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
October 26, 2009
For its inaugural concert of the year, the Oakland East Bay Symphony will take us to a “Night at the Opera” on Friday, November 13. OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan has selected a large group of the most promising young singers in the Bay Area. With such a big cast, there is often the danger that each individual member will not receive his or her full due. But with Morgan in charge there are no worries on that score.

World Premieres

Maestro Morgan wanted to emphasize that even though he has been at the helm of OEBS for 20 years, he remains an ardent a champion of broadening classical music's horizons, so he hired a cast of singers who operate along the same wavelength. Brian Leerhuber, baritone, created the role of Breedley in A Wedding, directed by the late and great Robert Altman, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Heidi Moss, soprano, sang in the premiere of The Grand Seducers. Three Mo’ Divas featured Hope Briggs, soprano, as a soloist.

Leerhuber was also Robert E. Lee in Philip Glass’ Appomatox, while Zachary Gordin, baritone, premiered the lead role of Wilder in the opera Earthrise, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lewis Spratlan. Kalil Wilson, tenor, lets us know from his Web site that he will soon premiere a new lead role composed for him.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

Over the years, Maestro Morgan has gathered a family of singers, for whom the opening concert will be a performance as well as a reunion. Zachary Gordin, A.J. Glueckert, tenor, and Lori Willis, mezzo-soprano, have sung Faure’s Requiem, Bernstein’s Mass, and Handel’s Messiah, respectively, with the OEBS. Wilson performed in the symphony’s critically acclaimed and sold-out production of Porgy and Bess in 2007 and Gordin appeared as Montano in Othello.

Musical Chairs

With OEBS not indicating who exactly will sing what, we are practically invited to arrive at the concert with our predictions in hand. On the program for the evening are selections from Aida, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, Lucia Di Lammermoor, Cavalleria Rusticana, Hérodiade, The Ring Cycle, and Candide. Moss’ crystal-clear soprano paired with any of the men, including Adler Fellow Joshua Bloom, bass-baritone, could fulfill all the casting needs for Lucia Di Lammermoor. As for Verdi, Willis’ mezzo-soprano is apropos, and Briggs boasts an agile lyric-spinto voice with a formidable stage presence that has carried her in several performances of Aida. The honor of performing the Nabucco piece will probably go to the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus. When this work is performed in Italy, it is immediately followed by cries of “Bis, bis,” which never happens in America. But in the hands of these choruses, who knows?


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Upcoming Concert
October 26, 2009
Not since winter 1997, when pianist Sarah Cahill organized a three-day piano marathon of works by Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and those he influenced, have Bay Area music lovers had an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the oeuvre of one of America’s most brilliant musical mavericks. Now, thanks to Charles Amirkhanian’s Other Minds, we can enjoy two different concerts on Nov. 12 and 13 that explore the breadth and depth of Cowell’s legacy.

Performers on the two very full programs of music written between 1912 and 1958 include the Colorado String Quartet, the groundbreaking Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, pianist Cahill, organist Sandra Soderlund, and mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse. Complementing the performances is a not-to-be-missed Nov. 13 preconcert discussion during which various luminaries will enlighten us about Cowell’s contributions.

Participants include composer John Duffy, founder of Meet the Composer and a student of both Cowell and Aaron Copland; Joel Sachs, author of a mammoth forthcoming Cowell biography and conductor both of the New Juilliard Ensemble and of Continuum; record producer George Avakian (Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong); violinist Anahid Ajemian; and Cahill and Amirkhanian themselves.

According to Sachs, whose Cowell manuscript currently runs to 900 pages, Cowell forever changed piano composition and technique. A number of works on the programs, including Tides of Manaunaun and Tiger, both played by Cahill, resound with his trademark tone clusters: extremely dense chords of large size that are played with the flat of the hand or the forearm. Aeolian Harp & Sinister Resonance, The Banshee, and The Fairy Answer will feature Cahill standing or leaning over from the keyboard to play directly on the strings. Yet another aspect of Cowell’s work, an extremely dissonant and unusual free language that’s played on the piano in normal ways, comes through in the early Anger Dance.

“All through his life,” says Sachs, “Cowell had a very beautiful sense of melody. He loved to compose songs for specific people such as baritone Theodore Uppman, who was the son of one of his early mentors at Stanford.” Hillhouse will perform a different selection of songs on each concert.

Although Cowell played piano on tour, he wanted to be thought of as a composer first. Hence, starting in the 1920s, he wrote more and more music for instruments other than solo piano. The concerts will include a variety of chamber works, such as “Adagio” from Ensemble for cello and percussion, which employs Native American thunder sticks that the performer twirls on a rope over his or her head. “At the first performance,” says Sachs, “one or both broke loose and went flying, almost hitting a music critic.” (Maybe I should skip this concert ...)

As his writing evolved, Cowell started exploring music of other cultures. In 1924, he put on the first concert of non-Western music performed in the U.S. Cowell’s Set of Five (1952), performed by the same Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio that made an unforgettable recording of the work, reflects Cowell’s cross-cultural enrichment.

“Cowell’s writing was highly colorful and uniquely imaginative,” says pianist Julie Steinberg. “His important use of percussion in chamber music included some very nonconventional instruments, such as the rice bowl. He forever changed how percussion would be used in the future.”

Violinist David Abel stresses that Cowell’s music is immediately recognizable. “The Sonata for Violin and Piano (1945) that we’ll perform is very quirky and eccentric, and very difficult to play, because its meaning isn’t obvious,” he says. “It also sounds antique and extremely accessible, but it’s definitely Cowell’s voice. You can always tell that you’re dealing with a unique voice because of the unusual instrumental demands you have not seen before.”

Given that Steinberg’s teacher, Carol Robinson, played the piano at the first New York performance of the 20-minute sonata in 1948, the performance will provide as direct a link with the composer as is possible nowadays. It’s yet one more reason to attend these two, one-of-a-kind concerts presented by the singular Other Minds.

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Upcoming Concert
October 26, 2009
For classical music aficionados, the term early music generally brings to mind only works that they might hear in a Western concert hall. But Cançonièr adopts a much broader view for its upcoming concert (its debut as ensemble-in-residence at MusicSources), incorporating a Dufay motet, Turkish classical music, Italian and German dances, Balkan folk songs, and more. The unifying theme for the program is both unexpected and seasonally appropriate: “The Black Dragon: Music From the Time of Vlad Dracula.”

One of Cançonièr’s founders, Tim Rayborn, admits that little is known about Dracula’s musical tastes. It is, however, possible to speculate about what music he might have heard. Dracula (ca. 1431-1476) ruled a small Balkan nation in what is now part of southern Romania, so Byzantine court music and Balkan folk music were probably familiar to him. He certainly had plenty of contact with the Turks, as well, though he may have been less interested in hearing their music than impaling them on wooden spikes.

To begin and end the concert, Cançonièr will perform excerpts from a poem called “Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia,” written during Dracula’s lifetime by the German poet and musician Michel Beheim. Although the poem was performed for court audiences in its day, none of the original music survives. For this concert, Rayborn has set the text to music from a German source originating around the same time as the poem. Additionally, a spoken performance of an English translation will ensure that the audience doesn’t miss out on the gory details that made Dracula’s reputation spread so widely.

Another German composer with whom Dracula may have been familiar is Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376?-1445), a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon, the same sect that inspired the Dracula name. Vlad the Impaler’s father was a member of the order, and called himself “Dracul,” or dragon. Dracula literally means “Son of the Dragon.” Members of the order were committed to fighting the Turks and preventing the growth of the Ottoman Empire.

Cançonièr won’t be taking sides; the program also allots plenty of airtime to music of the draconian order’s enemies. Folk songs from Hungary, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bulgaria will be performed. Rayborn describes the melodies as “reminiscent of medieval modal songs.” The songs come from oral traditions that may have been transmitted, person by person, from Dracula’s time to ours. The surviving songs are thus not exactly the same as they were centuries ago, but, Rayborn elaborates, “if these exact songs did not exist in the 15th century, ones similar to them likely did.”

The variety of music that Cançonièr will present on this “Black Dragon” program is meant to satisfy the tastes of any music lover, from early-music buffs to world-music fans, as well as to goth enthusiasts who might be drawn ineluctably to the subject matter. Anyone with an ear for seldom-heard instruments will also be interested in this concert; Cançonièr’s four musicians will demonstrate their talents on the expected Western early-music instruments (recorders, vielle, lute, psaltery), as well as hurdy-gurdy, oud, hand drums, and tromba marina, which Rayborn calls “a completely ridiculous instrument that you will have to see and hear to believe.”

“The Black Dragon” promises to be a fascinating concert, with something for everyone to sink their teeth into.

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Upcoming Concert
October 20, 2009
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra fans won’t be surprised that star opera mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is headlining the group’s coming performances of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Many of the singers whom Music Director Nicholas McGegan hires are not exclusively “early music” singers in the traditional mold. From Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who starred in a wonderful Dido in 1993 and in many of the group’s Handel oratorio productions of the 1990s, to Dominique Labelle, who wowed audiences with a fiery Athalia last April, Philharmonia has worked with leading ladies who defy the stereotype of vibratoless, birdlike specialists.

So expect Graham, who has done plenty of Handel herself (including a spectacular Ariodante for San Francisco Opera in 2008), to fit right in. Her costars — no slouches, either — include William Berger (as Aeneas), Cyndia Sieden (Belinda), and Jill Grove (Sorceress).

McGegan and the orchestra are buoyed, not bowed down, by their specialist knowledge, and undaunted by the technical difficulties of some of the older instruments. They master intricate rhythmic and phrasing details that you don’t normally hear from modern instrument orchestras, yet play them with a conviction and ease that sounds natural. McGegan’s adrenaline-filled gestures transmit his excitement, and the orchestra normally responds by lifting you out of your seat. This is music-making by people who have been to the early-music revolution and come back enriched.

If you don’t remember Dido and Aeneas from that music appreciation class you took in college, you may be surprised to find out that it is a staple of early-music groups, as familiar to them as, say, Handel’s Water Music suites or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The most famous bit is Dido’s Lament, the Queen’s famous farewell aria after the Trojan prince Aeneas has loved her and left her. But the show is so tight and full of great tunes that you wouldn’t want to lose a measure.

At only 50 minutes long, Dido is one of the very few world-famous operas that you can program and still have half a concert to fill up. Luckily, Purcell was no one-hit wonder, and his Chacony in G Minor (which Benjamin Britten arranged) is only the tip of the iceberg. His Suite from Abdelazer is also magnificent, one of the composer’s last works. Britten pops up here, too, as he took the Rondeau from the Suite for the main tune of his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. And as if that weren’t enough, the Philharmonia Chorus will warm up for its part in Dido by singing a couple of Purcell’s English anthems.

This is a four-course feast from one of England’s greatest composers.

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Upcoming Concert
October 20, 2009
Mexico’s Día de los Muertos is hardly a day for mourning. A celebration of those who have died, it centers on offerings of food, flowers, and fanciful ceremonial altars for the departed.

“We make our offering to the dead at either the cemetery or home,” explains conductor Alondra de la Parra, who makes her much-anticipated San Francisco Symphony debut with a Nov. 1 family concert celebrating Latino culture.

“The ‘Day of the Dead’ is a fun party,” she continues. “Families spend hours making food — huge casseroles — that they leave for the dead people. We give them wine, flowers, skulls made from sugar and chocolate, and bread made to look like bones. We also make second helpings of everything for the living. We read poetry in honor of the dead that is filled with dark humor, and tell humorous stories about how they died so we can laugh and release the pain. We also write poems for the living that are parodies and satires about how the person would die.”

As de la Parra constructs an imaginary poem about her own death on the podium, the reasons the Symphony tapped her for the assignment become clear. The Mexican-born, Manhattan School of Music–trained conductor, who turns 29 the day before her SFS debut, founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (POA), which is based in New York, in 2004. Composed of young professionals dedicated to promoting the work of youthful soloists and composers of the American continent, it’s only one achievement of the first woman from Mexico to conduct in New York City. Not only is she a champion of living composers of the Americas, but she also knows a host of young soloists, including pianists Kristhyan Benitez and Ana Karina Alamo, who join author Laura Esquivel (Like Water For Chocolate) to perform in the concert.

De la Parra envisions the program as being one extended dance. It begins with Revueltas’ Noche de jaranas, an excerpt from what she calls his “fantastic, humongous” piece for film, La noche de los Mayas. The performance includes dancers who will illustrate a competition among males to see who will break a piñata. Then comes Ginastera’s Danza del trigo from the ballet Estancia, a slower dance of the wheat to a “very beautiful, simple tune with beautiful harmonies and orchestration.” Soon comes Moncayo’s joyful Huapango, a work many consider the unofficial national anthem of Mexico.

Just a few weeks after the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra opened its season with music by its new creative adviser, Berkeley-based Gabriela Lena Frank, de la Parra will conduct selections from Frank’s Three Latin American Dances. The fun dance mixes musics of the Spanish and native Latin American culture. Then, after Esquivel reads her Spanish narration for Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals, the concert ends with Márquez’ Danzón No. 2, currently the most popular piece of music in Mexico, with roots in Cuba’s sensual dancón.

“The dead will be very happy with this program,” says de la Parra. “They’re going to be dancing.” So will folks with the perspicacity to get tickets.

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Artist Spotlight
October 20, 2009

Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony for eight years, violinist Alexander Barantschik has won the hearts of patrons with his wide range of talent. As soloist, conductor, and section leader, “Sasha,” as his colleagues call him, has become something of a rock star at Davies Symphony Hall. Classical Voice recently asked him about his upcoming performances of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos (Nov. 18-20) and his life as a leader.

How is playing in the San Francisco Symphony different from playing with other orchestras you’ve been with?

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Upcoming Concert
October 20, 2009
One meaning of meridian is pinnacle, or the highest possible point. This denotation surely befits the Meridian Arts Ensemble, which is a brass quintet — two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba — plus a percussionist. To great critical acclaim, the group has recorded and performed extensively in both national and international venues for over 20 years. At the Manhattan School of Music, Meridian forms part of the faculty for a program in contemporary music performance. During the current academic year, the ensemble is also in residence at UC Davis, where a series of events featuring Meridian will run Nov. 7-10.

Reflecting the group’s commitment to educating younger musicians, some of these events are pedagogical in nature. For example, the Causeway Band Festival features two festival bands composed of high school students, as well as the UC Davis Concert Band and the Sacramento State Wind Program. In a concert on Sunday, Nov. 8, Meridian will share the stage of the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall with these other ensembles. At noon the following Tuesday, Meridian will also perform a free concert of compositions by UC Davis student composers.

The principal concert featuring Meridian will be given on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7:00 p.m. in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre of the Mondavi Center. Although the exact program has yet to be published, this ensemble has made well-executed, bold, and eclectic programming its signature. Such programming mixes both classical and contemporary music, which ranges from Baroque works by J.S. Bach to contemporary ones by composers including Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter.

But Meridian hardly limits its contemporary repertoire to “art music” composers such as these. The group also explores artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, the famous American guitarist, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African a cappella choir that performs traditional music of that culture.

Furthermore, Meridian’s embrace of musical diversity includes both newly composed works as well as arrangements of already existing pieces. The group has performed over 50 new works, and is especially well-known for its arrangements and recordings of pieces by Frank Zappa. Further still, though the ability to perform and teach such a wide array of music is impressive in itself, some of these pieces have also been arranged and composed by the ensemble’s own members.

The wealth of musical styles performed by this talented ensemble evokes a second meaning of the word meridian. Like the imaginary “meridian lines” that cover the entire earth while stretching between the north and south poles, so too will the Meridian Ensemble’s upcoming concert at Mondavi surely encompass an extensive spectrum of music. Of course, Meridian also promises to give every individual style a top-notch performance.

More about Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts »
Upcoming Concert
October 19, 2009
Certainly you’ve heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, both live and on recordings, over the years. But have you heard it played on a violin that inspired an Academy Award–winning movie?

That’s what’s in store at the Marin Symphony program coming up on Nov. 1 and 3. The “Red Violin” that inspired the 1999 movie of the same name is what violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn will be playing as a guest soloist.

 Also known as the “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivarius, this instrument is considered one of the finest violins ever crafted, with a beautiful sound and equally beautiful power.

Its mysterious past is just as intriguing as the rich tone Pitcairn pulls from the instrument. It disappeared shortly after it was built in 1720 and didn’t surface again until the 1930s, over 200 years later. It was sold to a private collector and amateur musician in 1945, and remained out of sight until it was bought anonymously for the then-16-year-old Pitcairn at a Thanksgiving Day auction at Christie’s in 1990.

Pitcairn began playing at age 3, performed her first concert at age 14, and made her professional debut in New York in 2000. Even though she had owned the violin since 1990, she didn’t perform publicly with it until she was playing professionally, by which time she was already considered one of the best up-and-coming violinists in the country. Even so, she does not take ownership of this legendary instrument lightly. She considers the violin her partner, one from whom she is still learning new things.

The music she’ll be playing in Marin may be familiar, but the musician and the instrument are not. Pitcairn is the first known person to perform publicly on the Red Violin. She’s also known for her charisma on stage. Between her presence and the skills of Alasdaire Neale, who conducts the Marin Symphony, these performances should be something to remember.

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Upcoming Concert
October 13, 2009
Natasha Paremski, a fine pianist who captivated audiences in her debut recital here a year and a half ago, returns to the Bay Area to play Rachmaninov's beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Peninsula Symphony. Mitchell Sardou-Klein's hardworking group are also presenting Shostakovich's whimsical Symphony No. 9 and Wagner's Overture to Rienzi.
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Upcoming Concert
October 13, 2009
The San Francisco Symphony has an unabashedly populist side that is refreshing and possibly also remunerative — not a small consideration for an expensive institution. Celebrating the opening of the Walt Disney Family Museum with music from classic Disney films will make a pops concert of great variety, however. Lisa Vroman, a terrific soprano who spent years in San Francisco playing Christine, the female lead in Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, will sing some of the great songs from Disney films, and the orchestra will add some selections from Fantasia, including Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”). Unlike some of his peers at other studios, Walt Disney actually knew a good tune when he heard one.


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