Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The New Snakeoil Album on ECM

Those who followed me throughout my period of writing for Examiner.com know that I have been following Snakeoil, the band formed by alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pretty much since its birth in February of 2012. That was the month in which ECM released a recording of Berne leading a quartet whose other members were Oscar Noriega (clarinet and bass clarinet), Matt Mitchell (piano and electronics), and Ches Smith (all manner of percussion). The title of that album was Snakeoil, and all subsequent ECM releases identify the band as “Tim Berne’s Snakeoil.”

Recently, Snakeoil has grown into a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira:

photograph by Nuno Martins, courtesy of ECM

That expansion began with the group's 2015 release, You've Been Watching Me; and it has continued into the latest ECM album, Incidentals, which was released at the beginning of this month. Through this album the attentive listener will recognize this group as one in that boundary area of classification that lies between jazz as chamber music by other means and chamber music as jazz by other means.

Among other attributes, Incidentals offers the longest single track that the group has recorded since its inception. “Sideshow” is about 26 minutes long; and one can readily appreciate it as a journey that leads the listener through an extensive diversity of moods and the rhetorics through which they are expressed. The piece is actually part of a more ambitious hour-long composition in two halves. The first half was “Small World In A Small Town,” which was the longest track on Snakeoil’s preceding album, You’ve Been Watching Me. Nevertheless, “Sideshow” stands quite well on its own; and, by virtues of the smooth transitions through its constituent episodes, the attentive listener is unlikely to be aware of just how long the “clock time” of this piece really is.

Indeed, the same can be said of the Incidentals album as a whole. There is very much a sense of an underlying “vocabulary” of thematic tropes, particularly in Berne’s own saxophone work, that endow the duration of the entire album (a little more than an hour) with a sense of unity. This is one of the attributes that leads the attentive listener to come down on the side of chamber music, rather than jazz. Nevertheless, the tropes themselves tend to be jazzy in origin, even if those origins are to be found in the more avant-garde practices of making jazz.

As a result, the best way to deal with the problem of classification is to ignore it. Even the more casual listeners should have no trouble simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. The scrupulous attention to clarity of execution that can be found in all of the group’s members makes it clear that the ensemble has no interest in the obscure or the arcane. Some of the sonorities use electronics to depart from the usual expectations for “straight-ahead” jazz; but none of them would be unfamiliar to anyone who has experienced an electric guitar being pushed to its limits (but not being destroyed as part of an on-stage rock performance).

For those hearing about Snakeoil for the first time, even though this is the latest of several albums, it still provides a good “first taste” of the group. Those planning to go to one of the performances on Saturday are likely to find the recording, taken as a whole, a useful approach to orientation. However, for those who prefer their listening to come from recordings, the album is also a good way to make the group’s acquaintance.

Audiovisual Improvisations Coming to Artists’ Television Access

courtesy of the BayImproviser Calendar

I have been fascinated with the work of Bill Hsu since I first encountered it during what was probably the first season at the Center for New Music. Hsu has developed electronic gear through which he can jam with improvising musicians, creating his own improvised video displays in real-time. At the beginning of next month he will be bringing his skills and gear to Artists’ Television Access. He will be joined by James Fei, a previous colleague who plays saxophones, often embellished by live electronics. They will be joined by clarinetist Matt Ingalls.

However, the featured artist will be a visitor from Cologne. Tuba player Carl Ludwig Hübsch has been active there since 1990, working as both a composer and a performer. He is best known for his solo recitals and these days spends most of his time on both composition and improvisation.

Artists’ Television Access is located in the Mission at 992 Valencia Street. Admission will be $10. Tickets will be sold only at the door.

Peter Brötzmann Visits The Chapel

Last night at The Chapel, (((folkYEAH!))) presented a visit from German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who has been a leading figure in European jazz since the Sixties. For this two-set evening his only partner was local drummer Donald Robinson. Brötzmann was one of the “early adopters” of the free jazz movement and was most likely one of its leading pioneers in Europe. There is thus every reason to believe that, while Brötzmann and Robinson may have worked out a few a priori “ground rules,” the performance itself was one of uninhibited spontaneity.

Over the course of the first set, Brötzmann worked his way through three instruments, beginning on tenor saxophone, moving to soprano saxophone, and concluding on clarinet. On each of these instruments his preferred rhetoric involved the unleashing of wild bursts of energy. Not only was there no sense of any dominating tonality, the very pitches themselves were packed with ambiguity. This resulted from not only rapid finger-work that often impeded the resolution of individual notes but also breath-controlled glissando patterns that reduced even the chromatic scale to irrelevance. For those with a sense of history, this was a fond recollection of the days when Pharoah Sanders would team up with John Coltrane and engage in frighteningly uninhibited free-blowing exchanges.

Brötzmann’s exchanges with Robinson were just as uninhibited and frequently just as scary. Brötzmann’s phrases tended to be short and clipped, often homing in on the most diminutive of motifs then subjected to repetition with minor variations and embellishments. However, each time one of those phrases burst forth, Robinson was there with a reply. Frequently, he showed a preference for his array of multiple cymbals, each with a different pitch. This made his percussion work serve a bit like a continuo, providing a more sustained foundation of reverberations above which Brötzmann could take as much liberty as he wished with the brevity of his bursts of sound.

These days it is difficult to encounter free improvisation that can be imaginative, provocative, and engaging, all in a single well-wrought package. It often seems as if the emerging generation is more interested in the shock value of intense dynamics pushing the sounds beyond their having identifiable qualities. The pioneers of half a century ago appreciated the value of their roots but could always be adventurous enough to grow away from those roots without collapsing from unbalanced weight, so to speak. Brötzmann’s voice recalls some of the best of those pioneers from 50 years ago; and, for those who could “dig it,” both the logic of his invention and the rhetoric of his delivery were irresistible.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Another Impressive Recording of Soviet Chamber Music

At the beginning of last month, DOREMI released another of its Legendary Treasures albums. That series was introduced to readers of this site through an article about a five-CD box set of trio performances by pianist Emil Gilels, violinist Leonid Kogan, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Last month’s release consists of only a single CD, but it happens to be the only recording of a duo recital given by Kogan and Gilels:

courtesy of Naxos of America

That recital took place in Leningrad (before the name “Saint Petersburg” was restored after the fall of the Soviet Union) on March 29, 1964; and the program consisted of three of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas (which he called sonatas for pianoforte and violin). The selections are the third of the Opus 12 set, in the key of E-flat major, Opus 24 (“Spring”) in F major, and Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) in A major.

All three of these sonatas are likely to be familiar to anyone interested in the violin repertoire. The value of this album comes not from its selections but from the fact that it is a “performance document” in which the performers are as interesting as what they are playing. To put this event in historical perspective, I was in the second semester of my freshman year when this concert took place. I remember that, by that time, I was familiar with Gilels’ name as a result of having listened to him take a particularly bold approach to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. On the other hand I knew Kogan’s name only as a result of leafing through issues of the Schwann Catalog.

Where this recital is concerned, Gilels could not have been more different from my initial experience of him as a concerto soloist. While these three sonatas impose a wide variety of different virtuoso demands on both performers, neither Kogan nor Gilels ever tries to dominate the spotlight. It is worth observing that this may not have been the case for Beethoven himself, when he took the piano part for any of these sonatas! Nevertheless, Gilels brought a lightness of touch that consistently reflected a desire to approach each sonata as an intimate conversation; and Kogan replied as the ideal conversant.

As a result, however familiar these sonatas may be to the music-loving listener, these are the sorts of recordings that convey the impression that one is encountering the music for the first time. One might almost say that they may not be the best choice for a “first contact” experiences. Only after a certain familiarity with the recorded results of more recent duos (often in projects to record all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas) can one become sensitized to the subtleties that differentiate spontaneity from well-engineered studio experiences. Listeners who ascend to such a level of awareness will then appreciate that history is far from the “bunk” that Henry Ford made it out to be!

The Bleeding Edge: 9/18/2017

This week’s column is a bit more balanced between events previously announced and “new additions.” Here is a hyperlinked chronologically-ordered list of those events that have already been discussed:
September 18: The duo gig by Peter Brötzmann and Donald Robinson at The Chapel.
September 20: The Raga Jazz Messengers, a subgroup of Brooklyn Raga Massive at the Center for New Music
September 21: Dark ambient music in the LSG Creative Music Series
September 24 (part of the first “weekend of choices” of the season): The fifth anniversary celebration of the Stranded record label at The Lab
Three events remain. Unfortunately, they take place on only two days, one of which has already been listed above and the other a part of that “weekend of choices.” Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, September 20, 7 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: Readers may have noticed that I tend to shy away from the SFJAZZ Center. More specifically, I have a variety of issues with Miner Auditorium; and this is not the place to air them. On the other hand I have been consistently satisfied with the conditions in the more modest Joe Henderson Lab. So I feel it important to bring attention GoGo Penguin, a jazz trio from Manchester (in England) consisting of pianist Chris Illingsworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner. This is a group with a solid sense of jazz history, which honors some of the great trios of the past led by masters such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Ahmad Jamal. However, their own approach to jazz reflects influences from both the classical repertoire and contemporary electronic music.

This group has scheduled four performances. Three are already sold out, and the first show on Wednesday is already listed as “Almost Sold Out.” The SFJAZZ Web site has an event page for purchasing tickets online in advance. Considering the demand, this is probably the best way to try to get a ticket. All tickets are $30. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Wednesday, September 20, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This event will be a “curatorial takeover” by Dania Stacian. As usual the performing groups in the four sets have names whose level of interest will probably rival the music itself. The featured performer will be Alexa Burrell, a local sound and visual artist who performs as LEXAGON. The other sets will be taken by WOE, Kim West’s new Famous Techno project, and the rhythmic electronic noise of Type - B.

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.

Saturday, September 23, 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: Another event worthy of attention at the Joe Henderson Lab will be a visit from Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. This is a group that grew out of an album by Berne of the same name that was released on ECM. Since then the group itself has been called Snakeoil and has released several more albums, the most recent of which, Incidentals, has its cover shown on the SFJAZZ event page. Berne leads on alto saxophone. The other members are Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Ryan Ferreira on electric guitar [updated 9/19, 2:15 p.m.: SFJAZZ removed Ferreira's name from the personnel list on the event page], Matt Mitchell on piano and electronics, and Ches Smith on diverse percussion. In this case tickets are still available for both of the concerts and may be purchased online in advance through hyperlinks on that event page. All tickets are again $30.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Richard Strauss’ “Orchestra Action” Complements the Staging

Those who follow my opera performance articles regularly know that I try, whenever possible, to arrange for at least one occasion when I have a good vantage point for the action in the orchestra pit. This turned out to be a particularly informative situation for the current performance of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” by the San Francisco Opera. As has already been observed, 95 players constitute the ensemble conducted by Henrik Nánási; and the score demands that he be as attentive to the “action in the pit” as he is to shaping the efforts of the vocalists up on stage.

Most important is another previous observation made in comparing this production with that of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, which is currently alternating with “Elektra.” “Elektra” may require more musicians; but, as I observed, Turandot is the offering that is “unabashedly loud” (and not in any negative way). What is most impressive about Strauss is how he covers the full breadth of dynamic range, even to the point at which the attentive listener can be aware of the solo string passages. Thus, having already praised Nánási for his attentiveness to “every last detail of instrumental activity,” I should add that each of those details had its own dynamic level to establish its rhetorical significance.

In addition Nánási’s interpretation suggested that Strauss had some very clear spatial effects in mind. These do not register when one cannot see the musicians. However, as is the case at an orchestra concert, “visual input” provides an opportunity to observe how thematic material can perambulate through the ensemble. Indeed, Strauss seemed to be particularly skilled at creating the auditory equivalent of a movie “dissolve” effect, in which thematic movement involves the gradual departure of one set of instruments matched by the gradual arrival of another.

All of this must then coexist with all of the activities on stage conceived by Keith Warner and realized for these performances in San Francisco by Anja Kühnhold. Warner’s museum setting suggests a coexistence of the immediate present with a past that is at least legendary and possibly totally mythical. Beyond the tales of the House of Atreus conceived by the Homeric bards, Aeschylus, Sophocles and the impact of those sources on Hugo von Hofmannsthal (and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre), Warner unfolds a narrative that suggests that an ordinary woman’s understanding of herself is emerging from her understanding of Elektra and her pivotal role in the broader Atreus tragedy.

Thus, while Strauss is exploring “dissolves” of his thematic material across his instrumental resources, Warner provides us with similar dissolves between the hear-and-now present and a mythic past. Furthermore, Warner is courageous enough to lead us through Hofmannsthal’s libretto as a journey of self-knowledge and then bring us to a conclusion that suggests that his present-day protagonist may not have advanced very much, if at all. It is almost as if Warner’s resolution of the staging may be looking not only at the Ancient Greeks but also at the final stanza of “Little Gidding,” the last of the four poems that T. S. 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.
Having followed Elektra through her convoluted confrontations with a series of murders (one from the recent past and two taking place over the course of the opera), Warner is suggesting that she now knows her “place” in the House of Atreus for the first time. If Warner’s present-day protagonist has followed this journey, then Warner’s journey comes back to the museum where it started; but he leaves it to us to resolve just how that protagonist now knows that “place for the first time.”

Back at the museum with Elektra (Christine Georke stretched out on the floor), Chrysothemis (Adrienne Pieczonka), and Orest (Alfred Walker, standing), photograph by Cory Weaver (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Perhaps Warner intended to subject those of us on audience side to a deliberately disorienting journey at the end of which we are the ones arriving “where we started,” confronted with knowing “the place for the first time.” That would clearly make for much more than a sit-back-and-follow-the-story experience. Still, if you were fortunate enough to experience this performance as part of a group, Warner has created the sort of situation in which you really want to talk about what happened with the others. In other words there is a “social dimension” to this production that sets it apart from the vast majority of opera-going experiences; and my guess is that it will be far more memorable than most past such experiences.

Martineau’s Fauré Project Advances to its Second Volume

In June of 2016, Signum Classics released the first volume in pianist Malcom Martineau’s latest complete songs project. During my time with Examiner.com, I followed earlier Martineau projects focused on Benjamin Britten and Claude Debussy; and the composer for his current effort is Gabriel Fauré. For that first volume Martineau assembled an impressive array of vocalists, all of whose names were listed on the album cover: Lorna Anderson, Nigel Cliffe, Ann Murray, John Chest, Iestyn Davies, Ben Johnson, Janis Kelly, and Joan Rodgers. All but Rodgers perform on the second volume, which was released at the beginning of last month; but two new vocalists appear, Sarah Connolly and Thomas Oliemans.

From a musical point of view, I have no serious quibbles with the new release. However, as my Examiner.com readers may recall, this is a reflection of strong personal sympathies. Those sympathies date back around 30 years to when I was an artificial intelligence researcher devoting much of my spare time to my Baldwin grand piano. I had a colleague who was a baritone, and it was through him that I discovered Fauré’s art song repertoire. (I also happened to have a piano teacher named Jake Heggie, who seemed happy enough to allow me to work on the accompaniments for these songs, rather than the usual solo piano compositions.) The result is that it has been virtually impossible for me to listen to either of these volumes without eliciting many very fond memories.

Nevertheless, I have to raise one minor quibble about organization. I have yet to fathom the reasoning behind both the selections for the two albums and the ordering of the tracks. Thus, when I wish to consult a specific song, the booklet material is of little help. Fortunately, I have been able to overcome this problem by providing sufficient metadata for the Classical Music indexing tool provided by iTunes!

On the other hand there is one particular “gem of discovery” that overrides my quibble. That is Martineau’s inclusion in the second volume of Opus 10, which is a pair of duets. These are the only duets that Fauré published aside from his Opus 72 “Pleurs d’or” (golden tears). The Opus 10 duets are sung by Janis Kelly and Lorna Anderson; and they are absolutely ravishing (aside from the track ordering being the opposite of the publication ordering). It is also worth observing that Martineau has included the 1906 “Vocalise-Etude,” along with another one of the unpublished “vocalise” compositions written for sight-singing examinations.

The “bottom line” is that the assets of this new volume vastly outweigh my one little liability; and I am sure that I am not the only listener for which this release has served as an album of discovery.

Red Poppy Art House: First Half of October, 2017

As was recently announced, this is currently a very busy time for serious listeners at the Red Poppy Art House. As of this writing, it appears that things are still gearing up for next month. However, three events have already been scheduled for the first half of October; and they all deserve considered attention. The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street. Tickets are usually available at the door, and the first of next month’s events will allow for advance sales. All of the shows will begin at 7:30 p.m., and the doors will open at 7 p.m. Those who have not previously been there need to know that the Red Poppy is a small space. Even if tickets have been purchased in advance, it is almost always a good idea to be there when the doors open. Here are the specifics for the events scheduled for the remainder to this month, beginning this evening:

Sunday, October 1: Kellye Gray will present a program she calls Postmodern Jazz Vocals. She will be celebrating the release of her new album Rendering. She has been a songwriter since the age of seventeen and is also a self-taught guitarist. She specializes in solo performances that feature the full extent of her four-octave vocal range as well as her abilities to use the voice in ways other than singing, such as providing sound effects for film work. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25. A limited number of tickets will be available in advance for $20 online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Thursday, October 5: Adventurous approaches to jazz will continue with a program entitled Energetic Avant-Jazz. This will present original compositions and spontaneous improvisations by Bay Area pianist Myra Melford and New York saxophonist Angela Morris. Their work ranges from melodic approaches to free jazz to less conventional sonic explorations. Special guest performers are anticipated, but they have yet to be announced. [added 9/19, 7:20 a.m.: It has now been announced that the guest artists will be Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Steve Adams on saxophone.] Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Thursday, October 12: Primary Colors is a fascinating departure from the usual jazz trio. Saxophonist Josh Johnson and percussionist Ryan Knudsen are joined by Liza Wallace, who is a harpist as well as a vocalist. The group is based in Los Angeles and tends to draw upon a variety of different Hispanic sources as influences. This will be their first show at the Red Poppy, and it is likely that they will use it to preview their upcoming debut album. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

“Beyond Terry Riley” Jamming from Brooklyn Raga Massive

This afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presented one of its more unconventional (if not the most unconventional) of its outdoor offerings for this summer season. The performers were the members of Brooklyn Raga Massive, which has lined up a series of performances in the Bay Area (including one at the Red Poppy Art House, which happens to be tonight, and another at the Center for New Music) over the course of the coming week. Today’s offering was announced to be Terry Riley’s “In C,” whose score consists of 53 short numbered music phrases, which may be played by any number of performers on instruments of their choosing. The rules are relatively simple. Beginning with the first phrase, each phrase may be repeated any number of times, after which one may pause before moving on to the next phrase in the ordering. The piece is over when all players have gotten through the 53rd phrase. The tempo is set by the pitch C being played at a steady pulse, usually on the highest octaves of a piano keyboard.

Brooklyn Raga Massive is a relatively large ensemble that brings traditional Indian instruments together with more familiar Western instruments. On this occasion, however, the group was even larger. Members of Classical Revolution were invited to participate, making for a total of twenty performers.

On their “home turf” Brooklyn Raga Massive offers a weekly Raga Music Jam Session. This amounts to an exploration of the similarities and differences that arise in the improvisational practices of the raga in Indian Music and jazz in the Western world. From this point of view, “In C” is a somewhat unlikely selection for performance. The timing of the individual phrases is left to each performer, but improvisation is not part of the framework. This afternoon Brooklyn Raga Massive chose to respond to Riley’s constraint by bending his rules, so to speak, to allow improvisation to enter the process.

To understand how this worked involves a bit of explanation of what makes the rules behind “In C” tick. As might be expected, all 53 phrases are rooted in the tonality of C major. As the piece proceeds, those phrases tend to accumulate in piles of superpositions, giving rise to an overall sense of a rich texture that is always gradually changing. As might be expected, the texture itself is consistently oriented around a C major triad (C-E-G). However, the first non-triadic diatonic pitch (an F) shows up in the second fragment; and the first chromatic pitch (F-sharp) appears in the eighteenth. Thus, while the triad may dominate, the changes in texture often convey a sense of a modest harmonic progression.

As a result, the changing texture itself serves somewhat as a sort of “chart” against which individual performers can improvise. Because of the varying backgrounds of the performers, those improvisations reflected both raga and Western jazz practices. Furthermore, following the usual jazz conventions, it appeared as if there had been some a priori agreement over which musicians would take improvisational “departures” from Riley’s score and in what order they would do so.

It is not hard to imagine that such a practice would rub purists the wrong way. “In C” has achieved iconic status for its role in pushing back against the complex abstractions that had obsessed composers of serial music. It chose to confront the demons that only saw beauty in the mathematics behind the permutations of twelve-tone rows by bursting forth with a barbaric yawp worthy of the poetic excesses of Walt Whitman. However, if the “message” behind that yawp was “It’s time for a new set of rules,” then why should we push back when an ensemble comes forward to apply that same declaration to Riley’s own rules?

Remember, Riley himself had a thoroughly engaging capacity for improvisation. I have been fortunate enough to listen to him exercise it in concert several times. I even had a chance to chat with him a bit. My guess is that, had he been in this afternoon’s audience, he would have had no trouble buying into how Brooklyn Raga Massive had worked out their own approach to his score. (I also think he would have been delighted to observe that his pulse was being provided by pitched Indian drums.) Judging from the way in which this performance attracted a large number of listeners and held their attention for over an hour, I suspect that Riley would also have felt that both he and his music were in good company.

38th SFP Season will Begin with All-Bernstein

Isabel Leonard (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

At the very beginning of next month, the 38th Season of San Francisco Performances (SFP) will get under way with the first concert in its Vocal Season. The vocalist will be mezzo Isabel Leonard (pictured above); and her program will consist entirely of music by Leonard Bernstein. This will be part of the ongoing celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, which will take place on August 25, 2018. The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is also contributing to this celebration, and the previous week Leonard will join bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in performances of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles in the first series of SFS subscription concerts of the season.

For her SFP recital, Leonard will be accompanied by pianist John Arida. She has prepared a program of nineteen songs from Bernstein’s musicals and operas, along with pieces written for specific occasions. These will be grouped into four categories. The full program is as follows:

LENNY ON LOVE
A Little Bit in Love (Wonderful Town)
Build My House (Peter Pan)
I Feel Pretty (West Side Story)
My Twelve Tone Melody (written for Irving Berlin’s 100th birthday)
What a Movie! (Trouble in Tahiti)

BERNSTEIN FOR KIDS (OF ALL AGES)
I Hate Music (A cycle of five kids songs)
So Pretty (1968 anti-war song first performed by Barbra Streisand)
I’m a Person Too (A cycle of five kids songs)
Peter, Peter (Peter Pan)
Something’s Coming (West Side Story)

BERNSTEIN IN MY MIND
Maria (West Side Story)
Piccola Serenata (1979 song for Karl Böhm’s 85th birthday)
Lonely Town (On the Town)
To What You Said (Songfest)
I Was Standing in a Garden (Trouble in Tahiti)

LENNY & LEONARD SAY GOODBYE
It Must Be So (Candide)
Greeting (Arias and Barcarolles)
Take Care of This House (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue)
Some Other Time (On the Town)

This performance will begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 1. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Premium tickets are $65 with tickets in other sections of the house selling for $55 and $40. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box event page, which provides a floor plan color-coded according the the ticket prices. As of this writing, tickets are available at all prices. Those wishing further information may call 415-392-2545.

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sony Releases the Complete Works of Hildegard of Bingen

Today Sony released the Hildegard von Bingen Edition, a compilation of the complete musical works of Hildegard as performed by the ensemble Sequentia on CDs originally released by BMG. This is a “luxury package” item that combines 9 CDs with a richly illustrated 152-page hardbound volume (designed in the shape of a gradual book), which incorporates material originally included in the booklets for the original recordings. The major body of Hildegard’s work consists of 77 liturgical songs, all monophonic, that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium (symphonies of celestial harmonies). These were distributed (somewhat topically) across six releases entitled Symphoniae, Canticles of Ecstasy, Voice of the Blood, O Jerusalem, Celestial Hierarchy, and Saints. All of these consisted of a single CD except for Saints, which filled two CDs.

The remaining two CDs are devoted to the “Ordo Virtutum” (order of the virtues). As was recently observed in conjunction with a performance of this work, this piece is one of the earliest extant liturgical musical dramas. The text also appears, in a more abbreviated form, at the conclusion of Hildegard’s prose account of her visions, Scivias. Presumably, the “Ordo Virtutum” is the only composition explicitly intended for performance. The liturgical songs, on the other hand, would have been selected for incorporation in specific services, just as hymns are selected for church services today.

There is no question that this package makes for a valuable reference resource. Nevertheless, it would be fair to ask how listeners should approach this collection. By all rights one should listen to “Ordo Virtutum” in its entirety with enough knowledge to follow the plot. However, the plot is unlikely to be particularly compelling to contemporary listeners. The “lead” character is the human soul (Anima) and the challenges it faces in efforts to obtain wholeness of spirit. Guidance comes from sixteen different Virtues; and dramatic tension comes from the Devil, who has only a speaking part. This does not make for the sort of stirring saga one might encounter in The Lord of the Rings!

All the other selections have been removed from a context that is likely to be alien (and perhaps tedious) to most listeners. The way Sequentia tried to group these pieces makes it easier to appreciate the texts. Nevertheless, it all comes to a bit much, particularly since almost all of it is monodic, with any polyphony coming from Sequentia’s approach to performance.

On the other hand there is much to be said for the many soaring melismatic passages that arise in almost all of the selections. One might almost call these pieces the seeds of vocal virtuosity. Whether or not the recordings were made in cathedral settings, there is an abundance of echo effects, which endow those melismata with striking coloration. Nevertheless, from a listener’s point of view, a little of this can go a very long way.

Still, there is nothing wrong with having a large collection that is savored in piecemeal fashion. That is how people used to treat references books that they acquired (before the Internet began to make those volumes feel hopelessly old-fashioned). One could almost see oneself scheduling daily listening sessions, they way earlier generations would schedule readings from the Bible. There are any number of ways to enjoy this collection, as long as one has a clear idea of just what it is that is being enjoyed!

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: October 2017

Having made it to the mid-point of this month, it is time to start thinking about what will be happening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) next month. The diversity of offerings in October will be particularly broad; so it is likely to be a something-for-everyone month. The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Readers are encouraged to consult the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information about any of these offerings. Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest:

Sunday, October 1, 4 p.m., Osher Salon: The first Faculty Artist Series program of the month will be given by Matt Levine from Technology and Applied Composition. He will present Elements, a “healing musical tapestry,” which he created with Loriel Starr. This will be a real-time multimedia offering with interactive visuals created by Taurin Barrera. The musical soundscape will involve live performance by both Levine and Starr, as well as Joss Jaffe and Alex Kelly. This concert will be free, and no reservations will be required.

Wednesday, October 4, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Composer Jake Heggie will return to give another Master Class. Details have not yet been announced. On his last visit he worked with vocal students. This time he may work with both vocalists and composers. This event will be free, and no reservations will be required.

Wednesday, October 18, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: As part of the activities in the new Roots, Jazz, and American Music program, jazz pianist Randy Weston will visit to give a class in collaboration with both the SFCM faculty and the SFJAZZ Discover Jazz Series. Further details have not yet been announced. This event will be free, but reservations will be required. A Google Forms Web page has been created to process reservations.

Friday, October 20, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The first concert presented by the Historical Performance Department will feature solos by vocal students. The title of the program will be Storytelling through Solo Song, and the repertoire will range from the fourteenth century through traditional ballads and folk songs from both England and the Appalachian region of the United States. This concert will be free, and no reservations will be required.

Saturday, October 21, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 22, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: Following the first concert of the season by the Conservatory Orchestra during Centennial Celebration Weekend, the ensemble will perform under the baton of guest conductor Christian Reif, currently Resident Conductor with the San Francisco Symphony. This program will present the world premiere of the work that won the last Highsmith Award, “Vagaries” by Peter Engelbert. In addition, pianist Puripat Paesaroch will be soloist in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 102 (second) piano concerto in F major, one of those late works in which the composer felt free to exercise his capacity for wit. The program will conclude with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” General admission for this concert will be $20 with a $15 rate for students, seniors, and SFCM members. Tickets for both dates may be purchased through the same Click4Tix Web page.

Thursday, October 26, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: This will be a Special Concert given by guitar master Sergio Assad. The final program has not yet been announced. This event will be free, but reservations will be required. A Google Forms Web page has been created to process reservations.

Sunday, October 29, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: Pianist Yoshikazu Nagai will give his Faculty Artist Series recital. The final program has not yet been announced. This concert will be free, and no reservations will be required.
Sunday, October 29, and Sunday, November 5, 4 pm., Recital Hall: Corey Jamason’s interest in the historical includes more than the distant past. He has planned a program for Historical Performance Department students that will consist entirely of songs about San Francisco, covering the days of the Gold Rush to the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. These songs come from both vaudeville and early Broadway musicals. This event will be free, and no reservations will be required.

Monday, October 30, 6:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Pianist Jerome Lowenthal will give a Master Class. This event will be free, but reservations will be required. A Google Forms Web page has been created to process reservations.

Monday, October 30, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Simon Rowe will be give the first Faculty Artist Series recital for the new Roots, Jazz, and American Music program. This event will be free. No reservations will be required.

The McQuarry Organ Trio at the Cadillac

This afternoon Concerts at the Cadillac hosted a performance by the McQuarry Organ Trio. This group is led by Steve McQuarry, who took a turn at the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano before moving over to his electronic organ (complete with pedal keyboard). He was joined by guitarist David McFarland and drummer E. Doctor Smith. The group was inspired by the first generation of The Tony Williams Lifetime, in which jazz drummer Tony Williams teamed up with John McLaughlin on electric guitar and Larry Young on organ. However, while Williams’ group was primarily fusion, with influences from both heavy rock and funk, McQuarry’s tastes ran more to straight-ahead jazz.

Indeed, the group began by honoring the past with a performance of Miles Davis’ “So What,” incorporating the introduction composed by Gil Evans and the piano work of Bill Evans. Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the one-hour set tended to feature McFarland’s guitar work. The set included two of his original compositions, “Reflection” and “Spectrum;” and “Dave Walks In” basically honored McFarland joining up with McQuarry and Smith.

McFarland’s capacity for invention tended to involve extended melodic lines, which seemed to soar above any need for a tonal center. (There was more than a little of McLaughlin’s influence there.) This allowed McQuarry to accompany through techniques of superposition, rather than worrying about how to harmonize those lines. Smith’s work with his drum kit (which did not include the Drummstick he invented) tended to go for subtlety unless it was clear that he was taking the lead. When he did so, he could work out driving rhythms whose repetitions were never quite identical. This all made for a highly engaging hour of “basic jazz” with a comfortable ring of familiarity but with very little trace of appropriation of anyone else’s content or style.

SFS Gala Offers a Few Memorable Musical Moments

Last night Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the annual Opening Night Gala to launch the 2017–18 season in Davies Symphony Hall. The featured guest soloist was cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Traditionally, music has taken a back seat to fashion, fine dining, and a vigorous party spirit on opening night; and this season was no exception. Nevertheless, there were still a few moments to please the silent minority there for the listening experience.

The greatest reward came from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 (first) cello concerto in A minor. In spite of Ma’s superstar status, he never establishes an impression that suggests anything other than his being there for the music. The Saint-Saëns concerto certainly provided him with opportunities to display his virtuosity; but the deeper impression left by both Ma and MTT was how tightly-knit this concerto is. The structural plan follows the usual three-movement architecture; but there is a continuous flow from one movement to the next and a third movement that reflects back on the opening. Given that Saint-Saëns was not always at his best when working with large structures, Opus 33 stands out as a significant (and relatively early) achievement.

The result was an interpretation that was as comprehensive as it was expressive. This was the part of the evening that reminded us all of how significant an asset SFS is, not only for its own merits but also in its ability to working with visiting artists. Sadly, that impression received relatively little attention for the rest of the program. Opening the program with the overture to Candide established that the over-arching theme of the season would be Leonard Bernstein at 100. MTT gave this a rousing account to direct the party-goers’ attention to the stage; but it was a reading whose sparkle did not suggest the underlying wit.

By the time the intermission had elapsed and the audience was ready for the second half, much of that sparkle had faded, even with the return of Ma to play Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” If Saint-Saëns’ concerto was a moderately long piece that felt as it it flew by like lightning, each of Tchaikovsky’s variations felt as if it would go on forever. One gets the impression that Tchaikovsky never really put his heart into the piece, which may explain why the cellist who first performed it, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, made major alterations to the score. As the program book observed, Fitzenhagen’s version is now taken as the “standard” one; and only a few cellists (Steve Isserlis being one of them) have gone back to what Tchaikovsky himself wrote. Last night left the listener wondering if some contemporary cellist might do contemporary audiences a favor by doing unto Fitzenhagen what Fitzenhagen had done unto Tchaikovsky.

Once again the Gala program concluded with Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.” This time it was given a “media treatment” with color mood lighting and white spotlights to highlight all the different instrumental soloists. For this particular piece, the effect served almost as an alternative to score-reading for those who did not know music notation. However, while these individual moments played out absorbingly, it felt as if MTT had lost sense of the gradual crescendo that underlies the entire architecture. The result was a conclusion that was more of an anticlimax than the mind-shattering “shift of gears” that Ravel had conceived. Perhaps, once the familiarity of “Boléro” had been established, all minds (on stage and in the audience) were already preparing for the party that would follow.

The one oddity of the evening was MTT’s salute to philanthropist Bernard Osher, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. (MTT gave another one of his litany-of-the-resumé asides to explain why he had missed the birthday party.) MTT honored Osher with a short composition which amounted to some highly embellished counterpoint for a reduced string section played against the cantus firmus of “Happy Birthday,” which MTT sang while Christian Reif conducted the strings. Now even those who squeaked by with a “gentleman’s C” in beginning counterpoint can tell you how bad “Happy Birthday” is as a cantus firmus; but the string writing was still thoroughly engaging. Besides, it’s the thought that counts!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Red Poppy Art House: Remainder of This Month

Every now and then, an event at the Red Poppy Art House has popped up on this site, usually as part of a “Bleeding Edge” column. The fact is that there is considerable diversity in the offerings they present, and one is as likely to encounter an innovative approach to the string quartet repertoire as the latest in free jazz improvisation. As the Facebook Events site seems to be gradually easing press releases out of the picture, I realized that this venue deserves more than occasional notice; and I am hoping that I shall be able to provide “batch” summaries similar to those I have been trying to provide for the Center for New Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM).

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street. Tickets are usually available at the door, and selected events allow for advance sales. The doors usually open half an hour before the performance begins. Those who have not previously been there need to know that the Red Poppy is a small space. Even if tickets have been purchased in advance, it is almost always a good idea to be there when the doors open. Here are the specifics for the events scheduled for the remainder to this month, beginning this evening:

Thursday, September 14, 7:30 p.m.: Subhi is a singer, songwriter, and composer born in Chicago. As a music-maker she is highly eclectic, drawing upon her Indian roots, Chicago, an ongoing interest in the pop scene, and just about anything else she experiences. This will be her debut at the Red Poppy; and she will use it to perform selections from her debut album Shaitaan Dil (naughty heart), consisting of songs composed during her travels between Mumbai and Chicago. In addition, she is currently producing an Indian jazz album and will preview some of its tracks. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25. A limited number of tickets will be available in advance for $20 online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Friday, September 15, 7:30 p.m.: The Circadian String Quartet, whose members are violinists Sarah Wood and David Ryther, violist Omid Assadi, and cellist David Wishnia, will present a full concert recital entitled Songs in the Key of Home. The idea behind the title will be presentation of three string quartets, each of which reflects a different way of experiencing home: coming home, paying tribute to home, and watching with alarm as a homeland erupts in strife and division. The compositions to be played have not yet been announced specifically; but the composers will be Antonín Dvořák, Sahba Aminikia, and Philip Glass. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Saturday, September 16, 7 p.m.: Following their afternoon outdoor performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” for the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, Brooklyn Raga Massive will head down to the Red Poppy. Their program will be more in the spirit of their Raga Music Jam Sessions, which are inspired by Indian Classical Music and the instruments involved in performing that music. The group will be led by co-founder Sameer Gupta on percussion. The other performers will be Jay Gandhi on bansuri, Neel Murgai sitar, and Michael Gam in bass. The group will be joined by several special guest artists whose names have not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Thursday, September 21, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a concert by the Bay Area jazz quartet Zona Blu. Steve Teich plays both alto saxophone and flute with a rhythm section consisting of Jim Wasco on piano, David Kaufer on guitar, and Greg Galli on drums. This is an eclectic group whose interests include Latin jazz, funk, and swing. They will be joined by vocalist Suzanne Kramer. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Friday, September 22, 7:30 p.m.: The Los Angeles-based trio Homenaje will present a program entitled Different Cultures, Universal Emotions. Members are Will Brahm on guitar, Chris Wabich on percussion, and Ross Schodek on bass. Their primary influences are Cuban and African music; but they are also well-grounded in jazz, classical, and folk. They will probably perform selections from their new album, La Mariposa y el Mentiroso (the butterfly and the liar). Dina Zarif will appear as guest vocalist. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Saturday, September 23, 7:30 p.m.: Another take on Latin influences will be presented by the Maracujá duo in a program entitled A Musical Journey Around Latin America. The players are guitarist Terrence Rosnagle and Caitlin Belem, who plays a variety of instruments and also serves as vocalist. Both of them have impressively broad eclectic interests, but they will come together on a single focus in this program. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Sunday, September 24, 2 p.m.: One final nod to Afro-Cuban influences will be the Monthly Community Rumba. The band for this gig will be Rumberos de Radio Habana. This will be a free afternoon of beat-making, hip-shaking, and good company.

Thursday, September 28, 7:30 p.m.: The next classical offering will be a duo recital by Russian cellist Yulia Fomicheva and Polish pianist Joanna Rozewska. Both are SFCM alumna, as well as international competition winners. Once again, the specific program has not yet been announced. However, the composers to be represented will include Frédéric Chopin, Nikolai Myaskovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Friday, September 29, 7:30 p.m.: Irish Fission will be a program led by Irish violinist and composer Colm Ó Riain. His interests, however, are decidedly global, drawing on jazz, blues, and music from the Roma, India, Cuba, and Brazil. He is also an accomplished and fiery improviser in many different genres, as well as a vocalist. He will perform with a rhythm section of Joe Kyle, Jr. on bass and Geoff van Lienden on guitar. There will also be special guests, whose names have not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

Saturday, September 30, 7:30 p.m.: Film Scores Without Films will be a program of music by Beth Custer and David James. This will provide an opportunity for Custer’s growling bass clarinet to confront James’ versatile guitar in the context of a bed of grooves provided by Scott Amendola on drums and Jordan Glasgow on keyboard. Expect these original compositions to be embellished by adventurous spontaneous improvisations. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

T.D. Skatchit Jams with “Company” at Canessa

Last night the Canessa Gallery hosted the first monthly concert of the season in the Composers in Performance Series curated by the Meridian Gallery. The first set of the evening was taken by T.D. Skatchit & Company. T.D. Skatchit is the duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak performing on skatchboxes. The “company” consisted of vocalist Aurora Josephson and Bruce Ackley, founding and current member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, performing on soprano saxophone.

Skatchboxes are instruments invented by Nunn. Each one is a cardboard box on top of which a variety of objects made of plastic, metal, and wood have been securely fastened. Contact microphones are then attached on the other side of that surface. The instruments are played by stroking these objects, usually with plastic utensils. The result is as diverse an assortment of rhythmic tropes as can be encountered in any good jazz drum solo (frequently abetted by using a plastic knife with serrations as a “drumstick”). However the diversity of the physical materials also results in some highly innovative approaches to pitch control.

Particular attention is given to how the objects are laid out on the surface of any skatchbox:

courtesy of the Center for New Music

The geometrical patterns that are formed are more than just artistic imagery. They also contribute to defining rhythmic patterns as the stroking utensil is dragged over a series of objects. As a result, being able to observe how a performer engages with a particular surface layout contributes as much to the listening experience as the sounds arising from that engagement.

This was particularly evident in the opening duo taken by Nunn and Michalak. Indeed, their respective approaches to their instruments were not only rhythmic but also prosodic. Both of them were so attentive to pitch contours and linguistic stress patterns that one could be easily persuaded that their improvised exchanges amounted to conversation in some very foreign language. (Think of how all of that chatter among the Despicable Me Minions always manages to sound “authentically linguistic” and you will be able to appreciate just how Nunn and Michalak can get their exchanges to sound conversational.)

The opening duet was followed by trio improvisations with each of the “company” artists. Josephson went first with an improvisation that explored a spectrum of sonorities covering words, individual syllables, and, every now and then, the formants behind the vowels and the percussive elements behind the consonants. Her dynamics always faithfully matched those of Nunn and Michalak, and the underlying structure of the improvisation involved a gradual crescendo with a powerful peak.

In the second duo Ackley also explored the acoustic “elements” behind his saxophones sonorities. This included breathing without setting the reed into vibration and occasional percussive slaps of the pads covering the instrument’s holes. He also had a solid command of overblowing technique that would bring out “chords” involving upper harmonics. This improvisation was also organized according to a contour of dynamic levels. However, if one buys into the idea of skatchboxes sounding like Minion language, then one could also have imagined a narrative plan in which Minions go out on a wild goose chase and then encounter the goose.

Nunn and Michalak then took a break while Ackley and Josephson offered a duo improvisation of their own. This allowed the attentive listener to appreciate how Ackley’s capacity for prosody through his instrument was right up there with the expressiveness of the skatchboxes. Once again, Josephson occupied that boundary region between language and sound that fit perfectly into the context of Ackley’s rhetoric. The set then concluded with an “all hands” quartet improvisation, which felt a bit like a summing-up of all that had been experienced, not unlike the apotheosis choreography than concludes a full-length ballet.

Those who missed this gig may get some sense of what it was like from the Skatch Migration CD released by Edgetone Records. This is an “& Company” album whose “company” includes both Josephson and Ackley. Other “company” members on the album are Gino Robair, Bob Marsh, Tim Perkis, Doug Carroll, Scott Looney, Kyle Bruckmann, Ron Heglin, and Jacob Felix Huele. This expanded context of vocals, instruments, and electronics provides an even wider appreciation of just how expressive those skatchboxes can be.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Details for Tonight’s Classical Underground

Readers may have observed that this site has had little (if anything) to report about Classical Revolution. That is because, for the most part, their events tend to be what-you-get-is-what-you-get affairs. Just show up an see what happens.

However, tonight’s gig in the weekly Wednesday Night Classical Underground at Monroe SF enjoyed the benefit of two separate Events postings on Facebook, each coming from a different source. The pieces did not fit together very well. However, I think I have been able to pull together a coherent plan for the evening; and, with any luck, I may get the order of the sets right. (By way of full disclosure, I was unable to confirm any of this from the Classical Revolution Web site.)

Two violinists, Michele Walther and Gloria Justen, will take solo sets. In addition they both will perform as members of the alt.music Clarinet Quintet. This group is led by David Elaine Alt on A clarinet; and the other two players are violist Charith Premawardhana and cellist Gabriel Beistline. All of the members of this group contribute both compositions and arrangements. All selections were workshopped and recorded at the Flaming Hakama studio throughout the year. Arrangements include music by Johannes Brahms, classic jazz standards, and cues written for both film and television. The set will also include Afro-Cuban material. Finally, there will be a set taken by Les Francs Bassons, a bassoon trio currently on tour from Paris led by Victor Dutot.

Monroe is an upscale club located on the edge of North Beach. It offers plush curving sofas, dramatic artwork, and a patio:


The organizers of Classical Underground describe it as “an unconventional space without the pretense of a concert hall.” The outdoor patio is heated and permits smoking. Cocktails are $5 and there are $2 cold beer specials. All guests must be age 21 or older. The street address is 473 Broadway, between Kearny Street and Montgomery Street. The show will start tonight, September 13, at 8 p.m.

SFO Delivers Puccini in Splendid Excess

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second performance of its season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. As was previously announced, this production will be double-cast, with the second cast giving its performances at the conclusion of the fall season. Once again, the striking designs of David Hockney, which he created for SFO in 1993, provided just the right setting for the intense staging by Garnett Bruce and the impassioned conducting of Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

For all of its popularity, Turandot goes against just about all the grain-lines that set expectations. If it is to be called a love story at all, it could well be the most enigmatic one in the opera literature, the strongest competition being Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow), which predates Turandot by about half a decade. One might almost call Turandot pure spectacle (which Frau ohne Schatten decidedly is not), rather than a love story; and it is definitely a far cry from the commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi that inspired Friedrich Schiller to write his play Turandot, Prinzessin von China, which is usually taken as the source for the libretto that Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni prepared for Puccini. Ultimately, one has to fall back on that time-worn (if not forgotten) cliché: “It is what it is.”

Last night’s performance, however, definitely tipped the scales in favor of pure spectacle. If nothing else, this may have been the most unabashedly loud performance I have experienced in the War Memorial Opera House for some time (including past performances of Turandot). This is a bit ironic, since the size of the orchestra for Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” the other SFO offering at the present time, is 95, while there are only 73 musicians in the orchestra pit for Turandot. Nevertheless, Puccini pulled out as many stops as he could find for the first act of his final opera. Luisotti responded by playing the opening gesture with a loudness of ten and still managed to build up to eleven by the end of the act.

Note, however, the use of the adjective “loud,” rather than “noisy.” Under Luisotti’s interpretation, Turandot was no mere tantrum with lots of special effects. One can only describe it as a force of nature, and Luisotti was there to make sure that all of us on audience side experienced all of the impact of that force.

Needless to say, this poses a major challenge to the vocalists on stage. They have to sing accurately, clearly, and expressively through the orchestra’s wall of sound; and, with only a few exceptions, there are few opportunities to regather strength other than during the intermissions. (Ironically, the one extended period that does not demand full-time full strength was not composed by Puccini. It is the duet that Franco Alfano composed, after Puccini’s death, for Timur and Turandot before the final scene of the last act.) For the most part the vocalists rose to these physical challenges in Puccini’s score admirably.

Brian Jagde’s Timur definitely captured the right blend of precision, clarity, and expression. If that made him a bit melodramatic, one could not really expect otherwise from the libretto. Martina Serafin offered up what may well have been the most chilling personification of Turandot I have yet experienced:

photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Like Jagde, she had a voice that could cut through the densest instrumental textures like butter, and her expressiveness well served the complications of Turandot’s character. Adler Fellow Toni Marie Palmertree had two major arias for Liù (in the first and third acts, respectively). The second of those provides the turning point for the entire narrative, and her account was riveting. Finally, in the extended writing for Ping, Pang, and Pong (the only vestiges of commedia dell’arte in the libretto), Joo Won Kang was most solid as Ping; but, for the most part, Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joel Sorensen (Pong) kept up with him, no mean feat considering the hyperactivity of the staging for them.

Four performances remain for this “first round” of Turandot; and any one of them should be taken as a must-see for opera lovers this month.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tanya Gabrielian’s “Music of Recovery”


Today is the release date for pianist Tanya Gabrielian’s debut album Remix on MSR Classics. The release was timed to fit in with Gabrielian’s current eleven-city tour, which began this past Sunday. Both the album and the tour have a backstory that threatens to overrule the music itself, so a bit of background is in order.

Gabrielian graduated early, at the age of sixteen, from her high school in California as valedictorian with a spot at Harvard University for a major on biomedical engineering. However, before going to Harvard, she decided to take a gap year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Feeling like an outsider, she turned to the study of kung fu in parallel with her piano and viola work at the Academy. She would eventually receive both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Academy, along with a prize for best final recital and a DipRAM, the highest performance award.

All of this took place in the context of a life-changing experience. During one of her kung fu sessions, she slipped on a puddle of sweat and fell forward. To avoid injury to her arms, she pulled them back, which left her head unguarded. The result was not only a head injury but also a twisted spine and a month-long treatment involving nine hospitals and two operating rooms, all in the setting of a foreign medical system. Her one source of comfort came from her recordings of the solo violin and cello compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

In this context Remix amounts to a document of Gabrielian’s psychological healing process that accompanied her physical healing. The result is that she prepared this album to present piano transcriptions of those compositions that saw her through this difficult period. It also explains why her tour will include performances for members of local affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Thus the album itself is an intensely personal statement, probably more so than just about any available recording of music that Bach composed with the keyboard in mind. Nevertheless, for those of us interested in the music itself, the album turns out to be an interesting study of the art of transcription. Indeed, the transcribers include Bach himself in the opening (Adagio) movement of the BWV 1005 violin sonata in C major. (The entire sonata is included on the album, but it is a composite. The second and third movements are transcriptions by Camille Saint-Saëns, while the final movement was transcribed by Arturo Cardelús.) The are two transcriptions by Alexander Siloti, an Andante from the BWV 1003 sonata in A minor and the familiar chaconne from the BWV 1004 partita in D minor. The album concludes with the entire BWV 1008 cello suite in D minor transcribed by Leopold Godowsky.

Those who have been following my writing for some time know that I have had a long-standing interest in “the art of transcription,” which is both the title of one of the earliest articles I wrote on this site and the title of a recording by Earl Wild based on a Carnegie Hall recital he gave with the same name in the fall of 1981. Thus, this album appealed to me because all of the transcriptions were new to me. I had encountered Siloti in other contexts (which included the music of Bach); and my Godowsky experience included both recitals and recordings. I also knew that Saint-Saëns had done Bach transcriptions, but I had not yet had a chance to listen to any of them. On the other hand this was my first encounter with Cardelús, and the only transcriptions by Bach himself that I knew came from the so-called Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.

As my interest has matured, I have discovered that I tend to sort out listening experiences on the basis of whether one is listening to the transcriber or the composer being transcribed. The ne plus ultra example of the former is just about any transcription of Bach prepared by Ferruccio Busoni, the best known of which is his treatment of that chaconne from BWV 1004. Like Busoni, Siloti was not afraid to embellish his transcriptions with newly invented material; and this is most evident when he adds an additional line of counterpoint to BWV 855, the E minor prelude from the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Siloti’s approach to the BWV 1004 chaconne is not quite as extreme; but, for those more interested in listening to Bach, he tends to be more satisfying than Busoni. Godowsky works, on the other hand, were never about anyone other than Godowsky, which means that any sense of Bach in his transcription of BWV 1008 is not just coincidental but most likely accidental!

In many respects Bach’s transcription of his own music is the most interesting track on the album. Listening to it, one would not suspect that it was originally written for solo violin. To be fair, however, listening to Gabrielian’s performance on this album tweaked my curiosity as to how Bach would have played it on one of his own keyboard instruments. From a rhetorical point of view, Gabrielian seemed less interested in presenting “Bach on Bach” and more in providing a reading that would make a smooth transition for the Saint-Saëns transcriptions that would follow. The need for such a transition was evident from the approach to the fugue that follows the opening adagio. Saint-Saëns clearly understood every nut and bolt of that fugue, and Gabrielian could not have given a better account of what makes that fugue tick. However, Saint-Saëns’ style of presentation was unabashedly rooted in the nineteenth century; and Gabrielian’s interpretation was definitely directed more in service of Saint-Saëns than in that of Bach.

I have no idea what sorts of programs Gabrielian has planned for her tour, but there is no doubt in my mind that Saint-Saëns’ transcription of the fugue from BWV 1005 should make for one hell of an encore!

OFS to Launch 5th Season with Free Concert

The 2017–2018 season will be a landmark for the conductor-free collaborative chamber orchestra One Found Sound (OFS). It will mark the ensemble’s fifth season. As a result, before the full concert schedule is announced, OFS will celebrate this month with a woodwind quintet party.

The program will consist of three selections, each with its own characteristic style and all ordered chronologically. The opening selection will be the first (in B-flat major) of Franz Danzi’s three Opus 56 wind quintets. This will be followed by the only piece of chamber music that Paul Hindemith called “Kleine [little] Kammermusik,” his Opus 24, Number 2. The final selection will be the last of David Maslanka’s three wind quintets. The “party” side of the occasion will be marked by beer (not to mention the company of other OFS fans)!

The venue will be the Osher Salon on the bottom floor of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. This will be an in-the-round concert with the musicians performing in the center of the space. (The title of the program is “One Found (Surround) Sound;” but the audience will be doing the surrounding!) The concert will take place on Friday September 22, beginning at 7:30 p.m. with doors opening at 7 p.m. Admission will be free, but registration will be required to reserve a seat. Registration may be made online through an Eventbrite event page.

Monday, September 11, 2017

ABS Announces 2018 Jeffrey Thomas Award

Today the American Bach Soloists (ABS) announced the recipient of the 2018 Jeffrey Thomas Award. The award was created by ABS in celebration of the group’s first 25 years of presenting performances in Northern California, across the United States, and around the world. The award was named to honor the inspired leadership of Artistic & Music Director Thomas.

The 2018 recipient is violinist Jude Ziliak:

Violinist Jude Ziliak (courtesy of American Bach Soloists)

His knowledge of the Baroque violin family extends from performing on the lira da braccio to premiering new compositions for period instruments. He is an alumnus of the 2012 ABS Academy and has been a member of ABS since that 25th season in 2013. He is also active in New York, performing with Sonnambula, whose repertoire is taken from the Renaissance period, and the Clarion Music Society. Also in New York Ziliak is on the faculty of the Lucy Moses School and Special Music School (P.S. 859).

The first opportunity to experience Ziliak as a soloist will be during the Viva Vivaldi’s Venice! concert, which will be held at the fifteenth annual ABS gala on September 23. He will perform the solo part in a concerto in D major that Vivaldi composed for violin and two orchestras. It is worth noting that the ensemble will include another Thomas Award recipient, cellist Gretchen Claassen, who was the 2015 awardee. Ziliak will later serve as concertmaster on an upcoming ABS recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s four orchestra suites.

The Bleeding Edge: 9/11/2017

This will be another busy week for which all but one of the events have already enjoyed the benefit of advance notice. Those events, along with hyperlinks to the related information, are, in chronological order, as follows:
September 13: The beginning of the new Composers in Performance Series season at the Canessa Gallery
September 14: The all-electronic program in the LSG Creative Music Series
September 15: Timothy Johnson at the Center for New Music (C4NM)
September 17: Three events on the same evening: (i) Rova and Ghost in the House at the Community Music Center; (ii) Thomas Schultz at Old First Concerts; (iii) Portato Portato at C4NM
The remaining event will take place one week from tonight and therefore deserves a heads-up in advance.

German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann has been a leading figure in the European jazz scene since the Sixties. He was one of the leading proponents of free jazz at a time when that approach was just beginning to emerge in the United States. He has recorded with such pioneers as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and Anthony Braxton; and half a century after the genre began to emerge, he is still going strong.

He will be in San Francisco for a duo performance with local drummer Donald Robinson. Their gig will be part of the series of adventurous concerts held at The Chapel and presented by (((folkYEAH!))). The Chapel is located in the Mission at 777 Valencia Street. All tickets will be $25 and those of all ages will be admitted. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Monday, September 18; and doors will open at 7 p.m. Tickets may be purchased in advance from a Ticketfly event page. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office, which is open between 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. and will reopen on the evening of the performance at 6:30 p.m.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Splinter Reeds Launches the New SFCM Season

This afternoon the 2017–18 concert season of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) officially got under way with a Faculty Artist Recital prepared by clarinetist Jeff Anderle, Woodwinds Chair and Woodwind Chamber Music Coordinator. (Anderle is also an SFCM alumnus, a member of the Class of ’06.) Rather than give a solo recital, he devoted the entire program to performing with the Splinter Reeds all-reed quintet, in which he plays only bass clarinet. Bill Kalinkos plays the more familiar B-flat clarinet; and the other members of the group are Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Dana Jessen on bassoon, and Dave Wegehaupt playing both alto and soprano saxophones.

Their repertoire consists almost entirely (if not entirely) of recently composed pieces, meaning that, for many in the audience, the program probably consisted only of “first contact” experiences. For that reason I had made it a point to attend, because I had already been introduced to two of the works on the program, when Splinter Reeds launched this season’s ROOM Series of inventive chamber music programming curated by Pamela Z this past April. Both of those pieces were performed during the second half of the program, Teresa Wong’s “Letters to a Friend” (which had been premiered in April) and Eric Wubbels’ “Auditory Scene Analysis II.”

I must confess that I had forgotten all about “Letters to a Friend,” including the fact that it was performed in total darkness, broken only by the headlamps worn by each of the players in order to read their score pages. I had also forgotten that the piece was primarily rhythmic, based on Morse code letter-by-letter rendition of the Portuguese text of “O Pulsar,” a short poem by Augusto de Campos. This provided an alternative interpretation of the title, since the focus of the structure was on letters, rather than the semantics of the poem itself. On the other hand the fact that all of the sonorities involved uneven pulses made for an uncanny fit to the poet’s evocation of pulsar phenomena.

It is worth noting that only the Morse code part of the above explanation was disclosed to this afternoon’s audience (and only after the piece had been performed). Given the inadequacy of my memory, I am not sure how necessary any more detailed explanation would have been. The intensity of the performance came from the precision with which the uneven rhythms were realized, both by the individual players and by their migration across the different instruments. Even in the absence of specific detail, the realization of those rhythms in extreme darkness had clear suggestions (if not connotations) of cosmic phenomena and our own extremely modest situation among those phenomena. That struck me as where the rhetoric resided, and the significance of that rhetoric seemed to override any more technical matters of structure.

My recollection of Wubbels’ piece had a bit more substance, probably because my first listening experience triggered memories (not particularly pleasant) of having read Albert S. Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis – The Perceptual Organization of Sound. When I first listened to “Auditory Scene Analysis II” (the first piece of that name had been written for a larger ensemble, but the second piece was written specifically for Splinter Reeds), I recognized that Wubbles was playing games with how a listener would resolve questions of figure and ground. This time I felt more secure in where the “figures” were, realizing that they were the sustained tones that contrasted against a background of rhythmic complexity (which seemed calculated to provide the effect of entropic noise).

At the same time, however, I realized that there might be a joke in how Wubbles chose those figures. To be perfectly honest, my recognizing them as figures had more to do with looking at all of the players and paying attention to which ones were moving their fingers! Once I figured out whose fingers weren’t moving, I could listen for sonorities consistent with that particular instrument. In other words my analysis of the “auditory scene” required more than “auditory input;” it also required visual input!

I would like to believe that humor was part of Wubbles’ rhetoric because there was a generous amount of it in the rest of the program. Marc Mellits’ eight-movement suite Splinter assigned a different kind of tree of each movement. Some of the musical associations were clearer than others, but there was no mistaking the raucously jazzy rhetoric of the final movement. This was music that had more to do with the unabashed free-blowing spirit of the Original Dixieland Jass Band than the red pine for which the movement is named, which is very much a northern, rather than southern, tree.

On the other hand, many of Mellits’ movements seemed to be conceived around the Splinter Players’ impeccable attention to blending their sonorities. Indeed, attentive listening suggested that their breath control always accounted for interval relations that had more to do with natural harmonics than with the equal-tempered pitches encountered on piano keyboards. For that matter the “Ode” movement, which was the second of two “exercises” that Cara Haxo composed for the group, seemed to have been designed to refine sensitivity to such natural intonations, even when they had to be achieved through microtonal “bending.” By way of contrast, however, Jannik Giger’s “Contaminare” seem to explore the “contamination” of the opening measures of the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by microtones. (The fact that Wagner would often use “enharmonic spelling” to simplify the score for this opera suggests that his own capacity for listening was firmly based on an equal-tempered piano.)

The entire program was well received by the impressive audience turnout. The result was that the occasion called for an encore. Ironically, Mellits had reworked one of the movements from Splinter to serve as an encore. In its revised form, the movement was entitled “A Cherry on Top.” It recalled the joyous abandon of the original version while pulling off a new “punch line” for its stand-alone status. My only regret is that I am not sure when I shall next be able to see how much memory retains when I next listen to this delightful group.