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Kids Around the Bay

April 18, 2013

Music in the Schools Series: Palo Alto High School

April 18, 2013

Palo Alto High School, which opened in 1898, is right across the street from Stanford University; in fact, right across the street from Stanford in every sense. “Paly” is known for its intensely competitive academic schedule and is regularly rated among the top 30 public high schools in the state. The school has around 2,000 students, and both faculty and students say the feel is often like that of a small college.

To be admitted to the school you must live in a certain district of Palo Alto.

The school’s Arts programs have a long tradition and are widely recognized in various circles. The music programs have been particularly noteworthy.

Paly ChoirThe instrumental program begins with a 9th grade band class. A junior high band experience is generally required for admission, but there are exceptions. The fare is light pop, show tunes and some jazz arrangements. This “concert band” performs four times a year. At the next level there’s a symphonic band, an advanced wind and percussion group that draws musicians from 10th through 12th grade. It also offers four concerts a year, and with the concert band performs as a pep band at football games.

In addition, there’s the orchestra, an all-string ensemble that plays a range of classical and new music — from Bach to Britten, and beyond. Occasionally, the symphonic band and the orchestra are joined together for a full orchestra. There are four performances a year.

There’s also a jazz program, which includes a jazz band and jazz ensemble. The band is by audition only and plays a wide variety of contemporary music, including swing, Latin jazz, funk and ballads. The ensemble offers a less intense experience.

And there’s the vocal program, which has an 80-year tradition and a reputation for producing high quality events each year. The Paly choirs are lead by Monica Covitt and Michael Najar. Choirs include a Concert Choir, Madrigal Singers, Spectrum Singers, a Beginning Choir and the Viking Men’s Chorus. Choir members have performed at various state festivals and in a number of honor choirs.

“The difference here,” says Najar, “is that we can expect a level of musicianship among freshman that most public high schools can only dream of. That’s thanks to the Palo Alto Unified School District and a community that really support the arts. We are the beneficiaries of feeder schools that haven’t suffered cuts in music education.”

Najar, who has a music degree from UC Irvine and an MA in vocal performance from Notre Dame De Namur University in Belmont, notes that even with reliable feeder school it’s still a struggle to maintain a high quality music program

“If we didn’t have kids coming out of middle school choirs, I would have to recruit to save my job. I feel sad for my colleagues that don’t have this. But even so we do a lot of outreach. We go out to the middle schools and show the teachers what we offer and what students can expect.

“What we offer is really a highly refined boutique program. We can do very fine, small specific things. And we’re very energetic. We went to sing at the Vatican last year; we’re going to Spain next year. The New York Polyphone (an all-male quarter)just paid a visit. Deeke Sharon came and did a workshop.

Sharon is a well known singer, arranger, and composer, and in the view of some, the “father of contemporary a capella.”

“This is an environment,” says Najar, “where you have teach every student. You can’t weed out people. But by the same token the bar is set very high. You have to bring your 'A-Game' to every class because many of these kids are very sophisticated. And often their parents are musicians. Or they, themselves have played in ensembles. And so we have to be flexible as well and be able to offer talented people opportunities. I had a student who I arranged to work with guest conductors and to go on international tours.”

“And so we’ve built up this incredible faculty, which is distinguished by the fact that they’re not just teachers but program builders. Many similar kinds of schools live or die on the flair or charisma of one particular teacher. It’s what you might think of as Robin William syndrome. But our focus has been on the institution and making all the teachers strong so if any one of us left the program wouldn’t be undermined.”

Paly graduates, which include Joan Baez, have gone on to study music at among other places, Northwestern, The San Francisco Conservatory, Chapman University, Westminster Choir College, Harvard, University of Southern California, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Santa Barbara.

Upcoming events include the Spring Concert on Sunday, April 28 at 4 p.m. The Chamber Concert and Award Ceremony on Thursday, May 16 at 7:30. Click here for more information.

Listen to an audio file of Paly Musicians: Wrestle From Golden State Competition

This is a "simple" early work by Elliot Carter. He stopped composing for choir after 1947 when his musical language became even more sophisticated. I have known it for years but had never sung or conducted it. I don't think it is done by many collegiate groups but I knew we had the horses to do it justice. It poses challenges as singer and conductor but is also incredibly gratifying when it starts to piece together.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.

Anais Azul: Dreams of a Sound Ecologist

April 18, 2013

Anais AzulLast week Anais Azul went to look at the music program at Boston University, where she’s been accepted for college. She’s a 17-year-old senior at Berkeley High and while BU was not her first choice she came away from the visit in a swoon. In a swoon from seeing both the university and Boston, itself: those glorious magnolia trees, the city’s architecture and history; the sheer wealth of resources, and for her, especially, the feeling of a cozy bohemian city. Not overwhelming the way frenetic Manhattan can be, or by the same token as rustic as the hinterlands of New York, at the University of Rochester, another school she looked at, or for that matter, as impersonal and Shanghai-like as she’s come to find downtown San Francisco.

“Definitely the right place for me,” she felt as she took a tour of the campus and the city around it last Saturday morning — not to mention new grand pianos in all the instrument practice rooms, the dazzling technology at your beck, the way you need to swipe a card just to get into the practice rooms, the way you can change the sound settings in a room to give the effect of a cathedral or a night club. You name it. In other schools, you go into the practice rooms and you can always hear others playing, no matter how faintly. But not here. The silence itself said all there was to say.

Privilege was the word that came to mind to describe it all.

And on that morning, last Saturday, before returning to the Bay Area, the end point on her tour was the plaza downtown where she was able to see the activity involved in readying the finish line for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.

“It was very scary to hear news of the bombings,” Azul told us earlier this week. “But it hasn’t deterred me. I’m still going to move. After all, that could happen anywhere. It’s hard to prevent those kinds of attacks; now there will probably be even more security.”

Azul, who is set upon a music career, has an interesting biography, and one that may serve as preparation to live in post ‘415’ Boston.

She was born in Lima, Peru in 1995, to parents who are both relatively well known local visual artists and poets: Susana Aragon and Adrian Arias. Arias is a multimedia coordinator at the Mission Culture Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.

Azul was four when the family moved to Berkeley, and so began her journey to the arts. “Some of my best memories growing up were going around with my parents as they went to poetry readings or recitals in North Beach or in the Mission. I remember falling asleep in art galleries and listening to people with crazy new ideas. Someone once said to me, ‘once you meet normal people, you’ll change.’ But for me ‘strangeness’ is normal. It’s among ‘strange’ people that I feel most comfortable. That’s where I find newness. I think if you want to be an artist, and if you want to be a visionary, which I would like to be one day, then you’re always looking for experiences that are new and original.”

Azul attended the Longfellow Middle School before going to Berkeley High. She took up piano in 2009, and then a year and a half later began writing music, deeply inspired by Karen Wells, the orchestra director at Berkeley High. Last summer Azul took a workshop at the John Adams Young Composers Program at the Crowden Music Center in Berkeley and has learned the geography of cellos and clarinets and how to use various software programs.

“That got me listening to sounds in a different way,” she says. “I’m always listening to the world around me: a car zooming down the street, finger nails tapping on a table, the sound of skateboard wheels. Or dry leaves. I love to hear that sound of leaves crackling. I’m always collecting sounds and that’s how I think of musicians — as ‘ecologists of sound’ — always sampling and organizing the chaos of sound. Cleaning things up. And so everything has the potential of being music …”

“Right now I’m writing a piece for a flute, piano, cello, and bass quartet. It’s a very challenging ensemble to write for. When I start something I always start very intuitively and by improvising. In this piece I stumbled into a water theme, and so I went with that, and wrote something based on all kinds of water sounds: a water fall, rain drops, driving rain, water in all its forms …”

“The way I make my music I’m not always thinking of the goal or the overall ‘meaning’. But in this case I will dedicate the piece to the victims and families in the (Newtown) Connecticut shootings. And now after these bombings, which were also dedicated to the victims of Newtown, that’s also affected me. The way I think of it is that water connects us all to each other. It's a basic unit of life, and if this piece has a meaning, it’s not what we hold in common in death but about what we share in life and how to appreciate life.”


 

On Saturday May 18, the Crowden Music Center will present 10 new works by several members of the John Adams Young Composers Program, including a piece by Anais Azul. The performance, which features members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, will begin at 7 p.m. and is free. Composers are aged 10 to 18.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.

About Town: April 19-21

April 18, 2013

April 20-21, Saturday, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and weekends through May 5 at Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley: Bay Area Children’s Theater presents Knuffle Bunny, A Cautionary Musical. This is a musical version of Mo Willem’s now-classic story. Trixie, her stuffed animal, and her dad make a trip to the laundromat, where keeping track of Trixie is the main difficulty. The book and lyrics are by Willems himself, and the show is suitable for all ages. Also showing May 11-19 in San Ramon.

Opera for FamiliesApril 19, Friday, 6:30 p.m., at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center: “Imagining Nonviolence” with SambaDà and Cosmos Percussion Orchestra. SambaDà is the enlivening band from Santa Cruz that specializes in a vast array of Brazilian dance and musical styles. The Cosmos Percussion Orchestra is five master musicians playing more than 40 percussion instruments, in a variety of music from all over the world. Their joint concert is a benefit in support of a new nonviolence program. The evening includes workshops and a wonderful hands-on art project.

April 20, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at The Contemporary Jewish Museum: Teen Battle of the Bands, San Francisco’s showcase of local teen talent. Be there as local teen performers and bands bring their best to battle for cash prizes. Your votes determine the outcome so come early, stay late and cheer loudly. Doors open at 7 p.m. Interested in performing at Battle of the Bands? There are a few spots left for acts of 1-2 people. All musical genres welcome! For an application, contact Abby Cutler [email protected] or (415) 292-1261.

April 21, Sunday, 1:00-2:15 p.m. Addison-Penzak JCC of Silicon Valley, Los Altos: Opera for Families. Here’s a one hour movie version of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, an operatic, action-filled Western in a production from San Francisco Opera. It’s a pretty easy way to introduce children to opera. Recommended for ages 8 and up. Also shows April 27 at the Oshman JCC in Palo Alto (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

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.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.