Friday, November 17, 2017

Earl Wild the Composer

The pianist Earl Wild had a significant impact on both my listening skills and my struggling efforts to explore repertoire through my inadequate piano skills. Unless I am mistaken, he came to my attention as the first pianist to get me really to listen to a recording of George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” However, I did not get a chance to experience him in performance until after my move to Connecticut at the end of the summer of 1981. I came across an announcement that he would be presenting a program entitled The Art of the Transcription at Carnegie Hall; and, since my Santa Barbara piano teacher had gotten me interested in transcription, I could not resist getting tickets. (This turned out to be my “first date” with the woman who would later become my wife.) Further opportunities to listen to Wild came after moving to Los Angeles, when Wild would come in from his home in Palm Springs to give recitals at Loyola Marymount University.

With those many experiences I never gave much thought to Wild as a composer. He had included one of his transcriptions on his Carnegie program, the “cygnets” pas de quatre from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score. It was a dynamite account (I think the whoop I gave at the end is audible on the CD of that concert); but I knew little about any other efforts. As a result I gave little thought to Wild the composer until the fall of 2013, when I heard a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music play an étude that Wild had composed based on two distant points of departure. The thematic material came from George Gershwin’s song “Embraceable You;” but the treatment (and technical challenges) had much more to do with the concert étude that Franz Liszt had called “Un sospiro.” (Wild was clearly playing with the idea that the first notes of Liszt’s theme for his étude could be shunted in the direction of “Embraceable You.”) I learned that this was one of seven such études that Wild had composed, and my curiosity was piqued.

courtesy of Naxos of America

My curiosity remained unsatisfied until I recently learned that the Steinway & Sons label had released an album entitled Gershwin & Wild, a solo album of performances by pianist Joanne Polk. (Note that the cover, shown above, includes a portrait of Gershwin by the recently-cited caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.) This recording includes all seven of the Gershwin études, as well as the 1989 set of variations on “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Wild’s only piano sonata, which he composed late in life in 2000. (Wild died at the age of 94 on January 23, 2010.)

The full set of études is as impressive as I had anticipated. Like any good composer choosing to work in this genre, Wild begins with a clear sense of the technical skills that the piece intends to cultivate. He can then use the “Gershwin tune” (thank you Burton Lane and Ralph Freed) to provide the pupil with a clear sense of how the piece has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The familiarity of that tune just sweetens the deal.

When it comes to writing variations, however, Wild takes his imagination to a higher level. In his notes for the accompanying booklet, Jeffrey Langford is as quick at catching the many references to Johann Sebastian Bach as can be expected, while also calling out the appearance of “O Sole Mio.” However, what Langford calls Wild’s “Italianate mood” also seems to include at least one passing reference to Giacomo Puccini (which is over before you know it). As a result the full set of variations is a delightful mix of originality and cross-references. Originality is much more evident in the sonata in which cross-referencing never goes further than establishing a mood.

Taken as a whole, this is a delightful reminder that Wild was much more than a thoroughly engaging pianist and that his capacity for invention deserves more recognition.

Paul Ayers’ “Handel Variations” to Return


Those who have been following me for a really long time may recall that, in December of 2009, the Sanford Dole Ensemble (SDE) honored (if you can call it that) the Christmas season with a performance of Messyah. This was the creation of Paul Ayres, an imaginative composer with a strong sense of humor, which he exercises on compositions from the past in an effort to inject them into the immediate present. The operative root of the title word is clearly “mess;” but it is the sort of mess that arises while making mud pies at the beach, rather than leaving a kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes.

When SDE performed Messyah at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2009, it was easy to appreciate and enjoy how Ayres was “messing around” with George Frideric Handel. Just about every genre was fair game for Ayres’ creative juices, including jazz, gospel, and even improvisation. However, his playfulness extended beyond the score pages, often adding theatrics to the mix. Thus, the entire chorus was required to “go astray” while singing “All we like sheep;” and the impression left by that performance still lingers in memory.

Nevertheless, at the time of that performance, Ayres had not yet completed his treatment of all the movements in Handel’s score. Therefore, about a year ago Dole and his Bay Choral Guild (BCG) reached out to Ayres with an offer to commission the completion of his composition. That task has now been achieved, complete with orchestral accompaniment. As a result, BCG will present the complete score of Messyah next month, once again for the benefit of those very much in need of an alternative take on seasonal traditions. The orchestra will be the Redwood Symphony led by Eric Kujawsky (who apparently prefers to be called “Eric K” these days, if I am to go by the ensemble’s Web site). The vocal soloists will be soprano Ann Moss, mezzo Kathleen Moss, tenor Michael Desnoyer, and bass Igor Vieira.

The San Francisco performance of Messyah will begin at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 10. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission will be $30 with a $25 rate for seniors and $10 for students. The student rate applies to those over eighteen with identification. Those under eighteen who attend with an adult paying either the general or the senior rate will be admitted for free. Dole will give a preview lecture beginning at 4 p.m. BCG has created an event page for advance purchased of tickets online.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ives Overwhelms Beethoven at Davies

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who used to create thoroughly engaging drawings representative of scenes from plays for The New York Times worked up a series of satirical illustrations under the collective title Unlikely Casting. He would think up an extremely familiar role from a play, such as Lady Macbeth, and then draw someone who would never on earth be associated with that role. (In the case of Lady Macbeth, he drew Carol Channing.) Such couplings that do not quite work make for some very funny comedy; but, when comedy is not intended, the pairing is likely to be little other than awkward.

That may well be the case for the coupling planned for this week’s series of concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), at Davies Symphony Hall. The first half of the program was devoted to Charles Ives’ fourth symphony, and the intermission was followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto in D major with Pinchas Zukerman as soloist. One wonders what Ives himself would have thought of the coupling. According to Charles Ives and His Music, by Henry and Sidney Cowell, Ives seems to have had respect for Beethoven but, as the Cowell’s put it “found other people’s music interfered with the music of his own that he was always carrying around in his head.” This afternoon’s performance seems to have suggested that interference could be a two-way street.

During MTT’s tenure with SFS, Davies has been an excellent place to get to know Ives’ music. There have been a generous number of opportunities to listen to performances, many of which have been framed by some very highly informed pre-concert introductions. MTT has been directly involved with most, but not all, of those performances. This was all to the advantage of today’s offering.

Ives seems to have begun work on his fourth symphony in 1916 but did not complete the final revisions until 1924. By that time, almost all of Ives’ work had been completed, if not published, although Ives would live until May 19, 1954. Ives probably did not intend his fourth symphony to be a summa of his all of his past experiences as a music-maker; but it would not hurt to regard the piece that way.

Prior to performing the symphony this afternoon, MTT talked about the influences of hymn tunes and then led the SFS Chorus in a performance of six of those hymns with organ accompaniment. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg of influences that one encounters in the symphony’s score. For example, it would probably be an exaggeration to say that all of the 114 songs that Ives published in 1922 can be found somewhere in the fourth symphony; but, even if that assertion is not strictly true, it does not take much of a stretch to believe it. Far more explicit is the almost note-for-note reproduction of the fugue from Ives’ first string quartet in the symphony’s third movement (even if the quartet never allows “Joy to the World” to intrude).

The New York Times comes to mind again. There used to be billboard advertisements of the Sunday edition with the slogan, “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there.” My guess is that even those who pore over every mark on the pages of the published score of Ives’ fourth symphony may never know how much is really “all there.” Ives’ packed so much into this piece, particularly in its second movement (which he labeled “Comedy”), that it is almost impossible to establish what would constitute a satisfactory performance.

Nevertheless, through making some very judicious decisions about where to place the players (not all of whom were visible), drawing upon the assistance of Resident Conductor Christian Reif to keep the most complex polyrhythms under control, and the decision to situate Peter Dugan as if he were a piano concerto soloist, MTT did about as good a job as could be expected in giving an accessible account of Ives’ complexity, outrageous dissonances and obstreperous intrusions and all. The only source of confusion was the program listing of Crystal Soo Jeong Kim (a member of the SFS Chorus) as soprano soloist. If there was a solo voice in any range within all that complexity, it managed to elude my attention.

In a way I regret that my schedule would not allow me to attend all three performances of this symphony. My guess is that I would have heard different things on each of the three occasions. I make this claim on the basis of the fact that I am familiar with three different recordings of the piece, an experience base that at least allowed me to negotiate the overall “geography” of the composition. However, the devilish fun is in the details; and I would almost expect that every performance brings out its own individual preferences for details, even when those performances are by the same ensemble with the same conductor. After all, who wants to listen to a performance that just sounds like a recording?

Given the nature of such a listening experience, it should be no surprise that, even with the benefit of an intermission, the spirit of Ives was still reverberating in my cerebral cortex when Zukerman took the stage to play the Beethoven concerto. Was his approach to the first movement really as peremptory as it felt while I was listening, or was I being distracted by Ives’ dispensation to mock all composers of the past? Most likely it was a combination of those two alternatives, since it certainly seemed as if much of Zukerman’s solo work was more business-as-usual than it was music-in-the-immediate-moment. For his part MTT certainly kept the ensemble well balanced at a pace that only on a few occasions left one wondering if things were going on for too long.

Perhaps the only really satisfying thing one can do after having performed the Ives fourth is to play it again after the intermission.

OFS Puts a Twist on Seasonal Programming


Readers may recall that the conductor-free chamber orchestra One Found Sound (OFS) began their fifth anniversary season close enough to Halloween to entitled their program Monster Masquerade (with a little bit of both on display among the performers, as well as in the audience). With the major holiday season of the year upon us, the ensemble has decided to entitle their second concert program Saturnalia Regalia. According to its Wikipedia page, this ancient Roman festival was celebrated near the end of the calendar year with “a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.” It is unclear how much of this will be experienced among either the performers or the audience, but it sounds like another night in San Francisco to me!

Of greater importance is that there will be as much diversity in the Saturnalia Regalia program as there was in Monster Masquerade. In contrast to beginning their first concert with a wildly original arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach by Anton Webern, next month’s program will begin back in the eighteenth century without any latter-day embellishments. The program will open with the overture to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Naïs, whose genre is generally described as pastorale héroïque. On the modern side the October selection of music by Igor Stravinsky will be complemented by Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 23, “Variaciones concertantes,” which he composed in 1953.

The remaining selection on the program seems to reflect the principle that one good serenade deserves another. As a “response” to the October performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 44 serenade in D minor, scored primarily for winds, the December program will present Johannes Brahms’ Opus 16 serenade in A major. This was the second of two early ventures into orchestral writing before Brahms felt he was ready to compose a symphony. Because this is early Brahms, it is worth noting that Brahms was an avid supporter of Dvořák in a variety of ways when that younger composer was just beginning to show his talents.

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, December 8. The venue will be Heron Arts, located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. General admission tickets are being sold for $25 with a $45 VIP rate for reserved seating that includes an invitation to an OFS open rehearsal. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through an Eventbrite event page.

Kloetzel Returns to the SFP Salon Series

Yesterday evening cellist Jennifer Kloetzel returned to the Hotel Rex to give the third Salon program in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) 2017–18 season. Kloetzel had presented the first of these Salon events a year ago at the beginning of the 2016–17 season, joined by pianist Robert Koenig. This time she was on her own, playing only music from the solo repertoire.

As had been previously announced, she prepared a program that she called Bach & Beyond. The six suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007–1012) are probably the best known compositions for solo cello in the standard repertoire; and Kloetzel used these pieces to form the “spinal cord” of the evening, over the course of which she played selected movements from all six of the suites. Among those selections she introduced works by the “beyond” composers, a 1926 solo cello suite by Gaspar Cassadó (inspired by both Bach and Cassadó’s teacher Pablo Casals, who probably contributed much to Cassadó’s knowledge of Bach), the Prelude movement from the first of Ernest Bloch’s three solo cello suites, composed in 1956, and Elena Ruehr’s 2013 “Lift,” which she composed for Kloetzel.

Another major figure behind Kloetzel’s program was the musicologist Andrew Talle. He recently completed the fourth of the revision volumes for Bärenreiter’s New Bach Edition. Kloetzel explained that there is no “original manuscript” for the cello suites in Bach’s hand. Talle’s volume involves a critical examination of all existing source material (including movements that also appear in the lute suites), which has led to some serious rethinking about performance. Kloetzel did not deep-end on musicological details; but it was clear that last night involved far more than playing from some preferred printed publication.

The first page of Anna Magdalena Bach's manuscript for BWV 1007, one of the sources for Andrew Talle's study (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nevertheless, she did credit Talle with endorsing one of her approaches to performance. Her first Bach selection was the opening Prelude to the first suites, BWV 1007 in G major, which is probably the most familiar of all the solo cello movements. She raced through it at a tempo I had never previously encountered but then explained that the tempo had met with Talle’s approval. As a listener I have to say that, at that pace, she could present the entire movement as a single, noticeably building crescendo, endowing the final measures with a sense of a truly dramatic climax. This is an expressive rhetoric that can be encountered in Bach, but not very often; and I suspect that this was a setting in which Talle felt that the rhetorical stance was perfectly appropriate. This first Bach offering had been preceded by the Bloch prelude, whose boldly angular gestures guaranteed attention riveted to Kloetzel’s every move; and her approach to the BWV 1007 prelude certainly kept attention at an intense level.

All of her remaining selections involved movements based on dance forms. She made the case that familiarity with the dances informed approaches to rhythm and overall rhetoric. Ironically, our own familiarity with those dances owes more to our knowledge of Bach than to any sense of what the steps were or how they were supposed to be executed. Nevertheless, one can appreciate how the spirit of physical movement pervades these movements; and Kloetzel’s selections provided an engaging guide to how all of Bach’s other dance movements could be approached by the serious listener. She could also then make the case that Cassadó’s suite owed much to reflections on the dance forms that he knew best. Only the Ruehr piece seemed to depart from the dance as a frame of reference, which may explain why its own journey from beginning to end came across as more than a little enigmatic, in not meandering.

Kloetzel used her encore to explore another perspective on “beyond.” She played a short piece entitled “Bach to the Beatles: Here Comes the Sun.” This was an arrangement by Peter Wilson that involved a mash-up of the G major prelude with George Harrison’s song from the famous Abbey Road album. Kloetzel’s execution gracefully perambulated between Bach’s repeated patterns and those in Harrison’s accompaniment line, and the synthesis made for a delightfully engaging conclusion to a highly absorbing evening.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Brilliant Classics Concludes Monteverdi Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past September Brilliant Classics concluded their project to record the complete madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi with a single CD of the ninth book in the collection. As has already been observed, this is a posthumous publication, which came out in 1651. (Monteverdi had died in 1643.)

Presumably, the publisher was responding to public demand. Thus, he thought nothing of reproducing “past hits,” such as the duet “O sia tranquillo il mare” (let the sea be calm), which had been previously published in 1638. However, for those who cannot get enough of Monteverdi, the collection also includes the trio for three sopranos “Come dolce hoggi l’auretta” (how sweet is today’s dawn), which is the only surviving music from the opera Proserpina rapta (Proserpina ravished), which had been performed in 1630. Those familiar with early seventeenth-century music will probably also recognize the repeated bass line of “Zefiro torna” (return O Zephyr), if not the melody lines for a trio of tenors.

The point is that, while the publisher may not have been interested in anything other than another revenue stream, there is much to enjoy in this final collection and the refreshingly expressive interpretations prepared by Krijn Koetsveld for his Le Nuove Musiche ensemble.

PBO to Present “Back-to-Back” Oratorios

The final measures of the "Hallelujah" chorus in Handel's autograph score (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

We are rapidly approaching the season for oratorios; and the oratorio that consistently garners the most attention is George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56, Messiah. This season, however, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) will present two different Handel oratorios on two successive weeks. Tradition will be honored with a performance of Messiah; but this season it will be followed, one week later, by the rarely performed HWV 59, the three-act Joseph and his Brethren. Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan will conduct both performances, and Director Bruce Lamott will prepare the Philharmonia Chorale.

The San Francisco performance of Messiah will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 8. The vocal soloists will be soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo Diana Moore, tenor James Reese, and baritone Philip Cutlip. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister. Ticket prices will range from $33 to $125 for premium seating. Tickets are currently available for advance purchase through a City Box Office event page, which displays a color-coded seating plan that shows which areas correspond to which price levels.

The San Francisco performance of Joseph and his Brethren will also begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 14. This will involve a much more narrative text, which was prepared by James Miller, who was chosen to provide a more dramatic account than is delivered in the Old Testament. In this case the vocal soloists portray specific characters and several of them will present more than one. The title role will be sung by Moore. Cutlip will take the roles of both Joseph’s brother Reuben and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Nicholas Phan will sing two of the brothers, Simeon and Judah; and soprano Gabrielle Haigh will sing the youngest brother, Benjamin. For the scenes in Egypt, mezzo Abigail Lewis will sing both the High Priest of On and the Pharaohs’ Chief Butler; and soprano Sherezade Panthaki will sing the role of Asenath, daughter to the High Priest. Ticket prices will range from $28 to $120, and City Box Office has prepared a separate event page with a similarly color-coded seating plan.

A/B Duo Visits San Francisco State University

Last night the San Francisco State University (SFSU) School of Music hosted a recital by the A/B Duo. This is the bicoastal pair of percussionist Christopher G. Jones, from Rochester, New York, and Bay Area flutist Meerenai Shim. Shim is also an alumna, having received her Master’s degree from SFSU in 2005.

This was one of those events that began as soon as one entered Knuth Hall in the Creative Arts Building, where the recital took place. The stage offered a panorama of instruments, mostly from the percussion family. However, there were also four sizes of flute (including the piccolo), the most noticeable being the contrabass instrument, which immediately draws attention for being taller than Shim herself:

from Facebook

As the performance progressed, one discovered that even what appeared to be a decorative tapestry turned out to be one of the instruments.

The program consisted of five compositions performed without an intermission. The first three of these came from the duo’s Variety Show album, which was discussed on this site a little over a year ago. These were Ned McGowan’s “Ricochet” and Drew Baker’s “Limb,” both composed on commission from A/B, and Ian Dicke’s “Isla.” These were following by Shim’s own “Seriously,” which she finished last month. The program then concluded with Ken Ueno’s six-movement “Building….”

Beyond the visual impact, what made this program impressive was its diversity of approaches to performance. As might be guessed, “Ricochet” was an intricately conceived piece in which events bounce back and forth between the two performers. However, as I had observed when writing about the album, it also involved Shim deploying the contrabass flute almost as if it were a pitched percussion instrument. Indeed, taken as a whole, the program amounted to a thoroughly engaging exposition of the different ways in which pitched and non-pitched events interact with (and sometimes blend with) each other.

There was also a laptop on stage, and digital processing figured in a few of the selections. This included that aforementioned tapestry. which was the interactive graphic score for Shim’s “Seriously.” In addition to reading from this score while playing alto flute, Shim also touched areas of the score; and synthesized sounds responded to her touch.

It is also worth observing that all but the final composition were relatively brief in duration. In each of these cases, the composer knew how to say her/his piece without wasting any time and also knew when (s)he had said enough. On the other hand the six movements of Ueno’s piece were a bit more of a stretch. There was a generous amount of innovation in his work, particularly when it involved a variety of techniques for playing different pieces of the contrabass flute. However, there was little sense of an overall unity within which each of the pieces had its own role to play. Instead, each of the individual movements emerged as going on for a longer period of time than any of the other works performed.

Nevertheless, the evening, taken as a whole, was definitely a satisfying one. Furthermore, even with the experience of having listened to Variety Show, it was an experience in which the “visual channel” was stimulated as much as the auditory. This was an evening “about making music,” so to speak; and bearing witness to the acts of making bore as much significance as listening to the results of those efforts.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Silvestrov’s Cello Music on ECM New Series

courtesy of Universal Music Group

My encounters with the music of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov seem to have been few and far between. “First contact” apparently took place right around the time that I was beginning to focus on writing about music. It came from an album entitled Bagatellen und Serenaden released by ECM New Series in the fall of 2007. It was probably a good way to start, since the “Bagatellen” part of the title involved Silvestrov himself playing those works on piano. However, according to my records (which may not be thorough, thanks to the inadequacies of the Wayback Machine), I did not write about Silvestrov until the release of the ECM New Series album entitled Sacred Works.

This happened to come around the time that George Benjamin was serving as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony; and I had put a fair amount of effort into preparing for the performances of his music in Davies Symphony Hall. The result was my first venture into exploring the idea that the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of a composition could be organized around the properties of what I called “the sound itself,” rather than the usual conventions of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Silvestrov did not so much abandon those conventions as relegate them to the background; and I realized that the priorities of his Sacred Works album could also be found in that earlier Bagatellen und Serenaden album.

All this should serve as background for the fact that Silvestrov turned 80 this past September 30. ECM honored the occasion with the release of its latest all-Silvestrov album, Hieroglyphen der Nacht (hieroglyphs of the night). The album consists entirely of compositions for either solo cello or cello duo. The “lead” cellist is Anja Lechner, who is joined by Agnès Vesterman. To some extent Silvestrov’s retrospective account of what he has been doing over the past decades seems to mesh with my own initial impressions.

He is clearly interested in that idea of “the sound itself;” but he seeks it in places I had not considered. Thus, he has said, “My own music is a response to and an echo over what already exists;” and he calls his accumulated catalog a series of “codas” to music history. On Hieroglyphen der Nacht, “what already exists” can be found in the works of Robert Schumann, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Tigran Mansurian, another composer whose works have been released on ECM New Series recordings. The “codas” for both Schumann and Tchaikovsky are actually three-movement suites, whose titles are dates, those of Schumann’s birth and Tchaikovsky’s death, respectively. However, the presence of both of these composers is, for the most part, implicit, thus contrasting noticeably with the far more explicit presence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in “Der Bote” (the messenger) on the Bagatellen und Serenaden album.

Philosophy aside, what makes this new album particularly interesting is the capacity of the cello to explore a wide diversity of sonorities. Even more interesting is that Silvestrov focuses almost entirely on pitched sonorities without turning to more percussive techniques such as col legno or knocking on the body of the instrument. On the other hand the “Elegie” that he composed in 1999 requires the cellist to play two suspended gongs of different sizes (in addition to the cello). This brings me back to my own focus on “the sound itself” and the act of making that sound, without necessarily trying to establish a connection between that sound and “what already exists.” Drawing upon my past experiences with linguistics, I would venture to say that, while Silvestrov seems to take a highly “context-dependent” approach to what he composes, I see no trouble with advocating a “context-free” approach to listening to what he has created.

For those who have not yet encountered Silvestrov’s work, I have no trouble recommending Hieroglyphen der Nacht as a “first contact” experience. Given that they require a rather intense approach to focused listening, it is to the listener’s advantage that almost all of the tracks are less than five minutes in duration. (Anyone with experiences involving the music of Anton Webern should have no trouble fitting in with these structures.) The exceptions are the last of the three movements of “Elegie” (which is where the gongs are added), which is about eleven minutes long, and the 2003 “Augenblicke der Stille und Traurigkeit” (moments of silence and sadness), which Silvestrov wrote for Lechner. This is music that benefits from cumulative experience; and, whether or not those accumulated experiences amount to “echos” matters less that whether the sympathetic ear is attuned to the immediate present.

Red Poppy Art House: First Half of December, 2017

The Red Poppy Art House has extended its Upcoming Events list to December 15. Whether things will go quiet when most people are celebrating their respective holidays remains to be seen. As was observed last month, the “density of events” around Thanksgiving definitely lessened; and the second half of December tends to place even more demands on those who might otherwise be spending their time at concerts.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets will be available only at the door. All of the December shows listed thus far will begin at 7:30 p.m. Those who have not previously been to the Poppy need to know that it is a small space. It is almost always a good idea to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for the events scheduled for the month of December:

Friday, December 1: This will be an inaugural collaboration between jazz harpist Destiny Muhammad and trumpeter Darren Johnston, two longtime contributors to the Bay Area jazz scene. The program will include some premieres of Johnston’s compositions, as well as jazz standards and innovative covers from around the globe. Rhythm will be provided only by Giulio Xavier on bass. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Thursday, December 7:  Trio Caminos is named after its leader, guitarist Carols Caminos, who performs with Sascha Jacobsen on bass and Marlon Aldana on cajón, the boxlike percussion instrument shown below in the group photograph:

courtesy of the Red Poppy Art House

This is a cross-cultural ensemble, which draws upon Venezuela, Spain, Cuba, and the Americas for its sources. They will combine their original compositions with works by Astor Piazzolla, Hermeto Pascoal, and Michel Camilo. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, December 8: Trio Garufa specializes in the tango repertoire. The members are Argentinian Guillermo García on guitar, Swiss Adrian Jost on bandoneon, and American Jacobsen returning from his Thursday gig on bass. Their catalog includes classic Argentine tangos, Argentine folk music, the modern tangos of Piazzolla, and original compositions. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, December 9: Jacobsen will make one more appearance, this time playing bass with the Musical Art Quintet. This is not the standard “classical” string quintet, which doubles either the viola or the cello. Rather, it is a string quartet with an added bass. The quartet members are violinists Anthony Blea and Michelle Walther, violist Charith Premawardhana, and cellist Lewis Patzner. Jacobsen is the leader of the group, which takes classical chamber music as a rhetorical bass and then explores the possibilities for improvisation, often taking Jacobsen’s compositions as a point of departure.  Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Thursday, December 14: Mean to Me is a more conventional jazz combo in which Ben Slater alternates between saxophone and piano. He is joined by Dave Shaff on trumpet and Cairo McCochran on drums. The remainder of the rhythm section (bass and guitar) has not yet been determined for this particular performance; but the instrumentalists will be joined by vocalist Judy Butterfield.

The group’s repertoire is rooted in the “classic” jazz from the Twenties through the Forties. It is named for a song by Fred E. Ahlert published in 1929 but probably best known by the recording Billie Holiday made in 1937 with Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. In spite of the “roots” of their sources, the group’s interpretations often draw upon the more modern stylings of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Ahmad Jamal. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, December 15: If this turns out to be the final concert of the year, then one might say that the occasion will be celebrated with a ball of fire. Six members of Caminos Flamencos and/or Barrio Manouche will blend the musical worlds of flamenco, jazz, and Roma jazz (of the sort practiced by Django Reinhardt). Luis Jimenez will provide percussion for two guitarists, Jason “El Rubio” McGuire and Javi Jimenez, with vocals provided by Felix de Lola. There will also be two dancers, Fanny Ara and Yaelisa, choreographer and Artistic Director of Caminos Flamencos. This promises to be a “really big show” (for those who remember that epithet), which means that the price will be a bit higher. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Utah Symphony Returns to Mahler Eighth

from Amazon.com

Gustav Mahler’s eighth symphony in E-flat major, frequently called the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is as much of a challenge to recording technology as it is to even the most attentive of Mahler listeners. The symphony consists of only two parts, whose proportions differ radically. The first is a setting of the ninth-century Christian Hymn for Pentecost, “Veni creator spiritus” (come, creator spirit). The second is based on the closing scene from the second part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The duration of the second part is roughly three times the length of the first, meaning that listening to the symphony requires the sort of endurance that one brings to attending an opera by Richard Wagner. However, the symphony also shows Mahler’s approach to architecture at its most sophisticated, since the second part unfolds as a series of prolongations of the episodes of the first. The first part, in turn, does not simply “walk its way” through the text but, instead, circles back to repeat certain passages in what may best be taken as a rhetoric of ecstasy.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the performance of this symphony requires a thousand players, it certainly needs a very large ensemble. The dynamic range of the score is so wide that Mahler incorporates both a harmonium and a mandolin when the ensemble is not going full blast. Vocal resources require eight soloists, three sopranos, two altos, tenor, baritone, and bass, as well as two four-part choirs and a children’s choir. In some physical settings one might wonder if any room was left over for the audience.

This site has frequently discussed the many ways in which even the best recording technology cannot hope to capture many of the subtle nuances of a performance experience. In the Mahler eighth those nuances are often present, even when they are sharply contrasted by massive blocks of full-ensemble sonorities. In spite of these physical shortcomings, the first released recording was taken from a performance on April 9, 1950 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic, presumably in Carnegie Hall. A series of concert recordings then followed, one of which remains my personal favorite, the March 20, 1959 performance given by Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra.

It was only in December of 1963 that the symphony was given its first recording under studio conditions. The record company was Vanguard, and the ensemble was the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel. Back in the days of vinyl, this was pretty much the way to get some sense of the experience of listening to this mammoth undertaking.

This Friday Reference Recordings will release a new album of the Utah Symphony performing the Mahler eighth. This time the conductor is Thierry Fischer, who has been Music Director since 2009. In the interest of pulling out all the stops, so to speak, the choral resources were provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As may be expected, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.

Whenever I think about the Mahler eighth, I am reminded of a Japanese proverb about there being two kinds of fools in the world: those who have never climbed Mount Fuji and those who have climbed Mount Fuji twice. I offer this as context for my own experiences with listening to both recordings and performances of the symphony. Readers may exercise their own judgement as to the impact of those experiences on my credibility.

Back when I was still collecting vinyl, I had the Abravanel recording. Initially I did not listen to it very much. However, as I gradually eased my way into the symphony’s second part, I began to become more comfortable with listening to the first part. I never got the CD version of that recording; and I was only motivated to get any CD recording of the symphony after I heard the Horenstein performance on the radio. Once I started writing for Examiner.com, I began to accumulate a variety of different collections of Mahler performances; and I now have recordings of the symphony conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Georg Solti, and Simon Rattle. A dreadful performance by Leonard Bernstein broadcast on Public Television weaned me away from any desire to own any video recording. However, after my move to the Bay Area in 1995, I have been fortunate enough to attend performances by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony on two different season subscriptions. These have been my only concert experiences.

The penultimate sentence of that last paragraph is the critical one in establishing my mindset. The Mahler eighth is one of those pieces that has convinced me that no recording can ever serve as an adequate replacement for attending a performance. The best the recording can do is familiarize you with the “building blocks” of a composition, primarily pertaining to thematic material, harmonic progressions, and instrumentation. As a result, given my own personal experience, I doubt that I shall ever encounter a recording of this symphony that will expand my “knowledge base” of the piece. So much is now packed into my cerebral cortex that only physical presence at a performance is likely to have an impact.

When I set that “knowledge base” aside, however, I have to wonder whether Fischer has anything to offer listeners with less experience of the score. I’m not sure I can give a fair response, which is why I outlined my past experiences. In my own context I have to say that I have yet to encounter a recording that seizes my attention the way the Horenstein recording did on “first contact.” I am very glad that Fischer provided the music-loving citizens of Salt Lake City with exposure to this symphony in performance; but, even though the recording was made over the course of two concerts in February of 2016, I have to wonder if this album will have much to offer to any listeners other than those who attended one of those concerts and want their memories revived.

The Bleeding Edge: 11/13/2017

Almost all San Francisco events have already been accounted for by previous articles:
Center for New Music: concerts on November 14 and 18
November 16: the weekly LSG Creative Music Series
November 16–18: the Whole Sol Festival
November 18: the conclusion of Annea Lockwood’s visit to The Lab
November 19: the events at The Nunnery and the next SIMM Series
That leaves only one remaining gig. The good news is that it will not overlap with any of the above items.

This will be the next four-set evening hosted by the Peacock Lounge. Kevin Robinson, who has a 35-piece orchestra called the KREation Conference of the Birds, will do a quartet set with Tony Gennaro on percussion, Lee Hodel on bass, and Nina Theibert on cello. Brandon Yahiro-Taylor will take a solo set performing as Heartworm. He will be followed by a group jam by the Senders, whose members are Fabrício Carvalho (performing as Astronauta Pinguim), Gino Robair, Benjamin Tinker, Doug Lynner, and Tom Djll. The remaining set will be taken by the Headlights duo of Headboggle and Aurora Josephson.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission for all will be $5, but only those age 21 or older may attend. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, November 15; and doors will open at 7:45 p.m.

Opera on the Spot’s Delightful Pergolesi

I first became aware of Opera on the Spot this past summer when they announced that they would be performing two one-act operas by two twentieth-century American composers, Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, at the Center for New Music (C4NM). The organization describes itself as “San Francisco’s pop-up opera troupe,” which consists of “a talented group of young, classically trained singers embarking on a professional career in Opera.” Because they have no set venue for their base of operations, they choose less conventional places for performances, including bars, community spaces, and restaurants. (They make monthly appearances at Caffe Delle Stelle in Hayes Valley.)

Last night three of the group’s vocalists, along with pianist Margaret Halbig, returned to C4NM with a new program of one-act operas. This time only one of the composers was twentieth-century American, Lee Hoiby. The other was the eighteenth-century Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with a performance of “La serva padrona” (the servant mistress). Ironically, this opera was also performed this past summer when it was included in the first full-length fully-staged production presented by the Merola Opera Program.

“La serva padrona” is an excellent choice for a group with reduced resources. There are only two vocal parts, the servant Serpina (soprano Jordan Amann) and her master Uberto (baritone Sergey Khalikulov). There is also a mimed role for Uberto’s valet Vespone (Aisha Campbell). The plot could not be simpler. Serpina is too headstrong to be treated as a servant; and she connives her way into becoming Uberto’s bride (and, thus, mistress of the house).

No credit was given in the program for last night’s staging, but the plot was given a more modern twist. The setting was moved to a contemporary bistro where Uberto was a customer and Serpina was the server. While the transformation reflected how contemporary language has banished the word “waitress,” the overall narrative did not fit quite as comfortably. Nevertheless, it was easy to accept the staging as a latter-day incarnation of the old battle-of-the-sexes comedies.

That perspective was delightfully reinforced by the skills through which both Amann and Khalikulov inhabited their roles. Gennaro Antonio Federico’s libretto has both characters disclose their respective natures through their words. In the absence of projection equipment, the English translations were written out on poster boards, which were then held up by Campbell during each aria. All recitative passages were sung in English.

Both vocalists delivered a spot-on account of Pergolesi’s treatment of the text. Every repetition elicited a new approach to execution, always with just the right balance of vocal dexterity and witty acting. The C4NM performing area was limited; but Amann and Khalikulov made the most of it with occasional ventures to “break through the fourth wall” into the audience area. If the attempt of the staging to translate the tale from eighteenth-century Naples to 21st-century San Francisco did not always fire on all cylinders, the delightful efforts of both vocalists more than compensated for any shortcomings.

“La serva padrona” was preceded by Hoiby’s “The Italian Lesson,” which he composed in 1981. Mark Shulgasser’s libretto was based on a monologue by Ruth Draper, meaning that the opera was a solo performance by soprano Campbell. Draper’s monologues were a major element of theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. Her admirers included both Henry James and Edith Wharton. The character in “The Italian Lesson” is a New York society matron who could have easily stepped out of the pages of one of Wharton’s novels. She embodies the proverb at the heart of The Philadelphia Story, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.”

The plot begins with well-to-do Mrs. Clancy hiring an Italian tutor to lead her through the beauties of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. However, the lesson keeps getting interrupted, mostly by the telephone. (Hoiby’s opera may be taken as an homage to the one-act opera “The Telephone,” composed by Hoiby’s mentor Menotti.) Again, there was no credit in the program for staging; but Campbell’s portrayal deftly captured the spirit of the libretto through both her musical and her dramatic technical skills.

Nevertheless, the situation behind the narrative has become more than a little dated. If the attempt to modernize “La serva padrona” did not quite hit the mark consistently, one could still enjoy the fencing match between a woman and a man both firmly set in their ways. Mrs. Clancy’s character, on the other hand, has been unceremoniously deposed by the “new rich” of 21st-century life. Jean Stapleton could breathe life into the first performance of Hoiby’s opera because she knew whom she was mocking. That target is far more remote from Campbell’s generation, meaning that Hoiby’s more recent effort lacked the staying power of Pergolesi’s eighteenth-century chestnut.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Another Impressive Delos Verdi Recording


In April of 2015, back when I was writing for Examiner.com, I had the good fortune to have my attention directed to a Delos recording of what, at the time, I declared to be the “most fascinating opera” that Giuseppe Verdi ever wrote. The opera was Simon Boccanegra, and it would be fair to say that the narrative is more sophisticated than any of the Verdi operas that were inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare. At the time I felt well prepared to write about this recording, having had the good fortune to attend the 2008 production of this opera by the San Francisco Opera (SFO), imported from the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, where it had been staged by Elijah Moshinsky. The title role was taken by the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, performing with Barbara Frittoli in the role of Boccanegra’s daughter Amelia.

Both Hvorostovsky and Frittoli reprised their respective roles for the Delos project. The music director was Constantine Orbelian, leading the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Kaunas State Choir. Both of these ensembles, as well as their director, were unknown to me when I started listening to the recording. By the time I was done, I was eager to listen to further recordings of Orbelian’s skills.

This past Friday, November 10, Delos released another opportunity to listen the Orbelian ply his skills, once again with a Verdi opera and with Hvorostovsky as his leading vocalist. This time the opera was the much more familiar Rigoletto. Listening to this recording should be enough to convince anyone that lightning can strike twice in the same place (even those not quite sure of where Kaunas is)!

Given Hvorostovsky’s recent history, it would probably be a good idea to begin by discussing the timing of the project. All of the recording sessions took place at the Kaunas Philharmonic (but not during performances) between July 1 and July 9 of 2016. Those aware of the baritone’s recent past know that he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June of 2015. However, on May 8 of this year, Hvorostovsky made a “surprise return” (as The New York Times headline put it) to perform in the gala concert produced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Relevant to the latest Delos release, Hvorostovsky used the occasion to sing “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” (courtiers, damn you all) from the second act of Rigoletto. According to General Manager Peter Gelb, Hvorostovsky’s doctors were encouraging him to keep singing; but Gelb also acknowledged that the baritone’s health was “unpredictable.”

Bearing in mind that recording sessions may have been organized around Hvorostovsky’s personal schedule, there is certainly no sign of his weakness on this new Delos release. As had been the case with the Boccanegra recording, his musical technique was consistently solid and just as consistently reinforced by expressive technique that reflected the Rigoletto narrative. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that, from a point of view of familiar vocal work, the “main attraction” of the first act does not come from Rigoletto but from his daughter Gilda. No one wants to listen to a recording of Rigoletto with a weak “Caro nome!”

It is thus important to recognize that the contributions of soprano Nadine Sierra to this recording are as significant as those of Hvorostovsky. At this point I have to offer up a personal disclaimer, because much of Sierra’s career potential was forged in my home town of San Francisco. She became a SFO Adler Fellow in January 2011 and sang in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier the following May. Returning to her “home turf” (she is a native of Fort Lauderdale), she sang her first Gilda with the Florida Grand Opera in January of 2012.

Sierra thus brought over four years of experience with the role to Orbelian’s recording sessions. The result was that she delivered not only “Caro nome” but also the entire role with just the right combination of technical skills and expressive fireworks to make even the most jaded listener sit up and take notice. This recording is, indeed, “one for the books,” leading those who have now fallen under Orbelian’s spell to wonder when the next bolt of lightning will strike.

Curium Begins New Season in San Francisco

 Curium (photograph by Oscar Nuñez)

Curium is the piano trio of (in left-to-right order in the photograph above) violinist Agnieszka Peszko, pianist Rachel Kim, and cellist Natalie Raney. The group chose to name itself after the 96th element in the periodic table. This is one of the transuranic elements, so called because they are found after uranium in the periodic table. These elements do not occur naturally but are produced by bombarding other radioactive elements, such as uranium or plutonium, with neutrons. The first production of curium took place in 1944 at the University of California at Berkeley, achieved by a group led by Glenn T. Seaborg, who won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his synthesis, discovery, and investigation of ten transuranic elements. (Back when I was in high school, I remember getting up very early to see Seaborg reviewed on a television program called Continental Classroom. He was not the only Nobel laureate to make an appearance on that program.)

Curium is named after the husband-and-wife couple of pioneering researchers into the nature of radioactivity. They shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts. For the members of the Curium trio, Marie is a symbol of the innovations of female minds, past and present. As might be guessed, they are developing a repertoire with a specialty in the music of female composers. They also have an interest in discovering the music of composers, both past and present, whose works have been largely neglected. Thus the name of of the trio has as much to do with acts of discovery as it does with innovative women. This coming Friday the trio will present the first in a series of concerts they have planned for the 2017–2018 season at a variety of venues throughout the Bay Area.

The female composer to be highlighted at this concert will be Clara Schumann with a performance of her Opus 17 piano trio in G minor. While Schumann’s trio is not entirely neglected by the prevailing chamber music repertoire, an encounter with the music of Ludomir Różycki is likely to be a journey of discovery for just about everyone reading this. Różycki was a member of the Young Poland group of composers, whose best-known member is probably Karol Szymanowski. Różycki has an IMSLP page, but only nine compositions are listed there. Fortunately, one of them is his Opus 33 rhapsody for piano trio; and Curium will perform it as the second selection on their program. The second half of the program will then bring the audience back to its comfort zone with a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 90 (“Dumky”) piano trio in E minor.

This recital will being at 7 p.m. this coming Friday, November 17. The venue will be the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic church, which is located in the Castro at 100 Diamond Street, on the southwest corner of 18th Street. There will be no charge for admission, but a donation of $20 is suggested.

NCCO Perks Up Under Beilman’s Leadership

Readers may recall that this site was less than enthusiastic about the first concert in the 2017–2018 season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO), led by Artistic Partner Daniel Hope. The overall impact of the evening was never more than lukewarm, and the general impression was that Hope spent more time talking to the audience than establishing a compelling chemistry with his ensemble. Last night NCCO returned to Herbst Theatre with violinist Benjamin Beilman serving as both Guest Concertmaster and soloist. There was definitely a new sheriff in town; and, to mix metaphors, NCCO wasted no time in getting back its mojo.

Given the secure confidence that Beilman brought to his leadership, it is hard to recall that his local debut, given in the Young Masters Series of San Francisco Performances (SFP), took place only this past February. He prepared a program that extended from the seventeenth century of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber to the very recent past (2007) of contemporary composer Andrew Norman. In his capacity as soloist, he selected Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1042 concerto in E major, an impressive choice given that the earliest composer on his SFP program was Johannes Brahms. Twentieth-century modernism was represented by Igor Stravinsky’s “Basle” concerto in D; and the program concluded with Gustav Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 (“Serioso”) quartet in F minor.

As a Bach soloist Beilman showed a clear appreciation for the intimate spirit of music-making among friends, which may well have been the intention behind the creation of BWV 1042. He had no trouble displaying his agile command of the solo passages without any suggestion of upstaging his supporting ensemble. He was also never afraid to add embellishments of his own, particularly when presenting recapitulated material. All instruments may have been played with a decidedly contemporary technical approach; but there was still a clear sense that the spirit behind the music was “historically informed.” Within the scope of my own listening experience, it was a delight to observe that Beilman was as comfortable with his Bach as he had been with his Brahms earlier this year. (Brahms, of course, had his own love of Bach’s music and was a faithful subscriber to the Bach Gesellschaft’s publication of that composer’s complete works.)

The Bach concerto closed out the first half of the program, which began with an even earlier selection, Biber’s musical depiction of a battle. Beilman confined his remarks to the audience to the very beginning and then primarily to apologize that harpsichordist JungHae Kim’s name had been omitted from the program book. (R.I.P. editing and proofreading: The year of Bach’s death was given as 1950!) However, he also prepared the audience for many of the imaginative “sound effects” that Biber had written into his score.

On the other hand he left the second movement of this suite as a surprise. Biber gave this movement the title “Die Liederliche Gesellschaft von Allerey Humor,” which translates roughly as “the songs of a company of knights with many different attitudes.” Each instrument depicts one of those knights and “sings” that knight’s song. The instruments enter one-by-one; but, as each one enters, the others keep playing their own songs. The overall effect was a hysterically funny evocation of a style that we normally associate with Charles Ives, even though Biber concocted this piece over 200 years before Ives’ birth.

Biber’s sense of humor served to establish the proper spirit for listening to Stravinsky’s concerto. This piece comes from what is usually called his neoclassical period, although the spirit of the music owes more to composers like Biber and Bach than it does to the First Viennese School. The spirit is clearly a playful one, bouncing along in steady rhythms as the motifs peregrinate from one set of instruments to another. The comic spirit of the piece, however, comes from Stravinsky’s approach to the perfect cadence. He uses these as punctuation marks to cut off his churning rhythms; and, rhetorically, they come across as the intrusions of an unwelcome guest. The cadences are there only because tradition demands their presence, so Stravinsky turns them into objects of ridicule.

Such prankish high spirits could also be found after the intermission in Norman’s “Gran Turismo.” Norman scored this piece “For Eight Virtuoso Violinists” (presumably his own wording). The piece is, for the most part, a richly textured perpetuum mobile of throbbing energy, suggesting that each individual line is a part of an elegantly designed sports car engine.

Often a new work is best assessed in terms of its impact on the players. In this case Hrabba Atladottir, on the right end of the line of violinists, was never shy about breaking out in smiles while playing this piece; and those smiles were definitely infectious. In the past I have had doubts about Norman overplaying his hand, but in this case his spirit was right on the money. The players seemed to appreciate this; and it was not difficult for the attentive listener to “get the spirit.”

On the other hand spirit was what was most lacking in Mahler’s Beethoven arrangement. Opus 95 covers a wide range of emotional dispositions; but it is probably best known for many of its rapid-fire passages, which must be played fearlessly or not at all. Being in the presence of a string quartet channeling all of their physical and spiritual energies into this music is one of the great delights of listening to the chamber music repertoire. The problem is that adding more instruments to each of those lines tends to dilute the effect, rather than pump it up with steroids. There is no doubting that all of the NCCO players gave their respective parts everything they had, but Mahler seems not to have appreciated that this was one of those cases in which more was definitely not better.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Last-Minute Announcement for Baroque Lovers

The San Francisco Academy Orchestra is the resident ensemble for an educational institution organized around an Artist Diploma Program. The organization offers an intensive one-year fellowship consisting of two curriculum sessions. The focus is entirely on the practical skills necessary to prepare for auditions and a career in orchestral music. The ensemble provides the platform on which students turn the results of their studies into “hands-on” practice.

Tomorrow evening that ensemble will give a public concert entitled Baroque Masterpieces. (This will actually be the second concert for which proceeds will benefit victims of the North Bay fires.) Joy Fellows will be the soloist in a viola concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann. The remainder of the program will be devoted to the first four violin concertos in the collection of twelve published by Vivaldi as his Opus 8, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), best known collectively as The Four Seasons. Each of the concertos will feature a different soloist: Junghee Lee for “Spring,” Aaron Tam for “Summer,” Heidi Kim for “Autumn,” and Jinny Bartley for “Winter.” Andrei Gorbatenko will conduct the ensemble.

This concert will take place tomorrow, Sunday, November 12, beginning at 7 p.m. The venue will be the sanctuary of Calvary Presbyterian Church. The entrance is at 2015 Fillmore Street, on the northwest corner of Jackson Street. General admission will be $25 with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a shopping cart window on the home page of the ensemble’s Web site.

Blumenstock’s Program of Venetian Delights

Last night in Herbst Theatre, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock led the members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the second program of the group’s 37th season. She prepared a program entitled Vivaldi in Venice. Since only one composition by Antonio Vivaldi was performed, the evening had much more to do with musical life in Venice during Vivaldi’s lifetime than with that one composer.

Of the eight composers whose music was performed, only three were actually Venetians: Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, and Giuseppe Tartini. Four of them were visitors: Pietro Locatelli, Francesco Maria Veracini, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Georg Pisendel, who studied with Vivaldi while in Venice. The evening concluded with three selected instrumental movements from the opera Le carnaval de Venise by the Parisian André Campra, who does not appear to have left France over the course of his long and prosperous life.

People still tend to haul out the old joke that Vivaldi wrote the same violin concerto 230 times; and, from a structural point of view, one might be forgiven for suggesting that there was a formulaic nature to the pieces performed last night. That’s a bit like saying there is something formulaic to the vast number of songs written by Cole Porter. It is important to remember that, during the period that bridges the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, music was primarily about the art and craft of engaging performance. Sheets of paper filled with notation were there to give the performer a point of departure; but the music itself had to do with how a performer could put a personal stamp on that notation, regardless of who put the marks on the paper in the first place.

What made last night so stimulating was not the familiarity of any of the pieces being played or even a prevailing sense of family resemblance. Rather it was Blumenstock’s personal qualities as a performer par excellence. She has an approach to playing the violin that can make even the most routine phrase sound interesting; and, when that phrase repeats, no matter how many times, she knows how to unfold an overall structure that endows each iteration with its own source of interest. Those who attended her pre-concert talk discovered that those skills are not limited to music. She could recite poetry with the same performance qualities that she brings to her violin work.

Much of this, of course, derives from her solid command of technique. However, that skill set is consistently reinforced by an equally solid command of rhetorical skills. It is through rhetoric that she can make even the most familiar passages sound fresh and alive (and she could do that with excerpts from poetry as effectively as she could with passages of music). Even across the scope of the full program of eight composers, she always knew how to pull unexpected rabbits out of her hat. The result was a generous supply of music (much of which may well have been unfamiliar to most of the audience) that consistently radiated with a spontaneity that kept the attentive listener on the edge of his/her seat.

Eighteenth-century Venice may never have had it so good.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Two Albums from Guitarist Yuri Liberzon

Back when I was writing for Examiner.com, I was particularly impressed that the acoustics at the Old First Presbyterian Church were so conducive to solo guitar recitals, meaning that the soloist would not have to rely on electronic amplification. One of the guitarists that worked very well in this environment was Yuri Liberzon, and I was a bit disappointed to have lost touch with him after his second Old First Concerts recital in August of 2011. Recently, however, I was able to resume contact thanks to a colleague, who had just finished producing Liberzon’s second album, leading me to put both of his albums on my queue for serious listening. Both of these albums can be found on Amazon.com; but, as far as I can tell with the uninformative qualities of Amazon’s search engine, these albums are available for only download or streaming.

Yuri Liberzon’s first album (courtesy of the guitarist)

The earlier of the two albums, entitled Ascension, was released in 2015 and allowed me to revisit several of the compositions Liberzon had presented at his two Old First Concerts recitals. These included Sergei Rudnev’s folk arrangement “The Old Lime-Tree” (lipa vekovaia), Ernesto Lecuona’s “Danza Lucumi,” Toru Takemitsu’s arrangements of two Beatle’s songs, “Michelle” and “Yesterday,” and Liberzon’s own arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 1 keyboard sonata in D minor. The album includes another of Liberzon’s Scarlatti arrangements, K. 27 in B minor; but most impressive is that he took on the entirety of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. Guitar performances of the concluding Chaconne movement of this partita have been around at least since the days of Andrés Segovia, but I must confess to a personal interest in how much the “spirit of the dance” is evoked by those who choose to perform the four preceding movements. That spirit was most evident in Liberzon’s approach to the Courante, which was pleasantly surprising given how many performers only “find their feet” when they get to the Gigue movement.

However, the most unexpected track on the Ascension album was Manuel Barrueco’s transcription of the music from Keith Jarrett’s 1975 solo concert at the Opera House in Cologne. Presumably, Barrueco prepared this transcription by listening to the ECM album of this concert and limited his attention to the final track, “Part IIc.” This was the recital’s encore and was the only portion of the performance to draw upon a precomposed tune, making it the one track from the album that would lend itself to transcription. What is most interesting is how Barrueco managed to capture many of Jarrett’s embellishments, which are very much a matter of deft keyboard technique; but the transcription makes a convincing case that the music is susceptible to another genre of deft finger-work.

Yuri Liberzon’s latest album (courtesy of the guitarist)

The title of the newer album, which was released this past July, is ¡Acentuado! It consists of two compositions by Astor Piazzolla. The first of these is another Barrueco transcription, this time of the six pieces called “Tango-Études,” which were originally composed for solo flute. What is most interesting in these pieces is not only the extent to which the music is as much a technical study for guitar as it had originally been for flute but also Barrueco’s skill in adding notes that allow the guitarist to get beyond the monodic constraints of the flute line. One could almost believe that this music had originally been written for guitar, from which the flute version was subsequently “distilled.”

The remaining four tracks of the album are devoted to Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango suite, which was composed as a duet for flute and guitar. Liberzon had performed this in his second Old First Concerts program, playing the piece with local flutist Meerenai Shim. The flutist on the recording is Josué Casillas. The duo does an excellent job of playing up the stylistic characteristics that distinguish the four movements, each corresponding to a different period in the twentieth century, even if the “Piazzolla sound” is unmistakable over the course of all four of the movements.

Evan Kahn Announces First (of two) Graduate Recitals

Regular readers may recall that, a little over a year ago, cellist Evan Kahn was featured as soloist at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) when Eric Dudley conducted the Conservatory Orchestra in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (first) cello concerto in E-flat major. Kahn is pursuing a Master’s degree in Chamber Music with cellist Jennifer Culp; and anyone fortunate to have been at that concerto performance may still remember the intense fearlessness that he took in jumping through all the hoops that Shostakovich had set up for him. (Actually, Shostakovich set them up for Mstislav Rostropovich; but they have remained in place for future generations of cellists.)

Kahn is now on the final stretch of his studies; and, at the beginning of next month, he will give the first of his two graduate recitals. He has prepared a program of chamber music, both solo and with piano accompaniment, and two concerto movements (also with piano accompaniment). Indeed, his program will enlist three different pianists in three different settings.

Kahn will open his recital with Brahms’ own arrangement of his Opus 78, originally his first violin sonata in G major, called the “Regensonate” (rain sonata) due to his appropriation from his “Regenlied,” the first in his Opus 59 collection of eight songs. The cello version was transposed into the key of D major. Kahn will play the first movement of this arrangement accompanied by Christopher Basso at the piano. He will then conclude the first half of the program with Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suite in C minor, BWV 1011.

The second half will consist primarily of two concerto movements. Kahn will begin with the opening movement from Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 concerto in A minor, accompanied by Hye Young Min. This will be followed by the opening movement of Samuel Barber’s Opus 22 concerto (also in the key of A minor), with accompanist Margaret Halbig. The program will conclude with two of the twelve Opus 25 caprices for solo cello composed by Carlo Alfredo Piatti, the seventh and the tenth.

This recital will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, December 4. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, about halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. This is a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. The event will be free, and neither tickets nor reservations will be required.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Visiting the Cold Blue Music Vault

It took this past summer’s John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ to get Jim Fox’ Cold Blue Music label on my radar. The label provided me with a generous sampling of Adams’ compositions that served my writing a background article about the composer. Since that time I have sampled recent releases more sporadically than I would have wished without giving much thought to the aesthetic compass that has guided Fox’ production values in his choice of repertoire. Fortunately, Fox was kind enough to provide me with two of his earlier anthology releases. To some extent these now serve a bit like a time machine; but I should begin with the disclaimer that they take me to a past that I enjoyed very much back when it was the present.

According to background material that Fox provided, most of the works that show up on these anthology recordings collect compositions that were composed specifically for the CD being released. The earlier of the recordings I have now encountered is basically a collection of six pieces featuring the talents of clarinetist Marty Walker, who plays bass clarinet as well as B-flat clarinet. The disc is structured around four pieces, each by a different composer, with two very short “Interlude” pieces (which may well have been improvisations) inserted into the sequence.

I should begin with my one issue of discontent with this album, which is the absence of any useful background material about the pieces being performed. That includes instrumentation, with the qualifier that most listeners will be able to figure that out for themselves. The very first track is Adams’ “Dark Wind,” which seems to have been scored for bass clarinet, piano (Bryan Pezzone), and a percussionist (Amy Knoles) playing both vibraphone and marimba. The “Interlude” pieces are solos; and the remaining compositions are for clarinet and string quartet, the performers being the members of the Amelite Consortium Strings. They include violinists Maria Newman and Peter Kent and violist Valerie Dimond. Greg Gottlieb plays cello for Fox’ own contribution to the album, “Between the Wheels.” The cellist for the other two pieces, “Thread of Summer” by Michael Jon Fink and “When April May” by Rick Cox, is Dan Smith.

The overall rhetoric across the entire album is one of quietude. Listening to these tracks will be served best by a setting with as little interference as possible. This contrasts significantly with pieces like Adams’ “Inuksuit,” which is supposed to be performed in an setting in which the music that is performed is enhanced by the natural sounds of the physical environment. “Dark Wind,” on the other hand, requires the listener to be keenly aware of the work’s subtle textures. The recording was made in 2001, meaning that the piece is, in many respects, a predecessor of “Dark Waves,” based on a similar approach and composed in 2007. (As was previously observed, “Dark Waves” can be taken as “preparatory material for “Become Ocean.”) One might almost say that the Adams composition orients the attentive listener in preparation for the pieces by Fink, Cox, and Fox that follow it on the album.

The later anthology, which is entitled simply Cold Blue Two, is based on recording sessions that took place between 2008 and 2012; and the album itself was released in November of 2012. Each of the fourteen tracks is by a different composer; and the four composers that contributed to Walker’s clarinet album are all included, as is Daniel Lentz, whose single-composition album River of 1,000 Streams was discussed on this site about a month ago. This, too, is an album that deserves attentive listening in the absence of any external interference.

In this case I have to confess that I have some personal favorites among the contributing composers, particularly Gavin Bryars and Larry Polansky, both of whom I have been following in a variety of different settings. Bryars’ “It Never Rains” is scored for electric guitar (Cox) and low strings (Alma Lisa Fernandez on viola, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick on cello, and James Bergman on bass). Bryars does not waste any time prioritizing the bass part, which will be clear to anyone who knows that the bass is his own instrument. Polansky, on the other hand, also has a Cold Blue album of his own, freeHorn, which was released this past August and provides some excellent examples of his technique in working with natural harmonics. His “Eskimo Lullaby” is performed by John Schneider playing a National Steel guitar specifically designed for just-intonation tuning. In a similar vein it is worth observing that Polansky’s track is preceded by James Tenney’s “Mallets in the Air,” which requires a string quartet (violinists Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Tholl, violist Mark Menzies, and cellist Ashley Waters) to play with a just-intonation instrument, the diamond marimba designed by Harry Partch (played by Erin Barnes).

SFCMA to Present Opening Season Concert


Formed in 1931, the San Francisco Civic Music Association (SFCMA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to offering numerous opportunities for classical music lovers. Performances frequently involve the participation of both professional and amateur musicians. To further the interest of community involvement, all concerts are free and available to the public.

The 2017–2018 season will begin with an orchestra concert entitled Mozart to Mendelssohn: Flute, Fanfare & Fairies. This will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format with a slight twist. The concerto offering will be Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VIIe/1 concerto in E-flat major, originally written for clarion (one of the earliest forms of a trumpet) but almost always played these days on a modern valved trumpet. The trumpet soloist for this concert will be Chris Wilhite. The overture will be for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. The “twist” on the symphony will be a suite of selections taken from the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn composed for a performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Music Director John Kendall Bailey will lead an ensemble of SFCMA participants.

This performance will begin at 3 p.m. on this coming Sunday, November 12. The venue will be Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Admission is free. Registration is appreciated but not required. Those who wish may register through an Eventbrite event page. Seating is on a first-come first-served basis. Donations are gratefully accepted, with a $10 donation suggested for each person.