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
You’d hardly know that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). Even as orchestras and music publications worldwide extol the praises of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), church bells are hardly pealing Wolf melodies.
“All we conductors have a vision of how the music should sound ideally,” he says on the patio of the near idyllic, precariously perched Berkeley hills rental he shares with his cellist wife and children. “How the voices should sound individually and together, when it’s in tune, and most importantly, how the phrasing should be.
"You have this vision inside, and this feeling of the energy that you think can be accumulated and extracted out of the music when you do all those things right, and put all your emotions and understanding of the text into singing.
“They should all merge into one product; that’s the ideal, the goal. And when you have that vision inside, whatever group you have in front of you, you work towards that inner vision. That’s why I’m never frustrated with whatever level I’m working at, as long as we’re moving closer to that vision. It’s almost more rewarding to work with a group that starts on an elementary level and progresses, than start with a group that is quite advanced and you cannot take them anywhere for some reason or another.”
Thirty-seven months after he moved to San Francisco to conduct the splendid chorus that was long associated with Vance George, Bohlin gets a major opportunity to share the a cappella Swedish repertoire close to his heart. One of the pieces, Ingvar Lidholm’s … ariveder le stele, is arguably one of the major 20th-century Swedish a cappella works.
It was also performed here under George “way, way back.” So much for any preconception that only the former choirmaster of Stockholm’s Maria Magdalena Church and student of Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda and choir director Eric Ericson would devote the first half of the chorus’ afternoon to spotlight Swedish repertoire.
Another work on the program, Lars Edlund’s Tvenne Folkvisor (Two folksongs), reminds us of Scandinavia’s rich musical history. “Forgive me, Jean Sibelius and Wilhelm Stenhammar,” Edlund wrote on the front page of the score.
“It’s sort of a rip-off of Sibelius’ tonal language,” Bohlin confesses. “But they’re very lush and beautiful arrangements of two folk songs.” As in, how could I resist? Nor could Bohlin resist commissioning a San Francisco Symphony world premiere, Fredrik Sixten’s Let There Be. “I bought the pig in the sack, as we say in Sweden,” says Bohlin with glowing eyes. “It was only completed about a month ago.
“I know Sixten. I have conducted a few of his big pieces, a St. Mark’s Passion and a Requiem, and have recorded some of his a cappella pieces. He’s a young, strongly up and coming guy, and I do like his music a lot. It’s very direct. He deliberately composes accessibly so that the listener can understand it immediately. I admire him, because I think he can do that without getting vulgar or common; he always finds something fresh.”
After one of the few 19th-century Swedish choral pieces that remains in the active repertoire, Ludwig Norman’s Jordens oro viker, and Sven-Eric Johanson’s Fancies II, a fresh take on Shakespeare, the chorus will journey to Russi, for the first half of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37. Listen for the bass descent to B-flat.
“I’m blessed with five basses, maybe six, who have that B-flat most of the time,” Bohlin quips. “I have to tell them to take a good Scotch or Vodka the night before.” Maybe the rest of the bass section is in recovery.
The concert ends with the rousing “small version” of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for organ, percussion, harp, and chorus. Bernstein called it “the most B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.” Expect the 120 volunteer and 30 professional members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to drive the Bible via the Bronx score home like nobody’s business.More about San Francisco Symphony Chorus »
Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5
Like the footsteps of a life partner, Beethoven’s music is heard so frequently that it’s easy to take it for granted. But listen to Austrian pianist Till Fellner’s ECM New Series CD of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 4 and 5, performed with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano, and the love affair is renewed.
Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman dates his professional career from his first performance as a student in San Francisco’s Douglass Elementary School. Six decades, over 50 recordings, and two Grammys later, he performs at Herbst Theatre on March 13 in the august company of pianist Robert Levin and cellist Lynn Harrell. Under the auspices of Chamber Music San Francisco (see Web site), the newly founded Stoltzman-Harrell-Levin Trio performs Brahms’ Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A Minor, Op.
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
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 »
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.More »
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 »
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.