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A Fall Music Guide

September 19, 2017

Only a fanatic could make most, or even half, of the worthwhile Bay Area music events this fall. But here are a few of the season’s big events, mixed with a couple of performances you may have overlooked.

Oct. 1

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard told Opera America in a conversation last year that she likes to break the fourth wall in her recitals, by talking to the audience, interspersing song with story. Coming from a musical-theater background, she’s also the perfect person to inhabit the world of centenarian Leonard Bernstein’s songs from across his career. Even if you don’t like song recitals, get tickets to this one, at San Francisco Performances.

Oct. 4-8

SFCV has already run an extensive preview on Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s first concert, which features a new, commissioned oratorio, Sally Beamish’s The Passion According to Judas. But it still rates a mention as the most interesting early/ contemporary music concert this year.

Oct. 5

Bassist Christian McBride devotes one of his early-October sets at SFJAZZ to bringing a diverse group of string players together to play Dvořák’s String Quintet No.2 in G Major, Op. 77, and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. The players are Ian Swensen, the Isaac Stern Chair of Violin at San Francisco Conservatory; Evan Price, violinist with the Hot Club of San Francisco and Turtle Island Quartet; Carla Maria Rodrigues, Principal Violist of the SF Opera Orchestra; cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, founding member of the Cypress String Quartet, and Grammy-nominated pianist Robert Koenig. If chamber music is a meeting of minds, this will be one of the season’s livelier conversations.

Oct. 7

The Elevate Ensemble puts together a fascinating show based on Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the Hume Theater, at the S.F. Conservatory. The centerpiece is the world premiere of composer-in-residence Julia Barwick’s Thirty-Three Years, which takes up the story 33 years later. Christopher Cerrone’s Recovering “freezes a moment from the Stravinsky to create something new and wonderful,” and Gordon Stout’s Astral Dance completes the evening on a mystical note.

Oct. 8

The Steinway Society pulls another Cliburn Competition winner into the Bay Area: this time it’s Yekwon Sunwoo, the 2017 gold medalist. Even if you’re not into awards, you may want to see this highly praised gent, who’s pulling out all the stops in his performance at the McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center in Saratoga. Featured are two big sonatas, by Schubert and Rachmaninoff, Ravel’s La Valse, and a curious Percy Grainger rarity, “Ramble on the last Love-duet” from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Oct. 13–15

Yes, the Chicago Symphony’s residency at Cal Performances, with Music Director Riccardo Muti, will feature the well-trod paths of the Austro-German symphonic masterpieces that you can hear at the S.F. Symphony all the time, but don’t pretend you won’t show up on that account. This is a great orchestra with one of the most respected living conductors at the helm. They’ll play the heck out of this music.

Oct. 19–21

Conductor Krzysztof Urbański spends two weeks with the S.F. Symphony and brings two, meaty 20th-century masterworks with him. On the first set, it’s Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony; on this concert, it’s Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Based on Polish folk tunes of the Kurpie region, Lutoslawski melds this material to a range of modernist ideas, which got past the Communist censors because of the folk music base. On the same program, Sol Gabetta plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

Oct. 26

New music geeks rejoice: Soprano Dawn Upshaw and her long-time musical partner Gilbert Kalish are teaming up with So Percussion in a recital that brings a new work by Pulitzer-Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Narrow Sea, and George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny (2004, Part IV of American Songbook), which Peter Sellars staged at the Ojai Festival back in 2011, with Upshaw performing. So Percussion add Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings.

Oct. 31

If your Halloween doesn’t involve shepherding kids in a quest to collect and eat insane amounts of candy, you may want to grab a seat to the screening of Dracula at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, produced by SFJAZZ, with the Philip Glass score performed by live by the composer and the Kronos Quartet. This is Glass at his most overtly Romantic.

Nov. 3

Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra offer two works commemorating the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in California during World War II. GO FOR BROKE! honors the courageous Nisei (second generation Japanese in America) soldiers who fought in WWII while their families were imprisoned, and EO9066: Truth Be Told focuses on the internment experience. The concert is produced by San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music as part of the Presidio Sessions series.

Nov. 4-5

The Mariinsky Orchestra takes up residence with their mercurial (and admittedly, sometimes underwhelming) maestro, Valery Gergiev, at Cal Performances. The chance to hear them play Russian repertoire is unmissable, but the programming choices here are particularly adventurous and intriguing: Scriabin’s monumental The Divine Poem, Rodion Schedrin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Denis Matsuev as soloist, Prokofiev’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, neither of them particularly loved by the Soviet authorities of the time. If it all comes off as expected, it will be a brilliant residency.

Nov. 4–5, 11

Kurt Rohde is one of the Bay Area’s better composers and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (winner, once again, of an SFCV Best of the Bay award) is bringing back his opera Death With Interruptions, in San Francisco at Z Space and a week later at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. The tale of what happens when Death falls in love with a cellist, based on José Saramago’s novel, is paired with a new Rohde work, Never was a knight …, based on Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Nov. 9

Not many musicians can say they are thorough masters of the French Baroque, but William Christie is one of them and the group he founded, Les Arts Florissants, made its bones with fantastically detailed performances of works like Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon. In their appearance at Cal Performances, they pair this one-act pastoral with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, an opera which Christie has taken on as honorarily French in spirit.

Nov. 11

There are half-a-dozen recommendable events every month at S.F. Conservatory, especially during their 2017 centennial year. But the one we’re highlighting is unusual in its rarity. The performance is a special presentation by the Historical Performance department with the participation of the musical theater ensemble called Theatre Comique. It’s a concert of operetta and musical comedy by Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern. Members of the voice department join alums Brian Thorsett, Katherine Growden, and Erica Schuller and the SFCM orchestra under Corey Jamason. It’s going to be very good, Eddie.

Nov. 15–19

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet brings back one of the choreographer’s signal triumphs this year, his collaboration with vocalist Lisa Fischer titled The Propelled Heart. Fischer’s classic soul and spiritual performances pair with King’s physically challenging piece “about love in many permutations.” As SFCV dance writer Janice Berman wrote in 2015, “ Throughout its taxing requirements,” the Lines dancers attain – if it isn’t too trivializing to say so — rock star status.”

Nov. 17–19

There haven’t been a huge number of local events marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, so you’re forgiven if you haven’t noted it. But USC’s resident early music ensemble, Ciaramella, comes up the coast, courtesy of S.F. Early Music Society, to deliver a program of German music in and around 1517.

Nov. 17–19

The Joffrey Ballet is a must-see when they visit the Bay Area. And in a Berkeley appearance, it’s bringing a Cal Performances co-commission this time, Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s Joy. Justin Peck, resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, sets his In Creases to a live Philip Glass score, while Annabelle Lopez Ochoa contributes Mammatus.

Nov. 21–Dec. 10

John Adams has created at least one opera with a legitimate chance to become part of the permanent international repertory. With Girls of the Golden West, his latest collaboration with director Peter Sellars, which premieres at San Francisco Opera on Nov. 21, he is provocatively pushing against the repertory, creating an opera that rewrites the mythology of the Old West and the California Gold Rush, using primary documents instead of melodramatic formulas. Whether it’s a clear winner or not, this will be one of the most discussed events this season.

Dec. 2

Flutist Claire Chase, founder of the new music heavyweight International Contemporary Ensemble, brings an evening of contemporary music for flute to Cal Performances. Riffing off of Edgard Varese’s epochal Density 21.5 (1936), Chase is commissioning 22 works leading up to the centenary anniversary of the piece. So far, there are entries from Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Du Yun, Matthias Pintscher, Alvin Lucier, and many more. It’s a galaxy of compositional talent that probably only Chase could convene.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.