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Music News

March 2, 2010

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

S.F. Symphony Ramps Up to Its Centennial

The San Francisco Symphony, launched in December 1911, is turning 99 next season (which runs from Sept. 2010 to June 2011), a rare accomplishment in the tough business of orchestral music.

True, there are much older organizations, such as the Dresden Staatskapelle, founded in 1548; the Leipzig Gewandhaus (last month's visitor to Davies Symphony Hall), begun in 1743; or even the New York Philharmonic, started in 1842. Still, San Francisco Symphony will celebrate its centennial-minus-one next season with (a somewhat restrained) gusto, probably saving up for a big centenary 2011-2012.

The 2010-2011 season announcement today from Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas tells of a jazzy gala opening on Sept. 7, with soprano Jessye Norman singing such Duke Ellington favorites as Sophisticated Lady and It Don't Mean a Thing, as well as Copland's In the Beginning. Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is also on the program.

There will be concerts featuring large-scale works — Orff's Carmina burana, with three choruses (Nov. 3-5), John Adams' El Niño (Dec. 2-4) and Harmonielehre (Dec. 8-11), Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conducted by Kurt Masur (March 10-12), Bach's B-Minor Mass, conducted by SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin (March 16-20); and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, with soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo Katarina Karnéus (June 23-26).

MTT will conduct "Mahler in San Francisco" programs in May 2011, including Symphony Nos. 6 and 9; also No. 2 ("Resurrection") — which happens to be on tap this month as well, both at Davies Symphony Hall and on the orchestra's tour — with soprano Karina Gauvin and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as soloists. With the addition of Symphony No. 5, the four works will be part of two "Mahler in Europe" tours, observing the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth in 2010, and the 100th year of his death in 2011.

Classical repertory will be well-represented, with 14 Beethoven performances, including two all-Beethoven concerts (Jan. 20-23 and Feb. 2-5), and an all-Beethoven program with the Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio (Nov. 7). There are all-Mozart (Feb. 17-19) and all-Mendelssohn (March 10-12) concerts, and even Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, both performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra just last week.

Visiting orchestras are the Dresden Staatskapelle, with conductor yet to be announced (Beethoven and Brahms), Oct. 24; Israel Philharmonic, with Zubin Mehta (Haydn and Mahler), Feb. 27 and 28; National Orchestra of Spain, with Josep Pons (Falla, Joan Albert Amargós, Stravinsky, and Ravel), April 10; St. Petersburg Philharmonic, with Yuri Temirkanov (Shostakovich and Brahms), March 27 and 28.

On the more contemporary front, Project San Francisco continues, with two weeks in December spotlighting the works of John Adams, including El Niño and Harmonielehre mentioned above. (Adams also has the "Creative Chair" post with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next season.) In June 2011, Project San Francisco will feature pianist Yuja Wang, performing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and participating in chamber music and student events.

"New and unusual" are in short supply. First SFS performances range — C.P.E. Bach (Symphony in G Major) to two Mozart Piano Concertos, Berg's Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite, and Kurt Weill's Symphony No. 2.

Works by living composers number eight, including the two Adams pieces and two commissions. The others are 94-year-old Henri Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain, György Kurtág's Grabstein für Stephan, Christopher Rouse's The Infernal Machine, and Valentin Silvestrov's Elegie.

Of the only two SFS commissions/world premieres, one — Rufus Wainwright's Five Shakespeare Sonnets — is postponed from the current season. The other is Avner Dorman's Uriah, to be conducted by David Robertson, Jan. 26-28.

How does the S.F. Symphony, operating on a $63.5 million annual budget, compare with other orchestras?

Alan Gilbert's second season at the head of the New York Philharmonic ($64.5 million) will have seven world premieres — by Magnus Lindberg, James Matheson, Jay Alan Yim, Aaron Jay Kernis, Wolfgang Rihm, Sebastian Currier, and Krzysztof Penderecki.

At the Los Angeles Philharmonic ($95 million), Gustavo Dudamel, also in the second season as music director, presents nine world premieres — by Gerald Barry, Francisco Coll, Osvaldo Golijov, Gabriel Kahane, Peter Lieberson, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Steven Tharp.

Locally, Joana Carneiro's Berkeley Symphony ($1.1 million) has commissioned world premieres by Enrico Chapela and Du Yun, in addition to performances of works by John Adams, Peter Lieberson, and James MacMillan.

Michael Morgan's Oakland East Bay Symphony ($2.1 million) presents world premieres by Narada Michael Walden and Scott Amendola (both writing their first works for orchestra, supported by the Irvine Foundation), the Bay Area premiere of Billy Child's Concerto for jazz violinist Regina Carter, OEBS' second presentation of contemporary Persian composers, and the American Masterworks Series continues with Kurt Weill's Street Scene.

Barry Jekowsky's California Symphony ($1.3 million) continues its nationally acclaimed Young American Composer-in-Residence (YACR) program, which has contributed substantially to the 23-year-old orchestra's 30 world premieres to date.

California Symphony and OEBS are yet to make their season announcements.

Other Minds, This Week

Other Minds' 15th annual festival is held March 4-6, at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center's Kanbar Hall. Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian andAssociate Director Adam Fong have invited composers of "differing age, gender, nationality, technique, and philosophy" to the festival in an attempt to "make the group as diverse as possible, to get them out of their comfort zones and generate some energy in the discussions."

As before, OM will present works by nine composers. This year, they are: Chou Wen-chung, saxophonist and New Orleans jazz patriarch Kidd Jordan, former Village Voice music critic Tom Johnson, Carla Kihlstedt, Gyan Riley, Rome Prize winner Lisa Bielawa, Pawel Mykietyn, Jürg Frey, and Natasha Barrett.

Featured performers include bassist William Parker, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Quatuor Bozzini, the Del Sol String Quartet, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and the Gyan Riley Trio with Michael Manring. 

Miracle in a Box in Alameda

A benefit for the Alameda Education Foundation, a screening of the documentary Miracle in a Box is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on March 14 at Auctions by the Bay in Alameda.

The film is about the first Berkeley Piano Competition, featuring the six finalists in performance, but a major participant is the piano itself, being rebuilt through a collaborative process. Pianists and craftsmen are costarred in the story.

Appearing in the film: Jared Redmond, winner of the competition, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, composer Jake Heggie, jazz artist Tammy Hall, songwriter Steve Willis, and others. John Lithgow is narrator.

Alameda Education Foundation is a vital organization supporting the city's children with programs in the visual and performing arts, sports, and scholarships. Frederica von Stade has long been one of the foundation's important advocates.

Berkeley Opera Gala

As long as the topic is benefits, an important one coming up is the Berkeley Opera's fund-raiser following the company's production of Don Giovanni in its new home in El Cerrito.

The old home was the Julia Morgan Theater, and in the manner of It's a Small World, the annual gala — beginning at 5 p.m. on March 14 — will take place at the Julia Morgan-designed Chapel of the Chimes. While the edifice's main function is to serve as a columbarium, its spectacular architecture will serve the lively purpose of food and drinks, auctions, and performances.

Among the participating artists: Christine Brandes, Paula Rasmussen, Don Sherrill, Marie Plette, and Christine Abraham — a formidable group of singers.

For reservations, see the Berkeley Opera Web site or email to [email protected]

Berkeley-to-Boulder Move

Berkeley Symphony Director of Communications Kevin Shuck left his position last week to start a new job in Colorado, as executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic. Under the direction of Music Director Michael Butterman, the Boulder orchestra is celebrating its 52nd year.

The Runnicles 'Empire'

Speaking from a U.K. perspective, Hugh Canning writes in The Sunday Times: "Simon Rattle [of the Berlin Philharmonic] is not our only music man in Berlin. Since the

 beginning of the current season, the Scots-born Donald Runnicles, 55, has been Generalmusikdirektor of the Deutsche Oper, West Berlin’s international house until the fall of the Wall. Nowadays, it plays operatic second fiddle to Daniel Barenboim’s Deutsche Staatsoper, the historic (but much smaller) theatre on Unter den Linden, in the new city centre."

The former San Francisco Opera music director's appointment in Berlin, Canning writes, was "as sudden as it was unexpected." 

In February 2007, he conducted two Ring cycles to critical and public acclaim, and by October his appointment was announced, beginning in September 2009. At the time, he had a similar post in San Francisco, which he held for 17 years until last summer, and he will continue there, over the next two years, to conduct Wagner’s epic.

It was presumably for his Wagnerian credentials that the Deutsche Oper made such a snap appointment in 2007. Like most of the prestigious German houses, the DO has a distinguished Wagnerian tradition: during the 1980s and 1990s, the entire Bayreuth canon, the 10 operas and music dramas, from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, was staged as a cycle by Götz Friedrich, director of the most thrilling production of the Ring in Covent Garden’s recent history, from 1974 to 1982.

The title of the article: "Empire building in Berlin," and the lengthy piece is an excellent report on the present and future of Runnicles and Deutsche Oper.

MTT Honored With Medal of Arts

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Wednesday that San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas received the National Medal of Arts last Thursday from President Barack Obama in the White House. Rep. Pelosi had nominated MTT for the honor.

"Thomas has been a remarkable mentor and supporter to many young artists, and he has educated millions about the joy of music. His tenure at the San Francisco

Symphony has been marked by artistic excellence," Pelosi said.

San Francisco Symphony Board President John Goldman said: "This award is the nation's highest honor for artistic achievement, recognizing MTT's meaningful and lasting contributions to American culture as a musician, educator, and leader."

From composer Elliott Carter, in 1985, to the José Limón Dance Foundation two years ago, more than 200 American artists have been honored by the medal.

Pelosi quoted President John F. Kennedy: "The life of the arts — far from being an interruption in the life of a nation — is very close to the center of a nation's purpose," adding "As we recognize Michael Tilson Thomas and other artists, we honor them for enriching our lives, our country, and our world with their creativity."

Carlson Premiere in San José

Opera San José will open its 2010-11 season with the West Coast premiere of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. The 57-year-old composer 

worked with the San Francisco Symphony a couple of decades ago as coordinator of the New and Unusual Music series.

Anna Karenina — with libretto by the late Colin Graham, based on the Tolstoy novel — had its world premiere in 2007 at the Florida Grand Opera. It was also performed at the Opera Theater of St. Louis.

The alternating conductors for the Sept 11-26 performances in San José will be Stewart Robertson and Bryan Nies. The stage director is Brad Dalton.

The rest of the San José season: Puccini's Tosca (Nov. 13-28), conducted by David Rohrbaugh and Anthony Quartuccio, directed by Sandra Bengochea; Rossini's The Barber of Seville (Feb. 12-27), conducted by Nies and Ming Luke, directed by Jose Maria Condemi; and Puccini's La bohème (April 23-May 8), conducted by Rohrbaugh and Joseph Marcheso, directed by Timothy Near.

The Trouble With New Music: It's New

"Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music," says Philip Ball in The Music Instinct. The book has drawn on the latest scientific findings from neuroscientists to show that structure and patterns in music are a fundamental part of musical enjoyment.

A report in the London Telegraph quotes Ball:

Many people still seem to find modern classical music challenging. If that is the case, then they can relax as it is challenging for a good reason and it is not because they are in some way too musically stupid to appreciate it.

The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear. The music of Bach, for example, embodies a lot of the pattern forming process.

Some of the things that were done by those composers such as Schoenberg undermined this cognitive aid for making music easier to understand and follow. Schoenberg's music became fragmented which makes it harder for the brain to find structure.

That isn't to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to, it is just harder work. It would be wrong to dismiss such music as a racket.

Thank goodness!

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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