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 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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Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
After the epic lavishness of Turandot, Festival Opera isn’t looking to bowl you over with its upcoming production of Gounod’s Faust. But while the physical design of Faust takes the opposite tack from Puccini’s blockbuster, the end result promises to be just as impressive.

Festival Opera’s production, conducted and directed by Artistic Director Michael Morgan, places the opera in a world of existential illusion, a modern take on the classic myth. “Our modern setting will begin with Faust as an old man living in a retirement facility,” says Morgan. “As a backdrop, we will use projections to show the effects of time on Faust’s surroundings, beginning with the wallpaper of his room, which will gradually transform into the vivid flowers of Marguerite’s garden and then decay. This happens over the course of the entire performance. As the garden decays, a spider web becomes superimposed on the flowers, symbolizing the trap set for Faust by Méphistophélès. This will be Festival Opera’s first use of large-scale projections, as well as employing this kind of visual symbolism, to tell a story through both sound and light. It will be like the way you experience a sunrise. You don’t notice each different gradation of light, but at some point you realize the sky is bright and the sun is up.”

The trick, in a minimal production such as this one, at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, is good casting — and that’s an area in which Morgan excels. To sing the role of Faust, he got Brian Thorsett, a former Merola participant and a Baroque and Mozart specialist. “When Michael first offered me this role, I was hesitant,” says Thorsett, “but after a few emails back and forth, he really convinced me it would be a good fit and that the orchestra will be tailored to fit with all of the cast’s talents. Not many do that.”

The joke about Gounod’s Faust is that it should have been called Marguerite. The heroine’s role is enormously complicated, and Morgan has tapped Kristen Clayton, a former Adler Fellow, and now an experienced singing actress who loves this role. “It’s very special when you find opera roles that feel suited specifically to your voice,” she says. “Marguerite goes through such a range of emotions, from loneliness and vulnerability to succumbing to passion and desire — and, finally, confusion and unending torment. And I love singing in French and adore the beautiful, romantic melodies throughout the opera.”

Finally, there is Méphistophélès, the devil with the urbanity of a Parisian boulevardier. Kirk Eichelberger has sung the role for Opera San José, and recently, for Opera Grand Rapids, in Michigan. Eichelberger is a regular at Festival Opera — this is his ninth appearance with the company.

“Michael Morgan is one of my favorite conductors,” he says. “He is extremely musical. He knows when to take the lead and when to follow what I’m doing. Singing for Michael is just effortless. He is so in tune with me and perhaps I, in turn, am in tune with him to the point where it is just effortless music-making. It is a rare thing to find in opera, and it makes me want to sing for him all the time.”

The secondary roles are equally well-cast, so if you’re thinking that this is the second-banana opera, think again.

More about Festival Opera »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
The Web site for an upcoming sfSound concert on Aug. 9 includes a video of Karlheinz Stockhausen, a famous German composer, speaking about human evolution. The idea of evolution suits this concert on two levels. First, by including one piece from the early 1950s, two from the mid-1970s, and three from this current year, it chronicles the passing of historical time. Second, all three of the new works innovatively evolve their initially simple musical ideas.

The oldest piece on the program is by Stockhausen himself: Kreuzspiel, a work for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion. It is a landmark composition for late-20th-century music, owing to certain principles of serial composition found within it. Its name, which means “Crossplay,” concerns the fact that different musical lines move in crisscrossing directions across various registers of pitches.

The two pieces from the mid-1970s are Schattenblätter, a trio by the Swiss composer Klaus Huber, and another trio by the American composer Anthony Braxton. The word Schattenblätter, or “shade leaves,” is a botanical term for leaves that grow in the shade rather than in the sun. Huber’s piece similarly lurks in a shadowy musical underbelly of sparse textures and highly differentiated instrumental parts. Huber describes that in his piece, “extreme isolation” becomes “audibly expressive.”

Huber also writes that his ascetic piece might remind people about prisoners of conscience. Braxton’s Composition No. 75, meanwhile, tests boundaries between musical freedom and restriction. Within it, the composer incorporates both strict notation and free improvisation.

The three pieces from this year include Intuition, a work for alto flute and percussion by Christopher Jones. Jones describes that within the work simple musical ideas evolve through “reiteration, transformation, disappearance, and reemergence.” The composition is named after a piece of visual art: an empty, wooden box that the artist, Joseph Beuys, intended for people to fill with their own personal thoughts. Similarly, Jones’ piece is a receptacle for musical ideas that individual performers personalize.

Next, Planetary is a work for oboe, clarinet, and saxophone by Christopher Burns, a Milwaukee composer. The movement of the cosmos inspired its musical processes. Just as moons orbit planets while those same planets orbit the sun, so too do the musical ideas in this piece evolve by rotating around each other at various speeds and on multiple levels.

Alongside Planetary, this concert will also premiere David Bithell’s temporary structures. Here, the simple idea of alternation is at play. Like the rotations in Planetary, this alternation happens on multiple levels: between individual instruments, and between groups of them. Further, Bithell describes that, over time, “Instrumental motives become more subdued and inhabit a narrower range,” so that the structure of the whole piece assumes the shape of a diminuendo.

Even though this concert and these pieces can be described in terms of evolution, this upcoming concert will also speak to the current state of the Bay Area’s contemporary music scene. That state, judging by this sfSound program, promises to be both appealing and advanced.

More about sfSound »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
Every time Robert Geary returns to Giuseppe Verdi’s stirring Requiem Mass, “it’s deeper in my blood, but I have to prepare and rethink it. And that’s wonderful,” says the noted artistic director of the 200-voice San Francisco Choral Society. “Because I’m not a genius, whenever I go back to substantial music by a real genius, there’s always more to learn.”

The Choral Society has performed Verdi’s monumental work twice before under Geary’s direction, in 2000 and 2003, and will do it again Aug. 14 and 15 at Davies Symphony Hall. It will share the stage with the California Chamber Symphony and four soloists: soprano Karen Anderson, mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse (both of whom were featured in 2003), tenor Ben Bongers, and bass Kittinant Chinsamran. The program opens with the premiere of Donald McCullough’s Contraries: The Human Condition, a 20-minute work that the Choral Society commissioned for its 20th anniversary.

Premiered in Milan in 1874, Verdi’s sublime and soul-wrenching Requiem has its roots in a requiem Mass that he and other leading Italian composers collaboratively wrote in 1868 in honor of Rossini. That work was never performed. Five years later, Verdi composed his Requiem Mass, dedicated to the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. Verdi used the final “Libera me” movement he’d written for the Rossini Mass in the dramatic new work imbued with the spirit of Italian nationalism. Departing San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles, who conducted the Requiem Mass in May, describes it as “a supremely theatrical work, in the sense that it’s almost pictorial in its terrifying visions. It’s apocalyptic.”

For Geary, the tired old debate over whether the work is religious or operatic “is absolutely insignificant,” he says. “The Choral Society is a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists. We’re moved by the impact of the music itself, the range of expression, the emotion.” Works such as this and the Mozart Requiem, Geary goes on, “come from the sacred tradition, but they become universal. The composer got it on such a deeper level. It captures something more universal than any specific religious expression.” Geary calls the Verdi Requiem “the perfect synthesis of chorus, orchestra, and soloists. It’s a beautiful concerto for those three entities.”

McCullough, the music director of Master Chorale of Washington (D.C.), composed a six-movement work for chorus and soprano soloist, set to poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. When McCullough first proposed the idea, Geary — who founded the daring San Francisco contemporary ensemble Volti — was a bit disappointed, as he prefers new works that draw on contemporary poets. So much music has been set to Blake that Geary was hoping “for something new,” he says. “That being said, he did do something new: He explored some of the darker material in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Most composers who set Blake to music tend to focus on the happy stuff, like “The Blossom” and “The Laughing Song,” Geary says. McCullough uses those poems, too, but he also delves into the darkness of “A Poisonous Tree,” and “The Sick Rose,” whose lines Geary recites with relish:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Geary describes the music as “rhythmic and dramatic. The harmonic language is contemporary but tonal.” The composer, he adds, “is not trying to do something soothing and entertaining. He’s being provocative. That’s the primary responsibility of real art. He’s challenging us to reflect on part of human nature as expressed by Blake and through the music.”

More about San Francisco Choral Society »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
Traditional notions of “summer fun” evoke a host of images: beach balls, barbecues, baseball. Music lovers should add to this list of B’s the name Banchieri — as in Adriano Banchieri, an Italian Renaissance composer and a pioneer of the madrigal comedy, a collection of madrigals strung together to present a comical story. In what will surely be a spirited affair, San Francisco Renaissance Voices presents “The Bawdy and the Chaste,” a concert featuring Banchieri’s madrigal comedy Festino nella sera del giovedì grasso (Entertainment for the eve of Carnival Thursday) along with Palestrina’s Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas in two 7:30 p.m. performances, Aug. 8 at Seventh Avenue Performances in San Francisco and Aug. 9 at Alameda Presbyterian in Alameda.

Few events can match the Carnival of Venice for sheer decadence. Since medieval times this annual celebration has blended civic festival, public holiday, and colorful masquerade to create a spectacle of unrivaled resplendence. The festivities could easily devolve into raucousness, with rivalries between geographical or religious factions played out through bull fights, street races of oxen and pigs, or even physical combat.

Although SFRV’s performance probably won’t lead to fisticuffs, Banchieri’s Festino should offer a heavy dose of the Carnival spirit. Originally composed as dinner entertainment, this madrigal collection incorporates everything from commedia dell’arte high jinks to an aesthetic debate on the virtues of newer versus older music. (For the record, Banchieri comes out firmly on the side of the avant-garde.) According to SFRV Music Director Todd Jolly, “The piece is just as entertaining today as it was in 1608 when Banchieri described his opus as ‘modern music,’ and will give our audiences a sense of the celebration of the Carnival of Venice.”

In stark contrast to Banchieri’s bacchanalia, Palestrina was the undisputed master of the refined prima prattica (first practice) that defined 16th-century Italian sacred music. Although he is just the kind of composer Banchieri might have faulted as old-fashioned, his pure, graceful, and elegant style has masterfully stood the test of time and remains extremely popular even to this day. Hearing one of Palestrina’s lesser-known masses, juxtaposed against the more boisterous Banchieri, offers an ideal window into the stunning diversity and craftsmanship of the Italian Renaissance.

But don’t go just for the music; go also to experience SFRV’s uniquely flamboyant performance style, a standout within the crowded field of Bay Area early music ensembles. Jolly takes particular delight in enlivening the traditional concertgoing experience using costumes, staging, and other theatrical devices. For the upcoming set, Jolly reports that the ensemble will be masked and in costume for the Banchieri, and also joined by distinctive guest artists including local actor Rick Homan, performing the narrative parts that Banchieri himself would have performed, plus members of the Celtic-tinged early music ensemble Brocelïande playing recorders, harp, and octave mandolin.

On a final note, one audience member will have a special chance to participate more directly in the festivities. For each performance, a raffle will be held and the lucky winner gets to appear onstage for a special cameo. No singing required — just a Carnival spirit.

More about San Francisco Renaissance Voices »
Artist Spotlight
July 28, 2009

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein began her career at age 4 when her grandmother presented her with a homemade instrument assembled from cereal boxes. The young musician gave her first public concert six months later, albeit on a more traditional cello. Since then, Weilerstein — the daughter of violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein — has been widely acclaimed as one of the leading interpreters of her generation, in a variety of repertoire.

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Upcoming Concert
July 27, 2009
This weekend, you can take a picnic, and bring as many friends as you like to enjoy a free performance in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park. This might evoke memories for some of a small artistic collective that began in 1974 and has now grown to become Cal Shakes. But the latest free show to encourage lovers of the performing arts is called Open Opera. Founded in 2008 by Olivia Stapp. Ellen St. Thomas and Elizabeth Baker, Open Opera’s goal is off and running with its mission of bringing free opera out of doors to Bay Area audiences. In its first season, Open Opera has produced two free concerts in Live Oak Park in Berkeley and received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. They also sponsored a master class with famed soprano Evelyn Lear. More concerts are planned for the fall in Berkeley and Orinda.

Stapp, renowned dramatic soprano and former artistic director of Festival Opera will direct the company’s first complete production this coming weekend. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro will be conducted by Jonathan Khuner, assistant conductor at the San Francisco Opera and well known to Berkeley audiences as the artistic director of Berkeley Opera. The production, with a chorus of eleven and a professional chamber orchestra of the same number will feature locally based soloists. The show will be costumed with a “makeshift set” according to Khuner, and will be a polished production, giving the essence of the opera but without the fancy trimmings.” Coming in at just under three hours, the show will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

The cast features Julian Arsenault as Figaro and Aimee Puentes as Susanna. Nicolai Janitsky, who debuted this season with San Francisco Opera as Shchelkalov in Boris Godunov will sing the Count and Open Opera’s cofounder, Elizabeth Baker, also a student of Olivia Stapp, will sing Cherubino.

As St. Thomas tells it, the real impetus for the founding of this company was twofold. First to showcase the great talent of singers here in the bay area and second to provide opera free to the public in a time when attending opera is, for many, prohibitively expensive. Making use of talent from all over the bay area, the cast includes both students and professionals. Elliot Nguyen, who will sing Antonio and Taylor Thompson, who will sing Don Curzio, are past participants of the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley, which provides training opportunities for young people from throughout the bay area. Also from that program is Kendra Dodd in the chorus. Another local connection some of the singers have is to the former program in Contra Costa County “Summersong.” For example, Adrien Roberts who will sing the Countess, came through Summersong, a former program for young singers run by Olivia Stapp and Lucy Beck. Julian Arsenault is also a former Summersong participant. Arsenault, who at the age of 20 will be reprising the role of Figaro which he performed recently at UCLA, is from Lafayette and well represents Open Opera’s dedication to featuring local talent.

St. Thomas says that it is Stapp’s dedication to excellence that inspired her to help found this company. She goes on to say that Baker works to craft the image of the company for the public, through the website, artwork, posters etc. and that Stapp works to set the company’s high artistic standards. St. Thomas, a former producer of television pieces for the Virginia Public schools as well as an accomplished singer, works to make it all happen.

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Upcoming Concert
July 21, 2009

Brett Dean is on a roll. In the past few years, the 48-year-old Brisbane native has conducted and recorded (for BIS) his Viola Concerto and worked with some of the world’s finest orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, where he played viola for 16 years. That orchestra’s celebrated conductor, Simon Rattle, encouraged Dean’s nascent compositional career, and this year led the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the premiere of three arias from Dean’s first opera, Bliss, which debuts next year. Last year, Ensemble Wien-Berlin performed the premiere of his chamber work Polysomnography, a Lucerne Festival commission, and he’s featured composer at this year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Cabrillo Festival.

Dean’s breakthrough stretch culminated in winning the world’s largest composition prize, the 2009 Grawemeyer Award, for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing; Dean himself conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in its premiere.

Bay Area audiences get a double dose of one of Australia’s finest composers when Brett Dean returns to this year’s Cabrillo Festival for the U.S. premieres of his 2000 work Amphitheatre (inspired by an ancient Roman one described in Michael Ende’s children’s book Momo) and 2004’s Moments of Bliss, which Dean describes as “a suite of four purely orchestral movements that will form the basis for several orchestral interludes throughout the opera,” which is based on the celebrated novel by Australian author Peter Carey, later made into a popular film. The music reflects various moods — an amorous encounter, a heart attack, a visit to hell, and a contemplation of life’s vicissitudes.

As celebrated as he is in his home country, Dean is hardly the best-known composer in Cabrillo’s opening weekend. That honor goes to Osvaldo Golijov, probably the hottest composer alive, who’ll be in Santa Cruz for the opening night performance of his 2007 cello concerto, Azul (Blue). Unsatisfied with his original version (composed for Yo Yo Ma and itself based on an earlier piece for soprano and string quartet), the Boston-based Argentine-American composer substantially revised it — by press accounts to magnificent effect — for the brilliant young cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who’ll play it in Santa Cruz. Employing electronically enhanced “hyper-accordion” and extensive percussion and partly inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem, Azul traverses characteristically eclectic territory, from Baroque to tango to Middle Eastern influences. Golijov has composed at least two absolute masterpieces and this is a great chance to hear an important, and hitherto unrecorded, recent work.

Along with Azul and Amphitheatre, the opening night program features the world premiere of David Heath’s Rise From the Dark — a piece he wrote almost a quarter century ago. Like much of the Scottish composer's work, including 2007's Cabrillo world premiere Colourful World, this one is “based rhythmically and harmonically on the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and structurally on classical music,” says Heath's program note.  

The festival has always been a showcase for emerging compositional talent, and it’s a welcome to see Music Director Marin Alsop refreshing her regular corps of contemporary composers with young blood. The August 8 concert features intriguing works by composers born in the 1970s, including the U.S. premiere of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s 2003 ínguesu. In seeking a model for a modern nationalistic work, he looked to sports — specifically the Mexican soccer team’s stirring 1999 triumph over Brazil in the Confederation Cup championship in Mexico City.

Assigning roles to each instrumental group (brass to Brazilians, strings to audience, and so on), Chapela then contrived the musical themes (based on Mexican and Brazilian folk tunes and sports chants) to match the game’s significant moments, sort of like a modern version of Debussy’s Games or Stravinsky’s Card Game.

The final work, Avner Dorman’s 2006 Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, marks the second year in a row the Israeli composer’s music has spiced Cabrillo’s menu. It combines Middle Eastern percussion and scales, Indian rhythmic structures, jazz sonorities, Baroque references, and minimalist elements — a microcosm of the multifarious ingredients embraced by today’s polycultural composers.

More about Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music »