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Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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Upcoming Concert
January 18, 2010

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).
The festival will also present “elegant gatherings,” with Cai curating evenings of exploration, live performances, and discussion. In collaboration with the Cantor Arts Center and its exhibition Tracing the Past, these festival events will examine music and its relationship to painting, calligraphy, poetry, faith, and healing in Chinese tradition.

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 »
Music News
January 12, 2010

If Musicians Ruled the World ...

There it was, news over the weekend of the election victory of Ivo Josipovic, 52, for Croatia's presidency. He left politics in 1994 to pursue a law and music career, but returned seven years ago to lead the opposition Social Democrats.

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Music News
January 5, 2010

Great Expectations

A few personal picks from the many inviting local musical events of 2010.

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Music News
December 15, 2009

Debussy by Chance

After a "Wozzeck event" at the S.F. Conservatory Thursday night [see next item], I turned one way instead of another when leaving, and wound up bumping into a notice about a student concert.

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Music News
December 8, 2009

$14 Million Bailout From L.A. Opera From County

The Los Angeles Opera asked for and received a $14 million emergency loan from Los Angeles County on Tuesday to allow it to stay afloat and keep paying its expenses through the middle of next year, reports The Los Angeles Times.

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Music News
December 1, 2009

Those First Steps to Classical Music

Here's a refreshing thought for those already fatigued of dancing sugarplums and waltzing flowers: There is something really important and lasting about what's behind all that hype and commercialism.

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Choral Review
November 29, 2009

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.

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Music News
November 24, 2009

Weekend Riches From the Berlin Philharmonic

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were happily ensconced in and around Davies Symphony Hall Thursday through Saturday, showering the city with four grand events in just three days.

First, there was Rattle's magi

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Upcoming Concert
November 23, 2009

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 »
Music News
November 17, 2009

(Contractual) Longevity of Conductors

Upon hearing news of Simon Rattle's contract as principal conductor being extended by the self-governing Berlin Philharmonic through 2018, I put together a quick — and obviously incomplete — survey of music directors' tenure.

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Music News
November 10, 2009

The Phantom of the Legion

The great Ernest M. Skinner Organ in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor is turning 85 — and it's still invisible.

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Music News
November 3, 2009

'Our People' Doing Well Everywhere

Excuse yet another rather provincial outburst of pride, but young artists from hereabouts are making strides around the world — not that it's something new, but there is an unusual cluster of such reports:

Jose Maria Condemi

The Merola alumnus, who is likely to direct a San Francisco Butterfly in a year or two, has made his directorial debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last week with Verdi's Ernani. His report:
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Upcoming Concert
October 31, 2009

There are a few places in the world where Johan Botha, who is making his San Francisco Opera debut in Verdi's Otello on Nov. 8, is not the most famous man by that name.

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Music News
October 27, 2009

Mansouri Unveiled

Old and frail, when Otto Klemperer came to the dress rehearsal of La traviata at the Zürich Opera in 1960, he sat down next to the director, and promptly fell asleep, resting his head on the young man's shoulder.

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Music News
October 20, 2009

Last-Minute Word About a First-Class Event

Yes, it's tonight at 8 p.m. in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but if you're a timely reader of Music News, you can still make it.

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Music News
October 13, 2009

Global Opera

Being part of a full theater in San Francisco's Century-9 complex on Saturday for the Metropolitan Opera's HD (high-definition) simulcast of Puccini's Tosca was not only
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Upcoming Concert
October 8, 2009

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 Pursuit

The 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 »
Music News
October 6, 2009

UPDATE: S.F. Lyric Opera Suspends Operations

San Francisco Lyric Opera Artistic Director Barnaby Palmer announced on Thursday that the company is suspending operations, effective immediately, because of lack of funds. The first casualty of the decision is the planned production of an opera gala next month, itself a fund-raising event.
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Music News
September 29, 2009

Atherton's Self-Effacing New Concert Hall

Normally the way you get a story is of no interest to the reader, but this one is different — "pertinent data" was especially difficult to find ... about something that should

 be publicized with relish.

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Opera Review
September 23, 2009

Grand and glorious as Mozart's 1782 Die Entführung aus dem Seraglio (The Abduction from the Seraglio) is, it's not a through-composed, sung-only "grand opera." Now onstage at the San Francisco Opera, in a new coproduction with Chicago's Lyric Opera, "Abduction" is an early forerunner of the Broadway musical, a "singspiel" with a great deal of spoken dialogue.

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