Each week, SFCV looks behind the scenes to give you a sneak peak of what's coming up on stages around the Bay you can learn about concerts before they happen.

Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
The word “operetta” sounds like what it is: opera lite. The story may be tragic but the treatment will be light, if you can imagine that. You are not invited to dwell long in tragedy; neither are you permitted to escape from the sadness — not altogether. And when the composer of the operetta, in this case the aptly named Bitter Sweet, is Noël Coward, that English master of wit and sentiment, you are in the hands of a craftsman, who will pass you ever so gently from tears to smiles and back again.

If you are not familiar with Coward’s work, now is the time to become acquainted. If you’re clever and persistent, you might even be able to find a few albums in which he sings his songs, which is an experience not to be missed. Every word, clearly enunciated, is suffused with that light-hearted yet heart-piercing sentiment (some would say, sentimentality; I wouldn’t) that you also find in his films (for example, Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed). Yes: actor, singer (of sorts), playwright (Private Lives, Blithe Spirit), composer, and bon vivant. When asked for his notion of the ideal life, he answered, “Mine.”

The songs in Bitter Sweet are beautifully singable. For a singer that is like honey to the vocal cords. And the emotions are immediately accessible. There has never been a song more filled with longing than “I’ll See You Again,” in waltz time, sung first as a duet by the main characters, a singer and her singing teacher, and later reprised, each time with an appropriate change in the lyrics. Sarah, the singer, leaves her fiancé, a stodgy young man who would make her rich but not happy, on the eve of their marriage. With Carl, her singing teacher, whom she loves, Sarah (later called Sari) is poor but, yes, happy and eternally in love, until tragedy — and it is every bit as tragic as the “operatic” stabbing of Carmen by her lover, Don Jose — robs her of her only love.

Sari appears in the operetta first as an old woman, practiced in the ways of the world, and wealthy from a second marriage to a nobleman. In a flashback, which was quite an unusual technique for 1929, she is once again a young woman, about to be married to a man she does not love, and the story of her elopement and subsequent misfortune unfolds from there, ending, as it began, with Sari as an old woman, still remembering her love.

In true musical theater fashion, the characters speak much of the time, breaking into song when they can’t help it, or when there is something so deep, they must express it in music. Bitter Sweet is a seamless, thoroughly satisfying work. The dialogue flows, and the songs emerge effortlessly from it.

With Lamplighters Music Theatre, the wonderful San Francisco Gilbert & Sullivan company, now in its 56th season, the production will be in good hands. It stars the excellent singers Jane Erwin Hammett and Baker Peeples, with the estimable Jennifer Ashworth and William Neely in featured roles. Prepare to smile through your tears. Or weep through your smiles.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
While visiting artists often draw the crowds, many fine musicians live in the Bay Area and perform here on occasion. The Noe Valley Chamber Music series presents three of them in “Piano Trio Milestones,” a chamber concert by three unparalleled musicians — violinist Axel Strauss, cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and pianist Jeffrey Sykes — all players on the international scene, while living here.

The three are dedicated educators (Strauss and Fonteneau are professors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sykes at Cal State University East Bay and at the Madison, Wisc.–based Opera for the Young); they also maintain busy performing and recording schedules. When I attempted to reach Strauss (a native of Germany) for a comment about this upcoming concert, he was in Berlin doing a stint as guest concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. French-born Fonteneau regularly tours in South Korea and just issued a CD on Albany Records, playing new works by Korean composer Hi Kyung Kim. Sykes also has an impressive discography to his credit and performs chamber music throughout North America and Europe.

The concert in the intimate Noe Valley Ministry shares some significant signposts in the repertoire. It opens with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1/1, not technically his first composition, but one he thought worthy enough for that tag. It was premiered by Prince Karl von Lichnowsky’s resident string quartet at one of Lichnowsky’s weekly soirées in 1794. The sound of the piece is still much indebted to Haydn, whom Beethoven admired a great deal, and shows Beethoven’s full mastery of the late Classical style. Axel Strauss quipped: “His admiration didn’t stop him from trying to outdo the master, at the same time. The piece is extremely quick and witty and bristles with energy.”

The next milestone presented is Piano Trio No. 1 by American composer Leon Kirchner, who celebrated his 90th birthday in January. Kirchner wrote the piece in 1954, one year after winning the Naumburg Award (won by Axel Strauss in 1998). Kirchner studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Ernest Bloch at UCLA and with Roger Sessions in New York. In this piano trio his musical language is closely related to Schoenberg’s, sans his 12-tone method. Kirchner’s music is quite dissonant at times, but always rhythmically engaging and highly expressive.

Closing the program will be Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor (1914), a piece requiring a high level of virtuosity for all instruments and widely regarded as technically brilliant. Ravel derived musical inspiration for this trio from numerous sources, including Basque dance and Malaysian poetry. Says Strauss, “The variety of tone colors and textures he gets out of a piano trio is just staggering. You can hear beautifully elegant melodies that seem to literally float through the air; in other places (the ending, for example), the music becomes downright orchestral. Even by Ravel’s highest standards, this is a masterpiece.”

Might we hear more from this trio in the future? We can only hope.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
The Cypress Quartet is rethinking the traditional concept of concerts, in which the musicians play a piece typically written some 150 years ago, the audience listens and then claps their hands, the performers bow, and everyone goes home. The Cypress is turning that experience into a two-week project that involves the entire community.

First, the Quartet commissions a piece based on a masterpiece that has been in the repertoire for dozens of decades. Once composed, the new work is taken on tour around the Bay Area. The Quartet members travel to a dozen different high schools, presenting concerts in which both they and young chamber-musicians play. They introduce the new work to students, discuss the old inspiring masterpiece, and relate the traditions of their craft to young minds.

The outreach work doesn’t stop at schools. The Cypress Quartet also plays free concerts at a bar/restaurant and gives free preconcert public workshops, with the composer, during which the piece is analyzed and discussed with audience members. The project culminates in an official concert at Herbst Theatre (next one: April 3), repeated at Montalvo Arts Center (April 5); lobby exhibits will display artifacts such as letters, manuscripts, and sketches by the likes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

This kind of campaign is made possible only with lots of passion and belief in the art. Cypress violinist Tom Stone calls it a “crusade to inspire and excite people about this music.” The crusade is now in its 10th year, and Stone reports that students and experienced listeners alike are enthusiastically welcoming the old “calls” and the new “responses.” This year, the response is made by 37-year-old Kevin Puts, who isolates a few notes from the Lento Assai movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, and turns it into an entire composition. It’s the same tightly controlled motivic approach that Beethoven himself, as well as Haydn and Brahms, was fond of, though it produces quite different results. “The music is challenging, but [this program] provides a point of entry,” says Stone.

Traveling from school to school, from community centers to trendy lounges to — oh, yeah — fancy concert halls, the Cypress Quartet shares the long, difficult, yet rewarding journey of performing in-depth music. Audiences get to participate, to learn about the composers’ secret connections and riddles embedded in the works, to hear the back-story from professional musicians, to analyze the musical motives, and ultimately to better understand the piece. Finally, at concert time, the entire experience can be more meaningful. But this won’t happen by itself: For the project to reach its full potential, listeners must take advantage of the opportunity the Cypress is providing.

See the Cypress Web site for other free performances that include everything from "Chamber Music and Bubbles" to a discussion with composer Kevin Puts. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
A rare opportunity to hear one of the 20th century’s underplayed composers. Though Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-1996) isn’t often mentioned in histories of 20th-century music, his music seems more contemporary than many composers who are. He has a set of influential admirers, including the composer Thomas Ades, who programmed Castiglioni in his last solo recital in San Francisco, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who was Castiglioni’s composition student.

Much of Castiglioni’s music is rooted in a late Romantic sound-world, but his music spans a variety of 20th-century compositional techniques, sometimes juxtaposed with each other in the same piece. Pianist Alfonso Alberti has recorded all of the composer’s piano music (on the CD Cangianti published by Col Legno Records), and is an enthusiastic performer of contemporary music. His concert, presented by Old First Concerts, is sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.

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Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
In the old days, when classical music was reserved for upper-crust audiences, a lot of music got one or two performances and then was put away in a library and forgotten. That’s why a group like Magnificat, Warren Stewart’s 17th-century music band, is so much fun to see. Often their performance of a piece is the only chance you’ll get to experience it live. This time around, they take on an obscure but lively serenata (like a mini-opera) composed by the once world-renowned Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). In Venere, Amore, e Ragione (Venus, Cupid, and Reason), the love goddess chides her son for spending too much time around reasonable people, but Cupid shows her that the company he now keeps is much better. Given the high-polish performances Magnificat is known for, this show is worth leaving your palazzo to see. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
One of the best-planned and at the same time oddest-looking piano recitals I’ve ever encountered is coming up two Sundays hence, in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. There, the distinguished French pianist Pascal Rogé will play a survey of basic French piano music from 1830 (Chopin’s Op. 10 Étude No. 1) to 1929 (Poulenc’s First Nocturne). While largely devoted to works of Chopin and Debussy, along the route the program includes examples of Fauré and Ravel — besides the one Poulenc composition.

As a nice touch, Rogé has mixed composers by title type. He opens with three Nocturnes (Fauré, Chopin, and Poulenc), then plays four Waltzes (Ravel and Chopin), two Mazurkas (Debussy and Chopin), and on like so, with Études and a lot of Préludes, plus a Ballade to open and close that sequence. He’s offering a remarkable 24 works at one go, though only the final Chopin Ballade No. 4 is large-scale.

Born in Paris in 1951, Rogé entered the Paris Conservatory at the tender age of 11, also making his Paris debut that year. He graduated, with honors, in piano and chamber music in 1966, then went on to a major career, playing with all the major orchestras. He’s also been a mainstay of London Records, winning all the major European prizes. His recording of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos, for example, won a Gramophone Award, the Edison Award, and a Grand Prix du Disc — a trifecta in the record industry.

All three of the opening Nocturnes are in C major: Fauré’s Op. 33, No. 1; Chopin’s Op. 48, No. 1; and the Poulenc. Those are followed by three of Ravel’s valses nobles et sentimental and Chopin’s famous C-sharp Minor Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2; then come Debussy’s early Mazurka and Chopin’s Op. 33, No. 4, both in B Minor. (Bear in mind, a mazurka and a waltz are not far different in their use of three-quarter time. They vary largely in stressed accent: downbeats for a waltz, upbeats for a mazurka.)

Next come the really challenging Études: Chopin’s First in C Major, Debussy’s Pour les 8 Doigts (For eight fingers), and, very likely his most sensuous piano work, Pour les Arpèges composées (For composed arpeggios). Closing the first half is Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor, the famous “Revolutionary” Étude.

The Étude group is followed by Debussy’s early Ballade Slave of 1890, influenced by his Moscow residency as piano teacher to Nadezhda von Meck’s children (she being Tchaikovsky’s famous patron). Rogé then launches into his largest block: nine Preludes by either Chopin or Debussy, all played off against one another.

He begins with Debussy’s Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) and Chopin’s famous 15th in D-flat Major, the “Raindrop.” Three Preludes from Debussy’s Book I follow those: La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The maid with the flaxen hair), Le Vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain), and Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest (What the West wind saw), before another Chopin Prelude, the No. 6 in B Minor, Tolling Bells. Then listeners will hear three of Debussy’s more complicated Preludes: La terrasse des Audiences au clair de lune (The terrace where the moonlight gives audience), Les Collines d’Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri), and Canope (Canopic jar). And for his big finish, Rogé plays Chopin’s virtuoso Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52.

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Upcoming Concert
March 23, 2009

The Trojan War, history books tell us (without too much certainty), took place “in the 13th or 12th century B.C.E.,” and Troy must have been somewhere in Turkey, near the Dardanelles.

Yes, it’s difficult to know details of events taking place three millennia ago — especially so when our question is: “What kind of music did Achaean Greeks whistle while bashing in Trojan skulls?”

Fortunately for the fast-approaching world premiere of Lillian Groag’s War Music at the American Conservatory Theater, the composer for what the playwright calls a “groundbreaking fusion of language, music, and movement” does not worry about authenticity, else the curtain may not go up for a long time in the Geary Theater.

Says John Glover, War Music composer, musician, saxophonist, and operations manager for the American Composers Orchestra:


In straight theater, music is usually incidental. It’s for set changes, scene changes, and a little bit of underscoring, but it’s not intrinsic to the fabric of the work. War Music is unique in that music plays a fundamentally important role in the piece.

The word “music” is half of the title, so obviously the aural aspect of sound to convey story and characters is very important, too. This story [Homer’s Iliad] was originally told orally, and the text really reflects that. It demands to be heard out loud.

This production also brings us back to the ideals of ancient Greek theater in which music, drama, and movement were completely integrated and played at an equal level.

Glover’s music contains a wide range of styles and sounds, with some classically composed pieces and others referencing Turkish court music, 1930s vaudeville, and even Haitian voodoo chanting. Take a listen.

Premiering on April 1, with previews beginning March 26, War Music takes its text from the 2,800-year-old Iliad, about the clash between the warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, the leader of the Greekexpedition during the Trojan War. The play uses an English translation of the classic by Christopher Logue, who has put 45 years into the project.

Over the years, Groag has specialized in adapting and directing large-scale dramas, such as Blood Wedding and A Triumph of Love. Her directing work spans theater and opera; she is creating War Music in collaboration not only with composer Glover, but also with choreographer Daniel Pelzig (who set the movement in Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor for the Metropolitan Opera).

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff draws a parallel between Groag’s play and the United States’ current foreign policy entanglements this way: “As a country engaged in several wars of attrition simultaneously,” she remarks, “we are desperate to understand how we got into the mess we are in. War Music is the perfect catalyst for conversation on these difficult questions and promises to be bold, ambitious, and unforgettable.”

The production features a top-notch cast, including René Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Gregory Wallace, Jud Williford, Jack Willis, Charles Dean, Lee Ernst, Sharon Lockwood, David A. Moss, and Andy Murray. Also participating are members of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program, class of 2009, Nicholas Pelczar, Christopher S. Tocco, and Erin Michelle Washington.

Daniel Ostling is responsible for the scenic design, Beaver Bauer for the costumes, Russell H. Champa for the lighting design.

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Upcoming Concert
March 22, 2009
George Cleve is best-known these days as director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, but in person, with his beard and his solid presence at the podium, he looks rather like Johannes Brahms. Born in Vienna, though long a resident of the Bay Area, he’s a conductor who actually specializes in both these great Viennese composers.

But it’s Brahms that Symphony Silicon Valley listeners will be hearing in the California Theatre on March 26-29. The great Violin Concerto that Brahms wrote for his close friend Joseph Joachim in 1878 is the music. This “symphonic song for the violin,” as one critic called the work, is Brahms at his most expansive and lyrical, and it has a flamboyant, Hungarian-gypsy rondo finale tailor-made for the talents of soloist Ju-Young Baek. A young woman with one of the richest and most powerful violin tones I’ve heard from anybody, male or female, she has been a strong and passionate performer with SSV in music by Sibelius and Piazzolla. The Brahms is long, and hard to play, but violinists since Joachim have found it enjoyably worth the trouble.

Who goes better with Brahms than his friend and protégé Antonín Dvořák? The SSV Web site calls the Symphony from the New World “a thoroughly European work,” but it’s really not. Dvořák picked up more than a superficial view of America during his residence here in the 1890s. In his “American” works he abandoned the rhapsodic, unevenly accented style of his Czech homeland and tried for something plainer, foursquare, and rhythmically symmetrical, befitting his view of the American landscape and peoples. You can trace a little of the open harmonies and precise rhythms of Aaron Copland back to this work.

But of course it’s beautiful, as well, and no more so than in the famous theme for English horn in the slow movement. Many listeners hearing this think, “Oh, it’s just a spiritual that the composer borrowed,” but that’s rather like seeing Hamlet and thinking, “It’s just a collection of quotations.” In fact it’s Dvořák’s own theme, which was later adapted into a spiritual. SSV’s English horn player Patricia Emerson Mitchell might tell us something about preparing for this work on her blog.

Something less central-European, Hector Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture also contains an important English horn solo. The work is a potpourri of catchy bits from an opera, one of many works Berlioz wrote recalling his sunny student-days in Italy. The orchestration is bright and the themes are attractive, though the piece needs a firm hand from the conductor if it’s not to wander around aimlessly. George Cleve is more than capable of providing that firm hand — and Symphony Silicon Valley can respond to it.

Don’t miss the preconcert lecture in the main hall an hour before each program. Usually given by cellist Roger Emanuels, who’s retiring at the end of this season, or by violist Janet Sims, it provides a welcome, musician’s-eye view of the program and a gentle introduction to the music.

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Upcoming Concert
March 21, 2009
Hans von Bülow once described Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas as the Old and New Testaments of music. All pianists undertake serious study of them, but András Schiff has made a specialty of performing both in toto, giving him a unique distinction among the modern-day prophets of the piano and reason for Beethoven bibliophiles to attend his upcoming two concerts. He has even given us encores of complete Bach Suites at the close of his “all-Beethoven” programs, thus underlining the close lineage between the two composers.

Since three of the last six Sonatas contain fugues at their climactic points, as well as a host of fuguelike sections, Schiff seems to be just the man for the job. To top it off, he will be playing all six within a week’s time. His March 29 recital will feature Sonatas 27–29, including the Hammerklavier, and on April 5 he will play the last three, 30–32, long regarded as the holy trinity of the set. Both will be presented by San Francisco Performances at Davies Symphony Hall.

How to order this huge body of work in performance? Artur Schnabel, who was the first to play (and record) the entire cycle, did it initially in the early 1930s, and three times thereafter. Schnabel chose to intermix Beethoven’s early works with later enigmatic ones, presenting a conundrum in juxtaposition. In contrast, by playing the Sonatas in chronological order, Schiff continues to highlight the way in which Beethoven steadily develops and expand the emotional range of the classical form, even as he makes decisive breaks, as in the three Sonatas Op. 31, which the composer said “turn over a new leaf.” If Schnabel’s approach was like a mountain climber scaling the loftiest peaks on different expeditions, Schiff has saved the highest summit for his next climb.

Beethoven composed no fewer than 23 of his Piano Sonatas during the first decade of his career, 1795 to 1805. Perhaps the greatest of these is the Sonata Appassionata, a tragic work that nonetheless shows the composer at his most powerful and defiant. After the great difficulties he had with his opera Fidelio, it must have seemed that his days of glory as Vienna’s greatest composer were over. Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann were coming up, and then there was Franz Schubert, who simply worshiped him. He needed a comeback, and it came in 1818. Called Sonata Op. 106 in B-flat Major, Fuer das Hammerklavier, and the product of years of labor, he said it would keep pianists busy for the next 50 years. It has taken more than that for performers and audiences to come to grips with Beethoven’s colossal ability to organize large-scale forms and realize the fathomless emotional worlds they contain.

Of the last three Sonatas, composed in 1822, around the time of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven said they came out in a single breath. If this is true, then Schiff is right to play them all together, perhaps with some breath in between. They are among the supreme treasures that Beethoven gave to pianists and to the world of music — so expect a revelation.

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Upcoming Concert
March 17, 2009
You think things are worse now than in the days of Franz Joseph Haydn? An upcoming San Francisco Symphony concert will give you an opportunity to compare Haydn’s so-called “storm and stress” style of the early 1770s with a 2005 violin concerto (Concentric Paths) by Thomas Adès, who just may be Britain’s most highly regarded living composer. You’ll find that emotions ran strong both then and now, though in different ways. And, in case you get too stressed out, the concert concludes with a graceful and tuneful balm, Mozart’s 39th Symphony.

You might think of the standard Haydn symphony as measured and placid, but not the 52nd. It’s unusual in that it’s in a minor key and has numerous tumultuous passages designed to stir the emotions, even fear, among listeners of the time. The  concerto, by contrast, is less agitated, but completely in tune with our “Age of Anxiety.” Not excessively dissonant, and even tuneful in the last movement, the work offers ingeniously unsettling triadic harmonies that descend into despair in the profound second movement, at times accompanied by unpredictable, convulsive throbs. Its offbeat rhythms will be a challenge to the orchestra and soloist alike. Fortunately, one of the best contemporary players around — Leila Josefowicz — will be tackling its soaring lines and passionate declamation.

After a few welcome drinks at intermission, try to remember the sound, not of the preceding Adès work, but of the Haydn. The ensuing Mozart will make even the Haydn sound like darkest night in comparison. It’s not just the more memorable melodies and lighter disposition of the music. Listen carefully to the woodwinds: The Haydn symphony has no flutes or clarinets in it, and its oboes hardly play anything but chords. When you hear the flutes and clarinets play gorgeous melodies in the Mozart, you’ll realize that despite what Haydn and Adès say, there is hope for civilization.

James Gaffigan, who will be conducting, will give extended remarks on the works for the Friday, April 3 concert, and an after-concert Q&A session Saturday, April 4.

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