Pounce! Tickets on sale today for the next SoundBox event—SF Symphony’s new space for musical experimentation
Christmas started early for ARThound when a dear friend invited me to Saturday night’s unveiling of SoundBox, MTT’s (Michael Tilson Thomas’) and San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) newest venture. SoundBox was designed to fill a gap in Bay Area music scene by providing an experimental space where anything musical can happen and to engage a younger, hipper audience with SFS and serious music. Judging from Saturday’s thrilling reception which enthralled its sellout crowd of 450, Soundbox will do all that and more. It also seems poised to give our brilliant but nerdy MTT some street swagger, the kind of coolness cred that he’s been aching for while collecting all those Grammies for classical recordings. If you haven’t heard, SoundBox is a huge refurbished music space at 300 Franklin Street (in San Francisco). Formerly known as Zellerbach A, it was one of SFS’s most dour on-site rehearsal spaces, ironically renowned for its dead sound.
With generous patron funding and the board’s desire to revision SFS’ audience outreach, the cavernous space was entirely revamped. Berkeley’s Meyer Sound was engaged to install its patented multi-speaker “Constellation” system, transforming the space into a virtual sound lab. Now, with the push of touchscreen button, the venue can seamlessly tweak its acoustics (reverberation and decay times) for various pieces in a performance allowing otherworldly sounds to emerge from its tremendously talented SFS musicians and choral members. Add state-of-the-art video projection capacity, making for an incredible visual experience, sleek quilted leather ottoman and low tables (even the furnishings will be tweaked with each performance), a fully-stocked bar serving thematic cocktails and innovative cuisine—wella! SoundBox has the grit of an European art house, the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and, as if it needs to be said, the world’s best musicians playing tunes exquisitely curated by MTT.
On Saturday, 7:45PM, the crowd was already lining up on Franklin Street. The buzz: no one knew exactly what to expect but we were all excited by the program we’d read about online and the promise of road-testing something completely new. The pre-concert hour was dedicated to John Cage, who believed that every sound can be music, and featured a musical feast of his “Branches,” featuring electronically amplified giant cacti, and “Inlets” which coaxed sounds from shells filled with water that gurgled when moved and from amplified burning pinecones. As people entered the darkened foyer of Soundbox and were confronted with Cage’s music, they passed by a curious gallery space, specially curated by MTT, that included beautifully lit minimalist arrays of live cacti, a table of sea shells in a pool of water and colorful huge multi-layered projections of cacti. Wow…felt like entering one of those East European art happenings I’d covered in the 1980’s. Once we passed through a closed black door, we entered the spacious main hall, which offered a hip but relaxed atmosphere—two low wooden platforms served stages and lots of low leather seating that could be easily re-arranged. People were free to amble about and get a drink or just settle in and get busy with their phones and texting.
The inaugural run, called “Extremities,” kicked off dramatically with “Stella splendens in monte,” a brief anonymous Spanish work (local composer Mason Bates contributed the percussion arrangements.) The SFS chorus, in flowing robes, entered from the back of the hall, and made a dramatic procession to the stage, their lyrical voices swelling to fill every corner of the space. As they passed by each of us, we got a sampling of each singer’s individual voice. From there, it only got better—a very well-thought sonic and visual feast was about to unfold and we were ravenous for it. The audience snapped their fingers, clapped, yowled and tossed their exquisite locks…and the musicians beamed with pride. A glowing MTT looked like he’d dropped a decade as he engaged with the audience in a very heartfelt way, talking about musical choices and the potential of the space.
Highpoints for ARThound: Steve Reich’s minimalist “Music for Pieces of Wood” featured five SFS percussionists with tuned hardwood claves creating a pulsing bed of rhythmically complex continuous sound. This reminded me of the miraculous frog concerto I am treated to in my pond in Sonoma County every time a serious storm blows through. After 8 minutes of this mesmerizing sound, which was accompanied by projections of Adam Larsen’s images of a New York skyline, we were all in trance mode. When it ended, and everyone stopped playing, we were left with a very perceptible silence, a void in the acoustic atmosphere that left us all profoundly aware of the power of sound to inflate and deflate the psyche.
Ravel’s exquisite “Introduction and Allegro” (1905) shimmered and glowed when played by a small ensemble of seven SFS musicians including principal harpist Douglas Rioth and concertmaster Sasha Barantschik whose beloved 1742 Guarnerius del Gesù (“The David”) cast a spell over the audience, some of whom swept away tears. The chamber piece showcased the space’s ability to tease out nuances in the contrasting sonorities. The velvety woodwinds, the percussive harp and the warm resonance of the strings were all so clear, so distinct, that I felt I was getting a personal introduction to the possibilities of these instruments.
One of the evening’s hip visuals was the Nordic visual art pioneer, Steina’s (Steina Vasulka’s), seven minute video, “Voice Windows” (1986), featuring the voice of Joan La Barbara. The short engrossing film was co-presented by SFS and SFMOMA and points to the limitless possibilities for future collaboration in a space like this. Since the early 1970’s, Steina, in collaboration with Woody Vasulka, has explored intricate transformations of vision, space and sound, through digital technologies, mechanical devices and natural landscape. “Voice Windows” was an exquisite and haunting example of her artistry in manipulating digital and camera-generated images and layering that with “real” and altered sound.
After two intermissions, the evening closed with Monteverdi’s glorious “Magnificat” (1610) from Vespro della Beata Vergine. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke where the Virgin Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the “Magnificat” in response. Talk about immersive—the 19 minute piece featured soloists, the chorus and orchestra, all in rapturous splendor with gorgeous golden-hued projections of a Venetian church enhancing the mood.
Details: The next Sound Box performance, “Curiosities,” is January 9 and 10th, 2015. Doors open at 8 PM and performance starts at 9 PM. Tickets on sale now: $25 for open seating. The space accommodates 450 and will sell out quickly. The SoundBox website is not working correctly. Call the SFS Box office (415) 864-6000 to purchase tickets. SoundBox is located at 300 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA. Parking: (is hell) Performing Arts Garage (360 Grove Street) or Civic Center Garage (between Polk, Larkin, Grove and McAllister).
Successful transplant—Schroeder Hall’s gorgeous Brombaugh Opus 9 organ debuts this evening in James David Christie concert
Boston Symphony Organist, James David Christie, recalls playing the Brombaugh Opus 9 organ installed in Green Music Center’s Schroeder Hall when he was a student at Oberlin Conservatory and the organ was in a Baptist Church in Toledo, Ohio—
“I remember playing this organ every Sunday for a whole month, 8 hours a day. I literally lived at that church the organ was so beautiful.”
On Schroeder’s acoustics—
“Everything is just beautiful…the acoustics here are amazing… the decay is beautiful. When you let go of the chord, the sound still travels, that’s what you want in an organ. You don’t want a sudden drop that sounds like it’s being choked but a smoothness. Perfect.”
This evening at 5:30 p.m., Christie will perform this pipe organ’s inaugural concert in Schroeder Hall with selections by Georg Böhm, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Schroeder Hall celebrates its grand opening this weekend with 8 free concerts designed to introduce it to the community and to road-test its acoustics. The concert is sold-out but you still be able to score tickets. Show up early and wait in the stand-by line by the GMC ticket office. IF told holders do not get their tickets scanned 10 minutes before the performance as they enter the hall, their tickets will be released and depending on your place in line, you may get in.
We’re all excited about the weekend of great music ahead as Green Music Center rolls out its new jewel, Schroeder Hall, which seats 250. Free tickets for all the grand opening weekend concerts were snapped up within the first hour of their release on August 12, which means a lot of music lovers were disappointed. There’s hope. At 2 p.m. today (Friday), I spoke with Green Music Center’s (GMC) press liaison, Jessica Anderson, and here’s how you can get those extra tickets held in reserve that Zarin Mehta referred to in the papers and online media you’ve been reading—
Sure thing—Saturday morning, show up early at GMC and wait in line until 10 a.m. when the Green Music Center Box Office opens. They will have anywhere from 25 to 75 additional tickets for each of Saturday’s 4 performances and you can get free tickets for 1, 2, 3 or all Saturday performances if you are early enough. You cannot get tickets for any Sunday performances on Saturday but, on Sunday, the same procedure will be in place. This is strictly in person, not online.
Risky—Show up early before the concert of your choice and wait in the stand-by line by the GMC ticket office. IF ticket holders do not get their tickets scanned 10 minutes before the performance as they enter the hall, their tickets will be released and, depending on your place in line, you may get in.
Do not phone the box office, go there in person. The Green Music Center Box Office is adjacent to the courtyard of Weill Hall.
Review: Hershey Felder channels the angel of all pianists, Chopin, in another mesmerizing musical portrait at Berkeley Rep, through August 10, 2014
Cherish the moment. It’s Paris, March 1848, just after the February 1848 Revolution, and Hershey Felder as Polish composer/pianist, Fryderyk Chopin, welcomes you into his elegant Paris salon for an unusual piano lesson—one where he does all the playing. It seems like he is making up the music as he goes, and what beautiful music it is—full of delicate dynamics, soft tempo fluctuations, imaginative color and touch—utterly different from any previously existing in the 19th century. Throughout the lesson, he recounts his life story, from his first composition written at age 7 in his Polish hometown of Zelazowa Wola, to his complicated romance in France with the female French novelist, George Sand, to his death at age 39 from tuberculosis, to his heart’s famous burial in Poland. Hypersensitive Chopin’s story is no sweet melody but his pain and losses and moments of epiphany are punctuated with actual shifts in the tone of Chopin’s music.
Monsieur Chopin, which opened Sunday, is Berkeley Rep’s latest collaboration with Hershey Felder, who is proving his genius for bringing famous composers to life. Monsieur Chopin, which Felder both wrote and stars in, is directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time) and arrives at Berkeley Rep on the heels of Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (June, 2014) and George Gershwin Alone (June 2013). Monsieur Chopin is part of Felder’s series of musical enactments, “The Composers Sonata” which have been presented at dozens of theatres across the U.S. and around the world. The series also includes Beethoven, As I Knew Him (2008) and Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Rock Star (2013). As director, Mr. Felder premiered Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in April 2012 and the musical biography delighted Berkeley Rep audiences in December 2013 and is now immensely popular in New York.
“Fryderyk Chopin, the diminutive ‘Polish Poet of the Piano’ who died at the tender age of 39 and who spent much of his adult life as the prince of the Parisian salon, took an instrument of wood, felt, and metal and made it sing,” remarks Felder. “Chopin said, ‘If one wants to learn how to really play the piano, one must listen to the best opera singers – they will show you what you need to know.’ And for almost two centuries every pianist who has ever touched the instrument strives to bring it to life by making the piano human, by giving it ‘song’ just as Chopin did. He was the first, and the piano music he left us is the music of angels, the music of another world.”
Felder steps into the role of Chopin with complete credibility—from his Polish accent and rendering of Chopin’s artistic temperament to his concert-level playing of some of the most exquisitely lush piano music ever written. He plays selections from some 15 pieces—polonaises, valses, preludes, mazurkas, and nocturnes—and seems to be spontaneously working them into the story as he goes. Felder guides you with information about the inventive and enlivening forms that characterized Chopin’s brilliance—even in his youth, he was keenly aware of the fine-line between improvising and composing—as well as his love of Polish songs and dances. And this is as much the story of music’s golden age as well—an incredibly compressed period, some 200 years— when musical and artistic genius flooded middle Europe. How profound when Chopin says, “When I was 17 and had my debut, Bach had died 78 years earlier.” Bach’s compositional genius influenced him heavily and Bach was an importance point of reference when he was teaching his students. This was also a time when high drama characterized the life of composers and transfixed the public, as much as Hollywood does today.
Speaking of transfixed, I wasn’t able to take my eyes off Felder, a natural born storyteller, and I never would have guessed that he has given this performance over 800 times. That he’s of Polish ethnicity, considers Chopin his pianistic home and lives in Paris, and even owns one of Chopin’s pianos, are no doubt huge factors in the attention to detail and care that he has poured into this.
We all love a love story and the audience on the edge of their seats as Chopin told of his relationship and semi-guarded Bohemian lifestyle with French novelist George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), a woman whose importance as a writer has been eclipsed by her notoriety for wearing trousers, cigar-smoking and her involvement with Chopin. Strong-willed Sand was painted in broad strokes but we get enough flavor to ascertain that he was attracted to her nurturing and protective side and that she loved him and, for 8 years, tolerated his fragility, mood swings and unpredictability and then, abruptly, she ended it.
Chopin’s relationship with Sand is also an effective vehicle for exploring the vibrant environment of the French salon where his small scale piano pieces, most of them brilliantly improvised, were a hit and fundamental to his legacy. “Invention came to his piano, sudden, complete, sublime,” wrote Sand who would frequently lay under the piano as he played for her.
Chopin’s dedicated student, Karl Flitsch, who Felder also lovingly draws on, wrote “The other day I heard Chopin improvise at George Sand’s house. It is marvelous to hear Chopin compose in this way: his inspiration is so immediate and complete that he plays without hesitation as if it could not be otherwise. But when it comes to writing it down and recapturing the original thought in all its details, he spends days of nervous strain and almost terrible despair.”
Felder’s works a great deal of humor into this piece and his funny and illuminating impressions of the people in Chopin’s life—like the swooning women in his audience or Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt, Chopin’s biggest “frenemy” in Paris—humanize Chopin and impart information. Liszt attended Chopin’s first concert in Paris and promptly declared him a genius and became his agent, collaborator, friend, and at times, bitter rival for public attention, and oddly, his first biographer.
Chopin’s elegant salon (sets by Yael Pardess) is framed by an ornate golden trim, giving it the feel of a romantic period painting to be entered. Chopin’s Steinway and bench are front and center and a lovely fireplace whose mantle is adorned with Sevres style porcelain vases and an ornate clock are behind. There’s a delicately carved wooden table with a pitcher where he fastidiously washes his hands, as if to rid himself of the unpleasant memories he’s just shared.
The set also features “smart drapes,” a subtle and elegant scrim for different lighting effects (Richard Norwood) and projections (John Boesche & Andrew Wilder) which change their color hue and design in accordance with various phases of Chopin’s life. In 1829, when Chopin met his first love, a singing student named Constantia Gladkowska, she was dancing a Polish Mazurka and caught his eye. Against spectacular dark lighting, she appears romanticized in a white traditional Polish folk dress, smiling and dancing the Mazurka with other young Polish girls. Felder completes the portrait with his “Mazurka in A Flat Major, Op. 50 No. 2,” a short vibrant piece which concludes in a burst of chromatic harmonies.
Sunday’s opening night became even more special when Polish Consul General Mariusz Brymora from Los Angeles, presented Felder with the “Bene Merito” honorary distinction on behalf of the Polish government. Established in 2009, this distinction “is conferred upon the citizens of the Republic of Poland and foreign nationals in recognition of their merits in promoting Poland abroad.” Felder, deeply moved, also received a beautiful Polish woodcut.
Following this, Felder/Chopin engaged with the audience in an open Q & A, further revealing his skill as an improvisational performer.
The ultimate irony, which I mention in closing, is that this performance nearly sold out before it opened and was extended until August 10 and those performances are nearly sold out. It’s much easier to get people to go to this than an actual Chopin concert. We live in the age of story and it’s the combination of music and story that brings people in. Of course, after experiencing Monsieur Chopin, who could not be hungry for more?
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
The music of Fryderyk Chopin is played Hershey Felder enacting Chopin
Production Team— Yael Pardess (Scenic Design), Richard Norwood (Lighting Design), John Boesche & Andrew Wilder (Projection Design), Benjamin Furiga (Original Sound Design), Joel Zwick (Director), Trevor Hay (Associate Director, production stage manager), Erik Carstensen (Sound design, production manager, production stage manager). Samantha F. Voxakia (General Manager, co-producter), Eighty-Eight, LLC (Producer)
Details: Monsieur Chopin runs through April 20, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.
Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and Thursday, August 7.
Tickets: $29 to 87. Discounts: Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain. Tickets and info: 510 647–2949 or visit: www.berkeleyrep.org
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 $5 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM.
Pounce! – $10 tickets for all remaining indoor seats to Saturday’s “All Tchaikovsky” performance by San Francisco Symphony at Weill Hall and Lawn, to be followed by fireworks
|AN ALL-TCHAIKOVSKY PROGRAM AND POST-CONCERT FIREWORKS WITH PIANO SOLOIST SIMON TRPCESKI AND GUEST CONDUCTOR EDWIN OUTWATER|
|Sale begins today, Wednesday, July 23 at 10 a.m. and ends Friday, July 25 at 10 a.m. and features $10 tickets for all remaining seats inside of Weill Hall to Saturday evening’s performance by the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony. The orchestra brings an all-Tchaikovsky program to Weill Hall and Lawn this Saturday, July 26 at 8:00 p.m. followed by a spectacular fireworks show over the Sonoma Mountains. The program includes the composer’s famous 1812 Overture, the Waltz from Sleeping Beauty, Marche Slave, the International Dances from Swan Lake, and PianoConcerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, featuring Trpčeski.
DETAILS: Tickets may be purchased in person at the Box Office (located in Sonoma
State University’s Student Center), by calling 866.955.6040, or online at
Napa Valley Festival del Sole brings Pinchas Zukerman, James Valenti, and Alondra de la Parra to Weill Hall on Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Last summer, I became a Napa Valley Festival del Sole devotee when a friend suggested that their tribute to Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff looked really good and got me a coveted ticket. I had the exquisite pleasure of attending a rare performance of a portion of Rachmaninoff’s long-lost 1939 ballet, “Paganini,” brought to vibrant life by members of Ballet San Jose, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. The experience continued with an intimate wine reception at the Napa Valley Museum where we saw a special exhibition featuring materials uncovered during the ballet’s restoration. Since its founding in 2006, Festival del Sole has showcased more than 300 preeminent artists and ensembles and paired them brilliantly with luncheons, dinners and, tastings at some of Napa Valley’s the most breathtaking venues.
This Tuesday, the festival returns to Sonoma County to Green Music Center’s acoustically magical Weill Hall. Acclaimed violinist Pinchas Zukerman makes his debut with Festival del Sole and performs the ever popular Bruch Violin Concerto from 1866, which epitomizes how romantic music should sound— rich, melodic and lyrical. Tenor James Valenti, celebrated by the New York Times for his “robust, ardent singing,” rounds out the program with favorite Italian and French opera arias. Alondra de la Parra will be conducting the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, the unique all Black and Latino orchestra comprised of top professionals from around the country who will close the evening with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, a glorious and richly diverse piece that ought to showcase both the orchestra and de la Parra’s spellbinding conducting style, a ballet like performance in itself, said to coax musicians to greatness . De la Parra, of Mexican ancestry, is known for her electric energy and holds the distinction of being the first Mexican woman to conduct in New York City. She has been hailed as one of the brightest young talent to show up in recent years.
Bizet Carmen Overture; La Fleur from Carmen
Puccini “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca
Mascagni Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
Cardillo Core ngrato
Lehar Dein ist mein ganzes herz
Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26
Dvorak Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
James Valenti sings”Addio fiorito asil” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”
Napa Valley Festival Sole Details: Now in its 9th season,the 10-day festival (July 11-20, 2014) features over 60 adventures in world-class classical music, jazz, opera and ballet along with curated culinary, wine and wellness adventures that celebrate the art of life. www.festivaldelsole.org
Tuesday concert Details: “Alondra de la Parra, Pinchas Zukerman, James Valenti and the Sphinx Orchestra” perform at Weill Hall on Tuesday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m. Lobby and will call open at 5:30 p.m.; concert hall opens at 6 p.m.; concert starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $35. There are a few remaining tickets. Advance purchase is essential. Click here to purchase tickets.
Directions: Green Music Center is located at 1801 East Cotati Drive, Rohnert Park. CA. Weill Hall and the Green Music Center are located on the campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road. From the South, take U.S. Highway 101 north to the Rohnert Park Expressway exit. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Rohnert Park Expressway. Drive 2.2 miles to the Sonoma State University entrance on your right. From the North, take U.S. Highway 101 south to the Rohnert Park Expressway exit. At the end of the exit ramp turn left onto Rohnert Park Expressway. Drive 2.2 miles to the Sonoma State University entrance on your right.
Parking: Parking for this performance is complimentary. Ample parking, with excellent handicap availability, in the campus’ dedicated lot, right next to Weill Hall.
Remaining Festival Del Events for which there is still availability—
Mon/July 14/8:30 p.m./Patron Dinner at Grgich Hills Estate, Rutherford
Wed/July 16/12:30 p.m./ Vintner’s Luncheon at Jaffe Estate, St. Helena
Wed/July 16/6:30 p.m./Castillo del Amoroso, Calistoga/ Zukerman ChamberPlayers: An Evening of Chamber Music
Wed/July 16/8:30 p.m./ Patron Dinner at Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville
Thurs/July 17/12:30 p.m./ Vintner’s Luncheon at Merryvale Vineyards, St. Helena
Thurs/July 17/6:30 p.m./Castillo del Amoroso, Calistoga/ Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, a Chamber Opera
Thurs/July 17/6:30 p.m./Alpha Omega Winery, Rutherford/ Patron Dinner at Alpha Omega
Fri/July 18/5:30 p.m./ Lincoln Theater, Yountville/ Dance Gala: Polina Semionova and Friends
Fri/July 18/8:30 p.m./Napa Valley Museum, Yountville/ Allegro After Party at Napa Valley Museum
Sat/July 19/11:30 a.m./Ehlers Estate, St. Helena/ Wine Country Brunch at Ehlers Estate
Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the eve of his performance at Weill Hall with the San Francisco Symphony
Born in Voronezh, Russia, in 1979, classical pianist Kirill Gerstein was the winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award. Gerstein first touched foot in the U.S. at age 14, when he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a jazz pianist (their youngest student ever). There wasn’t any live jazz to be heard in Voronezh, but Gerstein fell in love with it by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection and it was his skill at improvisation that led to a scholarship to Berklee. He went on to tackle classical repertoire in summers at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s at the Manhattan School of Music at 20. Gerstein, now 35, has spent his life balancing his love of classical music and jazz but chose to focus his energy on classical playing. And what a life he’s crafted. With his technical prowess and ability to communicate his connection to the music, he’s emerged as one of the most respected and insightful pianists of his generation. He manages a global touring schedule that includes recitals, chamber music and concerto solos and carves out time to teach. Since receiving the Gilmore Award, he has commissioned boundary-crossing new works from Oliver Knussen, Chick Corea (Jazz), Brad Mehldau (Jazz) and Timothy Andres, and additional commissions are in the works. This Thursday, at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Gerstein performs Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 2″ with Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony. Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10″ is also in the program. Composed after Stalin’s death in 1953, this piece, since the late 1970’s, has been seen as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia and is considered one of the most devastating essays in the twentieth-century symphonic literature. This is the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. The concert will also be performed at Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Gerstein’s latest album, Imaginary Pictures (Myrios Classics) which features Schumann’s “Carnaval” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will be made available this week at Weill Hall and at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, before its general release on June 10. Immediately after each concert, including Thursday’s performance, Gerstein will be greeting the audience and signing copies of the new cd in the lobby. Gerstein’s recording in 2010 of the Liszt Sonata “Humoresque” and a piece by Oliver Knussen, also on Myrios Classics, was considered one of the best recordings of 2010.
Typically, a soloist as busy as Gerstein would perform one concerto and move on, but the Bay Area is in for treat because on Sunday, June 8, we will have the special opportunity to hear Gerstein perform Chamber Music with Members of the San Francisco Symphony. This is gorgeous music that musicians love to play and audiences live to hear and Gerstein will be playing Dvořák’s “Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Opus 90, Dumky” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor, opus 57.”
Yesterday, in between rehearsals, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirill Gerstein about his extraordinary career and his commissions. Known for his fiery, dramatic playing, his vocal style is crisp and to the point. In short time though, he demonstrated that his musical curiosity and insights are profound.
Here is our conversation—
You were born in 1979 in very interesting part of Russia, Voronezh—the intersection between Urals and Siberia and Caucasus and Ukraine…a real hinterland. What did you do for fun there growing up? And when did your love of music really take hold?
I generally have fun and I don’t think, even as child, that I made a distinction between fun and non-fun—it was all fun and I didn’t have any realizations about something missing in Voronezh. I enjoyed studying music and reading and my parents made sure that I spoke with a lot of people. I wasn’t the tortured prodigy you sometimes read about. I practiced but not those crazy amounts you hear about.
And when did your love of music really take hold?
Kirill Gerstein: Music has always accompanied me. My mother is a musician and she taught college but she also taught at home and the piano was there and she was my first teacher. I don’t remember any time without music or the piano. So it wasn’t a certain moment or lesson, it was just always there and my interest increased. Most of my exposure was to classical music. I went to a lot of concerts. The jazz was only from recordings as there wasn’t really an active jazz scene in Russia. There was a bit in Moscow, but not very much, and certainly not in Voronezh which was not a capital city. I really liked Chic Corea and Keith Jarrett and listened over and over.
In reading about your life, it seems like praise has been heaped upon you since you were a child. Who’s been the most influential teacher you’ve had and why and what hurdle did that person take you over? Did you immediately win him or her with your playing, or was it more of a brutal relationship where you really had to strive?
Kirill Gerstein: There was a lot of praise and heaped is correct. Studying music is a process where you encounter a lot of criticism that accentuates your weak spots as a player and as a person and that’s how you learn. The process is to do justice to the music. The two most important teachers I had were Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest. Both of them, especially the first time, were very harshly critical of what I did but it was clear to me that they had some very valuable information that I wanted and needed. So, in spite of the ego bruising, I stayed with them and worked with them. With Dmitri Bashkirov, who I had heard in Voronezh in concert as child, because he happened to give regular concerts there, I was transfixed, so that was particularly important. I first played for him in Spain when I was about 17 and he was harsh but there was such insight. I kept returning and, finally, I broke through and began to really develop my playing and took his class. I worked with him for years.
The lives and careers of Beethoven and Shostakovich were separated by over a century and in their works we can see how they wrestled with these big themes of freedom, liberty, and politics. The concert, I hope, will illuminate some of the subtler, musical traits that these composers have in common. What comes to mind for you in the pairing of the No. 2 and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”?
Kirill Gerstein: I think this is a good pairing. In terms of Russian composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich was a composer of great symphonies. The symphonic composer was really defined, or let’s say redefined, by Beethoven in ways that impacted every subsequent generation from Brahms onwards, including Shostakovich. Mozart and Haydn wrote very important symphonies but Beethoven with his nine symphonies is really a towering presence who went beyond classical music to impact all of Western culture. Shostakovich was aware of this and in many ways inspired by these symphonic models and the two do go very well together. You could say that, in some ways, Shostakovich modeled his compositional ideals on Beethoven, not necessarily the style but concept behind it, and you have the important body of string quartets by both composers for which this also holds.
The two pieces on Thursday’s program are very different in sprit and mood because the “Symphony No. 10” is a later piece of Shostakovich whereas the Beethoven “Piano Concerto No. 2” was actually composed first. This is really the most youthful of his five piano concertos, where he’s just starting to depart form the models of Mozart and Haydn but it does so boldly, just as he lived his life. In this concerto, he does show that he has studied and absorbed the great models of Mozart and Haydn but also that he has much to say that’s very original. It’s also a piece filled with lots of humor and a beautiful second movement that’s very much inspired by the Italian operatic traditions because one of his teachers was Antonio Salieri, very influential.
On Sunday, at Davies you’ll be performing a very special chamber music concert which includes the Shostakovich “Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57 and the Dvorak “Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor, Opus 90.” The third movement of the Shostakovich is this amazing scherzo and trio that has a kind of dark sarcasm to it. What’s your favorite part of this piece?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I clearly like the entire piece. You’re right, the third movement is a style of overt optimism, projected and fitting for the Soviet period but underneath anyone can detect this is not happy at all but quite the opposite. This was a very common M.O. for Shostakovich…happiness on the face and darkness in the soul.
How do you prepare before a performance? Is there some routine you adhere to?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not to subscribe to any routines because then you end up breaking the routine and it becomes all about that. There’s a lot to coordinate—your own travel schedule, rehearsal times vary, the pieces are all varied. Trying to have a routine is a very futile undertaking. And the preparing, well, the performance is really a window into something that’s a very continuous process that I think about all the time. I practice the piano whether there is or is not a concert. Of course, a public performance brings a wonderful inspiration to the performer who has his life in music.
You have an ongoing collaboration with Charles Detoit, who will be conducting this Thursday. You obviously have a special rapport. What clicks?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I met Charles probably ten years ago and he has been a wonderfully supportive collaborator and mentor in quite a variety of repertoire—German, modern pieces, and now the Beethoven Concerto No. 2. I really feel an established musical and personal connection with him and can say that he is someone who is always inspiring to be with. Professionally, he’s very accomplished and generous.
Your new album, Imaginary Pictures, to be released June 10 by Myrios Classics, features Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Schumann’s famous “Carnaval,” both cycles of piano pieces in which the visual was the departure point that fired the composers’ imaginations—in one case actual drawings by Victor Herman and the other, masked revelers at a party. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your pairing of these magnificent works. Also, in preparing for the recording, was there anything new you found in these works?
Kirill Gerstein: There are several reasons to pair the two. Certainly, they both have overtly visual starting points but it’s not just ‘simple paintings in sound,’ which is the obvious parallel. Both composers go much deeper to create a psychological portrayal of how they viewed the subjects and ultimately it becomes more about them as observers. The composers themselves were both self-taught and they had this kind of wild unbridled imagination in common which led to unexpected wonderful things appearing from nowhere. They knew the academic and classical traditions very well but were always pushing the boundaries, so even though their music sounds quite different, the creative spirit is a kindred one. And yes, the pieces are very popular but that wasn’t sufficient—unless there was something new and somewhat subjective and different to bring to the piece, there was no point to record it. I decided to record them because, when I looked at the score on the page, some things appeared differently to me than I was used to hearing. For example, in “Pictures at an Exhibition”—one of the most played pieces in the piano and orchestral repertoire—some things felt like discoveries to be explored. Of course, the process of recording itself stimulates this feeling of discovery.
I heard that you wrote the liner notes for this album too.
Kirill Gerstein: I did that for my previous cd too by the way. Generally, I enjoy writing. I’ve written for the gallery section of the New York Review of Books website and that’s something I intend to do more of as I enjoy the process. To me, that’s part of being a well-rounded expressive person not just a pianist pressing buttons on a keyboard. (Click here to read Kirill Gerstein “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Wrong’ Note,” NYR Gallery, August 13, 2013.) Specifically, this was also an invitation to think more about the pairing and what the music is trying to express, the philosophical territory.
Speaking of visual inspiration, many composers embrace other art forms for inspiration with their music. What other art forms have you found strong inspiration in?
Kirill Gerstein: In general, movement is inspiring, so dance is influential, but so are painting, poetry, prose and performances from great actors as well. Architecture is something that is inspiring for thinking about music. But these aren’t direct influences; they are indirect and after some time. It’s letting myself be inspired by the many things I encounter, like seeing a great sushi chef cut the fish with a fluid movement that repeated by his hand time and time again—that’s an aesthetic pleasure that has inspiration. In the end, it’s about walking with your eyes open.
You won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, which is given every four years—one of the most prestigious and generous awards a concert pianist can receive. The cash prize of $300,000 stipulates that $250,000 is to be put toward “career development.” I understand that you are putting that to use by commissioning works by living composers, including jazz composers. Can you tell us a little about the pieces you’ve commissioned so far and what is in the works? Do you have ongoing interaction with these musicians?
Kirill Gerstein: I’ve purposefully chosen very different individuals. There’s a great figure in modern music, Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor. On the other hand, there’s the young up and coming American composer and pianist, Timo Andres. Andres’ “Old Friend” had its world premiere at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Jan 31, 2014 and I played the piece. There have been a couple of jazz-related commissions—the great jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea, have both written pieces for me. The idea was to pass this money on to other artists, in this case composers, and in return, to get an artwork that for the initial period is exclusive to my concert programs, an additional benefit. Eventually, the pieces will be for each pianist to play and they will add variety and enrich the piano repertoire. It’s been very rewarding being part of the impetus that gets new pieces created and out there. The exchange between the music creator/composer is another source of inspiration and something that shows you how some of the great golden composers—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff—may have participated in that process of collaboration between composer and performer.
Did the composers you commissioned meet your expectations?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not the have expectations. I let myself be surprised not only by the composers but by life in general—it’s mentally more efficient. I have been very satisfied with all of the works and inspired by the process.
Speaking of inspiration, what type of music do you listen to when you want to relax?
Kirill Gerstein: When I relax I don’t listen to music usually. It’s such an intense process for me that it snaps me back into this very engaged mode. And I don’t listen to background music either.
You started life in Russia, moved early to the States and now your parents live in Boston and you teach at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule, and your wife, Noam, is from Tel Aviv. Which place do you consider home and how do you define home?
Kirill Gerstein: This is very philosophical and should be the subject of an entire interview but, having had this varied history, I feel at home in many places. Obviously, you give up some feeling of being rooted but on the other hand what I’ve gained is being at home and comfortable in many places in the world and in different cultures and circles. Something lost, something gained.
Have you ever been to the Wine Country where you’ll be preforming this Thursday?
Kirill Gerstein: Yes I have. I really enjoy the wine making region so this is a special dream and tickle. A lot of the wine that I particularly enjoy comes from this area.
Concert Details: For tickets and more information for Thursday’s Weill Hall performance “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich”, click here. Tickets can also be purchased in person tomorrow at the Green Music Center Box Office for this concert, at 7 PM, one hour in advance of the concert. For the three San Francisco performances of the concert at Davies Hall, click here. For tickets and more information about Sunday’s Chamber music concert, click here.
A shout out to opera devotes. Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a.k.a. the “Silver Fox,” the “Siberian Express” is in town. He will be performing a program of Russian classics Sunday evening at Davies Hall, accompanied by his long-time recital partner, Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja, the final concert in San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series. There are plenty of great seats still available. There’s not much that can pull me away from gorgeous Sonoma County during a long holiday weekend but I’m not missing my first chance to experience this great singer live in recital, especially since I’ve been following him so avidly through the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmissions. There are plenty of great seats still available and, unless the situation changes dramatically by Sunday (do check!), it will be possible to just show up at the Symphony Box Office prior to the performance and select tickets on the spot without having to pay additional fees.
Hvorostovsky, who is based in Russia, has been on his North American tour since mid-May. He comes to San Francisco from L.A., where he performed Thursday at Los Angeles Opera. For his West Coast performances, he is presenting a Russian program of Pushkin-inspired romances by Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and others as well as Shostakovich’s haunting late-period “Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti” from 1974. The rarely performed work is based on chosen texts from Michelangelo (translated into Russian). Every text has to do with the life and work of the artist, with his achievements, his set-backs, his loves and his sense of destiny. The texts are arranged into a dramatic cycle of ten songs, with an eleventh hanging at the end, which trace an arc of the poet’s life and the entire cycle has resonances of Musorgsky and Mahler, two of Shostakovich’s heroes.
You may have noticed that the Green Music Center’s newly announced 2014-15 Season is devoid of opera, which so punctuated their fabulous first season. This makes superstar Hvorostovsky’s presence in the Bay Area a treat to be savored even more. The performance will be well worth the drive in the City. Who can forget the great baritone’s last Met Opera Live in HD performance in December 2012 when he sang Renato (Count Anckarström) to Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia Anckarström in David’s Alden’s new production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”? (Both Hvorostovsky and Radvanovsky reprise their roles in the Met’s spring 2015 production of the opera with James Levine conducting.) One of the pleasures of the HD transmissions is that they are almost as good as being there BUT when you’ve got the chance to experience an artist live and help create the magic, you don’t want to miss it because it will make all the artist’s subsequent performances that you see all the more resonant. And, of course, a cinematic experience of an opera can be very different from the impression it makes in house because the camera focuses on the important details and often ignores the bigger picture. Enough said.
My colleague, music critic Sean Martinfield, who writes for Huffington Post, was lucky enough to secure the only interview that Hvorostovsky granted for this Davies appearance. (click here for full interview) Speaking on Shostakovich’s rarely performed Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Hvorostovsky said— “The cycle is amazing. Shostakovich wrote it for piano to begin with and then decided to re-write it for symphony orchestra which he dedicated to the first performer, Evgeny Nesterenko. The way it’s written for piano is so colorful that it sounds like an orchestra. The translation of the poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti sounds incredible. There has only been one example, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who decided to sing the songs in the original Italian. I think it was a failure, because you have to move the accents and stresses. The way it sounds in Russian is so complete. It is a cycle where two geniuses meet with each other and create an amazing impact of classic and contemporary. It absolutely reflects the reality we live in now.”
In 2004, Hvorostovsky, who hails from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, became the first Russian opera singer to give a solo concert with orchestra and chorus on Red Square in Moscow and the concert was televised in over 25 countries. He has gone on to sing a number of prestigious concerts in Moscow as a part of his own special series, “Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Friends” inviting celebrated artists as Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, Marcello Giordani, Sumi Jo and Sondra Radvanovsky to join him. In 2005 he gave an historic tour throughout the cities of Russia at the invitation of President Putin, singing to crowds of hundreds of thousands of people to commemorate the soldiers of the Second World War. He now annually tours the cities of Russia and the former Eastern Europe. In the video clip below, from the famous Red Square Concert on June 19, 2013, Hvorostovsky is joined by soprano Anna Netrebko as Lev Kontorovich conducts the Masters of Choral Singing choir and Constantine Orbelian conducts the Russia State Symphony Orchestra. They sang Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky, bringing the audience of 8,000 to a stunned silence with an aria from “Eugene Onegin. For the finale, Hvorostovsky sang “Dark Eyes,” one of the most famous Russian romances.
2014-15 Guest Vocalists at San Francisco Symphony: Soprano Ruth Ziesak and baritone Christain Gerhaher in Brahms’s A German Requiem (Feb 19-21, 2015); Soprano Dawn Upshaw in Ades & Upsahw (March 5-7, 2014); Mezzo Soprano Sasha Cooke and Soprano Joélle Harvey in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (June 10-13, 2015); Soprano Karita Mattila in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (June 17 and 19, 2015); Soprano Nina Stemme in Beethoven Festival Fidelio (June 25-6, 2015) Tickets and subscription packages are on sale now.
Details: “Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Concert” is Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 8PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Tickets: $15 to $84; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.
Getting to Davies: Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall. The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the holiday weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion en route to Davies Hall. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice as these also fill up early on weekends. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)
interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.