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Rebecca Liao

Rebecca Liao has produced several classical music performances in the Bay Area. A lawyer by day, she is currently working on an essay collection about contemporary classical music theory.

Articles by this Author

Artist Spotlight
January 24, 2011

The young violinist Ray Chen has made a global footprint that’s only getting larger, and he has the skills of a truly musical interpreter. In advance of his performance with S.F. Symphony for its Chinese New Year concert, he talks with SFCV.

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Upcoming Concert
November 15, 2010

It turns out the Bay Area has a legit klezmer band of its own. A concert titled “Klezmania!” will celebrate the holidays and Chanukah with traditional klezmer, Yiddish and Israeli folk songs, along with original klezmer compositions.

More about Old First Concerts »
Chamber Music Review
November 5, 2010

When Melody of China and Asian Improv Arts teamed up for “Shanghai Stories,” a concert of jazz and Chinese classical and folk music, exoticism brought a lacquered newness to familiar pleasures.

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Upcoming Concert
October 5, 2010

When I watched Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I waited to hear an iconic line to match the first film’s “Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko got teary, and I lost hope — until Bretton James (played by Josh Brolin) delivered the aphorism “Every man should have a mentor and a protégé.” Ironically, it is the completely well-intentioned San Francisco Academy Orchestra (SFAO) that acts on this fortune-cookie advice in its season-opening concert.

More about San Francisco Academy Orchestra »
Upcoming Concert
September 20, 2010

Minority groups have the unenviable task of celebrating their uniqueness while demonstrating that they have a great deal in common with everyone. Small wonder, then, that classical music and the LGBTQ community found each other. The partnership displays its accomplishments as the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony opens its season with the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

More about Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) »
Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
April 15, 2010

Thursday night’s concert at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts had all the markings of Bay Area fusion — a combination that works through pure juxtaposition, rather than synergy.

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Upcoming Concert
March 9, 2010
Back in the days when the piano ruled and recordings didn't exist, a lot of music for four hands (one piano, two players, as opposed to two pianos) got written or arranged for the home market. But today it's hard to find players who specialize in this intimate style. Enter the ZOFO Duet, the San Francisco-based musical partnership of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann, which performs at Old First Church on March 28. Already acclaimed for their superior pianism, the ZOFO Duet scours the globe for all kinds of four-hand music.

"We just started casually playing together last spring and performing last September," says Zimmermann. "Soon we realized it was a lot of fun and wanted to formally start a duet together. We knew each other because Keisuke lived just a block from me. He was in a house full of musicians, and sometimes they would put on chamber music parties there."

"But we didn’t really start playing together until he got a hand injury, and I took over some concerts that he had with the Adorno Ensemble. When he came to a concert, he said, 'We should read something together. I really want to do the Rite of Spring; that’s my dream.' He gave me the music, and I totally got drawn into it. We were crazy about the piece, and we still are."

It takes special artistic personalities to make the close coordination of four-hand music work, especially if it's the Rite of Spring we're talking about, as Zimmermann explains. "It’s so much fun because there is so much choreography involved in it. Since we started playing together, I’m much more aware of how I move when I play, even when I play solo. I really enjoy this new layer of movement — the choreography of how to play things because if you don’t plan it, you clash, or you play on each other’s fingers."

Listen to the Music

Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Sacrificial Dance
The pair thrive on each other's differences. "I think we both have a lot to offer to each other," says Zimmermann. We’re actually not very similar as players. He’s a very relaxed player, and he’s taught me a lot already, by just sitting next to me, to relax and observe my movements more. I’m more of a person who goes into detail, and I think he can draw from that.

The upcoming program at Old First finds the ZOFO players applying their style to American dance music, including Gershwin's delightful Cuban Overture. "We wanted to do a dance program. Keisuke showed me a David Garner piece [Four for Shiva], and I really liked it, and he showed me the Barber Souvenirs. He also had a recording of the Allen Shawn piece [Three Dance Portraits], so he contacted Shawn and got the score." But whose idea was it to call the program "Mosh Pit of American Dances"? Zimmermann laughs: "My husband’s. I didn’t even know what a mosh pit was. Some of the pieces are pretty heavily influenced by rock music, like the Allen Shawn, very hard-edged. David Garner, as well."

This is only the tip of the iceberg for the intrepid collaborators, but it's a start that will excite and amaze listeners about four-hand music in the concert hall. But played with ZOFO's intensity and commitment, it may very well turn out to be the start of something grand.

More about Old First Concerts »
Upcoming Concert
March 2, 2010
Anselm Kiefer’s monumental sculpture Seven Heavenly Palaces gave birth to Ludovico Einaudi’s latest album Nightbook in an almost physical way. In 2006, Einaudi performed among Kiefer’s mythically imposing towers and subsequently wrote music inspired by the awareness and feelings of transcendence aroused by sitting at the comparatively tiny grand piano. The album, released in January, has already been consumed by Einaudi's fans via iTunes and Amazon. But downloading can't compare to the live experience at the Palace of Fine Arts, where Einaudi will appear on March 15 as part of The Nightbook Tour. An Element of Einaudi's aesthetic is the live meeting ground of the concert.

Boasting a Top 10 spot on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart, Nightbook (and the rest of Einaudi’s music, for that matter) has earned concerned, sidelong glances from classical music purists after the album hit No. 1 on the iTunes classical chart. The stubborn ability of the music to place one in a calmer mood puts it dangerously close to New Age, but rest assured: This music will not be playing in spas, yoga class, or any other place where it is better to leave your imagination behind.

Nightbook is an exploration of the transition between light and dark. Einaudi's solo piano provides the narration while combinations of strings, percussion, and electronically generated sound amplify and define that narration. Beginning from a minimalist base, the music veers from lyrical and peaceful to rhythmically driving, like minimalism or anthem rock, to somber reflective pieces, with aspects of world music as well. (Einaudi has played with Malian harpist Ballake Sissoko, among others.) From the first note, a story begins to build in your head. Before long, however, you realize that this story has no plot or movement. It is an enterprise in escape, full of vague but cunningly potent notions of ideal thought and feeling.

The mastery of this effect largely explains Einaudi’s success with movie soundtracks. He understands how to create music ready-made for a story to be superimposed onto it. Among his credits are the soundtrack for Fuori del mondo, an Italian film nominated for an Oscar in 2002; Luce dei miei occhi, for which he won Best Soundtrack at the 2002 Italian music awards; and the British TV series Doctor Zhivago.

Nightbook does not pretend to be a soundtrack; it just quietly makes listeners the character in a tone poem about themselves. The immediacy of his communication draws in listeners who are not necessarily familiar with classical music, and has made him one of today's most popular classical music composers. Though some longtime fans of classical music may not be open to his sound — as they have rejected minimalism — Einaudi will find appreciative ears even there. How much fun is it to escape and always meet the same story?

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Upcoming Concert
November 10, 2009
Have you heard? Barneys is opening up an additional store in the Mission District for more cutting-edge customers.

OK, I’m kidding. But the imprint of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the exciting Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concert coming up Dec. 3 is a lot like finding a stash of Balenciaga in an independent boutique. The program is a minireproduction of the Philharmonic’s 2007/2008 season, unofficially known as the “Season of Steven Stucky,” featuring his Radical Light, juxtaposed (as Stucky intended) with Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and “Elegy” from August 4, 1964, followed by Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. 

Incidentally, Stucky is currently the L.A. Phil’s consulting composer for new music and was the matchmaker responsible for pairing the BSO’s music director, Joana Carneiro, and Gabriela Lena Frank, the new creative advisor.

Since the classical music world is so small, these interconnections are nothing out of the ordinary. Given the timing and this particular cast of characters, though, this concert continues the steady chant begun in Los Angeles this season: “Classical music is chic again.” It’s young and dynamic, drawn forth with passion that’s romantic in its strength and edgy in its similarity to ecstasy-induced highs. Carneiro and her SoCal counterpart, Gustavo Dudamel, are both charismatic, energizing visionaries — the subjects as well as the instigators of conversations at trendy gatherings. You can practically hear Ellen DeGeneres singing into her Kanye West Auto-Tune, “Change you ca-an believe in.”

Looking at Stucky’s accounts of his inspiration and intentions for Radical Light and “Elegy,” however, I find it hard to understand why classical music hasn’t always had this status in contemporary culture. Indeed, Stucky employs a breadth of modern references that rivals Marc Jacobs in his most successful fashion collections. Let’s go through them: Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse and the inadequacy of words; poetry and the ability of art to do more than hold up a mirror; and, for “Elegy,” the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; the murder of three civil rights activists on August 4, 1964; and composer John Adams’ affinity for Greek chorus and the dramatization of historic figures. In fact, Adams also offers lists like this as potent sources of inspiration for his works. (Come to think of it, so does every contemporary composer.)

Critically, however, we haven’t mastered the concept of high–low, throwing in the H&M pants or the Forever 21 dress. In music, the equivalent would be regularly aiming for visceral reactions, or basing the success of a piece on pure alchemy. This is why any good performance of Sibelius’ Seventh is still an event, as is even any work of Stravinsky’s, for that matter. We listen, wanting the rare feeling of wonder that something so wrong sounds like fresh genius. It doesn’t happen often enough, but do you hear that chanting?

More about Berkeley Symphony »
Upcoming Concert
November 2, 2009
Despite the name, there’s nothing old school about Old First Concerts. Set in the Old First Church in the heart of San Francisco, on Sacramento at Van Ness — an intimate, old-world setting with no bad seats and acoustics that hint at the place’s celestial connections — the concert series has become a favorite venue for a wide variety of musical events, from classical chamber music and recitals to jazz, avant-garde, blues, folk, and multicultural performances. The San Francisco Guitar Quartet’s concert on Nov. 20 is a great example of Old First Concert’s philosophy. The group will feature music that combs several genres for inspiration, connecting them with an increasingly broad spectrum of music that isn’t easily labeled. (“Contemporary classical”? Sure, why not.)

If you’ve got four good guitarists (David Dueñas, Jon Mendle, Patrick O’Connell, and Mark Simmons), you’ll probably end up experimenting with the tone qualities of those instruments. The practice is centuries old, but since guitar quartets are relatively new and don’t have a large repertory written specifically for them, the sounds they produce almost become modern by default.

But the SFGQ promises to do more than coax new sounds out of conventional instruments. Mendle, the group’s new member, plays an 11-string archguitar that’s a combination of 19th-century guitar, modern guitar, and Renaissance and Baroque lutes. It was built right here in San Francisco by Alan Perlman (but don’t try building one at home).

At the experimental edge of the SFGQ program will be Atanas Ourkouzounov’s Objets futiles. Like Béla Bartók, however, Ourkouzounov infuses his music with folk characteristics, so even this abstract, modernist music can appeal to an audience. Fortunately, it’s impossible to compose away the inherent warmth and storytelling ability of the guitar, and even more so to resist the humanity of a culture that gave the world lo real maravilloso. And so there are two traditional South American songs to look forward to: La Partida-Vals Venezolano and La Venenosa-Huayno Peruano, both arranged by Dueñas; and Cuarteto 5/Chorinho by Javier Farías, whose music is often based on Chilean folk rhythms.

The quartet will also play At the Sound of Light, by Mill Valley native John Anthony Lennon. While not as famous as that other John Lennon, he’s a well-known composer who has created a substantial body of guitar music. His music, like that of his teacher, William Bolcom, exploits American idioms, making him a favorite of guitarists like David Starobin and David Tannenbaum.

Yet this concert, like most guitar concerts, is primarily about listening to the instruments played by superior musicians. The guitar has such a wide variety of repertories and uses that it comes close to being a universally human medium. And if a player happens to bring along his archguitar, so much the better.

More about San Francisco Guitar Quartet »
Upcoming Concert
October 26, 2009
For its inaugural concert of the year, the Oakland East Bay Symphony will take us to a “Night at the Opera” on Friday, November 13. OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan has selected a large group of the most promising young singers in the Bay Area. With such a big cast, there is often the danger that each individual member will not receive his or her full due. But with Morgan in charge there are no worries on that score.

World Premieres

Maestro Morgan wanted to emphasize that even though he has been at the helm of OEBS for 20 years, he remains an ardent a champion of broadening classical music's horizons, so he hired a cast of singers who operate along the same wavelength. Brian Leerhuber, baritone, created the role of Breedley in A Wedding, directed by the late and great Robert Altman, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Heidi Moss, soprano, sang in the premiere of The Grand Seducers. Three Mo’ Divas featured Hope Briggs, soprano, as a soloist.

Leerhuber was also Robert E. Lee in Philip Glass’ Appomatox, while Zachary Gordin, baritone, premiered the lead role of Wilder in the opera Earthrise, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lewis Spratlan. Kalil Wilson, tenor, lets us know from his Web site that he will soon premiere a new lead role composed for him.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

Over the years, Maestro Morgan has gathered a family of singers, for whom the opening concert will be a performance as well as a reunion. Zachary Gordin, A.J. Glueckert, tenor, and Lori Willis, mezzo-soprano, have sung Faure’s Requiem, Bernstein’s Mass, and Handel’s Messiah, respectively, with the OEBS. Wilson performed in the symphony’s critically acclaimed and sold-out production of Porgy and Bess in 2007 and Gordin appeared as Montano in Othello.

Musical Chairs

With OEBS not indicating who exactly will sing what, we are practically invited to arrive at the concert with our predictions in hand. On the program for the evening are selections from Aida, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, Lucia Di Lammermoor, Cavalleria Rusticana, Hérodiade, The Ring Cycle, and Candide. Moss’ crystal-clear soprano paired with any of the men, including Adler Fellow Joshua Bloom, bass-baritone, could fulfill all the casting needs for Lucia Di Lammermoor. As for Verdi, Willis’ mezzo-soprano is apropos, and Briggs boasts an agile lyric-spinto voice with a formidable stage presence that has carried her in several performances of Aida. The honor of performing the Nabucco piece will probably go to the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland East Bay Gay Men's Chorus. When this work is performed in Italy, it is immediately followed by cries of “Bis, bis,” which never happens in America. But in the hands of these choruses, who knows?


More about Oakland Symphony »
Upcoming Concert
October 5, 2009
On most weekdays, you can probably hear a collective groan on Interstate 80 from commuters traveling to and from the Sacramento area. Chances are, they just heard KDFC’s long-time host Dianne Nicolini announce that a perennial listener favorite was coming up, with the line, “But first, here’s Haydn [or his brother, son, nephew, second cousin twice-removed].” On Oct. 28, however, braving the commuter soundtrack to drive to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis (or simply staying put if you live near there) will be worth it, because the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg is presenting a piece that is both by Haydn and a favorite.

The 168-year-old orchestra is one of the premier symphony orchestras in Austria. Focusing on music from the Viennese Classical school, it presents the “Mozart Matinees” at the annual Salzburg Festival. Its musical sensibilities are particularly well-rounded, due to the variety of its repertoire: playing in the pit for musicals and operas for the Salzburg Landestheater, performing great symphonic works from all eras for the Salzburg Kulturvereinigung in the Large Festival Hall, and presenting a thematic series in the concert hall of the Mozarteum. The orchestra has had myriad glowing adjectives attached to its name at one time or other. In the end, though, it is simply very Austrian — more sensitive and less heavy-handed than the Germans, without any sacrifice in musicianship.

The program will begin with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, whose opening theme, incidentally, also opens the musical lock on the door to the edible garden in the original screen version of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Music Director Ivor Bolton looks better in a tux than Gene Wilder did.) It will close with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, also known as “The Great.”

Now, what about that Haydn favorite? His Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major will feature Johannes Moser as both the soloist and the concert’s way of fulfilling the orchestra’s motto, “The cutting edge of classical music.” Moser may be our next Yo-Yo Ma, not because they play with similar styles, but because they are both enthusiastic ambassadors for classical music. Where Ma pairs with pop artists for crossover recordings, Moser promotes the Youtube Symphony Orchestra and participates in outreach activities with children and young adults across U.S. campuses, introducing connoisseurs of synthetic sound to prepared and toy cellos and pianos. Performing contemporary pieces is his signature. Even Pierre Boulez sings his praises, and he’s a much tougher customer than Bobby McFerrin.

There’s no doubting Moser’s musical heft. His tone isn’t quite commanding, yet his phrasing flows from a seeming sixth sense of the way in which musical figures relate to each other and of how to convince the listener that he’s playing a piece as it was intended to be played. In his hands, the cello seems to become a living being; we almost forget there’s a musician behind its sound. Is it something we have never heard before? Not really, but after Lang Lang’s appearance last month, shouldn’t we see what youth is really capable of?

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
September 20, 2009

Warhorse has become a dirty word, synonymous with tired and predictable. If a musical warhorse is included in a concert program, particularly one as important as the season opener, its function is to appease those who did not love the aural and intellectual assaults that preceded it. So it’s fitting that the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, a gay and lesbian volunteer orchestra whose enterprise is based on daring, would disregard the trend with an opening night lineup featuring one very short contemporary piece and two warhorses. The title of this program?

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Chamber Music Review
September 3, 2009

A small crowd gathers at the corner of Folsom and 23rd streets in San Francisco Thursday night, waiting to be let into Classical Revolution’s chamber music performance at the Red Poppy Art House. A man passing by recognizes the signs of an event and stops to ask someone in the crowd what’s going on. They talk at length, but no luck; the man leaves.

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