California Festival — new music celebrated in concerts and opera

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023
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Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels' 'Omar' (photo: Cory Weaver/LA Opera)
Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels' 'Omar' (photo: Cory Weaver/LA Opera)

Calling out around the state, are you ready for a brand new beat? 'California Festival — A Celebration of New Music' is recharging musical institutions throughout the Golden West for two weeks through November 19.

"A statewide music initiative showcasing the most compelling and forward-looking voices in performances of works written in the past five years," California Festival (CA FEST) is a group effort organized by the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Diego Symphony.

Conceived by the orchestra's music directors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare, the concerts have grown to include a multitude of other participants and performance venues. 101 organizations, including 15 youth orchestras present more than 190 works, with 36 premieres by 34 artists.

The statewide fact sheet is overwhelming, so let's bring it closer to home and look at some of the Bay Area events.

Tenor and composer Jens Ibsen  

San Francisco Symphony
November 10-12 "To the Edge" Concerts feature Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Emerging Black Composers Project winner Jens Ibsen's "Drowned in Light," Salonen's own "kínēma" and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements.

Composer/tenor Ibsen (the first African-born member of the Vienna Boys Choir) gets a world premiere of his genre-bending score. He sums it up as a distillation of his musical philosophy and his feelings about "the San Francisco Bay Area, my home."

November 17—18 "From the Edge" Salonen returns to conduct. The program includes first SFS performances of Gabriella Smith's "Breathing Forests" with organist James McVinnie and two more works by Stravinsky: Octet for Winds and Brass, and "Les Noces," orchestrated by composer Steven Stucky, featuring animated shorts by artist Hillary Leben.

Smith is a passionate environmentalist. Her organ concerto from 2022 invokes the spaces and sounds of California, "a reflection on the complex relationship between humans, forests, climate change, and fire."

Sun, Nov 19, 2pm at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and conductor Daniel Stewart present "Metacosmos" by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

SFSYO's 2023—24 season opener is taking a big leap, jumping with the author into her metaphorical fall into a black hole.

The brave young players also perform music from planet Earth. Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and music from Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" complete the bill.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank  

Berkeley Symphony
Sunday, November 19, 4pm at Piedmont Center for the Arts is "California Connections."

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank was born and raised in Berkeley and currently resides in Boonville (north of SF). She is past Creative Advisor to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Performances of her "Kanto Kechua No. 2," influenced by Andean folk music, must have special resonance for her.

Frank says, only in the United States could a Peruvian-Chinese-Jewish-Lithuanian girl in a hippie town create a life writing string quartets and symphonies. Living in the Golden State doesn't hurt either.

Raised in Berlin, San Francisco, and Texas, Ben Shirley is part of the "Composing Earth" program at Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music that informs musicians about climate change.

His "High Sierra Sonata" for clarinet and string quartet conjures the beauty of the Mountains. Peruvian immigrant Anaís Azul (they/them) is a California-based singer-songwriter, composer, teaching artist and Berkeley High School alum. Their music interrelates with vocal looping, western classical music, and Latin American singer-songwriter traditions. "Cascades and Canyons" moves through the serenity and challenges of nature.

Gabriella Smith's "Carrot Revolution" (2015) is inspired by a quote attributed to Cezanne in a novel by Zola, "The day will come when a freshly observed carrot will start a revolution." The composer's fresh take on string quartets is programmed a day after her CA Fest run at the San Francisco Symphony.

Selections from John Adams's "Book of Alleged Dances" finish the chamber concert. Despite endless globetrotting and international stardom, Adams maintains a strong California connection.

'Omar' composer Rhiannon Giddens  

San Francisco Opera
The new opera "Omar" with music by Rhiannon Giddens and co-composer Michael Abels, plays now through November 21 at the War Memorial Opera House. A co-commissioned Bay Area premiere, "Omar" tells the story of Islamic scholar Omar Ibn Said's journey from West Africa to enslavement in South Carolina. Imprisoned after an attempted escape, he records his story in Arabic.

A founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddons has built a major career as a composer and performer picking up Grammys, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize (for "Omar") along the way.

From "Omar" to "American Railroad" (Silkroad Ensemble with Rhiannon Giddens), she is represented in CA Fest at the La Jolla Music Society, Philharmonic Society of Orange County and UCSB Arts & Lecture.

Composer David Conte  

San Francisco Choral Society
Robert Geary, Artistic Director of the SF Choral Society is deservedly prominent in the lineup of California Festival offerings.

The 2023 season concludes with the world premiere of "Brontë" by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, a choral work commissioned by the organization and inspired by the poetry of Emily Brontë.

The program explores more works inspired by poetry, including John Corigliano's "Fern Hill" (poem by Dylan Thomas), David Conte's "I Dream a World" (poem by Langston Hughes) and Brahms' "Zigeunerlieder."

A "longtime happy resident of California," and out gay man, Conte resides here with his partner of many years. He has contributed gay-themed scores to the repertoire, including many commissions for GALA Choruses, and has published over 150 compositions with prominent music company E.C. Schirmer.

Composer John Corigliano  

John Corigliano has written more than 100 scores, earning fame and awards. In the late 1980s, inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he focused his grief into the Symphony No. 1, since performed by over 300 orchestras worldwide and recorded three times. He is married to another notable composer, Mark Adamo.
Saturday, November 18, 7:00 pm Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland
Sunday, November 19, 4:00 pm Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco

For more information about all Festival events, visit the website, a remarkable experience itself:

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