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Joseph Sargent

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Articles by this Author

Upcoming Concert
May 18, 2010

A panorama of the creative smorgasboard from the 16th century will be on display in Chanticleer’s final season concert, “For Thy Soul’s Salvation: Music for England’s Monarchs,” presented June 2-5 in Berkeley, Sacramento, San José, and San Francisco.

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Upcoming Concert
May 10, 2010

Many of the pieces Earplay performs have Bay Area roots, part of conductor Mary Chun’s stated emphasis on giving voice to local composers. For its May 24 concert, “Ports and Portals,” held at Herbst Theatre in partnership with the S.F. International Arts Festival, the ensemble adds two more world premieres and two West Coast premieres to the tally.

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Upcoming Concert
May 3, 2010

Cantare Con Vivo Music Director David Morales takes the title of his ensemble quite literally. In 23 years of conducting this conglomerate of large, small, and children’s groups, he has developed an unwavering commitment to using singers’ own life experiences to enhance their performance.

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Upcoming Concert
April 26, 2010

The San Francisco Renaissance Voices present a daunting program of two Masses by Josquin des Prez.

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Chamber Music Review
March 27, 2010

Modern listeners can find 14th-century secular music tough to grasp. Working within highly restrictive formal structures, this era’s composers and poets created elaborate ruminations on wide-ranging themes — love, loss, justice, virtue — in a sound world quite distinct from earlier chant or later imitative polyphony.

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Upcoming Concert
March 16, 2010
Among the ever-expanding roster of early-music groups, Passamezzo Moderno seems decisively committed to diversity. Founded in 2005, this emerging ensemble brings together a crop of youthful performers (harpsichordist Jonathan Davis, violinists Edwin Huizinga and Adriane Post) with veteran bassoonist David Granger, plus a revolving door of guest artists. Chronologically the group takes on wide-ranging repertory, “from 1530 to 1830” according to the ensemble’s Web site. They also offer a distinctive array of supplementary services, everything from transcriptions and arrangements to custom-designed musical cadenzas.

Still, this doesn’t mean the group lacks focus. This ensemble proclaims a particular specialty in “the virtuoso instrumental music of the seventeenth century,” and virtuosity will certainly be on full display in their upcoming performance March 23 at the Berkeley City Club, part of the Berkeley Chamber Performances series and featuring guest recorder/oboe player Kathryn Montoya and viola da gamba/violone player Josh Lee. But while fast fingerwork seems organic to a program titled “Baroque Bravado,” audiences will also find music of high drama and poignant lyricism underneath the razzle-dazzle.

Passamezzo Moderno’s diversity extends to the geographic range of its repertory, even if the composers themselves are all mid- to late-Baroque contemporaries. Representing England is Henry Purcell’s Fantazia: Three Parts on a Ground, in which a stately melody and simple harmonic progression is transformed into highly novel variations over the unvarying ground bass. Georg Frideric Handel’s Sonata in G Minor, Op. 2, No. 8 for violin, oboe, and continuo is a more doubtful case, with lingering questions about both its authorship and its original scoring, yet the piece itself is an undeniable charmer. Frenchman Marin Marais’ Pièces en Trio (Suite in C major) for recorder, violin, and continuo showcases great diversity across eight dance movements, laying out a veritable feast for the ears.

Representing the Germans are two works by the immensely prolific Georg Philipp Telemann, the Sonates Corellisantes, Sonata No. 1 in F Major and 12 Canons melodieux, ou 6 sonates en duo: Canonic Duo No. 2 in G Minor. Another German, Johann Pachelbel, wrote a famous little canon that will also be performed here — though people may not know its original scoring (for three violins and basso continuo), or the fact that it was originally paired with a gigue. Passamezzo Moderno’s own Kanon & Gigue restores the gigue but shifts the instrumentation to recorder, two violins, and continuo, placing their own stamp on a timeworn classic.

The Czech-born Jan Dismas Zelenka spent the heart of his career in Dresden and earned the esteem of no less a figure than J.S. Bach. Recently, Zelenka has enjoyed a powerful resurgence in popularity, and, judging by his Sonata in B-flat Major, No. 3, for violin, oboe, bassoon, and continuo, it’s easy to see why. The slower movements are especially touching, with aching melodies in the opening Adagio and a wistful, third-movement Largo.

Finally, from Italy there’s Antonio Vivaldi and his Concerto in G Minor, “La Notte,” for recorder, bassoon, two violins, and continuo. It’s unclear what this “night” concerto is meant to signify programmatically, other than that two of its four movements bear the subtitles “Phantasms” and “The Dream,” yet the madcap figurations and vivid melodic writing are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

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Upcoming Concert
March 8, 2010
Quartet San Francisco is definitely not your grandmother’s string quartet. While other ensembles stick to classical masters like Beethoven and Brahms, this ensemble’s tastes also lean toward blues and bluegrass — not to mention jazz, pop, funk, and even tango. Since its formation in 2001, QSF has become a nationally prominent crossover group, earning three Grammy nominations over the past four years alone.

It’s hard not to take notice with an artistic credo that proclaims, “When the music says swing, we swing. When the music says groove, we groove.” Swingin’ and groovin’ will doubtless be on display at their upcoming March 20 performance at Herbst Theatre, part of San Francisco Performances’ family matinee series. Besides selections from the group’s newest CD, titled QSF Plays Brubeck, the performance features such standards as “Under the Sea” (from Disney’s Little Mermaid), “The Pink Panther,” and Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” (as heard in Bugs Bunny cartoons — remember them?).

Performing these popular styles artistically, and crafting successful quartet arrangements of these songs, is no mean feat. According to Jeremy Cohen, first violinist of QSF, the quartet maintains an ongoing dialogue on style and performance issues. “The strongest focus of our work process is to achieve a performance which meets each piece we play in its native language. This has us constantly creating techniques which speak ‘jazz band’ or ‘bluegrass’ or ‘calypso,’ or whatever it is we are playing at the moment. This process requires input and experimentation from all corners of the quartet. We all rely on each other’s ears and talents in order to collectively achieve these styles.”

Brubeck’s music embodies the hybrid sensibilities cultivated by the quartet. “I was raised in a family in which my parents told me of the ‘four B’s’: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Brubeck,” Cohen notes. “I heard the music of Dave Brubeck alongside all of the wonderful and iconic classical composers ... [but] I had always wondered why there were no arrangements or compositions of this type for chamber music ensembles. I felt that if I could hear it in my head, I could play it on my violin, so I started to arrange Brubeck’s pieces for the string quartet. Brubeck’s classical training combined with his American jazz sensibilities made his music a natural choice.”

Watch Quartet San Francisco

QSF’s genre-defying approach has led to widespread recognition on both jazz and classical airwaves, though the ensemble is particularly delighted to perform under the aegis of San Francisco Performances. “Recognition at home is perhaps the most satisfying part of the group’s rise over the last few years,” says Cohen. “As we are now reaching national and international audiences, we are most pleased and excited to be embraced and recognized by our own hometown presenting organization.”

As for where QSF will go next, Cohen says that’s a matter of ongoing discussion among the quartet’s members. “We can’t really pursue a new area of music without everyone being signed on for the journey. With Quartet San Francisco it’s 110 percent commitment for everything we play. We have not found any other way to do it right, and frankly I believe that most of our success has come from this attitude (combined with some old-fashioned hard work!).”

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Upcoming Concert
March 2, 2010
In a time when natural disasters in Haiti and Chile have many people mobilizing their charitable impulses, the musicians of Voices of Music are lending their own helping hand. A collective of leading Renaissance and Baroque specialists codirected by Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler, Voices of Music already maintains a healthy community outreach program, ranging from classes for children to develop their recorder skills to performance workshops for musicians of all stripes.

Now, a wider audience can reap the benefits of their altruism at the group’s annual charity concert, “An Evening With the Stars,” held this year on March 20 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill. The stars in this case include several luminaries of the early-music scene (Lisa Grodin, Katherine Kyme, Carla Moore, Tanya Tomkins), performing alongside a crop of emerging young artists chosen by special audition. The only cost to listeners is a donation of a nonperishable food item; in return, they get both a high-caliber performance and the satisfaction of supporting a good cause.

Actually, audience members are supporting two separate causes. First are the food donations, which add to the supplies of local soup kitchens. Then there’s the support given to the younger musicians, who enjoy an exciting opportunity to work alongside established masters and share a stage with them. As the ensemble observes, “The concert not only introduces these young artists to the community, but also forges an important connection between the performing arts and the different ways in which artists can participate in society.”

Sample Voices of Music

These emerging professionals include two Baroque cellists, Hannah Addario-Berry and Shirley Hunt, as well as recorder player Andrew Levy and lute continuo player Dominic Schaner. All four musicians are part of Voices of Music’s Advanced Professional Training Program, an exciting initiative in which seasoned pros offer — for free or at cost — intensive training to help students make the transition to a professional career. Besides receiving coaching on their individual instruments, these students also learn the practical side of carving out a music career: honing a resume, addressing photography needs, creating audio and video recordings. (The charity concert itself adds an important dimension, as these students benefit from receiving a professional recording of their performance.)

With an atmosphere of goodwill and what promises to be an enthusiastic audience, the concert should bring a healthy dose of good vibes and community building. But along with all the do-gooding will be some fearsome musical chops. And if the opinions of the ensemble’s devoted following are any indication, the performance could become a truly special occasion. As one fan recently gushed on Facebook, “What a wonderful, talented, exciting group of musicians you are. You bring joy and beauty with your art, with the way you capture the spirit of the music, the composer and the time. Thank you!!!!”

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Choral Review
February 20, 2010

Being a nun in 17th-century Italy had its fair share of challenges. While life in the convent offered an existence of some comfort and stability for the pious, nuns were governed by strict codes regulating their mobility, their visibility to the outside world, and visits from their families.

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Upcoming Concert
February 17, 2010
2010 isn't even two months old, and already it's shaping up to be a banner year for Claudio Monteverdi, thanks to the 400th anniversary of the composer's towering Vespro della Beata Vergine. But if you take your Monteverdi a little less monumental, the California Bach Society's next concert set may be just the ticket. As Artistic Director Paul Flight explains, "This year, when many groups around the country are turning their attention to Monteverdi's justly famous Vespers of 1610, I thought it would be nice to explore a different side of the composer's oeuvre." His choice: the madrigals, a broad selection of which are featured in CBS performances March 12-14 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. In these concerts, the group is joined by tenor soloist Brian Thorsett.

The California Bach SocietyMonteverdi's madrigals are witty and melodious, and immediately expressive. Laments of the lovelorn feature prominently: the consuming passion of love (Quel augellin che canta/ The little bird who sings), unrequited love (Sfogava con le stelle/ He cried out to the stars, A un giro sol/ A single glance), leavetaking (O primavera gioventù dell anno/ O Springtime, youthful season, Ah, dolente partita/ Ah, sad parting). The remarkable sestina Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata (Tears of the lover at the tomb of his beloved), a set of six madrigals on a single, extended poem, creates an especially powerful solemnity in Monteverdi's setting. CBS also sings the paradigmatic Monteverdi lament, Lamento d'Arianna, in its five-voice madrigal version, adapted from a solo aria in the now-lost opera L'Arianna.

Tenor Brian ThorsettThe chorus' concert repertory centers on the middle range of Monteverdi's output (books 3, 4, 6, and 7), published between 1592 and 1619. "Written over a 25-year span, the madrigals we are performing reflect the various innovations that Monteverdi brought to the form," Flight observes. "The madrigals of his earlier books may bear a loose relation to the Renaissance motet, but already they are replete with bold gestures in which the meaning of a specific word is brought out strongly." Aside from their musical beauty, they're a fascinating case study in the composer's stylistic development. The madrigals are a microcosm of the transition historians now identify between Renaissance and Baroque style, and Monteverdi was squarely in the vanguard.

Typical of Monteverdi's experimental impulse is Sfogava con le stelle (He cried out to the stars), which opens with a patter-style delivery of the poem's words on a single chord, depicting the poet's sense of urgency and anguish.

Thorsett will be featured in selections from the composer's 1632 song collection Scherzi Musicali (musical jests), which showcase Monteverdi's ravishing lyricism and complex emotional drama. Rounding out the program is a touch of ballet music with Tirsi e Clori, filled with songs of infectious tunefulness.

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Upcoming Concert
February 14, 2010
Young. Sexy. Flashy. In the world of classical music, these words pop up repeatedly when describing the three women who comprise the Eroica Trio. And indeed, this is one ensemble that has never been afraid to show off its glamorous side. A quick glance at its official bio reveals a list of magazine interviews headed not by hallowed classical-music standards, but names like Elle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Detour, and Marie Claire.

Fashion-forward they may be, but the Eroica’s powerhouse performers (pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Susie Park, cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio) also have plenty of musical chops to back up their glamour appeal. Everything about this group teems with passion, from the heroic connotations of the ensemble’s name to the exuberance that characterizes its approach.

Taken to extremes, assessments of the ensemble’s outsize image can border on caricature. (Witness the comment several years ago from a Tucson Citizen journalist who impudently declared, “They look like supermodels and they play like demons on crack.”) But at the end of the day it’s all about the music, and in programs Feb. 28 in Walnut Creek and March 1 in Palo Alto, courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco, Eroica will be offering up a compelling selection of repertory, blending vigorous youth with sober reflectiveness.

Beethoven’s youthful Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3, premiered in 1793 (and composed under Joseph Haydn’s tutelage), hints at the formal expansiveness and brilliant expressive contrasts to come in his later music. Still, this captivating trio failed to convince Haydn, who asserted that it “would not be quickly or easily understood,” nor would it be “favorably received by the public.” The composer evidently disagreed, esteeming the work enough to refashion it into his later String Quintet in C Minor, Op. 104.

Joan Tower’s For Daniel, composed in 2004 on the death of her nephew, presents a powerful, elegiac contrast. Two thematic ideas — repeated dissonant chords, and intricate solo piano interludes — anchor a maelstrom of a piece, laden with deeply personal resonances. As Tower herself has said, “The 17-minute trio conveys the complex emotions of someone facing a terminal, long-range illness. The hope, joy, depression, pain, deep turmoil and occasional serenity are in constant juxtaposition in this work — as they were throughout the last years of Daniel’s life. As the end approaches, so does the intensity. In my work, this intensity is expressed in a fast and loud way. Daniel was probably more accepting. May he now rest in peace.”

Eroica’s final selection, Brahms’ Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8, presents another case of a composer revisiting his earlier work. Brahms published this piece as a teenager in 1854, revising and then republishing it nearly four decades later, in 1891. In doing so, the composer claimed he “did not provide [the piece] with a wig, but just combed and arranged its hair a little.” Nevertheless, the new version was more of a haircut then he let on — considerably shortened, with fewer themes and a simplified overall structure. Of all Brahms’ surviving output, this trio is the only piece to exist in two published editions, though the later one is almost always the version performed nowadays.

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Upcoming Concert
January 12, 2010
Major anniversaries of a famous composer’s birth or death often occasion great fanfare, yet such honors are seldom accorded the anniversary of the publication of an individual piece. The year 2010 presents a notable exception, marking the 400th anniversary of the first printed edition of Claudio Monteverdi’s masterful Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610). This year’s first local commemoration, and likely one of the finest to be heard all year, comes courtesy of American Bach Soloists, which presents this masterwork in four performances Jan. 29–Feb. 1 in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis.

By any standard, the Monteverdi Vespers is a crowning achievement in musical history. Blending psalms, hymns, Magnificats, and other liturgical elements with paraliturgical motets and a sonata, Monteverdi harnesses a remarkably eclectic stylistic palette, from plainchant to elaborate counterpoint, in an exceptional fusion of tradition and innovation. The scoring is equally impressive, calling for seven solo vocalists (covered by three singers in ABS’ production), a rich panoply of instrumentalists, and a choir that divides into as many as 10 parts. Although vexing historical questions linger about where, when, and how this music was performed during the composer’s time, there can be no doubt that his Vespers was conceived as music meant to impress.

Not surprisingly, Monteverdi’s flashy instrumental and vocal solos tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. But choral music anchors the Vespers in many ways, with all the traditional Vespers elements (psalms, hymn, Magnificat) handed to this ensemble. For Sam Smith, a five-year veteran of the American Bach Choir, ABS’ stellar choral ensemble, the chance to perform the Vespers during this anniversary season is singularly exciting. “This work is a milestone in the evolution of liturgical music, of Baroque rhetoric and style, and in vocal writing,” he notes. “Not only does the festivity of the occasion of its 400th anniversary lend appeal, but also it is probably no exaggeration to say that every singer dreams of performing this work at a high artistic standard. And, with the chance to do so in an intimate ensemble, as doubtless was the case in the original premiere, with just 30 musicians on stage, where each person makes a vital contribution, what could be better?”

A primary challenge in putting together an outstanding performance involves limited rehearsal time, as the chorus gets merely three rehearsals to nail their parts. Outside preparation beforehand is a given, but Smith says the singers’ long-standing familiarity with one another, and with Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas’ nuanced rehearsal technique, are also key. “It is a combination of limited, intense rehearsal; collective institutional memory; and total commitment during concertizing that results in the high level of technical excellence, surefooted interpretation, and heartfelt, passionate performing that audiences have come to expect from an ABS concert,” Smith observes.

Along with this hard work comes great pride in the opportunity to collaborate with Thomas and the other ABS performers. “ABS is the finest group I work with,” Smith declares. “This is simply the best music I make each year, and each set we do is a highlight of my musical season. The size of the ensemble is congenial — small enough so that each participant makes a difference, yet large enough to feel the horsepower that only a choir with orchestra can deliver. But what sets it apart is a rare combination of high caliber musicianship, ensemble collegiality, and the charismatic leadership of Maestro Jeffrey Thomas.”

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Upcoming Concert
December 29, 2009
As memories of holiday carols and sing-alongs fade into the distance, harbingers of enticing performances for the new year are beginning to take their place. A guaranteed highlight for early-music lovers this month is the return of Europa Galante, the crackerjack consort led by violinist Fabio Biondi, which is dedicated to plumbing the depths of Italian Baroque and Classical repertory. Following a highly acclaimed performance in 2008 under the aegis of Cal Performances, Biondi and company return to Berkeley on Jan. 23, offering a mélange of mostly Italian Baroque works.

As a soloist, Biondi is well-known for pushing the interpretive envelope through performances of irrepressible verve, passion, and drive — or, as one critic bluntly called it, “going hell for leather.” Unsurprisingly, this approach carries over to Europa Galante, as well, which is rooted in a desire to liberate historical performance from conventional dogmas. “My aim is that Europa Galante will bring its own twenty-first-century reading, a contemporary perspective to Baroque music,” Biondi noted in an interview published in Goldberg magazine several years ago. “It’s not a question of re-creating music as we think it was played in the past, but of allowing it to be heard afresh through a modern prism.”

In crafting these new approaches, Biondi does a good deal of homework, fervently researching early Italian repertory and the conditions that allowed it to thrive. “By removing the cobwebs from works that are no longer well-known, we can gradually understand these [conditions],” he states. “There is so much to discover. Libraries are full of treasures just waiting to be found; their collections are amazingly rich, even in terms of major composers.” Especially attracting his interest are composers who were popular in their own lifetime but are ignored nowadays. “Locatelli, for instance, was unknown until [recently], but in the eighteenth century his bold, virtuosic instrumental writing made him one of the stars of the musical firmament,” Biondi notes.

This “Locatelli” refers to Pietro Antonio Locatelli, whose virtuosity shines brightly in his Concerto Grosso Op. 1, No. 5. This piece exploits the technical fluidity that has led some to call Locatelli a predecessor to Paganini. It’s also one of the more enlivening works on Europa Galante’s program, along with Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Sinfonia in G Minor, JC 57, a work of throbbing buoyancy that anticipates the Sturm und Drang style of Franz Joseph Haydn.

For more sweetly sounding ear candy, Pietro Nardini’s Concerto for Violin Op. 1, No. 1, fits the bill. As both a composer and a violinist, Nardini embraced qualities of melodic grace and sentimentality, prompting Leopold Mozart to observe that “the beauty, purity and equality of his tone, and the tastefulness of his cantabile playing, cannot be surpassed; but he does not execute great difficulties.” Also on the lighter side is Georg Philipp Telemann’s Ouverture à Quatre, in F major, heavily influenced by French rococo style, while Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 11, bridges the gap between sweet and scintillating.

A final work on the program is Telemann’s Concerto in A Major for flute, violin, cello, and strings, TWV 53. Although renowned for his eye-popping productivity in all musical genres (he was dubbed “most prolific composer” by the Guinness Book of World Records not long ago), Telemann professed ambivalence toward the concerto, claiming that “since the concerto form was never close to my heart, it was immaterial to me whether I wrote a great many or not.” He nevertheless ended up being a typical overachiever, writing more than 170 such works.

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Choral Review
December 4, 2009

Amid an ever-expanding roster of outstanding Renaissance ensembles, the Tallis Scholars remains a force to be reckoned with. For several decades now, Director Peter Phillips and his singers have been leaders on the early-music scene through internationally renowned tours and recordings, as well as by cultivating a distinctively bright sound, anchored by laser-sharp sopranos and rich, voluminous basses. At its best, this sound conveys remarkable purity and crispness, with an icy edge.

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Upcoming Concert
November 23, 2009
Although George Frideric Handel was a German-born composer who spent much of his career in England, holiday performances of his oratorio Messiah have become as American as apple pie. Look around the Bay Area, and you’ll doubtless find an eclectic array of sing-alongs, play-alongs, or just listen-alongs of this most-hallowed choral masterpiece. For sheer quality, however, it’s hard to beat the American Bach Soloists’ annual performances. This year’s concerts, presented Dec. 17-18 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and again Dec. 19 at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, promise to shed yet another bright light on a classic holiday tradition.

It’s common to think of Messiah as a stable, fixed work. In fact, Handel constantly revised the piece following its 1741 premiere, accommodating a changing roster of singers and instrumentalists with new arrangements, different transpositions, and new arias contributed by the singers themselves. ABS’ 2009 performance draws on a version performed in 1753 at the Foundling Hospital in London, for the official opening of the hospital’s chapel, where annual performances of Messiah had been established a few years earlier.

This rendition is actually rather traditional, in that the score closely approximates the version that many modern listeners know and love. “Ironically novel this year is that this year’s version is most like the performances that are generally heard,” says ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. “So far, as we have worked through the earlier versions, there were some very unusual settings of arias and choruses that remain mostly unfamiliar. Now, as we move on to the later versions, among the last that Handel conducted, the format that held fast for more than two centuries comes to the surface.”

ABS’ engagement with the oratorio extends back to 1992, when the ensemble joined with Cal Performances to coproduce a holiday performance. Two years later, ABS went solo, so to speak, presenting its own annual concerts in venues around the Bay Area. To keep the work fresh, Thomas employs various editions of the score, hires different personnel, and pays ever-increasing attention to historical details. “Messiah stays alive and fresh all on its own; it has done exactly that for more than 250 years,” he notes. “But we make our contributions, too. Last year, we set up the chorus in exactly the same way that Handel did, more or less antiphonally on the two sides of the stage. That’s a keeper!”

Thomas views this year’s score as a culmination of sorts, a summa of Handel’s extended engagement with a work destined for classic status. “This version,” he comments, “marks that bittersweet moment in music history when Handel, nearly blind and quite exhausted from a very long and sometimes profitable, sometimes difficult career, had essentially completed his work, having created the masterpiece that would be performed ‘for ever and ever’ (to quote the last line of the “Hallelujah!” chorus).”

As a final exhortation, Thomas speaks to the qualities that keep people coming back to Messiah year after year: the music, the tradition, and the sense of community. “These performances of Messiah in Grace Cathedral are one of the great San Francisco annual happenings. The place will be packed, beautifully prepared for the Christmas holidays, and the thousand or so who will be there each night come together to share something truly special. And there is nothing more superb than Handel’s glorious Messiah.

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Chamber Music Review
November 21, 2009

When it comes to Beethoven’s vocal music, the average listener’s familiarity is probably limited to a few classics: his opera Fidelio, the Missa solemnis, the final movement of Symphony No. 9. Yet a treasure trove of repertory lies hidden beneath these monuments — many vocal works, in fact, many of quite superior quality but habitually ignored except among specialists.

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Upcoming Concert
November 10, 2009
Performing the entire corpus of Joseph Haydn’s 68 (count ’em, 68) string quartets is a feat that some professional string players might equate with finding the Holy Grail, or winning Olympic gold. It’s a highly impressive achievement by any measure, though one that might get lost amid other performances of high-profile cycles by stellar ensembles (think the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler series).

For the past three years, this task has been the singular preoccupation of the New Esterházy Quartet, an ensemble comprising several of the Bay Area’s finest period-instrument performers. Founded in 2006, the quartet set as its express goal to complete the Haydn cycle by the end of 2009, the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. Their penultimate installment, a program called “Le Matin, Le Midi, Le Soir,” offers a panorama of Haydn’s early, middle, and late works, including his quartets Op. 1/0 in E-flat major, Op. 9/4 in D minor, Op. 64/6 in E-flat major, and Op. 103 in B-flat major/D minor. Two afternoon performances Nov. 28-29, in San Francisco and Palo Alto, are followed by a special presentation on Nov. 30 at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse (Haydn would be pleased by its ambiance).

The chasm separating desire from realization is often insurmountable, but New Esterházy has demonstrated a laser focus in finishing its appointed task. As its violist, Anthony Martin, observed in an SFCV interview  last June, “all string players who love quartets say that they’d love to play all the Haydn Quartets, but violinist Kati Kyme has actually made it happen. Very few have accomplished it, and of those, even fewer have ever done it in public. The New Esterházy Quartet is the only group in America, in this hemisphere even, to have done it on period instruments.”

What is it about the Haydn quartets that make them such hallowed ground? Although it’s highly debatable that Haydn single-handedly invented the string quartet in the mid-18th century, as some have claimed, there’s no denying his status as history’s first great quartet composer. Especially while serving the influential Esterházy family in Hungary, Haydn decisively elevated this genre’s pedigree, working out innovative ideas of thematic development and formal organization while introducing trademark elements of whimsy and surprise. His influence on later quartet composers was profound, from Mozart’s “Haydn” quartets (dedicated to the composer) to Beethoven’s refusal to write his own quartets until he had absorbed Haydn’s style.

Martin sees a great deal more in these pieces than mere technical virtuosity, noting a more personal side to Haydn’s writing, as well. “[Haydn’s] humanity, as revealed through his creations, is the most complete and admirable of all those who have composed in [the Viennese classical] tradition,” he notes. “Haydn’s quartets encompass learning and naivete, humor and pathos, simplicity and complexity, and all in such generous profusion that he never wears nor pales. Of all the great composers, he is surely the one that I would want to have join the family for a Thanksgiving meal, his songs of thanks being the most beautiful and sincere in the literature. The New Esterházy Quartet derives great joy from exploring and playing his music, and in sharing his presence with others.”

As for what will happen to New Esterházy after the Haydn cycle has ended, Martin assures an interlocutor that “disbanding is the farthest thing from our minds. Our third season will bring not just the completion of the Haydn cycle, but the beginning of a new series of at least six concerts, each one anchored by one of the quartets dedicated to Haydn by Mozart.”

More about New Esterházy Quartet »
Upcoming Concert
November 9, 2009
Traditional December choral concerts, with their well-worn carols and holiday themes, can be great for lifting the spirits. But for concertgoers who want more than just another sing-along, San Francisco Choral Artists’ upcoming program, “Old Chestnuts, New Fire!,” offers a tantalizing alternative. Under Magen Solomon’s direction, SFCA has assembled one of the holiday season’s more distinctive repertories, combining a selection of audience/singer favorites with several newer works, two premieres — and, yes, some Christmas carols — in performances Dec. 5 in Palo Alto, Dec. 12 in San Francisco, and Dec. 13 in Oakland.

If the program’s lineup is any indication, SFCA’s supporters are quite an eclectic bunch. Renaissance repertory, including William Byrd’s O magnum mysterium and Carlo Gesualdo’s Ave dulcissima Maria (a sweet work by a man who had his wife and her lover killed), sits alongside modern pieces like Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Herbert Howells’ Sing Lullaby, plus works by several Bay Area composers. These latter pieces reflect a larger seasonal celebration of SFCA’s 25 years of involvement with 20th- and 21st-century music, during which the ensemble will revisit, aptly, 25 of their world premieres (including six for the December concert).

The repertory selection process involved input from several quarters. After collecting information on singer and audience preferences, Solomon noticed that certain pieces were especially popular, and then used this information to assemble a program both appealing to the singers and balanced for the audience. The program, she notes, also reflects her own tastes, “but to a larger extent it’s repertory that really means a lot to our singers and our audiences, and also reflects the mission of our group.” Certain of the singer/audience choices took Solomon by surprise, in particular a piece titled Coventry Carol, by local composer Maia Aprahamian. This challenging work sets a text that dramatically emphasizes some of the darker aspects of the life of Jesus. “Most people like Christmas music to be sweet, but this piece has a real dark side, with Christ’s crucifixion prefigured in this text.”

Another central aspect of SFCA is its emphasis on living composers. Solomon avidly cultivates engagements with local artists to help bridge the gulf between composer and performer, which she views as a 20th-century anachronism. Indeed, SFCA boasts current associations with not one but two composers: Brian Holmes, the ensemble’s composer in residence, as well as “composer-not-in-residence” Christopher Marshall, a professor at the University of Central Florida. Works by both will be heard for the first time in this program.

SFCA’s contemporary focus also stems from philosophical considerations about the nature of musical performance. “I feel like music needs to be live music,” Solomon comments. “It’s so easy to listen to flawless recordings, but having live singers in front of live audiences singing music by living composers has always been a critical part of our group.” At the same time, she doesn’t wish to limit herself to local or regional composers. “We needed artistically to stretch beyond the California composer,” Solomon observed, when asked about the rationale for having a composer considered not in residence. “Chris Marshall is actually from New Zealand. We chose him not only because he’s brilliant, but also because he has a New Zealand sensibility different from our California connection.” As evidence of this cultural broadening she points to Marshall’s piece on the program, whose text is about Christmas down under — where this wintry holiday occurs during the heat of summer. (SFCA’s March 2010 program is wittily called “Forecast: Sunny With a Chance of Song.”)

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Upcoming Concert
October 12, 2009
The enterprising young choral ensemble Chalice Consort sure dreams big. Barely a year old, the group has already taken on a challenging mission: to present performances emphasizing lost, ignored, or otherwise overlooked Renaissance and Baroque repertory. More than merely performing, the group aims to get scholars into the act, with an upcoming competition and conference to share their own discoveries. And in a real coup, the ensemble has enlisted early-music standout Davitt Moroney to direct its 2009-2010 opening concert of music by William Byrd, titled “By the Waters of Babylon,” performed in San Francisco and Oakland.

Moroney is probably best known as an internationally renowned keyboardist and UC Berkeley professor, though his choral credentials are strong, as well; his Ph.D. dissertation was done on the vocal music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. He also shares Chalice Consort’s interest in uncovering new works, a fact vividly illustrated by his highly publicized discovery in 2005 of a 40- and 60-part mass by Alessandro Striggio, long presumed lost. For Chalice Consort, his program centers on the theme of concealment, presenting a series of pieces composed and performed under the shadow of political and religious strife.

Throughout his career, Byrd struggled to reconcile conflicts between his public duties and his private convictions. Although a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s prestigious Chapel Royal during the latter 16th century, he was himself a recusant Catholic living in a time of aggressive Protestant hegemony. As such, he had to toe the line carefully as a composer, lest he fall victim to the Catholic persecutions that were increasingly sweeping England. Moroney’s repertory highlights these tensions, with several pieces containing sacred texts but unsuited for liturgical performance in the Anglican church.

“The evening begins with the only secular piece in the program, placed as an invocation to the power of Music,” he observes. “We then trace Byrd’s public conformity and official acceptance of the state religion imposed by Queen Elizabeth; and his private music of political protest, in his motets of lamentation and outrage, which gave voice to an oppressed community who often saw themselves as martyrs for their religion. The program ends with serene pieces from Byrd’s private mission of solace in comfort of the bereaved and in memory of those who had died.”

Far from living in the past, Moroney eagerly draws historical parallels between Byrd’s struggles and those of our modern age. His program discussion is laden with contemporary references to ongoing conflicts in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “Byrd’s music reminds us there was a narrow middle way at a time when oppressive tyrannical actions were hidden under the mask of state religion, and private religious beliefs often caused feverish believers to engage in acts of terrorism, and when caught to be tortured and executed.” Heady stuff for an early-music concert, but well worth pondering. (For Moroney’s full commentary on the program, see the Chalice Web site.)

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Upcoming Concert
September 28, 2009
Amid the glamour and glitz of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s’s 2009-2010 season, the ensemble’s October concert set “The Concerto: An Adversarial Friendship” may draw more headlines for its guest leader (the dynamic violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch) than its repertory, comprising mostly less-familiar German figures (Muffat, Biber, Schmelzer). But dig deeper into the program, performed Oct. 9-17 in various Bay Area locales, and you’ll find some flashy selections and intriguing backstories to this highly engaging repertory.

Georg Muffat’s Florilegium secundum, a set of ensemble suites published in 1698, helped cement that composer’s reputation as a “cosmopolitan” figure — that is, one well-versed in the varying national styles of France, Germany, and Italy. But being cosmopolitan had its risks: The Florilegium was composed during a war between France and much of the rest of Europe, sparking criticism of the composer for his alleged cultural sympathies with the enemy. His pithy response suggests a pacifist streak: “As I mix the French style with the German and Italian, I do not begin a war, but perhaps a prelude to the unity, the dear peace, desired by all the peoples.” Of the two selections on PBO’s program, Fasciculus I, nobilis juventus (Noble youth) in D major is an international potpourri, each movement redolent of a specific national style, while Fasciculus VIII, indissolubilis amicitia (Inseparable friendship) in E major is lithe and graceful, in the French style. Two selections by Heinrich Biber showcase his flamboyant streak.

The Serenade in C Major, “Der Nachtwächter” (Nightwatchman’s call) features a repeating ground pattern (or “ciacona”) in the middle movement, drawn from ’s famous madrigal Zefiro torna. Biber provides some colorful instructions for the performers: “In the Ciacona the Nightwatchman comes, calling out the hour as they do these days. And the other instruments are all to be played without the bow, like lutes (in the Gavotte as well), with the violins held under the arm; this looks great.”

Biber’s Battalia, meanwhile, assembles a panoply of militaristic effects, from rat-a-tat rhythms to meandering melodies jumbled together in a dissonant depiction of drunken soldiers. Here the composer’s performance instructions include some smirk-inducing directives: “Where the strokes are written, one must knock on the violin with the bow. You have to try this.” Another battle piece, Die Fechtschule (Fencing school), by Johann Schmelzer, depicts a fencing lesson, running from student warm-ups to the main event, complete with foot-stomping, gnashing of blades, and thumping march rhythms.

More-subtle twists underlie two works by the ever-prolific Georg Philipp Telemann. In the Concerto for Two Violins and Bassoon in D Major, Telemann upends traditional differentiations between soloist and ensemble. The solo trio conglomerates into a sort of independent trio sonata, set against the accompanying string ensemble; interchanging musical material among all instruments blurs the dividing lines. In the Sonata in C Major for Four Violins Without Bass, Telemann abandons the traditional “continuo” (bass) instrument, and each of the four violinists takes turns covering the bass part.

After all this razzle-dazzle, the inclusion of J.S. Bach’s more-stolid Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major might seem jarring. Bach displays a distinctly traditionalist bent in this piece, drawing on his predecessor Antonio Vivaldi in several aspects of formal structure and musical motives. Yet in its classic elegance and impeccable elaboration of themes, this outstanding concerto remains a masterwork not to be missed.

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