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Going back about six decades now, there were Alan Watts in Marin and the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, the pioneering Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Lou Harrison’s gamelan works from San José and Santa Cruz, Berkeley’s Center for World Music, and countless others.
Northern California has long been a vital crossroad of East–West intellectual, spiritual, and artistic exploration and conflation.
The next journey to this crossroad is Stanford University’s sixth annual “Visions of Asian Music,” held on the Palo Alto campus, Feb. 5-21.
Festival founder and Artistic Director Jindong Cai has put together a remarkable East–West roster for the festival, including:
- Do You See My Heart? — a concert by Mohsen Namjoo, a classical singer and contemporary composer from Iran; his works encompass Hafez, Rumi, Saadi, blues, and rock; he has been called “Iran’s Bob Dylan” (Feb. 5).
- St. Lawrence String Quartet and Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra, joining in the West Coast premiere of Japanese-American composer Takuma Itoh’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. The program also includes Hawaii-based Canadian composer Neil McKay’s koto concerto called Voice of the Phoenix and Menlo Park native Henry Cowell’s 1957 Ongaku (Feb. 12)
- Gamelan Sekar Jaya, giving the premiere of Sekala-Niskala: Seen and Unseen, a Balinese dance suite. Ethnomusicologist and UC Santa Cruz Music Department Chair Fredric Lieberman calls the East Bay ensemble “serious students of the music of Bali, who have graduated from an amateur group, playing this dynamic music for its sheer excitement, to a semiprofessional performing ensemble” (Feb. 13).
- Husband-and-wife composers Zhou Long and Chen Yi present his Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets From Tang and her Rhyme of Fire. Cai conducts the Stanford Symphony in Tan Dun’s Concerto for Paper and Orchestra, and in the premiere of Korean composer Dohi Moon’s Fragile Waves, for laptop computers and orchestra. Chinese percussionist Beibei Wang is soloist; she has been a featured performer in several Tan Dun works, including the opera Tea and Paper Concerto (Feb. 20).
UC Santa Cruz’ Lieberman is also calling attention to his school’s hosting of the Pacific Rim Music Festival, April 21-25. Hi Kyung Kim is artistic director of the festival, which will showcase new music by composers from East Asia.
Participants include the farflung groups Contemporary Music Ensemble Korea, New York New Music Ensemble, and Lydian String Quartet, as well as the Bay Area’s own Del Sol String Quartet, Ensemble Parallèle, and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. The festival will also present the U.S. premiere of Frank Scheffer’s film Varèse: The One All Alone, a documentary about French-American composer Edgard Varèse (1883-1965).More about Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival »
Some pedantic fuddy-duddies may decry what transpired in Davies Symphony Hall last weekend, but those who love music, and who especially love J.S. Bach, were happy to experience an outstanding performance of an edited version of his Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.
Marino Formenti may be an amazing virtuoso pianist, an "eccentric titan of the keyboard," and "a Glenn Gould for the 21st century," but he doesn't particularly care to be called a pianist. He considers himself a musician, who mainly plays the piano.
(He has performed on multiple pianos, and used ordinary objects in his performances, and he is also an opera conductor — but that's another story.)
Formenti is also a major champion of contemporary music, and has performed Olivier Messiaen, Wolfgang Rihm, Luigi Nono, and many others, including as-yet-unknown composers. He made his San Francisco debut two years ago with an unusual concert at the new de Young Museum — a long program of short pieces by composers from Bach to Kurtág that were joined together without pause. He earned accolades for his "virtuoso brilliance, seductive intensity, and fluid chameleon shifts in the music."
Formenti now returns to the Bay Area, once again with San Francisco Performances, to offer two unusual concerts titled "Aspects of the Divine." On Dec. 5, he will perform Messiaen's monumental Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus; on Dec. 11, Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross and Berhard Lang's Monadologie V — Seven Last Words of Hasan.
Lang's work from the “Monadology” series is, according to Formenti, an “anti-piece” to Haydn's famous work. The new series of Monadologies concerns itself primarily with cellular processes, derived in poetic terms from the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Gilles Deleuze. The Hasan in the title is Hasan-i Sabbah, Sheikh of Alamut, who became head of the Shiite Arab Hashshashins (assassins) in 1090. His campaign was aimed at destroying the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members.
Of the upcoming concerts, Formenti says, "The older I get, the more convinced I am of music's spiritual aspects." He views the Messiaen as not only a gigantic piano work, but also something linked to "Indian tradition, Asian music, Japanese Noh theater, kabuki ritual ... with deep Catholicism and pantheism coalescing. Theater and ritual: a hidden opera, requiring intense concentration [from both artist and audience], a thrilling journey of about two hours without breaks."
Isn't it possible to insert pauses or an intermission? "There is no intermission in the universe," he replies. "I try to push the idea of the piano a little further, emphasizing the importance of music, the idea of spiritual meditation."
Asked about the other concert, and why the Lang piece, which is commenting on Haydn, is programmed first, Formenti has a startling reply: "Haydn learned a whole lot from us."
Why do I put the Haydn last and the Lang first? Very trivially: If you invite two honorable speakers to talk, would you let the older or the younger one speak first? But more seriously: We really cannot see the time, music history as an horizontal line, as just a unidirectional sequel.
The past influences the future as much as the future does the past, in music maybe even more than everywhere else, if possible. Furtwaengler and Schnabel helped to create the "Beethoven-image" we have, which is in the end, Beethoven for us.
I think we indeed could say that Haydn takes a lot from us, from our interpretatlons of artists and of listeners, maybe just as much as we learn from him. I don't say this to sound disrespectful, on the very contrary, it's just to remind that there is no Joseph Haydn, there is only our Haydn! Haydn is dead! And Haydn is very much alive.
With amazing coincidence, just as I was mulling that over, a Telegraph science report tried to explain the quantum world weirdness of events in the future affecting what happened in the past. The "double slit experiment" says observing a particle now can change what happened to another in the past. It's a good thing there is no need to explain Formenti — you can just listen to him.More about San Francisco Performances »
Is it possible to think of Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome as a great, overwhelming wall of sound, with singers struggling to be heard? That's a hasty association with its "sister opera," Elektra, about which there is a (possibly apocryphal) story of Strauss shouting at the orchestra: "Louder, I can still hear the singers!" Don't mention that idea to San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who is about to make his German-opera debut, conducting Salome Oct. 18 through Nov. 1.
When I did, asking what he is doing to allow the voices to come through, Luisotti said Strauss' "orchestration is so great that it's impossible to cover the voices." Impossible? Luisotti has thought about the opera for some 20 years. He spent the past two years studying the score, and now that he is in daily rehearsals, Luisotti lives and breathes Salome, and he certainly knows whereof he speaks. Sitting down with me, he opens the score to show — and sing — quiet orchestral passages all the way to page 47 where the first fortissimo marking appears ... "and no one is singing."
Luisotti then shows (and sings) orchestral pianissimos and even pianississimo ("ppp"), and how the instruments downshift in volume (diminuendo) instantly when voices appear. The "Dance of Seven Veils," of course, builds to one of the greatest climaxes in all opera ("orgiastic," the conductor says), but even during the work's horrific finale, there are those pp and ppp markings (even on page 325), so that the orchestra doesn't interfere with the voices.
"It's night music," Luisotti says, "about love and death, in a chaotic, thoroughly sick environment — with beauty lighting it up with every mention of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist — a tragedy of noncommunication between all the characters, and a cathartic end." Luisotti, a man of faith, in no way shares the century-old shock over Oscar Wilde's erotically charged play, the story's scandalous turns amplified by Strauss' sinewy music. After all his study of the work, Luisotti doesn't see it as the triangle of the lecherous King Herod, his necrophilia-craving stepdaughter, and the imprisoned, abused Jokanaan (John), but rather as a whirlpool of forces with "relevance to everybody." Salome, he says, with caring, "is only 18, growing up with a stepfather who killed her father; how 'healthy' can she be?"
He holds up two identical pieces of blank paper and crumples one: "this is 'good,' 'beautiful'," he says, pointing to the whole one, "and this is 'bad,' 'ugly,'" he says of the other. "They are the same, and different, parts of a whole." When he sees the devastating noncommunication between all characters in the opera, Luisotti doesn't judge them. "I ask myself: am I really in touch with people, do I hear what my wife tells me, do I really listen?"
A Lifelong PursuitThe moral, dramatic, and musicological complexity of the opera (with its then-new chromaticism and — for some — still not fully comfortable bitonality) so challenges and fascinates the music director that he says, simply and with conviction: "I will study Salome for the rest of my life." Luisotti first encountered the opera many years ago when working as a rehearsal pianist at a Torre del Lago Puccini Festival production (a double-bill with Suor Angelica). During his first discussions of repertory in San Francisco with General Director David Gockley, rather than assigning Salome to another conductor, Luisotti claimed it for himself; working with Gockley and the company's music staff, Luisotti also did the casting.
For the title role — "someone who is both a girl and a woman, who needs to be a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano, a coloratura, a mezzo-soprano, all in one" — the choice is German soprano Nadja Michael, whose London performance was reviewed as "blazing with dramatic intensity."
Irina Mishura sings Herodias, Kim Begley is Herod, Greer Grimsley is Jokanaan, and the early-expiring Narraboth (chronologically the first victim of noncommunication) is Garrett Sorenson.
The 105-minute, intermissionless, coproduction with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and L'Opéra de Montréal arrives here in Bruno Schwengl's design, with Seán Curran as stage director, and James Robinson as consulting director and dramaturg.
Having just passed by a poster of the Opera's current production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio), it occurred to me that Luisotti has already conducted Mozart — Don Giovanni in Miskolc, Hungary, and with the Tokyo Symphony (of which Luisotti is principal guest conductor), Le Nozze di Figaro in Tokyo this year, Così fan tutte in the Tokyo Suntory Hall next March — so is San Francisco's claim to Luisotti's first "German opera" valid?
He doesn't blink an eye, makes no geographical excuse (Salzburg-born Mozart's career took place in Vienna, which was German only anachronistically, during the Anschluss), says only that "Mozart's Italian-language operas are more Italian than German." And so they are. Bring on a real German opera! The Civic Grand Marshall of San Francisco's Columbus Day Italian Heritage Parade on Oct. 11 is ready.
PS: Why not discuss a possible Italian-German dichotomy with Luisotti? Because among the finest Wagner conductors of the past century were Toscanini, Sinopoli, De Sabata, Marinuzzi, Abbado, and Serafin ... just to start. As for Luisotti's San Francisco plans: "Bizet, Mozart, and — Wagner!"More about San Francisco Opera »