Primary tabs

Jessica Balik

Jessica Balik is a flutist and has a PhD in historical musicology from Stanford University.

Articles by this Author

Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
January 25, 2010

Even though atonal music has existed for a long time, the composer Helmut Lachenmann has observed that many listeners are still so accustomed to tonal music that tonality continues to govern their listening habits. Such listeners might regard tonality as an intrinsic or “natural” musical system, against which contemporary music sounds, by contrast, “unnatural.” But Monday in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players performed a concert that associated contemporary music with nature. The concert did not, however, associate the natural with the familiar.

More »
Chamber Music Review
January 9, 2010

The music of Steve Reich can sound deceptively simple. After all, for about 50 years, his name has been associated with so-called minimalism. The term vaguely denotes music built from the repetition and layering of simple musical modules over harmonies and temporal pulsations that remain relatively constant. Yet at Stanford University’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Saturday, an all-Reich concert performed by So Percussion, a percussion quartet, made the virtuosic complexity of Reich’s music abundantly clear.

More »
Chamber Music Review
December 4, 2009

Since Christmas celebrates the birth of the Holy Son, a piece about the death of an earthly girl might seem out of place on a holiday concert. This weekend, though, the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, the Grammy-nominated chorus directed by Lynne Morrow and Richard Grant, delivered a winter concert that revolved around precisely such a piece.

More »
Upcoming Concert
November 1, 2009
Sergei Prokofiev was a Russian composer who lived through tumultuous historical events. He was born in 1891, and during his youth music teetered between the so-called “Romantic” and “modern” periods. Following the Russian Revolution of 1918, he moved first to the U.S., then to Europe. For reasons that still bewilder scholars, he chose to return to the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1930s, despite iron-fisted Soviet censorship of the arts; he died in 1953 in Moscow. Prokofiev’s compositional output reflects the diversity of these stylistic and political circumstances.

His music is the subject of “The Prokofiev Project,” a four-day festival primarily sponsored by Stanford Lively Arts. The program, running Nov. 12-15, will bring renowned scholars and artists together on the Palo Alto campus for a series of discussions and concerts. Joseph Horowitz, a cultural historian who is serving as the project’s artistic director, also curated last year’s similar “Stravinsky Project.” This year’s Prokofiev festival also features visiting pianist Alexander Toradze, noted for his interpretations of Prokofiev’s music. Horowitz describes him as “a torrential and subversive artist whose own Russian/American odyssey is anything but simple.”

The Project’s first event will occur on Thursday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Campbell Recital Hall of Stanford’s Braun Music Center. Horowitz and Toradze will join faculty pianists Kumaran Arul and George Barth in a discussion comparing historical recordings and films of the composer performing his own works to modern-day renditions of his music. Arul will perform Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-1917), and Toradze will discuss two works: the Seventh Piano Sonata and the Second Piano Concerto. Arul and Toradze will also perform these pieces during subsequent concerts of the festival.

The first formal concert will be a piano recital by Toradze, Arul, and Barth, given in Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Friday, Nov. 13, at 8:00 p.m. Commentary will explain some differences between Prokofiev’s various musical styles. The pieces being performed also illustrate the composer’s stylistic breadth.

Although Prokofiev himself was a pianist, he hardly limited himself to composing keyboard works. On Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8:00 p.m., the Stanford Symphony Orchestra will perform some of his orchestral music. Horowitz will lead a preperformance talk in Dinkelspiel, and, under the baton of Jindong Cai, Toradze will perform the Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra. The program also includes tunes from Prokofiev’s most famous ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev actually wrote three orchestral suites of numbers from the ballet, and this program features pieces from all three. Additionally, the concert will feature life-size puppetry by Robin Walsh.

The Project’s final event, scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2:30 p.m. in Dinkelspiel, is intended for families. The Stanford Symphony will perform Romeo and Juliet again, along with Walsh’s puppets and a narrator. Significantly, this version of the lover’s tale features a family-friendly, happy ending.

Stanford Lively Arts is committed to supporting collaborations between scholars and performers. Especially because this particular collaboration surveys the composer’s varied output, “The Prokofiev Project” should appeal to a wide audience — one that includes children and adults, as well as novices and even experts on the composer. Although Horowitz himself notes that some questions about Prokofiev “in fact can never be solved,” they likely will be productively explored by this multiday extravaganza.

More »
Upcoming Concert
October 20, 2009
One meaning of meridian is pinnacle, or the highest possible point. This denotation surely befits the Meridian Arts Ensemble, which is a brass quintet — two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba — plus a percussionist. To great critical acclaim, the group has recorded and performed extensively in both national and international venues for over 20 years. At the Manhattan School of Music, Meridian forms part of the faculty for a program in contemporary music performance. During the current academic year, the ensemble is also in residence at UC Davis, where a series of events featuring Meridian will run Nov. 7-10.

Reflecting the group’s commitment to educating younger musicians, some of these events are pedagogical in nature. For example, the Causeway Band Festival features two festival bands composed of high school students, as well as the UC Davis Concert Band and the Sacramento State Wind Program. In a concert on Sunday, Nov. 8, Meridian will share the stage of the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall with these other ensembles. At noon the following Tuesday, Meridian will also perform a free concert of compositions by UC Davis student composers.

The principal concert featuring Meridian will be given on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:00 p.m. in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre of the Mondavi Center. Although the exact program has yet to be published, this ensemble has made well-executed, bold, and eclectic programming its signature. Such programming mixes both classical and contemporary music, which ranges from Baroque works by J.S. Bach to contemporary ones by composers including Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter.

But Meridian hardly limits its contemporary repertoire to “art music” composers such as these. The group also explores artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, the famous American guitarist, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African a cappella choir that performs traditional music of that culture.

Furthermore, Meridian’s embrace of musical diversity includes both newly composed works as well as arrangements of already existing pieces. The group has performed over 50 new works, and is especially well-known for its arrangements and recordings of pieces by Frank Zappa. Further still, though the ability to perform and teach such a wide array of music is impressive in itself, some of these pieces have also been arranged and composed by the ensemble’s own members.

The wealth of musical styles performed by this talented ensemble evokes a second meaning of the word meridian. Like the imaginary “meridian lines” that cover the entire earth while stretching between the north and south poles, so too will the Meridian Ensemble’s upcoming concert at Mondavi surely encompass an extensive spectrum of music. Of course, Meridian also promises to give every individual style a top-notch performance.

More about Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
The Web site for an upcoming sfSound concert on Aug. 9 includes a video of Karlheinz Stockhausen, a famous German composer, speaking about human evolution. The idea of evolution suits this concert on two levels. First, by including one piece from the early 1950s, two from the mid-1970s, and three from this current year, it chronicles the passing of historical time. Second, all three of the new works innovatively evolve their initially simple musical ideas.

The oldest piece on the program is by Stockhausen himself: Kreuzspiel, a work for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion. It is a landmark composition for late-20th-century music, owing to certain principles of serial composition found within it. Its name, which means “Crossplay,” concerns the fact that different musical lines move in crisscrossing directions across various registers of pitches.

The two pieces from the mid-1970s are Schattenblätter, a trio by the Swiss composer Klaus Huber, and another trio by the American composer Anthony Braxton. The word Schattenblätter, or “shade leaves,” is a botanical term for leaves that grow in the shade rather than in the sun. Huber’s piece similarly lurks in a shadowy musical underbelly of sparse textures and highly differentiated instrumental parts. Huber describes that in his piece, “extreme isolation” becomes “audibly expressive.”

Huber also writes that his ascetic piece might remind people about prisoners of conscience. Braxton’s Composition No. 75, meanwhile, tests boundaries between musical freedom and restriction. Within it, the composer incorporates both strict notation and free improvisation.

The three pieces from this year include Intuition, a work for alto flute and percussion by Christopher Jones. Jones describes that within the work simple musical ideas evolve through “reiteration, transformation, disappearance, and reemergence.” The composition is named after a piece of visual art: an empty, wooden box that the artist, Joseph Beuys, intended for people to fill with their own personal thoughts. Similarly, Jones’ piece is a receptacle for musical ideas that individual performers personalize.

Next, Planetary is a work for oboe, clarinet, and saxophone by Christopher Burns, a Milwaukee composer. The movement of the cosmos inspired its musical processes. Just as moons orbit planets while those same planets orbit the sun, so too do the musical ideas in this piece evolve by rotating around each other at various speeds and on multiple levels.

Alongside Planetary, this concert will also premiere David Bithell’s temporary structures. Here, the simple idea of alternation is at play. Like the rotations in Planetary, this alternation happens on multiple levels: between individual instruments, and between groups of them. Further, Bithell describes that, over time, “Instrumental motives become more subdued and inhabit a narrower range,” so that the structure of the whole piece assumes the shape of a diminuendo.

Even though this concert and these pieces can be described in terms of evolution, this upcoming concert will also speak to the current state of the Bay Area’s contemporary music scene. That state, judging by this sfSound program, promises to be both appealing and advanced.

More about sfSound »
Chamber Music Review
July 19, 2009

The contemporary chamber music concert that I attended Sunday evening was refreshingly free of gimmickry. For example, it took place in the ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco’s Mission District: a humble, but also accommodating, performance space. The program, by sfSound, also did not boast any flashy title or unifying theme. Nor was it accompanied by hollow reassurances about contemporary music’s being made palatable to the public.

More »
Upcoming Concert
June 22, 2009
Anyone who has ever played a video game likely knows that, just as the contours of its control pad can become imprinted on the hand, so too can the game’s musical themes leave lasting impressions on the memory. For gamers and music lovers alike, the San Francisco Symphony will create a similarly memorable musical experience at Davies Symphony Hall on July 18 when it performs Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy.

The video game Final Fantasy was originally released by a Japanese company in 1987. A few years later, it was translated into English and published in the U.S. In the years since, it has become a media franchise, which includes numerous sequels, as well as remakes for various video game platforms.

Final Fantasy is a role-playing game in which four main characters, called Light Warriors, battle evil fiends and another character named Garland. Its groundbreaking graphics and compelling storylines are both historically significant and popular. Its music, by the Japanese video game composer Nobuo Uematsu, is also critically acclaimed. Under the baton of Grammy Award-winner Arnie Roth, Distant Worlds consists of songs from Final Fantasy that have been orchestrated for full symphony orchestra. The program, which should last about two hours, features vocalists in addition to the orchestra. The music will also be accompanied by video and still pictures from the game.

Distant Worlds includes music from the first game and its sequels. Uematsu’s music variously incorporates lush, dramatic melodies reminiscent of late Romanticism, rhythmic repetition that conjures 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Orff, and even dance-inspired swing and flamenco. “One-Winged Angel,” from Final Fantasy VII, mixes intense rhythms with lyrics drawn from the medieval Carmina Burana. Despite their variety, though, Uematsu’s musical themes are usually coupled with particular characters or events, like “Aerith’s Theme” and “Bombing Mission.” The concert should also include a sweeping “Main Theme,” which is common to most versions of the game.

Distant Worlds premiered in Stockholm in 1997 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first video game. Since then, the program has been performed by orchestras around the world. Unique to the San Francisco concert, though, is that it will showcase four outstanding young vocal soloists with ties to the Bay Area: Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto (soprano, who just won the $50,000 first prize for vocalists in the José Iturbi International Competition), Andrew Bidlack (tenor), and Austin Kness (baritone), as well as mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham, who once studied at the San Francisco Conservatory.

The San Francisco concert is also special because Uematsu himself plans to attend. Following the concert, both Uematsu and Roth also plan to attend an after-party at Crimson Lounge on McAllister Street. Tickets for this adult-only party will be sold separately from the family friendly concert, starting June 25, through Tickets for the concert are on sale now through the S.F. Symphony box office. Even without the after-party, though, Distant Worlds should be an entertaining, memorable affair — true to the game Final Fantasy itself.

More about San Francisco Symphony »
Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
June 4, 2009

I left the performance I attended on Thursday with the feeling that I got two concerts for the price of one. In truth, it was just that one musician, cellist Zoë Keating, opened for another, vocalist Amy X Neuburg.

More »
Upcoming Concert
May 13, 2009
The idea that numerical properties underlie music has interested people since at least the Middle Ages. Back then, people believed that orderly ratios underpinned not only music, but even planetary movement — the harmonious yet inaudible “music of the spheres.” In our own time, the Adorno Ensemble’s upcoming concert showcases relationships between music and numbers that interest contemporary composers.

Like the music on this program, the ensemble’s name also calls for explanation. It’s named after the noted German thinker Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, who studied ways in which music relates to society. Since the group is committed to making contemporary music seem relevant and palatable, “Adorno” seemed, to the group, a fitting name.

Two featured composers on the upcoming program are Iannis Xenakis and Conlon Nancarrow. Xenakis used computers to compose music for human performers, whereas Nancarrow himself composed music for a nonhuman, mechanical instrument. A third featured composer, Charles Wuorinen, mediates these two polarities, composing his own music for human performers, albeit music that’s still temporally complex.

Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents, but moved to France in the 1940s. He was especially drawn to music and math because he was trained as an engineer, and he also worked for the architect known as Le Corbusier. The Adorno will play his Morsima-Amorsima, a quartet for piano, violin, cello, and double bass that was premiered in 1962. The composition is generated by a highly complex computer algorithm, which Xenakis also used for other compositions.

Nancarrow, meanwhile, was an American-Mexican composer who composed many “studies” for player piano. He believed this mechanical instrument could perform more-complex rhythms and meters than humans could. But he transcribed his Study No. 34 for string trio. Just as he sought to overcome limitations of human performers by composing for the mechanical player piano, perhaps Nancarrow also sought to overcome the timbral and expressive limitations of the mechanical instrument by transcribing this study for a human ensemble.

Finally, Wuorinen (b. 1938) is an American composer who has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship. His Eleven Short Pieces for violin and vibraphone dates from 2006. Don’t be fooled by the title of his compositional treatise, Simple Composition. The ideas about musical time that inform Wuorinen’s compositions are complex and multifaceted, with influences ranging from Stefan Wolpe to Milton Babbitt to Elliott Carter.

The relationships between music and numbers explored by these contemporary composers have moved a long way from the medieval “music of the spheres.” Instead of mere harmony and order, these composers also entertain complexity and chaos. Also unlike the medieval idea, their contemporary music is actually audible, and worth a listen when presented by the Adorno Ensemble.

More about Adorno Ensemble »
Feature Article
March 31, 2009

The composer Kurt Weill and the city of Berlin are often mentioned in the same breath. Both the composer and the city are icons of the Weimar Republic, the name given to Germany’s government between 1919 and 1933.

More »
Artist Review
March 7, 2009

Who is László Klangfarben, and what is a Schick Machine? Those were the two burning questions on the minds of audience and protagonist alike during Schick Machine, a theatrical and musical work commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts and premiered Saturday evening at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

More »
Archive Review
December 9, 2008

Initially, it might seem unimaginable that a silent film from the late 1920s could occasion a West Coast premiere of a musical score. But when the score is one composed for the film, then the situation becomes feasible, indeed.

More »
Archive Review
November 18, 2008

By definition, contemporaneity is an integral component of new music. But contemporary circumstances obviously engulf more than musical concerns: From war to the environment to the financial crisis, there are plenty of present-day issues that have nothing to do with music. But this is not to say that contemporary music cannot reflect on these social issues.

More »
Archive Review
October 21, 2008

The performance I attended Saturday night began with a single performer, dressed in a white tunic, dancing on the stage while waving a flag. Immediately I grew nervous. I knew the performance was supposed to convey spiritual ascension, or even transcendence. The past week had been a rough one for me, and by attending this performance, I was hoping for a little transcendence of my own — some respite, however ephemeral, from my worldly worries. But this first performer seemed to be enacting a ritual to which I personally remained uninitiated.

More »
Archive Review
August 5, 2008

Abstract, intimidating, unintelligible: These are words I often hear used to describe new music. People who use them might assume that every new-music festival is chock-full of serious, difficult sounds that can daunt even trained musicians, not to mention the musically uninitiated.

More »
Archive Review
July 22, 2008

From Beethoven to Wagner to Schoenberg, Johann Sebastian Bach influenced the subsequent course of Western music. Everybody knows that. Particularly influential is Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. This work consists of two volumes, each of which features one prelude and one fugue in every major and minor key. Since Well-Tempered Clavier is a staggering compendium of Bach's contrapuntal techniques, classical performers and composers alike learn from it still today.

More »
Archive Review
May 13, 2008

The Finnish musician Magnus Lindberg is a man of many talents. He performs professionally as a pianist and as a percussionist. Moreover, he is a decorated composer whose compositional honors include the Prix Italia, the Nordic Music Prize, and the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize. On Monday he made his local recital debut with a concert for San Francisco Performances at San Francisco Conservatory's recital hall. But this recital seemed special not merely because it was Lindberg's first in the area.

More »
Archive Review
April 15, 2008

Eighth blackbird's concert on Saturday defied elementary arithmetic. For example, the program featured two pieces, but four composers, which might seem twice as many composers as was required. Similarly, the first piece specified 12 musicians, but was performed by only six, which might seem twice too few.

More »
Archive Review
March 11, 2008

In his poem "The Soup," U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic concocted a mordant, macabre "soup of the world." Cockroaches, dirty feet, Stalin's moustache, Hiroshima, and bloody sausages number among the incendiary images in the poem. Can you even dare imagine musical analogs for them?

More »