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
June 18, 2009
When an opera company’s mission is to give young singers, conductors and directors opportunities to explore the repertoire, Puccini is always a good place to start. Throughout its 18 seasons, Festival Opera has scored numerous hits with productions of the composer’s La Bohéme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica. This month, though, the Walnut Creek-based company aims to climb a slightly higher mountain with Puccini’s Turandot.

Under artistic director Michael Morgan, Festival is staging its first production of Puccini’s final opera. A coproduction with Opera Birmingham, it features Canadian soprano Othalie Graham in the title role and tenor Christopher Jackson as her suitor, Calaf. Soprano Sjöwall appears as Liù, and bass Kirk Eichelberger, a Festival Opera favorite, returns to the company as Timur. Bryan Nies will conduct four performances, July 11-29, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. David Cox directs.

Turandot, which features a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, was adapted from Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play of the same title. Set in ancient Peking, the opera tells the story of a princess who decrees that she will marry the first prince who can solve the three riddles she has devised. If he fails, he must die; many have tried, and all have failed.

Puccini was enthusiastic about the subject, but the opera became the orphan in his family of works; the composer died in 1924 before the score was complete. The young composer Franco Alfano stepped in and, working from Puccini’s sketches, spent six months finishing the score. The opera received its first performance (without Alfano’s ending) on April 25, 1926, at La Scala, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Noted for arias such as “Nessun Dorma,” the work has been a standard of the repertoire ever since.

It’s a big opera with big requirements, but Morgan says that Festival Opera is ready to take it on.

“We’ve been talking about it for some time,” Morgan explained in a recent interview, “and we’d had Othalie Graham here a few years ago as Tosca. Turandot is a role she’s done a lot, so we knew we could cast it. And of course it’s a favorite with everybody.”

Morgan, who also serves as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, allows that the challenges of Turandot are daunting. But he says they’re not insurmountable.

“The challenge for any conductor is that there are so many moving parts,” he says. “The other consideration, for a small company such as Festival Opera, is that the opera rests so heavily on the chorus. Fitting it into our space is also a challenge, but small companies are doing more of that these days: what you lose in terms of the large orchestra, you gain in the audience’s proximity to the singers.”

There’s also the question of the title role. Turandot requires a soprano equipped with a rare combination of lyrical beauty and dramatic weight; Callas, Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Leonie Rysanek were among the 20th century’s leading exponents. When the San Francisco Opera last offered the work, in 2002, it was with the formidable Jane Eaglen at the head of the cast.

“The most important thing about a Turandot,” says Morgan, “is to be able to have enough power to rise above the orchestra, and yet be able to produce the power with beauty. You can make a lot of noise and have it not be particularly beautiful. But to be have that power, the projection, the top, and that beautiful sound is the mark of a great Turandot. It’s a big, demanding part that takes a voice of size and stamina. And that’s what Othalie has.”

Graham launched her career in 2004 at Opera Delaware with the role; the Delaware Courier-Post described her as possessing an “imperious presence and powerful voice.”

Morgan first heard Graham in 2006, when she was singing the title role of Tosca with Sacramento Opera. She auditioned for him, and he cast her in Festival’s production of the opera later the same year. Her performance was widely praised by Bay Area critics; The San Francisco Chronicle noted that she “soared effortlessly through the role.”

Turandot, however, remains Graham’s signature role. She has returned to it with opera companies around the country, including Utah Festival Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre, and reprised it in Boston in May of this year with Chorus Pro Musica.

Morgan describes the new production, which was presented at Opera Birmingham in January of this year, as lavish and traditional. With a large cast and an augmented, 75-member chorus prepared by James Toland, the production represents Festival’s largest undertaking to date.

Morgan, who will conduct and direct the company’s new production of Gounod’s Faust in August, says that one of the rewards of heading the company is working with young artists. When it came time to schedule Turandot, he says he turned the production over to Nies and assistant conductor Joseph Marcheso with complete confidence.

“We’re very happy to be supporting them,” he says. “Bryan and Joseph are also working together at Opera San José. Joseph, who assisted in our Trovatore last year, is doing the Manon that opens the season there, with Bryan assisting him. These two artists are our next generation opera conducting team. So that’s another very forward-looking thing the company is doing.”

More about Festival Opera »
Artist Spotlight
June 17, 2009

At 30, Inon Barnatan has established an international reputation as a pianist of uncommon depth and maturity. The Tel Aviv-born, New York-based artist, who studied with Leon Fleisher and the late Maria Curcio, has earned acclaim in a variety of repertoire from Beethoven to Messiaen to Schubert. In 2007, the latter composer inspired Barnatan to assemble a group of like-minded (and similarly youthful) colleagues for “The Schubert Project,” a series showcasing late-life Schubert solo, chamber, and lieder works.

More »
Upcoming Concert
June 17, 2009
Nothingset Ensemble, a grassroots collective of Bay Area musicians, composers, and conductors dedicated to performing new music, has just three prerequisites for selecting repertoire: The music must be less than 100 years old, should be performed infrequently, and must be great, according to Ted Hine and Darren Jones, the ensemble’s founders and creative directors.

Casting such a wide musical net frequently calls for unusual instrumentation and can create a rare listening experience. “We strive to play great, new music that our audiences haven’t heard before,” said Hine. “And that will catch the ear.”

In keeping with this ambitious charter, Nothingset's eclectic program presented by Old First Concerts on June 28 at 4 p.m. includes works by Piazzolla, Stravinsky, Bay Area composer Steve Adams, Jacques Desjardins, Louis Andriessen, and the premiere of a David Garner piece that was commissioned by the ensemble. For those of you keeping track, that means Nothingset will perform works by four living composers, three of whom are expected to be in attendance at the Old First Church.

This season Nothingset is focusing on works influenced by jazz and rock, many featuring saxophone, electric guitar, marimba, violin, and clarinet. Hine and Jones solicit repertoire recommendations from all quarters, including the ensemble’s performers.

“There are so many great musicians in San Francisco looking for great music to play for audiences,” said Jones. “We find that if the musicians are gung-ho about the rep, it really provides a spark and the enthusiasm that makes for a great performance.”

The ensemble performs with several core members, but also includes a revolving set of players depending on the repertoire. Both Hine and Jones are graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so their network keeps them in touch with a wide variety of musical colleagues in the area.

Nothingset’s Old First Concerts performance will feature Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, which the composer wrote soon after discovering American jazz, and considered it his final break with the Russian orchestral school. Martin Fraíle will conduct.

The premiere of David Garner’s Azure Morph “investigates a change in tonal color,” writes the composer in the program notes. The piece will be conducted by Jacques Desjardins, and features an E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, electric guitar, electric bass, marimba, and drums.

Steve Adams’ Owed t’Don is dedicated to Don Van Vliet — better known as Captain Beefheart, the composer, performer, visual artist, and poet. The piece uses the marimba and violin in the “rock” context, according to the composer.

Miroirs Déformants, by Canadian composer Jacques Desjardins, is intended to be a “voyage through non-linear time and space” with clarinet, piano, and cello.

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen wrote Hout and features tenor saxophone, electric guitar, marimba, and piano, also conducted by Desjardins.

More about Old First Concerts »
Upcoming Concert
June 16, 2009
“It is somewhat unexpected when a small company like Festival Opera takes on a very grand opera like Turandot. The size of the piece and the enormous role of the chorus make it a challenge,” says Artistic Director Michael Morgan.

Indeed, the production, which has been two years in the making, promises to be the Festival Opera's most lavish in the company's 18-year history. A national search for the principal roles came up with Christopher Jackson to play Calaf and soprano Rebecca Sjöwall for the role of Liù. The all-volunteer Festival Opera Chorus has been expanded to 75 (including 15 preteens).

“It’s the biggest thing Festival Opera has ever done,” says director David Cox, who previously helmed Rigoletto in 2004 for the company. “It’s just a huge opera, and a very difficult piece to pull off.”

What makes a Turandot such challenge? “First of all, you have to have a Turandot — and that’s not a voice that falls off a turnip truck. The Calaf is a big sing. The orchestration is very, very big — the fact we’re going to be able to do it with as many instruments as we’re going to is a real testament to our musicians and our conductors.

"Then you have Liù — which is more like a regular Puccini soprano, like a Butterfly — more like a Mimi really. It’s a serious sing; she has to have a lot of control. Scotto did it. Fleming did it. Those kind of voices.

“You have to have a real bass,” he continues. “Fortunately, we have Kirk Eichelberger doing it, which is a real plus for us." Other than Kirk Eichelberger, performing as Timur, the vanquished king of Tartary, the cast includes Canadian soprano Othalie Graham in the title role that launched her professional career in 2004. Graham previously sang the title role in Festival Opera’s Tosca in 2006, and Eichelberger will be making his sixth appearance for Festival. The music will be conducted by Brian Nies and Peter Crompton is the set designer.

More about Festival Opera »
Upcoming Concert
June 16, 2009
The Bay Area is gearing up for S.F. Pride, the annual GLBT celebration, and the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony is handling the classical contribution. Their concert, on June 20 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, will feature Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Copland’s suite from his opera The Tender Land, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. If you want a touch of the fabulousness, but are not looking forward to the crowds lining the parade route, this is your event. More about Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) »
Upcoming Concert
June 16, 2009
Not that you need another reason to visit Tiburon this summer, but pianist Paul Smith has organized a second iteration of his Tiburon Music Festival there, and this year it has a few tantalizing morsels, beyond the venue — lovely St. Hilary’s Church — the natural scenery, and the cool restaurants.

The Tiburon Chamber Players is a group of San Francisco Symphony musicians, which will be giving a concert of Mozart and Schubert on June 23. Yes, Anton von Webern is also on the program, but don’t wince — the Six Bagatelles are short. On June 20, 27, and 28, local singers perform an intriguing double bill for Contemporary Opera Marin: Leonard Bernstein’s underrated Trouble in Tahiti, and Claudio Monteverdi’s not-so-contemporary dramatic work The Combat of Tancred and Clorinda.

Tickets top out at a reasonable $20, and there are refreshments and wine offered after every performance. Sometimes small is good.

More about Tiburon Music Festival »
Artist Spotlight
June 15, 2009

Violinist/ violist Anthony Martin is one of the Bay Area’s core of string players who have specialized in early music, or “historically informed performance.” A cofounder of famous ensembles like Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Frans Brueggen's Orchestra of the 18th century, he has viewed the tremendous expansion and growing popularity of early music performance from the trenches.

More »
Upcoming Concert
June 9, 2009
The Bay Area has its own annual musical event to mark the summer solstice, the real beginning of the season of plenty. It’s the Garden of Memory concert hosted each year at the Chapel of the Chimes and presented by New Music Bay Area. The building was designed by Julia Morgan in 1926 in Mission style with Gothic interiors. Because the building and grounds feature enclosed areas (to increase privacy in this columbarium), Sarah Cahill, the event’s founder, discovered that it’s possible to sequester a number of separate performing groups or musicians in its recesses and spaces, without much sound overlap.

The concert’s concept is as intriguing as it is fun. You enter and wander about, pursuing distant, half-heard sounds, and come upon unexpected performers doing all kinds of new music from voice-and-electronica wizards like Amy X Neuburg and Pamela Z., to the lounge music group Orchestra Nostalgico, to new percussion music by the William Winant Percussion Ensemble, Joel Davel, or Nino Robair, to computer-music pioneer John Bischoff, to the Eastern European harmonies and folksongs of the choral group Kitka, to the whistling of Jason Victor Serinus.

Of course, the venue attracts lots of sound artists, people interested in exploring the musical (and anti-musical) properties of sound. But the event is not purely for hipsters. Cahill herself will be performing on a plain piano, and the Del Sol String Quartet will play a selection of pieces from their repertory.

If wandering just isn’t your thing, New Music Bay Area has a lineup posted at, and provide maps at the door for guests who want to find a particular performer. But you should be prepared for getting lost in the large number of beautifully-designed spaces, with their Florentine sculptures, unexpected skylights, and artful plantings. That’s more than half the fun of this event.

Many of the performers at Garden of Memory are “regulars.” One group, the Crank Ensemble, was created especially to play there. As artist arnie Fox describes it, on the group’s Web site).

It may not seem like it at first, but Garden of Memory has proved popular with children of different ages, so if you’re looking for family-friendly events, or if you’re interested in experiencing music in an out-of-the-ordinary environment, mark this event on your calendars.

More »
Upcoming Concert
June 9, 2009

Yes, symphony musicians play music outside of their orchestral obbligations. It keeps them creative and engaged.

So if you’ve only heard Peter Wyrick, associate principal cellist of the San Francisco Opera, play from the stage of Davies Symphony Hall, you might be delighted to encounter this superb musician in a chamber setting with his long-time recital partner, pianist June Choi Oh.

A beautiful sonata by Rachmaninov, another one by master melodist Sergei Prokofiev, and Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne based on his Giovanni Pergolesi arrangements for the ballet Pulcinella, make a finely balanced program that mixes spunkiness with heartfelt emotion.

And, as always at Old First Concerts, the price is right.

More about Old First Concerts »
Upcoming Concert
June 9, 2009

Artists, along with dung beetles and leafcutter ants, are among the most efficient recyclers in the world. They’re always creating new works out of old, so much so that we have literally dozens of words to describe the process — remix, cover, troping, parody, and so on.

In their upcoming concerts, Re-Cycle, Re-Sing, Sing New the San Francisco Choral Artists perform new works that give you some insight into the artistic process as well as being entertaining on their own. Lluvia/ Primavera takes a poem by California poet Lucha Corpi, and sets it to music taken from a 19th-century Spanish folksong.

Funeral Sentences is a choral remix of a piece by Henry Purcell, the 17th-century English composer. And then there’s my favorite, based on the title, Missa L’Homme on the Range, which gives “Home on the Range” the 16th-century polyphony treatment, a la Palestrina. Dress retro and enjoy.

More about San Francisco Choral Artists »