Music News: Feb. 4, 2014
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And even better: if you missed it (my sympathies), KDFC-FM will be kind enough to broadcast it at 8 p.m., next Tuesday, Feb. 11. If you're in the Bay Area, that's on radio, if you're not, listen on the internet.
The program conducted by Osmo Vänskä: Sibelius' Night Ride and Sunrise, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Daniil Trifonov), Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Sibelius' Symphony No. 6.
It's very rare to hear a concert where everything clicks. While Trifonov was at his awesome best (unlike his previous appearances here), it was Vänskä and — under his direction — the SFS orchestra that made this a thoroughly special, memorable event.
For me, at least, after a lifetime of listening to the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, it was Vänskä's performance of it — clear, transparent, passionate, and his total immersion — that made me hear it for the first time. As I was talking about it long after the performance, a friend suggested that I might have had a "religious experience." A peak experience, certainly.
These are some of the other impressions of these concerts:
Robert Commanday in Classical Voice North America:
... After a startling smash in the winds, Night Ride and Sunrise goes into the long-string Sibelian gallop on slow-changing harmonies, the familiar tread sounding like a distant inspiration for Philip Glass and John Adams. But then it turns to shifting colors and textures and wonderful contrasts of mood. The Sixth Symphony, this concert’s finale, may be his most original work — in form, in mysterious turns (surprising closing measures), in the unexpected atmospheres, the course of each movement, the richness of ideas, and the step-back endings of the first and last movements ...
Joshua Kosman in The San Francisco Chronicle:
... for the most part Sibelius creates unique musical dramas out of harmony and orchestral texture — and they respond best to conductors who are particularly attuned to his way of thinking.
One such interpreter is Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish conductor who led the San Francisco Symphony in a wonderfully dynamic and cogent account of Sibelius' Sixth Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon.
... the Sixth Symphony, coming at the end of the program, elicited the finest work from both Vänskä and the orchestra. This is the strangest and least known of the composer's seven symphonies (those facts are not remotely unrelated), and Vänskä guided the audience through its mysteries without minimizing its quirky beauty.
Part of that involved a careful cultivation of Sibelius' orchestral sonorities — the eerily high-floating string music that begins the symphony, or the robust, finely blended chords of the finale. Rhythmic responsiveness came into play as well, in a piece whose four movements only rarely edge toward a slow tempo.
Stephen Smoliar in Examiner.com:
...The movements end in silence, rather than through the resolution of a strongly-stated harmonic progression. All of this can be a bit disorienting to those with strong preferences for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Vänskä guided the attentive listener through the ambiguities of Sibelius’ transitions across episodes with a sure hand. This is music that fashioned its own logic, as Stravinsky would do later in his wind "symphonies"; and Vänskä’s account of Sibelius’ approach was compelling enough to allow us always to trust the composer’s judgment.
This was a performance with absolutely no false steps, which may yet be the most memorable event of the current SFS season.
In response to several questions: Trifonov's encores were Bach's Gavotte from Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006 (trans. Rachmaninov) on Friday, and Stravinsky's "Danse Infernale" from The Firebird (trans. Guido Agosti) on Saturday.
The San Francisco Ballet is hosting John Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet and his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the War Memorial Opera House for two performances only, on Feb. 12 and 13.
The choreographer of the two Hamburg productions seen previously in the War Memorial — The Little Mermaid and last season’s Nijinsky — created this work in 1977, but as it has girdled round about the earth, à la Puck, the piece is still developing and kept fresh. The music is a fascinating combination of Mendelssohn and Ligeti, costumes by Jürgen Rose.
Three decades ago, Anna Kisselgoff wrote abut the work in The New York Times:
This opening night, which consisted of Mr. Neumeier's truly spectacular treatment of A Midsummer Night's Dream, was the Hamburg Ballet's American debut and, as such, confirmed a point often made by the choreographer — namely, that his ballets come across best when danced by his own dancers.
Having said that, it must also be said that Mr. Neumeier's great success in Continental Europe is linked to a taste for operatic theatricality that runs counter to the stripped-down-to-essence approach of more dance-oriented American choreographers back home. Mr. Neumeier, however, is working within a European opera-house structure — one in fact that appealed greatly to George Balanchine, when he staged ballets and operas in Hamburg in the 1960's.
Mr. Neumeier has reduced Shakespeare's play to a psychological study in the old reality-versus-illusion vein. In this version, it is Hippolyta, about to wed Theseus, the duke of Athens, who has a dream. She sees herself as Titania and, as such, seems to face her inner fears about her arranged wedding. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same.
In a combative, grappling first duet between Oberon and Titania, one might see Hippolyta's doubts about the physical side of her marriage. She and Theseus, in street dress, had previously been very formal with each other. This Dream, then is reduced to the story of Hippolyta's finding herself. It is a prosaic approach, hard on our expectations of the usual poetry resonating through Shakespeare's great allegory on love tested and true.
Showing the work's development over the years, Denise Richardson wrote in Dance Australia in 2012 when the Hamburg last toured there:
Faithful to the original tale apart from minor detail, it sparkles with humour and a lush sensuality that is captivating.
Music is pivotal to the work. Not only does Neumeier describe each of its three worlds of the aristocratic Athenians, the fairies and the craftsmen by their movement vocabulary, but also by the accompanying score and its method of generation.
Thus you have Mendelssohn’s original incidental music to the play performed live for the aristocrats and a recording of the shimmering organ music of György Ligeti for the ethereal world of the fairies. For the craftsmen or mechanicals, there is the mechanically generated music of a barrel organ.
The ballet opens with the wedding preparations for Hippolyta to Theseus, Duke of Athens. Opulent, blue silk curtains are the backdrop to this short prologue, which buzzes with such frenetic activity, it pulls the focus in multiple directions.
We are introduced to the main protagonists of Hippolyta (Hélène Bouchet), Theseus (Ivan Urban), Philostrate (Alexandr Trusch), Helena (Leslie Heylmann), Hermia (Mariana Zannotto), and Demetrius and Lysander (Kiran West and Carsten Jung). Neumeier quickly establishes each character’s personality with both the music and detail in the choreography.
The colour palette is of creams and pale blues, the costume design (Jurgen Rose) elegant Regency. The movement evokes the refinement of the classical idiom, all pulled together with charm and a gentle ironic wit.
Steven Schick, S.F. Contemporary Music artistic director, a champion of both percussion and contemporary music, hasn't given a solo recital here in 30 years, but he is going to make up for it on Valentine's Day, at the S.F. Jewish Community Center.
As if to make up for the long absence, Schick is going all out, performing works by Stockhausen, Feldman, Lachenmann, Globokar, Tenney, and Xenakis.
Last weekend, Schick had a two-night survey of his repertory, prompting Alex Ross to herald the percussionist in The New Yorker:
The master percussionist Steven Schick ... grew up on a farm near Clear Lake, Iowa. His earliest musical memory is of his mother playing Chopin on the piano late at night while the wind howled outside. "I remember the wind as much as the Chopin," he said recently, on the phone from San Diego, where he lives. "And I remember the sound of the ice on the lake breaking up — this glass-wind-chime effect, as a huge wave of ice cubes broke on the shore. I remember wondering why that wasn’t music, too."
The art of percussion is an endless patrol on the border between music and noise. In classical music, it is among the newest of genres: Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage, among others, pioneered the field in the early twentieth century. Solo percussion music is even newer.
"We think of the repertory as always predating us," Schick said, "but, turning sixty, I’m actually older than the first major work for a single percussionist, Stockhausen’s Zyklus, from 1959. (Cage wrote a solo piece three years earlier, but it wasn’t performed until 1962.) At the same time, percussion is immeasurably ancient, going back to the origins of music and, perhaps, to the first stirrings of human intelligence. Still, when Schick began teaching percussion, at the University of California, San Diego, in 1991, many people in the classical world looked at him as an interloper.
The first concert at Miller, "Origins," reviews the genre’s early milestones; the second, "Responses," is a richly varied selection of the many works that Schick has commissioned from some of today’s finest composers. Anyone expecting a monotonous onslaught of sound may be surprised by the timbral variety that Schick can draw from his percussion battery, which ranges from drums, gongs, bells, and mallet instruments to brake drums, flowerpots, and other repurposed materials.
Schick was the founding percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars (1992-2002) and served as artistic director of the Centre International de Percussion de Genève (2000-2005). He is founder and artistic director of the percussion group, red fish, blue fish.
Currently, besides his SFCMP position, Schick is also music director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.
With SFCMP, Schick will also lead an important four-day event at Fort Mason Center, called "Sweet Thunder." Participants include the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), whose artistic director, Claire Chase is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship; New York’s JACK Quartet; San Diego-based red fish blue fish; electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick, "and heroes and heroines of the Bay Area taped music and electro-acoustic scene."
Chamber Music San Francisco's unique tri-city concert series features the Eroica Trio in Walnut Creek (Margaret Lesher Theatre, Feb. 8), San Francisco (Marines Memorial Theatre, Feb. 9), and Palo Alto (Albert & Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Center, Feb. 10).
The trio now consists of Erika Nickrenz, piano; Sara Parkins, violin; Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello. The program is the Beethoven Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11; Benjamin Godard's Berceuse de Jocelyn; Rebecca Clarke's Trio; the Brahms Trio in C Major, Op. 87.
It's an impressive season: the Escher String Quartet in February; violinist James Ehnes and pianist Dmitri Alexeev (separate recitals) in March; San Francisco debut for the German Vogler Quartet, recitals by pianists Khatia Buniatishvili and Olga Kern in April; and the Archetti string ensemble and the Zivian-Tomkins Duo in May.
The Escher will perform quartets by Mozart, Dutilleux, and Dvořák. Ehnes recital features works by Copland, Grieg, Brahms, and Schubert. Alexeev has an extra-generous program of two Schumanns, with two Wagner-Liszt and Schubert-Liszt transcriptions each, and works by Liszt and Chopin.
The Vogler program opens with the Schubert Quartettsatz, presenting Beethoven's Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3; Schulhoff's Quartet No. 1; and conclude with Schubert's Quartet in A Minor ("Rosamunde").
Buniatishvili also offers a generous program: the Liszt Sonata in B Minor, Ravel La Valse, Chopin's Sonata No. 2, and Stravinsky's Petrushka. Kern will plays works by Mendelssohn (the rarely performed Variations Serieuses, Schumann's Carnaval, and Rachmaninov Preludes.
The Archetti performs the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and other works by Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi. The Zivian-Tomkins Duo plays works for cello and piano by Beethoven on original instruments.
JACK Quartet, mentioned above in the item about the Chamber Music San Francisco season, was the winner of the 2011-2012 Finale National Composition Contest, an important project with an awkward name. The program went on hiatus for a season, returning last September under its new name, the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest — still a bit unyieldy, but an improvement.
News from the ... let's call it Composers Forum is that three student composers have been chosen (from more than 250 applicants) as finalists: Michael Laurello (Yale School of Music), Todd Lerew (CalArts), and Kristina Warren (University of Virginia). Each of them will receive a cash prize and is expected to compose an 8-to-10-minute piece for So Percussion.
These works will be workshopped with the finalists in residence, and premiered by So Percussion in July at Princeton University, as part of the So Percussion Summer Institute 2014. One of the works will receive the final prize, which includes an additional cash award and future public performances by So Percussion.
The National Composition Contest is open to composers currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the U.S. "The Forum is thrilled with the opportunity to connect new voices with extraordinary ensembles like So Percussion," says John Nuechterlein, Forum president and CEO.
"Similar to our previous collaborations with eighth blackbird and JACK Quartet, the discovery process is exhilarating for the performers and immensely rewarding for the selected composers."
Lerew, 27, is a Los Angeles-based composer working with invented acoustic instruments, "repurposed found objects," and unique preparations of traditional instruments. He is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which utilizes a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford's CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, and elsewhere.
Lerew is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children's game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. His pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).
Lerew was a San Francisco resident for three years, between graduation from Hampshire College in 2009 and matriculation at CalArts in 2012. While in San Francisco, Lerew says:
I was mostly working in non-profit education (not music), first as a tutor and later as a college advisor at Balboa and Washington High Schools. I had just a few concerts while living there (Luggage Store Gallery, Turquoise Yantra Grotto with Bart Hopkin), and I had a piece performed by members of the S.F. Symphony Chorus — this was a reading organized by the Guerrilla Composers Guild. But I have actually had more shows there since moving down to LA, such as
* A piece for floor tom and melted wax at the Thingamajigs Festival back in October at Meridian Gallery, on a program with Tim Phillips, Fred Frith, and Sudhu Tewari.
* Invented monochords that I made for Santa Barbara-based Now Hear Ensemble which premiered at CNMAT and received a second performance at Mills.
* In January, I had a portrait concert with four recent pieces, again at Meridian Gallery, this time through their Composers in Perfornance series.
* Also a couple weeks ago, a repeat performance of my fire organ (the Quartz Cantabile) at the Turquoise Yantra Grotto, this time with Cheryl Leonard.
With a secure place among the foremost musical artists of the world, French pianist Hélène Grimaud, 44, is unique in her intensity — both in her playing and in her nature. When she talks about the Brahms concerto she will perform with the San Francisco Symphony Feb. 5-7, her words tumble in self-interrupting cascade:
"It is dramatic, powerful, with unmasked feelings, honesty, irresistible ..."
It's hard to believe what sense of presence this 1858 work which Grimaud has performed throughout her illustrious 30-year-long career still has in her thoughts. She speaks of "the noble and tender mystical second movement" of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, believed to be a musical memorial for Robert Schumann, who had just committed suicide at the time of the concerto's composition, and the emotion is palpable in Grimaud's voice.
Intensity has always been her hallmark, and Grimaud is well aware of it: "My father came from a background of Sephardic Jews in Africa, and my mother's ancestors were Jewish Berbers from Corsica. As a child, I was often agitated," she has said in a New York Times interview.
Her recording of both Brahms concertos has just been released by Deutsche Grammophon, and she speaks of the two works as a mother would of her two children, unable to choose between them. Grimaud describes the Second Piano Concerto as a mature work, of "transcending resignation, acceptance how life could have been but wasn't."
In a strange twist of events, while Michael Tilson Thomas will not conduct Grimaud's concerts in Davies Symphony Hall, MTT was "borrowed" by Philadelphia Orchestra to lead the same concerto with Grimaud a few weeks ago when that orchestra's new young music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, became ill.
Another young maestro gaining fame, Lionel Bringuier, will conduct the program in Davies, including Ravel's La valse and Henri Dutilleux's Métaboles.
The 27-year-old Frenchman has served six years as resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he is now Music Director designate of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zürich.
Dutilleux, who died in Paris last year, wrote Métaboles 50 years ago. The title, a form of metamorphosis, is given to a work with unusual instrumentation, including two temple blocks, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum, small suspended cymbals, aC hinese cymbal, tam-tams, crash cymbals, triangle, cowbell, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings.
This six-year-old story is news (to me): Weicheng Zhao plays his transcription of one of the great orchestral masterpieces, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra all by his lonesome. It's amazing.
One comment says:
This young man has quite a great talent and impressive finger and pedal technique, but to be fair, high kudos must be given to the pre-programing of sequences since it is obvious if you watch and listen closely, he is actually only playing about 20% of the notes you are hearing. The rest is being triggered, controlled, and played by pre-programmed computer sequences. Nonetheless, the end result is quite impressive.
Zhao was appointed a full-time faculty member of the Electone Organ at the Tianjin Conservatory of Music. In 2009, Zhao took a leave of absence to pursue study of the pipe organ with Cherry Rhodes at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. One year later, he took both Second Prize and Audience Prize at the Mader National Organ-Playing Competition in Claremont, California.
He has completed the Graduate Certificate program at USC and is currently enrolled in the university's Master of Music degree program. He is organist at St. Bede the Venerable Catholic Church, La Cañada, California — a long way to the Electone Organ faculty.