David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.
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Compared to other forms of music-making, classical music is noted for keeping to the original score rather than arranging works anew for each performer. Leonard Bernstein once even suggested that “exact music” would be a better name. Yet there is a place for arrangements in our field, and one of those places was the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto on Friday, where the New Century Chamber Orchestra gave a concert of Bach and Mussorgsky ... with a difference.
A cycle of the Mendelssohn string quartets: It sounds like a reasonable programming idea, yet it isn’t done very often. Felix Mendelssohn wrote seven full quartets, plus a small assortment of individual movements, just about the right amount of music for a set of three concerts.
In an ideal musical world, there would be a law: Whenever two string quartet ensembles collaborate on a concert, they must perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20. It’s that good a work. The St. Lawrence and Pacifica quartets obliged this dictum before an enraptured [email protected] festival audience at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church on Friday.
Saturday night’s Symphony Silicon Valley concert at the California Theatre in San José was full of interesting resonances and connections. For one thing, it was the anniversary of D-Day. What better time, as the organization’s President Andrew Bales pointed out in his welcoming talk, to hear a Mass, a work ending with the words “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace)?
Lynn Harrell is a very fine, light-toned cellist who’s played concertos in the Bay Area and is capable of outshining his conductors. But he’s not just a soloist, and he’s coming back to play chamber music with some friends, including his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, and pianist Victor Asuncion.
Chamber Music San Francisco is opening up a third set of performances, this one in Mountain View, and this concert is one of several highlights of this first season down the Peninsula. The performance feature Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1; Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello; and Brahms' Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 34.More about Chamber Music San Francisco »
Everybody knows Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Each century has its standard, default large-scale choral work (Messiah, Verdi’s Requiem), and, like it or not, Carmina Burana fills that role for the 20th. So it’s a good work to hear to judge the strength of a choral conductor, and in that spirit I went to hear Mitchell Sardou Klein lead the Peninsula Symphony on Friday at the San Mateo Center for the Performing Arts.
“Spring Symphonies” is the title that Symphony Silicon Valley gave to its May program, which I heard Saturday at the California Theatre in San José. Sure, it’s adequately descriptive for a concert performed in the spring. Yet neither of the symphonies on the program had Spring or Pastoral in their titles, or any other obvious programmatic connection with the season. So, what’s springlike about them?
Stanford University’s Memorial Church turned into a Byzantine abbey for two hours on Sunday evening, with a concert of medieval Byzantine chant performed by the vocal group Cappella Romana, from Portland, Oregon. This may not have been quite the religious music that Jane Stanford had in mind when she had the church built, but it was a perfect venue both acoustically and visually.
“Made in the U.S.A.” is the title of Mission Chamber Orchestra’s concert of American music of a decidedly romantic and audience-friendly bent, much of it by living composers. The program features premieres of works by Allen Cohen and Nancy Bloomer Deussen, a marimba concerto by Kevin Puts (with Lisa Pegher as soloist), and an Homage to George Gershwin by Sondra Clark.
Deussen and Clark are both mid-Peninsula residents, and Puts has also been heard much locally. Two deceased composers are also on the program: the Spanish immigrant Carlos Surinach, and the Boston classicist Arthur Foote. Emily Ray conducts.More about Mission Chamber Orchestra »
There will be rhythmic motifs. There will be strange harmonies. There will be exotic sounds. Expect sounds from percussion instruments you don’t hear every day at the symphony — tambourine, celesta, and piano as a percussion instrument in the background. There will be brass, lots of brass. There will be unusual combinations of instruments playing together. Bass clarinet and English horn. Bass clarinet and tuba. There will be a lot of work for all the players. There should be a lot of fun.
Many people from that part of the world are Slavic, but there are many others as well. The three composers on this concert are each of a different nationality, and only one of them is Slavic.
Béla Bartók, Hungarian, the Magyar people from the Danube plain. His Dance Suite of 1923 is the roughest, most brutal, and least tunefully catchy of the pieces on offer, but it’s also the most good humored and generally fun-loving. If you know his Miraculous Mandarin, think of that work plus a sense of humor. The six short movements of this suite almost run together. A variety of insanely fast and complex sections alternate with a gentler repeating tune. Then Bartók throws all the previous material together in a potpourri of a finale.
Aram Khatchaturian, Armenian, an ancient people from up in the Caucasus on the borders with Iran and Kurdistan. Khatchaturian’s style of pulsating motifs and gorgeous tunes over fast, dancing rhythms has become so taken for granted that the composer himself has been neglected. His once-popular Violin Concerto of 1940 has spent most of its time in a bottom drawer with the old linen since David Oistrakh, its dedicatee and great champion, died 35 years ago. Now younger violinists are rediscovering it. Claudia Bloom of the Opera San José orchestra will be the soloist at this concert. The slow middle movement is the most sublime Khatchaturian moment, but the lively outer movements have great dazzle.
Leoš Janáček, Moravian, the lesser-known Czech people, from the hills east of Dvořák’s Bohemians, and the Slavic representative at this concert. The opening fanfare of Janáček’s Sinfonietta of 1926 will grab you quickly. Brass and timpani, nothing else. First, supporting harmonies in stark open fifths, then a battery of trumpets declaiming a motif that expands as it repeats. After that, the rest of the orchestra comes in. Listen for the first themes of the second and fourth movements, so similar to each other and so reminiscent of Orff’s Carmina Burana. And wait for the end of the fifth and last movement, when the fanfare returns, verbatim, over towering trills from the rest of the orchestra.More »
The San Francisco Piano Quartet discovered American music on Sunday afternoon at the Noe Valley Ministry in the city, as part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music series. That is to say, they presented a program tracing the discovery of self-awareness of Americanism in the works of several generations of composers. An academic presentation on this complex subject it was not, but as a pretext for presenting a series of interesting chamber compositions, it worked fine.
But it’s Brahms that Symphony Silicon Valley listeners will be hearing in the California Theatre on March 26-29. The great Violin Concerto that Brahms wrote for his close friend Joseph Joachim in 1878 is the music. This “symphonic song for the violin,” as one critic called the work, is Brahms at his most expansive and lyrical, and it has a flamboyant, Hungarian-gypsy rondo finale tailor-made for the talents of soloist Ju-Young Baek. A young woman with one of the richest and most powerful violin tones I’ve heard from anybody, male or female, she has been a strong and passionate performer with SSV in music by Sibelius and Piazzolla. The Brahms is long, and hard to play, but violinists since Joachim have found it enjoyably worth the trouble.
Who goes better with Brahms than his friend and protégé Antonín Dvořák? The SSV Web site calls the Symphony from the New World “a thoroughly European work,” but it’s really not. Dvořák picked up more than a superficial view of America during his residence here in the 1890s. In his “American” works he abandoned the rhapsodic, unevenly accented style of his Czech homeland and tried for something plainer, foursquare, and rhythmically symmetrical, befitting his view of the American landscape and peoples. You can trace a little of the open harmonies and precise rhythms of Aaron Copland back to this work.
But of course it’s beautiful, as well, and no more so than in the famous theme for English horn in the slow movement. Many listeners hearing this think, “Oh, it’s just a spiritual that the composer borrowed,” but that’s rather like seeing Hamlet and thinking, “It’s just a collection of quotations.” In fact it’s Dvořák’s own theme, which was later adapted into a spiritual. SSV’s English horn player Patricia Emerson Mitchell might tell us something about preparing for this work on her blog.
Something less central-European, Hector Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture also contains an important English horn solo. The work is a potpourri of catchy bits from an opera, one of many works Berlioz wrote recalling his sunny student-days in Italy. The orchestration is bright and the themes are attractive, though the piece needs a firm hand from the conductor if it’s not to wander around aimlessly. George Cleve is more than capable of providing that firm hand — and Symphony Silicon Valley can respond to it.
Don’t miss the preconcert lecture in the main hall an hour before each program. Usually given by cellist Roger Emanuels, who’s retiring at the end of this season, or by violist Janet Sims, it provides a welcome, musician’s-eye view of the program and a gentle introduction to the music.More »
The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra likes varied and unusual programs. Saturday's free concert at St. Mark's Church in Palo Alto was perhaps a little more unusual than most. The program, led by SFCO Music Director Benjamin Simon, featured two clarinet concertos and a handbell concerto, and the shortest piece was by Gustav Mahler, a composer not noted for brevity. The unsuspecting composer of the handbell concerto was Johann Christian Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian who moved to London and wrote elegant, courtly music that influenced the young Mozart.
The battle of the musicologists broke out on Friday afternoon in Stanford University's Campbell Recital Hall. Joseph Horowitz, noted author of several books on the history of classical music in America, played a 1932 recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the slow movement of Beethoven's Fifth. Horowitz described the performance as transformed from "Beethoven's Andante" into "Stokowski's Adagio," not only for being played unusually slowly but also for added pedal points, distinctive string sonority, and other changes. He found the result very attractive.
Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony — the dark, somber one in a weird key (F-sharp minor), which ends with the musicians quietly leaving the stage by ones and twos, until only a pair of violinists are left to finish the piece — is the perfect work to serve as a metaphor for the end of a questionable year. So what happens when it's performed on New Year's Day instead of New Year's Eve, and the order of the repertoire is changed so that it no longer concludes the program?