Monday, October 1

The chamber ensemble called Nonsemble 6 was specifically formed with one specific piece in mind: Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, which this month is celebrating the centennial of its first performance. The group will be performing it – in makeup, and with staging – as part of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Alumni Recital Series on Thursday.

There's more information about the concert on the Nonsemble 6 website.

Here's how they look out of their makeup:   (top row, left to right: Kevin Rogers, Annie Suda, Justin Lee; second row: Annie Phillips, Ian Scarfe, Amy Foote)

Nonsemble 6

Tuesday, October 2

Pianist Jonathan Biss says he can't think of a composer who means more to him than Robert Schumann… he's not simply a fan. So when he was given the opportunity by SF Performances to not only play a series, but also curate it, he decided it should be "Schumann: Under the Influence" – Four concerts that he'll be presenting (two this week, two in the spring) that show the Romantic composer's place in music history. Biss says he'd pick Schumann as the watershed composer over Beethoven, and sees the influence of Schumann's intense 'focus on the moment' as a template for music that would come much later.

There's more information about the concerts at SF Performance's website, as well as about the history of the series at Jonathan Biss's site.

The concerts will feature Biss as performer as well as curator, joining other chamber musicians, clarinetist Carey Bell and violinist/violist Scott St. John, and tenor Mark Padmore. The repertoire for this half of the series stretches from Beethoven and Schubert to Alban Berg and Gyorgy Kurtag, showing both the sources and reach of Schumann's influence. He'll be back in March with a similarly broad timespan of composers, this time finding a through line from Purcell through Janacek, all the way up to a piece that's currently not yet written by Timothy Andres.

Biss says he wouldn't be able to sustain having this kind of a season every year – so full of programs he's created himself with such a specific focus. But his enthusiasm for Schumann has him looking forward to playing these more than 30 concerts around the world, trying to make the case for his favorite composer. 

Jonathan Biss

Wednesday, October 3

The Cal Performances "Fall Free-for-All" this past weekend gave attendees a chance to attend more than 25 performances, scattered through the performance venues on the UC Berkeley campus… Here's a bit of a recap of the several that I was able to get to…

There's more information about the full upcoming season at the Cal Performances website.

Thursday, October 4

Berkeley Symphony premieres a concerto tonight with a triple-threat soloist… Not only did Paul Dresher write the work, he also invented the instrument he's playing: the Quadrachord. It has four strings (hence the name), is 16-foot long, electrically amplified, and sits on a thin tabletop in front of Dresher as he plays it with a bow, or plucking with his fingers. 

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

The instrument poses certain challenges – Dresher points out that because he's playing harmonics on the Quadrachord (that is, not holding down the string, but just lightly touching it at the points that correspond to the harmonic overtone series, to get a ringing pure sound) the notes he plays don't correspond to "even temperament" – like on a piano. Instead they stray into intervals that sound (to Western ears since Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier) out of tune. In order to allow the orchestra to accompany the Quadrachord in these passages, Dresher has a subset of the string section and brasses tune to a different, detuned "A".

Dresher's background as an instrument inventor goes back decades – he says there are already wonderfully versatile instruments out there; it's specifically answering the question "what if" – "what if a guitar string were twice as long – what would it sound like?" (and then twice again as long, and twice again?) that led him to find the unique mix of harmonic possibilities in the Quadrachord.

Paul Dresher

Paul Dresher

Friday, October 5

An exhibit opening this weekend at the Asian Art Museum takes the seemingly simple art of Chinese calligraphy and explores it as both abstract art, historical artifact, and an insight into the nation's culture. With works from Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang's private collection, "Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy" offers a chance to see examples of one of the oldest and most rigorous art forms.  

There's more information, including video showing the five traditional major scripts and how they differ and evolved at the Asian Art Museum's website.

Jerry Yang grew up in Taipei, and had early memories of calligraphy as something he was made to learn – riding in crowded busses with his kit, going to lessons. It was later that what he calls the "love story" began – "A Chinese friend of mine said 'Jerry, you're of Chinese heritage, you're in America, you ought to have some things that remind you of what a Chinese person appreciates…' So that was when I acquired a couple of pieces. I never even thought it would be a collection". But over the next 15 years it grew into a standout set of works, including pieces like Zhao Mengfu's Lotus Sutra, dating from 1315. That scroll, one from a set of seven, is in remarkable condition, according to curator Michael Knight, who says that scholars are able to trace its history and travels because each owner would add his personal stamp to the scroll; and despite the fragility of the paper used, because it was stored rolled and treated with utmost care, it doesn't look almost seven centuries old.

Here's an example of a "Thousand Character Classic" that's part of the exhibit – an exercise with 1,000 unrepeated characters that calligraphers would use again and again to practice their art. This display, mounting individual pages, takes up an enormous wall in one of the galleries.

This example shows both the need for special display case construction, and also, as curator Michael Knight pointed out, the translation on the wall mimics the calligrapher's dilemma: he was running out of room, and had to begin using smaller characters.

Scroll from Out of Character exhibit

Here's Jerry Yang, and the director of the Asian Art Museum, Jay Xu at the preview of the exhibit:

Jerry Yang and Jay Xu

Monday, October 8

A repeat of the first "State of the Arts: A to Z" … an occasional  feature that  takes a look at terminology, composers, some of the fundamentals of music, and other miscellany that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else. This time, a look at three tempo markings that happen to begin with the letter A: adagio, andante, and allegro.

Working through the trio  from slowest to fastest, Adagio comes first – meaning 'at ease' or 'leisurely'. With the Albinoni (attributed to Albinoni anyway) Adagio, Barber's Adagio for Strings, and the Adagio from Spartacus by Khatchaturian as memorable examples, Adagio was once a catch-all term for the slowest movements. (As the spectrum of tempo markings grew a little more specific, Largo and Lento came to fill that area on the extreme slow end.) Adagios tend to have an emotional deliberateness that calls to mind great depth of feeling. But as with all of these tempo markings, the definitions are open to personal interpretation – everyone will have a slightly different take on what speed and manner of playing feels appropriate. 

Andante, or 'walking pace' falls in the middle, but again, a middle that stretches in both directions depending on the composer and performer. In the days of the Classical era (for example in Mozart's symphonies and concertos), many times it's the second movement that's an andante, with a chance for the audience and performers to catch their breath, with a singable melody at a relaxed pace that nonetheless moves forward.

Allegro really means 'cheerful', or 'lively' – rather than a specific speed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music says "some time-words (like adagio and allegro) describe mood directly, tempo indirectly" and others, like lento (slow) or presto (fast) do the reverse, implying the mood, but stating the tempo. It's clearly not an exact science, because even with the advent of metronomes that (one would think) could allow a composer to settle what the "proper" tempo is for a piece, there are still any number of valid approaches, and as many interpretations as there are conductors or players.

Tuesday, October 9

The elusive great white whale is the subject of the great American novel, and the operatic adaptation, Moby-Dick by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer opens this week at San Francisco Opera. The narrator of the book offers the memorable opening line: "Call me Ishmael" – which Heggie and Scheer decided should be the final line in their opera. The production, which got its world premiere at Dallas Opera in 2010, begins its run with Heggie's hometown company tomorrow night, and runs through November 2nd. 

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

Jake Heggie says the first thing he and Gene Scheer had to overcome was just how daunting it was to tinker with Melville's work. "I  always knew from the moment we set out on this journey, that if we could distill the book down to a workable, say 60-page libretto, I knew the music was there." He says Scheer was able to do just that, knowing that the needs of a libretto are different from the needs of a purely literary work: "You have to read the book, internalize the book, and then forget the book. And that's the way you can make something come to life on the stage – you use the original source material as just that: source material. You don't try to put a book literally on the stage. I've seen two movies based on it, and that's where they've gone wrong, is they've tried to put literary devices on the screen." 

The production, which San Francisco Opera co-commissioned (with Dallas Opera, Calgary Opera, San Diego Opera, and the State Opera of South Australia) brings the ocean and whaling ships into the opera house, including masts and riggings, and a perspective-shifting  view of smaller boats on the water. Heggie says that in addition to singing their roles – Greenhorn, Captain Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck, and Pip the cabin boy (a "pants role" sung by soprano Talise Trevigne) – the cast was both "brave and amazing… To sing from a hook 25 feet in the air while doing a mad scene, or to sing to each other from up in these scaffoldings, and down on the stage… and sliding down the stage. It's a very active, emotional world, and it's just a thrill to be part of it, it was thrilling every step of the way."

Jake Heggie

Wednesday, October 10

Pianist András Schiff is probably one of J.S. Bach's biggest cheerleaders today, having performed and made landmark recordings of Bach's major works throughout his career. In concerts beginning tomorrow night, he'll conduct from the keyboard as musicians from the San Francisco Symphony join him for two of Bach's Keyboard Concertos. Also on the program are works by Mendelssohn, probably the most important historical Bach enthusiast.

You can find out more about the concerts at San Francisco Symphony's website.

This season, a "Project San Francisco" residency overlaps with Schiff's own "Bach Project" (which he'll be taking on the road to Los Angeles and New York later in the Fall). He's already played the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier in recital here, and will play book two later this month. He'll also be back in town in the Spring for two recitals – one of the complete French Suites, and one of the English Suites.

The concert program with the San Francisco Symphony includes the first and second Keyboard Concertos by Bach; notes for the program point out that these will be the first performances of the E Major concerto by the Symphony. Schiff says it's a shame that modern orchestras so rarely have a chance to play Bach, in part because of the rise of historically-informed performances, and early music ensembles. Schiff has also programmed Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony and Fingal's Cave, saying that he was one of the few 19th-Century composers who both learned and absorbed Bach's style of counterpoint – and you can hear and feel it permeate his works from a very early age.

Thursday, October 11

The Minnesota-based trio called The Bad Plus is hard to pin down: they're mostly a jazz group, but the project that they're bringing to San Francisco this week is decidedly different – the West Coast premiere of their reduction of Igor Stravinsky's landmark Rite of Spring, for piano, upright bass and drums. They call it On Sacred Ground, and rather than just riffing on certain themes, they play the entire work, going back to the original reduction that Stravinsky made for four-hand piano.

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

Pianist Ethan Iverson says despite the challenge, they chose the Rite of Spring in part because it was the obvious work of Stravinsky's to tackle. "It wouldn't make sense to try to do a piece like Les Noces or Oedipus Rex, but the Rite, there's some pop sensibility there that aligns with what we do as well." Iverson says of their arrangement: "I believed in generally honoring Stravinsky's harmony… I might have changed one or two notes here and there, very subtle changes. He would notice. He'd probably be pissed, but in general it's quite faithful, or as close to faithful as I could come, personally."

Dave King's challenge (beyond having no hands left to turn pages) in creating his drum part was how to translate an orchestral percussion and driving rhythms to his drum set: "Obviously there is no drumset score to it, so once I got all the rhythms together, then started to assign different parts of the kit, thinking orchestrally. It just became apparent what was needed where dynamically and colorfully and texturally… Adhering to Stravinsky's rhythmic concept, and then stretching them a bit further."

Friday, October 12

KDFC's World Tour runs next week (you can find out all about it, and how to make requests on this page) … but to get you thinking about musical destinations, here's a whirlwind globe-trotting exercise. Can you name the geographically-themed pieces that are mashed together?  There are eleven pieces and thirteen locations, since two of the works are doing double duty.  

(To see the answers, click and drag over the blank space below!)

  1. George Gershwin: An American in Paris
  2. Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras
  3. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir of Florence
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven: "Turkish March" from The Ruins of Athens
  5. Camille Saint-Saens: Africa, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra
  6. Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on Carnival of Venice
  7. Max Bruch: Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
  8. Aaron Copland: El Salon Mexico
  9. George Enescu: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1
  10. Leonard Bernstein: "America" from West Side Story
  11. Xian Xinghai: Yellow River Piano Concerto

Monday, October 15

Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote a set of works late in his career that he referred to as "chamber plays". He contrasted these more spare and intimate works with plays meant for larger stages, the way a quartet gets its meaning across with smaller forces than an orchestra. The Cutting Ball Theater of San Francisco will be performing all of the Chamber Plays over the following month, including four marathon days of all five in a row!

There's more information about the performances and Strindberg's plays at the Cutting Ball website.

The plays are: Storm, Burned House, The Ghost Sonata, The Pelican, and The Black Glove.  Of these, the best known is the one with the title that also is evocative of chamber music, The Ghost Sonata. In their production of the plays, director and Cutting Ball Theater co-founder Rob Melrose says they'll be using recordings of music, pieces specifically called for by Strindberg, by Beethoven, Chopin, Benjamin Godard, and Sinding.

Melrose says that the group of plays, which Strindberg thought of as being like chamber music (to the point of giving them Opus numbers) were written in less than half a year late in the playwright's life, and so are tightly constructed, with themes showing up in several places. They've tried to tease out those themes and motifs, especially for audiences who will see the marathon performances. Although the stories aren't linearly related, there are archetypical characters who surface in each, and there are resonances between the works.

Melrose describes Strindberg as "a father of modern drama" – along with Ibsen and Chekhov, he helped usher in a realism to theater. And says "if that were all he did, just wrote his early plays, Miss Julie and The Father, that would have been enough for him to be famous and known throughout history. But after doing that, he's kind of like Picasso or Beethoven, someone who is continually experimenting throughout his career."  This is the first time that all five of the chamber plays have been performed in this way, and it marks the end of the Cutting Ball Theater's commemoration of the centennial year of Strindberg's death.

From the Cutting Ball Theater's Ghost Sonata

Tuesday, October 16

The Peninsula Symphony's first concert of the season takes a symphonic "Titan" and shows its roots in song… Mahler's first symphony took themes from his cycle Songs of the Wayfarer, and John Corigliano based his orchestral work To Music on a song by Franz Schubert called "An die Musik". Mitchell Sardou Klein will be conducting all four works, along with guest soloist baritone Eugene Brancoveanu this weekend.

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

Klein says the Songs of the Wayfarer were "expressions of Mahler's personal inner workings at an early stage in his life, when he was very greatly saddened by an unhappy love affair." And the transformation from songs to symphony reveal some of the inner workings of his compositional process. In the same way, audiences will be able to trace the route from a larger work back to its source with the other pair of pieces on the concert program, when John Corigliano takes music by Franz Schubert, and reworks it for a 20th-century world. "Franz Schubert, whose short and tragic life was so much focused on writing songs," says Klein, "and those songs were really the only bright spot in an otherwise pretty dreary life… wrote a magical song called "An die Musik" in which he sings the praises of that beautiful art form of music that has given him his most precious and serene moments." Before each of the large-scale works, the orchestra and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu will play the source material that inspired it.

The Peninsula Symphony is now in its 64th season – their concerts this weekend are in San Mateo on Friday night, and Cupertino on Saturday.

Wednesday, October 17

In this installment of "State of the Arts: A to Z", the double-reed instrument starting with "B" that's the cello of the woodwinds: the Bassoon. Its somewhat ungainly appearance – a large wooden tube with a hairpin turn in the middle, and a pair of reeds emerging from a curved piece of metal called a bocle – have inspired some composers to use it when they want to suggest clowning or comedy. But it has a wide and expressive range, capable of runs, jumps, as well as lyrical melodic lines.

The bassoon as an orchestral solo instrument or section features in some of the most memorable lines: the plaintive opening to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the role of Peter's grandfather in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, The Sorceror's Apprentice by Dukas, Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King"… But it's also the bassline in the woodwind quintet, and has been used in pop songs like "Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher.

According to early 20th Century Scottish music critic Cecil Gray, "the bassoon in the orchestra plays the same role as Gorgonzola among cheeses – a figure of fun. Actually the bassoon can be the most romantic and passionate of instruments, and Gorgonzola can be the finest of cheeses – but they must both be treated properly.

Thursday, October 18

California Symphony guest conductor David Commanday had decided the programming of tonight's concert in Walnut Creek long ago – it would be called "The Sounds in the Night" and have a touch of the spirit of Halloween. But then, last month his step-brother, Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack in Benghazi, and Commanday decided to dedicate the concert to him, calling it "Salute to a Hero".

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

Libyan Ambassador J. Christopher StevensCommanday says he "puzzled how to transform this concert into more of a celebration and a salute" – but the programming, which already included works with images of mystery and fire, also had a through-line of heroism. Stravinsky's Firebird and "Wotan's Farewell and Fire Music", for example – from Wagner's Die Walküre. "A farewell from Brunhilde, his favorite," says Commanday, "from whom he removes divinity, putting her to sleep surrounded by a ring of magic fire, only to be awakened by the greatest of heroes."  It includes the leitmotif of Siegfried's heroic theme – and Stravinsky's Firebird builds and builds, ending in triumph.

Commanday added to the program the John Williams fanfare written for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, "Summon the Heroes" – hoping to honor the many accomplishments of Chris Stevens while mourning his loss. The conductor says that his step-brother and other diplomats around the world regularly put themselves in harm's way in pursuit of peace. "The scale and scope of his life was tremendous, and as deeply we grieve the cutting short of it, he accomplished so much. He lived so much, and there's so much to be thankful for and to celebrate. And that's the message that I hope we will succeed in sharing with our audience in a musical way.

Friday, October 19

There are sea-inspired concerts this weekend from the male vocal ensemble Clerestory – including a world premiere of a commissioned work by Seattle-based composer Eric Banks, who set a group of poems by Herman Melville. The timing of the performance of These Oceans Vast coincides with the run of Jake Heggie's Moby Dick at San Francisco Opera, and in the lead-up to next year's America's Cup.

There's more information about the concert at Clerestory's website.

Composer Eric Banks describes the songs in These Oceans Vast this way:  "The first song is a call to voyagers, so a recruiting kind of song for sailors; the second is a really quick prayer for safety in harm's way, it's called 'The Ledges of Danger'; the third is a drinking song, because sometimes we find courage at the bottom of a bottle; the fourth is a song about longing… it's for me his most poignant poem about missing his loved ones, but also about missing land; the fifth is about a nautical mirage, a hallucination about arriving on land; and the sixth is called 'The Enviable Isles', where they finally make landfall in the South Pacific, or they may not… it might be a continuation of the hallucination, but for whatever reason, there's rest at the end."

Of the Melville poems that Banks had in mind at the first talk of the commission, only one made it into the final work, because he hadn't originally envisioned the nautical theme – it only became clear to him and to Justin Montigne and the other members of Clerestory when they realized the heightened interest in Moby Dick and the upcoming America's Cup offered them a chance to perform for an already intrigued audience.

IV. The last outpost (Crossing the tropics)

While now the Pole Star sinks from sight
The Southern Cross it climbs the sky;
But losing thee, my love, my light,
O bride but for one bridal night,
The loss no rising joys supply.

Love, love, the Trade Winds urge abaft,
And thee, from thee, they steadfast waft.

By day the blue and silver sea
And chime of waters blandly fanned—
Nor these, nor Gama’s stars to me
May yield delight since still for thee
I long as Gama longed for land.

I yearn, I yearn, reverting turn,
My heart it streams in wake astern.

When, cut by slanting sleet, we swoop
Where raves the world’s inverted year,
If roses all your porch shall loop,
Not less your heart for me will droop
Doubling the world’s last outpost drear.

O love, O love, these oceans vast:
Love, love, it is as death were past!

Monday, October 22

Franz Liszt's bicentennial, and one to grow on… The virtuoso pianist and composer, who was one of the first solo recitalists, would have turned 201 today. Since his 200th fell before the State of the Arts features launched, here's a belated birthday mashup…

Liszt was to the piano what Paganini was to the violin – a composer and performer who expanded the range and limits of his instrument. He was among the first generation of pianists performing solo recitals, with works that helped spur on the development of bigger, stronger and louder pianos.

The pieces in the mashup above (scroll over to reveal):

  1. Les Preludes
  2. Liebestraum
  3. La Campanella
  4. Mephisto Waltz
  5. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
  6. Piano Concerto No. 1

Tuesday, October 23

Cellist Bonnie Hampton returns to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this week — where she taught for more than thirty years — as part of the Chamber Music Masters program. Tonight she'll be coaching a master class with students who are chamber music majors at SFCM (free and open to the public), and on Thursday, she'll give a concert, performing side by side with students.

There's more information about both events at the SF Conservatory of Music website

Bonnie Hampton is now on the faculty of Juilliard, but was in residence with her trio when the Conservatory began to offer the first graduate-level major in Chamber Music. She says she can hear the difference when schools give emphasis to the special needs of collaborating musicians: "One of the biggest things that young groups really have to work at, and we all have to work at all our lives, is how to work together productively. Because one of the big challenges, for any group, no matter how long you've been doing it, is to find a meeting ground. Because you have three musicians, four musicians, you're going to have different ideas, you're going to have different feelings about the music, and yet to have a performance, you have to find a meeting ground."

Hampton says one of the first two ensembles to go through the Conservatory as Chamber Music majors was the Peabody Trio, which is still playing together, and in residence at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. 

When she gives her master class tonight, she says she'll be going for a balance between the students, and the people watching in the audience: "If you just teach them or coach them the way you would in a private session, that excludes the listeners. On the other and, if you just do it for the benefit of the audience, that's rather ignoring the players in a way." Since you can't cover too much ground in a short time with students you don't know, she says she'll make a point of focusing on things that are both specific to the player, but also are important to technique. She's aware that a piece of advice given to a performer early on in a career can come to gain importance after an "aha moment" – when she studied with Pablo Casals, she says, "something that he might have said or something he might have gotten across – I probably understood it on some levels at the time, but then, all of a sudden, some other and deeper meaning."

Wednesday, October 24

The Marin Symphony opens its season this weekend with an Italian-themed gala. On the program are a trio of well established classics, Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture, Respighi's Pines of Rome, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") along with a newly-composed work getting its world premiere: a concerto grosso called Concerto Carnevale by Jeremy Cohen, first violinist with the San Francisco Quartet, who'll be playing it with the orchestra.  

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

Cohen says he listened to a lot of Corelli, Vivaldi, and Locatelli – masters of the traditional concerto grosso – for inspiration as well as information about the form. The traditional concerto grosso features two groups of different sizes – an orchestra and smaller group of soloists, who act in much the same way that a single virtuoso soloist would in a regular concerto, developing themes and musical material with a different texture than the full ensemble.

Quartet San Francisco is known for choosing repertoire that leans more toward jazz and blues, and less toward more mainstream composers – they released a Grammy-nominated CD of Dave Brubeck tunes in 2009. Cohen says they all are well-grounded in the classical tradition, but the flavor of their style of playing will come through both in their "solo" passages, as well as some of the material the full Marin Symphony will be playing. "I wrote bits of jazz, or bits of blues for the orchestra. The lion's share of it is for the quartet, but there's definitely stuff for them… You will hear the Marin Symphony swing." 

Quartet San Francisco:  Jeremy Cohen, Keith Lawrence, Kelley Maulbetsch, Matthew Szemela

Quartet San Francisco

Thursday, October 25

French pianist David Fray plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 this week with the San Francisco Symphony. It's a work from late in Mozart's career – and life – and Fray calls it a very "complicated piece" – that (aside from its last movement, which appeared in the film Amadeus) isn't as well known as the concerto that immediately followed it. He sees the influence of Bach and Gluck in the work, as well as similarities to the Marriage of Figaro, which Mozart was writing around the same time.

There's more information about the three performances (this afternoon, Friday evening, and Sunday afternoon) at the San Francisco Symphony website.  The concerts will be conducted by Asher Fisch, substituting for Jaap van Zweden, who was originally scheduled – van Zweden and Fray made a recording of two Mozart concerti, #22 and 25, a few years ago.

He points out that late Mozart works have great mental and abstract complexity – and that in his 22nd concerto he used a similar technique as in the Marriage of Figaro, in which two contrasting moods show different sides of the same character simultaneously… allowing the audience to see how a thought is working.

Since the time of Fray's first widely known recording (of Bach), his posture at the keyboard has been frequently compared with Glenn Gould's – although he thinks the comparison is made "for bad reasons". He plays sitting on a chair instead of a bench, and frequently leans in very closely to the keys, so that he can focus more intensely on the music – but he says each player needs to be true to their own particular needs. "I wouldn't recommend to other pianists to copy my position… maybe it wouldn't work for other pianists.  Everyone has a different body, different proportions… Each one has to find his own relationship to the instrument, to make it as friendly as possible."  Fray says although he respects Gould's place in the history of piano playing, the only way he would like to take after Gould is in the intensity that he was able to bring to his performances.

David Fray

Friday, October 26

When Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs teamed up to create Einstein on the Beach in 1976, they couldn't have known the kind of endurance the work would have. Cal Performances is presenting what they're calling the "first fully staged performances west of the Hudson River" of the work, now mid-way through a world tour. It's a sprawling, more-than-four-hour opera that features a small musical ensemble, a choir that sings numbers and solfegge syllables (do-re-mi) instead of text, spoken texts and dancers… As well as Jennifer Koh, wearing a white Einstein wig, playing the violin.

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

This particular revival reunites the original creators of Einstein on the Beach: composer Philip Glass, director Robert Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs. This world tour began in France (the premiere of the opera took place in France in 1976) – and comes to Berkeley from Brooklyn, before continuing to Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong. 

Jennifer Koh as EinsteinThere isn't a plot, per se – It's in four acts, made up of scenes, and stage-changing entr'acts that are called "Knee Plays" – because of the way they connect those scenes together. The repetitive, 'minimalist' sound of slowly evolving rhythms and melodic patterns is reinforced by the choir, which either counts the beats of what they're singing, or sings their melodies in solfeggio – which were originally just place-holders. 

The opera runs more than four hours, and doesn't have an intermission, with intricate repeating patterns that demand precision and concentration; while the audience might be able to just let the music wash over them, the instrumentalists – members of the Philip Glass Ensemble – will be doing just as much counting as the singers.

Monday, October 29

It's a trio of C's on this edition of State of the Arts "A to Z" – Crescendo, Celesta, and C Major.  

A crescendo is  the entire process of getting louder – moving from one dynamic to another over time, not just the final destination. It's something that can happen within a single measure, or sometimes, like in the case of Maurice Ravel's Bolero, or the final movement of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite can last the entire duration of the piece. The celesta looks like a scaled-down piano, but instead of strings, tuned pieces of metal are struck over resonators. And C Major… just gets no respect.

Here's Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony playing the ending to the Firebird Suite. The crescendo lasts pretty much the length of the movement. But at the very end, in the final three measures, there's another fast crescendo, starting at a soft pianissimo (pp) and increasing to a super-loud sforzando (sfff)!

And here's Sergiu Celibidache, conducting the longest and slowest Bolero possible – (the section featuring parallel piccolos, horn and celesta is at 9:08):

Tuesday, October 30

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a classic and spooky film, from Germany in 1920 – its angular backdrops and off-balance look is the prime example of Expressionist cinema. Tonight, Cameron Carpenter will be performing a live soundtrack to the film on the organ at Davies Symphony Hall… as well as another early film, Cameraman's Revenge (a stop-motion movie from Russia, with insects as characters).

There's more information about tonight's performance at the San Francisco Symphony's website

Carpenter was able to get to San Francisco, despite Hurricane Sandy, by going to JFK airport in New York straight from Alice Tully Hall, where he was making his Lincoln Center debut in their White Light Festival. He hopped on a plane to Portland, OR Sunday night, and flew into San Francisco in time for rehearsal on Monday. It's only the second time he's performed an improvised performance to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but he says it really holds up, even to jaded contemporary audiences. "One of the things I love about this film," he says, "is that unlike so much of silent film, it's watchable in a contemporary way. So often when we watch silent film we have to put ourselves in a historical context. And while Caligari certainly is a historical film, it's so powerful and so tightly constructed, you're not distracted by the camping, and the silent acting."

Cameron Carpenter rehearsing at Davies Hall

Cameron Carpenter says "my score is pretty far out… There are moments of high tonality, and there are moments of abstraction, and there are moments of silence, which is the great taboo in silent film, of course!"  He tries not to follow some of the conven tions of silent film accompaniment, because "as important as it is for film music to illustrate the action on the screen, that's still a pretty literal view. And our understanding of music today… is really informed by the cinema, even if we may not realize it…There's an intense relationship with music that may be more subtle than we realize, but very often the music has an independence." He says part of the visual beauty of the film is in the written words of the title cards, which, he says are some of the greatest examples of 'late Weimar typography'.

Wednesday, October 31

Ballet San Jose has a gala season preview this Saturday – with a program celebrating the return of live music to the ballet. George Daugherty, the company's new music director, will be conducting Symphony Silicon Valley, the resident orchestra in a wide-ranging program that includes the full work choreographed by Clark Tippet of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring solo violinist Rachel Lee.

There's more information about Saturday's gala, as well as the full season at Ballet San Jose's website.

George Daugherty, who's starting his inaugural season with the company, sees the return to live music in the orchestra pit as a win for everyone – for the dancers, who aren't locked into matching the tempos of a recorded music track; for the audience, because of the excitement that goes with any live music performance; and for the orchestra itself, which guarantees paid performance dates. 

He says in addition to the return of live musicians, the gala is celebrating the rebirth of the ballet company, after the reorganization that it went through in the past year. "Some very big ballet companies in the past year or two have made the decision to jettison their live orchestras and go to taped music. And sadly, none of the others have come back to live orchestra.

The music on the program makes the most of their resources – including guest violinist Rachel Lee for the Bruch and "Meditation" from Thais, and soprano Kristin Clayton, who sings an aria from Puccini's La Rondine and is joined by the Golden Gate Boys Choir Master Singers for Mozart's "Lacrymosa". Plus Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker, and a section from his Sleeping Beauty. The company will also be staging a full Don Quixote (staged by Wes Chapman after Marius Petipa) to the music of Ludwig Minkus later this season – a pas de deux will be on the gala line-up.