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.
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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 »
About a thousand parents and children stop by to enjoy this annual event, with musical offerings customized to engage young children at their level. And for kids of this age group, that means hands-on. A favorite on the schedule is the Instrument Petting Zoo, where kids can touch, blow, and squawk sounds out of every orchestral instrument that catches their eyes and ears. Short class-demonstrations have families sing, dance, drum, or move together in true participatory fashion while getting to preview the class experience at Crowden first-hand. Also on the agenda are instrument-making sessions, performances by Crowden School students, a music sale, and a visit from “Mozart” himself. Of course, no festival would be complete without face painting, food, and prizes.
In a special collaboration with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, now three years running, the School will treat attendees to a concert experience that day, in a series called Very First Concerts (see details below). The 20-minute concert will be given at 11:00 a.m., with repeats at 11:40 a.m. and 12:20 p.m.
As Benjamin Simon, the SFCO’s musical director, describes it: “The program will introduce Mr. Béla Bartók, describe his tramping through the Hungarian/Romanian countryside in pursuit of folk tunes and how these folk tunes inspired his composing. Nine members of the S.F. Chamber Orchestra will be playing in our mini-orchestra; the repertoire will center on Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and involve lots of dancing from our young audience. The idea is to introduce the idea of a composer, what they actually do, what might inspire them, and to show that they were (and are!) real, live human beings who just happen to write music.”
According to Crowden’s executive director, Doris Fukawa, Community Music Day and the Very First Concerts collaboration arose out of a realization that family concerts in the Bay Area are typically tailored to elementary and middle school children. “The youngest kids need to make noise and move around, and they have different attention spans and listening levels than older children. It can be stressful for parents to deal with these needs in a traditional concert hall setting, even one geared toward families. We saw a real niche-need to give families with kids aged 0–6 a joyful, age-appropriate experience with live classical music, and it’s proven a smash hit with audiences.”
Mark your calendars for the next in the series, coming to Crowden in January and June (for details visit here).More about Crowden Music Center »
Moroney is probably best known as an internationally renowned keyboardist and UC Berkeley professor, though his choral credentials are strong, as well; his Ph.D. dissertation was done on the vocal music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. He also shares Chalice Consort’s interest in uncovering new works, a fact vividly illustrated by his highly publicized discovery in 2005 of a 40- and 60-part mass by Alessandro Striggio, long presumed lost. For Chalice Consort, his program centers on the theme of concealment, presenting a series of pieces composed and performed under the shadow of political and religious strife.
Throughout his career, Byrd struggled to reconcile conflicts between his public duties and his private convictions. Although a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s prestigious Chapel Royal during the latter 16th century, he was himself a recusant Catholic living in a time of aggressive Protestant hegemony. As such, he had to toe the line carefully as a composer, lest he fall victim to the Catholic persecutions that were increasingly sweeping England. Moroney’s repertory highlights these tensions, with several pieces containing sacred texts but unsuited for liturgical performance in the Anglican church.
“The evening begins with the only secular piece in the program, placed as an invocation to the power of Music,” he observes. “We then trace Byrd’s public conformity and official acceptance of the state religion imposed by Queen Elizabeth; and his private music of political protest, in his motets of lamentation and outrage, which gave voice to an oppressed community who often saw themselves as martyrs for their religion. The program ends with serene pieces from Byrd’s private mission of solace in comfort of the bereaved and in memory of those who had died.”
Far from living in the past, Moroney eagerly draws historical parallels between Byrd’s struggles and those of our modern age. His program discussion is laden with contemporary references to ongoing conflicts in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “Byrd’s music reminds us there was a narrow middle way at a time when oppressive tyrannical actions were hidden under the mask of state religion, and private religious beliefs often caused feverish believers to engage in acts of terrorism, and when caught to be tortured and executed.” Heady stuff for an early-music concert, but well worth pondering. (For Moroney’s full commentary on the program, see the Chalice Web site.)More »
Is it possible to think of Richard Strauss' 1905 Salome as a great, overwhelming wall of sound, with singers struggling to be heard? That's a hasty association with its "sister opera," Elektra, about which there is a (possibly apocryphal) story of Strauss shouting at the orchestra: "Louder, I can still hear the singers!" Don't mention that idea to San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who is about to make his German-opera debut, conducting Salome Oct. 18 through Nov. 1.
When I did, asking what he is doing to allow the voices to come through, Luisotti said Strauss' "orchestration is so great that it's impossible to cover the voices." Impossible? Luisotti has thought about the opera for some 20 years. He spent the past two years studying the score, and now that he is in daily rehearsals, Luisotti lives and breathes Salome, and he certainly knows whereof he speaks. Sitting down with me, he opens the score to show — and sing — quiet orchestral passages all the way to page 47 where the first fortissimo marking appears ... "and no one is singing."
Luisotti then shows (and sings) orchestral pianissimos and even pianississimo ("ppp"), and how the instruments downshift in volume (diminuendo) instantly when voices appear. The "Dance of Seven Veils," of course, builds to one of the greatest climaxes in all opera ("orgiastic," the conductor says), but even during the work's horrific finale, there are those pp and ppp markings (even on page 325), so that the orchestra doesn't interfere with the voices.
"It's night music," Luisotti says, "about love and death, in a chaotic, thoroughly sick environment — with beauty lighting it up with every mention of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist — a tragedy of noncommunication between all the characters, and a cathartic end." Luisotti, a man of faith, in no way shares the century-old shock over Oscar Wilde's erotically charged play, the story's scandalous turns amplified by Strauss' sinewy music. After all his study of the work, Luisotti doesn't see it as the triangle of the lecherous King Herod, his necrophilia-craving stepdaughter, and the imprisoned, abused Jokanaan (John), but rather as a whirlpool of forces with "relevance to everybody." Salome, he says, with caring, "is only 18, growing up with a stepfather who killed her father; how 'healthy' can she be?"
He holds up two identical pieces of blank paper and crumples one: "this is 'good,' 'beautiful'," he says, pointing to the whole one, "and this is 'bad,' 'ugly,'" he says of the other. "They are the same, and different, parts of a whole." When he sees the devastating noncommunication between all characters in the opera, Luisotti doesn't judge them. "I ask myself: am I really in touch with people, do I hear what my wife tells me, do I really listen?"
A Lifelong PursuitThe moral, dramatic, and musicological complexity of the opera (with its then-new chromaticism and — for some — still not fully comfortable bitonality) so challenges and fascinates the music director that he says, simply and with conviction: "I will study Salome for the rest of my life." Luisotti first encountered the opera many years ago when working as a rehearsal pianist at a Torre del Lago Puccini Festival production (a double-bill with Suor Angelica). During his first discussions of repertory in San Francisco with General Director David Gockley, rather than assigning Salome to another conductor, Luisotti claimed it for himself; working with Gockley and the company's music staff, Luisotti also did the casting.
For the title role — "someone who is both a girl and a woman, who needs to be a dramatic soprano, a lyric soprano, a coloratura, a mezzo-soprano, all in one" — the choice is German soprano Nadja Michael, whose London performance was reviewed as "blazing with dramatic intensity."
Irina Mishura sings Herodias, Kim Begley is Herod, Greer Grimsley is Jokanaan, and the early-expiring Narraboth (chronologically the first victim of noncommunication) is Garrett Sorenson.
The 105-minute, intermissionless, coproduction with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and L'Opéra de Montréal arrives here in Bruno Schwengl's design, with Seán Curran as stage director, and James Robinson as consulting director and dramaturg.
Having just passed by a poster of the Opera's current production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio), it occurred to me that Luisotti has already conducted Mozart — Don Giovanni in Miskolc, Hungary, and with the Tokyo Symphony (of which Luisotti is principal guest conductor), Le Nozze di Figaro in Tokyo this year, Così fan tutte in the Tokyo Suntory Hall next March — so is San Francisco's claim to Luisotti's first "German opera" valid?
He doesn't blink an eye, makes no geographical excuse (Salzburg-born Mozart's career took place in Vienna, which was German only anachronistically, during the Anschluss), says only that "Mozart's Italian-language operas are more Italian than German." And so they are. Bring on a real German opera! The Civic Grand Marshall of San Francisco's Columbus Day Italian Heritage Parade on Oct. 11 is ready.
PS: Why not discuss a possible Italian-German dichotomy with Luisotti? Because among the finest Wagner conductors of the past century were Toscanini, Sinopoli, De Sabata, Marinuzzi, Abbado, and Serafin ... just to start. As for Luisotti's San Francisco plans: "Bizet, Mozart, and — Wagner!"More about San Francisco Opera »