musical and cultural scene that was San Francisco from the Gold Rush to the founding of the Symphony.” In the spirit of wackiness, there will also be a trio of guest banjo players, along with musical saw virtuoso Caroline McCaskey. Musical selections will include works by Camille Saint-Saens, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Sousa, Wieniawski (who all visited the city), Meyerbeer, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky.
Here’s a video produced by the San Francisco Symphony about their early years:
Wednesday, May 9
On an A-to-Z edition of The State of the Arts, it’s Edward Elgar’s Enigma… The set of variations he composed, each depicting one of his friends. But it’s no mystery who is represented in each section. It’s the elusive theme that Elgar said was not stated, but implied throughout all of the variations.
There are many theories about what the “hidden” theme is: Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, God Save the Queen, Auld Lang Syne, even the mathematical constant pi (3.1415 rounded up to 3.142, which corresponds to the opening four notes of the theme). This would-be sleuth thinks the answer is “Ein feste Burg” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).
Another theory ties in with the “Nimrod” variation… Elgar said that when he wrote it, he was remembering a conversation that he had had with his friend and publisher Augustus Jaeger. Elgar had been depressed with the circumstances of his life, and Jaeger sang the theme to the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata, which the opening of “Nimrod” hints at.
The other mystery that remains unsolved is the “Dorabella Cipher” – this note that Elgar wrote to his friend, Dora Penny in 1897. Although some claim to have broken the code, the arguments are a little dubious, and impossible to prove: Elgar didn’t tell, and although he assumed Dorabella would be able to make sense of it, she never could.
Thursday, May 10
The Golden Gate Bridge is the most-photographed bridge in the world. And that magnetic attraction for cameras extends to Hollywood, too. Whether it’s as a backdrop, a pivotal plot point, or being attacked by the elements (or giant sea-creatures) the bridge has proved irresistible to film makers.
You can listen to last week’s Golden Gate anniversary feature about Rob Kapilow’s Chrysopylae here.
Here’s a trailer for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which features the bridge prominently…
And It Came From Beneath the Sea, which pits a giant octopus against the Golden Gate:
Friday, May 11
Composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has used characters from the traditional Commedia dell’Arte as inspiration for a new violin concerto with that as its name, getting its world premiere this week in performances by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The movements depict the Arlecchino (or Harlequin), the tambourine-carrying Columbina and the boastful Capitano. Along with fiery and virtuosic writing for the violin solo, Zwilich has given some members of the orchestra percussion instruments to play.
The first performance was in Berkeley last night, they’ll be in Atherton, San Francisco and San Rafael tonight through Sunday. Details are at the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s website. Also on the program are Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Peter Heidrich’s Happy Birthday Variations.
Zwilich says she was inspired by Salerno-Sonnenberg’s playing, and the NCCO, which she says “is not your staid, old, 19th Century white European male orchestra, everbody sitting stiff and playing stiffly. This is a group that’s up for everything.” Including putting down a cello for a tambourine, or a violin for a toy drum. Zwilich was the first woman to win a Pulitzer in music, for her Symphony No. 1 in 1983. She drew on her (admittedly now out of practice) background as a violinist when she was writing the Commedia dell’Arte concerto, which includes fiery tempos and technique, a lyric slow movement, and a fiendish cadenza.
Monday, May 14
The Santa Rosa Symphony had a chance to take their future home for an acoustic spin last Thursday night, rehearsing in front of a large audience, that was there not only to hear the orchestra, but also to act as a real-life test for how reverberant the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall is with a room full of people. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis was looking forward to experiencing the sound of the hall as it actually will be, now that the seats are in, and sonic treatments such as panels and absorbant materials are being tweaked for the best sound.
There’s more information about the hall’s construction, and the upcoming season at the Green Music Center’s website.
Acoustician Larry Kirkegaard described the evening as “really the first performance the Santa Rosa Symphony has had in the hall. We’ve heard the San Francisco with a few people in foldeing chairs in a totally bare room, the Santa Rosa Symphony has played here for a couple of rehearsals. So this is really the first full-time, full-seating, ready to go concert, and we’re all looking forward to it.” He described other types of ensembles that had been playing in the hall – several from Sonoma State University, exams permitting – jazz and wind ensembles, with various solo instruments in different positions on stage.
The gala season- and hall-opening weekend takes place at the end of September, with a line up that features pianist Lang Lang.
Tuesday, May 15
The Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble has been fundraising throughout the year, in their efforts to go on tour to Cuba this summer. Director Sarah Cline, who visited the country several years ago, hopes that her players will be able to experience the spontaneous music-making that she witnessed there, and looks forward to the students having a chance to play with students at a Cuban music conservatory. The ensemble, as well as other combos from the BHS Jazz program, will be taking part in Sunday’s “Jazz on Fourth” festivities.
There’s more information about Sunday’s event at the Fourth Street website, and about the ensemble at Berkeley High School Jazz website. Also performing Sunday afternoon are the Dick Conte Quartet, blues singer Lady Bianca, and salsa band Rumbaché.
Wednesday, May 16
The Silicon Valley Symphony is joined by a soloist this weekend who’s played four major violin concertos with them already, despite the fact that he’s only 15 years old. Stephen Waarts will be playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the ensemble. Conductor Michael Paul Gibson has been following the violinist’s career since they first worked together, performing the Tchaikovsky concerto when Waarts was only 12. And the instrument that he’ll be playing for the concerts in Menlo Park and Palo Alto is a Stradivarius from the early 1730s, on loan for the occasion.
There’s more information about the concerts at the Silicon Valley Symphony’s website.
Since their first concert together, Waarts has also played the Brahms, Mendelssohn, and the Saint-Saëns Concerto No. 3 with the SVS.
The Stradivarius he’ll be playing this weekend doesn’t have a name, although it’s known as the “twin” to an instrument known by the name of its former owner, the “Lord Wilmotte”. Conductor Michael Paul Gibson points out that the loaned Strad is available for sale, if someone wants to give it a name (and, he suggests, loaning the instrument to Waarts would be a wise investment, since they become more valuable as they’re played in front of orchestras around the world.)
Here’s video of Waarts playing the finale to the Saint-Saëns’ Third Violin Concerto, from last November:
Thursday, May 17
A Wild Flight of the Imagination: The Story of the Golden Gate Bridge is the name of an exhibit that’s running from now until October at the California Historical Society‘s Mission Street museum. There are paintings, etchings, and photographs of the area before the bridge’s construction, documents and news clippings that recount the long process that went into approval and design for the bridge, and the engineering breakthoughs that had to occur for it to be built.
There’s more information about the exhibit at the California Historical Society website.
CHS Executive Director, Dr. Anthea Hartig says the Golden Gate was the largest and the highest suspension bridge ever built when it was inaugurated in 1937. And it remained the highest until 1998.
Serving as bookends to the exhibit, are two photos by Ansel Adams; the one which welcomes the visitor in the first gallery Dr. Hartig describes this way: “This photomural has the bridge dwarfed by the magnificent clouds and the beauty of the Marin Headlands. We see Adams kind of coming to peace with the bridge that he originally opposed, along with the Sierra Club and the Department of War, and many others who thought this was no place for a bridge.” The other photo was taken before the bridge was built, from near where Adams grew up.
There is a diving helmet, worn by those who pioneered underwater construction, with only a four-inch glass screened opening, and connection points for air to be pumped in through hoses from above. There’s also a pair of the shoes with 16-pound lead soles that they would wear to help keep them underwater. There’s an early hard hat – part of the safety precautions (such as the net underneath the construction site) insisted upon by Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss, which kept injuries and fatalities very low (of eleven deaths during construction, ten men were lost in a February 1937 accident when heavy equipment fell through the safety netting.
Friday, May 18
The upcoming seasons of Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony feature new works and returning traditions… There will be a commissioned premiere on each of the four concerts conducted by Joana Carneiro in Berkeley, and OEBS music director Michael Morgan gets their season off to an all-American start with a concert called “Celebrating Democracy” the same week as the November election.
The composers who have been commissioned to write new works for Berkeley Symphony’s 2012-13 season are Steven Stucky (who will be in residence with them), Paul Dresher, Andreia Pinto-Correia, and Under Construction alumnus Dylan Mattingly. In addition to the brand new works, there will be symphonic Beethoven, Bruckner, Schumann, Rachmaninoff; as well as concertos by György Ligeti and Witold Lutoslawski, performed by pianist Shai Wosner and cellist Lynn Harrell.
The Oakland East Bay Symphony once again will shine a geographical spotlight on one of their concerts, this time “Notes from the Middle East,” including works by young Israeli composer Avner Dorman, and Palestinian-American John Bisharat, and a Grieg piano concerto played by Eliran Avni.
Their annual “Let Us Break Bread Together” holiday concert turns 20 this year.
The balance between the new and familiar continues – with recent works by Richard Danielpour, Avner Dorman and Adolphus Hailstork, and area composers Gordon Getty and Olly Wilson, joining Copland, Bernstein, Berlioz, Bach, Fauré, Handel and Franck.
Monday, May 21
In an A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts: Fantasia and Fugue. Both allow the performer (and composer) to show off their skills, but in a different way. A fantasia tends to be virtuosic, but at the same time should sound like it’s being improvised. A fugue, in order for it to work, has to also meet certain formal expectations. Especially important: the opening subject needs to be one that the listener will be able to recognize each time it enters, in ever thickening textures of other voices. Counter-subjects need to flow out of what precedes them, and be able to follow the rules of harmony and counterpoint when played at the same time as the subject. It all needs to make sense both structurally, and just as importantly, to the ear.
How one writes a fugue really depends on the starting material; there are going to be some techniques that will only be possible if the subject allows it. Bach was especially talented at knowing what permutations would be possible based on any given theme: with a fugue for three voices, he might have two counter-subjects, each showing up in a different part in turn. And then for the final statement, they might each come in earlier, ending up overlapping to build tension.
Here’s a quartet of singers (plus a string quartet) performing Glenn Gould’s “So You Want to Write a Fugue”:
The various entrances and individual lines of the four singers are fairly easy to follow – at least at the beginning – in an animated video you can see here.
Tuesday, May 22
Today is the birthday of Richard Wagner – next year will be his bicentennial – a composer who tends to bring out the extremes of emotions in reactions to him and his music. Many can’t forgive him his anti-Semitism, or the way his music was venerated by Hitler and the Nazis. But there are also legions of fans who make pilgrimages to the festival at Bayreuth, Germany in celebration of the composer’s operas. A concert that took place there last summer has been released as a CD, called “Historical Moment at Bayreuth” – and indeed it was. Roberto Paternostro, conducting the Israel Chamber Orchestra, included Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll at the end of a concert at the Bayreuth town hall.
The inclusion of Wagner on the program by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, and its enthusiastic reception by the audience is a bit of a twist. There have been efforts made over the past several decades (notably by conductors Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim) for Israel to relax its unofficial ban on the performance of music by Wagner in the concert halls. Both have included Wagner as encores – with advance notice to the audience, to allow anyone who might take offence the opportunity to leave. Barenboim had a lengthy discussion in Hebrew with an audience in 2001, hearing their objections, and making a case for allowing the orchestra he was conducting, the Staatskapelle Berlin, to play an excerpt from Tristan and Isolde.
Wednesday, May 23
Recording the complete sonatas of Beethoven is a sizable task for any pianist, and not a project generally tackled early on in a performer’s career. But South Korean-born HJ (Hyun-Jung) Lim, who moved to France to study when she was 12, is now 24… and releasing her first set of recordings with EMI Classics.
The complete set is currently exclusively available as an iTunes download, and a selection (the complete sonata #30, Opus 109) is KDFC’s current download of the week. To get the download, you need to receive our enotes newsletter, which you can sign up for by clicking here, and being sure to select “Yes” from the dropdown menu just before clicking “Submit.”
The organization of the sonatas in the collection is unorthodox, with themes created by Lim grouping them into such topics as “Heroic Ideals”;”Eternal Feminine – Youth” and “Eternal Feminine – Maturity”; “Assertion of an Inflexible Personality”; “Nature”; “Destiny”; “Extremes in Collision”; and “Resignation and Action”. Her study of Beethoven’s life and letters has led her to say that she knows him better than she knows her friends… whose diaries she hasn’t read.
Thursday, May 24
Historian Kevin Starr’s 2010 book Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge joined the many histories written about the construction of the bridge, but looking at it specifically as a work of art, and icon – in addition to its function of expanding the reach of the city. As the 75th anniversary of the bridge’s completion approaches this weekend, Starr, who’s a professor of History at the University of Southern California, says both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate serve as cultural icons and great public works of technology.
To see other KDFC coverage of the bridge anniversary, click here.
Professor Starr says the anniversary is a good occasion for reconsideration of the Art Deco masterpiece: “All of us tend to take it for granted, we see it day by day, but every now and then, we have to take another look and we just say ‘My goodness… there are multiple levels of meaning – multiple meanings are fused into this bridge.’ That’s the power of numbers. The fiftieth anniversary had a certain power, 75 has as certain power, and the hundredth anniversary will have a certain power.”
Friday, May 25
Violinist Hilary Hahn was the soloist with the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Osmo Vänskä this weekend, playing the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1. But she’s also just released a very different kind of CD, an improvised collaboration with the German pianist and composer who goes by the name of Hauschka. For the CD Silfra (named for a location in Iceland – they recorded at a studio just outside Reykjavik) the two performers felt the freedom to play and experiment, not knowing at the beginning of the process what they might end up with.
“What we did was we went into the studio and just improvised,” says Hahn. “On some of the tracks, we started by one person recording for a while, and then the other person would go into the studio, listen and play along. But everything that’s there was only played that one time. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t structured like ‘on this note we’re going to do this thing.’ It was more just live playing… improvisation that was captured, even in the layers.”
And the experience of working in Iceland spurred their creativity. Hahn says “Iceland, due to the size of the population, and the close-knit aspect of the population and the wild landscape, I think it’s a great place to make art. They’re very supportive of their artists. That environment allowed us the freedom to just play.”
You can listen to the CD “Silfra” here:
Tuesday, May 29
On an A-to-Z edition of “The State of the Arts”, it’s three 3 “G” instruments that are slightly off the beaten track – Gamba, Gamelan and Glass Harmonica. Early music fans know the viola da gamba: played between the legs (gamba is Italian for ‘leg’) like a cello, it differs by having frets on the fingerboard, more strings, and a different shape, including a broader neck. It was especially popular in England, where it was known as a ‘bass viol’ – and where it was fairly common to find matched sets of instruments, or ‘consorts of viols’ that could be taken out to provide ready entertainment for company.
Gamelan is really a shorthand to describe a gamelan ensemble, a group of traditional Indonesian instruments, played by multiple players, consisting of gongs, metallophones and drums. The exotic sounds and scales, along with their complicated cyclical patterns appealed to Western composers such as Debussy and Satie, when they first heard the music, at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Bay Area composer Lou Harrison is among the best known composers of recent times to write for an American variant of the gamelan. Here’s an idea of what a traditional gamelan ensemble looks and sounds like:
Finally, the glass harmonica or armonica, the name Ben Franklin gave his invention, is a more practical arrangement for allowing a player to rub moistened fingers along the edges of tuned glasses or in this case, bowls of fine crystal. Here, you can see a glass harmonica player in action (in Ben Franklin garb):
Wednesday, May 30
The duo of Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov will be presenting a performance of four of the ten Beethoven violin sonatas tonight at Herbst Theatre. They released a recording in 2010 on the Harmonia Mundi label of the complete set – their concert will feature two early examples, (the first and third of opus 12) as well as the two final ones: his “Kreutzer” sonata, and opus 96.
There’s more information about the concert at the San Francisco Performances website.
Melnikov will be playing on a modern piano, and Faust’s on-loan “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius will be using modern strings. They frequently perform using a fortepiano and catgut strings, which Melnikov says he prefers, finding it more satisfying (and he thinks it more likely to be interpreted authentically on instruments that can’t exceed what was possible when the pieces were written). He says: “an early instrument will at least tell you what not to do. And if you only play on a modern piano, you have so many possibilities in terms of dynamic range and color that it’s more easy to just end up somewhere totally wrong.” But he thinks ultimately it’s more important to a performance to be thinking in the right way musically than to have one type of instrument or another.
Accompanying them on their tour are Bernd das Brot (left), and “Baby Bernd” (right), stuffed character figures (yes, they’re anthropomorphized loaves of bread) based on a German TV show for kids.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at their recording of all of the violin sonatas:
Thursday, May 31
>Guest conductor David Robertson leads the San Francisco Symphony this week in a trio of works from the 19th Century – that although written within a span of about 50 years, cover a wide emotional range. The overture to Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Nelson Freire, and the under-appreciated Seventh Symphony of Antonin Dvorak.
There’s more information about the concert at the San Francisco Symphony website.
Brazilian piano soloist Nelson Freire is making his debut with the San Francisco Symphony with the Chopin Piano Concerto; he’s played solo recitals in San Francisco, and with another orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall. He was delighted to point out he just recently debuted with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC as well.