Jaime Robles is a writer and reviewer. Over the past 10 years she has worked as a librettist for composer Peter Josheff, and their vocal music has been performed by Earplay, Harvest of Song, and as part of Goat Hall productions, StageMedia productions, and the American Composers Forum Salon. She recently finished a short opera libretto for composer Ann Callaway.
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According to Music Director Todd Jolly, there was no shortage of music about war to be found when the group’s creative team of Jolly, Executive Director J. Jeff Badger, and Assistant Music Director Katherine McKee put together their provocative and inventive series, “Music in Time of War.”
“We hear about the guys doing the bombing raids over Iraq, listening to music that pumps them up over their headphones,” Jolly explains. “And we certainly know the importance of music to the Vietnam War protest and in the civil rights movement. Apparently it was no less important back in the Renaissance.”
The centerpiece of the concert is Tomás Luis de Victoria’s nine-voice Missa pro victoria (dated 1600). The piece uses 18 members: six sopranos and four in each of the other sections, for its two choirs mixing a total of nine vocal parts. The work is richly textured, the multiple parts creating a profusion of overtones. “The overtones are just glorious,” Jolly enthuses. “It’s always exciting to do something that is nine parts.”
“The Victoria is not what you would anticipate from most Masses of the day,” Jolly adds. “It has a much faster tempo; it’s much lighter in feel.” It also uses a variety of vocal sound effects. A parody of a secular work, La Battaille de Marignan (known as “La guerre”) by Clement Janequin, which celebrates a French victory in 1515, Victoria’s Mass is full of the sounds of war — the singers’ voices re-creating the ringing clash of swords, the resonant explosions of cannons, and the cries of warriors in both victory and pain. Jolly confesses to having mixed feelings about the music’s portrayal of war but affirms “it’s music that for its own sake deserves to be performed.” He adds that the work is “quite fun to perform and to listen to.”
The program includes a variety of musical groupings, from quintet to soloist, as well as a range of musical styles, including that of Guillaume Dufay’s Lamentio sanctae matris ecclesiae constantinopolitanae (The fall of Constantinople), which is a four-voice chanson-motet.
Listen to the Music
Troubadour songs comprise the shorter pieces on the program. Soprano Rita Lilly, who also sings with the American Bach Soloists, will be performing Bernart de Ventadorn’s lovely Quan vei la lauzeta mover (When I see the lark beat his wings), with one lyric reading: “Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,/and really I know so little.” Although the listener might readily place these works in the category of peace, they are also linked with war. “Singing troubadour songs was part of the training that military personnel went through,” Jolly relates. This was a practice that made emotional sense, since both courtly love and war ask the participant for fidelity unto death.
Celtic harpist Diana Rowan accompanies the group on several pieces. “We work with her every chance we get,” says Jolly. “She is such an incredible accompanist and a fine soloist.” Peter Jaques also accompanies on the ney, a sort of Turkish recorder. And Jolly, himself a percussionist, joins the musical fray for the Turkish songs, playing a selection of instruments including a modern version of the field drum.
“Our history and culture have a lot to say about war and may open our eyes a bit to the fact that this is an age-old problem,” Jolly concludes. “The crusades maybe weren’t the best thing, so why are we doing it again? ... We really haven’t resolved anything in all these hundreds of years.”
Whatever political dimension may or may not exist in San Francisco Renaissance Voices’ thought-provoking look at music and war, the upcoming concert series is sure to be filled with splendid music, superbly sung, and a delight for any music lover.More about San Francisco Renaissance Voices »
Newly graduated from San Francisco Conservatory, Dorman has won numerous competitions throughout the Bay Area — such as the Keyboard Educators’ Competition, the Ross McKee Competition, and the Young Artists Beethoven Competition.
She has also been a featured performer at the Carmel Bach Festival, at the Yehudi Menuhin Chamber Music Seminar, and with the Smuin Ballet Company.
Although she played double bass for several Bay Area youth orchestras, she began to devote herself full time to the piano after a series of strain injuries. “I was playing on an instrument that was way too big from me,” she explains, “but I was always primarily a pianist. Bass was something I did for pleasure, playing Latin, jazz, and bluegrass. Piano was always my passion.”
It’s the repertory that draws Dorman to the piano, as well as its physical compatibility. And part of that repertory is what excites her about the forthcoming Old First Concert, which includes Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 19, and the Piano Trio in A Minor by Maurice Ravel.
Dorman, who has played at the Old First church before, finds the San Francisco venue on Van Ness Avenue at Sacramento Street “a beautiful place to make music,” and she describes the concert’s music as being “at the pinnacle of the piano repertory.”
“The Rachmaninov is extraordinarily demanding for the piano,” she explains. “I feel like I’m climbing Mount Everest!” But rather than being daunted by the challenges the piece provides, she is excited and thrilled: “I guess I’m sort of an adrenaline junkie.”
As much as she admires the Rachmaninov because of its grand Romantic gestures, virtuosic demands, and subtle moments of complexity, she is quick to add that both pieces demand virtuosity for all the instruments. “The Ravel makes rhythmic demands on the strings, using the rhythms of Basque dances. He wrote the piece just as he was leaving for the army in World War I, but you wouldn’t know that: It’s magical and spontaneous, with special effects on the violin and really cool themes that he layers on top of each other.”Although this is the first time that she has played with Dan Carlson, who is associate principal second violinist with the San Francisco Symphony, Dorman has played other concerts with Robert Howard, her cellist. Howard, who won first prize in the Rome Festival Competition, has performed locally with American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque, and the S.F. Symphony. “I love his energy,” Dorman comments. “We have the same rehearsal style. I love his freedom and the way he has of pushing me beyond my comfort zone.”
It’s a shared admiration. Howard agrees: “She’s one of those rare musicians who can actually show what she wants in her playing. ... Frequently, we can just play something through two or three times, without much discussion at all. Every time, we get a bit more in sync with each other. Her playing is never generic; her intention is always clear.”
As for any good musician, though, music involves the listener, and Dorman is aware of and sensitive to her audience: “I’m the only one in my family who plays an instrument, so I’m constantly surrounded by people who don’t know classical music. ... I love reaching out to them.” She is also a teacher inspired by her students, because they remind her that music can be motivated simply by the joyfulness of its own practice.
As for the future, Elizabeth Dorman now says she wants to “continue performing, playing concerts, teaching, and having the time to practice doing what I do now ... just keep learning and improving as a musician.” At some point, she hopes to share her art with other musical communities around the world, but at the moment her talents are ours to enjoy, savor, and applaud.More about Old First Concerts »
It may seem like a strange marriage — the symphony orchestra, with its refinements and collective history, musicians placed in an orderly half circle, decked out in black and white; and the circus performers, with their exotic costumes, glittering physicality, and commitment to the arcane sciences of balance and strength. But who says a symphony concert has to be business as usual?
The “Cirque of the Season” program mixes both music alone with music and circus performance, opening with Leroy Anderson’s upbeat medley of carols, A Christmas Festival, featuring lots of splashy percussion and snappy brass, interspersed with soulful horns and woodwinds for the more tender songs. This is music that will focus even the littlest person’s attention.
Christine Van Loo performs with her dreamy aerial silks to Howard Blake’s “Walking in the Air” from the 1982 animated film The Snowman, (“We’re swimming in the frozen sky ... we’re dancing in the midnight sky”). Aerial silks are long swatches of suspended cloth that float through the air while the aerialist moves within their billowing folds. The effect is both gentle and otherworldly. The penultimate piece is also performed on the aerial silks by the angelic Alexander Streltsov.
Juggler and mime Vladimir Tsarkov shows his mastery of juggling rings to Leon Jessel’s Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and throws batons to Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker. Tsarkov is a remarkable dancer, with a set of movesthat would have given Michael Jackson serious thought. His moonwalk is interplanetary, and there’s a delicate pathos and whimsy to his miming that reminds me of Marcel Marceau at his best. His ability to combine dance, mime, juggling, and narrative has set him apart from other performers in his genre and won him gold medals internationally.
One of the most riveting pieces, though, is bound to be the hand-balancing of “Jarek” Marciniak and “Darek” Wronski. The Polish duo has performed with the Cirque du Soleil, and their slow, sustained interweaving, in which they use each other’s bodies as balances and fulcrums, is breathtaking. As is the sheer beauty of their bodies.
In between each cirque piece, San Francisco Symphony Assistant Conductor Donato Cabrera will lead the orchestra in a series of holiday works by Bizet, Mozart, Prokofiev, and Vaughan Williams, sure to be full of insistent percussion and bright strings, warm woodwinds and brass, and the delicate cascades of pitched bells. Everyone will love it all. Tickets are half price for ages 17 and under. It’s a gift!More about San Francisco Symphony »
“Most composers have created this intimate work,” he asserts, “whether it’s Beethoven or John Adams.” And it’s this wide-ranging diversity over shifts in personality and era that enhances the form’s enduring appeal. Further, its simplicity of a single instrument playing a single line allows the listener into the extremely personal world of the composer’s creative thoughts. That accessibility extends to both the musician and the listener. “You can follow one instrument and focus on one part, while hearing the other parts. It lets you understand the intimacy of playing music together,” adds Pelletey. “And it’s easy to talk with the musicians and say something about the music after the concert.”
Kathy Barr, the executive director of the Old First Concert Series, agrees that intimacy is key to the beauty of chamber music. “Everyone wants it,” she says. Barr is delighted to provide Old First’s warm ambience and acoustically alluring concert space to house this year’s Chamber Music Day. It fits in perfectly with Old First’s mission to promote emerging professionals who play chamber music. “Many of our musicians play for the Opera and Symphony,” she adds. “The series offers a chance for those musicians to play the music they want to play and to showcase their playing.”
Chamber Music Day runs from 12:30 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26, and features no fewer than 15 Bay Area ensembles. The concert divides the groups into three sets of five groups, and each set offers a selection from the variety of music offered; listeners can enter and leave as they choose, thereby constructing their own concerts as the mood suits them. Last year, this casual and family-friendly approach to listening gave the concert an unusually sociable feel — something closer to a gentle celebration that addressed the needs and desires of its audience. While children are welcome and encouraged, this year the church is also providing a place for restless children who may feel moved to provide their own music during concerts.
Among the 15 performances to be presented at Chamber Music Day, three Bay Area ensembles, emphasizing Latin music — Potaje, the Del Sol String Quartet, and Quinteto Latino — will offer nine works by seven contemporary composers from Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. Next year, when the Day moves to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the conservatory’s chamber music program, the accent will be on music by French composers.
Each of the ensembles is connected to a presenter that regularly features the ensemble and that has an ongoing series. During each group’s 30-minute performance time, the presenter takes a few minutes to introduce the ensemble and describe their concert series, making the entire event a great opportunity for the audience to familiarize itself with the truly vast assortment of talented musicians that makes the Bay Area such an opulent reservoir of fine classical music.
Collaboration with other organizations has expanded Chamber Music Day events, so that in addition to the day itself Old First, which is celebrating its concert series’ 40th year, is presenting a symposium at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The panel includes San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman; violist Jodi Levitz of the Ives Quartet and professor of viola and chamber music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and Adam Frey, the former executive director of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Barr moderates. This informative discussion will look at the ins and outs of chamber music, as well as cover its recent history.
Further, San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music is holding Chamber Music Night, on Sept. 25. Also at Old First Church, the event is designed to promote the event and the organization to donors, press, and presenters. Besides the shoulder rubbing and solicitations, the Ives Quartet will perform an 18-minute piece by local composer Don Baker. “It’s not a public event,” claims Pelletey, “but we’re not going to turn away anyone who wants to come.”
Last year, San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music instituted its first round of grants, dividing $75,000 to 23 Bay Area chamber music performers and composers. It’s all part of the organization’s efforts to build a closer, wider community. “It’s important for the community to grow,” affirms Pelletey. “I want to give people something; we need to give to the community.”
And give is exactly what they have done. Chamber Music Day is everything you could wish for in a concert — endearing and audacious, variegated and profound, intimate and accessible, free and freewheeling.More about Chamber Music Day: Live + Free »
Too often people think of music as merely an accompaniment to dance, a means by which beautiful bodies keep in rhythm while tracing out a narrative or sketching a dynamic pattern across the wide stage-spaces. But the truth is that music, for any great choreographer or dancer, is the be-all and end-all of dance — the true muse who inspires and leads the dancer to the heart of emotion and thought.
Mark Morris has done more than claim that his dance group “is a music organization”; he has consistently brought high-quality music and musicans to his company performances. The music is always live, and in the Bay Area it has been performed by top-notch groups like the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the Berkeley Symphony, and UC Berkeley’s choruses.
The MMDG always presents a premiere during its stay in Berkeley and this year they bring two West Coast premieres: Visitation, performed to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 for cello and piano, Op. 102; and Empire Garden, set to Charles Ives’ trio for piano, violin, and cello. The third piece on the program, called V, is danced to Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat for piano and strings.
Here is an uncommon combination of music. The Beethoven sonata's tender conversation between instruments morphs into a bright tempo that the choreographer describes as “sort of deranged and private and stormy.” The Ives trio is a comic mélange, full of the busyness of American life and laced with popular tunes and the occasional lapse that folds gently into the wistful and the sentimental; all of this is sandwiched between melancholic melodies, dark rhythms, and dissonant lyricism. The Schumann is one of his loveliest chamber pieces.
Unusual, however, is the name of Morris’ musical game, and he is especially fond of intriguing orchestrations and exotic instrumentation. He laughingly tells the story of a critic who complained that, when in Berkeley, Morris availed himself too much of the richly diverse musical community: “Too much new stuff with too many musicians,” remarks Morris. “I’m sorry. I like to do that.”
Even more to his credit, Morris has employed the original music, working directly from the composers’ scores and shunning orchestral versions of dance music that have grown flaccid over the years. Robert Cole, the former director of Cal Performances and a longtime collaborator with Morris, brought Morris’ version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker to Zellerbach Hall in 1996. As a musician, Cole, who had seen the show in New York several years previously, had been struck by the unusual rhythms used in MMDG’s The Hard Nut, only to find out later, when he conducted the orchestra for a Berkeley production, that those rhythms were in fact mostly Tchaikovsky’s, notated clearly in the score but ignored by generations of choreographers who were less inspired and less committed to the music.
In 2008 Morris pulled off a musical coup by using Prokofiev’s original music for his Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare — not the music that we are familiar all with, which was filtered through the Russian state’s art bureaucrats, but the music Prokofiev wrote, which had never been performed and had only recently been discovered in the state archives in Moscow. The difference was amazing: The music was raw and energetic, vigorous yet sensitive. For days afterward, people wandered into Amoeba Music, looking for that version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, a version that remains unavailable.
And what about the dance? What comes out of Morris’ partnership with music is altogether wonderful. Witty and lyrical, he and his dancers show another facet of music, revealing it with passion, intelligence, and supreme artistic skill.More about Cal Performances »
When L’Allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato premiered in Brussels in 1988, it was the Mark Morris Dance Group’s first work as the resident company of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, a post previously held by Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the XXth Century. That Morris rose to the competition by creating an enduring and winning work was proved again at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend, presented by Cal Performances.
In a very local and personal interpretation of its mission to perform “newly commissioned works of promising composers,” the vibrant young choral group International Orange Chorale sang a program on Friday of diverse and original work by contemporary California composers. The group’s performance of each of these challenging works, at the Solarium at 55 Second St., San Francisco, was always engaging and brilliant.
The symphonic chorale of the Oakland-based Cantare Con Vivo paid homage to Felix Mendelssohn on Saturday by performing one of his last compositions, the massive, two-hours-plus oratorio Elijah. Artistic Director David Morales led the excellent chorale and orchestra.
Ballet aspires to the otherworldly. The dancer on the tips of her toes seems freed from the constraints of gravity: able to spin unrestrainedly, to move like quicksilver or a cloud. The ballerina’s partner helps her escape the earth’s physical confinements, allowing her to take flight. The male dancer’s great leaps seem to suspend him in midair.
It's often remarked that Benjamin Britten was fascinated by innocence, and especially the fall of innocence, yet it's seldom noted that he was also fascinated by the supernatural. Maybe it's more accurate to say that his music often evokes the supernatural — shimmering through strange dissonances and ethereal harmonies.
The libretto of Gaetano Donizetti's 1832 opera L'elisir d'amore (The elixir of love) has wide appeal. Many of us have suffered the torture of being in love with someone who doesn't know we exist, and worse, wouldn't be interested if they did. But even more of us have grown up with the story of the young simpleton who, through no other talents than his own uncanny foolishness and constant good nature, garners heaps of gold coins and the kingdom's most beautiful maiden at story's end.
Sunday's gray skies and icy wind marked the planet's tilt toward winter but, inside San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El, the Bay Area's first "Chamber Music Day—Live + Free" created an oasis of warmth as 16 local chamber groups performed for those who were brave — and wise — enough to venture out in the cold.
When the curtain opened at Zellerbach Auditorium on Wednesday night, the painted backdrop revealed stone archways through which we could see blurs of forest green and brick red, and, centrally, a pathway leading to a vaguely shaped castle in the distance. The Kirov Ballet of Saint Petersburg was presenting its world: one of aristocratic virtues and idealized love marked in precisions of the body’s movement.