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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
May 12, 2009
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy is living up the "lucky" part of his name as the world celebrates his 200th birthday. Were he alive, he might revel in the good fortune of being well honored by Vance George and the San Francisco State Chamber Singers.

George, the emeritus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, along with conductors David J. Xiques and Cyrus Ginwala, the school's singers, the Alexander String Quartet, pianist Roger Woodward, the University Chorus, tenor Brian Cheney, and organist Jonathan Dimmock will celebrate the great composer with a generous cross-section of his works on May 16 at Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light and on May 17 at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

But that's just the teaser for the "well-honored" part. The concerts are benefits for causes that would have warmed the cockles of young Felix's heart and moved him to say thanks in one of the four languages he spoke fluently (German, English, Italian, and Latin).

Proceeds from the first concert will benefit the St. Martin de Porres School choral program, and the second concert will benefit the Choir of Men and Boys at Grace Cathedral — two organizations that provide music education and performance opportunities to young people.

The program contains several of Mendelssohn’s undervalued, large-scale choral works, including several from his two oratorios, St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846). Also one of the composer’s early string symphonies, several keyboard works, and the magnificent String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80. Not leaving out Felix’s talented sister Fanny, the concert includes two works by her.

It’s no wonder that a choral master, like George, would love Mendelssohn, who contributed a good portion of the 19th-century’s best choral music to the repertory. During his quarter-century leadership of the SFS Chorus (1983-2006) and before, with Margaret Hillis' Chicago Symphony Chorus, George has championed Mendelssohn's music, along with a broad range of composers, from Bach to Sondheim. Under his baton, the SFS Chorus won four Grammy Awards, including Best Choral Album (for Brahms' A German Requiem and Orff's Carmina Burana), Classical Album of the Year, and the 2001 concert production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

George is enchanted by Mendelssohn's childhood, his visit to Leipzig at age 12, spending time with the 73-year-old Goethe. "Every morning," George quotes Mendelssohn's diary, "I receive a kiss from the author of Faust. After dinner, I entertain with Bach fugues and improvisations. I saw where Bach worked and composed!"

A few years later, the Bach-Mendelssohn connection flowered, George says, "through Sarah Itzig Levy, a sister of Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn's maternal grandmother, Felix copying the then little-known St. Matthew Passion (can you imagine that!), and then another 'activist,' the actor Edward Devrient, sang the role of Jesus, and suddenly St. Matthew was — rightly — considered the greatest German art." Devrient has been quoted saying "It took an actor and a young Jew to return the greatest Christian music to the German people."

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Music News
May 5, 2009

S.F. Opera Opts For Being Safe, Not Sorry

The economic downturn, which has hit art organizations with the double whammy of declining contributions and a drop in ticket sales, is really wreaking havoc on opera companies — always troubled by production costs, which are inevitably the highest among performing organizations.
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CD Review
April 28, 2009
Among the many astonishing things about Yuja Wang is her relationship to time. At 22, already a leading pianist in the world, she not only made her first appearance — as a virtual unknown — only three years ago in San Francisco at a Chinese New Year Concert matinee, but a mere eight years ago she was still studying at the Beijing Conservatory, where Western music meant the time before Brahms.
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Music News
April 28, 2009

The Merolini are Coming!

With over half a century of tradition and a $2.1 million annual operating budget, the Merola Opera Program has begun its 2009 program by selecting 29 artists from eight countries for three months of coaching, training, and performances. In the past — while Merola still carried the now-affiliate San Francisco Opera name — the Program produced scores of singing greats.

These are the winners of month-long auditions held locally and in Seattle, Chicago, Houston, and New York:

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Recital Review
April 25, 2009

Good old Herbst Theatre had a fabulous 24 hours over the weekend. Friday night, it hosted the Philharmonia Baroque's world-class presentation of Handel's Athalia. On Saturday — instead of soloists, chorus, and orchestra squeezed onto the small stage (how do they do that?!) — Herbst showcased Nelson Freire, a solitary artist in recital ... and still created the same sort of grand experience.

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Music News
April 21, 2009

Cabrillo Goes Global

Music Director Marin Alsop is programming her next Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (Aug. 2-16) as a summit for new works from composers around the world.
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Upcoming Concert
April 14, 2009
Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conclude their 28th season with Handel’s Athalia (see feature, an eminently operatic 1733 oratorio about the daughter of Jezebel, who usurped the throne of Judah by slaughtering all its rightful heirs with one exception, who — but let’s not spoil the story. The outstanding cast includes Marnie Breckenridge, Dominique Labelle, Robin Blaze, Thomas Cooley, and Roderick Williams. More »
Music News
April 14, 2009

Bates Preview at YouTube Symphony

At the April 15 Carnegie Hall debut performance by the YouTube Orchestra, there will also be a preview of California Symphony Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates' The B-Sides.

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Upcoming Concert
April 10, 2009

The Oakland East Bay Symphony's April 17 concert at the Paramount Theatre "pairs two composers who were revolutionaries in their time, and who changed the course of music forever," says Music Director Michael Morgan. In the case of Beethoven, it's the youthful and pathbreaking 1798 Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Sara Buechner as soloist), and from Stravinsky, it's the riotous Petrouchka ballet suite (1947 version).

In addition to new harmonies and dynamics in both works, wild rhythms are special characteristics: In the third movement of the piano concerto, syncopation reaches the point of jazz, and the adventures of Petrouchka the puppet overwhelm with arrhythmical motions on the order of Chorea sancti viti (St. Vitus' dance), just on this side of dyskinesias. Both pieces burst with colors, huge swings in mood, and waves of raw power.

Petrouchka has an important role in the history of ballet. Stravinsky composed the music for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which premiered it at the Théâtre du Chatelet in 1911, under Pierre Monteux — who, it may behoove young audiences to know, later became the longest-serving music director of the San Francisco Symphony, from 1935 to 1952. With choreography by Mikhail Fokine, sets by Alexandre Benois, and Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, it's hard to get more historic. But the greatness of the occasion took decades to be appreciated, and the public had a hard time with the music, although it refrained from the outright riot that greeted The Rite of Spring two years later in the same Paris theater. (OEBS originally scheduled Rite, which requires a larger orchestra, for this program.)

It wasn't just the audience troubled by Petrouchka: The mighty Vienna Philharmonic refused to play the score, calling it "dirty music." I wonder what they would have made of Bartók's near-contemporary, far more erotic The Miraculous Mandarin back then; it did upset listeners in Cologne, and was banned in Germany. Thirty-six years after the premiere, Stravinsky reworked Petrouchka as an orchestral suite, but not to worry — he didn't "clean it up."

Not as well known as Wagner's "Tristan Chord," the "Petrouchka Chord" is interesting enough, with two major triads played together. Listen for this bitonality device heralding the appearance of the tragic hero of the piece.

This being Morgan's ever-contemporary OEBS, there is something new on the program. It's Mark Lanz Weiser's Four Scenes From the Story of Toccata and Fugue. The Southern California composer, 40, equally busy with movies and concert pieces, is a multiple ASCAP winner. His opera, Where Angels Fear to Tread, premiered at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

Of Four Scenes, Morgan says: "It's a short piece, a series of selections from a film score (tonal, evocative) and because it's for string orchestra, it reminds you of that other great string orchestra film score, Psycho — but without the insanity."

The film in question is Neal Thibedeau's 2007 thriller The Story of Tocatta and Fugue, whose main characters are named Gil Toccata and Andi Fugue, played by Graham Sibley and Annika Marks. ("Tocatta" in the film becomes "Toccata" in the concert program because, as the composer admitted to us: "I didn’t want people to think I don’t know how to spell that Italian word.")

To enhance further the concert's aural pomp and grand circumstances, Morgan opens the evening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 Russian Easter Overture. Note how the celebratory theme in this piece will later resonate in Petrouchka's carnival scenes. Mother Russia will be well served.

An hour before the concert starts (as Russian Orthodox Obikhod canticles, mixed with pagan rhythms, ring out), John Kendall Bailey presents a preconcert lecture.

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Upcoming Concert
April 7, 2009
“My name is Dylan Mattingly, I’m 17 (though for only three more hours ...), and I, along with Preben Antonsen (also 17), run a local new music ensemble made up of kids our age which plays music written in our lifetimes,” said the irresistible e-mail. “Preben and I are both composers and each have pieces in the upcoming concert, along with many other fun recent works by composers such as Arvo Pärt and Kaija Saariaho.”

The full name of the organization is Formerly Classical, but somehow “FORMERLY” has more punch, more marketing power. Let’s put “marketing” in quotes also, because its concerts are free and little or no money changes hands. FORMERLY, say participants, “is a group dedicated to the revival of excitement in classical music and the dispelling of the myth that classical music ended in 1940.” That year, besides its musicological values, may well mark the birth of some parents of the FORMERLY tribe.

It is an entirely teen-run group whose musicians are drawn from the ranks of prestigious Bay Area institutions, such as the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the School of the Arts in San Francisco.

The free concert Mattingly announced, just hours before turning — gasp! — 18, will take place in Lick Wilmerding High School, 755 Ocean Ave., San Francisco, at 7:30 p.m. on April 17. The program includes works by Ben Johnston, Henryk Górecki, Lou Harrison, Kaija Saariaho, Arvo Pärt, Nico Muhly, and György Ligeti, plus premieres by Antonsen, Mattingly, and Gabriella Smith.

FORMERLY was founded three years ago by guitarist, composer, and Classical Voice contributor Matthew Cmiel, who now studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The baton of leadership has passed to Antonsen and Mattingly, the former a pianist and composition student (with John Adams), the latter also a composer besides being a cellist, pianist, guitarist, bassist, and singer in the bands Funky Bus and the U-Turns.

Antonsen’s Thresh of Gear was recently premiered by the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. Mattingly’s many compositions include a piece performed by the Berkeley Symphony in an Under Construction concert, a short work performed in the Vox Novus program in cities around the world (including Berlin, Sydney, and New York City), and a recent piece for piano and orchestra, performed by the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra.

Smith’s orchestral works have been performed by the Berkeley Symphony, also in its Under Construction series, while her chamber music has been played around the Bay Area. She and Mattingly both study with Yiorgos Vassilandonakis.

Having quoted the top of Mattingly’s e-mail, it may behoove us to follow it to the end, just above his full — if semifictitious —signature of “Dylan Cassius Ramón Eugene Thelonious Apollinaire Mattingly”:

If you were not the right person to send this to, please feel free either to ignore it or to send it to the right person to read it. ... Thanks!
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Music News
April 7, 2009

Carneiro's Debut Season in Berkeley

In her first season as music director of the Berkeley Symphony Joana Carneiro will not only uphold the Kent Nagano tradition of championing new music, she will go one better than the orchestra's former music director (who often featured music from Berlin and London), by providing more opportunity to local composers than that mega-Symphony across the Bay.

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Opera Review
April 2, 2009

Yes, they can: The Conservatory kids can, though somewhat cautiously, and certainly staying away from the climactic splits, while still conveying the buoyant spirit of the dissolute French, avec plaisir. On Thursday night, the first of four performances at Cowell Theater, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music presented Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld in a delightful admixture of a cute school production and a first-class musical performance.

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Music News
March 31, 2009

They Came to Play

As luck would have it, the first four items of today's column share a fascinating subject: musical contests. These stories may also remind the reader of American Idol, but be assured: They Came to Play, Every Little Step, The Audition, and the global Internet contest for participation in the YouTube Orchestra have nothing to do with TV's overblown, grotesque exploitation of young talent.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
March 18, 2009

Valery Gergiev, one of the heavyweights on the international music scene, does have his detractors. Just within the context of his Sunday-Monday appearances in Davies Symphony Hall, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in two eventful concerts, there were numerous items possibly contradicting what may well be a general enthusiasm about the conductor.

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Kids & Families Feature
March 24, 2009

San Domenico School’s Virtuoso Program, which will travel from its San Anselmo home to San Francisco for a showcase program here on March 29, goes back to Venetian girls’ orphanages in the 17th century. That, at least, is what the program’s founder, Faith France, told me many years ago. She was teaching music at San Domenico, a small independent school in Marin (which originally opened in Monterey in 1850), when she had an epiphany while visiting Venice.

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Music News
March 24, 2009

Gaffigan: Putting It Together

When James Gaffigan makes his last subscription-concert appearances with the San Francisco Symphony as the orchestra's associate conductor (April 1-4), he will lead a program of the 2005 Thomas Adès Violin Concerto, Haydn's 1772 Symphony No. 52, and Mozart's 1788 Symphony No. 39.

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Upcoming Concert
March 23, 2009

The Trojan War, history books tell us (without too much certainty), took place “in the 13th or 12th century B.C.E.,” and Troy must have been somewhere in Turkey, near the Dardanelles.

Yes, it’s difficult to know details of events taking place three millennia ago — especially so when our question is: “What kind of music did Achaean Greeks whistle while bashing in Trojan skulls?”

Fortunately for the fast-approaching world premiere of Lillian Groag’s War Music at the American Conservatory Theater, the composer for what the playwright calls a “groundbreaking fusion of language, music, and movement” does not worry about authenticity, else the curtain may not go up for a long time in the Geary Theater.

Says John Glover, War Music composer, musician, saxophonist, and operations manager for the American Composers Orchestra:

 

In straight theater, music is usually incidental. It’s for set changes, scene changes, and a little bit of underscoring, but it’s not intrinsic to the fabric of the work. War Music is unique in that music plays a fundamentally important role in the piece.

The word “music” is half of the title, so obviously the aural aspect of sound to convey story and characters is very important, too. This story [Homer’s Iliad] was originally told orally, and the text really reflects that. It demands to be heard out loud.

This production also brings us back to the ideals of ancient Greek theater in which music, drama, and movement were completely integrated and played at an equal level.

Glover’s music contains a wide range of styles and sounds, with some classically composed pieces and others referencing Turkish court music, 1930s vaudeville, and even Haitian voodoo chanting. Take a listen.

Premiering on April 1, with previews beginning March 26, War Music takes its text from the 2,800-year-old Iliad, about the clash between the warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, the leader of the Greekexpedition during the Trojan War. The play uses an English translation of the classic by Christopher Logue, who has put 45 years into the project.

Over the years, Groag has specialized in adapting and directing large-scale dramas, such as Blood Wedding and A Triumph of Love. Her directing work spans theater and opera; she is creating War Music in collaboration not only with composer Glover, but also with choreographer Daniel Pelzig (who set the movement in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for the Metropolitan Opera).

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff draws a parallel between Groag’s play and the United States’ current foreign policy entanglements this way: “As a country engaged in several wars of attrition simultaneously,” she remarks, “we are desperate to understand how we got into the mess we are in. War Music is the perfect catalyst for conversation on these difficult questions and promises to be bold, ambitious, and unforgettable.”

The production features a top-notch cast, including René Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Gregory Wallace, Jud Williford, Jack Willis, Charles Dean, Lee Ernst, Sharon Lockwood, David A. Moss, and Andy Murray. Also participating are members of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, class of 2009, Nicholas Pelczar, Christopher S. Tocco, and Erin Michelle Washington.

Daniel Ostling is responsible for the scenic design, Beaver Bauer for the costumes, Russell H. Champa for the lighting design.

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Music News
March 17, 2009

West Bay Opera Marches On, 'Shooting Freely'

Understandably enough, even the more adventurous opera companies are cutting back on expenses ... and adventure. West Bay Opera — little (dollarwise) and old (California's second, and turning 54) — is handling this conundrum by sandwiching an unusual work between two great warhorses.
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Music News
March 10, 2009

Where There Is a Will, There Is Festival del Sole

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Artist Spotlight
March 10, 2009

When you conduct the San Francisco Symphony March 12 and 14 (and at the March 13 "6.5" concert), you are leading your own suite from the Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. What is your interest in the work?

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