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.

Upcoming Concert
April 28, 2009
Volti’s motto is “Singing without a net,” and the San Francisco–based vocal ensemble, led by Music Director Robert Geary, does indeed stay on the forefront of contemporary choral music. Currently in its 30th-anniversary season, the group returns in May with a far-reaching program featuring world premieres by Donald Crockett and Robert Paterson, along with contemporary choral works by Kirke Mechem, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Sungji Hong.

Of particular interest is Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains. Composed on commission from Volti, with texts by Katherine Vincent, the set of five movements is inspired by the folk music traditions of Tuva. Geary praises the beauties of the score, calling it “evocative of sweeping landscapes and a pastoral and meditative existence.”

Paterson’s On the Day the World Ends (another Volti commission) is a cycle of three pieces incorporating poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Elizabeth Frye. Also included are Mechem’s Three Madrigals, a setting of texts by the composer’s father, the poet and author Kirke F. Mechem, and Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations, which incorporates writings by a 13th-century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg. Hong’s Emendemus in melius completes the program. Performances are at 8 p.m. on May 15 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley and May 16 at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco; and at 4 p.m. on May 17 at All Saints’ Church, Palo Alto.

This weekend, meanwhile, audiences can hear a program celebrating the culmination of Volti’s acclaimed high school outreach program. On May 2 at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the ensemble’s Choral Institute Concert will bring together the combined choirs of the Acalanes High School Chamber Singers, the Head-Royce School Colla Voce, and Piedmont Choirs Ecco with the Jubilate Orchestra in a performance of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude. Geary conducts. Each choir will also perform separately, in repertoire ranging from Claudio Monteverdi to Imogen Heap. The music starts at 8 p.m.

More about Volti »
Artist Spotlight
April 28, 2009

Cameron Carpenter is a rarity in the rarified world of classical organists. Flamboyant and virtuosic in performance, he has earned not only recognition among musicians, but also popularity as a soloist that overshadows all other exponents of the instrument. (Several of his YouTube videos have garnered over 100,000 plays.) Along the way he has purposefully trampled, questioned, or disregarded most of the received wisdom and shibboleths of the organ world.

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Upcoming Concert
April 27, 2009
Speaking to the famed mezzo-soprano “Flicka” — the endearing sobriquet for Frederica von Stade — I’m immediately infused with the warmth of her intrinsic humanity. She belies the usual caricature of the solipsistic prima donna: the only one for whom the entire world exists. While pursuing a brilliant career, traveling the world to star engagements and recording sessions, she nonetheless finds time to take care of sick friends, sponsor music classes for the underprivileged, sing for innumerable benefits, and be a loving friend, a loyal wife, and a devoted mother. Although she wears the mantle of her celebrity weightlessly, she uses her fame as a force when it can help the needy and less fortunate.

How does she do it? In Flicka’s words: “The career is important and often intoxicating, but nothing is as valuable as family and friends. Life is never in balance, so give up trying to keep it in balance, and accept the chaos. Family first.” Still, it’s striking to realize that the same woman who just took the bus (her car’s in the shop), to visit a gravely ill colleague in the hospital, might be flying out the following day for an appearance at Kennedy Center before the president of the United States. Behind this nonstop compassion is a woman of unbounded energy, grace, diligence, and discipline. No thank-you is left unsaid, no 16th note ignored; everything is given its due value: the maxi-multitasker living in every dimension of her multidimensional world.

Her long-standing collaboration with Jake Heggie, the composer and his music, has brought with it a deeper exploration of her own motherhood. In his opera Dead Man Walking, the mother loses control of the child, watches him suffer, and, as every mother would do, questions her own responsibility: “What decision did she make that could have been different?” What could she have done that might have led to a different outcome? The same question lay at the heart of the recent Heggie production Three Decembers, and the exploration of it has been a focal point for Flicka the woman. This is every parent’s dilemma: a question with no final answer.

Appropriately, then, her forthcoming concert will be a performance, with Kristin Clayton, of four duets by Jake that articulate diverse moments — some funny, some tragic — between a mother and a daughter. One is about a hilarious recurring face of the mother that seems to appear in the daughter’s own mirror; another is about the heartsickness arising from the gradual exclusion of recognition from the mother’s Alzheimer-stricken mind. These duets will be part of a closing-night gala featuring songs, duets, and ensembles by the young composer.

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Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009

Faster than a buckin’ bronco, the venerable Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe are hitching a ride West with the Pony Express to present the Bay Area premiere of Alan Louis Smith’s all-American song cycle, Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman (2006). Written for Blythe’s overpoweringly beautiful and expressive voice, which not too long ago lifted the roof off Davies Symphony Hall during a performance of the Verdi Requiem, the cycle sets excerpts from the remarkable Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink. Mrs. Frink wrote the diary in 1850, as she and her husband crossed the continent from Indiana to Sacramento in a covered wagon.

Smith’s accessible, heartfelt cycle is the centerpiece of an all-American program, sponsored by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Theatre on April 23 at 8 p.m., which also includes John Antes’ Trio in D Minor for two violins and cello (1780), George Gershwin’s infrequently encountered Lullaby for string quartet (1919), and Amy Cheney Beach’s gorgeous, must-be-heard Quintet in F-sharp Minor for piano and strings (1907). Both Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman and the quintet by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach — I’m using historically correct titles here — have recently been released on a marvelous CD from CMS Studio Recordings.

A phone chat with two veteran CMS members who will perform here, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Ani Kavafian, uncovered the shocking news that this is the first all-American program that CMS has performed in the 30 years since Kavafian joined the ensemble.

Listen to the Music

“We built the program around the Covered Wagon premiere,” said Kavafian. “It’s kinda crazy that we haven’t done other all-American programs before. But we have this amazing song cycle with this most amazing singer. Wherever we play it, it gets a standing ovation, because it’s very, very poignant and written quite beautifully.”

McDermott, whose recent all-Gershwin recording for Bridge Records has received numerous critical accolades, affirms that Blythe is “very, very, very deeply into this piece. She feels it so much. It is quite an amazing performance, I have to say. She doesn’t need to do many gestures because the voice absolutely blows you away, and the music tugs at the heart strings.”

The Beach will prove an equal revelation to those lucky enough to attend. I had expected it be overly sentimental and quaint, but instead find it infinitely tender and involving. I concur with McDermott’s assessment that it’s a “hugely emotional, luscious, sensual piece that allows [performers] to go over the top in feeling and expression. It definitely should be programmed more.”

Throw in two rarities, the Antes piece (“quite baroque sounding and very, very lovely,” says Kafavian) and the Gershwin (“such a gentle loving piece, and a much more intimate side of Gershwin than you usually hear,” says McDermott), and you have an evening that beckons like the all-American yellow brick road.

More about San Francisco Performances »
Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009
Orchestral concerts often include a single Aaron Copland work as a nod to American music, but this month’s Marin Symphony program gives the great 20th-century composer an entire bill. In performances May 3 and 5 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, Music Director Alasdair Neale conducts an all-Copland program that includes Hoe-down, Appalachian Spring, and the Third Symphony.

While these works hardly amount to a survey of Copland’s music (no one program could accomplish that), they do illuminate one of the composer’s most fertile periods: the years between 1942 and 1946, when he refined the distinctive American vocabulary — the spare harmonies, spacious textures, forthright melodies, and vital rhythms we have come to think of as quintessentially Copland. Hoe-down, part of an orchestral suite excerpted from the 1942 ballet score Rodeo, paints a vibrant picture of the American West — one that Copland, a Brooklyn-born Jew who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, had never actually seen.

No matter — written for dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille, who gave the ballet’s wildly successful first performance in New York, the work remains a singularly inventive vision of the American West, and an exuberant example of this composer’s most accessible work. So, too, does Appalachian Spring, also created for DeMille; the austere and serenely beautiful 1944 score, built around the Shaker tune A Gift to be Simple, never fails to move an audience.

The Third Symphony rounds out the program. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, who called it the greatest American symphony to date, the 1946 score evokes both a mythical America, and a specific one. The fourth movement incorporates music Copland wrote earlier as a tribute to the ordinary men and women who were “doing the dirty work” in World War II — a short piece for brass and percussion he titled Fanfare for the Common Man, which went on to become one of the most popular and oft-performed musical works of the century.

The program concludes Marin Symphony’s 2008-2009 season. Neale, who has a proven track record with Copland’s music, both in Marin and during his previous tenures as San Francisco Symphony’s associate conductor and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, gives a preconcert talk one hour before each performance.

More about Marin Symphony »
Artist Spotlight
April 21, 2009

This week, from April 22 through April 25, the San Francisco Symphony will be performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 (1935), one of the composer's best. Long-time symphony member and Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman is the soloist for the same composer's haunting tone poem, The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920). A member of the San Francisco Symphony since 1980, Tichman is noted for her musicianship as well as her grace and presence. I had a chance to speak with her and to get a glimpse of the person behind the violin.

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Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009

Frederic Rzewski is still playing his 1975 masterwork, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, 36 variations on a Chilean song associated with the Unidad Popular coalition, which supported the Salvador Allende government.

Rzewski’s piece is virtuosic, imaginative, and accessible, and with the composer’s advocacy at the piano, it has become a staple of the modern piano repertory. At some point, Rzewski is sure to retire from playing, so take the opportunity to hear him at the Mondavi Center.

More about Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts »
Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009
New chamber groups spring up all the time, usually without fanfare. But the new Eidolon String Quartet deserves attention because its founder is Franklyn D’Antonio, concertmaster of the Berkeley Symphony, and former member of the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The second violinist, Noah Strick, is a recent graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory and the Oberlin Conservatory and is assistant concertmaster of the Berkeley Symphony. Clare Twohy, on viola, is also a recent SFCM graduate teaching at the Crowden School. Cellist Gianna Abandolo is on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College. In their inaugural concert, the group plays music of local composers, including Twohy and Clark Suprynowicz, former composer in residence at the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. More about Eidolon Quartet »
Upcoming Concert
April 20, 2009
David Ramadanoff first encountered Carl Orff’s irresistible Carmina Burana as a student at Temple University in the late 1960s, singing in the massed choir that performed the lusty oratorio with players from the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra. Like countless others before and since, he was hooked.

“It made a tremendous impression on me musically,” says Ramadanoff, who will conduct Orff’s pulsing 1936 crowd-pleaser on April 25 with the Vallejo Symphony. “The rhythms capture you instantly. The music is relentless and hypnotic.” The maestro, who has shaped the symphony over the last quarter century, will lead a 65-piece orchestra; extra musicians have been hired to play the score, which calls for two pianos, celesta, four percussionists, and a full complement of wind players.

They will be joined by the Solano and Vallejo choral societies, the Solano Community College Chamber Choir, the St. Vincent Elementary School Children’s Choir, and three soloists: soprano Aimee Puentes, who sang the piece with the Santa Cruz Symphony in 2003, baritone Austin Kness, and tenor Brian Staufenbiel, who did Carmina with Ramadanoff and the Oakland East Bay Symphony last May.

Orff’s visceral music builds on driving repetitive rhythms and simple motifs. Carmina, with its aspects of ritual and various repetitive devices, was strongly influenced by Igor Stravinsky, particularly works like his 1917 ballet Les Noces, the conductor notes. The German composer set the music to 24 poems from the Carmina Burana, a collection of love poems and vagabond songs apparently written in the 11th and 12th centuries by satiric student clerics known as Goliards, in Latin and German. The lyrics speak of sweet longing, the pleasures of the flesh and the grape, the joys of spring.

“The chorus has to be a character, in a lot of respects,” Ramadanoff says. “When the men are in the tavern, it’s the ultimate bachelor party, and they need to convey that bachelor party.” It’s no wonder that the blood-rushing “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes the oratorio, has cropped up in a slew of ads and movies, from The Doors to Excalibur.

“The piece grabs you,” the maestro says. “It’s well-written. It’s obvious in its appeal, but it’s a good piece.”

Rounding out Saturday’s performance will be James Beckel’s 1996 Musica Mobilus, a four-and-a-half-minute homage to sculptor Alexander Calder, master of the mobile. Written for brass choir, the contrapuntal piece was specifically inspired by Calder’s Five Pieces Suspended at the Indianapolis Museum. Beckel based his work on five pitches — A, F-sharp, G, C, and D — that continually shift in harmony and mood. This version uses four horns, three trombones, a tuba, and three percussionists playing suspended cymbal, glockenspiel, and wind chimes.

More about Vallejo Symphony Orchestra »
Artist Spotlight
April 20, 2009

Life is full for guitarist and composer Sérgio Assad. The Brazilian performs with his brother, Odair, in arguably the best guitar duo on the planet, tours for other ensemble projects, and teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Last November he won the 2008 Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for a piece he composed titled Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina, from The Assad Brothers’ album Jardim Abandonado. There’s an urgency to all the activity, the kind that comes from an artist in full swing.

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