Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reports of “Spectacular” Karajan have Been Exaggerated

The month of July has given me a generous amount of time to catch up on listening to recordings that have accumulated in my collection. That has included getting back to traversing the thirteen box sets compiled by Warner Classics for their Karajan Official Remastered Edition. This project has been languishing in 1949 since my last dispatch on the third box in the set. The title of the fourth box is Herbert von Karajan: Orchestral Spectaculars 1949–1960; and, once again, it is necessary to provide some background information on the saga of career development that Karajan shared with Walter Legge.

Reader may recall that Karajan made his first recordings for Legge as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. However, Legge’s heart was in England, where he had been Thomas Beecham’s assistant at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. After the conclusion of that war, Legge set about to found an new orchestra, which he called the Philharmonia Orchestra. He had hoped that Beecham would be the Music Director; but (as might be guessed) Beecham refused to take a position that would place him as Legge’s employee.

Fortunately, Legge had no trouble recruiting other conductors; and, while Karajan never had an official title, he was closely associated with the Philharmonia. Nevertheless, he was far from the only conductor to take the ensemble’s podium. Some of the most memorable of the others included Arturo Toscanini, Richard Strauss, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. However, Karajan’s association with the Philharmonia was firmly associated with the EMI recordings he made, which continued even after he had been named Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1954. As a result, of the thirteen CDs in the fourth box of the Warner Classics series, eleven of them, along with 21 (of 25) tracks of the twelfth, present the Philharmonia, leaving the remaining tracks of the twelfth CD and all of the thirteenth to the Berlin Philharmonic.

Furthermore, this is far from a comprehensive account of the full breadth of EMI accomplishments that Karajan achieved with the Philharmonia. Such an account would have to include the following three boxes in this collection, which amount to another 25 CDs. For better or worse, Warner Classics chose to distinguish the fourth box as consisting of “orchestral spectaculars” or, if you read the “long form” on the front of the box, “orchestral spectaculars from Handel to Bartók.”

This promises considerable breadth; but there are quite a few selections across the thirteen CDs in this box that definitely challenge that attribute of “spectacular.” Consider, for example, the CD that consists entirely of overtures by Gioachino Rossini, each of which has its own capacity to delight but would hardly be described as “spectacular.” The same could be said of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ fantasia on the music of Thomas Tallis or Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teacher Frank Bridge. Even more challenging is Jean Sibelius’ enigmatic Opus 63 (fourth) symphony in A minor, which, in my mind, only really succeeds when it leaves the listener with the disturbing feeling that some critical elements are decidedly out of joint.

One might also wish to take issue with George Frideric Handel being the earliest composer in the collection. The box includes two recordings of a piece identified as Water Music Suite, thus offering interpretations by both the Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic; but the title itself refers to an arrangement that Hamilton Harty made of selections from the three suites that Handel himself had called Water Music. Harty compiled this suite in 1922, a time when audiences felt that Handel was too old-fashioned and needed to be spruced up a bit. (Harty was far from the only one to “improve upon” Handel for the sake of those audiences. Other partners in this crime included Leopold Stokowski and Harty’s countryman Beecham.)

To be fair, when I was a high school student (in the early Sixties) Stokowski’s aesthetic was still going strong in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had been fortunate enough to find a recording of Boyd Neel conducting the music as Handel had written it, putting me out in the forefront of those who would later reject Harty’s efforts as “historically misinformed.” Given how much attention there is to pre-Classical music in my home town of San Francisco, I suspect it would be almost impossible for me to find anyone capable of listening to Hardy’s arrangement of Handel without cringing.

Mind you, there are any number of instances of recordings that live up to that “spectacular” attribute. Indeed, there is an entire CD of the music of Hector Berlioz that fills the bill very nicely. Nevertheless, Karajan comes across as a conductor that is decidedly more interested in discipline rather than spectacle. What one admires most is the precision that he could elicit from his players; and, for an orchestra like the Philharmonia that was just getting off the ground, that is no small matter. However, precision does not necessarily result in the listener jumping out of his/her seat in revelatory astonishment. Rather, the impact is one of a satisfactory account of the score that never seems to take the sort of rhetorical stance that would leave the impression of a memorable performance.

From a more pragmatic point of view, on the other hand, Legge’s highest priority was probably his balance sheets. Going back to those high school days, I can remember browsing the shelves of Penn Records in Philadelphia. They were filled with the Angel vinyls of the selections in this box. Furthermore, if I were to ask one of the salesmen on the floor (yes, they were all men at the time) for a recording of something like Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“New World”) symphony in E minor, the odds were high that he would pull one of those Angel vinyls on the shelf and ask if I wanted anything else. Legge definitely knew how to engage the power of EMI recordings for the betterment of the Philharmonia; and Karajan was instrumental (so to speak) in milking that cash cow for all it was worth.

Lamplighters to Begin 65th Season with the Most “Operatic” G&S Creation

Next month Lamplighters Music Theatre will maintain its commitment to performing the canon of the works of Gilbert & Sullivan (G&S) by beginning its 65th season with a production of The Yeomen of the Guard. Sullivan’s score certainly ventures into more elaborate contrapuntal textures and more elaborate embellishments than are encountered in the rest of the G&S canon. For his part, Gilbert prepared a libretto with dark seriousness that took him about as far from those “topsy-turvy” allegations of the critics that often plagued him. Mind you, there is still no shortage of memorable tunes; and Gilbert’s wit still provides an added kick to the momentum that advances yet another plot involving mistaken identity, all set in the shadow of the Tower of London during the sixteenth century, when that shadow was at its darkest:

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company 1906 revival of The Yeomen of the Guard, from Wikipedia (public domain)

As usual, this production will be given four performances in San Francisco, at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 18, and Saturday, August 19, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 19, and Sunday, August 20. The venue will be the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). The Conductor will be Music Director Baker Peeples, and the Stage Director will be Barbara Heroux.

The theater is located at 700 Howard Street on the northwest corner of Third Street. Premium Orchestra tickets are $59, those in Center Terrace and the remainder of the Orchestra are $49, and those in the Side Terrace and Boxes are $44. Seniors (aged 62 or older) are entitled to a $5 discount in all sections; and a $10 discount per ticket is available for a Group Rate of ten or more tickets. $20 tickets are available in all sections for children (aged seventeen and under), students (aged 25 and under), and K-12 educators. Finally, student rush tickets are available one hour prior to each performance for only $15 with presentation of appropriate identification. The Box Office can be reached by telephone at 415-978-2787. Tickets may also be purchased online. Each of the four hyperlinks attached to a date above connects to an event page; but it is necessary to create a YBCA account if one does not yet exist. (This is a change from how online purchases were managed last season.) The Box Office is closed on Mondays and opens at 11 a.m. on all other days. It closes at 8 p.m. on Thursdays and closes at 6 p.m. on the remaining days. The Box Office also opens 90 minutes prior to each performance.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pamela Rose will Survey Women and the Blues at Custom Made Theatre

In November of 2009, Pamela Rose launched a full-length multimedia show entitled Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era, based on a CD of the same name, which had been released the previous month. Over the last two years, she has been with a team of five exceptional musicians to develop a new multimedia project focusing on women and the blues. The resulting theatrical presentation will be given its premiere next month here in San Francisco, when it will run for about a month at the Custom Made Theatre. The full title of the show is Blues is a Woman: from Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt.

It would be fair to say that the blues genre predates the emergence of what would come to be called jazz. The roots of the blues can be found in slavery, prisoners sentenced to hard labor, the physical demands of farming, and evangelical approaches to religion, with no one of these sources dominating the other two. However, the emergence of women as blues singers can probably be related to the parallel emergence of a demand for recordings. Thus, the classification of Ma Rainey as the “Mother of the Blues” received increased attention as a result of the popularity of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which takes place over the course of one of her recording sessions.

As a performer, Rainey toured with the Stokes troupe. Ironically, Bessie Smith would later audition to join that group. She got the job but was hired as a dancer, since Rainey was already doing the singing. This is just the tip of an iceberg whose substance is so great that decades of history would elapse before most of today’s listeners would encounter a familiar name, such as Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin.

For her new program Rose will serve as both vocalist and narrator. She will perform with five Bay Area musicians experienced with the blues genre. All of them are women: Tammy Hall on piano, Ruth Davies on bass, Kristen Storm on saxophone, Daria Johnson on drums, and Pat Wilder on guitar. The entire production will be staged by Creative Director Jayne Wenger:

Kristen Strom, Tammy Hall, and Pat Wilder (back row) and Daria Johnson, Pamela Rose, and Ruth Davies (front row), photograph by Jennifer Paschal courtesy of Custom Made Theatre

The Custom Made Theatre is located on the second floor of 533 Sutter Street, just off of Union Square. Shows will take place Thursday through Sunday, beginning on August 3 and concluding on August 27. The first three shows will be previews, followed by the press opening on Sunday, August 6. That opening night performance will begin at 7 p.m. All other Sunday performances will be at 3 p.m.; and all performances on Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays will be at 8 p.m. Tickets for all performances may be ordered online from a single Web page on the Custom Made Theatre Web site. Ticket prices range from $38 to $50. The Custom Made Theatre may be reached by telephone at 415-798-2682.

John Luther Adams and the Act of Attentive Listening

A little less than a week ago, I wrote about the outdoor performance of “Inuksuit” that will be given as part of the John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ in conjunction with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The other concerts in this series will be preceded by a “Listening Party” that will be held in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, which Adams himself has curated and will introduce. I must confess to a bit of skepticism where this idea is concerned.

I have pursued a generous number of Adams recordings that go all the way back to a vinyl of songbirdsongs that I had to sacrifice when I gave up my turntable while downsizing for my current condominium accommodations. I do not regret that loss, only because there was too much subtlety in Adams’ music to be captured by the equipment used to make that recording. Digital technology enabled significant improvements in capture technology; and, as a result, if one had the proper playback, one could at least begin to appreciate what made Adams’ music so special. Nevertheless, for the better part of his catalog, there is no substitute for being in the presence of musicians performing his scores.

Having said all that, I should still reiterate what regular readers of this site already know. If one is planning to attend a performance of a piece not previously heard, there is much value in a good recording that will provide some basic orientation and probably set more than a few expectations. It is thus important to note that the first actual concert in the Festival, on Thursday, July 27, in Miner Auditorium, will present the JACK Quartet playing the three selections on The Wind in High Places. They recorded two of those selections for a Cold Blue Music album, which was released in January of 2015. Those pieces are the title composition and the final track, “Dream of the Canyon Wren.”

I have previously written about how Adams shared Lou Harrison’s interest in the use of just intonation. “The Wind in High Places” takes that interest to a more refined level. The members of the string quartet performing the piece play only on open strings, touched only at nodal points to yield the pitches of the natural harmonics of the overtone series. As Adams’ put it in his notes for the album, the string quartet serves as as a sixteen-stringed Aeolian harp, translating the wind of the composition’s title into the vibrations of overtones on one or more of those strings.

This can be a challenge for many listeners. This site previously cited the psychological phenomenon of “categorical perception,” which fools mind into “hearing” the pitches of an equal-tempered piano when the frequencies differ by a small amount. Thus, when listening to “The Wind in High Places,” the cerebral cortex has to do more than a little work to keep the auditory cortex from incorrectly classifying the pitches of those vibrating strings. A recording provides one way to “train” mind to accept that it is listening to “the right thing” and must “disable” any attempt at categorical perception. Personal experience has taught me that this is best achieved on one’s own, rather than as part of an audience, which advocates “private listening” the the Cold Blue Music album.

Private listening is also likely to serve better any preparation for “Dream of the Canyon Wren.” From a personal point of view, this piece took me back to the songbirdsongs album, which was based on bird songs Adams had encountered in rural Georgia during the late Seventies. We tend to associate Olivier Messiaen with making music out of transcriptions of birdsong. However, once the mind behind the ear comes to accept Adams’ conscious decision to move beyond the limitations of equal temperament, there is no confusing his music, whatever instrumentation he may engage, with Messiaen’s!

The album The Wind in High Places also includes Canticles of the Sky, a suite in four movements that was written originally for the Calder Quartet. Adams subsequently rescored this piece for an ensemble of cellos with sixteen separate parts. That is the version on the recording, performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, conducted by Artistic Director Hans Jørgen Jensen. Each of this suite’s movements amounts to a musical impression of different visual features observed in the sky in different geographical settings. The textures of the cello version are clearly thicker than those of the string quartet version, and Adams seems to have exploited this difference to provide clearer distinctions across the visual impressions. Nevertheless, the album should go a long way towards preparing those listening to the string quartet version, which the JACK Quartet has included on its program, particularly when it comes to orienting those subtle changes through which Adams distinguishes motion from stasis.

Another Cold Blue album will serve to prepare listeners for the final Festival concert in Miner Auditorium on Sunday, July 30. Percussionist Doug Perkins, who will be organizing and directing Saturday’s performance of “Inuksuit,” will join forces with pianist Adam Marks for a performance of “Red Arc/Blue Veil.” Given how much attention has been given to Adams’ interest in natural harmonics, it may seem more than a little ironic that he would devote such attention to the piano. However, “Red Arc/Blue Veil” requires electronic processing of both the piano and the vibraphone and crotales played in the percussion part. This is as much a piece driven by the pursuit of unique sonorities as “The Wind in High Places” is; and the curious listener will definitely be introduced to those sonorities through the Cold Blue album, which was also given the title Red Arc/Blue Veil.

Indeed, this album is also a valuable source of orientation for what has become Adams’ best-known composition, his “Become Ocean,” which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and whose recording received the 2015 GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. This piece, whose duration is about 40 uninterrupted minutes, amounts of an auditory reflection on large masses of water in the same way that Canticles of the Sky looked upwards, so to speak. While the album Become Ocean is still readily available, it is worth noting that many of that piece’s contrapuntal textures can be traced back to “Dark Waves,” which Adams composed in 2007 for two pianos and electronic sounds. This piece, which is about one-third the duration of “Become Ocean,” occupies the first track of the Red Arc/Blue Veil album, on which it is performed by pianists Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi.

The album also provides one of the most fascinating efforts by Adams to evoke diverse sonorities from limited resources. “Qilyuan” is scored for four bass drums, played by Scott Deal and Stuart Gerber. Adams is far from the only composer to appreciate and explore just how diverse the bass drum can be; but “Qilyuan” is definitely one of the most compelling expressions of that appreciation. The album also includes Drury playing “Among Red Mountains,” a rich and rhythmic evocation of full-handed chords. As was the case with birdsong, one can appreciate Adams following a direction similar to that of Messiaen’s approach to large stone masses of geographical features; but here, again, Adams’ voice will never be confused with Messiaen’s.

On the other hand Adams’ use of such chords can be found in an entirely different context in “Four Thousand Holes,” the title track of another Cold Blue Music album. In this case Drury is accompanied by Deal playing vibraphone and orchestra bells, while Adams himself provides an electronic drone, which he calls an “aura.” In his notes for the booklet, Adams explains that this piece is based on “the most basic elements of Western music—major and minor triads and four-bar phrases.” One may be reminded of how triads emerge as the “punch line” of “Grand Pianola Music” by “that other John Adams;” but, in “Four Thousand Holes,” the triads constitute the alpha and the omega, so to speak, rather than the exclamation mark in the finale. The Four Thousand Holes album also includes Drury conducting his Calithumpian Consort in a performance of Adams’ “…and bells remembered…,” composed in 2005 and scored for percussion ensemble.

Since plans for a listening party served to trigger writing this article in the first place, listeners should be advised that Cold Blue Music is definitely one of the best sources for those curious about Adams. To date five albums have been released, each devoted entirely to his compositions. Thus it seems fair to accord the other two at least a brief summary:
  1. The Light That Fills the World is the earliest of the Cold Blue releases. The booklet offers little background information; but the Amazon.com Web page provides a Product Description beginning with “Three darkly textured pieces for bass clarinet, marimba, vibraphone, piano, organ, violin, and doublebass.” All three of these piece were written within the relatively short interval of time between 1998 and 2001.
  2. the place we began, on the other hand, is a single composition that consists of four tape-based soundscapes. In this case Adams provided a brief note for the booklet, explaining that his source material came from “several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes that I’d recorded in the early 1970s.” He did not mention that this would have been when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, where his composition teachers were James Tenney and Leonard Stein. On the other hand he does explain the title of the composition. It turns out to be a misquotation of T. S. Eliot, but the actual source is just as relevant. It comes from the beginning of the final stanza of “Little Gidding,” the last of the four poems that Eliot published as Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On the Entropy of Stupidity

This morning ZDNet published an informative article by Steve Ranger entitled "Encryption: In the battle between maths and politics there is only one winner." This is a piece that offers an impressive amount of information concerned with the technology of encryption; but, sadly, it is one of those pieces that embodies Anna Russell's description of having been written by a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts." The problem is that, where politicians are concerned, expertise is rarely, if ever, the deciding factor.

The result is that Ranger got his headline wrong, simply because he does not appreciate what politics can do. Perhaps because he is based in the United Kingdom, he may not have heard of the powers of our country's state legislators. Ultimately, they have turned out to be even less enlightened than those Papal Inquisitors who defied Galileo. Having gone to high school in a suburb of Philadelphia, I could easily see the absurdity of the Scopes Monkey Trial; but long after that trial had become distant history, there was at least one state legislature that passed a law declaring pi to be equal to 22/7; and I seem to recall another that declared it equal to 3!

Because those who have devoted themselves to the value of mathematics and science as tools see truth as an objective concept, they tend to disregard the relevance of social factors. Thus, while social theorists have no trouble seeing reality as a social construct, mathematicians find such a proposition to be thoroughly absurd. Ironically, those of us who look beyond the objective can persist in believing that reality can be a social construct with the same certainty that Galileo persisted in believing that the earth moved!

None of this should trouble mathematicians to any great degree, because, so the most part, the social world does not care what they do. As long as calculations that deal with mortgages and taxes (for example) work out reliably, there is no reason to worry about what a theorem of abstract algebra does or does not tell us. Encryption, on the other hand, is very much a product of the objective truths of abstract algebra; and it is very unlikely that the sorts of politicians who like to monkey around with the value of pi are likely to get very far in a book like Cryptography for Dummies. (One wonders how far they would get with the Hacking for Dummies volume!)

So, yes, in Ranger's "battle," there is, indeed, only one winner. However, that winner is "political reality," rather than "objective reality." The more serious question is not who the winner is but how we, as a society, can live with the power of politics to trump objectivity, even when serious issues, such as the many uses of digital technology, are involved.

Three of E4TT’s 10th Anniversary Season Concerts will be in San Francisco

The coming season marks the tenth anniversary of Ensemble for These Times (E4TT). The group was originally founded in 2007 as the Jewish Music & Poetry Project. Led by soprano Nanette McGuinness, the group began as a trio, whose other members were pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer. The fourth founding member was composer David Garner. The name change to E4TT took place in 2015 to reflect a broader mission and purpose. That purpose was grounded in a strong belief in the power of artistic beauty, intelligence, wit, lyricism, and irony to create a deep understanding of our times and the human condition.

Five programs have been planned for the Tenth Anniversary Season. Three of them will take place in San Francisco, each at a different venue. MacAdam-Somer has been replaced by Anne Lerner-Wright, who began as guest artist last season and is continuing in that capacity. Selections will include a continuation of the 56 x 54 series of world premiere performances of works written in response to the 2015 Call for Scores. There will also be a special program organized around the life and works of Paul Celan, who survived an internment camp in Romania (where both of his parents died) and eventually established himself as a poet in Paris following the end of the Second World War. Specifics for the San Francisco performances, all of which will take place next year, are as follows:

Sunday, February 4, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of this program will be 56 x 54 + Gorecki: Strings & Things. The featured work will be “Genesis I: Elementi,” a rarely performed string trio by Henryk Górecki. Cellist Lerner-Wright will be joined by violinist Dawn Harms and violist Julie Michael. The Call for Scores composers to be included on the program will be Weiwei Miao, Julianna Hall, Leah Kennedy, Mike McFerron, Dave Collins, and Joelle Wallach. The program will also include Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “Passion Revisited.”

Sunday, April 15, 4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: This will be the program organized around Paul Celan, entitled Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan. To this end there will be world premiere performances of four commissioned works. Two of them will be settings of Celan’s poetry, Garner’s “Die Eichne Tuer” and “Nachtlang” by Jared Redmond. Stephen Eddins’ “A Song for the End of the World” will be a setting of poetry by Celan’s contemporary, Czesław Miłosz. Finally, Vrebalov used her “Spell No. 8” to express her personal thoughts on Celan’s life and works. The program will also include “Memoire de l’ombre” by Call for Scores composer Aleksandra Kaca. Harms will again perform as guest artist, as well as Laura Reynolds on cor anglais.

Friday, June 29, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: This will mark the return of E4TT to the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. The title of the program will be 56 x 54: Focus on the Cello. Garner will contribute to that focus with a capriccio that Lerner-Wright will play, accompanied by Tsang. Call for Scores composers will include Lawrence Kramer, David Luna, Michael Daugherty, Gladys Smuckler Moskowitz, Frederick Schipizy, and Tom Flaherty.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, and Old First Presbyterian Church at 1751 Sacramento Street. Tickets for the February and April concerts will be $30 and $20. They are currently available for sale online through Eventbrite event pages, which may be accessed through the hyperlinks above. O1C has not yet created an event page for the June concert, but ticket prices will range between $25 and $5.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 7/17/2017

Today is a “lucky seven” day, since the digit seven appears in the date, month, and year. Things being what they are, it is the second of three occasions this month, after which we shall have to wait ten years for the next round. Out on the bleeding edge, good fortune has come with an increase in concert-going opportunities. Several of these have already been reported, including the return of the Friction Quartet to the Old First Concerts series, the second (of two) MicroFest North events at the Center for New Music, the free Touch the Gear expo that will precede the sixteenth annual Outsound New Music Summit, and the 75 Dollar Bill concert at The Lab. Remaining events of interest will, for the most part, occur earlier in the week as follows:

Wednesday, July 19, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: The Peacock Lounge continues to host the reincarnation of what had been the Monthly Experimental Music Showcase at Second Act in the Haight. The program continues to follow the four-set format. This month’s performers will be as follows:
  1. Ralph White will accompany his own vocal work on six-string (Texas style) banjo, violin, accordion, and chain-draped kalimba.
  2. Chris Cooper and Jess Goddard will perform as the Angst Hase Pfeffer Nase duo.
  3. Raub Roy will continue his electronic pursuits performing as Scy1e.
  4. RTD3 decodes as Ron Tom Doug Trio, referring to trombonist Ron Heglin, who also contributes electronically enhanced vocalizing, Tom Nunn playing on his invented instruments, and cellist Doug Carroll, who also works with electronic enhancements.
The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. Admission will be $5 and will be restricted to those age 21 or older.

Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 23, 2 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA): As part of its Global Sounds on Screen series, YBCA will present a selection of short films on the evolution and formation of what came to be called free jazz. The program will be guest curated by Brian Belovarac and will focus on the New York-based ESP-Disk label:

ESP-Disk poster courtesy of YBCA

While Atlantic Records is rightfully acknowledged for having released Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet in September of 1961, ESP provided a much broader account of the new movement, which included groundbreaking records by artists such as Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra. It also offered live recordings of historically-significant predecessors of the free jazz movement; and, when I was writing for Examiner.com, I devoted attention to two major reissues of Bud Powell performances at Birdland in 1953 and in Paris in 1961, respectively. Belovarac has prepared a program of five short films covering several of the ESP projects, including one about The Fugs, which was less involved with free jazz and more interested in subverting prevailing trends in both folk and rock music.

This event with take place in the YBCA Screening Room. YBCA is located at 701 Mission Street on the southwest corner of Third Street. Regular admission will be $10 with a $9 rate for students, seniors, and teachers. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office, which is open when YBCA is open, Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by phone by calling 415-978-2787. Finally, online purchased may be made at separate event pages for the Thursday and Sunday screenings.

Thursday, July 20, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This week’s installment of the Luggage Store Creative Series will be a two-set evening with an emphasis on signal processing rendered as artistic expression. The first set will present the Ear Spray trio, which features Ann O’Rourke combining percussion work with processed vocals and live-processed video samples. She will be joined on percussion by Mark Pino with additional electronics work from Carlos Jennings. Pino will then join Mika Pontecorvo for a project entitled Alien Call Signs with technical roots in both complex adaptive systems and generative design architectures. Pontecorvo will handle digital and analog electronics, while Pino will shift over to waterphone. They will be joined by Adriane Pontecorvo on cello. There will also be some solo pieces, also involving complex adaptive systems, played by RiotNozzle, who will then do some duo work with Pontecorvo. 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. Admission for this performance will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Vladimir Feltsman’s Schubert Project Advances to its Fourth Volume

Near the beginning of this month, Nimbus Records released the fourth volume in Vladimir Feltsman’s project to record the solo piano music of Franz Schubert, focusing primarily on the piano sonatas. Readers may recall that the third volume was released at the beginning of November of last year and discussed on this site about a month later. While the third volume followed Feltsman’s earlier pattern of preceding a late work with a distinctively earlier one, the two sonatas on this new release are very much the product of the mature Schubert.

Vladimir Feltsman on the back cover of his latest Schubert album (courtesy of Naxos of America)

Most important is that Feltsman has now completed his account of what I like to call the “big three” sonatas, all of which Schubert composed in September of 1828, a little over a month before his death. The very last of these sonatas, D. 960 in B-flat major, was featured in the second volume, while the third volume offered D. 958 in C minor. The new release now “fills the gap” with a recording of D. 959 in A major. (It is unclear how significant the ordering is, since it is highly likely that Schubert was working on all three of these sonatas simultaneously, making it tempting to conjecture that he knew he was in a losing race with death.)

While the extended duration of all three of these sonatas provides a veritable treasure trove of Schubert’s capacity for prolongation, D. 959 has several distinctive features of its own. Schubert may never have written a piece that would count as a “piano concerto;” but the second movement of D. 595 suggests that Schubert was pursuing a long-standing desire to write a cadenza for one! The middle section of this movement has an over-the-top improvisatory feel, which one does not encounter elsewhere in his solo piano music.

Even more surprising is the final movement, which is the only one in those last three sonatas that Schubert explicitly labeled as a rondo. However, the ways in which thematic material returns gives the distinct impression of a rondo in a hall of mirrors. Indeed, while there is barely any “family resemblance,” the liberties that Schubert takes in thematic iteration almost seem to presage the sorts of liberties that Gustav Mahler would subsequently take. Furthermore, almost as if to remind the listener that repetition is the “order of the day,” that last iteration of the “official rondo theme” is followed by a recollection of the very opening of the first movement. Schubert could clearly be highly prodigious in playing with the structural conventions of his predecessors; but in D. 959 he calls all the chips that those predecessors played on the table and then goes all in with chips we may not have guessed that he had.

Feltsman must have appreciated just how high the “Shannon entropy” of this sonata was, because he chose to precede it with a sonata that is almost skeletal in its structure, D. 784 in A minor. Lest there be any doubt about the “maturity” of this sonata, it was composed in 1823, the year in which Schubert also composed the D. 785 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (the lovely miller’s daughter). What is most striking about this sonata is the extent to which Schubert restrains himself almost entirely from any of those skills of prolongation that distinguish so many of his late works. it is as if he wished to create a sonata in which each movement was as compact as one might imagine, flexing that constraint only in the way he deploys a coda at the end of the first movement. Yet for all that compactness, the A minor key of the sonata provides a platform for intense rhetorical gestures; and Feltsman brought a sure hand to making sure that each of those gestures was properly served.

In terms of the number of sonatas Schubert wrote, Feltsman has now passed the halfway mark. Furthermore, the earlier sonatas tend to be significantly shorter than the later ones. It is unclear how he has planned the contents of his remaining releases, but those earlier pieces tend to be unknown territory for all but the most avid admirers of Schubert’s music. It may be unclear what Feltsman’s next release will offer; but I, for one, am already anxiously awaiting it!

Plans Announced for Opera Ball 2017

As is always the case, the San Francisco Opera Guild will hold a gala benefit on the opening night of the 95th Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). On September 8, the season will begin with one of the great favorites of the SFO repertoire, the production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot conceived by David Hockney, staged on this occasion by Garnett Bruce with Martina Serafin in the title role and Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducting. The title of the benefit is be, appropriately enough, Opera Ball 2017 at The Imperial Palace. This will be Luisotti’s final season as Music Director, and he will be the honoree of this year’s event.

Nicola Luisotti with Opera Ball co-chairs Courtney Labe and Maryam Muduroglu (photograph by Valentina Simi, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

For this occasion designer J. Riccardo Benavides will create a Pavilion that will transport guests to a reimagined Imperial Palace. This structure will occupy the space adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House. The gala will begin on Friday, September 8, at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception in the foyer of the Opera House, followed by dinner in the Pavilion at 6 p.m. Following the SFO performance, guests will return to the Pavilion for cocktails, savories, sweets, and dancing to the sounds of Pop Rocks.

As always, tickets for the Opera Ball are available at several different price levels. These begin at the Patron Level of $1500, rise through the Benefactor Level of $2500 and the Grand Benefactor Level of $5000 to the Great Benefactor Level of $10,000. It is also possible to reserve a single table by purchasing tickets at any of these levels in blocks of ten. The fair market value of a ticket is $300, and the rest of the price may be claimed as a tax-deductible contribution.

Each of these levels has its own set of benefits. These are detailed on the Dinner and Performance Reservation Form, which is available online as a PDF file. Tickets for the performance of Turandot are sold separately, and the form also has a section for purchasing tickets. Those unable to attend may also use this form to make a tax-deductible donation. There is also a Web page for online purchases; but these are limited to only the $1500, $2500, and $5000 individual ball tickets along with a single ticket to the opera in the Orchestra 4 section. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-565-3204. In addition, the SFO Box Office may be reached by telephone at 415-864-3330.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Selections and Casting Announced for 2017 Merola Grand Finale

As in the past the Merola Opera Program will conclude its 60th anniversary season with a Grand Finale of staged scenes and musical excerpts. Also as in the past the entire event will be staged by this summer’s Merola Apprentice Stage Director, Victoria Crutchfield:

 Victoria Crutchfield, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

This production has always provided an imaginative challenge to provide threads of continuity across selections that are highly diverse in both narrative content and musical style. The conductor for this performance will be Antony Walker:

Antony Walker, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

The selections to be performed are as follows (not necessarily in the order given):

La fille du régiment  (Donizetti)
“Quoi! Vous m’aimez?...De cet aveu si tendre”
Marie – Kendra Berentsen       
Tonio – Anthony Ciaramitaro
                       
Cendrillon  (Massenet)
“Enfin, je suis ici”                   
Cendrillon – Ashley Dixon      
                       
I vespri siciliani  (Verdi)
“Mercè, dilette amiche”                      
Elena – Mathilda Edge
                       
Le comte Ory  (Rossini)
“Dans ce lieu solitaire”            
Raimbaud – Cody Quattlebaum
Chorus – tutti Merola men      
                       
Das Land des Lächelns  (Lehár)
“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”               
Prince Sou-Chong – Xingwa Hao         
                       
Ariadne auf Naxos  (R. Strauss)
“Sie hält ihn für den Todesgott”                      
Zerbinetta – Jana McIntyre     
Composer – Samantha Hankey           
                       
Wozzeck  (Berg)
“Soldaten, Soldaten sind schöne Burschen…Komm, mein Bub!”          
Marie – Felicia Moore 
                       
Lucia di Lammermoor  (Donizetti)
“Ebben? Di tua speranza l’ultimo raggio…Ah! cedi, o più sciagure”     
Lucia – Natalie Image 
Raimondo - David Weigel       
                       
Mefistofele  (Boito)
“Son lo spirito che nega sempre tutto”
Mefistofele – Andrew Hiers     
           
Mignon  (Thomas)                  
“Je suis heureuse…Ah! que ton âme enfin”      
Mignon – Edith Grossman       
Wilhelm – Addison Marlor      
Philine – Jana McIntyre          
                       
Les pêcheurs de perles  (Bizet)
“Qu’ai-je vu?...Je frémis, je chancelle”
Leïla – Alexandra Razskazoff  
Zurga – Dimitri Katotakis       
                       
La favorite  (Donizetti)
“Me voici donc près d’elle…Pour tant d’amour”         
Fernand – Addison Marlor       
Don Gaspar – Andrès Acosta   
Alphonse XI – Szymon Wach 
Léonor – Ashley Dixon          
                       
Così fan tutte  (Mozart)
“Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo”                 
Guglielmo – Daniel Noyola     
                       
The Turn of the Screw  (Britten)
“How beautiful it is”                
Governess – Kelsea Webb        
                       
Rodelinda  (Handel)
“Tirannia gli diede il regno”                
Garibaldo – Christian Pursell   
                       
Il viaggio a Reims (Rossini)
“Ah! A tal colpo inaspettato” 
Contessa – Kendra Berentsen  
Madama Cortese – Mathilda Edge
Corinna – Samantha Hankey   
Melibea – Ashley Dixon          
Delia – Edith Grossman           
Modestina – Alice Chung        
Conte – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Zefiro – Addison Marlor         
Cavaliere – Andres Acosta      
Barone – Cody Quattlebaum    
Don Alvaro – Christian Pursell           
Lord Sidney – Daniel Noyola  
Don Profondo – David Weigel
Don Prudenzio – Andrew Hiers           
Chorus – tutti Merolini

The Merola Grand Finale will take place in the War Memorial Opera House, located at 301 Van Ness Avenue on the northwest corner of Grove Street. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 19. Ticket prices will be $50, $40, and $25. 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 are also available online through a Web page with a chart that shows which prices apply for which sections of the house and allow for the specification of wheelchair availability. 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.

The performance will be followed by a reception, which will probably get under way around 10 p.m. Those who attend will have a chance to meet with the performers in the Green Room on the second floor of the Veterans Building, which is right next to the War Memorial Opera House and occupies the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This will require a separate ticket with a price of $75 per person. Those interested in reception tickets are invited to call the Box Office at the above telephone number.

Solo and Group Electronic Improvisation at The Lab

Last night’s concert at The Lab consisted of two sets of instrumentalists whose performances were extended by a rich collection of electronic enhancements, both analog and digital. The opening set was a solo taken by Brooklyn-based cellist Leila Bordreuil. Her instrument served as the core of a prodigious amount of electronic technology. which included some highly imaginative approaches to the placement of pickups and a generous share of technology to route the signals both through transform modules and ultimately to loudspeakers.

Bordreuil’s performance was a highly physical one. One of the shortcomings of the space at The Lab is that the audience sits at the same level as the performer(s). This makes it difficult to see just what the performer is doing and to correlate those actions with the responses of the electronic gear. Thus, one could not really see how much thought went into placing those pickups until it was possible to have a good look at the instrument during the break between the sets. (Bordreuil was also working pedals with both feet, which were out of sight to everyone not in the front row.) In spite of all those impediments to sight, one could still observe correlations between Bordreuil’s physical gestures and the sounds that then emerged from the loudspeakers.

Overall the dynamic level tended to be kept down in order to hold a magnifying glass, so to speak, to the subtleties of Bordreuil’s gestures. Nevertheless, there were a few ear-shattering moments for which earplugs were helpful. The overall dynamic contour was one of ripples at the lower level being shattered by one major outburst and then falling back to more ripples that faded into silence. The performance seemed to last a little more than half an hour consisting of a single piece. Between the extensive imagination behind Bordreuil’s approach to creating sound and her ability to evoke a sense of the whole through dynamic contour, her performance was as compelling as it was adventurous.

The second set was a group improvisation led by Camille Norment playing a glass harmonica. Her instrument closely resembled Benjamin Franklin’s design in which all of the bowls rotate around a common axis. However, while Franklin had the bowls rotate through a trough of water to keep them evenly moist, these bowls were kept dry; and Norment had a bowl of water to keep her fingers moist. Both approaches seem to be equally effective in exciting the vibrations of the bowls themselves.

It was originally announced that Norment would lead a trio whose other members were John McCowen on clarinet and Håvard Skaset on electric guitar. However, Skaset worked from a laptop with auxiliary processing modules (which appeared to be analog); and McCowan played a contrabass clarinet. In addition the three of them were joined by Bordreuil.

This set was somewhat more problematic. Balancing the resources was a major problem. It was clear that microphones had been placed to amplify the glass harmonica, but it never really held its own within the rest of the ensemble. This may also have been the result of Norment offering a performance on the instrument that might best be called “sparse pointillism.” Those individual moments worked well against the rumbling drones from McCowan’s instrument, but Skaset and Bordreuil each seemed to be in his/her own separate universe.

The result amounted to what might be called a “group activity” piece, perhaps in the spirit of the score that Toshi Ichiyanagi actually called “Activities.” This piece was used by Merce Cunningham for his dance “Scramble.” The combination was a perfect example of choreography in which dancers and musicians inhabited parallel universes where any coordination was purely accidental.

Because Norment’s set tended to evoke the spirit of “Activities,” I found myself imagining the Merce Cunningham Dance Company going through its paces in my head while John Cage, David Tudor, and Gordon Mumma sat below the stage realizing the activities specified by Ichiyanagi’s score. Sadly, this fantasy could be sustained for only so long; and the duration of Norment’s set was about twice as long. Ultimately, that duration was the performance’s undoing, since the sense of any overall shape that had served Bordreuil so well was, for all intents and purposes, absent in those activities pursued by Norment and her colleagues.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Naxos’ Second Project to Record the Keyboard Sonatas of Soler Advances to Volume 7

Today Naxos releases the seventh volume in its second project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler. Regular readers know that I have been following this project in its inception, beginning on Examiner.com and then continuing on this site. The last dispatch came with the release of the sixth volume at the beginning of this past December. While the first project, whose CDs were released between 1996 and 2007, consisted entirely of harpsichord performances by Gilbert Rowland, this new project has been organized around the Maria Canals International Music Competition, held every year in Barcelona. Each CD presents a different pianist that won that competition, meaning that all performances are on piano, rather than harpsichord. The pianist on this new release is Regina Chernychko, winner of the first prize at the 60th competition, held in 2014:

Regina Chernychko (photograph by Oliver Röckle, courtesy of Naxos)

The releases have been strictly following the numbering system of Samuel Rubio. It was from the first of the seven volumes of transcriptions and scholarly revisions by Rubio, published in 1952, that I first became acquainted with Soler’s sonatas. Unless I am mistaken, I acquired that volume while on a business trip to Cambridge (England), although I had become aware of Soler through my piano teacher in Santa Barbara, who had already introduced me to the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti.

At the time I wondered how long it would take me to get through the twenty sonatas in that first volume and how difficult it would be for me to get the remaining volumes, all published by the Union Musical Española in Madrid. Over the years, however, I have only managed to progress through the first sixteen sonatas in that volume. Now I no longer have to worry about what to do when I reach the end of the volume, because all of the Rubio versions have now been given digital typesetting by Steve Wiberg and are part of the Werner Icking Music Collection, available for download from IMSLP.

In writing about the sixth volume, I observed that it consisted of only four sonatas, numbered 63 through 66, all in three movements. I noted at the time how this was a departure from Scarlatti, all of whose sonatas consisted of single movements. (However, if we accept the booklet notes for Scott Ross’ recording of all of Scarlatti’s sonatas, there are several cases in which sonatas with consecutive Kirkpatrick numbers could be played convincingly as two-movement sonatas.) What was interesting about the those four Soler sonatas, however, was that each of them ended with a fugue (labeled as “Intento”).

The seventh volume begins with two more of those three-movement sonatas. There is a fair amount of contrapuntal inventiveness in these two sonatas, and the second concludes with another Intento movement in four voices. Soler then went back to single-movement sonatas for the remaining six selections on this album. This leaves the listener with the suggestion that Soler may have been taking stock of how he progressed. That suggestion is not strong enough to leave the listener in suspense over what (s)he will encounter in the eighth volume; but it at least hints that there may be something vaguely autobiographical in Rubio’s numbering of these sonatas.

As to Chernychko’s performance, her accounts are as consistently satisfying as those of her fellow prize-winners. If nothing else this new series, taken as a whole, it likely to leave the attentive listener with a high opinion of the Canals Competition. That is saying something, given how many competitions run the risk of turning out little more than “cookie-cutter accounts” of repertoire that is being played to death in both recital halls and recording studios!

LightHouse will Again Host Recital by Music Academy Students

This will be the fourth year in which LightHouse will run its Music Academy for blind students from all over the world. The Academy was conceived in order to provide musical training for those between the ages of 16 and 24 who have become serious enough about their studies to think about music as a profession. However, the curriculum has been conceived to see to those needs that are particular to the blind. Thus, the Academy introduces students to using non-visual techniques to compose music, read the works of others, learn performance skills, and gain the capacity to seek employment and enter competitions.

As in the past the Academy itself will be hosted by the Enchanted Hills camp in Napa. The camp now has a brand new Redwood Amphitheater, which features redwood benches made on the site of the camp by blind woodworker George Wurtzel:

Enchanted Hills, courtesy of the LightHouse

This will provide the venue for one of three concerts with all selections performed by the students. Fortunately, for those of us in San Francisco, this concert will also be given here in the city, hosted by the LightHouse for the Blind Headquarters.

This San Francisco performance will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 15. The LightHouse facility is located on the tenth floor of the building at 1155 Market Street. The concert is free, but LightHouse requests a donation of $20 for those wishing to remain after the concert for the reception that will follow. An Eventbrite event page has been created to process reservations and donations. One may also make arrangements through electronic mail sent to Events Manager Dagny Brown.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Parks Conservancy will Enable Outdoor Performance of John Luther Adams

Yesterday this site wrote about the close relationship between Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams and their shared interest in composing music based on the use of just intonation. That account overlooked the extent to which Adams’ imaginative approaches to composing were complemented by his passionate interest in environmental issues. Thus, after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Adams took a “day job” in environmental protection; and it was through that job that he first traveled to Alaska in 1975. The natural settings in that state became an inspiring influence on his work as a composer, and he ended up living there between 1978 and 2014.

For better or worse, composers only seem to come to public attention after some major prize has been awarded. In Adams case it was the conjunction of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The work that garnered both of these awards was “Become Ocean;” and, before it thrust him into a bright public spotlight, the composer was known to a relatively limited few, who found that they had to refer to him as “the other John Adams.”

from YouTube

“Become Ocean” was one of a series of compositions inspired by the “classical” elements. Completed in 2013, it was followed in 2014 by “Sila: The Breath of the World,” depicting the element of air. It had been preceded by the depiction of earth in 2009 by “Inuksuit.” (Around the time that Adams completed “Become Ocean” for full orchestra, he also completed a chamber orchestra composition entitled “Become River.”)

There is an old joke (that I have to hear all too often) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It would not be out of the question to assert that, in “Inuksuit,” Adams found that he could write about geography through the medium of music. The title is an Inuit noun that refers to large stone makers that would be placed by different indigenous communities in the northern polar regions to provide orientation in the vast and otherwise featureless Arctic spaces.

The composition was scored for 9 to 99 percussion players, but the most significant specification is that the performers should be widely dispersed in an outdoor area. Ironically, it’s first performance in New York took place indoors at the Park Avenue Armory:

from YouTube

Adams used rhythmic patterns and their distribution among the performers to depict the orienting markers. However, at the same time, the flexibility of the score allows for an open-ended interpretation, which reflects the vastness of the space in which those markers have been situated.

At the end of this month “Inuksuit” will come to San Francisco. Its performance will take place as part of the John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ, which will run from Wednesday, July 26 to Sunday, July 30. However, thanks to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the score will be given the sort of outdoor performance that the composer had in mind. Doug Perkins will serve as director and will be responsible for situating the placement of percussionists at Lands End and the Sutro Baths, both situated at the western end of Geary Boulevard. Listeners will then be able to explore the geography of the region guided by the auditory cues provided by the percussionists.

Lands End, courtesy of SFJAZZ

As might be anticipated, this performance will be offered free to anyone happening to be in the right place at the right time. This is due in part to support from Art in the Parks, one of the programs affiliated with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The performance will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 29. Adams did not provide any constraints on the composition’s duration.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Opera on the Spot Prepares Two Programs for the Summer

Opera on the Spot is a group of talented, young, classically trained singers that describes itself as “San Francisco’s pop-up opera troupe.” “Pop-up” means that the group has no set venue that serves as a base of operations. Instead, they choose less conventional places for performances, including bars, restaurants, and community spaces. For the summer months they have prepared two strikingly different programs, the first a “grand tour” of Europe through the art song repertoire and the second a double-bill of one-act operas.

The art song recital will be a house concert held under the auspices of groupmuse. The “grand tour” will traverse Germany (Clara Schumann), France (Cécile Chaminade, Claude Debussy, and Ernest Chausson), and Norway (Edvard Grieg), returning to the United States with Margaret Bonds, one of the first black composers to gain public recognition. The major song cycle on the program will be Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (forgotten songs), a setting of a poem by Paul Verlaine in six movements. Six songs will also constitute Grieg’s Opus 48. The other “organized collection” will be Bonds’ three songs, which she called Dream Portraits.

This house concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, July 21. The venue will be a home in the upper Civic Center. Admission will require a $10 minimum donation for the performers. Specifics are maintained on the groupmuse Web page through which reservations must be made. There will be a total of 45 spots available for reservation, and those accepted will receive specific information about the venue. All guest must be at least 21 years of age. Those who attend will be invited to bring a bottle of wine or snacks to share with other guests. The venue is wheelchair accessible.

The two operas to be presented as a double bill. The program will begin with Samuel Barber’s “A Hand of Bridge,” written with a libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti. The second opera will be composed by Menotti, “The Old Maid and the Thief.” Both of these are social comedies, each involving only four characters. The first brings together two married couples at their weekly bridge game with each player wrapped up in his/her own idiosyncratic interior monologue. The first couple will be sung by baritone Sergey Khalikulov and soprano Jordan Amann, playing against tenor Kevin Gino and mezzo Claire MacKenzie. Menotti’s opera deals with the sexual frustrations of an old maid (mezzo Emma Lacenski) and the “thief” she encounters (Khalikulov). The other characters are the neighbor with whom the old maid gossips (soprano Aisha Campbell) and the old maid’s servant (soprano Emily Thebaut).

This production will be given two performances in two different venues, both beginning at 7:30 p.m. The first will be at the Center for New Music (C4NM) on Friday, August 4. The second will be held at the Caffe Delle Stelle restaurant on Monday, August 7. Admission at both venues will be $20 with a $15 rate for students. On Friday C4NM members will also be entitled to the reduced rate. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Caffe Delle Stelle is in Hayes Valley at 305 Hayes Street, on the southeast corner of Gough Street. Tickets may be purchased in advance online, for C4NM through a Vendini Web page and for Caffe Delle Stelle through an Eventbrite event page.

Finally, the vocalists will preview excerpts from both operas at the Monroe club in Jackson Square. They will also perform selected arias and art songs by both Barber and Menotti. This event will begin at 8 p.m. one week from today, Wednesday, July 19, and should last about 90 minutes. The Monroe is located at 473 Broadway, near the northeast corner of Kearny Street.

Two Generations of Just Intonation Composers on MicroFest

I have not written about MicroFest Records since the first round of releases came out in the final quarter of 2015. However, as result of my recent interest in Lou Harrison’s interest in the use of just intonation and recent appearance of the Partch ensemble on the album Color Theory released by the PRISM Quartet, I have been seeking out listening experiences involving intervals based on integer ratios. My quest took me to another early MicroFest release entitled Just Strings, which couples several of Harrison’s pieces with two works by John Luther Adams. Harrison sat on a jury that gave Adams a composition award in 1973, the year in which he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts; and Harrison would subsequently become both role model and friend to Adams.

The album is named after a trio of members of Partch. These are guitarist John Schneider, who founded Partch, harpist Alison Bjorkedal, and percussionist T.J. Troy. The name (clearly) does not refer to all members playing string instruments. Instead, it refers to the group playing music written in just intonation with all strings tuned to provide intervals based on integer ratios.

The Adams selections are two suites of five dances each, based on songs in two of the indigenous languages of North America, Athabaskan and Yup’ik. In both of these collections, Adams uses the simplest approach to tuning that involves more than the octave: All intervals involve ratios of integers constructed from multiples of 2 and 3. Such an approach is sometimes called Pythagorean tuning.

The Harrison pieces, on the other hand, are far more diverse in both tuning and styles. Much of the album is devoted to his two harp suites, neither of which were initially conceived as such. The first suite is a collection of pieces composed between 1952 and 1977, and the second consists of works composed between 1951 and 1992. The album also includes “Lyric Phrases,” composed in 1972, and “In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel,” composed in 1991.

A significant percentage of the tracks on this album were recorded for the very first time. That includes the entirety of the two Adams collections. Two of the tracks, one movement from the second harp suite and the Handel homage, also involve accompaniment by the Harvey Mudd College American Gamelan.

In contrast to the Adams selections, every one of the Harrison tracks involves a different tuning system. (These are all enumerated with all of the corresponding interval ratios in the booklet essay provided by Bill Alves.) It is thus no surprise that, when Meredith Clark played Harrison’s music in the second concert of the Other Minds 22 festival entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison, she played only one solo selection on a diatonic harp, the “Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel,” which was included in the second suite.

Why should there be such diversity in tuning? While Alves’ booklet notes focus the attention on “the sweet harmonies that result” from integer-based tuning, my guess is that both Harrison and Adams were as interested in departures from our expectations as they were in having consonances that were … more consonant. As was previously observed, such a departure was most evident when Britten explicitly called for the thirteenth harmonic in the solo horn fanfare that begins his Opus 31 serenade. In Adams’ system, which is based on C, the initial semitone to C-sharp is clearly audible as different from the equal-tempered semitone. Similar differences are also evident in some of Harrison’s favorite ratios, including 5:4 (the major third) and 7:4 (the minor seventh). (There is some argument over whether 7:4 is the “blue” seventh, which supposedly originated in the Mississippi Delta and found its way into jazz. I am not knowledgeable enough to offer a considered opinion; but I am pretty confident that, when I am listening to recordings of Bessie Smith, she is not singing equal-tempered intervals, regardless of what her pianist may be doing!)

Both Harrison and Adams seem to have come to their interest in using integer ratios from a common source, the recognition that, when we consider cultures other than our own and think, instead, in terms of “world music,” there is nothing “sacred” about equal-tempered tuning. This is not to imply that Western music is some sort of “outlier” in its use of equal temperament. Harrison’s interest in Indonesian music led him to the slendro, a pentatonic scale in which all of the intervals were very close to identical. In 1960 he followed up on that discovery by writing a “Concerto in Slendro,” scored for violin, two tack pianos, celesta, and percussion. In addition Harrison realized that music he wrote on commission would inevitably involve performers whose listening was biased in favor of equal temperament.

Thus, the Harrison selections on this album reflect pieces he wrote to satisfy his own interests. For example, “Music for Bill and Me,” which is in the first harp suite, was written in such a way that he and William Colvig, his life partner, could play it as a duet on diatonic harps. The Adams collections, on the other hand, can probably be taken as the results of “field studies,” similar to those conducted by Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók in Eastern Europe. The value of this album is that, through the wide diversity of its relatively short tracks, it acclimates the “mind behind the ear” to accept these “unconventional” intervals as just another approach to “being natural.” Those willing to approach those tracks with attentive listening may find themselves listening to more “traditional” equal-tempered compositions with a new perspective.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Music at The Lab: July 2017

Regular readers know that this site tries to track concert offerings hosted by The Lab. I do my best to provide advance information, and I try to get over there whenever my schedule allows. Thus, those who may think that things are a bit too quiet over at the Center for New Music may wish to check out at least one of the three performances that The Lab is hosting this month.

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

Events at The Lab tend to attract a large turnout, so early arrival is almost always highly recommended. Advance registration is also recommended, but the names of members will always be on the list of those registered at the door. With all that as introduction, here are the three events coming up this month that are likely to be of interest:

Friday, July 14, 8:30 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening. Camille Norment is a composer that is particularly interested in questioning the meanings of harmony and dissonance. From that point of view, she is also interested in the relationships between the visual arts and not only music but also sound in general. She plays a glass harmonica whose mechanical design closely resembles that of the “armonica” that Benjamin Franklin invented in 1761:

courtesy of The Lab

She will play as part of a trio, whose other members are John McCowen on clarinet and Håvard Skaset on electric guitar.

The other set will be taken by Brooklyn-based cellist and composer Leila Bordreuil. Her set will consist of improvisations on a solo amplified cello. Amplification is provided by a variety of different types of guitar amplifiers, and the signals will be routed to a corresponding variety of different types of speakers. Bordreuil is particularly interested in investigating a wide diversity of timbres and creating unique sound distortion possibilities that transform the cello into a polyphonic instrument.

Admission will be $25 with a $15 rate for members of The Lab. Doors will open at 8 p.m. Members may wish to login, and for others there is a Web page for advance registration.

Sunday, July 23, 8:30 p.m.: This will be a concert by the 75 Dollar Bill duo, which was formed in 2012 by percussionist Rick Brown and guitarist Che Chen. Chen works with modal thematic material, while Brown provides earthy, elemental rhythms on a deeply resonant plywood crate. Their influences include early electric blues, the modal traditions of West Africa, India, and the Middle East, Sun Ra’s space chords, and a variety of approaches to minimalism from the last century.

Admission will be $10, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free. Doors will open at 8 p.m. Members may wish to login, and for others there is a Web page for advance registration.

Saturday, July 29, 9 p.m.: Laraaji was discovered busking with his zither in Washington Square Park by Brian Eno in 1979. Eno subsequently devoted the third release in his Ambient series, entitled Day of Radiance, entirely to Laraaji’s performances of his own music. Laraaji will bring his approach to “celestial sound making” to the Lab in a performance that will also include sound healing musician Arji OceAnanda. The title of their joint program will be In the Zone.

Admission will be $25 with a $15 rate for members of The Lab. Doors will open at 8:30 p.m. Members may wish to login, and for others there is a Web page for advance registration.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Opening an Old Wound

Over the last few weeks I have been working my way incrementally through Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, having saved it on my xfinity box after recording it from a Starz channel. The film was released for public distribution in 2011, and I suppose I was drawn to viewing it after having derived so much pleasure from observing the work practices in the film Obit. Life on Deadline, which was also set at the Times. Nevertheless, the films could not have been more different. While Obit. follows the ups and downs of a small team of writers, who come across as being very good at their jobs because they work very hard at it, Page One is an uncompromising examination of a business (not just a single newspaper) on life support. Towards the end we see David Carr addressing a conference of journalists, telling them that the fact that they are still around is an achievement unto itself.

I was writing about journalism and the changes in its work practices long before The Rehearsal Studio was launched. One of the tags I had created for my old Yahoo! blog, Reflections Beyond Technology, was “news;” and I was already worrying about the extent to which the Internet had become a platform for “fake news” as early as 2006. This was a time when I was reading Truthdig regularly, and it provided me with a quote from Joe Conason that is as relevant today as it was when I first read it:
To observe the Washington press corps is to wonder why so many people who don’t remember what happened yesterday and can’t master basic logic are expected to analyze politics and policy.
This was a painful reminder that the mess we are in is not the fault of the Internet. Rather, it is part of a bigger picture that meant so much to Max Weber, who recognized that a society whose only value is market value faced the two-horned prospect of loss of meaning and loss of freedom.

From an idealized point of view, newspapers provided a base of activity for professionals whose primary expertise could be found in making sense out of what happened in the world on any given day. Unfortunately, when advertising ceased to be a source of sustaining revenue for newspapers, making sense was no longer a priority. Indeed, all priorities were lowered with the rise of simply being able to have enough cash on hand to pay the bills. In such a setting, meaning no longer has priority; and the noble effort of making sense out of a confusing world, which is captured admirably in the narrative threads that are woven together in Page One, is more likely to be punished than rewarded.

As my own writing progressed, I found myself less and less inclined to rail against a world in which meaning no longer had any currency. I suppose that music provided me with an escape hatch. I could deal with matters of meaning and sensemaking in a domain that had a limited audience, but it was an audience that still took those matters seriously.

Mind you, it is not as if the performing arts have elevated themselves above the dominating forces of market value. They have to worry about paying the bills just like the rest of us; but, as long as I can thank the Social Security Administration for my being able to pay my own bills, I can continue to keep my own attention focused on performance itself. Given Carr’s prioritization on the value of still being around to do one’s job, I suppose I should be thankful for what I have!