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
March 22, 2009
George Cleve is best-known these days as director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, but in person, with his beard and his solid presence at the podium, he looks rather like Johannes Brahms. Born in Vienna, though long a resident of the Bay Area, he’s a conductor who actually specializes in both these great Viennese composers.

But it’s Brahms that Symphony Silicon Valley listeners will be hearing in the California Theatre on March 26-29. The great Violin Concerto that Brahms wrote for his close friend Joseph Joachim in 1878 is the music. This “symphonic song for the violin,” as one critic called the work, is Brahms at his most expansive and lyrical, and it has a flamboyant, Hungarian-gypsy rondo finale tailor-made for the talents of soloist Ju-Young Baek. A young woman with one of the richest and most powerful violin tones I’ve heard from anybody, male or female, she has been a strong and passionate performer with SSV in music by Sibelius and Piazzolla. The Brahms is long, and hard to play, but violinists since Joachim have found it enjoyably worth the trouble.

Who goes better with Brahms than his friend and protégé Antonín Dvořák? The SSV Web site calls the Symphony from the New World “a thoroughly European work,” but it’s really not. Dvořák picked up more than a superficial view of America during his residence here in the 1890s. In his “American” works he abandoned the rhapsodic, unevenly accented style of his Czech homeland and tried for something plainer, foursquare, and rhythmically symmetrical, befitting his view of the American landscape and peoples. You can trace a little of the open harmonies and precise rhythms of Aaron Copland back to this work.

But of course it’s beautiful, as well, and no more so than in the famous theme for English horn in the slow movement. Many listeners hearing this think, “Oh, it’s just a spiritual that the composer borrowed,” but that’s rather like seeing Hamlet and thinking, “It’s just a collection of quotations.” In fact it’s Dvořák’s own theme, which was later adapted into a spiritual. SSV’s English horn player Patricia Emerson Mitchell might tell us something about preparing for this work on her blog.

Something less central-European, Hector Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture also contains an important English horn solo. The work is a potpourri of catchy bits from an opera, one of many works Berlioz wrote recalling his sunny student-days in Italy. The orchestration is bright and the themes are attractive, though the piece needs a firm hand from the conductor if it’s not to wander around aimlessly. George Cleve is more than capable of providing that firm hand — and Symphony Silicon Valley can respond to it.

Don’t miss the preconcert lecture in the main hall an hour before each program. Usually given by cellist Roger Emanuels, who’s retiring at the end of this season, or by violist Janet Sims, it provides a welcome, musician’s-eye view of the program and a gentle introduction to the music.

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Upcoming Concert
March 21, 2009
Hans von Bülow once described Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas as the Old and New Testaments of music. All pianists undertake serious study of them, but András Schiff has made a specialty of performing both in toto, giving him a unique distinction among the modern-day prophets of the piano and reason for Beethoven bibliophiles to attend his upcoming two concerts. He has even given us encores of complete Bach Suites at the close of his “all-Beethoven” programs, thus underlining the close lineage between the two composers.

Since three of the last six Sonatas contain fugues at their climactic points, as well as a host of fuguelike sections, Schiff seems to be just the man for the job. To top it off, he will be playing all six within a week’s time. His March 29 recital will feature Sonatas 27–29, including the Hammerklavier, and on April 5 he will play the last three, 30–32, long regarded as the holy trinity of the set. Both will be presented by San Francisco Performances at Davies Symphony Hall.

How to order this huge body of work in performance? Artur Schnabel, who was the first to play (and record) the entire cycle, did it initially in the early 1930s, and three times thereafter. Schnabel chose to intermix Beethoven’s early works with later enigmatic ones, presenting a conundrum in juxtaposition. In contrast, by playing the Sonatas in chronological order, Schiff continues to highlight the way in which Beethoven steadily develops and expand the emotional range of the classical form, even as he makes decisive breaks, as in the three Sonatas Op. 31, which the composer said “turn over a new leaf.” If Schnabel’s approach was like a mountain climber scaling the loftiest peaks on different expeditions, Schiff has saved the highest summit for his next climb.

Beethoven composed no fewer than 23 of his Piano Sonatas during the first decade of his career, 1795 to 1805. Perhaps the greatest of these is the Sonata Appassionata, a tragic work that nonetheless shows the composer at his most powerful and defiant. After the great difficulties he had with his opera Fidelio, it must have seemed that his days of glory as Vienna’s greatest composer were over. Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann were coming up, and then there was Franz Schubert, who simply worshiped him. He needed a comeback, and it came in 1818. Called Sonata Op. 106 in B-flat Major, Fuer das Hammerklavier, and the product of years of labor, he said it would keep pianists busy for the next 50 years. It has taken more than that for performers and audiences to come to grips with Beethoven’s colossal ability to organize large-scale forms and realize the fathomless emotional worlds they contain.

Of the last three Sonatas, composed in 1822, around the time of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven said they came out in a single breath. If this is true, then Schiff is right to play them all together, perhaps with some breath in between. They are among the supreme treasures that Beethoven gave to pianists and to the world of music — so expect a revelation.

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Upcoming Concert
March 17, 2009
You think things are worse now than in the days of Franz Joseph Haydn? An upcoming San Francisco Symphony concert will give you an opportunity to compare Haydn’s so-called “storm and stress” style of the early 1770s with a 2005 violin concerto (Concentric Paths) by Thomas Adès, who just may be Britain’s most highly regarded living composer. You’ll find that emotions ran strong both then and now, though in different ways. And, in case you get too stressed out, the concert concludes with a graceful and tuneful balm, Mozart’s 39th Symphony.

You might think of the standard Haydn symphony as measured and placid, but not the 52nd. It’s unusual in that it’s in a minor key and has numerous tumultuous passages designed to stir the emotions, even fear, among listeners of the time. The  concerto, by contrast, is less agitated, but completely in tune with our “Age of Anxiety.” Not excessively dissonant, and even tuneful in the last movement, the work offers ingeniously unsettling triadic harmonies that descend into despair in the profound second movement, at times accompanied by unpredictable, convulsive throbs. Its offbeat rhythms will be a challenge to the orchestra and soloist alike. Fortunately, one of the best contemporary players around — Leila Josefowicz — will be tackling its soaring lines and passionate declamation.

After a few welcome drinks at intermission, try to remember the sound, not of the preceding Adès work, but of the Haydn. The ensuing Mozart will make even the Haydn sound like darkest night in comparison. It’s not just the more memorable melodies and lighter disposition of the music. Listen carefully to the woodwinds: The Haydn symphony has no flutes or clarinets in it, and its oboes hardly play anything but chords. When you hear the flutes and clarinets play gorgeous melodies in the Mozart, you’ll realize that despite what Haydn and Adès say, there is hope for civilization.

James Gaffigan, who will be conducting, will give extended remarks on the works for the Friday, April 3 concert, and an after-concert Q&A session Saturday, April 4.

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Upcoming Concert
March 17, 2009
You often hear chamber music described as a conversation, but really it’s like a meeting of friends. Back in the old days, chamber music was one way to pass the time with friends, and also to indulge a love of music (since there were no radios or stereos to turn on).

Think about that as you listen to the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in their concert for Chamber Music San Francisco. Here’s a group of world-renowned soloists, yet they have performed as a piano trio for 32 years now and show no signs of slowing down; if anything, their egoless connection to each other keeps growing. It helps, probably, that violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson are married to each other, but the connection comes through the music. “The day we take making music for granted or get complacent is the day I pack up my fiddle,” Laredo told an interviewer for The Strad magazine, during their 30th anniversary year. So far, if reviews can be believed, that hasn’t happened.

Professionals of all stripes like to play chamber music because it is so much about interaction. Some people get really good at it. Chamber musicians are the kind of people who can read people’s emotional cues, the inflections in a voice, a body’s posture. You can watch Kalichstein, Laredo, and Robinson react to each other — both to what they hear and to what they see in each other’s countenance.

Not surprisingly, each of them is also an excellent teacher. Joseph Kalichstein has taught piano at Juilliard for many years, where he now has an endowed chair in chamber music. Jaime Laredo holds an endowed chair in violin at Indiana University, where Robinson also teaches. Their master classes are highly esteemed.

These experienced friends have also gotten to know their repertory well over the course of three decades, so that the music emanates from them easily and naturally. In their San Francisco program, they bring together the dark intensity of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 (1944), written in the midst of World War II and dedicated to a recently deceased friend, and the lyrical, often playful “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97, by Beethoven, one of a number of works dedicated to his longtime student and staunch supporter/patron, the Archduke Rudolph of the Austrian royal family. The Shostakovich requires virtuosity and steely determination. The Beethoven is more genial and spontaneous, requiring a whiff of aristocratic, classical style.

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio has recorded both pieces, but, like many good musicians, they’re always tinkering with and often changing their approach to music they know. As Kalichstein says, when asked about the group’s longevity, “We just keep trying to get it right.” That seems like an odd statement from a group that so often gets it right.

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Artist Spotlight
March 16, 2009

Catching up with Nicholas McGegan isn’t easy. He may be based in Berkeley, but as a conductor and expert in Baroque and early music, he’s in demand across the country and in Europe, with forays into Asia. But when he is at home, one of his roles is as music director laureate of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Their upcoming performances of Handel’s Athalia will allow us to hear one of the composer’s lesser-known oratorios. We caught up with him at Yale, where he answered some questions about the upcoming concerts and his approach to music in general.

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Upcoming Concert
March 11, 2009
New string quartets inspired by older masterworks in the genre have a long tradition. The latest composer to add to it is John Adams. Hearing the St. Lawrence Quartet perform late Beethoven inspired him to write a new quartet, which the St. Lawrence will give the premiere performance of at this Stanford Lively Arts concert. It's an important new work by a major composer. Also on the program, an early Haydn (Op. 9, No. 2) and a late Dvorák (Op. 106). More »
Upcoming Concert
March 11, 2009
The American String Quartet, longtime quartet-in-residence at the Manhattan School of Music, has made relatively few recordings (and those mostly for small labels), and it's likely that most Bay Area chamber music lovers are unfamiliar with it. Those who have heard the ensemble, though, will remember the sinew in the sound, the acuity of the articulation, and especially the warmth and individuality of the group's inner players, second violinist Laurie Carney and violist Daniel Avshalomov. The quartet's Cal Performances visit — its first performance here for some years, I think — includes a rare performance of Alban Berg's Op. 3 Quartet, plus Dvorák's Op. 81 Piano Quintet with founding Beaux Arts Trio pianist Menahem Pressler. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 11, 2009
The Catacoustic Consort delves into an intriguing era in musical history with music of the French Baroque for the rare pardessus de viole, a hybrid that blends violin and viola da gamba. While the viola da gamba first appeared around 1480 in Italy, the pardessus did not appear until the early 1700s in France, when it became a staple of Versailles heyday. Unless you were palling around with Marie Antoinette many of these works will be new to you and will showcase the unique sonority of the pardessus. Performers include Annalisa Pappano (also artistic director) and Joanna Blendulf, pardessus de viole; Daniel Zuluaga, theorbo; and Youngmi Kim, soprano. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 11, 2009
“The man breathes music,” exclaimed one longtime San Francisco Opera Orchestra member after Music Director designate Nicola Luisotti conducted performances of Puccini’s La Bohème a few months back. Since Luisotti clearly has the grand sweep of music in his blood, why should he limit himself to opera? Given how strongly he made his presence felt in the War Memorial Opera House, this gig with the San Francisco Symphony should give us an indication if we’ve got a potential James Levine in our midst. No complaints about the colorful repertoire: Brahms’ glorious Fourth, Kodály’s Dances Of Galánta, and Bloch’s biblical Schelemo. The latter features the wonderful Michael Grebanier on cello. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 11, 2009
Symphony Silicon Valley's chorale is one of its best features, so the opportunity to hear them led by the renowned choral conductor Vance George, retired San Francisco Symphony choirmaster, should be a local highlight — especially when the program features the elegant and airy Requiem of Gabriel Fauré. This concert is not part of the regular Symphony Silicon Valley season. More »

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