Music News: May 24, 2011

Janos Gereben on May 24, 2011

The Magic of 'Cloud Singing'

Just when we are beginning to comprehend cloud computing, here comes cloud singing. That, at least, is what I think Ragnar Bohlin called what happened during the San Francisco Symphony Chorus concert he conducted at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday.

The happening, described by Bohlin as "sound clusters, choral clouds," was one of the most viscerally thrilling choral performances in my experience. For a full report on the concert see Georgia Rowe's review in this issue, but let me account for what happened in the clouds and in my viscera. To open the concert, the Symphony Chorus lined up around the audience, filling side aisles and the back of the hall; Bohlin conducted from the empty stage. The usual challenge is getting one sound out of a hundred throats when the singers are standing in front of you, squeezed together as much as possible. How daring (foolish?) is then to spread them all around enormously big Davies Hall! It has been done before, but no to this startling effect.

When the music began — a cappella, Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, a variation on "Komm, süsser Tod" (Come, Sweet Death) — there was no question of whether singing together was achieved as a single sound surrounded, enveloped the listeners. The experience was both of serenity and the physical thrill of sound permeating the body. I had this feeling before, rarely and from wildly divergent sources, when sitting (actually standing) front and center at a Grateful Dead concert or when Montserrat Caballe sang at me from a distance of 20 feet.

But this was not the "cluster/cloud" time. That came at the end of work, when the chorus held the final note seemingly for eternity, the music rising and falling, layers upon layers from various sections — the sound still absolutely unified and yet permeated with colors and shifting dynamics. Words fail, but the experience is forever.

Technical explanation, immaterial as it may be, is in the dissonances from the tone material of Bach's original. By the end, more and more of the group establishes an E-flat chord, but dissonating pitches linger on until finally everyone arrives at the E-flat. Bach had the word for the execution of this on Sunday: "Unmöglich!" (impossible).

The rest of the concert was more conventional in that is used the stage, but it was still extraordinary in performance. Highlights included Bohlin's own arrangements of Schubert's "An Silvia" and Schumann's "Widmung," Barber's Agnus Dei, and the 16-part a cappella version of Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."

I have become a fanatical fan of Bohlin and the Symphony Chorus, but even from that self-admitted position of prior bias, I didn't expect the transporting experience of this concert. Next chance to hear this great chorus is at the upcoming Missa Solemnis performances, June 23-26, when SFS returns from Europe. See several items about the tour further below.

'The Next Generation of Genius' at Free Concert

Calling a concert "The Next Generation of Genius" is not exactly humble, but the Pacific Musical Society has no reason to be self-effacing. When the 100-year-old organization holds its annual competition winners' concert and reception on June 4 in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, it will
Alex Zhou, 9, and a winner
present possible successors to violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci, tenor Jess Thomas, pianists Leon Fleisher and Roy Bogas, Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Del Tredici, and scores of other musical celebrities.

They — and presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger, a pianist back then — have all benefited from the organization's awards and support.

This year, 26 young artists were awarded prize money and given performance opportunity. They were selected by an international panel of judges, including Philharmonia Baroque Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

The first-place winners in each of the four main competition categories will perform at the concert. They are: violinist Alex Zhou, 9; pianists Christopher Richardson, 11, and Fantee Jones, 17; and Melissa Angulo, 18, vocalist. The event is free to the public.

Melissa Angulo

James Meredith, of the Young Musicians Program, and vice president of the society, says: "Throughout the years we have been pretty good at spotting really talented kids, many of whom have gone on to take their place in the musical world. It's very rewarding to to think of the hundreds of thousands of people these young artists have touched with music throughout their lives."

Angulo started by singing rhythm and blues, joined the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley at age 12 and later turned to classical music. At a seven-week summer intensive a couple of years ago, she recalls:

We had two visiting artists, tenor Roderick Dixon and soprano Alfreda Burke. The first day they talked to us, Mr. Dixon pulled out a whole case full of books and said these were his reference materials for the operatic roles he was preparing.
It was impressive: dictionaries, language books, scores, art books, history books, translations, so much stuff to really know the character he was learning.
Fantee Jones

They worked intensely with us on our songs and arias, pulling things out of us that we didn't know we had inside. It was at that point that I knew I was going to be a serious singer. Now I plan to become a professional operatic soprano and let music take me around the world.

Angulo has auditioned for several conservatories and schools of music, and will be going to the University of Michigan School of Music at Ann Arbor on scholarship in the fall.

Marcelle Dronkers, director of the annual competition, speaks of the "thrill to hear these amazing youngsters and to be able to support their talent.

Thanks to our generous donors and supporters, we awarded over $20,000 in prizes for the 2011 competition." With more donations, the Society would do even more.

Chora Nova Sings Rare Classics

Paul Flight conducts Chora Nova
Photo by Jessica Sweeney

For its final concert of the season, on May 28, in First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Chora Nova will perform rarely-heard choral works by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, and Baldassare Galuppi.

Led by artistic director Paul Flight, the concert includes the recently discovered Vivaldi Dixit Dominus (RV 807), Pergolesi's Confitebor, and Galuppi's Nisi Dominus. Flight says of the program:

All three works are rarely performed settings of vesper psalms by Italian Baroque composers. The Vivaldi has richly detailed movements for the chorus and orchestra, including a closing choral fugue built upon a descending chromatic motive and featuring two very nimble countersubjects.

Pergolesi’s setting of Psalm 110 is both energetic and graceful. In the opening and closing movements, the plainsong melody to which this psalm is usually sung is presented in long notes, first in the soprano and then migrating to other voices, while the orchestra runs along in an energetic patter.

Galuppi, while much less famous than either Vivaldi or Pergolesi, was nonetheless a first rate Venetian composer who enjoyed great success in his time. His setting of Psalm 126 is written primarily in the galant style of the mid-18th century.

All three works have virtuosic solos and duets, featuring Flight himself, sopranos Michele Byrd and Jennifer Paulino, and tenor Brian Thorsett.

S.F. Symphony Basks in Prague Spring, Waltzes in Vienna

The San Francisco Symphony's current tour of Europe — already highly successful with sold-out halls and great reviews — is documented below from official sources (SFS itself and various publications), but first a word from Our Own Correspondent, a prominent member of Music News' worldwide network.

Charlie Cockey is a bicontinental international film festival programmer, residing both in San Francisco and Brno, Czech Republic. As his schedule turned out, he had a chance to hear the SFS pretour Mahler concerts in Davies Hall, and last weekend, he negotiated the 115-mile distance between Brno and Prague, where Michael Tilson Thomas' band started the tour. The two concerts in Prague were so completely soldout, Cockey needed to go above and beyond the usual waiting in line for returned tickets, but he prevailed, and was well rewarded:

The Mahler Second Symphony was glorious, cathartic, even. The opening tremolo in the upper strings
Laura Claycomb
 and frightening recitative-like assertions in the basses and cellos led to a tremendous explosion of bass rumblings.
The sections led organically one into the other, there was nothing perfunctory. The tonal coloring, especially given Smetana Hall's propensity to flatter richly voiced legati, was irresistible.

Acoustics were a problem, especially as women's voices were covered over by anything more than the lightest orchestration. In the mezzo's [Katarina Karneus] opening section, her sound was really wonderful and warm, but later I just couldn't hear her. I'm convinced it was not her fault at all, because you couldn't always hear Laura Claycomb either, and having heard her in San Francisco, I know what she's capable of.

(A pre-concert e-mail from Claycomb: "I'm writing you from beautiful Prague, where I am singing Mahler's Second Symphony tonight! The concert hall alone is a work of art. WOW! We're off to Vienna tomorrow." And this news: "Dallas Opera has announced that Claycomb was selected as the 2011 Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year." The Texas native only now made her debut in Dallas, after starring in many of the
Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Christian Tetzlaff in Prague
world's opera houses.)

Cockey continues:

The gestalt of the performance was ultimately all but ecstatic, and they received an eight-minute standing ovation, huge thanks pouring back to the stage from a very happy audience.

One big surprise was the performance of the choir, Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno (from my town but until now not well known to me) — absolutely tight, clean, richly toned, so synched both with one another and MTT's direction.

First night was a Cowell-Berg-Beethoven, with Christian Tetzlaff as the virtuoso soloist in the Berg Violin Concerto.

I found myself unusually caught up in the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, and can only rave about the performance. Sonically, as much as the hall would allow, it was gorgeous, even though some of the details tend to get mushed in the acoustics.
The Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, performing Mahler with SFS in Prague

There were occasional tempo curiosities, and in one section, MTT brought Beethoven's experimental side gloriously to the front. It was a section that verged on recitative, and yet the conductor managed to keep the thing moving forward but completely without a pulse. That is, it became free-form-tempo, and was most fascinating.

At other times, the rubato seemed overlarge, even willful, and fermati that seemed overdone as well, for my taste at least. These surges and pauses seemed too studied.

More from the SFS Tour

For the latest news, see the orchestra's Web page. There is also a brief video from MTT in Prague, and SFS trumpet player Jeff Biancalana speaking about performing the "Resurrection" Symphony in there. Of special interest is Biancala's wife, Radoslava, participating in the performance, the Czech native and SFS Chorus member joining the Brno Choir in Prague.

As the orchestra moved on to Vienna (where its Mahler was called in Die Presse "a splendid concert characterized by musical fervor"), the Konzerthaus program published a lengthy interview with MTT, including the following:

We’re very happy that the work that we have done on the [Mahler] symphonies in these last years has made its way to Vienna, that people have been very kind in their appreciation of the music. It’s always true that with truly great masterpieces there are many ways of looking at the music, and it’s a refreshing and a wonderful thing, when you hear the music presented with slightly different priorities or visions or swings. And this is very much what we hope to be sharing with this great city, which has so much been the source of everything of which the music speaks.

Mahler always said his time would come — it seems that now is very much his time. I think because of his reference to so many musical cultures and also an underlying message of his symphonies that, in spite of all of the frustrations and difficulties of life, that very beautiful, wonderful, worthwhile things remain about the experience of living itself no matter how fleeting they may be and therefore in the moments when the music is beautiful we should cherish those moments and be grateful for the opportunity to make them live again.


Over the last 10 years working on this Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony has enabled me to deepen my relationship with the orchestra, but also to probe ever more deeply my own feelings about each symphony and the way in which the symphonies all connect together to form one immense work... [It] has been one of my missions to let all of those musical inflections sound very vividly, encourage the players to go for those things in a very abandoned and sometimes dangerous way, and at the same time to build a great sense of formal organization in the pieces.

The San Francisco Symphony is a very colorful orchestra, very much at home in playing in many different musical styles, and I think they bring a particular passion to let the music speak in very vivid, personal kinds of ways.

Sierra Trio in Turkey: Another 'Local Angle' Story

Marc Steiner, Anita Felix, and Janis Lieberman of the Sierra Ensemble

San Francisco's Sierra Ensemble, a trio of violin, French horn and piano, are joining some of Istanbul's important local musicians to participate in concerts and master classes through the auspices of the Pera Music School's May Festival.

Because their violinist, Anita Felix, had an injury that prevented her touring and playing this month, the remaining two Sierrans, Janis Lieberman, and Marc Steiner, were connected up to a Turkish violinist, Rüstem Mustafa (of the Istanbul Borusan Philharmonic and concertmaster of Orkestra-Sion), who will sit in for Sierra's two concerts which feature the Brahms Trio for these instruments. Connecting the dots for them was ex-pat Alexandra Ivanoff, founder of San Francisco's Noontime Concerts, former publicist, music agent, and member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus. She now lives in Istanbul where she's the music editor at Time Out Istanbul and a music critic for an English-language newspaper. Her blog, "An East-West Music Life" covers what's been happening at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Opera Stars From the Future of Turkey

"Her naturally powerful voice and dramatic appearance is a win-win! Her high G made me melt. Can't wait to hear the As and Bs…" Who is that? Why, it's Hatice Zeliha Kökçek.
Alexandra Ivanoff

Surely aspiring young opera singers in Istanbul wish for a major support program such as the Merola, but even without it, they fight for their place in the sun, in an environment where Western opera is a musical minority. Programs such as the Siemens Opera Competition offer significant assistance. Alexandra Ivanoff, mentioned in the item above, has been keeping an eye on Turkey's young talent and her blog highlights winners of the competition:

Mezzo-soprano Hatice Zeliha Kökçek’s dream just came true. The 23-year-old singer, student of Aydin Ustuk at Izmir’s Dokuz Eylül University, won first place in the annual Siemens Opera Competition in Istanbul on May 13, held in the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art (IKSV) Salon performing arts center.

Her powerful voice blazed through three arias, one in Italian, two in French, to capture the prize, which is a one-year scholarship to the Karlsruhe (Germany) Opera and a four-month German language course at the Goethe-Institut Istanbul. Her long-time dream, in fact, was to sing in the Karlsruhe Opera House. Why? Her grandmother’s house, where she often visits, is there. But now, Kökçek can visit Karlsruhe (and her grandmother) — as a working opera singer.

The New Ring: From 'Pristine' to 'Bereft'

Francesca Zambello rehearsing Twilight of the Gods, with Andrea Silvestrelli (Hagen), and Gerd Grochowski (Gunther)
Photo by Kristen Loken

With the first two operas of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelung under her belt — Das Rhinegold in 2008, Die Walküre in 2009 — Francesca Zambello is putting finishing touches on Siegfried and Gotterdammerung for her production of the San Francisco Opera's upcoming three cycles of the complete work. The timelessness of the Ring first struck Zambello a decade ago:

The parallels of our own contemporary story and those of the Ring came into focus for me in 2001. I was working with David Gockley at Houston Grand Opera when Enron imploded. We looked on in shock as the city collapsed, taking down the local men of myth and an economy built on avarice and math magic: bad deals, bad faith, bad banking, greed, and ambition on a colossal scale.

We dwell in what sometimes seem like corresponding worlds in which Wotan gives up an eye to build a mansion he can’t afford, and a young goddess provides eternal youth through negotiable apples of eternity — worlds in which man is out of balance with nature.

Four years later, when the San Francisco-National Opera coproduction began in Washington, D.C., Zambello focused on the "misuse of political power," but here, "where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment," the director's emphasis was on despoliation: "Is there a major river in the U.S. that hasn’t been raped like the Rhine as the brooding e-flat chords begin Das Rheingold?"
The greatness of Wagner’s vast world is that it encompasses the past, present, and future. The timeless themes of the Ring — the destruction of nature, the quest for power, corruption, the plight of the powerless — are not bound to the nineteenth century’s Industrial Age, nor to Europe or some leafy Nordic realm of long ago.


As the curtain rises on our Ring, you will see the pristine world of an idealized natural landscape. As the cycle proceeds, the glistening world sickens, changes, trembles, darkens, and decays. And when the curtain falls, the world seems bereft of anything alive as we know it, now destroyed by our own making.


The Norns live inside a computer, attached to the motherboard by bundles of cables; the only visible sign of nature in Götterdämmerung is a slowly dying tree in the Gibichungs’ hall. In Siegfried, Fafner is a scrap metal compactor who bleeds oil when Siegfried slays him.

The fire that surrounds Brünnhilde has a greenish tinge suggesting chemical combustion. We are left hoping that the despoiled world might be reborn through her redemptive suicide.

New Venues for Ethnic Dance Festival

Jet Tagle of the Parangal Dance Company
Photos by r.j. muna

Year after the year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival gets bigger. After a long and exacting audition process, 750 dancers and musicians in 50 Northern California dance companies have been selected to present five weekends of programs. Because of the renovation of the Palace of Fine Arts, the festival's traditional home, events will take place in Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and other venues.

This year marks return of the Ohlone people to their ancestral home to open the festival with a ceremonial performance in City Hall at noon on June 3. A day-long California Native Big Time Gathering on June 18 in Yerba Buena Gardens will mark the first time in nearly two centuries that Native Americans welcome back the Rumsen Ohlone here.

Ohlone dancers Henry Munoz, Desiree Munoz, Melissa Moreno, and Jessie Peralez

"It is good to be back and dancing in our original homeland: the Bay Area," says tribal chief Tony Cerda. "We are humbled and honored by the welcoming celebration that is taking place. Since we left the Mission Dolores in 1834, and now live in Pomona, we like to laugh and say that we live 400 miles and 180 years away. Now, for this brief festival, we are with our ancestors again."Another folk dance company with an ancient tradition is the Parangal Dance Company, performing ritual dances of the Subanen ("people of the river") from Lapuyan, Mindanao, the Philippines. Company choreographer and director Eric Solano describes one of the dances as a ritual performed by the balian or shaman called Shelayan. It is set on a sinalimba or swing to heal the sick."

From Tahiti, Hui Tama Nui presents dances inspired by Rumia, the mytical shell that contains Taaroa, the Tahitian god of creation. "It is in Rumia that Taaroa sat surrounded by darkness, before he created the world. According to Tahitian creation accounts, there was no land sky, sea, moon, nor stars until Taaroa made them," says company director Aaron Sencil.

Festival Executive Director Julie Mushet finds artists this year "especially inspiring." She cites the return of the Rumsen Ohlone Tribe, innovative new participatory programs, and the fact that "each group of artists involved in this year's programs are deeply passionate about sharing their traditions in our new venues and formats."

The new format Mushet mentions is the addition of participatory events Sunday afternoon at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. in addition to performances and talking with audience members, viewers will be allowed to dance along with the performers.