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Jason Victor Serinus

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.

Articles by this Author

Upcoming Concert
February 22, 2010
Right off the bat, tenor saxophonist Stephen Pollack describes the conundrum the New Century Saxophone Quartet (NCSQ) has faced ever since he cofounded the quartet a quarter century ago. “It’s real common when we tour for well over half the audience to have no idea what it means to be a saxophone quartet. The same is true for classical presenters, many of whom assume that a saxophone quartet must specialize in jazz.”

The surprise comes when people discover that the NCSQ is a bona fide classical ensemble. Its big break came in 1991, when it won first prize in the Concerts Artists Guild Competition. A few years later, the group began an active arranging and commissioning project that has spawned works by Peter Schickele, Sherwood Shaffer, Arthur Frackenpohl, David Ott, Ben Johnston, Benjamin Boone, Ken Valitsky, Thomas Massella, tenor saxophonist and Saturday Night Live band leader Lenny Pickett, and jazz saxophonist Bob Mintzer. If those aren’t all household names, neither is the saxophone.

Part of NCSQ’s challenge is that the saxophone is a relatively young instrument. Its inventor, Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax, first showed his baby to a friend, the composer Hector Berlioz, in 1841. Three years later, around the same time that Sax unveiled the instrument at the Paris Industrial Exhibition, Berlioz conducted a performance of his choral work Chant Sacre and included a saxophone in the orchestration. In 1846, Sax secured patents for 14 various models of saxophone, ranging from the E-flat sopranino to the F contrabass. He further refined his instrument in 1881.

An early project that helped turn things around for the NCSQ was when it began to play J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue. When Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet heard the group play a couple of the fugues, he encouraged it to play the entire set. NCSQ then spent two years coaching Baroque performance techniques with Stephen Preston, one of the founders of the English Consort.

“We had to understand Baroque ornamentation and convention,” says Pollack. “The biggest issue for us was understanding the rhythm of that period. Preston made us do Baroque dance steps, and feel time differently as we played. He’d have us elongate the music until we felt the pulses — rhythmically, it was a huge thing. And we also worked to eliminate vibrato, although we don’t know to what extent they [in that earlier era] eliminated vibrato. We use a shimmer of vibrato, but not too much. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”

Listen to the Music

Needless to say, some of Bach’s fugues will open NCSQ’s free Morrison Artists Series program at San Francisco State on March 14. Also on the program are Ben Johnston’s O Waly Waly Variations; John Fitz Rogers’ Prodigal Child; Jakob ter Veldhuis’ Heartbreakers; and Russell Peck’s Drastic Measures. From Pollack’s descriptions, you could safely say the afternoon will run the gamut, from the sublime to the preposterous.

Pollack considers microtonal composer Johnston’s work, which figures prominently on the quartet’s later CD, very beautiful. Fitz Roger’s composition, which he calls “the hardest piece technically that we’ve ever played,” starts out with Middle Eastern harmonies, before erupting in mass confusion. Although the composer prefers not to say what inspired the composition, Pollack does let on that the conclusion sounds as if the world is coming to an end.

Ter Veldhuis’ multimedia composition includes video of Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, which certainly hints at its inspiration. And Peck’s work, an ensemble favorite that’s part hoedown, part blues, was a hit at the White House during one of NCSQ’s three programs for former President Clinton

As if the notion of a classical saxophone quartet were not enough to confound expectation, Pollack ended our conversation by declaring, “I feel like the sax is the closest instrument to the human voice. Out of all the wind instruments, its changes and inflections are the most flexible. You can really express a lot of emotion if you play well.” You might carry the sound of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in your head as you listen to NCSQ’s Bach, to see whether the sax can truly speak as deeply and profoundly as the cello.

More about Morrison Artists Series »
CD Review
February 23, 2010

If you’re looking for music to restore your faith in what’s good in life, look no farther. Florilegium’s pioneering Bolivian Baroque series — three superbly recorded volumes by that period instrument ensemble — contains some of the most delightful music I’ve heard in many a year.

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CD Review
February 16, 2010

To honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), our 16th president, the Spokane Symphony under Music Director Eckart Preu commissioned Michael Daugherty to write a Lincoln-themed work for baritone and orchestra. The piece, which was recorded live by E1 Entertainment (formerly Koch) a year ago, was conceived as a vehicle for Thomas Hampson, a Spokane native who, according to the liner notes, “began his career with the Spokane Symphony.”

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Artist Spotlight
February 9, 2010

Soprano Jessica Rivera first made her mark internationally when she created the character Kumudha in Peter Sellars’ production of John Adams’ opera A Flowering Tree. After repeating the role in the San Francisco Symphony’s Bay Area premiere, her success helped land her the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in the European debut of Sellars’ production of Adams’ Doctor Atomic. She has since sung the part with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera.

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Opera Review
January 30, 2010

Ensemble Parallèle sold itself short by emphasizing that their two performances of Alban Berg’s nightmarish early-20th-century opera, Wozzeck, would fill the breach left since San Francisco Opera last performed the work in November, 1999. Heard and seen in the relative intimacy of Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the West Coast premiere of John Rea’s 21-musician chamber reorchestration needed no apologia. Ensemble Parallèle’s oft-devastating, 90-minute multimedia wow of a production was whole and complete unto itself.

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Artist Spotlight
January 26, 2010

Few concertgoers who heard it will forget violinist Vadim Gluzman’s San Francisco Symphony debut in May 2008. Performing Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Gluzman delivered a performance that elicited critical superlatives, with SFCV’s critic praising his “dark tone and sinewy strength” and “deep, concentrated sound and the powerful evenness of his bowing.” Gluzman’s performance of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Marin Symphony, in January that year, also garnered accolades.

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CD Review
January 26, 2010

Those of us fortunate enough to attend Opera Colorado’s 2008 production of John Adams’ engrossing opera Nixon in China were swept to our feet by its cumulative impact. Given that the performance of soloists and Colorado Symphony Orchestra, under the able hand of Marin Alsop, and the Opera Colorado Chorus under Douglas Kinney Frost, was witnessed by many hundreds of the music and arts critics and personnel who had descended on Denver for the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention, the artistic triumph was all the greater.

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Upcoming Concert
January 25, 2010
How can religious music devoid of language serve as a unifying force in a world divided by doctrine? This question led Veretski Pass, a unique klezmer trio, to create a new body of Jewish religious music titled The Klezmer Shul. Premiering in Jewish venues in Alameda (Feb. 8), Berkeley (Feb. 10), and Palo Alto (Feb. 14), the 45-minute, four movement instrumental suite — a pioneering attempt to fuse the spiritual essence of Jewish cantorial music with a modern instrumental aesthetic — intends to transmit the emotional power of traditional synagogue singing without the use of words.

Although The Klezmer Shul will debut in religious venues, it is also intended to serve as a purely musical, extra-religious experience. In his grant proposal for the work, Stu Brotman, a Berkeley-based founding member of Veretski Pass, muses, “By its very lack of text, this service may be acceptable to a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious Jews, as well as to a general audience attracted to the music as pure concert music ... It is our hope that the music created will provide an emotional experience derived from, but not specific to, devotional music, and that it will take its place in concert literature suitable for religious services and general programming.”

The group specializes in a collage of “Old Country Music” that blends Carpathian, Jewish, Romanian, and Ottoman styles. Brotman, who plays string bass, basy (bass from the Polish Carpathians), baraban (Carpathian bass drum), tilinca (Romanian/Hungarian shepherd’s flute) and trombone; and his fellow musicians, Cookie Segelstein on violin, violin scordatura, viola; and Joshua Horowitz on 19th-century Budowitz button accordion, and tsimbl (Jewish hammered dulcimer); have spent the last six years touring North America and Europe with their unique blend of traditional, newly arranged, and newly composed klezmer music. Acutely aware of the forces that divide and conquer — the trio is named for the multicultural Eastern European birthplace of Segelstein’s father, who was a Holocaust survivor — the group attempts to transcend religious and secular division by uniting audiences in celebration and reverence.

While The Klezmer Shul is rooted in Jewish liturgical melodic principles and emotional intonations, it also incorporates jazz, avant garde, classical, klezmer, and folk elements. Whether this musical melting pot can fulfill its lofty goals, the vital spirit of klezmer will certainly make for a moving, perhaps thrilling experience. Be sure to stick around for the post-performance discussion, which at KlezCalifornia’s Yiddish Culture Festival (Feb. 14 in Palo Alto) will transition into a traditional klezmer dance party. That should make for a Valentine’s Day like no other.

 

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Recital Review
January 12, 2010

The exceptionally fine baritone Nathan Gunn was at Herbst Theatre last Tuesday, where he tackled Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The fair maid of the mill) in a recital for San Francisco Performances. If Gunn, who was accompanied by his wife, Julie Gunn, failed to score an interpretive touchdown, perhaps it’s because he was unsure where the goalposts were.

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CD Review
December 29, 2009

La Barcha d’Amore is a celebration. Exquisitely planned and executed, the anthology celebrates over 30 years of music-making by ensemble Hespèrion XX (now Hespèrion XXI) and orchestra Le Concert des Nations.

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Upcoming Concert
December 29, 2009
There’s a good reason that Pennsylvania-born Paul Jacobs, 32, is frequently dubbed an organ evangelist. Even before he made music history at age 23, when he played J.S. Bach’s complete works for the organ in an 18-hour nonstop marathon, Jacobs was on a mission to resurrect respect for organ artistry. Joining the faculty of the Juilliard School in 2003, and becoming chair of its organ department at the tender age of 27, augmented his ability to travel around the world, giving recitals in which his music-making speaks as profoundly as his words.

Jacobs’ mission has included multiple marathons of the complete Messiaen organ oeuvre in seven major U.S. cities, including San Francisco. Just last season, he soloed with the San Francisco Symphony and presented a solo recital as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Ruffatti organ in Davies Symphony Hall. On Jan. 17, he returns to Davies to perform a program that would convince many a lesser organist to hide behind the console.

Jacobs is so eloquent when he talks about the organ that it seems best to cede the floor to a still-young master.

“I will begin with Max Reger’s monumental Second Organ Sonata, full of ravishing tenderness one moment, and muscular force the next. Reger was extremely prolific, and produced a massive body of music in a relatively short life. While he occasionally didn’t have time or inclination to edit or prune his works, I’m quite convinced that he is a sorely underestimated and underappreciated composer. Frequently, listeners and music lovers operate on preconceived notions of his works without ever having an encounter with this genius. The charge is that his music is dense, cumbersome, and heavy, when in fact it is frequently extraordinary, filled with luminous transparency and even a touch of humor. In fact, few composers after Bach were able to write fugues with such profound emotive power and charge as Reger.”

See what I mean?

“Then we shift gears quite dramatically for the intimate Prelude in F Minor by Nadia Boulanger. It shows that the organ is capable of being sensuous, delicate, and very nuanced and subtle. The same adjectives apply to Boulanger’s small but exquisite body of organ music. [She commissioned and performed the premiere of Copland’s Organ Symphony — the work that supposedly established him as having chops.] Her Prelude has three movements, the first of which is quintessentially French in terms of melodic inflection and color.”

Without pausing between works, Jacobs will end the first half with the “zesty” Finale in B Flat by César Franck. He calls what is perhaps the most virtuosic work in Franck’s canon a “fireworks display for the feet.”

After traveling from Germany to France in the first half, Jacobs returns to Germany after intermission.

“This being an anniversary year for Robert Schumann, I’ll play his Canon in A-flat Major. Schumann thought very highly of his organ works; they are elevated pieces of music, very lyrical, attractive to the ear, and skillfully composed. His Canon is similar in scale to the Boulanger, brief and intimate.”

Barring an encore, Jacobs will end with Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm. A star pupil of Franz Liszt’s, Reubke died at age 24, leaving behind two large works: a piano sonata and one for organ.

“Both are awesome in their scope and range of expression. Had Reubke lived longer, he might have even surpassed Liszt. There’s no telling what he would have produced, based on the success and quality of these two sonatas. His death is perhaps one of the tragedies in the history of music.”

Jacobs was both “encouraged and inspired by the sensitive and large audience” that greeted him last season in Davies. The organist who indulges in multiple adjectives as frequently as he astounds with his multilimbed musicianship is prepared to inspire and delight us once again.

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Feature Article
December 22, 2009

As we approach the year 2010, downloading music has become as ubiquitous as iPods.

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Upcoming Concert
December 21, 2009
What do Elvis, Mozart, and Beethoven have in common? The connection is not what you might expect.

Besides the fact that all three are dead, Maestro David Ramadanoff had one reason for putting Michael Daugherty’s Dead Elvis and Mozart’s Serenade in D major K. 239 (Serenata notturna) together with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on the Vallejo Symphony's Jan. 9 concert.

“The first half of the program really is an opportunity to feature a number of players from the orchestra as soloists,” he explained by phone.

Dead Elvis was intentionally written for the same colorful septet of instruments as Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale because they share a common theme. Except in Daugherty’s piece, instead of Stravinsky’s soldier selling his soul to the Devil, Elvis sells his soul to Hollywood. The scenario clearly calls for principal bassoonist Karla Ekholm, who plays a number of jazzy, ironic, and funny variations on that classic tune of the celestial hit man, the Dies Irae.

“It’s fun, colorful, and very technically challenging for everyone who plays it because it’s so fast,” says Ramadanoff. It also demands lots of pyrotechnics from a bassoonist willing to try to look as well as play the part.

Like Daugherty, Mozart wrote his Serenata notturna as entertainment. But where Daugherty was trying to shock and entertain a concert audience, Mozart wished to entertain the royal court in Salzburg. Employing strings, timpani, and a slightly unusual solo string quartet of two violins, viola, and double bass, the piece might have left a smile on Elvis’ increasingly cynical face.

In addition to providing contrast with its full orchestra, Ramadanoff feels that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major fits the bill because of its liveliness. “All throughout the symphony,” he says, “Beethoven chooses certain figures that really push the music along. The scherzo is one of the fastest he ever wrote, and the final movement incredibly propulsive.”

Propulsion is certainly the name of the game for the orchestra’s players, most of whom are members of the “Freeway Philharmonic.” These musicians drive all over the place, playing their hearts out while doing their best to make ends meet. But what sets the Vallejo Symphony apart from the rest of the freeway pack, besides the fact that it is the seventh oldest orchestra in California, is the personal relationship between Ramadanoff and his players.

“I’ve known many of them since my days as conductor of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra,” he says, “when they were either just graduating or first starting in the Freeway Philharmonic. We have a special chemistry. These folks know each other very well, and the small combo we’re using in the first half really likes working together and with me. We all feel we’re making good music together.”

The Vallejo Symphony performs in Hogan Auditorium, 850 Rosewood Ave. (corner of Georgia St.) in Vallejo on Saturday, January 9 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets, call 707-643-4441.

More about Vallejo Symphony Orchestra »
Recital Review
December 6, 2009

Renée Fleming surprised us on Sunday night. Walking onto the Zellerbach Hall stage for her virtually sold-out Cal Performances recital, ensconced in a form-fitting, gorgeous green dress that would be the envy of any prom queen, she looked as beautiful as ever. But no one expected her, after she took her place alongside the piano, to pick up a microphone and address the audience.

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Chamber Music Review
December 2, 2009

When Christine Lim of San Francisco Performances invited former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow soprano Ji Young Yang to present a one-hour Salon at the Rex, Yang proposed a pairing with her fellow, former Adlerian, countertenor Gerald Thompson. Thus was born a duo recital that began with early music, then embraced the unexpected.

The duo immediately set the tone on Wednesday night with two works by Purcell.

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Upcoming Concert
December 1, 2009
A significant homecoming is on the horizon for the Kronos Quartet. On Dec. 13 at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, the astounding Joan Jeanrenaud, who was the quartet’s cellist for two decades before taking her leave over 10 years ago, rejoins her old cohorts for the world premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished). The work was written with a reunion in mind.

To add to the specialness of the occasion, the four works on the program include the West Coast premiere of Transylvanian Horn Courtship, the latest in a series of unique works that the great Terry Riley has written for the ensemble. One of Kronos’ favorite composers, Riley has an uncanny ability to write music that opens portals into other dimensions.

“We wanted to bring together a number of our recent pieces to give listeners a sense of Kronos’ current outlook,” quartet founder David Harrington modestly explained by phone from Kronos’ San Francisco headquarters.

“One of the things Vladimir does that no other composer I know of does is bring the classical musical past into the present, even into the future. Previously, he wrote this amazing piece for us while his father was dying. While recalling playing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with his dad on four-hand piano, he transformed his father’s breathing into these unbelievable chords as the Mahler slowly takes over the breathing.”

It was on the basis of that work that Harrington felt Martynov was the perfect person to bring some moment of Schubert’s quintet into the 21st century, and enable Kronos to again perform with Jeanrenaud. The quartet’s current cellist, Jeff Ziegler, grew up listening to his predecessor, and they’ve since become good friends. Hence, the occasion will take on an aura of a family reunion.

For some time, Harrington had wanted to introduce Terry Riley to Walter Kitundu, a San Francisco–based builder of “amazing” instruments. Harrington specifically had in mind the Stroh instruments that Kitundu had designed for Kronos. Somewhat resembling the instruments that were played on early acoustic recordings, Kitundu’s Stroh strings have “trumpet bells” extending from the bridge that give them their unique sound.

“The idea of a piece that would include newly made instruments with the same sound as on acoustic recordings really attracted me,” says Harrington. Kitundu obliged with a complete set, and Riley followed through with a new tuning that lowers the pitch and quality of the sound so that the violins sound something like violas, the viola like the cello, and the cello like an entirely different instrument.

According to Harrington, the piece includes some “really cool” live sampling that, together with the instruments, produces “amazing acoustical phenomena.” If you note that Transylvania Horned Courtship is a fogged-out reference to THC, you can begin to imagine the kind of altered state that Riley’s piece leads listeners into.

Both Bryce Dessner’s Aheym and Mizzy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar were written for an outdoor Kronos performance in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Dessner’s piece, which is marked by great forward momentum, grew out of a discussion he had with Harrington about his grandmother’s emigration from Poland. Mazzoli’s love song to the Brooklyn Bridge, which includes a recorded track of lines from Hart Crane’s famous poem about the bridge, is far more intimate and subtle.

You may need more than the handful of cheap beads that early settlers traded for the isle of Manhattan to be able to hear these pieces. The Cal Performances concert is sold out. (Contact the box office to get on the waiting list, or to snare last-minute ticket returns.) As a consolation prize, don’t miss David Harrington’s free talk, “Sonic Immersion: An Exploration of Eclectic and Unusual Sounds and Musics,” in UC Berkeley’s Morrison Hall, near Bancroft and College Avenues. Speaking with David Wessell of the Center for New Music and Audio Technology, Harrington will share music from his fabulous recording collection. Harrington is also giving at talk at 125 Morrison Hall on Monday Dec. 7 at 7 p.m.

More about Kronos Quartet »
Feature Article
November 30, 2009

Given the large number of fine recordings released in the past year, a first-time visitor to Planet Earth would hardly suspect that the record industry is in the doldrums. Nor will the music lovers on your holiday gift list think anything is amiss, if you present them with one or more of the sonic goodies in the guide that follows.

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CD Review
December 1, 2009

It’s a toss-up as to whether listening to mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s spectacular new Decca recording of music written for the star castrati of the 18th century is more exhilarating or exhausting. Many of Sacrificium’s 15 arias, which are stronger as virtuosic showpieces than conveyers of emotional truth, contain more trills, roulades, and impossibly difficult runs than any singer can be rightly expected to generate in the course of a day. 

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CD Review
November 24, 2009

Eyebrows rise at the thought of Renée Fleming, a soprano who has built her reputation on the creamy beauty she brings to lyric soprano roles created by Mozart, Strauss, and others, singing the wrenching verismo repertoire of Puccini, Mascagni, Catalani, Cilea, and others. Verismo is about blood and guts, sweat and suffering, and enough over-the-top singing to sear the makeup off Fleming’s ubiquitous glamour shots.

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Recital Review
November 16, 2009

I have no greater joy than basking in the artistry of a great singer at the top of her form. Such was my feeling as mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, perfectly accompanied by pianist John Churchwell, began her San Francisco Performances recital Monday at Herbst Theatre. Singing to an eager audience that included many supporters and fans who have followed her ever since her 1997 San Francisco summer in the Merola Opera Program, DiDonato looked every inch the star in the baby-blue, Grecian-style dress and gold-patterned cinch that perfectly complemented her shining blonde hair.

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