December 18, 2009

See you next year!

... and Happy New Year!

December 14, 2009

How Nic communicates

Here at Philharmonia Baroque, we often talk about our musicians' instruments, but what about Nic and his conducting?

Since Nic is "the sort of conductor who just gets music thoroughly into his own system," he's been called many things – the sunniest conductor in classical music, an Energizer Bunny, the jolly elf of the period performance scene, and even a wriggling puppy because he's often seen dancing on the podium.

Nic conducting the all-Purcell program at Mondavi in November (photo: Randi Beach)

Of course, Nic's energy isn't the only thing that makes him standout from other conductors – he also does not use a baton. In a recent Chronicle article about local conductors and their batons, Nic talked about why:
"Most of my music is 17th, 18th or early 19th century and the orchestras are smaller," McGegan said. "I feel I can use both hands to express the gestures."

McGegan says that on the rare occasion when he uses a baton, "it feels like I have a bit of furniture in my hands, like I'm holding a chair leg."

December 7, 2009

Learning French... Baroque String Techniques

Remember when David Wilson wrote about a how baroque violins were different from modern violins generally. Well, one of the fascinating things about Baroque music (to us anyways) is not just how different instrument construction, playing technique and musical styles were from then to now (or even just when compared to the Classical era), but also the variations from region to region during the Baroque era. In the most recent issue of All Things Strings (based in Marin County!), the article "Master Class: 5 Tips on Approaching French Baroque Music" gives strings players tips about how to approach French Baroque music in a historically informed way. Now, we won't be playing French-style Baroque music until March, but you can read the article here. The more you know...


Formerly a hunting shack, Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles (a non-musical masterpiece of the Baroque era in France)

December 4, 2009

Composer Warbucks: Vivaldi and the Ospedale della Pietà

Pio Ospedale della Pietà? Again and again the name of this Italian girls' orphanage and school comes up when reading about the composer Antonio Vivaldi, why? The obvious reason is because Vivaldi worked there for over two decades! Another reason is because the Piéta had one of the finest orchestras in Europe and Vivaldi wrote much of his music for the orphans. David Wilson tells us more:

The Pio Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (image below), usually described as an orphanage and music school, was extremely important in Antonio Vivaldi’s life. At the age of 25, Vivaldi was hired by the Pietà as a violin teacher. It was his first “real” job, and his association with the Pietà continued in one form or another for the rest of his life. A great deal of Vivaldi’s music was written for concerts and religious services at the Pietà.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III decreed that homes should be established which would care for orphans and children who had been abandoned. These homes were generally associated with churches and convents. By means of a “baby hatch” or “foundling wheel” (image below), a mother could anonymously deliver a baby, usually a newborn, into the care of the church. The mother would place the baby in a sort of revolving door, rotate the device so that the baby was inside, and then ring a bell to alert those inside that a baby had been delivered. Sometimes babies were abandoned because of a deformity, but more often it was because they had been born out of wedlock.


The Ospedale della Pietà was one of four such homes in the city of Venice. The Pietà took in mostly girls, and by Vivaldi’s time had become well known for the quality of the musical education provided to its residents. The girls of the Pietà became such accomplished musicians that by Vivaldi’s time the institution had developed a reputation as a first-rate music school. In fact, noble families with musically talented daughters would often try to pretend that the girls were orphans in order to enroll them at the Pietà, a practice that was sternly disapproved of by the institution as it was intended to be a charitable organization.

In fact, as Robert Mealy wrote in last season’s program notes for March 2009’s “Winds and Waves” concerts: the young women had to renounce any professional career once they left the institution.

“These terms meant that there were a good number of women who stayed on in the Pietà, becoming teachers. This all-woman orchestra was enough of a novelty (and their playing was of such exceptional ability) that their performances became one of the attractions of Venice, a standard stop on the Grand Tour of young, well-to-do gentlemen, who delighted in the mystery of hearing these women play behind a “grille” or screen.”

November 30, 2009

The Red Priest

With December nearly upon us, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale are already rehearsing for their next concert: "Gloria! A Holiday Celebration." This concert features primarily sacred works and pastorales by Italian Baroque masters, focusing on one of our favorite Baroque violinists: Antonio Vivaldi. Violinist and Philharmonia Baroque staffer David Wilson is back to fill us in about the composer who did more than just make music for the church:

When Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678, his father Giovanni was a professional violinist employed by the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Antonio no doubt studied violin with his father and, by time he was a teenager, he was occasionally subbing for his father at San Marco and being hired at the basilica as an extra player for special occasions.

Despite this background in music, Vivaldi’s life seemed to be aimed at the priesthood. He was known during his life as “The Red Priest,” a reference to his red hair. He studied for the priesthood at several churches in Venice beginning when he was 15 years old and was ordained at the age of 25. However, within a few years of his ordination, he permanently stopped celebrating Mass, but still retained his status as a priest (and presumably retained other priestly functions, such as hearing confessions).

Famous 1723 caricature of "Il prete rosso" by Pier Leone Ghezzi.

The reasons for this change are unclear. Vivaldi is known to have suffered all his life from bronchial asthma, which could possibly have interfered with his ability to speak and chant for the duration of a Mass. There is a story, almost certainly spurious, that Vivaldi once left the altar in the middle of Mass to return to the sacristy. In the story, the reason was that a clever fugue subject had just occurred to him and he wanted to write it down before he forgot it. If the story is true, it could also be that he had an asthma attack during Mass and needed to sit down. It is also known that some years later, Vivaldi was censured for conduct unbecoming a priest. Although the reason for Vivaldi’s censure is unclear, it is also possible that the reason was also related to his decision to stop celebrating Mass.

Despite the fact that Vivaldi did not celebrate Mass and despite any difficulties with the church hierarchy, he was known during his life as a pious man and frequently wrote an abbreviation of the religious motto “Laus Deo Beataeque Mariae Deiparae Amen” on his manuscripts.

Editor's Note: We think that might mean "Praise God, the blessed Mary, and the Son of God. Amen." However, we're not sure. Do you know? Most of us are a bit rusty with our Latin (if we ever took it in the first place).

November 23, 2009

Behind the scenes of "The Passion of Dido:" Rehearsal at Walt Disney Hall

This is the last post about November's concert, we promise! Here are pictures from our rehearsal at Walt Disney Hall in L.A.!
Since the supertitles say, "but, ah! I fear, I pity his too much," we must be in the first act.

Let's skip ahead to our favorite parts: Jill Grove sings the SORCERESS: "Appear at my call, and share in the Fame/Of a Mischief shall make all Carthage flame./Appear!"

The Chorale sings the FAIRIES: "Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!"

William Berger sings AENEAS: "What shall lost Aeneas do?" (Of course, Susan Graham's DIDO doesn't buy the self pity. You can see in her face that she's about to deliver one of our favorite lines: "Thus on the fatal Banks of Nile,/ Weeps the deceitful Crocodile.")

Susan Graham sings DIDO's lament: "Death is now a welcome guest."

More pictures on flickr.

Behind the scenes of "The Passion of Dido:" Lecture at Mondavi

We just found out that our friends at the Mondavi Center posted online the pre-concert talk given by Music Director Nic McGegan (pictured left, backstage at Mondavi) and our Bay Area "Prelude" speaker John Prescott.

Hear it now below!





November 17, 2009

Behind the scenes of "The Passion of Dido:" Rehearsal at Mondavi

This past Saturday at the Mondavi Center in Davis, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale performed the final concert of their critically-acclaimed program dedicated to the English composer Henry Purcell. Conducted by Music Director Nicholas McGegan, the concert featured the all-sung masque Dido and Aeneas with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, baritone William Berger, sopranos Cyndia Sieden and Céline Ricci, contralto Jill Grove and one of the Chorale's own tenors – Brian Thorsett. We captured a few shots backstage and during the dress rehearsal. Local photographer Randi Lynn Beach was on hand to take much better photos than ours to help publicize our 30th Anniversary (!!!) next season.

Say "historically informed performance!" Say "continuo harpsichord!" How about just "cheeeeese!" Randi shoots Nic at the harpsichord.


Randi shoots the orchestra as they practice Purcell's perky Suite from Abdelazar, a rather bizarre and gruesome play by Aphra Behn.


Nic warms up the orchestra's smile muscles during a short interlude. They don't call him the "sunniest conductor in classical music" for nothing.


Randi swoops in for another shot while the orchestra rehearses. Left to right, cellists Bill and Phoebe, lutist David (on theorbo), bassist Kristin and organist Hanneke.


Our show stealers: the Chorale!

See the rest of the photos on flickr!

November 11, 2009

Dido in L.A. tonight

With most of the staff down in L.A. for the concert tonight, it's quiet in the Philharmonia Baroque offices today:

That's our Patron Services Manager David Challinor off in the distance.

In case you haven't read it yet, here's the
L.A. Times interview that had us snorting into our coffee this weekend: Susan Graham experiences Dido's hard life with a lounge lizard

Pssst... a great quote that didn't appear in the article: Susan Graham's Nightmare

November 10, 2009

The reviews are in...

And this past weekend's concerts were:
... extraordinary... time stopped...
... incredibly emotional... spine-tingling...
... masterful... aching, bittersweet...
... remarkably unified and rhythmically rousing...
... scintillating...
... so poignant...

Our favorite comment came from San Francisco Classical Voice:
"As wonderful as she was, the evening was decidedly not about Susan Graham. It was a program of glorious music by Britain’s favorite native-born son, presented by one of the world’s great period instrument groups. When Dido urged us to remember her, the sentiment was surely superfluous. Sunday’s concert was hardly an event that we were apt to forget."
Read the reviews.

You have two more chance to see the concert in L.A. and Davis!

November 5, 2009

Tonight's the night!

Tonight, our orchestra and chorale perform the first concert of our November program that features Dido and Aeneas and other works by the beloved English composer Henry Purcell. In celebration of the anniversary of the composer's birth (350 years ago this fall!), Music Director Nicholas McGegan conducts Susan Graham (left) and a stellar cast of singers at Herbst Hall in San Francisco. It would be an understatement to say that we are giddy with anticipation here in the office.

Here are a few distractions to help while away your afternoon:

If you haven't seen the cover story of the Chronicle's new "Ovation" section today, critic Joshua Kosman "hailed the queen" in his interview with Susan Graham.

Also out this week, interviews with Susan on Classical Voice and SFist.com.

The concert was also previewed by the Examiner and on Classical Voice.

See photos from the Susan and Nic's interview with the L.A. Times this past weekend... look for the article this weekend!


See you tonight!

A masque? Let's ask...

As you read our program notes and listen to our audio concert preview for November’s all-Purcell program that features the composer's Dido and Aeneas, have you been wondering what an “all-sung masque” is? Well, a few of us in the office were wondering that very same thing, so we did a little research to find out just what a masque is…

A turn of the century masque in the home of Sir Henry Unton, 1596

A masque was an elaborate private entertainment that grew in popularity in England during the 16th and 17th century until it became, arguably, one of the highest art forms in England. Many of the greatest writers, poets, songwriters, artists, architects and humanists of the time collaborated on these costumed spectacles of dance, vocal and instrumental music and speeches or theatrical scenes. The expense and extravagance of the English masque typically required a wealthy patron and were usually a courtly affair. Not surprisingly, Henry VIII, the accomplished musician, author and poet king oft remembered for his various indulgences, sponsored the first masque or ‘disguising’ in 1512.

Oft copied for English masques, Italian dance costumes by Bernardo Buontalenti, 1589

Architect Inigo Jones transformed the Stuart court with his stage design for Florimène, 1635

The masque began simply as a themed evening of social dancing. As it evolved during the reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I, it began to resemble its origins more and more: the folk tradition (most memorably represented by the play-within-a-play “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) of a masked troupe of players who would visit a court to offer gifts and entertainment around holidays and personal or state events worthy of celebration. Masques eventually grew more rigid in their structure: five short acts of a play performed by professional actors (usually a Classical allegory flattering to the patron) with interludes of formal dances or “entries.” The dances were truly what was important: some choreographed for practiced masked courtiers (“masquers”), others for unmasked professional dancers (these entries were called “antimasques”) and at least one “revel” or social dance for members of the audience.

Three masque costumes by Inigo Jones

The music of masques was clearly important, but little is known about these pieces because almost no complete scores have survived. This is why so few masques are reconstructed for modern audiences (and probably why so many of us are asking: what’s a masque?). It is suspected that violin bands accompanied the main dances and sometimes woodwind bands the professional dancers. Probably while accompanying themselves on lutes, an ensemble of royal singers would introduce or comment on the dances through songs, many of which were popular beyond the walls of the court.

So how is all of this related to the all-sung masques or “first English operas” of Baroque composers John Blow and Henry Purcell? Well, ahem, as you’ve no doubt read in our program notes, the English Civil War (sometimes called the Puritan Revolution) and the resulting first Commonwealth of England in the mid-17th century led to the closing of theatres, the banishment of secular music and even the destruction of church organs. The masque became so inextricably linked to Charles I’s absolutism and excessive lavishness that he was beheaded in front of the Banqueting House where most masques were held.

A German print of the ghastly end to the reign of Charles I, 1649

Not surprisingly, after the Restoration of 1660, the masque never returned to the same level of popularity or extravagance as it enjoyed in the early 17th century. As a result, the art form changed, becoming less participatory and thus more reliant on the skills of professional players or highly practiced amateurs. As the social aspect of the entertainment was reduced, so was the importance of the formal dances (sorry, Mark Morris). This allowed the music to come front and center, especially within the context of the pioneering operatic works of Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose success remolding the Italian model meant that the new art form traveled far beyond the court of Louis XIV.


November 4, 2009

Susan and Nic interviewed for the LA Times

This past Sunday before our first rehearsal of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, Susan Graham and Nic sat down with L.A. Times writer Chloe Veltman at the Claremont Hotel. (You can read Chloe's post about the interview here.) This was the first time these two hams sat down together for an interview and let's just say that we can't wait to see it in print! The orchestra and chorale will be venturing down to Los Angeles with Nic to perform at Walt Disney Hall, where Susan will make her venue debut! Of course, you can also see us perform this set that celebrates Henry Purcell's 350th birthday in San Francisco on Thursday, Palo Alto on Friday and Berkeley on Saturday (sorry the Sunday concert is SOLD OUT). There will also be an encore performance at the Mondavi Center in Davis on November 14. Below are pictures from the interview:

La, la, la... Nic doesn't want to hear all the nice things Susan has to say about him.

Susan, Nic and Chloe all share a laugh (one of many) during the interview.

Nic just said something that won't be printed in the L.A. Times...

It looks like Nic's more excited about this performance than we are!

See more pictures on flickr!

Thank you Mickey and Keelin for setting us up with a beautiful view of San Francisco and the bay at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.

November 2, 2009

Learn more about our November concerts

"The Passion of Dido," Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's third concert of its 2009-10 "Season of the Stars," is THIS WEEK! Music Director Nic McGegan (pictured left) leads our orchestra and chorale in a program that honors the life of the English composer and songwriter Henry Purcell. Featured on the second half of the program is Dido and Aeneas with renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham singing the role of Dido and also William Berger, Cyndia Sieden, Celine Ricci, Jill Grove and Brian Thorsett. In it's last issue, Early Music America Magazine wrote about our recording of Dido and Aeneas:
What is, to my mind, the finest Dido and Aeneas recording currently available features an American cast and orchestra. The 1993 Harmonia Mundi recording with the late mezzo-soprano Lorranie Hunt Lieberson in the title role has it all. For sheer gorgeous vocalism wed to dramatic intensity, Lieberson is unsurpassed. Her every phrase and gesture carries weight. Lieberson's singing of the lament? I had to sit in silence afterward and collect myself... This recording, with [Nicholas] McGegan leading a remarkably responsive Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, cuts to the heart of the work. The Dido and Aeneas (sung by baritone Michael Dean) exchange in Act III seethes, and Lieberson's cry of 'By all that's good!' is shattering. For once, the roles of the Sorceress (mezzo-soprano Ellen Rabiner) and the Witches (sopranos Christine Brandes and Ruth Rainero) are colorful but not so broad as to descend into Monty Python parody."
As for the concert, it has named a top pick of the fall by critics and editors of the Chronicle, KQED, Mercury News, Examiner and Classical Voice. San Francisco Classical Voice previewed it in last week's enewsletter:
"McGegan and the orchestra are buoyed, not bowed down, by their specialist knowledge, and undaunted by the technical difficulties of some of the older instruments. They master intricate rhythmic and phrasing details that you don’t normally hear from modern instrument orchestras, yet play them with a conviction and ease that sounds natural. McGegan’s adrenaline-filled gestures transmit his excitement, and the orchestra normally responds by lifting you out of your seat. This is music-making by people who have been to the early-music revolution and come back enriched." Read more of Michael Zwiebach's preview.
To learn more about this concert, click the links below:
Click to read our program notes.

You can also listen to selections from our recording of Dido and Aeneas on November's concert page. Hint: when you click on "Learn more about these recordings," you can read about these works!

An don't forget: 45-minutes before every concert we offer free lectures to our ticket holders.

October 30, 2009

What are you DOing next week?

We know where we'll be next Thursday through Sunday, what about you?



(No, not at Shonen Knife! Well, maybe our Marketing Director Sasha will be, but he's weird.)

October 20, 2009

One of these people is not like the others... Comparing period and modern violin[ist]s (Part 3)

During the last concert set, David Wilson asked his colleagues in the violin and viola sections of Philharmonia Baroque the most important question about the difference between the baroque violin and modern violin: not about construction, nor about how the instruments are held or played, but
what makes a period violinist:

"As far as I know, no one has yet begun their violinistic career as a baroque violinist. We are trained as modern violinists and at some point along the way we discover this other path and begin to pursue it (I sometimes call this ‘going over to the Dark Side’). Doing so requires an open-mindedness, a willingness to try new things and possibly to discard a great deal of habit. Making the switch involves a great deal of time, effort, and even expense on the part of a player.

"So, why bother? I asked that question of a number of my fellow musicians, and here are some of the answers I got:
Baroque instruments are ‘native speakers’ of the musical rhetoric of their time. In original ‘dialects,’ they enable musicians to delve into and to genuinely articulate the elegance, emotional power and humor in baroque music.

It is the subtle, sensuous responsiveness that always draws me to the baroque violin. While playing on gut and especially while using a baroque bow, I feel I have a greater range of musical color, a more fleet, capricious ability to show the ever-changing character and mood of the music.
— Katherine Kyme

‘the baroque violin’
or, as it was called in the 18th century
‘the modern violin’

we use baroque instruments as means for a shamanistic exploration of the ways of our ancestors
– as the hunter dances in imitation of the game, in order to become the game –
we bring the words of our ancestors to our lips via their writings
we look through their eyes into their paintings and drawings
we put our ancestors’ hands before our eyes via facsimiles
we grasp their tools in our hands via their instruments
and so we attempt to reenter their world
or invite their spirits into ours
and thus reanimate
their voices
in our ears

I am able to do much more nuanced playing with the baroque bow, and the lower tension on the strings allows me to draw out a singing tone without effort. My baroque instruments, geared for chamber music and small orchestras, are more personable, intimate, individually expressive... and the best thing is you don't have to constantly shake the note to make it sing!
— Maria Caswell

Every culture has created its own particular sound world; and none of them are the same, all are unique. I suspect that many of us who love Baroque instruments have some desire to visit the people of that lost world, a curiosity and love which is somewhat satisfied in the playing of ‘their’ instruments in a way ‘they’ might have recognized.
Of course, we couldn't couldn't post this blog without asking David the same question he posed to his colleagues: Why baroque violin, David?
The first time I ever heard baroque music on period instruments, I literally had chills running down my spine and tears running down my face—I was profoundly moved by the sound of the instruments and the way that sound showed the power of the music. For me it was like having heard poetry read by a voice synthesizer, and then hearing it read by a poet. I knew I wanted to learn how to make music in that way.
— David Wilson