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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

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.’”

More about San Francisco Boys Chorus »
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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