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Jeff Dunn

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. 

Articles by this Author

Upcoming Concert
February 8, 2010

If search-engine hits are the Web election determining America’s most popular poet, then Emily Dickinson is currently in second or third place (along with Henry Longfellow), behind Walt Whitman. But unlike Whitman, her intensely personal poetry seeks a sympathetic reader, not a vast public sphere. And perhaps that is what drew the composer Gordon Getty to her. His song cycle on Dickinson's poetry, The White Election, will be performed, appropriately, on a Tuesday, Feb. 23.

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Recital Review
February 6, 2010

Violinist Midori proved Saturday in Herbst Theatre, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, that a healthy musical diet can consist almost solely of works written in the 1990s. Her superb musicianship and faultless programming instincts produced one of the best recent-music chamber concerts I have heard in some time. And I mean produced, for not only did Midori plan the program and perform, she also gave master classes and lectures on it at the San Francisco Conservatory, and even wrote a fine set of program notes. Midori is an A to Z concertizer.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
January 22, 2010

The Armenian proverb “We learn more from a clever rival than a stupid ally” was much in evidence in the second half of Friday’s Oakland East Bay Symphony concert. During that segment, the music of three little-known Armenian composers proved that derivative music can nevertheless be persuasive.

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Upcoming Concert
January 11, 2010

Will the “new” symphony by Charles Ives lift you to a higher plane, or send you running from Davies Symphony Hall covering your ears? New York critic Kyle Gann considers the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Charles Ives to be the “one perfect composition.” When he heard Henry Brant’s orchestral reconception of it a year after its Canadian premiere in 1996, he was “blown away,” calling it “The Greatest Symphony Ever (Re)Written.” But when patron Fred Kaufman heard San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas lead Brant’s version in Miami last year, he “ran away after the first movement,” possibly in response to the “low-gear Mahler to deafening cacophony” experienced by South Florida Classical Review critic Lawrence A. Johnson. One thing is for sure: Nothing will be humdrum in the San Francisco Symphony concerts of Feb. 3-6.

To sweeten the pie, the program opens with Franz Schubert’s brief and charming Mass No. 2 in G Major, D. 167, with three soloists and the Symphony Chorus. Then comes the music that so inspired Ives that he had to write a book about it, called Essays Before a Sonata. The title of the piece comes from the Massachusetts locus of literati who called Concord home from 1840 to 1860. Most of these men (virtually all of them were men) were associated with the American Transcendentalist movement, philosophy which promotes personal intuition over church doctrine as a means of reaching higher spiritual planes.

We see him standing on a summit, at the door of the infinite where many men do not care to climb, peering into the mysteries of life, contemplating the eternities, hurling back whatever he discovers there, now, thunderbolts for us to grasp, if we can, and [to] translate ...
No trifle, the conception behind this work. Its honoring of Beethoven is taken to heart, with quotations from the master’s Fifth Symphony and the “Hammerklavier” piano sonata liberally strewn throughout, along — on the less exalted hand — with Ives’ typical references to American tunes like Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.

The second movement, a scherzo, is devoted to Nathaniel Hawthorne, a non-Transcendentalist, and his “wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.” The third deals with philosopher Bronson Alcott, and his family, including his famous daughter Louisa May, of Little Women fame. The music touches on “the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day.” The concluding fourth movement follows moods of Henry David Thoreau (“Let it follow his thought on an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden ...”).

Listen to the Music

Charles Ives - Concord Sonata,
III "The Alcotts" (excerpt)

Henry Brant - A Concord Symphony,
III "The Alcotts" (excerpt)
Henry Brant (1913-2008) was a distinguished, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and an early champion and student of Ives, as well as a highly regarded orchestrator. He was famed for his expertise in spatial music and in how musicians should be placed for a performance. He wrote a textbook on orchestration and was even sought after in Hollywood, where he worked on films such as Cleopatra with composer Alex North. The orchestration of the Concord Symphony occupied him for more than 35 years, so it’s no wonder that its careful craft and its sense of humor have impressed critics.

For an example of what Brant has done, listen to the piano and orchestral excerpt from the same sonata passage in the “Alcott” movement. If you like what you hear, check out the concert — and maybe bring earplugs.

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Feature Article
January 5, 2010

Talk about shocking revelations — British composer/conductor George Benjamin, toast of the San Francisco Symphony in its Jan. 7-17 programs, gets bolts of inspiration literally, from lightning. As he related to me last month, "I’ve always been fascinated by thunderstorms; they’ve influenced many of my works. ... I remember lightning flashes I’ve seen."

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
November 19, 2009

It was time for students in the San Francisco Conservatory’s symphony orchestra to knuckle under. The world-famous, dandelion-headed conductor was taking time out of his busy schedule to run a master class workshop just for them. But — gasp — was he encouraging an anarchic free-for-all?

“Don’t do anything correct,” he insisted. His next command was the order of business for last Thursday evening.

“Play Wagner!” exhorted Sir Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

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Upcoming Concert
November 11, 2009

For some young musicians just learning to play together, the “infernal machine” can be the orchestra itself. Not, however, for those expert and passionate San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra players.

Under conductor Donato Cabrera, they will take on the subtle and intensely rewarding Enigma Variations of Edward Elgar, Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony No. 92, and a crazy whiz-bang work that’s full of surprises, Christopher Rouse’s “orchestral etude”


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CD Review
November 3, 2009

Sometimes, I feel like I’ve heard the four Brahms symphonies more times than the Bay Area weather people notify me the next day will be sunny. But Simon Rattle is no ordinary weatherman in his new release of these concert-hall stalwarts. With Rattle, there's no boringly familiar, stupid smiling sun slapped up on the map, and calling it a day.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
October 23, 2009

Wouldn’t it be nice if each composer on a program could have his own, ideal interpreter? Not so Friday night at the San Francisco Symphony concert, where hyperkinetic guest conductor Osmo Vänskä proved to be a godsend for John Adams, adequate in Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, and too much of a whirlwind for Antonín Dvořák. The Symphony players responded magnificently wherever Vänskä led them, even when misguided.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
October 15, 2009

Awesome was the recaptained ship, the Symphony Season Berkeley, as it slipped into the October-audience channel. The Symphony’s new skipper, Music Director Joana Carneiro, brought on board high hopes, boundless energy, charismatic facial expressions, and two newish pumping systems in the engine room: works by John Adams and Gabriela Lena Frank.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
October 11, 2009

As I stood in the deserted Civic Center station with only three others from the full house that had vociferously cheered the Saturday concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its 28-year-old new music-director, Gustavo Dudamel, I reflected on L.A.’s love for the automobile. Is Dudamel the city’s new Ferrari, or is he just the winning float in the Rose Bowl parade, bestowed with colorful petals and dancing girls who obscure the true vehicle underneath, be it Corvette, Scion, or Edsel?

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CD Review
October 6, 2009

If you are looking for a gift for someone beginning their odyssey into classical music, you could do worse than send them the latest DGG sampler release of repertoire standards spiced with two dances by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez.

Why? The conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, product of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema who has just taken over the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
October 3, 2009

Would you rather focus on atoms, or planets? Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas chose both and overindulged a bit in one for Saturday’s San Francisco Symphony concert. It began with music of the Zen-inspired Italian Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose Hymnos took 13 minutes to elaborate just three elemental notes — D, E, and B-flat. After intermission came the note-o-rama described by its composer as “chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered,” the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler.

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Upcoming Concert
September 29, 2009
You’re stuffed into a car trunk with three people for so many hours that, when you’re let out into the dark night, your eyes don’t work at first. To your horror, you discover you’ve been dumped off in a cemetery in a foreign country. To the sound of ghostly church bells, bizarre yellow dots flash before your eyes. As you sway from cramped limbs, you fear that your eyesight is forever damaged. 

Gabriela Frank's Welcome to AmericaThis you can experience — what a Latina immigrant endured on her arrival in the U.S. and saw fireflies for the first time — when you hear one of the testimonios (testimonies) set to music by composer Gabriele Lena Frank at the Berkeley Symphony’s season-opening concert under its new music director, Joana Carneiro.

Thanks to an innovative grant, Frank had the opportunity to work with Latino immigrants in one of the less-predictable destination cities, Indianapolis; internalize their stories over time; and translate their hopes and dreams into the orchestral suite Peregrinos (Pilgrims). Frank herself is no stranger to diversity, having a Chinese/Peruvian mother and a Jewish/Lithuanian father.

“We’re at too important a moment of history to not look for connections in the community,” Frank, a resident of Berkeley, relates in a PBS documentary chronicling the creation of her work (shown two days before the concert — details here). “When I’m looking at my own truth and my own humanidad, my own humanity, I try to keep on with creating music and with everything that I’ve got, to tell a story that really resonates.” Like Béla Bartók’s masterpiece Concerto for Orchestra that will conclude the program, Peregrinos is in five movements.


Peregrinos/ Pilgrims: A Musical Journey
Besides the already mentioned movement, “Fireflies,” the suite begins and ends with “Arbol de sueños” (Dream trees), laundry racks that social workers encourage immigrants in group sessions to festoon with colored ribbons on which their hopes for the future are written. The remaining movements are “Heroes,” a jaunty description of two close preteen brothers, and “Devotional for Sarita Colonia,” a visionary depiction of the Peruvian patron saint of immigrants.

The concert launches the Symphony’s first season with Music Director Carneiro. Each concert includes a work by at least one living composer, along with fairly heavy-duty favorites from the standard repertoire. It’s always a test to see how brilliantly any conductor can handle the alternating hell-bent, then deliberately sluggish, pacing of the Bartók concerto’s last movement, and finally bring off its final flourish, a race to the skies that leaves hearts in throats when done well. You probably can ask Carneiro yourself how she’ll manage it if you attend her interview by pianist Sarah Cahill at the Berkeley Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 10, at 3:00 p.m.

The concert opens with music by another Berkeley composer, John Adams’ Chairman Dances, derived from his groundbreaking opera Nixon in China. It’s worth fox-trotting up to Zellerbach Hall to give it a listen. 

More about Berkeley Symphony »
Feature Article
September 6, 2009

With autumn upon us, the Bay Area's classical music groups are tuning up for hundreds of intriguing events. San Francisco Classical Voice asked several of our critics and editors to comb through the performance announcements available to date and pick their favorite choices for September through December. We've put the season in chronological order for the convenience of music-lovers organizing their datebooks.

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Festival Review
August 7, 2009

How do you tell a hack orchestrator from a master? One composes a new sequence of sounds, the other a sequence of new sounds. And if the sequence itself has a certain cohesive inevitability about it, you have a ground-breaking masterpiece. Two of these were served up to an enthusiastic audience Friday night at the opening of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, thanks to invitations from Music Director Marin Alsop.

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Feature Article
July 28, 2009

Last year on the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra blog, Eddie Silva sagely observed, “Anything that’s been pronounced dead as often as classical music needs to move on to another subject. Classical music is not like a dying race track, or an old sports arena, or a typewriter. It is real estate open to reinvention.”

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
July 18, 2009

“What have you been smoking?” you say. But I saw the following with my own eyes at last Saturday’s San Francisco Symphony concert:

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CD Review
June 30, 2009
In 1997, the American pianist Donald Berman forced open three old file cabinets in a musty attic above the Janiculum, the highest hill within walled Rome, and found enough years of work for each of his 10 fingers. Music-history buffs acquainted with the trials and tribulations of composers such as Berlioz and Ravel and their experiences with the French Prix de Rome may not be aware that a similar American institution was established in Rome in 1894 and began awarding music stipends for study in 1921.
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CD Review
June 30, 2009
Channel has released another in its series of Mahler symphonies under Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Symphony No. 4 in G Major. The engineering is by far the most impressive thing about it: This SACD sounded terrific, even on my non-SACD player, displaying impressive depth and clarity of tone.
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