Geneva Anderson digs into art

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 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

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

Celebrating the harvest with Sonoma County vigneron Wayne Roden and his colleagues from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

San Francisco Symphony Violist Wayne Roden in his Cotati vineyard. Photo: Geneva Anderson

San Francisco Symphony Violist Wayne Roden in his Cotati vineyard. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The morning after the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave its September 12 concertthe first in a four concert series at Green Music Center this seasona selection of orchestra members assembled for another kind of performance altogether, this one starting at 6:30 a.m. and involving pruners rather than tuners.  The venue was a small vineyard just West of Cotati, on the farm of long-time San Francisco Symphony violist Wayne Roden and his wife, novelist Barbara Quick.  Instead of the usual white tie and tails, the dress code for this performance was denim and sneakers.  The highly-educated and accomplished harvest crew—including relatives and friends, fiddle players from SFS and a dog named Sophie—all showed up at the crack of dawn to help harvest and crush a bumper crop of Pinot noir.

The idea for the harvest party came about two years ago when Barbara convinced Wayne to do what they do in France during the vendange, when friends and family who help harvest the grapes are rewarded with a lavish feast afterwards.  

Even though ARThound doesn’t play an instrument, I’d heard about the fun they had at the last harvest and was keen to hang out with these musicians, several of whom I’ve interviewed  in the past couple of years.  So, I too, was there—ready to lend a hand, to record the morning’s activities in a series of photos and, of course, to taste such delicacies as Barbara’s roasted heirloom tomato quiche, her heirloom tomato caprese, home-made pesto and amazingly sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, all of which came from her own garden harvest.

San Francisco Symphony Violist Wayne Roden and his wife, novelist Barbara Quick backstage at San Francisco Symphony.   Photo: Geneva Anderson

San Francisco Symphony Violist Wayne Roden and his wife, novelist Barbara Quick backstage at San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Wayne first decided to move from San Francisco to Sonoma County, he was thinking about horses rather than grapevines. But the favorable meso-climate of the little farm he bought 25 years ago, as well as his appreciation for Sonoma County’s wonderful wines, inspired him to join the growing league of hobby wine-makers. With the help of his grown son, film-maker Sam Roden, he planted a tenth of an acre in Pinot noir and Pinot gris. Seven years later, he is now in the process of vinifying the sixth vintage of his wonderfully delicious, Burgundian style Pinot Noir. (A glass of the 2012 frankly blew me away with its uniquely spicy, subtle dark-chocolate aromas.)

It’s been a great year for grapes and this was Wayne’s biggest harvest yet—782 pounds of Pinot noir and 168 of Pinot gris. This year’s musician-powered harvest should yield 325 bottles of the red stuff and 50 of the white.

Just as some of the finest houses of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or grow their grapes on miniscule but devoutly tended plots of land, Wayne nurtures his 275-or-so vines with the same diligence and artistry he devotes to playing the viola.  He says it’s hard for him to imagine not being a member of the Symphony after 40 years of playing and touring around the globe with SFS.  But if and when he does retire, he thinks he might like to turn his hobby into a small-scale, boutique wine-making operation.

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Sam and Barbara recently collaborated on designing a new label for Roden Wines, featuring an image of a fine old violin. Once a musician, always a musician!

October 8, 2013 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pianist Yuja Wang—young, fun, impeccable—joins Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony at Green Music Center this Thursday, March 7, 2013

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is known for her colorfully explosive playing.  She performs on the Green Music Center’s Steinway with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Thursday, March 7, 2013, at Weill Hall.

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is known for her colorfully explosive playing and tight, bright, short dresses. She performs on the Green Music Center’s Steinway with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Thursday, March 7, 2013, at Weill Hall.

Yuja Wang, the young Chinese pianist legendary for her dazzling playing, performs at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall Thursday night with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS).  The diverse program includes two well-known works— Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 and Brahms Symphony No. 1—and one modern piece, Samuel Carl Adams’ “Drift and Providence.”  Adams, a Brooklyn resident, is the 26-year-old son of composer John Adams, a part-time Sonoma Coast resident, who, along with SFS, won a 2103 Grammy Award in the category of Best Orchestral Performance for a live recording of Adams works.

 This is the third of four SFS concerts at Weill Hall this inaugural season and marks MTT’s second concert appearance at the Green Music Center (GMC).  At 26, Yuja Wang is the youngest musician to perform at Weill Hall in the MasterCard Performance Series and demand for tickets has been overwhelming for this performance as well as for the her three SFS Davies Hall performances on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.    Also on stage will be three SFS musicians who are based in Sonoma County—violist Wayne Roden of Cotati, percussionist Tom Hemphill who lives in a rural unincorporated area near the Washoe House, and bass player Chris Gilbert of Petaluma. (For ARThound’s profile of these musicians upon their first appearance at Weill Hall, click here.)   Recognizing that getting to know a concert hall is really alot like getting to know a person—it’s only over time that you start to ntoice things —ARThound grabbed the chance to gather some further  impressions about the experience of playing Weill Hall.

“I really like Weill Hall and I’ve heard almost completely positive comments from all of my colleagues,” said violist Wayne Roden, who spoke to me from his home in rural Cotati.  “I like the way it looks and feels and sounds. It’s just a beautiful place to play and that really does make a difference.  A lot of modern halls are not that inviting. We play the best of them when we are on tour and this one is particularly nice, especially the sense of light and warmth.”

The acoustics also get a thumbs up, with an interesting caveat that only a seasoned musician can provide. “It’s very nice—it’s warm, live, and it feels good to play there,” said Roden. “Having played there now a few time times, I’ve experienced something I didn’t notice before—when you are on stage, there’s a little bit of the feeling that you hear yourself more than you would ideally like.  This is not the only hall where I have experienced that.  In the ideal world, you like to hear a warm sound and the sound of the whole. You do hear the whole quite well in Weill Hall but, in acoustical terms, there’s a slight feeling of isolation.  It feels a little bit naked which has a slightly inhibiting effect for me because I am hyper aware of what I am putting out.  One of the toughest things you have to do as a player in an orchestra is to balance expressing yourself—you try to put out musically, emotionally—while fitting into the whole.  Some people err on the side of being careful and some err on the side of being expressive, which means they go for it and stick out.  In an orchestra as good as SFS, you’ve got most people hitting the middle but that’s the art of playing in an orchestra. The acoustics of a hall can really impact that.”

Thursday’s program is quite varied musically and includes two pieces—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 and Brahms Symphony No. 1— which are standard sympony repertoire.  Of course, under MTT’s skilled conducting, the audience can expect magic from the Bay Area’s treasured orchestra.

“When you know pieces this well it’s very easy to fall into habits of playing and so it’s a question of whether you can find something vital in it each time and that’s the challenge of both the conductor and the musician,” said Roden.  “Musicians are a kind of tabula rasa for the conductor and we kind of give ourselves over to him.  I really think that a conductor can bring something to the moment emotionally and conceptually and that can make a huge difference in pieces that are standard repertoire.”  

 Program:  Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Yuja Wang piano, San Francisco Symphony

Samuel Carl Adams | \Drift and Providence
Beethoven | Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Opus 58
Brahms | Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Beethoven’s No. 4, a Piano Classic:  After its public premiere in December 1808 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien, a review in the May 1809 edition of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung stated that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major “is the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever.”  Widely considered to be one of the central works of the piano concerto today, the No. 4 begins unconventionally—instead of entering after a lengthy wait, the solo instrument, the piano, starts the piece off by playing in almost improvisational style before the orchestra gently takes over and develops it.  The second movement has a particularly distinct and intimate dialog between piano and orchestra as the serene and lyrical piano line is met with restless strings that mellow as the conversation continues.   The piece is made to order as a showcase for Wang’s astounding technique and imagination, MTT’s strong conducting and for SFS and, of course, Weill Hall and its wondrous Steinway. 

A strong mentor in  MTT:  Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang have a particularly close collaboration that began in 2006 when she, then 19, made her debut with the SFS at its annual Chinese New Year concert.  Since then, she has returned to perform with SFS each year and performed on tour with MTT and the Orchestra in Macau, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo in November 2012. In 2008, Wang performed as a soloist with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra led by MTT at Carnegie Hall.  

In the YouTube clip below, Yuja Wang talks about her working relationship with MTT.   The clip was made in 2011, to mark several performances Yang would have with MTT and SFS that year.

More about Yuja Wang: Born in Beijing in 1987, Wang began studying piano at age six, with her earliest public performances taking place in China, Australia and Germany. She studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing under Ling Yuan and Zhou Guangren. From 1999 to 2001 she participated in the Morningside Music summer program at Calgary’s Mount Royal College, an artistic and cultural exchange program between Canada and China, and began studying with Hung Kuan Chen and Tema Blackstone at the Mount Royal College Conservatory. In 2002, when she was 15, she won Aspen Music Festival’s concerto competition. She then moved to the U.S. to study with Gary Graffman at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she graduated in 2008. In 2006 Yuja received the Gilmore Young Artist Award. In 2010 she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. 

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Weill Hall on December 6, 2012, in their first of four concerts this season.   In Feburary, , the Orchestra’s recording of Bay Area composer John Adams’ works won a 2013 Grammy Award, the 15th Grammy win for SFS.  Photo: courtesy SFS

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Weill Hall on December 6, 2012, in their first of four concerts this season. In Feburary, , the Orchestra’s recording of Bay Area composer John Adams’ works won a 2013 Grammy Award, the 15th Grammy win for SFS. Photo: courtesy SFS

 Her acclaimed recordings include Transformation, for which she received an Echo Award 2011 as Young Artist of the Year. Wang next collaborated with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to record Rachmaninoff, her first concerto album featuring Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which was nominated for a Grammy® as Best Classical Instrumental Solo. Her most recent recording, Fantasia, is a collection of encore pieces by Albéniz, Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Scriabin and others. 

CD’s for Sale:  A selection of CDs by Yuja Wang and SFS will be sold before the cocnert and during intermission in Weill Hall’s Person Lobby.  The lobby is named after Evert and Norma Person, long-time Santa Rosa Symphony patrons.

PRE-CONCERT TALK: Interested in going deeper?  One hour prior to the concert, Alexandra amati-Camperi will give an “Inside Music” talk from the stage all about the repertoire. Free to all concert ticket holders; doors open 15 minutes before, or 6:45 p.m.

Program Notes: Downloadable concert program notes can be found online here.

Upcoming SFS Performances at Weill Hall:  The Orchestra’s four-concert series for GMC concludes Thursday, May 23 at 8 pm David Robertson conductor, Marc-André Hamelin piano, San Francisco Symphony

Elliott Carter Variations for Orchestra

Ravel Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Ravel La Valse

Details: The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performs Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 8 pm at Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Tickets: $15-$145. Tickets are still available at or by phone at 415-864-6000

New Fees SSU Parking: Parking is $10 for the lot nearest Weill Hall.  Have cash ready to hand attendants as you drive in.  All other SSU general parking lots have had a rate increase to $5, and a parking receipt must now be displayed all 7 days of the week, no exceptions.

March 4, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performs Vivaldi tomorrow at Napa Valley Opera House—Bay Area novelist and Vivaldi scholar Barbara Quick will be signing books

San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) will perform January 15, 2013, at the Napa Valley Opera House as part of their "Four Seasons Tour."  Image: Randi Beach

San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) will perform January 15, 2013, at 8 p.m.,at the Napa Valley Opera House as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.” Image: Randi Beach

Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock will be the soloist on a 1660 Andrea Guarneri violin with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) at the Napa Valley Opera House, as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.”  Widely admired as a performer of compelling verve and eloquence, Blumenstock has collaborated with PBO since 1981 as a soloist, concertmaster, and leader.  Those who experienced the glory of PBO’s “Messiah” at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall in December, or who have heard PBO perform elsewhere, know that whatever piece of early music the internationally renowned orchestra performs, the experience is unforgettable.  Both Maestro Nicholas McGegan and Elizabeth Blumenstock will be signing copies of PBO’s new “Four Seasons” CD tomorrow evening.   North Bay author Barbara Quick, who wrote the album’s liner notes, will be there too, signing copies of her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins (2007: Harper Collins), which has sold some 50,000 copies in English and been translated into 15 languages.  Over the past year, it has been my pleasure to attend several musical performances with Barbara quick, who lives in Cotati with her husband Wayne Roden, a long-time violist with the San Francisco Symphony.  We talk frequently about the task of bringing music, which has its own life, to readers.    

Bay Area novelist and poet Barbara Quick is the author of the international best-seller, Vivaldi’s Virgins (Harper Collins, 2008).  Photo: courtesy Barbara Quick

Bay Area novelist and poet Barbara Quick is the author of the international best-seller, Vivaldi’s Virgins (Harper Collins, 2007). Photo: Margaretta K. Mitchell

“I was thrilled when the PBO asked me to write the liner notes for their Four Seasons CD,” said Quick. “Ever since I first started doing the research for my novel, I’ve been inspired by the passion and authenticity they bring to their performances of Vivaldi’s music, which was first performed by the all-female orchestra of Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta.”

The Pieta was a world-famous cloister for foundlings and orphans in 18th century Venice. The most musically talented girls and women among them comprised an orchestra and choir led by some of the best composers of the time, including Vivaldi, who was for many decades their resident composer and maestro della musica. Their faces hidden from view, these girls and women performed for the elite of Venetian society as well as for musical tourists, including royalty, who came from all over the world to experience the “mystic rapture” of hearing them.

Through his music, Vivaldi gave these cloistered musicians a window onto the world outside the walls of the Pieta.  By showcasing the talents of so many of the figlie di coro—or daughters of the choir, as they were called—Vivaldi allowed them to shine as individuals, even within a painfully institutional setting in which it was all too easy to feel abandoned, forgotten and alone.

 This 18th century world, seen through the eyes of the foundling musician Anna Maria dal Violin, a real resident of the Pieta and Vivaldi’s star pupil, is brought to life in Quick’s moving and historically accurate novel.  To do the research, she learned Italian, took three trips to Venice to dig in the archives there and experience the landscape firsthand, and immersed herself—“…to the extent possible, for a non-musician!” she told me—in the history, scholarship, texts and contemporary performances of Vivaldi’s music.

Barbara Quick's "Vivaldi's Virgins" (Harper Collins, 2007) has been translated into 15 languages.

Barbara Quick’s “Vivaldi’s Virgins” (Harper Collins, 2007) has been translated into 15 languages.

According to Quick, Vivaldi wrote a great deal of his music to showcase his own virtuosity as a violinist.  She reports that he was said to be freakishly talented!   But in the world pre-recordings, he was completely dependent on the technical skills and musicality of the performers who made it possible for his work as a composer to be heard and known.  He taught them, Quick surmises, not only how to interpret his music but also how to experience the emotional depth it required.  In one memorable passage in her novel, Quick shows Vivaldi sneaking some of his string-players out of the cloister, bundled up and masked, to experience a “fourth season,” when Venice had its coldest winter in a hundred years and the Grand Canal actually froze. As Quick writes in her liner notes for the CD (page 5):

Life imitated art for Quick.  She had no formal training as a musician or music scholar, but became immersed in the world of music and musicians after Vivaldi’s Virgins was published. She’s given pre-concert talks for the PBO and several other Bay Area ensembles, including, most recently, an on-stage lecture at the Herbst Theater for the San Francisco Girls Chorus. But, most significantly for Quick, she met and married violist Wayne Roden. “Music is as much a part of my world now as it was for my novel’s protagonist and Vivaldi’s favorite student, Anna Maria dal Violin.”  As Anna Maria says in Quick’s novel,

I’ve come to believe that music is the one companion, the one teacher, the one parent, the one friend who will never abandon me.  Every effort I give to it is rewarded.  It never spurns my love, it never leaves my questions unanswered.  I give, and it gives back to me. I drink, and—like the fountain in the Persian fairytale—it never runs dry.  I play, and it tells me my feelings, and it always speaks the truth.  (Vivaldi’s Virgins, p. 179)

Program: Tuesday, January 16, 2013

Conducted by Nicholas McGegan, Elizabeth Blumenstock, guest violinist

CORELLI Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 in D major
PERGOLESI Sinfonia in F major
VIVALDI Violin Concertos, Op. 8, Nos. 1-4 The Four Seasons
Violin Concerto in E major, RV 269, La primavera (Spring)
Violin Concerto in G minor, RV 315, L’estate (Summer)
Violin Concerto in F major, RV 293, L’autunno (Autumn)
Violin Concerto in F minor, RV 297, L’inverno (Winter)
LOCATELLI Concerto Grosso Op. 7, No. 6 in E-flat major, Il pianto d’Arianna
DURANTE Concerto No. 5 in A major

More about Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra:  Now, in its 31st season, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has been dedicated to historically-informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early-Romantic music on original instruments since its inception in 1981. Under the direction of Music Director Nicholas McGegan for the past 26 years, PBO has defined an approach to period style that sets the current standard.  The group has been named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America, and “an ensemble for early music as fine as any in the world today” by Los Angeles Times critic Alan Rich.

PBO performs an annual subscription series in the San Francisco Bay Area, and tours regularly in the United States and internationally.  The Orchestra has its own professional chorus, the Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, and regularly welcomes talented guest artists such as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, countertenor David Daniels, conductor Jordi Savall, violinist Monica Huggett, recorder player Marion Verbruggen, and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” (2011) is 1 of 5 cd’s in PBO’s own recording label.

PBO musicians are listed here, along with information about the period instruments they play. In some cases, the instruments are historical treasures dating from the baroque and classical eras.  In other cases, the instruments have been produced by modern craftsmen working in the historical tradition. 

PBO’s New Recording Label: PBO has made 32 highly-praised recordings on original instruments, including its Gramophone award-winning recording of Handel’s Susanna—for harmonia mundi (1992; re-issued 2003). In 2011, PBO launched Philharmonia Baroque Productions, its own label and has 5 CD’s out, all of which will be for sale on Tuesday, along with their other older recordings. 

Details:  Elizabeth Blumenstock and PBO will perform Tuesday, January 15, 2012, at 8 p.m. at the Napa Valley Opera House, as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.”  The Napa Valley Opera house is located at 1030 Main Street, Napa.  Tickets: $40-$55.  Purchase tickets online here.  Visit for more information.   Elizabeth Blumenstock and Nicholas McGegan, will be signing cd’s and Barbara will be signing books in the lobby before and after the concert. 

PBO will perform “The World of ‘The Four Seasons’” on Wednesday at Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall, the final performance in their Four Seasons Tour.”  Stay tuned to ARThound for a review of the new concert hall and last Friday’s opening performance at Bing.

January 14, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violist Wayne Roden

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

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

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

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

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

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

Percussionist Tom Hemphill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Ravel Rapsodie espagnole

Lalo Symphonie espagnole, Opus 21

Elgar Enigma Variations, Opus 36

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

Berio Eindrücke

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

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

Elliott Carter Variations for Orchestra

Ravel Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Ravel La Valse 

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

“God’s Fiddler”—a new film about the life of the great violin master, Jascha Heifetz, screens this Tuesday, October 30, at the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival

Mysterious at his core, contradictory, visionary, incredibly difficult—legendary violin master Jascha Heifetz wears the genius label well.  Heifetz’ life (1901-1987) spanned nearly the entire 20th century, starting at the very dawn of the age of recording technology—when most people still traveled by horse and buggy—and ending on the forefront of the digital age.  And for most of that long life, when it came to the violin, he ruled.  Born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then a part of Russia), the child prodigy, took up the violin at three at his father’s knee.  At seven, he studied in the fabled St. Petersburg Conservatory with Russian virtuoso Leopold Auer, acknowledged as the greatest teacher of his time.  At ten, he was mobbed at his famous public debut concert in St. Petersburg; at eleven, he made his European debut.  At sixteen, in 1917, he escaped revolutionary Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a new life in America.  That same year, he gave his first concert in America at Carnegie Hall and he became an immediate sensation.  Yitzhak Perlman, who has a presence throughout the film said, “When I spoke with him, I thought, ‘I can‘t believe it.  I’m talking with God.’”

Filmmaker Peter Rosen tackles Heifetz’ life and far-reaching influence in his 2011 feature length documentary Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler,” which screens this Tuesday, October 30, 2012, at the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol as part of the 17th Annual Jewish Film Festival.   The program will include a special guest appearance by musician Ayke Agus, Heifetz’ student, accompanist, and companion, who appears in the film, and who will speak and play after the screening.  Angus first met Heifetz as a violin student in his master class at University of Southern California and had extensive involvement in life in his later years.  Many say she knew him better than anyone.  She is the author of Heifetz As I Knew Him (Amadeus Press, 2001).

Award-winning director, producer and editor Peter Rosen has made 49 films, many about musicians—from Leonard Bernstein: Reflections (1978) to Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood (1990) to Nobuyuki Tsujii Live at Carnegie Hall (2012).  Prior to watching Rosen’s latest, God’s Fiddler, I had little exposure to Heifetz and his legacy and, in that, I am not alone—there is a whole generation who are too young to have any personal experience with his playing.  The film itself does a great job of explaining the creative environment surrounding this great violinist whose music was unparalleled and whose spell was overpowering for those in close contact with him.  Thoroughly researched, it draws on 300 hours of film and 2,000 photos and fascinating personal and professional memorabilia taken from 1903-1987.  A recently discovered cache of Heifetz’ own home movies surface for the first time here too.  The photos are all the more special for their great historical significance.  We are privy to the family leaving St. Petersburg on the heels of the great Russian Revolution, to his early European tours, and to stirring shots of Heifetz interacting with the troops during his three year USO tour during WWII.  The film is also sprinkled richly with clips of Heifetz playing, though many of those are time-weathered and there is some distortion of the sound.

For anyone looking for an enthralling story, or to simply sort out fact from lore, the film delivers.  It includes musicians who knew him and heard him play live chiming in on what made his playing so special.  While it is well known that Heifetz’ expressive tone was coupled with technical perfection, beyond numerous accolades, there is not much discussion of his actual technique or the actual substance of his playing.  Heifetz is touted as the first modern violinist but there is no explanation of what modernity means in musical terms.

As for his personality, it is well-known that Heifetz was stoic, but professionals put the oft-repeated accusation that he was cold in context.  Violinist Ida Haendel says assuredly, “His playing was so passionate. I am astounded that people don’t realize it. They thought that he was cold— and it was fire, absolute fire!”

The film also devotes time to Heifetz’ stern teaching methods evidenced in several student anecdotes of his master classes.  Time flies and these students are now seniors.  Many pursued careers in music and have had years to reflect on their interaction with Heifetz and the importance of a mentoring relationship.  The word mentor, in fact, never comes up.  While there is no connection drawn between his perfectionistic and controlling father, the implication is obvious—it left scars on his son, who also was very controlling and, at times, despotic with his pupils.  This is all the more interesting in that the film delves into the exacting blow that a single negative review had on Heifetz when he was at his peak professionally.  He took the criticism to heart and it caused him to work all the harder and to rekindle his devotion to his artistry.  Heifetz was harsh but never demanded more from his students than he demanded of himself and those who stayed the course seem to have benefitted immensely as musicians.

Jascha Heifetz was ahead of his time with his understanding of the importance of protecting the environment. In the early 1960’s, he drove a custom-made electric car and spoke out against the Los Angeles smog. Image: Jascha

Particularly enjoyable segments of the film include his affluent lifestyle in Southern California, enabled by his high concert and teaching fees, income from recordings and shrewd money management.  His career lasted more than 60 years and for many of those years, following his arrival in the States, he was paid upwards of $100,000 per concert.  He was connected intimately with the history of recording, logging more studio time than any other violinist, committing to disc virtually the entire violin repertory, along with a substantial amount of chamber music.  He sold more records than any violinist in history, so many that, even after he stopped making records, he was on a $100,000 permanent annual retainer from RCA Victor, his lifelong record label.  This enabled him to live well and he maintained a beach house in Malibu.  He also lived thoughtfully.  He was so concerned about the environment and the unacceptable level of air pollution in Los Angeles that he bought a custom-built electric car in 1966, the first on West Coast.  The film shows footage of him tooling around in this little dream machine which reportedly could go 45 mph for 45 to 70 miles, depending on his driving efficiency.

The film leaves us hungering for more about Heifetz the man.  There is precious little, save at the end, about his family life which includes two ex-wives and several children.  Sadly, no one says he was a friend of Heifetz.   The natural question that emerges is what price did he pay for his genius?  The implication of the film is that there were sufferings and misunderstandings that he never worked through in his lifetime, though he was celebrated day in and day out.  And the larger looming question—what are the proper conventions for dealing with genius?  And the larger musical question—violin playing has evolved since Heifetz, what is his musical legacy and how does that impact how we define today’s virtuosos?

As it stands, the thoughtful film brings up many questions and is best seen in the company of a musician who can offer more substantial explanations of topics broached in the film.  The screening at the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival with Ayke Agus will provide an excellent forum for discussion.  For purposes of this review, I asked Wayne Roden, a friend of mine and violist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to watch this film.  Wayne’s enthusiasm for Heifetz is contagious and, not only did he find Rosen’s film engaging, on several occasions, he got up and actually demonstrated what was unique about Heifetz’s bow grip, speculating how he got that silken sound out of his violin.

Violist Wayne Roden, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, on Jascha Heifetz’ Bow Grip

Run time: 87 minutes. English with Russian dialogue. Director: Peter Rosen; Screenplay: Sara Lukinson; in collaboration with WDR, Arte, Euroarts Music International; Produced by Peter Rosen.

With: Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Ayke Agus, Seymour Lipkin, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel, John Maltese, Bill Van Horn.

Details: Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler screens Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 7:30 p.m. at the Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol as part of the 17th Annual Jewish Film Festival.  The festival presents six Thursday evening shows and runs through December 4, 2012.  Remaining screenings include:

Kaddish for a Friend Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Nicky’s Family, Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Reuniting the Rubens, Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus, Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Hava Nagilia, Tuesday, December 4, 7:30 p.m. Special Program: Filmmaker Roberta Grossman (Blessed Is The Match, SCJFF 2009) will speak and answer questions after the screening.

October 29, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment