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.
“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.More about San Francisco Symphony »
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?
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 »
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.More about Marin Symphony »
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Renaissance music aficionado William Lyons is known for his work with the Dufay Collective and as music director of London’s Globe Theatre. On Oct. 18, MusicSources presents his new ensemble, City Musick, in its first American tour.
Where did you grow up, and what bearing did that have on your becoming an early-music freak?
Robert Geary is expanding the envelope of modern choral music, building a body of repertoire by commissioning and performing new music with his three groups — Volti, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and the San Francisco Choral Society. On Oct. 18, the proud papa of Volti celebrates the group’s 30th anniversary with a special CD release and gala. SFCV caught up with him recently for a conversation.
What inspired you to start Volti?
This is clearly not the standard fare for chamber music audiences. Nor is it standard for the musicians, according to Gold Coast’s artistic director, Pamela Freund-Striplen. “None of the group had played them before,” she notes. “I don’t know why; they’re really magical.”
Apart from the Loeffler (a German violinist who in his 20s came to America to work and compose), the program is definitely English in character, but Freund-Striplen feels there’s almost a French quality to it, “especially the Bridge piece.” The featured performers are Robin Sharp and Julie Kim on violin, violists Freund-Striplen and Jenny Douglas, cellist Amos Yang, pianist Roxanne Michaelian, and oboist Russ DeLuna. It’s the first performance for the Gold Coast Chamber Players since June 2008, and serves as a preview for its upcoming season.
The group’s distinctive name comes from its beginnings in 1987 in Alameda, in the heart of what was called the “Old Gold Coast,” though it has called Lafayette home since 1999. Among Bay Area chamber groups it has become known for what Freund-Striplen calls its “flexible core,” meaning that programs call for a mix of instruments and performers. It also works with local schools to introduce classical music to students and parents, and to make it a comfortable and welcoming experience for all ages.
Says Freund-Striplen, “We tend to put together people and programs that work well and work in a variety of venues. No matter where we are playing, it’s like we’re in your living room.”More about Gold Coast Chamber Players »
Mach will tap on far more than cans at the concert. After Steve Reich’s immensely popular, energizing Drumming Part I (1971), in a special arrangement for the bongo trio of Mach, Christopher Froh, and Daniel Kennedy, he performs Jennifer Stasack’s marimba solo, Six Elegies Dancing (1988). For the concert closer, he resurfaces on a West African djembe to join Froh and Kennedy in Iannis Xenakis’ Okho (1989).
In between, Kennedy, who along with Froh performs with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, takes up the tabla to perform a solo with electronic looping. The entire informal, low-priced concert will last an hour, or perhaps longer if the series’ loyal attendees are filled with wonder in the informal Q&A discussion, and take their time answering the monthly trivia contest.
“Benjamin Simon, concert host and conductor of the SFCO, has built up quite an audience for traditional classical chamber music,” says Froh. “While this is new music, and we’re the loud drummers in orchestras, there’s a little bit of everything in the concert. The djembe trio is very accessible, the Reich is a crowd pleaser, and the beautiful marimba solo brims with lyrical elegance. The only new piece is [performed] on an ancient, ancient instrument, and the only amplification will be for the looping station and tabla in Dan’s solo. We had a lot of kids and families at our first installment in April, so I planned it to be an age-friendly as well as pretty accessible hour.”
Simon would certainly agree that the “Percussion Fest” fits right into SFCO’s monthly, three-year-old “Classical at the Freight” (& Salvage, to refresh your memory) series. “One of the missions of the SFCO is to build new audiences for chamber music,” he explained over the phone. “We moved to the Freight to have a fun venue and attract some nontraditional listeners, and I think we’re succeeding. We don’t even produce a printed program. People love the informality of the concert, and being up close and personal to some of the best musicians in the Bay Area performing some of their favorite chamber music. We’re unstuffifying classical music.”More about Classical at the Freight »