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Music News

December 21, 2010

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

Peeking Into the New Year, Briefly

When looking at the hundreds of symphony, opera, chamber music, and dance performances coming to the Bay Area during the first half of 2011, there has to be some touchstone to narrow choices. And so the focus here is on offerings by some of the small- and medium-size organizations.

Music With Your Morning Coffee

San Francisco Performances' long-running series of Saturday morning concerts opens the year with a program of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. The last century's two greatest Hungarian composers will be represented by their first string quartets. As usual in this series, musicologist Robert Greenberg will introduce the works, to be performed by the Alexander String Quartet. Greenberg's lectures are informative, entertaining, and often hilarious. The quartet — Zakarias Grafilo (violin), Frederick Lifsitz (violin), Paul Yarbrough (viola), and Sandy Wilson (cello) — is among the very best.

Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 10 a.m. Jan. 15., $25-$46, (415) 392-2545,

Lang Lang in Montalvo Series

Montalvo Arts Center's intimate chamber-music series is hitting the big time with the engagement of Lang Lang. At 28, the Chinese pianist has two decades of performances and fame under the belt, and he is said to have influenced 40 million children in his country to learn classical piano. He is on Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" list, no less. Lang Lang's program includes Bach's Partita No. 1, Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major, and Chopin's Twelve Etudes, Op. 25.

California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23, $55-$100, (408) 286-2600,

Miró Quartet at the Mansion

In the Tudor splendor of Kohl Mansion — where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks filmed Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921 — the Miró Quartet is giving a concert. Formed at Oberlin Conservatory 15 years ago, the still-youthful foursome will present quartets by Schubert and Beethoven, including the latter's Great Fugue, Op. 133. Mansion amenities include a preconcert lecture and a postconcert reception with the artists.

Kohl Mansion, 2750 Adeline Dr., Burlingame; 7 p.m. Jan. 23. $15-$45. (650) 762-1130,

Left Coast 'Root Causes'

The always adventurous Left Coast Chamber Ensemble opens the year with a concert titled "Root Causes." The program fuses a variety of cultures: a Czech, folk-music inspired trio by Antonin Dvořák; a jazz-influenced work by contemporary composer John Musto; a Yom Kippur melody Abodah by Ernest Bloch, and Four Remixes for Piano Trio. The last is a world premiere of arrangements of popular songs by Left Coast's founding artistic director Kurt Rohde, including the music of the Beatles, the B52s, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell.

Green Room, Veterans War Memorial, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.; 8 p.m. Jan. 24. $15-$20. 415 (642-8054),

Dancers and Veterans say 'The UnSayable'

Hope Mohr Dance is opening its fourth home season with its own unusual world premiere and a new work from New York's Liz Gerring Dance Company. Mohr is the choreographer for "The Unsayable," a performance project bringing together war veterans and professional dancers to explore personal stories through movement and text. The approach was developed by Mohr in 2008, when she was working on Under the Skin with cancer patients. Gerring's work, yet unnamed, concentrates on the creation of images abstracted from everyday life.

Z [email protected] Artaud, 450 Florida St., S.F., March 3-6, $18-$25, (800) 838-3006,

Flicka's Farewell

Few names resonate in the world of classical music like "Flicka," the nickname of mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra feature the beloved singer, champion of all good causes, giving an endless series of benefit concerts, in what is likely to be the finale to a remarkable 40-year career. She performs the U.S. premiere of Into the Bright Lights, with music by Nathaniel Stookey and lyrics from her own poetry, about singing and aging.

Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 8 p.m., March 4, $30-$90, (415) 392-4400,

ODC Celebrates Season #40

ODC/Dance choreographers Brenda Way, KT Nelson, and Kimi Okada are all presenting world premieres for the company's 40th season. Started at Oberlin, the now thoroughly San Francisco company will have a fascinating nine-performance home stand of three programs in the spring. Way's new work is Speaking Volumes: Architecture of Light II, with music by Jay Cloidt. Nelson's contribution, a collaboration with movement artist Shinichi Iova-Koga, is Listening Last. Okada is represented by a work about the humorous and often awkward attempts at cross-cultural understanding.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F., March 11-27, $10-$60, (415) 978-2787,

Philharmonia Inaugurates Chamber Series

Nicholas McGegan's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is branching out into a chamber music series, beginning in January. The dates are Jan. 23, March 13, and May 22; all 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. The venue is the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's 400-seat Concert Hall, and the inflation-fighting tickets — from City Box Office — range from $25 to $30.

Calling the new series a natural outgrowth of the Philharmonia's current work, McGegan says:

So much of the wonderful music composed in the baroque and classical periods was written for chamber groups, and the Philharmonia Baroque experience has also always been about creating an intimate musical experience for our audience and musicians.

This series will allow listeners to enjoy a range of experiences — from Vivaldi trios to Mozart lieder — and appreciate even more in these smaller ensembles the virtuosity that each of our musicians brings to the performance.

The January concert, "Viva Vivaldi!," features violinists Cynthia Miller Freivogel and Carla Moore, cellist William Skeen, David Tayler on archlute and Baroque guitar, and Hanneke van Proosdij playing recorder and harpsichord. The program includes the Trio Sonata in G minor, Op. 1, No. 1, Cello Sonata in A minor, and Sonata VI in G minor, Il Pastor fido.

Frederica von Stade takes the Conservatory stage for "Flicka with Mozart" in March. Accompanied by McGegan at the fortepiano, she will sing Mozart lieder, including Oiseaux, si tous les Ans and Dans un Bois solitaire. The program also includes Mozart's String Quintets No. 2 in C Major, K. 515 and No. 3 in G Minor, K. 516, performed by violinists Lisa Weiss and Katherine Kyme, violists Elizabeth Blumenstock and David Daniel Bowes, and cellist William Skeen.

The Chamber Music Series closes on May 22 with rarely performed quartets by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773) and Telemann, with Skeen, Weiss, Kyme, flutist Stephen Schultz, and harpsichordist Charles Sherman. The three Quantz quartets on the program went unheard since their composition in the 18th century until their recent restoration by flutist and musicologist Mary Oleskiewicz.

Domingo's Possible Hungarian Adventure

I have the evidence, but still find the news difficult to believe: Plácido Domingo said during a visit to Budapest on Sunday that he is planning to conduct Erkel's Bánk Bán with Los Angeles Opera next season, sponsored by the Hungarian government. (That would be the one dealing with one of Europe's worst recessions, somewhere south of Greece and Ireland.)

A few immediate questions:

- Staged or concert version?

- Will this be the 150-year-old work's North American premiere by a major opera company?

- Did Domingo forget what happened with Arshak II in San Francisco? Granted Bánk Bán is a musically-dramatically superior work to the Armenian opera, but still ...

- Is it feasible — or even possible — to assemble the promised "international cast" to sing the opera in Hungarian for two performances?

One thing that's fairly certain: With the unusually short run of two performances, L.A.'s dwindling but still large Hungarian population and those around the country devoted to attending opera rara will ensure full houses.

It will still be a problem for the deficit-ridden company, and there is a telling paragraph in the article about "representative of the organizing Megakoncert being unable to give specific answers about financial support, although saying that this will be not more costly than the average opera production." At any rate: Good luck.

Ethnic Dance Auditions, Palace Closure

Both auditions for and performances of the 2011 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival will have different venues from the traditional Palace of Fine Arts location.

The reason: The Palace will be closed for renovation.

Auditions are being held Jan. 8-9 and 15-16 in Zellerbach Hall, at UC Berkeley. More than 100 companies are expected to participate.

For audition rules and procedures, see the festival Web site.

Admission to the auditions is only $10 a day.

The 33rd annual festival itself will be held at the Yerba Buena Art Center, June 3–July 3.

Schola Adventus Opens Concert Series

"Music from the English Renaissance" is the first of Schola Adventus' 2011 Third Sunday Concert Series on Jan. 16, in Church of the Advent of Christ the King, on Fell Street, near the San Francisco Civic Center.

Conducted by Paul M. Ellison, the concert will feature the music of Robert Parsons, William Byrd, John Sheppard, and Thomas Tallis. It is a benefit for Les Petits Chanteurs, the boys choir of an Episcopal school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The school was destroyed along with Holy Trinity Cathedral in the earthquake a year ago, costing four singers their lives.

Inmates in Charge of the Asylum?

Much has been written about the recent announcement of soprano Renée Fleming being named to a major administrative position with Chicago Lyric Opera. She will be a vice president of the company and carry the newly minted title of "creative consultant." When some tongues started wagging on the Web, questioning how a singer could become an administrator with an opera company, Music News put on its thinking cap.

Right in this neighborhood, chorus director Kurt Herbert Adler headed the San Francisco Opera for decades. The current intendant is former baritone David Gockley. Mezzo Irene Dalis founded and ran Opera San José until her recent car accident and injury, which forced her, at age 85, to turn administration over to General Manager Larry Hancock.

In Walnut Creek, Festival Opera was headed for years by another mezzo, Olivia Stapp. Internationally, here is a partial list of singers-turned-bosses from Philadelphia music critic David Shengold:

Eberhard Wächter ran the Vienna Volksoper and then the Vienna State Opera briefly, until his death in 1992. Kirsten Flagstad headed the Norwegian Opera. The Royal Swedish Opera was led by John Forsell, then Set Svanholm and currently by Birgitta Svenden.

Brigitte Fassbaender is director of the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck. Wilhelm Rode ran Deutsche Oper Berlin, then called the Deutsches Opernhaus. Eva Randova led the Prague State Opera; Ivo Zidek the Czech National Theater.

Elisabeth Soederstroem was in charge of the Drottningholm Palace Theatre, Joseph Rogatchewsky ran the Theatre de la Monnaie, and Lucien Muratore headed Opera Comique.

Let us not forget Jorma Hynninen running the Finnish National Opera, and soprano Makvala Kasrashvili leading the Bolshoi Opera ... and so on.

Saints and Gridlock on Vallejo Program

Craig Bohmler's Saints is featured on the Vallejo Symphony's next concert, Jan. 8, in Hogan Auditorium, conducted by David Ramadanoff. Commissioned by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and Barbara Day Turner, Saints is a cycle of five songs about varieties of faith — shaken, shifting, faith discovered, and faith destroyed.

The cycle was written for Layna Chianakas, who will perform the work in Vallejo. "Craig and I have been close friends for 15 years," says Chianakas, "and he has written four works for me. His music is passionate, challenging, excruciatingly beautiful, and perfect to sing." The music was composed shortly after 9/11.

Also on the program: Gridlock by Dan Becker, written in 1994, a work for 10 instruments. The concert's major component is the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings.

Santa Rosa Concerto Competition Winners

Of 13 participants, four emerged as winners in Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra's Concerto Competition.

The young musicians, who will be featured as soloists in upcoming Youth Orchestra concerts in 2011:

  • Violist Scotland Bonnie, 17, to solo in May
  • Flutist Hannah Dyslin, 16, March
  • Violinist Kirsten Skabelund, 17, March
  • Flutist Marissa Zieminski, 17, May

Zieminski, who played the Flute Concerto in D by Reinecke, is the winner for the third consecutive year in this competition.

For violinist Skabelund, it was her second consecutive win.

Whitacre's Global Choral Project

Eric Whitacre, who may or may not be a familiar name, is now commercially the most successful choral composer in history (considering that Handel has not collected royalties for quite some time), and he is now going for something even bigger.

Whitacre's song Sleep, to text by Charles Anthony Silvestri, and variations on it will be performed by a worldwide online chorus. Anyone can join by submitting a video.

The choir is open to anyone who submits a video by Dec. 31 to the Virtual Chorus Web site. Information is there to register, and to take part.

Whitacre will play clips at a Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference in Palm Springs in February, and the finished audio track will be available online sometime in April, with an audio-visual track following later. Earlier this year, reports The Financial Times, Whitacre did a pilot version of the online choir. A group of 185 singers from 12 countries, most of them professionals, performed Lux Aurumque, another of his a cappella works. The resulting video attracted more than one million viewers in 60 days. On the back of that phenomenon Whitacre signed a recording deal with Decca and launched a second, much larger virtual choir project, devoted to Sleep. The composer is described in these terms:

Whitacre's success stems not just from his technological savvy, but an ability to create music that spans the classical and pop markets. Few of his pieces last longer than five minutes. They are neatly crafted and soothingly harmonised. If you listen to them one after the other, as his new Decca album Light and Gold invites us to do, you can’t help noticing a dreamy sameness. But choirs love Whitacre’s music because it is graceful to sing. Nonclassical buffs warm to its simplicity, its mood of spiritual calm and the quiet euphoria it induces.

If the music is tailormade for a mass market, so is its composer. Whitacre, 40, has the looks of a rock star and the charisma of an evangelist. He was born and brought up in Gardnerville, a small town in Nevada, and did not study music until he was 18. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the soprano Hila Plitmann, and their 5-year-old son, but Whitacre says that a permanent move to the UK is possible. Decca has already set up a UK-based professional choir exclusively to record and perform his works.

Rattle Interview on Charlie Rose

Simon Rattle made his third appearance on the Charlie Rose Show last week, and the conductor was in his usual candid (but always positive) mode, talking about the Met Orchestra, his new recordings, and the inside view of music-making.

The interview is available on streaming video, and there is also a transcript on line (click on "Transcript").

Machine transcription has its quirks, such as "Statscopela" for the Dresden Staatskapelle, and "Beirut" for Bayreuth. About the first-names-only reference: "Carlo" is Giulini and "Bernard" is Haitink.

SFS Takes Mahler Back to Vienna

The season's double Mahler anniversary — 150 years after his birth in 1860 and 100 years since his death in 1911 — will be well observed at the 2011 Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival) in May and June.

The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Daniel Harding, will offer the Mahler Symphony No. 4; Jonathan Nott's Bamberger Symphoniker the Symphony No. 7; the Vienna Symphony and Fabio Luisi the Symphony No. 3.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will serve as a major component, scheduling Mahler's Symphonies No. 2 (with soprano Laura Claycomb and alto Katarina Karnéus), 6, and 9, plus a concert of the Berg Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff), Cowell, and Beethoven.

Girls + Christmas = a Jolly Good Time for All

The San Francisco Girls Chorus' annual Holiday Concert and Sing-Along is one of the city’s delightful traditions.

Warming up with a 40-voice group at a concert in Lafayette last Friday, the full 300-member choir is getting ready for the big one in Davies Symphony Hall tonight. The title for both: "Tidings of Great Joy."

Just as the 32-year-old chorus is a San Francisco institution, the holiday concert is a perennial celebration of young voices, parents’ pride, alumna nostalgia — an electric environment of artistic excellence and a jolly good time.

Many of the parents are singers themselves, some even veterans of the Girls Chorus, so there is a true family atmosphere at these concerts, especially when alumnae join the chorus onstage. Present and former chorus members come from some 160 schools in 48 Bay Area communities. Parents and children are veterans of concert tours ranging from Asia to the Baltics.

Year after year, the chorus fills the 2,743-seat Davies Hall with programs that run the gamut from traditional carols and sing-alongs to contemporary compositions by Benjamin Britten, David Brunner, Daniel Pinkham, Eleanor Daley and others. This year's concerts include a Brahms Psalm, Michael Haydn’s Magnificat, and other works, in addition to carols and audience sing-alongs.

The organization is also responsible for the commissioning of new works. Such notable composers as Augusta Read Thomas, David Conte, Jake Heggie, Chen Yi, Libby Larsen, Herbert Bielawa and his daughter, Rome Prize-winner Lisa Bielawa (Lowell High School and SFGC alumna) have contributed to the chorus repertory.

Preparations for the holiday concerts start almost a full year ahead, says Elizabeth Avakian, director of the chorus school, and a member of the faculty for 28 years.

Rehearsals begin as early as summer because even the youngest singers are expected to perform the program from memory. Members of the chorus are as young as 6, so memorization of the texts alone takes much work.

"I know I am not the only one in the concert hall who becomes emotional when seeing and hearing these young women singing such beautiful music straight from the heart," says Avakian. Artistic Director Susan McMane conducts the concerts. Guest instrumentalists include a brass quintet, percussionists, and organist Rudy de Vos.

The New 4'33" and Cage's 24 White-Spored Mushrooms

Ta'i chi master and Quantum Soup author Al Chungliang Huang comments on last week's London re-creation of John Cage's 4'33" (Four minutes and 33 seconds') silence with the participation of top British pop musicians, the American rock band Rage Against the Machine's Cage Against the Machine:

Our friend, John, is smiling his broad "dolphin smile" in heaven, I am sure of it. For a year when I was a fellow at The Center of Advanced Studies at the University of Illinois, I managed to get to know John Cage, an associate at the Center, fairly well. Until then, I only knew of John through his association with the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham. With mixed sense of appreciation and boredom, I had personally experienced sitting through hours of his infamous composition, 4'33", written with only rests in the score for the pianist to play in concert halls.

During the year when we were together at the Center, we often shared lunch and on rare occasions when John had gathered enough wild mushrooms to treat his friends at dinner. John knew his mushrooms well — in 1959 while in Milan, he won $8,000 by naming all 24 kinds of white-spore mushrooms correctly on a TV quiz show.

I remember him best that year, sitting next to him during a concert for string quartets competition at the University. John was one of the judges, having to dutifully listen to many of these performances. He was sitting benignly, Zen-Master fashion, when the janitor by mistake suddenly pushed open the door with a jarring squeak. Most of the audience frowned with disdain, but John turned to me, with a twinkle in his eyes, and exclaimed: "What a lovely sound!"

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].