Saturday, May 27, 2017

A New Album of Bach’s “Chamber Music” Cantatas

We generally associate the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach with the last quarter-century of his life spent in Leipzig as Thomaskantor at the Thomasschule associated with the St. Thomas Church. The Thomasschule provided music for all four Lutheran churches in Leipzig; and, during Bach’s tenure, the cantatas he composed constituted a major portion of that music. Nevertheless, Bach was composing cantatas earlier in his career; and a new album from harmonia mundi focuses in his time in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, when he served first as organist and then, in 1714, as Konzertmeister (director of music) at the court of Ernest Augustus I, Duke of Saxe-Weimar.

The album is entitled simply Cantatas for soprano, and the featured soprano is Carolyn Sampson. She sings with the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Petra Müllejans, and the music combines the secular with the sacred. The opening selection is BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (which I like to translate as “chill out now, bummer shadows”), which is usually known as the “Wedding” cantata. The two sacred cantatas are BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (tread the path of faith), and BWV 199, Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (my heart swims in blood). BWV 152 has solos and a duet for for soprano and bass-baritone; and Sampson is joined by Andreas Wolf for this performance.

Ernest Augustus I was profligate enough to bring about the financial ruin of his duchy; and, as might be expected, his tastes ran to worldly pleasures. There is thus a good chance that religious services were held in relatively modest settings. This may explain why these three cantatas are basically chamber music compositions. There are no choruses; and the strings would have been significantly reduced, if not played one-to-a-part. As a result there is a prevailing rhetoric of intimacy in the two sacred cantatas, as well BWV 202, which may well have been performed at a wedding ceremony with only a limited number of guests.

Sampson has built her reputation primarily on the early music repertoire. However, her opera résumé includes the role of Adina in Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; and her last recital in my home town of San Francisco was based on her 2015 album Fleurs (flowers), almost all of whose selections came from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. (Even the song by Henry Purcell was performed with figured bass realization by Benjamin Britten.) However, whatever the “temporal vintage” of the music she sings, the clarity of her voice is endowed with a light touch that well suits that aforementioned rhetoric of intimacy.

The result is an album of Bach at his most personable. We tend not to associate that adjective with him, particularly when we read books that apotheosize him to a place “in the castle of heaven.” Of course we know from the accounts of his jamming at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig that Bach had a worldly side; and, given the worldliness of Ernest Augustus’ court, it is no surprise that the music on this album tends not to wallow in tedious solemnity, even with a title as serious as that of BWV 199. This is the music of a Bach that was perfectly happy to be on earth with family and friends; and both Sampson and Müllejans offer the attentive listener just the right down-to-earth approach to this music.

ZOFO will Return to Old First Concerts at the End of Next Month

ZOFO (an imaginative abbreviation for 20-Finger Orchestra) is the delightfully engaging four-hands-on-one-keyboard duo of Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi:

courtesy of Old First Concerts

They have made regular visits to the Old First Concerts series at the Old First Presbyterian Church, and the next of those visits will take place in a little over a month’s time. The duo has blazed a bold new path for the four-hand repertoire by focusing on music from the present and preceding centuries, including regular commissions of new works.

The results of one of those commissions will be presented at next month’s recital. This will be the West Coast premiere of “Samudra Manthan,” named after an episode in Hindu mythology that translates as “the churning of the ocean milk.” That episode his to do with how the devas (gods) begin to lose their immortality as a result of a curse by the sage Durvasa. They summon their mortal enemies, the asuras (demons), to assist in churning the ocean to extract the amrit (nectar of immortality). This tale has been realized musically as a five-movement work by the Japanese composer Akira Nishimura. This “cosmic” theme will be complemented with a performance of Nakagoshi’s arrangement of Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 seven-movement suite The Planets, featured on the album ZOFORBIT: A Space Odyssey, which was released in May of 2014.

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

Opera Parallèle’s Latest Approach to Philip Glass Disappoints

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Opera Parallèle presented the first of four performances of the “dance-opera spectacle” completion of Philip Glass’ triptych of theater pieces based on the works of writer and film director Jean Cocteau. “Les Enfants Terribles,” performed in a single act without intermission, is based on a novel of the same name, whose first English edition was published under the title The Holy Terrors and which was then made into a film that Cocteau directed in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville. The original conception of this operatic treatment was developed by Glass working with choreographer Susan Marshall. The idea was that the key characters would be represented by both dancers and singers, who would appear on the stage simultaneously.

The novel’s account of “terrible children,” whose perverse behavior unfolds as disturbingly provocative, would have been quite a blow to readers when the book first appeared in 1929; and the 1950 film had its own techniques of getting under the viewer’s skin. Last night’s staging was conceived by Opera Parallèle’s Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel, working with choreographer Amy Seiwert and media designer David Murakami. Considering the outrageousness of both the text and cinematic source material, the result was disconcertingly bland; and the realization of the narrative was more muddled than provocative. Admittedly, what was over-the-top to Cocteau would probably come across as benign, if not ordinary, to current audiences; but it is also possible that Staufenbiel and his team never quite managed to home in on what made this particular Cocteau creation so disturbing.

The bottom line is that the underlying narrative ended up being buried under media excess, beginning with a snowfall projected on three screens that seemed to go on forever before the first notes of Glass’ score were performed. While the performances of the four vocalists, Rachel Schutz, Hadleigh Adams, Andres Ramirez, and Kindra Scharich, were clear and expressive to their best of their abilities, the choreography, danced by Steffi Cheong and Brett Conway, tended to be frenetic and self-indulgent. Any sense of dramatic tension resided in the intensity of Glass’ score for three pianos, given as powerful a performance as one could hope for through the efforts of Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Eva-Maria Zimmermann (the latter two being the members of the ZOFO Duet) under the disciplined and well-moderated baton of Nicole Paiement.

Given how much Glass managed to express through his music (which even includes a passing reference to the soundtrack of the Cocteau-Melville film, just as his Orphée included a brief glance at Christoph Willibald Gluck), it may be that, notwithstanding the composer’s original conception, this is a score that would sustain a much more powerful impact in a concert setting, leaving any visual implications to “the mind’s eye.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

C4NM will Host Mazdak Khamda as Composer and Pianist

Almost exactly a month from today the Center for New Music (C4NM) will host composer and pianist Mazdak Khamda:

Composer Mazdak Khamda, courtesy of C4NM

He will be joined by noted Bay Area performers in a program of chamber, solo, and electronic music, most of which will have been composed by Khamda. He will present his earlier work by performing his solo piano composition “Moods.” More recent works will include the duet “A Soul’s Journey,” which he will play with violinist Kate Stenberg, and “Tied Up,” which he composed for oboe (Glenda Bates) and electronics. Stenberg will also play a duo performance of nine pieces of violin and cello with cellist Vanessa Ruotolo. Finally, Khamda will also perform solo piano pieces by Garret Shatzer and Lucas Floyd.

This performance at C4NM will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 25. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gave Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Both levels of tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Warner Classics Recordings of Messiaen the Organist

As promised about a couple of weeks ago, I have continued my traversal of Warner Classics’ Olivier Messiaen edition by moving on to the organ works. This section includes five CDs of Messiaen playing the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (church of the Holy Trinity) in Paris, four based on recordings made in 1956 and one from a recording made in 1972. Then there is a single CD of “landmark” interpretations. Of the twelve tracks on this disc, the first eleven are taken by Marie-Clair Alain playing the organ of the Hofkirche in Lucerne. while the final track was recorded at Sainte-Trinité by Naji Hakim, Messiaen’s successor as titular organist.

The story of how Messiaen became an organist and came to compose for the instrument is a fascinating one, which was related on this site in an article about Colin Andrews’ recording of Messiaen’s complete works for organ, which appeared this past December. The abbreviation of that story begins in the autumn of 1927, when Messiaen decided to learn about the organ from Marcel Dupré and turned out to be a prodigiously quick study. On the composition side, he wrote “Le Banquet céleste” (the heavenly banquet) in 1928, which predates his first published music, the eight piano preludes. By 1929 he was filling in for the ailing titular organist Charles Quef at Sainte-Trinité. After Quef died, Messiaen applied to replace him with a letter of recommendation from Charles-Marie Widor and support from Dupré. Messiaen would hold that post for over 60 years.

Prior to the Second World War Messiaen composed three major cycles of organ compositions, L’Ascension (the Ascension, 1934), La Nativité du Seigneur (the Lord’s Nativity, 1935), and Les Corps glorieux (the glorious bodies, 1939). It is probably not the case that these were written for concert performances or, for that matter, to be played, beginning-to-end, as “cycles.” What is more likely is that each of these pieces was a collection of individual compositions, each intended to provide music for meditation during a specific service. This could well have been the same motivation behind Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (little organ book), a collection of 46 chorale preludes ordered according to the services in the liturgical year. Indeed, the nine pieces in La Nativité du Seigneur are explicitly called “meditations;” and would probably have been distributed according to the Gospel texts being read at services between Christmas Eve and Epiphany. In the case of the other two cycles, each piece explicitly cites a passage of sacred text, primarily, but not exclusively, from the New Testament.

The Warner collection includes Messiaen playing all of these cycles, as well as “Le Banquet céleste,” the “Diptyque” (which he described as an “essay on life on earth and the joy of eternity”), composed in 1929, and the “Apparition de l’Église éternelle” (apparition of the eternal church),  composed in 1932. The only other recording of Messiaen at the organ is of the 1969 cycle Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité (meditations on the mystery of the Holy Trinity). The “landmark” CD gives Alain’s interpretations of both “Le Banquet céleste” and “Apparition de l’Église éternelle,” as well as the Nativité cycle. The Livre du Saint-Sacrement (book of the Holy Sacrament) is represented by Hakim, but only through the fourteenth of the eighteen movements, “Prière après la Communion” (prayer after Communion).

While most, if not all, of Messiaen’s organ works have been given recital performances, it is important to remember that he was more interested in liturgical practices than in the sort of attentive listening one aspires to bring to a concert setting. Thus, while all of the recordings of Messiaen himself in this portion of the collection make for thoroughly compelling listening, one should not be afraid to approach the individual tracks in a piecemeal fashion. Indeed, our current age of “digital listening” is probably more conducive to such an approach than cultural dispositions were at the time that Messiaen was recorded in Sainte-Trinité.

Nevertheless, particularly where the cycles are concerned, it is important that the listener not approach this music as if it were some sort of marathon experience. Rather, one should just let the circumstances of the immediate present, one’s own dispositions, and one’s knowledge of the liturgical connections guide how one chooses to listen to this music. Mind you, the absence of a liturgical setting may be somewhat of a disadvantage; but “the mind’s eye” should be able to compensate for the loss of that aspect of the listening experience. More significant is background knowledge of sacred texts and the ability for mind to build bridges between the denotations and connotations of those texts and the inventiveness behind Messiaen’s approaches to composition.

Shostakovich Reflects on Michelangelo Reflecting on Life

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented a long-overdue premiere. Dmitri Shostakovich’s suite of eleven settings of the verses of Michelangelo received its first performance. This was the first half of the program prepared by Manfred Honeck, currently Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, also appearing on the SFS podium for the first time. The vocalist, on the other hand, has been a frequent visitor to San Francisco, German baritone Matthias Goerne.

Shostakovich began work on this suite in the summer of 1974, which turned out to be almost exactly twelve months prior to his death on August 9, 1975. It was originally written for bass and piano (Opus 145, completed on July 31) and was first performed in that form on December 23, 1974. Having finished the piano version, he turned his attention to an orchestrated version (Opus 145a), which he completed on November 5. However, he never heard his music in that form, since it was not performed that way until October 12, 1975.

Shostakovich’s encounter with Michelangelo’s poetry seems to have been only through a Russian translation by Abram Efros. All but two of the poems that Michelangelo selected are sonnets, and the last is probably the opening octave of a sonnet. It is unclear whether Efros tried to capture either the rhythm or the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan form, and it is probably not relevant. Shostakovich was occupied solely with the semantics of these poems; and the vocal delivery has a strong prose-like character. What probably drew Shostakovich to his selections was the variety of ways in which this working artist used his writing to reflect on the nature of life, the commitment to work, and the world in which both of these were embedded.

Since I am not fluent in Russian, I cannot comment on Goerne’s command of the language. Nevertheless, his delivery captured a natural flow of the words consistent with those prose-like rhythms. The vocal line is straightforward, probably because Shostakovich was so taken with the significations of the texts he had selected that he did not want them to be impeded by excess virtuosity. It is also interesting to note that English translation was available only through overhead projections. No version of the texts appeared in the program book. This may have been a production decision to reinforce Shostakovich’s “prose stance.”

The accompaniment then provides both context and commentary with respect to those significations that Shostakovich chose to prioritize. Here we encounter much that is familiar, particularly when the commentary is ironic. We also encounter the composer often working with very spare resources in individual songs, allowing different sections of the ensemble for provide different colorations for the texts as appropriate. One of those colorations was a delicious solo taken by Principal Bass Scott Pingel, which was almost as lyrical as the vocal line (if not more so). Nevertheless, there are the occasional full-throated outbursts from the ensemble, almost as if Shostakovich wished to make sure that listeners knew that he still “had it.” The most striking (pun intended) of these comes in the “Creativity” poem, in which a super-charged percussion section delivers its own rendition of Michelangelo attacking his block of marble with hammer and chisel.

The entire cycle was given a disciplined interpretation by Honeck that was as expressive as it was attentive. His chemistry with Goerne was definitely a good one, allow Goerne the full scope of his own expressive toolbox to endow each poem with its own individual character traits. Honeck’s relation with SFS also seemed to be equally effective. Opus 145a offers a variety of challenges in “resource management;” and these challenges can only be overcome through “noise-free communication” between the podium and the ensemble. Honeck was definitely clear about where he wanted this music to go, and SFS seemed to be totally committed to following him there.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor. Honeck thus chose to introduce himself to San Francisco with an all-Russian program, combining the rarely-performed with a familiar warhorse. His approach to Opus 64 began with some particularly imaginative shaping of dynamic contours, and he definitely knew how to evoke quiet passages with maximum intensity. However, as the symphony progressed, it was clear that his preferences lay with the other end of the dynamic spectrum. The result was some truly rousing fortissimo passages that definitely got the juices flowing on audience side.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that one can take before recognizing a sameness to all of those gestures. As Pierre Boulez would have put it, Honeck never recognized the need for “lesser peaks,” without which the performance never manages to establish the one climax to rule them all. By the time the final movement lumbered its way into the coda, the attentive listener could have been forgiven for asking how much more of this stuff remained before the final measure. Nevertheless, that final measure was followed by an enthusiastic audience response, suggesting that Honeck had successfully tapped into an interpretation of Tchaikovsky with powerful mass appeal.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chandos Releases a Rollicking Album of George Antheil

Regular readers probably know by now that the British Chandos label has released three volumes in a project by Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to record the orchestral works of Charles Ives. They may also know (not from this site, however) that a project to record the orchestral works of Aaron Copland with John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic has thus far advanced to its second volume. It would appear that someone at Chandos has gotten hooked on twentieth-century music from the United States, perhaps with a preference for foot-stomping thigh-slapping Americanisms.

Last Friday that preference was reinforced with the launch of yet another series, once again involving the BBC Philharmonic. This time the conductor is John Storgårds; and the music is that of our country’s most notorious “bad boy” (by his own choice of epithet), George Antheil:

courtesy of Naxos of America

That reputation was earned in 1935 with the performance of his “Ballet Mécanique” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Antheil wrote this piece as accompaniment for a silent film of the same name created by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, who worked with Man Ray as their cinematographer. The film was basically a Dadaist abstract study of mechanisms in motion, and Léger and Murphy may well have assumed the viewers would easily supply sounds of their own in their heads. Anyone who had done this would not, in any way, have been prepared for what Antheil came up with; and it takes only reviewing his instrumentation requirements to see why: sixteen synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronically controlled bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren, and three airplane propellers!

Antheil also has a significant non-musical reputation. During the Second World War he developed a technique known as frequency hopping that would prevent enemy “wiretapping” of radio signals being transmitted to guide torpedoes. The coding of those signals involved the use of punched paper tape, so the idea probably was the result of that interest in player pianos. Particularly interesting, however, is that Antheil had a partner in developing this invention and filing the patent for it, Hollywood film star Hedy Lamarr.

There is nothing particularly “bad boy” about the music included on the first Chandos release. Basically, all three of the selections on the album are joyously raucous, even more extroverted than anything by Copland and entirely lacking in any of the metaphysical brooding that permeates Ives’ New England transcendental rhetoric. Indeed, the title for Antheil’s fifth symphony, the third selection on the album, is “Joyous;” and since it was begun in 1947, the joy probably has to do with the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Adolf Hitler. This is music that makes Copland sound positively stodgy, and its energy level seems to have mined the same sources that both Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich had tapped when the War ended.

The other symphony on this album is the fifth symphony’s predecessor. The fourth was composed in 1942, meaning that the ideas probably began to emerge after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The music has very much a call-to-arms rhetoric; and some of Antheil’s contemporaries were quick to point out  the “family resemblance” with Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (“Leningrad”) symphony in C major, which was premiered in North America on July 19, 1942. In this case, however, Antheil pushed back, asserting that his primary source for this symphony was an opera he had composed in 1930.

The album begins with the premiere recording of “Over the Plains,” which can probably be described as a concert overture. It certainly takes the cake when it comes to revving up the audience for whatever may follow on a concert program. The primary theme sounds like a mash-up of “Red River Valley” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” Given how little attention Ives had received by 1945, the year in which “Over the Plains” was composed, it is entirely possible that Antheil was unfamiliar with the trappings of “Ives country.” More likely, Antheil may have been wondering if he could use his friendship with Lamarr to get known by John Ford, the uncrowned king of the Western movie genre, so taken with the wide open spaces of Monument Valley that he had a house built there.

My guess is that there will be many quick to dismiss all three of these selections as pure corn. To them I would say, “Give it a rest, and let yourself have some fun for a change.” This music may not be profound, but it eschews both the rhetorical darkness of composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich and the tub-thumping patriotic fervor of Copland. The best way to enjoy Antheil is to lower your guard and let his music get to you on its own terms.

The Sunset Music | Arts 2017 East Meets West Series

Next month Sunset Music | Arts will launch the last of the five concert series planned for its 2017 season. The title of this series is East Meets West. There will be three programs, each of which, in its own way, will feature musicians who uniquely meld music from Western and Eastern classical traditions to produce new compositions and approaches to performance. All of these concerts will be held on a Saturday, two in the evening and one in the late afternoon. Here are the specifics:

June 17, 7:30 p.m.: The featured artist will be violinist Lucian Kano Balmer. Those celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love may recall (if they remember anything, as the old joke about the Sixties goes) that 1967 was the year in which Angel (the American label for EMI classical recordings) released the first volume of West Meets East, which brought violinist Yehudi Menuhin together with Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. Menuhin basically “sat in” on a session in which Shankar played his interpretations of traditional Indian ragas as well as original compositions. He led a group that also consisted on Alla Rakha on tabla and Prodyot Sen on tambura. Menuhin both improvised and played from his own transcriptions of Shankar performances.

Balmer will take a somewhat different approach. He will be performing with Joanna Mack on sitar and Josh Mellinger on tabla, but he also will be joined by Ivo Bukolic on viola. In addition, Balmer will perform as a vocalist, as well as a violinist. His group will play and improvise on traditional Hindustani music. However, the program will also include original pieces by Balmer, which he describes as “Raga-infused.”

July 29, 7:30 p.m.: Vocalist Gautam Tejas Ganeshan will present a program of Carnatic music. He usually performs as part of a chamber ensemble. However, no additional performers have yet been announced, nor has any specific information about the selections he will be presenting.

August 19, 4 p.m.: This will also be the third and final concert of the Sunset Music | Arts Choral Series. It will consist of an East-Indian approach to the performance of Hildegard of Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum” (order of the virtues), an allegorical morality play that is the only Medieval musical drama to survive with attribution for both text and music. The production will be presented by San Francisco Renaissance Voices, led by Director Katherine McKee. Celtic harp will be played by Diana Rowan, while the “East” will be represented by the bansuri, a side-blown Indian flute, which will be performed by Deepak Ram. The program will also include a dance troupe specializing in the East-Indian style:

provided by San Francisco Renaissance Voices, courtesy of Sunset Music | Arts

All performances will take place at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 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 Eventbrite. Subscriptions are not being sold, but each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Music of Remembrance: Good Intentions Can Go Only So Far

Last night the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted the third visit to the Bay Area by the Seattle-based musicians of Music of Remembrance (MOR). MOR’s motto, which is part of its logo, is “ensuring that the voices of musical witness be heard.” The objects of witness are the many instances of man’s inhumanity to man, with special attention given to the Holocaust. In addition to giving concert performances, MOR releases recordings, presents educational programs, and commissions new works.

Last night’s program, entitled Mirror of Memory, presented the results of two of those commissions. The second half was dominated by the Bay Area premiere of “to open myself, to scream” by Mary Kouyoumdjian, following up on its world premiere in Seattle this past Sunday. The commissioned work on the first half of the program was “The Seed of Dream,” composed by Lori Laitman in 2004. Both halves of the program also examined the legacy of Yiddish song. In the first half mezzo Catherine Cook sang six of these songs, all of which had originated in the Vilna Ghetto, arranged by Jaroslavas Cechanovicus for accompaniment by two violins (Mikhail Shmidt and Artur Girsky), viola (Susan Gulkis Assadi), cello (Walter Gray), and bass (Jonathan Green). The second half concluded with six Yiddish songs and dances arranged for string quartet and clarinet (Laura DeLuca) by Betty Olivero, created in 1997 as incidental music for a screening of the silent film The Golem: How He Came into the World, created by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener. Finally, the evening opened with one of the compositions to come out of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Hans Krása’s “Tanec,” a dance movement scored for string trio (with Shmidt taking the violin part).

In terms of both composition and execution, Krása’s trio turned out to be the most satisfying offering of the evening. The score had just the right undercurrent level of irony to reflect the composer’s tenuous state. Theresienstadt was a transfer camp, a “holding venue” for those who would be sent for extermination at Treblinka and Auschwitz. Krása died at Auschwitz, whose other victims from Theresienstadt included Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, the year after he composed “Tanec.” Shmidt, Assadi, and Gray gave this music an attentive and expressive reading. Each performer had a clear sense of how to blend with his/her colleagues, making this the most satisfying account of a chamber music ensemble, rather than the work of a gathering of individual players.

At the other extreme was “to open myself, to scream,” conceived as a reflection on the story of Romani artist Ceija Stojka, who managed to survive three concentration camps and lived to the healthy age of 79, dying in Vienna in 2013. Kouyoumdjian scored the piece for a small chamber ensemble playing against an electronic track of sampled passages supplied by each of the members along with Kouyoumdjian’s voice. It is structured in four uninterrupted movements; but there was little sense of connection to the titles of those movements (each of which was inspired by one of Stojka’s paintings) in last night’s reading of the score.

Instead, the dominance of DeLuca’s clarinet work made it almost impossible for the informed listener to avoid thinking about Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), while the overwhelming presence of the electronic samples suggests that Messiaen’s quartet is being run over by one of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains.” If that were not enough, Kouyoumdjian’s score was played against the projection of a visual design by Kevork Mourad in which images (which may or may not have have been based on Stojka’s art) were subjected to real-time warping, overlays, and dissolves that turned out to make for a thoroughly aggressive assault on the listener’s sense of vision. “Scream” was definitely the operative verb in the conception of this composition; but the scream turned out to be inordinately sustained and only weakly modulated, almost as if the only objective of the composer was to convey Stojka’s personal pain.

However, if Kouyoumdjian’s reflection of Stojka was hard to take, at least it was not as overloaded with clichéd gestures as was “The Seed of Dream,” a setting of five poems by Abraham Sutzkever written in the Vilna Ghetto. Laitman set English translations of these poems (with no mention of the translator in the program book); and Cook did her best to endow the weaknesses of the score with expressive signification. Nevertheless, there was the disquieting sense that, while there was much for Sutzkever’s poems to say, even in translation, Laitman was using them only as syllables on which to hang her notes.

Still, listening to Cook sing in English was far more satisfying than her approach to the Vilna Ghetto songs in Yiddish. Here in San Francisco we have the good fortune to be able to listen to someone like Sharon Bernstein, Cantor of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, who has not only a solid command of Yiddish but also the necessary discursive (as opposed to operatic) approach to delivery. By failing to grasp the subtle changes in vowel sounds that differentiated Yiddish from German, Cook made these songs sound like some weirdly arcane corner of the German lieder repertoire; and the result did no favors to either the music or Cook’s skills in the performance of art song. In contrast Olivero’s instrumental approaches to songs and dances were more consistent to the spirit of Yiddishkeit, and they concluded the evening with a gentle reminder that brevity is still the soul of wit.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ben Goldberg School Makes its Recording Debut

Anyone who visits his Wikipedia page will discover that clarinetist Ben Goldberg has an ongoing interest in playing with different groups, many of his own formation. In January of 2012, one of those groups, called the Ben Goldberg School, gathered at Cressman Studios for its first recording sessions. “Cressman” is Jeff Cressman, who also played trombone in the group, along with Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone, Rob Reich on accordion, David Ewell on bass, and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Chronologically, this preceded Goldberg’s work on Orphic Machine, a ten-movement song cycle that was first performed at the New Frequencies Fest in San Francisco in February of 2015, followed shortly thereafter by a release of the CD recording. At least two of those movements seem to have evolved out of the seven tracks recorded at Cressman Studios, “The Inferential Poem” and the instrumental “Bongoloid Lens.” About two weeks ago the CD of those seven tracks was released under the title Vol. 1: The Humanities, currently available for purchase through the Store Web page on Goldberg’s Web site:

from Ben Goldberg's Web site

Little by way of background has been provided for this recording, suggesting that even his choice of the group’s name may have been a prankish reflection on his earliest clarinet lessons. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in both the sonorities and the breadth of stylistic approaches that comfortably bridge the domains of chamber music and jazz. Indeed, the opening selection, which runs to almost eighteen minutes, amounts to a suite, although not necessarily in the pre-Classical tradition of an assembly of dances. The opening movement of this suite begins with an impeccably blended trio for clarinet, saxophone, and trombone that has an almost folk-like quality. That “folk rhetoric” is then reinforced with the entry of the accordion, rather than a piano, as one of the rhythm instruments.

The title of that suite is “Time Is The New Space,” suggesting that the title of the album refers to the sorts of encounters one has (or, perhaps, used to have) as part of the “core curriculum requirements” for college undergraduate studies. The other relatively long piece (about ten and one-half minutes) also has a title with similar “academic connotations.” The noun “lagniappe” is a linguistic hybrid concocted by Louisiana French drawing upon Quechua and the Spanish Creoles. It refers to those good old days when a buyer dealt with a seller face-to-face; and, if the relationship was a good one, the seller might add “a little something extra” at no charge to the buyer. Curiously, these two longish pieces are separated by the one track that is an arrangement, rather than an original composition, a five-minute take on Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer.”

The remaining tracks on the album are comparatively short. This recalls Cecil Taylor’s approach to many of his solo concerts, beginning with one extended continuous piece (often going through a variety of different phases in the sort of “suite” structure encountered in “Time Is The New Space”), followed by a series of much shorter works. For Goldberg, as for Taylor, the initial lengthy sections basically lay out the landscape of approaches to harmony, counterpoint, sonorities, and overall rhetoric. Once that landscape has been established, the listener is then invited to return to specific regions, so to speak, for a more “informed” visit.

The advantage of a recording is that it allows the attentive listener to get to know that landscape better; and Vol. 1: The Humanities is definitely music for such listening, rather than plugging into a portable device to become part of one’s “daily soundtrack.” As with any good jazz recording, these are tracks that reveal new features to the listener with memories of previous listenings. After all, if one does not come away from a subsequent listening experience with some new insight, why bother having the recording as a resource in the first place?

Del Sol String Quartet will Conclude “Soundings” Series at C4NM

Next month the Center for New Music (C4NM) will host the final concert in this year’s Sounding series, produced annually by the Del Sol String Quartet, whose members are (left-to-right in the photograph below) violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates:

photograph by R. J. Muna, courtesy of C4NM

As has been previously observed, each concert in the series involves the juxtaposition of a musical performance and the display of visual art, with the combination embedded in a context of in-depth discussion. For this Soundings 4.3 concert the visual art will be that of bonsai, and the discussion will be led by Eric Schrader, President of the Bonsai Society of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco:

courtesy of C4NM

The musical side of the program will be Caroline Shaw’s 2011 string quartet “Entr’acte.” This composition seems to have one of the more unique inspirations. It involves not another quartet from the chamber music literature, but the specific performance of that quartet by the Brentano Quartet. The music they were playing was Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/82 quartet (the second of his Opus 77 quartet); and, in her own words, Shaw was taken by “their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet.” She neglects to say on the Web page for this piece that the minuet itself is in F major, meaning that Haydn’s modulation was about as radical as one could get. However, she does say that her own piece “is structured like a minuet and trio.” My past two encounters with this piece have found it enigmatic (even where that preposition “like” is concerned), leaving me wondering just how much explanation would be required to resolve those enigmas.

This performance at C4NM will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 15. It will be preceded by a reception with the artists at 6:30 p.m. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gave Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for C4NM members. Both levels of tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

DYNAMIC Releases an Album of Mussorgsky’s Complete Piano Works

Modest Mussorgsky is not remembered for very much of his music. Opera lovers know him for Boris Godunov but also for their arguments of which version most suitable for performance. The Fantasia crowd knows him for “Night on Bald Mountain,” not realizing that they are listening to Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s efforts to “repair” the composer’s “mistakes.” However, the reflex reaction to Mussorgsky’s name is almost always “Pictures at an Exhibition.” However, similar to the case of “Night on Bald Mountain,” just about everyone who reacts that way immediately thinks of the orchestral version by Maurice Ravel. Those who follow piano recitals know better, but there is a good chance that most of them know little about anything else that Mussorgsky wrote anything else for that instrument.

Last Friday the Italian DYNAMIC label released a recording of pianist Giacomo Scinardo playing Mussorgsky’s complete piano works. This fills only two CDs, but it accounts for pretty much the entire span of the composer’s creative life. The very first piece he composed, at the age of twelve, was a piano piece entitled “Porte-enseigne Polka,” which he then published after publishing it at his father’s expense. At the other end of his life, in 1880, Mussorgsky prepared piano arrangements of two of the instrumental interludes for The Fair at Sorochyntsi, an opera he never managed to complete before his death the following year.

There is thus considerable breadth in the repertoire that Scinardo has recorded. Nevertheless, those wishing to pick nits about thoroughness may not be satisfied. In the Complete Works Edition edited by Pavel Lamm (whose piano repertoire is available thanks to Dover Publications), we see that several of his pieces went through two versions. In those cases Scinardo has chosen to record only one of them, and that should be enough to satisfy most listeners.

Listener reaction will, of course, tend to be driven by familiarity. In that respect it was probably wise that “Pictures” occupy the first tracks of the first CD. Where my own tastes are concerned, I find Scinardo’s approach to this piece about as satisfying as I would wish. There are, of course, pianists who like to play up the rhetorical grandeur that figures so heavily in Ravel’s orchestration. As a result, it is difficult not to find a pianist who does not go over the top with the final “picture,” “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev).”

While it is true that, during the last quarter of this piece one gets the impression that, if Mussorgsky had been working things out at the keyboard, he must have had three hands, a disciplined approach to executing this complexity is far from out of the question. The good news is that Scinardo prioritizes such a disciplined approach under the assumption that the expressiveness will take care of itself. As the old joke goes, “He does, and it does.” This is a performance realized with the attentive listener in mind; and, even with the limitations of recording technology, such a listener is likely to encounter some gems in the details that (s)he may not have previously imagined. If Scinardo has been that successful in his fidelity to “Pictures,” then we should have no trouble crediting him with bringing the necessary understanding to all of the other works in this collection.

The Second Sunday of June will be Just as Busy as the First

As could be seen in some of last Friday’s dispatch, June tends to be the month of end-of-season programming. So it should be no surprise that the second Sunday of the month will be as busy as the first. In this case, however, one event will mark end of one season, while the following event will mark the anniversary of another. Here is the current “state of play” for concerts taking place on Sunday, June 11:

3:30 p.m., Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco: The HIP (Historically Informed Performance) Forum is an ensemble that gives performances on period-appropriate instruments of music from both the Baroque and Classical periods. This month’s concert will be devoted entirely to works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program will offer the K. 478 quartet in G minor, played by Derek Tam at the fortepiano and the string trio of violinist Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist Erik Anderson. Less familiar will be the K. 138 divertimento in F major, which features major solo work for bass, played by Kristin Zoernig. The final selection will be the K. 251 divertimento in D major, scored for two violins, viola, bass, oboe, and two horns.

The Swedenborgian Church is located in the “border area” between Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights. The address is 2107 Lyon Street, near the northwest corner of Washington Street. General admission will be $30 with a $25 rate for seniors and members of the San Francisco Early Music Society and a $10 rate for students with valid identification. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

4 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: The Beth Custer Ensemble will host a performance of Water Worship, a multimedia oratorio about the use, misuse, and regeneration of our most precious resource. The instrumentation will include a collection of water-inspired instruments, assembled and performed by Bart Hopkin. He will be joined by a string quartet consisting of members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. The text will be narrated by Dean Santomieri, and the additional media will take the form of projections presented by Craig Baldwin. As most readers should know by now, 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. No advance information has been provided about admission, which may mean that donations will be appreciated.

4 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): Symphony Parnassus will conclude its season by highlighting two young musicians. There will be the world premiere performance of “Luz Dorada” (golden light) by Stefan Cwik, the ensemble’s composer-in-residence, who is currently an SFCM faculty member. The piece was inspired by three paintings by the artist Eduardo Rodriguez Calzado. Appropriately enough, the intermission will be followed by a performance of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition suite. The other young musician will be seventeen-year-old pianist Elliot Wuu, who will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 rhapsody based on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s solo violin caprices.

This performance will take place in the SFCM Concert Hall. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Ticket prices are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $10 for those under the age of 26. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The Merola Opera Program will launch its 60th Anniversary Season with a special concert. Two of Merola’s most well-known alumnae, soprano Deborah Voigt (1985) and mezzo Dolora Zajick (1983), will be featured soloists. They will be joined by several more recent alumni. The program will be divided into four sections.

The first section will begin with Voigt and Zajick singing the famous duet “Belle nuit, o nuit d’Amour” (beautiful night of love) from Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. The 2017 Merolini will provide the choral accompaniment. This will be followed by “Suzel, buon di” (Suzel, you are good), the so-called “Cherry Duet” from the second act of Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz (friend Fritz). The vocalists will be soprano Julie Adams and tenor Pene Pati, both 2013 Merola graduates.

The second section will begin with baritone Quinn Kelsey (2002), who will be singing the title role of Rigoletto during the Summer Season performances of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). He will sing Gérard’s aria “Nemico della patria” (enemy of the state) from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Soprano Tracy Dahl (1985) will then sing the famous coloratura aria “Je suis Titania” (I am Titania) from Ambroise Thomas’ opera Mignon. The two of them will then join forces for the duet “Il pallor funesto, orrendo” (the horrid pallor) from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

In the third section Zajick will return to sing “Voi la sapete” (you know it) from Mascagni’s one-act opera “Cavalleria rusticana.” She will then join tenor Issachah Savage (2013) in the duet “Ai nostri monti” (to our mountains) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore (the troubadour). Then, in a sort of tag-team approach, Savage will take the briefly-heard role of Samson as mezzo Zanda Švēde (2013) sings Delilah’s aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (my heart opens itself to your voice) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah. He then will sing “Siegmund heiss’ ich” (my name is Siegmund) with soprano Sarah Cambridge (2016) in the plot-critical duet of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (the Valkyrie).

The final section will be devoted to the greatest classic musicals of Broadway. Mezzo Catherine Cook (1990) will join Voigt to sing “Anything you can do” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Jerome Kern’s Show Boat will then be represented with the duet “You are love” sung by soprano Kristin Clayton and bass-baritone Bojan Knežević. Cook will then sing “I am easily assimilated” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with backup from tenor Amitai Pati and baritone Andrew G. Manea. The evening will then conclude with an all-hands performance of “Make our garden grow,” the finale of Candide.

The entrance to Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. All tickets for this concert are being sold for $60. They are being handled by the SFO Box Office, which is in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, on the other side of the War Memorial complex at the northwest corner of Grove Street. The Box Office can also be reached by telephone at 415-864-3330. There is also an event page on the SFO Web site for online purchase.

Finally, this concert will be preceded by a Gala Dinner that will be held across the street in City Hall. This event is currently completely sold. However, there is a waiting list for any openings. Those interested in being on that waiting list may contact Miriam Rosenfeld at 415-936-2311.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Other Minds Remasters Major Columbia Tapes by Composer-Critics

This past Friday Other Minds Records released its latest album, entitled Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune:

courtesy of Other Minds

This is an essential audio document for anyone interested in the more adventurous side of composition in the United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century. To be fair, however, the backstory of the title is probably as interesting as the music on the album.

The recording comes with a magisterial 60-page booklet edited by Charles Amirkhanian, co-founder of the Other Minds Music Festival, who is also responsible for much of the writing in the booklet. However, I should probably steal a bit of the thunder from this booklet with a quick summary of that backstory. Between 1940 and 1954 Virgil Thomson served as chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, which was probably the major (and, where arts reporting was concerned, probably more adventurous) alternative to The New York Times. Thomson had been a highly productive composer in Paris between 1925 and 1940. The Herald Tribune made a shrewd decision in recruiting an “insider;” but, while Thomson had no shortage of strong opinions, he also recognized that his primary obligation to newspaper readers was to provide explanation rather than opinion. (None of this is covered on Thomson’s Wikipedia page, making it my first encounter with a Wikipedia source that is unforgivably inadequate.)

As might be imagined, Thomson was a passionate champion of new music; and he knew enough to avoid directing his efforts strictly to his own compositions. As a result he became connected to many of the rising talents trying to bring their works to public attention while, at the same time, coming up with enough money to get by in New York. Thomson was able to assist by recruiting several of them to take on reviewing jobs, since those were the days when a newspaper still covered more than a single concert in any given issue. Four of the composers he recruited were John Cage, Paul Bowles, Lou Harrison, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, all of whom had writing skills that measured up to their composing skills.

At that same time Thomson was also approached by Columbia Records to curate a series that would be called Modern American Music. It was no surprise that Thomson would turn to the same composers who were writing for him at the Herald Tribune; and works by all four of Thomson’s subordinates, as well as Thomson himself, would be released on Columbia albums between 1953 and 1955. The new Other Minds album collects from those albums one piece by each of these five composers. In “order of appearance” these pieces are:
  1. Music for a Farce by Bowles
  2. A suite for cello and harp by Harrison
  3. “Capital Capitals,” Thomson’s setting of a text by Gertrude Stein of the same name
  4. A sonata for piano and percussion by Glanville-Hicks
  5. “String Quartet in Four Parts” by Cage
All of these are compositions that have received almost no attention recently, undeservedly so.

Fortunately, those living in my home town of San Francisco were able to enjoy one notable exception to that lack of attention. Because this year marks the centennial of Harrison’s birth, his music is enjoying more exposure than usual; and just this past Saturday his suite was performed as part of a two-concert event entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison, which happened to be this year’s Other Minds Music Festival! Nevertheless, it would be more than regrettable if any of these composers’ works are only performed on such “significant anniversary” occasions.

The fact is that Other Minds definitely needs to be both recognized and thanked for bringing to light five highly engaging (not to mention strikingly diverse) approaches to composition at a time when the deeply-rooted tree of nineteenth-century traditions was getting a good shaking in any number of different directions. Harrison’s suite, for example, comes across as being both retrospective and prospective at the same time. Three of the movements were originally composed for a film about the Lascaux Cave paintings; and there is a “bare bones” quality to the sonority that almost seems to evoke the earliest efforts at making music. On the other hand, picking up on an observation that Thomson himself made about this piece, the “Air” movement almost sounds as if Harrison took “Le cygne” (the swan) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and gave it a good swift kick of twentieth-century rhetoric.

The one piece on this album that I had previously encountered on an album is the Cage quartet, which the Concord String Quartet had recorded for the old vinyl Vox Box American String Quartets of 1950–1970. This was the earliest composition in that collection, since Cage had completed it in 1950; and it predates Cage’s use of chance techniques. It has a subdued and haunting quality that contrasts sharply with both the composer’s pioneering attention to percussion (including his invention of the prepared piano) and the often opaque abstractions that would arise from processes that first identify component materials and then organize them by chance techniques.

“Capital Capitals” may be the piece on this album of major historical interest. It is one of a series of Thomson’s settings of Stein texts, which all seemed to involve their own approaches to synthesizing word-play and sound-play. It was composed in 1927 and is probably the last of those settings that predates Thomson’s first joint project with Stein, which resulted in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The text is not included in the booklet, but there is a reproduction of the first page of the published score. One thus quickly sees that the music consists almost entirely of incantation by solo voices; and the words are never in any way distorted by the diction of the four vocalists, tenors Joseph Crawford and Clyde S. Turner, baritone Joseph James, and bass William C. Smith.

Glanville-Hicks is the one composer on the album with a percussion-centric offering. By the time she completed this sonata in 1952, those attending “modern music” concerts would have become used to according soloist status to percussionists. It is therefore more than a little disappointing that the album credits cited only the “NY Percussion Group” (which was probably a pickup group assembled for the recording session), conducted by Carlos Surinach with Carlo Bussotti taking the piano part. Most important is that, for those following how the percussion repertoire had developed since the days of Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation,” Glanville-Hicks had definitely found a voice uniquely her own for this sonata.

Finally, Music for a Farce is a suite of short pieces that Bowles had written as incidental music for one of Orson Welles’ theatre projects. Like many Welles efforts, this one never came to fruition. Thus, there is no narrative to orient the listener to the eight movements of this suite. Four of them have “social” connotations (tarantella, quickstep, waltz, march). However, the music is best approached as an almost rapid-fire barrage of witticisms, complete with “sound effects” from sources such as a glass milk bottle (which will make this piece a serious challenge for the “original instruments” set).

From a personal point of view, it is difficult for me to listen to this album without serious pangs of nostalgia. Cage is the only composer included whom I got to know for any length of time. (My interaction with Thomson himself probably lasted less than a minute.) At the same time, my nostalgia is assuaged by a rhetoric of fun that pervades the entire album, even when “fun” may not have been what the composer had in mind. I suspect that this particular impression derives from the fact that all five of these composers had a joyous disposition in their respective approaches to modernism, even when the subject matter itself may have been more serious. Furthermore, because we have now become a society that revels in our ignorance of history, this album may be of great service to some of the would-be future composers, who may be in the process of reinventing the wheel without knowing it!

The Bleeding Edge: 5/22/2017

This will be a relatively quiet week, which may be welcomed by those needing a rest after last week. Indeed, things will not get under way until Thursday; and three of the events (on three consecutive days) have already been cited in the review of this month’s activities at the Center for New Music. The remaining options are as follows:

Thursday, May 25, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s offering in the Outsound Presents LSG Creative Music Series will follow the usual two-set format. However, those sets will contrast sharply. The first set will be taken by the Long Tone Choir, led by Rae Diamond, who founded the group in 2013. Diamond composes all the works that are performed, which she describes as follows:
Our repertoire creates biotic and centripetal developments of sound, time and perception by using the inherently irregular tempo of breath as the musical pulse, playing within the harmonic series with specific pitches, vowels and vocal manipulations, and traversing the ragged edges of harmonic adventure through aleatory methods. Performing this material trains the ear and builds the voice and breath capacity of seasoned musicians and non-musicians alike, calms and focuses the mind, increases body awareness, transforms the experience of time, and builds a sense of community.
The second set will then follow with duo free jazz improvisations by Phillip Greenlief and Scott Walton. 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.

Thursday, May 25, 8 p.m., Museum of Performance + Design: Eurythmy#2 will be a social performance-concert conceived jointly by visual artist Latifa Medjdoub and sound artist Haco. The audience will participate in using structural modular elements to collaborate on the construction of a vast ephemeral flexible architecture in relation to the environmental sounds being created by Haco. Those sounds will be produced by an electronic acoustic quartet that Haco will lead, performing with Tania Chen, Wobbly, and Dereck Philips.

The Museum of Performance + Design is located in SOMA at 893B Folsom Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $25, and all are invited. The event will be appropriate for families, kids, and individuals with disabilities. Comfortable clothing is advised.

Saturday, May 27, 9 p.m., The Chapel: This will be a special encore performance arranged in response to popular demand. The Mattson 2 is the duo of identical twins Jared and Jonathan Mattson. Jared takes an untamed approach to layered guitar riffs, while Jonathan is an exponent of hard-bop drumming. The two of them have created their own arrangement of John Coltrane’s four-movement masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” The result is a decidedly contemporary take on one of the most significant events in jazz history, the single session at the Van Gelder Studio on December 9, 1964 when this music was performed and recorded in its entirety with Coltrane leading his quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

The Chapel is located in the Mission at 777 Valencia Street. Tickets will be $20 at the door. A reduced price of $16 has been announced for advance purchase; but, as of this writing, the Tickets hyperlink on the event page is disabled. Doors will open at 8 p.m.

Sunday, May 28, 7 p.m., Fort Mason: Moe! Staiano will lead his Moe! Staiano Ensemble in a performance of his first composition for multiple electronic guitars. “Away Towards the Light” is a three-movement piece scored for nine electric guitars, bass, and drums. Staiano developed it as an exploration of tonal interplay and contrasting rhythms. The piece is expected to last about 40 minutes. It will be the only work on the program, and there will be no intermission.

This concert is one of the events in the San Francisco International Arts Festival hosted by the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. The entry to Fort Mason is a 2 Marina Boulevard, and this particular performance will take place in Gallery 308. General admission will be $25 with a $4 discount for full-time students with identification and seniors. All those under the age of 18 will be admitted for $12.50. In addition, the Fort Mason Box Office has created an event page at which General Admission tickets may be purchased in advance for $20.

Agave Baroque Explores the Austrian Baroque at Church of the Advent

Yesterday afternoon the Third Sunday Concerts series at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King presented an adventurous and engaging recital by the Agave Baroque chamber ensemble. This is a quintet of two violinists, Aaron Westman and Anna Washburn, playing with a continuo of William Skeen on gamba, Henry Lebedinsky on organ, and Kevin Cooper playing both theorbo and Baroque guitar. The title of the program took up most of the cover of the program handout: The Fantastical Mr. Biber: The experimental harmonies, virtuosity, and modernism of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

Biber was born in Bohemia but spent most of his life in Salzburg in Austria. Introductory remarks observed that Baroque music in Austria was distinctively different from that in Germany. The argument was that Austria enjoyed a broader range of influences, not only from Germany to the north but also Italy to the south, Hungary to the east, and possibly even Spain to the west, which was under Hapsburg rule. Thus, the program also included organ music by Georg Reutter, based in Vienna, as well as the “external” influences of Jakob Kremberg (Polish) and Johannes Schenck (Dutch).

However, the focus of the program was on Biber and his “fantastical” capacity for invention, which he brought to the music he composed for the violin. Biber was interested not only in exploring the embellishment of his thematic material but also in complementing those explorations with new approaches to sonorities and harmonies. Thus, most of the selections of his music involved the scordatura technique of tuning the strings to different pitches. As had been observed in the preview article for this concert, each of the depictions of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary in the Rosary Sonatas requires its own unique alternative tuning. (Each sonata also was published with a woodcut illustrating its respective Mystery. This could be seen in the photograph including a score page in that preview article.) Yesterday afternoon Washburn played the second of these sonatas, known as “The Visitation,” depicting the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when they were pregnant with Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively.

The major part of the program, however, was devoted to Biber’s Harmonia artificioso-arioso, which involves scordatura tunings for multiple instruments. The intermission was preceded by two short movements from the third of the seven partitas in this collection, while the second half of the program was devoted primarily to the first of these partitas. Biber experimented with five-part harmonies involving the continuo bass line under double-stop bowing in two violins; and the effect is frequently uncanny. Fortunately, Westman and Washburn were well prepared for the technical demands of the first partita, serving up a thoroughly engaging account of just how inventive Biber could be in his approached to violin performance.

That inventiveness was also well represented by each of the other players. Lebedinsky moved up to the organ loft to play a toccata by Reutter, while Skeen deftly negotiated the virtuoso demands on the gamba in a coupling of a capriccio and fugue by Schenck. Cooper shifted from theorbo to guitar to play arrangements of folk songs by Kremberg, sharing the vocal line with the other musicians as each song traversed several verses.

The result was an encounter with seldom-performed music from a time when Austria had not yet become a musical focal point, all given an absorbing account that made for an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

An Unconventional Mix of the Auditory and the Visual will come to C4NM

At the beginning of next month, the Center for New Music (C4NM) will host an out-of-the-ordinary duo partnership of composer Danny Clay with printmaker Jon Fischer. Fischer has been experimenting with records (the pre-CD kind) as a visual medium for exploring and representing the geography of California. He has partnered with Clay to produce a series of works under the general title Turntable Drawings. The results emerge from the interplay of printmaking, interactive installation, custom-made turntables and the records they play, film, and live performance.

The event will begin with a reception at which visitors will be able to visit an installation in which they can not only examine the collection of over 50 handmade records created for this project but also play them on the turntables that will be part of the installation:

Some of the handmade records created for Turntable Drawings (courtesy of C4NM)

This will be followed by performances featuring the Mana Trio at which four of Clay’s contributions as a composer will be presented. Two of these, “Turntable Drawing No. 25” for three saxophones and multiple turntables and “Turntable Drawing No. 8” for eight turntables without records, will be given their premiere performances. The program will also include “Turntable Drawing No. 6” for three turntables, piano, and guitar and “Turntable Drawing No. 20” for three saxophones and three turntables.

This event will take place on Saturday, June 3. The reception will begin at 5 p.m., and the performances by the Mana Trio will get under way at 7 p.m. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner 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 online through a Vendini event page.

DIVOX Releases Historic Recordings of Richter Playing Prokofiev

As was observed when this site first began to document different sources for the legacy of recordings of pianist Sviatoslav Richter, Richter did not think much of recording studios. As a result, the vast majority of available recordings were made in concert. Sometimes the circumstances of those recordings can be as interesting as the performances being captured. Such is the case with a two-CD album released by DIVOX this past Friday. The title of the album is Musical Friendship, referring to the relationship that Richter had with composer Sergei Prokofiev.

The circumstances behind these recordings definitely deserve to be singled out for attention. The sources come from two recitals that Richter gave in Japan in the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Hall on December 2, 1980 and June 3, 1981, respectively. Present at both performances were representatives of Yamaha equipped with nothing more than a single cassette recorder. They were there with Richter’s permission. At the first recital they recorded Prokofiev’s last completed piano sonata, his Opus 103 in C major, along with a selection of five pieces from his Opus 95, Opus 97, and Opus 102 collections of transcriptions of music from his Opus 87 score for the ballet Cinderella. The second recital coupled the Opus 82 sonata in A major (the first of the three “war” sonatas) with an extended variety of short pieces, including ten of the pieces collected from the twenty Opus 22 Vision fugitives (fugitive visions). It is unclear whether Richter played music by any other composer at either of these recitals, but the Prokofiev selections would have given both performer and listeners enough of a workout for one evening.

Prokofiev was, himself, a prodigious pianist and may well have enjoyed writing pieces that would challenge other pianists to rise to his level of skill. However, Richter was 22 years younger and Prokofiev; and the composer’s ego probably enjoyed the idea of a younger pianist taking on the challenges he had set. Richter probably first came to Prokofiev’s attention when he gave the first concert performance of Opus 82 in October of 1940, about half a year after Prokofiev played the sonata for the first time for his colleagues. To honor Prokofiev’s 55th birthday shorty after the end of World War II, Richter performed the complete cycle of all three “war” sonatas.

Richter may thus have planned these two concerts in Tokyo as a memorial event to honor Prokofiev. When these recordings were first made available for public release in 1985, Richter included a statement acknowledging the modest conditions of the technology used for making the recordings. He then concluded:
However, I feel that they deserve to be made available to a broader public for purely artistic reasons.
He then attached his signature to the statement:

From the accompanying booklet

The result is an album that may be said to pit the music lovers against the audiophiles. The latter, sadly, seem to confine their attention only to the optimum removal of noise from any captured signal. Any information conveyed by that signal is purely secondary. The rest of us, on the other hand, have no trouble appreciating the signal for the information itself, regardless of whether not it is being impeded by noise. The fact is that the mastering of the recordings on these two CDs is excellent, and one would have to be the most rabid audiophile to complain of any problems with noise.

Ultimately, the essence of “signal” involves what may be Richter’s most salient quality. Whether he is playing George Frideric Handel or Prokofiev, his highest priority is always one of giving a clear account of what the composer left for him in the form of marks on paper. This is not to say that he is not interested in giving expressive performances. He just never wanted to let his expressiveness subordinate the “letter of the text” that he was performing.

This issue is particularly critical where Prokofiev is concerned. As has already been observed, the composer had a high opinion of his own virtuosity. However, when he was wearing his composer hat, so to speak, he knew that there was more to the act of making music than virtuoso display. He had his own ways of balancing these priorities, and it is probably the case that his friendship with Richter derived from Prokofiev’s appreciation that the pianist was willing to respect the composer first and then pursue his own expressive talents (which must have registered with Prokofiev) second. The result on these two CDs is thus a deeply moving account of the significance of such a relationship between composer and pianist; and DIVOX deserves recognition for making that account available, presumably after having committed to some serious restoration efforts.

Other Minds 22 Concludes with Stunning American Gamelan Sounds

Last night the second of the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival of new music played to a full house in Mission Dolores Basilica. The title of the program was Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces, putting a splendid cap on the entire festival entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. The second half offered about an hour’s worth of music performed on the instruments of Old GrandDad, the proper name of the American Gamelan collection of instruments designed and constructed by Harrison and his partner William Colvig to put a contemporary American spin on the long tradition of Indonesian gamelan music. Harrison used just intonation as his tuning system, working with the 3:2 ratio for the perfect fifth and the 5:4 ratio for the major third. The result was a pentatonic scale with the elimination of all chromatic semitones:

The pentatonic tuning system for Old GrandDad (created by Hyacinth for Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Physically, the instruments reflected a junkyard aesthetic, including aluminum slabs with tin can resonators, galvanized garbage cans, oxygen tanks truncated at different lengths, and iron gongs. These instruments were played by the William Winant Percussion Group. including Director Winant himself along with Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, Henry Wilson, and Sarong Kim. Every performer was responsible for at least two instruments, often playing more than one at the same time. What may have been most impressive was that the resources of the ensemble were deployed in both an intimate setting and a truly massive one.

The first selection was the 1974 suite that Harrison composed jointly with Richard Dee for violin and American Gamelan. Violinist Shalini Vijayan joined Winant’s group, and they were all conducted by Nicole Paiement. This was followed by Harrison’s half-hour cantata La Koro Sutro (the heart sutra), which calls for a large mixed chorus, organ, and harp, along with the American Gamelan. Three vocal ensembles joined forces to provide that large mixed chorus, the Mission Dolores Choir (Jerome Lenk, Music Director), the Resound Choir (Luçik Aprahämian, Artistic Director), and Sacred and Profane (Rebecca Petra Naomi Seeman, Director). Lenk played the organ part on what appeared to be a harmonium, and Meredith Clark was the harpist. Once again Paiement conducted.

Needless to say, the setting of these two pieces differed significantly; but they were equal in expressive impact. Harrison and Dee selected just the right combinations of Old GrandDad’s instruments to balance Vijayan’s violin work. Balance was never a problem, yet instruments were selected from the full collection to endow each of the suite’s movements with its own distinctive voice; and, consistent with the gamelan instruments, the violin part maintained diatonic constraints and just intonation tuning. As had been the case with the 1951 suite for violin, piano, and small orchestra played at the first Other Minds concert, Harrison was able to endow each movement with its own thematic identity.

The international flavor of La Koro Sutro was enhanced with a libretto in Esperanto. The original source was a sacred Buddhist text, and the translation was prepared by Bruce N. Kennedy, who also prepared the English translation given in the program book alongside the sung Esperanto text. The vocal lines amounted to incantation but frequently in homophonic settings that involved striking deployment of just intonation intervals. If it had been Harrison’s intention to evoke an expressiveness that was ancient and modern at the same time, he succeeded most impressively. New Albion Records (whose founder, Foster Reed, was in the audience) produced an impressive recording of this piece back in 1988; but there is no substitute for the stunning immediacy and sonorous diversity of an actual performance.

The first half of the program was devoted to far more limited resources. However, because one of those resources was the Mission Dolores Basilica pipe organ (played, again, by Lenk), it was hard call it the “chamber music” portion of the evening. Lenk began the concert with a performance of “Praises for Michael the Archangel,” which is probably Harrison’s most sophisticated approach to working with the constraints of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. He then concluded the first half of the program with the four-movement organ sonata Harrison composed to be played only by the pedal keyboard. This involved some imaginative approaches to chords requiring the heel to hold down a “white key” while the toe depressed a “black” one. In also imposed tempo markings that demanded some impressive footwork, all of which Lenk managed with stunning dexterity.

The middle selections of the first half were both performed by Clark. She used a diatonic harp, again with just intonation, for the 1990 “Threnody for Oliver Daniel.” She was then joined by cellist Emil Miland for a performance of the duo suite that Harrison composed in 1948. As was the case with the 1951 suite, the movements reflected a diversity of genres, departing from the traditional concept of a suite as a collection of dances. The individual movements were all relatively brief, almost the auditory equivalent of snapshots; and, indeed, three of the movements had been composed for a film about the Lascaux Cave paintings. There was also an Aria with rich arpeggios in the harp and a “singing” cello line that, as Virgil Thomson observed, amounted to a rethinking of “Le cygne” (the swan) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ own suite, The Carnival of the Animals.

The entire evening ran for about two and one-half hours. However, that expanse was necessary to do justice to the rich diversity of styles and rhetorics across the six works performed. Any attempt to trim down that diversity would have been unfair in accounting for the breadth of Harrison’s influences and the imagination with which he harnessed those influences.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Switchboard Music’s Festival will Celebrate Tenth Anniversary

Next month the annual Switchboard Music Festival will celebrate Switchboard Music’s tenth anniversary. The Festival involves an uninterrupted flow of sets all involving adventurous programming. Indeed, that adjective was chosen because in 2015 Switchboard won the annual ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming, the first (and thus far only) organization on the West Coast to do so. (In light of my own perspective on adventurous practices in this country, most of which is based on recordings, my admittedly biased reaction to the award was, “It’s damned well about time!” All too often I come away feeling as if the rest of the country has worked up some “alternative definition” for “adventurous.”)

This being an anniversary year,  Switchboard has calculated some interesting retrospective statistics. Over the course of ten years the group has presented 127 hours of music. This is not limited to the annual festival; and, in fact, Switchboard was one of the earliest curators of concert programming at the Center for New Music. Those 127 hours took in over 850 musicians performing 168 sets at which over 40 premieres were presented. This year’s festival will run for an (almost) uninterrupted six hours; and, as usual, listeners may come and go as they please. The schedule is as follows:

3:00 p.m.: The San Francisco Conservatory of Music percussion quartet will perform selections from Paul Lansky’s “Threads,” written for So Percussion, and Steve Reich’s “Drumming.”

3:45 p.m.: Bay Area cellist Teddy Rankin-Parker has been collaborating with New York-based composer Michael Beharie. Their project, called Some Other Fields, is based on a longstanding interest in how the physical constraints of an instrument informs its repertoire. Rankin-Parker’s set will constitute a “progress report” for this project.

4:30 p.m.: Ryan Brown will present the second installment of a large, hour-long work for vocal quartet, percussion quartet, and two keyboards. Entitled Mortal Lessons, the work is based on a book with the same name by Dr. Richard Selzer. The final version will be a semi-staged reflection on Selzer’s lyrical, and often graphic, musings on surgery and the mysteries of the human body. Brown is currently calling this a “medical oratorio” that translates the operating theater into the concert theater.

5:25 p.m.: The duo Ramon & Jessica will perform “Roses are Blue.” This will be a musical approach to Gertrude Stein’s The World is Round, written as a book for children and published in 1939. As might be guessed, Stein was as interested in the play of the words themselves as she was in any unfolding narrative, if not more so. Ramon & Jessica approach their source with both lyrical melodies and complex rhythms. 

6:10 p.m. Billygoat is the duo of David Klein and Nick Woolley. They make their own stop-motion films by creating frame-by-frame photographs and then installing the resulting images into dynamic handcrafted 3-D landscapes. They then compose their own musical accompaniment for these films. 

6:40 p.m.: This year there will be a pause in the usual uninterrupted schedule. For about 50 minutes the action will shift to the lobby, where, in celebration of the anniversary occasion, Switchboard will host a birthday party. Free cake and beer (the latter for those 21 or older) will be served. In addition, Dennis Aman will have created an installation of interactive musical instruments he has designed to provide a suitable context for the festivities.

7:30 p.m.: Based in the Bay Area, Splinter Reeds is the 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). The group was formed in 2013, at which time it was relatively unique. Now they share repertoire with several similar groups located around the world. They will perform samples from that repertoire.  

8:15 p.m. For more than 40 years, the Kronos Quartet—David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello)—has pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to continually re-imagining the string quartet experience. For those of my generation, they have been leading pioneers of adventurous programming. They will close out this year’s Festival with two works from their Fifty for the Future commissioning project. The first of these will be “At the Purchaser’s Option,” composed by Rhiannon Middens and arranged by Jacob Garchick. The second will be Laurie Anderson’s “Shutter Island.” They will also play “Dadra in Raga Bhairavi,” composed by the Indian violinist N. Rajam and arranged by Reina Esmail.

This year’s Festival will take place on Saturday, June 10. The venue will be Z Space, located in the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone at 450 Florida Street. Tickets will be $40 for standard admission and $30 for seniors and students. As already mentioned, ticket-holders may come and go as they please over the course of the Festival’s six hours. OvationTix has set up an event page through which tickets may be purchased in advance online.