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 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.”

More about Mendocino Music Festival »
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.

More about San Francisco Symphony »
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.

More about Trinity Chamber Concerts »
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.

More about West Edge Opera »
Upcoming Concert
June 22, 2009
Anyone who has ever played a video game likely knows that, just as the contours of its control pad can become imprinted on the hand, so too can the game’s musical themes leave lasting impressions on the memory. For gamers and music lovers alike, the San Francisco Symphony will create a similarly memorable musical experience at Davies Symphony Hall on July 18 when it performs Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy.

The video game Final Fantasy was originally released by a Japanese company in 1987. A few years later, it was translated into English and published in the U.S. In the years since, it has become a media franchise, which includes numerous sequels, as well as remakes for various video game platforms.

Final Fantasy is a role-playing game in which four main characters, called Light Warriors, battle evil fiends and another character named Garland. Its groundbreaking graphics and compelling storylines are both historically significant and popular. Its music, by the Japanese video game composer Nobuo Uematsu, is also critically acclaimed. Under the baton of Grammy Award-winner Arnie Roth, Distant Worlds consists of songs from Final Fantasy that have been orchestrated for full symphony orchestra. The program, which should last about two hours, features vocalists in addition to the orchestra. The music will also be accompanied by video and still pictures from the game.

Distant Worlds includes music from the first game and its sequels. Uematsu’s music variously incorporates lush, dramatic melodies reminiscent of late Romanticism, rhythmic repetition that conjures 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Orff, and even dance-inspired swing and flamenco. “One-Winged Angel,” from Final Fantasy VII, mixes intense rhythms with lyrics drawn from the medieval Carmina Burana. Despite their variety, though, Uematsu’s musical themes are usually coupled with particular characters or events, like “Aerith’s Theme” and “Bombing Mission.” The concert should also include a sweeping “Main Theme,” which is common to most versions of the game.

Distant Worlds premiered in Stockholm in 1997 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first video game. Since then, the program has been performed by orchestras around the world. Unique to the San Francisco concert, though, is that it will showcase four outstanding young vocal soloists with ties to the Bay Area: Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto (soprano, who just won the $50,000 first prize for vocalists in the José Iturbi International Competition), Andrew Bidlack (tenor), and Austin Kness (baritone), as well as mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham, who once studied at the San Francisco Conservatory.

The San Francisco concert is also special because Uematsu himself plans to attend. Following the concert, both Uematsu and Roth also plan to attend an after-party at Crimson Lounge on McAllister Street. Tickets for this adult-only party will be sold separately from the family friendly concert, starting June 25, through Tickets for the concert are on sale now through the S.F. Symphony box office. Even without the after-party, though, Distant Worlds should be an entertaining, memorable affair — true to the game Final Fantasy itself.

More about San Francisco Symphony »
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 »