December 27, 2010

"Everyone Loves Classical Music--They Just Haven't Found Out About It Yet"

Benjamin Zander Video at TED
Maestro Benjamin Zander at TED

If tween heart-throb Joe Jonas (of pop music group Jonas Brothers) has any influence on the peer pressure of today's teens and twenty-somethings, there should be a resurgence of interest in classical music in the younger set.  In a recent interview he insisted that he really loves classical music, saying
“I think I’ve always liked it, ever since somebody told me that if you listen to it while you're sleeping it’ll make you smarter when you wake up in the morning. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m trying that out.”  And while the so-called Mozart Effect is still highly debated, there's one thing Jonas and Boston Philharmonic Conductor Benjamin Zander agree on--classical music really is for everyone.  It's just that not everyone may know it yet.

In a short presentation at the annual TED Conference, "Ideas Worth Sharing," Zander demonstrated how everyone innately knows and grasps the concepts that classical music is built on and can develop a love and appreciation for it.  In his inimitable style, he gets an audience of classical music newbies to understand a Chopin piece (and even to predict it's ending), tells how classical music captivated an audience of hundreds of elementary school children and brought together a group of Catholic and Protestant teens in war-torn Ireland.  Watch this fascinating 20-minute video--well worth the time.  And let us know what YOU think by posting your comments here on our blog!

November 29, 2010

Mozartian Humor

Mozart had a wicked sense of humor.  Today, we hold his musical genius in such high esteem that it's hard to imagine him as the off-color joke teller he was with his friends.  How else do you explain the double entendre of his canon Difficile lectu (read more on this), for example?  And his friends and colleagues were often the unwitting targets of his jokes.  A frequent mark was famous horn soloist Joseph Leutgeb, for whom Mozart originally wrote all of his horn repertory.  A good friend of Mozart's, Leutgeb often opened his part to find insulting notes left for him.  In fact, Concerto No. 1 contains risqué references and disparaging comments on Leutgeb's playing throughout the solo part.  The dedication for the second concerto, that you'll hear this weekend, is signed: "Wolfgang Amadé Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton, at Vienna, March 27, 1783."  In the score itself he marks the orchestra part "Allegro" (fast, lively) while the same section of the solo part is marked "Adagio" (easy, slow)--a tongue-in-cheek reference to the tendency of the horn to come in late, dragging the tempo.

That levity suits Symphony Silicon Valley Principal Horn Meredith Brown just fine.  Asked what she thought would be most fun for the audience to know when listening to her perform Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2 this weekend, she had one word "humor"--pointing to the close, joking relationship between Mozart and Leutgeb.  Here's the rest of our mini-interview with Ms. Brown.

Symphony Silicon Valley (SSV): How did you choose this particular piece for December's concert?
Meredith Brown (MB):  I love all of Mozart's writing for horn, but this concerto is my (current) favorite--I think it's just perfectly constructed.

SSVWhat attracted you to the horn?
MB:  My older sister played flute, and I was dragged along to see her middle school band concerts… I always thought the horn looked the coolest.

SSVWhat were some of your favorite concerts?
MB:  That's a really tough one...  I got to do Bruckner's 8th and 9th symphonies with Kurt Masur and I feel REALLY lucky for that, for example.

SSVBesides symphony, you also have played for a large number of theatrical productions.  What were your favorites?
MB:  My absolute favorite show is Ragtime!  The music and the story are pretty amazing, and it doesn't get done that often.  I also enjoyed Baz Luhrman's production of La bohème.  He made it even larger-than-life than the typical opera, but kept the integrity of the music tantamount.

SSVAny interesting anecdotes or stories you'd like to share with our readers?
MB:  It's hard to know what to do about the "water problem" (breath condensation) for brass players when we're the soloists.  Who wants to see someone in an evening gown or tuxedo dealing with the plumbing? A very nice friend of mine rigged my horn up so that if I pull one string, I can empty both water keys at the same time!

Mozart & Schubert: Saturday & Sunday, December 4 & 5

November 19, 2010

"Random Acts of Culture" Storms San Jose

Have you experienced a Random Act of Culture? Think ballet on the street corner. A little tango in the airport terminal. Poetry at the supermarket. Or perhaps Amazing Grace at the mall.

Last weekend, Random Acts of Culture arrived in San Jose as the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale sprang live choral music on surprised shoppers at the busy Westfield Valley Fair mall and startled attendees at a busy national conference by breaking into song during a reception.  These were the first of some 30 impromptu events a year coming to San Jose through an initiative funded by the Knight FoundationSymphony Silicon Valley will be producing these events throughout Santa Clara County as part of the 1000 Random Acts of Culture being staged nation-wide by the Foundation.  And judging from Saturday's reactions, fun will be had by all!

As shoppers bustled about the mall, several began to hum the same tune.  Other "shoppers" joined in and soon a chorus, really the Symphony's Chorale incognito, joined together in full voice, seemingly at random, and gave a full rendition of Amazing Grace while surprised shoppers stopped and stared and others peered over railings from above to see what was happening.  And when the song was over, the chorus melted back into the crowd as suddenly as it had formed while two of the spectators held up signs reading "You've just experienced a Random Act of Culture."  A little later, the chorus rematerialized in another corner of the mall to similar pleasantly surprised reactions.

Across town, a packed national conference was taking place at the Fairmont Hotel.  During an afternoon reception, conference attendees heard a faint humming.  Soon "attendees"--conference lanyards and all--joined in and the noisy crowd suddenly froze, realizing that something unusual was taking place.  Absolutely silent during the performance, the crowd of some three hundred stunned attendees broke into wild applause and whistles of approval as the "Random Act" sign was displayed, for this was a conference of arts marketing professionals from across the country who had just witnessed their first Random Act of Culture.

As Sal Pizarro wrote in his Mercury News column Monday, "Stay alert. You never know when some of this culture stuff might sneak up on you."  And while we won't give away the events or their exact locations and times, we might occasionally give you a heads up on our Facebook page and Twitter feed, so sign up for those to be sure you have a chance to experience a Random Act Of Culture in person.  But you'll always be able to watch the ones you missed via our YouTube channel and our own website.

Watch last weekend's Random Acts of Culture:
Random Acts of Culture: Valley Fair Mall 11/13/10
Random Acts of Culture: National Conference 11/13/10

6th Annual "Carols" Concert to feature Leigh Weimers

The Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale and conductor Elena Sharkova will bring the 6th annual holiday concert Carols In The California to the California Theatre concert hall December 11.   A fun and festive family-friendly holiday blend of music and story-telling, this annual treat brings together the Symphony's 90-voice Chorale, the Cantabile Youth Singers, the Symphony Silicon Valley Brass and features noted organist Walt Strony on the theater's Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.  The evening is hosted by everyone's favorite San Jose commentator, Mercury News columnist Leigh Weimers.  “Leigh has a vast array of stories to tell that touch old San Jose” says Andrew Bales, president of Symphony Silicon Valley. “With more than 50 years in local journalism who could be better suited to entertain the audience with stories that uniquely reflect the holidays in San Jose?”

The concert features John Rutter’s Gloria, a radiant piece of 20th century music performed by the Chorale accompanied by organ and brass.  Symphony Silicon Valley Singers, a chamber group of 24 singers from the Chorale, and the critically acclaimed children's choir Cantabile Youth Singers will add a more intimate feeling with compositions from Handel to Renee Clausen as well as carols and spirituals rooted in folk tradition. Organ and brass holiday numbers along with choral arrangements of holiday favorites such as I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and Twelve Days of Christmas.  A highlight of the program are the audience sing-alongs.  "We want the audience to be more than spectators, to participate by singing with the chorus "says Elena Sharkova, the Chorale's conductor and musical director.

Ms. Sharkova is also delighted to be featuring her other musical ensemble, Cantabile Youth Singers, in the program for the third year. "With their sweet voices soaring high in the glorious acoustics of the California Theatre, the children bring freshness, warmth and excitement to the evening" she says.  Though she and the Chorale love to perform with the Symphony, this holiday concert is a special opportunity they look forward to each year.  "For my singers this is the time to be closer to our audience.  With no orchestra between us and the people in the hall, and with music that is both familiar and light, we are able to build a more intimate relationship with our listeners."

Plan to join Ms. Sharkova, the Chorale and musicians from the Symphony for this sparkling holiday treat.  Carols in the California takes place Saturday December 11 at 7:00pm and is always a popular concert.  Reserved seats are only $36 adults, $26 for anyone under 26 and are going fast.

November 8, 2010

A Season of Premieres for the Symphony's Chorale

Symphony Silicon Valley's Chorale announced a marvelous season of three major concerts and a trip to New York City's Lincoln Center to reprise last year's performance of Will Todd's jazzy Mass In Blue.

First on the calendar is the Chorale's annual holiday delight, Carols In The California--this year hosted by San Jose's historian and columnist Leigh Weimers.  Carols and familiar holiday fare combine with great story-telling of San Jose's holidays of yore as the Chorale is joined by the Cantabile Youth Singers, the Symphony's brass section and the theater's mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ for this December 11 concert.

In March, the Chorale joins the full Symphony on stage for the orchestra's main stage concert series in Brahms' German Requiem, a visionary masterpiece and one of the most powerful choral pieces ever written.  Brahms wrote the piece over a decade, following the death of Schumann (his mentor) and then his own mother.  Unlike most, German Requiem does not follow the standard Latin requiem, but rather is set to lyrics written by Brahms himself from passages of the Lutheran Bible.  It is a unique, moving and challenging piece that our Chorale members have been eager to tackle.

June brings two performances of Romantically Russian--an evening of Russian choral works from the Romantic and post-Romantic era.  The evening will be sung fully in Russian and Old Church Slavonic and features the North American premiere of Ippolitov-Ivanov's All-Night Vigil.  In fact, music publisher Musica Russica is editing and publishing the piece especially for this occasion.  The program also features music by Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov, Taneev, Kalinnikov, Rimski-Korsakov and of course Tchaikovski.  Chorale conductor and music director Elena Sharkova, when asked how the idea of this program came about, said that "most conductors shy away from Russian music because of the language--the sound of it, the look of the Cyrillic alphabet, the scores calling for very low basses and high soaring tenors."  So when the group had a chance to perform excerpts from All-Night Vigil in 2007 the members were really excited and asked for more Russian music in the group's future repertoire.  A native of St. Petersburg, Ms. Sharkova is an expert on Russian choral music and has lectured extensively on its repertoire and performance practices, conducting several U.S. premiers of Russian contemporary compositions.  She says most choral conductors would "much rather sing in Swahili than in Russian" but she hopes that after attending this program they will have an opportunity to hear romantic Russian music rarely heard in this country and decide to program more Russian music for their own choirs in the future.

In April, the Chorale heads-cross country for their premiere at the famous Avery Fisher Hall in New York City's Lincoln Center.  Last march, only 3 days before the Chorale's California Theatre performance of British composer Will Todd's jazz choir interpretation of the Latin mass, Ms. Sharkova was asked to conduct a concert this spring at Lincoln Center.  She and the Chorale had fallen in love with the composers jazz/blues Mass In Blue and were looking for other opportunities to perform it.  And the idea was born--a New York City premiere of Mass In Blue by the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale, joined by the composer himself, a Canadian choir from Ottawa and singers from Virginia and New York.

Join the Chorale for the 2010-2011 season.  Tickets are available at the Symphony Box Office.  And if you'll be in New York on April 18, be sure to cheer our home team on at Avery Fisher--tickets available here.

December 11, Carols In The CaliforniaInfo  Tickets
March 24-27, Brahms' German RequiemInfo  Tickets
April 18, Mass In Blue at Lincoln Center:  Info  Tickets
June 3-5, Romantically RussianInfo  Tickets

October 18, 2010

"You're A Sinatra Aren't You? Sing!"

While not really a "Junior" (his name is Franklin Wayne while his father's was Francis Albert), Frank Sinatra Jr. is the only son of "The Voice."  And that hasn't always been an easy thing to be.  He saw little of his father for most of his childhood--he was even born in New Jersey while his famous father was away in Hollywood shooting a film.  "He was unreachable," Frank Jr. says.  "He was traveling, or off making some movie.  When I began in this business, it was only on rare occasions when we saw each other."

Though Frank Sr. famously told reporters he hoped his son would never become a singer -- "no following in Dad's footsteps, that's for sure" -- Frank Jr. took music lessons from the age of 5, studying violin, piano, writing songs and singing.  And he fell in love with the big band sound.  "The real powerful band era didn't come till after the war was over, around 1948. Then came the era of the vocalist."  But despite his father's admonition, become a singer he did.  As he tells it, "When I started as a kid, I wanted to be a piano player and songwriter.  I only became a singer by accident.  I was in college, playing in a little band.  The lead singer got tanked one night.  A guy in the band pointed to me and said, 'You sing.' I said, 'Me? Why me?'  He said, 'You're a Sinatra aren't you? Sing!' "

But living in the shadow of the "Great One" was hard work.  "A famous father means that in order to prove yourself, you have to work three times harder than the guy who comes in off the street with a song to sing."  And work hard he did--working some 358 days of 365 in a year.  "A lotta years I was out there on the road pulling one-nighters.  Then I got hired to sing in Sam Donahue's band in 1963.  I was 19 years old."

Though 1963 was to be Junior's big break, it was also a year that still haunts him.  While having dinner in his room at Harrah's Lake Tahoe before the show, he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive until Frank Senior paid the $240,000 ransom.  Though the story was proven false, desperate defense lawyers for the kidnappers used the excuse that Frank Jr. had hired the men to kidnap him as s publicity stunt.  But the accusations didn't seem to put a damper on his career.  "Those days were so much more easier to work than it is today.  There was no such thing as a $4 can of gasoline.  And there were places to work.  Now it's only rock music.  Ask somebody who Gershwin is, who W. C. Handy is, they wouldn't have the slightest notion."  But work he did--along side the greatest names in music.  "I used to alternate with a young boy I had never seen before.  He was clean-shaven.  It was Stevie Wonder.  We used to alternate onstage with Duke Ellington.  Duke took me under his wing.  And I listened to the sounds he made."

In 1988, he took a break from the spotlight to serve as his father's bandleader and conductor.  As one by one, Frank Sr. outlived his orchestrators and conductors, Frank Jr. saw that his ailing father's connection to his fans was his father's lifeline and, at Senior's request, took the reins of his father's orchestra.  Says Jim Fox, Junior's guitarist, "He knows the way Sinatra music is supposed to sound…  He knows every third trombone part, every cello part…  He was at a lot of those original Capitol recording dates…  He can sound exactly like his dad if he wants to.  He can turn on the classic Sinatra sound anytime."

Says Fox, Frank Jr. "has high standards.  He doesn't want to work unless he has his 38 band pieces."  That's exactly what's needed to produce the full, lush sound both Sinatra's are known for.  And this weekend, for one night only, that is precisely the treat in store for San Jose as Symphony Silicon Valley and Frank Junior bring his father's music alive at the California Theatre in Sinatra Sings Sinatra.  This gala event is a benefit for The Stroke Awareness Foundation.

October 11, 2010

How Gypsy Music came to influence Classical Music

Gypsy music has had a tremendous influence on popular culture from the time of Brahms and Bartok to this year’s smash number one hit by pop icon Shakira. From their early roots in Northern India to the high mountain ranges of Hungary and Romania to the plains of Spain and the invention of Flamenco, Roma culture is visible everywhere if you know where to look.

Original Romani folk songs not derived from the countries where the Romani live are relatively rare.  The music of this nomadic people is instead most often an expansion on the many cultures and peoples of the regions they inhabited, taking the folk music of the region and adding additional complexity and form.  The complexity of Gypsy music made Gypsy orchestras and Gypsy jazz ensembles wildly popular throughout Western Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  [SEE A PERFORMANCE]

At different times and in different countries Roma have mastered the lute, harp, balalaika, accordion, drums, and many other instruments. However, hardly anyone would object to the statement that the instruments most characteristic of Eastern European Romani are guitar [LISTEN] and violin [WATCH].  And like most folk and popular music, most Gypsy music is meant for dancing [WATCH].

So taken were Bela Bartok and his fellow Hungarian ethnomusicologist & composer Zoltan Kodaly that they traveled the Hungarian countryside repeatedly from 1904 to 1912 and recorded the folk and Gypsy music they discovered on wax cylinders.  Many of these recordings later become the basis for their own compositions.  Take a listen to this interesting recording that pairs their original wax folk recordings with the classical compositions they created based on them.  [LISTEN HERE]

September 29, 2010

Leslie Uggams: A hit from age 6

"Some people paint, some sew...I meddle." (Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!) Far from the quirky meddler she'll be playing with Symphony Silicon Valley's Broadway In Concert next weekend, Leslie Uggams is often hailed by her co-stars as the “nicest woman in show business.”  A Tony, Emmy & Critics Choice award winner, Golden Globe nominee, star of Broadway, television, film and the concert stage and a tireless advocate on behalf of the elderly and against discrimination, she is a one-woman tour de force.

Her signature smile, warm voice and kind demeanor endeared her to audiences early on. A television star at the age of 6 with a recurring role on the TV series Beulah, she was singing alongside Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington at the Apollo Theater by the age of 9 and making regular appearances on Your Show Of Shows [Video], The Milton Berle Show, and The Arthur Godfry Show.

At 15 she appeared on the quiz show Name That Tune, winning $12,500 to attend school at Julliard and attracting the attention of Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller.  So impressed was Miller that he signed her to a recording contract and made her a regular on Sing Along with Mitch [Video], making Uggams a household name and the first African-American performer to be regularly featured on a weekly national prime time television series.

She made her Broadway debut in Hallelujah, Baby!  “I was 23 and on Broadway in a show written by legends. I couldn’t believe it,” she says [Video of PBS interview].  But the young ingénue’s fateful first Broadway run was to be even more fortunate, winning her the 1968 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.  By 1970, she had her own musical variety television series, The Leslie Uggams Show on CBS.  Her role as Kizzy in the most watched dramatic show in TV history, Alex Haley’s Roots won her a loyal following as a dramatic actress.  She later starred in the miniseries Backstairs at the White House and in numerous specials, cabaret shows and Broadway turns.

She recently played opposite James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond, co-starred in the Broadway hit Thoroughly Modern Millie and starred as Lena Horne in the pre-Broadway run of Stormy Weather. This spring her one-woman cabaret show Uptown, Downtown--the story of her career--won rave reviews in New York.

Next week she’ll be making her San Jose debut in Symphony Silicon Valley’s Broadway In Concert series as the title character in Hello Dolly!—a role she’s reprising from her acclaimed run at Houston’s Theatre Under The Stars.  Join this Broadway legend in one of the most bouncy, feel-good fun musicals of the Broadway Stage next weekend.

September 16, 2010

Nathan Gunn, Sexiest Man Alive?

Nathan Gunn is one of opera’s most sought-after leading men.  And it's no wonder.  Before you even hear the rich, smooth baritone voice, it's impossible to miss his dashing good looks and silver-screen charisma.  Videos and photos from his run as Billy Budd are all the rage on the internet with Gunn's biceps, pecs and abs all shown to full advantage.  So we weren't surprised to learn that People Magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive in 2008.

The 40-year-old's looks are undeniably appealing, but it's the voice and dramatic soul that have won the American opera star an international following.  With appearances at all the great opera houses of the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Paris Opera, Bayerische Straatsoper, the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, Covent Garden and the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Gunn shot to fame as winner of the Met's International Auditions 15 years ago and has been at the top of the opera ladder ever since.  Recently he's ventured outside the traditional classical repertory with semi-staged concert performances, similar to Symphony Silicon Valley's own Broadway In Concert series, of Camelot shown live on PBS and Showboat at Carnegie Hall.

He is also a star of the classical concert stage with appearances with the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony and multiple Grammy-winning recordings with the London Symphony and it's on the concert stage that Gunn first got his start.  "It...taught me how to sing and perform in front of people," he says.  He believes it is far more dramatically challenging to sing a song when "you have to access a character without having to move."  And he owes his operatic success to Schubert, he says, having learned 130 of the composer's songs over some 400 performances while an undergrad at the University of Illinois where both he and his wife now teach.

For our season-opening set of concerts, Gunn will join the orchestra for Mahler's lush but hauntingly intimate autobiographical Songs of the Wayfarer.  Also on tap are the romantic, exuberant Schumann's First Symphony and Beethoven's joyful Seventh Symphony.  Tickets are still available for all three performances September 30-October 3, but are limited on some dates.  More on the concerts

September 2, 2010

Downtown Arts Promotion

A consortium of arts marketing specialists from each of the major downtown performing arts organizations, including the Symphony, hired the staff at San Jose's CreaTV public access channel to put together a promotional video marketing downtown as an arts destination. After months of hard work, here is the result!

Look for new videos coming shortly to the Symphony's official YouTube channel, too.

Vote for Mahler, too

Our season opens with velvet-voiced idol of the Met, handsome baritone Nathan Gunn singing Mahler's haunting and soulfully autobiographic Songs of a Wayfarer.  This year, Mahler would have been 150 years young and in honor of the occasion, record company Deutsche Grammophon/Decca is giving you a chance to vote for your favorite recordings of Mahler's works.  You only have until September 15 to vote and then the winning recordings will be compiled into a People's Edition boxed set of Mahler's greatest works to be released later this fall.

The company has set up a website,, where you can hear all of Decca's Mahler recordings--including rare gems long out of print.  Stream as much Mahler as you like including important recordings that have become virtually unobtainable and legendary performances that are being made available for the first time in digital form.  Then decide for yourself which are the very best recordings in the world.  And let us know your Mahler favorites, too, by leaving a comment below!

Vote for the Symphony THIS weekend

This is it. The Symphony needs your help this weekend. And best of all, you can help right now--in your jammies--right at your computer.  It's the last chance to vote for us on Metro's 24th Annual Best of Silicon Valley survey.  Tuesday September 7th it's all over.

    Vote in Metro's Best of Silicon Valley survey here.

Symphony Silicon Valley is listed in two separate categories:

    Our wonderful free summer music festival "Target Summer Pops" under "Best Local Festival"
    And of course the Symphony itself under "Best Symphony/Classical Group"

Both are on the first page of the survey, but don't forget to vote for other local favorites (your favorite boutiques and restaurants, for example), because you must make at least 25 selections for your votes to be counted.  Everyone who completes the survey will be entered for Metro's free dinning and entertainment giveaways, too.

Help show that the Symphony makes a difference to our community and be sure to vote today.