Wednesday, August 5

The Merola Opera Program's production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale gets an updating to Rome in the 1950s, and a few more quirks and foibles for the title character. Director Nic Muni, who has staged works with the young singers, coaches, and directors twice before, says it's a great opportunity to take the time to do comedy the right way. 

There's more information about the production, which runs tomorrow and Saturday night at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, at the Merola website.

Don Pasquale, a very old and very rich man, has decided to arrange a marriage for his nephew, but he's in love with another woman, a widow named Norina. "Don Pasquale cooks up this plot to punish his nephew," Nic Muni explains, "where he will get married himself, and thereby produce an heir, to cut his nephew out… His doctor, who in our production is his analyst, tries to dissuade him at first, but then sees that the man is set in his ways and he then concocts this scheme to choose a false bride, and substitute Norina to play that bride."  In this production, though, the older gentleman lives in an antiseptic and colorless house, because he's got severe OCD, he's a hypochondriac, and he's also got chromophobia – with a terror of any color other than white, black, or gray. Nic Muni says this gives the character someplace to grow. "If he starts this way, with this severe mania/control freak situation, then over the course of the evening, he’s pushed out of his comfort zone by making this choice to get married. And he’s gradually exposed to ‘the world’ and he finds out that he’s OK. And that he’s happy."

Muni says even though it's a training program, he approaches this Don Pasquale as he would any other opera. But he does say that the schedule for producing it gives them more time, which is a valuable difference.  "I think what’s great about this program, one of the many things that’s great about it, is the time that you have to actually – without calling it that – teach as you create a production… You are instructing as you’re going. But it’s sort of embedded in the creative process."  One of the lessons to be learned is just how much rehearsal is needed to pull off comedy without it just being farce. "To be very precise with the movements, and the takes and the looks and the sharpness of it, and at the same time connect it to something real just takes time. Cause you sort of have to isolate those skills for a while and then reintegrate them. So time is our friend."

Thursday, August 6

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music opens tomorrow night in Santa Cruz, with a concert called Haunted Topography. There are three works on the program, including the U.S. premiere of the Percussion Concerto No. 2 by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Music Director and conductor Marin Alsop says she puts together the festival's programming like a "hypothetical jigsaw puzzle."

There's more information at the Cabrillo Festival website

The MacMillan concerto features soloist Colin Currie, also from Scotland, playing a wide range of instruments that span the entire front of the stage. Alsop has long been a fan of MacMillan's music, and it was playing one of his pieces that brought Currie to the Cabrillo Festival for the first time many years ago. "There are certain composers now whose work I so adore," Alsop says. "It’s like when you see an author whose books you absolutely love, and you say ‘I’ll buy that because I know it’s going to be good.’" She planned the rest of the concert around the concerto, which somewhat unusually also has a big part for the orchestral percussionists. Mason Bates' Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is inspired by a story by Jorge Luis Borges, and like the MacMillan, gives the percussion section a workout. 

The piece which will open the concert is the one that gives the program its name, David T. Little's Haunted Topography. "It's dramatically different," Alsop says, "but very very compelling." Little was a participant in the composer's workshop at the festival several years ago. The network of contemporary composers is a tight one, and Alsop says she gets help in programming the festival just by staying in touch with them. "I just try to see what they have coming up, you know, and of course everybody lets me know what’s new and hot off the press. It’s a …hypothetical jigsaw puzzle, and trying to build a picture out of it." 

Friday, August 7

The American Bach Soloists begin their ten day Festival and Academy tonight – with a French flair. Music director Jeffrey Thomas says they'll have concerts (including a U.S. premiere of a 1609 opera by Marin Marais) lectures, discussions, masterclasses, and even a couple of free Baroque 'marathons' presented by the up-and-coming musicians of the Academy.

There's much more information about the festival at the American Bach Soloists website.

Jeffrey Thomas says the sound of a French Baroque orchestra is different from German or Italian ones – thanks largely to the royal residents of Versailles. "One thing we do know for sure is that Louis XIV and Louis XV knew exactly what they loved, and they got it. That’s one reason why French Baroque music remained with some traditions a little longer than other countries. Music in Italy and Germany was evolving… It’s just wonderful to know how just because of the tastes of the king there, we have these tremendous riches." So instead of cellos, there are viola da gambas, and the works of such composers as Marin Marais, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Jen-Féry Rebel approach the blending of the orchestra in a different way, with multiple violas and lots of unisons between the sections. "It’s just so wonderfully rich, and the flutes contribute this sweetness to the sound, and the oboes tuning with the violins. It’s a very melody-centric kind of composing."

There are — it is the American Bach Soloists, after all — two performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor on Sunday the 9th and 16th, and what's not only the North American premiere, but outside of France, the world premiere of Semele by Marin Marais, which was first performed in 1609. "It was at a point in time, there had been a famine, and people were unhappy… It was just not a good time to put on a new opera, so it wasn’t received terribly well. Probably very few people went to hear it. Well, it went unperformed for centuries. Not lost, but just unperformed," Jeffrey Thomas explains. Recently, some French early music ensembles decided to rescue it from the shelf, and the performances by the American Bach Soloists next Thursday and Friday (the 13th and 14th) will continue that effort. 

Wednesday, August 12

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut returns to the "Jazz at the Lesher Center" series that's running through the month of August, with a pair of shows on the evening of Saturday the 22nd in Walnut Creek. The Baltimore native is a product of both the Peabody Institute (he began in their preparatory program when he was nine) and the Berklee College of Music in Boston – but he says his real awakening came when he got a record by Thelonious Monk.

There's more information about the series at the Jazz at the Lesher Center website

Cyrus Chestnut says his formative years at Peabody were helped by their academic focus: "Instead of taking basic theory, they had a course called 'Musicianship'. It would seem to be a lot more composition oriented. And as I think about it in retrospect, it really kind of started the ball rolling as far as composition – spontaneous composition, formal composition, writing things down." And he was exposed to the formal classics. One of his pieces, called "Baroque Impressions," begins with a quote from J.S. Bach's Two Part Invention in D minor:

"I remember studying Gregorian Chants, and various different periods of music at the Peabody," he says, "and then our assignment was to write something based on what we studied." But a record he got at a five-and-dime – because the cover had a piano player on it – introduced him to the music of Thelonious Monk, one of many influences and piano heroes: "I have to go back to Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Ray Bryant, Junior Mance, Tommy Flanagan, and the list goes on and on and on… and that's just the pianists."

Thursday, August 13

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 first opera of Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, is currently premiering at Opera Santa Fe.

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.

Friday, August 14

Two pianos act as one giant instrument in Grand Pianola Music by composer John Adams, which appears on a new CD out today from the San Francisco Symphony, along with Absolute Jest, for orchestra and string quartet. Adams conducts the piece with the singers of Synergy Vocals and  pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham.

Grand Pianola Music had its premiere with the San Francisco Symphony, although John Adams describes it as "one of the more chaotic, if not catastrophic premieres in history." The venue was the Japan Center Theater, which in those days, he says, "was a funky and dirty place, there were fast food wrappers in the dressing room, and coffee stains on the floor" which, combined with the mistaken casting of operatic singers for the three ethereal female voices, left him unsure as to the quality of the work. But he made many changes in it, and in the more than thirty years since, it's become one of his most popular pieces.

It has at its core an image that Adams saw twice — once while asleep, and once under the influence of 'controlled substances' — of elongated pianos. It's scored for winds, percussion, and two pianos, which play off of each other to create a larger sounding instrument. When he was in his early 20s, he went to a rehearsal of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy at the Marlboro Festival. "I saw Rudoph Serkin playing this grand piano, and it looked to me like it was about twenty feet long." Then, after he moved to California, it returned. "I had a dream of being in a car on some interstate highway, and a couple of limos coming up and driving… and they turned into long pianos. So for some reason, the sort of R. Crumb craziness of these images suggested this piece." He calls the piece "an entertainment" – which alludes to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, and other grandiose works for the keyboard, but doesn't follow what was in vogue and had the most respect in classical music circles in the early 80s – dissonant works like those by Elliott Carter. "Here comes this piece," Adams says, "which is sort of a melange of minimalism, and Liberace and John Philip Sousa and Wagner… In 1983, a lot of music people, particularly composers, were uncomfortable with the idea that a composer could entertain as well as elevate."

Wednesday, August 19

The Slavyanka Russian Chorus presents three performances of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, (sometimes just called his Vespers) music that was written a century ago at a time when not just Russia, but the entire world was rapidly changing. With the first World War underway, and the Russian Revolution ahead, Rachmaninoff wrote a work that was deeply tied to the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

There's more information about the performances at the Slavyanka website.

Although he wasn't an overtly religious man, Rachmaninoff grew up surrounded by the music of the Orthodox church, especially the chants and bells, both of which are incorporated into the Vigil. Artistic Director of Slavyanka, Irina Shachneva says there was a sense of continuity in those traditions. "A hundred years ago, the world was in a war. Rachmaninoff, as all genius people, composers, poets, artists… they felt very strongly the atmosphere of the particular time, and Rachmaninoff himself felt that something will be happening to his motherland…The old chants – from their understanding – keep this direct connection with God, because it’s not been broken for a thousand years. It was like a huge message to generations… From generations and to all generations right now, that might be a human prayer for peace."

One of the founders of Slavyanka, Paul Andrews, says the work holds a special place in the Russian Choral repertoire. "The only thing comparable to it, I would say, would be the B Minor Mass [of Bach]. Because it’s this… It’s a great liturgical piece that’s obviously meant for more than a Sunday service.  It has this sublime, other-worldly kind of feeling to it, that’s really heavenly. And that’s a different kind of spirituality than I think most of us are used to in the West." Irina Shachneva points out that it was composed very quickly: "He wrote this for just two weeks… and then he said himself later, ‘I didn’t know that I wrote myself such beautiful piece…’ so he was surprised. I think he had some helper above to create this music just in time." 

Thursday, August 20

As August winds down, there's no avoiding it… it's back-to-school time. And since the piece of classical music most associated with education – Sir Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" – is usually played at the end of the school year, here are a few other works that also signal the world of academia.

There's a metaphorical School For Scandal, in the overture for the play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which Samuel Barber composed when he was still a student himself… There's the Haydn symphony that got the nickname "The Schoolmaster" for a wagging figure motif in the second movement.

One that keeps showing up is the tune that Johannes Brahms used to give the big finish to his Academic Festival Overture – A tune called "De Brevitate Vitae" (On the Shortness of Life) that's been used as an anthem of sorts at all sorts of colleges around the world. It's better known by its opening lyrics: Gaudeamus igitur / Iuvenes dum sumus. (Let us rejoice, therefore / While we are young)  The 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may' or 'carpe diem' message is often accompanied by the raising of a toast of beer. 

And here's the complete overture, with that theme beginning with a cymbal crash at 9:11:

Friday, August 21

Saturday the 22nd is the birthday of Claude Debussy, the quintessential French composer who blazed a trail into the 20th Century, abandoning traditions of scales, orchestration, form and structure. His music, which he didn't like to be called "Impressionist", nonetheless does get coupled with the works of painters like Monet, who were experimenting with new ways of capturing the play of light and shadow. Debussy in his works did sonically capture an 'impression' or an atmosphere, rather than trying to tell a story, or being constrained by bar lines or traditional rules like sonata form.

Debussy began studying at the Paris Conservatory at the age of 10 – and won the Prix de Rome for composition while in his early twenties. It was the landmark work Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, though, inspired by a Symbolist poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, that as musicologist Harold Schonberg put it, "set twentieth-century music on its way" in 1894. In it, beginning with a solo flute that floats through time, Debussy challenges notions that had been followed from the Baroque through the Classical and Romantic eras.  Here's Leonard Bernstein conducting a performance: 

His only opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, showed him taking another direction, rejecting Wagner and the German tradition, and creating a new French one. He had plans to compose another opera based on the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edward Allan Poe.

Here's a performance of one of Debussy's most famous works: the closest he got to writing a symphony, the depiction of the sea called La Mer, conducted by Valery Gergiev: 

Wednesday, August 26

The piece Benjamin Britten decided to count as his first opus is part of the program called 'An English Portrait' as the concert series called Curious Flights returns for another season this Saturday night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Artistic Director and clarinetist Brenden Guy says the other works on the concert all come from England of the first half of the 20th Century.

There's more information about the concert at the Curious Flights website.

The aim of the series is to shine a light on lesser known, and new works – this concert is made up of English vocal, choral, piano, and chamber works. Guy says he wanted to celebrate for this particular program, "kicking off the season, almost like a party. We’ve got so many different artists, and a variety of different instruments and ensembles." Soprano Julie Adams will sing John Ireland's set of Songs Sacred and Profane; the St. Dominic's Schola Cantorum choir will perform a set of pieces by Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Gerald Finzi; there's a Sonata for Two Pianos by Arnold Bax, as played by Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi. 

Herbert Howells' 'Rhapsodic Quintet' was written for clarinet and string quartet, and Brenden Guy will play it with the One Found Sound quartet. "Howells is pretty much known for his choral works," Guy explains. "This work was influenced by Vaughan Williams… It’s very lush and romantic, tonal, but not in a necessarily predictable way. The famous [quintets] from Brahms and Mozart – I wouldn’t try to compare them, necessarily, but this one certainly stands up as a piece that really should be far more well known than it is." Wrapping up the concert is the piece that Britten decided should mark the beginning of his official output, his Sinfonietta, Opus 1. "He was only 18 at the time, and it was sort of a statement of his belief in the piece, to call it his opus one, because it really – to him, he believed it was worthy of kickstarting his catalogue. It actually demonstrates a highly mature approach to composition, and in fact if you listen to it and his subsequent works, you can really hear the seeds for what was to come."

Thursday, August 27

Conductor Teddy Abrams, who got his musical start in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, began as music director of the Louisville Orchestra at the beginning of last season at the age of 27. The PBS web series Music Makes a City Now traces his introduction to the community, and how he's tried to make the orchestra relevant throughout his first season at the helm.

There's more information, including embedded video of all 12 short episodes at the PBS website's Music Makes a City Now page.

The ensemble has a history going back to the mid-1930s, but it made a big name for itself in the late '40s into the '50s as a result of an unprecedented commissioning project. The charismatic mayor of Louisville was a fan of contemporary classical music, and he was able to move a project along that had composers like Virgil Thomson, Darius Milhaud, Ned Rorem, Roy Harris, and William Schuman (and dozens more) writing works that would be premiered and recorded by the orchestra. (The documentary that tells this early story and inspired the new web series can be seen here.) The group has faced economic difficulties again and again (even as they were being invited to play a program of commissions at Carnegie Hall in New York, they were on the verge of bankruptcy, and did reorganize under Chapter 11 in 2011.

They pinned their hopes on the energetic protege of Michael Tilson Thomas, Teddy Abrams, whose views of music are all-inclusive: "If we all just approach it as 'we’re just going to make music together,' it doesn’t really matter what the person is, it matters just what they bring to the table musically The music that has been around for 300 years, or 400 years is the same essential language – it gets to the same kind of core of what musical tones mean to us as something like jazz, or even most pop music. It’s all sort of in the same kind of connecting language."  So on a season with Mahler and Beethoven, there was also the "Time for Three" trio, and a bluegrass inspired composition in the tradition of a double concerto. As he says in the first episode, "the direction we should be going with music is one where we show people person to person why what we do is important. Why what we do is meaningful, and changes lives."

Friday, August 28

The new orchestra called California Sound Collective presents its inaugural concert this Sunday evening in Benicia's Community Congregational Church. The ensemble is conducted by David Ramadanoff, but he's not the music director; it's a cooperative effort with the diverse programming selected by the artistic planning team. 

You can find out more at the California Sound Collective's Facebook page.

David Ramadanoff, who ended his tenure at the Vallejo Symphony at the end of last season, was approached by some of his colleagues: "There are some wonderful musicians, some of the finest players in some of the orchestras in the Bay Area who had been interested for some time in forming an orchestra that was self-governed, and that could also be flexible in size… and could do a mixture of classical and non-classical music." There will be 35 players in their first concert, but Ramadanoff says they hope to be able to perform works for as few as two and as many as 90 players, eventually. They're also hoping to partner with communities in the northern East Bay, and would like to be able to have a festival of some sort by next Summer. This concert is the first public step in the process. "We wanted to get the feel of what it would be like to do this together," Ramadanoff says. "To go through the planning process, to get to know each other in this new role. I’m working with players in a way that’s very different. And that’s very exciting."

The program will show the variety of repertoire the group is capable of, with two contemporary pieces: Gridlock by Dan Becker and the first movement of Doug Opel's Soul Settings Triptych; "We really felt we needed to do some good, fun standard repertoire, so we’re doing a Mozart  D major Divertimento, which is just full of joy throughout; our wonderful harpist, Anna Maria Mendieta, has made almost a second career, in addition to playing in orchestras, of doing tango music. And so we’re doing two movements of a Piazzolla tango suite." To wrap up the concert, there's Jaques Ibert's Divertissement. Ramadanoff says they know they're fighting for any potential audience's attention, but concerts are special: "Let’s go to a concert as a communal experience, rather than experiencing it in our headphones and sharing about it on Twitter. We’re trying to find ways of providing programs in doses and in variety that will attract people."