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Steven Winn

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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CD Review
February 2, 2010

Brimming with earnest and tender melodies by a 20th-century version of the Three B’s — Bernstein, Bloch, and Barber — this BIS recording showcases the abundant gifts of violinist Vadim Gluzman. Undeterred by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s often lackluster contributions, the Israeli soloist offers proof of how rich and nuanced the often broad-brushed adjective “lyrical” can actually be.

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Upcoming Concert
January 26, 2010
For anyone who cares about 17th-century music, 2010 is without question a Claudio Monteverdi year. The 400th anniversary of the composer’s ground-breaking and magisterial Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) of 1610 is a ripe occasion to program the sacred masterpiece of an artist deemed “the creator of modern music” by scholar Leo Schrade. It’s an opportunity that Magnificat Baroque wasn’t about to miss. The Bay Area ensemble concludes its 18th season with an April 23-25 slate of Vespers concerts.

But before they get there, the troupe is embarked on an unusual and revealing side-trip through Monteverdi territory, with the composer’s lesser-known Venetian contemporary Alessandro Grandi as the destination. To make this journey even more enticing, Magnificat is offering a striking historical contrast to the well-known Vespers: The Feb. 12-14 Grandi programs feature what may well be modern premieres of some of the first self-identified cantatas ever written. The feat has generated considerable interest around the early-music world.

More important, these concerts figure to be an alluring discovery for audiences. In addition to the short solo cantatas on the program, performed by soprano Laura Heimes, Magnificat’s trio of Celeste fiori concerts will include assorted Grandi madrigals and motets, as well as instrumental music published at the time the composer lived in Venice.

Like other fine composers doomed to live in the long shadow of a game-changing genius (think Salieri), Grandi has remained a dim figure. “His main problem, ” said Magnificat Artistic Director Warren Stewart by phone, “is the understandable tendency of musical historians to look first at towering figures when they’re rediscovering a period. So the natural focus in early-17th-century Italian music was Monteverdi.” Stewart spoke from Washington, D.C., where he had just attended a Vespers performance at the National Gallery of Art — the second account of the work that week in the city. The towering figures do go on towering.

Grandi, 10 to 15 years younger than Monteverdi, “was talented and prolific before he got to Venice and on an upward career trajectory,” said Stewart. It was there that his and his more illustrious contemporary’s paths crossed, at San Marco Cathedral. In the city’s most important church, Grandi quickly ascended the ranks to become vice maestro to Monteverdi.

According to Steven Saunders, a professor of music at Maine’s Colby College, “evidence suggests that Grandi’s rise in stature under these conditions may have occasioned resistance and event resentment” by Monteverdi, who considered moving back to Mantua. Seen this way, it’s the older Monteverdi who’s cast as the Salieri figure, with Grandi as the fast-rising and threatening Mozart of his day. But fate, not to mention the fact of Monteverdi’s indisputable singularity, had a different hand to deal. After a decade in Venice, Grandi moved on to Bergamo in 1627 and died there in a devastating plague three years later. Monteverdi survived for another 13 years.

Doing Grandi in a Monteverdi year was “a very conscious decision,” said Stewart, who argues that the younger composer’s strophic bass cantatas “employ a variation technique that was immediately imitated by many other Venetian composers, including Monteverdi, in the 1620s.” Citing Grandi’s “very clear tonal sense,” “modern-sounding harmonies,” and a “buoyant and confident musical architecture,” Stewart made a case for even broader influence. “Clearly, [Heinrich] Schutz [German, 1585-1672] learned a lot from Grandi,” he said.

The cantatas on the Magnificat program vary in length from three to six minutes. Brief as they may be, their importance, according to Jeffrey Kurtzman, general editor of a forthcoming complete Grandi edition, “lies in the very first use of the word cantata in a music publication. The multi-sectional structure of these solo pieces lays the groundwork for sectional organization of the later solo cantata.” Over a repeated continuo bass figure, different vocal melodies, or strophic variations, yield different emphases, cadences, and emotional impact.

Apparently lost in the general neglect of the early Baroque, the pieces survived in manuscripts that had a perilous history of their own. First published in 1620, Grandi’s Cantade et arie a voce sola survived into the 20th century, as far as musicologists knew, only in a copy at Breslau’s University Library. In the Russian siege of that German city in 1945, the library was hit and some of the music collection set on fire. The Grandi collection was not among those works librarians managed to save by tossing them into an adjacent river. A largely impenetrable transcription of the manuscript, by the musicologist Alfred Einstein, remained at Smith College in Massachusetts.

That appeared to be the end of the trail until 2008, when a copy of Grandi’s published cantatas and other solo vocal works came to light from a huge private collection in Spain. Dinko Fabris, an Italian scholar and lute player, explained the discovery in a message to the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music.

“Some twenty years ago,” recalled Fabris, “I visited for the first time in Seville my good friend Señor Rodrigo de Zayas and I saw in his marvelous private library (30,000 volumes), among other treasures, the only surviving copy of the [Grandi] book.” Respecting his “obligations to the discretion” of the collector, Fabris kept silent. Many years later, after moving to Madrid, de Zayas decided to authorize publication of an edition by the Royaumont Foundation in France. A modern-day Grandi “premiere” concert was mounted in Royaumont in fall 2008.

The three cantatas and two other “new” Grandi vocal works on the February program here came to Magnificat from a transcription prepared by a Ph.D. student in Rome, Giulia Giovani, of yet another scholar, Agostino Ziino, who apparently knew of the Spanish collection’s Grandi treasure even before Fabris. Kurtzman, who is a Magnificat advisory board member as well the Grandi edition editor, served as the conduit.

One way or another, some four centuries later, Grandi was destined to find his way back into live performance. Pleased as he is to be a newsmaker, Stewart is just as excited — probably more so — to give the full range of Grandi’s music the attention it deserves. After a pretty thorough discussion of Grandi by phone, the Magnificat director kept thinking of more things he wanted to say about the composer.

In an effusive e-mail, Stewart limned Grandi’s originality and innovations. “He was among the first to include violins in solo vocal music, specifically in his motets. He integrated the violins (always a pair) in a variety of ways — with ritornelli as well as in more thorough-going dialogue with the voice.” The violin writing in the motets, Stewart added, “is fluid and idiomatic” and undoubtedly responsive to “the talented instrumentalists with whom he worked at San Marco.”

Being all but for forgotten for 400 years, it seems, has its own rewards. The pleasures of rediscovery are all that much keener.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
January 9, 2010

The Jan. 7-10 San Francisco Symphony concerts were studies in orchestral transformation. What the relatively short program of an hour and 45 minutes, conducted by David Robertson at Flint Center and Davies Symphony Hall, lacked in intensity, it made up for in a rewarding skein of associations.

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Upcoming Concert
January 4, 2010
“This tour is based on the simple idea that high art and accessibility are not mutually exclusive.” So says the German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser, in his straight-to-the-point manifesto for “The Sounding Off Tour: A Fresh Look at Classical Music.”

Moser has joined forces with keyboardist and performance artist Phyllis Chen for a six-city U.S. swing that lands in San Francisco Jan. 19-20. The duo’s program, which ranges from the classical repertoire to newly commissioned works, forms the scaffold for a reinvigorated musical experience.

In these concerts, Moser, a 30-year-old marquee-name soloist who has appeared with the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many others, will employ a conventional cello, as well as prepared and electric versions of the instrument. Chen’s resources include prepared piano, toy piano, and music box. Some of her own compositions are on the bill.

Venue is another key component of the “Sounding Off” concept. The tour moves from small clubs to college campuses (Pepperdine University) to the financially beleaguered Detroit Institute of Art. It concludes Feb. 1 at New York’s alternative-arts destination, (Le) Poisson Rouge. Along the way, Moser and Chen will engage students of various ages and orientations in outreach activities. UC Berkeley business and marketing students are on tap here. High schoolers get the call in Detroit. The “Sounding Off” Web site features video clips of the cellist teaching a master class in Argentina and introducing Witold Lutoslawski and quarter-tone scales to Japanese children.

“Our hope is to create a sense of excitement and investment in our music-making through intimate and informal exchanges outside of a formal setting,” explains Moser. “The students will then enter the performances having a personal connection to the performers and a close connection to the artistic process.”

The “Sounding Off” Web site also captures Moser’s playfulness and droll sense of humor. In one clip, he and Chen conduct a giddy exploration of wine-glass vibrations. In others, Moser is seen sawing away at his cello as blaring boat horns, roaring jets, and the crashing of a felled tree drown him out. The latter comes off as a musing video-musical joke. Could a cellist’s bow have the power to topple a mighty tree?

Moser, whose international star rose when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2002, has long maintained a creative tension with the traditional concert-hall setting. His musical forays into schools, hospitals. retirement homes, and hospices began when he was 19. “The more I played in those environments,” he says, “the more I learned that music can make a real difference in people’s lives, including mine.”

Reflecting on Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, the piece that won him his big prize, Moser notes that “It’s a bit of a paradox to be intimate with 2,000 people.” As for the isolating cone that can settle over a solo musician, he says, “The higher up the ladder, the less honest feedback you get.”

By taking his music to smaller halls and clubs, where reverential silence may be replaced by chatter and clinking glasses, Moser pursues a mutually enriching endeavor. Artist and audience alike benefit when the barriers between them are challenged and rethought. Moser isn’t about to give up the concert hall — he performs the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra the day before the “Sounding Off” tour begins in San Diego. Yet wherever he’s playing, Moser is focused on the complex connections between the sounds he’s making and the ways they are received.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
November 20, 2009

The bill was all-Brahms on Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, for the first of two reverently anticipated performances by the Berlin Philharmonic. Right away, as if to signal this would be no orthodox Germanic worship service, Music Director Simon Rattle opened with a thorough, consciousness-altering makeover of the composer.Arnold Schoenberg’s 1938 orchestration of the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
November 12, 2009

From the first downbeat of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, conductor Semyon Bychkov and the San Francisco Symphony exuded the confidence and anticipatory pleasure of travelers setting out on a familiar journey. The audience at Davies Symphony Hall was warmly invited along for the ride. We knew where we were going, which somehow heightened rather than diminished the possibility of new sensations — a discovery of things unseen, overlooked, or forgotten over the years.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
September 23, 2009

San Francisco Symphony audiences who have grown accustomed to long-arch excursions through the Mahler symphonic canon need to adjust their sights for this week’s “Gustav Mahler: Origins and Legacies” programs at Davies Symphony Hall. As the middle panel of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ three-week Mahler Festival ’09, the programs amount to busily filled, prismatically constructed talk-and-play probings of the composer’s musical sources, techniques, humor, pathos, and psychology. 

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Opera Review
September 15, 2009

In a long-gone era of baseball, before they needed four days of rest between starts, pitchers routinely worked both games of a doubleheader. Soprano Patricia Racette goes them one better in San Francisco Opera’s Il trittico, by playing substantial roles in all three outings of this 1918 Puccini triple-header of one-act operas.

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Opera Review
September 11, 2009

It’s a curious fact about Il trovatore, Verdi’s "magnificent demonstration of unprincipled melodrama," as Joseph Kerman called it, that this 1853 potboiler contains so much dramatically still water. No sooner does the curtain rise than a captain launches into a lengthy, action-stalling account of events that happened years before. And that’s not the only instance of extended exposition in Salvatore Cammarano’s creaky libretto, based on the Antonio Garcia Gutierrez play.

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CD Review
August 24, 2009

With the exultant opening exclamation of “Veni, creator spiritus,” the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus recapture the torrential excitement they unleashed in their November 2008 performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Davies Symphony Hall. In one sense, that shouldn’t surprise. This recording, like the others in conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ magnificent Mahler cycle, was set down live during those concerts last fall.

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CD Review
August 25, 2009
As a lens on the arc and evolving character of Beethoven's music, the complete works for cello and piano offer a concise, revealing, and altogether absorbing perspective. It helps, immeasurably, that the performances of the five sonatas and three sets of variations on this two-disc Telarc set are so keenly conceived and finely polished. 
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CD Review
July 7, 2009
In this striking double-disc of contrasting moods and temperaments, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Martha Argerich take up a program of Schumann and Bartók sonatas. From Kremer’s leisurely, sun-dappled pizzicato statement of the third-movement theme in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 to the whirling, multilayered conversation he and Argerich have in the opening Allegro of Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2, the performances by these two superb musicians brim over with distinctly voiced character.
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Upcoming Concert
June 30, 2009
“We’re having a lot of fun down here,” says David Gordon, dramaturge of the Carmel Bach Festival. For 71 years audiences have agreed, journeying to one of California’s most picturesque seaside towns for a summer idyll of Bach and his contemporaries, among other musical offerings.

This year, Gordon’s idea of fun involves not only music, but also pictures, colored lighting, spoken narrative, and a dash of playful stage business. For two performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which Gordon calls “statistically the most recorded composition in history,” the festival will heighten the listening experience with projected paintings and stage lighting keyed to the program of the movements: a harsh orange light of the sun for “Summer,” something thinner and blue-toned for “Winter.”

As for the paintings, Gordon is tapping the composer’s Venetian contemporary Sebastiano Ricci, who actually may have inspired Vivaldi’s famous four-panel concerto. Instead of simply projecting full-frame images by Ricci and others of the period, a strategy that risks literalizing the score, Gordon plans a more impressionistic approach. Twelve scenes, of trees, sky water, shepherds, and so on — one for each section of The Four Seasons — will appear in partial, semiabstract, vague, or slightly blurred treatments on a five-by-10-foot screen at the Sunset Center Theater. Muslin drapes will add a further softening touch.

“The idea here is not to draw attention to how trendy and geeky we are, but to enhance the music’s affect and heighten our sensory awareness of it,” notes Gordon, who began his 21-year tenure at the festival as a tenor soloist. By employing the “basic principles of classical rhetoric — to entertain and engage the heart and thereby open opportunities for learning and insight” — Gordon believes this fresh approach to Vivaldi will remain true to the festival’s core mission.

This kind of experiment is a Carmel first. Details of how all the elements will come together are still being worked out. Gordon and Music Director Bruno Weil considered something similar a few years ago, when the idea of combining Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Albrecht Dürer etchings was proposed. But the match felt too specific and confining. The mixed-media scheme was scuttled until the right piece came along.

Festival regulars may feel more at home when it comes to “Haydn Seek: An Aha! Concert” scheduled for July 21 and 28. In a format first used in Carmel four years ago and repeated every year since, the “Aha!” programs merge spoken commentary and, recently, some visuals with the music. “It’s not a lecture concert,” Gordon hastens to explain. “We’re not telling the life of the composer or building some kind of argument. It’s a potpourri concert with a narrative thread.”

Built around movements from various symphonies, a piano trio, The Seasons, Mass in Time of War, and more, this year’s “Aha!” will touch on everything from Haydn’s superstar career in London to his depressions and his reputation as a ladies’ man. Don’t expect to have any gentle Papa Haydn predispositions confirmed. “People may experience a Haydn who is more exciting, more innovative, and more original than they think,” says Gordon, who will serve as onstage narrator.

No picture of Haydn would be complete without a nod to his humor. In what’s billed as a “reenactment” of the “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45, in F-sharp minor), the musicians will get into the act by getting offstage.

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Upcoming Concert
June 9, 2009
For most of their long and fruitful collaboration, East Bay composer Peter Josheff made the music-first move and counted on librettist Jaime Robles to follow. “I would ask for her text, and she would give me exactly what I wanted,” said Josheff, 54, in a recent conversation. He once requested the words for six male voices. Robles responded with a libretto for a poker game (Three Hands).

The pattern changed decisively with Inferno, an ambitious two-part opera based on Dante’s epic poem. This was Robles’ idea from the start, a dramatic work in which hell is treated as a music-theater analog for the psychological stages of depression. “It might have been called Melancholia,” noted Josheff. “The spirit is immobilized.”

Previewed in an instrumental suite that was performed at San Francisco’s Temple Emanuel-El in April, the first half of Inferno receives its theatrical world premiere June 17, 18, and 21 in a San Francisco Cabaret Opera staging at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley.

Tenor Adam Flowers and soprano Eliza O’Malley star as the doom-kissed lovers Paolo and Francesca, with bass Richard Mix cast as Hell’s Wind, the story’s detached, demonic force. An ensemble from the Huckabay McAllister Dance troupe embodies the chorus. Eric Zivian, Josheff’s comrade in the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, performs the piano-reduction score. Cabaret Opera’s Harriet March Page directs, with choreography by Jenny McAllister. Robles designed the urban, dead-end alley set.

Josheff’s musical touchstone for his Inferno – The Second Circle of Hell: The Lustful is “popular song and the way it influences our emotions.” When Paolo launches into his doo-wop inflected crooning, the composer wants listeners to feel complicit in the seduction this “washed-up singer” is spinning for his beloved.

Francesca, by contrast, “is very aware of what’s going on. She’s stuck in hell, and pleading — sometimes directly with the audience.” Josheff likened the characters to a street person, “someone who’s in this loop of telling her story over and over again. You can identify with her pain and still mistrust it a little.”

As for Hell’s Wind, the final singing role of this operatic triad, a slight resonance with Baroque recitative and aria is meant to characterize a figure who is both tormenting and commenting on the lovers. “The characters are blown about by a wind,” said Josheff, “an infernal wind that represents the passions they could never control in life.”

Josheff, a noted new-music clarinetist as well as a composer, and Robles, a writer and editor/publisher of the Five Fingers Review, have been approaching the idea of a full-length opera since the early 1990s, when they contemplated a project about the first Gulf War. Getting Inferno up onstage after a long wait has Josheff feeling “ecstatic. It’s a fulfillment of something that’s been developing for a very long time.”

Writing frankly lyrical vocal music for this 70-minute opera has freed Josheff to give his musical ideas “their natural size and length.” He continued, “I make my living playing complex, virtuosic, contemporary music. The music I compose is in some sense therapy for the music I perform.”

Further treatments await. Inferno – Part Two: The Ninth Circle of Hell is already in the works, with hopes for a production sometime in the next several years.

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