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
August 10, 2009

In the decade since he became the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his String Quartet No. 2 (“musica instrumentalis”) in 1998, Aaron Jay Kernis has become one of the leading composers of his generation. Not yet 50, he’s won most of classical music’s top honors and garnered commissions from America’s leading orchestras. The New York–based composer has served for a decade as new-music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and directs its Composer Institute.

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Upcoming Concert
August 5, 2009
Music in the Vineyards, a three-week chamber music festival staged in and around Napa's famous wineries, is not in danger of competing with its higher-profile, heavily promoted, festival neighbors. And that's the way they like it.

"We've learned a lot of lessons from seeing how other festivals operate," says Michael Adams, who founded and co-directs Music in the Vineyards with his wife, Daria. "Bigger is not better. 'Brown and serve' musicmaking tends to be the norm at most festivals, where there isn't enough time for rehearsals. So we avoid that assiduously. We are a relaxed environment where musicians come to get recharged, and we remind ourselves of why we're musicians."

If that sounds like a snooty concept to you, think again, says public relations manager Natasha Biasell. "It's not pretentious at all. Michael does a wonderful job of giving insightful commentary on every piece beforehand. These are informal concerts — some people come in jeans and a Hawaiian T-shirt." And setting the festival in several famous wineries, initially a decision forced upon the Adamses by necessity, has become a selling point, as people select concerts based on where they occur. Because this is not a crowded festival, there are tickets to many concerts still available.

There are usually a couple of groups that come in midweek to play one of their set programs. This year, the Pacifica Quartet visits on Aug. 12, an event that is sold-out. But the festival is built around a group of musicians from a variety of specialties (chamber, orchestral, soloist), and who rehearse intensively and perform almost all of the weekend concerts. "The three different worlds of the music profession collide, and it's amazing how much we get from that interchange," says Adams.

The programs at Music in the Vineyards, although well-planned, often have a serendipitous feel to them. Take the commissioned works that the Adamses are reprising this year. Wanting to do some vocal chamber music a few years back, they found that their venue was too small to house a piano and other musicians. But most vocal music includes a piano, so they commissioned a work (David Evan Thomas' To Live in This World) for soprano and string quartet. They liked the results so much that, two years later, they had David Brewbaker write a similar work (The Journey, 2004). Both composers, by sheer chance, happened to select poetry by Mary Oliver as the basis for their works. Brewbaker's work shares the Aug. 16 bill with Brahms' beloved Clarinet Quintet.

A few days later, on Aug. 19, the Adamses have put together a fascinating Haydn program, commemorating the 200th anniversary of his death. At the center are several homages from French composers, commissioned by the Société Internationale de Musique in 1909 for the centenary of Haydn's death. "And then there's this really interesting piece that I stumbled across called The Master and the Pupil, which is set up to do this mimickry thing, you know, from teacher to student. The teacher always leads the way and then the pupil gets a turn at the same material, but slightly varied," explains Michael.

The final night, at Rubicon Estate, on Aug. 23, brings forward the other birthday boy, Mendelssohn. His marvelous, youthful Octet holds the place of honor, along with Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18/3 and the earliest of Mozart's string quintets, K. 174 in B-flat. And you can sign up for the closing night, outdoor, buffet dinner with the musicians after the concert. Sounds like the perfect way to spend a late August evening, to me.

More about Music in the Vineyards »
Upcoming Concert
August 4, 2009
Though many members of college orchestras spend the summer months at their parents' homes or bicycling through Europe, enough young musicians live in the Bay Area to cobble together a respectable orchestra. This is the premise behind the UC Berkeley Summer Symphony, a collection of fine musicians from the region's many youth orchestras. It doesn't have many competitors right now, and its performances this weekend are free. So, if you're looking for a little Shostakovich to balance out your days at the beach, this is the place to go. The program includes Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. More »
Upcoming Concert
August 3, 2009
Summertime typically signals a period of downtime for classical music, as many ensembles enjoy a well-earned hiatus or shift their programming toward lighter fare. Not so for the San Francisco Lyric Chorus, a talented choir under the direction of Robert Gurney. SFLC combats the usual summer doldrums with a stalwart lineup of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn in performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 22-23, at San Francisco’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Known for taking bold repertory risks, Gurney has prepared a concert that seems well within the safe zone, judging by the composer list. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll uncover some tantalizing pieces that will stimulate both the ear and the mind, blending aural delights with a good measure of historical intrigue.

SFLC’s Mozart selection is not another Requiem or Mass in C Minor but rather the Vesperae Sollenne de Confessore, K. 339, one of the composer’s last Salzburg works. While we know when and where this piece was composed, thanks to an inscription on the score reading “Salzburg 1780,” nobody has discovered exactly what liturgical celebration it was intended for, though several have tried. (One recent theory posits the Feast of St. Rupert, the primary saint of Salzburg.) This is a fine opportunity to hear a work too little performed, within or outside the liturgy. Pay special attention to the marvelously serene Laudate Dominum, guaranteed to inspire even the impious to ponder Mozart’s heavenly talent.

Schubert wrote the Mass in G at the tender age of 18, yet the piece languished in an unpublished state until several decades after the composer’s death. Its emergence into public light was a sordid affair, as another composer first tried to pass off the piece off as his own, ultimately winding up in prison for embezzlement. Don’t expect a whole lot of dazzling virtuosity here, but luxuriate instead in the exquisite moods of contemplation that Schubert seems to conjure so effortlessly.

Further mystery surrounds Felix Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio Christus, a sobriquet applied by his brother, Paul, to a posthumously published selection of fragmentary works. The surviving pieces, including two selections on SFLC’s program (“Say, Where Is He Born” and “There Shall a Star From Jacob”), add fodder to the long-standing debate surrounding Mendelssohn’s religious affiliations and his efforts to reconcile his Jewish heritage with a prevailing Christian culture. One scholar recently suggested that with Christus Mendelssohn sought to advocate a premise of universal guilt for the death of Christ, issuing a pointed challenge to contemporary anti-Semitist currents. This is heady stuff for a summertime concert, but well worth pondering while you enjoy the exultant melodies and exquisite lyricism of these finely wrought miniatures.

More familiar to many audiences, though equally compelling in terms of theological significance, will be selections from Mendelssohn’s monumental oratorio Elijah, itself often seen as evoking parallels between this Old Testament prophet and the New Testament figure of Jesus. As a final treat, the rarely heard Kyrie in D Minor should prove a striking contrast, showcasing Mendelssohn in gloomier spirits with its thick choral textures and solemn atmosphere.

More about San Francisco Lyric Chorus »
Upcoming Concert
August 3, 2009
Among the gems in the crown of the San Francisco music scene are the Friday evening and Sunday 4 o’clocks at Old First Church. Those offer chamber music and recitals of quality programming by some of the Bay Area’s finer musicians — and at an exceptionally affordable price, too.

While the majority of the programs feature classical repertory, in recent years jazz programs have been added to the mix. With the August music dog days under way, there are some yummy prospects on offer by Old First Concerts, situated in the church on Sacramento Street at Van Ness Avenue. Considering the ready availability of public transportation, there’s no need to resist, especially if, like me, you’re a nondriver.

Most programs mix standards with an example or two of something adventurous. The cello and piano duo of Robert Howard and pianist Elizabeth Dorman is typical. Their Aug. 21 recital offers Beethoven’s Fourth Sonata and the Rachmaninov Sonata as the standards, but they open with Alberto Ginastera’s early Pampeana No. 2, his pastoral homage to the Argentinian pampas. They close with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella, after Pergolesi.

An even more original idea is Daniel Glover’s Aug. 9 program devoted entirely to piano homages by one composer to another. The list promises musical genuflections toward Haydn, Dukas, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel. (The latter two, for instance, each wrote a homage to Haydn on commission from a magazine.)

To boot, on Aug. 28 there’ll be another program of Old First’s “Basically British” series, its 12th. This piano–string quartet concert will be played by members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. They’ve programmed the Fantasy Quartet by Frank Bridge, who is best known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher. Chamber music by the prolific French composer George Onslow (1784-1853) completes the evening.

The only jazz program this month is “Jazzberry Patch,” on Aug. 16, a Sunday program at 7 p.m. rather than the usual 4 p.m., which offers a program of jazz classics and some new original pieces. These are to be played by Don Pender’s newly formed quartet. (Atypically for a classical music concert, Old First averages one jazz event per month.)

August, alas, offers no choral program, nor indeed a single vocal recital. Except for July’s International Children’s and Youth Choral Festival, there’s nothing of the sort in sight through to late next month. (The current list runs only through Sept. 26.)

As these concerts are open seating, the largest groups tend to sit down front on the main floor — not a good choice, in my experience. You pick up too much of the sounds of the instruments being played: string scrapings, pages being turned, the occasional bit of squeaking from a chair or music stand. Such things are a bother if you’re really listening.

An even larger drawback from up front is that you’ll miss the blended resonance of the hall. Best to sit back a bit or, better yet, in the balcony. That’s particularly true of Old First, whose balcony has the best sonics to be had in the hall. In any case, be assured you’ll be hearing quality music in sterling performances.

More about Old First Concerts »
Artist Spotlight
July 31, 2009

Raised in Sacramento, and an alumnus of both the Merola program at San Francisco Opera and the Resident Artist training program at Opera San José, bass Kirk Eichelberger now sings lead roles with opera companies throughout the U.S. He is currently in rehearsal to play Mephistopheles in Festival Opera’s production of Faust. I sat down with him to ask him about his career, his training, and how he likes playing the devil.

What did you learn as a resident artist at Opera San José and a graduate of Merola?

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Artist Spotlight
July 29, 2009

Legendary pianist Menahem Pressler makes his [email protected] debut on Sunday, Aug. 2, in a concert in Atherton titled "An Evening With Menahem Pressler."

His philosophy of music and his life can be summed up in his first statement in the interview: “It’s a privilege to be a musician, and one who feels so strongly and creatively about the music, even if I’m not as young as I once was. It’s a present.”


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Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
After the epic lavishness of Turandot, Festival Opera isn’t looking to bowl you over with its upcoming production of Gounod’s Faust. But while the physical design of Faust takes the opposite tack from Puccini’s blockbuster, the end result promises to be just as impressive.

Festival Opera’s production, conducted and directed by Artistic Director Michael Morgan, places the opera in a world of existential illusion, a modern take on the classic myth. “Our modern setting will begin with Faust as an old man living in a retirement facility,” says Morgan. “As a backdrop, we will use projections to show the effects of time on Faust’s surroundings, beginning with the wallpaper of his room, which will gradually transform into the vivid flowers of Marguerite’s garden and then decay. This happens over the course of the entire performance. As the garden decays, a spider web becomes superimposed on the flowers, symbolizing the trap set for Faust by Méphistophélès. This will be Festival Opera’s first use of large-scale projections, as well as employing this kind of visual symbolism, to tell a story through both sound and light. It will be like the way you experience a sunrise. You don’t notice each different gradation of light, but at some point you realize the sky is bright and the sun is up.”

The trick, in a minimal production such as this one, at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, is good casting — and that’s an area in which Morgan excels. To sing the role of Faust, he got Brian Thorsett, a former Merola participant and a Baroque and Mozart specialist. “When Michael first offered me this role, I was hesitant,” says Thorsett, “but after a few emails back and forth, he really convinced me it would be a good fit and that the orchestra will be tailored to fit with all of the cast’s talents. Not many do that.”

The joke about Gounod’s Faust is that it should have been called Marguerite. The heroine’s role is enormously complicated, and Morgan has tapped Kristen Clayton, a former Adler Fellow, and now an experienced singing actress who loves this role. “It’s very special when you find opera roles that feel suited specifically to your voice,” she says. “Marguerite goes through such a range of emotions, from loneliness and vulnerability to succumbing to passion and desire — and, finally, confusion and unending torment. And I love singing in French and adore the beautiful, romantic melodies throughout the opera.”

Finally, there is Méphistophélès, the devil with the urbanity of a Parisian boulevardier. Kirk Eichelberger has sung the role for Opera San José, and recently, for Opera Grand Rapids, in Michigan. Eichelberger is a regular at Festival Opera — this is his ninth appearance with the company.

“Michael Morgan is one of my favorite conductors,” he says. “He is extremely musical. He knows when to take the lead and when to follow what I’m doing. Singing for Michael is just effortless. He is so in tune with me and perhaps I, in turn, am in tune with him to the point where it is just effortless music-making. It is a rare thing to find in opera, and it makes me want to sing for him all the time.”

The secondary roles are equally well-cast, so if you’re thinking that this is the second-banana opera, think again.

More about Festival Opera »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
The Web site for an upcoming sfSound concert on Aug. 9 includes a video of Karlheinz Stockhausen, a famous German composer, speaking about human evolution. The idea of evolution suits this concert on two levels. First, by including one piece from the early 1950s, two from the mid-1970s, and three from this current year, it chronicles the passing of historical time. Second, all three of the new works innovatively evolve their initially simple musical ideas.

The oldest piece on the program is by Stockhausen himself: Kreuzspiel, a work for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion. It is a landmark composition for late-20th-century music, owing to certain principles of serial composition found within it. Its name, which means “Crossplay,” concerns the fact that different musical lines move in crisscrossing directions across various registers of pitches.

The two pieces from the mid-1970s are Schattenblätter, a trio by the Swiss composer Klaus Huber, and another trio by the American composer Anthony Braxton. The word Schattenblätter, or “shade leaves,” is a botanical term for leaves that grow in the shade rather than in the sun. Huber’s piece similarly lurks in a shadowy musical underbelly of sparse textures and highly differentiated instrumental parts. Huber describes that in his piece, “extreme isolation” becomes “audibly expressive.”

Huber also writes that his ascetic piece might remind people about prisoners of conscience. Braxton’s Composition No. 75, meanwhile, tests boundaries between musical freedom and restriction. Within it, the composer incorporates both strict notation and free improvisation.

The three pieces from this year include Intuition, a work for alto flute and percussion by Christopher Jones. Jones describes that within the work simple musical ideas evolve through “reiteration, transformation, disappearance, and reemergence.” The composition is named after a piece of visual art: an empty, wooden box that the artist, Joseph Beuys, intended for people to fill with their own personal thoughts. Similarly, Jones’ piece is a receptacle for musical ideas that individual performers personalize.

Next, Planetary is a work for oboe, clarinet, and saxophone by Christopher Burns, a Milwaukee composer. The movement of the cosmos inspired its musical processes. Just as moons orbit planets while those same planets orbit the sun, so too do the musical ideas in this piece evolve by rotating around each other at various speeds and on multiple levels.

Alongside Planetary, this concert will also premiere David Bithell’s temporary structures. Here, the simple idea of alternation is at play. Like the rotations in Planetary, this alternation happens on multiple levels: between individual instruments, and between groups of them. Further, Bithell describes that, over time, “Instrumental motives become more subdued and inhabit a narrower range,” so that the structure of the whole piece assumes the shape of a diminuendo.

Even though this concert and these pieces can be described in terms of evolution, this upcoming concert will also speak to the current state of the Bay Area’s contemporary music scene. That state, judging by this sfSound program, promises to be both appealing and advanced.

More about sfSound »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
Every time Robert Geary returns to Giuseppe Verdi’s stirring Requiem Mass, “it’s deeper in my blood, but I have to prepare and rethink it. And that’s wonderful,” says the noted artistic director of the 200-voice San Francisco Choral Society. “Because I’m not a genius, whenever I go back to substantial music by a real genius, there’s always more to learn.”

The Choral Society has performed Verdi’s monumental work twice before under Geary’s direction, in 2000 and 2003, and will do it again Aug. 14 and 15 at Davies Symphony Hall. It will share the stage with the California Chamber Symphony and four soloists: soprano Karen Anderson, mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse (both of whom were featured in 2003), tenor Ben Bongers, and bass Kittinant Chinsamran. The program opens with the premiere of Donald McCullough’s Contraries: The Human Condition, a 20-minute work that the Choral Society commissioned for its 20th anniversary.

Premiered in Milan in 1874, Verdi’s sublime and soul-wrenching Requiem has its roots in a requiem Mass that he and other leading Italian composers collaboratively wrote in 1868 in honor of Rossini. That work was never performed. Five years later, Verdi composed his Requiem Mass, dedicated to the Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, who died in 1873. Verdi used the final “Libera me” movement he’d written for the Rossini Mass in the dramatic new work imbued with the spirit of Italian nationalism. Departing San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles, who conducted the Requiem Mass in May, describes it as “a supremely theatrical work, in the sense that it’s almost pictorial in its terrifying visions. It’s apocalyptic.”

For Geary, the tired old debate over whether the work is religious or operatic “is absolutely insignificant,” he says. “The Choral Society is a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and atheists. We’re moved by the impact of the music itself, the range of expression, the emotion.” Works such as this and the Mozart Requiem, Geary goes on, “come from the sacred tradition, but they become universal. The composer got it on such a deeper level. It captures something more universal than any specific religious expression.” Geary calls the Verdi Requiem “the perfect synthesis of chorus, orchestra, and soloists. It’s a beautiful concerto for those three entities.”

McCullough, the music director of Master Chorale of Washington (D.C.), composed a six-movement work for chorus and soprano soloist, set to poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. When McCullough first proposed the idea, Geary — who founded the daring San Francisco contemporary ensemble Volti — was a bit disappointed, as he prefers new works that draw on contemporary poets. So much music has been set to Blake that Geary was hoping “for something new,” he says. “That being said, he did do something new: He explored some of the darker material in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Most composers who set Blake to music tend to focus on the happy stuff, like “The Blossom” and “The Laughing Song,” Geary says. McCullough uses those poems, too, but he also delves into the darkness of “A Poisonous Tree,” and “The Sick Rose,” whose lines Geary recites with relish:

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm

That flies in the night,

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Geary describes the music as “rhythmic and dramatic. The harmonic language is contemporary but tonal.” The composer, he adds, “is not trying to do something soothing and entertaining. He’s being provocative. That’s the primary responsibility of real art. He’s challenging us to reflect on part of human nature as expressed by Blake and through the music.”

More about San Francisco Choral Society »