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Janos Gereben

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

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Music News
February 9, 2010

Philharmonia: Not So Baroque

As the Philharmonia Baroque announces its 30th anniversary season today, Music Director Nicholas McGegan ponders the then and now of the orchestra in terms unexpected from the renowned leader of a period-instrument orchestra:
Thirty years ago, there was a greater sense of righteousness, a claim of musical purit
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Upcoming Concert
February 8, 2010
On Feb. 20, the day before Riccardo Chailly conducts the first of two concerts with Leipzig’s venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall, he will turn 57.

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
Although I was there that evening — along with Prince Charles, he in the center box, me in standing room — it was Chailly who reminded me of the event when asked about his upcoming concerts here:
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.

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.

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.

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 »
Music News
February 2, 2010

West Bay Opera Goes A-Hunting

Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz has many distinctions:

- It's one of the few foreign-language operas best left with its original title (similar to Puccini's The Bohemians, Verdi's The Troubadour, and even Korngold's The Dead City) because the English version is lame and meaningless: The Freeshooter. Say what? Tom Waits used Black Rider for his zany adaptation, and that's better, but no cigar.

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Music News
January 26, 2010

Merola 2010 Performances

The San Francisco Opera Merola Program's 53rd season will offer — besides 10 weeks of intensive training for 25 young selecte

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Upcoming Concert
January 25, 2010
 [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 »
Music News
January 19, 2010

Opera to Offer Domingo, Ring, Much More

Just back at work for the first time in the new year, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has announced plans for the company's 2010-2011 season, its 88th.

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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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