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
August 17, 2009
Opening the San Francisco Symphony season with Mahler is a safe bet, especially with Michael Tilson Thomas’ passionate advocacy sure to be in force. Thus, his opening series — running September 16, 17, 19, and 20 — offers an all-Mahler program; and indeed, all September’s three weeks feature Mahler’s music. What’s especially interesting about that first series is that it consists of two truncated Mahler compositions: the “Five Rückert Lieder” and the First Symphony, “Titan.” As if to trump even those events, the Rückert songs will be sung by no less than mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

The “Titan” has always been among the more frequently programmed of Mahler’s symphonies. The “Titan” is so standard that it will also be featured on the May 10 program of the visiting Los Angeles Philharmonic, under conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Few of Mahler's works recommend themselves so thoroughly to a general audience. Tuneful, comic in the grotesquerie of the third movement (a funeral march based on a minor-key transposition of "Fré re Jacques"), and romantically heroic in its sprawling final movement, it testifies to Mahler's later, often-quoted remark that a symphony "should be like the world: It must embrace everything."

But the youthful Mahler also knew what to discard. When Mahler first performed it in Budapest, it was in five movements, with subtitles like "From Inferno to Paradise" (for the last movement.) Eventually, Mahler realized just how corny those subtitles were and dropped them. He also excised a movement, which is sometimes performed under its original German title, Blumine. It's a lovely thing, but without it the symphony clocks in at a manageable (for Mahler) 70 minutes.

The cycle of five poems that Mahler set to lyrics by Friedrich Rückert first saw print in 1905. Four dated from 1901, and one more from 1902. They were published under the title Seven Last Songs. (That last is the score I own.)

But in those editions the Rückert songs were preluded by two settings from the folk poetry of Das Knaben Wunderhorn: “Revelge” (Reveille) and “Der Tamboursg’sell” (The drummer boy). Each centers on military deaths, the first with a large, noisy orchestration, the second slow and thinly orchestrated. Each constitutes a morbid funeral march of sorts. Since the Wunderhorn songs are much earlier, these were eventually reunited with the other songs from that collection.

Try, for example, “The roll-call, lo! The dead comrades muster, grim skeletons all, all ...” in “Revelge.” That would be no way to introduce the Rückert songs, which are about love, blossoms, and light. They equally suit any category of voice, the richer the better. And with mezzo Graham, we’ll surely hear that from the stage.


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Upcoming Concert
August 17, 2009
Sure, Nicola Luisotti — aka Mr. Excitement — is making his debut on Friday, Sept. 11, as music director of the San Francisco Opera, leading Verdi's Il trovatore, yet the start of the opera season involves so much more. I’ve been around the block, but I don’t know of any other city where this annual event is such a powerful focal point of manifold activity. 

From the very apex of Society, thronging to the Opera Ball to the ranks of us, the proletariat, taking in the free Opera in the Park on Sept. 13, a cross section of San Francisco will be involved with opera’s big weekend. The decades-old free opera concert in Golden Gate Park draws an audience of about 20,000.

The San Francisco Chronicle-sponsored Opera in the Park will feature Sondra Radvanovsky, Ewa Podleś, Marco Berti, Brandon Jovanovich, Quinn Kelsey, and Adler Fellows, with the concert conducted by Luisotti.

The dressy parade of the Opera Ball comes in three layers:

  • A cocktail reception at 5 p.m.
  • The opera itself, curtain going up at 7 p.m., and then, following the demise of everybody but bad-guy Count di Luna (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a rather decent fellow in real life)
  • The real ball (dinner, drinks, dancing, and “further celebration”) takes place in City Hall from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. or thereabouts
Between the Opera’s 87th season-opening night Trovatore on Friday and the Sunday Opera in the Park, there is the Saturday, Sept. 12, donors-only dress rehearsal of Puccini's Il trittico.

There are also two important preseason, end-of-summer events coming up: the Merola Program’s Grand Finale in the Opera House at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 22; and the Stern Grove Festival’s final program, at 2 p.m., Aug. 23, featuring Marco Berti (the troubadour of Trovatore) and Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto, Daveda Karanas, Heidi Melton, and Tamara Wapinsky.

As if that weren’t enough, another major event in connection with the opening of the season is the Sept. 19 Webcor Builders free live simulcast of Trovatore in the AT&T Ballpark. This will be General Director David Gockley’s fourth such offering: The initial 2007 Samson and Delilah drew some 15,000 fans, the 2008 Lucia di Lammermoor 23,000, and the June 2009 Tosca netted 27,000.

Unless the city is finally getting some significant moisture from the sky on the appointed date, the Opera’s first Verdi in the Giants’ outdoor home — complete with garlic fries — may well swell to 30,000. That would mean the equivalent of 10 sold-out performances in the War Memorial Opera House.

There is also a plethora of Opera Guild events, preview lectures, and BRAVO! Club and other operatic activities.

As to the main event in all this, it’s well and good that Luisotti’s calling card will be Il trovatore, the most Italian composer’s most Italian opera — a nonstop series of rhythmic, melodic, pulsating arias, duets, and ensemble numbers. (If you think there are too many mentions herein of La Bella Italia, consider that it was an all-Italian board that gave birth to the San Francisco Opera in 1923.)

If you want to Twitter about Trovatore, you could go along with the Opera’s own “suspenseful story of a corrupt count, a dashing warrior and a Gypsy who plots to avenge her mother’s wrongful death” — well below the 140-character limit, and doing a fair job.

The production in the War Memorial features Marco Berti in the title role, with Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, Stephanie Blythe as Azucena, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna, and Burak Bilgili as Ferrando.

David McVicar is director, while Charles Edwards designed the sets for the production, coming from the Chicago Lyric and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The setting is updated from Spain in 1409 to the early 19th century, and it draws inspiration from Goya’s series of etchings called The Disasters of War.

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Upcoming Concert
August 17, 2009
To the uninitiated, the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s 2009-2010 opening concert set, titled “Pictures at an Exhibition: New Traditions,” might appear to emphasize the traditional over the new. At first glance, the lineup seems startlingly traditional, offering two works by J.S. Bach (the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Violin, and the Concerto for Violin in D Minor), plus Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Performances will be given from Sept. 10 to 13 in venues ranging from Berkeley and Palo Alto to San Francisco and San Rafael.

But rest assured, the NCCO hasn’t suddenly gone conservative. The program may consist of standards, though, as Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg notes, they’re all “standards with a twist.” What makes them so different? In large part, it’s the arrangements and transcriptions, which recast the original configurations for these pieces. Salerno-Sonnenberg explains that the search for new transcriptions of older works “stems originally from my desire to expand the string orchestra repertoire. Although, for example, there are over 120 arrangements of Pictures [at an Exhibition], there isn’t one for this particular instrumentation.” A more personal impulse also guided her programming, she says, as “There are certain works that I simply want to play with this amazing ensemble, and are kind of true to my character.”

Pairing Bach with Mussorgsky embodies the orchestra’s devotion to fresh interpretations of established repertory, but it also speaks to a distinctive effort by Salerno-Sonnenberg to deepen her own connection to this ensemble, as she begins her second year as music director.

"This entire concert could be called "Music you have no business playing," jokes Salerno Sonnenberg. "Nothing on the program is written for our grouping. You have this Bach Chaconne, which is a huge piece, but written for one violin [originally], so no we're going to hear it grand. And then Bach's D Minor Concerto is just fiendishly hard — well, it's a piano concerto. They forgot to transcribe it. So you don't hear violins playing that piece a lot. And then, here you go, let's see what New Century is going to do with Pictures."

She breathes enthusiasm about Clarice Assad's new arrangement of Pictures.. "All you need is a good arranger and a little imagination and anything is possible," she says. Determined to expand the string orchestra repertory in unusual directions, she never worries about Ravel's shadow. "This orchestra can play it. Whatever the issue is — whether it's style or technical — we can do it. And that gives you great confidence."

"I've been studying this score and, trust me, it's fantastic. I was speaking to the arranger, and of course her challenge was 'how can I outdo Ravel.' And of course, you can't. I told her, 'Don't think about that. Focus on the picture — the actual painting.' So she started to research and came up with instruments that were played during that time. Like "The Old Castle," one of the movements, is subtitled "the troubadour sings at the gate of an old castle." And there were percussion instruments that were used during that time that are not used in the Ravel. But we're using them." Along with the percussionist, there's a pianist in the arrangement, and the strings.

While you’re waiting for September to roll around, get your New Century fix with a brand-new recording, Together, just released on Aug. 11, and which SFCV termed “a marvelous CD that should help propel the NCCO into the national spotlight.” (See review.) The ensemble’s first recording project under Salerno-Sonnenberg’s leadership, this CD juxtaposes Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, with Assad’s Impressions: Suite for Chamber Orchestra — Brazilian composers far removed from the worlds of Bach and Mussorgsky, yet true to the ensemble’s eclectic spirit.

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Artist Spotlight
August 10, 2009

In the decade since he became the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his String Quartet No. 2 (“musica instrumentalis”) in 1998, Aaron Jay Kernis has become one of the leading composers of his generation. Not yet 50, he’s won most of classical music’s top honors and garnered commissions from America’s leading orchestras. The New York–based composer has served for a decade as new-music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and directs its Composer Institute.

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Upcoming Concert
August 5, 2009
Music in the Vineyards, a three-week chamber music festival staged in and around Napa's famous wineries, is not in danger of competing with its higher-profile, heavily promoted, festival neighbors. And that's the way they like it.

"We've learned a lot of lessons from seeing how other festivals operate," says Michael Adams, who founded and co-directs Music in the Vineyards with his wife, Daria. "Bigger is not better. 'Brown and serve' musicmaking tends to be the norm at most festivals, where there isn't enough time for rehearsals. So we avoid that assiduously. We are a relaxed environment where musicians come to get recharged, and we remind ourselves of why we're musicians."

If that sounds like a snooty concept to you, think again, says public relations manager Natasha Biasell. "It's not pretentious at all. Michael does a wonderful job of giving insightful commentary on every piece beforehand. These are informal concerts — some people come in jeans and a Hawaiian T-shirt." And setting the festival in several famous wineries, initially a decision forced upon the Adamses by necessity, has become a selling point, as people select concerts based on where they occur. Because this is not a crowded festival, there are tickets to many concerts still available.

There are usually a couple of groups that come in midweek to play one of their set programs. This year, the Pacifica Quartet visits on Aug. 12, an event that is sold-out. But the festival is built around a group of musicians from a variety of specialties (chamber, orchestral, soloist), and who rehearse intensively and perform almost all of the weekend concerts. "The three different worlds of the music profession collide, and it's amazing how much we get from that interchange," says Adams.

The programs at Music in the Vineyards, although well-planned, often have a serendipitous feel to them. Take the commissioned works that the Adamses are reprising this year. Wanting to do some vocal chamber music a few years back, they found that their venue was too small to house a piano and other musicians. But most vocal music includes a piano, so they commissioned a work (David Evan Thomas' To Live in This World) for soprano and string quartet. They liked the results so much that, two years later, they had David Brewbaker write a similar work (The Journey, 2004). Both composers, by sheer chance, happened to select poetry by Mary Oliver as the basis for their works. Brewbaker's work shares the Aug. 16 bill with Brahms' beloved Clarinet Quintet.

A few days later, on Aug. 19, the Adamses have put together a fascinating Haydn program, commemorating the 200th anniversary of his death. At the center are several homages from French composers, commissioned by the Société Internationale de Musique in 1909 for the centenary of Haydn's death. "And then there's this really interesting piece that I stumbled across called The Master and the Pupil, which is set up to do this mimickry thing, you know, from teacher to student. The teacher always leads the way and then the pupil gets a turn at the same material, but slightly varied," explains Michael.

The final night, at Rubicon Estate, on Aug. 23, brings forward the other birthday boy, Mendelssohn. His marvelous, youthful Octet holds the place of honor, along with Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18/3 and the earliest of Mozart's string quintets, K. 174 in B-flat. And you can sign up for the closing night, outdoor, buffet dinner with the musicians after the concert. Sounds like the perfect way to spend a late August evening, to me.

More about Music in the Vineyards »
Upcoming Concert
August 4, 2009
Though many members of college orchestras spend the summer months at their parents' homes or bicycling through Europe, enough young musicians live in the Bay Area to cobble together a respectable orchestra. This is the premise behind the UC Berkeley Summer Symphony, a collection of fine musicians from the region's many youth orchestras. It doesn't have many competitors right now, and its performances this weekend are free. So, if you're looking for a little Shostakovich to balance out your days at the beach, this is the place to go. The program includes Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. More »
Upcoming Concert
August 3, 2009
Summertime typically signals a period of downtime for classical music, as many ensembles enjoy a well-earned hiatus or shift their programming toward lighter fare. Not so for the San Francisco Lyric Chorus, a talented choir under the direction of Robert Gurney. SFLC combats the usual summer doldrums with a stalwart lineup of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn in performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 22-23, at San Francisco’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Known for taking bold repertory risks, Gurney has prepared a concert that seems well within the safe zone, judging by the composer list. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll uncover some tantalizing pieces that will stimulate both the ear and the mind, blending aural delights with a good measure of historical intrigue.

SFLC’s Mozart selection is not another Requiem or Mass in C Minor but rather the Vesperae Sollenne de Confessore, K. 339, one of the composer’s last Salzburg works. While we know when and where this piece was composed, thanks to an inscription on the score reading “Salzburg 1780,” nobody has discovered exactly what liturgical celebration it was intended for, though several have tried. (One recent theory posits the Feast of St. Rupert, the primary saint of Salzburg.) This is a fine opportunity to hear a work too little performed, within or outside the liturgy. Pay special attention to the marvelously serene Laudate Dominum, guaranteed to inspire even the impious to ponder Mozart’s heavenly talent.

Schubert wrote the Mass in G at the tender age of 18, yet the piece languished in an unpublished state until several decades after the composer’s death. Its emergence into public light was a sordid affair, as another composer first tried to pass off the piece off as his own, ultimately winding up in prison for embezzlement. Don’t expect a whole lot of dazzling virtuosity here, but luxuriate instead in the exquisite moods of contemplation that Schubert seems to conjure so effortlessly.

Further mystery surrounds Felix Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio Christus, a sobriquet applied by his brother, Paul, to a posthumously published selection of fragmentary works. The surviving pieces, including two selections on SFLC’s program (“Say, Where Is He Born” and “There Shall a Star From Jacob”), add fodder to the long-standing debate surrounding Mendelssohn’s religious affiliations and his efforts to reconcile his Jewish heritage with a prevailing Christian culture. One scholar recently suggested that with Christus Mendelssohn sought to advocate a premise of universal guilt for the death of Christ, issuing a pointed challenge to contemporary anti-Semitist currents. This is heady stuff for a summertime concert, but well worth pondering while you enjoy the exultant melodies and exquisite lyricism of these finely wrought miniatures.

More familiar to many audiences, though equally compelling in terms of theological significance, will be selections from Mendelssohn’s monumental oratorio Elijah, itself often seen as evoking parallels between this Old Testament prophet and the New Testament figure of Jesus. As a final treat, the rarely heard Kyrie in D Minor should prove a striking contrast, showcasing Mendelssohn in gloomier spirits with its thick choral textures and solemn atmosphere.

More about San Francisco Lyric Chorus »
Upcoming Concert
August 3, 2009
Among the gems in the crown of the San Francisco music scene are the Friday evening and Sunday 4 o’clocks at Old First Church. Those offer chamber music and recitals of quality programming by some of the Bay Area’s finer musicians — and at an exceptionally affordable price, too.

While the majority of the programs feature classical repertory, in recent years jazz programs have been added to the mix. With the August music dog days under way, there are some yummy prospects on offer by Old First Concerts, situated in the church on Sacramento Street at Van Ness Avenue. Considering the ready availability of public transportation, there’s no need to resist, especially if, like me, you’re a nondriver.

Most programs mix standards with an example or two of something adventurous. The cello and piano duo of Robert Howard and pianist Elizabeth Dorman is typical. Their Aug. 21 recital offers Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata and the Rachmaninov Sonata as the standards, but they open with Alberto Ginastera’s early Pampeana No. 2, his pastoral homage to the Argentinian pampas. They close with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella, after Pergolesi.

An even more original idea is Daniel Glover’s Aug. 9 program devoted entirely to piano homages by one composer to another. The list promises musical genuflections toward Haydn, Dukas, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel. (The latter two, for instance, each wrote a homage to Haydn on commission from a magazine.)

To boot, on Aug. 28 there’ll be another program of Old First’s “Basically British” series, its 12th. This piano–string quartet concert will be played by members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. They’ve programmed the Fantasy Quartet by Frank Bridge, who is best known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher. Chamber music by the prolific French composer George Onslow (1784-1853) completes the evening.

The only jazz program this month is “Jazzberry Patch,” on Aug. 16, a Sunday program at 7 p.m. rather than the usual 4 p.m., which offers a program of jazz classics and some new original pieces. These are to be played by Don Pender’s newly formed quartet. (Atypically for a classical music concert, Old First averages one jazz event per month.)

August, alas, offers no choral program, nor indeed a single vocal recital. Except for July’s International Children’s and Youth Choral Festival, there’s nothing of the sort in sight through to late next month. (The current list runs only through Sept. 26.)

As these concerts are open seating, the largest groups tend to sit down front on the main floor — not a good choice, in my experience. You pick up too much of the sounds of the instruments being played: string scrapings, pages being turned, the occasional bit of squeaking from a chair or music stand. Such things are a bother if you’re really listening.

An even larger drawback from up front is that you’ll miss the blended resonance of the hall. Best to sit back a bit or, better yet, in the balcony. That’s particularly true of Old First, whose balcony has the best sonics to be had in the hall. In any case, be assured you’ll be hearing quality music in sterling performances.

More about Old First Concerts »
Artist Spotlight
July 31, 2009

Raised in Sacramento, and an alumnus of both the Merola program at San Francisco Opera and the Resident Artist training program at Opera San José, bass Kirk Eichelberger now sings lead roles with opera companies throughout the U.S. He is currently in rehearsal to play Mephistopheles in Festival Opera’s production of Faust. I sat down with him to ask him about his career, his training, and how he likes playing the devil.

What did you learn as a resident artist at Opera San José and a graduate of Merola?

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Artist Spotlight
July 29, 2009

Legendary pianist Menahem Pressler makes his [email protected] debut on Sunday, Aug. 2, in a concert in Atherton titled "An Evening With Menahem Pressler."

His philosophy of music and his life can be summed up in his first statement in the interview: “It’s a privilege to be a musician, and one who feels so strongly and creatively about the music, even if I’m not as young as I once was. It’s a present.”


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