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.
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.
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.More about Adorno Ensemble »
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."More about SFSU School of Music and Dance »
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.More about San José Chamber Orchestra »
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 www.mercurysoul.org 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.More about San Francisco Symphony »
Volti’s motto is “Singing without a net,” and the San Francisco-based vocal ensemble led by Music Director Robert Geary does indeed stay on the forefront of contemporary choral music.
Currently in its 30th anniversary season, the group returns in May with a far-reaching program featuring premieres by Donald Crockett and Robert Paterson, along with contemporary choral works by Kirke Mechem, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Sungji Hong.
Of particular interest is Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains. Composed on commission from Volti, with texts by Katherine Vincent, the set of five movements is inspired by the folk music traditions of Tuva. Geary praises the beauties of the score, calling it “evocative of sweeping landscapes and a pastoral and meditative existence.”
Paterson’s On the Day the World Ends (another Volti commission) is a cycle of three pieces incorporating poetry by Czeslaw Miosz, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Elizabeth Frye. Also included are Mechem’s Three Madrigals, a setting of texts by the composer’s father, poet and author Kirke F. Mechem, and Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations, which incorporates writings by 13th-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg. Hong’s Emendemus in melius completes the program.More about Volti »
Well-known Bay Area cellist Bonnie Hampton’s relationship with the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra goes back to the time when she was a principal with the orchestra, and played a concerto with them. And, in fact, the group was founded 74 years ago at the suggestion of her mother, Clarabelle Bell.
For the group’s spring concert, their honored alumna returns to play Ernest Bloch’s powerful “Rhapsody on Hebraic Themes” Schelomo with them. David Ramadanoff, who has helmed the orchestra for the past 20 years, also conducts Jim Beckel’s Musica Mobilis and a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The concert is preceded by a silent auction at 6:30 p.m.More about Young People's Symphony Orchestra »
The San Francisco Symphony and the Symphony Chorus contribute to the year’s Handel festivities with performances of three of the composer’s Coronation Anthems for King George II, and the Dettingen Te Deum. Both the anthems and the Te Deum (which commemorates a British military victory) are celebratory in the grand sense.
The Te Deum, especially, is festooned with a riot of instrumental color and moods that swing wildly from the bristling, martial opening, to the gentler chorus that follows and the more introspective “When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man.” Rarely has a royal family been so well-served by its official composer.More about San Francisco Symphony Chorus »
The last of the season’s San Francisco Performances-sponsored “Salons at the Rex” features the Cypress Quartet’s cellist, Jennifer Kloetzel, accompanied by Lara Downes on piano. The Salons are a wonderful, interactive musical experience.
They are short concerts, in an intimate setting ideal for chamber music. The atmosphere is informal and musicians may talk about the selections they perform, and sometimes about themselves as well.
Both Kloetzel and Downes share wide-ranging musical interests, so there may be some delightful surprises in store for the lucky audience.More about San Francisco Performances »
While composers Hugo Wolf and Felix Mendelssohn are household names to the initiated, few know either Wolf’s Six Spiritual Songs on poems by Joseph von Eichendorff or Mendelssohn’s four movement sacred cantata for men’s chorus, Es Werde Licht. A diligent search on iTunes reveal 30-second clips of the Wolf, performed in SATB form, which are as warm and lovely as can be. In this performance, rearranged for male voices, Jerome Lenk will play the basilica’s Allen organ.
Jennings has also chosen even more obscure repertoire for the concert, including Dixit Dominus Domino Meo by Lajos Bárdos and two works that take full advantage of Mission Dolores’ antiphonal, “surround sound” capacity, Salve Regina by Renaissance composer Andreas Hakenberger, and Amen by living composer Dan Forrest. Rounding out the program is the “hauntingly beautiful” Milost Mira (A Mercy of Peace) by Soviet composer Nikolai Golovanov.
The 50-member all-male GGMC, originally known as the Dick Kramer Gay Men’s Chorale when gay chorus pioneer Kramer founded it in 1982, attempts to reflect the ethnic and social diversity of San Francisco. Jennings has promoted such a high degree of musical proficiency among its members that the GGMC frequently tackles challenging repertoire that other community choruses tend to avoid. This is a great opportunity to discover wonderful music rarely performed in this country.More about Golden Gate Men’s Chorus »