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His return to San Francisco will come 33 years after his participation in a historic event that took place in the War Memorial Opera House:
- The first time Luciano Pavarotti sang “Nessun dorma” on stage, in his role debut as Calaf
- Montserrat Caballé’s debut in the title role of Turandot
- And Chailly’s own conducting debut here, at age 24
It is a great pleasure to return to San Francisco for the first time. I am coming back still with a fresh memory of the Turandot production I conducted as a young fellow, with Pavarotti and Caballé making sensational role debuts in the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production.The focus on the night of Oct. 29, 1977, was on those great singers and the artistic-social hubbub in and around the Opera House, and only partially on the man in the orchestra pit.
Yet there he was: a wunderkind leading a triumphant performance, the same age as Gustavo Dudamel when the Venezuelan first conducted at the BBC Proms, as a replacement for the indisposed Neeme Järvi; and a year younger than Leonard Bernstein when he substituted for Bruno Walter to lead the New York Philharmonic.
Milano-born Chailly, a precocious conservatory student, was a teenage assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala and played drums in a rhythm-and-blues band. He went on to lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for two decades, and to conduct major orchestras and at opera houses around the world.
While Chailly hasn’t been back to San Francisco, the Gewandhaus Orchestra has returned several times during its 33-year touring history, with 229 concerts in the U.S. alone. In Davies Hall, Gewandhaus concerts were led by a familiar figure. San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, music director here 1985-1995, headed the Gewandhaus from 1998 through 2005. Chailly took over from him as Gewandhauskapellmeister in 2005.
Even now, in Davies Hall, Blomstedt will overlap with Chailly and the Gewandhaus, conducting SFS Feb. 18-20, in works by Haydn and Beethoven.
Blomstedt’s tenure here and in Leipzig were characterized by rigorous adherence to the classics. His successor will follow suit: Before the all-Beethoven concert on Feb. 22 (Piano Concerto No. 5 and Symphony No. 7), the Sunday, Feb. 21, lineup consists of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. (Louis Lortie replaces the originally scheduled Nelson Freire as the pianist on both evenings.)
Why the lack of variety? Chailly’s response:
It was obvious to focus on the core repertoire with which the orchestra has forged its reputation. We bring to California composers who had a personal relationship with the LGO in its lifetime.As to that “personal relationship,” Gewandhaus — which calls itself the world’s oldest orchestra — was first formed in 1743, and Beethoven (1770-1827) himself toured Leipzig in 1796, long after the orchestra moved into the “textile merchants’ building” — its residence and namesake.
During recent years, I have concentrated in Leipzig intensively on composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. It was inevitable that we’ll come to the U.S. with composers who have been identified with the Gewandhaus and its tradition.
But, pressing on with the question about the strictly 19th-century programming, aren’t there any calls for more variety? Chailly’s answer is that, besides the orchestra’s own preference, it’s also a matter of local requests. He says, somewhat surprisingly in pointing the finger at local organizations:
We gave a variety of programs to our management in New York and they — as always — dealt with the local promoters who invited us. In those programs of course was present more than one composition of the masters of the 20th-century period. But this time the choice focused on our core repertoire of the LGO.Exactly the same programs are scheduled in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and elsewhere. Apparently, nobody asked for more-current works or, at least, the music of LGO’s most famous music director, Mendelssohn.
Meanwhile, back in Leipzig, the LGO commissioned five works for the current season, in addition to presenting six world premieres. That’s well beyond “the core.”
Finally, back to the 1977 Turandot and Chailly’s initial career, which was primarily in opera, does he plan (with or without the Gewandhaus) to lead opera productions soon? The answer is no, though “There are talks with major European festivals about future possibilities.”More about San Francisco Symphony »
[The sound of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is heard, starting with the full sound of the cello, as Arnold Schoenberg and Theodor Adorno listen.]
Schoenberg: “Stop! Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Kol Nidre is played. But why always Max Bruch’s? At least up here, on Parnassus, let’s hear my version for a change. Without the cello sentimentality of the Bruch. It needs words ... not just music!”
[Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre (Op. 39) is heard through the musical introduction, the male singer reciting the text.]
Adorno: “Enough! You’ve made your point, but this isn’t about music — 12-tone or otherwise ...”
In fact, this work, Carl Djerassi’s Schoenberg on Parnassus, is about music, but also about chess, philosophy, politics, Paul Klee’s Jewishness, Theodor Adorno’s musicology, Walter Benjamin’s Marxism, and much, much more.
This wild and crazy multimedia event, coming to San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, opposite Yerba Buena Center, on Feb. 7, is a sophisticated, esoteric, academic play-conversation-concert. It is clever and chaotic and challenging and — to some — simply perplexing.
Djerassi, 86, is a Stanford chemistry professor emeritus, novelist, and founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near his home in Woodside. The name may be familiar from his most famous accomplishment, Djerassi being one of the fathers, so to speak, of the birth control pill.
Schoenberg on Parnassus is a staged segment of his book Four Jews on Parnassus: A Conversation, or imagined posthumous conversations among Schoenberg, Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Adorno.
The four are interconnected in multiple ways, and through these dialogues Djerassi is exploring ideas of identity, canonization, and his own story as a Jew who had to flee Nazi Austria in 1938.
This production, directed by Vienna-based Isabella Gregor, features the London opera singer Loré Lixenberg; actors Gerry Hiken, Ken Sonkin, and Bill Wolak; and Stanford drama professors Kay Kostopolous and Rush Rehm. The music ranges from Schoenberg to a commissioned rap song by Eric Weiner, a San Franciscan, to an Icelandic pop song.
Paul Klee’s artwork is also prominent; Djerassi is a major collector of his works and has bequeathed his entire Klee collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The San Francisco event is cosponsored by the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts and the National Center for New Plays at Stanford. There will be what organizers call a “related but different reading” in Stanford’s Pigott Theater at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 6. The two events represent the U.S. premiere of Schoenberg on Parnassus; numerous performances of various segments of the work have been given in Europe.More about Contemporary Jewish Museum »
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 »