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Music News

February 28, 2012

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Music in Old-Timey Frisco

Color lithograph cover for Harry Armstrong's 1909 hit tune Collect yourself, Gentle Reader, when confronted by the forbidden nickname. Consider that wherever you look at James M. Keller’s instructive and charmingly retro exhibit, Singing the Golden State, it’s “Frisco” here and “Frisco” there, with only an occasional instance of the city’s name spelled out.

Ask Keller — prominent musicologist and program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and other orchestras — why the big change in the use of the now-gauche word, and he politely and tentatively mentions Herb Caen as one who might have had “a bee in his bonnet” about the name.

In fact, the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist is the reason for sunsetting that punchy nickname. Caen took no prisoners in his Friscophobia, even naming his first book, published in 1953, Don’t Call It Frisco.

But, in the period covered by the exhibit, 1849 through the 1930s, headline writers could easily get away with the word (unlike my own fireable-offense indiscretion on the copy desk of a local paper while still a newcomer in town).

And here it was, in song titles:

  • “The Frisco Rag,” by Harry Armstrong, a prizefighter, the composer of “Sweet Adeline,” capitalizing on the national passion for ragtime with this 1909 hit.
  • “The Only Pal I Ever Had Came From Frisco Town,” words by Earl C. Jones, music by Charles N. Daniels — one of their 27 popular songs. (“The only true, blue pal I ever had,” of the song, marries the girl to get the singer off the hook.)
  • The city also pops up in the 1863 “An Hour at the Cliff,” the 1868 “Montgomery Street March,” the 1875 “Hayes Valley Mazurka,” the 1888 “Sutro Height’s Waltzes,” and others.
Cover for the popular 1911 Daniels-Jones song A special song, complete with the original Edison cylinder at the exhibit, is the 1914 “Cute Little Wigglin’ Dance,” performed by the San Francisco Jass Band (a common early spelling of jazz).

“California and You” is represented by the Billy Murray and Campbell & Burr versions ... among others. Keller says it is his “favorite of all the California songs,” and the interpretation he included on an MP3 player in the exhibit is by Irving Kaufman.

No such show would be complete without “California, Here I Come,” and Keller included not only the inevitable Al Jolson recording (on the Brunswick label, with the Isham Jones Orchestra, 1924), but also with Georgie Price, who was famous as an impersonator of other popular singers, including Jolson.

“Then as an alternate version in the show, I use Cliff Edwards (aka Ukulele Ike), who is so very different. I also have a period-recording CD of it with musical saw,” says Super-Collector Keller.

The exhibit, at the Society of California Pioneers, 300 Fourth St., right next to the Moscone Convention Center, is a combination of Keller’s own collection and material from the Society’s Frederick Sherman archives. Keller became a passionate fan of old sheet music many years ago, and he put it all together, with the help of Tim Evans, the Society’s exhibition and education coordinator.

James M. KellerAlthough the exhibit covers the state, the earliest pieces are all from San Francisco — the city that seems to have been born singing. Just after the beginning of the Gold Rush (1848) and statehood (1850), but before indoor plumbing for most people, in a city of some 35,000 brave souls, you could hear Bellini and Donizetti arias soon after their first performances in faraway Rome or Milan. In 1851, there was a complete performance of La sonnambula in the Adelphi Theater.

Of course, even more than opera and classical music, popular songs permeated the place. Here, at Singing the Golden State, you can take a nostalgic multimedia tour of sheet music, playbills, publications, advertising, and actual records (in amazingly good, still-playable condition) of music history.

Sheet music served as a major form of media. “If something happened,” says Keller, “there’s a fair chance someone wrote a song about it.

“Publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music — like books — by their covers, and so, they accordingly lavished care on the creation of vivid, original art and design for the sheet music they issued.”

The exhibit’s 150 pieces of sheet music are organized by such topics as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, minorities, transportation, and a tour of the Golden State.

And, as long as you’re immersed in the genre, don’t forget Thomas Hampson’s magnificent Song of America Project.

'Help Wanted'!

These days, when an arts organization is looking to hire — that’s news. Intersection for the Arts to the fore. The organization is looking for “energetic leaders, emerging or seasoned, with a vision for the essential role that artists, cultural spaces and creative experiences play in community.”

Here’s information about the application process for positions as managing director and 5M Project coordinator.

Adaptistration has a job openings page for arts administration at

Music News is looking forward eagerly to other instances of jobs opening up, happy to spread the good word.

Bourne's Manly Swan Lake in 3-D

Richard Winsor and the swans of Matthew Bourne The London and Broadway hit of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is coming to U.S. movie theaters on March 20 in 3-D for one night, at 7:30 local time. Best-known for replacing the traditional female corps de ballet with a menacing male ensemble, Bourne’s work has many other aspects, especially the excellence of the dancers.

Richard Winsor as the lead Swan/Stranger, Dominic North as The Prince, and Nina Goldman as The Queen quickly make the viewer forget the gender switch.

Bourne is delighted with the presentation: “By using the cutting-edge 3-D technology now available, we’ve created a superb new version of this hugely popular production that immediately engages the audience, pulling them into the action on stage and giving them instant involvement with the characters. Screening in cinemas will take Swan Lake to the far reaches of the globe, which is an incredibly exciting prospect in this 25th anniversary year of our dance company, New Adventures.”

The work received some 30 international theater awards, including three Tonys and an Olivier. In and near San Francisco, participating theaters are Van Ness 14, Bay Street 16 with IMAX, and Daly City 20.

El Sistema at the Source

Dudamel in VenezuelaAccompanying Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, reporters traveled to Venezuela last week, and Mark Swed of The Los Angeles Times sent a report:
Musically, Venezuela is like no other place on Earth.

Along with baseball and beauty pageants, classical music is one of the country’s greatest passions. In the capital, Caracas, superstar Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel is mobbed wherever he goes. Classical music teeny-boppers run up to him for autographs when he walks off the podium at concerts. The state-run music education program, which is known as El Sistema and from which Dudamel emerged, is the most extensive, admired and increasingly imitated in the world. One of its nearly 300 music schools for children is deep in the Venezuelan Amazon, reachable only by boat.

Foreign visitors who stream into Caracas to observe El Sistema in action invariably leave Venezuela amazed. I am no exception, having tagged along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its recent eight-day Caracas Mahler Project residency. Nor were the L.A. Phil musicians, having performed with and coached impressively aspiring younger Venezuelans.

So pervasive is El Sistema in this society that if you were to ask the average Venezuelan whether he or she thought classical music is dying, you might be questioned about what planet you are on. So strong is the Sistema lockbox that this program is equally supported by rich and poor, the political left and right. President Hugo Chávez allots it $100 million a year and regularly promises more.

The opposition party knows better than to oppose music education in the upcoming fall election. For a reality check, imagine President Obama demanding a $1.2-billion music education system under the rubric of social welfare, only to be challenged by Ron Paul insisting that Congress allocate an even greater sum for socialized music.

Plans for Stanford's Bing Concert Hall

Ennead Architects' rendering of the hall's interior Stanford University is announcing plans today for the opening of Bing Concert Hall, beginning Jan. 11. A week of performances and free community events will mark the occasion of unveiling the hall, whose purpose is “to serve as a cornerstone of ongoing investment in the arts across campus and provide students, faculty, artists and Bay Area community with new venue for live performance and creative exploration.”

Among opening week participants: San Francisco Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Los Lobos, St. Lawrence String Quartet, other guest artists, and Stanford faculty and student performers.

The 844-seat hall is designed by Ennead Architects with acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, and theatrical design by Fisher Dachs Associates.

On Jan. 11, the opening night concert will feature the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; Stanford’s resident ensemble the St. Lawrence String Quartet; a choral dedication with the Stanford Chamber Chorale and students from the Stanford Philharmonia; and a processional by Stanford Taiko, the student performing ensemble devoted to the art of Japanese drumming. The program will be simulcast to other venues across campus.

The St. Lawrence will perform again on Sunday at a matinee, followed by an evening concert with Stanford Department of Music ensembles, chamber groups, and soloists, including the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. On Jan. 16, Philharmonia Baroque will perform in the new hall. Wiley Hausam, executive director of the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, has been appointed managing director of the concert hall.

Another major new performance venue in the Bay Area, Sonoma’s Green Music Center, will announce its opening season on March 9.

Lou Harrison: a World of Music

Lou HarrisonIn a benefit event for the Harrison House Music & Arts, the documentary Lou Harrison: a World of Music will be premiered in the Castro Theater on March 6, following a performance by Terry Riley on the theater’s Wurlitzer organ.

The film is directed by Eva Soltes. It is described as “an intimate portrait of an extraordinary American composer who followed his own dreams with unbridled style. ... Trading a fast-paced New York career for a remote cabin in the woods to recover from a breakdown, Harrison confronted his demons by writing beautiful music.”

Harrison House Music & Arts is an artist residency/performance program located in the innovative straw bale house that Harrison completed in Joshua Tree, California, one year before his death in 2003.

MTT to the Olympics

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Ltd (LOCOG) has awarded the contract to record the core orchestral soundtrack for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies to the London Symphony Orchestra. (Original spelling is followed for both “Organising” and “Paralympic.”)

Participants include LSO President Sir Colin Davis, Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev, and Principal Guest Conductors Daniel Harding and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at