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 "Darkness" in the program is a Requiem Mass by the Veronese priest Giovanni Matteo Asola (c. 1528-1609) for men's a cappella voices — a piece described by J. Jeff Badger, executive director and founder of the group, as having an "almost modal, antico style with a very dark, dense sound"; achingly beautiful voice crossings lend to its pathos. Although Asola was prolific in his lifetime, composing for St. Servero church in Venice and also writing a number of secular madrigals, he has fallen into obscurity and Badger believes this might be the first American performance of this contemplative work.
In contrast, the "Dawn" is music of the Milanese Benedictine nun Sister Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1678) for women's voices, and presents a brighter, florid sound typical of the early Baroque. Cozzolani wrote four volumes of music, all within the confines of her convent, the Santa Radegonda. When she later became the Abbess, she stopped composing. It is thought that some of her motets might have been smuggled out of the cloister for publication, and in fact, more than a dozen nuns published sacred works in Italy at the time. She herself had a virtuoso alto voice and sang first alto in the choir. Cozzolani's music is written for women's voices, with tenor and bass parts that were most likely sung by women, as well.
The San Francisco Renaissance Voices take this opportunity to arrange the parts for mixed voices — a 17th-century impropriety, but one that is sure to bring a richness of timbre and broader register to the music. The singers will be joined by guest instrumentalists Steven Lehning on viola da gamba and harpsichordist Jonathan Rhodes Lee in this joyful music — the early rhythm section that enhances that special swing between duple and triple meter common in the era.
Katherine McKee, assistant music director, takes the podium for this concert, and provides this insight: "Our concert in no way seeks to re-create an order of worship, or even to imply a monastic atmosphere. Rather, we're seeking to illuminate one of the miracles of the world of music and art: That despite the strictly cloistered environment in which Cozzolani composed, and the service-oriented nature of Asola's writings, this music escaped the confines of church and convent to be enjoyed by listeners throughout the secular world, both in their own time and through the centuries down to us."
More about San Francisco Renaissance Voices »
Add one more key requirement: physique du role. An essential element of Violetta’s capacity to win and retain the devotion of many men of wealth and distinction, both in fiction and in reality, was her dazzling beauty. She was set apart from others also by what her creator called “her distinction of manner, her spirited conversation.” She was said to possess “elegance to the highest degree.” “She was thin and pale and had magnificent hair down to the ground.” “Her fine skin marked by blue veins indicated that she was consumptive. She was no common woman of ill repute.”
Violetta played the piano well, enjoyed the theater, and spoke excellent French. It was her combination of beauty and natural tact, along with refinement, that attracted, and retained, her many prominent friends. The soprano who essays this role must, ideally, master not only Verdi’s excruciatingly demanding vocal line and the tale’s powerful emotional thrust, but also the challenge of portraying, with convincing elegance, the image of the intriguing and beautiful demimondaine Violetta.
Then there is also, of course, the task of confronting the greatest soprano phrase in all of Italian opera: “Amami, Alfredo” (Love me, Alfredo). Here Violetta is facing the sacrifice of her great and consuming love for a noble cause. This is a phrase that requires such emotional grandeur from the protagonist that the audience must either scream “Bravo!” or be brought to tears. (I have witnessed both these effects, fortissimo.) Sarah Bernhardt was famed for her portrayal of this role, in the play La Dame aux camélias by Dumas (the son). When the renowned Italian actress Eleanora Duse put herself in direct competition by performing it in Paris, she was said by the critics to be “interesting and pathetic” but was characterized as being “too middle class, too remote” to play the demimondaine. Even the great Duse could not measure up to the task.
The woman Violetta Valery (her operatic name), alias Marguerite Gautier (the play name), alias Marie Duplessis (the courtesan name), née Alphonsine Duplessis (her birth name) actually lived and died in Paris and now lies buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. She was likely prostituted at a young age by her sodden father. She was driven to sell herself “because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for irresistibly; I wanted to know the refinements and pleasure of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society.”
In the opera we have a thrice-removed fictionalized version of this fascinating woman. There was an actual, beautiful young courtesan in Paris who died in her early 20s of consumption. But in both the play and the opera she is given a “chance,” like Mary Magdalene, to redeem herself. She is driven to sacrifice her great love in order to save her lover’s family from the disgrace of association with her. More than with any other female in Verdi’s works, we can relate to this fallen woman who possesses, nonetheless, both elegance and grace, and moreover a noble heart,. But to make it happen for us, the prima donna must bring together immense virtuosity on many fronts.
The San Francisco Opera opening night (June 13) casting of La traviata looks most promising. If the stunning Anna Netrebko can come close to what she did with this role in Salzburg, it will be a thrilling event. I am unable to recall a better interpretation combined with such sovereign vocal control. A few equally thrilling snippets may be heard on old recordings — from the likes of Muzio, Olivero, and Zeani and of course Callas — and there is the Zeffirelli film, marvelous to look at, but not well recorded. Also available is the Covent Garden DVD with the excellent Angela Georghiu, but there’s nothing like the Traviata from Salzburg. Netrebko reaches into some dark desperation within, some unspoken self-violence, and thoroughly avoids the cliched and simplistic. This is one soprano who has it all.More about San Francisco Opera »
Orff actually wrote the Catulli Carmina (1932-33) before his most famous and popular work, eventually putting the two cantatas together with a third, as Trionfi (Triumphs). Catulli Carmina (1943) is set to the frequently explicit love lyrics of Catullus, a Roman poet and contemporary of Julius Caesar. The cantata, like its brethren, relies on pulsing, repetitive rhythms, as well as simple textures and harmonies, creating a vigorous, communal style, all reinforced by a huge percussion orchestra (including four pianos) that plays in the framing numbers of the piece. But in some ways it’s more interesting than its often-played successor.
For one thing, Catullus’ poetry has more psychological depth than the Goliard songs of Carmina Burana. The cantata sets poems from the sequence that trace the phases of the poet’s love for “Lesbia” (a common poetic pseudonym at the time), which also allows Orff to envision a staging of the piece (written into the libretto) that ends with the poet’s defeat and the termination of the lovers’ relationship. This “play” concludes with the self-aware, if also self-serving, lines, “I cannot now wish you well/however virtuous you may become, nor stop loving you.”
Listen to the Music
Chora Nova perform Bach: Kahnua
Magnificat - Quia fecit mihi magna
Chora Nova perform Brahms: Wie
lieblich sind deine Wohnungen
So Chora Nova, not relaxing from its exploration of the choral works of Zoltán Kodály this past March, again treads the novel path. Not so new as a chorus any longer, it and its founder and director, Paul Flight, have certainly not run out of new and interesting concert ideas. If you’ve heard (or been avoiding) one of the more or less 50,000 outings of Orff’s obstreperous Goliards this spring, you might be pleasantly surprised by his Roman lovers. At least hucksters haven’t made car commercials from this one — yet.More about Chora Nova »
When Robert Cole took over Cal Performances in 1986, West Coast arts presenters were pretty much booking whatever came through on tour from the East. He changed all that. Cole, who’s calling it quits this summer after a brilliant and fruitful 23-year run, made things happen here. He helped originate new works of music and dance, and he brought in a vast range of artists from abroad, many of whom had never played here.
Lynn Harrell is a very fine, light-toned cellist who’s played concertos in the Bay Area and is capable of outshining his conductors. But he’s not just a soloist, and he’s coming back to play chamber music with some friends, including his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, and pianist Victor Asuncion.
Chamber Music San Francisco is opening up a third set of performances, this one in Mountain View, and this concert is one of several highlights of this first season down the Peninsula. The performance feature Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1; Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello; and Brahms' Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 34.More about Chamber Music San Francisco »
Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002 and recently named artistic director of Opera at London’s Royal Academy of Music, is a Baroque scholar, author, and opera conductor with a penchant for modern dance. However unlikely a combination that may seem, for the past decade Glover has been a collaborator in several of choreographer Mark Morris’ projects that brilliantly use modern dance to embody 18th-century music.
In his extraordinary 17-year run as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles has enriched the cultural life of the Bay Area. As a conductor, he has shaped many memorable performances, bringing forth Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise with equal passion and acuity.
Like the music on this program, the ensemble’s name also calls for explanation. It’s named after the noted German thinker Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, who studied ways in which music relates to society. Since the group is committed to making contemporary music seem relevant and palatable, “Adorno” seemed, to the group, a fitting name.
Two featured composers on the upcoming program are Iannis Xenakis and Conlon Nancarrow. Xenakis used computers to compose music for human performers, whereas Nancarrow himself composed music for a nonhuman, mechanical instrument. A third featured composer, Charles Wuorinen, mediates these two polarities, composing his own music for human performers, albeit music that’s still temporally complex.
Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents, but moved to France in the 1940s. He was especially drawn to music and math because he was trained as an engineer, and he also worked for the architect known as Le Corbusier. The Adorno will play his Morsima-Amorsima, a quartet for piano, violin, cello, and double bass that was premiered in 1962. The composition is generated by a highly complex computer algorithm, which Xenakis also used for other compositions.
Nancarrow, meanwhile, was an American-Mexican composer who composed many “studies” for player piano. He believed this mechanical instrument could perform more-complex rhythms and meters than humans could. But he transcribed his Study No. 34 for string trio. Just as he sought to overcome limitations of human performers by composing for the mechanical player piano, perhaps Nancarrow also sought to overcome the timbral and expressive limitations of the mechanical instrument by transcribing this study for a human ensemble.
Finally, Wuorinen (b. 1938) is an American composer who has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship. His Eleven Short Pieces for violin and vibraphone dates from 2006. Don’t be fooled by the title of his compositional treatise, Simple Composition. The ideas about musical time that inform Wuorinen’s compositions are complex and multifaceted, with influences ranging from Stefan Wolpe to Milton Babbitt to Elliott Carter.
The relationships between music and numbers explored by these contemporary composers have moved a long way from the medieval “music of the spheres.” Instead of mere harmony and order, these composers also entertain complexity and chaos. Also unlike the medieval idea, their contemporary music is actually audible, and worth a listen when presented by the Adorno Ensemble.More about Adorno Ensemble »
George, the emeritus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, along with conductors David J. Xiques and Cyrus Ginwala, the school's singers, the Alexander String Quartet, pianist Roger Woodward, the University Chorus, tenor Brian Cheney, and organist Jonathan Dimmock will celebrate the great composer with a generous cross-section of his works on May 16 at Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light and on May 17 at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.
But that's just the teaser for the "well-honored" part. The concerts are benefits for causes that would have warmed the cockles of young Felix's heart and moved him to say thanks in one of the four languages he spoke fluently (German, English, Italian, and Latin).
Proceeds from the first concert will benefit the St. Martin de Porres School choral program, and the second concert will benefit the Choir of Men and Boys at Grace Cathedral — two organizations that provide music education and performance opportunities to young people.
The program contains several of Mendelssohn’s undervalued, large-scale choral works, including several from his two oratorios, St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846). Also one of the composer’s early string symphonies, several keyboard works, and the magnificent String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80. Not leaving out Felix’s talented sister Fanny, the concert includes two works by her.
It’s no wonder that a choral master, like George, would love Mendelssohn, who contributed a good portion of the 19th-century’s best choral music to the repertory. During his quarter-century leadership of the SFS Chorus (1983-2006) and before, with Margaret Hillis' Chicago Symphony Chorus, George has championed Mendelssohn's music, along with a broad range of composers, from Bach to Sondheim. Under his baton, the SFS Chorus won four Grammy Awards, including Best Choral Album (for Brahms' A German Requiem and Orff's Carmina Burana), Classical Album of the Year, and the 2001 concert production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.
George is enchanted by Mendelssohn's childhood, his visit to Leipzig at age 12, spending time with the 73-year-old Goethe. "Every morning," George quotes Mendelssohn's diary, "I receive a kiss from the author of Faust. After dinner, I entertain with Bach fugues and improvisations. I saw where Bach worked and composed!"
A few years later, the Bach-Mendelssohn connection flowered, George says, "through Sarah Itzig Levy, a sister of Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn's maternal grandmother, Felix copying the then little-known St. Matthew Passion (can you imagine that!), and then another 'activist,' the actor Edward Devrient, sang the role of Jesus, and suddenly St. Matthew was — rightly — considered the greatest German art." Devrient has been quoted saying "It took an actor and a young Jew to return the greatest Christian music to the German people."More about SFSU School of Music and Dance »
Her San José Chamber Orchestra’s May 17 concert at Le Petit Trianon assembles 17 string players in a breadth of emotion as well as chronology. The evening begins with 18th-century contemporaries Luigi Boccherini and Franz Josef Haydn, and continues with a pair of world premieres by the Bay Area’s William Susman and Anica Galindo, and for good measure a couple of 20th-century hits by George Gershwin and Dave Brubeck.
As music director and conductor, Turner’s success in championing new music (including more than 75 world premieres) last year earned the SJCO a first place ASCAP Award for Adventuresome Programming. Her advocacy of new music is also reflected “by the amount of scores that find their way to my front door, unbidden. It’s magnificent and sort of frightening at the same time.” That is, until she and the ensemble get familiar with the “language” of composers like Susman and Galindo, whom she has showcased before.
Their two new works are “actually sort of opposites,” says Turner. With Galindo’s Trinitas, the first part of a commissioned trilogy, “you have an extremely lyric piece that uses strings sort of in the way that Barber does in the Adagio, but not at the upper extreme so much. She uses larger blocks of sound, creating a really rich and warm texture.”
Zydeco Madness, in the words of Palo Alto composer William Susman, is “a response to and a reflection on Hurricane Katrina: the disaster, the tragic events that transpired during and after, and the lack of response to the people.” The title implies a connection to the popular music of the black Creoles of Louisiana, and to that music’s lead instrument, the accordion. The piece was presented in Chicago last month in a solo accordion setting, as performed by Russian virtuoso Stas Venglevski, and has been reset with the SJCO functioning “like a giant accordion on steroids,” in Susman’s words. The composer’s notations on the score reflect his approach to depicting the tragedy, setting out with rapid phrases of “Flowing Hell,” slowing with “Marooned,” and building to a “Hysterically Grinding” emotional high point. Susman, who had grown close to the bedeviled area during his student days at Tulane, evokes the funkiness of zydeco and the wail of Katrina through extensive use of Sul ponticello bowing, tremolo, and other dramatic techniques.
For Turner, the other pieces of her May 17 program are linked with the new compositions in that they all convey “the concept of spirit.” The Boccherini, arranged by Michael Touchi, reflects “the particular flair of Spanish dance” through the eyes and ears of a classical Italian. Touchi’s arrangement of Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet transports the listener to the “incredibly elegant Austrian spirit” of the late 18th century. Gershwin’s Summertime (arr. William Zinn) and Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk (arr. Jeremy Cohen) will end the evening in “a quintessentially American spirit,” with evidence of the rewards of cross-pollinating genres.More about San José Chamber Orchestra »