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
May 5, 2009
Quality is a given when it comes to the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (GGMC). First and foremost, its director for the last 13 years has been Joseph Jennings, longtime music director of Chanticleer. Even if you don’t know the repertoire, which is most likely the case with the chorus’s forthcoming concert of "Sacred Harmonies," the fact that Jennings has chosen it insures that beautiful, oft-compelling discoveries are in store.Chief among the attractions of the forthcoming concert, which will be held in the glorious acoustic of the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, is the U.S. premiere of contemporary Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis’ 10-movement Magnificat for men’s chorus and organ. Born in 1954, Miškinis is artistic director of the Azuoliukas Boys’ and Men Choir, professor of choral conducting at the Lithuanian Academy of Music, and president of the Lithuanian Choral Union. Although recordings of his music are hard to come by, we are assured by long-time chorus member LaMont Ridgell that his Magnificat is “very melodic.” When the GGMC sang Miškinis’ Te Lucis at the Association of Gay and Lesbian Choruses Convention last summer, they received a standing ovation.

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.

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Upcoming Concert
May 5, 2009
On Mother’s Day, as on most holidays, concertgoing opportunities will be limited, as presenters fear loss of their audience to other activities, such as the traditional Mother’s Day whitewater rafting trip, or the traditional Mother’s Day Spam-sandwich-dinner-cooked-by-your-5-year-old.

For those who would celebrate the holiday by taking mom to a concert there is an option courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco. As part of its newly expanded activities, CMSF has asked prominent Bay Area early music musicians to present a program of Bach and Vivaldi. These heavy hitters (Judith Linsenberg and Kit Higginson on recorders; Kati Kyme, Cynthia Freivogel, Cynthia Roberts, David Daniel Bowes, Tanya Tomkins, Farley Pearce, strings; and Katherine Heater, harpsichord) may not be household names, but they’re all top-rank professionals playing on period instruments. And since most of them are members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the American Bach Soloists, they play together a fair bit.

There’s a reason Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are among his best-loved pieces — they’re great entertainment as well as great music. All of these players have the early music knowledge to make the Brandenburgs dance (Nos. 4 and 5 are on the program). And Linsenberg has been putting virtuosic zing into Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Minor (RV 441) for some time. You can hear her on Fire Beneath My Fingers and a number of other CDs released by Musica Pacifica, the group she cofounded.

Kyme was an original member of both PBO and ABS, and has performed in orchestras worldwide, including the premiere performance of Shaker Loops at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, back in 1979. She’s also a member of the New Esterházy Quartet, which has just released another recording in its series of Haydn string quartets, The Fabulous Fifties.

Tomkins is as renowned a soloist as an orchestra member, and her performance of the Bach Cello Suites was a highlight of this past season. She’s also one of the more physically expressive players you’ll see, so she’s great to watch as well as hear.

The Frances Gould Theatre at the San Francisco Legion of Honor is the perfect place to go see a concert. You’re up close and the sound is better than in most of the auditoriums where you typically get to hear these players. And the musicians are exciting to watch, too, as anyone was has attended a Philharmonia Baroque or ABS concert can aver. So no matter how you’ve planned to fete Mom, a little live music can only make it better.

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Artist Spotlight
May 4, 2009

From May 14 through May 19, the New Century Chamber Orchestra will perform its final program of the season, titled "Shadows and Light." The conductorless string orchestra, led by one of the world’s most preeminent violinists, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, will be performing in Berkeley, Palo Alto, Marin, and San Francisco. I caught up with her to chat about the program and the orchestra as well as find out more about what makes her tick.

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Upcoming Concert
April 28, 2009

The pleasures and horrors of night follow upon one another when the New Century Chamber Orchestra opens its program with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and follows it immediately with music from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho.

If you die and go to heaven, you could next do worse than listen later in the program to the passionate violinist/conductor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg play a world premiere by the melodic Brazilian composer Clarice Assad. Also featured is music by Alexander Borodin and Johann Strauss Jr.

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Upcoming Concert
April 28, 2009

“Made in the U.S.A.” is the title of Mission Chamber Orchestra’s concert of American music of a decidedly romantic and audience-friendly bent, much of it by living composers. The program features premieres of works by Allen Cohen and Nancy Bloomer Deussen, a marimba concerto by Kevin Puts (with Lisa Pegher as soloist), and an Homage to George Gershwin by Sondra Clark.

Deussen and Clark are both mid-Peninsula residents, and Puts has also been heard much locally. Two deceased composers are also on the program: the Spanish immigrant Carlos Surinach, and the Boston classicist Arthur Foote. Emily Ray conducts.

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Upcoming Concert
April 28, 2009
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 world 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 Milosz, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Elizabeth Frye. Also included are Mechem’s Three Madrigals, a setting of texts by the composer’s father, the poet and author Kirke F. Mechem, and Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations, which incorporates writings by a 13th-century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg. Hong’s Emendemus in melius completes the program. Performances are at 8 p.m. on May 15 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley and May 16 at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco; and at 4 p.m. on May 17 at All Saints’ Church, Palo Alto.

This weekend, meanwhile, audiences can hear a program celebrating the culmination of Volti’s acclaimed high school outreach program. On May 2 at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the ensemble’s Choral Institute Concert will bring together the combined choirs of the Acalanes High School Chamber Singers, the Head-Royce School Colla Voce, and Piedmont Choirs Ecco with the Jubilate Orchestra in a performance of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude. Geary conducts. Each choir will also perform separately, in repertoire ranging from Claudio Monteverdi to Imogen Heap. The music starts at 8 p.m.

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Artist Spotlight
April 28, 2009

Cameron Carpenter is a rarity in the rarified world of classical organists. Flamboyant and virtuosic in performance, he has earned not only recognition among musicians, but also popularity as a soloist that overshadows all other exponents of the instrument. (Several of his YouTube videos have garnered over 100,000 plays.) Along the way he has purposefully trampled, questioned, or disregarded most of the received wisdom and shibboleths of the organ world.

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Upcoming Concert
April 27, 2009
Speaking to the famed mezzo-soprano “Flicka” — the endearing sobriquet for Frederica von Stade — I’m immediately infused with the warmth of her intrinsic humanity. She belies the usual caricature of the solipsistic prima donna: the only one for whom the entire world exists. While pursuing a brilliant career, traveling the world to star engagements and recording sessions, she nonetheless finds time to take care of sick friends, sponsor music classes for the underprivileged, sing for innumerable benefits, and be a loving friend, a loyal wife, and a devoted mother. Although she wears the mantle of her celebrity weightlessly, she uses her fame as a force when it can help the needy and less fortunate.

How does she do it? In Flicka’s words: “The career is important and often intoxicating, but nothing is as valuable as family and friends. Life is never in balance, so give up trying to keep it in balance, and accept the chaos. Family first.” Still, it’s striking to realize that the same woman who just took the bus (her car’s in the shop), to visit a gravely ill colleague in the hospital, might be flying out the following day for an appearance at Kennedy Center before the president of the United States. Behind this nonstop compassion is a woman of unbounded energy, grace, diligence, and discipline. No thank-you is left unsaid, no 16th note ignored; everything is given its due value: the maxi-multitasker living in every dimension of her multidimensional world.

Her long-standing collaboration with Jake Heggie, the composer and his music, has brought with it a deeper exploration of her own motherhood. In his opera Dead Man Walking, the mother loses control of the child, watches him suffer, and, as every mother would do, questions her own responsibility: “What decision did she make that could have been different?” What could she have done that might have led to a different outcome? The same question lay at the heart of the recent Heggie production Three Decembers, and the exploration of it has been a focal point for Flicka the woman. This is every parent’s dilemma: a question with no final answer.

Appropriately, then, her forthcoming concert will be a performance, with Kristin Clayton, of four duets by Jake that articulate diverse moments — some funny, some tragic — between a mother and a daughter. One is about a hilarious recurring face of the mother that seems to appear in the daughter’s own mirror; another is about the heartsickness arising from the gradual exclusion of recognition from the mother’s Alzheimer-stricken mind. These duets will be part of a closing-night gala featuring songs, duets, and ensembles by the young composer.

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Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009

Faster than a buckin’ bronco, the venerable Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe are hitching a ride West with the Pony Express to present the Bay Area premiere of Alan Louis Smith’s all-American song cycle, Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman (2006). Written for Blythe’s overpoweringly beautiful and expressive voice, which not too long ago lifted the roof off Davies Symphony Hall during a performance of the Verdi Requiem, the cycle sets excerpts from the remarkable Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink. Mrs. Frink wrote the diary in 1850, as she and her husband crossed the continent from Indiana to Sacramento in a covered wagon.

Smith’s accessible, heartfelt cycle is the centerpiece of an all-American program, sponsored by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Theatre on April 23 at 8 p.m., which also includes John Antes’ Trio in D Minor for two violins and cello (1780), George Gershwin’s infrequently encountered Lullaby for string quartet (1919), and Amy Cheney Beach’s gorgeous, must-be-heard Quintet in F-sharp Minor for piano and strings (1907). Both Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman and the quintet by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach — I’m using historically correct titles here — have recently been released on a marvelous CD from CMS Studio Recordings.

A phone chat with two veteran CMS members who will perform here, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Ani Kavafian, uncovered the shocking news that this is the first all-American program that CMS has performed in the 30 years since Kavafian joined the ensemble.

Listen to the Music

“We built the program around the Covered Wagon premiere,” said Kavafian. “It’s kinda crazy that we haven’t done other all-American programs before. But we have this amazing song cycle with this most amazing singer. Wherever we play it, it gets a standing ovation, because it’s very, very poignant and written quite beautifully.”

McDermott, whose recent all-Gershwin recording for Bridge Records has received numerous critical accolades, affirms that Blythe is “very, very, very deeply into this piece. She feels it so much. It is quite an amazing performance, I have to say. She doesn’t need to do many gestures because the voice absolutely blows you away, and the music tugs at the heart strings.”

The Beach will prove an equal revelation to those lucky enough to attend. I had expected it be overly sentimental and quaint, but instead find it infinitely tender and involving. I concur with McDermott’s assessment that it’s a “hugely emotional, luscious, sensual piece that allows [performers] to go over the top in feeling and expression. It definitely should be programmed more.”

Throw in two rarities, the Antes piece (“quite baroque sounding and very, very lovely,” says Kafavian) and the Gershwin (“such a gentle loving piece, and a much more intimate side of Gershwin than you usually hear,” says McDermott), and you have an evening that beckons like the all-American yellow brick road.

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Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009
Orchestral concerts often include a single Aaron Copland work as a nod to American music, but this month’s Marin Symphony program gives the great 20th-century composer an entire bill. In performances May 3 and 5 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, Music Director Alasdair Neale conducts an all-Copland program that includes Hoe-down, Appalachian Spring, and the Third Symphony.

While these works hardly amount to a survey of Copland’s music (no one program could accomplish that), they do illuminate one of the composer’s most fertile periods: the years between 1942 and 1946, when he refined the distinctive American vocabulary — the spare harmonies, spacious textures, forthright melodies, and vital rhythms we have come to think of as quintessentially Copland. Hoe-down, part of an orchestral suite excerpted from the 1942 ballet score Rodeo, paints a vibrant picture of the American West — one that Copland, a Brooklyn-born Jew who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, had never actually seen.

No matter — written for dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille, who gave the ballet’s wildly successful first performance in New York, the work remains a singularly inventive vision of the American West, and an exuberant example of this composer’s most accessible work. So, too, does Appalachian Spring, also created for DeMille; the austere and serenely beautiful 1944 score, built around the Shaker tune A Gift to be Simple, never fails to move an audience.

The Third Symphony rounds out the program. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, who called it the greatest American symphony to date, the 1946 score evokes both a mythical America, and a specific one. The fourth movement incorporates music Copland wrote earlier as a tribute to the ordinary men and women who were “doing the dirty work” in World War II — a short piece for brass and percussion he titled Fanfare for the Common Man, which went on to become one of the most popular and oft-performed musical works of the century.

The program concludes Marin Symphony’s 2008-2009 season. Neale, who has a proven track record with Copland’s music, both in Marin and during his previous tenures as San Francisco Symphony’s associate conductor and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, gives a preconcert talk one hour before each performance.

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