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Joseph Sargent

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Articles by this Author

Chamber Music Review
September 22, 2009

Some early music ensembles approach the performance of Renaissance polyphony as if it were fine crystal: beautiful, but delicate, a fragile object not to be unduly disturbed. Like crystal, the music can occasionally shimmer and reveal prisms of color when viewed through different angles, but it remains a static object, more a museum piece than a kinetic construct. This analogy aptly summarizes the experience of hearing Ensemble Gombert, a 14-voice chamber choir from Australia specializing in High Renaissance polyphony.

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Upcoming Concert
September 14, 2009
Year after year, San Francisco’s early music aficionados can rely on Bay Area ensembles to offer a steady diet of Handel’s music — everything from operas, oratorios, and instrumental works to the inevitable holiday Messiah. In 2009, marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, many of these performances take on special significance. And for two stalwart choral ensembles, this anniversary year has opened a window to present Handel with a twist, bypassing traditional genres and focusing instead on his exquisite sacred music.

The San Francisco Bach Choir opens its 2009-2010 concert season with an all-Handel program, comprising four of the composer’s 11 Chandos Anthems (“Let God Arise,” “The Lord Is My Light,” “I Will Magnify Thee, O God,” and “O Sing unto the Lord a New Song”), Oct. 17-18 at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. These multimovement, cantatalike pieces, composed in 1717-18 during Handel’s tenure as composer in residence for England’s Duke of Chandon, are “filled with sunshine,” according to Corey Jamason, S.F. Bach’s artistic director. Jamason views the anthems as “a marvelous, somewhat early, expression of Handel’s enormous gifts for bringing the vivacity of his operatic masterpieces to sacred music.” And because the anthems remain curiously underrepresented in live performance, these concerts offer a welcome opportunity for in-person encounters with some hidden treasures.

S.F. Bach’s program showcases the versatility of Handel’s talent while also keeping some practical exigencies in mind. Jamason says his selections are “well-balanced and display the range and variety of these magnificent pieces. They also all have only soprano and tenor singers, which in our performances are sung by two terrific soloists, Erica Schuller and Craig Lemming.” As a side benefit, the all-Handel program also fills some gaps in the choir’s own history. “S.F. Bach has not performed much Handel in the past,” Jamason notes. “As this is only my third season with the group, I am now able to fill in some gaps and address a broader repertoire.”

The California Bach Society, meanwhile, features Handel’s outstanding psalm setting Dixit Dominus as the climax of a program devoted to Italian vespers music, in three performances Oct. 16-18 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. With Vivaldi’s Domine adjuvandum me festina and Scarlatti’s Magnificat primo tono also on the bill, these vespers pieces let you to hear Handel and his contemporaries writing in the same general style, with their individual differences. 

While the Chandos Anthems find Handel adapting himself to an English liturgical environment, Dixit Dominus was composed by a young composer for a sophisticated Italian audience. “One gets the sense,” Flight explains, that this ‘oltremontani’ [person from beyond the Alps] composer was striving to outdo his Italian rivals in hope of securing lasting employment. The work has enough rhythmic energy, contrapuntal complexity, and pathos necessary to win over any cardinal, city official, or congregant.” But then Handel's music never had trouble connecting with audiences.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
September 12, 2009

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s opening concert of its 2009-2010 season, “Apotheosis of the Dance,” was an exercise in transcending the traditionally defined eras of musical history. In an exuberant performance of symphonic works by Haydn and Beethoven Saturday at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, this Baroque orchestra gave a quintessentially romantic performance of some mainstays of the classical repertory: passionate and full-bodied, with a strikingly lush sound and unrelenting energy.

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Upcoming Concert
September 7, 2009
Among England’s cultural treasures, the centuries-long tradition of collegiate choir singing surely ranks at the top of the scale. These university institutions are charged, first and foremost, with the habitual singing of Anglican liturgies, a sacred tradition that has spawned some of England’s finest choral repertory. Yet they also present a steady diet of other performances, including concerts, recordings, radio broadcasts, and tours. It’s a tradition that simply doesn’t exist in this country, and the rare occasions when English collegiate choirs travel to the U.S. present unparalleled opportunities for live encounters with these exceptionally vibrant ensembles.

This month, Bay Area audiences can experience one of the best of the bunch: the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, led by Grammy-nominated conductor Stephen Layton. With a heritage dating from the 14th century, Trinity’s choir was reconstituted into its present mixed chorus of some 30 undergraduates in 1982 and today ranks among England’s finest choral ensembles. You can hear them at Stanford University’s Memorial Church, San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland.

The English collegiate choir tradition isn’t just about longevity; it also embraces a distinctive sound, one that, according to Layton, involves a special combination of elegance and energy. “The sound we make is interesting — there’s something intriguing about a choir of students, ages 19 to 22, who are making a fairly blended sound. You can get a lot of power out of this blend; it’s quite an interesting sound, as a result.” The result can be thrilling and exuberant, without going over the top. (Layton reassures that “I try to let them sing as much as they want, and then bottle it in.”)

Layton applies this sound to a fascinating selection of repertory, an intoxicating mixture of styles and nationalities highlighted by several works rarely performed stateside. There’s a healthy dose of English music, with classics such as Tallis’ O nata lux and Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, juxtaposed alongside modern works such as John Tavener’s “Mother of God,” from his seven-hour-long 2003 oratorio Veil of the Temple. German classics by Bach and Mendelssohn are situated against music of Baltic composers, all of whom write in a highly accessible style: two pieces by Arvo Pärt, a Nunc dimittis by the young Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski, and music of Vytautas Miškinis, whom Layton calls “the John Rutter or Morton Lauridsen of Lithuania.”

Asked why he wanted to visit our fair Western shores, Layton cites the inspiration of Californian composers Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, “whose music has made me want to come to this part of the world for some time.” There’s also another, more practical reason: “This time of year gets miserable, weather-wise, in England, and I understand the weather is delightful in California.”

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Upcoming Concert
August 24, 2009

An aura of glamour seems to surround the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra these days. Its 2009-2010 season, auspiciously titled the “Season of Stars,” is tailor-made for the glitterati, with a lineup of celebrity guest artists that is exceptional even for this ensemble, including Susan Graham, Viktoria Mullova, and Jordi Savall.

Steven Isserlis, violoncelloBut far from catering to the elite, PBO’s opening concert, “Apotheosis of the Dance,” focuses on the inveterate populist Franz Josef Haydn. Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, the ensemble pairs his Cello Concerto in C Major, featuring the dynamic soloist Steven Isserlis, with his Symphony No. 101 in D Major, “The Clock.” Ludwig van Beethoven’s larger-than-life Symphony No. 7 in A Major completes the performances, which run from September 10 to 15 in venues ranging from Berkeley and Palo Alto to San Francisco and Lafayette.

Haydn knew the importance of pleasing a crowd, freely acknowledging his desire to satisfy tastes both popular and refined. He enjoyed a rapturous reputation in London, where his “Clock” symphony was completed during his second sojourn to this city. In reviewing the premiere performance in March 1794, London’s Morning Chronicle exclaimed, “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new grand Overture [symphony] by HAYDN; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime HAYDN!” Modern listeners may not feel moved toward all-capital-letters enthusiasm, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously tapping along with the second-movement’s famous tick-tock rhythm.

A different kind of excitement accompanied Haydn’s cello concerto in 1961 when this piece was rediscovered at the Prague National Museum, after having been presumed lost for more than 200 years. Now a staple of the cello repertory, this delightful early-Haydn work should yield many delights in the hands of Isserlis, an exceptional performer with a distinctive sound and personality to spare. Isserlis’ extracurricular activities prove as endearing as his performances: It’s hard to resist a musician who also writes children’s books with names like Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled His Wig. For more whimsy, check out the trivia games and puzzles on his Web site. (The cello jigsaw game is my personal favorite.)

The actual title of PBO’s program comes from the concluding work, a perennial favorite presented here in appealing period-orchestra guise. (For a preview, listen to the ensemble’s own 1998 recording of the first movement on the PBO Web site.) Music Director Nicholas McGegan is clearly excited about presenting this work with his own stellar band of musicians. “This concert is going to end with what I think is probably [one of] the most joyous pieces of music ever written, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony,” he says. “Wagner called it the ‘apotheosis of the dance,’ and he absolutely loved this piece. PBO performed this rollicking, good-fun piece about 10 years ago, and we’re thrilled to play it again.”

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Upcoming Concert
August 17, 2009
To the uninitiated, the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s 2009-2010 opening concert set, titled “Pictures at an Exhibition: New Traditions,” might appear to emphasize the traditional over the new. At first glance, the lineup seems startlingly traditional, offering two works by J.S. Bach (the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Violin, and the Concerto for Violin in D Minor), plus Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Performances will be given from Sept. 10 to 13 in venues ranging from Berkeley and Palo Alto to San Francisco and San Rafael.

But rest assured, the NCCO hasn’t suddenly gone conservative. The program may consist of standards, though, as Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg notes, they’re all “standards with a twist.” What makes them so different? In large part, it’s the arrangements and transcriptions, which recast the original configurations for these pieces. Salerno-Sonnenberg explains that the search for new transcriptions of older works “stems originally from my desire to expand the string orchestra repertoire. Although, for example, there are over 120 arrangements of Pictures [at an Exhibition], there isn’t one for this particular instrumentation.” A more personal impulse also guided her programming, she says, as “There are certain works that I simply want to play with this amazing ensemble, and are kind of true to my character.”

Pairing Bach with Mussorgsky embodies the orchestra’s devotion to fresh interpretations of established repertory, but it also speaks to a distinctive effort by Salerno-Sonnenberg to deepen her own connection to this ensemble, as she begins her second year as music director.

"This entire concert could be called "Music you have no business playing," jokes Salerno Sonnenberg. "Nothing on the program is written for our grouping. You have this Bach Chaconne, which is a huge piece, but written for one violin [originally], so no we're going to hear it grand. And then Bach's D Minor Concerto is just fiendishly hard — well, it's a piano concerto. They forgot to transcribe it. So you don't hear violins playing that piece a lot. And then, here you go, let's see what New Century is going to do with Pictures."

She breathes enthusiasm about Clarice Assad's new arrangement of Pictures.. "All you need is a good arranger and a little imagination and anything is possible," she says. Determined to expand the string orchestra repertory in unusual directions, she never worries about Ravel's shadow. "This orchestra can play it. Whatever the issue is — whether it's style or technical — we can do it. And that gives you great confidence."

"I've been studying this score and, trust me, it's fantastic. I was speaking to the arranger, and of course her challenge was 'how can I outdo Ravel.' And of course, you can't. I told her, 'Don't think about that. Focus on the picture — the actual painting.' So she started to research and came up with instruments that were played during that time. Like "The Old Castle," one of the movements, is subtitled "the troubadour sings at the gate of an old castle." And there were percussion instruments that were used during that time that are not used in the Ravel. But we're using them." Along with the percussionist, there's a pianist in the arrangement, and the strings.

While you’re waiting for September to roll around, get your New Century fix with a brand-new recording, Together, just released on Aug. 11, and which SFCV termed “a marvelous CD that should help propel the NCCO into the national spotlight.” (See review.) The ensemble’s first recording project under Salerno-Sonnenberg’s leadership, this CD juxtaposes Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, with Assad’s Impressions: Suite for Chamber Orchestra — Brazilian composers far removed from the worlds of Bach and Mussorgsky, yet true to the ensemble’s eclectic spirit.

More about New Century Chamber Orchestra »
Upcoming Concert
August 3, 2009
Summertime typically signals a period of downtime for classical music, as many ensembles enjoy a well-earned hiatus or shift their programming toward lighter fare. Not so for the San Francisco Lyric Chorus, a talented choir under the direction of Robert Gurney. SFLC combats the usual summer doldrums with a stalwart lineup of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn in performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 22-23, at San Francisco’s Trinity Episcopal Church. Known for taking bold repertory risks, Gurney has prepared a concert that seems well within the safe zone, judging by the composer list. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll uncover some tantalizing pieces that will stimulate both the ear and the mind, blending aural delights with a good measure of historical intrigue.

SFLC’s Mozart selection is not another Requiem or Mass in C Minor but rather the Vesperae Sollenne de Confessore, K. 339, one of the composer’s last Salzburg works. While we know when and where this piece was composed, thanks to an inscription on the score reading “Salzburg 1780,” nobody has discovered exactly what liturgical celebration it was intended for, though several have tried. (One recent theory posits the Feast of St. Rupert, the primary saint of Salzburg.) This is a fine opportunity to hear a work too little performed, within or outside the liturgy. Pay special attention to the marvelously serene Laudate Dominum, guaranteed to inspire even the impious to ponder Mozart’s heavenly talent.

Schubert wrote the Mass in G at the tender age of 18, yet the piece languished in an unpublished state until several decades after the composer’s death. Its emergence into public light was a sordid affair, as another composer first tried to pass off the piece off as his own, ultimately winding up in prison for embezzlement. Don’t expect a whole lot of dazzling virtuosity here, but luxuriate instead in the exquisite moods of contemplation that Schubert seems to conjure so effortlessly.

Further mystery surrounds Felix Mendelssohn’s unfinished oratorio Christus, a sobriquet applied by his brother, Paul, to a posthumously published selection of fragmentary works. The surviving pieces, including two selections on SFLC’s program (“Say, Where Is He Born” and “There Shall a Star From Jacob”), add fodder to the long-standing debate surrounding Mendelssohn’s religious affiliations and his efforts to reconcile his Jewish heritage with a prevailing Christian culture. One scholar recently suggested that with Christus Mendelssohn sought to advocate a premise of universal guilt for the death of Christ, issuing a pointed challenge to contemporary anti-Semitist currents. This is heady stuff for a summertime concert, but well worth pondering while you enjoy the exultant melodies and exquisite lyricism of these finely wrought miniatures.

More familiar to many audiences, though equally compelling in terms of theological significance, will be selections from Mendelssohn’s monumental oratorio Elijah, itself often seen as evoking parallels between this Old Testament prophet and the New Testament figure of Jesus. As a final treat, the rarely heard Kyrie in D Minor should prove a striking contrast, showcasing Mendelssohn in gloomier spirits with its thick choral textures and solemn atmosphere.

More about San Francisco Lyric Chorus »
Upcoming Concert
July 28, 2009
Traditional notions of “summer fun” evoke a host of images: beach balls, barbecues, baseball. Music lovers should add to this list of B’s the name Banchieri — as in Adriano Banchieri, an Italian Renaissance composer and a pioneer of the madrigal comedy, a collection of madrigals strung together to present a comical story. In what will surely be a spirited affair, San Francisco Renaissance Voices presents “The Bawdy and the Chaste,” a concert featuring Banchieri’s madrigal comedy Festino nella sera del giovedì grasso (Entertainment for the eve of Carnival Thursday) along with Palestrina’s Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas in two 7:30 p.m. performances, Aug. 8 at Seventh Avenue Performances in San Francisco and Aug. 9 at Alameda Presbyterian in Alameda.

Few events can match the Carnival of Venice for sheer decadence. Since medieval times this annual celebration has blended civic festival, public holiday, and colorful masquerade to create a spectacle of unrivaled resplendence. The festivities could easily devolve into raucousness, with rivalries between geographical or religious factions played out through bull fights, street races of oxen and pigs, or even physical combat.

Although SFRV’s performance probably won’t lead to fisticuffs, Banchieri’s Festino should offer a heavy dose of the Carnival spirit. Originally composed as dinner entertainment, this madrigal collection incorporates everything from commedia dell’arte high jinks to an aesthetic debate on the virtues of newer versus older music. (For the record, Banchieri comes out firmly on the side of the avant-garde.) According to SFRV Music Director Todd Jolly, “The piece is just as entertaining today as it was in 1608 when Banchieri described his opus as ‘modern music,’ and will give our audiences a sense of the celebration of the Carnival of Venice.”

In stark contrast to Banchieri’s bacchanalia, Palestrina was the undisputed master of the refined prima prattica (first practice) that defined 16th-century Italian sacred music. Although he is just the kind of composer Banchieri might have faulted as old-fashioned, his pure, graceful, and elegant style has masterfully stood the test of time and remains extremely popular even to this day. Hearing one of Palestrina’s lesser-known masses, juxtaposed against the more boisterous Banchieri, offers an ideal window into the stunning diversity and craftsmanship of the Italian Renaissance.

But don’t go just for the music; go also to experience SFRV’s uniquely flamboyant performance style, a standout within the crowded field of Bay Area early music ensembles. Jolly takes particular delight in enlivening the traditional concertgoing experience using costumes, staging, and other theatrical devices. For the upcoming set, Jolly reports that the ensemble will be masked and in costume for the Banchieri, and also joined by distinctive guest artists including local actor Rick Homan, performing the narrative parts that Banchieri himself would have performed, plus members of the Celtic-tinged early music ensemble Brocelïande playing recorders, harp, and octave mandolin.

On a final note, one audience member will have a special chance to participate more directly in the festivities. For each performance, a raffle will be held and the lucky winner gets to appear onstage for a special cameo. No singing required — just a Carnival spirit.

More about San Francisco Renaissance Voices »
Early Music/Baroque Review
April 3, 2009

An unmistakable allure surrounds concerts that bring long-neglected music into the new light of day. Aside from the sheer novelty of presenting repertory otherwise seldom available in concert or on recordings, these efforts can prove highly memorable for the listener, who comes away with a distinct feeling of having experienced something special.

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Archive Review
February 3, 2009

"Community" was the watchword of the Oakland Symphony Chorus' 50th-anniversary gala Saturday at the Regent's Theater of Holy Names University. While the occasion, billed as "a celebration of community and song," presented both these qualities in abundance, it was community that ultimately took center stage. Lavish opening and closing receptions, musical programming centered on the theme of unity, and an intermission acknowledgment of honored guests (including nearly all the group's conductors over the past five decades) inspired an unmistakable esprit de corps among the attendees.

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Archive Review
January 13, 2009

The cottage industry surrounding how to "properly" interpret J.S. Bach's beloved Suites for Solo Cello sometimes borders on the ridiculous. Like operagoers defending their most beloved divas with delirious fervor, many aficionados blindly swear by their own favorite approach to these remarkable works. Taking a "stance" has also become de rigueur for some professional cellists, driven by a need to clarify their interpretation of these works more self-consciously than with most other repertory (as if other works don't require equal artistic consideration).

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Archive Review
October 21, 2008

If you're one of those Bach devotees who can quote Brandenburg Concerto themes or name all the movements of an orchestral suite, Philharmonia Baroque's new twist on several orchestral classics might be just up your alley. In "Bach Reconstructed," a program devised by guest conductor Paul Goodwin, some of Bach's finest old wines have been placed into new bottles, rearranged into new performance contexts, or adapted to novel instrumental combinations.

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Archive Review
October 14, 2008

Medieval secular music has a way of inspiring a startling array of interpretive approaches. There are those ensembles that gussy up their performances with (literally) all manner of whistles and bells, mystical in sound but dubious in authenticity. At the other end are the extreme purists, demanding authenticity to a fault and using only the barest surviving historical evidence to generate "faithful" but lifeless performances.

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Archive Review
October 7, 2008

For several years now, the Baroque ensemble Magnificat has made seventeenth-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier into something of a cottage industry. A regular fixture on the ensemble's season calendars, this composer embodies Magnificat's stated mission of uncovering the "'new music' of the early Baroque" — masters of the era who have yet to receive their due.

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Archive Review
April 8, 2008

As the musical establishment for England’s monarchy, the Chapel Royal has played host to some of that nation’s most renowned musicians, from Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. Nowadays the latter two figures stand unequivocally as the pride of the English Baroque, so it seemed appropriate that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s program should accentuate these composers’ more lively side.

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Archive Review
March 11, 2008

With Easter just around the corner, the timing seems about right for a performance of a passion by J.S. Bach, one of the genre’s great masters. But while Bach’s St. Matthew Passion might spring immediately to mind, the San Francisco Bach Choir opted for the shorter, less grandiose Johannes-Passion.

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Archive Review
February 19, 2008

To most Americans, Christopher Columbus is known as the "discoverer" of our part of the world. Less commonly understood is the land from which he came, an environment rich in culture but beset by violence and religious intolerance, a legacy that Columbus' arrival in the Americas would perpetuate.

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Archive Review
February 12, 2008

In an increasingly crowded field of Bay Area choral ensembles, certain groups have devised creative methods of garnering attention. The three-year-old San Francisco Renaissance Voices, still a new kid on the block, takes the novel step of re-creating historical performance environments for its concerts.

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Archive Review
January 29, 2008

Early music aficionados across the Bay Area would have been wise to circle American Bach Soloists' January performance of J.S. Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorio (Christmas oratorio) on their calendars. This impressive work, a collection of six cantatas historically designated for performance between Christmas and Epiphany, isn't often mounted outside the month of December.

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Archive Review
December 11, 2007

What if you programmed an orchestral concert and then proceeded to ignore the orchestra? Hearing Philharmonia Baroque's concert set "The Majesty of Christmas" Saturday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, I got the sense that conductor Konrad Junghänel had somehow managed this dubious achievement. Seeking to unearth the music of 17th-century German composers whose reputations have wilted under J.S. Bach's long shadow, Junghänel offered a largely lackluster program that gave the orchestra precious little to wrap its bows around.

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