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.

Artist Spotlight
September 28, 2009

In his fourth decade as a violinist and as both founder and artistic director of the award-winning Kronos Quartet, David Harrington still exudes the infectious excitement of a gifted student infatuated with experimental and global music from beyond the conservatory’s walls. At Howard’s Café, up the street from Kronos headquarters near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Harrington sits down with me to share memories, opinions, and coffee, as well as the ensemble’s program for its Oct.

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Upcoming Concert
September 28, 2009

Internationally renowned pianist Murray Perahia returns to San Francisco to open the 2009–2010 season of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series on October 11. It’s Perahia’s second performance in the Bay Area this year. His recital last March as part of Cal Performances was a success, and this recital promises to be another showcase of his signature style of elegance and lyricism.

Perahia is known for his intellectual approach, and his interpretations of Mozart and Chopin, and Schumann. This mostly Chopin program fits right into his standard mold; he’s not known for moving much out of the Romantic repertoire in his latest performances. Some might see this as a weakness in his programs; others as a grounds for rejoicing in the chance to hear beloved pieces played by a master.

A relatively new passion, though, is Bach, and the Bach Partita No. 6 in E minor may be the evening’s most intriguing performance. Perahia has just released his newest recording of Bach’s Partitas No. 1, 5, and 6. His masterful approach blends technical expertise with a more unusual, lyrical approach.

The recital is also a cause for rejoicing for those who’ve followed Perahia’s career. Since 1972, when he was the first North American to win the Leeds Piano Competition, he’s been in demand around the world. But in 1991, an infection in a cut on his hand sidelined him from performing for two years. Flareups in 2004 and again in 2007 had caused further layoffs and tour cancellations, and concerns that after 40 years of performing, the end was near.

Perahia’s healthy return to the concert hall in the last few years is a welcome event, whatever he plays.

More about San Francisco Symphony »
Upcoming Concert
September 28, 2009
The title of the piece opening Stanford Lively Arts’ 2009-2010 season, aside from its references to Shakespeare’s play of four centuries ago and Verdi’s adaptation (as Otello) to the operatic stage in 1887, denotes a psychopathological rage based on suspected spousal infidelity. There’s a threat, with The Othello Syndrome, that lovers of classical literature and music might be driven into a similar rage, hopefully not as morbid, by the liberties taken by the certifiably eclectic, experimental postmodern composer and pianist Uri Caine with his revered classical sources.

Relax your suspicions: Nobody gets hurt in this Grammy-nominated effort, which Caine is quick to describe as “not really an opera at all — it’s more about taking different parts of Verdi’s Otello and transforming them, changing the style.” Actually, it could be argued that the original language and intention of the Bard of Avon get a better showcase from this New York–based musician than from his Italian predecessor. For the classically trained, jazzwise Caine, it’s a first-time opportunity to go theatrical with his homages to the classical canon, which in the past have showcased Mahler, Bach, and Beethoven.

This West Coast premiere of Caine’s Othello Syndrome features rhythm-and-blues vocalist Bunny Sigler in the title role, and Swedish jazz favorite Josefine Lindstrand as the doomed Desdemona, singing in English and accompanied by a sort of cabaret ensemble including Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Zach Danziger on drums, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Chris Speed on clarinet and guitar, and Josefina Vergara on violin, with the composer on piano. You might expect this lineup to result in some evocation of Kurt Weill, though there’s considerable variety in mode among the work’s set pieces.

Aside from some fairly faithful quotes from Verdi, there are moments of Jewish klezmer, electronica, mainstream and free-form jazz, and pop soul music, all of which manages to hang together and convey the tragic tone of the story. The Othello Syndrome was commissioned for the Venice Biennale for Music, which Caine directed and where his work was premiered in 2003. The Grammy nomination was garnered by its recording on the Winter & Winter label in 2008. Over several decades, Caine has been commissioned by or performed with other classical ensembles, including the Beaux Arts Trio and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he debuted his Concerto for Two Pianos with Jeffrey Kahane in 2006. Wearing his jazz hat, he’s been booked at top-flight festivals in Monterey, Montreal, Newport, and Rotterdam.

At Stanford, you'll be convinced that Caine's Othello is way beyond the "mere prattle, without practice", of which Shakespeare's envious Iago accuses his master. This is the work of an innovative and masterful musician.

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Upcoming Concert
September 28, 2009
When is an opera not an opera? When it’s the opening work in a grand entertainment for visiting royalty ... and when it’s performed with puppets rather than putting the singers on stage.

And that’s just what you can see next month when Magnificat Baroque, in collaboration with the Carter Family Marionettes, presents Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina) on Oct. 16, 17, and 18 in three venues.

In La liberazione, the wicked sorceress Alcina seduces the warrior Ruggiero, who dwells happily on Alcina’s island until finally the good sorceress Melissa shames him into returning to battle — and, incidentally, to his fiancée, the warrior maiden Bradamante. The plot comes from an episode in the epic Renaissance poem Orlando Furioso, by Ariosto, which is in turn based on the medieval French poem The Song of Roland.

That’s where the puppets come in.

The Carter Family Marionettes, who are providing the staging for La liberazione, perform in the Sicilian opera dei pupi tradition, a style that flourished in the 19th century, but that stretches back for centuries. Their puppets are large, and the puppeteers control them with iron rods. The entire repertory of opera dei pupi plays comes from The Song of Roland, so the puppets are a natural pairing with La liberazione.

“I’m especially excited to be working with the Carter Family again,” Magnificat Director Warren Stewart told SFCV. “We did some shows together in the 1990s, and they were tremendous fun. Hardly a concert has gone by since then when an audience member hasn’t come up to me to ask when we’ll do another puppet show. The Carters are great at connecting with the audience and already had a very funny and engaging production of La liberazione in their repertory.”

La liberazione is a particularly interesting project for us because of the circumstances of its creation,” Stewart continued. “We’ve done a great deal of music by women composers of the Baroque, and La liberazione, by Francesca Caccini, is the first opera composed by a woman. She was also the first woman to have a professional career as a court musician.

La liberazione was commissioned by Caccini’s employer, the Archduchess Maria Magdalena of Austria, who was a Hapsburg married to the Medici Duke. After he died, she ruled Tuscany for seven years as regent for her teenaged son. La liberazione was an occasional piece, written for performance during a state visit by Maria’s nephew Wladyslaw, the crown prince of Poland. It would have been the opening work of a long entertainment that included a horse ballet.

“Suzanne Cusick’s research suggests that the particular episode in Orlando Furioso was very likely chosen because of the two powerful women sorceresses, as part of a process of buttressing and normalizing female leadership within Tuscany.

“The music itself is absolutely gorgeous,” Stewart said. “For example, there’s a wonderful lament for Alcina, which she sings after Ruggiero leaves her. We have a wonderful countertenor, José Limos, singing Melissa, the good witch. The part is for either an alto or a high tenor, and we’ll have a male singer as a female character who transforms herself into a male character to liberate Ruggiero from the bad witch! Above all, this opera is fun

Puppets, gender-bending characters, and the first opera written by a woman — what more could you want?

More about Magnificat »
Upcoming Concert
September 22, 2009
The Marin Symphony's 2009-2010 opening concert starts with the quintessentially American music of George Gershwin. Add to the mix the personal anecdotes of the notable author Tobias Wolff, plus an exciting young pianist, and suddenly a 20th-century American ethos comes to life.

The Symphony, with Music Director Alasdair Neale on the podium, continues this brilliant thematic programming for the third season in a row, drawing parallels between classical music and other artistic disciplines. This season it's the written word — each concert includes a preconcert talk by a notable local writer discussing the influence of the evening's repertoire on his or her own art. As Marin Symphony Board President John R. Pitcairn says, "We're trying to show our audiences that artists of all types live and breathe classical music. So many people have the misperception that classical music is irrelevant today. On the contrary, it forms the bedrock of creative life in all disciplines."

The concert, titled "Playing the Grooves Off Gershwin," highlights one of America's most famous composers, born Jacob Gershowitz to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1898. Early in his career George Gershwin earned a living by making dozens of player-piano-roll recordings of his own tunes and popular songs of the day. He and his brother, lyricist Ira, collaborated on some 15 Broadway musicals. George wrote one opera, Porgy and Bess, as well as his orchestral music, before his life was cut short by a brain tumor; he died at age 38. One of his last concerts was with the San Francisco Symphony under Pierre Monteux in the year of his death, 1937.

Apparently Gershwin's composition An American in Paris is a favorite of the guest speaker and writer Tobias Wolff. Wolff is most famous for his short stories and memoirs. His books This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army draw from his own horrible childhood

 experiences with a cruel stepfather, detailing how he orchestrated his own "escape" to a Pennsylvania prep school, and describing his stint with the Green Berets in Viet Nam.

He'll speak with Maestro Neale about his love for Gershwin's music and its impact on his own work at 6:30 p.m. Additional scribes to be presented throughout the season as adjuncts to the performance are Barbara Quick, Roger Housden, Jane Anderson, and Susan Kinsolving (with composer David Carlson).

The opening concert also brings a musical poet to the stage, the dashing young pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, performing Rhapsody in Blue. A native of Japan, Nakagoshi has been in the U.S. since he was 18, when he began studying both composition and piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). In 2007, he was selected for a highly coveted professional training workshop with Emanuel Ax, which culminated in performances in Carnegie Hall. Nakagoshi recently toured many American cities as principal pianist for conductor George Daughtery's award-winning show "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," and he is a staff accompanist at SFCM. A pianist with unbelievable chops as well as mature and thoughtful interpretation, Nakagoshi is sure to have an interesting career.

Literati, this Marin Symphony season's for you! And with additional guest soloists, like violinists Elizabeth Pitcairn and Vadim Guzman, conductor Edward Abrahams, and soprano Christine Brewer, there's enough to keep the rest of us happy, too.

More about Marin Symphony »
Artist Spotlight
September 21, 2009

When Christopher Honett left the East Coast this summer to start his new job at the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the journey felt like a homecoming. That’s not just because Honett was born and raised in the Bay Area. Joining the venerable new music ensemble, he says, gives him the opportunity to do the kind of work he’s always wanted to do.

Honett, 32, was named the organization’s executive director in July. He succeeds Adam Frey, who served as SFCMP’s top administrator for 18 years.

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Artist Spotlight
September 21, 2009

Christine Brewer is coming to town. Her upcoming recital for Cal Performances on Sept. 27 will feature the music of Berg, Strauss, and Britten, along with some old chestnuts favored by big-voiced sopranos of the last century. She was happy to be back home in St. Louis for a couple of weeks, as I caught up with her to chat about her life as world-class dramatic soprano, mother and ... Hootenanny hostess.

You started out singing in the chorus with Opera Theatre St. Louis. At what point did you feel that you had what it takes to be a soloist?

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Upcoming Concert
September 21, 2009
In its 11th season, the Ives Quartet once again is taking a fresh look at chamber music, with the result being a typically (for it) eclectic mix of pieces that relate to each other in surprising ways. “Putting the Pieces Together” is the first of its three-concert main-stage series. It combines Mozart’s Quartet in D Major with Quincy Porter’s Quartet No. 9 and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, for a program that seems unexpectedly cohesive and intriguing.

Often choosing lesser-known pieces and focusing on American composers is an Ives Quartet tradition, according to cellist Stephen Harrison. In part, he admits, “It’s selfish. We’re doing things we enjoy.” Each piece in this program was selected for a specific reason. The Mozart quartet is a piece the players knew, but had never played together before. During rehearsals, Harrison says they’ve become more and more enamored of it. Porter’s ninth quartet, his last composition for string quartet, is one they’re planning to record. “We need to play it. It’s also interesting because, unlike his first seven quartets, it doesn’t have a rhythm of fast, slow, fast. It still emphasizes Porter’s unique rhythmic style, though.” As for the Mendelssohn quartet, it was chosen in part because it isn’t played much, and also because it has a fleetness and a kinship to the Mozart piece that appeals to the group.

The Silicon Valley–based quartet is named after composer Charles Ives, who at the beginning of the 20th century moved away from musical traditions to compose pieces that are essentially American. Ives is noted for his mix of styles, broad-ranging approach, and strong individuality. The members of the quartet (in addition to Harrison, they are violinist Bettina Mussumeli, violinist Susan Freier, and violist Jodi Levitz) consider their mission to continue this innovation and type of musical adventure. As Harrison puts it, “We’re not doing what’s expected but instead marching (as much as a string quartet can!) to our own drummer.”

The members of the quartet enjoy looking for the underplayed and unusual pieces, and bringing them to the attention of a wider audience. They’ve made a name for themselves for their unique sound and their interpretation of American composers, especially those pieces by Quincy Porter, whom Harrison calls “easily the most prolific American quartet composer,” and his golden period between the 1930s and 1950s.

An early arrival at either of the Quartet’s two concerts of this program (in San José and Palo Alto) will bring you the added bonus of a behind-the-scenes explanation from the artists themselves as to just why they chose each piece and how the pieces work together as a whole. If past performances are any indication, each concert will be a fun, thought-provoking evening.

More about Ives Collective »
Upcoming Concert
September 21, 2009
Beyond the splendor of the big city’s symphony, the extraordinarily progressive California Symphony is often relegated to “over there” status. But ensconced in Walnut Creek’s Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, where it performs four concerts per year, Barry Jekowsky’s gem of an orchestra continues to break new ground.

Take the Symphony’s forthcoming concert, “Music in Motion.” The programming may have its share of crowd pleasers in the form of Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, but it also boasts something entirely unique. For the first time in his career as a world-renowned visual motion artist, Connecticut-based Michael Moschen will choreograph his performance art to live symphonic music.

Hearing that Moschen plans to weave his crystal balls through Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and an excerpt from Mason Bates’ Mercury Interludes may, to some, sound like a gimmick. But Jekowsky insists that Moschen, who has received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and performed at Spoleto USA, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival, the 75th Annual New Yorker Magazine Festival, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, is a true performance artist.

“Moschen has never done anything like this before,” the conductor explained in a rambling phone conversation that suggested he reserves discipline for the baton. “It’s a huge undertaking for him. But he is such an artist; he’s poetry in motion. Read his reviews!”

After Jekowsky approached Moschen, he sent him works by John Adams and Steve Reich to listen to; they weren’t a good fit for Moschen’s artistry. The two went back and forth for weeks, trying to figure out what worked best. The Ravel and Bates, which are cohesive works with short little vignettes, went to the top of the pile.

“What I’m focusing on is not business as usual,” Jekowsky declares. “As well as engaging new audiences, I’m reengaging concertgoers who may have gotten tired or bored of the symphony, or lost their way. I’m trying to hit a chord in people that will open doors and bring them to the symphony. In a multitasking era, when people carry on telephone conversations while looking at their computer screens, as we both are right now, if I can introduce a bit of that and turn the symphony orchestra into a different kind of experience, I can reach a whole younger generation of music lovers.”

The proof of Jekowsky’s gamble has been overflow audiences, with people turned away from the 800-seat Dean Lesher Center. Amidst the economic downturn, the California Symphony had its strongest ticket sales last season. Much of this is due to the West Coast premiere of Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony: An Orchestral Tribute to the Music of the Grateful Dead (breathtakingly paired with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite), another concert where Russian handstand acrobats Louri Safranov and Nikolai Melnikov of Cirque du Soleil performed to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and a third that included Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition accompanied by the 3-D world premiere of the video suite “Astronomical Pictures at an Exhibition.”

It’s not, however, as if Jekowsky has turned his back on great symphonic music. In a season of extraordinary innovation, it’s easy to overlook that the four concerts also included Brahms’ Symphony No. 4; Jon Nakamatsu performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30; piano prodigy Conrad Tao performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major; Stefan Jackiw playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64; and the premiere of Mason Bates’ second commission as California Symphony’s 2007-2010 Young American Composer in Residence.

Bates, whose music Jekowsky premiered before it was championed by Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Music Festival and Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony, is slated to introduce his third world premiere with the California Symphony next May.

Most important, Bates is only one of many outstanding composers who have participated in the California Symphony’s annual Young American Composers in Residence program. Over the last decade and a half, all but one of Jekowsky’s picks has won the Rome Prize. (“The one who didn’t, won the Millennium Prize of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is even more important,” Jekowsky quips.) Two of the composers, Pierre Jalbert and Christopher Theofanidis, have won the UK Masterprize. In short, Jekowsky’s track record for nurturing America’s finest young composers and soloists is tremendous.

All of which is to say, there’s brilliance to be found at the California Symphony. For a concert whose bottom line is motion, those in the know will be heading to Walnut Creek in October.

More about California Symphony »
Upcoming Concert
September 16, 2009
The Bay Area's longstanding professional men's choir is still the gold standard for many devotees of choral singing. This week, at Mission Santa Clara, they kick off their season with a mixed program, "In Time Of ... Songs of Love and Loss, War and Peace." Given how much music has been written on those themes, we assume that they will be very selective. More about Chanticleer »