In the News
SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL VOICE
By: David Bratman
Guest conductor Carlos Vieu led Symphony Silicon Valley, its Chorale, the Cantabile Youth Singers, and soloists in a vividly exciting and intensely text-oriented performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at San José’s California Theatre on Saturday.
Sure, the poems are all in medieval Latin or Middle High German, and the audience couldn’t be expected to understand them. (There were no distracting supertitles.) Vieu nevertheless had the singers express the words, and they succeeded in doing so with only the slightest touch of acting-out on stage.
It’s spring in Carmina Burana, as it now is outside, and the poets’ fancy turns to thoughts of love. That much was clear to everyone, and it was most obviously shown in the expressively erogenous “Tempus es iocundum.” Baritone Ralph Cato turned to soprano Christina Major and formally serenaded her with ardent declarations, which she returned bashfully. At the end he presented her with the rose from his lapel, giving a plot impetus for her succeeding stand-alone line giving herself to her lover.
“What lover?,” a listener might ordinarily wonder. This time, the answer was clear. In Vieu’s driving interpretation, it became narratively inevitable that the chorus should immediately hail this consummation with its hymn to Blanziflor and Helena, and that the following concluding reprise of “O Fortuna” should make an imposing picture frame around an altogether exciting performance.
The baritone has the most solos, and from the beginning Cato’s smooth, clear voice was focused on telling you what he had to say with the utmost clarity. Gestures and eye contact with the audience reinforced this. He stayed in steady touch with the orchestra, and his falsetto in “Dies nox” was as strong as his deep and middle registers.
Cato’s finest moment, of many, was the song of the Abbot of Cockaigne. Without overacting, he smuggled out his solo with devilish zest. The interjections of orchestra and chorus merged with it seamlessly, and Cato smiled conspiratorially as he concluded the Abbot’s declaration that he’s the stoutest drinker of them all.
Tenor J. Raymond Meyers had just one part: the unforgettable lament of the roasting swan. This he gave in the same spirit as Cato’s solos, as if he were really suffering, loudly and gloriously. The strain and agony are what make this number gruesome fun.
Major, wearing a glaring red dress perhaps inspired by the tunic of the girl described in her first big solo, “Stetit puella,” had less room for characterization in her solos, at least before “Tempus es iocundum.” Her voice, though, was both as sweet and as strong as could be wished.
The choruses outstripped even the soloists in awesomeness. The SSV Chorale was guest-directed by Lou De La Rosa, as Elena Sharkova was occupied with the Cantabile Youth Singers, of which she is also music director. The Chorale enunciated its lyrics with a clarity that overwhelmed its position far off at the back of the stage, and with a unity so precise that its hundred voices would have seemed a far smaller group were it not for the size of the sonic volume. There were fascinating unusual emphases, and revelations of inner parts rarely audible in other performances.
A few passages against tutti orchestra could have been better balanced; overall, though, the choral performance was shiningly clear and energetic. All parts of the choir were superb. The most stunning achievement belonged to the men, for bringing that clarity and enunciation to the speedy tongue-twister “In taberna,” and even more to the unaccompanied piece for a subset of men, “Si puer,” where these nonprofessional singers at the back of the stage were as strong and artistic as Cato at the front.
The Cantabile Youth Singers, a coed group a bit older than the usual boys’ chorus, were equally admirable, adolescently lusty in their bawdy lyrics.
Vieu conducted the orchestra into raw vigor, producing mighty thumps and clangs from brass and percussion for that primitivist “Roman Empire sound,” as much reminiscent of Respighi as of Stravinsky or Prokofiev. If there was a flaw, it was that Vieu relied too much on the words to convey the structure. There wasn’t always sufficiently purely musical reason for the repeated strophes. This caused some slower movements to drag a bit. He did, though, wrap the work up at the end with a satisfactorily tidy ribbon.
The concert also featured another gentleman from Vieu’s native Argentina, bandoneón virtuoso Juan Pablo Jofre. Informally dressed, with white-framed dark glasses, he played his own concerto, Tango Movements. Unlike other bandoneón composers — I’m astonished at how many works for this instrument I’ve heard in the San José area over the past few years — Jofre emphasizes less the melodic lyricism of his button accordion than its kinship with the pump organ. He likes heavy dramatic chords and crisp, repeating rhythmic figures. Even his extended melodies, rather pop-song in style, are more fully chordal than is typical for the bandoneón.
Jofre has been revising and polishing this concerto for nearly a decade, and perhaps it’s overworked. It has some lovely moments, especially a series of quiet duets with solo violin and cello playing rocking figures. It goes on way too long, though, especially in an extended passage that’s technically a cadenza, though it doesn’t function or sound like one. It’s a long, wandering solo seemingly designed to make the listener drift gently off.
Don’t worry: If anybody were to nod off, Carmina Burana would wake them up in a hurry.
REVIEW: SYMPHONY SILICON VALLEY'S OVATION-INSPIRING 'CARMINA BURANA'
By: Richard Scheinin
Posted: 03/23/2014 12:37:15PM PDT
The quandary: where to begin this description of Saturday's electric program by Symphony Silicon Valley. Perhaps with the soulful spectacle of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," performed by more than 200 musicians (orchestra members, choristers, solo singers) and led by Argentinian guest conductor Carlos Vieu -- an hour-long eruption that elicited the loudest ovation this reviewer ever has heard at the California Theatre.
Or maybe with the U.S. premiere of JP Jofre's superb Bandoneon Concerto, titled "Tango Movements." Sweepingly romantic, elegantly crafted and rhythmically charged, it is a showcase for the bandoneon -- which resembles an accordion and is related to the harmonium, or pump organ -- and for Jofre himself, the soloist. He is an explosively talented performer and composer, who also happens to come from Argentina.
Well, let's stick with Jofre, who wears white designer eyeglasses and looks like a hipster aviator. But there is nothing gimmicky about his musicianship.
Playing his bandoneon -- when its bellows are fully extended, the instrument spans a good five feet -- he seemed to be handling a large lizard, often folding it across his knee. This was visually fascinating, yes, but then there were the sounds he coaxed from this highly expressive instrument: arias in its soprano range and grave utterances in the bass; melismatic chants and train-like roars; plus, plaintive sighs, calling to mind Miles Davis's trumpet.
Jofre has loaded the piece with virtuoso cadenzas, solo statements. Even more striking is the way he expands his scoring outward from the instrument, extending and embellishing the bandoneon's themes through the orchestra with painterly strokes, and then allowing the themes to retract and return to their point of origin, the bandoneon. It's as if the score reflects the in-and-out bellows motion of the solo instrument.
One hopes that Jofre (and other bandoneonistas) will have the opportunity to take this piece on the road. Its opening Allegro Marcato moved with the rhythmic thrust -- the sharp, aggressive attack -- of a nuevo tango dance, complementing the soloist's lines with dabs of clarinet or muted brass and with the march-like pulse of double basses. It passed through multiple moods, sometimes opening into spacious harmonies, hanging there like orchids, reminiscent of Gil Evans's arrangements on Davis's "Sketches of Spain."
The Adagio is über-Romantic -- part Tchaikovsky, part Hollywood, part Astor Piazzolla (who played the bandoneon) -- and includes a slow-turning cadenza that evokes the bandoneon's origins as a church instrument in Germany and Italy. The concluding Milonga, close to Cuba and Africa with its ostinato-driven syncopations, passed like a flash, with clear, forceful contributions from strings and brass.
Jofre, 30, has been working on the piece for more than a decade, gradually refining the orchestration. He has previously performed it three times in Argentina (always with Vieu conducting) and has reached a point of balance and concision. Bravo. He followed the concerto with a solo encore, a lullaby composed for his niece, titled "Sweet Dreams."
Following intermission came "Carmina Burana," Orff's audacious response, composed in the mid-1930s, to a 13th century manuscript (discovered in a Bavarian monastery) containing poems and songs about springtime (Part I of "Carmina"), the life of the tavern (Part II) and the joys of love and lust (Part III).
With banks of choristers from the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale (prepared by Lou De La Rosa) and the Cantabile Youth Singers (directed by Elena Sharkova) rising to the stage's furthest reaches, Vieu conducted without a score. He mouthed just about every word of Latin and Middle High German for his singers, inciting an exciting, wheels-turning performance.
We've all probably heard "Carmina Burana" many times, maybe sometimes feeling it's been too many times. This performance, while by no means letter perfect, returned the piece to its full impact: the riot of modes and melody ("O Fortuna!"), the folk-driven dances, the dazzling Stravinsky-esque orchestrations.
And the momentum: Saturday's performance (the program was scheduled to repeat Sunday) grew ever more vivid and earthy. It included exceptional work by the brass (including impossibly tip-toeing tuba by principal Tony Clements in a moonlit sequence of Part I) and flutes (especially principal Maria Tamburrino, lush-sounding throughout). But its generosity and strength ultimately came from the buy-in of the 200-plus performers, from the three keyboardists and half dozen percussionists to the fresh-voiced Cantabile singers and spirited Chorale.
The three soloists stole the show, especially baritone Ralph Cato, charismatic and warmly round-voiced -- and, during the concluding love song, handing a red rose to soprano Christina Major. She rose to scarifying heights, right on pitch, in those final moments. In an earlier tavern song, tenor J. Raymond Meyers nailed his murderous solo, meant to emulate the screeching death-song of a swan being roasted to feed Orff's imaginary revelers.
Cantabile Sings at Villa Montalvo
On Saturday October 26th twenty of our Vocalise singers participated in a living work of choral art at Villa Montalvo Arts. They collaborated with a visual artist named Nene Humphrey who works with the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at NYU exploring the relationship between brain science and art. Roberto Lange is a composer from New York who experiments with sound and composition. They produced a remarkable sound work that used words, singing and spoken tones to make a layered composition. Here is what the artists had to say about working with our singers:
Roberto and I have been trying to come up with a new word to use for last week's Everything that Happens performance ...something between awesome, incredible and courageous creativity....we just can't find one good enough to tell you how amazing you all were and how wonderful it was to be able to work with you on this unusual project of ours. We always knew you were the choir for us from the time we first auditioned at Montalvo and we always knew you were up to the challenge of this piece...but what we didn't know was how up to the challenge you were! The performance was beyond what we imagined on so many levels and we just want to thank each and every one of you as well as your intrepid Director Elena and hope that we will all have a chance to work together again...We really mean that!
Again, our sincere and heartfelt thanks to all of you.
-- Roberto Lange and Nene Humphrey
GE WANG NAMED 2013 CHAMPION OF THE ARTS
Palo Alto, CA -- Another member of the Stanford community is the recipient of Cantabile's Champion of the Arts Award for the second consecutive year. Ge Wang of Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and co-founder of Smule, will add this
Read a review of Cantabile's performance with Symphony Silicon Valley in their historic tenth anniversary concert:
Read reviews of Cantabile's performance with the Kronos Quartet at Stanford Lively Arts Center:
About Cantabile's performance with the Kronos Quartet:
"Just being in the same room with these four musicians makes one feel more deeply and passionately about music and humanity. Performing with them, being in such close physical proximity as we were was both breathtaking and humbling. "
-Elena Sharkova, Cantabile Artistic Director
About Cantabile's performance in Symphony Silicon Valley's "The Planets" by Holst:
"A direct pipeline from heaven!"
-David Amram, American composer
By Richard Scheinin
Posted: 10/02/2011 04:50:54 PM PDT
There was free champagne for those attending Saturday's opening concert of Symphony Silicon Valley's tenth season. Predictably, the audience at the California Theatre sat through the requisite testimonials about the orchestra's "wonderful ride" through its first decade, as founder and president Andrew Bales put it.
But the most important testimonial occurred once the orchestra began to play -- especially after intermission, when guest conductor Paul Polivnick led a vibrant performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets," in which the English composer portrays the planets of the solar system. The 91 musicians seemed acutely tuned into Polivnick, who has led this orchestra many times: These "Planets" were gleaming and wondrous objects.
An astrology buff and dazzling orchestrator, Holst fashioned the 50-minute piece from 1914-16, turning his eye away from war-torn Earth to the seven other planets, devoting one movement to each. (Pluto had yet to be discovered). His musical palette is broad: One can hear the influence of English folk songs and Debussy's Impressionism, along with intimations of the countless movie scores that Holst's opus would inspire.
In this first of two performances (Saturday's program repeated Sunday afternoon), the orchestra gave a fleet-footed rendering of "Mercury, the Winged Messenger," Holst's dancing scherzo. His centerpiece, "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," was enriched by opulent melody from the strings, evoking the nostalgic songs of an England we associate with the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Exceptionally well balanced and crisply percussive, this showcase performance featured fine section work throughout: Horns, trombones, cellos. The sixth movement, "Uranus, the Magician," was rooted by the tubas, shaking the hall like a pipe organ. Then this charming march of the elephants vaporized -- instantaneously, like a cinematic jump-cut -- into the most shimmering celestial effects. The finale, "Neptune, the Mystic," was hauntingly elevated by the 60 voices of an offstage women's chorus: members of the Cantabile Vocalise Singers and the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, directed by Elena Sharkova.
Performing this popular work for the first time, the orchestra clearly enjoyed its planetary excursion. Not ready to leave the stage, Polivnick, as an encore, led his musicians in a brief work by another Englishman of the period, Sir Edward Elgar: The "Nimrod" movement from "Enigma" Variations.
Introducing it, Polivnick said, "It probably sums up in four minutes all the loveliness that you would ever feel." That sentiment flowed through the performance -- an excellent way to close the opening program of a landmark season.
But wait: Let's not forget the concert's first half, which showed off Symphony Silicon Valley's flair for eclectic programming. Three times before it has featured works by David Amram, who was the New York Philharmonic's first composer-in-residence, appointed by Leonard Bernstein in 1966. A proponent of "music without walls," Amram is also a respected jazz musician (his friends long ago included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) and a pioneer of world music.
Now 80, Amram was back this weekend for a fourth time: "Even most expired composers aren't that lucky," he joked Saturday.
The concert began with his "En Memoria de Chano Pozo," an orchestral tribute to Pozo, the Havana-born conguero, who helped bring the Cuban influence to jazz through his collaborations with Gillespie. Saturday's performance included Amram's leading the audience in clapping out clave rhythmic patterns -- not the way most symphony orchestras would open a season.
The program also included Amram's 30-minute "Triple Concerto for Wind, Brass and Jazz Quintets with Orchestra," which Symphony Silicon Valley performed in 2005. It's a terrific piece, merging traditional concerto grosso format with the melancholy essence of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.
Saturday's performance wasn't optimum. The crowded setup on stage was illogical, with many of the 15 soloists in the three quintets blocked from view. Often, the strings were inaudible, as was Amram's piano. (He was a member of the jazz quintet).
And yet much of the work's imagination and soul came through, anyway. "Blues," the second movement, featured gorgeous solos by baritone saxophonist Aaron Lington and alto saxophonist Michael Corner. And Amram's freewheeling performance on Pakistani flute during the finale, "Rondo a la Turca," was seriously delightful.
By Richard Scheinin
Posted: 10/14/2010 01:32:26 PM PDT
Over the last 35 years, the Kronos Quartet has commissioned 700 new compositions or arrangements for string quartet. Working out the crude math, this means that Kronos -- on top of a full plate of touring, recording and even maintaining a decent dose of more standard repertory -- has learned a new piece every two to three weeks for more than three decades.
This is astonishing; no other group can match Kronos for hard work and invention. On the other hand, all that newness doesn't necessarily pan out, as shown by the quartet's patchy program Wednesday at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium. Launching Stanford Lively Arts' 2010-11 season, Kronos performed its 90-minute "Awakening: A Meditation on 9/11," a canvas drawing together music from 12 countries, almost all of it composed or arranged for Kronos.
You could draw a pretty good mix tape from the program, which ranges from an Iranian lullaby to the German punk-industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten to elegiac space ponderings by composer Terry Riley. Debuted in 2006 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., "Awakening" posits music as a universal healing force, as humanity's connective tissue.
That's a true and commendable idea. Still, nine years removed from the terrible events of 2001, the program has too much high concept and not enough musical weight.
I best liked the opening segment, which begins with a recording of an Islamic call to prayer. Its first seconds, so impassioned and ornate, brought to mind American gospel or soul music, telegraphing Kronos' message of musical cousinship. Bathed in purple-blue light on an otherwise darkened stage, the group established a drone and wove elaborations on the prayer call, this music composed by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, born in Tashkent. With its quivering stasis, and with its keening solo lines played by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, the music recalled Hebrew liturgy; more cousinship.
The opening segment continued with Iraqi choubi sounds -- rhythmically driving, with violist Hank Dutt picking up a hand drum, with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba as dueling folk fiddlers, with Ziegler laying down an ostinato that reminded of rumba.
Next, came that lullaby -- brought to Kronos' attention via a recording by Jahlé, a band from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, which has a sizeable black population, descended from Arabian traders and African slaves. This music, with echoes of Spain and North Africa, segued into the segment's serene closer, adapting an Indian raga by Ram Narayan and reestablishing the drone and stasis. Chapter complete.
On to part two of "Awakening," the "real world" segment, if you will. The band roamed the stage, hammering and wielding a blowtorch on sheets of corrugated metal, garbage cans and assorted junk. Very urban and violent, this is an introduction to the industrial music of Einstürzende Neubauten, enclosing a melancholy Armenian folk song soon played by the quartet, as if essential humanity has been buried by contemporary life. Get it?
The segment closed with composer Michael Gordon's "The Sad Park," which manipulates the recorded voices of schoolchildren who witnessed the attacks on the Twin Towers ("two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came"). It morphs those voices into humpback whale calls and embeds, perhaps buries, the children in a pulsing arrangement for Kronos that comes to sound like a rusty porch swing and goes on just about forever -- interminable death.
Renewal arrives in the last segment. It opens with the affecting "Darkness 9/11" by Osvaldo Golijov and Gustavo Santaolalla, a 21st-century "Adagio for Strings," all sadness and potential. Riley's "One Earth, One People, One Love" (from his "Sun Rings" epic) matches meandering elegy with NASA space images.
A Swedish folk song, transcribed for Kronos by Russian-born composer/arranger Ljova, follows, flowing into the night's best surprise: a collaboration with the 40-voice Cantabile Youth Singers, directed by Elena Sharkova. The youths had gathered in a half-moon around Kronos to perform "Winter Was Hard" by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. It felt like a blast of clean mountain air -- and lasted about two minutes. Why not more?
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
San Francisco Classical Voice
Kronos Remembers 9/11
October 13, 2010
BY BE'ERI MOALEM
When planning programs for classical concerts there are two basic approaches: variety show (something classical, something Romantic, something "modern", usually in chronological order), or themed concerts (e.g. all-Beethoven concert, all-Russian concert, Gypsy-inspired music, etc.). Order and balance on the program is crucial, setting the dynamic arch of the entire concert; choosing and ordering pieces is a form of musical composition.
The Kronos Quartet have taken program-planning to a new level, stitching together works by 12 different composers, played without pause and with carefully planned segues. In doing so the group essentially created a new 90-minute masterpiece: Awakening, a "musical meditation on the anniversary of 9/11." The program was first played on Sept. 11th, 2006 at Herbst Theatre and was repeated in Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010 as the opening concert of Stanford Lively Arts' 2010-2011 season.
It has been almost a decade since America was attacked. Since then 9/11 has been the subject of political controversy, political opportunism, humor, profiteering, and what not. So much has been made of that day that we often forget the emotions we felt on that day. Awakening brings back those memories through diverse approaches ranging from subtle to direct.
As always, Kronos takes hold of the entire concert-going experience, not merely chunks of music framed by coughing, chair-shifting, and clapping. The entire production leaves an impression, not just the musical message: Lighting work by Laurence Neff for truly moving visual effects and spotlights, and amplified sound design by Scott Fraser massively expands the string quartet's aural possibilities. Stage design, choreography, and costume (jeans and sport coats rather than the outdated tuxes) were also an artistic touch. Recorded music was played in the hall as the audience filed in, setting a different tone (the concert begins before the performers walk on stage) and preparing the audience. The Kronos Quartet walks on stage accompanied by electronic sound effects and turned-up recordings in lieu of the conventional applause procedure.
Awakening is divided into three unnamed segments, each with a different overall mood, corresponding to emotions felt in time of trauma: sadness, anger, and finally acceptance. The three sections also highlighted three streams of contemporary classical music that the Kronos specialize in: ethnic-inspired world music, electronic/noise-music, and minimalism. All of the pieces on the program were written or arranged specifically for the Kronos Quartet.
The first section featured four short pieces from Central Asia: Awakening by Dmitri Yanov Yanovsky from Uzbekistan; Oh Mother the Handsome Man Totures Me, an Iraqi song arranged by Ljova nad Kronos; a traditional Iranian melody arranged by Jacob Garchik, and Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap by Ram Narayan from India. Common to all these pieces were static drones like the emptiness of a desert, topped by layers of sound and long meditative melodies imbued with a devout spirituality. In the context of the 9/11, reference to Islam is unavoidable; the connection between the intensely spirituality in these melodies in context of Islamic fundamentalism is material for heavy reflection. The melodies' haunting and moving power is undeniable.
It was a bit difficult to distinguish between pieces as they were played atacca and were eerily similar, but some memorable moments stuck out. In a stroke of versatility and open-mindedness typical of the Kronos Quartet, second violinist John Sheba picked up the Indian sarangi, a knee-mounted stringed instruments, while violist Hank Dutt played one of the longest, most arresting and powerful viola solos I have ever heard, aided by a hefty dose of electronic reverb and delay effects.
The second half of the concert got to the dark violent core of 9/11, with Einstürzende Neubauten's Armenia, Oswald's Spectre, and Michael Gordon's The Sad Park. Armenia again broughtout the Kronos versatility and open-mindedness, as members left the quartet's traditional semicircle to hammer on bits of scrap metal strewed artfully around the stage. The chaotic metallic surroundings could have been an industrial waste site but also resonated with images of ground zero after the attack. At one point, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler picked up an electric circular saw and grinded it against objects on the stage, sending sparks everywhere. The grating sound produced was not unmusical, especially when heard in a concert setting. Seeing a sharp blade spinning close to such a special musician's fingers was nerve-racking. Gordon's piece featured recordings of children describing 9/11 with sentences like "there was a big boom and then there was teeny fiery coming out" played on repeat over the speakers while the quartet played percussive repetitions.
The final third of the concert featured a return to the meditative mood from the first third, though this time from a different angle and with spirituality that felt more Western-secular as opposed to Middle Eastern religious in works by Osvaldo Golijov, Gustavo Santaolalla, Terry Riley, Aulis Sallinen, Vladimir Martynov, and a Swedish traditional arranged by Kronos. Patterns of rhythm and intervals that at first sound alienating are repeated in a minimalistic hypnosis that turns hostility into comfort. For the Swedish song, the Cantabile Youth Singers walked on stage one by one like little angels dressed in street clothes. They sang with a sweet, eye-watering beauty.
9/11 can be remembered on any day of the year, not only on anniversaries and designated memorial days because, as Kronos first violinist David Harrington writes, "Most of carry within ourselves an alarming movie replaying the events of Sept. 11, 2001. In Awakening Kronos offers a new soundtrack to this internal movie."