Each week, SFCV looks behind the scenes to give you a sneak peak of what's coming up on stages around the Bay Area...so you can learn about concerts before they happen.
The thing to convey for me with Lark Ascending, even if you've never heard of it, don't know Vaughan Williams, or don't really go to classical music concerts, is that this is one of those things that, yes, everybody will pretty much agree, "that's beautiful." And its being beautiful is in fact what it's all about. It's like inviting people to come watch a stunning sunset. It's about sonorities, the beauty of what you're hearing, the beauty of what it's symbolizing, and the beauty of where it puts you mentally and emotionally when you're listening to it. It's this wonderful, meditative, relaxed, smile-on-your-face kind of thing.
Vaughan Williams wrote the work in 1914, inspired by George Meredith's poem of the same name in honor of the skylark, a European bird that soars some 300 feet above the ground calling out for a mate:
For singing till his heaven fills, 'Tis love of earth that he instils, And ever winging up and up, Our valley is his golden cup, And he the wine which overflows To lift us with him as he goesConcertmaster Constant will be soaring himself, literally, before long: He's building an airplane in Livermore.
Whitman Choral MasterpieceThe second work of Vaughan Williams on the program has its soaring moments too, but the range of emotion is vast, being a choral setting of several poems of Walt Whitman (among other texts) on the imperatives, heartbreak, and need for perspective in facing the horrors of war.
Stephen McKersie, director of the Marin Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus, describes his three favorite sections of the work, which is titled Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us peace):
The second work of Vaughan Williams on the program has its soaring moments too, but the range of emotion is vast, being a choral setting of several poems of Walt Whitman (among other texts) on the imperatives, heartbreak, and need for perspective in facing the horrors of war. Stephen McKersie, director of the Marin Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus, describes his three favorite sections of the work, which is titled Dona Nobis Pacem (Give us peace):
I think one of the most spectacular movements is the second, "Beat, beat drums," which really goes into the carnage and horrors of war. "Reconciliation," too, which is the third movement, contains one of my favorite lines in the whole piece [see illustration below]. And the way it is interpreted musically is so absolutely gorgeous — it's a three-minute section that just floats. The other section I really like is the "Dirge for two veterans," which Vaughan Williams wrote 26 years before he finished the piece, when he was a younger composer. And the last movement, this really huge choral fantasy that ends up with total exhilaration.
Whitman and Vaughan Williams both saw the carnage of war up front and personal: Each tended the wounded — Whitman as a hospital orderly in the Civil War, Vaughan Williams as an ambulance driver in World War I.
Vaughan Williams wrote Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936, as storm clouds were threatening Europe with further calamity, in view of the rise of Fascism. Tragically, the warmongers were immune to artistic pleas from any quarter. Finishing up the Marin Symphony evening, after intermission, will be a welcome contrast to the intense first half: Bizet's Symphony in C, written as a student exercise when the composer was only 17, but lying buried and unplayed in the Paris Conservatory archives until it was rediscovered in 1935. Music Director Alasdair Neale summarizes the components of the contrasting halves of the program with an apt metaphor:
All three are wonderful pieces; they just show different sides of the face of classical music. The first half is a mixture of inspired contemplation and then a really deeply felt work, the Dona Nobis Pacem. The second half is just like a champagne cork popping for 30 minutes.More »
The soprano and teacher discusses her upcoming concert of André Previn songs, her professorship at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and life on the links.
You performed songs by André Previn in a San Francisco Performances recital at Herbst Theatre on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. This was the U.S. premiere. Have the songs been premiered in Europe?
André came and played a concert for my voice class at the Mozarteum. So, the girls in my class sang these songs as a world premiere.
What Amirkhanian does is put together a new-music gallimaufry. He scours the planet for "other" musical minds of widely divergent stripes. He cajoles them into coming to the Bay Area to be kidnapped off to the Djerassi retreat above Woodside, where they are encouraged to mind-meld or otherwise mutually exchange their intimate experiences in the musical arts. He brings them back to San Francisco to batten off the fruits of these employments in the three-day festival, and then watches as the excitement rubs off on attendees. As he puts it,
A lot of the composers are chosen because of their ability to speak about their music and their openness to other people that they might not have met and maybe have never heard of. I've found that, in going to music festivals all over the world, there's a lot of competition and a lot of difficulty that arises in fighting over rehearsal time and all sorts of jockeying that goes on, and I think that what we've been able to do — with the private residence where these people essentially arrive at San Francisco Airport and are thrust onto this 700-acre island of mountains and sculptures — is get people to bond together and feel like a team.
When they go into the city and do the performances, everybody's pulling for everybody else, and there's a great feeling in the panel discussions. People who have been talking [together] all week can tell little anecdotes about each other that inform the audience in a way that you can't do just cold.
Stimulating VarietyAmong the unusual "finds" that attendees can expect, according to Amirkhanian, are:
- Pieces of eight: Music for eight — count 'em! — cellos by Arvo Pärt and Maruicio Kagel. Amirkhanian says they have "a kind of spiritual impact and solidity to them that is just riveting."
- Potboiler whistlings: Cambodian composer Chinary Ung's threnody to the victims of Pol Pot's genocidal policies makes the Del Sol Quartet literally whistle while they work at the music. Ung received his first musical experiences from the sounds of banana leaves, so there's no telling what experiences he may plant in the ears of concertgoers.
- Exotic gems: Dobromiła Jaskot's pieces — "Just a jewel of a composition," says Amirkhanian about one of them by the 27-year-old Polish composer. "It's completely unknown in the United States, and so is she."
- "Wrong" songs: For voice and guitar, by another unfamiliar composer, Brazilian Chico Mello (pronounced "MELL-you"). "They sound like mellow, Brazilian jazz songs," Amirkhanian explains. "But there's something wrong with each one of them, and it's so funny to hear how he moves from something that's very tame to something that just doesn't sound quite right, and he does it with real tongue-in-cheek. I think he's going to be a surprise hit."
- Page-turner workouts: "Michael Harrison is kind of a cross between LaMont Young and Terry Riley. His piece uses arpeggios on [a specially tuned and dampened] piano running up and down, up and down, in different tempi, different meters, while a string quartet is playing chorale figures behind him. There are more notes per page than in John Adams. In rehearsal, we just died laughing because we couldn't turn pages fast enough!"
- World premieres: By "microtonal legend" Ben Johnston, by the "enigmatic and intimately expressive" Catherine Lamb, by the "tension, yearning, and sadness"–evoking Linda Catlin Smith, and by arpeggio fanatic Harrison.
On a recent afternoon, Dresher was in the studio — which takes up three large rooms on the upper floor of an old West Oakland warehouse — working on his latest music-theater production, Schick Machine. The evening-length work makes its world premiere March 7 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford University campus. Percussionist Steven Schick will be the solo performer. But, with a score by Dresher, text and stage direction by Rinde Eckert, and original instruments created by Dresher, Matt Heckert, and Daniel Schmidt, the production is a decidedly collaborative effort.
Schick Machine, which was commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts, is written for a solo performer, but features two characters: an inventor of musical instruments, and the musician who discovers them after the inventor’s death. The musician, not surprisingly, is a virtuoso percussionist — a character, says Dresher, who is “very much like Steven Schick.”
“He’s the person who can play all these things, who can actually discover sound in almost anything,” says the composer. “He comes across this trove of arcane instruments, and his task is to find out whether it has any value. That’s the question we’re asking: What is the value of sound?”
Dresher, whose previous works include the large-scale Soundstage and the chamber opera The Tyrant, says that Schick Machine has evolved into a larger meditation on the relationships between sound, memory, and emotion.
Still, Dresher fans might suspect that the production will transcend by virtue of sheer sonic invention. The instruments on display in the composer's studio offer a tantalizing glimpse of what the audience at Stanford (and, in the fall, at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis) will hear.
At one end of the studio sits Dresher’s latest creation, an enormous hurdy-gurdy. The instrument has a traditional crank, but at nearly 10 feet long, with seven strings and an electronic soundboard, it produces an eerie, one-of-a-kind singing sound.
Five Heckert-built instruments are nearby. One, called the Big Disc, is a large metal wheel powered by a high-velocity motor; Dresher activates it, and it spins and clashes, sending sound spiraling through the room. Others — a thrusting piece they’ve dubbed the Fencer, and an elegant construction called the Bird that, when set in motion, flaps in avian rhythm — add to the mechanized chorus.
Most intriguing is a large sound sculpture that Dresher calls the Field of Grass. It’s a grouping of wood blocks perched on metal rods. Inside each block is a ball bearing (“from tractors,” says Dresher); given a nudge, the blocks wave back and forth, tocking like metronomes. With its sculpted shape and hypnotic motion, the piece is as beautiful to watch as it is to hear.
In the next room, meanwhile, Schmidt is working on an old pipe organ that the group recently acquired and dismantled. He’s rebuilding it with new circuitry that allows the pipes to be played by mallets hitting strings, rather than the traditional keyboard.
It’s an impressive collection, much of it made from found objects. “A lot of it comes from Dumpsters, junkyards, or weird industrial suppliers you’d never deal with for traditional instrument-building or music-making activities,” says Dresher. The organ and hurdy-gurdy will provide melodic texture, says the composer, while text will be spoken and projected on a rear screen. But Schick Machine is all about percussion, and Dresher says that Schick — a virtuoso performer, percussion scholar, and veteran of the New York–based Bang on a Can All-Stars — will supply the work’s “X” factor. “That’s the world of percussion,” says Dresher.
“These aren’t instruments in the way a violin is an instrument. But when you hear them played, they’re no less interesting. A drum does a limited number of things, but a good musician can make a drum do anything.”
Which is why, as March 7 approaches, Dresher says he still isn’t sure exactly how Schick Machine will sound. “This kind of piece can’t come together in advance,” he says. “You can’t know what you have until you are literally doing it.”More »