5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Dianne Nicolini, KDFC DJ

Dianne Nicolini Dianne Nicolini

Welcome to our 40th Anniversary season blog where over the course of the season we will be asking five close friends of SFP, one good question each. Enjoy their responses!

KDFC’s midday DJ Dianne Nicolini is a native and current resident of Oakland and earned her degree in Dramatic Art at UC Berkeley. She got her start in radio at Classical KXTR in Kansas City. Returning to the Bay Area in 1983, she began announcing for Classical KKHI. She became the midday host on KDFC in 1995, and still looks forward to going into the studio every day. For ten years, she was the host of the SF Symphony broadcasts worldwide and from 2009 through 2017, was the host of the SF Opera’s internationally-syndicated broadcasts. She was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in September of 2016. In 2005, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom declared December 15th Dianne Nicolini Day in San Francisco. (“That and $10 will get you an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista!” says Nicolini.)

So what’s our One Good Question to ask Dianne?

You have no doubt heard many inspiring stories from your listeners about the role classical music plays in their daily lives. What is your favorite story?

Wow. It’s tough to zero in on just one story. In fact, we’re presenting our KDFC Love at First Listen Week right now, in which we ask the listeners to tell us how, where, when they got hooked on classical music. As you can imagine, the great stories just keep pouring in.

In terms of music’s role in their daily lives, our listeners most frequently describe listening to us while driving to and from school, soccer practice, etc. with their kids and how the classical music keeps everybody in the car calm and happy. Plus, it might even teach them a little something along the way!

The most memorable and moving stories for me are about how the music can be a balm in difficult times. Listeners have described going through illnesses or the loss of a loved one, and how the music had a healing effect on them. Whether they were recovering from a broken leg or a broken heart, something beautiful from Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, or Philip Glass can be the perfect prescription.

Recently, I met a special needs teacher who said she listened to us every day in her Hayward classroom. Her gratitude for the music and the positive atmosphere it fosters in her daily life is one of the many reasons I love my job!

Music, Poetry, Philosophy, History:
The Art of Song

Jamie Barton Jamie Barton

There is perhaps no other genre that creates as unique a bond between performer and audience as the vocal recital. Rooted in an intimate exchange of music, poetry, philosophy and history, this sublime and centuries-old art form engages today’s audiences with a vast repertoire from classics to groundbreaking new compositions.

San Francisco Performances has been a champion of the vocal recital for four decades, and the genre is emblematic of our unique approach to creating sustained opportunities for connections between artists and audiences. The legendary Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström inaugurated our vocal series on March 10, 1981. The next season, iconic American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade made the first of many appearances with SF Performances and returned eight times over the years for recitals both on the main stage and the Family Matinee program.

Mark Padmore Mark Padmore

Von Stade’s frequent returns underscore another important aspect of our programming: presenting important established and emerging artists and giving our audiences opportunities to follow their career arc over many seasons. Since those early days, distinguished vocalists who have found a welcoming home with SF Performances include Håkan Hagegård, Elly Ameling, Hermann Prey, Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson, Matthias Goerne, Christopher Maltman, Ian Bostridge, Mark Padmore, and Christian Gerhaher. Beginning in 2001, our Vocal Artists-in-Residence Christòpheren Nomura, Jessica Rivera, Nicholas Phan and Dashon Burton have further enhanced audiences’ experience of art song through illuminating and entertaining education initiatives.

Dawn Upshaw Dawn Upshaw

Along the way, vocal artists have demonstrated that the recital is not cemented in the past. While the vast classical repertoire is not vanishing from programming, today’s recitalist is helping audiences to discover new compositions as well as new approaches to the classics. In December, Dawn Upshaw joins the Brentano String Quartet performing rarely heard works by Ottorino Respighi and Arnold Schoenberg for string quartet and soprano. Jamie Barton has curated a program celebrating 20th-century women composers and also celebrating her queer identity with a set of songs by men that she presents as a bisexual woman.

Benjamin Appl Benjamin Appl

On the classical side, Christian Gerhaher returns with his longtime recital partner Gerold Huber offering an all-Mahler program, once again mesmerizing audiences since his first appearance in 2014. Mark Padmore and Marc-André Hamelin make an eagerly awaited return in April with what is sure to be a passionate reading of Schubert’s Winterreise. And of course, no season would be complete without at least one vocal debut—this May we welcome Benjamin Appl, described as “the current front-runner in the new generation of Lieder singers” (Gramophone Magazine, UK).

Retrospective/Perspective: An Anniversary Season Opens With a Display of Musical Fireworks

Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez

Our 40th anniversary season opens in a performance by Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez layered with meaning. Continuing with our theme of “Perspective/Retrospective,” the program brings well-known works from the canon (Prokofiev’s Visions fuigitives, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and Balakirev’s Islamey) to an interpretation by young artists—one who will perform the works in the style in which they were written and one who will offer a modern jazz interpretation.

The excitement is palpable from this creative interplay of old and new, young artists with classical works, traditional playing and a contemporary reading. Indeed, it reflects our legacy, our promise to our audience, and, not to be too commercial about it, our brand.

The interplay between a traditional performance of these works followed by a jazz improvisation is made even more intriguing by the fact that these works are some of the most difficult to perform. These are demanding, difficult pieces, known for the level of mastery required to play them. For both artists, the program is a technical challenge and a test of stamina. Yet, these are works that allow the artists’ gifts to shine.

Milij Aleksejevič Balakirev Milij Aleksejevič Balakirev composed Islamey with the intent of turning it into a symphony

The program notes make no bones about the complexity of the works:

Islamey has become famous not just for its exotic color and excitement but also because it is so difficult for the performer. The music sends the pianist flying across the complete range of the keyboard, employs gigantic chordal melodies that require huge hands, and goes at a dizzying speed…Balakirev was a first-rate pianist, but even its creator found Islamey too difficult to perform.”

As you re-enter the worlds of work, school, or even the changed light and air that autumn brings, I hope you will join us at a concert.

And Ravel deliberately set out to raise the bar:

“It should be noted that Gaspard de la nuit is music of stupefying difficulty for the performer, and this was by design: Ravel consciously set out to write a work that he said would be more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey…Ravel’s effort to write blisteringly difficult music for the pianist succeeded brilliantly. From the complex (and finger-twisting) chords of Ondine through the dense textures of Le gibet (written on three staves) and the consecutive seconds of Scarbo, Gaspard de la nuit presents hurdles that make simply getting the notes almost impossible.”

The display of musical fireworks in this program and by these artists marks a truly celebratory opening for a season full of “Retrospective/Perspective.”

À la rentrée

September at the Lake

It’s that time of year. In England it’s known as blackberry season. Here it’s back to school. But I like the French expression, “à la rentrée,” which means a return from summer holidays to ordinary activities. It can also mean a fresh beginning, and for us, that’s a new season of performances.

The Boat On Its Final Summer Voyage and the last of the summer peaches The boat on its final summer voyage and the last of the summer peaches

While we’re now getting into the loveliest Bay Area weather of the year, the signs of fall are everywhere. The grape harvest has begun, we’ve taken a final boat ride across the lake, and I’ve picked the last peaches of summer. I also just got back from the annual Western Arts Alliance (WAA) conference, where a highlight this year was meeting Michael Novak, the new Artistic Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

We’re excited about the return of the Taylor company in February. These performances will be part of a legacy tour, honoring the late Paul Taylor, but they will also celebrate a new era. Novak is a next generation artistic leader who brings a fresh perspective, as both a former Taylor dancer and as a scholar of modern dance. He has a bold creative vision for the future. SF Performances’ 40th anniversary season is the perfect time to welcome him, and the company, as we too look forward and backward. Here’s a video of Michael Novak talking about his new role.

And speaking of next generation artists, we have a few coming up this fall, as we present the debut of the Z.E.N. Trio on October 18. These three musicians, who also perform as soloists, are quickly becoming known for their brilliant and imaginative concerts. Here’s a fun video of them playing Brahms. The young Calidore Quartet will also return on October 21. We first introduced them last season, in collaboration with pianist Inon Barnatan. This time they’re on their own, performing works by Haydn, Caroline Shaw and Beethoven. They’ve been taking the chamber music world by storm, and here they are performing one of Caroline Shaw’s pieces in a Tiny Desk concert.

Late summer on Clear Lake Late summer on Clear Lake

Back to desks and school also means a return to our artist residencies. Since 1989, our resident artists have worked directly with students and teachers in public schools around the Bay Area, providing much needed arts education and helping to build new audiences. The scope of these residencies reflects SF Performances’ commitment to making the arts an essential part of everyone’s life. This fall we begin two new four-year residencies, with jazz pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, who performs a program with Natasha Paremski on September 27, and with guitarist Jason Vieaux. Jason’s residency follows in the footsteps of our first Guitarist-in-Residence, the great Manuel Barrueco, who worked with us in that capacity from 1997–2001. Manuel returns for a concert on October 13, as does Jason on October 26. Here’s a video of Jason playing a work by Tarrega.

As you re-enter the worlds of work, school, or even the changed light and air that autumn brings, I hope you will join us at a concert.


Welcome back to the performance season!

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

The Three Graces of San Fruttuoso

The Three Graces

What sparks joy? I’m asking that often these days. Just back from a few weeks of travel, it’s time to settle in for the rest of the foggy summer. But I’m still savoring and learning from my travel experiences. I had the opportunity to revisit favorite works of Renaissance art in Florence, and to discover others in Siena. But the ancient Classical world is still very much on my mind.

Ruins at Ostia Antica Ruins at Ostia Antica

I ended my trip at the astonishing site of Ostia Antica, the ruins of a 3,000 year old seaport town about 15 miles from Rome. Among the treasures encountered there was a beautiful statue of the Three Graces—Euphrosyne (Joyfulness and Mirth), Algaea (Splendor) and Thalia (Beauty).

I had already run into them (by Botticelli) at the Ufizzi gallery in Florence, and I had also spotted them in some extraordinary frescoes, still relevantly titled Allegory of Good and Bad Government, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s town hall. The Graces of Ostia Antica were the most antique, but perhaps the most memorable for me were the contemporary “graces” I found outside the abbey of San Fruttuoso on the Ligurian coast.

Scene from Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government Scene from Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government

You can only visit San Fruttuoso by boat, or by taking a rugged hike over the Portofino promontory. We opted for the boat, being careful to make the last ferry of the day. Otherwise, you’re stuck for the night. (Maybe not such a bad fate?) Founded by the Order of Saint Benedict, most of the abbey dates from the 11th century. There’s not much else, other than a 16th century tower, a café and restaurant, a shingle beach, and fishing boats. And it’s magical. It was there on a tiny pebbled beach that I met the graces I will never forget—three Italian women “of a certain age,” who bobbed and danced in the water like something out of an oracular vision. Completely unselfconscious and uninhibited, they laughed with abandon, celebrating their perfect moment of friendship, sun, sea and sky. They embodied an ageless joy and grace, and they inspired it in me and others around them.

San Fruttuoso San Fruttuoso

We need more of that joy now.

This fall at San Francisco Performances, we have a lot to celebrate. In October, Richard Goode will perform at our 40th anniversary gala concert. He’ll play Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and I’ll likely be remembering the joys of San Fruttuoso that night. L’isle Joyeuse was inspired by Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a group of revelers travel to the Greek island Cythera, one of the mythological birthplaces of Venus/Aphrodite (mother of the Graces). Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin returns next April for another celebratory concert. While he’ll play a different program then, here’s a video of him playing L’Isle Joyeuse.

Homer’s Lotus Eaters inhabited another joyous isle, where their diet induced a state of blissful lethargy. However, calling some a “lotus eater” today isn’t necessarily a good thing, so I’ll stay with Tennyson’s description of that island, in his poem of the same title, “There is sweet music here that softer falls/Than petals from blown roses on the grass.” Composer and guitarist Andrew York, a founding member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, wrote a piece for the group also called The Lotus Eaters. It’s lighthearted and playful. Here’s a video of the LAGQ, performing the piece with Andrew.

The LAGQ will be back in November, with another fun program of American music, from Aaron Copland to Frank Zappa. I hope you’ll join us that evening, and for many more delightful concerts coming up this fall!


Wishing you much joy this summer,

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances