Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Lab will Offer its Next Bleeding Edge Concert This Saturday

For some unexplained reason this week’s BayImproviser Calendar never made it to my Inbox. Actually, there probably is a reason, which is that the phrase “software quality” becomes more and more of an oxymoron as it comes to receive less and less attention as part of coding training. As this site has often observed, the world of increasing tolerance to increasing degradation of technology envisaged by E. M. Forster in “The Machine Stops” has become very much with us; but, like Forster’s characters, we are too dependent on the services being provided to notice. In other words both the service providers and those intended to benefit from those services end up suffering in equal measure.

However, while there may not have been a Bleeding Edge summary for this week, it is still important to note the next adventurous concert scheduled at The Lab. This will be a visit from Susan Alcorn, whose performances on pedal steel guitar are worthy of the “virtuoso” adjective. Like many who play the instrument, Alcorn built up her chops in Texas as a member of a variety of country and western bands. However, her approach to the instrument gradually began to expand through an impressive variety of influences. On the classical side she took a great interest in Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, and Krzysztof Penderecki, while also looking into the avant-garde activities of Pauline Oliveros. As an improviser she paralleled those interests by following the free jazz pursuits of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. She then added a variety of world music sources to her knapsack, including Indian ragas, South American songs, and Indonesian gamelan. For her visit to The Lab she will be joined by local saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief, who should be well known to those seeking out “bleeding edge” activities in San Francisco.

The performance by Alcorn and Greenlief will begin at 8:30 p.m. this Saturday, April 29. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. The venue is on the south side of the street, a short walk east of the corner of Mission Street. This location 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. General admission will be $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted at no charge. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; and, because demand tends to be high, advance registration is highly recommended. Members can register through their login Web page, while others can use the guest registration Web page.

Two Stars Do Not Always Shine Brighter than One

The third concert in the Piano Series prepared by San Francisco Performances,  (SFP) presented last night in Herbst Theatre, promised to be one of the high points of the season. Two of the most distinguished pianists in the current concert scene, both familiar to those who have attended SFP events, joined forces to present a program of music composed for four hands distributed across two keyboards. The pianists were the Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, making his tenth SFP appearance and Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, making his twelfth. Furthermore, both had previously appeared not only as a soloist but also in chamber music settings. Both have experience in accompanying a soloist and in playing in larger ensembles, particularly those involving two, three, or four string players.

The program prepared for the occasion was just as promising. Igor Stravinsky was the main contributor, with the second half being devoted entirely to his music for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” The first half, in turn, presented the concerto for two pianos that Stravinsky wrote between 1934 and 1935 to play with his son Soulima. Even the two encore selections of the evening, “Madrid” and “Circus Polka,” were Stravinsky selections. Stravinsky’s presence was complemented by that of Claude Debussy’s “En blanc et noir” (in black and white). The Stravinsky-Debussy connection was particularly apposite, since Debussy had been Stravinsky’s partner when the “Rite of Spring” score was first performed for Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev in the composer’s draft version for four hands on a single keyboard. The program also included a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart so rare that it never appeared in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog.

Sadly, none of this ever managed to gel with the immediacy and intimacy one expects from a chamber music experience. One problem may have been physical separation. The pianists had to face each other across a distance slightly longer than the length of a concert grand. This distance is far greater than that between a pianist and the string players in a trio, quartet, or quintet. The result was a sense that each pianist was more occupied in the challenges of his own part than with arriving at a whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts. To be fair, the technical challenges last night were legion; but there was too much of a sense that each challenge was conquered by hammering it out with vigorous determination.

As might be guessed, Mozart’s music suffered the most from such treatment, particularly when one considers that the pianos themselves were far too large for the sort of music being played. Curiously, the music that fared best was the Debussy score. The Debussy canon for solo music is not only prolific but, when considered in its entirety, impressively diverse. Debussy also composed for both four hands on one keyboard and two pianos. He devoted more attention to the former genre, whose best known result would probably be his Petite Suite.

However, in “En blanc et noir” he was clearly going for a more powerful sound, almost as if his goal had been to achieve the strength of an orchestra through keyboard technique. The result was a panorama of broad strokes that would probably surprise anyone whose knowledge of Debussy’s rhetoric was restricted to his solo piano music. Both Andsnes and Hamelin were not shy in rendering those bold strokes, thus presenting a new viewpoint of Debussy’s character that emerged as a perfectly valid extension of his single-keyboard music.

Each of the Stravinsky selections, one the other hand, was problematic in its own way. The fact is that the four-hand account of “The Rite of Spring” that Stravinsky and Debussy introduced by Nijinsky and Diaghilev was a highly effective distillation of the full score (which Stravinsky created by orchestrating the four-hand version). As was clear when the ZOFO duo of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann played this version at their first public concert, given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there was an element of transparency that would fog up once Stravinsky began to pile on the instruments. Last night’s performance, on the other hand, while capturing much of the violently raw energy of the orchestral version, never made a convincing case for the music at the heart of all that raging.

Where the concerto was concerned, at least the issue of having the right resources for the right music was properly resolved. What was missing, however, was any recognition that Stravinsky might have approached this music with more than a little wit. If he wrote it to play with his son, then it would be nice to believe that some kind of “bonding” was at least a secondary objective. There is a playfulness that can be found in each of this concerto’s four movements that suggests that Stravinsky approached this score as a vehicle for father-and-son intimacy, even if he had no other such resource at his disposal.

Sadly, neither that intimacy nor the use of wit as a vehicle for it was evident last night. The performance was all about mastering the technical challenges. However, what obtained had more to do with beating those challenges into submission than meeting them on their own terms. That sort of wit only emerged in the encore selections, each of which involved Stravinsky poking fun at one or more other composers. In the case of the first encore, “Madrid,” the composer was Emmanuel Chabrier and the music was his “España” rhapsody. Ironically, Chabrier had composed a two-piano transcription of his orchestral score. Stravinsky decided to do him one better, composing “Madrid” for pianola; and Soulima later prepared a two-piano transcription.

“Circus Polka,” on the other hand, began as a piano solo. It was written for choreographer George Balanchine, when Balanchine received a request from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to create a ballet for fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas. David Raksin then arranged the score for organ and concert band. Stravinsky subsequently prepared his own orchestral version, and Victor Babin arranged the score for two pianos. The score is best known for an outrageous treatment of the first of Franz Schubert’s D. 733 three “Marches militaires” in D major; but there is also an unmistakable jab at Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor. These were the sorts of high spirits that could have gone a long way towards endowing the two-piano concerto with the rhetoric it deserved.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sunset Music | Arts will Host a Special Event Beyond its Concert Series

This site has made it a point to track the progress of the multiple concert series organized for the 2017 season of Sunset Music | Arts. However, next month Sunset Music | Arts will host an additional evening that will offer not only a recital but also the opportunity for conversation with the recitalist. That recitalist will be Pablo Estigarribia, an Argentinian virtuoso tango pianist, arranger, and composer. The recital will be organized around Estigarribia’s album Tangos para Piano (tangos for piano), which is based on a solo piano book he prepared and received the Carlos Gardel award. The conversation will begin with a short lecture on the history of the tango supplemented with demonstrations from the keyboard, after which Estigarribia will entertain questions from the audience. This event will mark the beginning of Estigarribia’s first West Coast tour.

An Evening with Pablo Estigarribia will begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 14. Like other Sunset Music | Arts events, it will take place at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, which is located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Quatuor Danel Makes an Impressively Energetic Debut with CMSF

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented the San Francisco premiere of Quatuor Danel, a Brussels-based string quartet, whose members are Marc Danel, the leader after whom the group is named, second violinist Gilles Millet, violist Vlad Bogdanas, and cellist Yovan Markovitch. The ensemble currently holds two residencies, one at the University of Manchester (since 2005) and the other (as of October of last year) at the TivoliVredenburg music complex in Utrecht. Their extensive touring is gradually being matched by an impressive recorded legacy, which already includes the first recording ever made of all seventeen of the string quartets composed by Mieczysław Weinberg. Their current extended recording project involves the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Both Weinberg and Beethoven were represented on last night’s program. However, the French-Belgian side of the group’s underlying culture served as the basis for the opening selection, Claude Debussy’s Opus 10, his only string quartet, which he composed in 1893. From the very opening gesture, it was clear that this ensemble was driven by an intense command of energy. Debussy’s tempo marking for his first movement is Animé et très décidé (animated and very decisive); and Danel was committed to every letter of that instruction.

Without ever short-changing any fundamental matters of pitch, intonation, and rhythm, Danel almost immediately exposed just how lame more “polite” accounts of this quartet can be. Whether the issue was counterpoint, bowing technique, or even overall structure, Debussy was as decisive in taking his own personal approach to the nature of the string quartet as his marking for the opening tempo was. Through Danel’s interpretation, one could appreciate a radical side to Debussy’s aesthetic that is often overlooked in his more popular compositions. The result was almost shockingly harsh, startling but not offending, leaving most of the audience with the impression that they were hearing his music for the first time, no matter the number of past encounters with recitals and recordings.

That rhetorical stance also proved to serve the Beethoven selection, Opus 130 in B-flat major, just as well. This was Beethoven’s major venture into an extended number of distinct movements; and the venture was even bolder when the quartet concluded with the “Große Fuge,” whose scope was so ambitious that Beethoven finally gave in to his publisher, composing a shorter final movement (the last substantial composition before the composer’s death) and publishing the fugue separately as Opus 133.

However, even with that modification for the conclusion, Opus 130 is a panorama of diverse styles, rhetorics, and durational scales. Furthermore, its shifts across that diversity are often abrupt, sometimes shockingly so; and what made Danel’s approach so compelling was the group’s ability to negotiate those shifts without ever making them sound awkward or unnatural. Thus, while this quartet often labors under interpretations that begin to wear on the listener’s patience long before the final movement, this was an account that left that same listener on the edge of his/her seat, eager to learn what would next ensue.

The Weinberg selection was the Opus 27 quartet in B-flat major. Composed in 1945, this was the fifth of the seventeen quartets. Weinberg’s friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich coincided with the coming of World War II to the Soviet Union. While Weinberg had initially been evacuated to Tashkent, Shostakovich persuaded him to move to Moscow. Weinberg would have been aware of the accumulating rhetoric of war-weariness that was building up in Shostakovich’s symphonies at that time; and he probably had also encountered Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas for piano.

However, the Opus 27 quartet has the same sort of lightness of spirit that emerged in Shostakovich’s ninth symphony. Each of its five movements is relatively short and might be taken as an individual character sketch. In at least two cases that character may have been specific. The second Humoreska movement can easily be taken as a warped reflection on the seventh, and most popular, of the eight humoresques that Antonín Dvořák composed for solo piano as his Opus 101, while the following Scherzo is an almost unmistakable nod to Shostakovich.

Danel’s interpretation seemed to appreciate this approach and endowed each movement with its own personality type. (They had no trouble evoking Shostakovich’s spirit.) This was probably a “first contact” experience for much of the audience; and Danel could not have provided a better introduction. One could appreciate the uniqueness of Weinberg’s own voice while acknowledging his previously neglected status as a Polish-born Russian composer. Last night’s performance may well have encouraged some to seek out the Danel recording of the complete set of Weinberg quartets.

The encore selection was a “Notturno” movement, apparently from a string quartet by Jacques Ibert. Details have been hard to find. The music provided a quiet follow-up to the joyous Finale movement of Beethoven’s Opus 130. It also allowed for a return to those Franco-Belgian roots that shape this group’s personality and were most evident in their approach to Debussy. Most importantly, it provided an elegant conclusion to the ensemble’s visit, leaving many of us wondering when this ensemble will return.

Monday, April 24, 2017

IOCSF will Present Three New Works from their Recent Competition

The title of the next program prepared by the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco (IOCSF), the only ensemble to have named itself after the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, is Freshly Squeezed: New Music by and for IOCSF. This title refers to last year’s launch of the Freshly Squeezed Composition Competition, whose submissions were reviewed and evaluated at the beginning of this year. The grand prize winner was David Avshalomov, who submitted “O Euchari.” This is a setting of Hildegarde of Bingen’s ecstatic vision of the Eucharist from the second part of her first work, Scivias, which consists of texts, miniature illustrations, and songs. Avshalomov has drawn upon the chant practices of Russian Orthodox liturgical music.

Two “runner-up” submissions will also be performed. “Elohim Hashivenu” is a setting of the Hebrew text of Psalm 80 composed by Salvatore LoCasio, which draws upon the choral version of tone clusters. By way of contrast, “Strings in the earth and air” is a lyrical setting with poignant dissonances of the first poem in James Joyce’s Chamber Music collection by Bryan Lin.

Composer-in-Residence Elliott Encarnación will contribute to the program with “The Mariner,” his distillation of verses from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In addition IOCSF soprano Elizabeth Kimble”s “The Peace of Wild Things,” a setting of a text by Wendell Berry, will also be performed. These five premiere performances will be complemented by four pieces new to the Bay Area. One of these is by IOCSF Joshua Saulle, currently a doctoral candidate in composition at the University of California in Los Angeles. IOCSF will sing his setting of verses from the Song of Songs, “Arise, my love.” The other three Bay Area premieres will be “Love, thricewise” by Joe Gregorio, a setting of the Latin text of the Lord’s Prayer by Ivo Antognini, and “Ne irascaris, Domine” by Frank LaRocca. As usual the conductor will be Zane Fiala.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 13. The venue will be St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at 3281 16th Street, located in the Mission. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome.

Matt Renzi’s Jazz at Old First Concerts Offers Few Surprises

The title of yesterday’s Old First Concerts program at Old First Presbyterian Church was Arm Sized Legging, the name of a project conceived by jazz saxophonist Matt Renzi. The idea was to expand the usual trio based on a rhythm section of bass (John Wiitala) and drums (Hamir Atwal) with two string players, Lucy Southern on violin and Helen Newby on cello. The motivation was to explore the opportunity for richer instrumental textures and colorations. All of the pieces played yesterday were Renzi’s original compositions.

While this was an appealing idea, its realization was not particularly compelling. For the most part the strings, when they performed at all, did little more than add some highlighting to the instrumental sonorities of the trio. Part of the problem was that they were unamplified. While Old First has excellent acoustics, the decibel power of Renzi’s saxophone and Atwal’s drumming tended to flood the sanctuary (and every good jazz group knows that everyone backs off when the bass takes a solo). The result was that the violin and cello sounded like the alto and tenor sections of a choir that was not particularly well balanced. Furthermore, neither Southern nor Newby was given an opportunity to improvise along with the other members of the group.

For that matter Southern’s appearance was minimal, playing in only a few selections on either side of the intermission. She did not even come out for a final bow. Newby had the advantage of playing a duo with Renzi called “Family Picnic.” This gave her an opportunity to explore many of the alternative techniques that she seemed to command very well, and her sonorities tended to suggest that Renzi’s goal had been to depict the ants’ point of view of the picnic in his title. In just about every other setting, however, Newby tended either to follow Wiitala’s line or add a subdued harmonizing voice.

As to Renzi himself, his compositions tended to be at least moderately engaging but not particularly enduring. The same could be said of his saxophone improvisation work. In this context it was probably fortunate that his compositions tended to be on the short side. Since he was not that adventurous, there was no need for him to invest too much time in exploration. The overall result was a relatively brief program of original jazz music that offered more than a few pleasures but resulted in little that remained in memory after the hall had emptied.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

San Francisco Performances will Conclude Spring Salons with Jazz Piano

Early next month San Francisco Performances (SFP) will conclude this season’s annual series of one-hour recitals on Wednesday evenings at the Hotel Rex with solo piano jazz performed by Edward Simon. For SFP this will be somewhat of a “my end is my beginning” (in the words set by Guillaume de Machaut) phenomenon, since, at the very beginning of this season, Simon was one of the contributors to A Heartfelt Gala, the concert prepared to honor founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt, which took place at the end of this past September. On that occasion, Simon provided rhythm, along with Marcus Shelby on bass, for Jazz Artist-in-Residence Sean Jones on trumpet. Next month he will use his solo Rex gig to survey the breadth of his musical influences, which may be based in Latin American jazz but also include pop, folk, classical, and his own approaches to improvisation.

This concert will take place from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 10. The event will conclude with a Q&A session for audience participation. The Hotel Rex is located at 562 Sutter Street, between Powell Street and Mason Street. All tickets are $25. Single tickets are also being sold through a City Box Office event page. Any additional information may be obtained by calling SFP at 415-392-2545.

Lou Harrison is Treated Splendidly by SFCMP’s Centennial Celebration

As was observed yesterday, May 14 will mark the 100th birthday of composer Lou Harrison. This weekend the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) got the jump on the occasion with a festival entitled Lou Harrison: A Centenary Celebration, which included three concerts yesterday at Z Space taking place late in the morning, during the afternoon, and in the evening. The morning concert was devoted to the three winners’s of SFCMP’s SF Search competition, but each of the other two concerts featured two significant Harrison pieces sharing the program with works by two living composers.

Over the course of yesterday afternoon’s program, I realized that there was so much richness in Harrison’s compositions that I was already saturated with thoughts before it was even time to break for dinner. The two pieces provided excellent representation of the exploratory mindset behind his early work (the third of his “Canticle” pieces, composed in 1942) complemented by a piece that was not only much more recent (the “Varied Trio” of 1986) but also written for SFCMP musicians: percussionist William Winant, pianist Julie Steinberg, and violinist David Abel. Furthermore, Winant was on hand to lead yesterday’s performance, joined this time by pianist Kate Campbell and violinist Hrabba Atladottir, who was called upon to substitute for Roy Malan with about 24 hours to learn her part.

While we tend to think of Harrison in terms of his inventive approaches to melody, counterpoint, and rhythm, it is also worth acknowledging just how much diversity went into his use of that adjective “varied.” Obviously, the variety in his choice of instruments is not a conventional one; but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the players is required to perform in a variety of different ways. This was most evident in Winant’s case, since he had to alternate between two different stations outfitted with different arrays of percussion instruments. However, Campbell had to work with far more than the keyboard, not only reaching inside the piano to both stroke and strike the strings but also using her mallet to provide her own contribution to the percussion by striking the bottom of the sounding board. Even Atladottir had to work with variety, required to use only pizzicato for the second movement. Finally, there was considerable variety in the styles of the movements themselves, alternating between Oriental references, eighteenth-century dances, and a highly chromatic (and very twentieth-century) elegy.

As had been the case when he performed with pianist Sarah Cahill and violinist Kate Stenberg at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this past November, Winant took responsibility as leader. Indeed, one might add to that “litany of variety” the richness of body language that seemed to inform Winant’s approach to execution, since that body language also did much to communicate his thoughts about expressiveness to the other two players. The result was an excitingly vibrant execution that firmly established the significance of this composition in the repertoire of twentieth-century music.

That case was made just as strongly by the 1942 “Canticle;” but the listening experience was entirely different. This piece was scored for five percussionists along with an ocarina and a guitar. However, the ocarina is required only to play five different pitches; and the guitar part was limited to three cords on a re-tuned instrument. As a result Harrison indicated that both of these parts could be taken by percussionists, because rhythm is primary to the structure of the piece. In the collection of Harrison manuscripts in the Online Archive of California, the operative sentence in Harrison’s description of this piece is the following:
The musical texture is composed of a number of small rhythmicles and melodicles woven together (so to speak) into a form which is roughly a-b-a in shape.
As might be guessed, a “rhythmicle” is basically a very small rhythmic motif (or cell); and a “melodicle” is basically the same sort of thing for a melody!

Yesterday afternoon the guitar was played by SFCMP guitarist David Tanenbaum, and the ocarina was taken by SFCMP clarinetist Jeff Anderle. The percussionists included Winant along with Jim Kassis, Haruka Fuji, Stan Muncy, and Loren Mach. While many of the percussion instruments were pitched, Harrison’s melodicles were defined more by contour than by conventional melodic structure. Once again, much of the expressiveness of the performance came from Winant’s body language; but it did not take much for the other performers to get into the same spirit of things.

Readers may recall that this piece was also performed this past February at the first Other Minds 22 concert. That performance took place in the Mission Dolores Basilica, whose acoustics were definitely suitable for the occasion. However, the altar space was arranged in such a way that one could barely make out the individual performers. Z Space seating, on the other hand, was steeply raked; and the performers were arrayed in a semicircle, allowing everyone to make eye contact with everyone else. This enhanced visual setting, which allowed one to see how the performance involved exchanges across ever-changing groupings of the players, made for a far more compelling listening experience; and the acoustics were just as favorable.

Of the two current composers on the program, Annie Gosfield’s “Daughters of the Industrial Revolution,” composed in 2011, was the more striking, if only for Mach’s energetic percussion work (pun intended). The composition was a duo for percussion and cello (Stephen Harrison); and one has to wonder if there was a bit of prankishness in that pairing. Indeed, were it not for the fact that ours has become a culture that seems to take pride in its ignorance of history, I would have assumed that Gosfield’s title was tweaking the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Anyone aware of this group, whose motto is “God, Home, and Country” and whose demographic (at least for the first century of its existence) was about as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) as you could get, might easily have imagined that Gosfield’s music would not go down well with the DAR. My own imagination saw a staunch and upright DAR member walking out on the performance before the first minute elapsed, stubbornly puzzled when she saw that no-one was following her!

Gosfield’s work is, as they would say, not your grandmother’s chamber music. The prevailing dynamic is loud, and the rhythms are aggressively driving. Somewhat surprisingly, Harrison’s command of that dynamic was as strong as Mach’s, making for an awe-inspiring sense of balance maintained by the two of them. There is an awareness of rock rhetoric, but the music definitely has its own voice. It is also one hell of a lot of fun. Given the precision with which Mach and Harrison had to coordinate, I am not sure if they had as much fun as the listeners; but this was definitely the way to end yesterday afternoon’s concert with a bang.

The other recent work was Jimmy Lopez’ “Ccantu,” composed in 2007 and played at the piano by Campbell. The title is the Quechua name for the national flower of Peru; and, over the course of a modest six minutes, the music depicts the life cycle of this flower. This was definitely the quietest part of the program; and, if the music was not quite as denotative as what one tends to encounter in program music, the intimate rhetorical tone definitely captured all the right connotations. Campbell’s performance prioritized sensitivity above all else, and her quietude offered an engaging intermezzo between the two Harrison compositions in which percussion figured so heavily.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Urania Releases a Compendium of Richter Beethoven Sonata Performances

Those of my generation probably recall Urania as an overseas record label that was available at shops that tended to have a generous collection of classical music albums. Apparently, Urania has designated itself “the original Italian label of classical music.” With that legacy in mind, there now seems to be a Urania Arts CD label, dedicated to rescuing recordings of historical significance from the vault and reissuing them as compact discs.

Recently Naxos of America took on the American distribution of Urania releases, and one of the Urania Arts recordings was impossible to resist. It was a two-CD set of seven piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven recorded at five different recitals given by Sviatoslav Richter. The album cover gives pride of place to “the last three piano sonatas,” all of which were performed at a recital in Leipzig in 1963:

All of the remaining sonatas were each recorded at a different recital as follows:
  • Opus 26 (“Funeral March”) in A-flat major: Kiev 1959
  • Opus 10, Number 3 in D major: Bucarest, 1960
  • Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor: New York, 1960
  • Opus 31, Number 2 (“Tempest”) in D minor: London 1961
The earliest of these recordings were monaural, while the later ones were stereophonic.

Those who have been following my recent interest in following Richter recordings (almost all of which were taken from concert performances) know that I have been particularly attracted to the clarity that he brings to his performances, whether he is playing music as early as one of the keyboard suites of George Frideric Handel or as late as one of Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas. Where Beethoven is concerned, those who follow his piano music parallel those who follow the string quartets by dividing the canon into “early,” “middle,” and “late” periods. The producers of this album clearly wanted to stress the “late” period; and the Opus 10 selection is the only one from the “early” period. Nevertheless, there is considerable diversity across these two CDs; and it would be fair to say that, where attentiveness is concerned, Richter does not “play favorites.” Instead, he always seems to know how to home in on the ideas that Beethoven chose to explore and then disclose the resulting explorations to make them clearly evident to the attentive listener.

It goes without saying that those explorations are at their most extensive in the last sonatas. Indeed, so much is disclosed in those sonatas that it can be challenging to sit through a program of all three of them without at least some of the symptoms of cognitive fatigue. Nevertheless, Richter was not the first to program them in a single recital; and he is far from the last. Thus, one of the virtues of this album is that one can listen to those sonatas individually.

That attentive listener who chooses to do so will almost inevitably be drawn into how much thought has gone into each performance over such a broad range of scale. There are individual phrasings that are decidedly unique but definitely make sense on their own merits, rather than as personal idiosyncrasies. At the same time, Richter clearly knows how to negotiate those extended variations in the final movement of Opus 111 in such a way as to communicate just how inventive Beethoven was while remaining disciplined not only to the constraints of the underlying theme but also the organization of the entire movement as a coherent journey.

Yes, I know there is a prodigious abundance of recordings of each of the sonatas in this collection; but these are far from “business as usual” performances, not by exploiting eccentric quirks but through a disciplined pursuit of what is actually going on amidst all of those notes.

Diverse Alternatives on the First Sunday in May

Once again the coming month will begin with a Sunday of diverse alternatives. As was observed yesterday, the afternoon will see the second performance of the Hidden Classical Jewels program prepared by the San Francisco Bach Choir, coupling Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 86 Mass setting with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 339 Vespers (“Confessore”) setting. The other offerings will both precede and follow the Classical period; and the fleet of foot may even contrive to take in two historical periods in one day (although my own feeling is that such running around does not serve serious listening very well). The other alternatives for Sunday, May 7, are as follows:

4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: American Bach Soloists (ABS) will conclude its 2017 subscription season with a major oratorio performance, George Frideric Handel’s HWV 47 La resurrezione (the resurrection). This was first performed on the Easter Sunday of 1708 in Rome. As is well known, the young Handel traveled to Rome to cultivate his skills as an opera composer. Unfortunately, he arrived in Rome around the time that Pope Clement XI imposed a ban on operatic performances. However, as we know from the HWV 232 setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, which ABS performed in March of 2013, Handel did not allow the Papal ban to interfere with his exercising his operatic chops on sacred texts; and HWV 47 was sufficiently “operatic” that the Vatican did not take kindly to it.

One of the most significant operatic factors was the use of soloists to portray specific characters. As a result this oratorio was composed as a series of arias and duets for five vocal soloists, a significant departure from the rich choral writing encountered in more familiar Handel oratorios. Each soloist portrays a different character. At this concert soprano Nola Richardson will sing the role of Mary Magdalene, soprano Mary Wilson will sing the Angel at the tomb, mezzo Meg Bragle will make her ABS debut in the role of Mary of Clopas (Cleophas), tenor Kyle Stegall will depict John the Evangelist, and baritone Jesse Blumberg will portray Lucifer. (The Devil always gets the lowest notes.)

St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Premium tickets are $85, and the other prices are $64 and $33. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from a Tix event page on the ABS Web site. Discounted tickets are available for students aged 25 and under with proof of identification. The tickets may be arranged by calling the ABS Office at 415-621-7900.

8 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): At the other end of the historical spectrum, this will be the first concert in C4NM’s MicroFest North. The program will be a solo piano recital by Sarah Cahill honoring the 100th birthday of Lou Harrison, which will take place on May 14. Cahill will perform several movements from Harrison’s piano suite, his two cembalo sonatas, and the Summerfield Set. She will also perform “Jig” and “Range-Song,” two of his earliest pieces, as well as several unpublished and rarely performed works.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $12 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Friday, April 21, 2017

SFBC will Conclude 2016–2017 Season with Beethoven and Mozart

The title of the final concert that Director Magen Solomon has prepared for the 2016–2017 season of the San Francisco Bach Choir (SFBC) is Hidden Classical Jewels. The program will feature two major works for chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra. The less familiar of these will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 86 setting of the Mass text in C major. Composed in 1807, this was one of the works that was performed at the notorious Akademie marathon concert of December 22, 1808. The other work on the program will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s much better-known setting of his K. 339 music for a Vespers service. For this impressive program SFBC will be accompanied by the Jubilate Orchestra; and participating soloists will be soprano Rita Lilly, mezzo Heidi Waterman, tenor John St. Marie, and bass Matt Hanscom.

This program will be given two performances at the First Unitarian Universalist Church. This venue is located at 1187 Franklin Street on the southwest corner of Geary Boulevard. The performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 5, at at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 7. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $30 with a $25 rate for seniors. Both of these prices save $5 from the amount payable at the door. There is also a $10 rate for patrons under the age of 30. In addition, youths will be admitted for free, but only for tickets purchased in advance. Brown Paper Tickets has created separate event pages for the Friday and Sunday concerts. Both of these pages also allow for an Older Adult Choir Donation of $25 to cover the price of admission for a singing senior. The pages also allow for an Additional Donation of any amount specified. Tickets may also be purchased by calling SFBC at 855-473-2224 (855-4SF-BACH).

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Albany Records partners with Purchase Opera to Release a Politically-Charged Opera

At the beginning of this year, Albany Records released its third recording of an opera produced by Purchase Opera, the ensemble for the performance of fully-staged operas associated with the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York network of higher-education institutions. The production recorded on this recent release is Robert Ward’s four-act opera The Crucible, whose libretto by Bernard Stambler was, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play of the same name. The opera was commissioned by the New York City Opera in 1961, a time when the historical impact of Miller’s play had not yet faded from cultural memory.

Miller wrote his play in 1953, a time when much of the country’s population had been stirred into a collective paranoia based on the threat that Communism would undermine the principles of government in the United States. That paranoia was fueled by investigations of “un-American activities” by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Like many who took pride in maintaining an objective intellect, Miller was called before the House Committee, where he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to provide names of other intellectuals whom the Committee felt might be threats to “the American way of life.” Many who were sympathetic to those called to testify started to refer to the search for “un-Americans” as a “witch hunt;” so Miller decided to respond to both the Congressional activities and the prevailing metaphor by writing a play about the Salem witch trials.

Late in his life Miller himself was invited to write a screenplay based on his play, and the film of the same name came out in 1996. This resulted in Miller getting a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; but the film itself was far from a box office hit, in spite of having cast Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Paul Scofield. The bottom line is that the film was too talky and didactic for people who went to the movies for little more than escapism.

In many respects Ward’s opera faces a similar problem, particularly today. The original New York City Opera production was released as a recording not long after its first round of performances. After than all was silence; so this new release from Albany is the first in over 50 years. The good news is that Ward had a very keen ear for setting prose, meaning the Stambler’s libretto, for its time, had the same intense impact that Miller’s original text did. However, that is also the bad news. The didacticism of the libretto is underscored by what now sounds like a dated rhetoric. Even though the opera itself reinforces a signature episode in our country’s past history, it’s message struggles to register with an audience that almost revels in its ignorance of history.

By all rights, in a society in which mass mentality is more malleable than a stick of butter, the message behind The Crucible is as relevant as it was when Miller wrote his play, if not more so. The problem is that this is just not the sort of thing that the current generation of listeners wants to have coming out of their portable devices and into their earbuds. Indeed, considering what happened to that 1996 film, even a video document of the Purchase production would be unlikely to get through to much of an audience base. (Sitting still in an opera house for a couple of hours is even more out of the question.) Nevertheless, those who are sensitive to our country’s history may very well appreciate both the narrative and the musical setting in Ward’s opera; but that experience may only serve to underscore their depression in regarding the blissful oblivion of those who surround them.

Inbal Segev will Highlight Women Composers at C4NM During her Bay Area Visit

Early next month Israeli-American cellist, Inbal Segev currently based in New York, will be visiting the Bay Area to perform the world premiere of “Tangle Eye,” a concerto written for her by Dan Visconti, which she will play with the California Symphony under the baton of its Music Director Donato Cabrera. However, before heading out to Walnut Creek, Segev will visit the Center for New Music (C4NM) to present a program curated by Emma Logan. Segev’s San Francisco concert will celebrate music for solo cello by women composers.

Her program will include a West Coast premiere of another concerto. “Legend of Sigh” is a concerto for cello and electronics written for her by Gity Razaz. This composition is based on an Azerbaijani folktale; and Cabrera will participate in the C4NM concert by reading the tale before Segev performs Razaz’ composition. The remainder of the program will be solo cello compositions by three distinctively different women composers, Anna Clyne (“Rest These Hands”), August Read Thomas (“Spring Song”), and Missy Mazzoli (“A Thousand Tongues”).

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Both Conductor and Soloist Make Splendid SFS Debuts

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, this week’s series of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) involved debut performances by conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada and pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Kozhukhin had made his Davies debut a little over three years ago, in March of 2014, when he performed Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) piano concerto in B-flat minor with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yuri Temirkanov. For Orozco-Estrada, currently Music Director of the Houston Symphony, this was his first appearance in Davies.

Kozhukhin had not been shy in his intense approach to Tchaikovsky; but he also had a clear sensitivity to details such as dynamic contour, avoiding the frequent trap of charging through the concerto as if it were one overwhelming climax after another. Last night’s concerto was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 14 (second) in G minor, which is even more fraught with such traps. Prokofiev had composed this concerto in Saint Petersburg between 1912 and 1913 as a memorial composition for a friend who had committed suicide, but the score was destroyed in a fire. He reconstructed that score during his time in Paris, between 1923 and 1924. Prokofiev himself played the debut of the reconstructed version under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. The concerto was last performed by SFS with Yuja Wang conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in October of 2012.

Each of the concerto’s four movements has its own brand of wild and unbridled rhetorical qualities, particularly where dissonance is concerned.There are two extended cadenzas in the outer movements, whose scale comes close to dominating the entire movement in both cases. Yet there is clearly more to the concerto than extreme technical display. Prokofiev’s initial motif, played pizzicato by the strings, is almost inaudible; and it recedes into the background until the entire brass section revives it during that movement’s coda.

Taking such details into account, Kozhukhin and Orozco-Estrada made an excellent pair in demonstrating that the concerto was more than extreme dynamics and unrestrained technical display. Through their partnership one could recognize how this music had emerged from the shadow of a suicide. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that Orozco-Estrada had a clear sense of where he wanted the most powerful climaxes to be, both within each movement and in the overall four-movement structure.

For all of the outrageous dissonances on the surface, this is music that demands considerable preparation. It is no surprise that we have had to wait over half a decade since it was last performed. However, the balance of considered reasoning and impeccable execution last night made the wait worth the while.

Perhaps out of some sense of homecoming, Kozhukhin chose to play the same encore he had performed in 2014. This was the piano prelude in B minor composed by Alexander Siloti. This amounted to a “meditation” on Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 855, the E minor prelude from the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Siloti began by working his way through Bach’s text while enhancing it with nineteenth-century expressiveness; he then made a second pass, this time inventing an additional line of counterpoint. Kozhukhin was particularly effective in highlighting this line, making sure that listeners were aware that Siloti had done far more than simply transcribe his Bach source.

Siloti was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first cousin. He also conducted the world premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, the best known of the composer’s four concertos. It was therefore no surprise that Rachmaninoff should complement Prokofiev on the second half of the program. Orozco-Estrada conducted his Opus 27 (second) symphony in E minor.

If Prokofiev’s concerto never let a dissonance escape attention, one could say that no ounce of schmalz was neglected in the composition of Rachmaninoff’s symphony. Indeed, the third (Adagio) movement overflows with passionate rhetoric to such a degree that it should come with a cholesterol warning. Fortunately, Orozco-Estrada realized that he did not have to pour very much of his own expressiveness on top of what Rachmaninoff had already dished onto the plate. Instead, he chose to attend to providing a clear account of Rachmaninoff’s command of the full diversity of instrumental resources and his skill in managing those resources through both blending and interplay.

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is music that uses excess to tug at the listener’s heartstrings. Nevertheless, beneath those surface-level effects, there is more craftsmanship than one might be willing to recognize. Orozco-Estrada knew how to serve up the surface effects in a manner that did not overwhelm that underlying craftsmanship. Perhaps this was the reason why not only the audience but also the SFS members showed overt delight after the vigorous conclusion of the final movement.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

SFP will Present the San Francisco Recital Debut of Pianist Javier Perianes

The four recitals in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Piano Series will conclude with the San Francisco recital debut of Spanish pianist Javier Perianes. Perianes made his San Francisco debut in June of 2015, playing Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” with Charles Dutoit conducting the San Francisco Symphony. His visit to San Francisco will be his last North American date in a major solo recital tour that also includes New York and Washington.

Falla composed “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” in Madrid in 1916, shorty after having spent about nine years in Paris, where he was influenced by many major composers of the time, not all of whom were French. The fact that he called “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” a nocturne suggests that one of those influences was the set of three orchestral nocturnes composed by Claude Debussy. Ironically, one of Falla’s other influences in Paris was a fellow Spaniard, Isaac Albéniz.

Much of the program Perianes has prepared for his recital debut amounts of a reflection on this “constellation of influences.” The most explicit connection will be “Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy,” originally composed by Falla as a guitar solo but then arranged for piano in 1920. Almost a decade later Falla would orchestrate this piece as the second movement of a four-movement “memorial” suite entitled Homenajes (homages). Perianes will also play Falla’s suite of four movements from his score for the ballet “El amor brujo” (love, the magician).

The Falla selections will then be complemented by three relatively short Debussy pieces, all of which reflect Spanish influences: “La soirée dans Grenade” (evening in Granada), the second movement of Estampes (prints); “La puerta del vino” (wine gate), from the second book of piano preludes; and “La sérénade interrompue” (interrupted serenade), from the first book of those preludes. Finally, Perianes will return to a Spanish composer with the “El Albaicín” movement (named for a district of Granada) from the third book of Albéniz’ Iberia collection. At the other end of his program, Perianes will contrast these Spanish influences with the Vienna of Franz Schubert. He will begin with the D. 664 sonata in A major, which he will follow with the D. 946 set of three piano pieces, sometimes referred to as Schubert’s third collection of impromptus.

This program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 6. Like all of the other Piano Series performances, it will be held in Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Single tickets are being sold for $70, $55, and $40. They may be purchased in advance through a City Box Office event page. This Web page shows a seating plan with information about prices and availability in the different sections.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Options for the Last Day of this Month

April will continue to be a busy month up to its final day. The good news is that those options have been spaced across the afternoon, evening, and night. On the other hand, there is so much substance to the content that it would probably not be advisable to take in more than one! Here, in chronological order, are the current choices available for Sunday, April 30:

2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the next chamber music recital offered by members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The primary composition, which may well fill the second half of the program, will be Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 97 string quintet in E-flat major, the quintet that, like the Opus 96 string quartet in F major, is sometimes called the “American,” because it was composed during Dvořák’s 1893 summer in Spillville, Iowa. At the other end of the program, the concert will begin with Bohuslav Martinů’s second piano trio in D minor. Martinů was another significant Czech composer, but this trio was written late in his life, when he was living in New York, in 1951. The program will also include Benjamin Britten’s Opus 36 (second) string quartet and an early composition by Philippe Gaubert, three short pieces that he called “Aquarelles” (water colors), scored for flute, cello, and piano.

All tickets for this concert will be $40, and the First Tier and Second Tier will be closed. Tickets may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. It will also open two hours before the performance begins.

5:30 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: The last of the four concerts being offered in the 34th season of the Schwabacher Debut Recitals, presented jointly by the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program, will feature a trio of Adler Fellows, soprano Amina Edris, tenor Amitai Pati, and baritone Andrew G. Manea. They will be joined by pianist Warren Jones. The program will provide an opportunity to depart from the opera repertoire in favor of art songs, both solos and duets. Opera composers Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini, and Georges Bizet will contribute to the program; but that program will also feature songs by Francesco Santoliquido, Reynaldo Hahn, and Gabriel Fauré.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. Note that, because much of the seating is raked, it is possible to select the option of Wheelchair Accessible seats. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 5 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

7 p.m., Custom Made Theatre: For those who prefer opera to art song, the night will belong to “something completely different.” Readers may recall that the second Snapshot program offered by West Edge Opera presented one of the results of the 24-Hour Opera Project run by the Atlanta Opera. Over the final weekend of the month, Opera Theater Unlimited will hold its 48-House Opera Festival. The “rules of the game” are basically the same. Over the course of 48 hours, teams of composers, writers, directors, and singers will collaborate to create new operas, all of which will have a duration between ten and fifteen minutes. The result will be six operas, whose respective composers will be Brian Ciach, Stephen Eddins, Kyle Hovatter, Emma Logan, Emily Shisko, and Ben Zucker. All the results will be presented in a single program.

The Custom Made Theatre is the performing space for The Custom Made Theatre Co. It is located northwest of Union Square at 533 Sutter Street. General admission will be $25 with a $20 rate for seniors and those under the age of 30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Stradivarius Releases Sciarrino’s Complete (?) Works for Violin and Viola

At the beginning of this month, the Italian Stradivarius label released a recording of Marco Fusi playing the “complete” works for solo violin and viola by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. One has to be careful about using the adjective “complete” when the composer is still alive. This may turn out to be particularly the case where Sciarrino is concerned.

Mind you, finding out about his catalog is no easy matter. The usually reliable Wikipedia provides little more than a list of titles and dates to the point that the “Music for a solo instrument” section never bothers to identify the instrument. Fortunately, those with access to Oxford Music Online will find themselves better informed. Grove Music Online has compiled a somewhat more detailed list of works, whose Chamber section has subsections for five or more instruments, two to four instruments, solo piano, and other solo instruments. Instruments are completely specified in all categories.

From this list one learns that Sciarrino composed four works for violin or viola between 1975 and 1979. The earliest of these is “Per mattia” (for Mattia), from 1975, followed by his set of six caprices, presumably reflecting back on Niccolò Paganini, from 1976. On the viola side he composed three “brilliant” nocturnes for viola between 1974 and 1975, followed by “Ai limiti della notte” (at the limits of the night) in 1979. After that David Osmond-Smith, author of the Grove Music Online biography, observes that Sciarrino shifted his attention to the flute. (This does, indeed, account for most of the “other solo instruments” entries in the Grove listing, which also includes, in the “Transcriptions and arrangements” category, a transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 565 D minor toccata and fugue for amplified flute!) However, the Chamber entries go only as far as 2002, meaning that there is no mention of two pieces he composed in 2009, both for solo violin. One of these seems to reflect back on the six caprices, but this caprice must be played on a single string. The other has a title that seems like a rather prankish dedication, “Fre sé” (to himself). (The prevalence of coyness in this music’s rhetoric provides the strongest suggestion that Sciarrino is poking someone, performer or listener, in the ribs.)

Sciarrino has attracted at least moderate attention among musicians in San Francisco interested in contemporary works. His music has been performed in recital by both sfSound and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. In addition those following this site may recall that this past December, violinist Francesco D’Orazio included two of the six caprices in the program he presented at the Italian Cultural Institute. Considering that I had never even heard of Sciarrino prior to moving to the Bay Area in 1995, that definitely counts for something!

However, what is most interesting about this album is that it leaves the impression that in 2009 Sciarrino decided to pick up where he left off in 1979. Because it must be played on a single string, the new capriccio explores glissando playing in greater depth than one encounters in the earlier work. However, all of those early pieces display what may best be called a microscopic attention to instrument sonorities; and that “microscopy” is just as evident in the 2009 compositions.

The result is an album that offers up some fascinating cases for the virtues of fine-grained detail. I have to say that, from a personal point of view, this is an aesthetic stance that appeals to me. The first time I went on a mushroom hunt with John Cage, it was a very dry day, meaning that no mushrooms were to be found. Ever resourceful, Cage took out a pocket magnifying glass; and we spend the time looking at the intricate patterns of lichen formations!

Nevertheless, such detail demands focused attention; and it is unclear just how long one can maintain such a high level of focus. Thus, while any individual track of this album can be highly engaging, there is a case to be made that piecemeal listening with be to the advantage of both the composer and the listener. I would conjecture that D’Orazio decided to play only two of the caprices in his recital not only due to limitations of time but also due to limitations of highly focused attention. There is much to discover on this new album, but the listener who takes his/her time in working through the tracks will likely be the one best equipped to enjoy the fruits of that discovery.

Splinter Reeds Launches Pamela Z’s 2017 ROOM Series

Last night at the Royce Gallery, the annual ROOM Series of inventive chamber music programming curated by Pamela Z began its 2017 season with a recital by Splinter Reeds. This is the all-reed quintet consisting of two double-reed players, Kyle Bruckmann (oboe) and Dana Jessen (bassoon), and three single-reed players, Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dave Wegehaupt (saxophones). When the group formed in 2013, it was relatively unique. Since then a generous number of similar groups have formed around the world; and, because they can stay in touch through the Internet, there are rich opportunities for repertoire sharing.

Nevertheless, the repertoire for last night’s program seems to have originated from Splinter Reeds’ own initiative. At the heart of the lineup was the world premiere of “Letters To A Friend,” composed by Theresa Wong. This was a memorial composition, since the friend cited in the title, Alessia Pugliatti, died this past December 31 of a rare form of cancer. Pugliatti was Wong’s housemate in Venice when Wong was based there between 2001 and 2003.

Because Pugliatti was an ardent fan of Brazilian culture, Wong chose to base her composition on the text of the poem “O Pulsar,” written by Augusto de Campos, a founding father of Brazilian concrete poetry (as well as a music critic), in 1975. The poem is short enough to allow its translation into English to be reproduced:
Wherever you are
On Mars or Eldorado
Open the window and see
The pulsar almost mute
Light-year embrace
That no sun warms
And the dark hollow forgets.
Nevertheless, “Letters to a Friend” is strictly instrumental. The poem is present through the letter-by-letter translation of the Portuguese text into Morse code (which explains the plural noun in the title).

November 28, 1967 is usually given as the date on which the first pulsar was discovered, making Campos one of the first generation of creative artists to be influenced by that discovery. (In 1984 he would present the poem as a video clip adding music by Caetano Veloso to the soundtrack.) What made the discovery fascinating was that the underlying mechanism of pulsation, already familiar at the subatomic level, was just as significant at the cosmic level. Thus, one way to approach Wong’s composition is as a celebration of pulsation itself, not only as acknowledged in Campos’ text but also all the way across the bridge of scale-of-measurement down a level so small that, like pulsars, it can only be perceived through sophisticated technical devices.

Wong’s memorial was realized by extending the usual physical distances that separate the quintet members. In addition, the music was performed in darkness, broken only by highly directed headlamps to illuminate the score pages. Furthermore, the separation was so great that, from my own front-and-center vantage point, the two most peripheral players were out of sight. As a result, the very act of performance was focused only on the staccato pulses of each instrument’s part, resulting in a polyphony of pulses that could serve as a metaphor for the full breadth of scale of pulses that scientific instrumentation can reveal. This made for a highly absorbing listening experience in which the presence of Morse code was simply a structural device, rather than a “message to be decoded.”

The program also included the San Francisco premiere of “Auditory Scene Analysis II,” composed last year by Eric Wubbels, one of several composers closely associated with Splinter Reeds. Wubbels took his title from a book by Albert S. Bregman, whose full title is Auditory Scene Analysis – The Perceptual Organization of Sound. This book came out in June of 1990; and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Computer Music Journal published my review of it in 1991.

It was not a particularly positive review. The book itself was very poorly produced, to the point that one block of about 100 pages of content shows up twice (word-for-word) in two different sections. I therefore have to confess that, when confronted with the problem of declining shelf space in my current condominium setting, this book was one of the first to go. However, my rejection went deeper than the shoddy text-editing. The title suggests that mind detects structures in auditory stimuli the same way it detects structures in visual stimuli. This is a worthy hypothesis, but the book failed on two points. First, it did not grasp the complexity of visual scene analysis; and, second, it never made a valid case for “translating” visual processing into auditory processing.

This left me more than a little curious over what to make of Wubbels’ piece (which was apparently one of a series). (It also left me curious as to whether he had read all 790 pages of Bregman’s book, including the word-for-word repetition; but that is another story!) I would like to believe that Wubbels shares my own opinion that listening to music is more than a matter of detecting “objects” and making note of how they are arrayed, the sort of thing that a tourist with little sense of art appreciation might do when looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Thus, the way in which Wubbels’ score dispatches the generation of “auditory signals” almost seems calculated to defy “object recognition;” and, in one particularly exciting passage near the end, he also seems to undermine the very nature of a figure-ground relationship. Perhaps Wubbels was no happier with this book than I was, but he managed to find a way to express his discontent that went far beyond my own carefully worded but still grouchy review!

Another piece that seriously challenged this “object recognition” point of view (but probably not intentionally) was Ken Ueno’s “Babbling,” also composed last year. This music was decidedly not about “objects.” If anything it was closer to Wong’s account of an ongoing flow of energy. Used in different settings, “babbling” is a word that can have either positive or negative connotations. To the extent that Ueno conceived the piece as a flow of energy in which the energy itself is expressed in different ways, one might almost wish to claim that he was exploring the variety of those connotations. Even if such a position had not been on his mind, it is an approach by which this listener was able to find his way around all the babbling taking place among the five instrumentalists; and it was difficult to believe that there was not some element of fun intended to be part of the process.

Similar high spirits could be found in Ryan Brown’s “Pinched,” which opened the program. Brown originally wrote this for the Kronos Quartet; but, unless I am mistaken, he prepared his own rearrangement of the score for the Splinter Reeds instruments. The initial version may have been conceived as a study in rhythm, and there is no doubt that awareness of underlying timing adds much to the listening experience. Brown seems to have recognized that he could take advantage of a broader range of sonorities to bring out the variety of approaches he deploys through which one rhythmic pattern bounces off of another. There was a bit of joking about whether this made for a better version of Brown’s score; but, since I have not heard the Kronos performance, I am in no position to compare. All I know is that this was music that knew how to seize the attention from the opening gesture and hold on to it all the way up to its impeccably well-defined conclusion.

Those who saw the ROOM Series preview article at the end of last month know that the second concert, entitled Pascal’s Triangle, will be a musical celebration of mathematics. The concluding selection last night could be taken as a preview of what might be in store at the second concert. Tom Johnson’s 1989 “Narayana’s Cows,” initially composed for chamber orchestra and narrator, explores an integer sequence whose origin goes back to fourteenth-century India. Narayana Pandita wanted to explore the growth of a population of cows if one begins with a single cow having one baby a year, adding that once a cow reaches its fourth year, it, too, can start to bear children. (This is more complex than the Fibonacci sequence, which tried to do the same thing with rabbits. Fibonacci wrote about this in 1202; but it appears that it was known to Indians even earlier than Narayana’s cows, possibly as early as 200 BC.)

Jessen arranged Johnson’s score for Splinter Reeds in 2013, and Z served as narrator last night. Basically, the text follows the growth of the population year by year. For each year there are as many beats in the score (all evenly spaced) as there are cows. As the scale of growth increases, the narrated text gets more abbreviated, while the musical material gets richer. (I would guess that Johnson introduced some phrasing to distinguish the different generations of cows, but I would need both the score and a calculator to validate that supposition.) The score also embodies a profound metaphysical precept: In the world of pure mathematics, reproduction is asexual; and cows do not die.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 4/17/2017

This may well be the busiest week of the year for those with a taste for the adventurous, and things start tonight! Fortunately, many of the events have already been given advance notification. That includes one of the options for tonight, the launch of the 2017 ROOM Series season with Splinter Reeds performing the world premiere of a composition by Theresa Wong. There will also be three notable concerts this week at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Then, of course, there is the three-concerts-in-one-day celebration of the centennial year of the birth of Lou Harrison presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players on Saturday. Finally, two of the choices for Sunday have also already been enumerated. All this is far more than the tip of an iceberg, but there is still a generous amount of iceberg that remains. Here are the remaining specifics:

Monday, April 17, 7 p.m., Adobe Books: This will be the next installment in the monthly music series curated by Ben Tinker. As was the case last month, this will be a three-set evening. The first set will be taken by composer Luciano Chessa, whose work is as imaginative as it is diverse. Details have not yet been provided, so be prepared to expect anything! He will be followed by the Ctrl-Z trio of Ryan Page, Daniel Steffey, and Nick Wang, which is dedicated to the performance of music for live electronics composed by others. Such composers include John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Lucier. They also perform their own compositions. The program will then conclude with the DunkelpeK duo of percussionist Nava Dunkelman and Jakob Pek on guitar, piano, and any other instrument that may take his fancy.

Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission. The gig is free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged.

Wednesday, April 19, 9 p.m., PianoFight: This will be a two-set evening of progressive rock and original mind-altering jazz. Reconnaissance Fly is a quintet that describes itself as “a band of goofball composers and superhero sidemen creating prog rock nerd jazz outside the recommended cheese.” The members are Brett Carson on keyboards, Rich Lesnik playing clarinet, bass clarinet, and soprano and tenor saxophones, Polly Moller on flutes and guitar, as well as vocals, Larry the O on drums, and Tim Walters on bass guitar and electronics. Sources for lyrics come from Linear A inscriptions, the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, and concert reviews. They will be followed by the Actual Trio, which also takes jazz as a point of departure and heads off in its own source of unlikely directions. Members are guitarist John Schott, bassist Dan Seamans, and drummer John Hanes.

PianoFight is a theater complex. However, there is a restaurant and a bar at the front entrance; and this serves as a cabaret space, which is probably where these two groups will perform. PianoFight is located on the eastern edge of the Tenderloin at 144 Taylor Street (about a block north of C4NM and on the other side of the street). As is the case at Adobe Books, there is no charge for admission; but seating is for customers of the restaurant and bar. Donations will be collected for the performing artists.

Thursday, April 20, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This will be the first of two Outsound Presents concerts begin given this week. This one is the latest installment of the Luggage Store Creative Music Series. It will be a two-set evening of free improvisation with each set lasting a little less than an hour. The first set will be taken by a quartet that calls itself Jason’s Instructions. The members are Ben Zucker on trumpet, Ben Westfall on guitar, Leo Tracey on bass, and Joe Orimo on drums. Rent Romus will then be featured in the second set, playing alto, C melody, and soprano saxophones. Rhythm will be provided by Alex Cohen on guitar and Donald Robinson on drums. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Saturday–Sunday, April 22–23, afternoon and evening, Gray Area: Gray Area Art and Technology will present a two-day festival entitled Don Buchla Memorial Concerts. This will be a celebration and remembrance of electronic music and design pioneer Don Buchla. Gray Area will be assisted by Recombinant Media Labs, Buchla & Associates, and Obscura Digital in presenting this festival. There will be two evening concerts, both beginning at 7 p.m. There will also be shorter programs presented during the course of each afternoon beginning at 1 p.m. Participation will be vast and diverse, to say the least. Gray Area has created a Web page with details for all events.

The Gray Area Art And Technology Theater is located in the Mission at 2665 Mission Street. As might be guessed, there are a variety of ticketing options, all of which are accommodated online by a single Resident Advisor Web page. A Weekend Pass for all afternoon and evening events is only available online for $45. Similarly, there are All Day Passes for both Saturday and Sunday, both of which are also only available online for $33. Tickets for the evening concerts will be sold at the door for $30 (for each concert); but the Web-based advance purchase price will be $25. Similarly, a pass for all afternoon events on either Saturday or Sunday will be available at the door for $12 but will be $10 if purchased in advance. Finally, there will be a Student Discount for an All Day Pass that will cover either Saturday or Sunday. These will require identification at the door and will be sold for $20.

Saturday, April 22, 7:30 p.m., Bird and Beckett Books and Records: This will be Seamans’ second gig of the week. This time he will be playing bass for The Lost Trio, whose other members are Phillip Greenlief on tenor saxophone and tom hassett on drums. This group maintains an ongoing collaboration project in which they invite others to expand their trio sound. On this particular occasion, there will be two such special guests, guitarist scott foster and Cory Wright on a diversity of woodwinds.

Gigs at Bird and Beckett usually consist of two sets. The shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. Admission is free, but donations are always appreciated. The collections of both books and records are pretty impressive, so making a purchase will also be looked upon with great favor!

Saturday, April 22, 8 p.m., Community Music Center (CMC): This will be the latest installment in the Jazz in the Neighborhood concert series. It will be a performance by a quartet led jointly by Jon Jang on piano and Francis Wong on saxophone. Rhythm will be provided by Gary Brown on bass and Deszon Claiborne on drums. The concert will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Asian American Improv Arts, founded by both Wong and Jang. The performance, which will feature music of resistance and a treatment of Chinese folk music in a black music context, will be the first part of of the program. It will be followed by a panel in which Wong and Jang will reflect on the past thirty years of their efforts, joined by Deborah Wong, author of Speak It Louder: Asian American Making Music.

The performance will take place in the CMC Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. Admission will be $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the hyperlink to this concert on the Jazz in the Neighborhood events Web page.

Sunday, April 23, 2 p.m., The Nunnery: Tom Nunn will go back to his more familiar schedule of opening up his garage for performances on a Sunday afternoon. This particular occasion will be a celebration of the release of a new CD by Ghost In The House. Nunn plays his invented instruments in this group. He is joined by percussionist Karen Stackpole (who has a special interest in gongs), Kyle Bruckmann on double-reed instruments, David Michalak on lap steel guitar, John Ingle on saxophones, Polly Moller on bass flute, and vocalist Dean Santomieri. The Nunnery is located in the Mission at 3016 25th Street. Admission will be by a $10 donation.

Sunday, April 23, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: The next SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series concert offered by Outsound Presents will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will be taken by The Hung Professionals, a trio led by Tom Weeks on alto saxophone with rhythm provided by Nathan Corder on guitar and Scott Siler on drums. They will be followed by the Koskinen Trio led by Heikki Koskinen on both piano and digitally-enhanced e-trumpet. He will be joined by Robinson and Romus, both following up on Thursday’s Luggage Store gig.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Robert Taylor and Silicon Valley Myopia

Reading Steven Musil's obituary for Robert Taylor on the CNET Web site was a sobering experiences. Having worked on the fringes of the Internet even before that label was hung on it and having followed activities at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center dating from not long after the place was founded, Taylor's name was familiar to me, even if I never crossed paths with him. Ironically, though, when I finally found myself working in Palo Alto, it seemed almost as if he had fallen off the map.

For example, it seems as if Douglas Engelbart always managed to secure himself some turn in the ongoing buzz, even if that turf was relatively narrow. On the other hand, even though I was one of the early adapters of the Alta Vista search engine, it never occurred to me to associate it with Taylor. In many ways Taylor was the quintessential victim of Silicon Valley myopia. Silicon Valley would never have been what it was without Taylor's contributions. Nevertheless, there was a period about twenty years ago marked by an outpouring of papers about "the Silicon Valley phenomenon;" and Taylor's name never showed up in them.

I suspect one of the reasons that news of Taylor's death triggered my thoughts is that it has a remote connection to the book I am currently reading, Tim Rutherford-Johnson's Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989. I realize that one of the reasons I am so unhappy with the book is that, regardless of how well or poorly it is written, its thesis drives me up the wall. Put as succinctly as possible, the author seems to be making the case that, where music-making practices are concerned, promotion will trump achievement every time. (Yes, I chose that noun deliberately, because there is probably a corollary applicable to politics!)

Perhaps it was because of his connection to the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that Taylor did not have to obsess over promotion. However, one consequence of his work was that there were more people trying to get a slice of the funding pie while the pie itself did not grow accordingly. Of course where music is concerned, there was not much pie in the first place; but it does seem that the world the Internet made is one in which the idea of fair compensation has atrophied to a level that makes it barely recognizable. So one can appreciate that promotion may be more important than it once was, but it is hard to avoid anticipating a reduction ad absurdum when promotion is so important that it can be achieved even when one does not have anything to promote!

Rademann Presents Schütz’ “Becker” Psalm Settings as a Viable Listening Experience

At the end of this coming week, Carus-Verlag will release the fifteenth volume in Hans-Christoph Rademann’s ambitious project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz. The title of the new album is Becker-Psalter; and, as usual, is already processing pre-orders. The performance is by the Dresdner Kammerchor (Dresden chamber choir), led by Rademann, who is the group’s Director, along with what may best be described as ad hoc instrumental accompaniment.

The Editorial Reviews section on the Amazon Web page provides a basic introduction to the content of this new recording; but the story deserves a bit more flesh, particularly since this may be the first time in Rademann’s project that he had to come to grips with just how “complete” he wanted things to be. The Becker Psalter actually has its own Wikipedia page. It is an arrangement of all 150 of the Psalms rendered in rhymed verse by the Leipzig theologian Cornelius Becker. This was a text-only publication with the intention that the Psalms would be sung to well-known Lutheran hymns.

Over the course of his lifetime, Schütz set all 150 of Becker’s settings to original music. He published an initial, but incomplete, collection in 1628, followed by the “complete package” in 1661. That complete edition was then edited by Walter Blankenburg for the sixth volume in the Neue Schütz-Ausgabe, published by Bärenreiter in 1957. Because this publication is now public domain, it is possible to reproduce a page showing a typical setting:

from IMSLP

Note the numbering of the verses with the gap between the third and the eighth. Becker set each Psalm in its entirety, and Schütz probably assumed that each of his settings would be sung to all of the verses.

This clearly makes for a lot of music. The Schütz-Werke-Verseichinis assigns the catalog numbers from 97 to 255, accounting for the fact that a few of the longer Psalms are broken into separate parts. It is thus necessary to draw attention to the final sentence of the Amazon Editorial Review, which describes the recording as “an exceptionally spirited interpretation of a selection [my emphasis] of these unusually unadorned, transparent, folk-like compositions.” To be more accurate, this recording offers twenty of those 150 Psalm settings; but, on the other hand, it appears that each Psalm has been sung with all of its verses.

While this may seem like more thoroughness than one would wish, Rademann has used repetition as an opportunity for innovation. The opening and closing verses are sung by the entire choir with instrumental accompaniment. However, the intervening verses involve different combinations of voices, often solo, as well as variety in that accompaniment, which sometimes is embellished by improvisation. Furthermore, solos do not always involve singing the “melodic” line. When the solo is taken by a bass, he sings the bass line, which has just as much melodic originality as the soprano line does. In other words Rademann has his own methods for “adorning” what would otherwise come across as excessive repetition of “folk-like” devotion.

Nevertheless, it is unclear that this is a recording to be enjoyed by start-to-finish listening. There is almost 75 minutes of music on this CD, and it is hard to imagine that Schütz would have envisaged anyone sitting still for 75 minutes to listen to a series of hymns based on Psalm texts! From that point of view, it is probably advantageous that the “digital age” is one of “sampled” listening. Granted, these samples are unlikely to be embedded in Lutheran (or any other Christian) services; but it will still be the case that this is music best enjoyed through “piecemeal” listening. Should Rademann plan to account for the remaining 130 Psalms in any subsequently recordings? I can give my own answer in a heartbeat: Enough is enough!

Community Music Center will Host a Premiere by Rohan Krishnamurthy

One of the more innovative concerts of this month will take place during the final weekend at the Community Music Center (CMC). Indian percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy will give the world premiere performance of “7 x 7,” created with support from the San Francisco Arts Commission. He composed this piece, structured in three continuous movements, for solo mridangam. Traditionally, this double-headed drum provides rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble; but, as is clear from its Wikipedia page, the number of distinctive ways in which the instrument may be struck allows for an impressive diversity of sonorities.

However, “7 x 7” is not, strictly speaking, Carnatic music. Rather, the composition is based on field recordings that Krishnamurthy collected. These involve not only the variety of natural environments in San Francisco but also distinctive rhythms of both neighborhoods and the conversations taking place within them. Those familiar with Steve Reich’s “City Life” may get some idea of the approach Krishnamurthy has taken; but, while Reich assimilated his field recordings into the textures of a chamber orchestra, Krishnamurthy has abstracted out the rhythms and turned them into a percussion solo. Furthermore, his resulting score requires improvisation, as well as playing from composed material. Finally, because this is strictly a percussion composition, it allows for future performances that can feature other percussion instruments and, for that matter, performers of different skill levels. The performance of “7 x 7” will then be followed by what may be called a cross-genre jam session in which Krishnamurthy will perform with the trio of Prasant Radhakrishnan on saxophone, Colin Hogan on piano, and Ryan Andrews on drum kit.

This event will take place on Saturday, April 29. It will begin at 8 p.m. The venue will be the CMC Concert Hall, located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for students and seniors, payable at the door.

In addition, in conjunction with his Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Krishnamurthy will offer a free Indian Rhythm and Hand Drumming Workshop. This will also be held in the CMC Concert Hall. It will take place in the afternoon, prior to the concert. It will begin at 3 p.m. and last for an hour. Because this will be free, showing up is all that will be required.