Thursday, November 1

A retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns opens this weekend at SFMOMA, called Jasper Johns: Seeing With the Mind's Eye. It gathers 90 pieces from the museum and other local and private collections, including several works on loan from Johns himself, who continues to work at age 82. 

There's more information about the exhibition, which runs through the beginning of February, at the SFMOMA website.

Gary Garrels, curator of the exhibit says the works invite close inspection, and re-inspection. And that there's a theme throughout Johns' long (almost 60-year) career – of memory, and the role it plays in viewing works of art. He often would put pairs of related works closely together, with some variations between the two. Garrels says that's especially apparent in the works called "Souvenir", and "Souvenir 2" which are on display side by side in this exhibition. (see below) "If you look at a painting, and then turn away from it and ask 'what do I remember? what stood out for me?' And then to look at a second version, and see some of those things repeated or not. So it's theme and variation that often are major parts of Johns' work."

Jasper Johns - Souvenir and Souvenir 2

The story of the painting has local roots – Jasper Johns came to San Francisco in 1964 with his friend John Cage, and attended performances of Cage's music. "Johns was sitting in the theater one evening," Garrels says, "and noticed a small circle of light that kept appearing, moving around, and was trying to figure out what it was, where it was coming from, and discovered there was a woman with an open compact, and her mirror was sending a reflection onto the walls and ceilings."  He incorporated a flashlight (which had been the subject of his first sculpture), a bicycle mirror, and a plate that had his own image on it, with the mirror angled to shine the light upon him. Garrels says the painting was a turning point in Johns' work, when it started to contain greater introspection and emotion than some of his earlier, iconic works with numbers, flags, and targets.
Zero Nine 1960 - Jasper Johns

Friday, November 2

The San Francisco Symphony's annual community concert for the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is this Saturday afternoon, featuring the Youth Orchestra playing Aaron Copland's El Salón México, Moncayo's Huapango, and with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, selections from the Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez. There will also be dancing and storytelling, along with Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán.

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

Alexis Luque, now the Youth Orchestra's Principal Librarian, played bassoon with them for five years, through last season. He's responsible for not only making sure each player has the correct (and complete) scores for the concerts, but also marking each string score with the agreed-upon bowings for each work. This is the first year the SFSYO has been involved in the concert, so it's his first experience with it as well. "Having my hands on deck, preparing all the music and everything, it's a very exciting process; and especially for me as a member of the Hispanic community. It's very fulfilling to see how my work benefits the people in my community." Luque and his family moved to the area from Honduras; he had studied bassoon at the National School of Music there, and says he auditioned for the Youth Orchestra here only a few months after his arrival.

Monday, November 5

The San Jose Symphonic Choir will be acting as a "backup band" for Barbra Streisand tonight, when she performs at the HP Pavilion as part of her current tour. Choir conductor Leroy Kromm says the invitation to participate, backing her up for the finale of the show, came as a complete surprise to him and the members of the choir.

There's more information about the group at the San Jose Symphonic Choir's website, and more about the entire tour at Barbra Streisand's site.

Kromm says he was contacted by Streisand's company about the possibility of participating, and after agreeing to the conditions (which included keeping their participation secret, initially) they got the music and began to rehearse the show's big finale – a modified version of the ending of Bernstein's Candide, "Make Our Garden Grow" that pulls out all the stops.

Kromm says it "certainly ascribes all the high, loud singing to the chorus" – and says it might have been the fact that his choir can get a big sound that entered into the choice…  although, he says "I really don't know how they selected us out of the many choirs that are here. I would say it's just luck!"

Leroy Kromm isn't sure if the choir will be able to see the concert, other than the five-and-a-half minutes that they're going to be on stage singing, but during the song, they'll have a unique view of the show. Also performing with Barbra Streisand on the concert are the three singers known as "Il Volo" – and trumpeter Chris Botti. The San Jose concert comes toward the end of a ten-city US and Canadian tour. The San Jose Philharmonic Choir's next concert is a performance of the Poulenc Gloria, December 1st, with the Nova Vista Symphony.

Tuesday, November 6

Cal Performances presents conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen in residence at Berkeley this week, with three large-scale concerts by Philharmonia Orchestra. The UK-based ensemble will be playing  Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, as well as a concert performance of the opera Wozzeck, and Mahler's Ninth. In addition, there will be a chamber music concert of works by Salonen, and he'll give talks and conduct an open rehearsal of the UC Berkeley Symphony.

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

Salonen, who won the Grawemeyer Prize this year for the violin concerto he wrote for Leila Josefowicz, will be wearing many hats over the course of the several days he's in Berkeley. As a composer, some of his chamber works will be presented on Thursday night, with the Calder Quartet and Eco Ensemble performing; his piece Helix will be part of the first concert with Philharmonia Orchestra on Friday night; and he'll be taking part in a colloquium with members of the music department at UC Berkeley.  He'll conduct a rehearsal of the school's symphony, playing Debussy's La Mer on Sunday. That's in addition to the three large-scale performances with his touring orchestra. "There seemed to be a few hours here and there in my schedule that were not filled, so now they are also taken," he says. "So it's 24/7 activitity, but I think it's fun, because I like to be busy, when I'm working I like to be busy."

The concerts at the center of his visit are made up of repertoire that's important to him, but that he hasn't performed in the US – including Alban Berg's Wozzeck, which was the first opera Salonen ever conducted. For Wozzeck, he'll be enlisting the help of student musicians – the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and the Piedmont East Bay Children's choir will appear in the Tavern scene, and UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra members will make up the 'banda' – they'll all continue on to accompany Philharmonia in the next leg of their journey, to perform in LA's Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the 'banda' musicians will also play with them in New York's Avery Fisher Hall.

Salonen, who  managed to live in California for almost two decades without making it to Berkeley, says he's looking forward to the interactions with students: "Alwys when I'm touring, especially in the States, I meet with composition faculties and classes. This keeps me on board in terms of what the young people are thinking, and what's in the air. I find it very inspiring.

Wednesday, November 7

In a program called "Beethoven's Fourths", Emanuel Ax will be playing a fortepiano… with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and conductor Nicholas McGegan. The program includes (naturally) Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, as well as his Piano Concerto No. 4, which had their premieres at the same concert in 1807.

There's more information about the four performances at Philharmonia Baroque's website.

Ax has performed (and recorded) many works using a period-appropriate fortepiano, but this is the first time he's played Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, and at a rehearsal in Berkeley yesterday he was still reacquainting himself with the differences between a modern and older instrument – and how it cuts through to the audience in a different way (he asked conductor Nicholas McGegan to play a little bit on the keyboard, and walked into the hall to hear just how the audience would hear the more subtle shades of the instrument's tone). 

Ax is famously a frequent collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma, and he said that in the past, they played a series of concerts of Beethoven's cello sonatas in which one half of the concert he played on a fortepiano, and the other half a modern Steinway – Ax also played an early instrument for Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (number 5) several years ago with conductor Roger Norrington. Although he's in no hurry to give up his Steinway, Ax does enjoy the opportunity to play with Philharmonia Baroque, approaching more closely the experience of the way the premiere must have sounded. But, as he points out, many of the other instruments in the orchestra – like the string section – have changed far less than the piano has since Beethoven's day.

Emanuel Ax rehearsing with Philharmonia Baroque

Thursday, November 8

Shaping sound into music… The Oakland East Bay Symphony begins its season with an all-American program this Friday, on the heels of this week's election. One of the works, Episodes for Orchestra by Olly Wilson, was a piece he wrote for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when he was composer-in-residence.

There's more information about the concert at the Oakland East Bay Symphony website.

Wilson is now a Professor Emeritus at Berkeley, where he taught for over thirty years. There's another local composer on the program: Gordon Getty, whose five-movement Homework Suite (which he wrote when he was a music student, though not for homework, in the 1960s) is getting a belated premiere. Bill Kalinkos will be soloist for Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto, and the percussion section of the OEBS will be given a workout by Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  The remaining work on the program is the only one specifically written with patriotism in mind – Adolphus Hailstork's American Fanfare – which opens the concert.

Friday, November 9

The American Conservatory Theater's production of Elektra – Sophocles' tale of grief and revenge, is also a legal thriller, according to A.C.T.'s Artistic Director Carey Perloff. She commissioned this translation, as well as the evocative score by composer David Lang, which she describes as "an ominous heartbeat under the dialogue". As Elektra (René Augesen) seeks justice for the murder of her father, the action is commented upon by "the chorus" – often played by a group of actors, and here by Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis.

There's more information about the run of Elektra at the American Conservatory Theater's website.

Carey Perloff has a real attachment to Elektra – she says it's one of her favorite Greek tragedies, and she studied Ancient Greek when she was younger, and wanted to be an archaeologist. She directed a version of the play years ago in New York, and commissioned this translation and adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker two years ago when this production had its original run – outdoors – at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. Perloff described it this way: "It was a great learning experience to do a Greek tragedy in a real Greek amphitheater… and I fell in love with the idea of truly engaging the audience, so I wanted to do it at the Geary, and see if we kept the houselights up, if we could do the same thing at our theater."

Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus in Elektra

She describes the trio of actresses in the play as "a remarkable display of estrogen and female power, but also three very different actresses at the top of their game."  Along with Olympia Dukakis and René Augesen, Caroline Lagerfelt plays Clytemnestra, Elektra's mother, responsible for the murder of her father, Agamemnon.

Here's Carey Perloff introducing the background of the play to members of the cast:

Monday, November 12

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.

Tuesday, November 13

>Putting the "chamber" in chamber music… the Cypress String Quartet is repeating and expanding their successful series of salon concerts in intimate venues, with the first set of this season's taking place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On the program this weekend, some of the miniatures Dvorak called Cypresses that gave the ensemble their name, along with stormy Mozart, and some middle-period Beethoven.

There's more information about the salon concerts, and their entire season at the Cypress String Quartet website.

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says they're going to be dividing up the dozen Cypresses among their three salon programs (the other series of concerts will be in January and May), and the venues are the Pearson Theater at Meyer Sound in Berkeley, Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco, and Stonebrook Court Manor in Los Altos Hills.

"What I love about these salons is that it’s very up close and personal," she says. "This music is very intimate, but in these kinds of settings, where there’s no more than 70, or maybe if we cram them in, there’s 80 people in each one of these fabulous and unique settings – it’s very visceral – you’re going to be right in the quartet."

Because their schedule takes them through halls of a variety of sizes, Kloetzel says they're constantly making adjustments. "No matter where we play, we're responding to the space – it's sort of our fifth instrument. So we've got the four instruments up there, and then the way that the hall reacts with our instruments… Each one of these spaces is very different, so we'll be playing differently at each of them."

The Cypress String Quartet: Tom Stone, Ethan Filner, Jennifer Kloetzel, Cecily Ward

Cypress String Quartet

Wednesday, November 14

Aaron Copland was born on this date in 1900, and went on to write some of the most iconically American works of classical music, evoking the wide open spaces of the prairies, and babbling brooks of Appalachia… A far cry from his Brooklyn roots. With music for the concert hall, ballet and film scores, Copland's sound, with wide intervals and identifiable orchestration have become part of what we think of when we think of "American" works. 

Here are the works in the feature (click and drag over space below to see them)

  1. An Outdoor Overture
  2. Appalachian Spring
  3. Rodeo (Buckaroo Holiday)
  4. Rodeo (Hoedown)
  5. El Salon Mexico
  6. Clarinet Concerto
  7. Our Town
  8. Fanfare for the Common Man
  9. Lincoln Portrait

Copland was both a composer and conductor – and here's an appropriate arrangement he made of "Happy Birthday" for Leonard Bernstein's 70th (conducted here by Seiji Ozawa):

Thursday, November 15

Berkeley Rep's just-opened production of The White Snake is a world-premiere retelling of a traditional tale, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. The story, of a snake god who meets, falls in love, and marries a man while disguised as a beautiful woman has a long history, with many variants. Zimmerman had to decide which of the many possible stories to follow, and created the script (as she usually does) as the rehearsal process was underway.

There's more information about The White Snake at the Berkeley Rep website.

Zimmerman describes the way she works this way:  "In the normal amount of rehearsal time, four weeks, we start with no script, and every night I go home and I write a few pages. Sometimes just a page, sometimes I get inspired, or I’m under pressure and I do two or three scenes. I bring these in every day, and we immediately stage them, and it becomes this kind of cumulative, additive thing."  

The White Snake

This particular story, because it had a beginning, middle and end, actually proved easier to come up with a script for than some of her earlier works – like the episodic Arabian Nights or Myths of Ovid. "…Because then I’m having to pull a structure: which of these hundreds of episodes am I going to use for one evening of theater?" she says. "White Snake, the story of White Snake is fairly contained, it has its own arc. However the challenge was it has several different arcs, depending on which version through time you’re using. And so there were problems there. Which way do I go here? In one version they go up to the mountain here, and the other they don't go up to the mountain, that ‘s not even there. In one version they move cities, in one version there’s quite a lot of emphasis on the brother and the sister-in-law, and that’s where I’m choosing. But the field from which I’m choosing in the case of White Snake is much much smaller."

The set design is spare – she says it's like a blank canvas on which the detail of the patterns and layers of costumes can be seen. But Zimmerman calls the kaleidoscopic transformations from moment to moment in the play as one of its biggest strengths. "Whenever I direct and make something – I want it constantly to keep blossoming. To blossom, and blossom, and blossom. And when you think it’s done, to give more and more, scenically. By simple means, though. By simple means.

Friday, November 16

This Sunday, from noon until 7:00 pm, the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are presenting Chamber Music Day… It's a free extravaganza of 42 ensembles from a variety of genres – not just Baroque and Classical, but also Jazz and World, playing short sets as a sort of 'tasting menu' to expose audiences to groups and perhaps styles they might not know yet.  

There's more information about the day's events and performers at the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music website.

Dominique Pelletey, the Executive Director of SFFCM, knows that it's possible to discover new sorts of music almost by accident. He grew up listening to jazz and rock, and it wasn't until he found himself in Banff, in western Canada, where the Summer Arts Festival exposed him to daily doses of classical and specifically chamber music. He says the idea behind Chamber Music Day is to help make people aware of the great music that's all around the Bay Area, and hopes that there might be some "pollination" from audiences who stay to hear the next group performing.

Pelletey is well aware of the eclectic musical make-up of San Francisco… "When you think about chamber music, people think, O.K., that's two violins, a viola and a cello. In the Bay Area, you can have a quartet with a koto player, an accordion player, a digeridoo player, and maybe a singer!"

Last year's Chamber Music Day was held at the de Young Museum – here are highlights:

Monday, November 19

A royal set of arias – Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato brings the repertoire of her newest CD, Drama Queens to the Green Music Center's Weill Concert Hall tomorrow night. In a collection of roles fit for a queen (or empress or princess), DiDonato will be Cleopatra (twice!), Berenice, Ifigenia, Galsuine, and several others. She'll be joined by the ensemble Il Complesso Barocco.

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

Joyce DiDonato's 'Drama Queens'For the Drama Queens program, DiDonato and Alan Curtis, the conductor of Il Complesso Barocco sought out repertoire that would show the broad range of powerful female characters on the operatic stage in the Baroque. Joyce DiDonato loves how over the top they can be: "They're larger than life, so when they suffer they're going to destroy the world, so that the world knows how badly they suffer."

The search took them to libraries and archives – among them the University of California at Berkeley, where the score to Giuseppe Maria Orlandini's Berenice was languishing. DiDonato explains that Berenice "is not even a catalogued opera… It was sitting on a dusty shelf in Berkeley, very unloved, sort of an unwanted forgotten child."

And both George Frideric Handel (Giulio Cesare in Egitto) and Johann Adolf Hasse (Antonio e Cleopatra) wrote for the character of Cleopatra – showing at least two sides to her, as represented in the arias DiDonato sings from them. "We get the really famous 'Piangero' (I shall mourn my fate), which is probably the most well-known aria of Handel's Cleopatra… It's a real lament, and it shows quite a vulnerable side. But then Hasse gives us Cleopatra the Queen on the throne, who is swearing revenge on everybody that has wronged her… The blood is dripping out the teeth as she's singing it. It's so much fun to let loose on that… And the contrast between the two, it's night and day, and it's two different worlds." 

Joyce DiDonato at KDFC

Tuesday, November 20

>Get out your handkerchiefs… Today's "A to Z" edition of The State of the Arts sheds a tear or two for the letter L… which stands this time for Lute, Lachrimae, and Lament. John Dowland turned a melancholy lute solo into a bit of a franchise, as Lachrimae became "Flow My Tears" and then a set of Pavans, all based on the same melody and weeping gesture. Plus "Dido's Lament", the hauntingly beautiful, sorrowful aria sung in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

John Dowland's Lachrimae theme took many forms – along with the song "Flow My Tears", it became so popular that musicians would improvise on the theme as jazz players might on a 12-bar blues, or pop standard. Here's the way the song first sounded, as a lute solo:

And a heart-rending version of "Dido's Lament", as sung by Jessye Norman: 

Wednesday, November 21

Another kind of Thanksgiving, to get us in the mood for the holiday: the beautiful middle movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, which he indicated in the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit" or "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity". It was one of the late quartets, written after he had finished his symphonies, and after he was totally deaf; it was a grateful response to recovering from what he must have assumed was going to be a fatal illness.

The slow sections of this movement, which are like prayerful chorales (and in the Lydian mode – F to F on the white keys of a keyboard, so without the B-flat that one would normally get in an F Major scale) alternate with more lively, dance-like sections in D Major, that are described in the score as "Feeling new strength". It's a look back to the past, in using older forms and scales – and the gratitude that Beethoven is expressing is rolled into an awareness of his mortality – which was all the more acute after recovering from his illness. 

Monday, November 26

This time of year, there are more and more performances of The Nutcracker, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Handel's Messiah… If you don't have the kind of time it takes to attend full shows in person, here's a cut-down and mashed up sampler-plate for you.

Certainly there are other seasonal "chestnuts" (roasting on an open fire) but these three in particular seem to be perennial crowd-pleasers, and for some, the holiday season isn't complete without seeing one or more of them. 

Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors has the distinction of being the first opera ever written specifically for television, and had its premiere on Christmas Eve, 1951. It tells the story of a young shepherd boy and his mother, who offer the three kings a place to stay on their way to Bethlehem.

Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker is a seasonal mainstay of almost every ballet company – with dances associated with the movements of the Suite, plus plenty more – including an enormous Christmas tree, dancing mice, and the title Nutcracker, who is actually a prince. 

Handel's Messiah was written in an astonishing 24 days (although he did borrow from music he'd already written), and remains a towering example of oratorio. One of the popular ways audiences can experience Messiah is by participating in a sing-along performance, as part of the chorus.

Tuesday, November 27

The music education program from Venezuela known as "el Sistema" has many success stories to its credit – but the one that's best known is conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose own experiences in the intense, community-involved orchestral training launched his musical career. This week, a multi-day residency in Berkeley will feature evening concerts with Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, along with daytime performances for students, and a symposium on what the U.S. can learn from Venezuela's successes.

There's more information about the residency, and the "Reaching for the Stars" music education forum at the Cal Performances website

Eric Booth, who will be giving the keynote address as well as participating in several of the other activities, says "Kids in Venezuela are in their music learning centers in el Sistema twenty or more hours a week, and the membrane between the music learning center and the community and the surrounding stakeholders is very porous. The community is actively involved, they're frequently out int he community performing." 

Wednesday, November 28

'Vineyard' rather than 'shoebox'… Stanford Live (formerly Stanford Lively Arts) is going to be inaugurating a new performance venue in January, the Bing Concert Hall – and the media had a preview yesterday, with a presentation including faculty, musicians, acousticians and architects. It's designed with the seats encircling the stage, in so-called vineyard seating – like the hall the Berlin Philharmonic plays in, and closer to home, L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall. But it's a more intimate space, with just under 850 seats.

There's more information about the upcoming season and the hall at the Stanford Live website

Bing Concert HallBing Concert Hall

The venue shares more than just design philosophy with Disney Hall – the acoustician in charge of both is Yasuhisa Toyota, who was one of the members of the panel discussing the features and planning that went into the Bing Concert Hall's creation. Also speaking were composer and faculty member Jonathan Berger, violinists Geoff Nuttall (of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which is in residence at Stanford) and David Harrington (of the Kronos Quartet, which has a long association with the university). Other music faculty members, musicologist Stephen Hinton, and department chair Stephen Sano, were joined by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects, and two representatives of Stanford Live, Artistic Director Jenny Bilfield and Executive Director Wiley Hausam.

Professor Hinton said that decision to go with the vineyard seating makes sense, because there's "a natural tendancy, if somebody just spontaneously starts making music, you'll gather around in a circle, rather than standing in a line and leaving them at one end… So there's this idea of a community coming together."  

Geoff Nuttall says chamber music works especially well in a space with this kind of intimacy: "There's this beautiful living room, and there are ten of your best friends hanging out, and you're sharing some music with them." He said the St. Lawrence String Quartet had played a bit in the new space, and he thinks their ensemble will improve because of how well they're able to hear each other. "It's an incredible combination of clarity, and you can hear yourself. That was a cool realization," he says, "It wasn't just 'we're going to sound warm an nice'- it's that 'hey, maybe we can get better by listening to ourselves in this space.'"

Bing Concert Hall

Thursday, November 29

The title of Volti's upcoming performances (although a touch sarcastic) is truth in advertising: 'The Not-the-Messiah December Choral Concert'. Instead of singing Handel's classic oratorio, or any seasonal fare, Music Director Robert Geary and his ensemble will be doing what they do year-round: performing recent, and often brand-new choral works. The center of this season's concerts is a brand new set of five love songs the group commissioned from composer Armando Bayolo.

There's more information about the concerts (the first is this Sunday evening in Palo Alto, with performances in San Francisco and Berkeley at the end of next week) at Volti's website.

The work they'll be premiering in these concerts is called Cancionero Amoroso, love songs that Washington D.C.-based composer Armando Bayolo wrote, setting poems in five languages (Spanish, German, French, Italian and English), and dedicated to his wife. Conductor Robert Geary and Volti have been working with the composer, sending rehearsal recordings for comments and tweaks. 

Geary is well aware of the special importance of making sure that works they premiere are just as the composer intends: "If we don't do a good job, the pieces may never be performed again," he says. "The composers we work with tend to write very challenging music, and very challenging music can be incredibly beautiful, but if it's not well prepared, then it just sounds like 'wow, that was hard!'  

In their December concerts, they'll also perform a work they commissioned in 2011 from composer Stacy Garrop called Songs of Lowly Life. Here's a recording of them performing the movement called "Dawn":

Friday, November 30

Whether singing a Christmas carol from Bulgaria, a folk song from Greece, or any of the traditional songs for the winter solstice, Kitka, the women's vocal ensemble will busy for the next few weeks… They begin their Wintersongs tour tonight in Nevada City, ending in Arcata on the 16th, with stops along the way in Menlo Park, San Francisco, Oakland, and Gualala. They'll also be presenting a community sing in Oakland on Sunday, December 9th.

There's more information about the tour and the ensemble at Kitka's website.

Executive Director Shira Cion says the group, now in its 33rd year, will be singing works appropriate for the season – from "Slavic folky carols to contemplative sacred pieces in the Orthodox choral tradition." But there are also Yiddish folk tunes for Hanukkah, a Muslim song from Bosnia, and many more secular songs: "Tunes that aren't necessarily religious in nature, but they're more earth-centered; pre-Christian, ancient pagan songs that really get into the time of the winter solstice, the darkness, the wishes for the return of the sun and warmth."

The Communty Sing (on Sunday, December 9th) will allow those who might be curious about Kitka's repertoire and vocal techniques to have a chance to get an introduction from the singers, and then join in. Shira Cion says the success of last year's sing made them want to do it again: "We're picking songs that are accessible, not too complicated, easy to learn by ear. You don't need to speak any of the languages or be able to read a choral score. We're just going to create kind of a virtual, 21st century Slavic village in Oakland, and we're going to sing together!