Classical Music Americana


We’ve created Spotify and YouTube playlists containing the works discussed here for your enjoyment.

This year, many of us will celebrate a very different Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. It will be a smaller, quieter event. While missing the exuberance of larger gatherings, this year may offer more time for reflection, and there’s a lot to think about right now. In pondering some of the enormous questions our country must resolve, I’m starting with what is most familiar to me—classical music.

What is the history of classical music in this country? How do you define it? What traditions have contributed to it? Does it have a distinctive sound? In considering all of this, I’ve put together a playlist, recognizing that this is only a fraction of what’s out there. I have not included jazz here. That’s intentional, though jazz has been called ”America's classical music.” I’ve also left out rock and roll, considered by many around the world to be the “real” American music. Instead, I’ve limited this list to 20th century composers and works that may embody attributes some have used to describe musical Americana—expansive, open, bold, driven, sorrowful, and sometimes optimistic. This is all very subjective, but perhaps in this collection of the well known and little known, the often heard and the under-heard, we can begin a journey of understanding about what might make American classical music truly great. But it’s only the beginning.

Libby Larsen Libby Larsen

Let’s start in the heartland, with Minnesotan Libby Larsen, who writes “Music has always been influenced by the spoken language. Italian, German, Russian and French music sounds distinctly Italian, German, Russian and French…So I begin to ask, what is the melody of American English? And can it best be expressed through strings?” Here’s a movement from her Symphony No. 4, “String Symphony,” performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The next choice is obvious, for many of us. Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, written in 1944 as a ballet for Martha Graham, is a favorite American work for many.

Here’s a short Thanksgiving palate cleanser, written and performed by guitarist Andrew York, called Home.

George Walker George Walker (photo by Frank Schramm)

And here is a beautiful, elegiac work by George Walker, the first African American graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, and the first Black man to receive a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. In 1996 he became the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music, for his piece Lilacs. This work, Lyric for Strings, was written in 1946. Originally titled Lament, it is dedicated to his grandmother, who had been enslaved.

Florence Price Florence Price (photo from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries)

Next is a movement from Florence Price’s work for string quartet, Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. Price rose to fame when her prize-winning Symphony in E minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1932. Several years later, mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson concluded her landmark concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord. Here’s the Catalyst Quartet, performing the third movement of Price’s quartet.

Samuel Barber, a classmate of George Walker’s at the Curtis Institute, wrote his beloved Adagio for Strings in 1936, originally as the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. There are hundreds of recordings of this work, but for this moment, I’ve chosen one that is especially timely—a recording of the Covid Cello Project 10, featuring 278 cellists from 29 countries.

Amy Beach Amy Beach

Amy Beach was the first successful American woman composer. The Boston Symphony premiered her Gaelic Symphony in 1896, and it was also the first published work of music by an American woman. She was an accomplished pianist as well, and despite her husband’s demand that she restrict her public concerts and continue her composition studies without a teacher, her works received a good deal of critical acclaim in her day. She premiered her Piano Concerto as soloist, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1900.

William Grant Still William Grant Still

An important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, William Grant Still’s first major orchestral work, Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American,” was premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, conducted by Howard Hanson. In addition to writing more than 200 works, including the first American opera to be performed by the New York City Opera, Still was the first African American to conduct a professional symphony in the U.S. Here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 1.

Hailing from Wahoo, Nebraska (no joke), Howard Hanson started his teaching career in California and ended up as the director of the Eastman School of Music. A winner of the Rome Prize for composition in 1921, he became a champion of American classical music, premiering 8 works by his friend and colleague, William Grant Still. His Symphony No. 2 “Romantic,” was commissioned by the Boston Symphony in 1930. He described his music as “springing from the soil of the American midwest.” 

Joan Tower’s Made in America was commissioned by the unusual partnership of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Ford Motor Company, for 65 regional U.S. orchestras. The composer writes “When I started composing this piece, the song America the Beautiful kept coming into my consciousness. This theme is challenged by other more aggressive and dissonant ideas that keep interrupting, unsettling it, but America the Beautiful keeps resurfacing in different guises…as if to say “I’m still here, ever changing, but holding my own.” A musical struggle is heard throughout the work. Perhaps it was my unconscious reacting to the challenge of “how do we make America beautiful?”

New Yorker Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson wrote classical music, as well as jazz and pop. He served as pianist in the Max Roach Quartet, and as Music Director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. His works include scores for television and film, as well as arrangements for Motown. The third movement of his Sinfonietta No. 1, written in 1996, is dedicated to his grandson, and playfully references the folksong L’il Brown Jug. It's performed here by the Sphinx Virtuosi.

Jessie Montgomery Jessie Montgomery (photo by Jiyang Chen)

Jessie Montgomery only qualifies as a 20th century composer because of her birth date. In addition to composing, she is an active chamber musician (with the Catalyst String Quartet) and a music educator. Her work often focuses on language and social justice. The Washington Post describes her piece, Strum, as “Turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life…like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully.” So we end where we began, with the Minnesota Orchestra performing this work.

But at the end of this quick trip through the last century, Jessie Montgomery is our bridge to the 21st century, and the future of classical music in America looks bright. And we are grateful.

Wishing you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving,

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

The BobCasts | Episode 8:
The Impact of Andalucían Flamenco on Spanish Song and Dance

Flamenco Guitar

Many thanks to SFP Music Historian-In-Residence Bob Greenberg for his eight-part exploration of the history and themes of our 2020–21 Season. We wrap up the BobCasts series with the final episode that combines a rich cultural history with a very complicated instrument.

“Many of the guitar recitals sponsored this season by San Francisco Performances will feature music by Spanish and Latin American composers, composers who, if not all from the southern Spanish region of Andalucía, were nevertheless profoundly—and we do not use that word lightly—profoundly influenced by Andalucían Flamenco, (Hey: does a composer have to be from New Orleans in order to be profoundly influenced by jazz? Exactly.)

Here’s a big, fat, general statement for you: of all the very many folk music traditions that evolved and have been preserved in Spain, none has had a greater impact on Spanish culture and the international community than Andalucían Flamenco.

“Flamenco” is a genre of Spanish song and dance that originated in Andalucía, It’s an amazing hybrid/synthesis/melding of native Spanish, North African, Arab, and especially gypsy influences.

Flamenco consists of four elements: cante (meaning singing), toque (which is the especially percussive style of guitar playing typical of flamenco), dancing, and palmas (percussive handclapping),

In my humble (but not uninformed) opinion, flamenco is—along with jazz—the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet, I would go so far as to suggest that were Andalucía a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to flamenco and not that north American-born hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll.

While the history of the guitar is as complex as the history of Andalucía, we are going to cut to the chase, So, while the various ancestors of the guitar can be traced to ancient Greece, Persia, North Africa, and Western Europe, the guitar as we know it today—a gorgeous, figure eight-shaped beauty bearing six strings—is a Spanish instrument, created in no small part to perform flamenco.

We conclude with a quote by Pepe Romero, who will grace our stage on April 8, 2021:

“To me, flamenco is the soul of Andalucía transformed into music, When I think of flamenco, images from my youth flash through my mind: my roots, the country of my birth, the sun which warmed and gave joy to [my home city of] Málaga, Flamenco is the Andalucía of the poets, painters, and musicians, the Andalucía of the dreamers, all of whom struggle to better the lives of those who suffer.” —Bob Greenberg

Listen to the full Episode 8 “BobCast”.

The BobCasts | Episode 7:
The Guitar and the Art of the Transcription


SF Performances’ Historian-in-Residence Robert “Bob” Greenberg continues his eight-part “BobCast” series exploring the history and themes of our 2020–21 Season.

“I’ve got a question: is there anyone out there that doesn’t like the sound of a Classical guitar (meaning an acoustic Spanish guitar with nylon strings)? Go ahead; raise your hand. Anyone?

Good, because anyone who had raised his or her hand was going to be removed from this BobCast and forced to listen to the Russian Navy Piccolo Ensemble play “favorite thrash hits” for three agonizing hours; that’ll teach you not to like the gorgeously intimate sound of the Classical/Spanish guitar!

The guitar—or more accurately, what today we identify as guitar-like instruments with various numbers of strings and characteristics—had come to be considered the “Spanish national instrument” by the sixteenth century: the 1500s. (Excuse me, but how lucky are the Spanish to have something as exquisite as the guitar as their “national instrument”? What, pray tell, could be considered to be the American “national instrument”? A TV remote? A Vitamix blender? A Twitter feed?)

The guitar had long been associated with Spanish folk music of all sorts. But until the six-string guitar became standard in the late eighteenth century, the instrument had not been blessed with much composed repertoire. That began to change thanks to the guitarist, composer, and pedant Fernando Sor, who was born in Barcelona in 1778 and died in Paris in 1839. Such was Sor’s virtuosity that the hugely influential Belgian music critic François-Joseph Fétis referred to Sor as “the Beethoven of the guitar” while referring to Beethoven as “the Sor of the piano”, appraisals that likely pleased neither Sor nor Beethoven.”

[During this same period] “…the piano—which as we’ve observed came into its modern form in the nineteenth century as well—was blessed with a gigantic repertoire by a who’s-who of great composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy, to name a few. Putting aside the fact that all these dudes were pianists, we are still honor-bound to ask ourselves why they didn’t compose anything for the guitar, an instrument that was almost as common in nineteenth century middle class salons as the piano? I mean, at some time or another, they all wrote for the violin, the cello, the horn, and so forth: so why not the guitar?

The answer: composing for the guitar is fiendishly difficult. The odd arrangement of the six strings—in ascending order, bottom-to-top E-A-D-G-B-E—assures that stuff that would seem to be routine for a non-guitarist can be defacto impossible to play in reality; and stuff that would seem to be impossible to play to a non-guitarist can be, in reality, child’s play for a guitarist.

AND THERE YOU HAVE IT! The idiosyncrasies of the instrument being what they are, the only people who really and truly understand the guitar are guitarists themselves!” —Bob Greenberg

Listen to the full Episode 7 “BobCast”.

The BobCasts | Episode 6:
Why All the Fuss About Beethoven?

Ludwig van Beethoven

Episode 6 of SF Performances’ BobCast series continues this week with Music-Historian-in-Residence Bob Greenberg.

“Allow me, please, to first explain that title: The First Angry Man. Obviously, Ludwig van Beethoven was not, technically, the “first” angry man (or woman or girl or boy); human beings have been getting annoyed, irritated, livid, irate, incensed and furious since time immemorial (and we can expect that people will continue to do so as long as they feel threatened or attacked, frustrated or powerless, invalidated or ripped-off or disrespected). What makes Beethoven’s anger special is that he was the first composer to actually portray his personal emotions—of which anger was a principal sentiment—in his music. At a time when composers were expected to amuse and entertain their audiences, Beethoven—who lived from 1770 to 1827—got it into his head that his music was not for anyone’s piddling pleasure but his own: that first and foremost, the creation of music was an act of profound self-expression. (I would tell you that why and how Beethoven came up with this seemingly heretical artistic belief occupies no small part of the course.)

But to the present point: when it came to depicting raw, sometimes even violent emotions in music, Beethoven was—truly—the “first angry man” (or at least “the first angry composer”). And as a result, for more than 200 years, his music has moved and touched (and yes, sometimes frightened and disgusted) audiences in a manner almost primal. Back in 1813—when Beethoven was in his 43rd year—the German author, composer, and music critic Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E.T.A.”) Hoffmann wrote:

“Beethoven’s music sets in motion the lever of fear, of awe, of horror, of suffering, and awakens just that infinite longing which is the essence of Romanticism.”

Once Beethoven had opened the door to this new, self-realized, self-expressive musical world, there was to be no going back to the polite, restrained Classical style that had preceded him. The musicologist Donald Grout correctly points out that:

‘Beethoven was one of the great disruptive forces in the history of music. After him, nothing could ever be the same again; he had opened the gateway to a new world.’“

—Bob Greenberg

Listen to the full Episode 6 “BobCast”.

The BobCasts | Episode 5:
Sergei Prokofiev: The Pianistic Steel Trust

Sergei Prokofiev

Episode 5 of SF Performances’ BobCast series airs this week with Music-Historian-in-Residence Bob Greenberg.

“Prokofiev's music will appear on three programs during San Francisco Performances’ 2020-2021 season: on those of the pianists Natasha Peremski and Aaron Diehl; and in the piano and violin concert of Beatrice Rana and Renaud Capuçon on February 25, 2021. With all this play, I’ve decided that Prokofiev deserves a BobCast of his very own!

Sergei Prokofiev was a great pianist and an even greater composer, a composer who conceived of the piano not just as a stringed instrument born to sing but also, as a percussion instrument, an 88-key drum set, born to snap, crackle and pop.

His percussive, machine-age piano music prompted one American critic to declare:

‘Steel fingers, steel biceps, steel triceps—he is a tonal steel trust!’

Sergei’s talent as a pianist manifested itself early, and in 1904—at the age of 13—he and his mother moved to St. Petersburg so that he could attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory. By the time he graduated in 1914—first in his class—Prokofiev was already well on his way to fame.

But, as it turned, current events creamed Prokofiev’s developing career like that bass in the blender. Violent frustration over the Russian war effort led Czar Nicholas II to abdicate his throne on March 2, 1917. An armed insurrection brought Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to power in November of 1917, and the Russian Civil War began. The Civil War would last for five horrific years, kill an additional 9 million Russians, and destroy the Russian economy, which has still yet to fully recover.

The 27 year-old Prokofiev did his level best to ignore the events around him. But events would not ignore him, and he realized that he could not ply his dual trades as a composer and pianist in such an environment. So Prokofiev decided to go to New York. Since war was still raging in Western Europe, he took the long way around. He travelled across Russia, took a steamer to Japan, and from there he sailed to San Francisco…” —Bob Greenberg

Listen to the full Episode 5 “BobCast”.

The BobCasts | Episode 4: Mozart’s “Prussian” String Quartets


SF Performances’ Historian-in-Residence Robert “Bob” Greenberg continues The BobCasts, his eight-part series exploring the history and themes of our 2020–21 Season.

“Too bad about Mozart and money.

Robert L. Marshall writes: ‘Whether Mozart was merely the victim of financial ineptitude, bad luck stemming from unsuccessful investments, the expenses associated with his wife’s medical needs, or whether there was perhaps a more sinister cause of his financial worries—such as an addiction to gambling—will probably never be known for certain.’

Here’s what we do know. In 1786, despite the initial success of the opera The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart earned 30% less than he had in 1784. By 1788, the 32-year-old Mozart’s income had fallen an additional 35% to its lowest level since 1781, the year he moved to Vienna.

On April 8, 1789 Mozart left Vienna for what became a two-month journey to Northern Germany, where he hoped to revive his flagging career. The trip marked the first time Mozart had been separated from his wife Constanze since their marriage nearly seven years before.

Now about this “trip”. The goal was Berlin, where Mozart claimed to have been summoned to the Prussian court by none-other-than the music-loving, cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II himself, who was—according to Mozart—“anxious to receive me”. Certainly, Mozart’s wife Constanze believed this to be true. So did Mozart’s many creditors back in Vienna, who assumed he would return with some hard, Prussian cash in his pocket.

But alas, it was all alternative fact (a lie, okay, a lie). Mozart had not been summoned by the King of Prussia, and his “belief” that by simply showing up he would be embraced by the Prussian King and his court was a massive chunk of self-delusion.

Mozart never composed a single one of the piano sonatas for Princess Friederike and after composing three of the six projected string quartets, he abandoned that project as well. He sold the quartets outright to the Viennese publisher Artaria and they were published without any dedication whatsoever. They do, however, bear the appellation “Prussian”, if for no other reason than it was Mozart’s trip to Prussia that prompted their composition.

These were hard times for the Mozart family. And yet Mozart’s three Prussian string quartets sparkle with his trademark brilliance and imagination, as if the almost paralyzing issues of his everyday life went completely unnoticed by his compositional muse.” —Robert Greenberg

Listen to the full Episode 4 “BobCast”.

The BobCasts | Episode 3: The Original Fab Four:
The Birth of the String Quartet

String Quartet Instruments

Our free online series, The BobCasts, continues, featuring the wit and wisdom of SFP music historian-in-residence, Robert “Bob” Greenberg.

Episode three titled The Original Fab Four: The Birth of the String Quartet is a great prelude to enjoying our 2020–21 season performances of Doric String Quartet, Modigliani Quartet, Chiaroscuro Quartet and Danish String Quartet.

Vocal ensembles, rock groups, string quartets…what’s up with the number four?

“Why this prevalence of musical foursomes?” says Greenberg. “And it’s not just vocal ensembles.

The most common configuration for a rock ‘n’ roll band or pop group is likewise a quartet, from the “Fab Four” (the Beatles), to Metallica, to the Who, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Kiss, the Talking Heads, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. (Good god; I almost forgot to include Weezer and Megadeath.)

In the world of so-called concert music, the string quartet has been the pre-eminent genre of chamber music for 250 years. Put simply, no other specific grouping of instruments has shown such longevity; and no other particular grouping of instruments has been lavished with such an extraordinary repertoire.

The prevalence in Western musical practice of ensembles with four distinct musical parts has its roots in tonal harmonic practice as it evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The basic harmonic unit in Western tonality is the triad, a chord/harmony consisting of three different pitches. The minimum number of musical parts necessary to accompany a melody using tonal harmonies—using triads—is FOUR: the melody itself plus the three notes of the accompanying triads. From such a simple conceptual beginning did great things evolve!” —Bob Greenberg

Listen to the full “BobCast” including music samples from Corelli, Lennon/McCarthy, Baldassare Galuppi Franz Xaver Richter and Haydn.

The BobCasts | Episode 2: Winterreisse

Franz Schubert Franz Schubert

SF Performances has launched a new online series called The BobCasts featuring the deep knowledge and razor-sharp wit of SFP music historian-in-residence, Robert “Bob” Greenberg, also of our Saturday Morning Series fame.

This eight-part series explores the history and themes of our 2020–21 Season as well as a digital survey of popular composers and musical genres delivered in Bob’s inimitable style!

Here is an excerpt of his Episode 2: Franz Schubert’s Winterreise released Thursday, September 17.

Schubert’s brief life divides into two parts: before his diagnosis and after.

Certainly, that’s true of Schubert’s compositional output: there’s a depth and range of expressive substance in Schubert’s post-diagnosis music that he would likely never had achieved had he not been looking death in the face during his last six years of life.

Awful though it is to observe, Schubert’s terrible pain was posterity’s great musical gain. And among Schubert’s most personal, despairing, autobiographical, post-diagnosis works is the song cycle Winterreise, or “Winter Journey.”

From the fall of 1824 until mid-1827 or so, Schubert’s syphilis entered its latency, during which he was symptom free and noninfectious. Nevertheless: he still suffered from debilitating depression, exacerbated by his fear that the disease would return; and thus he self-medicated with vast amounts of nicotine and by drinking way too much alcohol, at which time the ordinarily mild-mannered Schubert became vulgar, abusive, and physically destructive. Physically destructive. While under the influence, Schubert liked nothing more than to smash glassware and crockery, making him—understandably—a less-than-welcome guest in most homes and hostelries. Wilhelm von Chezy observed that when he drank, Schubert was subject to uncontrollable rage.

“As soon as the blood of the vine was glowing in him, he liked to withdraw into a corner and give in to anger, during which he would create some sort of havoc as quickly as possible, for example, with cups, glasses and plates, and as he did so, he would grin and screw up his eyes tight.”

In 1827, Schubert’s latency came to an end as his syphilis began, once again, to advance. Depressed and deflated, Schubert completed the heartbreaking song cycle Wintereisse in the fall of 1827. According to Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer, Schubert wrote the cycle because:

“winter was upon him.”

Hooked? Listen to the full audio podcast.

For a chance to hear Winterreise live, save February 20, 2021 for mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager’s performance in the Herbst Theatre.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Dreamers’ Circus

Dreamers’ Circus Dreamers’ Circus

Late one night in 2009 Nikolaj Busk pushed open the door of a bar in Copenhagen and chanced upon fiddle player Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen and cittern player, Ale Carr, playing some traditional tunes. Spotting a piano in the corner of the room Nikolaj joined the pair. Within minutes it was clear that there was an instant musical chemistry happening.

The music of Dreamers’ Circus defies instant classification. It’s a music that transcends genres and seeks to unlock imaginations and whether playing with symphony orchestras or rocking the Roskilde Festival or joining The Chieftains onstage in Japan, Dreamers’ Circus have enjoyed numerous career highlights as they celebrate ten years together as a band. They will bring their driving Nordic music to our 6th Annual PIVOT Festival in April 2021 at Herbst Theatre.

So what’s our One Good Question to ask Dreamers’ Circus?

“Your innovative arrangements of traditional folk music of Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland have created an extraordinary amount of praise. For those of us unfamiliar with those traditions, how would you best explain to us how you’ve changed those forms and in so doing created a sound you call “authentic folk music from another planet.”

While our backgrounds are in playing folk and traditional music, and we still love to play it, most of the music we perform is written by ourselves. So whether you could call it traditional music is open to question. If people sometimes find traditional elements in it we’ll take that but for the most part that’s not necessarily our motivation. Rune (violin) shares something in common with Ale (cittern) in that they were both brought up in families that were deeply involved in traditional music and dance. Rune’s father is from the Faroe Islands and the ballad tradition and the beautiful landscape of these remote north Atlantic islands inspire us.

Our most recent album Blue White Gold contains more traditional music than our previous recordings but even still most of the pieces are newly composed. Somebody observed that the music Dreamers’ Circus play crosses genres and can sometimes seem to defy classification. We kind of like that notion of playing with ‘musical mercury’. In our approach to writing we might find ourselves, whether consciously or otherwise, inspired by our various interests in jazz, classical or more contemporary forms of popular music. But good music is good music. We try and play good music.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
George Hinchliffe
(Founder, Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain)

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (Photo: Allison Burke)

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is a group of all-singing, all-strumming Ukulele players, using instruments bought with loose change, which believes that all genres of music are available for reinterpretation, as long as they are played on the Ukulele.

The Orchestra joins our PIVOT festival in April for an evening of acoustic mash-up like nothing else you’ve heard.

So what’s our One Good Question to ask George Hinchliffe?

It’s noted that your programs go from Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding and Spaghetti Western soundtracks. How do you decide on your music selections when it seems the only limitation is “anything is fair game”? And since the orchestra has a well-developed sense of humor—please don’t tell us it has to do with a dartboard!

The Ukulele Orchestra has played music from many genres: a “shopping trolley dash through the archives of musical history”. Perhaps the Velvet Underground, Isaac Hayes or The Muffs reinterpreted, but also you finally find out what those rap lyrics were, owing to the clarity of diction from members of the orchestra and the spaciousness of the ukulele arrangement. There is humour in this, and some surprises. The absence of habitual stylistic conventions (no fuzzbox on the grunge track, no operatic vocal on the classical track) might enable us to appreciate a wider variety of music without any customary prejudices or preferences. Here’s the USP: music is the interesting thing, not timbre or genre, or the style of haircut normally associated with a piece of music. When Tchaikovsky and Charlie Parker, Ukulele Ike and Nirvana are brought to a level playing field under the even-handed illumination of the orchestra’s “depraved musicology”, the music stands out, and the quality is revealed. Perhaps the whole concept of genre is simply an old-school record-label’s idea of promotion, and in this modern world, the actual stuff of composition, the music and the effectiveness of it’s emotional resonance, are the important things. The Orchestra’s method is to be playful with the cultural significance of certain pieces of music, whether they are dear to us because of their intrinsic musical merit or whether their clichéd simplicity appeals to us merely because they remind us of our youth. Different audiences have different cultural tastes and histories. But there are many shared references, and we all have a view of famous songs, whether we love them or hate them. Sometimes the orchestra’s version seems like a homage, or an honest reading, sometimes like a satire, a joke, a critique of the follies of our past, but it is always true to the text, to the art, and to the power of music in sharing a good time with an audience and turning a concert into a feel-good, amusing yet thought-provoking experience. Human beings are made of movement, and resonances, positive and negative, opinions and feelings. Amusement and euphoria are all to do with being playful with these, and with what one might call engendering positive vibrations. Surely there’s nothing outdated yet about good vibes.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
David Samuel

David Samuel David Samuel

Violist David Samuel is the newest member of the Alexander String Quartet, SFP’s quartet-in-residence since 1989. Samuel will be replacing founding member Paul Yarbrough later this year. Samuel most recently has been the Associate Principal Viola of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and also the Convenor of Classical Performance at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He was previously the violist of Ensemble MidtVest in Denmark and was the founding violist of the Afiara Quartet.

Samuel has performed at Wigmore Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, the Esterházy Palace, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, at the headquarters of both LinkedIn and Facebook, and on The Late Show with David Letterman. He has recorded for CPO, Dacapo, Foghorn Classics, and Naxos, and has worked as a producer most recently for a recording of Mozart chamber music with the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Yang.

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

“What are the adjustments you have to make from playing in an orchestra like the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra of which you’re a member, to playing in a string quartet? Or is there no change in your approach to performing?”

This is a fascinating question, actually, as in a way I’m returning to my roots. My career started as a quartet player when the Afiara Quartet was founded in early 2006, and then continued in the chamber music world when I moved to Denmark to join Ensemble MidVest. So interestingly, the real adjustment for me came when I joined the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2015. I had certainly played in many orchestras during my student years, but as you can imagine, the way any ensemble operates in a professional context is quite different. Not only that, but after years of such intimate work with my chamber music colleagues in the Afiara Quartet and Ensemble MidtVest, the shift to a much larger ensemble in itself presented new challenges and opened my eyes (and ears) to a fresh perspective on orchestral work and the orchestral sound world.

This isn’t to say that there will be no adjustment period when I return to quartet playing with the Alexander Quartet. There is always an adjustment when playing with different people, but I am accustomed to the quartet lifestyle and I’ve worked and played so much with the Alexanders in the past that much of the “getting to know each other” phase that would normally occur when a new member joins a quartet has already happened. Given their vast repertoire, however, it will take me some time to catch up with new pieces I need to learn, and some old ones that might need some polishing.

I couldn’t be more excited to return to the Bay Area and to my love for quartet playing. It’s all going to take a bit longer than any of us would have hoped or expected, but we will get there. I’m eager to rehearse with the guys and start the journey of this next chapter in my career and life!

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Jay Campbell

Jay Campbell Jay Campbell

Cellist Jay Campbell is an artist passionately dedicated to the music of our time. His performances have been called “electrifying” by the New York Times; “gentle, poignant, and deeply moving” by the Washington Post.

The only musician ever to receive two Avery Fisher Career Grants—in 2016 as a soloist, and again in 2019 as a member of the JACK Quartet—Jay made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2013.

Jay has worked with some of the most creative musicians of our recent time including Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, Matthias Pintscher, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Chaya Czernowin, Georg Friedrich Haas, and many others from his own generation. His close association with John Zorn resulted in the 2015 release of Hen to Pan (Tzadik) featuring all works written for Campbell, and was listed in the New York Times year-end Best Recordings of 2015. Deeply committed as a chamber musician, Campbell is a member of the JACK Quartet as well as the JCT Trio with violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Conrad Tao and will be presented by SF Performances November 17 with violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Timo Andres in a program of Andres and Janáček.

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

“Thanks for being part of SFP’s very first PIVOT series performance in 2016 when the JACK Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 3 at 11pm, in complete darkness. As an audience member it was an unforgettable music moment. As a player, what do you think your most unforgettable moment has been?”

I’ve often heard people talk about the revelatory experience from their first encounters with things like Beethoven 9, Rite of Spring, A Love Supreme, etc.—powerful, but now very familiar works of art. It’s always very nostalgic, as if new pathways were being blazed in the brain in real time but now are familiar. Not worse or less interesting, just familiar. Of course, you can still enjoy a familiar hike and appreciate deeper subtleties, but there are few feelings quite like new art that opens a new dimension of your own self. So I feel extremely lucky that I get to work with living composers so frequently. I get to experience these new dimensions of expression on a regular basis.

Georg Friedrich Haas’s music is always memorable in this way. His 3rd and 9th quartets are performed in total, entombing darkness. Very literally, all light is completely blocked out. No matter how many times I play them, removing all visual stimuli helps make my sense of hearing hyper-aware of the complexity of pure tones. There is a feeling of being able to hear beyond the initial layer of the music into the sonic DNA of the raw sounds themselves and the complexities of their interactions in the physical space and in my brain.

When the lights come back up, there is almost a feeling of rebirth, and that deeper mode of listening hangs over for a while. I leave the concert a slightly different person, hearing and seeing the world differently, for at least a little while. I leave re-enchanted by the most (seemingly) basic building blocks of music—sound itself—and am reminded of its infinite mystery and depth.

Nicholas Phan on His Sanctuary Performance


Sanctuary is our new digital series of works performed especially for San Francisco Performances by artists with a deep connection to our organization. These performances offer a musical space for introspection and contemplation.

The performance by tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist-composer Jake Heggie is a meditation on our times and fits the moment perfectly.

In program notes, Nicholas writes:

With the world locked down for safety, musicians now find themselves with nothing but time on their hands. Banned from our concert halls and opera houses, many of us (American musicians, in particular), have been told we will not be able to perform for live audiences until next year at the earliest. Even that start date remains tentative at best. Not really certain when we will be able to return to the live stage, isolated from our colleagues and audiences, this moment feels endless.

During this pause, I’ve found myself thinking about humanity’s relationship with time. Sometimes it feels fleeting, when the hours rush by and we can never have enough of them in the day. Other times (now), it feels suspended. Some perceive the flow of time cyclically, like the rotation of the seasons. Others as a linear, unstoppable river. We are always physically rooted in the present moment, yet our minds wander forward and backward into the past and the future.

How difficult it can be to simply just be here, in the now. This program is a musical meditation on the current moment, as well as an exploration of these themes, upon which composers and poets have been ruminating for hundreds of years. Because the program was about time, it only felt right to have the repertoire span over four and half centuries: you’ll hear songs ranging from John Dowland, who was born in 1563, to the music of composers writing today, such as my esteemed colleague at the piano, Jake Heggie.

I am very grateful to Melanie Smith and San Francisco Performances for the opportunity to take a bigger step towards approximating the concert hall and present this recital program for you. I am also extraordinarily thankful to Jake Heggie: not only for allowing me to perform his songs, but also his willingness to be my musical and programming partner for this meditation on time in the place where words and music meet.

A note: While we are not shown wearing masks in this video, masks were worn at all other times during the filming of this performance.

—Nicholas Phan

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Laura Snowden

Laura Snowden Laura Snowden

Guitarist and composer Laura Snowden was the first guitarist to graduate from the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School and was invited by famed guitarist Julian Bream to premiere his latest commissions at Wigmore Hall in 2015 and 2017. Laura’s international appearances have since built rapidly, with festival debuts across Europe, China and the US, as well as concerto debuts with Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and Münchener Kammerorchester, and a recording of Lisa Streich’s guitar concerto Augenlider with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester.

Laura’s eclectic musical output has ranged from producing arrangements for Noah and the Whale frontman Charlie Fink to giving dozens of world premieres by composers including Julian Anderson, Errollyn Wallen and Olli Mustonen. She has also collaborated closely with her folk band Tir Eolas, appearing with them at Shakespeare’s Globe at the invitation of guitarist John Williams. As a composer, Laura’s music has been performed at Royal Albert Hall, Wigmore Hall and Sadlers Wells, commissioned by the Park Lane Group, Birmingham Symphony Hall and International Guitar Foundation, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio Scotland and Hong Kong Radio 4. She joins SF Performances 2020–21 Season next March in a program of Barrios, Villa Lobos and traditional Celtic songs.

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

“Your biography reads a bit like a master-of-all-trades: superlative classical guitar soloist, composing/performing member of the Celtic and English music folk group Tir Eolas, collaborator with contemporary composers as well as the occasional pop star—what do you think allows you to have this incredible breadth of music-making?”

As a small child, whenever I felt sad at night, I would lie in my top bunk bed and think over and over again: ‘at least you have creativity.’ I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who encouraged me to be creative in many forms: storytelling, poetry, reading, painting, and, of course, music. My first attempts to make music weren’t through the guitar, but through songwriting. I would record the melodies and words on a tape player, and my dad would work out the chords and play them on guitar. The music I grew up with was very different to that which I formally studied; there was Celtic folk music, played by my dad on the Irish tenor banjo, and songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Ralph McTell and Mark Knopfler. In fact, it was Ralph McTell’s beautiful guitar playing which inspired me to first take up the guitar.

At music school, most of my musical studies were focussed around the Western classical canon, which gave me insights into a whole new world of musical languages and styles. As is often the case within the guitar world, my teachers were always open-minded about musical genres, having straddled different styles themselves. However, at the time I was consumed with the notion that one should ‘do only one thing, and do it well’; I felt sure I would eventually have to pick sides. The trouble was, I loved the variety, and couldn’t help myself from constantly starting new projects that I ‘wasn’t meant to be doing!’ Why was I busking on the street, why was I practising my singing, why was I writing music—who did I think I was?! I remember being afraid to mention my composing to people, in case it would imply that I wasn’t a serious guitarist, or that I was arrogant for daring to play my own compositions. I thought I had to keep everything separate, and I felt fragmented.

With time, though, I came to embrace and indeed love this wide breadth of activity, and to understand how it aligns with my personality and approach to life. I love the idea that a catchy pop song could sit happily alongside a piece of contemporary classical music. I have also come to realise that ‘only doing one thing’ doesn’t really exist in the way I might have thought. If somebody’s ‘one thing’ is playing the classical guitar, that is likely to involve a great multitude of things—from general musicianship, art and history to matters such as communication, presentation, the body-mind connection and more. And all that just to give one classical guitar recital!

My past self would have been happy to know that this breadth of music-making would be seen as a strength and would allow me to find more artistic truth and integrity. I look forward to sharing my classical repertoire, folk arrangements and original compositions with your audience in March 2021!

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Natasha Paremski

Natasha Paremski Natasha Paremski

Striking and dynamic performances, lyrical range and flawless technique are just a few of the frequent descriptions you’ll read about hometown pianist Natasha Paremski. “Paremski outdid herself, tossing off diabolically complex passages as if they were child’s play (they are not!),” said the Chicago Tribune.

SF Performances is thrilled to welcome Natasha back for the third time, with a challenging program of Chopin, Adès and Prokofiev on April 10, 2021.

Read Natasha’s full biography on her performance page.

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

“Welcome back Natasha. This is your third appearance with us, the first of which being your SFP Young Masters debut in 2007 and last year you shared an amazing program with jazz pianist Alfredo Rodríguez where you performed Balakirev’s finger-crushing Islamey. You essentially grew up in the Bay Area (not counting your first 8 years in Moscow), does it feel different to perform here—at home—versus when you perform abroad?”

Indeed to perform not only in the Bay Area, where I spent half of my childhood, but especially for San Francisco Performances is something deeply personal.

My absolute obsession with Evgeny Kissin started in Moscow. We had a casette tape of his live performances at twelve years old of both Chopin Piano Concertos. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the music, and by the way he played. He was also frequently on the radio, and on one such instance he made yet another everlasting impression on me—with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. So much so, that I ran to our upright piano and tried to pick out the opening chords. I was six, so you can imagine what that sounded like. My musical journey, having started at age three was fueled by him—his otherworldly gift and work ethic. I simply wanted to be just like him. There was talk of me auditioning for the Gnessin Academy of Music which Kissin had also attended.

Then everything changed. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and with it all stability. Virtually overnight, the streets were overrun with crime, the stock market crashed and depleted my family of all they had saved. When one day it was safe to play in the courtyard, now my mom had a pepper spray in each pocket and neither my brother nor I were allowed to let go of her elbow when we stepped outside.

A recruiter from California came one day and told my computer scientist father that people like him were prized in the Silicon Valley boom of the 90s, and that he should consider emigrating. It would be easy for him to secure a Green Card—he was after all part of a team of a handful of scientists to create the Internet in Russia in 1989—and he could build a nice life for his young family. The American Dream. My father was 47 years old and barely spoke a word of English. He resisted the change, but my mother saw the opportunity.

Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck. Late one night, my father was coming home from his laboratory at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, my mother waiting for him on the balcony as she always did. She witnessed him run, pursued by five men, fall to the ground and get assaulted. When they figured he was dead, they ran off. He ended up in the hospital with a severe brain trauma with doctors saying his life was a coin toss.

The recruiter called again, and my mother picked up the phone.
“Has Mikhail reconsidered?”
“Yes, he has,” my mom replied.
“When may I see him to start the paperwork?”
“Mikhail is on a business trip. No worries, I have power of attorney—I will be happy to assist.”

With that call, our fate was sealed. The coin tossed in favor of life, and my father recovered completely. We made the leap in pursuit of the Dream.

Because my parents now had to start from zero, in every way imaginable, most of all financially, sacrifices were to be made. We could not bring the piano from Moscow—not that it would survive the trip anyway—nor could they afford a new one, and I could not have lessons. Where they were provided for by the Russian government, in the US they were debilitating in their expense. I didn’t mind it at first—I did not miss practicing! There was a new language to be learned, new culture to understand, new everything. However, the adrenaline soon wore off, and I missed my best friend.

One day, my mom told me that a friend gave her two tickets to see a pianist perform at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. It was Kissin. I nearly fainted—finally to see my idol, in the living flesh. It all came flooding back to me—my obsession with his playing, with the instrument. I sat through the concert, presented by none other than San Francisco Performances, in utter amazement with tears streaming down my face. It was there that I knew what I wanted to do, what my dream was. Aged nine, I turned to my mom and announced that I wanted to be just like him, that I wanted to be on that very stage, and begged for piano lessons.

Six years later, I moved to New York and met Charles (Charlie) Hamlen who was the impresario to bring Kissin to the United States and in fact organized his San Francisco debut with his dear friend Ruth Felt. Through his mentorship, and ten years after that fateful concert at Herbst, I made my San Francisco Performances debut.

When I play here, I carry all of this with me. I play for my father, my mother, my brother, for Charlie, for their enormous sacrifices on behalf of my dreams, for their guidance, and for all it took to make the dream sparked by that night at Herbst come true.

On the Front Row:
Richard Goode and The Well-Tempered Clavier

Richard Goode Richard Goode

Our digital concert series Front Row offers recordings of memorable concerts of the past, one of which is a 2011 performance by Richard Goode. The legendary pianist has been on our stage many times, including an appearance as the guest artists for our gala in the fall of 2019.

In his 2011 program, he opens with two selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier, one of the most significant and well known works in the history of classical music. The program notes offer some background:

In 1722 Bach wrote a set of pieces for keyboard that has become one of the most popular and influential works ever composed, even though it was not published until half a century after his death. Bach’s own description of this music suggests his intention: “Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones…for the use and profit of young musicians anxious to learn as well as for the amusement of those already skilled in this art.”

The Well-Tempered Clavier—full of wonderful, ingenious and expressive music—has moved and haunted composers ever since. One of those haunted was Bach himself; two decades later, in 1744, he wrote a second set of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The “48,” as the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier are sometimes called, have been a part of every pianist’s repertory since then, from the humblest amateur to the greatest virtuoso.

Though this music was not published until 1801, it had wide circulation in manuscript copies: the young Beethoven dazzled audiences with these Preludes and Fugues during his earliest years in Vienna, and pianist-composers of very different character have felt the pull of Bach’s achievement. Their number has included composers so diverse as Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and (surprisingly) Shostakovich, who in 1951 composed his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues.

This program opens with two Preludes and Fugues from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Prelude in F-sharp minor is solemn, serious music, and Bach varies its rhythmic pulse by constantly switching between triplets, steady sixteenths and syncopations.

The Fugue, in three voices, preserves the solemnity and the rhythmic complexity of the Prelude, developing a great deal of tension as its proceeds. The Prelude in G Major, in binary form, drives steadily forward along its 3/4 meter, while the fugue, in 3/8, is extremely concise (and brief); Bach rounds it off with a series of runs built on 32nd-notes.

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss Jonathan Biss

Jonathan Biss is a pianist who has earned an avid following for his brilliant knack for putting together deeply satisfying programs and delivering them with mastery, joy and wit.

To quote his humorous biography: “This enthusiasm (or, if you take the word of Mr. Biss’s friends and associates, ‘obsessiveness’ and ‘neurosis’)” with music remains today as does “the feeling that doing justice to great music is an ever unattainable goal. While this doesn’t necessarily make life easy, it is Mr. Biss’s deeply held sentiment that any other approach would be unthinkable.”

San Francisco Performances is honored to have presented his incredibly rich programs to Bay Area audiences over the past and looks forward to his upcoming 2021 performance at Herbst Theatre.

Read Biss’s full biography on his performance page.

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

Your recital with us in March 2021 will include music by Schubert, Kurtag and Schumann but you’ve been doing a deep dive into the music of Beethoven this past year as well as having created a 17-hour free course which takes a look at the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven. What drives you to go so far down the path of deep learning on a subject and which of your special projects (for which you are known) was the most personally rewarding?”

Great music is infinitely interesting. Artur Schnabel famously said that he only wanted to play pieces that were greater than any potential performance of them could be; I feel the same way. Every performance I have given of Beethoven’s Op. 111, of Schubert’s A Major Sonata, or of any number of the Mozart piano concerti has revealed layers of meaning of which I was previously unaware; to get to live with such pieces is a precious gift.

But the gift goes deeper than that: delving into the greatest music doesn’t just reveal new truths about the music, it teaches me about myself. Music has a spectacular ability to say the unsayable, and playing the pieces that mean most to me puts me in contact with corners of my psyche that would otherwise remain obscure to me. The process of working on these pieces is therefore like putting myself under a microscope: difficult, at times painful, but ultimately as rewarding as could be.

It is for that reason that I’ve chosen to make so much of my work take the form of immersion: most recently and most extensively in Beethoven. I’m not sure anything I do for the rest of life will match the intensity of working on his 32 sonatas—first of all, because of the intensity of his personality, but also because of the emotional and intellectual scope of the music. The number of different structures and characters and fixations addressed in that body of work is nothing short of staggering, and so preparing to play them and lecturing on them was an undertaking like none I’d experienced—it never felt like the work I’d done on the last one gave me a leg up as I started the next one.

But while the Beethoven immersion was surely the most intense experience of my life (all the more intense for having been interrupted, so suddenly, by the coronavirus), I cannot say that it was more important to me, or that I love his music more, than is the case with Mozart or Schubert or Schumann. If any one of those composers had not existed, my life would be immeasurably poorer for it. The lessons—about myself and about life—each has taught me are distinct and profound. Like most pianists, I am greedy, and therefore I look forward to a lifetime of lessons from Mozart’s psychological acuity, Beethoven’s unflinching idealism, and Schubert and Schumann’s different—but equally glorious—introversions. I could never quit any of them.

The 2020–21 Season Is Alive

Headphone and Violin

The 2020–21 Season marks our 41st year of providing great artists with a place to create their most personal performances. We’ve assembled a lineup of artists who have performed in concert halls across the globe and some who live right here. We also have familiar artists performing well-known masterworks and emerging artists with new repertoire. This playlist has at least one performance from every artist in our season. Enjoy the variety of sounds, and we look forward to a live arts experience.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Timo Andres

Timo Andres Timo Andres (Photo by Calla Kessler for the New York Times)

Born in Palo Alto, composer and pianist Timo Andres has a gift for connecting with audiences that shines through even in a digital medium. His recent project to reconstruct his canceled Carnegie Hall debut program on YouTube was hugely successful and landed him this recent New York Times article. His list of creative collaborations is long and includes Philip Glass, with whom he has performed the complete Glass Études, and who selected Andres as the recipient of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in 2016.

Notable recent works include Everything Happens So Much for the Boston Symphony; Strong Language for the Takács Quartet, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Shriver Hall Concert Series; Steady Hand, a two-piano concerto commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia premiered at the Barbican by Andres and David Kaplan; and The Blind Banister, a concerto for Jonathan Biss, which was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist.

As a pianist, Timo Andres has appeared with symphonies from around the world and solo recitals for Lincoln Center, Wigmore Hall, the Phillips Collection, (le) Poisson Rouge and four engagements with SFP. During our 2020–21 season Timo will be performing chamber music with Jennifer Koh and Jay Campbell; a solo recital; and a collaboration with a new commission for Anthony Roth Costanzo, the Attacca Quartet, and himself. Timo Andres’ full bio is available on each of the performance pages.

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

Your January 2021 solo recital with us will be the same concert you were to perform at Carnegie Hall in April, called I Still Play. Can you describe the new piece on the program by Gabriella Smith called Imaginary Pancake and did Carnegie Hall suggest her for their commission or did you? Feel free to also talk about the program as a whole.

I first heard Gabriella’s music around five years ago, and was bowled over by its confidence, resourcefulness, and structural sweep. That ability to articulate a given chunk of time is the main thing I look for in a composer, and it’s probably the hardest thing to learn to do. I’d been keeping an eye on her work since then, and when Carnegie offered me the chance to commission a work (expecting, I think, I’d use it to commission myself) I immediately thought of Gabriella. It turned out to be her first solo piano work—so all the more exciting for both of us.

I love to put myself on the other side of the composer-performer relationship when I can. Helping other composers’ music into the world is always a thrill, because it feels like such an important responsibility, like being a tattoo artist or a doula—if it goes poorly you can never take it back.

The piece Gabriella wrote, which is called Imaginary Pancake, bears all the traits about her music I loved from the beginning. It’s a powerful, almost elemental stream of energy that’s carefully modulated into a beautiful narrative. I’ve compared it to a small landscape painting—the field of view is large even though the canvas is relatively small. The piece uses the range of the piano structurally, starting from the outer reaches and moving inwards until the hands fuse into an ostinato pattern. This contour repeats a couple more times over the rest of the piece, though with different music, each time becoming bigger but less detailed—pulling back the frame, allowing the landscape to become even wider. That’s actually what the title means—it refers to the spread of the pianist’s arms across the keyboard when playing at the extremes of register, and the need to almost flatten one’s posture in order to play it. It’s a geological pancake.

Beethoven’s Last Composition: “Must it be?”

Beethoven Beethoven

The May 16 performance by the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg would have marked the end of this seven-concert series. Traveling through the early, middle, and late quartets (since October!) has no doubt produced a kinship among us. Another bonding experience comes later in the year with our Beethoven Marathon. Until then, we did want to mark the conclusion of the series with this story from Eric Bromberger’s program notes. It involves String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135, Beethoven’s last complete composition, and it feels especially relevant as we go through this extraordinary time of resignation and destiny, that must be.

The final movement has occasioned the most comment. In the manuscript, Beethoven noted two three-note mottos at its beginning under the heading Der schwer gefasste Entschluss: “The Difficult Resolution.” The first, solemnly intoned by viola and cello, asks the question: “Muss es sein?” (“Must it be?”). The violins’ inverted answer, which comes at the Allegro, is set to the words “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”). Coupled with the fact that this quartet is virtually Beethoven’s final composition, these mottos have given rise to a great deal of pretentious nonsense from certain commentators, mainly to the effect that they must represent Beethoven’s last thoughts, a stirring philosophical affirmation of life’s possibilities.

The actual origins of this motto are a great deal less imposing, for they arose from a dispute over an unpaid bill, and as a private joke for friends Beethoven wrote a humorous canon on the dispute, the theme of which he later adapted for this quartet movement.

In any case, the mottos furnish the opening material for what turns out to be a powerful but essentially cheerful movement—the second theme radiates a childlike simplicity. The coda, which begins pizzicato, gradually gives way to bowed notes and a cadence on the “Es muss sein!” motto.

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

2020–21 Season Snapshot

The 2020-21 Season marks our 41st year of providing great artists with a place to create their most personal performances. Here’s a snapshot of the season, a sample of new discoveries, familiar artists, and forward-thinking collaborations:

Danish String Quartet

Danish String Quartet
They look like they could be characters from Game of Thrones, but they bring their adventurousness to a wide range of music. Their wit is as sharp as their technique as revealed in their bio. They are three Danes and one Norwegian cellist, making this a truly Scandinavian endeavor. “Being relatively bearded, we are often compared to the Vikings. However, we are only pillaging the English coastline occasionally.” Their program includes Mozart, Shostakovich, and arrangements of traditional Nordic folk music.

Golda Schultz

Golda Schultz, soprano
Lauded as “the newcomer who has everything,” Schultz sang the role of Clara the Angel in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life at SF Opera. She was a journalism major at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa when she took her first music elective. Now, she’s equally at home in leading operatic roles and as featured soloist with the world’s foremost orchestras and conductors.

The Romeros

The Romeros, guitar
Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano
60th Anniversary Tour

In 1957, the family left Spain and immigrated to the United States, where three years later, “The Romeros” became the first guitar quartet. The younger members were still in their teens, but they quickly developed a following, then an appearance on Ed Sullivan, and then their first recording contract. Once credited for “inventing the format” of the guitar quartet, the “Royal Family of the Guitar” celebrates an astonishing milestone in this concert. The program consists of Spanish songs and versatile vocalist Isabel Leonard. More on their story in this San Francisco Classical Voice story from their 2014 performance with SFP.

Beatrice Rana and Renaud Capuçon

Beatrice Rana, piano
Renaud Capuçon, violin

High-energy Italian pianist Beatrice Rana joins renowned violinist Renaud Capuçon for a tour-de-force program that spotlights their technical mastery and interpretive sensitivities. There’s no shortage of accolades for these two. “Beatrice Rana possesses an old soul that belies under her twenty years, and more than a touch of genius,” says Gramophone. Le Temps hails Capuçon as “…an interpreter who listens to others. A musician uninhibited, at the top of his art.”

Timo Andres

Timo Andres, piano
Born in Palo Alto, Timo Andres has a gift for connecting with audiences that shines through even in a digital medium. His list of creative collaborations is long and includes Philip Glass, with whom he has performed the complete Glass Études around the world, and who selected Andres as the recipient of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in 2016.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
At their hands, the ever-present relevance of popular music meets the lofty sounds of “highbrow” fare in a delicious acoustic mash-up like nothing else you’ve heard. They believe firmly that all genres of music are available for reinterpretation, as long as they are played on the Ukulele. Working with the limitations of the instrument, the ensemble offers an astonishing revelation of musical freedom and musical insights.


Beethoven Marathon
Our own contribution to the worldwide celebration of Beethoven’s 250th is a day-long series of events. The party opens with Robert Greenberg getting you in the mood with an energizing and informative lecture, followed by two all-Beethoven concerts with a dinner break in between. It will be a day of memory-making as audience and artists come together for this homage to a composer who remains as influential as he is elusive.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Nicholas Phan

Nicholas Phan Nicholas Phan (Photo by Henry Dombey/ClubSoda Productions)

Nicholas Phan is SF Performances’ Vocal Artist-in-Residence Emeritus (2015–19) and has appeared twice on our main stage. His third appearance was scheduled to be April 26, for our 40th Anniversary Concert (currently postponed) performing a new song cycle written by Gabriel Kahane.

Described by the Boston Globe as “one of the world’s most remarkable singers,” American tenor Nicholas Phan is increasingly recognized as an artist of distinction. An artist with an incredibly diverse repertoire that ranges from Claudio Monteverdi to Nico Muhly and beyond, he performs regularly with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies. Phan is also an avid recitalist and a passionate advocate for art song and vocal chamber music; in 2010, Phan co-founded Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, an organization devoted to promoting this underserved repertoire.

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

Can you describe one of the most inspirational projects you’ve ever been associated with and why it had such an impact on you?

This past January, I curated and performed two weeks of concerts and panel discussions with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The project, called Emerging Voices, was an exploration of song as an expression of identity. Over the course of the performances and discussions, we examined that concept through the lens of Paris 100 years ago: we began with the rise of French nationalism in music and poetry during the years of the Belle Époque, continued with the global trend of rising nationalism through the tumult of World War I, and then culminated with an examination of how American music was revolutionized because of this chapter in history.

Assembling the project took three years, and as my artistic life was consumed with writing, researching, programming and commissioning, I found myself grappling more and more personally with the material—particularly the American music—and the questions it raised about my own journey into classical music.

As a bi-racial American who is the child of immigrants, selecting American composers to feature and attempting to encompass American diversity was an eye-opening and uncomfortable process. I was reminded that my fascination with identity and nationalism in song was not just academic, but had been with me all my life. I had to abandon all attempts to depersonalize, and instead accept that the project was partly an exploration of my own feelings of unworthiness to sing ‘American’ music, largely stemming from my identity as an Asian-American. Naming this feeling aloud, and then building an ambitious program around doing just that was extraordinarily liberating and gave me the opportunity to experience the music and text with a new clarity.

After eight concerts and panel discussions with extraordinary artist-colleagues and scholars, Emerging Voices culminated in a world premiere (the fourth of four commissions we premiered over the course of the project): a new song cycle by Nico Muhly, Stranger. For the cycle, Nico set texts relating to the immigrant experience of Ellis Island and accounts relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act alongside the Leviticus excerpt about the “stranger sojourning among us”. Never before have I ever felt so directly connected to nor reflected by a piece of music. Finally, here was a piece that celebrated my experience of what it means to be an American. It was an incredibly beautiful way to cap off one of the most challenging, transformative, and rewarding artistic experiences of my life.

Everybody Loves Chamber Music

Rainbow in the Vineyards

Actually, most people do. They just might not call it that. On a Sunday afternoon this winter, before the pandemic changed the world, I found myself in a friend’s small town, boutique winery. I was there with about 50 other locals, sipping a glass and listening to the Rural Jazz Collective, a group comprised of a retired high school music teacher on keyboard, his prize pupil guitarist (now a professional), another young local drummer, a veteran bass player, and a saxophone-playing organic farmer. From time to time the winemaker, an amateur flutist, sat in. They made great music together, playing mostly jazz standards and an occasional original tune. The audience loved all of it—the music, the wine, the connection to the performers and the sense of shared community. It was chamber music.


Last month we announced our 2020–21 season, and it’s full of chamber music, starting with the return of the renowned Danish String Quartet on November 10. SF Performances has a long commitment to chamber music, which we define as a small group of musicians performing in an intimate space. In this ideal space everybody and nobody leads, and artistic decisions are made for the benefit of the group, not the individual.

As pianist Timo Andres has said, “Chamber music is the ultimate medium for collaboration.” We’ll hear him in two different collaborations next season, as he first performs in a trio with violinist Jennifer Koh and cellist Jay Campbell in November 2020, and then returns in April 2021 with counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and the Attacca Quartet.

Alexander String Quartet Alexander String Quartet

Earlier this year we also announced a personnel change for our own resident ensemble, the Alexander String Quartet. Next season, founding violist Paul Yarbrough will retire, and David Samuel will succeed him, but we’ll still be seeing Paul quite often, in a special guest artist role as the ASQ explores The Art of the Quintet.

Chamber music is especially suited to eliciting emotional connections, providing historical context, and even transcending time. It continues to evolve in new directions, and the artists we present speak to that evolution. In an era of rapidly changing tastes, and an ever changing world, giving space and support to the artist/innovators we present is our way forward, and it also broadens our reach to new audiences.

Dreamers’ Circus Dreamers’ Circus

On our PIVOT series next season, trumpeter Sean Jones brings Dizzy Spellz, a program in which the music of Dizzy Gillespie is used as a lens to explore cultural and spiritual dilemmas within the African Diaspora. Next year’s PIVOT will also include Dreamers’ Circus, a contemporary Nordic Music ensemble, led by a member of the Danish String Quartet, that gives voice to a new and unique blend of history and sound.

But true chamber music requires an audience. It needs you. Chamber music is all about community, whether it’s in a concert hall, a living room, or a barn. As we yearn for the world to return to the familiar, we know that many things may be changed. Yet I believe that coming together, in real time, in a real space, to listen to a small group of great artists make music together will always remain. It’s what we do as people, all over the world. And it’s what SF Performances has been doing for 40 years. As we come to the end of this extraordinary 40th anniversary season, I look forward to sharing music with you, in person, in the near future.

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

Have a Seat on the Front Row: Encores from Our Digital Archive

Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series

This season SF Performances had planned several programs in celebration of our 40th anniversary. While we can't be together to enjoy beautiful live music right now, we are pleased to offer these memorable concerts from the past. Each performance in the Front Row series was recorded live at the Herbst Theatre, from 2004–08. So let's continue to celebrate our history, while looking forward to continuing to do what we do best—bringing great artists and audiences together for transformative arts experiences.

Here’s the lineup:

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Original SFP performance: April 29, 2006, 8pm | Herbst Theatre
Available Online: Thursday, April 9, 2020

Trio Mediaeval
Original SFP performance: March 25, 2007, 7pm | Herbst Theatre
Available Online: Thursday, April 16, 2020

Sérgio and Odair Assad, guitars
Original SFP performance: November 20, 2005, 7pm | Herbst Theatre
Available Online: Thursday, April 23, 2020

Some of you may have attended these performances, and others may have heard these artists elsewhere. In either case, we'd love to hear from you about these concerts, and about what else you may be doing during this challenging time to keep the arts and music vibrant in your homes. We’d like to share your stories and memories on the Front Row page on our website.

If you have something to share about what the arts mean to you, please email your thoughts and memories to and let us know if we can include your name. We’ll be posting your feedback and stories as we move forward with this virtual concert series.

Garrick Ohlsson and Brahm’s Last Piano Sonata

Garrick Ohlsson Garrick Ohlsson

This season, Garrick Ohlsson completes a two-year survey of Brahms’ complete solo piano works. On Ohlsson’s last concert in the series, he performs Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Opus 5, the last piano sonata Brahms composed. Here’s what Eric Bromberger says about the work in our program notes:

Brahms Brahms

Like so many other 19th-century composers, Brahms burst to fame as a virtuoso pianist who happened to compose. But the young composer chose as his model not the recent (and formally innovative) piano music of Liszt and Chopin but the older classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Of Brahms’ first five published works, three were piano sonatas. He completed the last of these in October 1853, when he was still only 20.

In that same month appeared Robert Schumann’s article on Brahms in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, hailing the young composer as one “at whose cradle graces and heroes mounted guard,” a composer who would show the world “wonderful glimpses into the secrets of the spirit world.” Schumann had seen several of Brahms’ early manuscripts and significantly referred to “sonatas, or rather veiled symphonies.” Schumann had probably seen an early version of the Sonata in F minor, for this massive, heroic sonata has struck many observers as being of orchestral proportions, a symphony masquerading as a piano sonata. Schumann may have hailed Brahms as a “young eagle,” but in this sonata the composer comes on like a young lion.

Brahms marks the sonata-form first movement Allegro maestoso, and majestic it certainly is. This powerful, heroic music grows almost entirely out of the simple theme-shape announced in the first measure; Brahms marks one of the quiet derivations of this theme fest und bestimmt (“firm and determined”), and that might stand as a marking for the entire movement. In sharp contrast, the Andante is a nocturne, and Brahms prefaces it with a few lines from a poem of Sternau: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” The third movement is a lopsided scherzo that leaps across the keyboard; its quiet trio section is entirely chordal.

Brahms marks the fourth movement Intermezzo and subtitles it Rückblick (“Reminiscence”). He brings back the theme from the second movement, but now it is very somber—the gentle love-song has become a funeral march. The finale is a rondo-like movement based on a halting main theme. Along the way, Brahms remembers themes from earlier movements and treats them contrapuntally as the sonata thunders to its close.

Apparently, Brahms felt that with the Sonata in F minor, composed at age 20, he had said all that he wanted to in piano sonata form. He never wrote another.

Prism: Six Songs by Sting

Sting Sting
Photo by Raph_PH (Flikr) under a Creative Commons 2.0 License

The March 7 performance by Bill Kanengiser and the Alexander String Quartet pays tribute to English musicians in a program aptly billed as British Invasion. On the program is the US premiere of the work Prism: Six Songs by Sting, a work for solo guitar and string quartet. Here’s what Kanengiser says about the piece in the program notes:

Sting (born Gordon Sumner) has redefined what a pop artist can be over his multifaceted career; he is a rock star, a jazz musician, a world-music advocate, an early music aficionado, an actor, and now, a Broadway playwright and headliner in his musical The Last Ship. Along the way, he created a catalogue of songs that have become anthems for a whole generation.

In 2013, the contemporary Serbian composer Dušan Bogdanović undertook the project of setting six of Sting’s tunes into Prism: Six Songs by Sting for solo guitar and string quartet. The genesis of the collaboration was through Sting’s exploration into Elizabethan lute and the music of John Dowland in his project Songs from the Labyrinth. There he worked with the Croatian lutenist Edin Karamazov, who is a frequent performer of Dušan’s music.

Edin commissioned Dušan to set the songs, and with Sting’s blessing, the pieces have been performed and recorded. This performance marks the North American premiere of the set. Bogdanović chose six songs that highlight the stylistic and emotional range of Sting’s songwriting.

Dušan’s iconic style comes through clearly with a penchant for odd-meters, rich harmonies, polymeter, and jazz textures, making it a perfect foil to Sting’s pop-infused multistylistic approach. The simplest of the settings is Every Breath You Take, with the time signature set to a more Balkan 7/8, and a cello ostinato reminiscent of the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Next is Message in a Bottle, churning with an African-inspired polyrhythm, which climaxes in a highly syncopated 12/8 groove. Shape of My Heart is a duet for cello and guitar, with a mournful, bluesy setting of this lovely ballad. Fields of Gold is a dialogue between guitar and the string quartet, with luscious harmonies over the hymn-like melody. Desert Rose begins with a short guitar solo in a North African style, which unfolds into the ostinato of the tune, again re-imagined in 7/8.

The final movement is the rock anthem Roxanne, here set as a passacaglia that becomes increasingly complex, polytonal, and polyrhythmic, culminating in a frenetic post-modern be-bop coda.

Paul Taylor Dance Company Artistic Director Michael Novak on “The Celebration Tour”

Michael Novak (photo by Bill Wadman) Michael Novak (photo by Bill Wadman)

“The Company began performing in the Bay Area in the 60s and has made more than 40 appearances. It has truly become one of our favorite places to visit. We feel honored and privileged to have been able to share Mr. Taylor’s brilliant dances and educational experiences with dance-lovers of all ages for so many years. We are thrilled to return this time with “The Celebration Tour,” as we honor our founder and his contribution to modern dance. While at the Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, we will be presenting two programs that include six of his most poignant works giving audiences an incredible perspective into the breadth of the Taylor canon.

San Francisco has always held a special place in my heart. Its beauty and rich cultural scene inspire me. The dancers and I are looking forward to discovering new restaurants, taking ballet class with legendary dance teacher Sandra Chinn, and making a trip to Napa to visit one of my favorite wineries Trefethen. Some of us diehards have been active Wine Club members there for nearly a decade. These experiences only enrich our passion for dancing for our audiences and sharing our love of Paul and his legacy. I am thankful for our longtime partnership with San Francisco Performances and appreciate all they have done for us. We look forward to seeing our collaboration flourish into the future and being back in the Bay Area soon.

The Taylor organization is deeply committed to continuing Paul Taylor’s vision for our future: expanding our efforts to become the premiere home for modern dance, where the Taylor repertory shines brightly; presenting important historical modern masterworks in all their poignancy and beauty; and commissioning new choreographers who can innovate and move our art form forward. As part of this, I am excited to launch “The TaylorNEXT Series” in June at The Joyce Theater in New York City. The one-week Series will feature a curated selection of Paul Taylor’s early and experimental dances from the ‘50s and ‘60s (rarely seen by audiences) paired with World Premieres by emerging choreographers Peter Chu and Michelle Manzanales. In addition, I have invited New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and choreographer Lauren Lovette to make a new work on our Company, which will premiere on Thursday, November 5, during our gala performance at our annual three-week Season at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.”

Paul Taylor Dance Company Pays Tribute to Its Namesake

Esplanade by Paul Taylor. Photo by Paul B. Goode Esplanade by Paul Taylor. Photo by Paul B. Goode

by Charles Isherwood

This article originally appeared October 19, 2019 on and in the Playbill for a special Lincoln Center run of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

At its essence, dance is movement. Choreographers have stripped away or minimized sets and costumes, eliminated music and sound. But without a human body in motion, dance ceases to exist. As he recounted in his autobiography Private Domain, when asked why he wanted to become a dancer at his audition for the then-nascent Juilliard dance department, the young Paul Taylor said that it was “just because I like to move.” Despite the disarmingly simple response, or perhaps in part because of it, he was admitted.

On a larger scale, dance companies also depend on forward motion to thrive, as they naturally evolve over time. A dance company that stands stock still, repeating the same dances in precisely the same styles, is in danger of becoming a moribund institution. Although it is an oversimplification to suggest that modern dance itself was born as a reaction against the rigid, entrenched formulas of classical ballet, it is in a broad sense true. Modern dance in America sought to move the art forward by striking out for new aesthetic territory, to continually change and challenge the terms of what dance could achieve.

Concertiana by Paul Taylor. Photo by Paul B. Goode Concertiana by Paul Taylor. Photo by Paul B. Goode

Taylor, one of the great dancemakers of the 20th century, embodied the idea of change as progress, of forward movement for his company as an ideal and an end in itself. He spent several years dancing for the nigh-legendary Martha Graham before the itch to formulate his own style led to the founding of his own company in 1954, and the subsequent creation of almost 150 works. Once established on his own, Taylor was endlessly pursuing innovation, tirelessly creating new works season after season, virtually up until his death in 2018.

Taylor’s breathtaking eclecticism itself illustrates the varied impulses of modern dance. One dance may have embraced a particular style; a later one contradicted it. Change was not just desirable but essential: between modes of movement, dramatic narrative versus pure-dance pieces, genres of music ranging from thorny contemporary to classical, themes from the joyous to the macabre.

And before his death, Taylor laid the foundation for his company’s future with perhaps his most radical gesture in a career marked by many of them: In 2015 Paul Taylor American Modern Dance was created as a new entity to present both Taylor’s works, performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and a variety of other modern dances, including enduring works from the past as well as new choreography, performed by other companies, in annual seasons at Lincoln Center.

Taylor believed that the future of his company would rest not just on its ability to preserve his own works, but on the creation of a new institution embracing a more inclusive vision. He recognized that it would be in linking his work to both the unknown future and the storied past of modern dance that his legacy would be ensured, and the art he was a central figure in shaping would continue to thrive.

Modern dance companies have always been associated with the work of their founding choreographers, and those dance makers have chosen different paths when confronting the question of how to ensure that their work lives on. The companies of Martha Graham and José Limón, for instance, continue to operate. But Merce Cunningham decided to disband his company upon his death. Taylor chose the untried path: the invention of a modern dance company that would embrace the work of many artists.

Since 2015, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance has presented works considered central to the canon: Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels, José Limon’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace, Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset, among them, in most cases performed by outside companies. And the company commissioned new works from contemporary dance makers including Larry Keigwin, Lila York, Doug Varone and, this year, Pam Tanowitz, Kyle Abraham, and Margie Gillis. This fall, for the first time, the company will be presenting a program consisting entirely of dances by another choreographer: the pioneering African-American Donald McKayle (who also died in 2018), performed by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Juilliard Dance, and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.

Taylor’s works, of course, remain dominant in the repertoire of the annual Lincoln Center seasons. But some longtime admirers of the company might naturally have been wary of such a radical change; change can bring rewards, but also risks. Still, the truth is that evolution is integral to the development of all art forms, and dance perhaps more than any, because its only truly essential instrument, the human body, is susceptible to the depredations of time.

A dancer’s career is thus often a short one. But while we naturally lament the perilously short span of an artist in peak career, it is by making way for new dancers, and by passing on the knowledge they have accrued, that dancers help the art form renew itself. In fact this is among the most exciting aspects of watching dance: New dancers springing into the spotlight, bringing their own individual styles to the dances they perform, inspiring us to see new aspects of familiar works.

As Taylor wrote of his company, “Faces change, people depart, most of them beloved but one or two just looked at, all passing through, leaving indelible footprints on each other’s parts, and followed by others who are followed in turn—cellular generations of dancers.” The endless renewal onstage is invigorating both for companies and audiences.

It is this continual process of regeneration that Paul Taylor American Dance aims to encourage and embody: A continual reanimation in which the past informs the present, and the present paves the way for the future. This continuum is the vital process that has defined the history of modern dance, and by which the future of the form is secured.

As Twyla Tharp, a onetime Taylor dancer who later became one of the most eminent choreographers of her era, once said, speaking of an early work and its relationship to previous “dance icons:” “It has always seemed to me that there’s a better chance for a future where there has been a past.”

Charles Isherwood is the theater critic for He has written about theater and other arts for publications including Variety, Financial Times, Town & Country, The Times (U.K.), and The New York Times. This article is reprinted with permission.

Photos from the PIVOT Festival

Arts commentator Cy Musiker, Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer Arts commentator Cy Musiker, Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer
Arts commentator Cy Musiker, Stefan Jackiw and Mahan Esfahani

Arts commentator Cy Musiker, Stefan Jackiw and Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani

Theo Bleckmann, vocalist

Theo Bleckmann, vocalist

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Theo Bleckmann, vocalist

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Theo Bleckmann, vocalist

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin and Jay Campbell, cello

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin and Jay Campbell, cello

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Marton Illes, composer and Jay Campbell, cello

Arts commentator Cy Musiker with Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Marton Illes, composer and Jay Campbell, cello

San Francisco Performances: Adventure, Innovation, and PIVOT

Kronos Quartet Kronos Quartet

San Francisco Performances’ programming has long reflected a commitment to artists who are driving classical music forms in new and innovative directions. From the start, this philosophy complemented our mission of introducing exciting emerging artists in every season, and it has often—but not exclusively—been these early career artists who have nourished our audiences’ taste for adventure.

San Francisco’s own Kronos Quartet, known worldwide for their commitment to new music, has been a frequent presence for more than 30 years, going back to live dance performances with ODC (1986) and Japanese performance duo Eiko & Koma (1997), to their most recent collaboration for the 2017 world premiere of Echoes with The Living Earth Show, the spoken word group Youth Speaks and composer Danny Clay.

Brooklyn Rider Brooklyn Rider

In recent seasons the trailblazing string quartet Brooklyn Rider has made a profound impact on our audiences—in collaboration with dancer Wendy Whelan and choreographer Brian Brooks (Some of a Thousand Words, 2017); and last season with a program entitled Healing Modes that explored new works written as a response to Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 15 No. 132 by Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail and Matana Roberts.

Philip Glass Philip Glass

Over the years we have taken special pride in bringing the iconic American composer Philip Glass to San Francisco at regular intervals to highlight the full range of his experiments in sound, from screenings of the Qatsi film trilogy accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble, to the minimalist cycle Music in Twelve Parts, to the epic, three-hour set of his 20 piano études.

For more than two decades SF Performances has been a member of Music Accord, a national consortium of presenters that commissions and presents new works in the chamber music, instrumental recital and song genres. Recent Music Accord presentations in San Francisco include Caroline Shaw’s Narrow Sea performed by Dawn Upshaw, Gil Kalish and Sō Percussion (2017) and Shulamit Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory for the Pacifica Quartet (2014).

Over the past decade, novel curated projects have become a staple of our work. Jennifer Koh’s Limitless program, featured in the current PIVOT series, is representative. As reported in a 2018 profile in The New York Times, “In Mozart’s time, for example, there wasn’t a distinction between new and repertory works ‘because everything was new,’ Ms. Koh said. ‘Now we have pop, jazz, classical, and even new music within classical. I don’t believe in that; I just believe in good musicians and bad musicians.’ This project is also an attempt to add more diverse voices to the violin repertory beyond what Ms. Koh called ‘dead, white European males.’”

PIVOT is a celebration of artists who are moving their art into the present and future, making it accessible to younger audiences while converting many traditionalists to new possibilities. They represent the path forward.

“This Piece Must Be Played with Great Feeling,” Says Beethoven

Alexander String Quartet Alexander String Quartet

When ASQ and Robert Greenberg take the stage for the January concert, there will be two moments worth noting: first, we’re now officially in Beethoven250, Beethoven’s 250th birthday which has become an international event, celebrated by organizations large and small the world over.

Secondly, in our own Beethoven series, we move from early quartets to the middle quartets. And, on the program for January 25 are two of the quartets that began to change the genre forever. It’s the second one that is worth pausing on. Here’s what Eric Bromberg says in the program notes about Opus 59, No. 2:

“The first Razumovsky quartet is broad and heroic and the third extroverted and virtuosic, but the second has defied easy characterization. Part of the problem is that in this quartet Beethoven seems to be experimenting with new ideas about themes and harmony. The thematic material of the first movement in particular has baffled many, for it seems almost consciously non-thematic, while harmonically this quartet can be just as elusive.

All four movements are in some form of E, but Beethoven refuses to settle into any key for very long, and one key will melt into another (often unexpected) key in just a matter of measures. Such a description would seem to make the Quartet in E minor a nervous work, unsettled in its procedures and unsettling to audiences. But the wonder is that—despite these many original strokes—this music is so unified, so convincing, and at times so achingly beautiful. Simple verbal description cannot begin to provide a measure of this music, but a general description can at least aid listeners along the way to discovering this music for themselves.

Beethoven’s friend Carl Czerny said that the composer had been inspired to write the Molto adagio “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.” And unsurprisingly, Beethoven specifies in the score that “This piece must be played with great feeling.”

Beethoven Redefines the Genre with the Razumovsky Quartets

Beethoven Beethoven

Our 7-part Saturday Morning series on Beethoven string quartets now moves from the “early” to the “middle” quartets. After experimenting with the form and edging toward his own distinct voice, Beethoven makes incredible progress. We’ll hear Bob Greenberg and ASQ on January 25 with Opus 59. The significance is laid out in the program notes:

“The three quartets Beethoven published as his Opus 59, known today as the “Razumovsky Quartets,” were so completely original that in one stroke they redefined the entire paradigm of the string quartet. These are massive works—in duration, sonority, and dramatic scope—and it is no surprise that they alienated their early audiences. Only with time did Beethoven’s achievement in this music become clear.

Trying to take the measure of this new music, some early critics referred to the Razumovsky quartets as “symphony quartets,” but this is misleading, for the quartets are genuine chamber music. But it is true that what the Eroica did for the symphony, these quartets—and the two that followed in 1809 and 1810—did for the string quartet: they opened new vistas, entirely new conceptions of what the string quartet might be and of the range of expression it might make possible.”

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Cyrus Musiker

Cyrus Musiker Cyrus Musiker

Cyrus Musiker is a former editor, news anchor and reporter at KQED Public Radio, and the co-founder and co-host of KQED’s The Do List, covering Bay Area arts. After 34 years in public radio, he and his wife moved to Grass Valley in the Sierra Foothills, where he’s developing his hayseed skills, gardening with native plants, clearing defensible space, and making a happy home for Solomon the burro and Rocco the mustang, a few cats and a dog.

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

After picking thousands and thousands of interesting events for Bay Area listeners to attend, what is one of the most memorable art events you have ever personally attended and why did it affect you?

So many shows have stayed with me over the years, because of how they stripped away the pettiness and pretense of daily life, to find some ideal of truth and beauty to guide us.

Berkeley Repertory Theater’s recent revival (2018) of Angels in America wielded brilliant language in a sweeping epic of American history, paired with an intimate human sized drama full of pain and joy. I treasure tenor Nicholas Phan’s Rex Hotel salon recital from 2017, a San Francisco Performances show in which Phan sang with lyrical precision and talked with witty insight about the songs from his new album Gods and Monsters. And I still get chills thinking about Soprano Julia Bullock singing Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere, as part of San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged West Side Story in 2013.

But there’s one performance that stays with me most vividly, an appearance by the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968 (at least I think that was the year). They followed a ferociously uninhibited set by the late blues singer Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, which I thought would be the evening’s highlight. But Tina Turner blew Joplin away. Ike’s tight soul band could build a song to a climax, and then take it still higher. And Tina Turner was the sexy, blazing star at the center, with her Ikettes mirroring her every high-heeled dance step and emotion. She sang Loving You Too Long, and did hilarious obscene things to the microphone, and then they played Aretha Franklin’s Respect, during which Tina talked about her impatience with Ike’s catting around, a regular part of their act. But there was always a tension to how she delivered her sermon, raw edge that previewed their later breakup over Ike’s abusive behavior.

“I’m gonna take a second because I want to talk about respect.” Tina spoke/sang. “I think it’s what most of us want. But you know we don’t always get what we want—especially us women.”

That performance has stayed with me because of the way it previewed Ike and Tina’s breakup, and her rise to stardom. But Tina also demanded we in the audience think about the meaning of each song, and I’m still thinking about it more than 50 years later.

Perspective from the Middle Ages

Brooklyn Bridge

According to the BBC, the life expectancy of a person born in the late 13th century was about 45, if they survived childhood and child bearing. During a brief visit to New York City last month, I was delighted to be surrounded by any number of people over the age of 45. From streets and subways to restaurants, museums and theaters, it was great to see people of all ages living, working and sharing experiences together.

You may be thinking, “Just take a look around at the next concert and you’ll see plenty of gray heads.” That’s true, and that’s why I was in New York to attend a gathering of Wallace Foundation grantees from performing arts organizations across the United States. Wallace had generously funded a four-year initiative called Building Audiences for Sustainability in which each grantee created a project they hoped would attract new, younger audiences. But not a single grantee, (including SF Performances) could tell a complete success story about the project. Did younger people attend these new and different programs? Yes. Did those same newcomers return for more “regular” programming? They did not. Apparently, there’s no alchemy for getting young people to performances. So what about sharing some inter-generational experiences?

Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw

SF Performances has long followed an inter-generational approach to programming, bringing artists who are new discoveries as well as those who are more established and mature. Earlier this season we presented the exciting young Calidore Quartet for a second time, and on December 4 the renowned Brentano String Quartet performs for the sixth time on our series. The quartet will share the stage with the great soprano Dawn Upshaw, marking her ninth appearance with SFP since her debut in 1990.

Jamie Barton Jamie Barton

A week later on December 11, rising star mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton returns for the second time, with a program featuring many women composers, including Nadia Boulanger. It’s interesting to note that Boulanger, celebrated composer, conductor and teacher (pupils included Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass) became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony at the age of 51.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell

In early November we presented the San Francisco recital debut of young violinist Bomsori Kim, and on January 26 we’ll welcome back Patricia Kopatchinskaja for more fiddle fireworks in a duo performance with cellist Jay Campbell. That concert will cover more than 1,000 years of music, with some interesting representation from the middle ages. Here’s a video of Kopatchinskaja playing folk music with her parents.

Lincoln Center Lincoln Center

During my recent trip to New York I got to see a few works of art, often created by artists in their later years. One was a Lincoln Center performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company in a piece choreographed by Margie Gillis and set to movements of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, written in the last decade of his life.

Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1950) and The Metropolitan Museum Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1950) and The Metropolitan Museum

I also checked out the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art, and made a pilgrimage to some of Mark Rothko’s paintings in the signature style he developed in his late 40s. On my last day in NYC I sprinted up to the Metropolitan Museum with just enough time for a small exhibition of Dutch masters, including one of Rembrandt’s final self-portraits that spoke eloquently about age and experience.

Now I’m back and we’re entering that time of year when many of us will celebrate with generations of family and friends. If you love attending live performances, please consider giving that gift to someone who may be new to the concert hall.

Arts education has been absent from many schools for decades, and popular culture doesn’t put much value on classical music or other traditional arts. It’s up to all of us to introduce subsequent generations to these experiences. So rather than apologizing for our middle age, or even our golden age, let’s be the change we want to see in the audience by bringing younger people to concerts!

Wishing you peace and joy with friends and family of all ages this season,

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

Pat Metheny, LAGQ, and Road to the Sun

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
Pat Metheny Pat Metheny

For their upcoming program, the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet sets its sights on American Guitar Masterworks. It would be incomplete without a work by leading guitarist Pat Metheny, and not only is one of his works on the program, he composed it just for LAGQ.

Here’s what Metheny says about how Road to the Sun came forth:

“A few years back, I was flattered to have one of my compositions included in the LAGQ’s Grammy winning CD Guitar Heroes. The idea of writing a large-scale guitar quartet inspired by the talents of the LAGQ has been simmering somewhere in the back of my mind ever since. The thought of addressing the instrument in a more formal way under the auspices of what this quartet has come to embody was something I really wanted to do; it was just a matter of finding the time.

“After a particularly active touring schedule, I finally saw a window opening up in late 2015. With the approval of the guys and a few really useful tips from all of them, I jumped in, hoping to write a concert piece of 7 to 9 minutes.

“Two weeks later, I found myself with a nearly 25-minute, 6-movement treatise on the potentials of a multi-guitar format, blazingly inspired by the thought of hearing these four incredible guitarists play these notes. The piece just literally poured out. In particular, I decided to really embrace the instrument and ‘get under the hood’ of a bunch of things that I do with the guitar that are somewhat identified with my particular style. As much as those components provided an aspirational environment to work from, I was also reaching for the narrative element of storytelling that is always the imperative and primary function for me as a musician.

“With the piece now complete, it feels like an emotional journey to me, almost a road trip in scale and scope. Somehow, through the challenge of writing for this unique platform and aiming it towards the hands of these especially talented players, I was able to get to a very personal area of what music itself is to me.

“As I was writing, my mind would sometimes flash to the stunning views of the trip up to Glacier National Park on the famous ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road,’ right after hearing LAGQ play live for the first time at a festival in Montana. I am very excited to hear what William, Scott, John and Matt will do on their journey with this work.”

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Composer & Pianist, Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, It’s A Wonderful Life, If I Were You, Great Scott, Three Decembers and Two Remain, among others. “Arguably the world’s most popular 21st-century opera and art song composer” (The Wall Street Journal), he has also composed nearly 300 songs, as well as chamber, choral and orchestral works.

The Metropolitan Opera recently announced it will produce Dead Man Walking during its 2020-21 season in a new production by director Ivo van Hove, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Great Scott was a 2019 Grammy Award nominee for Best New Classical Composition.

Heggie was awarded the Eddie Medora King prize from the UT Austin Butler School of Music and the Champion Award from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. A Guggenheim Fellow, the composer has served as a mentor for Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative as well as Chicago Opera Theater and CU Boulder. Jake Heggie lives in San Francisco with his husband, Curt Branom.

SF Performances has been fortunate to work with Jake, most recently when we presented his Camille Claudel: Into the Fire in 2012.

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

Like many artists, you work on projects around the world. Is there anything about San Francisco that uniquely helps you create your art or inspires you? And was your Camille Claudel: Into the Fire which we presented March 3, 2012 with Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet, created here in SF?

I’m lucky enough to have operas and songs of mine performed all over the globe, but I compose everything here in San Francisco. I’ve tried composing on the road, but it never works. I need to be home in my own environment with my family and friends, my piano and things around. I find San Francisco an incredibly inspiring place to live and work: for its beauty, peace, proximity to water, the air, the light, the hills. Plus, there’s a level of anonymity—being “off the radar”—here that helps me enormously. I’m essentially a very private person. In my studio, I don’t have to think about what’s new or different around me or nearby: I’m entirely focused on what’s happening in my head and heart so that I can get it onto the page. The time creating Camille Claudel: Into the Fire was very rich. I was composing it exactly eight years ago, in the fall of 2011, and knew it was going to be performed by my great friend Joyce DiDonato with the extraordinary Alexander String Quartet. I had wanted to write something about Claudel’s life and work since 1989, when I first learned about her through the movie starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu. Having great artists like Joyce and the Alexanders to write for is an immense gift—and that was all made possible by Ruth Felt and SF Performances. The piece has been recorded twice and performed all over the world. Students have written papers about it, and it has given Claudel a voice and presence with an even wider audience. That is enormously gratifying.

Learn more about Jake Heggie at:

“Combining Strength with Grace”: Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse

Claude Debussy Claude Debussy
Richard Goode Richard Goode

Our anniversary season is full of memorable and significant pieces of music, and we kicked it all off with some of the most famously difficult piano works. In our opening concert, Natasha Paremski performed Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, which was written with some intent to be harder than Balakirev’s Islamey, another work she tackled that evening.

We now find another notoriously complex work on a program. Richard Goode performs Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse in our gala concert. “This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength with grace, if I may presume to say so.”

Here’s the story by Eric Bromberger in our program notes:

L’isle joyeuse dates from 1904, a year that brought the best and worst of times for Debussy. He had finally achieved success with his opera Pelléas and Mélisande, and now he was hard at work on La Mer. That year he also abandoned his wife for Emma Bardac, a singer and the estranged wife of a wealthy banker, and his despairing wife shot herself. This unhappy incident, and Debussy’s failure to pay any of her medical bills, cost him a number of friendships.

Debussy had left his wife in June 1904, and he spent that summer with Emma on the Isle of Jersey off the Normandy coast. It was here that he composed L’isle joyeuse. Debussy drew his inspiration from an 18th century painting, L’Embarquement pour Cythère by Antoine Watteau. Watteau’s painting depicts the moment of departure of a group of revelers for the island of Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, and Debussy sets out to capture the sensual expectancy of that scene.

L’isle joyeuse opens with a brief passage marked Quasi una cadenza, built largely on anticipatory trills. The main theme quickly appears, so full of triplets and dancing dotted rhythms that it seems to spill over with an almost arabesque elegance. The music, in rondo form, is fast and festive, and Debussy soon moves to a gently-rocking 3/8 meter, perhaps intended to suggest the motion of the boat (he marks this section “undulating and expressive”).

Gradually the tempo accelerates, the music becomes more animated, and L’isle joyeuse rushes to a sonorous close. Debussy was proud of L’isle joyeuse and wrote to his publisher: “This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength with grace, if I may presume to say so.” Later he offered an even more succinct evaluation of this music: “Lord, but it’s difficult to play!”

How the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg Saturday Series Developed “a Lovely Life of Its Own”

Alexander String Quartet with Robert Greenberg Alexander String Quartet with Robert Greenberg

For 25 years, thousands of audience members have savored Saturday morning musical conversations with Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) and Music Historian-in-Residence Robert Greenberg. But this fascinating series may never have happened if not for an unprecedented partnership.

“It began in the late 80’s,” says Founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. “Jane Galante, a Trustee of the Morrison Music Center at SF State, talked with me about her goal of having a resident string quartet. I also thought a resident quartet would be great for SF Performances and could establish the beginning of an arts education program.”

A joint national search soon identified the Alexander String Quartet, a young and internationally acclaimed ensemble. This unusual alliance—between a public university and a private non-profit presenter—made it possible for both to have a resident string quartet.

In its first season, 1989–90, the New York-based Quartet was in San Francisco for eight weeks. The ASQ’s openness to working in high schools, and to designing a curriculum combining music with other subjects, helped to fulfill a need in the SFUSD’s deeply ravaged music education program. The first year was highly successful and the residency was expanded to additional schools in need. Following that, the ASQ relocated to San Francisco in order to dedicate most of their non-touring time to the residency. Adult music education soon followed.

Inspired by a popular series in Paris, Felt proposed a weekend morning series. The ASQ invited musicologist/composer Robert Greenberg to create lectures about the socio-political context of Beethoven’s works. The series grew quickly and in 2003 it moved to the larger Herbst Theatre from the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. In addition to Beethoven, over the years the series has explored the work of Haydn, Bartók and Shostakovich, among many others.

The success of the series has always been due to its uniqueness. The non-traditional performance time, the in-depth exploration of the lives and historical context of great composers, and the on- and off-stage chemistry between the quartet and Bob Greenberg have made it a one-of-a-kind experience for audiences. According to Greenberg, “The series has taken on a lovely life of its own. We have a loyal following, we can do almost any music and they’ll come, whether it’s Mozart or 20th century repertoire.”

This year, the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg present a seven-concert series on Beethoven’s string quartets. The series runs through May, 2020.

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.

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. 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