Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Month’s Concert with Conversation at CMC will Present Jazz Trumpeter Sean Jones

Regular readers probably know by now that this evening the Community Music Center (CMC) will host its next Concert with Conversation event, presenting Scottish-born classical guitarist David Russell prior to the full-evening recital he will give on Saturday for San Francisco Performances (SFP). Those unable to make it to CMC because of how busy this evening is will probably be happy to hear that they will have to wait only two weeks for the next Concert with Conversation. Next month’s event will again result from CMC’s partnership with SFP in planning this series.

Next month the “topic of conversation” will shift from the classical guitar repertoire to jazz. The visiting artist will be Sean Jones, whose is currently an SFP Jazz Artist-in-Residence. Readers may recall that, at the end of last September, Jones was one of the artists selected to perform at the Heartfelt Gala, organized to honor SFP founder Ruth Felt after her 37 years of leading the organization. On that occasion Jones led a trio with rhythm provided by Edward Simon on piano and Marcus Shelby on bass, but his current plan is to visit CMC as a soloist. He will offer examples of his own approach to jazz, which will probably be colored by personal thoughts about the rich history of jazz and where he sees himself in that flow from past to present. As is always the case with these events, he will be prepared to take questions from the audience.

This session will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 10. The venue will be the CMC Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. These events are free and tend to be very popular, so early arrival is encouraged.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Next Birthday Honoree in the Fête Concert Series will be Kurt Weill

The next birthday celebrant in the 2016–17 season of the Fête Concert Series will be Kurt Weill, whose 116th birthday will be on March 2. Pianist Paul Dab will join forces with baritone Sergey Khalikulov and three sopranos, Chelsea Hollow, Carolyn Bacon, and Jordan Amann. While he was briefly active in Paris, Weill is best known for his work in Germany, particularly working with Bertolt Brecht as his librettist, and subsequently for his work on Broadway musicals after his move to the United States. Both of these sides of his career will be presented. The Brecht collaborations will include selections from The Threepenny Opera and The Seven Deadly Sins, a “sung ballet” with a German libretto by Brecht that was commissioned and produced during Weill’s time in Paris. The musicals that will be featured will be Knickerbocker Holiday, One Touch of Venus, and Lost in the Stars. Traditionally, the concert includes an arrangement of “Happy Birthday to You” in the style of the composer being honored. The “Weill-style” arrangement will be prepared by Joseph Colombo.

This concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 4. The venue will be the Community Music Center Concert Hall at 544 Capp Street in the Mission between 20th Street and 21st Street and between Mission Street and Van Ness Avenue. As was announced at the beginning of the season, Brown Paper Tickets created a single event page for the sale of single tickets, which gets updated each time a concert has been given. General admission is $15 with a $10 rate for seniors and students. Admission includes not only the music but also wine, cheese, and birthday-appropriate dessert. Party hats are also provided.

Leila Josefowicz Impressively Transcends the Flaws of “Scheherazade.2”

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave its first performance of John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2” Adams wrote this piece in 2014 on a joint commission by the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonic had the honor of presenting the world premiere with violinist Leila Josefowicz as soloist and Alan Gilbert conducting. This past September Nonesuch Records released the first recording of the piece with Josefowicz performing the the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson.

Adams was present at Davies last night for both a pre-concert discussion and then to address the full audience before the performance began. (“Scheherazade.2” was the only piece on the first half of last night’s program.) On both of those occasions, he chose to make a passing reference to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov having “sleepwalked” through the tales in Arabian Nights while composing his Opus 35, which he titled “Scheherazade.” Opus 35 amounted to a dramatic symphony (to use the terminology of Hector Berlioz) and a symphony-concerto. Adams also used the descriptive phrase “dramatic symphony” but clearly wanted to distance himself from Rimsky-Korsakov, which was evident when he described “Scheherazade.2” as “a virtuoso romantic symphony-concerto on the grand scale which acknowledges its predecessors in works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Berg.”

However, as this site observed when discussing the recording, there is a serious flaw in Adams’ perspective of Rimsky-Korsakov. He could have called his Opus 35 Arabian Nights, but there is a very good reason why he did not. Just as Scheherazade herself serves as the connecting thread across the 1001 tales in Arabian Nights, so did Rimsky-Korsakov enlist a solo violin part to serve as the teller of the four tales behind the titles of the four movements of Opus 35. Far from sleepwalking, Rimsky-Korsakov summoned up considerable conscious skill to create a piece of music that managed to embody not only the four tales but also the teller of those tales and her acts of narration. One might even conjecture that his skill in the interleaving of narrative and narration would later be pursued even more adventurously by his best-known pupil, Igor Stravinsky.

None of this seems to have registered with Adams. He transformed Scheherazade from a clever and resourceful concubine, making up stories as if her life depended on it (which it did), into a clever and resourceful contemporary Muslim woman trapped in a social world dominated by male fundamentalists. While this looks good on paper, Adams’ command of instrumental rhetoric never quite rose to realize this goal as a coherent listening experience. Ironically, for all the names of composers that he dropped, there was an unmistakable ambience of the Opus 35 violin concerto written for Jascha Heifetz by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer with a consummate gift for providing a musical setting for many of the great Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties. Korngold’s command of narrative and narration was right up there with Rimsky-Korsakov’s; and, while several of the violin lines had an arching structure that Korngold favored, Adams never quite knew how to handle any deeper foundation for such surface features.

However, if the music has flaws, Josefowicz still deserves more than generous credit for evoking the voice of this latter-day Scheherazade so compellingly. This was more than a matter of technique, which can easily be appreciated on the Nonesuch recording. Rather, it also involved her ability to turn her interpretation of her solo part into a whole-body experience (presumably just as the original Scheherazade could hold her Shah’s attention by using her whole body to relate her tales).

Indeed, Josefowicz’ interpretation was so compelling that one could almost overlook the extent to which MTT never seemed to get his head around how to handle her exchanges with the ensemble. He certainly knew how to cue the outbursts, but it is hard to believe that Adams wanted this piece to be just a shouting match between the soloist and the orchestra. This is one of those very rare occasions when the recording seems to have trumped an actual performance, since Robertson commanded far greater control over how the St. Louis Symphony engaged with Josefowicz.

For the second half of the program, MTT decided to take SFS down memory lane, revisiting selected movements from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 64 score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. MTT’s first recording with SFS was a full CD of such movements, arranged in such as way as to follow the ballet’s narrative thread. This was a shorter collection of those movements, no longer arranged in the order of the narrative.

There was a good deal of sound and fury in the movements MTT selected; and he did not short-change either of those qualities. Indeed, listening to a full-throated account of that music coming from the Davies stage, one could appreciate the virtues of restricting it all to the confines of an orchestra pit for a ballet performance. Modulating the amplitude goes a long way towards placing the narrative of the choreography on a level playing field with the many outbursts one encounters in Prokofiev’s score. MTT, on the other hand, could, and therefore did, “pull out all the stops” (and cranked up the amplifier to 11)! The result was unabashed spectacle that could only be taken on its own terms but probably would have benefitted from a few less of those full-out episodes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Patrons of the Arts

This afternoon my wife and I attended the 2017 Medallion Society Luncheon of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). This is one of the ways in which SFO thanks its more generous donors. Our donation level is not up there with the heavy hitters, but it is enough to get us admission. This makes for a relatively pleasant afternoon of good food and people-watching.

My wife always likes to go through the enumeration of donors at the back of the booklet that awaited us at our places at the table. She encountered an ample number of familiar names. However, what surprised me was that my own traversal of the list turned up names that she did not know, members of the computer science community that I knew either as colleagues or individuals I had encountered at conferences. I was more than pleasantly surprised at how many of them there were, many of whom were more generous than we were. This led me to make a second scan in search of my more recent colleagues and familiar names associated with the younger members of the "technology generation" in the Bay Area. This time I came up with no hits at all.

This is the endemic problem of the performing arts these days, the "greying" of its audience base. I realize that the older generation writing about the young pups is a familiar cliché. Nevertheless, just about every sector of the performing arts to which I have some commitment has tried to attract a younger generation to the audience community; and the sad truth is that they have failed dismally. A generation that understands the world only through "social software" available on a smartphone is a generation that lacks either the motivation or the patience to become audience for the performing arts. Furthermore, it is very unlikely that anyone of any generation will be able to serve as a change agent to lure this sector into the "audience fold."

When I was a student, there were strident modernists who delighted in accusing concert halls of being little more than museums that served only past relics. However, in the city of San Francisco, there is an abundance of opportunities for "emerging" composers and performers interested in the more recent repertoire to lay out the fruits of their labors to those willing to serve as audience. Further more, those who show up tend, more often than not, to be appreciative. The question is whether those on the way up will have to rely on those "nearing the end of our journey" to serve as audience. If so, they face a future of dwindling audiences with little hope of having the resources to do anything about it.

It would appear that, regardless of how Hans Christian Andersen chose to tell the story, the Emperor's mechanical nightingale may have triumphed after all!

Chamber Music Rules in the Deutsche Grammophon Rostropovich Box

While admirers of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich may have some difficulty choosing between The Complete EMI Recordings, released in January of 2009, and the more recent Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG), when it comes to chamber music, DG definitely rules the mother lode. This is not to dismiss the EMI offerings, which are likely to be of particular interest to those interested in cutting-edge modernism. However, those with a preference for more established traditions will definitely find their comfort zone in the DG selections, not only with Rostropovich but also with the company he keeps.

The “mother lode within the mother lode,” so to speak, is definitely the two discs containing the five sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. As was the case with the violin sonatas, the first edition publications by N. Simrock list all of these sonatas as having been written for piano and cello; and it is clear that Beethoven saw himself as pianist and therefore worthy of “top billing.” The pianist on these recordings (originally released on Philips) is Sviatoslav Richter; and one could not ask for a better partnership of equals. Readers of this site are already aware of the clarity that Richter could bring to his expressive interpretation of whatever happened to be on the score pages, and Rostropovich matches him for both clarity and expressiveness every step of the way through these five sonatas. It is hard to imagine that anyone seriously interested in this side of Beethoven’s repertoire would want to be without these recordings.

On the hand the presence of three different recordings of Franz Schubert’s C major quintet might raise the eyebrows of those wondering if this is too much of a good thing. Each recording, of course, involves Rostropovich “sitting in” with a different string quartet at a different period in his career: the Taneyev Quartet in 1963, the Melos Quartet in 1977, and the Emerson String Quartet in 1990. There is no question about my own personal preference. Melos has a solid command of the Schubert quartet repertoire, having recorded all of them for DG. They are clearly “in charge” of both technical and rhetorical direction; and Rostropovich has no problem fitting in with them as a “team player.” (This is far from a secondary role. In one of my recital reviews for Examiner.com, I made the observation that, in this quintet, these is nothing secondary about the second cello!) On the other hand it is also interesting to listen to a younger Rostropovich joining forces with a Russian quartet, even if it is only for an alternative “nationalist perspective.”

A partnership as interesting as that with Richter can be found on the two discs of Decca recordings of Rostropovich performing with Benjamin Britten at the keyboard. Not all of these are performances of Britten’s own music, although the Opus 65 C major sonata for cello and piano is definitely a high point. However, there was often a decidedly recognizable element of playfulness that could be found when other composers were involved. There is a clear appreciation of the “fun” side of Schubert’s D. 821 sonata, originally composed for arpeggione, and the mocking rhetoric that can be found in both Robert Schumann’s Opus 102 “Volkston” (popular style) pieces and Claude Debussy’s D minor sonata.

If there is a weak spot in this collection, it can be found in the two discs of Beethoven string trios. These performances, recorded in 1988, brought Rostropovich together with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and violist Bruno Giuranna. Like the Opus 5 cellos sonatas, these were all written before 1800. However, while Richter and Rostropovich seem comfortable with the blending of exploration and wit that one finds in Opus 5, Mutter tends to lead the trios with an almost gruff aggression that does not really fit in with the playfulness that the young Beethoven could bring to those two elements of exploration and wit. These are performances that may honor the “flesh” of Beethoven’s score pages; but the “spirit” could have done with a bit more attention.

Fortunately, these are about the only weak selections in the chamber music side of this collection, making this genre a decided high point of DG’s anthology.

Strobe will Give its Next Recital at Music on the Hill

This past February 2 marked the first anniversary of Strobe, one of the more unique chamber ensembles one is likely to encounter. The group was formed by cellist Krisanthy Desby to explore the repertoire for oboe and strings. (The name is a mash-up of the nouns “strings” and “oboe.”) The oboist of the group is Laura Griffiths, joined by violinist Stephanie Bibbo and violist Caroline Lee, as well as Desby.

This ensemble will be performing their next program in the Music on the Hill concert series. Music on the Hill was formed in 1998 with the goal of presenting cutting-edge chamber music programming. It therefore seems appropriate that Strobe will use this occasion to offer the premiere of their first commissioned work, as piece not yet titled by Vincent Russo. They will also revisit their debut with a performance of the second (in C major) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s five K. 439b divertimenti. According to the Neue Ausgabe, Mozart scored this for three basset horns, but Strobe plays it as a trio for oboe, violin, and cello. Similarly, they will perform their own arrangement of Zoltán Kodály’s 1905 intermezzo for string trio. They will also perform Gordon Jacob’s 1938 oboe quartet, dedicated to the famous British oboist Leon Goossens.

This concert will take place at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. The venue for Music on the Hill concerts is St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, located in Diamond Heights. The street address is 101 Gold Mine Drive, which is at the corner of Diamond Heights Boulevard. General admission will be $18 with a $12 rate for seniors aged 65 and older and students up to eighteen years old. Children aged twelve and younger will be admitted at no charge. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Beatrice Rana Takes on a Major Bach Undertaking for her First Solo Album on Warner Classics

This Friday Warner Classics will release its first solo album of Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of both the Silver Medal and the Audience Award at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This will follow up on her debut album for Warner Classics, featuring concertos by Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 16 in G minor) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Opus 23 in B-flat minor) in November of 2015. The new album already has a Web page on Amazon.com; and it is available for pre-orders. It consists of only one composition, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme.

I should probably begin by getting my primary misgiving off my chest, which is the booklet essay that Rana provided (translated into English by Ian Mansbridge) whose English title is “Beatrice Rana on the Goldberg enigma.” I appreciate that a noun like “enigma” tends to attract attention; but I have always been one to deal with BWV 988 at the level of mundane pragmatism. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s story about harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and his insomniac patron Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk is probably a myth (although a favorite Italian saying is, “It may not be true, but it is a good story!”). However, the value of BWV 988 can be found in the less romantic fact that Bach published this set of variations as the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) series; and Rana’s most interesting observation is that Bach’s Aria may well have been an elaboration of a chaconne theme for which George Frideric Handel provided 64 variations.

It is that Clavier-Übung project that disperses any “fog of enigma” that one might wish to attach to BWB 988. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein took, as a fundamental premise, the principle that the meaning of any word resides in how that word is used, the very language of Bach’s title asserts that the essence of music resides in how it is made, rather than in any of the artifacts (such as pages of notation) that may facilitate the making. In other words every page in Bach’s mammoth publication project is there to serve the pedagogical act of a teacher guiding a pupil on those practices that provide a “toolkit” for making music at a keyboard. (The full scope of the Clavier-Übung includes organ keyboards as well as those of “clavier” instruments.)

The recognition of pedagogy as a significant act adds a new alternative to a bipartite distinction discussed previously on this site. This involves that transition around the turn of the nineteenth century between the private and public practice of making music. Pedagogy is a practice that is not private, but it is more limited than what might call a “public” practice. As Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, Bach had to be an educator, as well as a working musician; and his educational practices probably involved one-on-many (as when preparing performances of his cantatas), as well as one-on-one practices he had previously experienced in educating his own sons.

The point is that BWV 988 is best approached as the work of Bach-the-pedagogue, rather than Bach-the-composer or Bach-the-performer in either a private setting (such as the gatherings of the Collegium Musicum at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig) or a public one (such as the sanctuary of the St. Thomas Church). Rana’s “Handel connection” is particularly apposite to this pedagogical point of view. As we know from the title page that Bach provided for his two-part and three-part inventions, pedagogy was not just a matter of clarity of execution. It also involved cultivating the craft of “invention” as “a strong foretaste of composition;” and what better way to explore invention that by observing one composer applying it to the work of another?

However, there is another pedagogical aspect that emerged here in San Francisco when pianist András Schiff performed BWV 988 in the final program of his six-concert Bach Project, which took place in October of 2013. Schiff provided his own notes for the program book, suggesting that Schiff-the-performer up on stage was sharing attention with Schiff-the-pedagogue providing those in the audience with guidance on how to listen. Those notes observed that listening to BWV 988 could be approached as embarking on a journey; and, to make sure that the listener did not lose his/her way, Schiff’s essay postulated a basic underlying rule, “Always follow the bass line.” If Rana’s conjecture is correct, then that bass line had its origins in Handel (although Bach’s first act of “invention” was to extend its length).

Nevertheless, while Rana’s perspective may be one of the best brought to BWV 988 since Schiff’s decision to prepare that music for recital performance, her execution does not always live up to her insights. Most importantly, her somewhat varying attention to that bass line does not always make it easy for the listener to follow it. Thus, while there is no questioning her dexterity in mastering the many complex patterns that emerge out of Bach’s capacity for invention, it is unclear whether or not she accepts Schiff’s journey metaphor as an approach to listening to her performance.

Clearly, she is not obliged to follow Schiff’s rules in her own execution; but it is worth asking whether she wishes us to listen to her album as an integrated beginning-to-end experience. The answer may lie in her appeal to that journey metaphor in her own booklet notes. Judging from the printing of the track listing, it may be that her journey has less to do with chaconne-like recurrence of the bass line and more to do with Bach having organized his variations in ten groups of three, each of which concludes with a canon on an increasingly widening interval. In this case the risk is that there is a one-thing-after-another repetitiveness to the “guideposts” that threatens to obscure both the diversity on the surface structure and the sense that the journey is actually going somewhere.

Does this mean that Rana’s recording amounts to an alternative journey struggling to be recognized? That would probably be an unfair conclusion. After all, when played in its entirety, BWV 988 is a major undertaking; and this applies to the listener as well as to the performer. Anyone who decides to purchase this recording should not leave it on the shelf to gather dust. This is a performance that deserves multiple listening experiences, because it will only be through gradual acclimation that the serious listener will be able to decide for himself/herself whether Rana has established a convincing journey or was just playing with words in her booklet notes.

Center for New Music: Early March 2017

Having observed the absence of word from the Center for New Music (C4NM) about this month’s activities, I figured I would take some of the more personal notifications I have received as a point of departure for accounting for the first full week in March and that month’s preceding half-week. This will be a rather busy time, including a Sunday with performances in both the afternoon and evening. For those who need reminding, C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Tickets for all events enumerated below are now available for advance purchase online through the indicated hyperlinks:

Friday, March 3, 8 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening of audiovisual improvisations. In the opening set Bill Hsu will improvise video displays in real time to complement the musical improvisations of James Fei and Gino Robair. The second set will present live coded video created in real-time by Shawn Lawson in response to electronics provided by Ryan Ross Smith from a secret remote location. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m.: Pianist and vocalist Jenny Maybee will lead her band in a program of new compositions and arrangements on the themes of love, transformation, exploration, and state of being entitled Sacred Landscapes. General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Monday, March 6, 8 p.m.: Casey Grev will give a solo saxophone recital augmented with electronics and multimedia. The program will consist of new and recent works by Georges Aperghis, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Ann Cleare, Dai Fujikura, Ravi Kitappa, Alex Mincek, and others. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Wednesday, March 8, 8 p.m.: Trumpet virtuoso Andy Kozar, currently based in New York City, will present a program of five recent pieces for trumpet and electronics. These will be “Flutter” (Tyler Harrison), “Deviations from a Theme by Brahms” (Elizabeth Hoffman), “Still Life” (Scott Worthington), “Moving Target” (Jeff Gavett), and “Rahab’s Herbarium” (Adam Zahller). On the basis of this excerpt, it would appear that Hoffman’s Brahms source has been significantly concealed:

uploaded to YouTube by Andrew Kozar

Kozar will also perform in a set of improvisations with local performers including Tania Chen on piano, vocals by Ken Ueno, and Matt Ingalls on clarinets of different sizes. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Saturday, March 11, 8 p.m.: Utter will be a solo concert by Anne La Berge featuring interactive works that weave together performer, audience, and digital technology. “Utter” is also the concluding work on the program, composed by La Berge for flute, electronics, narration, and interactive tablets. There will be three other “flute++” compositions, “Delay/Line” by Sam Pluta, “Modes of Assisted Ventilation” by Hugo Morales, and “Telemachus” by David Dramm. The program will begin with Yannis Kyriakides’ “Oneiricon,” scored for tablets and musicians without the instruments being specified. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Sunday, March 12, 3 p.m.: This will be the first of two concerts to be curated by Danny Clay on the same day. The Cornelius Cardew Choir will perform the second “paragraph” from Cardew’s The Great Learning, his settings of seven paragraphs from the first chapter of Great Learning, the first of the so-called “Four Books” that illustrate the core value and belief systems of Confucianism. Cardew composed this piece for his Scratch Orchestra, whose performance of this particular paragraph is available on YouTube:

uploaded to YouTube by tiovelvet

This paragraph was composed for singers and drummers and consists of a single (large) score page. That page is divided into three columns:
  1. a very slow, long-tone melody with one of more words specified for each tone
  2. 26 rhythm patterns
  3. a lengthy description that accounts for how the singers deal with the melody, how the rhythmic patterns are to be performed, and an overall description of the entire performance
In the spirit of the Scratch Orchestra, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, founded here on May 1, 2001, brings together professional, amateur, and novice singers who collectively work to turn their ideas into sonic action. While the above video lasts about twenty minutes, Cardew’s score specifies that the duration of this paragraph should be about one hour. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Sunday, March 12, 7 p.m.: The second concert that Clay will curate will be a solo recital by pianist Adam Tendler. Tendler has prepared a program entitled still that will bring pioneering compositions by John Cage and Morton Feldman together with more recent works by Charlie Sdraulig and Marina Poleukhina. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Warner Classics to Release Musical and Visual Fantasies of Pianist Anderszewski

This Friday Warner Classics will release Fantaisies, its latest solo album of Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski. As usual, Amazon.com has already created the Web page for this album and is processing pre-orders. The album itself actually consists of a CD and a DVD. The former has been structured around a compare-and-contrast examination of how two composers approach the label “fantasia.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is represented by his K. 475 in C minor, and he is complemented by Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 in C major.

The question is whether or not there are grounds for comparing or contrasting these two compositions. K. 475 might almost be taken as an effort to document a spontaneous improvisation. It was originally published as an “overture” to the K. 457 sonata in C minor. The transition between K. 475 and the first movement of K. 457 is smooth enough that the two can be played with an almost instantaneous segue, which is precisely what Anderszewski does on this album.

Opus 17, on the other hand, gives the impression of having been deliberately calculated from beginning to end. It is in three movements, the first of which is distinguished by a coda that reflects on a motif used by Ludwig van Beethoven in his Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). As András Schiff demonstrated in his ECM New Series recording of this piece, Schumann originally planned a reprise of that coda at the end of the third movement and then rejected it in favor concluding the movement on the terms of the preceding thematic material. Curiously, Schiff’s album chose to couple Opus 17 with Schumann’s last piano composition. This was his WoO 24 “Geistervariationen” (ghost variations), composed in 1854 only days before his suicide attempt. The 1893 Collected Works edition included the theme but not the variations, perhaps because the editors (Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms) thought that Schumann may have intended more than the five variations he had written. Those five variations were not published until 1939. This is the version that Schiff recorded, and Anderszewski similarly decided to record them following Opus 17.

Thus, Anderszewski seems to have decided that Opus 17 should serve as an “overture” to more Schumann, paralleling the coupling of K. 475 and K. 457. The problem is that, while K. 475 leaves the listener with a bit of suspense as to what will happen next, by the time the listener has traversed all three movements of Opus 17, (s)he is likely to feel that (s)he has had enough! Thus, while the Mozart coupling enhances the experience of listening to each of the two conjoined pieces, the Schumann approach leaves one craving more separation.

The latter case is also problematic in that Anderszewski does not seem to have a clear sense of overall architecture. The result is that his approach to Opus 17 tends to leap from one outburst to the next, leaving the listener more than a little perplexed about when the music will come to the climax that is the “true peak” of the entire composition. One almost feels as if Schumann is there to allow Anderszewski to display his technical prowess; and, while there is no debating that Anderszewski’s technical skills are impressive, Schumann deserves a cerebral approach to establish an impression that there is more to his music than fireworks.

Anderszewski’s command of Mozart seemed more secure, particularly in the sonata. On the other hand his approach to K. 475 suggested that he had not considered the possibility that this music had been the product of spontaneous improvisation. Other performances that have coupled these two pieces have tended to stress the idea that K. 475 amounts to a search for something that is not found until the more secure footing of K. 457 has been established. Anderszewski ran the risk of giving the impression that K. 475 was just another sonata movement, whose best location would be prior to the three movements of K. 457.

The DVD that accompanies this coupling of Mozart and Schumann is entitled Warsaw is my name. It is a half-hour montage of visual impressions of the city of Warsaw. Presumably, the selection and disposition of those impressions were all decided by Anderszewski; and that plan was then realized by a production team led by Julien Condemine. The images are preceded by a rather lengthy crawl of text that outlines the unpleasant history of governance in Poland over the course of the twentieth century. Whether or not Anderszewski’s choice and ordering of images stands as a reflection on that history is left to the viewer to decide.

As this visual montage unfolds, the viewer gets to listen to several of Anderszewski’s recordings. As might be guessed, there is a generous share of the music of Frédéric Chopin, some of which reinforces different artistic impressions of that composer that emerge in some of the images. Almost as much attention is given to the piano music of Karol Szymanowski; and those selections do much to establish the underlying twentieth-century framework of this visual study.

More perplexing is the presence of Anton Webern’s Opus 27 variations. Webern probably appreciated the flaws of both Adolf Hitler and Nazism; but he was still a strong believer in German nationalism, making him not the most “politically correct” source of music for a reflection on twentieth-century Warsaw! This is likely to be particularly problematic because, for the most part, Anderszewski’s selection of images will probably have the most effect on those already familiar with Warsaw, rather than those (like myself) who have never been there. Nevertheless, this film was clearly conceived as a personal impression; and Anderszewski is certainly entitled to his own thoughts about his own city!

The Bleeding Edge: 2/20/2017

Most of this week’s action seems to be taking place at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Since C4NM does not seem to have put out a dispatch for the month, it looks like I am handling activities there on a weekly basis, courtesy of the calendar service provided by BayImproviser. Curiously, it looks as if things will be quiet at the Luggage Store Gallery this week; but Outsound Presents will still be offering one of its Sunday SIMM (static illusion methodical madness) Series concerts. Here is the rundown for the week as it currently stands:

Wednesday, February 22, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Second Act is offering a satellite show at a different venue in the Lower Haight. Programming will still involve intense performances that are not for the faint of heart. Dror Feiler, born in Tel Aviv and currently working in Stockholm (was he the one Trump had in mind?), will be the chief provider of decibels with both solo saxophone work and in a second set shared with Black Spirituals. The other two sets of the evening will be taken by Derek Gedalecia performing as Headboggle and the >XTINGUISHER> DUO of Zoe Stiller and BG Anaraki.

The Peacock Lounge is located at 552 Haight Street. Like most Second Act events, doors will open at 7:45. Admission will be $5 but only for those aged 21 or older.

Thursday, February 23, 8 p.m., C4NM: The PRISM series, curated by Julia Ogrydziak, will present a performance of “Bhajan,” a four-movement composition for electric violin (Robin Lorentz) and live electronics (provided by composer Nicholas Chase). This will be the music’s first presentation following its world premiere in Los Angeles, and the performance will be followed by a Q&A with both performers. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gave Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Both levels of tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Friday, February 24, 8 p.m., C4NM: Kyle Bruckmann will curate the next installment in the sfSoundSalonSeries. This will be a visit by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke marking the release of his solo album Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. He will perform compositions from that album for toy piano and electronics. He will then improvise with Ken Ueno (voice) and Matt Ingals (clarinets and contrabass garden hose). Admission prices will again be $15 and $10 with advance purchase through a Vendini event page.

Saturday, February 25, 8 p.m., C4NM: Mark Alburger is continuing his Opus Project series of concerts, each of which consists of compositions with the same opus number. The opus number for the program he prepared for the end of last month was 49, and this month he moves on to 50. This time the earliest work on the program will be by Anton Arensky (1900); and the most recent will be Alburger’s own “L.A. Stories,” composed in 1994. General admission will again be $15, and the $10 rate will apply to seniors and students, as well as C4NM members. Tickets will be available for advance purchase online through a Vendini event page.

Sunday, February 26, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts will present the Bernal Hill Players celebrating the release of their new CD Neighborhoods of Mexico City with a program entitled Music of Two Cities. The composers representing San Francisco will be Erik Pearson (“Inner Postcards from San Francisco,” composed in 2010) and Katrina Wreede (“Episodes at China Basin,” composed in 2011). The Mexico City composers will be Gabriela Ortiz (“Tepito” from 2015) and Eduardo Gamboa (“Mixcoac” from 2012). The program will also include “Incident at Neshabur,” composed jointly by Carlos Santana and Alberto Gianquinto in 1970. The performers will be Jennifer Peringer (piano), Martha Rodriguez-Salazar (flute), Sarah Bonomo (clarinet), and Samsun van Loon (cello).

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission will be $20 with discounted rates of $17 for seniors and $5 or full-time students showing valid identification. Children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. In addition there is a $2 discount for tickets purchased online in advance from the event page for this concert on the Old First Concerts Web site. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street for the church.

Sunday, February 26, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: The next SIMM Series concert will follow the usual format of two sets, each somewhat less than an hour in duration. The first set will be taken by the James Washington Quartet, led by Washington at the piano. Steven Faivus will play alto saxophone, and rhythm will be provided by Rob Bassinette on bass and Carl Hofmn on drums. This group will be followed by the Matt Renzi Trio with Renzi playing saxophone, oboe, and English horn. He will be joined by Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $15.

ARTEK Mines a Melancholy Take on Love from Monteverdi’s Madrigals

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Early Music Society continued its 40th season in San Francisco with a visit from the ARTEK ensemble based in New York City. The full title of the program was Bridge of Sighs: Selections from the Madrigals, Book 7 (1619), by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). The bridge, which crosses the Rio de Palazzo canal in Venice connects, the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the so-called New Prison (Prigioni Nuove), providing those about to be imprisoned with their last view of Venice. However, as ARTEK Director Gwendolyn Toth explained, the program had nothing to do with this dark reputation but, instead, addressed the legend that a couple kissing under the bridge in a gondola at sunset will be granted eternal love. (This was the basis for the plot of the movie A Little Romance.)

The program was presented in two parts separated by an intermission, ten madrigals in the first part and eight in the second. (The total number of madrigals in the seventh book is 29.) All of the texts addressed the theme of love. However, the prevailing mood had more to do with sighs of frustration than with the promise of eternal love. Nevertheless, by providing improvised connecting material for the instrumental accompaniment between the madrigals, each half of the program had its own integrated continuity. This allowed the program to proceed at a rather efficient clip, rather than dragging on through polite applause after each madrigal.

Note that reference to the instruments. The seventh book was the first of the nine that Monteverdi published in which all of the selections had a “concerted” accompaniment. Indeed, the full title of the publication was Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigali. Yesterday that accompaniment was provided by Toth at the harpsichord joined by Daniel Swenberg on theorbo. The rest of the ensemble consisted of seven vocalists, sopranos Laura Heimes and Clara Rottsolk, mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, Ryland Angel alternating between countertenor and tenor (sometimes in the same madrigal), tenors Andrew Fuchs and Philip Anderson, and bass-baritone Peter Becker.

By my count only three of the madrigals in the seventh book are solos. Most of the program consisted of ten duets performed in seven different combinations of vocal ranges. There were also  three different combinations of trios and two quartets. The entire ensemble performed the opening selection “A quest’olmo, a quest’ombre” (to this elm, to this shade), which is the only six-part piece in the collection. The only work written as a solo was presented as the conclusion. “Se pur destino e vole” (if heaven wishes and ordains). This had the longest text of the program, and that text was divided across all seven of the vocalists.

It is unclear whether Monteverdi intended this music for an audience of listeners. He could just as easily had only the performers in mind gathering in a private setting. Nevertheless, his approach to composition tends to involve a balance between elaborate counterpoint and either solo or homophonic writing. This means that a listener (at least one knowledgeable in Italian) has little trouble following clear statements of the words which then are subjected to elegantly conceived elaborations.

In a concert setting those of us with little (if any) understanding in Italian can only manage with a bilingual text sheet. Following a printed text, one comes to appreciate how Monteverdi knew how to prioritize the semantics of a poem over its underlying (and often highly elegant) structure. As a result, those who followed these texts quickly appreciated just how many sighs were expressed over the course of the eighteen madrigals in the program.

Nevertheless, this was far from a one-thing-after-the-other experience. Each madrigal had is own characteristic approach of sighing, to do speak. Toth had clearly designed the program to focus on diversity of the individuals within the unity of the theme. The result was that the overall sense of entertainment through diversion prevailed in parallel with the intricate elegance of Monteverdi’s approaches to setting Italian verse.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci will Return to San Francisco for an All-French Recital

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci was last seen in San Francisco during the Summer 2015 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), when she sang in two of the three operas presented during that portion of the subscription season. She was there when the Summer 2015 segment began, singing the role of Cassandre in Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens (the Trojans); and she then went on to perform in the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women, in which she sang the role of Cesira. Next month she will return, this time to present the second of the four productions in the second season of SF Opera Lab. These are the more exploratory offerings that SFO is presenting in the Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. Antonacci will be joined by Donald Sulzen, who will accompany all of her performances at the piano.

The major offering Antonacci has prepared will be Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera “La voix humaine,” whose libretto closely follows the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau conceived of his script as one side of a conversation: a woman is conversing with her lover, whose attentions have turned to someone else. Poulenc used his score not only to do justice to Cocteau’s words but also to explore both the narrative’s setting and the protagonist’s interior thoughts through the instrumental accompaniment. The score was originally written for soprano and piano, completed on June 2, 1958. Poulenc then prepared an orchestration, which he finished almost exactly two months later. For her recital, Antonacci will sing the original voice-and-piano version.

“La voix humaine” will be performed after an intermission, which will be preceded by a more conventional art song recital. Poulenc will also be part of this portion with his 1950 seven-part song cycle La Fraîcheur et le feu (the cool and the fire), settings of poems by Paul Éluard that the composer dedicated to Igor Stravinsky. The Poulenc selection will be preceded by Claude Debussy’s 1897 setting of three of the erotic lesbian poems collected by Pierre Louÿs under the title The Songs of Bilitis. Louÿs claimed that these were translations of original poetry in Ancient Greek, but the sources have never been identified. (In 1900 Debussy created Musique de scène pour les chansons de bilitis, instrumental “interludes,” scored for two flutes, two harps, and celesta, intended to introduce recitations of twelve of Louÿs’ poems. Six of these were rescored for piano four hands and published under the title Épigraphes Antiques in 1914.) Antonacci will begin her recital with “La mort d’Ophélie” (the death of Ophelia), the second of the three Tristia (Opus 18) songs composed in 1849 by Hector Berlioz to set texts from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building. The street address is 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission will be $95. There will be three performances, all taking place at 8 p.m. on March 11, March 14, and March 17, respectively. Tickets for all dates may be purchased through the SF Opera Lab Web site.

Other Minds 22 Launches with a Double Centennial Celebration

Last night Mission Dolores Basilica hosted the first of the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival of new music. The title of the entire festival is Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, last night’s program was entitled Pacific Rim Centennials, because, in addition to honoring Harrison in this year of his hundredth birthday, the program also included three pieces by Korean composer Isang Yun, who was similarly honored, having been born on September 17, 1917.

It is probably important to observe that there was significant personal resonance with the program that was prepared for last night, because the concluding selection was my very first contact with Harrison’s music; and I have never forgotten that experience. Ironically, it came from the days when I was first acquiring the craft of writing about dance. I was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance for the beginning of the summer festival; and the final work on the program was “Clear Songs After Rain.” This had been created by Norman Walker; and it consisted of six short movements, each intended to be a choreographic haiku. Walker set his piece to a six-movement suite that Harrison had composed in 1951 with solo parts for violin and piano accompanied by a very small orchestra.

Walker had probably discovered this music through a Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI) album on which the soloists were the Ajemian sisters, Anahid on violin and Maro on piano. Anahid was married to record producer George Avakian, who was instrumental in not only getting the piece recorded but also recruiting Leopold Stokowski to conduct. The exotic sonorities of the score made such a deep impression that I barely remembered the choreography, but I played the album with great frequency on the campus radio station of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Last night was therefore personally significant, because it was my first opportunity to listen to that suite in performance, rather than on recording. The “role of Stokowski” was taken by conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Again there was a “marital connection,” since the piano solo was taken by Davies’ wife Maki Namekawa, last seen here almost exactly two years ago as one of the three pianists in the program of the twenty piano etudes composed by Philip Glass prepared by San Francisco Performances.

The violin soloist was Yumi Hwang-Williams, but the deepest impression came from just how small the orchestral ensemble was. The piano was one of three keyboards, the others being a celesta (Evelyn Davis) and a tack piano (Andrew Jamieson). Three winds (Joanna Martin on flute, Janet Woodhams also on flute but doubling on piccolo, and Kyle Bruckman on oboe) were complemented by three strings (cellists Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, playing separate parts, and Scott Padden on bass). That left harpist Meredith Clark and percussionist William Winant, whose only instrument was a tam-tam.

There was an almost uncanny transparency to Harrison’s blending of these diverse sonorities, as well as a sense that each of the six movements involved an overlay of individual activities, rather than any more traditional approaches to either counterpoint or harmony. It was also easy to appreciate how the brevity of each movement could have inspired Walker to create a dance around the concept of haiku. Most important, however, was Davies command of balance, which, in the conducive acoustics of the Mission Dolores Basilica, allowed the attentive listener to savor every one of Harrison’s sonorous qualities, both as individual events and through the skill with which he combined those events.

The other ensemble work on the program was also by Harrison, the third of a series of pieces he called “Canticle.” The music was composed in 1941 at a time when both Harrison and Cage were devoting much of their attention to writing for percussion. For this piece Davies conducted five percussionists (Winant, along with Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, and Nick Woodbury), to which were added Martin on ocarina and Brian Baumbusch on guitar. However, neither of the latter two were given any pitch specifications; so they both amounted to “percussion by other means.” This piece also provided an excellent opportunity to appreciate Harrison’s ability to overlay both sonorities and rhythms, the latter often inducing new dimensions of rhythmic complexity. Davies knew exactly how to manage the tempo, and the coordination among the performers could not have been more impressive.

The remainder of the program consisted of chamber music selections by both Harrison and Yun. The Harrison pieces were his very early (1938) piano sonata (his third), in which he explored how to adopt Arnold Schoenberg’s serial techniques to his own purposes, and the much later (1988) “Grand Duo” for violin and piano. The latter was a major undertaking, lasting more than half an hour. Only two of its five movements were performed. Davies was the pianist for both pieces, accompanied by Hwang-Williams in the duo.

The two of them also performed Yun’s “Gasa.” He was also represented by two solo pieces. Hwang-Williams played the first of two violin pieces he called “Kontraste;” and Namekawa played his last solo piano work, “Interludium A,” so named because it was written for pianist Aki Takahashi. In contrast to the Harrison selections, Yun’s approach to composition tended to focus on individual sonorities, even when they arose for multiple notes sounding simultaneously. There was also a sense that listening to his music is analogous to looking through a magnifying glass. The result is highly stimulating, but it is also cognitively demanding.

The entire program was thus an abundance of diversity. However, that abundance sustained over about three hours. Where unfamiliar offerings were concerned, that was quite a bit to try to take in as part of a single concert-going experience. Nevertheless, even in the face of cognitive overload, there was much to engage the attentive listener; and both Harrison and Yun were well served by the experience.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Yesterday and Today

In the late Nineties Chandos launched a project with conductor Richard Hickox to record the complete symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams. This effort was distinguished by a recording of the original 1913 version of “A London Symphony,” which won two Gramophone Awards in 2001, both Record of the Year and Best Orchestral Disc. Sadly, Hickox died of a dissecting thoracic aneurysm on November 23, 2008. This cut short not only his project with Chandos but also plans to conduct a new production of Vaughan Williams’ one-act opera “Riders to the Sea” to be performed by the English National Opera.

Chandos subsequently recruited Andrew Davis to continue the symphony project, and yesterday saw the release of a recording of Vaughan Williams’ ninth symphony. With sad irony Vaughan Williams himself died on August 26, 1958, only four months after this symphony received its first performance. All of Hickox’ recordings involved coupling one or two of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies with one or more of his shorter orchestral compositions, the only exception being “A London Symphony,” which is preceded by George Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow.” On the new Davis recording the ninth symphony is preceded by “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” a ballet choreographed by Ninette de Valois in 1931 for the Vic-Wells Ballet (which is now the Royal Ballet).

This coupling is somewhat peculiar. While the ninth symphony was well received, it also involved some adventurous modernism, particularly in the way in which it calls attention to the three saxophones in the instrumentation. “Job,” on the other hand, was called a “masque,” rather than a “ballet,” because Vaughan Williams wished to endow it with retrospective connotations. This was emphasized in his labels for several of the scenes, which included the “technical terms” sarabande, minuet, pavane, and galliard. Mind you, the casual listener deprived of the list of the scene titles would be hard pressed to identify any sense of “ancient” forms in this score; and the choreography itself seems to have had less to do with the Old Testament and more to do with the famous illustrations created by William Blake.

To be fair, however, it is unclear how many listeners are now equipped to listen to Vaughan Williams’ music with any sense of context, not only here in the United States but possibly even in the United Kingdom. (Davis’ recording was made with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.) Historical distance does not seem to have worked in Vaughan Williams’ favor. Back in my student days it was pretty much taken for granted that music lovers would be familiar with the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “The Lark Ascending,” and at least a few of his symphonies. Furthermore, record collectors tended to know about his close relationship with the conductor Adrian Boult; and one expected to see Boult recordings whenever Vaughan Williams was concerned. (By way of disclaimer, my own CD collection includes the eight-CD box of Boult conducting all of the symphonies and a generous, but not complete, supply of other orchestral works.)

This may explain why my reaction to Davis was less than enthusiastic. For better or worse, listening to Vaughan Williams tends to remind me of my youth; and those Boult recordings reinforce those memories. Davis clearly conducts the two selections on this album with meaningful expressiveness, but that meaning seems to be grounded in a respect for historical distance.

The result is that there is little sense of an underlying drive of spontaneity. Its a bit like the difference between the pedants who bury themselves in decoding early systems of notation and the music-makers who view that notation the same way jazz players view their “charts,” as a point of departure for in-the-moment jamming. I would not argue that Davis and Boult follow that analogy precisely, but there is a sense of remove in this new recording that does not align well with the ways in which Vaughan Williams’ music established itself in my personal memories.

CMS of SF Announces Two Performances of a New Program and a Fundraiser



Once again the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (CMS of SF) has announced a new program that will feature guest artists. The ensemble is the string quartet whose members are (left-to-right in the photograph above) violinist Jory Fankuchen, violist Clio Tilton, cellist Samsun van Loon, and violinist Natasha Makhijani. The latest work they have prepared for performance is Johannes Brahms’ Opus 36 sextet in G major, meaning that two guests will be required. These will be violist Jodi Levitz, who not only teaches viola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music but also is Chair of the String and Piano Chamber Music program, and cellist James Jaffe. CMS of SF will begin its program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 421 quartet in D minor, one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn and the only one of the six in a minor key.

This program will be given two performances on two consecutive dates next month. The first will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 11, and is expected to last about two hours. It will take place at the Noe Valley Ministry, which is located in Noe Valley at 1021 Sanchez Street. Ticket prices at the door will be $20 with a $5 rate for those aged eighteen and under. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through an Eventbrite event page; and until tomorrow there will be an “Early Bird” rate of only $15 for general admission.

The second performance will be a house concert, which will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. The hosts will be Cathy and Bill Madison, who live north of Golden Gate Park near the corner of Fulton Street and Funston Street. All tickets will be $30 and may again be purchased through an Eventbrite event page. Specifics about the venue will be provided once tickets have been purchased. The Madisons will then host a wine and cheese reception with the musicians following the performance.

In addition CMS has announced plans for its third annual fundraiser. This will include music as well as food, wine, artisanal Armagnac, and a silent auction of one-of-a-kind art pieces. As in the past, there will be both VIP and general admission. The fundraiser will take place on Saturday afternoon, April 22; and VIP tickets allow for early admission at 2:30 p.m. VIP status also includes a champagne toast with the artists, reserved seating, and first access to the silent auction. VIP tickets are $125, while general admission, which will begin at 2:30 p.m., will be $75. Both levels of tickets are currently available for sale through an Eventbrite event page. The venue will be in Ashbury Heights; and, as is the case with next month’s house concert, specifics about the venue will be provided once tickets have been purchased.

SFCMP Presents Stravinsky with Interpolated Improvisations

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented the second of the two concerts in the on STAGE Series of its 46th season. Entitled Stravinsky Interpolations, the offering not only involved a highly adventurous approach to music-making but also explored a new dimension of what a concert-going experience could be. The entire evening consisted of the interleaving of two works, each by a different composer. Igor Stravinsky was represented by the instrumental music he composed for “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale), a score for seven musicians composed for the presentation of a narrative written by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz requiring three actors and one or several dancers. The individual Stravinsky movements were then interleaved with “Lover’s War,” a series of improvisations conceived by trumpeter Peter Evans and inspired by James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.”

The separation of these two threads was emphasized by having each performed by a different ensemble. For the Stravinsky guest artists Dana Jessen (bassoon), Brad Hogarth (cornet), and Brendan Lai-Tong (trombone) joined SFCMP players Jeff Anderle (clarinet), Christopher Froh (percussion), Hrabba Atladottir (violin), and Richard Worn (bass). In “Lover’s War” SFCMP percussionists William Winant and Steven Schick (who also conducted the Stravinsky) joined Evans and his combo, whose other members were Kyle Bruckmann (oboe and English horn), Nava Dunkelman (percussion), and India Cooke (violin). (Ritwik Banerji was originally announced as the combo’s saxophonist, but he did not appear.)

Skeptics might think that this is the sort of project that looks good on paper but is unlikely to fulfill its potential when put into practice. Fortunately, this was far from the case. This was an evening that seized the attention of the listener from the very beginning and kept that listener engaged until the very last notes had faded into the ether.

Much of that engagement probably had to do with how the full program was framed by “Lover’s War,” beginning with a solo trumpet improvisation by Evans and concluding with a group improvisation by all of the performers. While none of Ramuz’ texts were included, the excerpts from Baldwin’s essay, selected to introduce all improvisations following Evans’ opening solo, were as suitable for the Stravinsky context as they were for those improvisations. Indeed, the Stravinsky portion could be easily abstracted away from Ramuz’ narrative about the soldier who loses his soul to the devil, replaced by its role in a broader context of making music for which Baldwin’s observations continue to resonate with relevance.

There was also the way in which Stravinsky and Evans followed parallel strategies, choosing to highlight individual instruments in the different selections, rather than always “working” the full ensemble. Thus, Evans’ opening solo anticipated the scraps of trumpet fanfare in the opening “Soldier’s March” from the Stravinsky, while Stravinsky’s percussion intrusions on a steady march beat were subsequently reflected in the following improvisation for Evans’ three percussionists. Similarly, Stravinsky’s violin embodies the soldier’s soul. However, even after the devil has triumphed in Stravinsky’s final movement, Atladottir established how that soul persisted in a series of kick-ass improvised exchanges with Cooke at the very conclusion of the program.

The entire performance lasted for a little over an hour. This may seem brief for a concert evening. However, Stravinsky’s music was originally composed as “incidental;” and he never got in the way of the Ramuz narrative. Evans thus kept to a similar scale of duration, meaning that his interpolations made for just the right exchange between equals. As a result, there was nothing “incidental” about either Stravinsky’s score or Evans’ planned improvisations. Each event was thoroughly absorbing not only in its own right but also in the clarity of its relationship to the other events, both past and future. The only downside was that this was a one-night-only affair!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why I Continue to Watch BBC News Faithfully

I have been following BBC World Service News on television ever since the service was added as a (then) Comcast channel. Today I was reminded why. They concluded the half-hour news segment I just finished watching with a featured about President Donald Trump regularly spending his weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The report explained that the resort had been the honeymoon site for Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, then adding, presumably as an example of equal prestige, that Charlie Sheen once attended a bat mitzvah there. Somehow, that second example reminded me that there will always be an England; and, when it comes to the rich and famous, the BBC will always have its unique set of priorities!

Elevate Ensemble will Begin Next Month with its Next Season Concert

At the beginning of next month, Elevate Ensemble will continue its third season with a program entitled After Dark. Artistic Director Chad Goodman conceived of the program as a musical exploration of the night; but, for most who attend, the experience is also likely to be an exploration of unfamiliar repertoire. Composer-in-Residence will again be featured with a world premiere performance, this time of a piece entitled “then, in oblivion….” There will also be a world premiere performance of “Crépuscule” (twilight) by George Hurd, whose concert music is usually presented by his own group, The Hurd Ensemble. Hurd also works collaboratively with composer Joel St. Julien; and their joint composition “Grace” will also be included on the Elevate Ensemble program, along with Hurd’s “Fulcrum.” Goodman has also programmed the winner of Elevate’s first call-for-scores competition, “Moments Shared, Moments Lost,” by Jennifer Bellor. Finally, composer Jocelyn Hagen, currently based in Minneapolis, will be represented on the program by the second movement of “Poem,” her 2010 trio for flute, cello, and harp.

This program will be given only one performance at 8 p.m. in the Southside Theater at the Fort Mason Center. General admission will be $35, but there will be a special Early Bird rate of $25 for tickets purchased today. There is also at $20 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the Fort Mason Center Web site.

John Adams’ Venture into Sacred Music Undermined by Inept Creative Team

Sitting in Davies Symphony Hall last night for this week’s San Francisco Symphony (SFS) concert, it was hard to avoid thinking that The Gospel According to the Other Mary was a product of Peter Sellars’ scattershot approach to inspiration and realization, for which John Adams was willingly recruited to provide the music. Having led Adams down the primrose path of the Nativity oratorio El Niño, Sellars decided to give the Passion narrative of the Gospels similar treatment. Once again, Sellars conceived his libretto as an amalgam of sacred and secular texts, all set in a contemporary context with only the slightest reference to Biblical times.

As was the case in El Niño, the result was a verbal collage true to the adjective affixed to Sellars’ name in the above paragraph. Those who know the Passion story from the Gospels could ascertain how Sellars chose to unfold it. Whether or not one was disposed to accept the many augmentations about poverty and homeless shelters is another matter. Nevertheless, anyone trying to tease out the what-and-why of the narrative behind this oratorio would probably have been so preoccupied with words coming from all conceptual directions that Adams’ music never rose above the level of background.

This is more than a pity. Adams had clearly put considerable effort into this score. The result served up some of his most elaborate textures rendered through highly imaginative selections for instrumentation. However, because this week’s performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary was staged, all of the musicians were on the same level, rather than arranged in the tiers of a usual SFS performance. From an acoustic point of view, that meant that all of the instruments were getting in each other’s way, obscuring all paths leading to Orchestra Level listeners in the audience.

As a result, whatever thought Adams had put into his textures got lost in a hopeless muddle. Thus, while the SFS Chorus (whose numbers were significantly reduced) were clearly audible from their terrace seating, all of the solo vocal work was sufficiently lost in that same muddle that it would be unfair to dwell on any of those vocalists at length. The same could be said of conductor Grant Gershon, who was clearly out of his depth in managing all of these resources.

This was an unfortunate consequence of last night’s performance, particularly since the staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer was as scattershot as Sellars’ libretto. As Artistic Curator of San Francisco Opera Lab, Pulitzer is currently based on the other side of Grove Street. Sadly, she did not seem to benefit from this proximity to learn from all the mistakes that James Darrah had made in trying to stage Gustav Mahler’s “Das klagende Lied” in Davies last month. Once again vocalists had to sing through the full force of the orchestra in order to be heard; and, also once again, there was no end of mindless busy-work that ran the gamut from superfluous to just plain silly.

The overall result was a train wreck of spectacle (and, clocking in at two and three-quarters hours, a very slow train wreck) that undermined the interest that any attentive listener might have had in Adams’ music. Fortunately, we may anticipate better circumstances next week with the second SFS concert prepared for the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday (which took place two days ago). The physical disposition of the Davies stage will go back to “concert normal;” and violinist Leila Josefowicz will appear as soloist in the first SFS performances of Adams’ “dramatic symphony” “Scheherazade.2.” Next week will be all about the music, and that is likely to do far better justice to Adams’ legacy as a composer.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Volti will Present the First Stage of a Musical Pilgrimage Next Month

The title of the next San Francisco performance by Volti will be Mantras, Miracles, Meditations. The primary objective will be to provide the audience with its first taste of a full-evening work by Joby Talbot entitled Path of Miracles. Talbot’s title refers to the Camino de Santiago, the path taken by pilgrims across the north of Spain that leads to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral near the Atlantic coast of Galicia. “Compostela” means “field of stars;” and it is generally believed that it refers to the cluster of stars of the Milky Way galaxy that guided Saint James to the site upon which the cathedral was built to honor the site of his death. (Saint James is known as “Santiago” in Galician.) The cluster of stars is also represented by a scallop pattern, which is often used to identify those still making the pilgrimage:

uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Skarabeusz (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Next month Volti will sing the first of the four movements of Path of Miracles entitled “Roncesvalles.” This is the name of the village in Navarre near the French border. It served as a resting place for pilgrims about the follow the Camino de Santiago after having crossed the Pyrenees. Talbot thus uses it as the beginning of his own “path of miracles.” The remaining three movements will be introduced individually over the next several concerts. The work will then be performed in its entirety in the spring of 2018 in Grace Cathedral. This will be a joint project with ODC/Dance involving choreography of the entire score. All the pews in Grace will be removed to allow both dancers and singers to move freely through the entire sanctuary of the cathedral.

At next month’s concert the sacred connotations of “Roncesvalles” will be complemented by a performance of György Ligeti’s “Lux aeterna,” an addition to the Mass texts provided for a Requiem service. Ligeti scored this for a mixed a cappella choir, and the score involves sixteen separate parts. Sacred connotations will also be found in the world premiere of Robin Estrada’s “Caeli Enerrant,” a meditation on the injunction to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Finally, the program will present works by two contemporary women composers, “The Blue of Distance” by Žibuoklė Martinaitytė and “Into Being” by Ingrid Stölzel.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 4, at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission will be $30. Seniors aged 65 and older will be admitted for $25, the charge for those under the age of 35 will be $15, and students at all levels up to the age of 21 will be admitted for $10. Tickets for all of these levels may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Attacca Quartet Explores Music by Michael Ippolito on their New Album

This Friday Azica Records will release its second album of performances by the Attacca Quartet, whose members are violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram, and cellist Andrew Yee. As usual, the album has already been assigned a Web page on Amazon.com, which has been set up to process pre-orders. The title of the album is Songlines; and it consists of four compositions by Michael Ippolito, all of which are less than ten years old.

Azica’s first recording of Attacca came out in March of 2013. Its title (following the case conventions on the cover) was fellow traveler: the complete string quartet works of JOHN ADAMS. While Adams himself has endorsed Attacca’s performance of his music, I must confess to finding it a bit disconcerting to encounter the adjective “complete” applied to a composer who is still alive (particularly when the age of that composer is so close to my own)! Furthermore, if we take “string quartet works” to include music involving string quartet and orchestra, then the album overlooks “Absolute Jest,” which was first performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. (It would have been simpler, and more accurate, to say just “string quartets!”)

Nevertheless, it is worth dwelling on the “fellow traveler” part of the title, since Songlines seems to have been a product of such fellow travelers. Last year Attacca was named Quartet in Residence at Texas State University of Music, where Ippolito is currently Assistant Professor of Composition. So, at the very least, Ippolito and Attacca are “fellow travelers” in academic life. Nevertheless, all of the compositions on this album predate the arrival of Attacca at Texas State in 2016. (The group was formed in 2003 when all four members were students at the Juilliard School.)

This recording was my “first contact” with both the ensemble and the composer. I feel necessary to begin with a sort of disclaimer when it comes to the general topic of new music for string quartet. Those who follow this repertoire probably know that San Francisco is the “home base” of the Kronos Quartet; but it is also a city that enjoys a generous number of more recently-formed quartets that share Kronos’ interest in exploring and presenting new repertoire, often motivated by commission. To highlight two particularly appropriate examples, Friction Quartet celebrated its fifth anniversary this past September; and the Thalea String Quartet, which is currently quartet-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was featured as a “next generation” string quartet during KRONOS FESTIVAL 2017 at the beginning of this month.

This posed a difficulty when it came to listening to Ippolito’s music. The problem was that all five of the selections on this album suggested that the composer had been listening to too many Kronos recordings. This is probably a warped perception. However, it highlights the fact that, while there is, indeed, far more diversity to the string quartet repertoire than Kronos has covered, it was unclear that Ippolito had established a a voice that is distinctively his own in this genre. His biographical statement in the accompanying booklet suggests that he has cultivated a substantial catalog that includes orchestral writing, as well as chamber music; but, even across this single album, there is a sense that he has not explored very far beyond the bounds of a relatively limited comfort zone.

To be fair, this may be an occupational hazard in the world the Internet has made. Results of creativity are often subjected to almost immediate distribution on a global scale, meaning that just about anyone interested in “new music” has opportunities to explore far more than (s)he can handle. The downside to all this is that we run the risk of becoming a society in which the superficiality of “consumption” tends to trump the slower-paced culture of attentive listening. It used to be that universities provided sanctuary from market-based thinking that cares about little more than efficient production to satisfy consumption; but the “inconvenient truth” is that a university run by such market-based thinking often ends up questioning whether or not a music department provides “value for money.” In such desperate times my personal feelings about Ippolito’s work as a composer seem to pale against more serious questions concerned with whether or not our society is willing to view him as productive member.

March will Begin with the Second SFSYO Concert of the Season

The first Sunday in March will be another busy day, between the Hot Air Music Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and three different kinds of vocal offerings distributed across the late afternoon and evening. However, those whose preferences are for the symphonic repertoire will have an equally significant alternative. Indeed, anyone who missed the stunning debut of Christian Reif in the post of Wattis Foundation Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) deserves a second chance to appreciate this conductor’s merits. That second chance will take place earlier in the afternoon with the second concert of the SFSYO season, which will give the indefatigable time to check out both Hot Air and at least one of those vocal concerts.

The program that Reif has prepared for this concert will represent the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries each with a single composition. The selections for the earlier centuries are likely to be familiar to most concertgoers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 551 (“Jupiter”) symphony in C major and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 eighth symphony in G major. The twentieth-century composition has received relatively little attention recently. This will be Samuel Barber’s Opus 17, the second of three compositions he entitled “Essay for Orchestra.” This was composed in 1942, about four years after the first. (He would not compose the third until 1978.)

This concert will take place in Davies Symphony Hall, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of Grove Street. The Box Office and main entrance are on the south side of Grove Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Tickets for this concert are $15 for general admission and $55 for reserved seating. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from the event page for this concert on the San Francisco Symphony Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office or by calling 415-864-6000.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

ECM will Release Tarkovsky Quartet’s Third Album This Week

Tarkovsky Quartet, created and led by pianist François Couturier, is one of the most fascinating genre-defying ensembles I have encountered. In my personal catalog, recordings of the group are kept in the jazz section; but this is definitely a group whose approach to jazz is “chamber music by other means.” The other three members of the quartet are a cellist (Anja Lechner), a soprano saxophonist (Jean-Marc Larché), and an accordionist (Jean-Louis Matinier). Such an ensemble can just as easily be taken as a chamber music ensemble playing “jazz by other means.”

The fact is that the group is in a class by itself, which is why it is so well named. Anyone who has seen one of the few works of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (providing one has the patience to follow his dream-like detachment from both space and time as we know those physical properties) will quickly appreciate that he, too, is in a class by himself. The group made its recording debut on ECM in 2006 with an album entitled Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky, described on the back cover as “Music inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, his favorite actors, and the way he plays with shades of colour and sound.” This was followed in 2011 by the release of an album entitled simply Tarkovsky Quartet. This Friday ECM will release the group’s third album, Nuit blanche (white night); and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders.

Couturier clearly put a lot of thought into the structure of this album. It has a “spinal cord” in the form of seven tracks that are pure improvisations. Six of them have the title “dream;” but they unfold as three pairs, each of which gives the title in a different language, first French (rêve), then English (dream), and finally German (Traum). The seventh improvisation, situated between English and German, is entitled “Vertigo.” There are also pieces by Couturier entitled “Daydream” and “Nightdream;” and the final track is a joint compositional effort entitled “Rêve étrange…” (strange dream). These are all relatively brief pieces; and the only really lengthy composition (a little over eleven minutes in duration) occurs in the middle of the cycle of the album. Couturier gave this piece the ambiguous title “Urga;” and the accompanying booklet offers nothing to resolve the ambiguity.

There are also allusions to other musical sources. Couturier’s “Dakus” draws upon Toru Takemitsu’s “Nostalghia,” which was Takemitsu’s own effort to memorialize Tarkovsky. Similarly, the quartet plays their collective arrangement of the “Cum dederit delectis suis somnum” (as he gives sleep to those in whom he delights) movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, music that Tarkovsky was listening to when he was working on his film Stalker. Finally, Couturier and Lechner collaborated on an arrangement of the fifteenth-century chanson “Quant ien congneu a ma pensee.” In this context it is worth recalling that the Tarkovsky Quartet album included arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. (Couturier and Lechner would then explore Pergolesi in greater depth in their Il Pergolese ECM album.)

Taken as a whole, Nuit blanche is an adventurous foray that tends to push the envelope of what we take to be “serious listening.” Those of us willing to buy into Couturier’s premises will probably find this a highly engaging album. Nevertheless, one has to recognize that this is very much “context-sensitive” music; and most of that context involves the continuing influence of Tarkovsky on how this group approaches performance based on both composition and improvisation. Those unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work may still be able to take this music on its own terms. Those who have seen one or more of Tarkovsky’s films and have gone away perplexed might experience similar perplexity when listening to the Tarkovsky Quartet. On the other hand there is the distinct possibility that this music may serve as a “point of entry” for those who have not yet seen any of those films.