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 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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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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