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 1, 2009
La traviata, which opens June 13 in San Francisco Opera’s summer-season run, is a daunting opera for the soprano performing the role of Violetta Valery. Before the singing even begins, the overture has already foretold of a mixture of transport, anguish, and doom that the protagonist must actualize. Every soprano remarks about the difficulty of the first-act aria, “Ah, fors’é lui” (Perhaps he is the one); it comes careening down the stage much too soon, before the singer has had a chance to become fully warmed up. Its first section contains delicate, reflective musings about whether she has finally met a man who would be able to save her from her life as a courtesan — a man who could love her enough to forget her past. This interlude is followed by an explosion of cynicism and irony, cast in the most hazardous vocal writing that Giuseppe Verdi could muster: high C’s, high D’s, coloratura ... the works, speeding along to the finish, when, if she can still cope with it, an optional high E-flat awaits her. The singers who can manage with “ease” the vocalism necessary at this point are likely to lack the dramatic quality needed to convey with full force the emotional impact of what is yet to come.

Add one more key requirement: physique du role. An essential element of Violetta’s capacity to win and retain the devotion of many men of wealth and distinction, both in fiction and in reality, was her dazzling beauty. She was set apart from others also by what her creator called “her distinction of manner, her spirited conversation.” She was said to possess “elegance to the highest degree.” “She was thin and pale and had magnificent hair down to the ground.” “Her fine skin marked by blue veins indicated that she was consumptive. She was no common woman of ill repute.”

Violetta played the piano well, enjoyed the theater, and spoke excellent French. It was her combination of beauty and natural tact, along with refinement, that attracted, and retained, her many prominent friends. The soprano who essays this role must, ideally, master not only Verdi’s excruciatingly demanding vocal line and the tale’s powerful emotional thrust, but also the challenge of portraying, with convincing elegance, the image of the intriguing and beautiful demimondaine Violetta.

Then there is also, of course, the task of confronting the greatest soprano phrase in all of Italian opera: “Amami, Alfredo” (Love me, Alfredo). Here Violetta is facing the sacrifice of her great and consuming love for a noble cause. This is a phrase that requires such emotional grandeur from the protagonist that the audience must either scream “Bravo!” or be brought to tears. (I have witnessed both these effects, fortissimo.) Sarah Bernhardt was famed for her portrayal of this role, in the play La Dame aux camélias by Dumas (the son). When the renowned Italian actress Eleanora Duse put herself in direct competition by performing it in Paris, she was said by the critics to be “interesting and pathetic” but was characterized as being “too middle class, too remote” to play the demimondaine. Even the great Duse could not measure up to the task.

The woman Violetta Valery (her operatic name), alias Marguerite Gautier (the play name), alias Marie Duplessis (the courtesan name), née Alphonsine Duplessis (her birth name) actually lived and died in Paris and now lies buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. She was likely prostituted at a young age by her sodden father. She was driven to sell herself “because honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved for irresistibly; I wanted to know the refinements and pleasure of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society.”

In the opera we have a thrice-removed fictionalized version of this fascinating woman. There was an actual, beautiful young courtesan in Paris who died in her early 20s of consumption. But in both the play and the opera she is given a “chance,” like Mary Magdalene, to redeem herself. She is driven to sacrifice her great love in order to save her lover’s family from the disgrace of association with her. More than with any other female in Verdi’s works, we can relate to this fallen woman who possesses, nonetheless, both elegance and grace, and moreover a noble heart,. But to make it happen for us, the prima donna must bring together immense virtuosity on many fronts.

The San Francisco Opera opening night (June 13) casting of La traviata looks most promising. If the stunning Anna Netrebko can come close to what she did with this role in Salzburg, it will be a thrilling event. I am unable to recall a better interpretation combined with such sovereign vocal control. A few equally thrilling snippets may be heard on old recordings — from the likes of Muzio, Olivero, and Zeani and of course Callas — and there is the Zeffirelli film, marvelous to look at, but not well recorded. Also available is the Covent Garden DVD with the excellent Angela Georghiu, but there’s nothing like the Traviata from Salzburg. Netrebko reaches into some dark desperation within, some unspoken self-violence, and thoroughly avoids the cliched and simplistic. This is one soprano who has it all.

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Upcoming Concert
May 19, 2009
You might assume, from its Latin name Chora Nova, that it specializes in early music, but that’s far from the truth, as its upcoming concerts this week demonstrate. Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina (Song of Catullus) does have Latin words, though its musical style is familiar from the composer’s Carmina Burana.

Orff actually wrote the Catulli Carmina (1932-33) before his most famous and popular work, eventually putting the two cantatas together with a third, as Trionfi (Triumphs). Catulli Carmina (1943) is set to the frequently explicit love lyrics of Catullus, a Roman poet and contemporary of Julius Caesar. The cantata, like its brethren, relies on pulsing, repetitive rhythms, as well as simple textures and harmonies, creating a vigorous, communal style, all reinforced by a huge percussion orchestra (including four pianos) that plays in the framing numbers of the piece. But in some ways it’s more interesting than its often-played successor.

For one thing, Catullus’ poetry has more psychological depth than the Goliard songs of Carmina Burana. The cantata sets poems from the sequence that trace the phases of the poet’s love for “Lesbia” (a common poetic pseudonym at the time), which also allows Orff to envision a staging of the piece (written into the libretto) that ends with the poet’s defeat and the termination of the lovers’ relationship. This “play” concludes with the self-aware, if also self-serving, lines, “I cannot now wish you well/however virtuous you may become, nor stop loving you.”

Listen to the Music

Chora Nova perform Bach: Kahnua
Magnificat - Quia fecit mihi magna

Chora Nova perform Brahms: Wie
lieblich sind deine Wohnungen

Orff’s search for a “timeless” musical style for his cantatas led him to reject many contemporary musical styles as being too obviously 20th-century. Yet he was struck by the rhythms of Stravinsky’s music, and in Catulli Carmina the influence of that rhythmic sense, with its syncopated dislocations and layers of repeating ideas, is, if anything, stronger than in Burana. Maybe the piece is also synergistically related to his ideas about music education, which he began working out when he cofounded the Guenther School in Munich in 1925. In any case, where Burana can seem mystifyingly empty of meaning, Catulli Carmina takes the same, appealing musical resources and puts them to use in service of a more involving story, told from the point of view of a master ironist.

So Chora Nova, not relaxing from its exploration of the choral works of Zoltán Kodály this past March, again treads the novel path. Not so new as a chorus any longer, it and its founder and director, Paul Flight, have certainly not run out of new and interesting concert ideas. If you’ve heard (or been avoiding) one of the more or less 50,000 outings of Orff’s obstreperous Goliards this spring, you might be pleasantly surprised by his Roman lovers. At least hucksters haven’t made car commercials from this one — yet.

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Artist Spotlight
May 19, 2009

When Robert Cole took over Cal Performances in 1986, West Coast arts presenters were pretty much booking whatever came through on tour from the East. He changed all that. Cole, who’s calling it quits this summer after a brilliant and fruitful 23-year run, made things happen here. He helped originate new works of music and dance, and he brought in a vast range of artists from abroad, many of whom had never played here.

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Upcoming Concert
May 18, 2009

Lynn Harrell is a very fine, light-toned cellist who’s played concertos in the Bay Area and is capable of outshining his conductors. But he’s not just a soloist, and he’s coming back to play chamber music with some friends, including his wife, violinist Helen Nightengale, and pianist Victor Asuncion.

Chamber Music San Francisco is opening up a third set of performances, this one in Mountain View, and this concert is one of several highlights of this first season down the Peninsula. The performance feature Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1; Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello; and Brahms' Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 34.

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Artist Spotlight
May 18, 2009

Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque since 2002 and recently named artistic director of Opera at London’s Royal Academy of Music, is a Baroque scholar, author, and opera conductor with a penchant for modern dance. However unlikely a combination that may seem, for the past decade Glover has been a collaborator in several of choreographer Mark Morris’ projects that brilliantly use modern dance to embody 18th-century music.

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Artist Spotlight
May 13, 2009

In his extraordinary 17-year run as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles has enriched the cultural life of the Bay Area. As a conductor, he has shaped many memorable performances, bringing forth Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs cycle, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise with equal passion and acuity.

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Upcoming Concert
May 13, 2009
The idea that numerical properties underlie music has interested people since at least the Middle Ages. Back then, people believed that orderly ratios underpinned not only music, but even planetary movement — the harmonious yet inaudible “music of the spheres.” In our own time, the Adorno Ensemble’s upcoming concert showcases relationships between music and numbers that interest contemporary composers.

Like the music on this program, the ensemble’s name also calls for explanation. It’s named after the noted German thinker Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, who studied ways in which music relates to society. Since the group is committed to making contemporary music seem relevant and palatable, “Adorno” seemed, to the group, a fitting name.

Two featured composers on the upcoming program are Iannis Xenakis and Conlon Nancarrow. Xenakis used computers to compose music for human performers, whereas Nancarrow himself composed music for a nonhuman, mechanical instrument. A third featured composer, Charles Wuorinen, mediates these two polarities, composing his own music for human performers, albeit music that’s still temporally complex.

Xenakis was born in Romania to Greek parents, but moved to France in the 1940s. He was especially drawn to music and math because he was trained as an engineer, and he also worked for the architect known as Le Corbusier. The Adorno will play his Morsima-Amorsima, a quartet for piano, violin, cello, and double bass that was premiered in 1962. The composition is generated by a highly complex computer algorithm, which Xenakis also used for other compositions.

Nancarrow, meanwhile, was an American-Mexican composer who composed many “studies” for player piano. He believed this mechanical instrument could perform more-complex rhythms and meters than humans could. But he transcribed his Study No. 34 for string trio. Just as he sought to overcome limitations of human performers by composing for the mechanical player piano, perhaps Nancarrow also sought to overcome the timbral and expressive limitations of the mechanical instrument by transcribing this study for a human ensemble.

Finally, Wuorinen (b. 1938) is an American composer who has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur (“Genius Award”) Fellowship. His Eleven Short Pieces for violin and vibraphone dates from 2006. Don’t be fooled by the title of his compositional treatise, Simple Composition. The ideas about musical time that inform Wuorinen’s compositions are complex and multifaceted, with influences ranging from Stefan Wolpe to Milton Babbitt to Elliott Carter.

The relationships between music and numbers explored by these contemporary composers have moved a long way from the medieval “music of the spheres.” Instead of mere harmony and order, these composers also entertain complexity and chaos. Also unlike the medieval idea, their contemporary music is actually audible, and worth a listen when presented by the Adorno Ensemble.

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Upcoming Concert
May 12, 2009
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy is living up the "lucky" part of his name as the world celebrates his 200th birthday. Were he alive, he might revel in the good fortune of being well honored by Vance George and the San Francisco State Chamber Singers.

George, the emeritus director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, along with conductors David J. Xiques and Cyrus Ginwala, the school's singers, the Alexander String Quartet, pianist Roger Woodward, the University Chorus, tenor Brian Cheney, and organist Jonathan Dimmock will celebrate the great composer with a generous cross-section of his works on May 16 at Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light and on May 17 at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

But that's just the teaser for the "well-honored" part. The concerts are benefits for causes that would have warmed the cockles of young Felix's heart and moved him to say thanks in one of the four languages he spoke fluently (German, English, Italian, and Latin).

Proceeds from the first concert will benefit the St. Martin de Porres School choral program, and the second concert will benefit the Choir of Men and Boys at Grace Cathedral — two organizations that provide music education and performance opportunities to young people.

The program contains several of Mendelssohn’s undervalued, large-scale choral works, including several from his two oratorios, St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846). Also one of the composer’s early string symphonies, several keyboard works, and the magnificent String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80. Not leaving out Felix’s talented sister Fanny, the concert includes two works by her.

It’s no wonder that a choral master, like George, would love Mendelssohn, who contributed a good portion of the 19th-century’s best choral music to the repertory. During his quarter-century leadership of the SFS Chorus (1983-2006) and before, with Margaret Hillis' Chicago Symphony Chorus, George has championed Mendelssohn's music, along with a broad range of composers, from Bach to Sondheim. Under his baton, the SFS Chorus won four Grammy Awards, including Best Choral Album (for Brahms' A German Requiem and Orff's Carmina Burana), Classical Album of the Year, and the 2001 concert production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

George is enchanted by Mendelssohn's childhood, his visit to Leipzig at age 12, spending time with the 73-year-old Goethe. "Every morning," George quotes Mendelssohn's diary, "I receive a kiss from the author of Faust. After dinner, I entertain with Bach fugues and improvisations. I saw where Bach worked and composed!"

A few years later, the Bach-Mendelssohn connection flowered, George says, "through Sarah Itzig Levy, a sister of Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn's maternal grandmother, Felix copying the then little-known St. Matthew Passion (can you imagine that!), and then another 'activist,' the actor Edward Devrient, sang the role of Jesus, and suddenly St. Matthew was — rightly — considered the greatest German art." Devrient has been quoted saying "It took an actor and a young Jew to return the greatest Christian music to the German people."

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Upcoming Concert
May 11, 2009
Chatting with subscribers who have been with her for all of her ensemble’s 17 seasons, Barbara Day Turner had her mission confirmed. “They’re noting how much being constantly exposed to different things has changed how they listen to music,” Turner reports. “And how it’s changed their tastes.”

Her San José Chamber Orchestra’s May 17 concert at Le Petit Trianon assembles 17 string players in a breadth of emotion as well as chronology. The evening begins with 18th-century contemporaries Luigi Boccherini and Franz Josef Haydn, and continues with a pair of world premieres by the Bay Area’s William Susman and Anica Galindo, and for good measure a couple of 20th-century hits by George Gershwin and Dave Brubeck.

As music director and conductor, Turner’s success in championing new music (including more than 75 world premieres) last year earned the SJCO a first place ASCAP Award for Adventuresome Programming. Her advocacy of new music is also reflected “by the amount of scores that find their way to my front door, unbidden. It’s magnificent and sort of frightening at the same time.” That is, until she and the ensemble get familiar with the “language” of composers like Susman and Galindo, whom she has showcased before.

Their two new works are “actually sort of opposites,” says Turner. With Galindo’s Trinitas, the first part of a commissioned trilogy, “you have an extremely lyric piece that uses strings sort of in the way that Barber does in the Adagio, but not at the upper extreme so much. She uses larger blocks of sound, creating a really rich and warm texture.”

Zydeco Madness, in the words of Palo Alto composer William Susman, is “a response to and a reflection on Hurricane Katrina: the disaster, the tragic events that transpired during and after, and the lack of response to the people.” The title implies a connection to the popular music of the black Creoles of Louisiana, and to that music’s lead instrument, the accordion. The piece was presented in Chicago last month in a solo accordion setting, as performed by Russian virtuoso Stas Venglevski, and has been reset with the SJCO functioning “like a giant accordion on steroids,” in Susman’s words. The composer’s notations on the score reflect his approach to depicting the tragedy, setting out with rapid phrases of “Flowing Hell,” slowing with “Marooned,” and building to a “Hysterically Grinding” emotional high point. Susman, who had grown close to the bedeviled area during his student days at Tulane, evokes the funkiness of zydeco and the wail of Katrina through extensive use of Sul ponticello bowing, tremolo, and other dramatic techniques.

For Turner, the other pieces of her May 17 program are linked with the new compositions in that they all convey “the concept of spirit.” The Boccherini, arranged by Michael Touchi, reflects “the particular flair of Spanish dance” through the eyes and ears of a classical Italian. Touchi’s arrangement of Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet transports the listener to the “incredibly elegant Austrian spirit” of the late 18th century. Gershwin’s Summertime (arr. William Zinn) and Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk (arr. Jeremy Cohen) will end the evening in “a quintessentially American spirit,” with evidence of the rewards of cross-pollinating genres.

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Upcoming Concert
May 11, 2009
America can’t get enough of Mason Bates, the young alchemist who blends the sonority of traditional ensembles like the symphony orchestra with the limitless possibilities of computer-generated “electronica.” It’s almost as if we’ve been waiting for just such a sorcerer to put a bit of groove in our Grieg, to mix up our Messien, to bring something fresh and transformational to the concert hall. This isn’t your grandpa’s orchestra. Plus, Bates' novelty is paired with Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, with youngster Yuja Wang on the bench.

On Wednesday, May 20, and Friday and Saturday, May 22-23, the San Francisco Symphony unveils Bates’ pithy new work  The B-Sides, commissioned and conducted by Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas. The work amalgamates Bates’ mastery of symphonic composition and his active career as DJ Masonic, mixing and spinning dance music in techno clubs, modern art museums, and art spaces. The B-Sides refers to Bates’ concept of the more alternative, edgy songs found on the flip side of a popular album, and serves to unify the five short movements.

Bates, who will trigger the electronic elements on his laptop from the percussion section, describes the piece as five sound environments based on texture and groove. The first section is “Broom of the System” and utilizes an actual broom in its pulsing rhythmic soundscape. The second, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei),” is a purely acoustic evocation of the Northshore of Kauai and the softly undulating sea. “Gemini in the Solar Wind” is an example of how Bates uses electronica elements as “more than just a dance beat.”

He says: “Electronics add a totally different acoustic to the orchestra, such as the low sound of a subwoofer. In the case of this movement, I’m excited about the addition of voices, actual samples from the 1965 Gemini IV Voyage given to me by NASA. These are sounds you could not otherwise produce from an orchestra.” The fourth movement “Temescal Noir” (after the Oakland neighborhood) does not use electronics but adds a typewriter and an oil drum to the percussion section. Finally, “Warehouse Machine” is what Bates describes as “an all-out tribute to Detroit techno.” Hear this last movement‘s trial run at Carnegie Hall on April 15 by the YouTube orchestra, also the brainchild of MTT.

The B-Sides is one in a series of successful commissions by this prolific young composer. In March Bates presented the premiere of his new work Sirens with Chanticleer, and a new work for the California Symphony where he is Young American Composer-in-Residence. His Music from Underground Spaces was premiered by the California Symphony in May 2008. Other recent projects are almost too numerous to mention. Liquid Interface was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Leonard Slatkin at the Kennedy Center and later in Carnegie Hall. In the past five years he’s received commissions from notable orchestras such as The Juilliard School (celebrating its 100th anniversary in January 2006), the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the American Composers Orchestra in New York.

When Michael Tilson Thomas became aware of Bates’ music in 2007, he invited him backstage during intermission at Davies Symphony Hall to discuss the possible commission. During that short break in the concert the concept was born. Mason was thrilled to work with a conductor who is also a composer, and with musicians who are friends of his.

Bates is also excited about his DJ project Mercury Soul, which he says “superimposes a techno dance party on classical music”. He and a creative cast together with conductor Benjamin Shwartz present this extravaganza on May 28 at San Francisco’s Mezzanine. (Visit for more information.) Get a taste of this project at the Symphony’s “Davies After Hours” party, Friday, May 22, after the concert, free to all concertgoers.

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