Friday, November 1

On an 'A-to-Z' edition of State of the Arts, it's Sibelius and his Symphony of Swans and Silence… The Finnish composer (and national hero) Jean Sibelius was commissioned to write a symphony to commemorate his own 50th birthday – he ended up revising it several times before it came to the version we know today, but one of its most memorable themes came to him on a morning in April when he looked to the skies.

We know which morning, because he wrote in his diary (along with the theme that recurs in the horns throughout the final movement): "Today at ten to eleven, I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty. They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon." That was April 21st, 1915. A few days later, he would write: "The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to life… Strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me – nothing in art, literature, or music – in the same way as do these swans and canes and wild geese."

The final movement in this performance starts at 22:20…

Monday, November 4

The Oakland East Bay Symphony opens its 25th season this Friday – as Michael Morgan begins his 24th leading the orchestra. They'll have a program split between American works, and those by operatic bicentennial birthday boys Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. They'll welcome guests Mason Bates (as composer and performer) and soprano Othalie Graham.

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

Morgan says that the program splits down the middle: Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, which was the piece that started his inaugural concert with the OEBS, is paired with contemporary composer Mason Bates to make up the American half, and the other operatic works (both for orchestra, and with Othalie Graham) after intermission. 

Mason Bates discusses the origin of his piece Mothership, which he wrote for the YouTube Symphony orchestra:

Tuesday, November 5

Composer Jennifer Higdon didn't grow up expecting to be a musician… She started teaching herself to play the flute when she was 15, and when she then wanted to study music, it was to become a performer. But she caught up with some of her more precocious peers, and is now among the most sought-after composers. She's won the Pulitzer prize, and her just-finished opera of Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, will premiere in 2015.

There's more information about the composer at Jennifer Higdon's website.

Higdon says the first time she was asked to write a piece of music – by her flute teacher, she was hooked: "Just the act of putting notes to the page and then handing them to someone to perform, it resonated in such a way that I thought, 'oh, I might want to do this.' And after writing a second or third piece, I knew without doubt that that's what I wanted to do."

Her late start hasn't seemed to keep her back – on the contrary, she says it gave her a different point of view, and approach to composition: "It meant that I was exploring things when I was at a more mature age. And I also had kind of a hungry enthusiasm that some of my classmates didn't have… For me it was all brand new, and to this day it still feels a little brand new."

Here's a Piano Trio movement called "Pale Yellow" that she wrote in 2003 – part of a complete work with a different color for each movement.

Wednesday, November 6

Pianist Haskell Small is beginning a tour of northern California playing Federico Mompou's Musica Callada, a series of 28 miniatures for piano by the Barcelona-born composer which are rarely performed in concert. They were inspired by the writings of the mystic St. John of the Cross. The concerts, which start tonight in Roseville, continue to the north before a San Francisco appearance at the Swedenborgian Church on Saturday, and one in Santa Cruz Sunday.

You can find out more about the tour at Haskell Small's website.

Small describes the work as "Not flashy or showy. On the other hand, some people consider it a meditative piece. I would not describe it as New Age-y, meditative in that sense. It is contemplative, and at times, it is almost explosive… It certainly feels to me like a narrative: it goes somewhere, taking us on a journey, if you will, inside looking for who knows what, making some discoveries."  And so he's chosen to bring the music to area churches, as well as the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, and the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, "The premise in Mompou's own words is 'to seek inwardly, searching for a place in between life and death, where there is no pulse, no air,'" he says. "It's a strange combination of prayerful, I think extraordinarily beautiful music, with a child-like type innocence at times, juxtaposed with an almost knife-edge intensity that just seems to grip you from the beginning to the end."

Thursday, November 7

Musica Pacifica presents a program called "Baroque Splendor" in concerts beginning tonight in Palo Alto. It includes music of the 16th and 17th centuries, from Germany, Italy, France and the British Isles. One of the works is a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera-ballet Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies). Recorder player Judith Linsenberg and violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock give a preview.

There's more information at Musica Pacifica's website.

The other performers for the concert, viola da gambist John Dornenburg and harpsichordist JungHae Kim will play a sonata by J.S. Bach, there's going to be a quartet by Telemann, and works by Sammartini and Turini, in addition to British folk music.

Describing the Rameau suite, which is adapted for the ensemble's instrumentation, Elizabeth Blumenstock says: "It's a ballet, a very exotic ballet. It's very colorful, typical of Rameau. Very lively, a lot of variety, a lot of color. It's supposed to show sort of pageantry from many different cultures — of the Indies, at least — the 'Gallant Indies'".

Here's a slightly different incarnation of Musica Pacifica performers, playing variations on the traditional 'La Folia':

Friday, November 8

Pianist Jeremy Denk is playing Mozart with the San Francisco Symphony this week – and will go with them on a tour next week that will include performances in Carnegie Hall, as well as Ann Arbor and Champaign-Urbana. He says K.503 is one of his very favorite Mozart concertos, and one of his very favorite pieces, including a theme in the middle of the final movement that he considers "one of the most blissfully beautiful things that Mozart ever wrote."

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

It's been an eventful year for Jeremy Denk, who has just released a new recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, was named a recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, and (just this week) Musical America chose him as "Instrumentalist of the Year". He's going to be Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival next year (as well as the Ojai North Festival in Berkeley), and included in the lineup will be an opera for which he's written the libretto (based on the music theory text Sonata Forms by the late Charles Rosen – and which will include as characters Beethoven and Haydn)

He describes the Mozart concerto as layered with 'idea themes' – beyond the melodies, there's another theme: "which is indecision, whether the piece is in C major or C minor. And this constant, almost existential doubt… Sometimes the doubt is doubtful, and sometimes the doubt is heart-rendingly beautiful." The last time he toured with the San Francisco Symphony, it was as part of the American Mavericks Festival, when he played a densely clustered piano concerto by composer Henry Cowell: "I mostly used my elbows and arms… so I'll be glad to use my fingers on this tour."

Monday, November 11

Soprano Isabel Leonard – winner of this year's prestigious Richard Tucker Award – is singing the role of Rosina in the San Franciso Opera production of Rossini's Barber of Seville, opening Wednesday. It will mark her debut with the company, coming only a month or so after she joined the San Francisco Symphony in October's Thomas Ades/Mendelssohn mini-festival. She also had a chance to sing "Una voce poco fa" with some muppet friends not so long ago.

There's more information about the performances at the San Francisco Opera's website.

Isabel Leonard, who has been dubbed "Opera's It girl" has sung the role of Rosina before – "I love Rosina, I think she's a lot of fun," Leonard says. "She's a young, smart, emotional… quick, savvy, witty — you know, she's all these sort of great adjectives — woman, who's in a bit of a predicament."  The elderly doctor who has taken her as his ward keeps her confined to his house, expecting to marry her (and keeping her from the Count who loves her.)  "Her pridicament was probably more often than not the norm, and this was a serious thing… Sometimes the comedy can kind of gloss over the difficulty of the situation, but as long as we have both, I think that's what's most interesting for me int the piece… to try and keep all of these elements at play."

And speaking of play… She says appearing with the Muppets on Sesame Street was a highlight of her life so far (and her young son's too!):

Tuesday, November 12

The Italian Baroque meets jazz and blues in Concerto Carnevale by Quartet San Francisco violinist and composer Jeremy Cohen. It's one of the featured works on the next episode of our new show Bay Area Mix, this Sunday night at 8 pm on KDFC. The quartet is acting as "soloist" in a concerto grosso, along with the Marin Symphony, led by Alasdair Neale. It was given its world premiere last October, as the orchestra began its 60th season with an all-Italian theme.

Jeremy Cohen says when Quartet San Francisco was asked to be part of the Viva Italia program: "We were looking around for material and we couldn't find any really suitable piece for string quartet and orchestra. And I, for some reason, was insane enough at the moment to offer myself up to compose a piece for the event." When he began writing, he consulted the composers who wrote some of the best works that pitted small ensembles against a larger orchestra. "I listened to lots of Corelli, Vivaldi, Locatelli… You know, a lot of Italian concerto grosso, for inspiration and information about the form, and how these things were done." But he knew the quartet's idiosyncratic sound would come through. "I really wanted to write something that come from that tradition. And I knew that once I started writing, it was going to take on a Quartet San Francisco flavor."

The result was a three-movement work (which are called "Blue Baroque", "Tango", and "Tarantella") that takes the form and has fun with it. Cohen's piece is on a Bay Area Mix program this week that also includes the New Century Chamber Orchestra playing Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and (as an early hundredth birthday wish) the Valinor Winds play Benjamin Britten's Movement for Wind Sextet – part of the "Britten Celebration" performance of the Curious Flights concert series. Tune it Sunday night at 8 for local performances recorded live in concert on Bay Area Mix!

Wednesday, November 13

The piece by composer Michael Gordon called Timber gets its Bay Area premiere tomorrow night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, played by members of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. It's a work written for six percussionists, each playing a simantra – a glorified two-by-four that's held up in such a way that the wood can vibrate resonantly when hit with mallets. 

There's more information about the concert at the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players website

Michael Gordon, who was a co-founder of the famed Bang on a Can Festival, was originally commissioned to write the piece by the Dutch percussion ensemble Slagwerk Den Haag (Percussion The Hague). "I wanted to limit my options. When you think of percussion, there are always a lot of instruments. If you think of a drumset, there's all those drums and cymbals, and in classical percussion, anything is a percussion instrument. I thought, I'm going to write this piece for six percussionists, and I only want them to play one instrument. And then I just thought, I only want the instrument to have one note."

He began to write, but hadn't been satisfied with any sound he'd heard – when the leader of the group suggested simantras, which they happened to have in the basement. "The wood actually produces a complex, very beautiful sound," Gordon says. And the players are positioned in a circle, to allow the rhythmic patterns and slight differences in musical timbre to travel around the room, as Gordon puts it, "almost creating architecture."

Thursday, November 14

Cirque du Soleil's Amaluna has opened in San Francisco, near AT&T Park; it's a show directed by Diane Paulus – who is the Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, and earlier this year won a Tony  for the Broadway revival of Pippin

There's more information about the show, which runs through January 12th at the Cirque du Soleil website.

Diane PaulusOne of the things Paulus brought into the production was more of a dramatic narrative than past Cirque du Soleil performances have had. "Coming from a background of theater and opera," she says, "what I wanted to bring to Cirque was a level of story and emotion to the project. It is Cirque, and it is acrobatics, and the thrills and chills are what a lot of people come out for. But I think what makes Amaluna different is there's a storyline hidden in the show." It was meant to be an homage to women, and so there are more female performers to male than usual. Characters are based on Greek godesses (Demeter, Persephone) and storylines borrowed from Mozart's Magic Flute and Shakespeare's The Tempest (with the young Miranda, but also a Queen Prospera instead of Prospero).

As she's been adding drama to the acrobatics, Diane Paulus says, she's had to get used to a different kind of rehearsal. "The artists in Amaluna are the top athletes in their field. So it almost feels like working in the Olympics here. As a director of theater, I had to really respect their craft and their training. What was really different for me is they can't do all the tricks repeatedly. You're not in a rehearsal saying 'Can you do that again?'"

Friday, November 15

With folk-like melodies and Wagnerian harmonies, Opera San Jose opens its production of Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel tomorrow night. Conductor Joseph Marcheso says even though the premise of the story is dark, there's never any confusion about which side is going to win.

There's more information about the production, which runs through December 1, at Opera San Jose's website.

Hansel and Gretel has long been a staple of holiday productions, since its premiere just before Christmas in 1893 – with Richard Strauss at the podium. Despite the dark subject matter, it's a family-friendly opera (Joseph Marcheso says it was the first one he ever saw). "They're lost in the woods… because their mother coudn't take their bad behavior anymore, and essentially threw them into the woods. So that their parents are kind of complicit in this adventure and terrifying experience that they have. And then they meet this witch! But the moral is very cleraly presented throughout."

The opera works on several levels, playing to children in the audience, but also to their parents, who might have a bit more understanding of Hansel and Gretel's parents' dilemma.
The vocal lines, Marcheso says, are fairly simple, but the orchestral writing is anything but. Engelbert Humperdinck "was an assistant to Wagner, he was a teacher to Mahler. Strauss conducted the premiere… so that vocabulary was in his system, and not only did he receive it, he was able to impart it.

Monday, November 18

An A-to-Z edition of State of the Arts, stopping at the letter "O"… For Ostinato, Orff, and "O Fortuna"…  An Ostinato is a musical idea that's repeated with an insistent focus – it could be a repeated note, or rhythm, or motivic idea, maybe a repeated bass line that is played against an evolving melody. The word comes from the Italian for 'obstinate', since an ostinato refuses to give up, and can generate dramatic momentum with repetition. One of the many examples is the ever-growing "O Fortuna" in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana – as a choir chants over a determined and repeated accompaniment.

Classical Music is filled with repetition – what makes something an ostinato? It's really a question of intensity, and the way the gesture is being used. 

Gustav Holst used the low strings and percussion to create a rhythmic ostinato for "Mars, the Bringer of War" in his The Planets:

And here's the famous "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana, at :44 seconds in: 

Tuesday, November 19

Violinist Geoff Nuttall has been a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet for going on 25 years now – he'll bring that experience to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for their Chamber Music Masters residency this week, which includes a free master class tonight and a concert on Thursday night with students and faculty.

There's more information about the events at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music website.

The master class will feature student quartets playing works by Ravel, Shostakovich and Bartok, with Nuttall offering critiques and advice based on a lifelong love of chamber music, and quartets in particular. He'll be joined by both faculty members and Conservatory students for Thursday's concert, as they play Richard Strauss's Sextet from the opera Capriccio (for a pair of violins, violas and cellos), and Mozart's G minor 'Viola' Quintet, K. 516 (for a quartet plus an extra viola.) "Arguably one of the greatest chamber music pieces ever written," Nuttall says. "We'll never know why Mozart was so much more inspired when he wrote for quintet than he did for string quartet." Also on the program, the Delphi Trio will play Iranian-born Bay Area composer Sahba Aminikia's piece Deltangi-ha.

Nuttall compares playing chamber music to a game that a friend of his used to play: "Juggling with two or three people or more… It was basically, you try to keep these soft juggling balls in the air, and the idea is you always want to make a throw that allows your colleague to catch it. So you don't want to throw three balls to the guy when he's holding five." Namely, for things to work, you have to be constantly aware of what you're giving to your colleagues, and what they're giving to you.

Wednesday, November 20

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was the inspiration for a new concerto written by Michael Daugherty for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The piece is called Fallingwater for Solo Violin and Strings, and gets its name from the cantilevered house that Wright built over a waterfall in Mill Run, Pennsylvania.

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

Michael Daugherty has written many works centered around American icons – Elvis, Superman, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis among them – and was inspired to add Frank Lloyd Wright to them during a visit to the compound where he made his home. "I got the idea to write the piece when I visited Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin a couple of summers ago," he says. "In the main room, where Frank Lloyd Wright would entertain, he made furniture for a string quartet. It's furniture in a circle, and he frequently had string quartets perform at his house. So when I knew I was going to write a piece for strings, I thought that would be a nice analogy, the sounds of strings and Frank Lloyd Wright."

The four movements, "Night Rain," "On the Level," "Prairie Psalm," and "Ahead of the Curve" each use an aspect of his life or work as a starting point. The melody of the Welsh folksong "All Through the Night" winds its way through the opening; and in the third movement, Daugherty considers the consequences of the architect's actions. "Frank Lloyd Wright was somebody who had a huge ego, thought he could break all the rules, and by doing so, he created great architecture. He also inflicted a lot of pain on a lot of people, because he left a lot of relationships, and had a lot of tragedies in his life."

The premiere tonight is in Mountain View; on Friday, they'll play in Berkeley at the First Congregational Church, before coming to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Saturday, and the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael on Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, November 21

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the hundredth birthday of composer Benjamin Britten, and the feast day of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia. The choir Artists' Vocal Ensemble will present a concert Friday night that commemorates those and more. 

There's more information about the concert at the Artists' Vocal Ensemble website.

Jonathan Dimmock, Music Director for AVE, says the 16-member choir will be singing a program that combines new with old – including two works in honor of JFK, the first by Herbert Howells, composed in the months following the assassination. "The piece uses a text from the fourth century poet, Prudentius, 'Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing'. It's really quite a stirring text. Howells opens the piece in simple octave unison singing, and then suddenly on the third stanza, goes into enormous harmonic richness." The second tribute to Kennedy uses audio samples of the president himself, in a new work by Bay Area composer Aaron Gervais.

Benjamin Britten's work Hymn to St. Cecilia will also be on the program, as will Ockeghem's Requiem. "We like to juxtapose the old and the new," Dimmock says, "and I think the Ockeghem Requiem with its incredible stillness really seems to capture the idea of lament." A late addition to the concert lineup is John Tavener's Song for Athene, which many came to know during the funeral of Princess Diana. The ensemble decided to add it in tribute to the composer, who just recently died.

Friday, November 22

Pianist Shai Wosner will be bringing a concert of music by (and inspired by) Franz Schubert to Cal Performances this Sunday afternoon. Wosner says he's fascinated by the composer's sense of time, and the way he was able to achieve both intimacy and depth in his works.

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

Shai Wosner — who was most recently here to take part in the "Fall Free For All" — says the works of Schubert are all the more amazing when you consider that he died at 31. "There's some raw power in Schubert's music that's really unlike anything else. I mean, of course, each of the great composers is unique, I just think that Schubert's achievement is so astounding in such a short lifespan, to have created such a deep world of meaning in music through so many pieces. It's really mind-boggling."

"I find that the songs and the short pieces often have this sort of grandness in them, even though it's a short piece," he says. "In the music itself you have this sense of huge spaces that are behind the notes… It's his sort of sense of time. You feel like there is this vast expanse beyond the actual music that's sort of in the background. That's, I feel, where the tragedy, some of the tragic undertows come from."

He spoke with Cal Performances about Schubert and time when he was here in September:

Monday, November 25

This Sunday night's broadcast of the San Francisco Opera goes into the archive for a 1973 production of Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus, with Dame Joan Sutherland in the role of Rosalinda, her husband Richard Bonynge conducting the San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra, with stage direction by Lotfi Mansouri.

There's more information about the broadcast here, and at the San Francisco Opera website.

The broadcast on Sunday night, hosted by KDFC's Dianne Nicolini, will include the original introductions and synopses by Scott Beach when it originally aired live, September 14th, 1973. It marked the Australian soprano's role debut as Rosalinda, and was a decade after her first collaboration with Lotfi Mansouri, the long-time General Director of the Opera. 

The frothy Strauss opera has a convoluted story – with all the characters taking on assumed identities, all ending up at Prince Orlofsky's ball, flirting and lying to each other. At the center of the story is Gabriel von Eisenstein, who has to serve a brief jail term for punching a policeman; his wife, Rosalinda, whose old flame, the aria-spouting tenor Alfred hopes to take advantage of his imprisonment; their maid, Adele, who poses as an up-and-coming actress, and Eisenstein's friend Falke, who has set things in motion as a way of getting revenge for a prank that left him, hung over, dressed as a bat (Fledermaus) and embarrassed on a public bench one Sunday morning.

Tuesday, November 26

One of the long-held dreams of amateur inventors – like building the proverbial 'better mousetrap' – is to come up with a way to create a machine that powers itself, without ever slowing down or stopping. The quest for Perpetual Motion isn't only limited to devices, though – it's also used as a musical concept, and it's the subject of an "A-to-Z" edition of State of the Arts today… Composers such as Niccolo Paganini and Johann Strauss II have works that seem to go on and on without ever stopping…

Eventually, everything runs out of steam… or energy… or whatever is making it go. The laws of thermodynamics guarantee that. But try telling that to Yehudi Menuhin, who's playing Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" here with (long-suffering) accompanist Adolph Baller:

Or the Vienna Philharmonic playing "Perpetuum Mobile" by Johann Strauss II , conducted by Herbert von Karajan:

Wednesday, November 27

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.