The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival─a feel-great extravaganza of film, food, wine and sprits─starts Wednesday in wonderful Sonoma
The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) kicks off tonight at the historic Sebastiani Theatre with Norwegian director Joachim Tier’s family drama, Louder Than Bombs (2015) and a live “vertical dance performance” with members of the dynamic Bandaloop dance group performing choreographed moves from ropes on the Sebastiani’s roof. Over the next 5 nights and 4 days, the festival will present over 100 films from two dozen countries and over 200 filmmakers from around the globe will attend. Among this year’s treasures are three exciting films shot in Cuba whose stories are bound to inspire a trip to this delightful island before the big Western chain hotels devour the beach space and those beloved’57 Chevys are replaced with Toyotas. One of these is the late journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc’s remarkable Papa Hemingway in Cuba, the first American production shot in Cuba since the 1960 trade embargo. This is the story of Hemingway and his experiences in Cuba, where he lived with his fourth wife, Mary, as told through the eyes Petitclerc when he was a young reporter at the Miami Herald. And food! Complementing its diverse and truly international program of independent cinema, SIFF offers a unique blend of world-class cuisine from local artisans and exceptional wine from Sonoma vintners, making for an epicurean experience few film festivals in the world can match. This year, SIFF is offering a complementary tasting and pairing along with its two screenings of Cooking Up a Tribute which takes us on globe-trotting road trip with the fabled Catalonian eatery El Celler de Can Roca. Browse the program and then pounce─a limited number of $15 tickets are available for pre-purchase online for all films.
ARThound’s top picks for films and events─
You’d never guess that Viva, a touching portrayal of a young gay Cuban man’s struggle to find himself, was the work of Irish director Paddy Breathnach. Directed and shot in Havana, with some very heavy-lifting from Cuban actors Héctor Medina and Jorge Perugorría, this beautiful story captures the yearning of Jesus (Medina), a young gay hairdresser working at a Havana nightclub for drag queens, to step out on stage and perform as a female. Encouraged by his mentor, Mama (Luis Alberto García), Jesus finally gets his opportunity to perform and it awakens sometime vital within. But when his estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) abruptly reenters his life, his world is quickly turned upside down. As father and son tussle over their opposing expectations of each other, Viva morphs into a love story with the two men struggling to understand each other and to reconcile as a family. The drama, Ireland’s Oscar submission for Best foreign Language Film this year, also paints a rich portrait of street life in Havana and the divide between those Cubans who are embracing the coming changes and those who are battling to survive. (Screens: Thursday, March 31, 9:15 PM and Saturday, April 2, 2:15 PM, both at Sebastiani Theatre)
Papa Hemingway in Havana
Bob Yari’s vital film tells the fabled story of Hemingway in Cuba through the eyes of the late journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc (Giovanni Ribisi), a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and Sonoma resident. Papa’s backstory was long and difficult because the film was created during the embargo. It took Yari two years to convince the US State Department and US Treasury to make an exception and he had to agree to a $100,000 spending limit for the cast and crew –unheard of for a Hollywood production. On the Cuban side, Yari was required to submit the script to the government in Havana. In addition to a fiery story that profiles two gifted writers who bond over fishing, the film features a stand-out performance by Joely Richardson who plays Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway. The drama was shot in Hemingway’s home Finca Vigia and locations throughout Cuba including La Floridita and Ambos Mundos Hotel. (Screens: Thursday, 3/31 6:30 PM, Sebastiani Theatre and Saturday, April 2, 2:30 PM at Veterans Hall I)
Cooking Up a Tribute / A Taste of Film:
The documentary Cooking Up a Tribute follows the famed Catalonian eatery El Celler de Can Roca (Girona, Spain) as it boldly closes up shop and embarks on a five week global road tour─from Texas to Mexico to Colombia and Peru. The idea is to improvise with local ingredients to create unique tasting menus for each locale. Opened in 1986 by the Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi, El Celler de Can Roca holds three Michelin stars. In 2013 and 2015, it was named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine. Perhaps the best footage in this ambitious doc is shot tagging along with renowned sommelier/maitre d’ Josep Roca on a fascinating pre-exploratory journey where he nails down the places his team will visit. Here’s your chance to watch agave being smoked to produce mescal in Oaxaca and to explore the seemingly infinite number of gorgeous Peruvian potatoes with names like “Bull’s Blood” and “Yellow Egg Yolk.” Free Food, Wine: The festival’s Premiere Sponsor, Celebrity Cruises, will activate their onboard “A Taste of Film” multisensory experience at both film screenings and filmgoers will receive a glass of JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset’s French sparkling No. 69 Crémant de Bourgogne with a carefully curated food tasting, which will bring the aromas and flavors of the food documentary to life. (83 min, 2015) (Screens Fri, April 1, 2:30 PM at Vintage House and Sunday, April 3, 3 PM at Vintage House with complimentary drink and tastings at the film.)
Gordon Getty: There will be Music
At 82, billionaire American composer Gordon Getty, industrialist J. Paul Getty’s son from his fifth marriage, remains a dedicated music creator, economic theorist, vintner, venture capitalist, philanthropist and longtime supporter of our beloved San Francisco Symphony. When your name is Getty, is it a help or hindrance being accepted as a serious composer? Seasoned director Peter Rosen, who has produced and directed over 100 full-length films and television programs on the luminaries of the art world, captures Getty, the musician, at work and in candid conversation with fellow composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas about his creative process and vision. He even captures a few of Getty’s endearing expletives─“Jeepers creepers!” and “Holy flying mackerel.” Schooled at San Francisco’s Conservatory for Music in the early 1960’s, Getty studied music theory with Sol Joseph. His business career and responsibilities as head of the Getty Foundation impinged on his time for composition and it wasn’t until the 1980s when Getty published his first work, The White Election, a song cycle on Emily Dickinson poems. He’s actually spent decades of his life carefully working and honing his music and his oeuvre includes “Joan and the Bells,” “Plump Jack,” “Usher House,” “Poor Peter,” “Four Dickinson Songs,” “The White Election” and more─pieces that have been performed all over the world. (2015, 68 min) Screens Friday, April 1, 5:30 PM, Vintage House (Getty will be present) and Saturday, April 2, Andrews Hall, 2:30 PM
The Messenger: Making a documentary is a labor of love that often takes years to realize. To understand what was happening with global populations of songbirds, Canadian director Su Rynard and her team followed songbirds on three different continents through several seasons. The message of her riveting documentary is urgent─songbirds are disappearing and many species are in serious decline. Changes in our world have brought utter catastrophe to theirs and soon they will be gone. Each year, twice a year, songbirds embark on a dangerous and difficult migratory journey. Every species has its own story to tell but the resounding commonality is that songbirds are in danger. Whose song will we hear when they are gone? The film is full of gorgeous shots of birds and clips of bird songs. (2015, 90 min) (Screens: Friday, April 1, 2:30 PM at Andrews Hall and Sunday, April 3, 9:30 AM at Vintage House)
ARThound’s previous festival coverage:
Details: The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival starts Wednesday, March 30 and runs through Sunday, April 2, 2016. To enjoy guaranteed access to all films, themed nightly parties in SIFF Village’s Backlot Tent, after parties, receptions, and industry events and panels, buy all inclusive passes online at sonomafilmfest.org. A limited number of $15 tickets are available for each film screening too and these will sell out rapidly, so purchase these in advance online at sonomafilmfest.org.
Artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet,” a musical sanctuary for the soul, at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308
There are several spine-tingling moments in the 16th century court composer Thomas Tallis’ devotional choral work “Spem in Alium” which expresses man’s hope and trust in the Lord. Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff’s immersive sound installation, “The Forty Part Motet,” quite literally teases them out. Forty speakers on six-foot tall stands are arranged in an oval. Visitors can walk throughout the installation and hear the individual unaccompanied voices─bass, baritone, alto, tenor and child soprano─one part per loudspeaker─ of 40 choir singers, who were recorded in England’s Salisbury Cathedral as well as the melded symphony of choral sounds, altogether creating a transcendent experience.
Last Thursday, installation was unveiled at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308, making it the space’s inaugural exhibition and first time the installation has been shown in California. Cardiff’s exquisite layering of the voices creates a profound and intimate experience even within a public space. I can’t recall the last time I slowed down enough to be still and quiet for any significant length of time. As I took in the music, the hairs rose on my arms and tears welled. I stayed for four playings. ( The 14-minute piece is a continuous audio loop, comprised of 11 minutes of singing and a three minute interlude.) With the horror that unfolded in Paris over the weekend and uncertainty about what might follow, and the march of the pending holidays, centering oneself in this immersive musical experience is nurturing and healing. I can’t wait to go back.
Cardiff’s contemporary re-working of this classic was created 14 years ago, in 2001 and the piece has since travelled the world. Cardiff originally studied photography and print-making before experimenting with sound and moving image. She grabbed the attention of the art world in the mid-1990s with her site-specific works which explored the sculptural and physical attributes of sound and often had actual physical impacts on the viewers. Born in Canada, she currently lives in rural British Columbia, and works in collaboration with her husband and partner, George Bures Miller. Cardiff and Miller’s pivotal moment came in 2001, when they represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale and won the Biennale’s Premio Prize and Benesse Prize. Their artwork was “Paradise Institute” which recreated a 16 seat movie theatre and entangled viewers so that they became witnesses to a possible crime playing out on screen and within the audience─an idea that was cutting edge at the time. The couple’s work has been included top-tier exhibitions and biennales ever since. Recently, they participated in Soundscapes at London’s National Gallery, the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, and dOCUMENTA (13).
“The Forty Part Motet’s” appearance in San Francisco marks a pivotal time for its two co-presentors─Fort Mason Center and SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It marks a new beginning for Gallery 308, which is a gorgeous light-filled 4,000 square-foot gallery space with views of the San Francisco Bay and the Marin neighborhood. The space originally housed Fort Mason’s maritime trade and repair shops and its three-year renovation was undertaken by Jensen Architects, the creators of SFMOMA’s acclaimed roof-top garden.
“Fort Mason Center has been around for 40 years and it’s been viewed as a rental space,” said Mark Tao, CFO, Fort Mason Center. “We’ve gone through a re-imaging process to put contemporary art at the forefront. Gallery 308 was once ‘military building 308,’ so we’ve reclaiming something from the past in our name which fits our industrial chic look. We worked for over two years to bring this work here and we’re very proud.”
Other changes are in the air at Fort Mason Center too. The San Francisco Art Institute, which currently has campuses in Russian Hill and Dogpatch, is moving to Pier 2 and will start construction there next year. FLAX art and design store recently opened a 5,000-square-foot store in Building D, after losing their space downtown.
Cardiff’s installation marks the grand finale for SFMOMA’s On the Go programming—the museum’s dynamic off-site art events while its building is closed for expansion construction. (Click here to read about SFMOMA’s 2013 collaboration with the Sonoma County Museum.) The new SFMOMA will open in spring 2016. Cardiff’s installation is actually on loan from Napa collectors Pamela and Richard Kramlich’s world-renowned holdings of video and media art. Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA was pivotal in orchestrating the loan.
Cardiff’s solo works have long been a part of SFMOMA’s collection and the museum additionally commissioned two audio and video works by Cardiff: Chiaroscuro 1 (1997), made for the exhibition Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties; and The Telephone Call (2001), featured in 010101: Art in Technological Times.
ARThound chats with Janet Cardiff and George Miller
I had a chance to chat privately with Janet Cardiff just before Thursday’s press preview and with her husband/collaborator George Miller in the gallery while the work was playing. Here’s our conversation─
You’ve installed this work in so many spaces now, from those that are overtly spiritual to those that much more secular; what is special about this space here in San Francisco, set against the backdrop of the Bay?
Janet Cardiff─What first and foremost matters to me is the acoustics of the space, how the voices sound to me in the space and it works quite nicely here. The visual is beautiful but the power is in the sound. I like this space because, when you’re looking out, the music serves as a backdrop, like a filmic score of the city and the water. I also like the roughness of the space, its rawness that echoes what it used to be. Because it’s painted white, it’s also very pristine, very contemplative which works with the spirituality of the piece, its whiteness and a light
Is this a spiritual artwork?
Janet Cardiff─Oh yes, Thomas Tallis most definitely wrote this for that purpose with words like “I put all my faith in you, my Lord.” When he was writing, he was very aware of the voices going up into the cathedrals like angel voices. It’s inspired me in many ways, on many levels. I’ve learned so much about absence and presence. Every single speaker is an individual recording of a singer, so each speaker in the space becomes that person. The choir was recorded singing together in a room but the singers were spaced apart and every singer had a microphone. So, it does become very anthropomorphic and a virtual representation of those people. It’s like these people, too, are stopped in time. This setting brings me right back to PS1, its first showing, with these windows overlooking the city. I was reminded of the potency of music to move you and of such a brilliant composition from Thomas Tallis which creates such an emotional release for people. Also, the whiteness of the space adds to the spiritual quality of the piece.
Do you have a particular interest in old music? How was this particular piece brought to your attention?
Janet Cardiff─I was recording in England and one of the singers I was working with gave me a cd of Tallis because she recognized that I liked three-dimensional sound. And that always been an interest of mine, this idea that sound is an invisible media but, at the same time, it affects you emotionally, actually going into your body in a way that something visual can’t. It’s also fascinating that you also aware of it subconsciously in a sculptural way….I immediately saw this as all around me and became so fascinated with the piece. With a lot of finesse, expertise and hard work and with the help of my husband and my producer in England, we were able to record it with the Salsbury Cathedral choir, who were not all professionals. I wanted to work with children for the soprano voices. We brought in singers from all over England for a recording session that was very intense. We had about three hours of recording material and edited it down to the price it is today. I found it very interesting, from the very beginning, to make this virtual choir of a piece from the 1500’s. I knew the piece was written in a religious context, like a lot of music then, but I really did not know that it would have the type of effect that it has on people in all these different environments.
What is the best way to describe it?
Janet Cardiff─Sound is very sculptural for me. I don’t usually make definitions which tend to limit how people might experience the work but this is an installation, a virtual choir.
As a technician what does it mean to be happy with the sound in this space?
George Miller─I’m pretty happy right now. Actually, Titus Maderlechner tuned this piece, I’m just a collaborator but I used to set this up before Titus came on. Every space absorbs the frequencies in a different way so when it moves to a new place, tuning is required to make sure that it feels right, right being appropriate to the piece. At first, the bass (the lower register voices) weren’t coming through because glass in this space was absorbing the sound and they weren’t getting the presence they needed. We brought those voices up to fill the space more. The space also responded to the sopranos and sounded too harsh, so we had to work with that too.
Everyone talks about the Cloisters as “the place” but Janet and Titus set that up and I wasn’t there. For me this is as good as it gets, the sound is so clear. I was tearing up and I’ve heard this thousands of times. For me, it never gets boring and it always gives me a reaction. If I don’t get that reaction, which is a tingling up and down my spine, then I know I have to make it do that.
Details: The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff runs through January 18, 2016 at Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, 94123 (Greens Restaurant is at the other end of this building.) Hours: Wednesday-Saturday: noon to 8 PM; Sunday: 11 AM to 5 PM. Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. Tickets: Admission is free but complimentary tickets are required for entry and can be reserved at motettickets.org. Due to high demand, visitors are advised to reserve tickets well in advance. A limited number of same-day walk-up tickets will be available to visitors throughout the installation. Follow #40PartMotet for availability. Parking: ample paid parking is available on an hourly basis at Fort Mason Center and payment is via credit card in machine.
San Francisco Symphony performs at Weill Hall Thursday night—the magnificent Mozart “Sinfonia” is on the program
It’s old news by now but, after two seasons of glorious performances at Green Music Center (GMC), San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is not returning to Weill Hall. Our loss. The reason, straight from SFS—despite the best efforts to build an audience for the series, attendance was very inconsistent and did not build to a level that could sustain further appearances at Weill Hall. I can’t understand how we in the North Bay let this slip through our hands as every SFS performance in Weill Hall was magical, not to mention incredibly convenient. SFS’ final scheduled concert at Weill Hall is this Thursday, “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra,” a wonderful mix of challenging classical and contemporary music featuring awe-inspiring solos and the famed MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) at the helm.
SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour will solo in Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola.” Then, SFS will perform Bartók’s brilliant five movement “Concerto for Orchestra” in which each section of instruments solos. Rounding out the program will be Samuel Adams’ six minute “Radial Play,” which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered by the National Youth Orchestra in July 2014. Adams, who lives in Oakland, is the son of composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O’Grady. His modern “Drift and Providence” was performed at Weill Hall in 2012 and his career has been championed enthusiastically by MTT.
ARThound is particularly excited about the “Sinfonia concertante,” which Mozart composed in 1779, in Salzburg. Violists, who have been somewhat shorted in showcase repertory, have long sung the praises of this piece as the closest Mozart came to writing a viola concerto. The 30 minute piece is scored in three movements with very prominent viola and violin solos and is one of Mozart’s more recognizable works, showing up in several movies and even in William Styron’s famous novel Sophie’s Choice (when adult Sophie, who is plagued by PTSD, hears the “Sinfonia concertante” on the radio, she is transported back to her childhood in Krakow).
Principal violist Jonathan Vinocour, who has been with SFS for six years now, has never before played the Sinfonia with SFS. He’s been practicing at home for hours on end for the past 10 days and the Weill Hall audience will be the second audience to hear him play it, after the Davies Hall performance on Wednesday evening. “All three movements of the piece are wonderful — it’s Mozart, after all — but it’s the second movement, the Andante, that people usually remember most,” said Vinocour. “Mozart sets up an intricate conversation between the viola and the violin, almost like a couple talking. It’s very emotional, but also a quintessential piece of musical one-up-manship that continues into the third movement.”
Vinocour and Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik were soloists together in June 2013, when they played Benjamin Britten’s “Double Concerto for Violin and Viola” and they have also performed many chamber concerts together. “Sasha [Barantschik] and I have such a familiarity with each other’s style, we enjoy the parts of the piece that are more spontaneous. We don’t plot out every detail, because the Sinfonia should come out sounding elegant and graceful, but also free-feeling and very natural.”
For more insight, ARThound turned to San Francisco Symphony violist Wayne Roden of Cotati, who auditioned for the SFS with this Mozart piece in 1973, 42 years ago.
“Back when I auditioned, the solo piece that was asked for was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, which Jonathan and Sasha will be playing. In years since then, the repertoire for solo pieces has often included a choice of either the Bartók or Walton Concerto, and sometimes Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher. These 20th century pieces are very virtuosic, but the Mozart is required because it really shows you a tremendous amount about how someone plays. Musicians sweat blood over playing Mozart. I’ve sat on many audition committees, and have heard a lot of violists who played the hell out of the Bartók or the Walton–but within two lines of the Mozart, you can tell whether they’re good enough. A musician is really exposed in Mozart, more than in any music other than Bach, because of the nakedness of the musical expression.”
By the way, few will lament the loss of SFS at Weill Hall more than SFS’ three Sonoma County musicians (Roden, percussionist Tom Hemphill and bass player Chris Gilbert) who were saved the grueling commute to and from Davies Hall when SFS performed in Sonoma County.
Details: SFS will perform “MTT conducts “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Thursday, May 21, 2015, 8 PM. Tickets: $20-$115, at sfsymphony.org or 415-864-6000.
To read ARThound’s interview with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, on his January 2014 performance at Weill Hall, where he performed Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” click here.
A free podcast about Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is online at sfsymphony.org/podcasts.
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.