Previews

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.

Artist Spotlight
November 3, 2009

Texas-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is no stranger to these parts. Since 1990, she has sung everything from Monteverdi to Jake Heggie in six different productions with San Francisco Opera, performed several times in concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and sung two recitals here. Most recently, she brought an uncommonly gentle and intimate touch to Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder, recorded in performance for future release in the Symphony’s Mahler series.

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Upcoming Concert
November 2, 2009
Despite the name, there’s nothing old school about Old First Concerts. Set in the Old First Church in the heart of San Francisco, on Sacramento at Van Ness — an intimate, old-world setting with no bad seats and acoustics that hint at the place’s celestial connections — the concert series has become a favorite venue for a wide variety of musical events, from classical chamber music and recitals to jazz, avant-garde, blues, folk, and multicultural performances. The San Francisco Guitar Quartet’s concert on Nov. 20 is a great example of Old First Concert’s philosophy. The group will feature music that combs several genres for inspiration, connecting them with an increasingly broad spectrum of music that isn’t easily labeled. (“Contemporary classical”? Sure, why not.)

If you’ve got four good guitarists (David Dueñas, Jon Mendle, Patrick O’Connell, and Mark Simmons), you’ll probably end up experimenting with the tone qualities of those instruments. The practice is centuries old, but since guitar quartets are relatively new and don’t have a large repertory written specifically for them, the sounds they produce almost become modern by default.

But the SFGQ promises to do more than coax new sounds out of conventional instruments. Mendle, the group’s new member, plays an 11-string archguitar that’s a combination of 19th-century guitar, modern guitar, and Renaissance and Baroque lutes. It was built right here in San Francisco by Alan Perlman (but don’t try building one at home).

At the experimental edge of the SFGQ program will be Atanas Ourkouzounov’s Objets futiles. Like Béla Bartók, however, Ourkouzounov infuses his music with folk characteristics, so even this abstract, modernist music can appeal to an audience. Fortunately, it’s impossible to compose away the inherent warmth and storytelling ability of the guitar, and even more so to resist the humanity of a culture that gave the world lo real maravilloso. And so there are two traditional South American songs to look forward to: La Partida-Vals Venezolano and La Venenosa-Huayno Peruano, both arranged by Dueñas; and Cuarteto 5/Chorinho by Javier Farías, whose music is often based on Chilean folk rhythms.

The quartet will also play At the Sound of Light, by Mill Valley native John Anthony Lennon. While not as famous as that other John Lennon, he’s a well-known composer who has created a substantial body of guitar music. His music, like that of his teacher, William Bolcom, exploits American idioms, making him a favorite of guitarists like David Starobin and David Tannenbaum.

Yet this concert, like most guitar concerts, is primarily about listening to the instruments played by superior musicians. The guitar has such a wide variety of repertories and uses that it comes close to being a universally human medium. And if a player happens to bring along his archguitar, so much the better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upcoming Concert
October 31, 2009

There are a few places in the world where Johan Botha, who is making his San Francisco Opera debut in Verdi's Otello on Nov. 8, is not the most famous man by that name.

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Upcoming Concert
October 28, 2009

Santa Rosa Symphony presents a concert of music from famous Mexican composers, appropriate for a Day of the Dead celebration. Musicians from the Symphony perform quartets by Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, and then hand the stage of the Jackson Theater at the Sonoma County Day School over to the guitar-wielding Trio Nuevo Amanecer for a set of traditional songs.

The music reminds us that Halloween is actually the eve of an important feast day, one that, in Mexico, brings together Christianity and longstanding traditions and customs of remembrance.


 

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Upcoming Concert
October 28, 2009
There isn't much of a scare factor in the Redwood Symphony's annual Halloween concert. It's a family-friendly event that features a “tour of the orchestra,” with all the instruments demonstrated. The pops concert that follows includes a piece drawn from an episode in Norton Juster's classic The Phantom Tollbooth, Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain of Disney's Fantasia fame, and Gounod's Funeral March For a Marionette, known to listeners of a certain age as the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

 

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Upcoming Concert
October 28, 2009

Who says the great masters don't get out anymore? You can get your Halloween weekend started in style, when San Francisco's famous BooM BooM RooM hosts star mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, all-pros David Tayler and Hanneke van Proosdij (lute and harpsichord), and emcee Nicholas McGegan for a night of the gorgeous songs of John Dowland. Though famous for his musical melancholy, Dowland was no stick in the mud (he even did some spying for Sir Robert Cecil).

Contemporary artists from Sting (Songs of the Labyrinth) to Elvis Costello (on The Juliet Letters) have covered his tunes. You could sing them too, but this Philharmonia Baroque contingent will melt you with them.


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Upcoming Concert
October 28, 2009
There are a lot of composer anniversaries out there, and the lesser ones tend to be ignored. In 2009, the 50th anniversary of Ernest Bloch's death took a back seat to other commemorations, and the UC Berkeley Symphony is doing its part to take up the slack.

Even if you're an experienced concertgoer you may not have heard much by Bloch beyond Schelomo, his famous “Rhapsody on Hebraic Themes” for cello and orchestra. In the Bay Area, you've had a couple of opportunities to hear his impressive Sacred Service. But Bloch, who taught composition at Berkeley from 1939 to 1951 and left a large collection of letters and scores to the music library there, has a lot more to offer than that. The University Symphony Orchestra this weekend offers the Suite Hebraique (1951), with Nils Bultmann as viola soloist, and the Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1925) for strings and piano. Although primarily associated in popular imagination with his Jewish-themed works, the Concerto Grosso shows another side of the composer, framed as it is by a Prelude and Fugue in Bloch's Romantic idiom.

By way of prelude, the University Symphony offers a large work that had its premiere 101 years ago — Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor.


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Upcoming Concert
October 27, 2009
Music lovers always sit up and take notice when L’Histoire du Soldat (The soldier’s tale) comes to town. Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 one-act, which incorporates music, dance, and spoken text in a wry fable about a Russian solider who makes a deal with the devil, occupies a unique niche in the composer’s career. The score introduced Stravinsky the neoclassicist, while the story’s acerbic antiwar message is universal. Yet the work, which calls for an unusual combination of forces, is rarely performed in its entirety.

Expect good things when the San Francisco Conservatory of Music teams up with the American Conservatory Theater for a new production of The Soldier’s Tale. With two performances scheduled for Nov. 14 in the Conservatory’s Sol H. Joseph Recital Hall, the fully staged production, directed by Giles Havergal and conducted by Nicole Paiement, is a must-see for Stravinsky aficionados and first-timers alike.

L’Histoire was in some ways a work of necessity: Stravinsky, collaborating with novelist and librettist C.F. Ramuz, wrote the score in Switzerland while the Great War raged throughout Europe. Money was scarce, so the collaborators planned the work as a simple production that could be moved from town to town. Stravinsky scored the work for septet, with each orchestral section represented by one treble and one bass instrument. The work was designed “to be read, played, and danced.” Its jazz influences are everywhere in evidence, and the work as a whole represents a decided shift in Stravinsky’s musical direction. “L’Histoire,” said the composer, “marks my final break with the Russian Orchestral School.” The premiere, in Lausanne on Sept. 28, 1918, was a success, albeit a short-lived one; the next day, the theaters closed due to an outbreak of Spanish influenza. L’Histoire was not performed again until 1924.

The work continued to fuel the imaginations of artists throughout the 20th century: novelist Kurt Vonnegut, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, animator R.O. Blechman, and choreographer Peter Martins all adapted L’Histoire in various guises.

The new production, presented as part of the Conservatory’s BluePrint New Music series, will feature a septet of mixed winds, strings, and percussion. Actors from the American Conservatory Theater’s master of fine arts program will play the Soldier, the Devil, and the Narrator, and a dancer to be announced will assume the nonspeaking role of the Princess. Havergal, an A.C.T. associate artist, directs, while Paiement, artistic director of the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble, conducts.

According to Paiement, the production will give audiences the opportunity to experience The Soldier’s Tale as Stravinsky might have envisioned it, while affording the young performers valuable interdisciplinary experience. “This will be a stimulating challenge for everyone, because the staging will have the musicians, the actors, and dancer interacting together onstage, unlike opera or musical theater, where the musicians are isolated in an orchestra pit,” said the conductor. “For us, this is a long-dreamt-of opportunity to collaborate with actors and dancers in the creation of theater works other than opera.”

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Artist Spotlight
October 27, 2009

On November 7, 2004, Sara Jobin made opera history by becoming the first woman to conduct a San Francisco Opera main stage production. The opera was Tosca, and Jobin has since conducted the company’s performances of The Flying Dutchman, Norma, and Appomattox, as well as the S.F. Opera–Cal Performances coproduction of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince.

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