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interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts "Barantschik and Friends," at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and "Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn," at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: SFS

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts “Barantschik and Friends,” at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn,” at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On stage at Davies Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik seems to epitomize the intense and mysterious Russian.  The virtuoso always looks quite serious as he juggles his orchestra leadership role with that of first violinist who plays “The David,” the illustrious 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú violin, famed for its rich dark sound.  I’ve always wondered what makes Barantschik tick and about the particulars of his Russian musical upbringing.  When I had the chance to interview him in conjunction with “Barantschik and Friends“—his upcoming performance at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this Thursday (and on Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun at Davies as “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn“)—I jumped.  We chatted on the phone last Friday and he couldn’t have been warmer as he shared his amazing story.

Google Barantschik. You’ll learn that he’s nicknamed “Sasha” and that this former concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras has served under Music Director MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) for 14 years through acclaimed cycles of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and that he has premiered important works by André Previn and Viktor Kissine.  He’s played exquisite instruments throughout his career too. The fact that Barantschik’s first auditions in the West—for a seat and then for the concertmaster position at Germany’s Bamburg Symphony—were performed with a violin he bought in a department store as he was leaving Russia, is a little known detail I nudged out of him that makes his story all the more fascinating.  As we were talking, I got the impression that he’s a bit private but that didn’t stop me from asking for “a bit more detail.”

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with "David," the famous1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio.   Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall.  The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with “The David,” the famous 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio. Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that, even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall. The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On Thursday, Barantschik returns to Green Music Center to lead the Orchestra in an irresistible program he’s put together showcasing strings.  Following a lovely early Mozart “Divertimento in F major for Strings,”  Barantschik takes center stage to play Mendelssohn’s “D minor Violin Concerto,” one of the Romantic master’s finest creations and a delightful surprise for concertgoers who only know its more famous sibling, the E Minor.  He’ll be playing “The David,” the 1742 Heifetz Guarnerius del Gesù violin owned for many years by his idol, Jascha Heifetz.  The violin, valued at over $6 million, was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in 1989 by Heifetz and offered as an extended loan to SFS in 2002, where it has been cared for and played by Barantschik.  Barantschik insists that the dollar value on the instrument is “completely irrelevant” as it’s priceless and could “never be replaced.”  Of course there are a few restrictions. This will be “The David’s” second appearance at Weill Hall—1 of 2 locations outside of San Francisco where he is allowed to take it, the other being the Mondavi Centerfor the Performing Arts at UC Davis.  Aside from these two exceptions, the instrument never travels outside of Davies.  Also on the program is Britten’s winsome “Simple Symphony,” a salute to the composer’s centenary and “Melodia-Libertango,” the sultry music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, the king of nuevo tango, with guest performer Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon.

Where did you grow up in Russia and what was your first experience with the violin?  

Alexander Barantschik: I was born in 1953 in St. Petersburg, Russia (then ‘Leningrad’), which was and still is the cultural capital of the country.  My family wasn’t musical, no musicians except for a very distant relative, Yefrem Zimbalist, who lived in the States but I never met him because he’d emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was pure coincidence that my mother tried to get me some lessons at the music school which was just across the road from our home.  I could walk there by myself every day and my parents thought this would keep me busy and off the streets, which was just what happened.  I was almost six when I was admitted.  My first instrument was an accordion because there was no space for another violin student in the school.  I don’t remember anything about that accordion but a violin spot opened up and the teacher thought I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and pitch and so I started playing the violin.  After a few years, I made some progress.  I can’t say I was completely dedicated to practicing or spent many hours at it but I loved music.  It took quite a few years before I truly understood the importance of practice and of the violin itself.  I was probably 12 or 13 when I started thinking this might be forever, this might be my life, and then I started practicing and then I started making real progress.

Historically, was there a “Russian style” of music playing and was that around when you were studying and is it still around today?  Who were there big mentors that you looked up to, or, perhaps, wanted to topple?

Alexander Barantschik: When we think of a Russian school of violin, we should think about Leopold Auer, basically the first teacher who could claim that he was important for the whole process of teaching great players.  His students, apart from Heifetz, were phenomenal violinists.  He wasn’t Russian but a Hungarian Jew who came to Russia (in 1868) and his Russian wasn’t perfect but he was teaching his students in a unique way—they all had something special in common.  That tradition of playing was very deeply appreciated after he left and went to live in New York for the last part of his life.  I cannot say there is a Russian tradition of violin playing that exists right now.  The world is smaller, faster, and within one week, you can be in three different continents, so things are not as personalized.  There are great players of the past who are impossible to imitate…Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin—great players who were absolutely unique.

How do you feel about David Oistrakh’s playing and did you ever happen to meet him? 

Alexander Barantschik: I loved his playing and heard him play much more than any other violinist as he was in Russia and played regularly with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.  I was dreaming of becoming his student at the Moscow Conservatory and was able to audition with him when he was performing in St. Petersburg.  I met with him in his hotel room and I played for him for about 20 minutes and he was extremely nice and accommodating and sympathetic.  He listened and made some corrections and tried to see how I reacted to his comments.  His last question after I had played was simple—’Do you think you really love violin?’—and he looked straight into my eyes as he asked me that.  I think I said, ‘I dearly love violin.’  After a second, he said, ‘Ok… I will accept you into my class.’  I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. As I was preparing to take other exams at the conservatory, I heard the tragic news that he been on tour to the Netherlands and had died in Amsterdam after his concert.  I never became his student and that was the end of my training but I’m so glad I have this wonderful memory of playing for him.

What were the circumstances that brought you to the West?

Alexander Barantschik: By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and toured regularly.  I had visited Western Europe and Japan but I felt that, for my musical development, I needed to absorb different cultures and traditions and that the only way to achieve this was to emigrate from Russia, which I did at 26.  My first country was Germany, where I was concertmaster with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.  This was my first job and I spent three years there learning all about German traditions—Beethoven, Bückner, Haydn—and I broadened my view and I’m still learning from different traditions today.

How difficult was it to get out of Russia to Germany?

Alexander Barantschik:  It was not easy and, let’s say, it was made difficult.  I left Russia with one suitcase—no money, no job, no references and almost no violin.  My violin was not a Guarneri but it was a nice little violin from Tirol, Austria, and at the last minute, I was not allowed to take it with me.  I ended up going to a department store, to the music section and buying a simple violin that had been made in a furniture factory.  It looked horrible and sounded accordingly.  I played my first audition, for the section, on that.  Afterwards, the committee came to me and said they were happy to offer me a job with the orchestra but that in one week they would have another audition for concertmaster and they asked me if I’d like to participate.  I didn’t think about it and just said yes.  They then asked me about my violin which was very bright red and said they’d never seen anything like it before.  One week later, I returned for the concertmaster audition and played all the solos and concerti and I got that position.   That was when they presented me with a very beautiful Guadagnini violin made in Cremona and the legend was that it has belonged to a famous German violinist Joseph Joachim who was a close friend of Brahms and who wrote cadenzas to almost every important classical violin concerto.

Do you still have that red violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  No.  I lent it to someone and this person never returned it and for that I am very sorry.  I would love to frame it and hang it on the wall for my students at the conservatory to see what my beginnings were.

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared his 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesú to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—"dark, rich and complex."  Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor.  Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by "worthy performers.''  Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings.  Image: FAMSF

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared “The David,” his 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú, to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—”dark, rich and complex.” Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor. Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by “worthy performers.” Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings. Image: FAMSF

What did it feel like the first time you had Jascha Heifetz’s fiddle in your hands?  How long has it taken you to become truly comfortable with the fact that this is now your violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, the very first time I held it, I was speechless because the sound of Heifetz had been with me in my ear since I was a child…I’ve listened to his recordings all of my life.   The violin is legendary, with a very special history of ownership and craftsmanship but it is not easy to play.  Players need to find the way to produce the sound it’s capable of and that requires a special technique.  It took me many months, perhaps a year, to meet its demands and to make it my friend so it started to like me as well.

Do you think that Guarneri has a unique voice? One of your SFS colleagues mentioned that he thought he heard a familiar voice from the Heifetz recordings when he heard you play it.

Alexander Barantschik:  I never tried to imitate Heifetz’s sound.  First of all that’s impossible as there was only one Heifetz and there will never be another.  So it’s not my intention but it does have a unique dark-colored sound and maybe some low notes sound a little familiar for those who are familiar with his recordings.

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú).  Photo: Stewart Pollens

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú). Photo: Stewart Pollens

You were MTT’s concertmaster in London Symphony Orchestra right?  You obviously have a special rapport.  What clicks?  Do you and MTT ever share a vodka before or after a performance?

Alexander Barantschik:  We met in London.  I joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the same year he started as principal conductor. We met in the recording studio when the orchestra was recording Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which has a huge important violin solo.  We had just one rehearsal and we didn’t have time to discuss things or work out the details—it was spontaneous—we both just trusted each other as musicians.  After this very important and stressful recording session, we immediately became friends.  I still have the cd and it’s one of the best I ever made.  Our collaboration has continued for a little over 30 years now.

As for the vodka, usually, we are both pretty exhausted after a performance and we don’t have any vodka with us.  Maybe, on a couple of occasions, when it was the end of the season, we shared a drink.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

What’s the most stressful aspect of being the concertmaster?

Alexander Barantschik:  It is a stressful job but maybe a better word is complex.  The most stressful period was when I first started my career as a concertmaster and I had to basically learn the entire orchestral repertoire, an endless body of work.   I’m still learning new pieces and relearning old pieces and forced to make important decisions.  It’s not only about playing—it’s about preparing sheet music, working with guest conductors, auditioning musicians and all of that is very complex in this huge organization.

Historically, the SFS concertmaster has been the only musician not to have tenure.  In the last SFS contract, you were given tenured status and all concertmasters, hereafter, were given the chance to be tenured.  Was that important to you?

Alexander Barantschik:  I think the most important aspect was the recognition of me being an integral part of the orchestra, not as being slightly different from the others.

Why did you select the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor and what sets it apart from his Concerto in E Minor, one of the five great violin concertos?

Alexander Barantschik:  The D Minor that I will be playing is written for violin and strings whereas the E Minor is written for the whole orchestra with wind and brass.  This program is dedicated to SFO strings and that was my main reason.  It is also rarely played and, in fact, was completely ignored until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1970’s and edited the score and performed it for the first time in a couple of hundred years.  So, this is not so popular but it was a master work when Mendelssohn wrote it as a 13 year old and it has all the qualities of the works he composed in his advanced age.  You can hear from hear very first few bars that it is Mendelssohn—it is youthful, beautiful, dramatic and it speaks to my heart.

Any contemporary music for violin that you find intriguing?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, it depends what we’re talking about…in terms of the 20th century, which is already the last century, I love Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich the most.  If we are talking later, and more avant-garde, then there are very interesting pieces that have a new language.  The only way to encourage young composers to write is to perform their works. Without performing, we’ll never know where music is going.  On two occasions (2003 and 2012), I played the “Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra” (written in 1984 as a commission for the Berlin Festival) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I was a little nervous about how the audience would react as it’s a very complicated piece, not easy listening, but he’s one of my favorite composers and this is one of my favorite concertos.   The audience and the orchestra loved it in 2003 and when I played it nine or ten years later, it was the same story…successful.  Now, I am learning and I hope to play a concerto by John Adams.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik with "David," the famous Heifetz Guarneri which rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, except when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Barantschik will play Mendelssohn's "D Minor Violin Concerto" (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn's music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed.  The D minor concerto hasn't been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952.  Photo: Lowres, SFS

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik will play Mendelssohn’s “D Minor Violin Concerto” (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn’s music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed. The D minor concerto hasn’t been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952. Photo: Lowres, SFS

Where else aside from Russia, London and CA have you lived and which place do you consider “home”?

Alexander Barantschik:  Without any doubt, home is where my family is— my wife Alena and son Benjamin—and we’ve been here since 2001, 13 years already.  I am very happy to call CA, the Bay Area, specifically San Mateo, where I live, my home.  After I left Russia, I lived in Germany for three years and then in Amsterdam for 22 years where, for 16 years, I combined my job as concertmaster with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with my concertmaster position at LSO.  I then moved to California and started my job here at SFS.

Does your son have any interest in pursuing music? 

Alexander Barantschik:  He’s a high school junior now.  He loves math, science, and computer science and he plays piano for his pleasure and loves classical music but he has no desire to pursue music professionally.

Russians have a marvelous and highly creative form of cursing.  What’s your favorite Russian curse?

Alexander Barantschik:  Honestly, I don’t curse so much.  We do have a saying, ‘Ni puha ni pera,’ which is something like ‘break a leg,’ which is what you say to every musician or performer about to go on stage.  The reply to that is always ‘K chortu,’ which is ‘Go to hell,’ a good omen for Russians.

How do you feel about performing at Weill Hall?

Alexander Barantschik: We are used to our hall, Davies, where we perform and rehearse every day and it’s challenging to leave that.  Weill Hall is much smaller than Davies, has a completely different shape, and is very different acoustically from Davies.  Since we don’t have any rehearsals at Weill Hall, or at the Mondavi Center, it’s always challenging to get the sound just right.  We don’t have any experience just sitting in the hall and listening either.  On stage, we are hearing things that are so different from what you’re hearing and we have to adjust immediately without even hardly having a chance to play. This time, we’ve got a small ensemble.  I will come a bit early and check out the acoustics to make sure I remember what it’s like there.

Details: Alexander Barantschik and SFS perform “Barantschik and Friends” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. AND “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn” at Davies Symphony Hall on Wed (Jan 22, 8 p.m.), Fri (Jan 24, 6:30 p.m.), Sat (Jan 25, 8 p.m.) and Sun (Jan 26, 2 p.m.).  Tickets at Green Music Center are $20 to $156 (click here to purchase) and are $15 to $109 at Davies (click here to purchase.)  For more information, call (415) 864-6000.  For more information about San Francisco Symphony’s four concerts this season at Weill Hall, click here.

January 22, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gordon Getty’s 80th Birthday concert with Plácido Domingo, Frederica von Stade, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, January 6, 2014, at Davies Symphony Hall

Gordon Getty thanking the crowd for his “Happy Birthday” serenade, enthusiastically sung by the Davies audience, SFS Chorus, accompanied by SFS  (son Billy Getty is to the right).  Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Gordon Getty thanking the crowd for his “Happy Birthday” serenade, enthusiastically sung by the Davies audience and SFS Chorus, accompanied by SFS (son Billy Getty is to the right; step-mother Teddy Getty Gaston in green and wife Ann Getty sporting a huge emerald broach by JAR (from Gordon) to her right). Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s A Prayer for My Daughter.  Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s “A Prayer for My Daughter.” Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Gordon Getty on stage at Davies Symphony Hall after the world premiere his new work, “A Prayer for My Daughter.”  Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Gordon Getty on stage at Davies Symphony Hall after the world premiere his new work, “A Prayer for My Daughter.” Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Plácido Domingo returned  to perform with the SFS for the first time since his debut with the Orchestra more than forty years ago—a 1973 performance of Verdi’s Requiem with then-Music Director Edo de Waart.   From the moment he stepped on stage to conduct Strauss’ “Overture to Die Fledermaus,” Domingo generated a buoyant high that carried Gordon Getty’s 80th birthday celebration.  When he sang “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the audience went wild. The Spanish tenor (who turns 73 on January 21, 2014) has sung 144 operatic roles and is currently the General Director of the Los Angeles Opera.  Photo: IPS

Plácido Domingo returned to perform with the SFS for the first time since his debut with the Orchestra more than forty years ago—a 1973 performance of Verdi’s Requiem with then-Music Director Edo de Waart. From the moment he stepped on stage to conduct Strauss’ “Overture to Die Fledermaus,” Domingo generated a buoyant high that carried the celebration. When he sang “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the audience went wild. Getty later told the audience that Domingo had once performed the entire second Act of “La Traviata” for him in his home. The Spanish tenor (who turns 73 on January 21, 2014) has sung 144 operatic roles and is currently the General Director of the Los Angeles Opera. Photo: IPS

Frederica von Stade (“Flicka”) and Plácido Domingo’s “Lippen schweigen” duet from Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” concluded with a delightful waltz.  Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Frederica von Stade (“Flicka”) and Plácido Domingo’s “Lippen schweigen” duet from Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” concluded with a delightful waltz. Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Pianist Robin Sutherland and soprano Lisa Delan performed Gordon Getty’s “Four Dickinson Songs” which included the beloved “A Bird Came Down the Walk” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Getty has been enthralled with Emily Dickinson since his college days and in 2012 released “The White Election,” (written in 1981), a song cycle on 32 Dickinson poems, sung by Delan. Getty’s collaboration with Delan began in the 1998 when she sang the title role in the world premiere of his "Joan and the Bells," a role she has since reprised in France, Germany, the U.S., and Russia. Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Pianist Robin Sutherland and soprano Lisa Delan performed Gordon Getty’s “Four Dickinson Songs” which included the beloved “A Bird Came Down the Walk” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Getty has been enthralled with Emily Dickinson since his college days and in 2012 released “The White Election,” (written in 1981), a song cycle on 32 Dickinson poems, sung by Delan. Getty’s collaboration with Delan began in the 1998 when she sang the title role in the world premiere of his “Joan and the Bells,” a role she has since reprised in France, Germany, the U.S., and Russia. Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Urns of fragrant red roses adorned the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall for Gordon Getty’s 80th Birthday bash.  Getty has served on the SFS Board of Governors since 1979.  During his tenure, he and his wife, Ann, have provided leadership and generous support for some the Symphony’s most important initiatives, including the acoustic renovation of Davies Symphony Hall in 1990, the Grammy award-winning Mahler recording cycle, and the Orchestra’s international tours.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Urns of fragrant red roses adorned the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall for Gordon Getty’s 80th Birthday bash. Getty has served on the SFS Board of Governors since 1979. During his tenure, he and his wife, Ann, have provided leadership and generous support for some the Symphony’s most important initiatives, including the acoustic renovation of Davies Symphony Hall in 1990, the Grammy award-winning Mahler recording cycle, and the Orchestra’s international tours. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Grammy Time!  Davies sparkled with cabinets displaying San Francisco Symphony wins.  Last year’s Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance for its live recording of works by Bay Area composer John Adams added up to the 15th Grammy for San Francisco Symphony.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Grammy Time! Davies sparkled with cabinets displaying San Francisco Symphony wins. Last year’s Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance for its live recording of works by Bay Area composer John Adams added up to the 15th Grammy for San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Geneva Anderson

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Pianist of Willesden Lane”—a daughter strikes a deep chord in her mother’s musical story of survival, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek channels the very spirit of her mother, Austrian pianist Lisa Jura, in the musical telling of Jura’s Holocaust survival story.  This heart piercing solo show of music and words, which opened last Wednesday (Oct 30) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a deeply moving triumph.

Produced and adapted by Hershey Felder, who just a few months ago brought and performed the solo show, George Gershwin Alone, to Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the acclaimed best-selling book, The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohn.  The story is one of separation, sacrifice, and the power of music and family to elevate the spirit in the darkest of times.  Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in this searing tribute to her remarkable mother.

Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was just 14 in March 1938 when German troops entered Vienna and interrupted her life in this cultural capital where Jews congregated.  The changes were confusing and unpleasant—Lisa, a piano prodigy, could no longer take piano lessons from her beloved teacher who was discouraged from interaction with Jews.  Her dream of a debut at the fabled Musikverein concert hall was shattered.  The situation escalated on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938), when her father—a tailor—suffered a humiliating brush with death that led to the decision to flee Austria.

The family was only able to secure a single ticket on the highly-demanded Kindertransport train which rescued children threatened by the Nazis and took them to England.  It was decided that Lisa, the middle child, should go, as she stood the best chance of thriving as a classical pianist.

Bolstering Lisa throughout the ordeal were the last words her mother spoke to her—“Hold onto your music.  It will be your best friend in life.” These words were uttered at the Vienna train station in November 1938 as Lisa joined hundreds of crying children in saying their good-byes forever to their parents.  Many times, in those darkest of days, when disappointments, fear or pain were about to overwhelm her, Lisa recalled these words.

Jura was one of 10,000 refugee children brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport mission.  As soft-spoken Golabek recounts her mother’s story, we are riveted. Imagine Lisa’s anxiety when the relative, who was supposed to meet her at the station in London and care for her, was unable to fulfill his promise to her family and she was abandoned.  Like many refugee children aged 14 and above, she became a domestic worker and was expected to earn her keep.  She was sent to a large country estate to work.  When she was unable to play the piano there, which she was told was for show purposes only; she left abruptly and travelled alone to London where she settled in at the titular Willesden Lane home for children. It was there that she slowly began to flourish—the piano as her anchor— and began life anew in London with the sad realization that she might never see any of her family members again.

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Mainly seated at the Steinway piano, Golabek uses slight shifts in her posture at the keyboard and in phrasing to help tell the story of young Lisa’s gradual transformation into a young virtuoso.  She plays interludes from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Gershwin, Strachey, Rachmaninoff and Grieg without sheet music and also commits considerable spoken passages in the 90 minute performance to memory.  Her calm delivery is achingly authentic.

From the performance’s earliest moments, we learn that Lisa dreams of making her own concert debut with Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16,” an exceedingly difficult and challenging piece that requires maturity, stamina and technique. The Norwegian composer was just 24 when he wrote this brilliant concerto in three movements, the only concerto he ever completed. Hershey Felder fleshes out the great storytelling moments in Lisa’s journey and loosely hangs them around the Grieg concerto and Golabek plays portions of all three movements.  The audience was clearly stirred at the very exciting moment of Lisa’s scholarship audition at the London Academy of Music where she performed from stirring Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin piano classics flawlessly.  But at the end of the evening, when Golabek played from the Grieg Third Movement, with its adventurous rhythms, tears flowed freely.

Well-executed décor and video projections greatly enhance the performance.  A gorgeous array of huge gold gilt picture frames surround the Steinway on the Thrust stage.  These antique frames serve as video portals for Felder’s well-curated of selection of personal and archival news photos, newsreel footage, and famous artworks.  Set in the glow of the midnight blue stage, with Jura’s punctuated playing, it’s a sight to behold.  Particularly riveting are portraits of family members, glorious shots of old Vienna, and the devastation of the London Blitzkrieg which destroyed Lisa’s place of asylum in London, the home for young refugees at 243 Willesden Lane.

The impact of this inspiring performance comes in waves…. What strength it must take for Golabek to channel her mother on a daily basis, knowing full well that she is here and only able to do what she does because of her grandparents’ sacrifice that allowed for her mother to pursue her dream.

Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.  Starring Mona Golabek as Lisa Jura

Creative team: Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder (scenic designers), Jaclyn Maduff (costume designer), Christopher Rynne (lighting designer), Erik Carstensen (sound designer), Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal (projection designers).

Run-time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Post-play discussions: Thursday 11/14, Tuesday 11/19, and Friday 12/6 following the performance and after all weekend matinees

Repartee: FREE docent talks @ 7:00 PM on Tuesday and Thursdays and free discussions after all weekend matinees

Details: Pianist of Willesden Lane, has been extended through January 5, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

Parking:  Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

November 8, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Green Music Center welcomes Zarin Mehta as its new Executive Co-director

Zarin Mehta, the former president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is the new co-executive director of Green Music Center.  He officially starts work on November 1, 2013.  Mehta will focus on artistic planning and management of GMC alongside Sonoma State University CFO Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, who also serves as co-executive director of GMC.  Mehta is pictured standing in the Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall.  Photo: Kristen Loken

Zarin Mehta, the former president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is the new co-executive director of Green Music Center. He officially starts work on November 1, 2013. Mehta will focus on artistic planning and management of GMC alongside Sonoma State University CFO Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, who also serves as co-executive director of GMC. Mehta is pictured standing in the Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall. Photo: Kristen Loken

It’s been somewhat of a whirlwind at Weill Hall—this Tuesday’s Silk Road Ensemble performance, which people are raving about, was the tenth concert in the Green Music Center’s (GMC) 2013-14 Mastercard Performance Series which is delivering a very strong and diverse line-up.  Just eight months ago, with great fanfare, GMC welcomed French diplomat Emmanuel Morlet as its first Artistic Director.  That relationship didn’t jell and Mortlett exited during the summer without having had much of an impact—the second season’s programming was locked in before his arrival.  Yesterday afternoon, GMC made public the appointment of Zarin Mehta as its new co-executive director.  Mehta, who turned 75 on Monday, recently concluded his 12-year tenure as president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  At GMC, he will focus on artistic planning and management alongside Sonoma State University (SSU) Chief Financial Officer Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, who also serves as co-executive director of GMC.

Mehta, the younger brother of famed conductor Zubin Mehta, currently resides in Chicago with his wife, Carmen, and will be splitting his time between Chicago and Sonoma County.  Mehta will be paid an annual salary of $300,000.  Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of that will be underwritten by Sandy and Joan Weill, and SSU will make up the remaining $50,000 until GMC is able to raise the funds to cover the cost, an issue their GMC advisory board met about Wednesday and assigned a very high priority.

“With the leadership of Zarin Mehta, and his world-class expertise and experience, the GMC is set to become the centerpiece of Sonoma cultural life and a major draw to the region, without doubt, from near and far,” said Furukawa-Schlereth.  “I’m looking tremendously forward to working with Zarin to put the GMC on the international musical map and welcoming him to the Sonoma County community.”

“It was during Lang Lang’s recent visit to Sonoma to perform at Weill Hall last month when he asked me whether Zarin had been approached by the GMC,” said Sandy Weill.  “Upon hearing that he had not, Lang Lang reached out to his mentor Zarin…and they talked about the unique opportunity at the GMC.  Joan and I could not be more excited…The hard work has just begun but attracting the caliber of somebody like Zarin gives us every confidence that we can achieve greatness.”

In 2011, Weill and his wife, Joan, donated $12 million to finish GMC’s concert hall which had been 15 years in the planning but stalled due to lack of funds.  After the donation, Weill became GMC’s chairman; the 1400 seat concert hall was named the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall and a grand vision emerged.  GMC’s spectacular first season offered 22 concerts in the MasterCard Performance Series with luminaries as Lang Lang, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, and Joyce DiDonato.  Some 60 other musical events, including regular performances of the San Francisco Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony that were not part of the series, were also realized.

Mehta’s artistic influence will ease itself in gradually over the next year.  Under the helm of artistic consultant Robert Cole, GMC’s second season is well underway and its 2014-15 season programming is nearly complete.  It was Cole, who retired recently from a very successful run with Cal Performances, who locked in soprano Renée Fleming as GMC’s second season’s opener and the renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which will perform on March 11, 2014.  GMC programming is tweaked on a regular basis and, at any point, Mehta can bring in additional programming.  GMC reports there is room for change.

Calling on seasoned musical friendships and his broad international experience, Mehta will ultimately set the artistic vision for GMC and its year-round MasterCard Performance Series in Weill Hall, including presentations of important orchestras, ensembles and artists from a wide spectrum of classical music, jazz, world music and other forms.  Each season will also continue to feature regular performances by the San Francisco Symphony and the Santa Rosa Symphony

Mehta will also cultivate GMC programming as two exciting new performance venues are completed – the 250 seat Schroeder Hall, featuring a Brombaugh tracker organ, slated to open in 2014, and the MasterCard Performing Arts Pavilion, an open-air space, expected to open in 2015.  He will build and further develop public and young people’s educational programs and partnerships, including ongoing work with The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in New York.  In all of these endeavors, he will work closely with Furukawa-Schlereth.

Mehta’s first official day on the job is Friday, November 1, 2013.  “The vision that was begun by Sonoma State University’s President, Dr. Ruben Armiñana, with Donald and Maureen Green, and brought to fruition by Sandy Weill and the Board, with Larry Schlereth’s quiet hard work, is exemplary in the American musical landscape,” said Zarin Mehta.  “To create a new, world-class center for music, performance, and education, in the heart of the magnificent Sonoma County Wine Country – one of the most beautiful settings imaginable – requires determination, dedication, and most of all, a true love of music…My wife, Carmen, and I, look forward to becoming part of the San Francisco Bay Area community and developing GMC into an international musical destination.”

As for Mehta’s hefty salary, Furukawa-Schlereth reported Wednesday that the GMC advisory board met on Wednesday and plans to fundraise to support Mehta’s position, so that the center will not be a drain on the university’s budget.  For an indefinite period though, Sonoma State will pay $50,000 of Mehta’s $300,000 annual salary.

Jessia Anderson, Associate Director of Communications GMC, confirmed that Mehta is currently looking for a home near GMC and he will be splitting his time between here and Chicago.  His wife of 47 years, Carmen, is a vocal instructor in Chicago and the couple has roots there so they will not be giving up their home there.

Mehta comes with considerable arts management experience. Mehta started out as an accountant in Montreal and served as managing director of the Montreal Symphony (1981-1990), CEO of the Ravinia Festival (1990-2000), and began his New York Philharmonic position in 2000 as executive director, becoming president four years later.  Around 2003, when Sandy Weill was chairman of Carnegie Hall, he and Mehta (along with Philharmonic board chair Paul B. Guenther) were involved with negotiating the merger of  Carnegie Hall with the Philharmonic, but the deal collapsed in 2003.   Daniel Wakin of The New York Times reported September, 27, 2010, in an article about Mehta’s retirement, that Mehta’s accomplishments during his tenure at New York Philharmonic include maintaining labor peace; a record of exotic touring, including a singular visit to North Korea; and helping bring Credit Suisse aboard as global sponsor.

If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of Mehta at Weill Hall, he will not be attending Saturday’s Mariza concert.  He will be back in Chicago.  The question of when his famed brother, Zubin, will make his Weill Hall debut is open.  As for a car, Zarin will have to scramble as brother Zubin nabbed the vanity CA plate “M8A” long ago for the commute from Brentwood to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

November 1, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A big Verdi week—San Francisco Opera celebrates the composer’s bicentennial in grand style with the “Requiem,” performed by 312 choristers and musicians from Naples and San Francisco, as the magnificent “Falstaff” continues to mesmerize

Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday is being observed by San Francisco Opera on Friday with a huge and historic performance of his choral masterpiece “Messa de Requiem.”  Nicola Luisotti, Music Director of both the San Francisco Opera and Italy's Teatro di San Carlo of Naples will conduct 320 singers and musicians from both companies on stage at War Memorial Opera House with vocal soloists Leah Crocetto, Margaret Mezzacappa, Michael Fabiano and Vitalij Kowaljow.  Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday is being observed by San Francisco Opera on Friday with a huge and historic performance of his choral masterpiece “Messa de Requiem.” Nicola Luisotti, Music Director of both the San Francisco Opera and Italy’s Teatro di San Carlo of Naples will conduct 320 singers and musicians from both companies on stage at War Memorial Opera House with vocal soloists Leah Crocetto, Margaret Mezzacappa, Michael Fabiano and Vitalij Kowaljow. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti is preparing to conduct the performance of a lifetime on Friday— Giuseppe Verdi’s choral masterpiece “Messa de Requiem” which will be jointly performed by both his companies—San Francisco Opera and Italy’s Teatro di San Carlo of Naples.  Talk about an of embarrassment riches!  In case you haven’t heard yet, this month marks the bicentennial of the composer’s birth— he was born October 9 or 10, 1813 in the Italian village of Roncole—and the entire world is celebrating.  And the Bay Area is not to be outdone.   Our silver haired maestro will conduct 312 singers and musicians from both companies in the Requiem Mass at War Memorial Opera House on Friday evening—161 choristers (90 SFO  and 71 Teatro di San Carlo (TSC)), 146 orchestra members and four soloists.  In the interest of true cultural exchange, Luisotti has interspersed the SFO and TSC choruses so that a SFO chorus member sits by a TSC member.

An exacting combo of fury and fear, punctuated with hammering chords and explosive bass drum bangs and soft, chillingly quiet moments, the Requiem Mass is one of Verdi’s most striking choral works.  Just as its music is characterized by wild undulations, its message too moves from the otherworldly to the fire and brimstone of inevitable mortality and judgment and back again, making for a deeply penetrating spiritual experience when performed soulfully.  Vocal soloists are soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, tenor Michael Fabiano and Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow.   It was Crocetto, a former Adler Fellow, who gave an astounding and emotionally riveting performance as Liù in SF Opera’s Turandot  in 2011, working in perfect harmony with Luisotti who seemed to pull every tender ounce of lyricism she had to give.  She’ll have plenty of solo time on Friday as well.

The highly-anticipated performance of the Requiem has been sold out for months.  SF Opera donors and subscribers and those with Italian cultural connections got first dibs on the tickets, leaving slim pickings for regular attendees.  ARThound pounced and was able to purchase some real estate in an outer corner of Row X in the Orchestra, normally nothing to brag about because it’s beneath the dreaded overhang, but cause for celebration in these circumstances.

This unique presentation of the Requiem is offered as part of the worldwide Verdi bicentennial celebration and in recognition of 2013 The Year of Italian Culture in the United States, an initiative held under the auspices of the president of the Italian Republic.

Verdi’s Messa da Requiem premiered in May 1874 in Milan and was composed to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, the celebrated Italian writer and one of the leaders of the Italian Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement.  Verdi himself conducted the world premiere of one hundred twenty chorus singers and orchestra of one hundred musicians. The work was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and quickly made the rounds to the world’s leading music capitals where it garnered critical and popular acclaim.  Verdi’s Requiem is set in seven movements: Requiem and Kyrie; Dies Irae; Offertorio; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Lux aeterna; and Libera me.

Fantastic Falstaff:

SFO also continues its acclaimed run of Verdi’s comedic opera Falstaff.  If you haven’t been to the opera this season, Falstaff is the opera to see—it stars the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, today’s definitive Falstaff, in the lead role, supported by an outstanding cast which includes American contralto Meredith Arwady masterfully singing Dame Quickly.  This Lyric Opera of Chicago production, directed by Oliver Tambosi, with scenery and costumes by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, premiered in 1999 but still feels fresh.  ARThound was lucky enough to catch last Sunday’s (October 20) matinee, the most delightful SFO performance I’ve attended since the inventive Magic Flute in summer 2012, which showcased the fanciful creativity of visual artist Jun Kaneko.

Falstaff, played by Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel, schemes to make some extra money by romancing a pair of wealthy wives in Verdi’s comedic opera.  Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Falstaff, played by Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel, schemes to make some extra money by romancing a pair of wealthy wives in Verdi’s comedic opera, “Falstaff.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

After being wowed by Bryn Terfel’s intimate recital of British sea poems, lieder by Schumann and Schubert, and Celtic songs at Green Music Center on the 13th, experiencing him sing Falstaff at SFO the following weekend was even more special, as I got a taste of the range of his artistry.  His fluid transformation into the fat, lecherous scoundrel Falstaff, is mesmerizing.  His rich voice is so powerful that he filled the expansive War Memorial Opera House as easily as he did the much smaller Weill Hall.

Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera, written when he was near 80 and still at his creative peak.  His only other comedy had been written some 50 years earlier.  Ialstaff is based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and parts of Henry IV.  In a nutshell, Falstaff, the main figure, is running out of money and looking for a quick solution.  He sets his sights on two rich women at once— Alice Ford (Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta) and Meg Page (American mezzo soprano and Adler Fellow Renée Napier)— and writes them both love letters.  Of course, he doesn’t fool anyone; the crafty women of Windsor collaborate and out-scheme him and ultimately the “fat Knight” learns his lesson.  Along the way, while dressed in his best red finery, he is stuffed in a laundry hamper by the women and dumped out a window into the Thames, a scene which Terfel mines for all its worth.  

American contralto Meredith Arwady (L) as Dame Quickly and Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff.  Arwady’s powerful lower register, charisma, and comedic heft make her a scene stealer. Here, she argues that Falstaff’s being dumped into the River Thames from a large laundry basket was not planned.  Photo: Cory Weaver

American contralto Meredith Arwady (L) as Dame Quickly and Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff. Arwady’s powerful lower register, charisma, and comedic heft make her a scene stealer. Here, she argues that Falstaff’s being dumped into the River Thames from a large laundry basket was not planned. Photo: Cory Weaver

While all the women are in top form, Meredith Arwady, a former Adler and Merola alumna, grabs the spotlight as Dame Quickly, the pivotal emissary between the women and Falstaff.  Aside from a rich and glorious voice, she’s got that magic “it” factor that makes her memorable despite the size of her role.  She is on par with Terfel in her contribution to the opera’s magic.   Her Act III invitation to Falstaff/Terfel to get to Herme’s Oak, leaves us wanting more from the duo who are delightful together.   

Nicola Luisotti’s impassioned conducting is one of the production’s main draws. The characters’ words direct the metre and melody of the ensembles in this masterpiece and orchestra helps tell the story with an array of cheers, sighs, grunts and screams.  Last Sunday, Luisotti kept it brisk and energetic and the singers, chorus and orchestra were in perfect sync.  There are many musical highpoints, but Kevin Rivard’s penetrating horn call from Box Z—a distant sound that wafts over the audience—adds rich atmosphere to the Act III recreation of Herne’s Oak in moonlit Windsor Forest.

The magnificent singing, music, staging, and costumes make this the perfect Verdi experience. Sung in Italian with English subtitles.  (4 remaining performances—Thursday, 10.24 at 7:30 PM; Sunday, 10.27 at 2 PM, Wed 10.30 at 7:30 PM and Saturday, 11.2 at 8 PM (all have OperaVision except Sat 11.2)

Details:  The Verdi Requiem is completely sold-out.  A limited number of $10 Standing Room tickets go on sale at 11 A.M. day of performance.  For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, including Falstaff, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

October 24, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up Wednesday, July 24, the legendary Josh Groban performs with the Santa Rosa Symphony at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall

Josh Groban has sold more than 25 million records…his music famously puts women in the mood.  He performs at Green Music Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, with the Santa Rosa Symphony, his only performance in Northern CA this summer.

Josh Groban has sold more than 25 million records…his music famously puts women in the mood. He performs at Green Music Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2013, with the Santa Rosa Symphony, his only performance in Northern CA this summer.

Dubbed the “love me tenor” by adoring female fans, the dreamy-voiced Josh Groban performs with the Santa Rosa Symphony, led by conductor Sean O’Loughlin, at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.  If you haven’t been to Weill Hall yet this summer, their summer concerts start a little earlier—at 7:30 p.m.—so there’s lots of natural light hitting the hall’s golden-hued wood interior, making a gorgeous setting for a charming crooner like Groban.

Now 32, the Los Angeles native, is  well known for his inspirational hits “You Raise Me Up,” “To Where You Are,” and “I Believe” (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) and all of his records have topped the charts.  Of late, he’s been venturing from the semi-poperatic sound that catapulted him to fame in the late 90′s and early 2000 ‘s into new territory.  His latest album, All That Echoes, is an impressive crossover into pop and rock that promptly went to No 1. On the Billboard 200 right after its February 2013 release.  He not only sings but had a hand in co-writing seven of the of the CD’s twelve songs.  He’s really all about interpretation, finding the perfect way to express himself musically.  He garnered a lot of new fans with his hilarious 2011 appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where he sat down to the piano and set Kayne West’s insane tweets to music.  He’s also known for his incredibly down-to earth stage presence and for taking a break at his concerts to chat with audience members.

Essential Groban—

Discovery:  In 1998, at age 17, Groban’s voice teacher connected him with world-renowned Grammy-winning producer/arranger David Foster who liked him and began to use him as a rehearsal singer for many high-profile events.  His big break came when he was stand-in for Andrea Boccelli at the 1999 Grammy Awards and rehearsed Foster’s “The Prayer” with Céline Dion.  Those who heard him, like the program’s hostess, Rosie O’Donnell, immediately booked him and his career was off and running.

Recording success: His first four solo albums (Josh Groban (2201), Closer (2003), Awake (2006), Noël (2007), have been certified multi-platinum, and in 2007, he was charted as the number-one best selling artist in the United States, with over 21 million records in the nation.  He has sold over 25 million records worldwide.

Grammy:  Groban earned his first Grammy nomination in 2005 for his single “You Raise Me Up” in the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance category.

Collaborations:  Recent collaborations include such artists as Sarah McLachlan, Adele, Josh Groban, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monáe, Hall and Oates, Gloria Estefan, the Indigo Girls, Diana Krall, Itzhak Perlman, Natalie Merchant, Chris Isaak, Blue Man Group, Pink Martini, Brandi Carlile, The Decemberists, Martina McBride, Josh Ritter, Gloria Gaynor and others.

Olympics/ Obama: On February 24, 2002, Groban performed “The Prayer” with Charlotte Church at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  On January 18, 2009, Groban performed as part of the Presidential Inauguration ceremonies, performing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in duet with Heather Headley.

You Raise Me Up

Groban’s Hilarious Spoof CD compilation of Kanye West’s Tweets

Details:  Josh Groban performs with the Santa Rosa Symphony is 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at Weill Hall.  Tickets:  There is no remaining indoor seating.  There is outdoor and lawn seating $35-$55.  Recommend advance ticket purchase.  Ticket purchases can be made online at www.gmc.edu, or over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866.955.6040 or in person at the GMC Box Office, adjacent to the courtyard of Weill Hall , which is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and one hour before all performances.

July 20, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , | Leave a comment

Summer at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall—this evening, violinist Sarah Chang and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform with Moscow’s Best, the Russian National Orchestra

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with the Grammy award-winning Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Montanaro at Weill Hall on Tuesday, July16, 2013. Violinist Sarah Cheng also guest solos.

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs with the Grammy award-winning Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Montanaro at Weill Hall on Tuesday, July16, 2013. Violinist Sarah Cheng also guest solos.

There’s a special performance at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this evening.  As part of their summer programming, which has a particularly festive bend, GMC is partnering with Napa Valley’s Festival Del Sole in presenting the Russian National Orchestra (RNO), conducted by Carlo Montanaro, with renowned violinist Sarah Chang performing Samuel Barber’s popular Violin Concerto, and sensational pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto No. 5, a rarely-performed gem.  The concerts starts early, at 6:30 p.m., and ample tickets are still available in most areas except the front orchestra, so tickets can be purchased right before the performance at the GMC box office which closes at 4 p.m. and then re-opens at 5:30 p.m.

The Program—

Dmitri Shostakovich / Festive Overture, Op. 96:  Shostakovich wrote this short lively piece in 1954 for a concert held at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.  A victim of Stalin’s suppression, he worked heroically under stifling conditions but was unable to share his music.  Many music historians have posited that piece’s ebullience reflects his relief over Stalin’s departure and his ability to practice his art freely.  It is based it on Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture from 1842, and it features the same lively tempo and style of melody.  The overture was played at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and at the 2009 Nobel Prize concert.

Founded in 1990 by pianist and conductor Mikhail Pietnev, the Russian National Orchestra is described as “a living symbol of the best in Russian art” (Miami Herald) and “as close to perfect as one could hope for” (Classics Today).  The orchestra is unique among leading Russian ensembles in that it is a private institution funded with the support of individuals, corporations and foundations in Russia and worldwide.  The RNO maintains an active international tour schedule, appearing in Europe, Asia and the Americas and its guest artists include Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s beloved Music Director and Renée Fleming, who opens GMC 2nd season on September 15, 2013.  The RNO is the resident orchestra of the Festival de Sole.

Camille Saint-Saëns / Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Op. 103:  This concerto is nicknamed “The Egyptian” for two reasons. Saint-Saëns composed it in the temple town of Luxor while on one of his frequent winter vacations to Egypt, and secondly, the music is a synthesis of his far-flung eastern wanderings displaying influences from Javanese and Spanish as well as Middle-eastern music.  While it’s hard to imagine now, in 1872, Saint-Saëns received a large bequest from the estate of the director of the French Post Office, who expressed that a gifted composer should not have to work (as organist of La Madeleine in Paris) to supplement his income.  This bequest, together with income from royalties and performance fees, freed Saint-Saëns indulge his passion for travel.  He conducted in Moscow, London, and the United States and travelled to Egypt, Brazil, Ceylon, and Algiers.  He premiered the piece in 1896 with himself as soloist at a Jubilee Concert commemorating his debut 50 years earlier.

Thibaudet is known for coaxing the most amazing nuances from each work he performs and has recorded over 40 albums.  He has also collaborated on the soundtracks of Oscar-wining and nominated films Atonement and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.   He was just 20 when he was invited to be a guest soloist with the Napa Valley Symphony Orchestra and performed the Saint-Saëns concerto that he will be playing this evening.  For a delightful rendition of that performance and Thibaudet’s long-abiding passion for Napa Valley, click here to read L. Pierce Carson’s article in the Napa Valley Register.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 – The Egyptian 

Samuel Barber / Violin Concerto, Op. 14:  Commissioned by Philadelphia soap magnate, Samuel Fels for Russian violinist Iso Briselli, this controversial concerto, completed in 1939, was subsequently rejected by the Russian virtuoso.  Its tragic lyricism is in large part due to its dramatic violin parts which should find their true intense expression under Sarah Chang. Since her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 8, Chang has performed with the greatest orchestras, conductors and accompanists internationally in a career spanning more than two decades.  Her latest recording of the Brahms and Bruch violin concertos (EMI, Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 / Brahms: Violin Concerto, 2009) has been voted one of the top 250 best recordings of all time in Gramophone magazine.  If you’ve never seen Chang perform live before, you’re in for a remarkable experience.  Her intense bow strikes often seem like attacks. Her restless stage presence includes bending backwards, flipping her hair and making anguished facial gestures all while donning a body-hugging evening gown.

Sarah Chang performs Bruch Violin Concerto 3rd Movement

Sarah Chang age 12 masters Paganini’s Violin Concerto

Details:  Ticket purchases can be made online at www.gmc.edu, or over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866.955.6040 or in person at the Box Office which is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and one hour before all performances.

For more information about the Green Music Center, visit www.gmc.edu .

For more information about Festival del Sole, which runs through July 21, 2013 and presents over 60 events featuring the stars of music, dance and theatre, visit www.festivaldelsole.org .

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Fourth of July! Weill Hall gets dressed with red white and blue…

It might look like the Parthenon but it's Green Music Center's Weill Hall celebrating the 4th.  The music begins at  7:30 featuring santa Rosa Symphony and the fireworks start at 9:15 p.m.   Image: Geneva Anderson

It might look like the Parthenon but it’s Green Music Center’s Weill Hall celebrating the 4th. The music begins at 7:30 featuring Santa Rosa Symphony performing American classics. Dazzling fireworks start at 9:15 p.m. Image: Geneva Anderson

July 4, 2013 Posted by | Art, Classical Music | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Two Italian Dynamos—Nicola Luisotti and pianist Giuseppe Albanese—and the SF Opera Orchestra, kick off SF Opera’s Summer Season at Zellerbach Hall

Nicola Luisott conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

Nicola Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3 in F major”. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro!  Last Friday’s symphonic concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall, a San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances co-production, was everything we’ve come to expect when Luisotti is at the helm of this very talented orchestra—heart-felt passion and mesmerizing music.  It was wonderful to be able to actually see this talented orchestra, which normally resides in the pit during operas, and to place some faces with soloists we’ve come to respect and love.  Last Friday’s program included Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s early piece, “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.

The surprise treat was Giuseppe Albanese, in his West Coast premiere, who not only proved to be un talento enormo on the piano but a curly-haired young Italian heartthrob to boot.  He appeared in bright red shoes, a feat not many guys (apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet!) can successfully pull off ..…he owned it.  It was his smile, sensual verve and engagement with the music and orchestra that melted the audience and led to several standing ovations and a sensational triple encore.   His encore included an uncannily virtuosic rendition of Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2), which he knocked out with playful swagger. I would have sworn there were at least two hands on that keyboard if I hadn’t seen Albanese’s right hand alternately hanging by his side or pressed up expressively against his heart.

The evening opened with Puccini’s “Capriccio sinfonico,” a rarely performed work the composer wrote as a 25-year-old at the conservatory in Milan. The Capriccio was Puccini’s final student work, written to satisfy the requirements for his graduation in July 1883. He hadn’t yet written his first opera (although the work is full of operatic grandeur—and even contains passages that the maestro later used in “La Bohême”).  One of Puccini’s biographers, Julian Budden, has this to say about the Capriccio: “Performed at the annual students’ concert on July 14, it at once alerted the critics to a new voice in Italian music.  Filippi of La perseveranza shed all his reservations of the previous year.  ‘In Puccini,’ he wrote, ‘we have a decisive and rare musical temperament and one which is especially symphonic. There is unity of style, personality, character.  In his Capriccio sinfonico there is a good deal that more experienced composers . . . have not succeeded in doing. . . There are no uncertainties or gropings in the young author. . . The ideas are clear, strong, effective and sustained with much truth.’  (PUCCINI: HIS LIFE AND WORKS by Julian Budden, 2002)

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013.  Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013. Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

The opera orchestra’s performance of this precious archive from Puccini’s repertoire was indeed inspired and so was Luisotti’s conducting, a feat of passion and pure embrace of sound. Luisotti, who at times appeared to be writing in the air with his sweeping gestures of the baton, guided the orchestra into a lush performance, reminding me that it’s hard to beat an Italian conducting an Italian.

Up next was pianist Giuseppe Albanese in Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” a piece that had his curly hair flouncing and his fingers flying as he executed complex crossovers matching blow for blow Luisotti’s passionate baton waving and flying locks.  As both men became one with the music and the orchestra, it was a pleasure to sit back, watch and listen.  Rota has composed four piano concertos but is best known for his film scores, which date back to the early 1940s.  He’s collaborated with Federico Fellini, Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (he received the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather II), King Vidor, René Clément, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo.  Additionally, he composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo.  It’s natural to wonder whether his film and concert music are similar.  The Piano Concerto in C has a strong melody but didn’t evoke any filmic moments for me.   The drama and passion was injected by Albanese who had the audience’s rapt attention throughout.   So much so that, afterwards, he received a long standing ovation and came out for an encore— Denis Zardi Prelude, Op. 6, No. 24—followed by another ovation.  It was his second piece— Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2)—where he delivered the goods, a technically challenging one-handed performance of great beauty and emotional richness. After that, as if egged on by Luisotti behind the curtain to “go for it,” he came out again with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” arranged by Earl Wilde, a familiar piece he played to the hilt while taking every opportunity to lap up the much-deserved limelight.

The evening concluded with Brahams “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90,” which I had never before heard.  All  four of it movements end quietly and its most powerful moments are quite restrained.  Coming on the heels of the robust first half of the concert, this subdued but highly complex piece was a soothing end to the evening.  The third movement started with a wonderfully low and flowing cello passage that was followed later by Kevin Rivard’s tender horn solo.   What a treat to hear this masterpiece for the first time performed with such passion by Luisotti’s orchestra.

Author Barbara Quick, well-known for her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins, has just finished a new historically-accurate novel called “Saving Puccini” and gave ARThound a good deal of insight and perspective on the Puccini performance.

For more information about San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 season, which includes Tales of Hoffman (6/5-7/6/2013), Cosi fan tutte (6/9-7/1/2013), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (6/19-7/7/2013),  click here.

For more information about upcoming performances at Cal Performances, whose next performance is Ojai North! by Mark Morris (6/12-6/15/2013),  click here.

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Chamber Music, Classical Music, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up Thursday at Weill Hall—San Francisco Symphony performs Carter, Ravel and Gershwin, with David Robertson, conductor, and Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Marc-André Hamelin plays piano with the San Francisco Symphony at Green Music Center's Weill Hall, Thursday, May 22, 2013

Marc-André Hamelin plays piano with the San Francisco Symphony at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, May 22, 2013

Ravel, who heard jazz in Harlem with Gershwin, was utterly dazzled by Rhapsody in Blue, which Gershwin played at a birthday party for the French composer.   The piece, composed in 1924, epitomized modern urban sophistication.  Ravel’s jazz-influenced Concerto for the Left Hand, written six years later, was created for a pianist grievously injured during the First World War.  The brooding work is held up as a brilliant distillation of Ravel’s rarely revealed sinister side. Both these pieces reflect the arrival of jazz into the concert hall.   Ravel’s La Valse (1919-20) pays homage to the Viennese waltz and suggests a furious and dark farewell to the gentility of post-war Europe.  Eliot Carter’s non-traditional Variations for Orchestra, from 1955, is not as accessible.  Nothing Carter does in this fragmentary piece is traditional.  He even varied from the traditional way of exploring variation— where a single theme was the basis of a series of contrasting variations.  Besides the official theme, which is an extended and twisting melodic line, Carter’s piece has two other melodic ideas that are subjected to bold variation: scale-like patterns of notes, one that picks up speed as it unfolds, and another that slows down.  It’s exhilarating, abrupt, fitful, and quite intriguing.   This multilayered piece has not been performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 50 years!

The common thread in all of these pieces…the changing of the times!   San Francisco Symphony with David Robertson, conductor, and Marc-André Hamelin on piano, performs all four pieces in its last concert of Green Music Center’s (GMC’s) inaugural season this Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 8 p.m.

The treat: another chance to hear a world-class pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, on Weill Hall’s Steinway in what promises to be a spell-binding one-handed performance of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand.  Hamelin, who made his SF Symphony debut in 2006, is the known for “hurling himself with gusto” into his performances.  We’ll expect a full display of agility, precision and passion on Thursday as he tackles the Ravel and reinvigorates Gershwin’s beguiling masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue,  which, sadly, has been so played to death with such mediocrity that we’ve lost touch with its power.

Robertson leads Ravel and Gershwin will also be performed at Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco, on Wednesday, May 22, Friday, May 24 and Saturday, May 25, 2013.

Program:

Carter | Variations for Orchestra
Ravel | Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand
Gershwin | Rhapsody in Blue (also featuring solo by Carey Bell, Principal, Clarinet)

Ravel | La Valse

Details:  For tickets and information, call (415) 864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Eliot Carter talks about his “Variations for Orchestra” in an excerpt for the film Music Makes a City (2012) winner: 2012 Gramophone Award, Best DVD/Documentary

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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