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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

Recital Review
April 18, 2010

Hard to believe, given the slew of awards she has received in the last 10 months, but soprano Leah Crocetto’s Schwabacher Debut Recital in Temple Emanu-el’s Meyer Sanctuary on Sunday afternoon was her first full-length classical recital anywhere. Despite her inexperience, the results were mind-boggling. Crocetto displayed a marvelous, at times magnificent, instrument that sounded right at home in most of her repertoire.

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CD Review
April 13, 2010

The dance begins at sunrise, as French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra into the “Lever du Jour” section of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2. The journey is gorgeous and atmospheric, with the sun fast rising over a hazy landscape until it bursts forth in full splendor (and top volume).

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Artist Spotlight
April 9, 2010

Last June, soprano Leah Crocetto won the first prize, Spanish Prize, and People’s Choice at the José Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles. On March 14, she was one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York City.

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Upcoming Concert
April 8, 2010

Forty-nine minutes into our chat about the San Francisco Symphony Chorus’ Spring Concert, Music Director Ragnar Bohlin addresses what makes him tick.

“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 »
Recital Review
April 2, 2010

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is a great artist. In an unforgettable San Francisco Performances recital Friday in Herbst Theatre, which also marked her local recital debut, Coote and her equally brilliant accompanist, Julius Drake, lavished on their audience an entire evening of songs in English, giving more attention to tone and color than I have heard in many a year.

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Recital Review
March 28, 2010

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.

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Feature Article
March 24, 2010

Blanche Thebom, one of the great operatic mezzos of the postwar era, died at her home in San Francisco on March 23. Increasingly isolated due to dementia, Miss Thebom, as she was known to most, or “Miss T,” as she was called by many of her students, died a week after contracting pneumonia.

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Upcoming Concert
March 21, 2010
Forty-nine minutes into our chat about the San Francisco Symphony Chorus’ Spring Concert, Music Director Ragnar Bohlin addresses what makes him tick.

“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 »
CD Review
March 16, 2010

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.

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Artist Spotlight
March 9, 2010

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.

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Recital Review
March 1, 2010

How to widen the circle, to bring more music lovers, both young and old, into the classical fold? In a time of shrinking budgets, that question constantly haunts concert producers, record company executives, musicians, and, yes, even critics in the U.S. (not China, Korea, or parts of Europe) who find themselves communicating with a shrinking pool of graying, mainly white-skinned, classical music aficionados.

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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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