ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Time to reset your GPS to EPS (Esa-Pekka Salonen), SF Symphony’s new music director designate

Esa-Pekka Salonen, taking in the love Friday evening at his inaugural concert as SF Symphony’s new music director designate.  Concertmaster Sasha Barantschik is on the left while associate principal cellist, Peter Wyrick, is on the right. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What great fortune to have a front row seat last night at Esa-Pekka Solonen’s inaugural concert as San Francisco Symphony’s new music director designate.  Davies Symphony Hall was packed and the audience was excited, rapturous, rising to their feet several times to applaud the 60-year-old Finn who will take the helm as SFS’s Music Director in September 2020.  He succeeds MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) who, in 2020, will have been at the helm for a quarter of a century.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What a wonderful way to start things off with Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s mysterious tonal poem METACOSMOS, composed in 2017.  It stuck just the right tone with an audience eager to hear something that had obvious meaning to Salonen and ready to embrace a female composer, which we haven’t had much of at Davies of late.  METACOSMOS had a Nordic feel and was both modern and  romantic, taking us on a short speculative journey down into a deep dark hole, the murky unknown of the consciousness, where epic battles ensue between forces of light and darkness.  It was followed by Also sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ grand tonal poem, from 1864, which was inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas about the course of humankind.  With moments of emblazoned flare, EPS coaxed a glorious sound from SFS.  Sitting just feet from his podium, I caught the fluidity and grace of his hands as well as the serenity in his face.  This is a man who is expressive, passionate, and in deep conversation with his musicians and his heart.  Musically, he knows exactly what he’s doing and it comes across in every gesture.

The evening closed with Sibelius’ Four Legends from the Kalevala, another tonal masterpiece, from 1895, which weaves the powerful Finnish epic Kalevala myth into four movements.  Again, a multi-sensory piece with wonderful contrasts and rich melodies, showcasing various sections of the orchestra throughout.    English horn player Russ deLuna and cellist Peter Wyrick were on fire.   What a journey we have ahead.  Experiencing the magic in person will cement memories for years to come.

Details:  There are two remaining chances to hear EPS conduct SFS this weekend: 8 p.m. Saturday, January 19 and 2 p.m. Sunday, January 20.  $50-$225. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. 415-864-6000.  Tickets: www.sfsymphony.org

 

 

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January 19, 2019 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Symphony performs at Weill Hall Thursday night—the magnificent Mozart “Sinfonia” is on the program

San Francisco Symphony principal violist, Jonathan Vinocour, will solo, along with Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, in Mozart’s magnificent “Sinfonia concertante” on Thursday evening at Weill Hall. Vinocour joined SFS as Principal Violist in 2009, having previously served as principal violist of the Saint Louis Symphony and guest principal of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. He plays a 1784 Lorenzo Storioni viola, on loan from SFS. Vinocour and Barantschik have never together performed this virtuosic double Mozart concerto for viola and violin. SFS’s final concert at Weill Hall will also include Samuel Adams “Radial Play” and Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Photo: Eyegotcha

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.”   

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with

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

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.

Prepare yourself:

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.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SoundBox—SF Symphony’s new space for musical experimentation

The atmosphere Saturday night at the opening of SoundBox, San Francisco’s Symphony’s new experimental space for music.  Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” performed by Alexander Barantschik, Dan Carlson, Jonathan Vinocour, Amos Young, Tim Day, Carey Bell, Doug Rioth.  Video projections by Adam Larsen.  Photo: courtesy SFS

The atmosphere Saturday night at the opening of SoundBox, San Francisco’s Symphony’s new experimental space for music. Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” performed by Alexander Barantschik, Dan Carlson, Jonathan Vinocour, Amos Young, Tim Day, Carey Bell, Doug Rioth. Video projections by Adam Larsen. Photo: courtesy SFS

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.

Combining the excitement of an art happening with the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and adventurous music spanning ten centuries, Saturday night’s opening of SoundBox will be long remembered. Photo: courtesy SFS.

Combining the excitement of an art happening with the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and adventurous music spanning ten centuries, Saturday night’s opening of SoundBox will be long remembered. Photo: courtesy SFS.

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.

Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” performed by members of the SF Symphony Percussion Section at SoundBox.  From L to R: Tom Hemphill (from Sonoma County), James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich. Photo: courtesy SFS

Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” performed by members of the SF Symphony
Percussion Section at SoundBox. From L to R: Tom Hemphill (from Sonoma County), James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich. Photo: courtesy SFS

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.

Beaming MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) conducts members of the SF Symphony and Chorus in Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” (1610) from “Vespro della Beata Vergine.”  Photo: courtesy SFS

Beaming MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) conducts members of the SF Symphony and Chorus in Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” (1610) from “Vespro della Beata Vergine.” Photo: courtesy SFS

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).

December 15, 2014 Posted by | Art, Chamber Music, Classical Music, Jazz Music, SFMOMA, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Real Russian bells will clang at Weill Hall this Saturday when San Francisco Symphony plays Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”

San Francisco Symphony regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko (left) will play a “peal” or set of authentic Russian bronze bells in the Symphony’s “All Tchaikovsky” concert this Saturday at Weill Hall and lawn.  This marks the SFS’ first use of authentic Russian bells in a performance.  The peal has been loaned to SFS by the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo.  Mark Galperin (right), General Manager of Blagovest Bells of Marin, organized the loan, ensured the bells were installed properly on their rack for Saturday’s concert, and helped Avdienko select the right mallet to approximate the sound extracted by an actual bell clapper.  The bells range in weight from 12.3 to 88.1 pounds and were made in 2012 by Pyatkov & Co. Bell foundry, a famous Russian bell foundry in Kamensky-Uralsy.  Photo: courtesy Blagovest Bells

San Francisco Symphony regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko (left) will play a “peal” or set of authentic Russian bronze bells in the Symphony’s “All Tchaikovsky” concert this Saturday at Weill Hall and lawn. This marks the SFS’ first use of authentic Russian bells in a performance. The peal has been loaned to SFS by the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo. Mark Galperin (right), General Manager of Blagovest Bells of Marin, organized the loan, ensured the bells were installed properly on their rack for Saturday’s concert, and helped Avdienko select the right mallet to approximate the sound extracted by an actual bell clapper. The bells range in weight from 12.3 to 88.1 pounds and were made in 2012 by Pyatkov & Co. Bell foundry, a famous Russian bell foundry in Kamensky-Uralsy. Photo: courtesy Blagovest Bells

 

San Francisco Symphony (SFS) regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko was born and raised in San Francisco and regularly attended the Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church on Geary Street but, at that time, he never heard authentic Russian bells played live. Instead, he heard plenty of recordings of majestic Russian bells which always fascinated him.  It was only when he visited San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in September 2012 and heard the rector, Father Stephan Meholick, play a real set of bronze church bells especially for him that he understood how special they were.  After that, Avdienko championed the notion of featuring Russian bells in a SFS performance and dreamed of connecting with his Russian heritage through playing them.

On Saturday evening, he’ll have his dream fulfilled when the “peal” or set of Russian bronze bells that he will play will be featured, for the first time ever, in the Symphony’s All Tchaikovsky concert at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and Lawn.  Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater will be conducting SFS and Macedonian guest pianist, Simon Trpčeski, from Skopje, will play the beloved Piano Concerto No. 1.  The special bells will clang for a good minute at the end of Tchaikovsky’s well-known “1812 Festal Overture,” fulfilling Tchaikovsky’s vision of bells ringing in town church towers to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Their sound will be new and distinctive because Russian bells are  polytonic (acoustical analog of polychromatic), meaning they are not tuned to any specific pitch like the orchestral bells or tubular bell chimes that we normally encounter when American orchestras perform.  You can expect a rich chord of many different tones.

When ARThound learned that authentic Russian bells would be played for the “1812 Overture,” I couldn’t resist investigating further.  The “1812” is a thunderous Russian tune that depicts Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812.   That it became a popular 4th of July song in America during the height of the Cold War is a story in itself.   In short—the “1812” always had a patriotic sound and was a great piece of music but it wasn’t until 1974, when the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler zipped it up, playing it with fireworks, real cannons and a coordinated steeple-bell choir, that it caught on like wildfire and became an American tradition.  Including Russian bells is a shout-out to the “1812’s” true roots and an exciting new tradition for SFS.

I first heard the mesmerizing clang of Russian bells twenty-five years ago in Sofia, Bulgaria, at the St. Nikolai Church, whose bells were gifted to Bulgaria by Tsar Nicholas II.   That rousing sound is so emblazoned in my memory that it seems like I heard it yesterday.   I had no idea that North America’s foremost experts on Russian bells, Mark Galperin, was just down the road in Marin and that he has been championing their resurgence.

Galperin is a former physicist who immigrated to Marin in 1995.  In 1998, he began collaborating with Father Stephan Meholick to build a bell collection for San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.  Galperin also dutifully manages Blagovest Bells, the largest North American full service Russian bell company which has supplied over 140 churches in North America with Russian bells. He filled me in on some basics about Russian bells—history, theology, metallurgy, design and acoustics. (Detailed information can be found on the Blagovest Bells website, http://www.russianbells.com/.)  Most important is that in Russian culture and history, church bells are holy and shrouded in mystery.  Their clanging is said to have the power to bring people to repentance and to dissuade sin.

In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are understood as holy, “aural icons” that project the voice of God.  Before church bells are hung, they are consecrated.  An interesting feature of Russian bells is that they are cast for a certain strike tone and they are finished when cast—there are no post-production adjustments.  That means they don’t have a “pure” (abstract or machine-made) tone, but instead they have natural harmonics that give each bell a slightly distinctive voice, which Galperin poetically compares to the song of a nightingale—each nightingale singing its own song in its own distinctive voice, no two songs exactly alike but all nightingale songs, all uniquely beautiful.   From the musician’s perspective, Russian bells are not tuned and therefore do not behave like most bells that American musicians are familiar with.

SFS regular guest percussionist, Victor Avdienko, will play a “peal” or set of authentic Russian bronze bells in the Symphony’s “All Tchaivovsky” concert this Saturday at Weill Hall and lawn.   The peal was loaned to SFS by the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo.  The bells range in weight from 12.3 to 88.1 pounds and were made in 2012 by Pyatkov & Co. Bell foundry, a famous Russian bell foundry in Kamensky-Uralsy.  The largest bell is decorated with the icon of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycea, on its skirt.  Opposite this, also on the skirt, is the icon of St. Theodosius Sumorin of Tot’ma.  The upper decorative belt of the bell has the Coat of Arms of the City of Tot’ma and an inscription in Russian. Photo: courtesy Blagovest Bells

This “peal” of authentic Russian bronze bells was loaned to San Francisco Symphony by the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo. The bells range in weight from 12.3 to 88.1 pounds and were made in 2012 by Pyatkov & Co. Bell foundry, a famous Russian bell foundry in Kamensky-Uralsy. The largest bell is decorated with the icon of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycea, on its skirt. Opposite this, also on the skirt, is the icon of St. Theodosius Sumorin of Tot’ma. The upper decorative belt of the bell has the Coat of Arms of the City of Tot’ma and an inscription in Russian. Photo: courtesy Blagovest Bells

Galperin first collaborated with SFS when he lent Blagovest Bells’ 5-bell Russian demo peal to SFS for its Keeping Score Summer Institute in June 2009.  It was there that father Stephan Meholick delighted Bay Area educators with his bell ringing and shared a vital aspect of Russian culture that these teachers could then pass one to their students.  Galperin also handled the loan of the St. Nicholas bells to SFS for Saturday’s concert and, over the past few days, has spent countless hours making good on his “full service” guarantee, including testing some two dozen mallets with Avdienko to get a sound that best approximates the one made with a forged iron bell clapper.  (See chart at bottom of article for detailed data on the bells) Galperin is quick to point out that once Americans (and most people in general) are exposed to authentic bells, they have a real interest in them and he has an explanation for why Russian bells aren’t more widely known—

“In both Soviet Russia and American, bells experienced their own genocide for different reasons,” explained Galperin.  “In Russia, they were victims of the Communist ideology.  In America, they were victims of so-called electronic progress which substituted real—and actually unsubstitutable bells—with safe electronics.  Sadly, the current generation of Americans has no idea of the uniqueness of bell ringing, which is different every single time.  Why is this important?  It’s the same reason why you pay to go to the concert of a famous singer—because each time, the song is a little different and you have a new and unique performance of a piece.”

Galperin holds it as a good sign that the tradition of using of Russian bells in classical music has continued in America in the recent works of young composers such as the popular Russian-born American composer and pianist Lera Auerbach.  She used a bell peal produced by Bloagvest Bells and recorded at the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of San Anselmo (MP 3 below) in her well-received “Russian Requiem” (2007), co-commissioned by Musikfest Bremen, Philharmonische Gesellschaft Bremen and Semana de Musica Religiosa Cuenca.

Like most stories involving Russians that I’ve reported, some wonderful connections emerged. Galperin mentioned that Blagovest Bells outfitted Victor Avdienko’s Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church with a peal of 6 traditional Russian bells in 2003 and, since then, the bells are regularly rung there for Divine Services.

Festal Russian Orthodox Church Bell Ringing at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, San Anselmo.  Lera Auerbach included this peal in her “Russian Requiem” (2007).  Bell ringers: Fr. Stephen Meholick, Peg Golitzin, Juliana Kohl, Lea Kohl; produced by Blagovest Bells.

Pyatkov Chime by Andrei Dyachkov, led by Blagovestnik bells  weighing 20,000 and 40,000 pounds,  110 seconds (courtesy Blagovest Bells)

Pyatkov Chime by Vladimir Petrovsky, called “Maestro” Petrovsky, 340 seconds (courtesy Blagovest Bells)

 

ARThound Interview: San Francisco Symphony guest percussionist, Victor Avdienko

 

San Francisco Symphony regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko at Davies Symphony Hall learning the ropes, literally, of Russian bell playing.  The bell clappers (the striking implement suspended within the bell) are attached to strings and are either manipulated by a hand by pulling them or by foot pedals for the larger bells.  Saturday’s “All Tchaikovsky” concert at Weill Hall and lawn will mark SFS’ first use of authentic Russian bells in a performance.  Image: courtesy Lisa Petrie, SFS.

San Francisco Symphony regular guest percussionist Victor Avdienko at Davies Symphony Hall learning the ropes, literally, of Russian bell playing. The bell clappers (the striking implement suspended within the bell) are attached to strings and are either manipulated by a hand by pulling them or by foot pedals for the larger bells. Saturday’s “All Tchaikovsky” concert at Weill Hall and lawn will mark SFS’ first use of authentic Russian bells in a performance. Image: courtesy Lisa Petrie, SFS.

When did you first hear authentic Russian bells?

Victor Avdienko:  At the beginning of last season, we played Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 11 in G Minor” and needed four bells for the end of the last movement, so I went on a quest for bells which were very loud, pitched, and preferably real Russian bells.  I was pointed to Mark Galperin, who gave me the history and playing tradition of Russian bells. I visited San Anselmo’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and met Father Stephan Meholick, who played a mini concert for me on their bells. Right then and there, I knew that I had to explore this further. It felt like I was reconnecting with something deeply Russian inside me.  I’ve heard a lot of carillon music from my travels in Europe and I’ve always had that in my ear defining what bell ringing should be—that they can play tunes and melodies. The Russian style is different in that they don’t play melodies or tunes; it’s more of a prayer or meditative experience to ring these bells.  Because the Russian bells aren’t pitched, we didn’t use them for the Shostakovich but I kept that sound deep in me.

What does it take to play these bells successfully?

Victor Avdienko:  Ear plugs. You’re very close and you need protection.  There are some definite techniques because you’re manipulating up to a dozen bells with just your four limbs. All the bell clappers are attached to strings and are either manipulated by a hand by pulling them or by foot pedals for the larger bells.  One person can make a lot of sound but there are different patterns too, actual rhythms, which you can achieve with the smaller bells by holding the strings of 3 or 4 of them in one hand.  Father Stephan showed me the ropes.  As a percussionist, it was not too difficult to get familiar with it but, for an average parishioner, it would take many months or even years of serious practice to properly run the patterns.

Can you describe what happens for you musically in the “1812 Overture”?

Victor Avdienko:  The piece is very well-known for its cannon fire that everyone looks forward to.  If it’s played outdoors, they’ll often use real cannons fired off in the distance.  For indoor concerts it’s usually done with a recording or with a really large drum. We’ll use a synthesized cannon sound on Saturday. The bells have always been more of an afterthought that we’ve handled with chimes. The specific passage that calls for bells is in the key of E-flat.  The chimes we traditionally use can be tuned just like a xylophone or glockenspiel so you can actually play an E-flat major scale and it fits the piece and sounds like a bunch of bells in the background. When you play bells that have a definite pitch to them, you have to play in the key of E-flat for it to sound good, otherwise it just sounds like you’re hitting a bunch of random pitches.  Russian bells aren’t pitched a certain way, so it’s going to be more a wall of sound coming out and it won’t make any difference which bell I hit because the bell will always sound the way it should sound.  What Tchaikovsky had in mind when he wrote the piece was to have all the bells in the Russian town square play at the same time to sound like a jubilant celebration of victory over Napoleon.  So we are taking it back to its authentic intention.

The bells occur twice—at the very end where there are cannons and full orchestra and that’s about a one minute section and there’s a section about two-thirds into the piece where we hear roughly the same Russian hymn that cellos open the piece with but, this time, the full orchestra is playing with the bells playing in the background.  The mood is jubilant because this after the victory.  I am looking forward to this. Mark and I have talked about this for two years now and I’m glad that the conductor was curious enough to let this happen.

What will you be hitting the bells with?

Victor Avdienko:  I’m not sure yet.  Normally, internal clappers are pulled by a string that is manipulated by a player. In the past, we’ve always used a rawhide mallet or a large acrylic beater.  Mark Gaperin and I started out with about two dozen mallets.   We tested about a dozen of them and settled on a special hard wood mallet engineered by a German percussion instrument design firm that very closely approximates the sound extracted by an actual bell clapper.  Or, I may just go ahead and use the native forged iron clappers.  It all depends on what I can get away with.   We’ll either have all four bells arranged on the upper beam of a rack or they’ll be in a double tiered rack with three on top and one on the bottom.

Have you ever had a Russian conduct you in the “1812”?

Victor Avdienko: Most conductors just ‘play the ink’ as they say but when we get Russian conductors coming in, they will sometimes want to add some realism to the piece that most American orchestras don’t necessarily do.  About ten years ago, Yuri Temirkanov (then Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic since 1988) asked for both a Russian choir to sing a church hymn for the opening of the overture and for real bells.  At that time, I didn’t know Mark or of any Russian bells in the area, so we just pulled together all the bells we could get our hands on.  SFS actually owns two European-style bells that we use for Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique”  but those are pitched very strongly in C and G for that piece, so he sat us down and gave us a lesson in what proper Russian bell ringing should sound like and for me that was the beginning of my curiosity about Russian bells.

Any other special percussion effects in Saturday’s concert that you’re looking forward to?

Victor Avdienko:  Tchaikovsky wrote very nice percussion parts.  I’ve always really identified with his cymbal crashes because they are very colorful, explosive and impactful, occurring in the right moment and emotional context.   In the past, for the “1812,” I’ve always really found myself in playing those cymbal crashes correctly because you have to make the sounds of artillery fire, a celebratory crash and complete jubilation and it almost requires three personalities to pull that off.

 

Bell table 3

 

Concert Details:  San Francisco Symphony’s All Tchaikovsky concert at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and lawn is Saturday, June 26 at 8 p.m.  All indoor seating is almost sold outLawn seating is still available at $25.  Purchase tickets online here, or over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866-955-6040.  Tickets will also be available one hour prior to the performance (7 p.m.) at the Green Music Center box office.  Immediately following the concert, there will be a fireworks display. Excellent Visibility: Views of the stage are amplified by giant video screens, giving everyone a “front row” experience.  Snacks: A variety of food and beverages will be available for sale.

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.

 

 

July 25, 2014 Posted by | Green Music Center, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dark, Thrilling Opera—San Francisco Symphony’s “Peter Grimes” runs Thursday, Friday, Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall

 

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s  opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah.  Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role.  With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn.  This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah. Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role. With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn. This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conclude the 2013-24 season and their celebration of the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten with three semi-staged performances of his thrilling opera “Peter Grimes” (Thursday, Friday, Sunday) and a special concert, Four Sea Interludes (Saturday), accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner which is paired with excerpts from Britten’s exotic The Prince of The Pagoda Suite.

I’ve never heard Britten’s music performed live and I am very visually oriented, so I am looking forward to the enlivening projections which will add meaning of their own.  I first heard the name Benjamin Britten in a Keynesian macroeconomic theory course at Cal.  John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist, thinker, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, was very keen on culture.  In the early 1940’s, he proposed (and chaired) an “Arts Council” that established the initial foundation for a system of permanent State patronage of the arts.  As you may recall, the premise behind Keynesian theory was that increased government spending (and lower taxes) would stimulate demand and pull an economy out of a Depression.  The Arts Council initially gave over half its money (grants of public funds) to music, especially classical music and opera.  Benjamin Brittan’s now famous opera, “Peter Grimes,” was first funded through a generous grant given to the Sadler’s Wells theatre to support its emergence as a national opera house charged with embodying the British national character and producing operas that were more accessible than prewar grand opera had been.

“Peter Grimes” had its premiere in June 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, and the audience’s enthusiastic approval was taken for a political demonstration, so the curtain was brought down early.  The opera, which is based on a poem by George Crabbe, captured something new musically while depicting the epic psychic struggle of a man against his own destructive potential and the bitter sting of alienation, themes that became very familiar in Britain in the years to come.  How appropriate that Britten, who wrote for the people, and was somewhat under the radar before WWII, shot into the limelight with this story of a fisherman at odds with society.  The opera went on to immense success and Britten, as a result, became quite wealthy. The issues (from a macro theory perspective) were that Britten was part of the creation of a new state-funded system of arts patronage and he went on to invest his considerable personal earnings outside the country.  In researching Britten, this vivid memory surfaced.  Of course, SFS promises a revolutionary production of “Grimes,” dazzlingly staged—a grim but rapturous experience.

Sneak Peek of Peter Grimes with the SF Symphony

New Ground for SFS—Video projections, now commonplace in fully staged opera, are also trending in symphony halls across the country. The term “semi-staged” is not synonymous for “projection-based,” however, and “Peter Grimes” marks SFS’ first foray into an opera performance that combines video projections with minimal set staging.  Los Angeles-based director, artist and costume designer, James Darrah and New York-based artist, projection designer and filmmaker, Adam Larsen promise dramatic staging like a “big curved sail with scenes that capture the setting of an old-world fishing village and volatility of the sea.” The video will be projected onto a panoramic floor-to-ceiling scrim that encompasses the stage which has been extended and floated over a few rows of center seats to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers.

Darrah and Larsen collaborated in SFS’ January 2013 production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” creating vivid projections that evoked the vast Norwegian landscape and served to counterbalance the smaller stage which accommodated the orchestra and singing cast, one of whom was a dancer. The relative placement of the orchestra, singers and set props vis-à-vis the projection screens are just one issue involved in the production.  New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe gives a very readable accounting of the state of semi-staged opera in “Giving a Semi-Hearty Cheer for Semi-Staged Opera,” NYT, June 13, 2014.  Attending a flurry of recent performances across the country led him to ponder where the drama is located in an operatic performance and what kind of production brings it out most effectively.  He asks, “Does paring a work down to the bare score make it more potent, or do theatrical trappings enrich the experience?” On numerous occasions, MTT has enthusiastically affirmed his commitment to using new technology to enliven performances. It all makes sense provided he can maintain his sensitivity to the music-making as people begin to factor in the look as well as the sound of a performance.

Timelapse video of the installation of immersive sets and panoramic video screens for Peter Grimes at Davies Symphony Hall

Performance Details:  Peter Grimes: A Multimedia Semi-staged Event is Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 8 PM; Friday, June 27 at 8 PM; and Sunday, June 29 at 2 PM with  a pre-performance talk by Peter Grunberg one hour before each performance.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

Britten: Four Sea Interludes with Video by Tal Rosner is Sat, June 28, 2014 at 8 PM with pre-performance talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard at 7 PM.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

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 weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion from Sausalito through the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up 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 Larkin Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

June 24, 2014 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the eve of his performance at Weill Hall with the San Francisco Symphony

Pianist Kirill Gerstein performs Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto on Thursday, June 5, at Weill Hall as part of “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich,” the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series.  Gerstein is the Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and the recipient of a Gilmore Artist Award.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein says it’s a “special thrill and a tickle” to come to the Wine Country and perform at Weill Hall. The virtuoso performs Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto on Thursday, June 5, as part of “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich,” the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. Gerstein is the Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and the recipient of a Gilmore Artist Award.

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.

 

 

June 4, 2014 Posted by | Chamber Music, Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old and treasured—The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival is May 29-June 1 at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre

Captain John Noel’s recently restored “The Epic of Everest” (1924) screens Saturday, May 31, at the 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  This is the official film record of the third British expedition to attempt to reach the summit of Everest which includes the journey across the Tibetan Plateau towards Everest.  Pictured above is alpine climber John de Vars Hazard, a member of the 1924 Everest expedition.  The film records some of the earliest images of the Tibetan people and their culture, including scenes at the village of Phari (Pagri), Shekar Dzong (Xegar) and the Rongbuk Monastery.   The British Film Institute Archive restoration has transformed the quality of the surviving elements, reintroducing the original colored tints and tones to do full justice to this heroic feat of exploration cinematography.  Photo: courtesy BFI

Captain John Noel’s recently restored “The Epic of Everest” (1924) screens Saturday, May 31, at the 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This is the official film record of the third British expedition to attempt to reach the summit of Everest which includes the journey across the Tibetan Plateau towards Everest. Pictured above is alpine climber John de Vars Hazard, a member of the 1924 Everest expedition. The film records some of the earliest images of the Tibetan people and their culture, including scenes at the village of Phari (Pagri), Shekar Dzong (Xegar) and the Rongbuk Monastery. The British Film Institute Archive restoration has transformed the quality of the surviving elements, reintroducing the original colored tints and tones to do full justice to this heroic feat of exploration cinematography. Photo: courtesy BFI

On Thursday, the always popular San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre and runs through Sunday with a program of 19 rare silent-era gems well worth coming into San Francisco for.  From iconic silent film actors to fantastic restorations, this year’s lineup spans the far corners of the globe and delivers an outstanding mix from cinema’s golden age. Now in its 19th year, SFSFF this presents these gems in all their glory as they were meant to be seen—on the big screen, with live musical accompaniment, in the beautiful Castro theatre, a beloved San Francisco landmark built in 1992 during the silent era.  The festival’s spectacular historical footage of foreign lands, old customs and great storytelling is what keeps me coming back again and again.  This year’s festival includes early films from China, France, Germany (2), Japan, UK (2), Sweden and the USSR (2). The line-up includes such rarities as the first footage of Tibet and Everest; the first social realist film in Chinese cinema; an early feminist story from Sweden, and a 1924 tour of Moscow where an American learns that the Soviets are not the Barbarians he expected they were.   The Castro seats 1400 but these films are immensely popular, so do buy your tickets ahead of time to ensure you get a seat.

Last week, I was able to speak with festival director Anita Monga about the festival and these early foreign gems—

For people who have just one day to devote to the festival, what do you recommend?

Anita Monga—Saturday, May 31.  At noon, we’ve got something really special.  French film preservationist and entertainer, Serge Bromberg, is coming in from Paris for “Treasure Trove”— a screening and conversation about some new discoveries.  Film historian, Fernando Peña, is also coming from Argentina.   The program will be focused on Peña’s discovery last year of a lost version of Buster Keaton’s short “The Blacksmith,” a huge discovery in the world of film.  Peña is the same guy who discovered an original uncut version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” in Argentina’s Museo del Cine a few years back.  In this version of “The Blacksmith,” there are several minutes of never-before-seen Keaton gags and film’s ending is different too.  It’s rare, but there have been cases where different versions of a film have cropped up because, during the Silent Era, it was common that two cameras would be placed side by side, each shooting, producing two separate sets of negatives.  It’s a real coup that we were able to get these two great film historians to San Francisco at the same time to make this presentation.  So this is going to be great.

A never before seen alternate version of the Buster Keaton short “The Blacksmith,” featuring several minutes of previously unseen footage, will screen at the 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Saturday, May 31, as part of Serge Bromberg’s “Treasure Trove.”  The presentation includes film historian Fernando Peña, from Argentina, in conversation with celebrated film historian Serge Bromberg.  Image: courtesy SFSFF

A never before seen alternate version of the Buster Keaton short “The Blacksmith,” featuring several minutes of previously unseen footage, will screen at the 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Saturday, May 31, as part of film preservationist and historian Serge Bromberg’s “Treasure Trove.” Joining Bromberg in conversation is film historian Fernando Peña, from Argentina, who found the film. Image: courtesy SFSFF

 

What can you tell us about John Noel’s “The Epic of Everest” (1924) which also screens Saturday?  I understand that the explorer John Noel first made his first attempt to get to Everest through Tibet in 1913 but failed and that the British Film Institute is commemorating the centenary of that heroic effort with the restoration of the 1924 film, which was actually the third British expedition attempting Everest. 

Anita Monga—This is an amazing documentary.  It includes the earliest film footage of Tibetan culture and captures British explorers’ Mallory and Irvine’s tragic attempt to reach the summit of Everest.  This was created back in the era where we had already reached the North and South Poles and the allure of the world’s highest summit had the entire world transfixed.  It’s got everything—gorgeous shots that capture the thrill of this difficult journey and the amazing Stephen Horne will be on the piano accompanying.

I understand that film was made under extremely difficult conditions at high altitudes and in very low temperatures. The negatives were sent down the mountain and across the Tibetan plains by yak to Darjeeling where Noel had set up a special laboratory to process the films. (To read an article about the BFI’s restoration efforts, undertaken with Noel’s daughter, Sandra Noel, click here.)

Anita Monga— Yes.  The circumstances under which this was filmed make it all the more special.  We (the festival) are presenting the BFI National Archive with a special award on Saturday honoring their exceptional restoration work which has recreated the film’s original beauty.   Another special event on Saturday evening will be Gerhard Lamprecht’s “Under the Lantern” (Unter der Laterne, 1928), a rarely screened German film which tells the story of a good girl’s fall into prostitution, a common theme of the silent era.  We’re screening a newly restored 35 mm version. The Donald Sosin Ensemble, which will accompany the film, is one of the most extraordinary performances that you will ever experience, so prepare to be transported right into Weimar Germany.

In Gerhard Lamprecht’s “Under the Lantern” (Unter der Laterne, 1928), which screens Saturday, a young woman is thrown out of the house by her overly strict and unforgiving father who then hounds her, forcing her into the underground with a new identity, followed by prostitution and death.  Shot in Berlin’s entertainment district of dimly-lit beer halls and nightclubs, the film highlights the struggles that take place in the back alleys by streetwalkers, pimps and taxi dancers. The Donald Sosin Ensemble will accompany the film, evoking Berlin in the 1920’s and complimenting Karl Hasselmann’s expressive cinematography.  Image: SFSFF

In Gerhard Lamprecht’s “Under the Lantern” (Unter der Laterne, 1928), which screens Saturday at 7 p.m., a young woman is thrown out of the house by her overly strict and unforgiving father who then hounds her, forcing her into the underground with a new identity, followed by prostitution and tragedy. Shot in Berlin’s entertainment district of dimly-lit beer halls, nightclubs, and back alleys, the film highlights the bleak struggles of streetwalkers, pimps and taxi dancers. The Donald Sosin Ensemble will accompany the film, evoking Berlin in the 1920’s and complimenting Karl Hasselmann’s expressive cinematography. Image: SFSFF

You’ve got two early Russian films this year.  The one that caught my eye was Lev Kuleshov’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” (1924), a satire that explores stereotypes of Russians and Americans and includes spectacular footage of Moscow in the 1920’s.  It’s also a prime example of early Soviet montage cinema, a new form of cinema that emerged in the 1920’ that was influential to subsequent generations of Russian filmmakers. 

Anita Monga — The Landmark Theatres used to have a trailer that ran before every film with a globe and a narrator saying “The Language of Cinema is universal…” and this film fits right into that because it makes a very funny but important point about how the Americans are afraid of the Bolsheviks without really knowing much about them.  This film appropriates American iconography and very cleverly tells a story of an American businessman who takes a business trip to Russia and comes away with an entirely different impression.  Kuleshov also mimicked the American style of filmmaking and ended up with a new style of film—montage—which became very influential.

Lev Kuleshov’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” which screens Saturday evening at 10 PM, chronicles the adventures of an American YMCA executive, "Mr. West," and his cowboy bodyguard/sidekick Jeddie, as they visit the land of the Bolsheviks. Through various mishaps, Mr. West discovers that the Soviets are actually quite remarkable people, and, by the end of the film, his opinion of them has changed to one of glowing admiration.  The film includes wonderful footage of Moscow in the 1920’s.

Lev Kuleshov’s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks,” screening Saturday at 10 PM, chronicles the adventures of an American YMCA executive, Mr. West, and his cowboy bodyguard/sidekick Jeddie, as they visit the land of the Bolsheviks. Through various mishaps, Mr. West discovers that the Soviets are actually quite remarkable people, and, by the end of the film, his opinion of them has changed to one of glowing admiration. The film includes wonderful footage of Moscow in the 1920’s.

Who decides what films will be included in the festival and what criteria is used?  

Anita Monga—I do.  Sometimes things just happen in the film world.  For example, Edwin Carewe’s “Ramona” (1928) (screening Friday at 7:30 p.m.) had the big world premiere of its restoration in March in Los Angeles and I knew we had to have it.  It was done by a Native American director which makes it rare to start with.  For decades, it was considered lost but actually it has a remarkable survival story behind it that includes a Czech print being confiscated by the Nazis and going to Berlin and Russia and back to Czechoslovakia and then to the U.S. where it was recently restored.   So there are films surfacing for some topical reason that I include.  This year, we’re giving a special award to the British Film Institute so we’re screening two British Films—“Epic of Everest” and Maurice Elvey’s “The Sign of Four” (1923), a Sherlock Holmes adventure that was adapted from Conan Doyle’s novel.   And there are some films that have been on my radar for a long time like Leo Mittler’s “Harbor Drift” (1929), a masterpiece which is set in Hamburg, Germany, during the period of extreme unemployment and destitution and its characters are all desperate and brought together by a beautiful pearl necklace which could change their lives forever.  We’re going for diversity and unique appeal.

The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen a newly restored version of Edwin Carewe’s “Ramona” (1928) that was considered lost until it surfaced a few years ago in the Czech Republic.  Mexican actress Dolores del Rio—the first Latin star to be recognized internationally—plays the mixed race orphan, Ramona who is raised by a landed Mexican-California family.  She dares to elope with a Temecula Indian and starts a new life embracing her Indian heritage.  Instead of her dream of happiness, she endures tragedy and persecution in an era where Native Americans were considered inferiors.

The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen a newly restored version of Edwin Carewe’s “Ramona” (1928) that was considered lost until it surfaced a few years ago in the Czech Republic. Mexican actress Dolores del Rio—the first Latin star to be recognized internationally—plays the mixed race orphan, Ramona, who is raised by a landed Mexican-California family. She dares to elope with a Temecula Indian and starts a new life embracing her Indian heritage. Instead of realizing her dream of happiness, she endures tragedy and persecution in an era where Native Americans were considered inferiors.

 

On Sunday, you’re screening two films that feature take charge young women—Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl” (1933) which has Kinuyo Tanaka in an early role as a typist by day and gangster’s moll by night and Swedish director Karin Swanström’s “The Girl in Tails” (1926) which is the story of a young girl who isn’t able to have a dress for her graduation so she goes in her brother’s tuxedo instead. 

Anita Monga—One of the big stars of “The Girl in Tails” is the director, Karin Swanström, who was extremely powerful and influential woman in Sweden in the 1920’s. This was the last film she directed and it’s fantastic.  She plays a country matron.  The girl’s story is something that was common:  she fills in as a caretaker in the family to her recently widowed father and brother.  She does the work but the boy gets all the perks. like great clothes.  Things erupt when she is denied a new dress for a school dance and comes to the dance in one of her brother’s suits.

Pool playing is a prominently featured in Japanese director Yasujiro’s Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl” (“Hijosen No Onna,” 1933) screening Sunday at noon.  Ozu, a fan of American films, pays homage to the genre, filling the frame with Hollywood-style décor and costumes, moody lighting and classic elements of film noir, including a trapped hero. The sets and cinematography were reportedly influenced by the work of Joseph von Sternberg.  Kinuyo Tanaka, who later went on to star in almost all of Mizoguchi’s movies, is charming in one of her earlier film roles—an ultra modern Yokohama office girl by day and gun-toting tough heroine by night.  She has a heart of gold, moral fiber, and the reformist zeal of a Salvation Army crusader, even if she shoots her man in the foot to teach him a lesson.

Pool playing is a prominently featured in Japanese director Yasujiro’s Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl,” (“Hijosen No Onna,” 1933) screening Sunday at noon. Ozu, a fan of American films, pays homage to the genre, filling the frame with Hollywood-style décor and costumes, moody lighting and classic elements of film noir. The sets and cinematography were reportedly influenced by the work of Joseph von Sternberg. Kinuyo Tanaka, who later went on to star in almost all of Mizoguchi’s movies, is charming in one of her earlier film roles—an ultra modern Yokohama office girl by day and gun-toting tough heroine by night. She has a heart of gold, moral fiber, and the reformist zeal of a Salvation Army crusader, even as she shoots her man in the foot to teach him a lesson.

There are a lot of great musicians at the festival who seem to be regulars and they travel great distances to perform here.  How would new talent break in to what seems to be a pretty close-knit group?

Anita Monga—It’s really difficult because music is expensive and it’s such an important part of the experience.  I would love to have more musicians at the festival but there’s nobody that we’ve brought to the festival that we don’t want to have back again…they’re literally the best in the world at what they do.  This year we’re bringing in a new German percussionist, Frank Bocklus, who will be sitting in with several musicians and playing in the Donald Sosin Ensemble, along with bass player Guenter Buchwald who is also new.  Our primary consideration is ultimately they have to be really good and very tuned in to the film itself.   Matti Bye, a festival favorite, also does scoring for contemporary films in Sweden  and is in high demand for that.

Has the San Francisco Symphony’s film series, Film Night with the San Francisco Symphony, which includes a film and live orchestra experience, had any impact on your festival?  I’ve been amazed at the series popularity—it’s brought a new and much younger audience out to the Davies Hall and it’s wonderful.  I caught Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” there in April and loved every minute of it.  They’re doing Disney’s “Fantasia” this weekend.

Anita Monga—We hope there’s some spillover.  The Symphony does films that have full orchestral scores and the Chaplin films, for example, require presenting the full orchestral score by Chaplin.  Many of the silent features have that stricture, that they cannot be performed live but they can be shown with the sound track that accompanies it and, of course, at this festival, we do live musical accompaniment but not full orchestration.  We always promote their showings and we’re great fans.

What can you tell us about the festival audience?

Anita Monga—San Francisco is a very special place for film, period.  The audience, which comes from all over the country, is also special and very adventurous.  They are willing to try things they don’t already know and that’s a huge part of this festival—taking it on faith that it’s going to be good.  Once they get through the door, they get how rare this live cinema experience is and how much logistical planning goes into preparing such an expansive program. The real pleasure is in discovering new names and making all sorts of connections.   And in between films, they get to experience the wonderful Castro neighborhood.

Full Festival Schedule

Details: The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs Thursday, May 29, 2014 through Sunday, June 1, 2014 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street (between Market and 18th Streets), San Francisco. Tickets: $15 to $20; click here to purchase tickets.  Festival Pass $190 for Silent Film Festival members and $225 general.  Click here to purchase passes. Information: (415) 777-4908 or www.silentfilm.org

Parking Alert: If you plan on coming by car, street parking is the only parking available. Plan to arrive 45 minutes early to leave sufficient time for parking and walking to/from the theatre.

 

 

 

May 27, 2014 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital at Davies Hall Sunday, May 25, 2014

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja.  Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”  This month, he will be inducted into the Gramphone Hall of Fame.  His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013).  In 1989, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.  Photo: Pavel Antonov

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja. Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” This month, he will be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame. His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013). In 1989, at age 27, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Photo: Pavel Antonov

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)

May 23, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Opera, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Symphony’s Film Series—Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” with live music at Davies Symphony Hall this Saturday, April 12, 2014

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall.  Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall. Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Slapstick, pathos, pantomime, melodrama, physical prowess, and, of course, the Little Tramp—all of these led renowned film critic Robert Ebert to proclaim that Charley Chaplin’s masterpiece of the Silent Era, City Lights, “comes closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”  Written by, directed by, and starring Chaplin, the enchanting romantic comedy from 1931 features Chaplin in his greatest role ever, the Little Tramp.  A fellow to whom who everyman could relate, the Tramp was tossed about by life but not so battered that he couldn’t pick himself up and, with dignity, carry on.  This Saturday, April 14, 2104, guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in City Lights with Orchestra.  The program is part of the new SFS film series which delivers edge-of-your seat thrillers, epic dramas, and animated classics on a huge screen in gorgeous Davies Symphony Hall with live music, performed by the San Francisco Symphony.  ARThound has attended several of these film nights and Davies Hall gets delightfully and refreshingly giddy as octogenarians and 8-year-olds connect over the magic of film and music.

The story:   City Lights was released three years into the talkies era but Chaplin decided it should be a silent film with sound effects but no speech.  His beloved Tramp had communicated very effectively with a worldwide audience exclusively through mime—Chaplin’s Little Tramp appeared in over 80 movies from 1914 to 1967—and Chaplin was not going to change the formula.   In City Lights, the Tramp fixes his romantic gaze on someone who can’t return it—a spunky blind flower girl played by the luminous Virginia Cherrill.  He also befriends an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who forgets who Chaplin is when he’s sober, providing some of the funniest scenes in any of Chaplin’s films.  As the Tramp attempts to get money for an operation that will restore the blind girl’s sight, Chaplin exquisitely interweaves pathos and comedy to wrench maximum emotion from each scene.  When the lonely millionaire contemplates suicide, it’s tragic. When the benevolent Tramp tries to save him from drowning, and accidentally ends up with a weight pinned to his own neck, Chaplin creates an ideal framework for sentiment and laughs.  But that’s just one example in dozens of the seamless and brilliant storytelling that occurs in this film.   The movie’s last scene, justly famous as one the great emotional moments in films is bound to bring tears to your eyes.  When Chaplin’s friend, Albert Einstein, attended the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights, he was reported to be have been seen wiping his eyes.  ARThound especially loves the scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle and starts whistling every time he breathes, gathering a large following of dogs and hailing taxi’s.

The delicate onscreen chemistry between Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill is a delight to behold.  Cherrill had the distinction of being the only leading lady of Chaplin’s silent features whom he neither married nor was linked romantically to.  He cast her solely for her photogenic beauty—without a screen test—and their strong personalities clashed and he fired her halfway through the two-year shoot, only to have to woo her back.

The music: If you haven’t yet experienced the magic of watching a silent film accompanied by live music, City Lights is the film to initiate yourself with and SFS is your orchestra.  The exaggerated dynamics and exquisite timing, so integral to the visual experience of City Lights, are enlivened by a musical score which beautifully punctuates the film’s epic tragic-comic moments. This was Chaplin’s first attempt at composing the music to one of his films and he wrote many of its stirring melodies while acclaimed composers Arthur Johnston (“Pennies from Heaven”) and Alfred Newman assisted with arrangement and orchestration.  The process took six weeks.  And, as was customary in the scoring for silent pictures, the Wagnerian leitmotiv system was employed with Chaplin creating a distinctive musical theme identified with each character and idea.

According to Theodore Huff’s analysis of the City Lights score (“Chaplin as a Composer” in his biography Charlie Chaplin, New York, Henry Schuman, 1951, pp. 234-41),  Chaplin composed twenty discrete themes and ninety-five cues, not including instru­mental bits that animate the action.  Not all the melodies are by Chaplin.  The score generously samples other well-known tunes, either undisguised or in variational form, from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Scheherazade” to “I Hear You Calling,” “How Dry I Am,” and “St. Louis Blues.”  These mesh with Chaplin’s more generic renditions of jazz, opera, the waltz, the rhumba, the tango, the apache dance, and his blues fanfare for trumpet, a refrain throughout the film.  On the whole though, the score hardly seems a generic mish-mash–it’s tailored to each scene, it ampli­fies emotions, comments on the action, and even creates jokes.

The legacy: When City Lights debuted in New York in 1931, it was so popular that the theater had continual showings from 9 a.m. to midnight, every day except Sunday. According to film historian Charles Maland, “by the end of 1931, the [United Artists’] ledgers reveal, City Lights had already accumulated more domestic rentals than The Circus and over 90 percent of the domestic rentals that The Gold Rush had garnered since 1925.” Critics showered it with praise as well. The Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1931, however, went to another silent film, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu. Many expected City Lights to win, but it wasn’t even nominated. As film historian William M. Drew speculated, “Perhaps Chaplin’s perceived audacity in persisting in making a silent film in Hollywood after sound had arrived … seemed too great an act of insubordination for the industry to honor.”   (quotes extracted from Mental Floss Magazine, February 24, 2012)

Run-time: Approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

Pre- and post-show Events: Arrive early and visit the lobby bars for a cocktail created especially for this concert!

  • Casablanca (sparkling wine, Grand Marnier, Remy VSOP, lemon twist)
  • French Connection (Grey Goose, Chambord, pineapple juice, sparkling wine, lemon twist)

 

Details: “City Lights with Orchestra” is Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8PM at 8 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  LIMITED AVAILABILITY Tickets: $41 to $156; 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 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)

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Film, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MTT conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.  Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire.  Photo: Dario Acosta

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire. Photo: Dario Acosta

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in D Minor, the most expansive of his ten symphonies, is a cosmological tour de force.  Full of magic and mystery, it’s the musical journey of Nature coming to life, at first through flowers and animals and then on up to man, the angels and the love of God.  This Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus in this rarely performed epic—in six movements grouped into two parts—which clocks in at roughly 90 minutes, earning it the distinction of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.   It almost goes without saying that MTT has sealed his reputation on Mahler.  In 2001, SFS and MTT launched the Mahler Project and recorded the balance of Mahler’s major works for voices, chorus and orchestra picking up four Grammys in the process.  The Symphony No. 3 and Kindertotenlieder recording won the 2004 Grammy for Best Classical Album.  Of course, nothing compares to the magic of a live MTT/SFS Mahler performance.  Whether it’s your first or 50th time, each performance reflects a constantly evolving understanding of the composer’s genius and complexities.

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed "Keeping Score" series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed “Keeping Score” series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

At Monday’s press conference announcing the 2014-15 season, Tilson Thomas, could not recall how many times SFS has played the work during his 19 year tenure as Music Director (3 times—1997, 2002 and 2011) but he did speak about the joys of revisiting Mahler— “I think of these pieces, these big symphonies, like the Mahler, are like National Parks that we love and we come back to.  We all know the map of the park.  I have the complete map and others on stage have the intricate trail maps of one path or another.  But no matter how much you look at the map of that, when you are actually on the trail, it’s a different thing every time—the nature and character of the piece will vary according to where you are in your life and what you’ve experienced and with whom you are on the trail.  Sometimes, you’ll stop and smell the mimosas and other times, you’ll press ahead to get to the view of the glacier.”

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities.  In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3.  Photo:  SFS

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities. In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3. Photo: SFS

Mahler wrote his Third Symphony between 1893 and 96, when he was in his mid-thirties.  When the German composer and conductor Bruno Walter, visited Mahler at his composing hut in Steinbach am Attersee, Austria (some twenty miles east of Salzburg), he wrote in his memoirs that he looked up at the sheer cliffs of the colossal Höllengebirge and Mahler told him “No need to look up there any more—that’s all been used up and set to music by me.”  This immense rockface inspired the introductory theme of the first movement—a grand unison chant for eight horns evoking the primitive forces of nature.  A offstage horn, also figures prominently in the third movement.  Heard floating in the distance, a melancholy haunting solo imitating an old posthorn or valveless coach horn creates one of Mahler’s soulfully nostalgic moments.

Grammy winner, mezzo Sasha Cooke, was radiant as Mary last summer in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera.   In the summer of 2013, she performed Mahler’s Second Symphony with MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Her expressive and rich voice should be a good match for the dark fourth movement, a Nietzsche text that is sung against heavy strings.  By contrast, the fifth movement is light and will feature the voice of angels—women of the SFS Chorus in three part chorus, joined later by the San Francisco Girls Chorus who enter creating lovely bell like noises and join in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott”(“Only love God”).   The symphony ends with an adagio, softly walking the edge of the sound and silence.

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians.  When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her personal card which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to teaching her fingers how to do that.”  Tate especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.”  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians. When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her music which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to reviewing the part and honing the upcoming performance.” Tait especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait (Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair) has been with SFS since 1974 and currently heads the SFS Players Committee.  At Monday’s press conference, she said.  “We in the orchestra have a deep pool of shared experience, of performing this repertoire on world stages.  When we come to a piece again like the Mahler’s Third Symphony, we can enter the performance with a feeling of security, of asking ‘What can we bring to the work right now that is new and fresh?’  We rely on our deep knowledge of the piece and our understanding of it over years.  This is the only time I’ve had a relationship with a music director that has lasted 20 years.  The orchestra and MTT have been through a lot together and it’s been a wonderful journey for the orchestra. There’s a sense that what we do is deeply American and very adventuresome. ”

Details: “MTT Conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony” is Thursday (Feb 27) at 8PM; Saturday (March 1) at 8 PM and Sunday (March 2) at 2 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  Tickets: $30 to $162; 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 weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up 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)

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment