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
September 7, 2009
With a fraternal nod to Julie Andrews, the men of Clerestory are set to open their fall season with more than a few of their favorite things. While they're not about to climb a mountain, their concerts in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Lodi are filled with music that members of the eight-man a cappella choral ensemble love the most.

Jesse Antin, who founded Clerestory in 2006 after recruiting all his fellow Chanticleer veterans who had settled in the Bay Area, boasts that Clerestory’s members “take collective ownership of everything the group does. All eight of us are an equal and important part of the leadership and artistic direction.”

Thinking along those lines, Antin wondered what a concert would sound like if each singer contributed his favorite music for male chorale. To his delight, the repertoire was quite diverse. “Our Favorite Things” begins with early music (Gregorian chant, Mouton, Taverner, Desprez, Ockeghem, Pipelare, and Byrd), and then time-travels after intermission into more recent music (Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Parry, Warlock, Taverner, Britten, and arrangements of four English folk songs). Antin considers it a fairly good mix of sacred and secular music spanning multiple centuries.

Clerestory has also shucked the traditional historical program notes. In their place, each singer has written a short explanation of what he finds especially attractive in his chosen work or works.

“The first half includes one of my favorite movements from a Byrd mass,” says Antin. “There’s also a piece that Desprez wrote lamenting the death of Ockeghem, and Taverner’s wonderful Magnificat. While there’s nothing from the 21st century this time around — the most recent piece is by Taverner — we recently performed a concert called ‘Explorations’ that mixed rarely performed early music with premieres of works by me and students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.” That concert, like many others Clerestory has performed, is available for your listening pleasure on the chorus' Web site. You can also download concert recordings without charge in highest quality MP3 sound (320 kbps).

Though Clerestory does not deliberately aim for a different sound than Chanticleer, the fact that Clerestory's members are in general older and more experienced adds maturity to their blend. In addition, when Clerestory’s members perform music that does not call for sopranos and altos, the men who usually sing in that range instead sing tenor, baritone, or bass.

“I've been singing with some of these guys for almost 10 years, ever since I moved to California,” says Antin. "We all feel we're a part of the Bay Area musical community, and want to connect with our audience members as neighbors.” Hence, the spirit of giving that is at the heart of Clerestory's “Our Favorite Things.”

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Artist Spotlight
September 6, 2009

Soprano Patricia Racette is in town for an important role debut: She’s singing all three soprano leads in Puccini's Il trittico at San Francisco Opera, a feat only a few have tried. She took time out from rehearsals to talk about her career, her plans, and her life with mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, her partner of many years.

Tell us about San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler programs and their importance in your career.

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Upcoming Concert
August 24, 2009

An aura of glamour seems to surround the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra these days. Its 2009-2010 season, auspiciously titled the “Season of Stars,” is tailor-made for the glitterati, with a lineup of celebrity guest artists that is exceptional even for this ensemble, including Susan Graham, Viktoria Mullova, and Jordi Savall.

Steven Isserlis, violoncelloBut far from catering to the elite, PBO’s opening concert, “Apotheosis of the Dance,” focuses on the inveterate populist Franz Josef Haydn. Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, the ensemble pairs his Cello Concerto in C Major, featuring the dynamic soloist Steven Isserlis, with his Symphony No. 101 in D Major, “The Clock.” Ludwig van Beethoven’s larger-than-life Symphony No. 7 in A Major completes the performances, which run from September 10 to 15 in venues ranging from Berkeley and Palo Alto to San Francisco and Lafayette.

Haydn knew the importance of pleasing a crowd, freely acknowledging his desire to satisfy tastes both popular and refined. He enjoyed a rapturous reputation in London, where his “Clock” symphony was completed during his second sojourn to this city. In reviewing the premiere performance in March 1794, London’s Morning Chronicle exclaimed, “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new grand Overture [symphony] by HAYDN; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime HAYDN!” Modern listeners may not feel moved toward all-capital-letters enthusiasm, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously tapping along with the second-movement’s famous tick-tock rhythm.

A different kind of excitement accompanied Haydn’s cello concerto in 1961 when this piece was rediscovered at the Prague National Museum, after having been presumed lost for more than 200 years. Now a staple of the cello repertory, this delightful early-Haydn work should yield many delights in the hands of Isserlis, an exceptional performer with a distinctive sound and personality to spare. Isserlis’ extracurricular activities prove as endearing as his performances: It’s hard to resist a musician who also writes children’s books with names like Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled His Wig. For more whimsy, check out the trivia games and puzzles on his Web site. (The cello jigsaw game is my personal favorite.)

The actual title of PBO’s program comes from the concluding work, a perennial favorite presented here in appealing period-orchestra guise. (For a preview, listen to the ensemble’s own 1998 recording of the first movement on the PBO Web site.) Music Director Nicholas McGegan is clearly excited about presenting this work with his own stellar band of musicians. “This concert is going to end with what I think is probably [one of] the most joyous pieces of music ever written, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony,” he says. “Wagner called it the ‘apotheosis of the dance,’ and he absolutely loved this piece. PBO performed this rollicking, good-fun piece about 10 years ago, and we’re thrilled to play it again.”

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Upcoming Concert
August 21, 2009
One of the great benefits of living in the Bay Area is the opportunity to tap into its vibrant new-music scene. This movable feast of experimental music seems to be fueled by an unending parade of gifted composers and performers who have spent their lives redefining musical boundaries.

Classical and film composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky is truly one of these San Francisco sonic explorers. Dubowsky has composed four chamber operas and scored five feature films, including That Man Peter Berlin, Rock Haven, and Redwoods. In addition to work as a conductor, educator, writer, and filmmaker, he leads the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble, a new-music quartet that combines acoustic instruments with an analog synthesizer, electronic hardware, composed material, and structured improvisation.

The ensemble’s music can be described as free-form and transcendental; it’s recorded live, without overdubs or sequencing. While comparisons of this sort are often odious, I might think of it as “the Philip Glass Ensemble meets John Zorn,” with a healthy dose of Ornette Coleman thrown in for good measure. In addition to Dubowsky on bass and synthesizer, the ensemble includes percussionists Erika Johnson and Fred Morgan, plus trombonist Hall Goff.

The Dubowsky Ensemble’s performance on Sept. 9 at Meridian Gallery will also use sounds and music to influence video projected by the gallery’s sophisticated multimedia system. The date begins the 11th season of the gallery’s series, which presents monthly performances by Bay Area musicians of experimental music in a variety of idioms and compositional processes.

Up next for “Meridian Music” will be Doctor Bob on Oct. 14. The duo is composed of Bob Marsh, on processed cello and voice, and David Michalak, who plays processed lap steel guitar and Skatchbox. Marsh is a seasoned improviser, whose work involves shaping sounds, words, and images to create evocative soundscapes.

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Upcoming Concert
August 21, 2009
Patrons of chamber music presenters around the world are familiar with typical ensembles like the string quartet or the piano trio; not so much the woodwind quintet, which tends to be treated like a poor cousin. Yet those who know its rich repertoire and tonal possibilities realize how much the quintet has to offer. San Francisco’s Quinteto Latino is generating further interest in this type of ensemble by unearthing brilliant music by Mexican and other Latin American classical composers rarely heard in North America. Their concert at Old First Concerts on Sept. 11 features tangos, habaneras, and waltzes that will leave you dancing in your seat.

The Quintet — Diane Grubbe, flute; Kyle Bruckmann, oboe; Leslie Tagorda, clarinet; Armando Castellano, French horn; and Shawn Jones, bassoon — was formed by Castellano in 2001. The current personnel (with the exception of new member Jones) have played together since 2004. All are conservatory-trained musicians. Says Castellano: “In the course of my great training in classical music, I never heard or discussed music from Latin America. When I later had work in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, I found a thriving classical music culture all over Latin America. There is a long history of composers, from colonization on, that wrote classical music.”

Castellano formed the Quinteto Latino as a response to the feeling that this important music was being overlooked in North America. In a society where there are few people of color in major symphony orchestras, or elsewhere on the classical scene, Armando hopes the quintet and its emphasis on Latino composers can function as something of a role model for youths of diverse ethnic backgrounds. “It provides a point of connection for kids to hear a classical music that evokes their culture and language,” he says. To this end, the quintet is heavily involved with educational concerts and workshops through both the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program and Young Audiences of Northern California.

And through this music, Quinteto Latino is sharing an indigenous ethos. “I’m of Mexican descent; my grandparents were from Mexico. I was brought up here in the U.S., but around things that were typical of Mexican culture, like music, family, foods, folk-dancing, and values,” says Castellano. “The music illustrates this tenderness, interaction, and passion.” Clarinetist Leslie Tagorda agrees that such elements can be heard in the music they play. “Most of what we do is grounded in movement and dance,” she says. “The underlying thread in all this music is the rhythm. The types of rhythms, beats, and syncopations make it different from other Western classical music.”

On Sept. 11, Quinteto Latino showcases three Mexican composers, including Carlos Chávez, arguably Mexico’s most important composer. His Soli No. 2, with its neoclassical elements, is the more contemporary-sounding piece on the program; the rest are melodic, with a jazzy, rhythmic intensity. Arturo Márquez’ Danza de mediodia is on the bill; he is known for incorporating native musical forms and styles into his orchestral pieces. Mario Lavista’s Cinco danzas breves is a dance collection written in 1992 for wind quintet. In addition, they’ll play Aires tropicales by Cuban jazz musician Paquito d’Rivera, and the group plans a folk music set, as well. All the pieces were written since 1970.

If you like what you hear, you can also hear the quintet on Chamber Music Day, Saturday, Sept. 26. Visit the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music Web site for details, at

More about Old First Concerts »
Upcoming Concert
August 20, 2009
Opera San José, which closed out its 2008-2009 season with Bizet's Carmen, opens the 2009 fall season with another operatic bad girl: Manon. Jules Massenet’s 1884 opera opens Sept. 12 at the California Theatre.

The sociopolitical milieu of Manon’s 18th-century France lies, of course, a considerable distance from Carmen’s Seville. Still, the two title characters have much in common. Carmen, based on Prosper Merimee’s novella of the same name, and Manon, inspired by Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, are among opera’s most complex and charismatic doomed heroines.

Manon, however, takes a decidedly longer fall. She starts Massenet’s 1884 opera as a shy 15-year-old on her way to the convent; a chance meeting with the young chevalier Des Grieux directs her to an entirely different path. Manon is pure at heart, but deeply flawed — fickle and shallow, with a penchant for making unfortunate choices — and her devotion to Des Grieux, pitted against her taste for the glittering Parisian high life, leads her to a tragic end.

If Manon is unable to escape her inevitable outcome, she makes her descent on a torrent of glorious music. Massenet wasn’t the only composer to respond to Prevost’s original story (Puccini’s Manon Lescaut derived from it, as well, with less satisfying results), but in Manon, with a fine libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, he brought the character to life in vibrant musical terms. With arias such as the Act 2 “Adieu, notre petit table” (Farewell, our little table) illuminating Manon’s inner thoughts with exquisite tenderness, Manon is Massenet’s most enduring opera; along with Carmen and Gounod’s Faust, it remains one of the most beloved works in the French repertoire.

No wonder so many sopranos have been drawn to the role, which has seen great interpreters, including Beverly Sills (who described it as “the French Isolde”), Reri Grist, and Victoria de los Angeles. In recent years, top names such as Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, and Natalie Dessay have made their marks, as well.

Opera San José’s production, which launches the company’s 26th season under General Director Irene Dalis, features two alternating casts. Sopranos Khori Dastoor and Rebecca Schuessler will alternate in the title role; the role of Des Grieux will be sung by tenors Alexander Boyer and Michael Dailey. Krassen Karagiozov and Daniel Cilli alternate as Lescaut, and Silas Elash and Isaiah Musik-Ayala sing the Count Des Grieux. Joseph Marcheso and Bryan Nies will share conducting duties; Dianna Shuster is the stage director.

More about Opera San José »
Upcoming Concert
August 19, 2009

Sure late summer can make for lean pickings in concerts. But there are a few good ones happening. This weekend, Les grâces, an early music group featuring SFCV's own Jonathan Rhodes Lee on harpsichord and Rebekah Ahrendt on gamba, gives another wide-ranging recital of French and Italian music from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Though the names of Louis Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, and Alessandro Scarlatti don't inspire the same veneration as the three Bs, their music is often touching and hugely entertaining. And the afternoon at St. John's Presbyterian won't set you back that much. A free reception follows the performance.

More about St. John's Concert Series »
Upcoming Concert
August 17, 2009
The time has come. After 13 years as music director of the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (GGMC), Joseph Jennings has announced his retirement. Jennings’ farewell concert, which will showcase his ever-adventuresome choice of repertoire and his penchant for pushing his singers’ limits, comes on the heels of his departure as longtime music director of Chanticleer.

The concert, whose focus is love in its various and diverse manifestations, includes Arnold Schoenberg’s Verbundenheit (Obligation), Dr. Stan Hill’s David and Jonathan (Hill was a longtime director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus), and what is billed as Jan Sandström’s “hypnotic” work Singing Apes of Khao Yai. The latter is based on the legend of a princess who, having deceived her husband, was transformed into a male gibbon who had no choice but to sing his lament in the forest every morning.

For a change of pace, the concert also includes selections by artists as diverse as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Coldplay, Todd Rundgren, and the Beatles (could it possibly be All You Need Is Love?), plus additional choral works that focus on the subject of love. While I could speculate for days on possible sexual subtexts for Jennings’ choice of repertoire, it would be best to let things rise and fall as they may and simply take in the beauty of the music.

GGMC has come a long way since Dick Kramer, one of the key instigators of the gay choral movement in the U.S., founded it as the Dick Kramer Gay Men’s Chorale in 1982. Kramer envisioned a small men’s-ensemble, on the order of university men’s choruses of the 19th century. Since its reorganization as the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus in 1988, and Jennings’ arrival in 1996, the auditioned chorus of no more than 50 members has broadened its scope. Although it remains a member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA), GGMC’s membership is open to both gay and gay-supportive men of diverse ages and racial backgrounds.

More about Golden Gate Men’s Chorus »
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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