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Music News

February 1, 2011

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

New Century at New Meridian

Never given to understatement, when Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg introduces her New Century Chamber Orchestra as "the best string orchestra in the country," you may be excused if smiling benignly.

But guess what? After Saturday's Herbst Theatre "tour kick-off concert," you see the veracity of the violinist's bold statement, especially as Kremerata Baltica is located, well, in the Baltics and not in this country, unfortunately.

Since the New Century's quivering volcano of a music director minced no words, let me do likewise: This was one of the most enjoyable, fun concerts in a long time, strings or otherwise.

Consider the variety and attraction of the program:

  • Wolf, Italian Serenade
  • Bartók, Romanian Folk Dances
  • Piazzolla, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
  • Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings in C Major
The encores: excerpt from Schnittke's Olga (one of the exceedingly rare trifles from the great composer of darkness), and Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" from Porgy & Bess. For string orchestra. Why not?

Speaking of the Kremerata, the New Century's Piazzolla was not only on par with its landmark performance, but provided even more pizzazz, schwung, and hanging 10 all the way. In contrast, the funny, quiet Vivaldi quotes have never been more lovable. Salerno-Sonnenberg played the impossibly demanding solo as if possessed ... which she usually is.

Now, New Century is if by definition an ensemble and it plays like it, but the principal chairs — Dawn Harms, Candace Guirao, Cassandra Lynne Richburg, and demonic cellist Susan Babini — must be acknowledged for giving admirable performances as firsts among equals.

The Bartók was breathtaking, the Wolf brilliant though a tad heavy (not quite Viennese), and the Tchaikovsky more a major ballet performance than merely ice-skaters' joy, which it sounds like at times in lesser hands.

This was definitely the sound of George Balanchine's landmark Serenade, every phrase of music re-creating in the listener's mind those incredible visual representations in dance.

The synaptic linking during the New Century performance was so vivid and specific that one brief phrase — a hopping staccato refrain — in the Tchaikovsky score flashed the image of Serenade dancers advancing toward the audience with open arms, in a peculiarly Russian gesture of welcome.

Instantly, that linked with similar movements and feelings in the Nijinska choreography for the Stravinsky score of Les Noces, and with the audience-embracing gestures in Mark Morris' V (to the Schumann's Piano Quintet in E Flat) that brought most of the audience to tears in Zellerbach Hall, in the emotional turmoil just a few days after 9/11. Ah, the power of music, the audiovisual cross-currents, the impact of a great performance!

I've been listening to NCCO since its creation 19 years ago, and it has always been an outstanding orchestra — under the two young founding musicians (cellist Miriam Perkoff and violist Wieslaw Pogorzelski), later under the leadership of Stuart Canin (in the audience on Saturday), and then with Krista Bennion Feeney — but with Salerno-Sonnenberg, it has reached a new, grand plateau, zenith, meridian ... something very, very high.

Be sure to check the orchestra's tour schedule, and catch "the best string orchestra in the country" in your own neighborhood.

S.F. Opera's Luisotti to Abu Dhabi

Assuming that Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, remains free of the specter of revolution haunting the Arab world, there will be an extravagant classical-music festival in the Emirates Palace in March and April.

In the "galaxy of stars" announced by the festival: San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti, conducting a concert on April 2 that features Yefim Bronfman in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, as well as the Overture to Verdi's La forza del destino and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

On April 4, Luisotti will conduct a program of opera arias and duets, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ekaterina Siurina as soloists.

Luisotti is leading the festival mainstay Russian National Orchestra, whose principal patron is San Francisco's Gordon Getty.

Other artists welcomed to Abu Dhabi ("Father of Gazelle" in Arabic): principal dancers from the Bolshoi, Kirov, and American Ballet Theater, among many others.

There is also news about Mikhail Pletnev, music director of the Russian National Orchestra. Last month, Thailand's State Prosecutor's Office decided not to bring charges against Pletnev, finding no evidence of wrongdoing. The government also announced that Pletnev is free to return to Thailand. The development — not reported fully during the holidays — follows months of accusations of child molestation against Pletnev, who has always maintained his innocence.

Jane Austen's Spelling, Mozart Manuscripts

There has been an international debate recently about Jane Austen's spelling and grammar, both allegedly of poor quality. Music News spared no effort to go to the source and offer her handwritten work in evidence.

That would be from the British Museum, coming to you so you don't have to go to it (though that great new Norman Foster lobby is certainly worth a look).

While you are looking over Ms. Austen's scribblings, you will also have the pleasure of reading Mozart's musical diary, the Lisbon Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an, Emperor Iyasu's Bible from Ethiopia, the Diamond Sutra from 868 (believed to be world's oldest book), sketches by Leonardo, Mercator's 1570 Atlas of Europe, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the original Alice (written and illustrated by Lewis Carroll), and William Blake's notebook. 

Tempted? Go to the online gallery, follow the first-time login procedure (even if you have a BM library card, which incidentally I still do, even in far-away San Francisco), allow downloading and installation of Adobe Shockwave (but don't bother with the Norton scanner offered, relying instead on your own antivirus software) — and start looking and saying, "Ahhhhhh!"

Note also, at the lower right of the screen, tools for magnifying, for "text" for printing out manuscripts, and for audio (which allows listening to the text, or, in the case of the Mozart manuscripts, to the music, from K. 459 through K. 623).

You're welcome.

Another Online Treasure

The Library of Congress has received the largest audiovisual gift ever given to a library, Universal Studios' more than 200,000 master recordings from the 1920s-1940s. The rare music will be made available to the public over the Web.

You can start now at the Recorded Sound Reference Center, though cataloguing the Universal collection will take time.

The donated material is Universal's in-house collection. It includes such master copies as Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" in 1947, and Les Paul doing the "Guitar Boogie." The master recordings currently reside on metal and lacquer discs, with some on mono tape, and they feature material that was never released, from such artists as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.

The Library's Recorded Sound Section currently has around three million items, now boosted with Universal's 200,000.

Music of Asia Greets Chinese New Year

The Bay Area is always at the confluence many diverse cultures, but February — as the Year of the Rabbit begins on Thursday — is, coincidentally, an especially rich time for Asian music here.

This is so even as preparations are in high gear for the 32nd Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, April 8-17, and the 32nd Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in June.

Pan-Asian Festival

Stanford's Pan-Asian Music Festival, Feb. 2-14, this year has the theme of "From the Steppes," featuring singers, musicians, composers, dancers, and poets from Iran, Tibet, and Central Asia. Participation from North America includes the New Pacific Trio, the New Spectrum Ensemble, and Ballet Afsaneh.

Jindong Cai, founder and artistic director of the seven-year-old Stanford festival, calls attention to the variety of art from Mongolia, ranging from such traditional media as throat-singing and virtuoso horse-head fiddle playing to ethno-jazz fusion and Mongolian hip-hop. There is also an exhibition of contemporary Mongolian paintings and installations.

"Elsewhere in Central Asia," says Cai, "in Uzbekistan or Pakistan, the music is closer to Western music; they use the major and minor scales. Mongolian music is closer to the East. It uses a pentatonic scale, and has similarities to Chinese music."

The festival includes a return performance of Iran's multitalented and controversial musician Mohsen Namjoo, celebrating the release of his new album, Useless Kisses.

[Feb. 2-14, Stanford University, Palo Alto; $5-$20; (650) 725-2787,]

Celebrating Contemporary Mongolia

In collaboration with Stanford, UC Berkeley is holding a daylong "Celebration of Arts and Culture in Contemporary Mongolia," in the International House.

Meetings, symposia, performances, and exhibits culminate in a traditional Mongolian dinner and a concert.

Music plays a special role in the lives of the nomadic Mongolian people, bringing communities together, with music shared on the move and as people gather in camp. There are even songs to soothe the animals upon which all depends.

[1-9:30 p.m., Feb. 2, International House, 2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley; free, $10 for dinner; (510) 643-6492,]

Persian Music and Dance

The Afsaneh Art and Culture Society, which participates in the Stanford festival, also presents "Jashne Zamin: Celebration of Planet Earth," performances of Persian dance and music, both traditional and contemporary. The event is offered in cooperation with the Zaryab Ensemble.

[8 p.m., Feb. 5, Sacramento State University, Sacramento; $15 to $20; (415) 488-0944,]

See the next item for more of same, and look forward to gamelan and wayang at the opening of the Asian Art Museum's Bali exhibit on Feb. 25, with a symposium the next day with Topeng (masked dance) and music experts John Emigh and Michael Tenzer.

Varieties of Ethnic Music Calendars

Before getting to the news of Oakland East Bay Symphony's upcoming celebration of the Persian new year (variously called Nowruz, Naruz, or Norooz), let us consider various phases of the moon and sun.

What's coming this Thursday is the Chinese New Year, but without a monopoly of one people over it.

Along with the Chinese, marking the same lunar calendar point are the Koreans (Seolnal), the Vietnamese (Tet), the Tibetans (Losar), the Mongolians (Tsagaan Sar), and the Japanese (before the 20th century), as well as others in Asia.

But there are many exceptions in Asia, including the Thai, Lao and Cambodians (Songkran, in April), Sinhala and Tamil, and the Deccans of India (Ugadi and Gudi Padwa, March–April).

And so we come to Iran.

The Persians' 2570 begins on March 21 this year. The OEBS concert will come just ahead of it, on March 18. Nowruz marks the first day of spring, and it's celebrated — conveniently — on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox.

What will Michael Morgan's band do on the occasion? Why, it's the Beethoven Triple Concerto, of course. Really. With Tara Kamangar (piano), Cyrus Beroukhim (violin), and Arash Amini (cello).

Kamangar is San Francisco–born, London-based, but — fortuitously — from an Iranian family, as are the other musicians.

Then the more strictly Iranian program begins, with works by composers Behzad Ranjbaran and Ahmad Pejman.

Ranjbaran, whose works have been performed by Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and others, offers "Seemorgh" from his Persian Trilogy, a lush, three-movement work based on a colorful story from the Shahnameh, or "The Book of Kings."

Pejman's piece is Selections From Symphonic Sketches, a 1975 work from his days as a violinist with the Teheran Symphony Orchestra. Later, he studied composition at the Music Academy of Vienna. While there, he was commissioned to write the first Persian opera for the opening of the Teheran Opera House. He continued to write music for operas, ballets, symphonic works, and film music.

Departures: John Barry, Milton Babbit

John Barry, British-born composer, who spent 40 years creating film scores — including music for 11 James Bond movies, died in New York at age 77.

Milton Babbit, 94, a composer who was more important through his influence on many than by his own very difficult works receiving infrequent performances, died in Princeton.

Coaching by the Brentano

The Brentano String Quartet will give a public coaching session to local musicians immediately following the quartet's Stanford Lively Arts concert on Feb. 13 in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The public is invited to the master class, scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. in Campbell Recital Hall of the Braun Music Center.

Three or four quartets will be selected, and will be coached for 30 to 40 minutes each. Cost for participating quartet is $100 (payable after being selected), and auditor tickets are $10, but there is no charge for ticket holders to the Brentano String Quartet concert. For information about participation, see the community coaching page.

Oundjian Doing Well in Switch from Bow to Baton

The globe-trotting British-Canadian Peter Oundjian, former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, has been named to succeed Stéphane Denève next year as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Oundjian's conducting career has been steadily rising since starting as principal guest conductor and artistic advisor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Caramoor Festival. He has conducted major orchestras in Europe, including the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR), and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

He has been music director of the Toronto Symphony since 2004, a post he will retain in parallel with the RSNO directorship.


My choir - International Orange Chorale - sang Milton Babbitt's "Music for the Mass" on Sunday in San Francisco for an audience of about 100 people as part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music series. We dedicated the performance to Babbitt's memory. It is an amazing piece (rigorously contrapuntal, but with some searingly beautiful melodies), and it was an honor to sing. The work is not really representative of his later compositions (he wrote it in the 1940s), and is one of his pieces that is definitely quite accessible to audiences.

It may be a gesture coming from the bread-and-salt tradition, an old Russian folk custom. In ancient times, when the emperor and empress paid a visit to a village, merchants and gentry would present their esteemed guests with a round loaf of bread piled with salt, a sign of hospitality.

Peasants were honored using a similar ceremony upon being introduced to the village with their new spouse, with the gift of bread and salt, signifying that the new couple would always have the necessities of life. When given at housewarmings, therefore, bread and salt represented the giver’s wish that the recipient’s pantry will always be full. (Sugar, on the other hand, symbolizes the hope for a sweet life.)