Monday, June 26, 2017

Berlin Classics’ Collection of Weber’s Clarinet Music Gets American Distribution

This past February Berlin Classics released a two-CD album of the complete works for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber. The clarinetist was the impressive young soloist Sebastian Manz, Principal Clarinet with the SWR Symphonieorchester, affiliated with Southwest German Radio (SWR) and administratively based in Stuttgart. The album divided neatly into one CD for chamber music and the other for orchestral works with the orchestra conducted by Antonio Méndez. The best-known chamber music is the Opus 34 clarinet quintet, which Manz plays with the casalQuartet. The remaining chamber works are performed with Martin Klett on piano. Until this past April, this album was only available through import; but it is now being distributed in the United States by Naxos of America.

In making these recordings Manz is not shy about acknowledging the influential role of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the first to record the second concerto (Opus 74 in E-flat major); but there was some controversy about his “jazzing-up” his performance with his own knapsack of rhetorical twists. Manz had no problem with Goodman’s approach. (For that matter, I do not have any problem either. It is hard to imagine that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ever “stuck to the text” when playing one of his piano concertos. Most likely he was taking liberties with that text long before he got to the cadenza!)

As a result, this is a highly personalized approach to playing Weber. If Weber’s own composition devices tended to be on the predictable side, Manz shows no problems in presenting them to the attentive listener with a refreshing layer of spontaneity. It is highly likely that most of the works on this album will be “first contact” encounters for all but clarinet students and enthusiasts. On the other hand pieces like the Opus 34 quintet and the Opus 26 concertino in E-flat major tend to get a fair share of exposure. The result is that it will be through these pieces that most listeners will be able to appreciate how Manz puts his own personal stamp on the music.

There are many who would quickly dismiss Weber for lacking the depth of his better-known contemporaries. However, this is a recording that prioritizes the making of music over the documenting of it. Manz is definitely a music-maker of the first order; and this album provides a first-rate introduction to his skills.

My only quibble has to do with the nuts-and-bolts of the production process. While the booklet provides many useful thoughts about the music itself, the reader learns about Klett’s contribution as pianist only in passing. An even greater slight is the failure to name the members of the casalQuartet. This may be Manz’ album, but all contributing musicians should be acknowledged for what they have contributed! Finally, there is no explicit explanation for the presence of Lars Olaf Schaper’s name on the back cover. He plays bass in the SWR Symphonieorchester; but he has been singled out because a bass has been added to the string quartet in the performance of the Opus 34 quintet (meaning that it has become a sextet)!

The Bleeding Edge: 6/26/2017

This month felt like it came in like a lion, but it seems to be going out like a lamb. This week sees the return of the ZOFO four-hand-on-one-keyboard duo of Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi to the Old First Concerts series at the Old First Presbyterian Church, as was announced about a month ago. Specifics for the few other activities are as follows:

Thursday, June 29, 6 p.m., Prelinger Library: This will be the next installment in the Indexical Moment/um series of “performing-ethnomusicology” events arranged by percussionist Marshall Trammel, founder of Music Research Strategies. As was the case last month, Trammel will give a duo performance with an invited artist. This month’s collaborator will be the South African musician and painter Moguawane Mahloele. Mahloele is accomplished in both the making and playing of African (Alkebulan) drums, entoros (mouth harps), dipelas (also known as “kalimbas”), nakas, flutes, sekeres, and makhoyames (bowed instruments with gourd resonators).

The Prelinger Library is located in Room 215 at 301 8th Street. Unfortunately, the library is not visible from the street. Those wishing to enter can dial 016 on the intercom by the door. (Instructions for access are also on the intercom itself.) The library is wheelchair accessible, but space is limited. Those wishing to attend this event are requested to RSVP through electronic mail for confirmation. Donations will be accepted at the door.

Thursday, June 29, 6 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: Outsound Presents will continue its usual format of two sets of free improvisation in the Luggage Store Creative Music Series. The first set will bring together Christine Richers and Laura Schwartz. Richers specializes in low strings (cello and bass) and also works with electronics. Schwartz’ primary instrument is horn. The second set will feature the Pet the Tiger Instrument Inventors Collective, whose Director is David Samas. The group will play the Harmonic Series Gamelan:

from YouTube

This is a collection of instruments tuned to the natural harmonic overtones of Schumann resonances, extremely low frequency reverberations detected in the ionosphere. Performers will be Bart Hopkin, Peter Whitehead, Daniel Schmidt, Stephen Parris, Derek Drudge, and Sally Davis. 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.

Monday, July 3, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: One week from today will be the first Monday of the next month. That makes it is the night of the Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room, three sets of adventurous jazz that are scheduled for presentation on that monthly occasion. The first set will be a trio improvisation by Larry Ochs on saxophone with rhythm provided by Hamir Atwal on drums and Karl Evangelista on guitar. They will be followed by the Sound Underground Trio of David Leon on saxophone, Alec Aldred on trumpet, and Jonah Udall on guitar. The final set will be taken by Lost Planet, which features the guitar work of Len Paterson and Steve Clarke. They will be joined by saxophonist Dave Slusser and drummer Thomas Scandura.

Doors open at 8 p.m., and the music starts half an hour later. The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

San Francisco Opera’s Puccini Sustains a Return Visit

This afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for another performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in the current Summer Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). I had multiple reasons for doing so. This was the performance that is on the subscription series for which my wife and I have tickets. It also turned out to be the second of the (only) two performances that soprano Julie Adams gave in the role of Mimì. Finally, by way of a confession, I realized that, when I covered opening night, I was so wrapped up in the intricate qualities of the staging that I neglected to say anything about what was happening in the orchestra pit. As I have previously observed, my subscription tickets afford an excellent view of just about all of the musicians except for those in what was, this afternoon, the second violin section; and it is hard to resist dwelling on how the conductor (Carlo Montanaro) manages the complex relationship between what those musicians are doing and what happens up on stage.

This is a particularly challenging matter where La Bohème is concerned. This is very much an opera that prioritizes the vocalists above all other matters. Indeed, it almost (but not quite) feels like a revival of the Baroque tradition of one set piece after another through which each character reveals his/her dispositions while whatever flow of narrative there may be comes to a screaming halt. Of course the expressiveness of the nineteenth century marked a radical shift from that of the seventeenth, but all that means is that each era had its own characteristic resources for creating and executing virtuoso display.

Thus, what was important about Montanaro was how he accepted this prioritization and managed his instrumental resources to support it. Much of his effort had to do with pacing, allowing the singers liberty to prolong certain moments. (Puccini was very helpful in this regard. You know where those moments are because instrumental activity is minimal, if it is there at all.) Such an approach enhanced a sense of spontaneity that originated in the vocal work but was then reflected by the orchestral support. In addition I found myself more aware of sensitive control of the dynamic contours. This seemed to be one of the primary techniques which which Adams made this role her own, and it would not surprise me to learn that Montanaro himself had been involved in some of the coaching to prepare her for her performances.

Beyond her musicianship, however, Adams had at least a minor problem with her own healthy disposition. During the first act she never quite got into character in a manner that suggested that Mimì was doomed from her very first encounter with Rodolfo (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz). Mind you, Adams was not the only weak link in this chain. From a narratological point of view, the major weakness in the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is that there is too much of a tendency to treat poverty and the hunger associated with it as a jolly affair. The one compensation came with Adams’ change in makeup prior to the final act. She assumed a death-warmed-over look that made it clear that the trajectory for the remainder of the opera would be an unrelenting downward spiral. Here again, however, relationship with the music was critical, since, by virtue of Montanaro’s guidance through the score, Adams never left the viewer feel as if she were wallowing in his misfortune.

This summer’s performances were the first revival of a production first presented here in November and December of 2014. Since La Bohème is the most frequently performed opera in the SFO repertoire, it is likely to return to the War Memorial Opera House sooner rather than later. This production is enough of a “keeper” that management may do well to resist the temptation of committing significant resources to bringing on a new staging.

The San Francisco Performances 2017–2018 Virtuosi Series

The San Francisco Performances (SFP) Virtuosi Series is notable for its eclectic scope. Rather than focusing on a single genre or medium, the series brings together four outstanding performers, each with his/her own distinctive way of establishing his/her reputation. The emphasis of the four concerts in the 2017–2018 season will be on chamber music, but that involves honoring my person conviction that jazz is chamber music by other means. All of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Tuesday, November 7: Violinist Leila Josefowicz will make a welcome return to SFP. Those who try to follow her regularly know that she has also been a well-received visitor to Davies Symphony Hall for performances with the San Francisco Symphony. For this recital she will be joined by pianist John Novacek. The core of her program will consist of two twentieth-century sonatas written within half a decade of each other. The earlier of these will be the first of Sergei Prokofiev’s two sonatas for violin and piano (Opus 80 in F minor), which was completed after the end of the Second World War in 1946, although the composer began work on it in 1938. The Prokofiev sonata will be complemented by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1951 sonata for solo violin. The program will conclude at the very end of the twentieth century with John Adams 1995 “Road Movies.” The opening selection will be Friedrich Hermann’s arrangement of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 44 “Valse Triste,” originally written as incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt's 1903 play Kuolema (death), whose author was the composer’s brother-in-law.

Friday, November 17: This program will offer the jazz perspective on chamber music. Regina Carter has had a long-standing relationship with SFP; and, between 1997 and 2001 she was the first SFP jazz Artist-in-Residence. She also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. She honored her connection to SFP by writing “What Ruth Felt,” which she played at A Heartfelt Gala at the end of last September, a special concert to honor SFP founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. For her next visit she will lead a quintet in a program entitled Simply Ella. The legacy of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald will be honored with performances of Carter’s own arrangements of iconic works performed by Fitzgerald ranging from love ballads to the mind-bending scat singing in her bebop interpretations.

Thursday, February 8: Jörg Widmann will return, once again, in his joint capacity as clarinetist and composer. He will be joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Three of his compositions will be performed during the second half of the program. These will be his “Circus Dances” for solo piano, a set of five fragments (Bruchstücke, with no apparent connection to Max Bruch) for clarinet and piano, and a solo fantasia for clarinet. The other composers included on the program will be Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Carl Maria von Weber.

Wednesday, February 21: The final “visiting virtuoso” in the series will be flutist Emmanuel Pahud, who will be joined by pianist Alessio Bax, no stranger to the Bay Area, particularly through his involvement with Music at Menlo. The program will begin with Francis Poulenc’s sonata for flute and piano. The remainder of the program will involve Pahud taking the solo part in works originally written for other instruments. These will be Franz Schubert’s D. 821 sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three fantasy pieces (Fantasiestücke), originally intended for clarinet and piano, and Mendelssohn’s 1838 violin sonata in F major, which was not published during the composer’s lifetime.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $240 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $200 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $140 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Kronos Quartet Folk Song Album Goes Full-Bore Middle-Brow

Back in the days when my “full-time occupation” was computer science, I remember coming across a review of a paper submitted to a technical conference in which the reviewer described the content of the paper as filling “a well-needed gap.” I was reminded of that scabrous and withering assessment while listening to the latest Kronos Quartet album, Folk Songs, released by Nonesuch at the beginning of this month. This was apparently the product of festival performances given in 2014 to celebrate the label’s 50th anniversary.

Kronos has been a “Nonesuch property” for a significant share of that label’s history. Indeed, the label’s discography accounts for all of the changes in personnel that the ensemble has sustained. Personnel for the anniversary concert was the same as it is to this day. David Harrington still leads as first violin, joined by founding members John Sherba on second violin, and Hank Dutt on viola. Cello is taken by Sunny Yang. However, the concert saw them join forces with four Nonesuch vocalists, Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant; and the Folk Song album is a document of the resulting performances.

When Nonesuch albums first his the record stores (remember them?), it was quickly clear that the label was trying to be hip and eclectic, offering a refreshing alternative to the middle-brow offerings from labels like RCA and particularly Columbia with its high-value middle-brow champion Leonard Bernstein. When it came to genres, Nonesuch cast a wide net; and, for a while a least, it appeared that the producers knew how to give each genre the serious treatment required for stimulating listening. There was also a hip sense of humor when Joshua Rifkin produced The Baroque Beatles Book. (Rifkin was also the key figure in Nonesuch’s contribution to revived interest in Scott Joplin.)

Folk Songs is far from hip and cannot be counted as eclectic just because it mashes up performers from different backgrounds. To be fair, that mash-up also includes the contributions of the arrangers, Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher. For the most part those arrangers seem to be giving the Kronos players something to do while the vocalists accompany themselves on instruments like guitar, harmonium, and hand drum. Every now and then, one hears a portamento with a bit of bluegrass rhetoric; but, for the most part, the music plods its way behind vocalizing that tries to sound down-home but comes off as merely affectation.

Earlier this week I expressed discontent over a recent BIS recording of Vadim Gluzman. Gluzman had built up an impressive repertoire of recordings of adventurous compositions, but his latest album was all music by Johannes Brahms. My response was to ask, rhetorically, whether BIS no longer wanted Gluzman to be Gluzman. I hope that it will not be long until Nonesuch decides to let Kronos be Kronos.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Plans for the Sixteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit

Outsound Presents has now updated the Web site for its annual New Music Summit with information about the schedule for this year. The festival will consist of five concerts on successive evenings at the end of next month. All performances will begin at 8:15 p.m., and each will be preceded at 7:30 p.m. with a Q&A session moderated by Rent Romus at which performers will talk about their work and take questions from the audience. Each concert will consist of two sets. Participants will be as follows:

Tuesday, July 25: Evil Genius is a jazz trio with a significant departure from the ordinary. That departure involves the use of a tuba, played by Stefan Kac, as the lead melody instrument. Rhythm is provided by Max Kutner on guitars and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on percussion. They will be followed by the Usufruct duo, that brings Polly Moller (flutist and vocalist, composer and improviser) together with computer musician Tim Walters.

Wednesday, July 26: Animals and Giraffes is the team of saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief and writer Claudia La Rocco. They have worked together with some of the Bay Area’s finest improvisers on different ways to explore the intersection of text and sound. They will be followed by the improvising duo of Amy Reed (guitar and voice) and Collette McCaslin (trumpet and soprano saxophone).

Thursday, July 27: Reed player Sheldon Brown has formed a group called Blood of the Air to perform a suite (of the same name) of pieces based on the poetry and speech melodies of Beat/Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. The other performers are Darren Johnston (trumpet), Lorin Benedict (voice), Andrew Joron (theremin), Dave MacNab (guitar), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jonathan Alford (piano), Vijay Anderson (drums), and Alan Hall (drums). This large-ensemble set will be followed by the improvising neem duo of Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Kelley Kipperman on bass.

Friday, July 28: Surplus 1980 is a local post-punk band founded in 2009 by multi-instrumentalist Moe! Staiano. It will be followed by the VOCO trio of Alex Young on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass. They will perform ten original compositions that take conventional instrumental rock as a point of departure and then apply shifts in genre, tempo, time signature, and dynamics.

Saturday, July 29: The opening set will feature Karen Borca, known as the only bassoonist to make a mark in avant-garde jazz and free jazz. She will be joined by Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums. The low register will continue to prevail in the second set with Positive Knowledge. This group brings together Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas, the former on bass clarinet and the latter a spoken word artist. They will be joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

All concerts will take place in the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center in the Mission. The address is 544 Capp Street, which is just north of the northwest corner of 20th Street and between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. Tickets are currently on Sale at Early Bird prices. A Festival Pass for all concerts in $45, general admission to a single concert is $13, and the rate for students and seniors is $9.50. All tickets may be purchased online through a single Eventbrite event page.

Finally, the concert series will be proceeded by the annual Touch the Gear expo. This is a hands-on family-friendly event open to the general public. It provides an opportunity for everyone to get better acquainted with the instruments, technologies, and techniques involved in the ways music will be made during the concerts to follow. This will run for three hours on Sunday, July 23, beginning at 5 p.m. It will also take place in the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center, and there will be no charge for admission.

Music Takes a Back Seat at This Week’s SFS Concert

The title of this week’s concert by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall, which received its first performance last night, is Music for a Modern Age. It is unclear just what that meant, since the music on the program spanned an entire century, from 1906 (Charles Ives’ “From the Steeples and the Mountains”) to 2016, the West Coast premiere of the setting by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the World.” Furthermore, to add to the confusion over just what, if anything, the overall theme was, this was one of those evenings dominated by projection screens, stage directors, and choreography. Those who came to listen to the music quickly found themselves in the center of a massive battle for attention.

Regardless of any of the intentions behind the overall programming, the winner of that battle would have to be director and choreographer Patricia Birch. Her life span may not be as wide as last night’s repertoire (her Wikipedia page does not give her date of birth); but she was in the original production of West Side Story. By 1975 her resume included choreography for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Grease, and A Little Night Music. A high point of her past work with MTT and SFS was the full-evening show The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre.

Last night she closed out the evening with a staging of George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” which she developed with MTT. This was the major composition on a recent recording discussed on this site this past Thursday. It would be fair to say that Antheil’s music was neither jazz nor a symphony; but it may be the most musical reflection on that cultural milieu known as “The Jazz Age” conceived by a composer. Birch cooked up a series of dynamite dance routines focused on a pair of flappers (Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore); and both music and dance were embedded in some highly imaginative video work by Clyde Scott.

Since Birch was experienced in working with the Davies stage, she knew how she could use the space to best advantage. However, where theatre directors often achieve their most striking results when they break down that “fourth wall” (separating the audience from the stage), Birch used the raucous qualities of Antheil’s music as inspiration to break down the wall around the musicians. Thus we had Dawson flirting with solo pianist Peter Dugan (sometimes in ways making one wonder how he was still able to execute all of Antheil’s demands):

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

More impressive was how Moore took the four players at the rear of the first violin section and turned them into her “supporting chorus,” teaching them their moves and then parading them to different areas of the stage. (The empty chairs were quickly replaced by four other violinists. Antheil’s piece requires a very large ensemble; and the first violin section needed to maintain its balance.)

The whole affair was a delightfully memorable hoot, unless you were there to listen to Antheil’s music. As was discussed earlier this week, there is no shortage of wit in the composer’s score. Some of it was quickly apparent, particularly in some of Dugan’s solo work (before he became distracted). However, there are no end of playful devils in the details of this music; and there were just too many demands on attention to give those devils the due they deserved.

Indeed, there were not many opportunities for focus on the pleasures afforded by just listening. The opening Ives selections fared best of all. As in the past, MTT arranged a spatial approach to the performance of “The Unanswered Question.” The strings were stationed in the inner lobby for Orchestra seating, while Mark Inouye took the trumpet solo from the right arm of the uppermost tier. The effect could not have been more stirring; but it was definitely equalled by the four “church-bell” (actually metal plates) players in the terrace during “From the Steeples and the Mountains.” Ives never heard this music performed; but the give-and-take between the bells and a brass choir summoned up all of those concepts of God and Nature that made such a deep impression on the Concord philosophers that the composer so admired.

Similarly, the performance of four of the movements from the suite for violin and American Gamelan composed collaboratively by Lou Harrison and Richard Dee placed priority on the listener. (The “inner suite” of three “Jhala” movements was omitted.) Nadya Tichman performed the violin solo with all of the melodic lyricism that both composers evoked in their score. Sadly, the American Gamelan was not the Old GrandDad collection of instrument designed and constructed by Harrison and his partner William Colvig. Those were the instruments used when the suite was performed in its entirety as part of the Other Minds 22 festival. Last night they were replaced by a more uniform collection of metallophones whose pitches were based on Harrison’s approach to just intonation.

Unfortunately, this made for more uniformity in the accompaniment than had been experienced at Other Minds. Each of the OldGrandDad instruments was made as its own individual piece of work. When a collection of them were assembled, one could appreciate not only the sound of the group but also the contributions of the individual instruments. Last night the only differences one could detect in the accompaniment had to do with register. The resulting disadvantage was that interleaving lines in a single register tended to get muddled, meaning that the listener was less aware of the Javanese spirit that had inspired the score.

However, muddle was a far greater problem with MTT’s composition. There is a discursive prose-like quality to Sandburg’s text that tends to demand a delivery closer to conversation than singing. Michael Hovland’s entry for Grove Music Online offers a moderate list of composers and their settings, but chances are that none of these will be recognized by most readers. (Hovland’s article comes from the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music.) Even with MTT reading the text before the performance and with soprano Measha Brueggergosman singing into a head-mounted microphone, there was no opportunity to get any sense of the relationship between words and music. Perhaps it was just as well that the listener was besieged with five screens of video and a pair of “backup” vocalists (soprano Mikaela Bennett and mezzo Kara Dugan) suggesting that the whole thing was a Supremes act that never made it off the drawing board. (The staging by James Darrah did not make it off the drawing board either.)

The result was an evening of sharply changing variations, but credit must go to Birch for guaranteeing that things ended on a high note.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friction Quartet will Give Next “Residence” Concert at O1C

courtesy of the Friction Quartet

Regular readers probably know by now that the members of the Friction Quartet are currently Artists-in-Residence in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. As pictured above in left-to-right order, the performers are violinist Kevin Rogers, cellist Doug Machiz, violist Taija Warbelow, and violinist Otis Harriel. Those who have attended past performances should also know that leadership is shared between Rogers and Harriel.

Exactly four weeks from today Friction will give its next O1C concert. The featured work on the program will be the United States premiere of “The Still Dancers” by Peter Hellawell, currently Professor of Composition at the Queen’s University of Belfast. Last year at the Center for New Music, Friction played Hellawell’s “Driftwood On Sand;” and that performance was captured on video:

YouTube video of Friction Quartet playing "Driftwood On Sand"

The program will also include Bedřich Smetana’s second string quartet in D minor. The last years of Smetana’s life were difficult. He had written his autobiographical first quartet in E minor in 1876, giving it the title “From My Life.” While most of the four-movement score recalled better times, the final movement is interrupted by a piercing high E that depicts the onset of his deafness. By the winter of 1882–1883, he was suffering from depression, insomnia, and hallucinations. He wrote the second quartet in defiance of orders from his doctor to refrain from all musical activity. He would die at the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague on May 12, 1884 with cause of death registered as senile dementia.

The remainder of the program has not yet been announced. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, July 21. O1C performances take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, which is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission will be $25 with discounted rates of $20 for seniors and $5 for full-time students showing valid identification. Children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. In addition there is a $2 discount for tickets purchased online in advance from the event page for this concert on the Old First Concerts Web site. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street for the church.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soprano Ylva Stenberg Performs Impressively at YBGF

Every year Folkets Hus och Parker and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music award a scholarship, named after soprano Jenny Lind, to a promising soprano. The award also comes with several performance opportunities, one of which is given as part of the annual Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YGBF). This year’s awardee was the Swedish soprano Ylva Stenberg; and her one-hour recital, presented outdoors with no admission charge, began this afternoon at 12:30 p.m. She was accompanied at the piano by Allan Timofeitchik.

The program was an impressive interleaving of the familiar and the unfamiliar, including combining the two in one selection. That last was the song “Aime – moi!,” which Pauline Viardot wrote in 1848 by adding a vocal line to the second (in the key of D major) of Frédéric Chopin’s four Opus 33 mazurkas. In the absence of a text sheet, it was difficult to determine whether the words worked for or against Chopin’s rhetoric. However, there was clearly considered judgment behind how Viardot made this mazurka into a song; and Stenberg’s interpretation definitely captured Chopin’s spirit.

On the more unfamiliar side, chances are that the songs of Swedish composers Hugo Alfvén, Gösta Nystroem, and Gunnar de Frumerie were probably all “first contact” experiences; but for most of the audience that was probably just as true of the two songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff. For that matter the same could be said of Timofeitchik’s solo performance of a nocturne by Ottorino Respighi, the third of a set of six pieces composed between 1903 and 1905. Where art song was involved, familiar ground only came into sight with the performance of three songs by Richard Strauss, “Die Nacht” (Opus 10, Number 3), “Morgen” (Opus 27, Number 4), and “Allerseelen” (Opus 10, Number 8). The last two of these are likely to be familiar to those who attend vocal recitals regularly, and those who know them would have recognized the sensitivity that Stenberg brought to her performance.

Equally familiar would have been her concluding with “Caro nome” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. She was perfectly comfortable with all of the virtuoso demands that Verdi imposed but also brought an understanding of Gilda’s perplexed state with a man she took (mistakenly) to be a poverty-stricken student. Less familiar was her opening with “O luce di quest’anima” from Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamonix. Here performance was more a matter of leaping through all of the virtuoso hoops, regardless of whether or not the underlying narrative was being properly signified.

It is also worth emphasizing, once again, the knowing sensitivity that Stenberg brought to her performance. Conditions in Yerba Buena Gardens were far from conducive to a song recital. Both a waterfall at one end of the space and jackhammers beyond the other did their best to undermine this free outdoor concert. However, for all of those hazards, the turnout was a good one; and it seemed as if just about everyone in the audience could focus on the music without worrying about the onslaught of distractions. Stenberg is likely to be a dynamite soprano when she is performing under more favorable conditions!

Capriccio Honors George Antheil’s “Bad Boy” Reputation

At the end of last month, I reported that the British Chandos label had begun a project with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, to record the music of American composer George Antheil. I used that article to discuss the composer’s “bad boy” reputation, noting that Antheil himself chose that epithet, using it in the title of his autobiography. I then observed that the new Chandos album had pretty much slighted any of the composer’s “bad boy” qualities.

I am therefore happy to report that, at the beginning of this month, Capriccio released a brand-new (based on recordings made this past January) album that vigorously affirms Antheil’s self-appointed reputation:

courtesy of Naxos of America

The orchestra is the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, the leading symphony orchestra of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The ensemble is led by Chief Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who has held that position since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season. The album was co-produced for Capriccio by Deutschlandradio Kultur and Südwestrundfunk (SWR). That is quite a team in support for a composer whose music is seldom performed in his own country.

It does not take long for the listener to appreciate how Antheil acquired his self-professed reputation. The opening selection is “A Jazz Symphony,” which was written in 1925 for a series of concerts organized by Paul Whiteman entitled Experiment in Modern Music. (This was the same concert series that had premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Carnegie Hall.)

Whiteman never performed the piece. The polite reason is probably that he did not have the resources. Antheil’s instrumentation required two oboes, two clarinets, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, various percussion, two banjos, three pianos (including one soloist), and a full string section. The less polite reason is that Antheil’s writing probably scared the bejesus out of Whiteman. Many of the leading jazz musicians of Whiteman’s day accused him of trying to “make a lady” out of jazz; and that remark was not intended as a compliment! “Rhapsody in Blue” may have found the right sweet spot between the testosterone-laden qualities of Whiteman’s critics and the more polite tastes of Carnegie Hall audiences; but Antheil was far less inclined to compromise. Ironically, the conductor that did perform “A Jazz Symphony” (at Carnegie Hall) was W. C. Handy (who was definitely more in touch with “real jazz” than Whiteman ever was) leading the Harlem Symphonietta.

One might then be justified in asking how well an orchestra in the Rhineland-Palatinate could manage with all the “bad boy” qualities that Antheil packed into this piece. As far as I am concerned, the answer is “Very well, indeed!” Mind you, it helps if the listener has some basic familiarity with “Rhapsody in Blue;” but, thanks to United Airlines, it is hard to find listeners lacking that acquaintance. Of course the reason for that background awareness is not that Antheil appropriated from Gershwin. Quite the contrary, he takes just about every memorable moment that Gershwin concocted and, in true “bad boy” style, turns it on its head. The music amounts to a wildly disruptive romp through “induced expectations;” and chief pianist Frank Dupree was anything but tame in taking on the rhetoric of the solo part.

This is just as much the case on the second track, which is Antheil’s first piano concerto. This was written earlier than “A Jazz Symphony” in 1922, during Antheil’s time in Europe. In many respects this piece is also a romp through how music was being made at the time, particularly in Paris. Appropriations of bits and pieces of Igor Stravinsky keep popping up, and there is a pretty clear sense that Erik Satie is lurking between the cracks. In a similar way it is difficult to listen to the final track, “Archipelago ‘Rhumba’” without thinking of Darius Milhaud. Antheil wrote that piece in 1935, and it is hard to imagine that he had not been exposed to a performance of “Le Bœuf sur le toit” when he was in Paris during the previous decade.

The tamest selection on the album is the orchestral suite that Antheil extracted from his score for Eugene Loring’s ballet “The Capital of the World.” This may be the only ballet based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and that may be its only distinguishing feature. It was first performed in December of 1953, and Antheil probably extracted the suite around the same time. If it owes any debt of appropriation, it would be to Manuel de Falla; but Hemingway’s plot never runs as deep as any of the narratives that inspired Falla. Antheil’s score is competent enough; but it comes off sounding as if it had been written “on spec.” In the history of Ballet Theatre relationships with composers, the one that Agnes de Mille had with Aaron Copland is far more memorable.

The San Francisco Performances 2017–2018 Guitar Series

This coming season San Francisco Performances (SFP) will once again partner with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts in presenting its Guitar Series. While the series usually consists of solo recitals, three of the five concerts will each have a way of offering a variation of its own. All of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m., but the venue will alternate between Herbst Theatre and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The entrance to Herbst is the the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Friday, October 26, Herbst Theatre: This will be the SFP debut recital given by guitarist Jason Vieaux. He will be joined by Julien Labro on the bandoneon. Both players will share responsibility for arranging the selections on the program. They collaborated an on arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Esucalo,” while Vieaux prepared an arrangement of Pat Metheny’s “Antonia.” The program will open with Labro’s arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” followed by his arrangement of Radamés Gnattali’s Suite Retratos. The program will conclude with two short pieces by Rossen Balkanski, a prelude and a scherzo, with Labro taking the piano accompaniment on bandoneon.

Saturday, November 11, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Russian guitarist Irina Kulikova will make her SFP debut. Specifics have not yet been provided, but her program will include music by the Russian composer Konstantin Vassiliev. She will also include guitar works by Federico Moreno Torroba and Agustín Barrios (more generally known as Mangore). In addition she will play arrangements of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin.

Friday, December 1, Herbst Theatre: Uruguayan master Alvaro Pierri will return to SFP. His program will also include music by Mangore. He will also play works by Ralph Towner, Dušan Bogdanović, and other composers.

Saturday, March 10, Herbst Theatre: This will be an “all-star” evening that will present both Eliot Fisk and Angel Romero. Between the two of them, they will play and arrange a wide diversity of solo and duet compositions. The composers to be represented on the program will be Antonio Vivaldi, Luigi Boccherini, Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo, and Manuel Ponce.

Saturday, April 28, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The series will conclude with the return of American lutenist Paul O’Dette, who has not yet announced the details of his program.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $250 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $220 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $150 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

HAT HUT Records Releases Ayler Live in Copenhagen

When the most adventurous of the jazz players in the Sixties ventured boldly into avant-garde practices, saxophonist Albert Ayler may well have been the most provocative. Enjoying the benefits of retrospection, jazz historian Ted Gioia, in his 2011 The History of Jazz, called Ayler a “virtuoso of the coarse and anomalous.” For the benefit of readers who expected saxophonists to provide them with smooth melodic lines, Gioia explained that first adjective by observing that Ayler was more interested in discovering and exploiting new sonorities than in giving clear and polished accounts of the notes.

Ayler was far from the only one to explore this territory. Among saxophonists the names of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy should come to mind immediately. However, Coltrane had the benefit of having mastered more traditional approaches to playing jazz. His reputation provided him with the “bully pulpit” from which he could pursue such adventurous projects as Ascension and Meditations and provide Dolphy with work as a member of his combo. While Ayler never played with Coltrane, the latter was there to help the former out with financial support.

In 2002 the Albert Ayler Estate released a CD entitled The Copenhagen Tapes, an audio document of the quartet that Ayler led during a visit to Copenhagen in September of 1964. (Ayler’s dead body was found in New York’s East River on November 25, 1970, and his death was presumed to be a suicide.) The quartet began earlier in 1964 as a trio in which Ayler performed against a rhythm section of Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. In July of that year, Ayler provided a freely improvised soundtrack for Michael Snow’s film New York Eye and Ear Control; and his trio was augmented by Don Cherry on trumpet, John Tchicai on alto saxophone, and Roswell Rudd on trombone. Cherry would then join the trio on their trip to Europe. They were to have been joined by Dolphy, but Dolphy died in Berlin on June 29.

The Copenhagen Tapes was the result of two sessions. The first six tracks were recorded live at the Club Montmartre on September 3. Alternate takes of three of those selections, “Vibrations,” “Saints,” and “Spirits,” were then recorded in studio by Danish Radio on September 10. At the end of this past April, all six live tracks were reissued by the Swiss label HAT HUT Records under the title Albert Ayler Quartet: Copenhagen Live 1964:


Those unfamiliar with how far Ayler ventured from conventional jazz practices will definitely find their curiosity satisfied by this recording. Indeed, there is something unabashedly (and unashamedly) primal in what Ayler and his colleagues brought to Copenhagen. Even the fact that each track has a title that is a simple plural noun reinforces those primal qualities. Indeed, those who visit this site regularly will find on these tracks the sorts of qualities that have inspired me to refer to the most adventurous of avant-garde efforts as being out on the “bleeding edge.”

Those without a taste for such adventures may find themselves uneasy in listening to this album. Some might even call the listening experience painful. Such listeners need to bear in mind Gioia’s approach to Ayler as a maker of new sonorities. Those sonorities were so new in their time that they were even more shocking than Edgard Varèse’s effort to compose music for thirteen percussionists (“Ionisation”) about half a century earlier. Indeed, when Frank Zappa started pursing his own “bleeding edge” interests with larger ensembles, there is a good chance that he wanted his saxophone players to follow in Ayler’s path.

The six tracks on this recording may not be for the faint of heart, but those willing to steel themselves for the listening experience will have much to discover on this album.

Casting Announced for Second Fully-Staged Merola Production

Last week the Merola Opera Program announced the casting for the three one-act operas that will be performed as the first full-length fully-staged production of the 60th anniversary season. The second production of the season will be devoted entirely to Gioachino Rossini’s two-act opera La Cenerentola. The title is the Italian rendering of the name “Cinderella;” and Jacopo Ferretti used Charles Perrault “Cendrillon” (the “original source” of the fairy tale we know) as his point of departure.

Ferretti modified Perrault’s source in a variety of interesting ways, some of which may have involved the vocal resources that Rossini preferred. For one thing, there are no named characters in the Perrault text, except for the nickname of the title character. Ferretti gave her a real name, Angelina. The part was originally sung by contralto Geltrude Righetti and will be sung in the Merola production by mezzo Samantha Hankey (a winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions):

Samantha Hankey, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

Similarly, the Prince is given the name Ramiro; and he will be sung by tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro. The stepsisters are endowed with the “faux classical” names Clorinda (soprano Natalie Image) and Tisbe (mezzo Edith Grossman). In a more radical alteration, their mother becomes the fatuous and greedy Don Magnifico (bass-baritone Andrew Hiers). Most importantly, however, is that magic plays no part in the unfolding of the plot. Angelina’s virtuous behavior is rewarded by the machinations of the philosopher Alidoro (bass-baritone Szymon Wach), who is also Ramiro’s tutor. Finally, there are some mistaken identity high jinks involving Dandini, the Prince’s valet (bass-baritone Christian Pursell). Those who might be wondering about why Angelina should have such a low voice should bear in mind that Righetti had already created the role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville.

This production will be staged by Chuck Hudson, who has worked in both opera and theater and was a co-creator of Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program. The conductor will be Mark Morash, who has given many past Merola performances and is Director of Musical Studies for the San Francisco Opera Center. This production will be given two performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 3, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 5.

These performances will take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Ticket prices will be $70 and $50. Tickets are being sold by the Box Office in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Tickets for both performances are also available online. There will also be student tickets available for $15, but these must be purchased in person at the Box Office upon presentation of valid identification.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is BIS Tiring of Letting Vadim Gluzman be Vadim Gluzman?

I have been following recordings of violinist Vadim Gluzman for over half a decade. my generally positive impressions have much to do with his approach to repertoire, and I first became aware of him in conjunction with his work with composer and pianist Lera Auerbach. Indeed, one of those missed opportunities that I particularly regret was the San Francisco Performances recital in 2004 when the two of them played Auerbach’s Opus 46 set of 24 preludes (in all major and minor keys) for violin and piano.

By way of compensation, I began to look into Gluzman’s recorded repertoire with the Swedish BIS label. This led me to write up my listening experiences for Examiner.com and my describing Gluzman as “representative of a new ‘breed’ of violinists who are not content to settle into the ‘middle-brow’ groove of the ‘standard repertoire.’” Sadly, those experiences took place shortly before my only encounter with Gluzman in performance.

He was one of the soloists for a San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concert entitled Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, at which he was required to channel violinists from that historical period, such as Ole Bull, Henryk Wieniawski, and Fritz Kreisler. That “middle-brow” experience reminded me of the famous story about Arnold Schoenberg that Alex Ross recounted in his book The Rest Is Noise. Schoenberg had been invited to a dinner party by his friend Harpo Marx at which Fanny Brice (remember Funny Girl?) walked up to him after a few (or more) drinks and said, “C’mon Professor, play us a tune!”

Gluzman’s latest BIS album came out at the beginning of last month, and it is devoted entirely to the music of Johannes Brahms:

from Amazon.com

Now, to be fair, while Brahms has left us all with no end of memorable tunes, there is much more to both his symphonic and chamber works than tunes we can whistle and hum with fond satisfaction. By the same count, Gluzman has no trouble summoning up “tune rhetoric,” even if doing it for Auerbach required applying a not-so-thin veneer of irony. Furthermore, the odds are good that all three of those historical violinists that SFS required Gluzman to channel probably knew of and played Brahms Opus 77 violin concerto in D major and at least some of his chamber music.

Nevertheless, listening to this new album, which features Gluzman playing Opus 77 with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Chief Conductor, James Gaffigan, left me with the uneasy feeling that this violinist was just not in his comfort zone. Things were somewhat better with the chamber music selections that filled out the recording, the Opus 78 violin sonata in G major and the WoO 2 scherzo in C minor that Brahms’ contributed to the “F-A-E Sonata,” an effort in which he collaborated with Robert Schumann and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich in creating a sonata to honor Joseph Joachim. One reason why these performances rise above the ordinary is that Gluzman is again accompanied by pianist Angela Yoffe, his partner for his more adventurous chamber music recordings for BIS. When these two get together as a duo, they rise so far above the sorts of “tunes” that make the middle-brow happy that they could probably get Brice’s ghost to rise up and take notice!

Still, I feel a bit disappointed that BIS has released an album that seems to go for middle-brow expectations of the familiar; but those circumstances may have more to do with my failure to pay attention to announcements of such releases.

The SFP 2017–2018 Shenson Chamber Series

For this coming season, the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Shenson Chamber Series will focus entirely on string quartets. However, one of those ensembles will appear with a “guest artist.” Taken as a whole, the season promises to be a simulating combination of familiar selections from the traditional repertoire and several distinctive departures from “the usual suspects.” Three of the quartet groups will be returning to SFP, and one will be making a debut.

All four concerts in the series will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Friday, October 13: The guest artist of the season will be cellist Joshua Roman, who will be performing with the JACK Quartet, consisting of violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. The five of them will play a quintet written specifically for them by Jefferson Friedman. They will also join forces to perform Roman’s composition “Tornado,” which will be receiving its world premiere this coming Monday at the Music Academy of the West. The program will also include John Zorn’s “Ouroboros,” Amy Williams’ “Richer Textures,” and Ari Streisfeld’s arrangements of three five-part madrigals by Carol Gesualdo.

Monday, February 19: This will be the SFP debut performance by the Danish String Quartet. Members are violinists Asbjørn Nørgaard and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin and cellist Frederik Øland. They will frame their program with Béla Bartók’s first quartet (Opus 7 in A minor) and the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s three Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartets, written in the key of F major. However, to establish their identity, the group will depart from the usual repertoire by playing selections of folk music from the Nordic countries between these two more familiar offerings.

Friday, March 9: Here in San Francisco the Ébène Quartet, consisting of violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Adrien Boisseau, and cellist Raphaël Merlin, holds the unique distinction of having performed in the SFP Jazz Series, as well as the Chamber series. Regrettably, there will not be a Jazz Series in the 2017–2018 season; so Ébène will situate itself firmly in the traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That will include Beethoven, concluding the program with the second of his Opus 59 quartets. At the other end of the concert, the program will begin with Beethoven’s best known teacher, Joseph Haydn. The selection will be Hoboken III/76, the second of the six quartets published as Opus 76 and written for József Erdődy. This quartet has two nicknames, the more familiar being “Fifths” but also known as “The Donkey.” These two major works from the First Viennese School will be separated by Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 121 quartet in E minor, completed within months of his death of November 4, 1924 and very much a reflection of the nineteenth-century traditions of his past.

Wednesday, April 18: The Series will conclude with the return of the Takás Quartet. Founding members Károly Schranz (second violin) and András Fejér (cello) still play with the group. The more recent members are Edward Dusinberre (first violin) and Geraldine Walther (viola). All founding members were students at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. The group’s Hungarian roots will be honored with the middle selection on the program, Ernő Dohnányi’s Opus 15 (second) quartet in D-flat major. The opening work will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 387 quartet in G major, and the program will conclude with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 80 quartet in F minor.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $250 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $205 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $140 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Monday, June 19, 2017

SOMM Recordings Adds to Kathleen Ferrier’s Legacy

The life of English contralto Kathleen Ferrier was tragically short. Born on April 22, 1912, she did not begin to study singing seriously until 1937. It was not long before she began to build her reputation. Her appearances included both the Glyndebourne Festival and the Edinburgh Festival; and her associations included composer Benjamin Britten, conductor Bruno Walter, and pianist Gerald Moore. However, at the height of her powers in March of 1951, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; and she died on October 8, 1953.

Her recording legacy was modest, but it included major sessions with both Decca and EMI. Those who have accorded her cult status, also hold in high regard a Gala CD entitled Songs My Father Taught Me, which includes a track of an unabashedly tipsy Ferrier accompanying herself at the piano at a party in New York in 1949. Both Decca and EMI were already apotheosizing her while she was alive; and there is something comforting in listening to this all-too-human side of her character, even if it comes from a home tape recorder operated by an amateur.

This coming Friday SOMM Recordings will release Kathleen Ferrier remembered. This is a single CD with 26 tracks, nineteen of which were previously unpublished. As usual, Amazon.com has already created a Web page for this release and is taking pre-orders:


All of the recordings appear to have been made for broadcasting purposes primarily, if not entirely, by the BBC. The recordings were made between 1947 and 1952, the latest at the end of September in 1952. However, those should not be taken as “final” recordings, since Ferrier was still at work in 1953.

The booklet accompanying this new recording concludes with a “Technical Note” by Ted Kendall, explaining the problems with the sources and how those problems were resolved. While it is clear that these recordings were made at a time when technology was much weaker, the post-processing has definitely delivered a more-than-satisfactory account of both Ferrier’s voice and her accompanying piano. The accompanying pianists are, in order of appearance, Frederick Stone, Walter, and Moore.

While I, personally, have tried to avoid treating Ferrier as a cult figure, I very much enjoy all of the recordings I have accumulated of her performances. Beyond the music, however, the booklet for this new release also includes a photograph taken by Norward Inglis of Ferrier performing at the Edinburgh Festival (probably on September 3, 1951) with Walter accompanying her at the piano. Looking at that image, it is hard to avoid at least a twinge of things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be nostalgia!

From a more dispassionate point of view, it is unclear that any of these performances will add very much to our appreciation of Ferrier’s technique that cannot be gleaned from the better-mastered recordings, most of which were released on CD to commemorate her 100th birthday. Nevertheless, I suspect that there will, for a long time, be a “critical mass” of vocal music lovers who cannot get enough of Ferrier. They will most likely be satisfied with how SOMM has produced this release. I certainly am, and I expect that I shall be revisiting it with the same attention I already have for the more polished recordings in my collection.

The Bleeding Edge: 6/19/2017

After last week’s flurry of activity, things will be a lot quieter this week. The recital by composer and pianist Mazdak Khamda at the Center for New Music (C4NM) was announced about a month ago. Other than that performance, there are only two activities, one of which will also be at C4NM. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, June 22, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: The Luggage Store Creative Series will return to its usual two-set format. The first set will be taken by the Kevin Robinson Ensemble (KREation), led by Baltimore native Robinson. Robinson is the composer and plays saxophone. The group will play his Planes Through a Sphere, which is a collection of both written and improvised music. The other players are Isaac Otto on woodwinds, Kelley Kipperman on bass, Maia Ziaee on piano, and Brandon Glasson on vibraphone. The second set will be taken by a trio led by Matt Renzi playing saxophone, oboe, and cor anglais. This past April, Renzi augmented the usual trio combination with a violin and a cello. For his Outsound Presents gig he will go back to the more conventional format, playing with Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums.

Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m., C4NM: Emma Logan will curate a solo performance by composer Jane Rigler, a flutist whose work explores acoustic and electronic interactions of sounds. Rigler is interested in investigating the complexities of language; and she casts a net wide enough to take in the full breadth of symbol systems studied by semiotics as well as the action-based study of how communication arises from the use of symbols. Her studies couple the dual perspectives of sounds as languages and languages as sound.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. In addition to being sold at the door, tickets will be available in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Watching Luisotti Adds to the San Francisco Opera Experience

This afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera house for the fifth of the eight performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto as part of the annual Summer Season of the San Francisco Opera. Regular readers probably know by now that my wife and I continue to renew our subscription seats; and I particularly enjoy them for the excellent view of the orchestra pit, as well as the stage. The result was that I had a far richer impression of Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s contribution to this powerful production, which was just as compelling this afternoon as when I saw the second performance a little less than two weeks ago.

However, before going into specifics of how much Luisotti added to this production, it is important to note that, whatever one may think about Verdi’s capacity for summoning “grand” sounds, he can achieve some impressively intimate effects by complementing solo voices with only a few instruments. Thus, when bass Andrea Silvestrelli is singing Sparafucile’s first encounter with baritone Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto, his description of his “work practices” as an assassin is accompanied by a single cello (David Kadarauch) and a single double bass (Joseph Lescher) playing in parallel octaves. The effect is, to say the least, spooky enough for the attentive viewer to be suspicious whenever Sparafucile comes into view.

Kadarauch also played a key role in setting the tone for soprano Nino Machaidze’s Gilda in her greatest distress, this time playing a duet with Janet Popesco Archibald on cor anglais:

Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey) and Gilda (Nino Machaidze) during the third act of Rigoletto (photograph by  Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Gilda also figures in the solo instrumental accompaniment for what is probably her best known aria, “Caro nome” (dearest name), during which she imagines love with the handsome student she has seen at church:

Nino Machaidze’s “Caro nome” moment (photograph by  Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

The violin solo, which is much more familiar due to the many concert performances this aria receives, was given just the right rhetorical twists when played by Concertmaster Kay Stern.

What is particularly striking about the opera as a whole is just how compact everything is as the dark narrative gradually unfolds. That darkness is often reinforced through subtle gestures, and it was particularly interesting to observe how Luisotti’s management of tempo in the pit showed so much sensitivity to those gestures. The conductor, after all, is the necessary conduit between what happens on stage and what happens in the pit; and awareness of the stage tends to take higher priority, because the Concertmaster can see to many of the “management” activities in the pit.

Of course the best operas are the ones in which the details in the music matter just as much as the dramatic unfolding of the details in the libretto. However, even when both sets of details are taken into account by all of the performers, the mutual reinforcement of music and drama still tends to be a rare delight. Luisotti clearly knows how to prioritize that reinforcement, and his technique as a conductor does much to establish this particular production of Rigoletto firmly in the memory of those fortunate enough to experience it.

The Two Sides of Gulda on a Single Album

At the beginning of this month, BR-KLASSIK, the “house label” for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting), released an album entitled Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda. “Gulda” is the Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda, who died at the age of 69 on January 27, 2000. As was previously observed, in 1959 he had worked with the cellist Pierre Fournier (who was about 25 years older than he was) to record all of the pieces that Ludwig van Beethoven had composed for piano and cello. He then went on to record Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, and those were released in the United States by the Musical Heritage Society. However, at the time of his sessions with Fournier, Gulda had established a strong reputation as a jazz pianist with adventurous tastes in free improvisation.

On June 27, 1982 Gulda packaged his two interests into a single program. The best known part of that program was the second half, which consisted entirely of extended duo improvisations performed with jazz pianist Chick Corea. Less well known was the first half of that program, in which Gulda framed a performance of one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano sonatas, K. 330 in C major, with two jazz improvisations played both before and after the sonata. While the session with Corea was released as the album The Meeting, this “Mozart experiment” remained in the vaults until the beginning of this month.

That music occupies the center of the track listing for Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda. The second improvisation is then followed by single-movement excerpts from two of Gulda’s own compositions, the suites Play Piano Play and Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums. That entire sequence is then framed by two concertante selections at the beginning and conclusion of the album. The first track is Mozart’s K. 386 rondo for piano and orchestra in A major, in the reconstruction by Alfred Einstein. The conclusion is the K. 382 rondo in D major. On both of these recordings Gulda is playing with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) conducted by Leopold Hager.

While roughly two-thirds of this CD are devoted to Mozart, there is a good chance that the jazz lovers will be the ones most interested in the album, even if the number of tracks are limited. There is a long history of jazz musicians, particularly pianists, drawing upon favorites from the classical repertoire as a point of departure for both compositions and improvisations. On this album those connections are much more subtle, but they still offer insights into Gulda’s ability to work productively in both worlds. Where other performers have encountered conflict between them, Gulda seems to have found a “sweet spot” of symbiosis.

Nevertheless, we need to be realistic about the fact that this recording may not be a representative sample of Gulda’s work. Certainly, where Mozart is concerned, we can hypothesize that he was at his most adventurous when playing cadenzas for his own piano concertos. Fortunately, there is a relatively generous collection of Gulda playing these concertos with a variety of different conductors, some of whom have more liberal ideas about those cadenzas than others. Where the improvisations on Gulda plays Mozart & Gulda are concerned, the question as to how “free” they are remains an open one. Even so, there are probably a fair number of listeners who can appreciate the jazzier qualities of some of Mozart’s concerto cadenzas; and they are likely to find Gulda’s free improvisations just as absorbing.

2017–2018 will See a New SFP Series of the Very Old and the Very New

One of the first things that San Francisco Performances (SFP) will offer at the very beginning of its 38th season will be the launch of the Hear Now and Then Series. The idea behind the series will be the interleaving of the programming of contemporary and recent music with the early music repertoire, a period that is generally taken to be everything preceding the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750. Special attention will be given to the work of Philip Glass, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this coming January 31. There will be five events in this series distributed across three different venues. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Saturday, October 7, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Appropriately enough, the series will begin with a concert organized by the Kronos Quartet, whose members are, in the order shown below, second violinist John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang, violist Hank Dutt, and first violinist David Harrington:

courtesy of San Francisco Performances

For this program Kronos will collaborate with The Living Earth Show duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson and Youth Speaks, the organization behind the annual Teen Poetry Slam. The full ensemble will collaborate in the world premiere performance of a new work by Danny Clay, whose title has not yet been announced. Details about the rest of the program have not yet been released.

Sunday, December 3, 7 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: New York Polyphony is an a cappella vocal quartet of four men presenting historically informed performances of early music. The members are countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, and bass Craig Phillips. Their program will be based on their 2014 BIS album, Sing Thee Nowell, which spans seven centuries of Christmas. At one end of the timeline, there will be works by composers such as Philippe Verdelot and Tomás Luis de Victoria, while the other end will be represented by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alexander Craig (the latter being the name used by Phillips when he is composing and/or arranging).

Friday, February 2, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: A few days after Glass’ 80th birthday, the members of the Kronos Quartet will get together with pianist Timo Andres. All five of these musicians have close associations with Glass’ music, and many of them have worked with the composer himself. They will present a program entitled On Playing Glass, at which they will discuss their experiences in preparing performances of Glass’ music, illustrating their observations by presenting musical examples.

Tuesday, February 20, 7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the concert honoring Glass’ 80th birthday. It will feature a performance of “Music with Changing Parts,” one of his earliest (1970) efforts in working with what he came to call “repetitive structures.” The piece lasts a little over an hour; but, because of its “open score” structure, there is considerable flexibility in how many players are involved and how much time they take. It was first performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1970, and the current incarnation of that group will participate in this concert. However, they will be joined by the San Francisco Girls Chorus (whose Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa has worked with Glass and participated in performances of pieces such as Einstein on the Beach) and students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Thursday, May 3, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The series will conclude with the SFP debut of gamba player Jordi Savall. He will present a program entitled Celtic Universe, which will explore the musical traces left behind by the Celtic migration. This will involve music from Ireland, Scotland, French Brittany, Galicia, and the Basque Country, that last being Savall’s own home. He will be joined by Carlos Núñez, who specializes in Galician bagpipes, along with an ensemble of winds, harp, and bodhrán.

The entrance to Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The main entrance to Davies Symphony Hall (and the location of the Box Office) is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $295 for premium seating, $250, and $150. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Clarice Assad’s Delightfully Ingenious Approach to the Concerto

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) concluded its ninth season with an imaginative program blending old and new. The high point of the evening came from a visit by Clarice Assad in her “triple threat” capacity as composer, pianist, and vocalist. Led by Music Director Dawn Harms, BARS performed Assad’s 2010 “Scattered,” described as “the world’s first scat singing concerto in the history of music.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, scat singing is an approach to vocal jazz that endows the vocalist with the same capacities for wildly adventurous improvisation that one encounters among instrumentalists. Jazz theorist Paul Berliner has suggested that instrumentalists would often work out what they would play by singing it first. Vocalists may have picked up on this technique and then dropped the instruments out of the equation.

However, Assad performed the solo work for “Scattered” seated at a piano keyboard. In many respects the piece was a double concerto for both piano and voice, although she rarely (if ever) engaged in much vocalizing while playing at the same time. Instead, piano and voice each had their own thematic building blocks based on their respective affordances of sound production. Assad then assembled those blocks into a multicolored foreground presented against the bold and sharp colors of her approach to instrumentation within the background ensemble. All this was then framed in a three-movement architecture that would have been as easily grasped by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach as by a contemporary audience.

Nevertheless, basic description cannot do justice to the wild ride through the execution of Assad’s concerto. Her scatting took in one of the broadest approaches to the diversity of vocal sonorities, working with not only different timbres of vowel tones but also an imaginatively rhythmic approach to consonants (often in the absence of any of those vowels). The solo piano work often tended to emerge to balance a framework of call-and-response, even if it was not always clear who was responding to whom. The whole experience could be enjoyed just for the fun of it, while those more familiar with the history of jazz improvisation could recognize inspirations from the past and Assad’s originality in thrusting them into the immediate present.

Assad then followed her concerto with a “programmed encore.” She played her 2011 “The Last Song” for piano and orchestra. Rhetorically, this was a matter of restoring calm after the storm; and Assad’s approach to the lyrical was as absorbing as had been the imaginative precision of her scatting. This was far from “the usual bill-of-fare” for an orchestra concert; but the coupling of these two pieces made for a highly satisfying listening experience, all based on a “first contact” experience rather than the usual excursion into familiar repertoire.

Indeed, the intermission was followed by an equally absorbing departure from that “usual excursion.” “Barbaric Passages” was a duet by Joe W. Moore, III for two percussionists. Both Christian Foster Howes and Alapaki Yee worked with a diversity of drums, and both of them were equipped with mallets for sharing a single marimba. The performers provided a program note in which they compared the interactions in the score with the tale of Beauty and the Beast.

My own approach to listening had less to do with hanging the music on a narrative and more with just exploring the different approaches to give-and-take. Those approaches took in a wide diversity ranging from the imitative to the argumentative. Both Howes and Yee were clearly absorbed in the demanding technical requirements, but neither of them lacked the ability to bring expressive rhetoric to their approaches to execution. Percussion-only music still has its place in the sun; and Moore definitely deserves his place alongside past masters of the genre.

The more traditional side of the program was rooted firmly in the nineteenth century. It began with Gioachino Rossini’s overture for his La gazza ladra opera in two acts and then continued with the tenth (in B minor) of Felix Mendelssohn’s string symphonies. Stylistically, these were very different pieces. However, rhetorically, both involved building to a conclusion through a gradual crescendo sustained over the final passages in the score. Harms’ command of that crescendo was throughly convincing in both of the sharply different contexts of these two pieces.

The comic nature of Rossini’s overture was complemented at the end of the program by “Boler-uh-o.” This amounted to a clown show by Johannes Mager during which he spent almost all of the time playing a tuba while climbing over seats in the audience area, all while the orchestra is gamely trying to play Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” This physical approach to comedy reminded me of when I used to watch the work of Lotte Goslar, who recruited highly-trained dancers as members of her clown troupe. (I came to know the group through its appearances at dance festivals.) Mager had Goslar’s crazy-like-a-fox demeanor; and “Boler-uh-o” provided a fun conclusion to an evening of many offerings.

The only weak spot came just before Mager with Laura Karpman’s “Siren Songs.” This consisted of three movements, each based on text from the poetry of Amy Gerstler and all inspired by Diana Nyad’s historic swim from Cuba to Florida. Gerstler’s texts were not set to music. However, they were read before each movement and the words then appeared in video imagery that accompanied the music. Unfortunately, the imagery was so vivid and the texts were so tedious that few cognitive cycles were left to deal with the music itself. In the highly imaginative context of last night’s programming, the banality of “Siren Songs” came off as feeling uncomfortably out of place.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Reinbert de Leeuw Records all of Kurtág’s Music for Ensemble and Choir

In reviewing (to the best of my ability) all of my experiences involving listening to the music of György Kurtág, I discovered that, until the beginning of this month, the largest number of performers that gathered to perform one of his pieces was four. Where concert performances were concerned, the number was three; but this past September I had the opportunity to listen to a Kurtág album entitled Complete String Quartets. My curiosity was thus piqued when ECM announced that, this coming Friday, ECM New Series would release a new album of that composer’s music entitled Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir. Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this three-CD collection; and, for those fascinated with Kurtág’s work, this is quite a find, even for those (like myself) skeptical about the release of “complete” albums by a composer who is still alive and, as far as we know, active.

The ensemble on this new album is Asko | Schönberg, the result of a merger in 2008 of two ensembles with a shared interest in “advanced modernism” that had previously performed and recorded together many times. The Asko Ensemble was formed in 1965 and never had a regular conductor. The Schönberg Ensemble was founded in 1974 by students and former students of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and all of my vinyl recordings of the group named Reinbert de Leeuw as the Music Director. He is the conductor on the Kurtág album, and the choir is the Netherlands Radio Choir.

It is important to note that, even when writing on an “ensemble” scale, Kurtág tended to prepare one-to-a-part scores. Consequently, the accompanying booklet singles out a generous number of soloists. On the vocal side these are soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya, mezzo Gerrie de Vries, tenor Yves Saelens, and bass Harry van der Kamp. In addition there are tracks that feature solo performances by cello (Jean-Guihen Queyras), guitar (Elliott Simpson), and piano (Tamara Stefanovich). In addition Csaba Király plays pianino and serves as speaker in “Samuel Beckett: What is the Word,” which has the rather lengthy subtitle “Samuel Beckett sends word through Ildikó Monyók in the translation of István Siklós.” Equally important is that the tracks for this collection have been arranged in the chronological ordering of the works’ respective composition.

Those familiar with Kurtág probably know him as a miniaturist. That makes the Beckett piece rather distinguished, since it lasts more than sixteen minutes. Furthermore, it is not the longest piece in the collection. “Colindă Baladă” runs about one minute longer. Completed in 2010, it is the penultimate composition in the collection. The last is the instrumental suite in four movements Bref messages, completed in 2011. However, if we are to go by the Wikipedia page of Kurtág’s compositions, he wrote a work for full orchestra (which probably involved string sections, rather than individual players) to honor Pierre Boulez’ 90th birthday. Indeed, this is not the only piece in the “Ensemble/orchestral” category that is not included on the album, suggesting that de Leeuw confined his attention only to one-to-a-part compositions.

What is most fascinating about the collection is the number of pieces that were composed for instruments “dispersed in space,” either individually or in groups. Such selections do not fare well under the limitations of recording technology. There have, of course, been listening environments in which the audience is surrounded by loudspeakers; but, at least currently, those environments have had to take a back seat in a culture that resorts to ear buds as all one needs for listening. Thus, at least where these particular compositions are concerned, the primary value is to introduce the attentive listener to the compositional devices that Kurtág has deployed in the hope that such a listener will eventually have the opportunity to experience the spatial qualities that the composer seems to have intended.

Fortunately, that is my only real quibble with this new release. Kurtág is as imaginative in working with diverse collections of instrumentalists and vocalists is he is when working on a chamber-music scale. In both cases he is primarily concerned with drawing our attention to sonorities that are practically at an atomic level. Because his pieces are brief, he tends to focus on only a few of those qualities in any individual compositional gesture. Thus, through a recording like this one, the attentive listener can begin to appreciate the vast scope of his creativity when working at such a microscopic level.

Nevertheless, this is not music to be “consumed in a single gulp,” so to speak. If Kurtág wants us to be attentive to an unfolding of individual moments, then we should not compromise their distinctive qualities. Better to listen to these pieces in “isolated individuality.” That way each one can work its own characteristic magic without confronting any risks of “crosstalk.”