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
Michael Tilson Thomas treated San Francisco Symphony patrons Friday to an extraordinary concert of works that advanced the field of classical music — each pushing the envelope in its own direction.A symphony built a monument to regenerative self-defeat, a concerto scaled heights of immediacy and technical difficulty, and a new suite blazed a path toward rapturous acceptance of electronica into the concert hall.
Small fit all at Sunday’s Berkeley Akadamie concert, but medium and large were another story. The opening number, Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 136, was played by only a string quintet. It was so well done, and the First Congregational Church acoustics were so beneficial, that the five sounded like a full string orchestra. With no conductor to distract, the listeners could focus on the joyful body language from participants — especially Concertmaster Franklyn D’Antonio and principal cellist Gianna Abondolo — and the result was full-bodied perfection.
The pleasures and horrors of night follow upon one another when the New Century Chamber Orchestra opens its program with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and follows it immediately with music from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho.
If you die and go to heaven, you could next do worse than listen later in the program to the passionate violinist/conductor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg play a world premiere by the melodic Brazilian composer Clarice Assad. Also featured is music by Alexander Borodin and Johann Strauss Jr.More about New Century Chamber Orchestra »
The British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is beloved for his evocation of pastoral, folk-song-infused landscapes in works like The Lark Ascending. But also on the program is a totally different “VW,” the violent, take-no-prisoners maniac of the Symphony No. 4, a piece that grabs listeners by the throat and never lets go.
Come hear which is better, the Jekyll, the Hyde, or French music by Georges Bizet and Francis Poulenc. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducts the San Francisco Symphony, and the young organist Paul Jacobs is soloist. Jacobs came to international attention at the age of 23 when in 2000, he twice performed the complete organ works of J.S. Bach in 14 consecutive evenings, in New York City and in Philadelphia and then held an 18-hour non-stop marathon of works in Pittsburgh.More about San Francisco Symphony »
Live performances of the vast catalog of symphonic music by Russian composer Nicolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) occur with near-hen’s-tooth frequency (only two in the last eight seasons anywhere in the U.S. or Canada).
So fans of a sound described as being between Rachmaninov and Scriabin should rush to Bruno Ferrandis’ Wells Fargo Center henhouse to see him conduct the Santa Rosa Symphony and soloist Gary Hoffman in Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto. It has a slow movement to die for. Plus, you’ll hear excerpts from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane and Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballets.More »
You might think of the standard Haydn symphony as measured and placid, but not the 52nd. It’s unusual in that it’s in a minor key and has numerous tumultuous passages designed to stir the emotions, even fear, among listeners of the time. The concerto, by contrast, is less agitated, but completely in tune with our “Age of Anxiety.” Not excessively dissonant, and even tuneful in the last movement, the work offers ingeniously unsettling triadic harmonies that descend into despair in the profound second movement, at times accompanied by unpredictable, convulsive throbs. Its offbeat rhythms will be a challenge to the orchestra and soloist alike. Fortunately, one of the best contemporary players around — Leila Josefowicz — will be tackling its soaring lines and passionate declamation.
After a few welcome drinks at intermission, try to remember the sound, not of the preceding Adès work, but of the Haydn. The ensuing Mozart will make even the Haydn sound like darkest night in comparison. It’s not just the more memorable melodies and lighter disposition of the music. Listen carefully to the woodwinds: The Haydn symphony has no flutes or clarinets in it, and its oboes hardly play anything but chords. When you hear the flutes and clarinets play gorgeous melodies in the Mozart, you’ll realize that despite what Haydn and Adès say, there is hope for civilization.
James Gaffigan, who will be conducting, will give extended remarks on the works for the Friday, April 3 concert, and an after-concert Q&A session Saturday, April 4.More »
The Other Minds Festival of New Music should rightly be proud of its track record of bringing many "other" ideas of composers from all corners of the globe to the musical table. However, an interesting idea for an ingredient is one thing; a decent musical meal, another. Although there were some distinguished exceptions, too few of the 14th festival's dishes I tasted offered enough calories, and some were overcooked.
Valentine's day is past, and the bloom is off the rose. Thirty years past my first deep acquaintance with Brahms and Dvořák, after repeatedly relishing in their many sublime creations, and enjoying flings with even the least of their compositions, my Don Juan for them is waning.
“Things Fall From the Sky” was the theme of Monday’s concert, yet nary a clunker of a composition felled the good spirits of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players attendees. A refreshing eclecticism replaced SFCMP’s usual emphasis on neomodernist and spectralist genres. Instead, four of the five numbers displayed neotonal, jazz-inflected, or indescribably admixed styles to keep Herbst Theatre patrons entertained.
The thing to convey for me with Lark Ascending, even if you've never heard of it, don't know Vaughan Williams, or don't really go to classical music concerts, is that this is one of those things that, yes, everybody will pretty much agree, "that's beautiful." And its being beautiful is in fact what it's all about. It's like inviting people to come watch a stunning sunset. It's about sonorities, the beauty of what you're hearing, the beauty of what it's symbolizing, and the beauty of where it puts you mentally and emotionally when you're listening to it. It's this wonderful, meditative, relaxed, smile-on-your-face kind of thing.
Vaughan Williams wrote the work in 1914, inspired by George Meredith's poem of the same name in honor of the skylark, a European bird that soars some 300 feet above the ground calling out for a mate:
For singing till his heaven fills, 'Tis love of earth that he instils, And ever winging up and up, Our valley is his golden cup, And he the wine which overflows To lift us with him as he goesConcertmaster Constant will be soaring himself, literally, before long: He's building an airplane in Livermore.
Whitman Choral MasterpieceThe second work of Vaughan Williams on the program has its soaring moments too, but the range of emotion is vast, being a choral setting of several poems of Walt Whitman (among other texts) on the imperatives, heartbreak, and need for perspective in facing the horrors of war.
Stephen McKersie, director of the Marin Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus, describes his three favorite sections of the work, which is titled Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us peace):
The second work of Vaughan Williams on the program has its soaring moments too, but the range of emotion is vast, being a choral setting of several poems of Walt Whitman (among other texts) on the imperatives, heartbreak, and need for perspective in facing the horrors of war. Stephen McKersie, director of the Marin Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus, describes his three favorite sections of the work, which is titled Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us peace):
I think one of the most spectacular movements is the second, "Beat, beat drums," which really goes into the carnage and horrors of war. "Reconciliation," too, which is the third movement, contains one of my favorite lines in the whole piece [see illustration below]. And the way it is interpreted musically is so absolutely gorgeous — it's a three-minute section that just floats. The other section I really like is the "Dirge for two veterans," which Vaughan Williams wrote 26 years before he finished the piece, when he was a younger composer. And the last movement, this really huge choral fantasy that ends up with total exhilaration.
Whitman and Vaughan Williams both saw the carnage of war up front and personal: Each tended the wounded — Whitman as a hospital orderly in the Civil War, Vaughan Williams as an ambulance driver in World War I.
Vaughan Williams wrote Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936, as storm clouds were threatening Europe with further calamity, in view of the rise of Fascism. Tragically, the warmongers were immune to artistic pleas from any quarter. Finishing up the Marin Symphony evening, after intermission, will be a welcome contrast to the intense first half: Bizet's Symphony in C, written as a student exercise when the composer was only 17, but lying buried and unplayed in the Paris Conservatory archives until it was rediscovered in 1935. Music Director Alasdair Neale summarizes the components of the contrasting halves of the program with an apt metaphor:
All three are wonderful pieces; they just show different sides of the face of classical music. The first half is a mixture of inspired contemplation and then a really deeply felt work, the Dona Nobis Pacem. The second half is just like a champagne cork popping for 30 minutes.More »
What Amirkhanian does is put together a new-music gallimaufry. He scours the planet for "other" musical minds of widely divergent stripes. He cajoles them into coming to the Bay Area to be kidnapped off to the Djerassi retreat above Woodside, where they are encouraged to mind-meld or otherwise mutually exchange their intimate experiences in the musical arts. He brings them back to San Francisco to batten off the fruits of these employments in the three-day festival, and then watches as the excitement rubs off on attendees. As he puts it,
A lot of the composers are chosen because of their ability to speak about their music and their openness to other people that they might not have met and maybe have never heard of. I've found that, in going to music festivals all over the world, there's a lot of competition and a lot of difficulty that arises in fighting over rehearsal time and all sorts of jockeying that goes on, and I think that what we've been able to do — with the private residence where these people essentially arrive at San Francisco Airport and are thrust onto this 700-acre island of mountains and sculptures — is get people to bond together and feel like a team.
When they go into the city and do the performances, everybody's pulling for everybody else, and there's a great feeling in the panel discussions. People who have been talking [together] all week can tell little anecdotes about each other that inform the audience in a way that you can't do just cold.
Stimulating VarietyAmong the unusual "finds" that attendees can expect, according to Amirkhanian, are:
- Pieces of eight: Music for eight — count 'em! — cellos by Arvo Pärt and Maruicio Kagel. Amirkhanian says they have "a kind of spiritual impact and solidity to them that is just riveting."
- Potboiler whistlings: Cambodian composer Chinary Ung's threnody to the victims of Pol Pot's genocidal policies makes the Del Sol Quartet literally whistle while they work at the music. Ung received his first musical experiences from the sounds of banana leaves, so there's no telling what experiences he may plant in the ears of concertgoers.
- Exotic gems: Dobromiła Jaskot's pieces — "Just a jewel of a composition," says Amirkhanian about one of them by the 27-year-old Polish composer. "It's completely unknown in the United States, and so is she."
- "Wrong" songs: For voice and guitar, by another unfamiliar composer, Brazilian Chico Mello (pronounced "MELL-you"). "They sound like mellow, Brazilian jazz songs," Amirkhanian explains. "But there's something wrong with each one of them, and it's so funny to hear how he moves from something that's very tame to something that just doesn't sound quite right, and he does it with real tongue-in-cheek. I think he's going to be a surprise hit."
- Page-turner workouts: "Michael Harrison is kind of a cross between LaMont Young and Terry Riley. His piece uses arpeggios on [a specially tuned and dampened] piano running up and down, up and down, in different tempi, different meters, while a string quartet is playing chorale figures behind him. There are more notes per page than in John Adams. In rehearsal, we just died laughing because we couldn't turn pages fast enough!"
- World premieres: By "microtonal legend" Ben Johnston, by the "enigmatic and intimately expressive" Catherine Lamb, by the "tension, yearning, and sadness"–evoking Linda Catlin Smith, and by arpeggio fanatic Harrison.
Two works on last Wednesday’s San Francisco Symphony program; two different conductors with the same name. Kurt Masur 1 nicely portrayed the manifold strengths of Sofia Gubaidulina’s composition The Light of the End, which he premiered with the Boston Symphony in 2003. Then Kurt Masur 2 came out after intermission and cruelly exposed all the flaws of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, yet few of the virtues.