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.

Artist Spotlight
July 13, 2009

Over the last 18 years, Maestro Bruno Weil has transformed the Carmel Bach Festival into a major international event. The seaside festival, which celebrates the music of J.S. Bach and the composers inspired by him, is known for the rich range of its programming and the consistent high quality of its performances.

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Artist Spotlight
July 6, 2009

Not yet 29, conductor Alondra de la Parra made history as the first woman from Mexico to conduct in New York City. In her short career, she has presented more than 20 world premieres by such composers as Clarice Assad, Enrico Chapela, Paul Brantley, Paul Desenne, and Eugenio Toussaint.

In 2000, de la Parra moved to New York City where she received her B.A. in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music, and her master’s in conducting. She has since made the city her home, where she resides with her husband.

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Upcoming Concert
July 6, 2009
Most “one-opera composers” are not. They are known for a single work in the theater, but it’s not for lack of trying. (Beethoven and Borodin are notable exceptions, with Fidelio and Prince Igor, respectively.)

But Bizet did much more than Carmen (and his Pearl Fishers does pop up often), Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is just one of his 11 operas, and so on. What’s at work here is the popularity of one work, often at the expense of others.

The 1890 Cavalleria rusticana is what Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) is known for, though he actually produced 16 other operas and operettas. His Iris is an especially fine example of an unjustly neglected opera, and the 1891 L’amico Fritz (Friend Fritz) — the subject of our sermon today — is a splendid piece, coming soon to your neighborhood.

One of two operas staged by and for the 2009 Merola Program participants, L’amico Fritz will be performed at Cowell Theater on July 24 and 26. (The other Merola production is Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Aug. 7 and 9.)

Unlike the blood-and-gore verisimo of Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s second opera, L’amico Fritz, is a “lyric comedy,” closer to operetta than opera. It is based on the novel L’ami Fritz by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian, taking place in a French community of Jews. (Although this has nothing to do with the opera, it’s worth noting that the Judeo-Alsatian community has a thousand years’ history.)

The story opens with a bet (shades of Così fan tutte!) between landowner/bachelor Fritz Kobus (sung by tenor Nathaniel Peake), and his friend, Rabbi David (baritone Aleksey Bogdanov).

Fritz stakes his vineyard on the bet that he will never marry. What and why the rabbi puts up against that is unclear. Of course, we all know how all this will work out, so not to worry about details.

The wager is greatly handicapped by the presence of the beauteous Suzel (soprano Sara Gartland), daughter of one of his tenants. Three acts, some minor complications, some gorgeous music, and the “Cherry Duet” later — excuse the spoiler — then the couple unites and the rabbi returns the vineyard to Suzel as a wedding present.

Warren Jones conducts members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and the stage director of the black-box production is Nic Muni. Other Merolini in the cast are Yohan Yi, Eleazar Rodrìguez, Susannah Biller, and Maya Lahyani.

The opera’s one and only local main stage production goes all the way back to 1924, on a double bill with Gianni Schicchi. It had a remarkable cast: Tito Schipa, Giuseppe de Luca, and Thalia Sabanieva; Gaetano Merola himself conducted. In 1976, Spring Opera produced L’amico Fritz with Vinson Cole, Frederick Burchinal, and Leona Mitchell.

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Upcoming Concert
June 30, 2009
“We’re having a lot of fun down here,” says David Gordon, dramaturge of the Carmel Bach Festival. For 71 years audiences have agreed, journeying to one of California’s most picturesque seaside towns for a summer idyll of Bach and his contemporaries, among other musical offerings.

This year, Gordon’s idea of fun involves not only music, but also pictures, colored lighting, spoken narrative, and a dash of playful stage business. For two performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which Gordon calls “statistically the most recorded composition in history,” the festival will heighten the listening experience with projected paintings and stage lighting keyed to the program of the movements: a harsh orange light of the sun for “Summer,” something thinner and blue-toned for “Winter.”

As for the paintings, Gordon is tapping the composer’s Venetian contemporary Sebastiano Ricci, who actually may have inspired Vivaldi’s famous four-panel concerto. Instead of simply projecting full-frame images by Ricci and others of the period, a strategy that risks literalizing the score, Gordon plans a more impressionistic approach. Twelve scenes, of trees, sky water, shepherds, and so on — one for each section of The Four Seasons — will appear in partial, semiabstract, vague, or slightly blurred treatments on a five-by-10-foot screen at the Sunset Center Theater. Muslin drapes will add a further softening touch.

“The idea here is not to draw attention to how trendy and geeky we are, but to enhance the music’s affect and heighten our sensory awareness of it,” notes Gordon, who began his 21-year tenure at the festival as a tenor soloist. By employing the “basic principles of classical rhetoric — to entertain and engage the heart and thereby open opportunities for learning and insight” — Gordon believes this fresh approach to Vivaldi will remain true to the festival’s core mission.

This kind of experiment is a Carmel first. Details of how all the elements will come together are still being worked out. Gordon and Music Director Bruno Weil considered something similar a few years ago, when the idea of combining Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Albrecht Dürer etchings was proposed. But the match felt too specific and confining. The mixed-media scheme was scuttled until the right piece came along.

Festival regulars may feel more at home when it comes to “Haydn Seek: An Aha! Concert” scheduled for July 21 and 28. In a format first used in Carmel four years ago and repeated every year since, the “Aha!” programs merge spoken commentary and, recently, some visuals with the music. “It’s not a lecture concert,” Gordon hastens to explain. “We’re not telling the life of the composer or building some kind of argument. It’s a potpourri concert with a narrative thread.”

Built around movements from various symphonies, a piano trio, The Seasons, Mass in Time of War, and more, this year’s “Aha!” will touch on everything from Haydn’s superstar career in London to his depressions and his reputation as a ladies’ man. Don’t expect to have any gentle Papa Haydn predispositions confirmed. “People may experience a Haydn who is more exciting, more innovative, and more original than they think,” says Gordon, who will serve as onstage narrator.

No picture of Haydn would be complete without a nod to his humor. In what’s billed as a “reenactment” of the “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45, in F-sharp minor), the musicians will get into the act by getting offstage.

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Artist Spotlight
June 29, 2009

Jonathan Khuner is a Bay Area classical music fixture. He is artistic and musical director for the Berkeley Opera. He also divides his time between the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor and a prompter for both companies.

The Berkeley Opera Company is doing The Ballad of Baby Doe this July. Why did you chose this opera?

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Upcoming Concert
June 29, 2009
How would classical music have evolved in the last century had not the Holocaust robbed us of some of our greatest composers? That is but one of the questions that preoccupied Susan Waterfall, cofounder of the Mendocino Music Festival, as she prepared for the festival’s July 16 evening program, They Left a Light: Masterpieces From Nazi Prison Camps. Performed by Waterfall (piano and narration), Jeremy Cohen (violin), Burke Schuchmann (cello), Emily Onderdonk (viola), Art Austin (clarinet), Erin Neff (mezzo-soprano/soprano), and Igor Vieira (baritone), the concert will feature Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time along with works written in the Nazi’s “model concentration camp,” Terezín.

Waterfall, who cofounded the festival with her husband, Allan Pollack, 23 years ago, explained by phone that she chose the title They Left a Light because the “light” is “the certainty that the creations of the incarcerated artists, their loves, and their lives were more significant than the enormous acts of evil perpetrated against them.”

Last year, Waterfall produced a program on the artistic creations of German Jews such as Weill, Brecht, and Eisler who escaped Nazi persecution in Europe and dispersed the “Weimar musical consciousness” around the world. Many fled to Hollywood, where they worked in the film industry. This year she turns her sights on those who never got out, as well as the music of a devout Catholic (Messiaen) who wrote one of his great early works while incarcerated in a World War II prison camp.

Listen to the Music

Terezin Anthem

Ta knudubsk va

“There’s always this feeling of dissatisfaction with music in the 20th century,” says Waterfall. “The Holocaust stopped maybe 50 percent of the natural evolution of music from the ’20s. If you look at Bartók and Janáček, two composers who were mining the Eastern European folk tradition and developing new techniques to express this profound music that conveys so much human history and emotion, you don’t find it continuing, because the natural heirs of that tradition, such as Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa, all died.”

Inside the festival’s acoustically engineered tent, which is perched by the coast on the picturesque headlands of Mendocino, attendees at the evening of chamber music will discover projections of photographs of the camps, the composers, and original performers, as well as translations of the songs performed in the second half. Some of the music will be familiar to those who have heard mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie Von Otter’s award-winning recording Terezín | Theresienstadt or other recordings of music written in Terezín by artists who perished.

“That human beings, even under the most terrible circumstances of starvation, filth, and terror of death, can still connect with their artistic urge is so extraordinary,” says Waterfall. “Even the audiences in the concentration camp were begging people to play, because it enabled them to experience their full humanity. ‘Please play for us,’ they cried, ‘so we won’t feel like we’re just dying like cattle.’ For both performers and composers, making music was an active resistance amidst the catastrophe of Nazi darkness. It enabled them to connect to the highest aspirations and goals of European tradition and culture.”

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Upcoming Concert
June 24, 2009
In Boston, during the mid-1960s, it was commonly accepted that there were three people in town who would never in their lives need to pay for a drink at one of that city’s taverns: Carl Yastrzemski, the slugging left fielder for the Red Sox; Bill Russell, the center for the Celtics’ perennial championship teams; and Arthur Fiedler, the indefatigable conductor of the Boston Pops.

Fiedler’s joyful introduction of popular classical repertoire over 50 years with the Boston and San Francisco Pops, as well as dozens of recordings, brought great music to the masses. Fiedler’s enthusiasm was so contagious and his reach so broad that his annual July 4th concerts at the Esplanade on the banks of the Charles became festive happenings that were broadcast nationwide. Whether in the audience or watching the concert on the television in your living room, it was impossible not to feel the transformative power of music when the Pops performed the 1812 Overture, which regularly culminated with fireworks exploding over Bean Town.

Thirty years after his death, Fiedler would no doubt approve of the San Francisco Symphony’s July “My Classic” concert series at Davies Symphony Hall featuring timeless classical music favorites. Two of these concerts, My Classic American Composers on July 2, and My Classic Tchaikovsky on July 3, even celebrate the Independence Day theme popularized by Fiedler.

Conductor James Gaffigan devotes the “My Classic American Composers” concert to works by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. The program features Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, a suite of orchestral music based on his score of the 1957 musical, and Music from the Film On the Waterfront, the only film score composed by Bernstein and one of his most satisfying orchestral works.

Pianist Gabriela Montero performs Gershwin’s masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, the work that combines elements of classical music with jazz and remains one of the most popular American concert works. The piece will be paired with An American in Paris, Gershwin’s equally popular tone poem elicited from his time spent in the French capital during the 1920s.

The "My Classic Tchaikovsky" concert includes musical excerpts from the Russian composer’s ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Inon Barnatan (read an interview), a recent winner of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, will perform the impassioned Piano Concerto No. 1. The program will conclude with the 1812 Overture, just as Arthur Fiedler would have had it.

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Upcoming Concert
June 23, 2009
Nothing says summer like an outdoor pops concert, especially if its free. The Peninsula Symphony scores big on all three counts, as they present a free concert on the steps of the Redwood City Courthouse Square. Besides great music from three Bs (Berlioz, Bizet, and Bernstein), the fun includes a raffle. Let the kids stay up late, bring a picnic, and enjoy. More about Peninsula Symphony »
Upcoming Concert
June 23, 2009

Early music buffs get an unexpected bit of luck this week, as Passamezzo Moderno, a baroque instrumental group shows up at Berkeley’s Trinity Chapel Concerts.

The group will be playing their “Ostinato” program, consisting of music with repeating basslines, one of the largest repertories of instrumental music from the 17th century.

The music is sprightly and gay, sure to ut a spring in your step.

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Upcoming Concert
June 23, 2009
Since 1979, the Berkeley Opera has presented accessible, affordable productions in the East Bay. The second opera for its 2009 season, Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, will open on July 11. As always, the performances will be given in Berkeley’s beautiful Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. Originally a church, the building was designed in 1908 by the famous architect, and later turned into a theater. Nestled among homes and cafes, it’s not the sort of neighborhood in which you’d expect to find an opera house. The theater is as cozy as the grand opera is elegant, and the performances are suitable for aficionados, the opera-illiterate, and everyone in between.

Part of Berkeley Opera’s mission is to make opera accessible to everyone. Although The Ballad of Baby Doe is sung in English, supertitles will be provided. When the company puts on works that are originally in other languages, it often uses an English translation, as well. Under the direction of Jonathan Khuner, it also makes the stories accessible by taking an adventurous approach to costuming, staging, and sets (think Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, with gothic scenes and steampunk costumes). Such a playful take on classical works makes strides toward bridging the gap between opera and musical theater. The former can come across as elitist, while the latter is sometimes deemed frivolous — but find the middle ground, and you get a music-drama genre that can cater to almost any aesthetic taste.

One of the few American operas to make the performance canon, The Ballad of Baby Doe takes place in a Colorado silver-mining town. As in any good libretto, the plot centers on a love triangle, with plenty of intrigue and misunderstood intentions. Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, famously interpreted by Beverly Sills, will be played by Jillian Khuner. Torlef Borsting will sing the role of Horace Tabor, the main male character. Horace is not a tenor role, as most male leads are; in this opera the main man is a baritone who happens to own the whole town. His wife, Augusta (mezzo-soprano Lisa Houston), disapproves of his lifestyle, and Horace ends up with Baby Doe. They are soon found out, and Horace spends the remainder of the opera torn between the two women.

Much of Douglas Moore’s music is influenced by American genres like ragtime and jazz. In the opening scene, in which Horace and Baby first meet, the orchestration relies heavily on a honky-tonk piano. The lyricism of Moore’s arias reflects American folk song; some of the more famous include Baby’s “Willow Song” and “Always Through the Changing.” The composer’s use of American settings, themes, and music make The Ballad of Baby Doe distinctly non-European, setting it apart from the great majority of operas. The opening date of July 11 makes this all-American opera a perfect follow-up to Independence Day festivities. Anyone interested in a preview can also catch highlights at a free noon concert, to be held at the Berkeley Public Library, on Shattuck Avenue at Kittredge, at 12:15 on Thursday, June 25.

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