Previews

Each week, SFCV looks behind the scenes to give you a sneak peak of what's coming up on stages around the Bay Area...so you can learn about concerts before they happen.

Upcoming Concert
June 2, 2009
The San Francisco Bay Area is a little foretaste of chorus heaven. Choruses flourish here, and their activities are constant. So what makes a person want to found another chorus? In the case of the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco, it’s as simple as wanting to choose your friends.

“I wanted to conduct great music and I wanted to do it with people that I liked,” says Jeremy Faust. “It started with a bunch of friends who all wanted to sing together. And we wanted to do difficult, challenging music. At first it was going to be a social and artistic thing, but as time went on it became much more of an artistically driven pursuit.”

Founded in 2003, the group concentrates on contemporary music of all kinds, like Jake Heggie’s Faith Disquiet, which figures prominently in the group’s approaching concert at Presidio Chapel, with soprano Nicole Folland.

“I met Jake at some random event at the San Francisco Opera, I think in 2003. And from there we sort of knew each other vaguely. And so when I wanted to do this California concert this past May [reviewed in SFCV], I really wanted to do something of Jake’s. So I gave him a call and said ‘What do you have lying around?’ And he had this wonderful piece that hasn’t been done very often, Faith Disquiet. The first two movements have just been revised and we just did the California premiere.”

So it’s that easy, to start up a chorus, get to know Jake Heggie, and start doing premieres of his work?

“It’s been a difficult road and a lot of work,” admits cofounder Elaine Robertson. “We’re very democratic in some ways. We have a lot of input from the choristers, and we always welcome choristers' suggestions for repertory.” There are no sponsors or guardian angels. “Everyone in the group also does something else to make the group work,” says Faust. “Our P.R. is done by Elaine [who works as program manager for the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and children’s wrangler for the San Francisco Opera], so she’s volunteering her professional skills. And when it comes to, like, our Web site, you know, our Web site is run by people in the choir who just sort of happen to work for Google.

“It’s a labor of love. No one pays any dues, and no one gets paid, including the conductors. And, in fact, other than this [upcoming] concert and one other, in six years we’ve never charged any admission for any of our concerts, as well.”

Most of the singers in the International Orange Chorale sing with other groups, but are drawn to IOCSF by the camaraderie and the eclectic repertory, like Daniel Handler’s Attack of the Crab Monsters. Handler, of children’s book fame (the Lemony Snicket series) wrote the piece in college. “Some one I know back East told me about it,” says Faust. “It was actually given to him by the poet, Larry Raab. And Larry Raab is a National Book Award type of guy, a very famous poet. And he said to this choral conductor back East, ‘Hey, back when Daniel Handler was in college, he wrote this funky little piece on my poetry, and I think it’s great.’ So my friend did it, and then said, ‘Hey, why don’t you do it in San Francisco, since Daniel’s from there.’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ And next thing I know I got an e-mail from Daniel saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ and I said ‘Well, we want to do your piece,’ and so we’re doing the California premiere, and he’ll be there at the concert. Daniel is also a really well-respected accordian player, apparently.”

According to Robertson, the IOCSF has already found an audience. “My goal is to bring music to as many young people as possible. And my friends are all very interested in IOC and what we do.”

“Because all the singers in the group tend to be on the younger end of adulthood,” says Faust, “a lot of word-of-mouth happens. And there are people who have never heard choral music before and say to me, ‘Wow, I play in a rock band, but that was awesome.’ So you can really connect with people who have no preconceived notion of what this music is.”

“Before each piece,” explains Robertson, “One of the chorus members reads out a description of that piece and about the composer. And then, we also have the audience vote on an audience favorite for that concert, and then we sing that piece on our next concert. It’s a little interactive. I like that.”

More about International Orange Chorale »
Upcoming Concert
June 2, 2009
To hear pianist (and longtime SFCV contributor) Jerry Kuderna tell it, his upcoming concert at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley on June 6 was an extreme example of serendipity. There he was, innocently practicing music of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou, “the first Spanish composer who really got into my system,” he says. Kuderna normally swims in the more heavily modernist, nontonal, end of the 20th-century pool, music completely different from Mompou's. Knowing that Joaquin Nin-Culmell (1908-2004), then working in the music department at UC Berkeley, had been Mompou's student, Kuderna called him up for some pointers.

A few years later, one of Kuderna’s students, who was also a close friend of Nin-Culmell’s, gave him the four volumes of the composer’s Tonadas, some of which appear on this coming program. “They’re all fairly short pieces — dances, songs. You really feel that it grows right out of Spanish folk music — it’s deep, it’s powerful, it gets into you. I would sometimes play them during the Offertory at church, and people would always come up to me after and say, ‘What was that you played?’ I began to realize that these pieces really were communicative. I realized that if there’s quality in it, it’s worth playing.

“And then I was down at Serendipity — the bookstore — and all of [Nin-Culmell’s] music was there. All of the stuff he left behind [when he died] — they had it. So I just bought the whole lot of it. And then I found in there all this Falla and music by his other teachers, all this really rare stuff. And I started playing that, and I began to think, ‘Maybe I have some genetic connection to this music.’

“[Nin-Culmell’s] niece, Gayle Nin Rosencrantz, asked me last year to play on [the composer’s] centennial concert. The pay that I got for that concert was more scores. (You know, that’s the great thing about my life, I don’t get paid in coin, I get paid in music.) And among these were pieces Joaquin had written when he was 20, dedicated to Falla. And I thought, ‘Wow, what a talent!'”

So having lived with this music for about a year, Kuderna thought that it was time to bring together some of this unexpected wealth of music that had come into his possession in a concert. And here it is. You won’t have many opportunities to savor this music, wonderful as it is, so you should push to get to this event, and reap the rewards of the music of another underappreciated 20th-century master. “I’m just sorry,” says the composer’s newest acolyte, “that Joaquin died before I ever had a chance to tell him how great he was.”

More about Trinity Chamber Concerts »
Upcoming Concert
June 2, 2009
The San Francisco Renaissance Voices, founded in 2004, is an ensemble dedicated to singing lesser-known and rarely performed early music, and this June they'll do just that. Their coming run of "The Darkness and The Dawn" (on June 13, 14, and 21) is an exploration of the Italian Renaissance, and the final installment of "The Polyphony Project," which explored the five major Renaissance schools.

The "Darkness" in the program is a Requiem Mass by the Veronese priest Giovanni Matteo Asola (c. 1528-1609) for men's a cappella voices — a piece described by J. Jeff Badger, executive director and founder of the group, as having an "almost modal, antico style with a very dark, dense sound"; achingly beautiful voice crossings lend to its pathos. Although Asola was prolific in his lifetime, composing for St. Servero church in Venice and also writing a number of secular madrigals, he has fallen into obscurity and Badger believes this might be the first American performance of this contemplative work.

In contrast, the "Dawn" is music of the Milanese Benedictine nun Sister Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c.1678) for women's voices, and presents a brighter, florid sound typical of the early Baroque. Cozzolani wrote four volumes of music, all within the confines of her convent, the Santa Radegonda. When she later became the Abbess, she stopped composing. It is thought that some of her motets might have been smuggled out of the cloister for publication, and in fact, more than a dozen nuns published sacred works in Italy at the time. She herself had a virtuoso alto voice and sang first alto in the choir. Cozzolani's music is written for women's voices, with tenor and bass parts that were most likely sung by women, as well.

The San Francisco Renaissance Voices take this opportunity to arrange the parts for mixed voices — a 17th-century impropriety, but one that is sure to bring a richness of timbre and broader register to the music. The singers will be joined by guest instrumentalists Steven Lehning on viola da gamba and harpsichordist Jonathan Rhodes Lee in this joyful music — the early rhythm section that enhances that special swing between duple and triple meter common in the era.

Katherine McKee, assistant music director, takes the podium for this concert, and provides this insight: "Our concert in no way seeks to re-create an order of worship, or even to imply a monastic atmosphere. Rather, we're seeking to illuminate one of the miracles of the world of music and art: That despite the strictly cloistered environment in which Cozzolani composed, and the service-oriented nature of Asola's writings, this music escaped the confines of church and convent to be enjoyed by listeners throughout the secular world, both in their own time and through the centuries down to us."

 

More about San Francisco Renaissance Voices »
Upcoming Concert
June 1, 2009
La traviata, which opens June 13 in San Francisco Opera’s summer-season run, is a daunting opera for the soprano performing the role of Violetta Valery. Before the singing even begins, the overture has already foretold of a mixture of transport, anguish, and doom that the protagonist must actualize. Every soprano remarks about the difficulty of the first-act aria, “Ah, fors’é lui” (Perhaps he is the one); it comes careening down the stage much too soon, before the singer has had a chance to become fully warmed up. Its first section contains delicate, reflective musings about whether she has finally met a man who would be able to save her from her life as a courtesan — a man who could love her enough to forget her past. This interlude is followed by an explosion of cynicism and irony, cast in the most hazardous vocal writing that Giuseppe Verdi could muster: high C’s, high D’s, coloratura ... the works, speeding along to the finish, when, if she can still cope with it, an optional high E-flat awaits her. The singers who can manage with “ease” the vocalism necessary at this point are likely to lack the dramatic quality needed to convey with full force the emotional impact of what is yet to come.

Add one more key requirement: physique du role. An essential element of Violetta’s capacity to win and retain the devotion of many men of wealth and distinction, both in fiction and in reality, was her dazzling beauty. She was set apart from others also by what her creator called “her distinction of manner, her spirited conversation.” She was said to possess “elegance to the highest degree.” “She was thin and pale and had magnificent hair down to the ground.” “Her fine skin marked by blue veins indicated that she was consumptive. She was no common woman of ill repute.”

Violetta played the piano well, enjoyed the theater, and spoke excellent French. It was her combination of beauty and natural tact, along with refinement, that attracted, and retained, her many prominent friends. The soprano who essays this role must, ideally, master not only Verdi’s excruciatingly demanding vocal line and the tale’s powerful emotional thrust, but also the challenge of portraying, with convincing elegance, the image of the intriguing and beautiful demimondaine Violetta.

Then there is also, of course, the task of confronting the greatest soprano phrase in all of Italian opera: “Amami, Alfredo” (Love me, Alfredo). Here Violetta is facing the sacrifice of her great and consuming love for a noble cause. This is a phrase that requires such emotional grandeur from the protagonist that the audience must either scream “Bravo!” or be brought to tears. (I have witnessed both these effects, fortissimo.) Sarah Bernhardt was famed for her portrayal of this role, in the play La Dame aux camélias by Dumas (the son). When the renowned Italian actress Eleanora Duse put herself in direct competition by performing it in Paris, she was said by the critics to be “interesting and pathetic” but was characterized as being “too middle class, too remote” to play the demimondaine. Even the great Duse could not measure up to the task.

The woman Violetta Valery (her operatic name), alias Marguerite Gautier (the play name), alias Marie Duplessis (the courtesan name), née Alphonsine Duplessis (her birth name) actually lived and died in Paris and now lies buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. She was likely prostituted at a young age by her sodden father. She was driven to sell herself “because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for irresistibly; I wanted to know the refinements and pleasure of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society.”

In the opera we have a thrice-removed fictionalized version of this fascinating woman. There was an actual, beautiful young courtesan in Paris who died in her early 20s of consumption. But in both the play and the opera she is given a “chance,” like Mary Magdalene, to redeem herself. She is driven to sacrifice her great love in order to save her lover’s family from the disgrace of association with her. More than with any other female in Verdi’s works, we can relate to this fallen woman who possesses, nonetheless, both elegance and grace, and moreover a noble heart,. But to make it happen for us, the prima donna must bring together immense virtuosity on many fronts.

The San Francisco Opera opening night (June 13) casting of La traviata looks most promising. If the stunning Anna Netrebko can come close to what she did with this role in Salzburg, it will be a thrilling event. I am unable to recall a better interpretation combined with such sovereign vocal control. A few equally thrilling snippets may be heard on old recordings — from the likes of Muzio, Olivero, and Zeani and of course Callas — and there is the Zeffirelli film, marvelous to look at, but not well recorded. Also available is the Covent Garden DVD with the excellent Angela Georghiu, but there’s nothing like the Traviata from Salzburg. Netrebko reaches into some dark desperation within, some unspoken self-violence, and thoroughly avoids the cliched and simplistic. This is one soprano who has it all.

More about San Francisco Opera »
Upcoming Concert
May 19, 2009
You might assume, from its Latin name Chora Nova, that it specializes in early music, but that’s far from the truth, as its upcoming concerts this week demonstrate. Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina (Song of Catullus) does have Latin words, though its musical style is familiar from the composer’s Carmina Burana.

Orff actually wrote the Catulli Carmina (1932-33) before his most famous and popular work, eventually putting the two cantatas together with a third, as Trionfi (Triumphs). Catulli Carmina (1943) is set to the frequently explicit love lyrics of Catullus, a Roman poet and contemporary of Julius Caesar. The cantata, like its brethren, relies on pulsing, repetitive rhythms, as well as simple textures and harmonies, creating a vigorous, communal style, all reinforced by a huge percussion orchestra (including four pianos) that plays in the framing numbers of the piece. But in some ways it’s more interesting than its often-played successor.

For one thing, Catullus’ poetry has more psychological depth than the Goliard songs of Carmina Burana. The cantata sets poems from the sequence that trace the phases of the poet’s love for “Lesbia” (a common poetic pseudonym at the time), which also allows Orff to envision a staging of the piece (written into the libretto) that ends with the poet’s defeat and the termination of the lovers’ relationship. This “play” concludes with the self-aware, if also self-serving, lines, “I cannot now wish you well/however virtuous you may become, nor stop loving you.”

Listen to the Music

Chora Nova perform Bach: Kahnua
Magnificat - Quia fecit mihi magna

Chora Nova perform Brahms: Wie
lieblich sind deine Wohnungen

Orff’s search for a “timeless” musical style for his cantatas led him to reject many contemporary musical styles as being too obviously 20th-century. Yet he was struck by the rhythms of Stravinsky’s music, and in Catulli Carmina the influence of that rhythmic sense, with its syncopated dislocations and layers of repeating ideas, is, if anything, stronger than in Burana. Maybe the piece is also synergistically related to his ideas about music education, which he began working out when he cofounded the Guenther School in Munich in 1925. In any case, where Burana can seem mystifyingly empty of meaning, Catulli Carmina takes the same, appealing musical resources and puts them to use in service of a more involving story, told from the point of view of a master ironist.

So Chora Nova, not relaxing from its exploration of the choral works of Zoltán Kodály this past March, again treads the novel path. Not so new as a chorus any longer, it and its founder and director, Paul Flight, have certainly not run out of new and interesting concert ideas. If you’ve heard (or been avoiding) one of the more or less 50,000 outings of Orff’s obstreperous Goliards this spring, you might be pleasantly surprised by his Roman lovers. At least hucksters haven’t made car commercials from this one — yet.

More about Chora Nova »
Artist Spotlight
May 19, 2009

When Robert Cole took over Cal Performances in 1986, West Coast arts presenters were pretty much booking whatever came through on tour from the East. He changed all that. Cole, who’s calling it quits this summer after a brilliant and fruitful 23-year run, made things happen here. He helped originate new works of music and dance, and he brought in a vast range of artists from abroad, many of whom had never played here.

More »
Upcoming Concert
May 18, 2009

Lynn Harrell is a very fine, light-toned cellist who’s played concertos in the Bay Area and is capable of outshining his conductors. But he’s not just a soloist, and he’s coming back to play chamber music with some friends, including his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, and pianist Victor Asuncion.

Chamber Music San Francisco is opening up a third set of performances, this one in Mountain View, and this concert is one of several highlights of this first season down the Peninsula. The performance feature Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1; Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello; and Brahms' Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 34.

More about Chamber Music San Francisco »
Artist Spotlight
May 18, 2009

Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002 and recently named artistic director of Opera at London’s Royal Academy of Music, is a Baroque scholar, author, and opera conductor with a penchant for modern dance. However unlikely a combination that may seem, for the past decade Glover has been a collaborator in several of choreographer Mark Morris’ projects that brilliantly use modern dance to embody 18th-century music.

More »
Artist Spotlight
May 13, 2009

In his extraordinary 17-year run as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles has enriched the cultural life of the Bay Area. As a conductor, he has shaped many memorable performances, bringing forth Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise with equal passion and acuity.

More »
Upcoming Concert
May 13, 2009
The idea that numerical properties underlie music has interested people since at least the Middle Ages. Back then, people believed that orderly ratios underpinned not only music, but even planetary movement — the harmonious yet inaudible “music of the spheres.” In our own time, the Adorno Ensemble’s upcoming concert showcases relationships between music and numbers that interest contemporary composers.

Like the music on this program, the ensemble’s name also calls for explanation. It’s named after the noted German thinker Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, who studied ways in which music relates to society. Since the group is committed to making contemporary music seem relevant and palatable, “Adorno” seemed, to the group, a fitting name.

Two featured composers on the upcoming program are Iannis Xenakis and Conlon Nancarrow. Xenakis used computers to compose music for human performers, whereas Nancarrow himself composed music for a nonhuman, mechanical instrument. A third featured composer, Charles Wuorinen, mediates these two polarities, composing his own music for human performers, albeit music that’s still temporally complex.

Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents, but moved to France in the 1940s. He was especially drawn to music and math because he was trained as an engineer, and he also worked for the architect known as Le Corbusier. The Adorno will play his Morsima-Amorsima, a quartet for piano, violin, cello, and double bass that was premiered in 1962. The composition is generated by a highly complex computer algorithm, which Xenakis also used for other compositions.

Nancarrow, meanwhile, was an American-Mexican composer who composed many “studies” for player piano. He believed this mechanical instrument could perform more-complex rhythms and meters than humans could. But he transcribed his Study No. 34 for string trio. Just as he sought to overcome limitations of human performers by composing for the mechanical player piano, perhaps Nancarrow also sought to overcome the timbral and expressive limitations of the mechanical instrument by transcribing this study for a human ensemble.

Finally, Wuorinen (b. 1938) is an American composer who has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship. His Eleven Short Pieces for violin and vibraphone dates from 2006. Don’t be fooled by the title of his compositional treatise, Simple Composition. The ideas about musical time that inform Wuorinen’s compositions are complex and multifaceted, with influences ranging from Stefan Wolpe to Milton Babbitt to Elliott Carter.

The relationships between music and numbers explored by these contemporary composers have moved a long way from the medieval “music of the spheres.” Instead of mere harmony and order, these composers also entertain complexity and chaos. Also unlike the medieval idea, their contemporary music is actually audible, and worth a listen when presented by the Adorno Ensemble.

More about Adorno Ensemble »

Pages