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Jeff Kaliss

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.

Articles by this Author

Upcoming Concert
January 4, 2010
David Harrington points out that a lot of musicians don’t “play” music, but that he’s always wanted to have fun with what he does as founder of and violinist with the Kronos Quartet. He spent his New Year’s Eve morning playing a kelp horn and a dripping water drum created by San Francisco composer and performer Cheryl Leonard, and chatting with San Francisco City College student and electronic sound innovator Jonathan Wong. He then repaired to his office near Golden Gate Park to talk with SFCV about Kronos’ Jan. 16 program presented by Stanford Lively Arts, where both pieces, one of them involving Wong, will be based in Chinese music and culture. The program is a key component of Stanford’s Pan-Asian Music Festival, which runs Feb. 13-28.

Both Ghost Opera and the West Coast premiere of A Chinese Home also feature Wu Man, an expatriate virtuoso on the pipa, a Chinese lute, whose introduction to Harrington in 1992 “reminded me of hearing Jascha Heifetz for the first time.” Shortly after that meeting, the Chinese composer Tan Dun, recognizing Kronos’ gift of theatricality (during their staged performance of George Crumb’s Black Angels), began writing Ghost Opera for the Quartet and Wu Man.

Strolling through downtown San Francisco, Harrington and Tan Dun found themselves thinking about “the past, the present, and the future, and the way they can superimpose themselves on music and performances.” Ghost Opera came to include musical and verbal quotations from Shakespeare and from Bach, as well as a variety of Chinese instruments aside from the pipa, some of them involving the manipulation of paper, stones, or water. The work, which also has the instrumentalists vocalizing, facilitates an examination of spirituality within various cultural contexts.

Kronos continued collaborating with Wu Man through the 1990s and into the next decade, and in 2006 she joined Harrington on a visit to Yin Yu Tang, an 18th-century residence from southeastern China that had been relocated to Salem, Mass. This sourced the title and content of A Chinese Home. “I began to try to imagine all the things these walls and objects had heard or been exposed to,” says Harrington. To bring order to what loomed as a massive project, Harrington and Wu Man elicited the collaboration of Chen Shi-Zheng, a director of stage, film, and opera.

No one of the three was named as composer, but Harrington wanted to also convey “the story of what it was like to grow up in China, as Wu Man and Chen Shi-Zheng have done.”

Harrington audited hundreds of hours of diverse folk and ritual music from China’s 22 provinces, from which came the selections in Part I of A Chinese Home, titled “Return.” Part II, called “Shanghai,” is basically film music, associated with that city’s bourgeoning movie industry and Westernization in the 1920s and ’30s. “It’s beautiful, like great cheese, and some of the best music is cheesy, let’s face it,” says Harrington. Part III, “The East Is Red,” evinces the transformation of a traditional theme into a musical touchstone of Mao Tse-Tung’s communist domination of China, and showcases other ideological but appealing compositions. Part IV, “Made in China,” moves past the Cultural Revolution’s era of government censorship into the present day, where Jonathan Wong’s electronic mashup of earlier sections of the piece is showcased alongside Wu Man’s shift to a sampling pipa (designed by Kronos instrument-builder Walter Kitundu) and a menagerie of acoustic toys.

Kronos will once again go beyond the standard string quartet instrumentation in this new piece, will make several costume changes, and will perform in front of projected images, some of them depicting Yin Yu Tang. Harrington has created a 30-minute recorded “soundtrack” to play during the intermission between Ghost Opera and A Chinese Home, which to careful listeners will reveal political elements, air checks from Tibetan radio, and a 115-year-old Edison cylinder recording of Chinese music. This all reflects what Harrington has learned from listening to the world, including China: “Things keep reappearing and sounds keep coming back. So nothing we do gets lost; it all comes back, in various forms.”

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Upcoming Concert
December 17, 2009
Working closely with Steve Reich, percussionist Adam Sliwinski realized that the powerful pulse that propels Reich’s music seems embodied by the septuagenarian composer himself.

“He never seems to be resting on his laurels; he’s constantly searching, constantly creating new stuff,” testifies the 30-year-old Sliwinski, whose four-member ensemble, So Percussion, will present an all-Reich program at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Jan. 9. 

“You have to keep up with him. He’s always a step or two ahead of you.”

Reich has held his position in the musical avant-garde ever since his studies at Mills College with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio and his experiments with tape-loop phasing in the 1960s. “He’s incredibly collaborative,” Sliwinski points out. In developing the Mallet Quartet, which So Percussion commissioned and will give its U.S. premiere at Stanford, Reich consulted the Brooklyn-based ensemble on a regular basis. “We sent MP3's back and forth,” notes Sliwinski. “He’d write sketches and we would try them out and mail them back. This was super cool!”

The Quartet, which received its world premiere in Budapest earlier this month, expands Reich’s palette as his first-ever composition for a percussion quartet, and his first involving five-octave marimbas and vibraphones. “For most of the piece, the marimbas [played by Sliwinski and Josh Quillen] are creating a bed of groove-and-rhythm, and the vibraphones [Jason Treuting and Eric Beach] are playing these very tight canons. ... There’s no electronics or tape or any other elements.”

The rest of the Stanford Lively Arts program will serve up a fascinating array of Reich’s earlier pieces, most of them now minimalist classics: Four Organs (1970), Drumming-Part I (1971), Clapping Music (1972), Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), and Nagoya Marimbas (1994).

The titles of the pieces indicate the variety of Reich’s creations and the versatility of So Percussion's players. The ensemble will showcase its wares earlier in the week in performances and discussions at the Community School for Music and Arts in Mountain View (Jan. 6), and at a matinee for local schoolchildren at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium (Jan. 7). Reich will appear with his videographer wife and sometime collaborator, Beryl Korot, at Stanford’s Pigott Theater, also on Jan. 7, and will join So Percussion in Clapping at Dinkelspiel.

Sliwinski credits Reich, along with John Cage and a handful of other composers, for having expanded percussionists' roles in concert music, so that now they can be “up front, driving the bus” instead of relegated to background effects. Reich also “made it OK for cyclical grooves and looping and repeating rhythms to become an element of contemporary classical music.” After doing field research in Bali and West Africa, Reich adopted a communal approach to ensemble music-making, which has deeply affected the structure of So Percussion and other groups of younger musicians, and has posed an alternative both to what Sliwinski refers to as the “hierarchy” of the traditional string quartet and to the “sort of sacred atmosphere of New Music as this rarified art form.”

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Upcoming Concert
November 17, 2009
Two things in common among the three acts to be featured at San Francisco’s Café du Nord at the end of November are telegraphed in the hyphen-heavy of the Classical Revolution event: “A Triple-Bill of Post-Classical Composer Ensembles.” But there’s a third, perhaps more revealing element. All three composers — Matt McBane, George Hurd, and Jack Curtis Dubowsky — have written for film. Indeed, there’s something in their various connections of classical forms and instrumentation to electronic and computerized devices and rock and improvisation that evokes visual imagery, and at times might even be enhanced by it.

For the retro-noir movie The Paw, McBane deployed prepared piano, trumpet, and string orchestra. He has also composed for choreographers and founded the Carlsbad Music Festival in San Diego County, devoted to what’s called “alternative classical music.” Within his Brooklyn-based band Build, which he's bringing to the Cafe du Nord and Northern California for the very first time, McBane plays violin. Perhaps the most acoustic and least electronically dependent of the triple-bill groups, Build has been located by the New York Times as "a stone's throw from chamber music," with the stone coming somewhere between rock and Reich. Some of Build’s haunting, artfully layered shorter pieces have been employed as interstitial music by NPR.

San Francisco-based George Hurd has created what might be termed Smooth New Music for dramatic and documentary film, as well as for local theatrical productions. He further explores these shimmery acoustics with his George Hurd Ensemble, bonding string instruments with piano and electronics. He grew up in Chicago playing drums and viola, before extending his interest to drum machines and other synthesizing devices.

The films for which Jack Curtis Dubowsky has created scores have showcased homosexual themes from dramatic and comic perspectives. The music of his Ensemble features a strong foundation of drum (Fred Morgan) and bass (Dubowsky), under imaginative synthesizer patterns (also worked by Dubowsky), with expressive and sometimes rib-tickling input from trombone and a vocal effects processor (Hall Goff). The bicoastal composer studied composition at the San Francisco Conservatory and writes and teaches about both music and film at New York University.

More about Classical Revolution »
Opera Review
October 16, 2009

Giacomo Puccini often chose settings that brought opera up close and personal, and he thus worked vital changes on the form and made it ready for the 20th century.

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CD Review
October 13, 2009

The music of this CD/DVD is easier on the ear than the concept is easy on the mind. But that doesn’t obviate the importance of, and the potential pleasure in, embracing the full intent of the creator, Sufjan Stevens. East Coasters may recognize in the title the source of inspiration: It’s the unsightly and often dysfunctional but vital Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which traverses a couple of New York City’s boroughs, one of them the site of the institution that commissioned and premiered this project, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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Artist Spotlight
September 28, 2009

In his fourth decade as a violinist and as both founder and artistic director of the award-winning Kronos Quartet, David Harrington still exudes the infectious excitement of a gifted student infatuated with experimental and global music from beyond the conservatory’s walls. At Howard’s Café, up the street from Kronos headquarters near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Harrington sits down with me to share memories, opinions, and coffee, as well as the ensemble’s program for its Oct.

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Upcoming Concert
September 28, 2009
The title of the piece opening Stanford Lively Arts’ 2009-2010 season, aside from its references to Shakespeare’s play of four centuries ago and Verdi’s adaptation (as Otello) to the operatic stage in 1887, denotes a psychopathological rage based on suspected spousal infidelity. There’s a threat, with The Othello Syndrome, that lovers of classical literature and music might be driven into a similar rage, hopefully not as morbid, by the liberties taken by the certifiably eclectic, experimental postmodern composer and pianist Uri Caine with his revered classical sources.

Relax your suspicions: Nobody gets hurt in this Grammy-nominated effort, which Caine is quick to describe as “not really an opera at all — it’s more about taking different parts of Verdi’s Otello and transforming them, changing the style.” Actually, it could be argued that the original language and intention of the Bard of Avon get a better showcase from this New York–based musician than from his Italian predecessor. For the classically trained, jazzwise Caine, it’s a first-time opportunity to go theatrical with his homages to the classical canon, which in the past have showcased Mahler, Bach, and Beethoven.

This West Coast premiere of Caine’s Othello Syndrome features rhythm-and-blues vocalist Bunny Sigler in the title role, and Swedish jazz favorite Josefine Lindstrand as the doomed Desdemona, singing in English and accompanied by a sort of cabaret ensemble including Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Zach Danziger on drums, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Chris Speed on clarinet and guitar, and Josefina Vergara on violin, with the composer on piano. You might expect this lineup to result in some evocation of Kurt Weill, though there’s considerable variety in mode among the work’s set pieces.

Aside from some fairly faithful quotes from Verdi, there are moments of Jewish klezmer, electronica, mainstream and free-form jazz, and pop soul music, all of which manages to hang together and convey the tragic tone of the story. The Othello Syndrome was commissioned for the Venice Biennale for Music, which Caine directed and where his work was premiered in 2003. The Grammy nomination was garnered by its recording on the Winter & Winter label in 2008. Over several decades, Caine has been commissioned by or performed with other classical ensembles, including the Beaux Arts Trio and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he debuted his Concerto for Two Pianos with Jeffrey Kahane in 2006. Wearing his jazz hat, he’s been booked at top-flight festivals in Monterey, Montreal, Newport, and Rotterdam.

At Stanford, you'll be convinced that Caine's Othello is way beyond the "mere prattle, without practice", of which Shakespeare's envious Iago accuses his master. This is the work of an innovative and masterful musician.

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Feature Article
August 18, 2009

Putting kids in tune with music can be a tricky adjustment. When my piano-teacher mother was raising us, there were fewer distractions vying with the sounds of her practicing Schumann and Chopin and the classical programming of WQXR radio.

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Upcoming Concert
July 21, 2009
The music of the Grateful Dead, arguably rock ’n’ roll’s first jam band, is staging a second coming, in symphonic garb, in the land where the band began, 44 years ago. Composer Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony No. 6, based on the Dead canon, will be showcased on Aug. 9, the third day of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. The West Coast premiere was presented by the California Symphony last spring.

Expect to see Deadheads (the term for die-hard fans in tie-dyed T-shirts) seated blissfully among the Cabrillo regulars. Johnson, an Emmy-winner for his film collaboration, points out that his only symphonic work based on the music of others was conceived and commissioned by a devoted Deadhead, Mike Adams, like Johnson a resident of Georgia. Adams also financed a 2007 recording by the Russian National Orchestra (available from www.deadsymphony.com and at the Festival). Deadheads and orchestra aficionados have much in common, Lee believes. “They’re [both] live music communities. And they’re well-trained listeners who can listen to a theme or motif being transformed, with all of the compositional techniques for how you’d modify or extend anything organic.”

Johnson, who teaches at LaGrange College in Georgia, has found inspiration for others of his nine symphonies in human rights, Jewish philosophy, and even diving. But he was not a Deadhead, and had to be introduced by Adams to the songbook of guitarist and banjoist Jerry Garcia, who assembled the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in 1965. The Dead Symphony’s dozen movements, briefer than the Dead’s trademark long, live jams, bear the titles of such songs as Saint Stephen, Here Comes Sunshine, Stella Blue, China Doll, and Sugar Magnolia (the last of which Cabrillo Music Director Marin Alsop adopted for the name of her Aug. 9 program, which also includes a composition titled Rave-Elation (Schindowski Mix) by Australian composer Matthew Hindson). The Dead songs, however, are not merely dressed up in strings by Johnson, but are variously reimagined, deconstructed, and revoiced, with a genial artfulness evocative of the approach of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland to American folk themes.

What may seem somewhat retro and a turn away from the avant-garde is a sign of the times, Johnson explains. “The change that has happened in the compositional community of the last few years is that the language they’re using and the interest of composers seem to be swinging back into the same areas of interest that audiences have,” he says. “And the result is that you can have something that belongs to a culture, even though it’s brand new.” Johnson’s particular goal “is to make the genre of the symphony something that an American audience would feel is all about them and is something they just would not want to miss, rather than something you would respond to politely.”

Response to the Dead Symphony among some of its more discriminating observers has been so far enthusiastic. Mike Adams felt “stunned.” Former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally is satisfied that the symphony “honors Jerry Garcia’s compositional skills” and that it “documents that great music is endlessly malleable, and that it can be transposed in style into many forms and still make sense and be beautiful.” McNally, who authored the definitive book A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and who will join Lee and Dead author and radio host David Gans in a panel discussion at Cabrillo, notes that Alsop had attempted, without success, to contact Garcia before his premature death in 1995. “She obviously recognized that he was one of the outstanding musicians of Northern California,” says McNally, “and that’s what Cabrillo is about, is reaching out to a larger community.”

More about Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music »
CD Review
June 23, 2009

There’s so much music, and more, in Kronos’ latest CD that I felt compelled to question the quartet’s founder and violinist David Harrington at his Sunset District base of operations, seeking details and explanations beyond the liner notes. Much of that conversation will be the source of a future artist profile. But in examining this album, it’s worth considering its inception as Harrington’s reaction to the undeclared war in Iraq.

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Upcoming Concert
June 7, 2009
Pride comes naturally when you’re a singer with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Just ask eighth-grader Dominique Shaw about the delightfully eclectic program that he and fellow choristers will be presenting at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco on June 13.

“We take chances, we try different things,” Shaw points out. “We just don’t stick to regular old classics.”

“Which chorus gets to go to the Inauguration and sing in the presence of the first African-American president?,” adds fifth-grader Julian Moreno, another boy soprano in the SFBC’s advanced Concert Chorus Group. “That was a big honor!”

Several of the patriotic pieces from that historic performance will be showcased at the upcoming concert. But “I didn’t want to do an entire concert of Americana,” notes SFBC Artistic Director and Conductor Ian Robertson. “I wanted to broaden it to the American hemisphere.”

Opening the evening is the magnificent Missa Criolla, a setting of the Catholic mass in Rioplatense Spanish, the dialect of the piece’s Argentinian composer, Ariel Ramírez. (The dialectal pronunciation of the second word of the title is ‘Cree-o-ja’.) In place of the usual classical ensemble, the Missa makes use of Latin American percussion, a string bass, and piano, as well as unfamiliar rhythms based on regional Argentinian dances. Robertson was impressed with how “The opening movement [Kyrie eleison] and the final movement [Agnus Dei] draw from that sense of spiritual stillness which the people on those flat open grasslands feel. And there’s this rambunctious stuff in the middle, which takes these rhythms and thrusts them up to their God.”

Following the transcendent drama of the Missa and an interlude by the SFBC Bellringers will be a Mexican folk lullaby, a favorite of choristers Shaw and Moreno. “It’s peaceful,” says Moreno, who sang it for his grandmother’s funeral. Then comes a kalenda, a precursor of the calypso from Trinidad, sung in pidgin French. A second Argentinian selection, based on a poem, is “altogether more astringent harmonically, very expressive,” says Robertson. San Sereni is a Puerto Rican children’s song with hand movements depicting characters, and for El Barquito, a Venezuelan folk song, “you get to do your own percussion with your hands and feet,” notes Shaw, “and you have to keep the [separate] rhythm of your voice. It’s tough!” A contemporary Venezuelan song is accompanied on the four-stringed cuatro by voice coach Jimmy Kansau, who also sings tenor in this and some other selections. The Chorus closes out the first half of the program with its three souvenirs from the Inauguration, including a setting by Bay Area composer David Conte of words from Obama’s nomination acceptance speech.

After intermission, the younger members of the SFBC's Apprentice, Junior Apprentice, and Intermediate Choruses offer music from Central and North America, as well as France and England. The older Concert and Intermediate Chorus boys will rock out with hits from Bill Haley and the Beach Boys, and all 250 choristers convene for the finale, Irving Berlin’s perennial God Bless America, “With the purity of the boys’ voices,” Robertson says, “there’s always that extra frisson, if you will, of ‘I didn’t expect it to sound like this.’”

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
May 19, 2009

“Shadows and Light” was the theme of the final four concerts of the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s current season, with the repertoire selected for references to the night. But what really shone through the five pieces on the variegated program was how wonderfully the music and the players were suited to each other.

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Upcoming Concert
May 11, 2009
Chatting with subscribers who have been with her for all of her ensemble’s 17 seasons, Barbara Day Turner had her mission confirmed. “They’re noting how much being constantly exposed to different things has changed how they listen to music,” Turner reports. “And how it’s changed their tastes.”

Her San José Chamber Orchestra’s May 17 concert at Le Petit Trianon assembles 17 string players in a breadth of emotion as well as chronology. The evening begins with 18th-century contemporaries Luigi Boccherini and Franz Josef Haydn, and continues with a pair of world premieres by the Bay Area’s William Susman and Anica Galindo, and for good measure a couple of 20th-century hits by George Gershwin and Dave Brubeck.

As music director and conductor, Turner’s success in championing new music (including more than 75 world premieres) last year earned the SJCO a first place ASCAP Award for Adventuresome Programming. Her advocacy of new music is also reflected “by the amount of scores that find their way to my front door, unbidden. It’s magnificent and sort of frightening at the same time.” That is, until she and the ensemble get familiar with the “language” of composers like Susman and Galindo, whom she has showcased before.

Their two new works are “actually sort of opposites,” says Turner. With Galindo’s Trinitas, the first part of a commissioned trilogy, “you have an extremely lyric piece that uses strings sort of in the way that Barber does in the Adagio, but not at the upper extreme so much. She uses larger blocks of sound, creating a really rich and warm texture.”

Zydeco Madness, in the words of Palo Alto composer William Susman, is “a response to and a reflection on Hurricane Katrina: the disaster, the tragic events that transpired during and after, and the lack of response to the people.” The title implies a connection to the popular music of the black Creoles of Louisiana, and to that music’s lead instrument, the accordion. The piece was presented in Chicago last month in a solo accordion setting, as performed by Russian virtuoso Stas Venglevski, and has been reset with the SJCO functioning “like a giant accordion on steroids,” in Susman’s words. The composer’s notations on the score reflect his approach to depicting the tragedy, setting out with rapid phrases of “Flowing Hell,” slowing with “Marooned,” and building to a “Hysterically Grinding” emotional high point. Susman, who had grown close to the bedeviled area during his student days at Tulane, evokes the funkiness of zydeco and the wail of Katrina through extensive use of Sul ponticello bowing, tremolo, and other dramatic techniques.

For Turner, the other pieces of her May 17 program are linked with the new compositions in that they all convey “the concept of spirit.” The Boccherini, arranged by Michael Touchi, reflects “the particular flair of Spanish dance” through the eyes and ears of a classical Italian. Touchi’s arrangement of Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet transports the listener to the “incredibly elegant Austrian spirit” of the late 18th century. Gershwin’s Summertime (arr. William Zinn) and Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk (arr. Jeremy Cohen) will end the evening in “a quintessentially American spirit,” with evidence of the rewards of cross-pollinating genres.

More about San José Chamber Orchestra »

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