Monday, December 2

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 3

The International Orange Chorale of San Francisco had already programmed their upcoming concerts called "Pacific Currents" when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in early November. The repertoire includes the world premiere of Paanyaya 3, a piece by Bay Area Filipino composer Robin Estrada, as well as many other works from the Pacific Islands getting their first local performances.

There's more information about the concerts at the IOCSF website. The Friday concert will be at Solarium Public Space, 55 – 2nd Street in San Francisco at 5pm; Saturday's at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in the Mission at 7:30pm.

Artistic Director Zane Fiala says the concert was programmed to complement Robin Estrada's new work, which had been commissioned a year or so ago. "In order to highlight his piece, we decided that we should showcase music from other islands within the Pacific Ocean to show the varety and the depth of choral compositions that not only come from a place of indigenous folk music, but also some more traditional choral-sounding pieces from places such as New Zealand and Australia." Estrada's work was inspired by the sounds of Indonesian music and folk traditions, as well as Kalinga instruments from the northern part of the Philippines. Other composers on the program include Susanto Yohanes, Nico Alcala, and George Hernandez, with New Zealander Christopher Marshall setting the Samoan folksong Faleula E!, and a moving setting of Psalm 137 (By The Rivers of Babylon, with a text in Hebrew) by Jack Body.

The concerts are free, but any contributions that are made will be donated to Doctors Without Borders, to help in the ongoing relief efforts after the typhoon.

Wednesday, December 4

A new work that blends high tech and ancient traditions – and spans the cultural divide of Japan and the United States – will be premiered this weekend at the Bing Concert Hall. Linked Verses, The Stanford Live-commissioned work by composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski will include 3D video projection, and two soloists, cellist Maya Beiser, and Ko Ishikawa playing the traditional Japanese 'sho'.

There's more about the concerts at the Stanford Live website.

Composer Kapuscinski borrowed from the tradition of Japanese poetry called "Renga" for inspiration, "which is built from verses that contrast eachother, that continue from one to another, and that were created collaboratively by different poets." The images and prerecorded sounds on the 3D film are from Japan, New York, and the Bay Area – reflecting the homes of the soloists and composer, who teaches at Stanford. But instead of playing to a click track, the soloists will use special technology that allows them to play freely, while remaining synchronized with the visuals. "It's a very interesting, complex piece, but that has this kind of open-ended meditative quality to it," Maya Beiser says. "When I think about the piece, I think it's a meditation where you go into that universe. It takes you on that journey."

Kapuscinski, who prefers the term "intermedia" to "multimedia" says the images and music have been entwined from very early on in the process. "They [OpenEnded Group, the digital design team] were showing me some of the images, and I was showing them some of the sounds, and we were basically putting them together. I think that really it can be compared in a sense to a song where the words and music are so combined together they can not live without each other." Maya Beiser and Kapuscinski agree that the technology has to serve the music, though. "Technology is only successful when it's the means, and not the end. It's a too. In this case it's a very elaborate tool, but ultimately it's a tool to create a vision.

Thursday, December 5

Kronos Quartet is celebrating their 40th anniversary this season, and Saturday they'll have a special birthday concert presented by Cal Performances, where they're Artists in Residence all year. Founder David Harrington says they decided to go all out for their Bay Area fans with a line-up of special guests, area premieres, and the work that inspired him to form the group in 1973.

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

Harrington says among the guests joining them on Saturday are pipa virtuoso Wu Man (for an arrangement of the "China" movement of Philip Glass's Orion), composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner, composer and bass player Jherek Bischoff, and the ensemble from Mali called Trio Da Kali. There will be young singers joining them from the Pacific Boychoir Academy, as well as the Young Women's Chorus of San Francisco for the Terry Riley work Another Secret eQuation. The second half will include George Crumb's Black Angels. "I heard that piece on the radio one night in August of 1973," Harrington says. "And the experience of hearing that piece brought together worlds that I thought were impossible for anyone to bring together, that had been part of the music that I grew up with. It was on one side the music of Schubert, and then on another side, the music of Jimi Hendrix… I had to play that piece. I really didn't have a choice." 

So Harrington formed Kronos (originally in Seattle) – violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt have been with the ensemble from its early days; cellist Sunny Yang joined them this past spring. Before Kronos had formed, conductor and composer Pierre Boulez said that the String Quartet as a form was dead… but four decades of growing the repertoire through commissions and arrangements later, David Harrington says that hypothesis has been proven very wrong: "Two violins, a viola and a cello is a fantastic sound. It's a great way of life. It's a little government that actually works, you know? If we've been able to communicate a little bit of that, then I'm very proud.

Friday, December 6

You can make your choices for KDFC's Classical All-Stars up until  New Year's Eve… But with so many to choose from (the full ballot is here, and you can write-in works if your favorites are missing) maybe this little montage might remind you of a title or two you've forgotten. 

Here's a list of the pieces in the montage (click and scroll over the space below to reveal the names):

  1. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (Simple Gifts)
  2. Aram Khachaturian:  Adagio from Spartacus
  3. Leo Delibes: Lakme “Flower Duet”
  4. Edvard Grieg: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the Peer Gynt Suite
  5. Antonin Dvorak: Cello Concerto
  6. Georges Bizet: “Seguidilla” from Carmen
  7. Franz Schubert: “Trout” Quintet (mvt. 4: Theme and Variations)
  8. Giacomo Puccini: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot
  9. Sergei Prokofiev: “Dance of the Knights” from Romeo and Juliet
  10. Bedrich Smetana: “The Moldau” from Ma Vlast
  11. George Frideric Handel: “Largo” from Xerxes
  12. Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Guitar in D Major
  13. Hector Berlioz:  “Un Bal” from Symphonie Fantastique
  14. George Gershwin: An American in Paris
  15. Gustav Holst: “Jupiter” from The Planets

Monday, December 9

The Smuin Christmas Ballet returns, with a seasonal alternative to the Nutcracker. They've already performed runs in Walnut Creek, Livermore, and Carmel, and on Wednesday they open in Mountain View before coming to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts a week later. Erica Felsch is new to the company this year, and dances in a favorite scene.

There's more about the performances at the Smuin Ballet website.

The show is divided in two distinct halves: "There's the first act, which is classical and pristine, all in white, and beautiful and very Christmassy," Felsch says. "And then you kind of let loose in the second act, and everyone has a great time." Included is an appearance by Elvis, and the perennial favorite dance to Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" that Felsch says is a wonderful role. "I walk onstage and then reveal a forty-foot boa. Then walking on will be my entourage of men – It's a similar effect to Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend – I'll be lifted, and choosing the gifts that they will be giving me. The Smuin audience is so familiar with this role and this scene in the ballet… You can feel the familiarity, and the moment I walk onstage I can feel that connection with the audience, and it's an honor."

Felsch had never seen the Smuin Christmas Ballet in person, but with good reason – she's been busy: "It's my first experience not doing Nutcracker – for most of my life. So it's a breath of fresh air. Each dancer has many different roles, and it's so exciting every night."  The program varies from year to year, blending familiar company favorites, and newer works that keep things fresh for audiences and the dancers. 

Tuesday, December 10

Each year, Chanticleer sprints across country right after Thanksgiving, on a Christmas program concert tour. It can be demanding to travel and perform during the time of year in which everyone else is travelling (and getting sick) – but singers in the group say pacing themselves and familiar audiences are the key to survival. Their Bay Area concerts start tomorrow night.

There's more information at Chanticleer's website.

The group was finishing up in the East Coast last night, with a concert in New York City – and with one day between, they'll appear at Stanford Memorial Church tomorrow night. Jace Wittig, Interim Music Director of Chanticleer says they can count on supportive crowds, especially at this time of year. "You start to recognize a good portion of the audience, especially in the venues that we frequent, where we sing every year. You look in the first three rows, and you know exactly who you're going to see. And sometimes when you're a bit tired, or maybe you're a bit sick, and starting to feel the buildup of all these performance, the energy that you get from familiar people and from friends in the audience is completely rejuvenating."

Another key to their success is not paying too much attention to how many more concerts there are, according to soprano Gregory Peebles: "We do not have an advent calendar with the number of performances on them, we don't think about it, we don't worry about it until the last couple, and then at that point, when it's starting to be time to start thinking about relaxing and having a party, then you start the countdown. But not until then!"

From a performance many years ago, here's Chanticleer performing the audience favorite, 'Ave Maria' by Franz Biebl:

Wednesday, December 11

Classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić goes beyond a straightforward geographical theme for his most recent album, Cancion. He brings together both solo and orchestrally accompanied works, and several pop songs from Brazil, (as arranged by Sergio Assad). He's also included the "challenge and experiment" of a version of Ravel's Bolero for guitar.

You can find out more about him at Miloš's website.

The Montenegro-born guitarist (he now lives in London) says he went about choosing the repertoire of the CD based on what resonated with him most: "Cancion is a collection of pieces I like and love – not only as a classical guitarist, but as a human being." And when he decided that he wanted to include some songs from the world of Brazilian pop songs, he also wanted for the arrangements to have integrity as classical works, so he turned to fellow performer, composer and arranger Sergio Assad, "who's a legend in our classical guitar world, and we created something that I proudly play equally at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam as I do in a Yellow Lounge club setting in South Korea or Berlin."

Here's the arrangement of "Mas Que Nada" that appears on the new album:

Thursday, December 12

Today, in recognition of this twelfth day of December, a re-working of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" for the Classical music lover… From Steve Reich's Drumming, to William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices,  Haydn's Parisian "Hen"… and beyond.

 Here are the days (click and drag across the blank areas to reveal the suggested pieces of music to accompany them) 

12 drummers drumming…

Steve Reich: Drumming

11 pipers piping…

Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding With Sunrise

10 lords a-leaping…  

Edvard Grieg: Lyric Pieces, Book 4 (Op. 47 no. 6): "A Leaping Dance"

9 ladies dancing…  

Jacques Offenbach: "Can-Can" from Orpheus in the Underworld

8 maids a-milking…  

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Adele's "Laughing Song" from Die Fledermaus 
Georges Bizet: "March" from Fair Maid of Perth

7 swans a-swimming…  

Sibelius: Fifth Symphony, mvt. 3
Saint-Säens: "The Swan" from Carnival of the Animals
Tchaikovsky: Scene from Swan Lake

6 geese a-laying…  

Maurice Ravel: "Empress of the Pagodas" from Mother Goose Suite
Eugene Goosens: Concerto in One Movement, Op. 45

5 gold rings…

Wagner: "Ride of the Valkyries", from his Ring Cycle's Die Walküre

4 calling birds…

William Byrd: Mass for Four Voices

3 French hens…

Haydn: Symphony 83 (one of the Paris Symphonies) known as "The Hen"

2 turtle doves…  

Ralph Vaughan Williams: "The Turtle Dove"

A partridge in a pear tree…   

John Jeffreys: "The Little Pretty Nightingale" (sung by Ian Partridge)
Arvo Part: Arbos

Friday, December 13

The ensemble called Ragazzi Continuo gets its name from the Ragazzi Boys Choir from which its singers graduated, and Musical Director Dan Crowley says his 11 years with them steered his development not only as a musician, but also as a person. The group presents their Christmas program this Sunday and next weekend.

There's more information at Ragazzi Continuo's website.

When they first formed, there were six singers in the ensemble – and there are now thirteen. "And we all had sung together," says Crowley. "We'd all overlapped by about six or seven years that we'd all sung together in the choir at the same time. It's the first time, this season that we've had two people in the group who never actually sang with each other in Ragazzi." That shared history, and the the high standards of professionalism that they learned in the boys choir is the framework for Continuo. They have varied career paths, according to Crowley: "We have a good mix. We have some people in high tech, and a couple of our members – one who's a professional musian in the Bay Area, another one who's been a voice teacher at a couple of schools in the Bay Area. One of our newest members this year is actually a student at the San Francisco Conservatory."

The concert program, called "Mary Had a Baby: A Christmas Celebration" will have performances this Sunday evening in San Mateo, and next Saturday night in Palo Alto, before their final concert of the year in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, the 22nd. 

Monday, December 16

A new show that's been launching on public television stations around the country airs on KQED's 'Life' Channel tonight at 10 – it's called All-Star Orchestra, and is introduced and conducted by Gerard Schwarz, longtime leader of the Seattle Symphony. He assembled a group of musicians from 30 orchestras around the country (including San Francisco Symphony cellist Peter Wyrick) and has recorded them in made-for-television concerts.

There's more information at the All-Star Orchestra website, and KQED's site.

The idea for the series actually goes back to the 1950s, when shows like 'Omnibus' would present concerts designed for a TV-viewing audience. And Schwarz says Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas have led the way in shows giving audiences an entry-point for classical repertoire, which he's tried to do in live performances. "I've spent many years of my life now trying to make sure that the audience is getting great concerts, hopefully, and they're excited by it, but also, they're exposed. I'm really concerned about young people, making sure they get exposed. It's not going to be for everyone, but if you get exposure as a child, there's a chance it'll be part of your life as you get older."

Not having an audience allows the show to have many more cameras in place – some moving, some fixed on individual performers (there are plans in the near future to make this additional footage available on their website, so an interested violinist could watch the Philadelphia Orchestra's concertmaster through an entire performance). "There's going to be a real library of great repertoire, played by some of the greatest players in the world, with shots that you don't see, because there's no audience that we have to worry about. As much as I love the audience, when you do television shows and it's a live concert, you can't put the camera's everywhere, because you can't upset the audience. If there's no audience, you can put the cameras anywhere, and we did!"

Tuesday, December 17

Mona Golabek takes on the role of her mother, Lisa Jura in the one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Berkeley Rep. It tells the story, accompanied by piano, of Jura's experience as part of the Kindertransport, the attempt to rescue Jewish children during the Holocaust by taking them to the (comparative) safety of England. The show has been extended to January 5th.

There's more information about the show at the Berkeley Rep website, and find out about being part of KDFC Night at Berkeley Rep with Hoyt on Thursday, Jan. 2nd here.

Mona Golabek's show is based on the book of the same title that she wrote, which researched and fleshed out the cryptic anecdotes her mother used to tell her during piano lessons. "She always told me that each piece of music tells a story," Golabek says. "We'd be in a Beethoven sonata, out of nowhere, as she was explaining to me about fortissimo and pianissimo, she would say, 'Well, did I ever tell you the time that Johnny King Kong read poetry to me at nighttime when the bombs came down?' And I thought, who is Johnny King Kong? Before I got an answer, we'd go right back into another passage, maybe we would switch to a Chopin Nocturne, and out of nowhere, she would say, 'well, what about when Aaron whistled the Grieg Piano Concerto to me?'"

It was while she was on a book tour, which often included performances of some of the works that are mentioned in the stories, that the idea of staging a show that would dramatize them. In the years since the book's publication, Golabek has been active in working with schools that read the book, and then see the staged performance, showing how music both saved her mother's life, and helped others. The role individual pieces played in her life are depicted in the play. "Clair de Lune played in her heart and soul as she was on the Kindertransport, the rescue train that brought her [from Vienna] to England. And she would describe to me in the piano lessons how she saw the moonlight coming through the turning of the windmills." 

Wednesday, December 18

Cellist David Finckel has spent his entire life as a cellist, and plays his instrument constantly – but he avoids the routines that he's seen colleagues develop. "I try almost without fail to never do anything habitually," he says. "It scares me, the idea of habit." Instead, he tries to be ready to adapt to the needs of the moment.

Finckel — who was the long-time cellist with the Emerson String Quartet — and his wife, pianist Wu Han, have been at the center of the chamber music world for decades, as players and administrators. They're co-artistic directors of both Music @ Menlo and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But he says he doesn't believe in any set 'warmup routine.' "I find that being on stage, and being comfortable on stage involves a lot of adaptability. I've watched colleagues… make themselves miserable over years by becoming more dependent on routines, and certain conditions: lighting, temperature, instrument adjustment, chair. I've learned that's not the right road to go down for me."

David Finckel doesn't need any convincing to play, though. "I  personally like to keep my fingers moving, but that's also because I love playing the cello. I love the way it feels… For me it's a sensuous experience, and it's also kind of a toy, like a game….I love having it in my hands, I'm looking at it sitting there in the case, and I'm looking so much forward to getting it out and getting my hands on it.

Thursday, December 19

Seasonal vocal music with an Eastern European tinge… the ensemble Kitka has been on tour with their 'Wintersongs' program, and will finish this Saturday at the Old First Series in San Francisco, followed the next day by their Community Sing in Oakland. Artistic Director and singer Shira Cion gives a preview.

There's more about the performances at the Old First Concerts, and Kitka website.

The program, which has been a (mostly) annual event since 2000, will include music from a variety of traditions, including this year one piece in the "Sacred Harp" style of singing from the American South. Shira Cion says they're not going to sing it entirely authentically – but the Kentucky song "Idumea" is paired with music from Northern Greece – which uses a similarly minor pentatonic scale. "We've done a kind of mashup of sorts. In the second half of the concert there's this sort of American Southern, Northern Greek/Albanian border merge moment."  

The Community Sing, now in its third year, has proven very popular – as it provides an opportunity to join with Kitka (taught entirely by ear, so sight-reading music isn't a prerequisite). Cion says they might be at capacity, with 200 people already signed up for "Kitka's take on the Singalong Messiah – although we're singing in Bulgarian and Ukrainian and Georgian." That's going to be at Nile Hall in Historic Preservation Park in Oakland on Sunday at 5 pm. "We try to frame the event as being really a Community Sing, and in any singing community there's leaders and there's followers. And it's OK to be one or the other and there's no judgement. It's all really about raising our voices together in harmony.

Friday, December 20

Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1940s and '50s was filled with classical music, as in the favorite "What's Opera Doc?" Symphony Silicon Valley will be accompanying 14 of the shorts in "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II", conducted by George Daugherty, who began these kinds of concerts on Broadway almost 25 years ago.

There's more information at Bugs Bunny at the Symphony's website, and Symphony Silicon Valley's site.

George Daugherty says when he approached Warner Brothers about the idea to present live concert performances of the music, they were enthusiastic from the very beginning. "My Idea was that I was going to do this for a year, way back in 1990. We went to Broadway, we were only supposed to be there for a few performances; it was such a surprise success that we ended up staying for six weeks. 25 years later, I'm still touring the world with this concert!" Although the repertoire has grown since the show's "Bugs Bunny On Broadway" days, some of the cartoons he always includes are "What's Opera Doc?", "Rhapsody Rabbit" and "The Rabbit of Seville".

Kill da Wabbit!"What's Opera Doc?" is the Wagnerian parody that George Daugherty says pulled out all the stops. "They took the entire Ring Cycle (what is that, 41 hours, or something like that, depending on the age and weight of the conductor?) and if that wasn't enough, they had to add Tannhauser, The Flying Dutchman, Rienzi, and Lohengrin. So we have eight Wagner operas in six minutes and 50 seconds. But each theme is totally perfectly realized."

The original scores are jam-packed, and Daugherty says playing them live is a bit of an endurance contest for the orchestras he plays with. "The Warner Brothers orchestra never had to worry about more than 40 seconds of music at a time, and they would take cue 1, the first 40 seconds, and they would rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it… And then record it perfectly, then move on to cue 2, never having to go back to cue 1. And never having to play the entire cartoon from beginning to end." But audiences (and orchestras) respond to both the music and the nostalgia. 

"One shouldn't jump to the conclusion that Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn were just able to copy the classical composers, because when you get to "Zoom and Bored" or any of the Road Runner cartoons, the cartoons that were mostly their music, it's just incredibly brilliant.

Monday, December 23

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: