Monday, November 2

This Saturday, Davies Symphony Hall is the site of the Dia de los Muertos Community Concert, with special guest Lila Downs joining the San Francisco Symphony inside the concert hall… But in the lobbies, an hour before each of the two performances at 2 and 8, singers from two senior choirs of the Community Music Center will be giving their own concerts of Latin American music.

There’s more information about the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony website. And more informations about the choirs at the Community Music Center site.

Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, who leads the Solera Singers and the 30th Street Chorus, won’t be conducting on Saturday, because of her other duties with the concert – Jennifer Peringer will be leading them in the lobbies from the accordion, joined by flute, bass and guitar. Rodriguez-Salazar explains: “It’s going to be 50 singers singing together Latin American music…We have been rehearsing with them for the past four years, or such, and they’re very enthusiastic. They love singing music from their countries, so it’s going to be a selection of all music in Spanish.” The singers are all over 55, and clearly enjoying taking part in the celebration: “Being together, being active, having performances outside, I mean, for them, it’s like a dream for them. To be able to sing at the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall is something that they never ever imagined that they could ever do.”

Tuesday, November 3

When you say Quartet or Quintet in classical music, you have to be a bit more specific. The most frequent instrumentation for four players in a chamber music setting is probably a string quartet – with a pair of violins, a viola, and a cello. It’s a natural combination, because each instrument has a tone that’s similar, but the ranges of each allow for the highest highs and lowest lows. It starts getting a bit more complicated when you talk about quintets…

There are quintets that feature another solo instrument, like piano, or flute, but those really are more like scaled-down concertos, with a quartet sitting in place of the orchestra. When composers keep within one section, they can choose to add another violin, or, as Mozart popularized, another viola:

Or do as Schubert did in his Quintet D.956 – and have a second cello:


You can also add a double bass to the usual quartet to strengthen its lower register.

Brass ensembles tend to be made up of five players, as a rule – although it can vary whether they play trumpets or cornets for the top two parts, and flugelhorn, euphonium, French horn and trombone can all be found in the middle – with bass trombone, or most frequently, a tuba providing the support on the bottom. But although each has a slightly different sound, they’re all essentially variations within the same brass family. The woodwind quintet, on the other hand, celebrates the differences in its instruments. As seen in the video below of Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet: the flute, which is made of wood or metal and blown across a mouthpiece, the two double-reeds oboe and bassoon with a French horn between – not a woodwind at all, and the single-reed clarinet. Together, despite their differences, they make up a miniature wind section, and blend beautifully, while each line keeps its distinctive timbre:

Wednesday, November 4

Violinist Itzhak Perlman turned 70 at the end of August, and as part of the celebration, there’s been a wave of reissues in two gigantic boxed sets: his current label, Deutsche Grammophon has released a 25-disc collection, and Warner (which now owns EMI, Erato, and Teldec) has a 59-album/77 disc box. But there’s also a brand new release that Perlman has recorded with pianist Emanuel Ax, of sonatas by Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss.

You can find the CD at Arkiv Music, and find out more about him at Itzhak Perlman’s website.

Perlman says that the Fauré and Richard Strauss sonatas have been a part of his repertoire for as many as 40 years, but that he’d just never gotten around to recording them. “So I said ‘Ah! That’s a good opportunity to try to do it,’ and one of the dinners that I had with Emanuel Ax, I said, ‘You know, we should record something,’ and then I said, ‘How about these two pieces?’  And he said, ‘How about doing some Mozart?’ and I said, ‘How about these two pieces?” … And I prevailed!” His career has included all of the major works for violin, and not long ago was listed as one of 5 classical artists who could always completely fill a hall (the others were Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, and Renee Fleming).

In addition to performing all over the world, he continues to make teaching an important part of his work – and he advises students to keep an open mind as they pursue their dreams: “Career opportunities have evolved – they have changed. It’s still difficult to have an interesting career if you just think about one thing that you want to do. If you think, ‘I’m going to practice, and then I’m going to play concerts with major orchestras.’ That may happen, or that may not happen. So I always say to them, be imaginative. Be creative in your career. If one thing doesn’t work, you can do something else, as long as you are enthusiastic  about what you do, which is being a musician.”

Here’s how many Americans first were introduced to Perlman, in an appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show when he was only 13 years old.

Thursday, November 5

Lines Ballet begins its Fall home season Friday night, with a new work in collaboration with Grammy award-winning singer Lisa Fischer, who was one of the artists profiled in the acclaimed documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. Choreographer Alonzo King has created a piece called The Propelled Heart, that has Fischer interacting with the dancers, and the dancers singing.

There’s more information about the performances at the Lines Ballet website.

Lisa Fischer is no stranger to being on stage – she’s toured with the Rolling Stones for decades, and with many other bands that regularly sell out arenas. But this kind of dancing is new for her. “When I was little,” she says, “you did the after school ballet classes, so… from a young age you get an appreciation and a desire for just the beauty of the line, and understanding alignment within your body.  Meeting Alonzo, and actually seeing Lines at the Joyce Theatre in New York, it kind of sparked that old childhood feeling.” King says that he was immediately impressed by how game she’s been for the project, and wanted to be sure to protect her: “The starting point is safety, so that the artist feels comfortable, because she’s going to be taking a lot of risks, and it’s going to possibly be unfamiliar…  Maybe not unfamiliar to her dreams, but unfamiliar to work that she may or may not have been doing recently, because we wanted to create something (as usual) that’s never been created before.”

Friday, November 6

The choral ensemble Cappella SF presents Songs for the Earth – a program of works that are inspired by, and show the need to preserve natural resources. Artistic director Ragnar Bohlin gives a preview of the concert, which will take place Saturday night at Mission Dolores Basilica, in collaboration with the environmental organization Food & Water Watch.

There’s more information at the Cappella SF website.

Bohlin says that he’s wanted to do a program with this kind of theme, and he had plenty of choices deciding upon the repertoire: “Our choral literature is filled with gems and masterpieces that speak about the beauty of nature. About sunrises, sundowns, and the beauty of the forest, and lake, etc. So why not choose wonderful masterpieces with that theme and sing about the beauty of nature, and then intersperse that with readings in between?” They’ll read passages between the pieces of music from a variety of sources, that they and Food and Water Watch selected: “Quotes from Pope Francis, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Dalai Lama, speaking about our responsibility for the earth, for nature, and for thinking about future generations.”

The program will include works by Monteverdi, Shakespeare songs by Vaughan Williams, “Autumn Landscapes” by Veljo Tormis, “Biegga Luothe” by Jan Sandström, Eric Whitacre’s “Cloudburst,” and the premiere of two “Madrigals for the Season” by Cappella SF’s composer-in-residence David Conte.

Monday, November 9

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:

Tuesday, November 10

Ending a program called ‘Lost Romantics’ by the Oakland Symphony is a work by the Danish composer Victor Bendix, that Music Director Michael Morgan says will start a cycle of the many works from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries that are rarely performed, but worth discovering. The program will also have two soloists: tenor Brent Turner, and pianist Llewellen Sanchez-Werner.

There’s more information about the concert at the Oakland Symphony website.

Although Victor Bendix’s works aren’t actually lost, they’ve all but disappeared from the concert hall – and the Third Symphony was new to Michael Morgan: “I stumbled across this piece, as one does these days when you’re killing time on YouTube, basically, and you stumble across all sorts of things you’ve never heard of… Victor Bendix is a Jewish composer from the end of the 19th Century, Jewish-Danish composer, and the fact is that that entire society is sort of gone because of the holocaust.” The appeal of his music makes it a good starting point for a planned cycle of similarly neglected works. “There are a lot of them,” Morgan explains, “from the end of the latter-half of the nineteenth century, and on into the very beginnings of the 20th. But they’re very romantic, mainstream Romantic pieces that we just don’t play anymore. The Victor Bendix was the great one to start with, because it is immediately engaging…  Everyone will love it right away, and so I thought it was the best thing to use to kick off the series.”

Wednesday, November 11

Anonymous 4
is making its farewell tour this season, and the last concert they’ll present in the Bay Area is this Sunday night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, presented by San Francisco Performances. Founding singer Marsha Genensky explains the program ‘1865‘ is one of the three strands of repertoire they’ve been exploring over the past almost 30 years.

You can find out more about the concert at the San Francisco Performances website, and at the Anonymous 4 site.

The ensemble found a niche for itself early on, singing medieval music that had previously been performed by male singers: “We had been singing together in various Renaissance vocal chamber ensembles in New York,” Genensky says, “And we thought, you know, what about some older stuff? The polyphony was written for equal voices, and so we could potentially sing it with women’s voices.” They kept to that repertoire, but it wasn’t limiting. “For the longest time, we stuck with medieval music, which might sound like a really narrow thing to do… but when you think about how long the middle ages lasted, and about how broad it was geographically, there’s kind of a lot of stuff out there.”  Composer Richard Einhorn approached them for his project Voices of Light, which began the second area of repertoire – new music and pieces written for them. And then in 2004, they released American Angels, a “sudden left turn into American music.”

The program 1865, commemorating 150 years since the end of the Civil War celebrates music that was popular in the country that year – both for those who could afford and read sheet music, as well as those who passed songs down through the oral tradition. Collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky, they’ve finished their trilogy of Americana albums just as they’re finishing the run of the ensemble.

Thursday, November 12

The Mill Valley Philharmonic presents three free concerts this weekend, with a timely title: Rain Dance. The ensemble’s director and founder, Laurie Cohen has put together a drought- and water- themed program with music by Virgil Thomson, Debussy, and Brahms, plus a Coast Miwok descendant, who will sing rain blessings for the area.There’s more information about the concerts at the Mill Valley Philharmonic website (The performances are at the Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church in Mill Valley,  Friday at 8 and Saturday at 4 pm, and Sunday at the Osher Marin JCC at 2).

Laurie Cohen founded the community orchestra 16 years ago, and she enjoys the freedom of being able to program concerts without having to conform to expectations: “Being able to get ideas, which I often do when I’m walking, actually in the woods, but… Get ideas, and begin to explore the music first, rather than the idea first.” She’s been planning this concert for more than a year, but unfortunately, the drought is a topic that remains timely. In addition to the traditional blessing, which will call on the water spirit and the spirit of Mount Tamalpais, the group will play a section from Virgil Thomson’s score to The Plow that Broke the Plains – the 1936 documentary about the devastation of the Dust Bowl – and on to Debussy’s Nuages (Clouds), and Brahms’ water-inspired Third Symphony. Cohen’s hopes for the concert?: “Through people’s emotional experience of the music, that they’ll gain greater awareness, and it’ll be in the context of a really expansive community setting, so… can we actually affect the drought? Remains to be seen!”

Friday, November 13

The San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas are joined by violinist Leonidas Kavakos for concerts tonight through Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall, playing a work near and dear to his heart – the concerto by Jan Sibelius. The middle movement is one of those moments in music, he says, “when time doesn’t matter.”

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

He’s played the concerto many times since he began to learn it in 1983. One of the very first times he played it in front of an audience was when he travelled from his native Greece to Finland in 1985, to take part in the Sibelius Violin Competition, which he won. The piece as is played today is a revision; in the first version, Sibelius, who was a violinist, went a bit overboard. “The first version, it was the same material, but he was so obsessed with violin playing and showing what he thought the virtuoso should be,” Kavakos says. “When he forgot about all this, and brought all this into balance, we have an amazing symphonic composition.” And the importance of this piece to Sibelius – who never wrote a piano concerto – was clear. “He composed what he felt, and what he could not do. Because his dream was to become a virtuoso, which he could not, and he didn’t. He’s watching a certain Sibelius in the mirror that he could not be… You know, on the other side of the mirror, there’s somebody looks like him, is him, but in fact, it’s somebody that he can not be. He cannot be on both sides of the mirror.”

Monday, November 16

There are many Unfinished Works in the world of Classical music, for many reasons… whether they were put off to be completed later, abandoned as unworthy, or in some cases, left behind after the composer’s death. Depending on how decipherable sketches were, some of them have been completed, and others stand as they were written, even trailing off into a single final note, as in J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the Symphony that has the nickname “Unfinished” – Franz Schubert’s work that, despite the name, has two complete movements – which are played that way in concert performances. It’s only because it’s the ‘front end’ of the expected form (and because sketches exist for the remaining two movements) that it goes by that name.  Even though he died very young, Schubert lived for several more years after leaving that work behind – so it wasn’t something he was working on as death approached. Likewise, the manuscript of the final movement of Bach’s Art of Fugue trails off as though it was his final act, but he was dictating revisions to the complicated set of fugues after his sight failed him.

Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, was only completed through half of the third act – ironically just as the slave girl Liu’s dead body is taken off stage by the chorus – and although at the premiere an ending existed, (written by Franco Alfano, based on Puccini’s sketches) conductor Arturo Toscanini put down his baton, and told the audience at La Scala “Here the Maestro laid down his pen…”  But what happens when there isn’t that kind of a line of demarcation? Mozart’s Requiem remained unfinished at the time of his death (Amadeus on stage and screen notwithstanding) and the job of completing it fell to his student, Franz Xaver Sussmäyr. But Mozart had only completed about a third of it, with sketches for choral parts, and other clues for various movements as a starting point. There have been several other notable efforts to complete it, including by musicologist Robert Levin, who’s been a scholar of Mozart’s work and musical voice for decades.

Sometimes the composer doesn’t want to release work into the world, and would rather have it destroyed – such was the case of Jan Sibelius, who after several years of working on a planned Eighth Symphony, promising it to conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra fed the manuscript to the fire. It was only comparatively recently that musicologists discovered tantalizing sketches in the Finnish National Library’s collection of Sibelius’s papers that date from the time he was working on the piece. Fragments were recorded by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, although they haven’t been released yet on disc.

Tuesday, November 17

SFMOMA has chosen a musical way to celebrate the end of its ‘On the Go’ exhibits before its grand re-opening in May.  The Forty Part Motet sonic installation by Janet Cardiff at Fort Mason Center’s Gallery 308 allows people to experience Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium in a way unlike any traditional concert experience. A ring of 40 loudspeakers face inward, and listeners can wander among them during the performance of the Renaissance masterwork.

There’s more information about the exhibit at the SFMOMA website. It runs through January 18th at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, and although free, requires reservations.

“Having the voices come out of speakers like that, people feel very comfortable walking up to a speaker and standing there, and getting almost a relationship with that particular voice,” Janet Cardiff says. The 11-minute performance (plus three minutes worth of ‘intermission,’) gives the listener/viewer the opportunity to wander or stay in one place, to experience the structure of the piece. “We spaced each grouping around the room in an oval, just so that you could really see the composition. And you could see how Thomas Tallis made it so that it starts in one spot, and then it goes to another, and back and forth and all over the place, and it moves around, and you really feel the sound kind of three dimensionally around you.”

Cardiff has never been a musician, but has come to be associated with this piece, the best known of her installations. “For me, music, the music that appeals to me, is spatial. Sculptural…It’s really an ode to Thomas Tallis, this piece, because it’s such a brilliant piece of music, and I wanted to show how brilliant his mind was, and how much of a sculptor he was.”

Janet Cardiff's 'The Forty Part Motet'

Wednesday, November 18

The ensemble now known as Symphony Parnassus began as the UCSF Doctor’s Orchestra – made up of amateur musicians  founded in 1989. Although the players come from different fields today, they remain dedicated to performing pieces that would challenge most community orchestras. Conductor Stephen Paulson, who has led the group since 1998, has programmed a trio of such works for their season opening concert this Sunday afternoon at Herbst Theatre.

There’s more information about the concert at the Symphony Parnassus website.

“There’s a huge concentration of brain power in San Francisco, let’s face it,” Paulson says. “The tech world, and we do have some tech world types in the orchestra, and a lot of people from the medical profession… These people are all great lovers of music, excellent players on their instruments, even though they’re just part time, and we do the most challenging repertoire, and I think they’ll have nothing less, they want that.” The lineup for this program is the William Tell Overture by Rossini, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with guest soprano Hope Briggs), and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Paulson explains: “The William Tell Overture is on the program because I wanted to feature several soloists, which is in keeping with the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, because a concerto for orchestra, instead of having one soloist, the members and the sections of the orchestra are the soloists, and just take turns.”  There are plenty of opportunities for soloists to shine, as the Rossini includes five solo cellos, and parts for English horn and flute, as well as the familiar trumpet fanfare; the second movement of the Bartok is called ‘the Game of the Couples’ with paired woodwinds taking turns as duets.

Thursday, November 19

The voting for KDFC’s Local Vocals High School Choir Sing-Off is underway – you can let your voice be heard as the field narrows from all the submissions to the finalists – this first round runs through the end of November, with the voting on finalists beginning on December 1st. The ultimate winners will sing as part of a taping of the show From the Top that will take place in San Jose in February.

There are full instructions, and you can watch all the videos here. Tell your friends to vote too!

Friday, November 20

The casual listener may not know what key a piece of music has been written in, but the composer made that choice for a reason – whether practical (musical phrases can fit instruments better when played in one key over another) or just because that’s the way the harmonies were imagined in the first place. Each key has a bit of a personality, and the composer will match the material to the key that suits it. Here are several in the Key of C minor… can you identify them?

To check your answers, just click and drag over the blank area below:

  1. Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”
  2. Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
  3. Brahms: Symphony No. 1
  4. Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”
  5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
  6. Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, no. 20
  7. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
  8. Mozart: Mass in C Minor, Kyrie
  9. Bach: Prelude No. 2 from Well Tempered Clavier, Book I
  10. Bach: Suite for Unaccompanied Cello no. 5, Allemande
  11. Schubert: Symphony No. 4, “Tragic”
  12. (Beethoven: Symphony No. 5)

Monday, November 23

Before tuning was standardized by ‘even temperament’ (after J.S. Bach made such a good case for it with his Well-Tempered Clavier) there were several competing ways of tuning a keyboard. Those systems will often sound slightly out of tune to our modern ears, but that characteristic sonic seasoning is at the heart of a performance by the Bertamo Trio of brand new and old music in a program called Endangered Temperaments this Saturday night at the Center for New Music.

There’s more information about the project at the Center for New Music’s website.

The problem at the root of tuning a keyboard instrument is that being ‘perfectly in tune’ is impossible, since the mathematics behind the frequencies involved doesn’t exactly align with the layout of an octave. A note exactly doubles in frequency when it goes up an octave – but the ratios of the ‘perfect fifth’ and ‘perfect fourth’ really are slightly off.  Composer Dennis Aman explains: “If you were to tune to a circle of absolutely perfect fifths, all the way around, C-G-D-A-E… By the time you get back around to C, you’ve got some leftover that you need to figure out what to do with. So the question is, for tuning, over the last four or five hundred years, where do we tuck this extra little bit away? What rug do we sweep it under?” The tuning system that pays special attention to making the interval of the third accurate was popular at the beginning of the Baroque – and that’s the sonic palette that Aman and Edward Schocker are using for the new pieces that will be on the same program with earlier works, written when ‘quarter comma mean tone temperament’ was in wide use.

Tuesday, November 24

The role of Hans Sachs in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is huge – as baritone James Rutherford says: “For the first twenty-five minutes of the piece, I’m not on; for the next four-and-a-half hours I am.” He’s only had about a month to prepare since it was announced he’d be substituting in the role at San Francisco Opera. Fortunately, he has impeccable history with Meistersinger, having made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival singing Hans Sachs in 2010.

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

The opera’s prodigious length is legendary. “The role, my role, Hans Sachs is the longest role written in any opera. Just to sing my part takes two hours twenty five minutes. Now to put that in context, Parsifal, the lead role, the tenor role in Parsifal, he only sings for 20 minutes. So it’s… just that sheer conquering Everest thing.” James Rutherford last sang the part about two years ago – but he says it’s all come back – in the neighborhood of 6,000 words of text. Aside from the duration, it stands alone among Wagner’s works as a comedy – and an opera that doesn’t involve the actions and interventions of the Gods. Instead, at its core is the group of singers who uphold the best traditions of singing and creativity.  “It’s one of those life-affirming pieces,” Rutherford explains. “Particularly in our current times, where you see how art and music and everything that is good in life just improves the world, and that we should all pull together and that’s kind of the message.”

Wednesday, November 25

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 30

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.