Geneva Anderson digs into art

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony perform the first concert of an annual 4-concert series at the Green Music Center this Thursday, December 6, 2012— 2 Sonoma County musicians will play and SFS Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert’s “Pandora” will have its world premiere

San Francisco Symphony Assistant Concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert will have the world premiere of “Pandora,” his work for strings on Thursday, December 6, 2012, when SFS plays the first concert in an annual 4 concert series at the Green Music Center.  Photo: courtesy SFS

San Francisco Symphony Assistant Concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert will have the world premiere of “Pandora,” his work for strings on Thursday, December 6, 2012, when SFS plays the first concert in an annual 4 concert series at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall. Photo: courtesy SFS

Musically speaking, the new Green Music Center is jamming.  Since its grand opening on September 29, 2012, its stunning Weill Hall has hosted over 20 performances ranging from Lang Lang’s inspired piano sonatas to Buika’s sensual gypsy-flamenco to Joyce DiDonato’s dazzling baroque arias to the classical and cutting edge contemporary repertoire of the Santa Rosa Symphony.  Thursday, the concert hall will be road-tested by the City’s treasured San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), with a program that includes the world premiere of “Pandora,” a 20-minute-long work for strings composed by SFS Assistant Concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert.  Grammy winning pianist Yefim Bronfman will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor.”  Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks is also on the program.

 ARThound sought out two of three SFS musicians based in Sonoma County, violist Wayne Roden and percussionist Tom Hemphill (Bass player Chris Gilbert of Petaluma will not perform in this concert).  It’s highly unusual to have a SFS musician premiere a work he wrote and I couldn’t wait to speak Mark Volkert about “Pandora”  and to get perspective from these two local musicians about the SFS series at Weill Hall and of course, what it feels like not to have to commute.  Volkert joined SFS in 1972 and Roden and Hemphill both joined in 1974—that’s over a century of SFS performing experience between them.

This is not the symphony’s or MTT’s first time at Weill Hall.  SFS had an Open Rehearsal at Green Music Center on May 6, 2010.  SFS Associate Conductor Donato Cabrera was conducting and the purpose was to test the hall’s acoustics and fund-raising—this was before the Weills came on the scene in late December 2010.  (The program:  Bernstein “Overture to Candide,” Beethoven First Movement “Symphony No. 5,” and Tchaikovsky Third Movements from “Symphony No. 4” and Symphony No. 6.)  There had only been one previous test of the hall and that was by the Santa Rosa Symphony in February, 2010.

MTT visited the concert hall on a separate occasion in the summer of 2011 and tested the fabulous Steinway piano out on stage.  Jeff Langley, GMC’s artistic director recalls that MTT “was kind of in his own little world that day.  He was conspicuously quiet but he played Mozart for about 20 to 25 minutes and he just got into it.  He was preparing some concertos and sonatas for an upcoming concert and he was practicing these.  I remember walking up and putting the lid all the way up so he could have full sound.  At the end, he said something like ‘very nice’ and that was it.”

Cotati resident Wayne Roden has played viola in the San Francisco Symphony since 1974.  He will perform with SFS on Thursday, December 6, 2012  at Weill Hall.

Cotati resident Wayne Roden has played viola in the San Francisco Symphony since 1974. He will perform with SFS on Thursday, December 6, 2012 at Weill Hall.

Violist Wayne Roden

Violist Wayne Roden lives in rural Cotati with his wife, author Barbara Quick, where they grow Pinot noir and Pinot gris and make their own wine and raise a lot of their own food.  He’s lived in Sonoma County for 24 years and loves it.  I touched base with him on Sunday, following the symphony’s Saturday rehearsal, the first go-through of the program they will perform on Thursday.  He remembered playing at Weill Hall before it was Weill Hall.  “We played a very short concert there a couple of years ago—this was before the bathrooms were built and they still had folding chairs and they were fund raising—but I was quite impressed.  It’s certainly a very beautiful hall, one of the most beautiful we’ve been in, and it sounded very warm and alive.  It’s hard to give a really good assessment of a hall until you’ve played in it a number of times because there’s always a first impression, a second impression and then, lingering impressions.  By the end of this year, we will really know that hall.”

I was excited to hear Roden’s impression of Volkert’s new piece for strings.  “Now days, it is unusual to have an accomplished violinist who is also adept at composing,” said Roden.  “It’s quite an accomplishment to have written this large scale piece and to have someone as knowledgeable as MTT decide to conduct it.  Mark has written some challenging parts too.  The concertmaster (Alexander Barantschik, first violin, ) has a very challenging cadenza but because he’s first rate, he just nailed it.  Also, he also wrote a very interesting and extremely difficult solo for Scott (Pingel), the principal bass player, and he played it great.  You almost never hear a bass player having to play anything in orchestral repertoire with this level of complexity.”

Roden also got back to me, several days later, after having practiced “Pandora.”  “With any music, but especially with more contemporary music, it takes a while for it to sink in and for you to start to comprehend what you’re hearing.  My appreciation of the piece is growing.  I particularly like the orchestration of the string section and in the big moments, there’s a very lush and appealing sound.  There are several parts for the section violas that are challenging but one in particular that is very exposed.  Initially, I was aggravated, as I always am, at having to learn something hard and new that, at first, I didn’t find at all appealing.  As I’ve worked on it and learned it, I actually like the passage—it makes musical sense and it’s very original.  I told Mark that I’m liking his piece more and more and he liked that because, you know, the opposite could have also been true.”

Of course, not having to commute into the City and, instead, having his colleagues come to Sonoma County delights Roden.  “It’s a little bit of schadenfreude, especially when you consider that for my entire career—38 years—we used to have to play in Cupertino as many as 8 times a year which was bad enough when I lived in the City, but from Sonoma County, it was awful.  Thankfully, they stopped that series and now we are at GMC, just about 10 minutes away from me.  What a relief.”

San Francisco Symphony Percussionist Tom Hemphill plays every kind of percussion instrument called for and has clinked (and broken) many a wine glass on stage.  edited photo: original Kirsten Loken

San Francisco Symphony Percussionist Tom Hemphill plays every kind of percussion instrument called for and has clinked (and broken) many a wine glass on stage. edited photo: original Kirsten Loken

Percussionist Tom Hemphill

Percussionist Tom Hemphill lives in unincorporated Sonoma County, a couple of miles west of the Washoe House, in a fabulous Victorian home that he and his wife Regan have been restoring continuously since they bought it in 1991.  They moved up to Sonoma County from San Francisco to raise their two boys who are now grown.  He commuted for the first 12 years he lived in Sonoma County, but “never really liked the idea of commuting” so he rented, and now owns, a small apartment near Davies Symphony Hall and stays a few times a week with his wife.  “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Hemphill, “long walks in the country and in the City.”

“It’s pretty weird to be an old timer at 61,” says Hemphill of his 38 years SFS.  He began playing drums in third grade in his school’s “easy steps to the band” summer program and never put down his sticks.  Of course, he plays more than drums—basically every kind of percussion instrument called for in any piece the symphony performs—and has played many odd-ball items, including chains, flexitone wire and wine glasses.  Thursday’s concert, however, is standard repertoire for percussion—cymbals, bass drum, timpani drum, and triangle—and Hemphill will crank a ratchet for the Strauss piece.

“The string players always have challenging parts,” said Hemphill, “we’re adding color and rhythm.  Once in a while, we get a piece with very active parts where we have to utilize all our technique and that makes it challenging.   I also enjoy it when the music is exciting.  Something like Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 11” is lots of fun and some of his works really get your blood moving.”

Unlike most of the other instruments in the symphony, percussion instruments are frequently very exposed, explained Hemphill.  “Often you have to come in on a single note by yourself, so you can never really sneak in on a note; you have to be right on top of it.  There’s also the issue of hitting.   All the other musicians have their touch in their instruments so they can focus on the conductor or the music.  With the chimes, for example, you don’t really touch the instrument.  You have the hammer and the rawhide and the chimes are hanging from a rack and you’re looking at the conductor and the chimes are nowhere in the same plane of sight.”

Hemphill recalls first time the orchestra played at the unfinished Green Music Center, “We played an early evening concert and the natural light coming in through those top windows was just gorgeous.  It’s so unusual to have natural light in a concert hall and the wood was glowing and the sound too was great.  It’s not such a large hall that it has the challenges of a large and more cavernous hall like Davies which seats about 2,700.  GMC has that classical shoebox design which favors acoustics.   That first concert we did was like Potpourri.  After playing a series like this, we’ll have a very good feel for the hall and its capabilities.”

SFS Assistant Concertmaster and violinist, Mark Volkert on the world premiere of his “Pandora

In the summer of 20120, SFS Assistant Concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert wrote “Pandora” his new 20 minute-long piece for strings, specifically with the great SFS string section in mind.   “I write because it’s enjoyable,” said Volkert from his Oakland home.  In 1972, when he was junior at Stanford University, he auditioned and won the second violin seat at SFS and moved up to Assistant Concertmaster in 1980.  Throughout his career, he was written and arranged music and always has the musicians in mind.  “I tried to write something that was challenging, because these players can certainly handle that, but also idiomatic, well-suited to the string instruments.  I gave the bass a prominent solo part as well all of the first chair string players.  The cadenzas are all written out but I tried to give them freedom to shape it the way they want to.   All musicians want and need to add a personal touch to what they do.”

While “Pandora” is an abstract piece of music to be enjoyed without any background information, the title was inspired by Hesiod’s 8th century B.C. version of the myth of Pandora, the earliest written account of the well-known myth.  Volkert had a fairly detailed sketch of the piece completed before he settled on a title, which is generally one of the last things he chooses.  “The whole story seemed to fit with my preliminary sketches for this piece,” said Volkert “and I actually went back and actually revised the piece so that it would have a more narrative element.   I chose Hesiod’s version because I liked his spin on the story.”

Hesiod’s Pandora is a beautiful woman imbued with a treacherous nature who is charged by Zeus to release a jar (pithos) of evils on the world as a punishment.  In the process, somehow, hope gets trapped under the rim of the jar and Pandora puts the lid on the jar, trapping it inside. “Philosophers for centuries have been pondering what it means to have hope stuck in the jar of evils and that fascinated me,” said Volkert. “What is Hesiod trying to tell us about hope—which is translated as the expectation for either good or bad?  It might be that he is telling us that hope is not a good thing because it forces us to dwell on what might happen in the future, essentially to live in the future.  He might be saying that it is not our place to question the gods, that hope can prevent you from living in the moment which is the important thing to do in this life.” (Click here to read SFS program notes on “Pandora” by Scott Fogelsong who interviewed Volkert on the the storyline of the myth.)

“Pandora” will be Volkert’s second piece to be premiered with SFS which commissioned his 1995 Solus, a 15 minute-long piece for strings.  He has done numerous arrangements, too, for the symphony such as Ravel’s violin-cello sonata for string orchestra.  Within context of SFS, it is not unheard of to have a violinist who composes. Violinist, composer, teacher, and conductor David Sheinfeld (1906-2001) had several of his orchestral compositions premiered with SFS during his tenure as a SFS violinist (1945-1971).  And in the 17th  (Corelli), 18th  (Vivaldi) and 19th centuries (Joachim), it was common for violinists who were soloists to compose.  Volkert stresses that he composes because he enjoys it and that basically anyone can learn to do it once they learn the language of music.  On Thursday, he will sitting in the audience listening to his piece.  “I’m not sure where I’ll sit but this is going to be quite an experience.”

Details:  The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performs Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 8 pm at Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

Tickets: $15-$145.  Tickets are available at or by phone at 415-864-6000  or in person at the Davies Symphony Hall Box Office on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street in San Francisco or at the Green Music Center Box Office located on the first floor of the SSU Student Union in the interior of the Sonoma State University Campus.

Other Upcoming SFS Performances at Weill Hall:  The Orchestra’s four-concert series for GMC also includes performances January 31, March 7, and May 23, 2013

Thursday, January 31 at 8 pmCharles Dutoit conductor, James Ehnes violin, San Francisco Symphony

 Ravel Rapsodie espagnole

Lalo Symphonie espagnole, Opus 21

Elgar Enigma Variations, Opus 36

Thursday, March 7 at 8 pmMichael Tilson Thomas conductor, Yuja Wang piano, San Francisco Symphony

Berio Eindrücke

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58
Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Thursday, May 23 at 8 pm David Robertson conductor, Marc-André Hamelin piano, San Francisco Symphony

Elliott Carter Variations for Orchestra

Ravel Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Ravel La Valse 

December 5, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment