Thursday, August 17, 2017

Jazz Herstory Collective: More Recent Past than History

Today’s lunchtime event in the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was a concert given by the Jazz Herstory Collective:

courtesy of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

This is a group that features, in its own words, “a soaring triumvirate of soul-steeped singers,” Valerie Troutt, Viveca Hawkins, and Kimiko Joy, performing with a rhythm section of Aneesa Strings (also a vocalist) on both acoustic and electric bass, Ruth Price on drums, and Sundra Manning on keyboard, often using the organ stop. The group’s description also includes the following sentence:
The Bay Area has a long and deep history of extraordinary women playing jazz, funk, rock and soul, and the Jazz Herstory Collective is a project that celebrates that legacy.
Nevertheless, on the basis of what was performed this afternoon, I came away with the impression that this “long and deep history” does not extend earlier than my undergraduate days, another sobering reminder of my own age!

Setting the scope of the past to one side, however, I would have to say that the high point of the program came when Trout sang “Love Will Never Change” to reflect on the recent resurgence in acts of hate, many of which are criminal, and the recent fixation on using a motor vehicle as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Drawing again on my own personal history, I can recall the days before the news media began to pay serious attention to Martin Luther King, when people like Orval Faubus were regarded as an insignificant sideshow. We got through those dark days arriving at significant civil rights and voting rights legislation on the other side, and this afternoon Trout was there to remind those of us willing to listen that we can get through the current darkness as long was we have the will to persist.

On the musical side each of the members of that “soaring triumvirate” had her own way of bringing a personalized style to her singing. The same could be said of Strings, but here I must confess to a  personal preference for the instrumental. Her bass work on both instruments is still ringing in my ears, with particular emphasis on her trio work with Price and Manning before the vocalists took the stage. Equally impressive was Manning’s work on “Sunny,” taking a pop hit from my college days and endowing it with the sharper edges of jazzy rhetoric. Perhaps one of these days this group will appeal to my ongoing quest for singers who can do justice to the legacy of Bessie Smith!

SFO Announces Casting Update for Season Opener

This past Tuesday San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced a change in casting for its season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Maria Agresta, who was to sing the role of Liù in the September performances, had to withdraw due to illness. She will be replaced by American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree:

photograph by Valentina Sadiul

Palmertree, currently an Adler Fellow, was originally scheduled to sing this role in the last two performances of the opera’s September run; but now she will sing in all six performances. With its strikingly imaginative designs conceived by David Hockney, this staging of Turandot has become one of SFO’s most popular productions:

photograph by Cory Weaver

This season the staging will be directed by Garnett Bruce.

This will be the latest SFO offering to be given double casting. The last took place at the end of 2014, when the two casts for Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, alternated roughly in successive performances. This time one cast will perform at the very beginning of the season, while the second cast will bring the fall season to its conclusion. Palmertree will sing only in the first cast, while Leah Crocetto will return to reprise her singing of Liù in the second cast.

The title role will see two familiar sopranos return to SFO. In September the part will be sung by Martina Serafin; and, at the end of the season, the role will be taken by Nina Stemme. The other alternating role will be the bass role of Timur, taken by Raymond Aceto in September and by Soloman Howard, who will be making his SFO debut, in the second cast. American tenor Brian Jagde, who made his role debut as Radames last November in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, will make his role debut as Calaf and will sing in all performances. Music Director Nicola Luisotti will conduct in September, and Christopher Franklin will make his SFO debut conducting the second-cast performances.

Next month’s six performances will take place at 8 p.m. on September 8 (in conjunction with Opera Ball 2017 at The Imperial Palace), at 7:30 p.m. on September 7, 15, 21, and 30 and at 2 p.m. on September 24. The second round of performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on November 18, 25, and 28 and December 6 and 9 and at 2 p.m. on December 3. The libretto will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three hours with two intermissions.

All performances will take place at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $398. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

Imaginative Improvising from Perkis and Scholz

In last night’s program of electronic improvisations at the Center for New Music, the second set was taken by the duo of Tim Perkis and Carter Scholz. Scholz was at the piano for the first two of the three pieces they played, while the final piece was all electronic. What may have been most interesting was that, while all of the synthesis came from laptops, all of the controls were analog. This should not be too surprising. Improvisation is as much a physical undertaking as an auditory one; and potentiometers and patch cords lend themselves to that physicality far more readily than a keyboard, mouse, or touch-sensitive panel.

Indeed, what may have been most interesting about Perkis’ work was his intense focus on almost minuscule movements. This contrasted sharply with Scholz’ activities in the first two numbers, when he was pretty much literally all over his piano. Indeed, the one place where he did not approach the instrument was from below, such as by striking the lower side of the sounding board. It also seemed as if the piano interior had been prepared prior to the first observation, but Scholz kept working with different objects in there. The wittiest of these was a toy that bounced around the strings of its own accord, a delightful reminder that one need not be dead serious about improvising, even when electronics are involved.

Nevertheless, when Scholz turned to electronics for the final selection, he tended to share Perkis’ technique of minimizing activity. Both of them were impressive in their capacity to listen sensitively to both themselves and each other. Thus, while the sonorities that played out tended towards a bold rhetorical stance, the activities of both players suggested that they were having a very intimate conversation. Consequently, the simultaneous experience of seeing and listening turned out to be a somewhat bipolar (but far from pathological) one.

The nature of interaction between electronics and piano, on the other hand, recalled some of the early experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, this was when Stockhausen was working with tape and through-composing scores for the pianist that demanded highly detailed interplay between the two sound sources. It was thus fascinating to think how all of that meticulous attention to pre-programmed detail half a century ago has now blossomed into the rich outpourings of spontaneous, but still well-considered, improvisation.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Critique of Judging New Opera

I found it interesting to review Damian Fowler’s book American Impresario: David Gockley’s Life in Opera almost exactly one year after Matthew Shilvock took up the torch from Gockley as General Director of the San Francisco Opera. While there was much to enjoy in this book (including the sumptuous photographs), I have to say that it was Gockley’s own words, compiled in a “Finale” section entitled “Gockley on the Future of American Opera,” that set my own “little grey cells” buzzing. I enjoyed the extent to which these “text clips” could be frank and open without giving the sense that they were deliberately trying to provoke.

However, even if we set aside provocation, there are some passages that deserve to be held open to question. My guess is that different readers will feel different ways about which passages these are. For my part, I would like to dwell on just one of them:
And we must remember that critics have too often misjudged a work at its premiere, witness A Quiet Place and Nixon in China.
Now, without trying to speak for or against any of my colleagues, I feel it necessary to point out that, in many ways, a fully-staged opera is a bit like the elephant in that old joke about three blind men trying to describe it. Given my own predispositions, I almost always begin by grabbing that elephant by the music, trying the best I can to sort out how much of my listening has to do with the composer and how much has to do with how the music is being performed. Others prefer to grab the elephant by the libretto, approaching the music in the role it plays in telling the story. Then, of course, there are those who grab the elephant by the stage director, who sometimes has his/her own priorities in how to approach that story or the music through which the story is told.

However, what those of us who write try to do goes far beyond description. As Gockley rightfully observed, we need to draw upon description in the service of judgment. This is no easy matter.

Those whose knowledge of Immanuel Kant goes beyond any handy “bluffer’s guide” probably know that he wrote three major works that he called “critiques.” The last of these is the Critique of the Power of Judgment, and it was preceded by the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. These, of course, parallel the so-called “transcendentals” of the beautiful (judgment), the true (pure reason), and the good (practical reason). Furthermore, each is situated in what Jürgen Habermas chose to call a separate “world,” truth in the objective world, beauty in the subjective world, and goodness in the social world. Lest this all feel like an unnecessary sideshow, I should observe that I was first drawn to read the Critique of the Power of Judgment when I found out that the first half of the book was devoted entirely to aesthetics.

This is what takes us back to the Gockley sentence quoted above. Whether or not we admit it, those of us who exercise that “power of judgment” in our writing will probably agree that judgment is context-dependent; and we will probably agree with Kant that our own subjectivity is part of that context. Where things get tricky, however, is that, even if we know that there is a context, we are not always positioned to specify just what the context is. One reason for this paradox is that, for better or worse, each of us engaged in the act of writing cannot avoid bringing our own personal history into that context.

This is not meant to serve as an excuse when someone (such as Gockley) accuses one of us of “misjudgment.” Rather, the very complexity upon which judgment is contingent should affirm that, at least where aesthetic matters are concerned, there is no “misjudgment.” There is the exercise of judgment, and there is the possibility for argumentation when different conclusions of judgment disagree. However, because we are doing what we do in the subjective world, there is no exercise of “pure reason” that will unfailingly resolve the argumentation one way or the other. All there is is the inevitable premise that each of us has a point of view and some of us are better at appreciating another point of view than others are.

None of these thoughts are likely to be of much use in the real world. The general director of a performing arts organization has to reconcile fiscal solvency with the fact that the audience side of any performance space is going to be filled with a wide diversity of “powers of judgment.” At the end of the day it all comes down to donations and subscriptions; and, now that the Internet has created a culture in which we expect everything to be free, the game that the general director must play is getting harder and harder to win.

These days I am thankful simply for having capacities to both have and express opinions. However, those opinions are cultivated in a field of experiences, so to speak. Given prevailing economic and social conditions, I have no idea how long that field will remain fertile. All I can do is hope for the best!

Three Occasions to Enjoy Schubert’s D. 960

Between now and the middle of next month, those who get really excited over the inventiveness that Franz Schubert summoned during his prodigiously productive final year will have three opportunities to indulge in a performance of his final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. (By way of disclaimer, I should make it clear that I am definitely one of “those who get really excited!”) Curiously, this will involve only two different pianists; and the performances will be taking place in only two different venues. However, for the sake of reader convenience, information about these events will be given in chronological order:

Friday, August 18, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Pianist Audrey Vardanega will return as a recitalist in the Old First Concerts series:

Audrey Vardanega, courtesy of Old First Concerts

She has prepared an all-Schubert program, which is sure to please those who admire this composer. Unfortunately, the event page for this concert is a bit ambiguous about what will be performed in addition to D. 960. The “headline” has her playing the D. 899 set of four impromptus, first published at the very beginning of Schubert’s final year. However, further down the page one reads that the opening selection on the program will be the D. 940 fantasia in F minor for two pianists at one keyboard with Robert Schwartz appearing as guest artist to provide the second pair of hands. The “best of all possible worlds” would be one in which both D. 899 and D. 940 were played in the first half of the program; but this most likely would be as much of a strain on Vardanega’s capacity for endurance as it would be for even the most eager listener.

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an Old First Concerts event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

Tuesday, August 22, 12:30 p.m., Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Only a few days later, D. 960 will be the only work on the program of that week’s Noontime Concerts recital. The pianist will be Thomas Schultz, and the performance will serve as a “preview” of the concert he is scheduled to give for Old First Concerts the following month:

Thomas Schultz, from his Facebook site

The address of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral is 660 California Street, located in Chinatown on the northeast corner of Grant Street. These concerts require neither tickets nor reservations. However, donations are both accepted and encouraged with a suggested amount of $5.

Sunday, September 17, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: This will be the full recital “previewed” at Noontime Concerts. While Vardanega has chosen to conclude her program with D. 960, Schultz will go against the grain of most piano recitalists and begin with this almost epic offering. He will then couple the sonata with the D. 760 fantasia in C major, usually called the “Wanderer” fantasia because of its reference to the D. 493 song of that name. Between these two selections he will play a set of variations composed by his Korean colleague Hyo-shin Na. Details about Old First are as above, and an event page has already been created for this recital.

The LightHouse Music Academy Students Give Their Recital

Last night the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired hosted the San Francisco end-of-term performances by the students of its Music Academy. Hosted by the Enchanted Hills camp in Napa, the Academy is the brain child of Bill McCann, who organized it to provide musical training for those between the ages of 16 and 24. While the focus is on technique and both solo and group music-making, McCann has extended the curriculum to provide an introduction to the latest technologies involved in production and distribution.

It would be fair to say that the primary objective is to introduce and provide students with access to the joys of making music. Building confidence counts for as much as acquiring technique; and, for many of the participants, the former matters more than the latter. Whether any of the participants will go on to establish themselves in the music profession matters less than their coming away with an appreciation of the rich diversity of social experiences that derive from both making and listening to music.

Because these students are all in the early stages of this pursuit, it would be unfair to name any names. More important was the diversity of content in last night’s program. Classical, pop, and jazz were all given due coverage. There were instrumental and vocal soloists, the latter including one singer accompanying herself at the piano. There was also an “all-hands” opening with all participants singing in a chorus. The result was a very satisfying two-hour reminder of how, at heart, all music is one of our most delightfully engaging social phenomena.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Karajan in Transition

The title of the last of the four boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition that covers the work of Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra is even more nondescript than that of the third box. It states nothing more than Herbert von Karajan: 1951–1960. The reason is that this box covers the period of time during which Karajan was dividing his time between the Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic; and, as far as content is concerned, it is basically an “everything else” collection that pulls together music not covered in the first three boxes. On the Philharmonia side, the latest recording sessions took place in September of 1960, while the earliest Berlin sessions took place in April of 1957.

It does not take much to appreciate the distinction between the two ensembles, but the bias of that distinction may be surprising. While Karajan was not officially the founding conductor of the Philharmonia, he had a close and significant relationship with the group, as should be evident from the four boxes that cover that relationship. Thus, while Legge may be credited with bringing together a first-rate gathering of musicians capable of responding to Karajan in a manner that a first-rate conductor deserves, it would be fair to say that Karajan was the “prime mover” in establishing the orchestra’s identity.

The core of that identity involved a technical responsiveness to pretty much the full breadth of “standard repertoire” composers. One may thus say that the “heroes” of this fourth box are as much the individual Philharmonia players as they are Karajan himself. Perhaps even more so, since there tends to be more evidence of growth among the orchestra members than there is in Karajan’s approaches to interpretation.

Indeed, it is through the Berlin recordings that one is more aware of Karajan’s limitations. Ironically, it is in this portion of the box that he is more ambitious. The selections include Anton Bruckner’s eighth symphony in C minor (which usually comes out as his longest symphony in clock-time) and the symphony that Paul Hindemith composed based on music from his opera Mathis der Maler. The problem is that it is difficult to listen to either of these performances (or, for that matter, any of the other Berlin performances in this collection) without thinking about what other conductors, including those from the period of these recordings, might have done. That would include both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Sergiu Celibidache. For that matter those who have been following me since my days may recall my writing about a recording of Hindemith conducting Bruckner’s seventh symphony, which leads me to believe that Hindemith himself would have summoned a more red-blooded account of his Mathis der Maler symphony.

Where Karajan seems to find his most secure footing in Berlin is with his Wagner recordings. I have to confess to having been a bit amused to discover that Tannhäuser is represented only by its overture in Berlin and only by the Venusberg music with the Philharmonia. It is almost as if Karajan turned to Berlin for solemnity and to London for Wagner at his most sensuous! Nevertheless, while I find myself satisfied with both of these Tannhäuser accounts, I also find it hard to shake my preference for the “Furtwängler-Celibidache axis,” particularly in light of the track record that both of these conductors had with EMI.

Latin Jazz is Coming to the Cadillac

This coming Friday, Concerts at the Cadillac will undertake another one of its major efforts to squeeze a moderately large combo into the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel. Led by Steve McQuarry at the piano, the group is a sextet called Tribu; and it identifies itself as “Bringing Latin Jazz into the 21st Century.” McQuarry will (of course) be playing the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, the meticulously restored 1884 Model D concert grand made by Steinway, whose original soundboard is still intact, that graces the hotel lobby. The other members of the combo will be Ruben Salcido (saxophones and flute), Dave Casini (percussion, including vibraphone), Marcus Lopez (bass and vocals), Jesus Gonzalez (percussion, featuring congas), and Mario Salomon (percussion):

Poster for the members of Tribe (courtesy of Concerts at the Cadillac)

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this recital will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place on Friday, August 18. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 8/14/2017

My efforts to provide a more generous interval in advance of activities at both the Center for New Music and the Luggage Story Gallery will probably lead to these weekly dispatches being a bit shorter. Nevertheless, there are still likely to be occasions when the head of this weekly list will involved an event taking place tonight. That is exactly the way things turned out for this week:

Monday, August 14, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: Fresh from having taken the second set at Adobe Books this past Friday evening, the collaborative ZE BIB! duo of percussionist Robert Lopez and Shanna Sordahl will be featured in one of tonight’s three sets. There will also be a solo set of electronic keyboard-based soundscapes taken by Derek Gedalecia, performing as Headboggle. The remaining set will feature Jaroba (JAmes RObert BArnes), who will bring his invented instruments, joining multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jaros and bass guitarist Paul Winstanley. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $15, payable at the door.

Sunday, August 20, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: This will be the next two-set program in the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series hosted by Outsound Presents. The first set will be taken by the Shen-Wen Duo of Sophia Shen on pipa and Gabby Wen on guqin (which she played at the Luggage Store Gallery this past Thursday). They will be followed by the latest installment of compositions by bassist Bill Noertker leading Noertker’s Moxie. The other players will be Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone and flute, Masaru Koga on tenor saxophone, and Jason Levis on drums. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $15.

Monday, August 21, 9:15 a.m., Exploratorium: Finally, because it will be too late to provide more complete information next week, it is important to note that the Exploratorium is planning a sonification event to be held in conjunction with the solar eclipse. This will involve the real-time conversion of of image data into auditory signals. The composer is Wayne Grim, who has previously created sonifications for the 2012 transit of Venus and the 2016 total solar eclipse. In this case, however, his sonification will involve the performance of the Kronos Quartet, whose members will be playing from a graphic score that Grim designed:

from the Exploratorium Web site

A Web page has been created for this event, but it says nothing about whether the Kronos will be performing before an audience. A hyperlink has been set up on this page for online listening; but, as of this writing, the target page for that hyperlink has not yet been created.

Cold Blue to Release a New Album of Polansky

This Friday Cold Blue Music will release freeHorn an album of three compositions by Larry Polansky; and, as is usually the case, is currently taking pre-orders. Where “new music” is concerned, it is rarely (if ever) the case that I encounter a new recording all of whose selections I have previously experienced, either in concert or on another recording. These are always pleasurable occasions, because they almost always reaffirm my conviction that there is more than one way to approach any composition worthy of listening at all; and, while I often feel that the number of recordings of Beethoven is 0 (infinite but countable), encountering more than one recording of anything composed in this century tends to be quite a find.

Bearing that in mind, I would like to enumerate the selections on this new recording in the order in which I first listened them. The earliest of these is “minmax” (as in “minor” and “major”). Polansky calls this a “translation,” scored for two electric guitars, of “Angels,” a piece composed by Carl Ruggles for six muted trumpets. I heard this at a recital given by Giacomo Fiore in the Old First Concerts series in March of 2013. He played it with Polansky, along with another “translation,” this time of a hymn by William Billings. Both of these would subsequently show up in the publication of 3 Translations for Electric Guitar. On the freeHorn album, the guitarists are again Fiore and Polansky.

About a year and a half later Fiore released his self produced album iv: american electric guitars. This provided my “first contact” with “freeHorn,” the composition for which the new album is named. Polansky composed this piece in 2004 “for any instrument and electronics;” and Fiore played it as a solo. However, on the freeHorn album, Polansky presented this as an ensemble piece. Fiore again played electric guitar, Polansky played his fretless electric guitar, and they were joined by a diversity of other instruments performed by David Kant (tenor saxophone), Krystyna Bobrowski (horn), Tom Dambly (trumpet), Amy Beal (piano), David Dunn (electric violin), and Monica Scott (cello).

Finally, in March of 2016, Polansky and Fiore performed in the second of the three concerts of that year’s Other Minds festival. That was my first encounter with “ii-v-i,” the remaining selection on the new album. This also saw Polansky playing his fretless electric guitar.

Both “freeHorn” and “ii-v-i” involve Polansky working with natural harmonics, rather than scale systems. The title “ii-v-i” suggests a familiar chord progression; but in both of these pieces Polansky is interested in what he calls “continuous modulation.” Since the frets on one of the two guitars involved in the performance are not designed to capture the pitches of the overtone series, the performers are required to retune their instruments as part of the performance itself. In “freeHorn,” on the other hand, the necessary overtones can be readily synthesized by the electronics; so Polansky’s approach to continuous modulation arises from the interplay of instrument sounds and synthesized tones.

The title “freeHorn” also suggests a free-form approach to structuring that interplay. On Fiore’s recording the duration is about twelve minutes. On the new album it is closer to twenty minutes. Presumably the additional time involves exploring how each of the contributing instruments engages with the synthesized natural harmonics in its own particular way. In other words both performing and listening are matters of ongoing discovery; and, on the new album, there is definitely enough to discover in that twenty-minute track to warrant listening to it on several occasions over an extended period of time.

“minmax,” on the other hand, seems to take its point of departure by recognizing that Ruggles conceived it as a brief study in the ambiguity of dissonance. For Ruggles that meant deliberately avoiding establishing whether the prevailing mode was minor or major, which explains Polansky’s choice of title. However, what is interesting is that, by playing on a fretless instrument, Polansky could extend that capacity for ambiguity much further than Ruggles was able to express with six trumpeters who, by virtue of training and experience, were locked into the intonation of the equal-tempered chromatic scale. This would explain why Polansky called the piece a “translation,” rather than a “transcription.” I would be willing to guess that Polansky saw his “translation” as a way in which to situate “Angels” in a “domain of intonation” more conducive to what Ruggles may have actually had in mind.

Hamlet Without Shakespeare from West Edge Opera

Yesterday afternoon I made one of my rare ventures out of the city limits to go over to the Pacific Pipe warehouse, this summer’s base of operations for West Edge Opera. I attended the second of the three scheduled performances of Ambroise Thomas’ five-act opera Hamlet. (The third performance will take place this coming Saturday, August 19, at 1 p.m.)

I knew little about this opera beyond having been invited to sit in on a class at the Music Academy of the West at which Martial Singher coached a soprano friend of mine in Ophelia’s mad scene aria. However, going into this performance with more knowledge of Ophelia than of Hamlet turned out to be consistent with the historical context. It turned out that all of Paris was smitten with Ophelia after having seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson play the part in 1827, when William Abbot presented a season of Shakespeare performances in English at the Odéon:

1827 illustration of Harriet Smithson as Ophelia (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

(One of the smitten was Hector Berlioz, who was so obsessed with Smithson that he eventually managed to marry her, after which things did not turn out very well for either of them.)

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play and probably his best known. A French play of the same name by Jean-François Ducis was first performed in 1769, but it consisted of little more than the basic revenge plot in Shakespeare’s version. As a friend of both Smithson and Berlioz, Alexandre Dumas prepared a version of greater fidelity to Shakespeare, even though his knowledge of English was very limited. The result was first performed in 1847 with great success, so it is no surprise that the mercantile opera producers sought after a stake in this audience share.

A libretto was prepared by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. Having provided the libretto for Charles Gounod’s Faust, they had a proven track record of bringing major literary classics to the opera stage. They used Dumas’ words as a point of departure, but they recognized that enjoyment of the opera meant enjoyment of the music. Thus, an elaborate plot structure could not interfere with the public getting its share of show-stopping arias and mass spectacle. The resulting libretto was thus closer to Ducis’ bare-bones distillation than it was to Dumas’ broader recognition of Shakespeare’s development of the narrative. Ambroise Thomas received the Carré-Barbier libretto around 1859. The resulting score, in five acts and including the obligatory ballet, was given its first performance on March 9, 1868.

Yesterday’s performance took a single intermission between the second and third acts. This made for a good balance, since the fourth act of the opera is devoted pretty much entirely to Ophelia’s mad scene and drowning. Conductor Jonathan Khuner reworked the score for a reduced instrumental ensemble, the ballet was omitted, and the chorus was reduced to only ten vocalists, half of whom were members of Volti. Fortunately, Khuner’s score included the most distinctive instrumental presence in an aria whose primary accompaniment was for saxophone. The saxophone was invented in 1840, and some of its earliest chamber music dates from 1858. This may well have been its first appearance in an opera score.

In many respects the simplification of Shakespeare’s narrative was well served by the resulting opera libretto. The motive for revenge is much clearer but so, too, are the factors that contribute to Hamlet delaying his efforts. The libretto may lack the psychological depth that we now read into Shakespeare’s text (did Shakespeare’s audience do the same?); but it affords the luxury of listening to the arias as music, rather than as mind-bending soliloquies. Indeed, the weakest portion of the opera may well be when Carré and Barbier chose to incorporate “To be or not to be;” and there was a noticeable drop in Thomas’ confidence when one considers how he crafted his setting.

The stripped-down content of the text also provided Director Aria Umezawa to develop her own perspective on the plot that would interleave with what was suggested by the music. For the most part she honored much of the original Shakespeare spirit, while, at the same time, suggesting that, whether or not Hamlet’s madness was real, there was plenty of mental instability to make the rounds of the rest of the cast. Nevertheless, having the love duet of Hamlet and Ophelia culminate in sexual climax (rather explicitly staged) was more than a bit much. When Ophelia launched into a coloratura cadenza at “the moment,” it was hard not to think of Madeline Kahn singing “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in Young Frankenstein.

From a technical side, however, one had to appreciate the agility that Emma McNairy brought to all of the vocal challenges that Thomas had written into Ophelia’s role. Hamlet’s name may have been on the poster, but everyone on the “bean-counting” side of the original Paris production knew that the audiences would show up to see Ophelia. The score made sure that they were not disappointed, and McNairy made sure that we were not disappointed with the score.

Ironically, this tended to reduce attention to Hamlet himself. Edward Nelson gave a perfectly solid account of the character, and he definitely knew how to shape his voice to all the different emotional dispositions demanded by the role. However, when placed alongside Susanne Mentzer’s blood-curdling presentation of Gertrude and Philip Skinner’s penetrating delivery of the guilt that Claudius suffers, Hamlet comes across as the only clear head in the asylum.

One thing that must definitely be credited to Carré and Barbier was their decision to keep Polonius down to little more than a walk-on. There is a quick suggestion that he had as much to do with the death of King Hamlet as did both Claudius and Gertrude. That turns out to be useful for the plot treatment, because it provides more solid ground for Hamlet’s break with Ophelia.

Perhaps that perspective on the narrative identifies the greatest virtue of the current production. Those on audience side experience one of the most straightforward approaches to plot and motive that one is likely to encounter in any production of Shakespeare’s play. The result may no longer be Shakespeare, but the opera sends us home thinking about new ways to think about Shakespeare.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Next Month Begins with a New Window Gallery Exhibit

This past Friday this site announced that in exactly two weeks the Center for New Music (C4NM) will host its third annual fundraiser to support the exhibits in its Window Gallery. Entitled Soundsmiths 2017, this free event will conclude with a concert featuring invented instruments that have been displayed in Window Gallery shows. It therefore seems appropriate that, at the beginning of next month, C4NM will launch its 2017–2018 season with an opening reception for a new exhibition in the Window Gallery.

The title of the exhibition is shiver me timbres (note the spelling); and it has been prepared by instrument builder Phil Dadson. Dadson is based in New Zealand, but in the summer of 2016 he had a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. The campus includes the grounds of Fort Barry, which was opened in 1908 as part of the Coast Artillery Corps and was decommissioned in 1974. It was subsequently transferred to the National Park Service.

Many of the 1907-era buildings now serve Center residents and operations. However, Dodson found Building 961, an old wooden structure that used to be a Post Exchange (PX for those of us who grew up with WWII lingo); and he was able to convert it into a “sonic play-space.” In other words the whole structure became an expansive instrument in which he both worked and performed.

shiver me timbres will present a range of the instruments and sonic objects the Dodson devised during his residency. The instruments include the Gloop spring-string-drum, song/stones, gliss-flutes, and the BartHarmonic, named after Bart Hopkin, to whom the instrument is dedicated. The sonic objects include the “rocker-gamelan” (which is an adapted rocking chair), the “rung-ladder,” and structures of wires and rods fixed to the walls and floor. The exhibit will also include video and audio documentation of Dadson’s solo performances with his creations:

One of Phil Dadson's instruments (courtesy of C4NM)

The opening reception for this exhibit will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 7. At 7 p.m. Dadson will give a talk through video-chat. The talk will be augmented with demonstrations of some of his creations and will probably also allow time for performance. As has always been the case in the past, these receptions are free and open to the general public.

ABS Presents a “Bach Family” Program

Last night the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) hosted the penultimate program to be presented in the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival. (The final program, the second performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor, will also take place in the SFCM Concert Hall this afternoon.) The title of last night’s offering was Bach & Sons, and the second half was devoted to those three sons that are probably the best known of Bach’s descendants. In order of birth, these are Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian. The first half of the program consisted of a miscellany of short pieces by “Bach the father,” divided into a set of “transcriptions” and opening sinfonia movements from the cantatas.

The first set of that first half was listed as “Transcriptions of Keyboard Works,” which was not quite accurate. The opening selection was the six-part ricercar from the BWV 1079 collection known as The Musical Offering. As can be seen from the first page of this piece in its first publication, Bach did not notate this the same way as any of his keyboard fugues, instead assigning a separate staff for each of the six voices with no indication of instrumentation:

The first page of the first publication of Bach's six-part ricercar (from IMSLP, public domain)

Last night this was performed as a string sextet with Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy on violin, Katherine Kyme on viola, Kenneth Slowik on gamba, William Skeen on cello, and Steven Lehning on violone. This made for a more bread-and-butter account than that of Anton Webern’s more outré approach to orchestration; but there was still a sense that this music was conceived more for intellectual exercise than for performance.

The other two pieces in this section were, however, actual transcriptions of music composed for organ. Unfortunately, no credit was given to those responsible for the transcriptions. The more familiar of the two works was the BWV 582 passacaglia and fugue in C minor, played by a string ensemble conducted by ABS Music Director Jeffery Thomas.

For better or worse, my generation grew up on full-orchestra arrangements of this music by Ottorino Respighi, Leopold Stokowski, and Eugene Ormandy. (We also grew up with Virgil Fox showboating the organ itself from instruments with gargantuan consoles.) In these arrangements excessive attention to orchestra color tended to obscure what Bach was actually doing. This account, on the other hand, was “all about Bach;” and it was interesting to see that most of the upper-voice parts of the fugue was played by three solo instruments. Thomas then conducted the BWV 680 chorale prelude on “Wir gläuben all an einen Gott” (the German text of the Nicene Creed), which was a bit problematic due to the chorale theme of this “Organ Mass” being kept in the shadows.

The cantata sinfonias were distinguished by the diversity of their respective instrumentations. The most unique was probably the solo viola d’amore (played by Blumenstock) in the sinfonia for BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (step upon the path of faith). However, since the only wind instrument in the transcriptions was a continuo bassoon, the appearances of both recorder (Hanneke van Proosdij) and oboe (Debra Nagy) were most welcome for the change in sonority.

The most amusing (and slightly ironic) offering was a performance of the sinfonia for BWV 29, Wir danken dir, Gott (we thank Thee, God), prepared by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Bach conceived this sinfonia as an organ concerto movement, which he created as a reworking of the opening movement of his BWV 1006 partita in E major for solo violin. Tafelmusik then reconceived Bach’s conception as a violin concerto, restoring the virtuoso demands on the violin (played last night by Mealy) to their rightful place!

The second half of the program began with Sebastian’s eldest son, Friedemann, who was represented by an F major string symphony (entry 67 in the Falck catalog), which was given the nickname “Dissonances.” It amounts to a clever display of how dissonant intervals may be introduced (often very strikingly) and then resolved. Nevertheless, there was some sense that Friedemann kept the display going too long after he had made his point.

Christian’s D major string trio (played by Blumenstock, Mealy, and Slowik) was a model of brevity. This was, after all, the Bach son that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met. Listening to this trio, one can appreciate its transitional role in the emergence of that “classical style” that would subsequently be refined by Mozart and Joseph Haydn.

In many ways Emanuel was just as significant (if not more so) in this transition. (Beethoven supposedly admired Emanuel far more than Sebastian.) He was represented last night by his Wq 168 flute concerto in A major (Wq 168), presumably written to be played by Frederick the Great. Adolph von Menzel created a splendid painting one century after the fact, which shows Frederick with his flute accompanied by Emanuel at the harpsichord:

Concert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci by Aldoph von Menzel (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night’s soloist was Sandra Miller, giving an account that accounted for technical versatility and expressiveness in equal measure. This was probably one of the first times (but, according to at least one of my sources, not the first) that “mesto” was included as an “affective” adjective in a tempo description; and Miller gave due recognition to the significance of that identifier. Curiously, this concerto also exists in versions for harpsichord solo and cello solo; but it is clear that Frederick was the driving force behind its creation.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

An Innovative “Jazz++” Series at Bird & Beckett

I have to confess that my efforts to put out the word about performances at Bird & Beckett Books and Records has been a sometime thing. Basically, I took what I could get through the services of the BayImproviser Calendar. However, by virtue of my having found a Facebook Events post, I have discovered that there is far more to the performance side of things at Bird & Beckett than I could possibly have imagined. As a result of following a hyperlink on that post, I discovered that there are five different ongoing series of jazz gigs.

Rather than try to follow all of them exhaustively, I would like to dwell on one particular series with the intriguing name which way west? This is a weekly concert series that runs from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoons and has been around since 2007, making it the second weekly series that Bird & Beckett launched. While jazz is the basic genre, this series was explicitly conceived to accommodate a number of traditional forms beyond jazz. Admission is by a suggested donation of $10, which is requested of adults but not children. For those not familiar with Bird & Beckett, the shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. The collections of books and records are pretty impressive, so be prepared for the urge to buy something there! Meanwhile, here are the which way west? events for the remainder of this month:

August 13: Tomorrow’s gig will be a straight-ahead session (probably in two sets) by the Robert Overbury Trio, led by Overbury on bass playing with Keith Saunders at the piano and Tony Johnson on drums:

Keith Saunders and Robert Overbury (courtesy of Bird & Beckett)

August 20: Born in Bayonne, New Jersey and originally based in New York City, guitarist Marlina Teich can be described as a jazz artist who has definitely found her way west. She holds a California Teaching Credential; and she has applied it to teach, among other things, jazz ensembles and solo jazz and blues guitar performance at San Quentin Prison. She leads a quartet whose other members are Richard Saunders on bass, John Fisher on drums, and a remaining member on either horn or piano. On this occasion that fourth member will be Madaline Duran on tenor saxophone.

August 27: The final concert of the month will probably be the most adventurous. It will involve two St. Louis musicians visiting for a free jazz jam with three major Bay Area improvisers. This quintet will be led by one of the two visitors from St. Louis, George Sams, who will alternate between trumpet and flugelhorn:

George Says with his flugelhorn (courtesy of Bird & Beckett)

The other visitor will be clarinetist Eric Mandat. The “local talent” will consist of India Cooke on violin, Andre St. James on bass, and Donald Robinson on drums.

Vocal Improvisations at Adobe Books

Fridays tend to be one of the busier days on my schedule. However, last night offered a break in my usual routines; so I used the occasion to check out the monthly music series that Ben Tinker is currently curating at Adobe Books. The new location for Adobe on 24th Street is much smaller than the original space on 16th Street, but 24th Street tends to be as lively a venue in the Mission as 16th Street is. The result was that it did not take long for the shop to fill up with those who knew what they were going to get and those who were curious. Furthermore, the size of the crowd meant that the front door was left open. On the one hand this provided another tactic to attracting the curious; and, at the same time, the ambience of street sounds had its own role to play in contributing to music-making activities.

That latter factor was clearly evident in last night’s first set, which consisted of different approaches to solo and duo vocal improvisation taken by Ron Heglin, Kattt Atchley, and Loren Benedict. Each performer had a microphone; but, for the most part, the dynamics were on the soft and subtle side, providing any number of opportunities for the street sounds to add to the mix. The result amounted to an engaging exercise in an aesthetic approach championed by composers such as John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, based on the precept that wanting what you have tends to be more beneficial than striving to have what you want.

To some extent that aesthetic also characterized the approaches taken by the three vocalists. Atchley’s was the most “traditional” (bearing in mind the use of scare quotes). Her preference was for sustained pitches, frequently accompanied by hand gestures that seemed to recall the ancient practice of cheironomy, through which the collective singing of chant was regulated by hand signals representing pitch contours, as well as tempo. Both Heglin and Benedict, on the other hand, tended to work almost entirely with phonemes, alternating between spoken and sung. Heglin’s preference for speaking complemented Benedict’s preference for singing.

Each of the vocalists took a solo turn to establish his/her particular approach to technique. In addition, over the course of set, Heglin gave duo performances with both Atchley and Benedict (in that order). One thus came to accept that each of these three musicians commanded a unique “language” of performances, which could be served by both “oratory” and “conversation.”

From a personal point of view, I was most drawn to the phonemic pursuits of both Heglin and Benedict. Heglin’s approach, because so much of it was grounded in speaking, had the strongest linguistic connotations. His delivery could establish the illusion that he was communicating in some rare language known only to a scholarly few. Nevertheless, the performance gave a convincing account that his outpouring of phonemes was guided by syntax, semantics, and most likely rhetoric.

While Benedict was more inclined to add pitch to his delivery, his own approach to shaping phonemes captured much of that same spirit behind Heglin’s work. However, he tipped his hand when he stated that his solo had been inspired by Irving Berlin. If Heglin was motivated by oratory, Benedict’s inspiration came from crooning. The result was to evoke an Irving Berlin song composed in an alternative universe in which Berlin spoke some highly obscure language (not to be confused with Yiddish).

Heglin had his own source from the past, but this time that source was situated in the same universe as our own. That source was Kurt Schwitters, one of the pioneers of what came to be called sound poetry. He created the poem Ursonate between 1922 and 1932, and through that creation he demonstrated that one could apply classical sonata form to a gamut of phonemes as readily as one could apply it to the chromatic scale. Schwitters could engage powerful rhetorical devices in reciting this poem and could draw rapt attention to a text that, deliberately, did not mean anything. It is no surprise that the Nazis saw him as a threat, since his recitation technique suggested that the sounds coming from Adolf Hitler’s mouth were no more than gibberish.

Heglin is much more low-key than Schwitters ever was. He is also less interested in constraints such as sonata form. Thinking again of the sorts of convictions that Cage espoused, one might say that Heglin’s approach demonstrates that discourse can be an art form unto itself (percussion music by other means, if you wish). This puts him in a class by himself, finding his way along new paths that neither Schwitters nor Cage had considered.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Center for New Music: Remainder of August 2017

Things are definitely picking up at the Center for New Music (C4NM) this month. Through a variety of sources for advance notices, I have already given individual attention to three concerts of interest that will be taking place between now and the end of the month:
  1. August 16: a two-set evening of electronics presenting a solo by Thea Farhadian and the duo of Tim Perkis and Carter Scholz
  2. August 23: Søren Kjærgaard’s evening of solo piano improvisations
  3. August 26: the first program in curator Emma Logan’s Alone/Not Alone series
By my count that leaves another four items that need to be recognized, one of which is free.

For those who do not already “know the drill,” C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. The following events have different prices for admission. However, except for the free one, tickets will be available for advance purchase online through the indicated hyperlinks. The offerings are as follows:

Tuesday, August 15, 7:30 p.m.: Strictly speaking, this will not be a concert. Rather, it will be a film screening offered as a prelude to the Fall 2017 exhibition season of San Francisco Cinematheque. San Francisco Cinematheque is sharing production responsibilities with the Center for Asian American Media and the Noisebridge hackerspace, which organizes the monthly GODWAFFLE NOISE PANCAKES events. The title of the event is Ding Xin: Blood Beneath. Ding, whose Americanized name is “Sandy Ding,” is from Beijing and approaches filmmaking as the hand-made creation of moving-image artifacts and soundtracks. The program will review films he has made between 2006 and 2016. Ding will be present for the screening, and he will give a live electronic performance of the soundtracks for two of his films, “Prisms” (2012) and “River in Castle” (2016). Admission will be free to all Cinematheque members and $10 for everyone else. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Friday, August 18, 8 p.m.: This will be an evening of duet and solo percussion compositions and improvisations. The performers will be Jim Santi Owen and Sameer Gupta. Between them they represent diverse backgrounds in multiple percussion traditions including North and South Indian classical techniques, jazz, and “new music.” The instruments on which they will perform will include tabla, kanjira, morsing, thavil, and the conventional jazz drum-kit. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Sunday, August 27, 4 p.m.: This is the free event of the month. Soundsmiths 2017 is the third annual fundraiser to support the exhibits in the Window Gallery. These exhibits have provided a platform for the Bay Area instrument inventing community to present the theory and practice behind their efforts. The primary vehicle for fundraising will be an online auction, which began around the middle of last month. The Web page for this auction is collecting bids for an impressive diversity of items. The auction will close at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a one-hour concert featuring invented instruments that have been displayed in Window Gallery shows. There will be complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a no-host bar.

Monday, August 28, 7 p.m.: C4NM will host a benefit concert for Lacuna Arts, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides both educational and performing opportunities for choral singers. The organization is run by Sven Edward Olbash, who conducts a series of choral recitals every season. At this benefit concert he will give a recital of the repertoire for baritone voice entitled The New Music, examining how that term applied to different periods in music history. The recital is named after a collection of monodies and songs for solo voice published by Giulio Caccini in 1602. Olbash will sing selections from this collection.

However, Caccini is remembered not only as a composer but also as a teacher. He trained the castrato Giovanni Gualberto Magli, who was part of the cast in the first performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s first opera, L’Orfeo in 1607. Olbash will recognize this event by singing the aria “Possente spirito” from that opera. He will then conclude his program by advancing to the first half of the twentieth century, performing Benjamin Britten’s Opus 22 settings of seven of the sonnets written by Michelangelo. His accompanists will be Kevin Korth on piano and Caitlin Austin on harmonium.

Doors will open for this concert at 6:30 p.m., and drinks will be served before the performance begins. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from a Vendini event page.

ABS Academy Delivers an Engaging Account of Purcell

John Dryden wrote a King Arthur libretto in 1684. It was intended for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1685, but those were turbulent times. That libretto no longer exists.

The project came back to life in 1690 thanks to Thomas Betterton. Henry Purcell had made a hit with Betterton’s audiences with the music he provided for Dioclesian, and Betterton wanted more milk from his cash cow. He suggested that Dryden team up with Purcell with a return to Dryden’s King Arthur project. The result was a “semi-opera,” with significant portions of Dryden’s text spoken, rather than sung. The full text can be found in the University of California Press compilation of Dryden’s works, but it probably receives little attention outside of the classroom.

Purcell’s music, on the other hand, has survived and has had many champions. One of them was Alfred Deller, a pioneer in the performance of “early music” before his interest became popular. He provided the performers for a full account of Purcell’s music for harmonia mundi, and the recording sessions took place in 1976 and 1978. harmonia mundi has kept this recording in circulation, now as a two-CD album.

In 2008 Boston Baroque, under Music Director Martin Pearlman, presented a concert performance of all of the music Purcell had composer for Dryden. Dryden’s spoken text was replaced by a spoken narrative written by Laurence Senelick of Tufts University, which combined selected Dryden passages with stage directions and Senelick’s own verse. When the results were performed, poet Robert Pinsky served as narrator and added some of his own adaptations to the text.

All this may remind some of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. However, the results were impressive enough that Jeffrey Thomas decided to make Boston Baroque’s approach a major project for this summer’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) Academy. Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Thomas led the full forces of Academy students, supplemented with a few ABS instrumentalists, in the first of two performances of the “Pearlman edition” of Purcell’s King Arthur, or the British Worthy. The narrator was Hugh Davies, who sings bass in the American Bach Choir.

The Academy vocalists served both as members of the chorus and the performers of solo roles, almost all of which were relatively minor. The major exception involved the aria “Fairest isle,” which tends to show up in the program of just about every Purcell vocal recital. In the libretto the aria is sung by Venus in her only appearance in the libretto; and characters such as Arthur, Merlin, and the Saxon forces Arthur is fighting never sing at all.

Last night’s performance was anything but “a horse designed by a committee.” The blend of the chorus members was impeccable from beginning to end and could not have been better complemented by the instrumental resources. Davies knew just when to play up that the text was being arch in its approach to rhyme. (Completing one rhyme with the anachronistic “Wagnerian” was a master touch; and Davies delivered it perfectly.) The rest of the time he provided a straightforward account of the “interstitial glue” to remind the audience that the original version really did have an overarching narrative.

What was most impressive was how the entire evening emerged as the combined efforts of so many individuals who served as both soloists and members of the group. Indeed, it took an entire page of the program book to enumerate all the roles taken by vocal soloists. (That page will not be reproduced here; all of those roles are enumerated on the King Arthur Wikipedia page.) However, Thomas definitely deserves credit, not only for pulling everything together but also for his “stage management” technique in having the solo vocalists leave and return to the full chorus in ways that fit smoothly with the instrumental music.

It is also worth remembering that this music was first performed in 1691. Yet there are any number of familiar tropes that show up in Purcell’s writing, many of which we easily associate with composers like George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. However, when we listen to the “shivering” aria of the Cold Genius character, we have to remember that Vivaldi’s “tone painting” of winter took place more than a quarter century after King Arthur was first performed. The same may be said of Handel’s own brush with Dryden’s text, his setting of the “Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.” It would not be out of the question to suggest that Handel had witnessed a revival of King Arthur and picked up on some of Purcell’s tropes, perhaps as his way of nodding graciously to Dryden.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Improvisation and Imagery Coming to The Lab

This Saturday The Lab present a program entitled Other Forms of Light. This will involve the simultaneous improvisation of both music and the synthesis of static and moving images. The principal performer will be Dicky Bahto, who creates installations and gives performances that bring sound together with still and motion picture photography:

One of Dicky Bahto images (courtesy of The Lab)

He will work with two improvising musicians, Corey Fogel will perform on pitched metal percussion instruments; and he will be joined by Tashi Wada playing keyboard, bagpipe, electronics, and sirens. The evening will also feature sonic artist Maggie Payne collaborating with Paul Clipson projecting films he has created.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station.

This performance will take place this coming Saturday, August 12. Admission will be $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free. Doors will open at 8 p.m., and the performance will begin at 8:30 p.m. Events at The Lab tend to attract a large turnout, so early arrival is almost always highly recommended. Members may wish to login to reserve seats, and for others there is a Web page for advance registration.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Cellist Juliana Soltis Debuts on the Acis Label

Exactly three months ago today the Acis Label released the album Entrez, le Diable! The Virtuoso Cello at the Concert Spirituel. This album marked the recording debut of Baroque cellist Juliana Soltis, whose portrait photograph appears on the back cover next to the list of compositions she is performing:

These are all chamber music selections in which she plays with a continuo consisting of gamba (Adaiha MacAdam-Somer), theorbo (Lucas Harris) and harpsichord (Justin Murphy-Mancini).

For those unfamiliar with the Concert Spirituel, it was the name of one of the first public concert series ever to be organized. As one might guess, the concerts were given in Paris; and they took place between 1725 and 1790. Because they were intended for the prosperous members of the bourgeoisie, who tended to be excluded from royal salons, the lower aristocracy, and foreign visitors, the institution did not survive the French Revolution. The repertoire was not restricted to French composers but included works by Johann Christian Bach, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The series presented the public premiere of Mozart’s K. 297 symphony in D major, which is why it is known as the “Paris” symphony.

The album consists of sonatas by four composers, all of whom were known for their interest in cello virtuosity or in exploring future trends. It is unlikely that their names will register with many readers (perhaps not any at all): Salvatore Lanzetti, Martin Berteau, François Martin, and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. Of these the only one that I have encountered in performance is Barrière, whose music was performed when Harmonia Felice gave a concert for the San Francisco Early Music Society in February of 2012. Because Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was the featured composer on that program, I must confess that I have no recollections of Barrière’s contribution, let alone the extent to which he was viewed as a “transitional” composer of his time. On the other hand, thanks to cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, I know that Berteau was one the inspirations for Gaspar Cassadó’s Collection de six morceaux classiques (collection of six classical pieces).

However unfamiliar the selections may be, one can still appreciate the technical skill that Soltis brings to her execution. This is not just a matter of deft fingering and a keen sense of pitch. The Berteau sonata concludes with a rondo in which the composer seems more occupied with innovative sonorities (including harmonic bowing) than with thematic material. This involves the sort of creative thinking that probably left Concert Spirituel audiences perplexed, uneasy, and/or downright indignant. (One wonders what Haydn might have done had he been present when this piece was performed.)

Still, the unfamiliarity of the “whole package” may discourage some listeners from embarking on this adventure of discovery in the first place. Fortunately, we now live in an age of tracks and playlists. Those who wish may become acquainted with Soltis’ repertoire on a sonata-by-sonata basis. Such a strategy could be achieved simply by attending to the individual sonatas in the order in which they appear on the track listing. Taking that approach may even cultivate a sensitivity to the six-year gap that separates the first Barrière sonata on the album (the fourth in his first book of sonatas) from the second (the fifth in the third book). Whether or not any of the selections that Soltis performs register as “diabolic” will be left entirely to the ear of the listener!

LSG Creative Music Series: Remainder of August 2017

Outsound Presents has begun to use the Facebook Events site to provide advance information about the concerts in its LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series (formerly known as the Luggage Store Creative Music Series). This is the weekly offering that, for the most part, consists of free improvisation sessions with a varying number of sets depending on who the performers happen to be. All events begin on (or close to 8 p.m.) and take place on Thursday evenings. LSG is located at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street and admission is usually on a sliding scale between $6 and $15. Specifics for the remaining concerts this month are as follows:

August 17: The opening set will present the return of TD Skatchit, the duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak (hence the initials) playing skatchboxes, Nunn’s invented instruments. This will be a quartet improvisation for which they will be joined by Polly Moller on bass flute and Doug Carroll on cello. The second set will begin at 8:30 p.m. with a visit from Seattle by the Ignition Duo of Chris Icasiano on drums and Neil Welch on tenor saxophone with electronics. Their approach to improvisation crosses just about any boundary that defines a particular genre; so, in spite of Mickey Mouse Club rules, Anything Can Happen Day will fall on a Thursday. The final set will begin at 9:15 p.m. and will be taken by the duo of local guitarists Ramon Fermin and David Gonzales. This group will probably be familiar to those who follow regularly activities at the Center for New Music. At the end of last year, they released their debut album, Ablaze Amidst the Horns, on which they play works written for them by Luke Thomas Taylor, Ryan Brown, Danny Clay, Nick Norton, Nick Bacchetto, Dan VanHassel, Marc Evans, and Nick Vasallo.

August 24: This will be another three-set evening, opening with the local Fistortion trio of Brian Pedersen on saxophone, Jay Korber on drums, and Greg Gorlen on electronics. The second set, beginning at 8:40 p.m., will again be devoted to a visiting group, the Philadelphia-based free jazz New Olduvai Trio. The rhythm section consists of Tom Rollison on guitar and Moguawane Mahloele on percussion. They back up Elliott Levin, who alternates between playing his reed instruments and declaiming texts. The final set will begin at 9:20 p.m. and also present visitors. This set will be taken by Blood Oath, a noise-metal duo based in Los Angeles. The performers are Ulrich Krieger on saxophone and Joshua Michael Carro on percussion.

August 31: The final concert of the month will again be a three-set evening. However, all three sets will involve solo improvisations working with electronic noise. The first set will begin at 8:15 p.m. with Philip Everett performing as Skullcrusher. He will be followed by 8:45 p.m. by Collin McKelvey. Jorge Bachmann, performing as ruidobello, will close out the program with the final set beginning at 9:30 p.m.

ABS Marathon Concludes with an Endurance Test

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the American Bach Soloists Academy presented the last of its three “Academy-in-Action” Baroque Marathon concerts. Clocking in at about three hours, the program was the one truest to the name of the series. This duration was apparently necessary to make sure that all Academy students had the opportunity to present the fruits of their labors. However, after about two hours had elapsed, members of the audience began to trickle towards the exit doors. The trickle gradually grew to a stream, which, happily, only flowed during applause between selections.

As was the case with the preceding programs, the vocal offerings involved more arias and duets from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, this final program presented a more generous offering of instrumental selections. While there again was considerable variation in the technical side of execution, the overall offering covered an impressive number of different ways to combine instruments. There was also one instance of what might be called “program music” that definitely deserved recognition.

This was the only selection by Bach’s highly capable son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Emanuel’s 300th birthday on March 8, 2014 had provided me with the opportunity to write at considerable length on his compositions both in performances and on recordings, and I found myself jumping into that opportunity with great enthusiasm. Sadly, he then dropped back into those same shadows that had concealed him during all preceding seasons that I had covered. I make this observation simply to note that just seeing Emanuel’s name on the program brought me some cheer.

Nevertheless, my past experiences in listening to Emanuel’s music did not prepare me for last night’s selection. The piece was a trio in C minor, the first of a set of two that he had composed in 1748 during his service to Frederick the Great. Frederick liked to be entertained, and Emanuel conjured up some delightfully imaginative entertainment. Given the title “Der Sanguineus mit dem Melancholicus,” the “program” of the score involved a dialog between personifications of sanguinity and melancholy, those personifications assumed by two violin parts, the upper voices of the trio (with a cello as the low voice).

Much of Frederick’s entertainment probably derived from Emanuel treating this composition as an exercise in amateur theatrics. Rather than simply provide the two violin parts with sharply contrasting melodic lines and rhythmic patterns, he scored these two voices in such a way that they are constantly interrupting each other. Thus, while the Latinate names suggest a setting akin to a Platonic dialogue, the rhetorical devices of the music itself quickly establish an encounter like a barroom brawl.

It was therefore delightful to see last night violinists, Rachell Wong and Rebecca Nelson, supplement their technical skills in negotiating Emanuel’s “text” with a generous amount of thought devoted to body language and facial expression. That left matters to cellist Poppea Dorsam to provide the sort of foundation of stability that one might associated with an innkeeper, with harpsichordist Michael Delfin serving, perhaps, as the inn itself:

Rachel Wong, Rebecca Nelson, Michael Delfin, and Poppea Dorsam after their Emanuel Bach performance (photograph by Sam Siegel)

This trio was the third selection on the program; and, inevitably, it was a tough act to follow. The deepest impressions tended to be made by the more imaginative instrumental combinations. Thus, when bass Matthew Cramer sang the aria “Laß mein Herz die Münze sein” (let my heart be the coin) from Sebastian’s BWV 163 cantata Nur jedem das Seine (to each his own), he was accompanied by three cellos: Nick Loucks, Eugenio Solinas, and Sydney ZumMallen. ZumMallen basically supported the continuo work of Mariana Paras Pena on bassoon and Arthur Omura on harpsichord, but Loucks and Solinas served up duo work that blended engagingly with Cramer’s voice. An even richer texture of strings could be found in a five-part sonata by William Young, four of whose parts were taken by violinists Gail Hernandez Rosa, Pama Lynn Broeckel, Kiyoe Matsuura, and Aniela Eddy.

Those who persisted to the very end got to enjoy what was probably the best oboe work of the evening. Marea Chernoff and Sara Vicinaiz took the top two voices in a trio sonata by Johann David Heinichen, the third voice being played by bassoonist Laura Miller. Double-reed instruments are probably the greatest beneficiaries of advances in instrument-building; and those who play those instruments in their earlier stages have to get used to coping with the sense that the instrument has an obstreperous mind of its own. Chernoff, Vicinaiz, and Miller prevailed in the face of adversity, much to the joy of those who remained to listen.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

SFO Announces a New Klytemnestra to Confront Elektra

As was announced at the beginning of this year, the second opera in the 2017–18 repertory season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) will be Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.” Hugo von Hofmannsthal provided Strauss with a libretto for this one-act opera based on Sophocles’ play of the same name. Late yesterday afternoon it was announced that mezzo Stephanie Blythe had withdrawn from the role  of Klytemnestra for personal reasons. She will be replaced by mezzo Michaela Martens, who will be singing the role for the first time:

Michaela Martens (photograph by Tess Steinkolk, courtesy of SFO)

This will be a new staging of the opera, which SFO coproduced in conjunction with the National Theatre in Prague and the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe. The production was originally directed by Keith Warner, and the SFO performances will be directed by Anja Kühnhold. This will be the first time that SFO has presented one of Warner’s stagings, as well as Kühnhold’s first visit to the War Memorial Opera House. Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási will also be making his SFO debut.

The title role will still be sung by soprano Christine Goerke, last seen with SFO in 2006, when she sang the role of Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus by “the other Strauss,” Johann. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka will sing the role of Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis. Tenor Robert Brubaker will perform Aegisth, who assisted Klytemnestra in the murder of her husband (and Elektra’s father) Agamemnon. Finally, American bass-baritone Alfred Walker will make his SFO debut in the role of Orest, Elektra’s brother, who assists her in avenging her father death.

This production will be given six performances. These will take place at 7:30 p.m. on September 9, 13, 19, 22, and 27 and at 2 p.m. on September 17. The libretto will be sung in German with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be one hour and 45 minutes.

All performances will take place at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $398. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

This opera will also be given the first Insight Panel of the new season. This provides members of both the cast and the creative team to share their thoughts on preparing this production. Participants have not yet been announced. Time is left at the end of the discussion for a Q&A with the audience. The entire event is one hour, and it will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 7. The venue will be the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theatre, located on the top floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Admission is free for SFO members, subscribers, and students with valid identification. The charge for all others is $5. Pre-registration (including for those who do not have to pay) can be arranged through an Eventbrite event page.