Books I've Read Recently
I read constantly. I can't imagine life without books to read. When I was young, the Christmas gifts that meant the most to me were books. I would immediately go to my room, hardly emerging until I had read them all. I devoured all the basic sets of children's books, on young Americans (Washington, Lincoln, etc.), dogs, horses, knights, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Below are specific comments on recent books I have enjoyed.
Monday, July 8, 2019: African Samurai by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard
One of my very favorite historical novels has always been James Clavell's Shogun. It changes the names but otherwise tells the true story of an English ship captain, William Adams, whose ship is wrecked on the coast of Japan c. 1600. (There was an awful TV series made of this book, but the book is great.)
Toward the end of a long period of civil war, Japan was re-centralized first by Oda Nubungua, then by his right-hand guy, Hideyoshi and finally by his right hand guy, Tokugawa Ieysau -- who established the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted for 200 years -- until the arrival of Perry and the US Navy.* (The Portuguese - Jesuits - had first arrived in Japan and set up relationships during the civil war period.)
Adams arrived during the period between Hideyoshi's death and Ieysau's final takeover, and Shogun tells the story of how Adams becomes a samurai under Ieysau. That story is fascinating.
Now I am reading a book, African Samurai, which is even more amazing. It turns out that, during the rise of Oda Nobunaga - c. 1568 - a Jesuit mission arrived and its head was accompanied by an African mercenary, originally imported as a child slave to India, and hired to guard the Jesuit leader. Nobunaga met him, convinced the Jesuit Visitor General to turn him over - he spoke Japanese by this time - and then made him a samuri. So, even before Adams there had been an African samurai, named Yasuke, in Japan.
The strange events of history are amazing! (Talk about a novel that will make a great movie!)
Dec 23, 2015
Well, the year is winding down and those of usI who love string quartets have a lot to be thinkful for. It's been a great year for string quartets in the Bay Area. If anyone deserves a special round of applause this year, its the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music (SFFCM), led by its president, Katherine Bukstein, and its executive director, Dominique Pelletey. I have long believed that this group -- with its ongoing effort to raise funds and encourage new groups -- has played a major role in the current success of chamber music in the Bay Area. This past year, in particular, the SFFCM has outdone itself by adding two additional free music series to their already wonderful Legion of Honor series. The Legion series presents free concerts at the Legion of Honor museum on Sundays during the Spring and Fall. In 2015 the SFFCM began to sponsor a second free series, at the Presidio Officers Club, that occured on Friday's during the Spring and Fall. And, not content with that, they also now sponsor a series avant garde performances at the Center for New Music at 55 Taylor Street in San Francisco. Not all of these presentations feature string quartets, but all showcase fine Bay Area chamber music groups that have agreed to perform without charge to help create the rich classical musical environment that helps to define contemporary San Francisco. It must have taken quite a bit of work by the SFFCM to arrange all this and it has certainly increased the opportunities for those who could not otherwise afford the more expensive performance series to hear really fine performances in some of San Francisco's beautiful public environments.
So we ring out 2015, confident that these new programs will all be beginning again in a few weeks. The Friction Quartet will be performing at the Presidio on Jan. 23. Then in February the Amaranth Quartet will be at the Center for New Music, and, on March 6, the Amaranth Quartet will perform again at the Legion of Honor as part of their Sunday afternoon series. And a new year will be well underway.
Dec 16, 2015
The Valley of the Moon Music Festival began in 2015 to provide chamber music concerts for residents of Sonoma California. To raise money, they have branched out a bit and are sponsoring some winter concerts at the Green Center at Sonama State. In addition, in conjunction with Benvenue House Music, which promotes chamber music, they have arranged a fund raising event at the Oakland restaurant, Oliveto Restaurant, on Friday, January 15th. The meal is from 8:45pm to 9:30pm and the concert, presented by the Telegraph Quartet, which features Britten and Haydn, follows. In essence you get a meal and a Telegraph String Quartet concert for $80. A nice way to streatch out the holiday celebrations.
Dec 2, 2015
The holidays always generate lots of travel and winter often generates delays. Anyone who has experienced it knows that it's no fun to sit waiting for a plane to take off. My friend Cheri Murrell just called my attention to a video clip that is currently getting a lot of attention. The string quartet of the Philidelphia orchestra was apparently on a delayed flight in China and decided to make it a little more pleasant for their fellow passengers by providing an impromptu concert. A nice example of a string quartet spreading some international holiday cheer. Check it out. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFhYPsgroMk
Nov 23, 2015
The fall string quartet season is drawing to a close and the Bay Area will soon be caught up in Thanksgiving, shopping, Christmas carols, the Nutcracker, and Messiah sings. For those who love string quartets there will still be a few events, like the Telegraph Quartet at SF State University, the Friction Quartet at the Center for New Music, and the Del Sol Quartet at the SF Conservatory of Music in early December. And for those who need just one more concert before Christmas, the Altius Quartet will be performing at the Kohl Masion in Burlingame on Dec. 20th, but otherwise the season is drawing to a close. Luckily it will all begin again in January of 2016.
Meantime, it seems appropriate to pause for a moment to think just how fine the fall season has been, filled as it was with concerts by the likes of the St Lawrence, Kronos, Takacs, the Cypress, Pavel Hass, and the Borodin. There was also a splended SF Music Day in the reopened Herbst Theater, outstanding concerts by the Telegraph and the Alexander, and last night's wonderful Cal. Performances concert by the Danish String Quartet that ended with a magnificant performance of Beethoven's Op. 135 in F. (In truth, the Danish gave us an encore, and played a very enjoyable Danish wedding piece, but that was only a small desert after the magnificant main course.)
Oct 25, 2015
I just got home from a long afternoon at this year's SF Music Day. It was held at the newly reopened Herbst Auditorium, and it was wonderful. The music started at noon and ran till 10pm. Almost all of the groups that performed had received grants or assistance from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music and repaid the favor by providing a day of free music for the San Francisco community. There were six string quartets, and much, much more besides. Two pieces for piano and strings were so good that they made me think about expanding the focus of the website.
Sometimes, when I attend chamber music events and everyone seems of retirement age, I wonder where the audience for string quartets is going to come from in another 30 years. This year's SF Music Day, however, suggests there will still be an audience. There were lots of young people and several families with kids. There were people from all of the many ethnic communities that make up San Francisco, and there was standing room only at several performances. On top of that, all of the various groups that sponsor chamber music around the Bay Area had set up tables and were handing out literature to let people know of their programs for the coming year. It was an all together enjoyable event and demonstrated just what a great impact the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music continues to exert on the Bay Area.
Oct 12, 2015
San Francisco is a good place to hear string quartets, but sometimes it seems especially wonderful, as it does, to me, at the moment. On Saturday, Oct 10, Kronos presented the world premere of a new composition by Jonathan Berger, a protest piece, My Lai Lullaby, for a string quartet, tenor and Vietnamese instruments, at Stanford University. On Sunday afternoon, Oct 11, Cal Performances presented the Takacs String Quartet in Berkeley. On Monday night San Francisco Performances presented Paval Hass at the SFJAZZ Center. On Sunday, Oct 18, Music@Menlo will be presenting the Borodin Quartet in Menlo Park, and then on October 25 the SF Friends of Chamber Music will present SF Music Day at the newly reopened Herbst Theater in the SF Civic Center. As if all that wasn't enough, Thalea String Quartet is giving a performance at the SF Conservatory of Music (Oct 13) and Cypress Quartet is opening its 2015-16 season with performances in Berkeley, SF and Palo Alto. It's hard to believe that anyone could cram so much wonderful string quartet music into such a short period of time, but I intend to try.
Meanwhile, just in passing, in the program distributed at the Takacs performance in Berkeley, Cal Performances took the opportunity to announce that, during the 2016-17 season, Takacs will perform the complete Beethoven Quartet Cycle in six concerts. (Interestingly, at about the same time that Takacs will be doing the complete Beethoven cycle in SF, the Cypress Quartet is scheduled to do the complete Beethoven cycle in Vienna.
Oct 8, 2015
Gramophone, a leading music magazine, just announced it Classical Music Awards for 2015. Of interest to readers of this site is their decision to award the Pavel Haas Quartet their Chamber Music Award for its new album, Smetana String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. As many know, the Pavel Haas is being presented by San Francisco Performances at the SF JAZZ Center on Monday, October 12th.
Oct 7, 2015
The SF Friends of Chamber Music is about to present the 2015 SFMusic Day: Live + Free. Last year this event occured in September, but this year it will be on October 25, timed to line up with the reopening of Herbst Theater and the Green Room at the Civic Center (401 Van Ness Ave.) The festivities will last from noon to 10pm on Sunday, and there will be some 33 groups and 148 artists. Del Sol String Quartet, Farallon Quartet, Friction Quartet, Telegraph String Quartet and Thalea String Quartet are among the string quartets that will be performing during the day. Food trucks will available at the site for those that want to eat dinner there. This year the festival will feature special music in celebration of Asian-American Jazz, and, like last year, there will be booths where many other Bay Area music programs will present their programs for the upcoming season. This is one of the major music events of the year in SF and not to be missed.
Sept 8, 2015
The Miro Quartet is one of the hot new quartets to have appeared in the last decade (See Visiting Quartets for a brief bio.). A fan, the renowned instrument collector, David Fulton, offered them the money to not only record a new disc, but to make a Blu Ray video of their performance. The Miro decided to focus on how they went about preparing for and recording Schubert's String Quartet No.15 in G Major (D.887). Both the CD and the movie, Transcendence, are now available. (Warning, the movie is only available in Blu ray format -- which older DVD players won't play. Blu ray is an expanded disc format that uses a blue laser rather than a red laser, and is better suited for the HDTV format to which most people are in the process of switching.) For more information, visit the Miro's website: www.miroquartet.com
August 25, 2015
This year, for the first time, the website, SF Classical Voice, ran a contest in which it asked its readers to nominate the best venues, performances and performers during the 2014-15 season. They received 1,700 responses and the winner in the chamber music performers was The New Esterhazy Quartet. Second was the Alexander String Quartet and Ensemble San Francisco. For more about the poll winners, please see www.sfcv.org/article/best-of-the-bay-2014-15-winners?
As most readers know, the New Esterhazy is a period instrument group that plays on string instruments that would sound as Haydn and Mozart would have expected them to sound. For those interested in this approach, the New Esterhazy is just about to launch what I think of as the last Bay Area Music Festival of the summer -- a mini-Beethoven Festival during which they will play all of the Late Beethoven String Quartets over the course of three nights -- August 26, 28, and 30 at the Berkeley Hillside Club. This is a chance to hear what many regard as the finest set of string quartets ever written, performed as Beethoven would have expected them to sound. (See their website or the calendar for more information.). www.newesterhazy.org
August 22, 2015
Kohl Mansion is located at a school in Burlingame, just South of San Francisco. The school sponsors a Music program each year and always has some interesting string quartets. This year they have announced that they will be hosting the Cavani, Catalyst, Harlem and Altius quartets over the course of their 2015-2016 season. (In addition they are also hostings ome other chamber music.) Separately, the music director at Kohl is Kai Christiansen, who maintains a website, earsense.org, that provides a huge amount of information about composers and compositions. To find our more or to subscribe, check their website: www.musicatkohl.org
August 17, 2015
The Telegraph, one of the most exciting string quartets in the Bay Area has just announced a concert for Thursday, August 19th at the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley. (See calendar for details.) The concert if free, although a $20 donation is suggested. This is one of the great locations for hearing a string quartet group perform and a change to hear the Telegraph Quartet just before they leave for an Italian tour. The announcement is late, but if you can fit it into your schedule at this late date, it'd make for a nice evening.
August 4, 2015
The Cypress String Quartet is the first quartet to announce its 2015-2016 season in Oakland, at the Maybeck Studio. Presumably they will also perform in San Francisco as well, but haven't announced a venue or the dates yet. They will perform each of their concerts twice in the Maybeck Studio in October, February and May. See the calendar for 2015 and 2016 for details. For more information, visit csq15-16berkeleysubscriptions.brownpapertickets.com/
July 30, 2015
It's summer in San Francisco, and, as in the past, local residents have the choice of two wonderful summer chamber music festivals. One, Music@Menlo, takes place in Palo Alto/Atherton and Menlo Park and the other, Music in the Vineyards takes place in Napa Valley. Of the two, Music@Menlo is the "head" event, providing an unparalleled learning experience. The program is directed by David Finckel and Wu Han, who also direct the program of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. David is a former cellist for the Emerson String Quartet, and together, they are very plugged in to what's happening in chamber music in New York and Europe. The program notes for this concert are extensive and detailed. Separately a set of CDs with notes and excerpts provide even more information, and then there are lectures. Most of the music takes place at the Menlo School in Atherton. The grounds are pleasant and the local restaurants offer fine meals. This event offers the best new players and an outstanding opportunity to learn everything there is to learn about the music being performed.
Last night I was in Menlo Park to hear a concert of Schubert lieder, a Mozart quintet -- K 406 -- led by a really excellent first violin, Danbi Um, and Schubert's G Major string quartet, posthumious 161, D887 performed by the Escher String Quartet. The Schubert quartet was played with the amazing speed and vigor that one associates with this extremely popular young New York quartet. For another opinion, see the review by Georgia Rowe from the San Jose Mercury News: www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_28507445/review-music-menlo-off-sublime-start
I am looking forward to a couple of additional concerts at Music@Menlo and then a couple in Napa Valley. If Music@Menlo appeals to our cognitive functions, Music in the Vineyards appeals to the "heart." The performances aren't as well documented or explained, but they take place in Bucolic settings -- wineries that often look as if they were created in France or Italy a couple of hundred years ago -- and feature excellent performers. And then there are the outstanding Napa restaurants and the wine tours that you can include if you arrive in the afternoon before the event. If the Menlo events take place in a chateau that looks right out of the French Enlightenment, then the Napa concerts remind one of the countryside of southern France, or of medieval Italy. To see what I mean, check out the opening Napa event at www.musicinthevineyards.org/
Those of us who live in San Francisco can choose our direction -- North for romance, or South for a more cognitive experience.
Separately, I look forward to attend a special, late August festival this year -- to the East -- at the Hillside Club in Berkeley where the late Beethoven quartets are to be performed by the Bay Area's popular early music group, the New Esterhazy Quartet. For more information on this mini-festival, see www.newesterhazy.org
July 19, 2015
I have never attended a groupmuse event, but they sound like fun. In essence, groupmuse is a software application that facilitates gatherings of likeminded people to listen to classical music. Someone volunteers to host, someone volunteers to play, and an audience that is interested signs up. To find out more, visit www.groupmuse.com I came across groupmuse following-up on an announcement of the Amaranth String Quartet. The Amaranth will be performing at a groupmuse event in San Francisco on Sunday, July 26th. The event will be at an individual's home where there will be a BBQ and music. In this specific case all 40 spots are already filled (with 15 on the waitlist). In this instance, I, personally, would not have attended, even if there were room, since the host specifies that it is for a 20s and 30s crowd. If you fill out the information requested on the groupmuse website, however, you might find an upcoming event that would be right for you. Unfortunately, you have to look at the specific event's details to determine who is performing -- but a little search might find you a string quartet, and an appropariate crowd.
July 16, 2015
I just received the announcement of the Chamber Music San Francisco 2016 Season. It sounds like a pleasant season, but, unfortunately, for readers of this site, it only offers one string quartet performance -- a February 2016 appearance of the Szymanowski Quartet. In past years the Chamber Music group has usually offered 3-4 string quartets. I don't know why they have shifted to feature so many solo performers in 2016, but I will try to find out. Meanwhile, for more specific information, check on 2016 calendar.
July 8, 2015
I just got the announcement, so it's a bit late to plan for, but if you happen to be able, attending the performance of the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Anderson Gallery on the Stanford Campus at 6:30 on Thursday, July 9th, would be a pleasant way to spend a summer evening. The Anderson Gallery is a new art gallery on the front lawn of the Standord Campus, right across Palm Drive from Stanford's new Bing concert hall. The Anderson gallery was especially created to house the Anderson Collection, a major collection of modern and contemporary art. (The current, special exhibit is focused on the work of Wayne Thiebaud.) But, of primary interest to readers of this website will be the free concert provided by Stanford's wonderful resident quartet, the St. Lawrence String Quartet. If you haven't explored the Stanford Campus or the Palo Alto-Menlo Park area in awhile, you might consider this a trial run, in preperation for visits to the fast approaching Music@Menlo concerts which are about to start (see below and see the calendar).
June 15, 2015
For those who haven't attended one of the Music@Menlo concerts, let me tell you about something you are missing. First, let me remind you that the Founders of the Music@Menlo festival are David Finckel and his wife, Wu Han. Mr. Finckel is the former cellist for the Emerson String Quartet (1979-2013) and Wu Han is a well-known concert pianist. The couple serves as co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as well as co-artistic directors of the Music@Menlo festival. So we are talking about people with an intimate knowledge of chamber music and the people who make chamber music. Each year the festival chooses a theme. This year, for their 13th season, the theme is Schubert. Not only do they produce a booklet that talks about Schubert and puts the various concerts in a context, but they mail a set of CDs -- audio notes -- to subscribers that provide both a detailed discussion of the music to be played and audio examples of the music. When the package first arrives -- in this case 5 discs -- its a bit intimidating, but once you begin listening, its quite interesting, and it gives you something to do in June and early July while you are waiting for the festival to start towards the end of July.
June 12, 2015
Elliot thought April was the cruelest month, but for those who love string quartets, June is certainly the least interesting month. The seasonal subscriptions of the impresarios and quartets themselves tend to end in May. The summer festivals begin in July and August, and then the fall season begins again in September. Meantime, there's June, with very little activity. If you're into contempory music, listening to the Terry Riley fest given by Kronos at the SFJAZZ Center is an important exception this year. Otherwise, June is a good time for reading and getting out CDs and replaying some favorate quartets. One can also spend time looking at the programs being offered in Menlo, in the Vineyards, or even at the special festivals like the New Esterhazy Beethoven event, and anticipate.
May 30, 2015
I suppose that most visitors to this site who live in the Bay Area know of the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. The SFFCM is a non-profit organization that works to promote chamber music in the Bay Area. The group supports performers, composers, and presenters who engage in early music, chamber music, new music, jazz, and creative music. Among other things, they support a number of programs that provide free music throughout the year, including:
Presidio Sessions A series of free, casual performances every Friday evening at the Presidio Officers’ Club, a former gathering place for military brass that has been reborn into the Bay Area’s newest cultural destination.
Legion Listening Series A collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, these events take place once a month throughout the spring. Concerts are held in the Rodin Gallery at the Legion of Honor Museum and are free with admission to the museum.
SFMusic Thursdays A bi-weekly series at the Center for New Music. The intimate setting and casual atmosphere are particularly conducive to forging direct connections amongst performers and audience members.
In addition, each year the SFFCM sponsors SFMusic Day Live + Free. This is an annual event that takes place in the fall and presents a diverse day of performances by established and emerging ensembles at Herbst Auditorium.
In addition to providing free performances, SFFCM also raises money, gives grants, and provides legal aid to chamber music groups as they seek to establish themselves. The Musical Grant Program’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for creative musical projects, to raise the profile of local artists, and to create opportunities for audiences to experience the rich diversity of music in the Bay Area. This year the MGP distributed $90,000 in grants ranging between $3,000 and $4,000 through a competitive process to projects that showcase the artistry of local ensembles and enhance the careers of professional chamber musicians. I won't list all 28 grants for 2015, but will note that the following string quartets were included: Baumer Quartet, Einsteinium Quartet, Ensemble San Francisco, The Galax Quartet, the Real Vocal String Quartet, Telegraph Quartet, and Mark Winges and the Friction Quartet.
If you have any money to give to support string quartets in the Bay Area, donating to the SFFCM is an awfully good way to do it. For more information, please see www.sffcm.org
May 13, 2015
One of the most exciting string quartets in the world, the Bay Area's own Kronos Quartet, has announced a festival for Terry Riley, a composer who has written many different pieces for Kronos, to celebrate Riley's 80th birthday. The three day festival will take place on June 26-28 at the SFJAZZ center in San Francisco. For times, see the calendar. For more information, see kronosquartet.org/projects/detail/kronos-presents-terry-riley-festival
May 10, 2015
After creating the entry below, I listened to the Fischoff Competition via live streaming. In essence, I simply went to and clicked on the photo. Several groups played in the course of the finals. The winner of the Senior String Division Gold Prize and the Grand Prize this year is the Zora String Quartet, a group from Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, at Bloomington Indiana that was formed in 2013, and was tutored by, among others, the Pacifica String Quartet -- which is resident at IU. The group includes Dechopol Kowintaweewat and Seula Lee, violins, Pablo Munoz Salido, viola, and Ziza Ning, cello. Hopefully we'll get a chance to hear them live, in the Bay Area, sometime soon.
May 10, 2015
Yesterday morning the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg concluded their Mozart in Vienna series. The series had run for two years and we had been told about, and listened with great pleasure to string quartets and quintets that Mozart had written while in Vienna. The concluding session was no different: Greenberg summarized the effect of Mozart's contribution of the string quartet, discussed the two pieces of music we were to hear: K 590 in F Major and the Viola Quintet, K 614 in E-flat Mjaor, and ended with a discussion of Mozart's death, bringing the series to a close. The Alexander played both pieces.
My personal take away from the series was a new appreciation of Mozart quintets which I had not listened too in the past and now value quite as much as the quartets. On Saturday, to perform the quintet, the Alexander were joined by Charith Premawardhana on second viola. For those who don't know him, Premawardhana is not only an accomplished violist, but the founder of the Classical Revolution -- an organization that promotes classical music performances at neighborhood venues -- mostly popular bars in college areas. The Classical Revolution started in San Francisco's Mission District in 2006 and has grown into a worldwide phenomenon with 30 active chapters in cities around the world.
Meanwhile, San Francisco Performances, the Alexander and Greenberg have announced a new series for 2016. Starting in January (see 2016 Calendar) they will present Beethoven: Before, During, and After. The new series will focus on four Beethoven works and explore how they relate to other compositions by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Greenberg, and Rochberg. (For those who missed the Mozart in Vienna in San Francisco, that series is being repeated in Berkeley in 2016.)
April 28, 2015
The Fischoff Competition is an international contest that selects the best young musicians. It is held at Norte Dame, in South Bend Indiana each spring. It is open to everyone, although entries are mostly from North America. Contestants are in various categories, including strings. The top prize in strings often goes to a string quartet. Last year the winner of both the senior division strings and the grand prize for the overall competition went to the Telegraph Quartet from San Francisco.
This year's contest is being held in May. The final playoffs and awards are on May 9th and 10th and the proceedings are being streamed live via the Fischoff website: www.fischoff.org We have put information about the times of the playoffs in our calendar. For more information, check the Fischoff website.
April 26, 2015
On Saturday afternoon I attended the latest concert of The New Esterhazy Quartet. They performed Haydn, a contemporary, Paul Struck, and Beethoven's Op. 131 in C-sharp minor. As usual, they performed on instruments with gut strings and with techniques that would have been familiar to Haydn and Beethoven. Once again, I thought how lucky we are to have a group in the Bay Area who work to reminded us of exactly how early string quartets were intended to be played by those who wrote them. It isn't that I don't like modern presentations, but its nice to be able to compare modern versions with historically accurate presentations.
I usually associate groups that play on period instruments with the music of Haydn and Mozart, but the New Esterhazy, having explored those sources for several years, is obviously making a serious effort to expand their offerings to include the late Beethoven quartets. They have just announced a special concert series at the Berkeley Hillside Club, on August 26, 28 and 30 (See the calendar for details). In essence this will be a kind of mini Beethoven summer festival for period music enthusasts. As I suggest above, they tried one of the late Beethoven late quartets out on us yesterday, and it left me eager to hear more.
April 25, 2015
There are different reasons to attend a string quartet concert. A major reason, of course, is to hear the music. But one can also go because one wants to hear the music in a particular location, or to be with a congenial group of people, or even to raise money for a good cause. Last night I indulged several of these impulses when I attended a performance of the Temescal String Quartet at the Sunnyside Conservatory in San Francisco. The Conservatory is a Victorian folly built in 1898 in a small park in the Sunnyside area of San Francisco -- at 258 Monterey, 4 blocks from the Glen Park BART Station. Six years ago a group of neighbors rallied to prevent the then delapidated structure from being torn down, and, instead, renewed it -- making it into a wonderful garden-enclosed community center. (see www.sunnysideconservatory.org for more information on the building and the community). I had seen the building when I had been in the neighborhood and thought it would be a particularly romantic place to go to attend a musical event.
Thus, I was ready when I heard that the Temescal String Quartet was performing there. The Temescal is a string quartet that was originally made up of four women, but is now composed of three women and a man who are somehow associated with the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland CA. All four are professional musicians: Barbara Riccardi (violin) is a first violin in the SF Opera Orchestra; Katherine Button (violin) freelances at the SF Ballet and SF Opera orchestras; Jonna Hervig (viola) is a member of the SF Opera Orchestra, and Michael Graham (cello) plays with the Oakland Symphony. Separate from their other committments they have formed a string quartet and present a few local concerts each year. (For more information, please see: www.temescalquartet.com.)
Last night the Temescal presented Haydn (Op. 20, No. 5 in F minor), Dvorak's Cypresses, and Beethoven's Op. 95 in F minor. The audience was not a typical string quartet audience. There were several young people and parents with children -- neighbors of the Sunnyside area -- and the program, which was chosen, in part, I assume, for its melodic pleasures, was very well received. The Conservatory seats about 60 people and was jammed full, and the acustics turned out the be excellent. There was even a good cause: some of our donations went to maintain the garden and to help pay for a pumpkin-carving contest planned for the fall. This was a string quartet in best tradition -- a group of friends gathered in an intimate setting to hear four skilled musicians play wonderful music.
April 20, 2015
I haven't heard a live string quartet playing music by a Mexican composer, but I have been enjoying a new recording by El Cuarteto Latinoamericano, a well-known Latin American String Quartet that was formed in 1982 in Mexico. Their new album is Tetraktys, and it features the music of 10 different Mexican composers. Like the music of the great Brazilian composer, Villa-Lobos, which Latinoamericano has also recorded, there is a definate Latin American flavor to some of this music, but there is also some very fine string quartet playing, and many compositions sound as much like Glass or Bartok as Villa-Lobos. The same group also just released an album of the music of Ruperto Chapi, one of Spain's most interesting string quartet composers. It's exciting to hear how string quartets can be extended as they embrace the music of other cultural traditions. For a short review, see: www.thewholenote.com/index.php/booksrecords2/527-current-reviews/25237-tetraktys-contemporary-music-for-string-quartet-by-young-mexican-composers
April 9, 2015
Tonight the Cypress String Quartet presented their 16th Annual Call and Response Concert. Each year the quartet chooses a classic bit of the string quartet literature, and then commissions a composer to write something that reflects their take on the original. This year the original was Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 2 and the response was written by Philippe Hersant, a well-respected French composer. To prepare for the event, the Cypress visits schools throughout the Bay Area, playing the original and talking with students about string quartets. On the final night, the students are invited to a theater to rehear the original and to hear the new piece. This is one of the very few string quartet events in the Bay Area, where the average age of the audience is something like 14 years of age! It's an exciting event. For a review of the event, consider: www.sfcv.org/reviews/cypress-string-quartet/reimagining-beethoven-with-help-from-the-cypress-string-quartet
Separately, perhaps its just me and I've gone to a skewed set of concerts this year, but Beethoven seems to be on lots of people's minds. The Telegraph has been playing Beethoven Op. 59 No. 2 a lot. The St. Lawrence played a Beethoven quartet in their recent Stanford concert, and then premered a new Adams quartet based on motifs from Beethoven. The Cypress has played Beethoven at all of their Salon concerts thus far this year, has just published their second album of Beethoven String Quartets, and used Op. 59 No. 2 in their Call and Response concert. The New Esterhazy Quartet has just announced a kind of Beethoven Late Quartets fesival in August, when they will play all of the late quartets in the course of three days. Given his importance, there will always be a number of Beethoven string quartets performed in any given year, but it seems to me that this year he is especially promenent.
Mar 5, 2015
What does it take for a string quartet to succeed? Obviously the world keeps changing and what worked well for a string quartet starting out in the 1980s probably doesn't work as well today. Here's an article about some of the challenges faced by today's String Quartet groups: www.allthingsstrings.com/Article-Index/Department/Feature/Chamber-Groups-Face-21st-Century-Challenges?
Mar 1, 2015
The Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival, which will take place this year from July 17 to Aug 8, has announced its program -- which is available at www.musicatmenlo.org/files/matm-2015Preview_final_web.pdf. The emphasis, for the festival's 13th season, will be Schubert, Tickets go on sale around April 15. Of special interest to string quartet aficionados will be concert program VII, with the exciting Dover String Quartet playing Haydn's Op 103 in D minor, Beethoven's Op 131 in C-sharp minor, and the Schubert Cello Quintet in C Major Op 163. Also of interest will be Schubertiade III with the Escher String Quartet playing "Death and the Maiden." In addition, there are many other string quartets on the program, and much other good chamber music, besides.
At the same time the Music@Menlo Winter Series has just announced that they will be sponsoring the Borodin Quartet on their 70th Anniversary Concert Tour during which they will play Borodin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky quartets. The event will take place on Sunday October 18th. The location has yet to be announced -- I'll post it on the calendar as soon as I know.
Feb 28, 2015
Lots of people who love string quartets have spent the past week in London listening to eleven string quartets compete for the honor of being named the 2015 winner of the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. In fact, the winner, which was named on Saturday, was the Van Kuiji Quartet -- made up of four performers from France. The second prize was shared by the Verona Quartet from the US and the Piatti Quartet from the UK. The Morrison Chamber Music Center at San Francisco State University offers a Morrison Chamber Music Center Prize, among several prizes given at the Wigmore competition, which guarantees that the Van Kuiji Quartet will perform in San Francisco, at the Morrison Center during 2016. For a first hand account of this year's Wigmore Hall competition, see this note by Richard Festinger, the artistic director of the Morrison Center: hosted.verticalresponse.com/239400/abc1784c34/1559121413/b43ca81047/
Feb 19, 2015
I went to hear the Takacs Quartet perform Schubert on Sunday evening at the SFJAZZ Center. It was a concert sponsored by SF Performances. The music making was excellent, as you would expect from one of the very best string quartets in the world today.
During the intermission, as I leafed through the program, I noticed a kind of advertisement for San Francisco Performances that mentioned that it was celebrating its 35th Anniversary Season, and listed some of the string quartets it had brought to San Francisco in the course of its existance. The list included the Guarneri Quartet, the Juilliard, Tokyo, Emerson, Alban Berg, Lindsay and Anditti. Also included were the Takacs, Brentano, Pavel Haas, Ebene, and many others. As I thought about that list, and remembered some of the wonderful concerts I had enjoyed over the years, I thought that one of the great things about string quartet music is that you could hear the very best performers without leaving town. As a result of their size, and the limited audience for string quartets, the great quartets travel a lot. Imagine a season where some impresario brought the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, and the La Scala Opera company to the Bay Area. It's never going to happen. Those groups are too big and it’s too expensive for them to travel. Someone living in the Bay Area would be lucky to hear one of those groups, in a local performance, once in a lifetime. Yet, in the course of three decades, San Francisco Performances has brought almost all of the major string quartets in the world to San Francisco not once, but on multiple occasions.
None of this is to say that we don’t have some world class groups that call San Francisco home, but to appreciate them you need to hear others as well. You only become musicially sophisticated by listening to different groups perform the same piece often enough that you learn to detect nuances. Without hearing several different symphonies performed, frequently, you never get to the point where you develop real preferences. You can try to do this by listening to CDs, but it’s not quite the same thing as listening to live performances.
String quartet groups are small and travel easily and the string quartet literature is amazingly rich, providing Bay Area listeners with a unique opportunity to listen to great music, often performed by some of the best string quartet groups in the world. We in the Bay Area owe a considerable debt to Ruth Felt, the president and founder of SF Performances, for arranging to bringing all these groups to San Francisco over the course of the last 35 years.
Feb 11, 2015
The Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition (Formerly the London International String Quartet Competition) will take place from Tue. March 24 to Sun March 29, 2015. As they describe it on their site:
"The first London International String Quartet Competition was held in Portsmouth in 1979, and was won by the then unknown Takács Quartet, today recognised as one of the world's leading string quartets and currently Wigmore Hall Associate Artists. Gábor Takács-Nagy, one of the founding members of the Takács Quartet, describes just how valuable winning the Competition was for them: ‘When we won the Competition, it gave us confidence and we saw that all the work was worthwhile … the first prize changed our life … You somehow believe in yourself more, and if you believe in what you are doing you are probably stronger. Some people say that music is not sport, music is not for competitions. But on the other hand, I know preparing for a competition requires enormous dedication and motivates young quartets to work hard.’"
This is a major competition, and the preliminary list of the contestants has now been released. This year they include: Aeolus Quartet (USA), Aizuri Quartet (USA), Alinde Quartet (Germany), Amber Quartet (Spain), Benyounes Quartet (UK), Evita Quartet (USA), Piatti Quartet (UK), Quatuor Girard (France), Quatuor Lumiere (Switzerland), Van Kuijk Quartet (Switzerland), Van Kuijk Quartet (France), Washmuth Quartet (USA), Zora String Quartet (USA). We aren't attending this year, but urge anyone who is interested in string quartets who could make it to London in March, to consider it. For more information on international competitions, see our article, International Events, under Impresarios. For more information on the Wigmore Competition, visit: wigmore-hall.org.uk/string-quartet-competition/wigmore-hall-international-string-quartet-competition
Feb 2, 2015
Yesterday was Superbowl Sunday in the US and a large percent of the population gathered in front of their TV sets to watch football. A few of us, however, gathered in the Maybeck Studio in Berkeley at 3pm to hear the Telegraph Quartet play Britten's Three Divertimenti and Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 2 in E minor, and to raise funds for the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music's new Ensemble-in-Residence program. (The Ensemble program is a experimental new service that the SFFCM is offering to four selected chamber music groups this year to help the groups become more successful by providing them with various consulting services.)
The Telegraph quartet was really excellent -- I've never heard Beethoven's E minor quartet performed any better -- the locale, as I've mentioned before, is a studio in a home that is a historical monument designed by the great Arts and Crafts architect, Bernard Maybeck, and the wine and snacks provided by a caterer, For the Love of Food, were very tasty. Given the summer weather that the Bay Area is enjoying, and the pleasant company, it made for an awfully nice way to wile away a winter afternoon.
Jan 19, 2015
If the New Esterhazy Quartet opened the 2015 string quartet season in the Bay Area, then the Alexander String Quartet, Robert Greenberg, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and John Adams really kicked it into high gear.
The Alexander String Quartet, with guest violist Andrew Duckles and musicologist Robert Greenberg began the second season of their Mozart in Vienna series on Saturday Jan. 17th at the SFJAZZ center. This series, sponsored by San Francisco Performances, continues the program of concerts they began in the Spring of 2014. On Saturday Greenberg lectured on Mozart's developing talent and described two late 1780s masterworks, Mozart's String Quarted in D minor, (K.499, Hoffmeister) and the Viola Quintet in C Major (K.515). After each Greenberg lecture, the Alexander performed the respective piece. Over the years the Alexander and Greenberg have done so much to educate Bay Area audiences about various string quartets. I can recall my pleasure in earlier series on the Beethoven, Shostakovich, Brahms, and Berlioz quartets, for example. The Mozart series has already proven equally pleasurable, and the 2015 season has only begun.
Then on Sunday, January 18th, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the resident string quartet of Stanford University, presented a program at Stanford's beautiful new Bing auditorium on the Stanford Campus. In addition to playing Haydn String Quartet Op. 20, No. 5 in F minor, and Beethoven's Op. 131 in C-sharp minor, the quartet premiered John Adams' Second Quartet. The St. Lawrence quartet has a special relationship with Adams and he has worked with them on premeres of his two previous works for string quartet -- his First String Quartet, written in 2008 (and premiered at the Juilliard School by the St. Lawrence in 2009), and his second piece, Absolute Jest, a 25 minute piece for a quartet and an orchestra (which was premiered by the St. Lawrence quartet and the San Francisco Symphony in 2012). Absolute Jest was developed by Adams by using fragments from Beethoven String Quartets 131 and 135 and combining them in a variety of different ways. In a similar way, Adams' new String Quartet No. 2 was built around fragments of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major (Op. 110). The quartet was comprised of two movements, one very rapid, and the second developed from a melody which then moved off in many unexpected directions.
It's one thing to have some of the best string quartets calling San Francisco home, and it's another to be the location where some of the most important contemporary composers choose to premier their latest work. In 2014, Kronos opened the year with the world premere of Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 6. This year, the St. Lawrence Quartet kicked off the year with the world premere of John Adams' String Quartet No. 2. And the Cypress String Quartet has just announced that they will be premereing a new string quartet by the well-known French composer, Philippe Hersant on April 10th. Being able to attend premiers like this certainly adds to the fun of going to string quartet performances in the Bay Area.
For two reviews of the Adams premere, see: www.mercurynews.com/music/ci_27350415/review-john-adams-and-st-lawrence-quartet and www.sfgate.com/music/article/Music-review-John-Adams-stalkerish-love-6025518.php