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.
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Decades after its ascension to the glittery throne of Glam Rock, the band Queen continues to resonate loudly in pop culture. You could hear Queen’s imperative Don’t Stop Me Now resonating from the loudspeakers at AT&T Park last week as hoi polloi sought their seats for a preseason skirmish between the San Francisco Giants and the visiting Oakland A’s.
The anthemic We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You regale sports events, video games, and movie soundtracks all over the world.
But Duane Carroll, who during Queen’s reign in the 1970s was working on Brahms’ clarinet repertoire along with a doctorate in classical music performance, has felt a bit funny roaming the roadways of the East Bay with the legendary group’s greatest hits blasting from his CD player. “I wonder if anyone will see me doing this,” he found himself musing. “What would they think? ‘Here’s the conductor of the Contra Costa Wind Symphony, he’s going down the freeway on Queen!’”
If Carroll needs an excuse for genre-shifting, he’s got a good one. The CCWS, which he’s been leading since 1981, will present the U.S. premiere of Tolga Kashif’s Queen Symphony at the Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church on April 17. The conductor describes the piece as “a stunningly beautiful work, just gorgeous” and “not a mere medley of Queen tunes. Their melodies are there, but they’ve been explored and developed beyond.”
Brian May, Queen’s former lead guitarist, backup vocalist, and sometime songwriter, had been present for the world premiere of Kashif’s symphony by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, with the composer himself conducting. May commented, “Imagine a composer of the imagination and daring of a Tchaikovsky, a Holst, or a Mussorgsky. Imagine him let loose with the entire Queen catalogue of melodies, atmospheres and textures. ... Then you’ll be close to imagining where this work begins. This is something monumental and quite outrageous.”
Listen to the Music
Part of what impressed May was the manner in which Kashif had transposed the guitarist’s highly dramatic solos and his four-man group’s luscious multitracked vocals to a full orchestra and chorus. Carroll notes that the CCWS will make use of Erik Somers’ transcription of Kashif’s score for symphonic band, with additional, impressive elements. “There are six movements to the Symphony,” Carroll relates, “and three use a chorus,” in this case combining the choirs of Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley high schools. “These kids are magnificent singers,” testifies Carroll, and the choral directors — Bruce Koliha and Ken Abrams — have done a phenomenal job.
“Then there’s one movement which is piano concerto–like, for which we’re bringing in a real fine pianist named Nathan Cheung, who’s a senior at Foothill High School in Pleasanton. It’s rhythmically complex, and he’s doing a great job. There’s another movement that employs cello and violin as soloists,” Gregory Colburn and Tyler Lewis, respectively. “And the harpist, Shannon Polley, is a sophomore at Monte Vista High School. This is her third year playing with our group.” Carroll found that recruiting younger performers “brings a youthful enthusiasm,” along with the revelation that “these kids are familiar with Queen, so they’re excited, and we’re excited to have them joining us. It’s a brand-new adventure for all of us.”
Yet not entirely new. “Some of the people in the CCWS, when I mentioned Queen, said, ‘Oh, yeah, the Bohemian Rhapsody,’” referencing the long-form rock suite recorded by the band in 1975 and used to hilarious effect in a car karaoke scene in a 1992 film, Wayne’s World. “I just kind of responded with a blank stare,” Carroll admits. But when he caught up with the original hit track inside his own car, the conductor realized that “it moves along, it evolves.” Digging deeper, Carroll learned that Queen’s oeuvre sometimes incorporated canonic and other classical forms, and that the group’s electrifying lead singer and keyboardist, the late Freddie Mercury, had been an opera lover with classical piano training who in 1988 collaborated on a recording with opera diva Montserrat Caballé.
Although this is the first rock in his repertoire, Carroll has followed a credo of keeping his players and audiences stimulated with new material, often expanding beyond standard symphonic band instrumentation “to get a more mellow sound.” The ensemble has performed contemporary music on themes evoking the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and Hungarian folksongs, the latter a commission composed by Frigyes Hidas, whose Fantasy for Cello will share the first part of the April 17 program with Peter Graham’s Gaelforce, based on Celtic material. “You have to trust that I’m gonna find music that I think is gonna be interesting,” Carroll declares, “and if I can get you there, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I believe that in my heart.”More about Contra Costa Wind Symphony »
An infrequently mounted masterpiece, bounteous with beautiful and dramatic passages, and delivered by a cast headed by fine principal voices, forms a strong foundation for edifying opera. That’s reason enough to catch one of West Bay Opera’s performances of Carl Maria von Weber’s fascinating Der Freischütz (The freeshooter) while you still can. If stage director Yuval Sharon and his crew had been able to realize a cohesive and supportive design for the production, this rare jewel would be shining even brighter.
Harrington originally came to this musical realization during a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Gallery was showcasing a recording by Australian violinist and instrument inventor Jon Rose and his partner Hollis Taylor, making music on a variety of fences across that continent. (That recording was Great Fences of Australia,
The result, several years in the making, is Rose's Music from 4 Fences, which will receive its West Coast premiere performance by Kronos over four nights next week at Z Space at Project Artaud. For presentation on concert stages (beginning with the world premiere at the Sydney Opera House last June), Rose, in collaboration with Kronos production director Larry Neff, fashioned four short sections of fence with five wires each, the top one of which is barbed. The four members of Kronos wield bass bows along the fences, using their non-bow hand to locate nodes. Some techniques worked on the wires are familiar — straight bowing (arco), plucking (pizzicato), reversed bow (col legno), overtones, and so forth. But the combination of amplified sounds, variously sonorous, grating, and eerie, are strikingly revelatory.
Adjusting the wires for aspects which include tautness and placement of barbs requires a much longer setup than the usual string quartet sound check. "It's not as if we're taking out a pitchfork or an iPhone ap that has a 440-A," explains Harrington. "We're looking for sonorities that feel good to us." Rose's score is actually "a set of approximate directions and timings and approaches to the sound. At a certain point, someone does a certain sound, and we're in Section B, say. ... And there's a visual element. Willie Williams, who's the stage designer for [the rock band] U2, jumped into the possibility of designing a visualization for Music from 4 Fences, and what he came up with is so beautiful and elegant and simple. There are surveillance cameras that are trained on the barbed wire, so up close behind us, you can see our fingers and the bows and the barbs rattling. It's very visceral."
The role of barbed wire in keeping segments of humanity in or out — along borders between Israel and Palestine, the U.S. and Mexico, North and South Korea, and around Guantanamo and prisons within the U.S. — evoked for Harrington the contrary spirit of his friend and inspiration Howard Zinn, a historian, author, and humanitarian. Kronos is dedicating the Z Space concerts to the memory of Zinn, who passed away on January 27.
The concerts will also showcase, with standard string quartet instrumentation, the music of Terry Riley, who has composed copiously for Kronos. And each of the evenings will feature one of the four young commissioned composers in Kronos' Under 30 program: Alexandra du Bois, Felipe Pérez Santiago, Dan Visconti, and Aviya Kopelman. Rounding out the programs in characteristically eclectic fashion will be music by established composers Damon Albarn, John Zorn, Clint Mansell, Bryce Dessner, and Morton Feldman, as well as what Harrington refers to as "other fun surprises that will be announced closer to the concerts, on the Internet."More about Kronos Quartet »
“There are two or three things you guys do which just blow me away,” Ruehr tells Kloetzel. “These really intricate lines that I’ve written, instead of just making them sound like a busy texture, you make them sound like a canon: Every line is clear, but it’s still working together. The other thing you do is the whole sense of line ... and the structure of the piece, from the first to the last movement, you really feel that there’s a journey that was very, very carefully put together. And then you have this sense of fluid tempo, which I love.”
Canons, changeups of tempo, and polyrhythms evocative of world music abound in Ruehr’s work. That’s only part of what the Cypress loves about her, as evidenced in its recording of three of her earlier quartets, to be released this month on the Quartet’s own label, CSQ (and made available online).
“She has a tremendous sense of melody,” testifies Kloetzel. “She writes melodies you want to sing, you want to go home humming. Mozart does the same, Schubert does the same, and I see the three of these composers as being linked in that way.”
In the tradition of “Call & Response,” those two older composers will share the Quartet’s program this month with Ruehr. Programs in past years have been designed to show the influence of the standard repertoire on a contemporary composer, but this year, for the first time, there’s a literary as well as a musical link between the three pieces.
“In Mozart’s quartet The Violet, which is K. 575, the second movement is based on a Goethe poem,” Kloetzel explains. “And in Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, the second movement is also based on a poem [by Matthias Claudius]. We’ve worked with Elena a lot, and we know how she loves to read, so she got to choose which text she wanted to work with.”
The choice, a 2001 novel of intrigue by Ann Patchett titled Bel Canto (HarperCollins), was easy for Ruehr. “It was one of those books I stayed up and read all night,” she points out. The principal female character is a celebrated soprano (the fictional Roxanne Coss); the other characters include a band of Latin American revolutionaries, a Japanese businessman, and several international diplomats, all of whom appealed to Ruehr’s affection for world music. Within her new quartet’s 10 short movements, the composer was able to embed a long-loved Japanese folk song, Sakura, as well as bits of pieces that Coss sings in the novel — or might sing — from Schubert, Dvořák, Puccini, and Barber.
Those composers (including Ruehr herself) and the history of classical music will be illuminated by Cypress as it extends its “Call & Response” project to Bay Area schools throughout this month, as well as to San Francisco’s Community Music Center on Capp St. (Feb. 6), the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium (Feb. 25), and a concert at the Montalvo Art Center (Feb. 28). Ruehr will be present for the latter two events and for a preconcert talk at the Herbst on Feb. 26.
“Part of the idea behind ‘Call & Response’ is to show the audience that music is a natural evolution from an earlier time,” says Kloetzel. “There’s usually an ‘Aha! We can still do that today!’”More about Cypress String Quartet »
“It has to do with our heritage,” Coelho points out. “We are a very mixed population, from African, European, Japanese, and native Indian. We are very much like our national dish, feijoada, where you put a little bit of everything in it and make this very wonderful stew.”
The ingredients on the Quarteto Vivace Brasil’s at San Francisco’s Old First Church (Feb. 5) and at Antioch's El Campanil Theatre (Jan. 22) range from Baroque to French Romantic; classical nationalistic numbers from Europe and Latin and North America; and folk-based popular music from their native Brazil, particularly in the sentimental genre called choro (pronounced shaw-ru, from the Portuguese word for cry). All this is presented in arrangements for a chamber group of unusual instrumentation: flute (Coelho), two guitars (Edson Lopes and Roberto Colchiesqui), and percussion (Rodrigo Marinonio).
The group began in Tatuí (known as Brazil’s “Music City”) in the state of São Paulo, as a flute-and-guitar duo. By 2008, a second guitar was added to share melodic duties and provide the option of a bass line. Finally, Marinonio supplied the spicy flavors of snares and ethnic percussion (pandeiro tambourine, the boxlike drum called a cajon, shakers, and wood block). All members of the Quarteto attended the famed Tatuí Conservatory, where they studied classical repertoire. But Coelho points out that late at night, after school, the simpler sounds shaw-ru were essential to their lifestyle as young men.
“We’d go and play serenades [of choro] in front of the homes of these beautiful girls, in the hopes that the families would then invite us to come and have some food, and we’d play some more. Then we’d say good-bye, and go to another home with another beautiful girl, and sing and play.”
Decades later, their performance enhanced by further training and work in a variety of ensembles, the members of the Quarteto have made a mission of “bringing choro to a much more sophisticated level ... that the normal choro musician cannot accomplish.” But they’re also drawing on and reimagining pieces from their classical repertoire. Coelho cites an example from his nation’s preeminent classical composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, where he’s substituted his flute for the soprano vocal in the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5: “With the range of my vibrato, I can be expressive with sounds that perhaps a vocalist has not thought about, but fit very well inside the music. ... And you plug in two guitars and give one of them the weight of the bass,” missing from the composer’s original ensemble of cellos.
Now the designated professor of flute at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Coelho gets to showcase his virtuosity in the Quarteto’s setting of the “Aviary” section of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. The French composer, he says, “wrote at a speed that’s supposed to be 168 [beats per minute], but for double-tonguing, I have proved to be very blessed, because I can tongue up to 200.” Lopes and Cochiequi are similarly agile on their instruments, and their trading-off of lead roles and harmonizing with Coelho are elements of the Quarteto’s delightful signature sound.
The current U.S. tour is “instrumental for the survival and development of our group,” Coelho points out, as is their securing Lisa Sapinkopf Artists of Emeryville as their North American manager. They'll also tour Europe and Asia and arrange for global release of their Brazilian CD. “To make a living in Brazil as a classical musician is extremely difficult,” says Coelho. “Although we come from a very rich musical tradition, the general population and the government do not support us. It’s very difficult to be a prophet in your own land.”More about Old First Concerts »
In the middle of an extended weekend’s showcase by Stanford Lively Arts, composer Steve Reich sat down in a hotel lobby to talk about his five decades of exploration in the musical outback. Like much of his music, Reich’s discourse is energetic and propulsive, as well as ingenuously eclectic.
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.”More »