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.

Artist Spotlight
April 3, 2009

Mills College caps off its Music Festival this Sunday with a concert celebrating the reopening of its beautifully restored concert hall and the 60th birthday of Music Department Chair, Fred Frith. The composer, improviser, and guitar pioneer discusses teaching, improvisation, and what fuels his creative fire.

I’ve heard that you say that some of your students are more qualified to teach composition than you are.

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Upcoming Concert
March 31, 2009

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman is known for his technical polish, recently seen here as in a performance of Witold Lutoslawski's 1987 Piano Concerto under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt. (Zomerman was the concerto's dedicatee who premiered the work at the Salzburg Festival in 1988.)

In this Cal Performances presentation Zimerman may or may not be touring with his own Hamburg Steinway piano. This allows him to do some degree of control over having to adjust to unfamiliar instruments, a regulation that may fare him well in Zellerbach Hall.

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Upcoming Concert
March 31, 2009

Live performances of the vast catalog of symphonic music by Russian composer Nicolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) occur with near-hen’s-tooth frequency (only two in the last eight seasons anywhere in the U.S. or Canada).

So fans of a sound described as being between Rachmaninov and Scriabin should rush to Bruno Ferrandis’ Wells Fargo Center henhouse to see him conduct the Santa Rosa Symphony and soloist Gary Hoffman in Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto. It has a slow movement to die for. Plus, you’ll hear excerpts from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane and Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballets.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
Music from Eastern Europe, especially if it’s also from the earlier part of the 20th century, has a reputation for being rugged and rough-hewn, full of exotic sounds and hypnotic motifs over catchy rhythms. Sometimes that reputation is deserved. The Redwood Symphony, a Peninsula community orchestra that doesn’t shy away from the unusual or the challenging, will be playing three such works at its concert on April 4 in Redwood City, with Music Director Eric Kujawsky conducting.

There will be rhythmic motifs. There will be strange harmonies. There will be exotic sounds. Expect sounds from percussion instruments you don’t hear every day at the symphony — tambourine, celesta, and piano as a percussion instrument in the background. There will be brass, lots of brass. There will be unusual combinations of instruments playing together. Bass clarinet and English horn. Bass clarinet and tuba. There will be a lot of work for all the players. There should be a lot of fun.

Many people from that part of the world are Slavic, but there are many others as well. The three composers on this concert are each of a different nationality, and only one of them is Slavic.

Béla Bartók, Hungarian, the Magyar people from the Danube plain. His Dance Suite of 1923 is the roughest, most brutal, and least tunefully catchy of the pieces on offer, but it’s also the most good humored and generally fun-loving. If you know his Miraculous Mandarin, think of that work plus a sense of humor. The six short movements of this suite almost run together. A variety of insanely fast and complex sections alternate with a gentler repeating tune. Then Bartók throws all the previous material together in a potpourri of a finale.

Aram Khatchaturian, Armenian, an ancient people from up in the Caucasus on the borders with Iran and Kurdistan. Khatchaturian’s style of pulsating motifs and gorgeous tunes over fast, dancing rhythms has become so taken for granted that the composer himself has been neglected. His once-popular Violin Concerto of 1940 has spent most of its time in a bottom drawer with the old linen since David Oistrakh, its dedicatee and great champion, died 35 years ago. Now younger violinists are rediscovering it. Claudia Bloom of the Opera San José orchestra will be the soloist at this concert. The slow middle movement is the most sublime Khatchaturian moment, but the lively outer movements have great dazzle.

Leoš Janáček, Moravian, the lesser-known Czech people, from the hills east of Dvořák’s Bohemians, and the Slavic representative at this concert. The opening fanfare of Janáček’s Sinfonietta of 1926 will grab you quickly. Brass and timpani, nothing else. First, supporting harmonies in stark open fifths, then a battery of trumpets declaiming a motif that expands as it repeats. After that, the rest of the orchestra comes in. Listen for the first themes of the second and fourth movements, so similar to each other and so reminiscent of Orff’s Carmina Burana. And wait for the end of the fifth and last movement, when the fanfare returns, verbatim, over towering trills from the rest of the orchestra.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
The word “operetta” sounds like what it is: opera lite. The story may be tragic but the treatment will be light, if you can imagine that. You are not invited to dwell long in tragedy; neither are you permitted to escape from the sadness — not altogether. And when the composer of the operetta, in this case the aptly named Bitter Sweet, is Noël Coward, that English master of wit and sentiment, you are in the hands of a craftsman, who will pass you ever so gently from tears to smiles and back again.

If you are not familiar with Coward’s work, now is the time to become acquainted. If you’re clever and persistent, you might even be able to find a few albums in which he sings his songs, which is an experience not to be missed. Every word, clearly enunciated, is suffused with that light-hearted yet heart-piercing sentiment (some would say, sentimentality; I wouldn’t) that you also find in his films (for example, Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed). Yes: actor, singer (of sorts), playwright (Private Lives, Blithe Spirit), composer, and bon vivant. When asked for his notion of the ideal life, he answered, “Mine.”

The songs in Bitter Sweet are beautifully singable. For a singer that is like honey to the vocal cords. And the emotions are immediately accessible. There has never been a song more filled with longing than “I’ll See You Again,” in waltz time, sung first as a duet by the main characters, a singer and her singing teacher, and later reprised, each time with an appropriate change in the lyrics. Sarah, the singer, leaves her fiancé, a stodgy young man who would make her rich but not happy, on the eve of their marriage. With Carl, her singing teacher, whom she loves, Sarah (later called Sari) is poor but, yes, happy and eternally in love, until tragedy — and it is every bit as tragic as the “operatic” stabbing of Carmen by her lover, Don Jose — robs her of her only love.

Sari appears in the operetta first as an old woman, practiced in the ways of the world, and wealthy from a second marriage to a nobleman. In a flashback, which was quite an unusual technique for 1929, she is once again a young woman, about to be married to a man she does not love, and the story of her elopement and subsequent misfortune unfolds from there, ending, as it began, with Sari as an old woman, still remembering her love.

In true musical theater fashion, the characters speak much of the time, breaking into song when they can’t help it, or when there is something so deep, they must express it in music. Bitter Sweet is a seamless, thoroughly satisfying work. The dialogue flows, and the songs emerge effortlessly from it.

With Lamplighters Music Theatre, the wonderful San Francisco Gilbert & Sullivan company, now in its 56th season, the production will be in good hands. It stars the excellent singers Jane Erwin Hammett and Baker Peeples, with the estimable Jennifer Ashworth and William Neely in featured roles. Prepare to smile through your tears. Or weep through your smiles.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
While visiting artists often draw the crowds, many fine musicians live in the Bay Area and perform here on occasion. The Noe Valley Chamber Music series presents three of them in “Piano Trio Milestones,” a chamber concert by three unparalleled musicians — violinist Axel Strauss, cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and pianist Jeffrey Sykes — all players on the international scene, while living here.

The three are dedicated educators (Strauss and Fonteneau are professors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sykes at Cal State University East Bay and at the Madison, Wisc.–based Opera for the Young); they also maintain busy performing and recording schedules. When I attempted to reach Strauss (a native of Germany) for a comment about this upcoming concert, he was in Berlin doing a stint as guest concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. French-born Fonteneau regularly tours in South Korea and just issued a CD on Albany Records, playing new works by Korean composer Hi Kyung Kim. Sykes also has an impressive discography to his credit and performs chamber music throughout North America and Europe.

The concert in the intimate Noe Valley Ministry shares some significant signposts in the repertoire. It opens with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1/1, not technically his first composition, but one he thought worthy enough for that tag. It was premiered by Prince Karl von Lichnowsky’s resident string quartet at one of Lichnowsky’s weekly soirées in 1794. The sound of the piece is still much indebted to Haydn, whom Beethoven admired a great deal, and shows Beethoven’s full mastery of the late Classical style. Axel Strauss quipped: “His admiration didn’t stop him from trying to outdo the master, at the same time. The piece is extremely quick and witty and bristles with energy.”

The next milestone presented is Piano Trio No. 1 by American composer Leon Kirchner, who celebrated his 90th birthday in January. Kirchner wrote the piece in 1954, one year after winning the Naumburg Award (won by Axel Strauss in 1998). Kirchner studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Ernest Bloch at UCLA and with Roger Sessions in New York. In this piano trio his musical language is closely related to Schoenberg’s, sans his 12-tone method. Kirchner’s music is quite dissonant at times, but always rhythmically engaging and highly expressive.

Closing the program will be Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor (1914), a piece requiring a high level of virtuosity for all instruments and widely regarded as technically brilliant. Ravel derived musical inspiration for this trio from numerous sources, including Basque dance and Malaysian poetry. Says Strauss, “The variety of tone colors and textures he gets out of a piano trio is just staggering. You can hear beautifully elegant melodies that seem to literally float through the air; in other places (the ending, for example), the music becomes downright orchestral. Even by Ravel’s highest standards, this is a masterpiece.”

Might we hear more from this trio in the future? We can only hope.

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Upcoming Concert
March 30, 2009
The Cypress Quartet is rethinking the traditional concept of concerts, in which the musicians play a piece typically written some 150 years ago, the audience listens and then claps their hands, the performers bow, and everyone goes home. The Cypress is turning that experience into a two-week project that involves the entire community.

First, the Quartet commissions a piece based on a masterpiece that has been in the repertoire for dozens of decades. Once composed, the new work is taken on tour around the Bay Area. The Quartet members travel to a dozen different high schools, presenting concerts in which both they and young chamber-musicians play. They introduce the new work to students, discuss the old inspiring masterpiece, and relate the traditions of their craft to young minds.

The outreach work doesn’t stop at schools. The Cypress Quartet also plays free concerts at a bar/restaurant and gives free preconcert public workshops, with the composer, during which the piece is analyzed and discussed with audience members. The project culminates in an official concert at Herbst Theatre (next one: April 3), repeated at Montalvo Arts Center (April 5); lobby exhibits will display artifacts such as letters, manuscripts, and sketches by the likes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

This kind of campaign is made possible only with lots of passion and belief in the art. Cypress violinist Tom Stone calls it a “crusade to inspire and excite people about this music.” The crusade is now in its 10th year, and Stone reports that students and experienced listeners alike are enthusiastically welcoming the old “calls” and the new “responses.” This year, the response is made by 37-year-old Kevin Puts, who isolates a few notes from the Lento Assai movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, and turns it into an entire composition. It’s the same tightly controlled motivic approach that Beethoven himself, as well as Haydn and Brahms, was fond of, though it produces quite different results. “The music is challenging, but [this program] provides a point of entry,” says Stone.

Traveling from school to school, from community centers to trendy lounges to — oh, yeah — fancy concert halls, the Cypress Quartet shares the long, difficult, yet rewarding journey of performing in-depth music. Audiences get to participate, to learn about the composers’ secret connections and riddles embedded in the works, to hear the back-story from professional musicians, to analyze the musical motives, and ultimately to better understand the piece. Finally, at concert time, the entire experience can be more meaningful. But this won’t happen by itself: For the project to reach its full potential, listeners must take advantage of the opportunity the Cypress is providing.

See the Cypress Web site for other free performances that include everything from "Chamber Music and Bubbles" to a discussion with composer Kevin Puts. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
A rare opportunity to hear one of the 20th century’s underplayed composers. Though Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-1996) isn’t often mentioned in histories of 20th-century music, his music seems more contemporary than many composers who are. He has a set of influential admirers, including the composer Thomas Ades, who programmed Castiglioni in his last solo recital in San Francisco, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who was Castiglioni’s composition student.

Much of Castiglioni’s music is rooted in a late Romantic sound-world, but his music spans a variety of 20th-century compositional techniques, sometimes juxtaposed with each other in the same piece. Pianist Alfonso Alberti has recorded all of the composer’s piano music (on the CD Cangianti published by Col Legno Records), and is an enthusiastic performer of contemporary music. His concert, presented by Old First Concerts, is sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco.

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Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
In the old days, when classical music was reserved for upper-crust audiences, a lot of music got one or two performances and then was put away in a library and forgotten. That’s why a group like Magnificat, Warren Stewart’s 17th-century music band, is so much fun to see. Often their performance of a piece is the only chance you’ll get to experience it live. This time around, they take on an obscure but lively serenata (like a mini-opera) composed by the once world-renowned Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). In Venere, Amore, e Ragione (Venus, Cupid, and Reason), the love goddess chides her son for spending too much time around reasonable people, but Cupid shows her that the company he now keeps is much better. Given the high-polish performances Magnificat is known for, this show is worth leaving your palazzo to see. More »
Upcoming Concert
March 24, 2009
One of the best-planned and at the same time oddest-looking piano recitals I’ve ever encountered is coming up two Sundays hence, in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. There, the distinguished French pianist Pascal Rogé will play a survey of basic French piano music from 1830 (Chopin’s Op. 10 Étude No. 1) to 1929 (Poulenc’s First Nocturne). While largely devoted to works of Chopin and Debussy, along the route the program includes examples of Fauré and Ravel — besides the one Poulenc composition.

As a nice touch, Rogé has mixed composers by title type. He opens with three Nocturnes (Fauré, Chopin, and Poulenc), then plays four Waltzes (Ravel and Chopin), two Mazurkas (Debussy and Chopin), and on like so, with Études and a lot of Préludes, plus a Ballade to open and close that sequence. He’s offering a remarkable 24 works at one go, though only the final Chopin Ballade No. 4 is large-scale.

Born in Paris in 1951, Rogé entered the Paris Conservatory at the tender age of 11, also making his Paris debut that year. He graduated, with honors, in piano and chamber music in 1966, then went on to a major career, playing with all the major orchestras. He’s also been a mainstay of London Records, winning all the major European prizes. His recording of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos, for example, won a Gramophone Award, the Edison Award, and a Grand Prix du Disc — a trifecta in the record industry.

All three of the opening Nocturnes are in C major: Fauré’s Op. 33, No. 1; Chopin’s Op. 48, No. 1; and the Poulenc. Those are followed by three of Ravel’s valses nobles et sentimental and Chopin’s famous C-sharp Minor Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2; then come Debussy’s early Mazurka and Chopin’s Op. 33, No. 4, both in B Minor. (Bear in mind, a mazurka and a waltz are not far different in their use of three-quarter time. They vary largely in stressed accent: downbeats for a waltz, upbeats for a mazurka.)

Next come the really challenging Études: Chopin’s First in C Major, Debussy’s Pour les 8 Doigts (For eight fingers), and, very likely his most sensuous piano work, Pour les Arpèges composées (For composed arpeggios). Closing the first half is Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 12 in C Minor, the famous “Revolutionary” Étude.

The Étude group is followed by Debussy’s early Ballade Slave of 1890, influenced by his Moscow residency as piano teacher to Nadezhda von Meck’s children (she being Tchaikovsky’s famous patron). Rogé then launches into his largest block: nine Preludes by either Chopin or Debussy, all played off against one another.

He begins with Debussy’s Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The fairies are exquisite dancers) and Chopin’s famous 15th in D-flat Major, the “Raindrop.” Three Preludes from Debussy’s Book I follow those: La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The maid with the flaxen hair), Le Vent dans la plaine (The wind on the plain), and Ce qu’a vu le Vent d’Ouest (What the West wind saw), before another Chopin Prelude, the No. 6 in B Minor, Tolling Bells. Then listeners will hear three of Debussy’s more complicated Preludes: La terrasse des Audiences au clair de lune (The terrace where the moonlight gives audience), Les Collines d’Anacapri (The hills of Anacapri), and Canope (Canopic jar). And for his big finish, Rogé plays Chopin’s virtuoso Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52.

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