Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Yoshiko Shimizu Plays George Crumb

courtesy of Naxos of America

Between the fall of 1973 and the summer of 1978, when I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, George Crumb was one of the three composers in that university’s Music Department. Our respective buildings were separated by a very modest parking lot. Nevertheless, over that half-decade I never saw the man once; and I had only one encounter with a performance of his music, when David Burge visited Philadelphia to give a performance of the first volume (the only one completed at the time) in Crumb’s Makrokosmos series. After that occasion, I heard at most two (I think) performances of Crumb’s music until I started working for Examiner.com and engaged all of my resources towards the goal of writing useful observations about music, how it is performed, and the nature of listening.

In retrospect this was an unfortunate turn of events. Crumb’s music rarely deserves to be subjected to a single listening experience, after which the listener moves on to other things. It also benefits from advance preparation; and, more often than not, that preparation can be provided by one of more of the performers offering up some orienting remarks before the performance begins. This was certainly the case in October of 2017, when cellist David Goldblatt gathered three of his San Francisco Symphony (SFS) colleagues (violinists Sarn Oliver and Yun Chu and violist David Gaudry) for an afternoon chamber music recital at Davies Symphony Hall, where they played Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Between Oliver’s comments and the group’s performance, one could appreciate the richness of the score’s technique and the intensity of its expressiveness.

Almost exactly a month ago the Kairos label released a two-CD album of the first three of Crumb’s Makrokosmos collections. The first two have the same subtitle: Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano. The organization of the second parallels that of the first in a variety of ways, only one of which is the ordering of the zodiacal signs. Where the third collection is concerned, it is “Makrokosmos” that is the subtitle, the principal title being Music for a Summer Evening. It is scored for two amplified pianos and percussion and consists of only five pieces. (Those interested in the fourth volume will find it on the album ZOFOrbit: A Space Odyssey, recorded by the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann. It, too, has its own principal title: Celestial Mechanics.)

The pianist on the Kairos album is Yoshiko Shimizu, who studied with Burge at the Eastman School of Music and was fortunate enough to meet Crumb once she had committed herself to learning to play his music. When Burge was first bringing the first Makrokosmos volume to recital venues, Crumb was enduring a certain level of hostile push-back from the avant-garde. He was accused of appropriating many of the ideas of John Cage (not only the prepared piano and the use of electronics but also the use of a gong lowered into water in “Echoes of Time and the River”); and Donal Henahan explicitly called out such appropriations in the background article about Crumb that he wrote for The New York Times in May of 1975. (My wife and are were asked to play wine glasses for one Crumb performance.)

Nevertheless, the title of Henahan’s article was “Crumb, the Tone Poet;” and I doubt that anyone would classify one of Cage’s compositions as a tone poem! Indeed, where the first two Makrokosmos volumes are concerned, the most influential source was probably the piano preludes of Claude Debussy. However, that influence had more to do with structure than content; and, by drawing upon both amplification and alternative performance techniques, Crumb elicits a far wider diversity of sonorities than one would ever encounter in Debussy. For that matter, Crumb’s choice of title has more to do with Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos collection than with Debussy; and that connection is reinforced in the third volume, whose influence can be traced back to Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion.

What matters most on these recordings, though, is that aforementioned “intensity of expressiveness” that I encountered in the SFS Chamber Music offering of “Black Angels.” Sometimes (but not always) the grounds for that expressiveness may be established by the titles of the individual pieces. Sometimes it is more a matter of the “effects” behind the sounds themselves, particularly when they are external to the piano. Over the course of the album, those sounds are provided by Akiko Shibata (who whistles) and Natsumi Shimizu (who not only whistles but also plays alto recorder and slide whistle). Rupert Struber is the percussionist for the third volume, which is a tour de force of recording technology, since Shimizu plays both amplified piano parts.

Taken as a whole, this album may be a bit much for those encountering Crumb for the first time. Nevertheless, there is no reason why acquaintance cannot be established through piecemeal listening. Indeed, as is the case with the Debussy preludes, there is much to be gained from listening to any individual piece in isolation. For my part I have been delighted finally to catch up on what Crumb has to say and how he says it, and I feel fortunate now to have “listening access” to the entire Makrokosmos canon.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Plans for West Edge Opera in 2019

West Edge Opera has established a solid reputation for looking at the art form of opera production through a new lens, re-imagining tradition to connect with a modern audience and create innovative experiences of the highest quality without compromising the spirit of the music and text being presented. Since 2017 the regular season of opera productions has been supplemented with Snapshot, a collaboration with the Earplay new music ensemble, to showcase the efforts of West Coast composers and librettists that may still be at the work-in-progress stage. Plans have now been announced for this season’s Snapshot program, as well as the three operas that will be produced for the 2019 Festival in August.

The Snapshot performance will take place next month. This season the performance will include soprano Marnie Breckenridge as a special guest artist. Four operas will be showcased as follows:
  1. Ivonne is a monodrama inspired by an abandoned Sears building. The title character is the head secretary of a steno pool with a strong sense of order and structure. Her routine is disrupted when one of her staff has a medical emergency. This role will be performed by Breckenridge, singing the music of Nathanial Stookey setting a libretto by Chicago playwright Jerre Dye.
  2. The Road to Xibalba is a hybrid music theater piece with music by Cindy Cox, currently Chair of the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and text by John Campion. The text is based on the Popol Vuh, the creation narrative written by the K'iche' people before the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. Xibalba is the name of the underworld; and the narrative is about two athletic brothers traveling there to challenge the god of Death. The performance will involve not only song but also dance, spoken word, and soundscapes.
  3. Zheng is a new opera about mezzo Zheng Cao, familiar to San Francisco Opera audiences as an Adler Fellow with a promising future. Her career was cut short by lung cancer; and, after four years of treatment, she died at the age of 46. Her story has been documented by librettist Tony Asaro working with composer Shinji Eshima, who is also a member of the bass section of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
  4. Medicus Mortem is also an opera about terminal illness. Andrew Rechnitz has written a libretto that explores the limits of compassion through the story of a doctor struggling to ease the suffering of his terminally ill daughter. The music has been composed by Beth Ratay.
Staged excerpts from these four operas will be performed in San Francisco on Sunday, January 20, at 3 p.m. The venue will be the Diane and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. All tickets are being sold for $40. They may be purchased in advance online from a Tix event page.

The Bridge Yard Building (courtesy of West Edge Opera)

Once again the 2019 Festival will have an exciting new venue. This will be the spacious Bridge Yard Building, formerly known as the Interurban Electric Railway Bridge Yard Shop. It was built in 1938 as a repair facility for rail cars that used to travel over the Bay Bridge. It is located at 210 Burma Road near the East Bay landing of the Bay Bridge. The length of the building will be suitable for proscenium seating, and the grounds will include a festival pavilion for outside dining and post-show receptions. There will be plenty of parking for those driving and a shuttle service from the West Oakland BART station. The three operas to be presented are as follows:
  1. Bertolt Brecht described The Threepenny Opera as a “play with music.” However, because his collaborator was the composer Kurt Weill, this work has been presented in settings for both operas and musicals. The leading role of Macheath (known more familiarly as “Mack the Knife”) will be sung by tenor Derek Chester, making his West Edge debut. Soprano Maya Kherani will sing the role of Polly Peachum, Macheath’s latest amorous conquest, while mezzo Catherine Cook will sing the role of Polly’s cynical mother. The plot also involves two of Macheath’s previous conquests, Lucy Brown (soprano Erin O’Meally) and Jenny (mezzo Sarah Coit). The English translation of Brecht’s text will be directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, and David Möschler will conduct from the piano. Surtitles in English will be provided.
  2. A far more positive examination of the nature of love will be found in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with its libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi. The advance material for this production announced that the production will be conducted, directed, choreographed, designed, and performed by women as “perhaps a small correction to our male dominated art form.” The soprano for the role of Euridice has not yet been announced. However, the role of Orpheus will be sung by mezzo Nikola Printz, and Amore will be performed by soprano Shawnette Sulker. Christine Brandes, best known as a soprano, will conduct; and both staging and choreography will be by KJ Dahlaw. The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles..
  3. Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves will be given its West Coast premiere. As the title suggests, the libretto by Royce Vavrek is based on the film by Lars von Trier. The central role of Bess McNeill will be sung by soprano Sara LeMesh. Her husband Jan, who becomes immobilized from a work accident and asks Bess to have sex with other men, will be sung by baritone Morgan Smith. Other vocalists will be mezzo Kindra Scharich as Bess’ sister-in-law and tenor Alex Boyer as Dr. Richardson. The staging will be by West Edge General Director Mark Streshinsky, and Jonathan Khuner will conduct. The opera will be sung in English with English surtitles.
Each of these operas will be given three performances, one on a Sunday afternoon and the other two in the evening, as follows:
  1. The Threepenny Opera: 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 3, and Thursday, August 15, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 11
  2. Orfeo ed Euridice: 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 4, and 8:30 p.m. on Friday, August 9, and Saturday, August 17
  3. Breaking the Waves: 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 10, and Friday, August 16, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 18
Tickets are not yet on sale. Series tickets for all three operas will be available on April 1 with prices from $129 to $339. Single tickets sales will begin on June 1 with prices from $19 to $125. The $19 tickets will be the new “bronze” rate. They will not be available to buy as a series. Once tickets are available, they may be purchased online through the West Edge Opera Web site.

Roland Dahinden’s “Bird” on HAT HUT

This past October the Swiss HAT HUT label released one of its new albums, in contrast to the reissues that I have been following off and on over the course of this year. The new release consists entirely of a single composition, consisting of five movements, entitled Talking With Charlie: An Imaginary Talk with Charlie Parker. The composer is Roland Dahinden, who is also a trombonist specializing in innovative approaches to improvisation. While he was born in Switzerland, Dahinden’s serious training began in Austria at the Musikhochschule Graz, where he studied both trombone and composition. He then moved on to Florence, studying with Erich Kleinschuster and Georg Friedrich Haas at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole. He came to the United States as a graduate student at Wesleyan University, earning a Master of Arts degree through studies with Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier (both of whom would subsequently write compositions for him). He then earned his doctorate in England at the University of Birmingham, studying with Vic Hoyland.

Braxton and Lucier are only two of the many composers who have written for Dahinden. Other familiar names include John Cage, Joelle Léandre, Pauline Oliveros, Hans Otte, and Christian Wolff. However, Dahinden draws a clear distinction between his work as a trombonist playing the music of others, even when it involves improvisation or different approaches to indeterminacy, and his work as a composer. He has claimed, “One big difference is that when I compose, others are playing the music.” In that latter case, however, he may still serve as conductor, even if the number of performers is relatively small.

This would appear to be the case on this recent HAT HUT release. Gareth Davis leads a quartet in which he plays bass clarinet. This is a “low register” ensemble, whose other members are Koen Kaptijn on trombone, Dario Calderone on bass, and Peppe Garcia on percussion. Davis asked Dahinden to write something for his group; and “Talking with Charlie” was the result.

Back in 2009 I posted an article on this site entitled “Conversing with the Dead.” It had been inspired by Jeremy Denk having written a blog post about wanting to have a conversation with Leon Kirchner after Kirchner had died. I realized that I had experienced a similar situation regarding my first doctoral thesis advisor Gian-Carlo Rota, whom I would later drop in favor of Marvin Minsky. Rota may not have been interested in the research I wanted to pursue, but that did not prevent our having some highly engaging conversations (none of which had anything to do with my studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) after I had completed my thesis work.

Dahinden’s case, however, differs significantly from either Denk’s or my own. Dahinden was born in May of 1962, a little less than seven years after Charlie “Bird” Parker died. What Dahinden learned about Parker probably came from his exposure to Braxton and listening to recordings, and Braxton himself does not seem to have had any direct contact with Bird. It is thus a bit difficult to conceive of what sort of “imaginary talk” Dahinden had in mind.

In the liner notes of the recording, Andy Hamilton writes the following:
Talking With Charlie is a mixture of conventional and graphic notation – bebop-sounding phrases inspired by Parker are notated.
That makes for a pretty loose connection. Parker’s improvisations could venture off into some pretty remote places, many of which were unclassifiable. To call them “bebop-sounding” is simply to recognize Parker as a “founding father” of bebop practices. However, the phrases themselves are merely flesh. Anything Parker did that was captured on a recording is memorable for his sprit, rather than the flesh of the phrases themselves.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in the indeterminate nature of what Dahinden created and conducted and the inventiveness brought forth by the execution of Davis’ quartet. From a personal point of view, there is as much to draw my interest to this recording as there has been in the past in my approach to those Braxton recordings in my collection. As long as I do not waste any of my cerebral cycles trying to find a connection to Bird, I can take great pleasure in listening to this new recent recording.

Imaginative Coupling of Beethoven and Mozart

It is not unusual to encounter compositions by both Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the same chamber music program. However, yesterday afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) musicians presenting the latest Chamber Music Series program used those two composers as “bookends” for the entire program, conjoining them in a rather imaginative way. The program concluded with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 clarinet quintet in A major, composed in 1789, only about two years before the composer’s death. At the other end the first selection was Beethoven’s Opus 81b sextet in E-flat major, composed in 1795, making it part of the first decade that Beethoven spent living in Vienna.

The link between these two compositions was reinforced by the sharing of three of the performers, violinists Wyatt Underhill and Helen Kim and cellist Sébastien Gringras. This made for a somewhat Janus-faced ensemble, first looking forward to the young Beethoven “marketing himself” in the Vienna of Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and (of course) Mozart. Then, at the end of the program, the group looked back at one of the highlights of Mozart’s final years.

Of these two offerings K. 581 made the more significant impression. To some extent that would be due to it having been the more “mature” of the pieces; but it also reflected the adventurous spirit that Mozart brought to orienting a chamber quintet around the clarinet. It was written for Anton Stadler, whom Mozart first encountered shortly after his arrival in Vienna in 1781. Stadler quickly became a fixture in playing Mozart’s music on both clarinet and basset horn; but K. 581 gave him the opportunity to play with a string quartet, rather than either an orchestra or some assortment of wind players.

Over the course of four movements, Mozart provided Stadler with the opportunity to express himself in an impressive diversity of rhetorical settings. His relationship to the string players alternated between blending and contrasting; and, in the final variations movement, he had ample opportunity to demonstrate virtuoso talents that would have been out of place in other settings. This afternoon clarinetist Carey Bell clearly appreciated the richness of the score that Mozart had written for Stadler; but, in playing with a string quartet, he made it clear that he understood when to be a “team player.”

Kim led the quartet with Underhill taking second violin, while violist Katie Kadarauch complemented Gringras’ cello work. Listening to these performers, it was not difficult to imagine that K. 581 may have first been performed when Stadler got together with that string quartet in which Mozart played viola and Haydn played second violin, joined by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello. Mozart clearly wanted this to be a gathering of equals, meaning that the spotlight moved around more than might be expected.

For example, the Menuetto movements has two trios, the first being taken only by the strings with the clarinet only joining in for the second. On the other hand the set of variations in the final movement provide virtuoso opportunities for all the players. Nevertheless, the clarinet is given a bit of an extra boost after several variations have elapsed; and this was where Bell’s capacity for tour de force performance really shined.

To be fair Mozart’s K. 581 tends to get far more “exposure” than Beethoven’s Opus 81b. Thus, for many, K. 581 allowed the audience to leave with a comforting sense of familiarity. The Beethoven offering, on the other other, was likely to be a “first contact” for just about everyone in the audience. (In my case it was a “first encounter” with a performance, rather than a recording.)

Furthermore, the instrumentation turned out to be as novel as the music itself. Once again, there was a string quartet, led this time by Underhill with Kim on second violin and Jonathan Vinocour on viola. However, the structure was that of a sextet with both of the other instruments being horns, played by Daniel Hawkins and Jessica Valeri. Given that horns did not have valves when Beethoven wrote Opus 81b, it must have been devilishly difficult to play. On the other hand, if Beethoven’s goal was to attract attention, he certainly picked a unique way to do it!

Beethoven made the move from Bonn to Vienna late in 1792. His original intention was to establish himself as a pianist; but he had several composition teachers, the best known of whom was Haydn. By 1795 it was clear that composition had become a major activity. His first public performance was of one of his piano concertos, most likely Opus 19 in B-flat major but possibly Opus 15 in C major; and this was the year of his first publication, the three Opus 1 piano trios.

However, this was also a time when Beethoven was exploring different ways of working with winds in chamber music. By 1795 he had explored a variety of different combinations of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons; and Opus 81b is the first example that brings strings into the picture. It is hard to imagine that Beethoven did not run into any problems of balance; but, given that the score was not published until 1810, it is possible that this was an “exercise on paper” long before he had to worry about how it would actually be performed.

Yesterday afternoon’s players did a noble job of dealing with those problems of balance, but they did not always succeed. There was some impression that both Underhill and Kim, relatively recent SFS members, were still adjusting to the physical setting in Davies for chamber music performance. Compared with Vinocour and Gingras, both of whom have made regular appearances in Chamber Music Series concerts, both violinists sounded relatively weak. This was problematic when trying to balance with the two horns, both of which were given demanding, but also somewhat obstreperous, parts by Beethoven. In all likelihood, Beethoven had intended this to be another opportunity in which he could exercise his wit; but that sense of humor rarely emerged from a group that seemed to be still learning to play as an ensemble at the same time that they were trying to get a handle on Beethoven’s score.

Sandwiched between Beethoven and Mozart was a particularly distinctive “outlier,” the Opus 20 piano quartet in E major by Sergei Taneyev. Most likely this was prepared by violinist Victor Romasevich, who has long been a champion of little known works by Russian composers, primarily in the period of time between Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Opus 20 was completed in 1906, and it is definitely an impressive undertaking. Romasevich and his colleagues, Wayne Roden on viola, Jill R. Brindel on cello, and Marilyn Thompson on piano, gave the score a capable and expressive reading, making the performance an informative journey of discovery.

On the other hand it is not difficult to think of this as “music of a setting sun,” so to speak. After all, 1906 was the year in which Arnold Schoenberg completed his first (Opus 9) chamber symphony. He was still working in a tonal framework, since the piece is definitely in E major; but his preference for fourths over fifths was disorienting when that piece was first performed. (For that matter, there are still plenty of listeners today that are disoriented!) Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander Scriabin was just beginning to experiment with his own distinctive approaches to the ambiguities inherent in dissonance. In that framework Taneyev’s music is more than a little retrospective; but, when taken on its own terms in a performance as solid that the one given yesterday afternoon, the piece reveals its merits to the attentive listener with little difficulty.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

SFEMS to Begin Year with “Fantastical” Music

The Ars Lyrica Houston Chamber Players, Matthew Dirst, Mary Springfels and Elizabeth Blumenstock (courtesy of SFEMS)

Next month the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) will present the third of the seven concerts in its 2018–19 season. As usual, the season involves both local and visiting talent; and, since the performance at the beginning of this month was given by the local a cappella choir Cappella SF, next month’s concert will bring in visitors. They will be the trio that calls itself the Ars Lyrica Chamber Players. Members are Director Matthew Dirst (harpsichord), Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), and Mary Springfels (gamba).

The program they will present has the title Semper Fantasticus. This refers to the “fantastical style” explored by both Italian and German composers during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The adjective basically refers to seeking out particularly unconventional approaches to invention. Some of the more familiar names of composers who took these approaches are Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Dietrich Buxtehude, and (of course) Johann Sebastian Bach. (Bach will be represented on the program by Dirst playing selections from both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Italian practitioners tend to be less familiar, and they include Antonio Bertali and Francesco Rognoni.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place on Sunday, January 13, at 4 p.m.; and the venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Single ticket prices will range between $45 and $12. In addition, there are membership and subscription options for attending three or more concerts with discounts of up to 25%. All information about ticketing options has been summarized on a single Web page. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 510-528-1725.

Peter Grunberg’s “Piano Talk” About Liszt

The final measures of Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” (from IMSLP, public domain)

Last night in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Ross McKee Foundation presented the second of four events in this season’s Piano Talks series. The “talker” was pianist Peter Grunberg; and the full title of the program was quite comprehensive: Beyond the Piano – Before the Phonograph: Transcriptions and Paraphrases by Franz Liszt with Gratitude to Bellini, Berlioz, Schubert, Verdi, and Wagner. Each of those last names was of a composer whose instrumental and/or vocal music had been arranged for solo piano by Liszt, either as a straightforward transcription or as a more elaborate (and decidedly Lisztian) paraphrase.

This accounted for the entire program except for the opening selection, the fifth of the six solo piano compositions that Liszt collected under the title Consolations. In the earlier (S. 171a) collection of these pieces, the fifth was given the title “Madrigal.” Grunberg may have included it in his program under the assumption that Liszt had intended the piece to be a piano arrangement of a (perhaps imaginary) madrigal.

What was most interesting about the program was how Grunberg surveyed (not only through his performance but also in his spoken introductions) the extensive breadth of sources that Liszt adapted. These included folk music (as in the Hungarian rhapsodies), art song, symphonic music, and opera. As an adventurous pianist of highly limited means, I have long had a personal preference for the arrangements of songs by Franz Schubert, many of which are transcriptions so faithful to their sources that the score includes the vocal texts written above the piano staves. Grunberg’s selection in this category was the D. 828 “Die junge Nonne,” whose turbulent piano accompaniment was right up Liszt’s alley. Ironically, Grunberg’s other example of this genre was Liszt’s solo piano version of his own song setting of Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, the arrangement having been included in the second (Italian) “year” of his Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage).

The symphonic repertoire involved the second half of the program’s main title. During the nineteenth century there were few opportunities for listening to concerts given by a full orchestra. The occasions were relatively few, and they were dispersed across Europe in a limited number of cities. Piano arrangements were often the only way a wider public could get to know this repertoire, and Liszt was happy to oblige in return for revenues from both performances and publications.

Indeed, Liszt prepared piano arrangements of all nine of the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven; and, towards the end of the twentieth century, the pianist Cyprien Katsaris took it upon himself to perform and record all of them. My wife and I had a chance to listen to his recital performance of the Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony. It had all the appeal of a dog walking a great distance on its hind legs!

Grunberg’s selection was somewhat less ambitious. The transition from the introduction to the Allegro portion of the first movement of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique.” Liszt greatly admired Berlioz and was one of that composer’s leading supporters. His transcription was a further gesture of that support.

Most interesting, however, was Grunberg’s presentation of Liszt’s venture into the operatic repertoire. In my own listening experience, the example I seem to have encountered most frequently has been his paraphrase on the famous quartet from the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. For my money this provides one of the best examples of a balanced relationship between honoring the source and giving the pianist ample opportunity to strut his/her stuff. Grunberg concluded the first half of his program with an admirably delightful account of that balance.

The second half of the program was devoted to two operas that are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This may seem to be an unlikely coupling, but Grunberg observed that Bellini was one of Wagner’s favorite composers. Those inclined to raise their eyebrows might wish to consult Ellen Lockhart’s recent book (based on her doctoral thesis), Animation, Plasticity, & Music in Italy, 1770–1830. Here is a brief excerpt from the second chapter of that book:
Bellinian “numbers” like Gualtiero’s aria in act 1 of Il pirata feature a continuous texture, devoid of extended ritornelli but defined instead by a constant interchange between accompanied recitative, arioso, and orchestral gesture; a single number might encompass dozens of tiny shifts of character, tempo, and key, and a few larger ones. (John Rosselli called this music “startlingly Wagnerian.”)
In this context one can appreciate Wagner viewing Bellini as a kindred spirit, if not a source of inspiration!

Nevertheless, Liszt’s treatment of their two respective operas could not have been more different. “Réminiscences de Norma” recalls (as the title suggests) three thematic episodes. Those who know this opera only for “Casta diva” will be disappointed. The emphasis is on orchestral and choral writing that is both dramatic and emphatic, and Liszt milks the opportunities for virtuoso display for all they are worth.

On the other hand the Wagner selection is basically a transcription of the “Liebestod,” which manages to take into account most of the significant contributions from both the vocal line and the orchestral accompaniment. One might almost say that Liszt had no need to add his own embellishments or elaborations. Requiring the pianist to give a faithful account of Wagner was sufficient; and, if some of the Lisztian ventures that Grunberg had offered earlier in the program verged on the ridiculous, this account of the final measures of Tristan und Isolde was unquestionable sublime.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Red Poppy Art House: January, 2019

The Red Poppy Art House is just beginning to build up its schedule for the first month of the new year. So far only two concerts have shown up on the January portion of the Upcoming Events Web page. However, it was at about this time last month that I began to track the schedule for December; so this is as good a time as any to lay the groundwork for my incremental approach. As usual, my “shadow” Facebook site will be used to put out the word when those updates are posted.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets are now being sold in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets.

Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for the two events that have been posted thus far:

Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m.: George Cole leads a vocal group called EUROCANA that specializes in three-part harmonies. The repertoire is influenced by Django Reinhardt, rock and roll, jazz, and French chanson. In addition, each of the vocalist plays at least one instrument. Both Cole and Madeline Tasquin play guitar, and Tasquin doubles on percussion. Kaeli Earle plays bass. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, January 12, 7:30 p.m.: Dana Sherry is a storyteller with a repertoire that covers folk tales from Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Mongolia, and the United States. She performs with music provided by the Mozaik quintet of vocalists Sandy Hollister, Adina Sara, Hilary Seamans, Liz Stuart, and Natalia Ukrainska. Both Hollister and Stuart also provide percussion, and Stuart plays accordion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

The Annual “Seasonal Handel” at Davies

The Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin, where Messiah was first performed (reproduced from the December 1903 issue The Musical Times, from Wikipedia, public domain)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the first of two performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. The vocal soloists were Ying Fang (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Joshua Hopkins (baritone); and, as usual, Ragnar Bohlin prepared the SFS Chorus. The conductor was Jane Glover, last seen on the SFS podium in May of 2012.

To begin by putting my cards on the table, I have to confess that I was not particularly taken with Glover’s last appearance, which consisted of instrumental music by both Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. Therefore, I am happy to report that last night, acting primarily as a choral conductor, Glover was clearly in her element; and the results were far more satisfying. Working without a baton, Glover engaged her entire body both to tease out the details of Handel’s polyphony and to shape the overall expressiveness of his homophony. While Handel himself was not in his element in dealing with the English translations of Scripture provided by Charles Jennens, Glover skillfully guided both the Chorus and the soloists through any awkward text phrases, giving the whole production a sense of a declaration of faith that was both clear and sincere. Since both choral and instrumental resources were reduced to an eighteenth-century scale (even if the instruments themselves and the performance techniques were not always “historically-informed”), there was a prevailing sense of intimacy in spite of the vastness of the Davies audience area.

For all the virtues of the performance itself, however, I feel a need to call out the shortcomings of the Editorial division of the Communications Department. JungHae Kim was listed in the program book as playing both harpsichord and organ. She spent the entire evening at the keyboard, leaving the organist, who did some very impressive continuo work, particularly in the vocal solos, unnamed (when he clearly deserved better). Also, the duration was listed as “About 2 hours.” We all know that, taken in its entirety, HWV 56 is a long oratorio; and Glover made several judicious cuts in the interest of “narrative flow.” Nevertheless, the final applause did not begin until 10:40 p.m., two-thirds of an hour longer than the specified duration! God may be with us in the mezzo recitative in Part I of Messiah, but the Devil is still in the details!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Remembering the Anniversary of Rossini’s Death

courtesy of Sony Music

Gioachino Rossini died, at the age of 76, 150 years ago last month. Sony Classical marked this anniversary occasion last month with the release of the album Hommage à Rossini, featuring cellist Raphaela Gromes, who records exclusively with Sony. This is a little bit peculiar, since Rossini wrote only one composition for cello and piano; and that was not published in his lifetime. That piece was “Une larme” (a tear), which was in the ninth of the fourteen volumes collected under the title Péchés de vieillesse (sins of old age). On the other hand, among cellists, Bohuslav Martinů is particularly known for his “Variations on a Theme of Rossini,” scored for cello and piano, which he composed in 1942 when he was living in New York. Less known is the composition entitled “Hommage à Rossini,” composed by Jacques Offenbach, himself a cellist, for cello and orchestra.

All three of those pieces are on the Hommage à Rossini album, and they are the only original contributions. All of the others are arrangements prepared by Julian Riem, who also appears on the album as Gromes’ piano accompanist. For the three orchestral selections on the album Gromes is accompanied by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln, the “house orchestra” for WDR (West German broadcasting) in Cologne, conducted by Enrico Delamboye.

The best way to honor Rossini’s legacy is to recall his capacity for high spirits. I must confess that I have particular affection for the Martinů variations, which I first encountered on a recording by Janos Starker. Martinů knew exactly how to match Rossini’s upbeat qualities with a sassy rhetoric of his own that occasionally seems to reflect on “big city life” in New York.

Sadly, those high spirits never seem to come across in Gromes’ performances, whether she is playing original works or arrangements. This is particularly evident in the Offenbach “Hommage,” which amounts to an amusing reminder that selections we now tend to regard as “Rossini’s greatest hits” had the same popularity in Offenbach’s day. On the other hand the arrangements of three of the songs from the Les soirées musicales cycle are as flat as a bottle of champagne left open for a week. (Benjamin Britten was far more successful than Riem in capturing the spirit of these songs, but he was arranging them for full orchestra.)

This was clearly an album whose program was conceived with good intentions, but the road from intention to execution did not lead in a fortuitous direction.

Into the New Year with Outsound Presents

courtesy of Outsound Presents

Outsound Presents has begun to plan its concerts for next year. Where the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series is concerned, three of the four slots for January have already been filled, along with the one for the final concert in 2018. As in the past, these will be events that offer multiple sets of different approaches to free improvisation.

For those who do not already know, the concerts in this series are scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. Admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the Golden Gate Theatre. which is at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. Events that have been scheduled are as follows (with the plan of updating this page should more information be provided):

December 27: The first set will consist of solo improvisations by violinist gabby fluke-mogul, who will be followed by the duo of Tom Weeks on alto saxophone and Kevin Murray on drums.

January 3: The first set will be taken by Omzfield. This is the performing name of Zachary Morris, who supplements his percussion work with electro-acoustic loops taken not only from his spontaneous playing but also from found sounds and other sampling sources. He will be followed by the duo of Mark Pino on drums and Collette McCaslin alternating among trumpet, soprano saxophone, and additional percussion instruments.

January 10: The opening set will be taken by Usufruct, a duo that takes its name from early seventeenth-century legal terminology. It’s definition of the Oxford Living Dictionaries Web page is: “The right to enjoy the use and advantages of another's property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.” The music performed deconstructs, lovingly reassembles, and improvises around found texts and musical materials in the public domain. The members of the duo are Tim Walters, working at his laptop, and flutist and vocalist Polly Moller Springhorn. In a related vein Usufruct will be followed by a set of electronic sound art that amounts to environments structured around field recordings. These environments are created in real time by Jorge Bachmann, who performs under the name [ruidobello]. For this particular set he will be working with multi-instrumentalist thruoutin.

January 24: This will be a three-set evening based on analog and digital electronics. The opening set will be taken by Michele Seippel, currently a graduate student at Mills College studying Electronic Music and Recording Media. She works in the domain of real-time synthesis of animation, sound, and video projections. She will be followed by Hark Madley, who draws upon both electronic and organic sources to create music inspired by nature, films, and life itself. The final set will be taken by r beny, who creates ambient textures and melodies based on modular synthesizers, samplers, and tape loops.

January 31: The first set will be taken by the RiRaeRo trio. The name is a synthesis of the three performers, Ric Louchard on piano, Rachel Condry on clarinet and bass clarinet, and vocalist Ron Heglin, who also plays tuba and trombone. Their selections combine stories told against improvised music. The second set will present Transient, an electro-acoustic, ambient, noise, sound art, free improvisation project conceived and performed by David R Molina.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Seong-Jin Cho’s Mozart on Deutsche Grammophon

from the Amazon.com Web page for this album

Readers may recall that Chopin Competition Gold Medalist Seong-Jin Cho gave his San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut recital in Herbst Theatre this past October to launch the 2018–2019 Piano Series. (Cho made his San Francisco debut in March of 2017 at a Chamber Music San Francisco solo recital.) The program he prepared for SFP demonstrated an impressive breadth of repertoire. However it did not include any compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, nor did his 2017 recital. Those curious about how Cho approaches Mozart will, for now at least, have to resort to his latest Deutsche Grammophon recording, which was released almost exactly a month ago.

The album presents three compositions, each accounting for a different period in Mozart’s life. The earliest piece is the K. 281 sonata in B-flat major, one of five sonatas that he wrote while living in Salzburg in 1774. This is complemented by the K. 332 sonata in F major, one of the six sonatas he composed in Paris in 1778 on a “job-hunting” trip following his resignation from the position of court musician for Hieronymus von Colloredo, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. The later period of Mozart’s life in Vienna is represented by the K. 466 concerto in D minor. Cho performs with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Most important is that, on this album, Cho performs with the same clarity that distinguished his October debut recital. However, those of us that are more historically minded are likely to find in these three selections an attempt by Cho to demonstrate how each one presents a “different Mozart,” so to speak. In Salzburg he was a rambunctious teenager, brimming over with self-confidence based on his childhood touring. Cho finds ways to tease out the playful elements of the K. 281 sonata without overplaying any of them (as Mozart might have done if he knew it would annoy his employer).

The Paris sonatas, on the other hand, were written to establish Mozart’s credentials for employment. If they did not land Mozart a job, they have certainly come in handy as material for music theorists and musicologists scrambling for jobs in the current academic market. Fortunately, Cho is more interested in practice than in theory; but that capacity for clarity may lead to this recording providing audio samples at the next annual meeting of the American Musicological Society. Finally, the K. 466 concerto, written about a year before Mozart would begin his partnership with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, foreshadows the emergence of “operatic rhetoric” in the composer’s instrumental compositions.

The result is an album that not only makes for highly satisfying listening but also may teach more curious listeners a useful background fact or two about Mozart himself.

San Francisco Tape Music Festival 2019 Plans

Poster design for the 2019 festival (from the festival Web site)

Once again the new year will be celebrated by the annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival. This remains one of the best opportunities in the United States to enjoy the performance of synthesized audio compositions projected into a three-dimensional space. That space is configured with 24 high-end loudspeakers; and, for many of the performances, the projection of the audio sources onto those speakers is controlled in real-time. The results are experienced by the audience sitting in total darkness.

Next month’s program will be somewhat of a landmark. By 1969 (half a century ago!) electronic music was finally beginning to work its way into the mainstream; and much of the content resulted from imaginative approaches to recording and editing, what we now call “tape music.” The Beatles had much to do with this change in public consciousness, particularly through “Revolution 9,” one of the tracks on their album The Beatles, which became better known as the “White Album.” “Revolution 9” was a sound collage created primarily by John Lennon with assistance from George Harrison and Yoko Ono and most likely inspired by tape-based creations by composers such as Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

1969 was also the year when Columbia’s Switched-On Bach record, created by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, hit the top of the Billboard Classical Albums chart, a position that it held until 1972. In this case the tape music techniques involved the post-processing of electronically synthesized sounds from a Moog synthesizer. 1969 also saw the rise of Morton Subotnick, whose tape music techniques provided the electronic accompaniment for Leon Kirchner’s third string quartet, which won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Music. 1969 was the year of Subotnick’s pioneering surround-sound tape composition “Touch.”

(For the record, my own first venture into tape music took place in 1969. One of my colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Laboratory had imported from Stanford University the code behind John Chowning’s frequency modulation approach to sound synthesis. He installed it on a recently-arrived PDP-10 in such a way that the synthesis software could be “played” by a bank of switches on the console. My colleague and I “improvised” enough sounds to fill a reel of magnetic tape, which I then took to the studios of the campus radio station, whose call letters at that time happened to be WTBS. I used the tape drives there to experiment with playing samples at different speeds, both forward and reverse. The result was a composition of about twenty minutes’ duration entitled “Lemniscate,” which was then used by choreographer Dorothy Vislocky for her ballet “Objects.”)

As in the past, the festival schedule will consist of four concerts over the course of a single weekend. Specific dates and times will be as follows:
  • Friday, January 4, 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, January 5, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, January 5, 10:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, January 6, 8 p.m.
Details about the specific compositions to be performed at each of these concerts have not yet been released. (Those details were added to last year’s version of this article when they became available.)

All performances will take place in the Victoria Theatre, located in the Mission at 2961 16th Street, one block east of the 16th Street BART Station and the Muni bus stops on the corner of Mission Street. General admission will be $20 for each concert with a special $10 rate for balcony seating and for the underemployed. The one exception will be the 10:30 p.m. show on Saturday, which will be free to all. As in the past, there will be a festival pass sold for all four concerts for $50. Tickets will be available at the door after 7 p.m. on each of the three days of the festival, and only cash will be accepted. Brown Paper Tickets has created a Web page for advance ticket purchases for both individual concerts (using a pull-down menu to select the date) and the festival pass.

Idiosyncrasy and its Discontents

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja (from her San Francisco Performances event page)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and her accompanist, pianist Polina Leschenko, both made their San Francisco recital debut in a program presented by San Francisco Performances. Kopatchinskaja has been on my radar for the better part of this decade. I first encountered her work through my Examiner.com writing, which brought me to her album on the naïve label of concertos by György Ligeti, Béla Bartók, and Peter Eötvös, who was also her conductor. That album was released late in 2012. That recording was honored in London with a Gramophone award; and, while it made the cut for a GRAMMY nomination, John Corigliano’s concerto album came away with the award.

About three years later she showed up on an ECM Records album of music by Giya Kancheli, performing with violinist Gidon Kremer, who had been instrumental in bringing attention to Kancheli’s compositions. After that I lost touch with her recording work until February of 2016, when Sony Classical released her performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major, performing with the MusicAeterna orchestra conducted by Teodor Currentzis. This recording struck like a lightning bolt, since any resemblance to Tchaikovsky’s music came off as purely coincidental. Whether it was a matter of phrasing or bowing technique, if there was a way to distort Tchaikovsky’s text and the spirit behind that text, Kopatchinskaja found it.

The result of all of these experiences was that I approached last night’s recital with considerable curiosity, modulated by skepticism and trepidation. All of the composers on the printed program were from the twentieth century: Béla Bartók, Francis Poulenc, George Enescu, and Maurice Ravel. As a result, I did not expect the sort of jolt that her Tchaikovsky recording had registered. On the other hand they were also a far cry from composers like Ligeti and Eötvös, so I was willing to go in with no strong thoughts about what to expect. Given what I got, that was probably just as well.

Over the course of the evening, my most satisfying experience came from Enescu’s Opus 25 (third) violin sonata in A minor. Enescu was born in Romania, but most of his influential studies took place in Paris. At the time he composed Opus 25 (in 1926), he had a global career and was as successful in the United States as he was in Europe. He gave the Opus 25 sonata a title, “Dans le charactère populaire roumain,” suggesting a connection to indigenous Romanian music. Ironically, much of that “Romanian character” resides in the piano’s highly effective evocations of the sounds of the cimbalom, the Eastern European version of a hammered dulcimer.

Kopatchinskaja never seemed to have a problem with Leschenko taking the spotlight for those passages, and the results could not have been more engaging. However, in that rich context it was unclear that Kopatchinskaja had much to add. This was more than a little ironic, given that Enescu himself was not only a violinist but one of the leading violin teachers of his day. (His best known pupil was probably Yehudi Menuhin.)

Still, if Kopatchinskaja was inclined to give things a rest during the Enescu performance, this may have been due to the vast amounts energy expended on the two preceding selections, the sonatas of Poulenc and Bartók (his second), played in that order. The Bartók offering seemed to offer the best interplay between violinist and pianist, neither of whom had any trouble rising to the technical demands that the composer posed. Nevertheless, over the course of the sonata’s two movements, there were persistent indicators that the composer’s rhetoric had been short-changed in the interest of Kopatchinskaja’s idiosyncratic approaches to expressiveness. It was almost as if Bartók’s spirit had taken flight, leaving behind only his marks on paper. (During the intermission I could not resist the urge to check the music stand to see if Kopatchinskaja had actually been playing from Bartók’s score.) In the case of Poulenc, the circumstances were even more extreme.

It is hard to imagine that Kopatchinskaja would have tried to do unto Poulenc what she had done unto Tchaikovsky, but that seems to have been what she achieved. As a result of her ferociously aggressive bowing, the attentive listener familiar with the sonata would have had a hard time recognizing the composer’s thematic material. Any trace of the Poulenc’s Gallic exuberance was lost in a take-no-prisoners salvo of the notes themselves. Furthermore, the program concluded with another disappointing treatment of similar French rhetoric in Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.” Anyone who knows this wild evocation of gypsy music knows that the piece is a real show-stopper; but, by virtue of her warped account of the score, Kopatchinskaja may be the first violinist to make this piece sound boring.

As an addition to the printed program, she decided that some “fresh air” was required before launching into Bartók’s dissonances. (To be fair, in the context of what we listen to today, those dissonances no longer sound particularly harsh; and some of them are downright appealing.) As a result, she chose to precede Bartók’s sonata with one of the three “romances” of Clara Schumann’s Opus 22, composed for violin and piano. (I do not know these pieces very well, but I am pretty sure that Kopatchinskaja played the first of them, in the key of D-flat major, with its Andante molto tempo.) Considering what she had just done to Poulenc, the clarity of her execution was refreshing, to say the least.

The encore selection was a short Kancheli piece dedicated to Kremer. (Kopatchinskaja’s voice did not carry very far from the edge of the stage, so I was unable to pick up on any additional specifics.) Kancheli is one of those rare composers who can be called both a minimalist and a maximalist. This particular piece for solo violin was an exquisite miniaturist exercise, and Kopatchinskaja presented it with all the intimacy to do justice to its rhetoric. Had she been that attentive to all of the other composers on her program, the evening would have been much more satisfying.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Hans Knappertsbusch’s Bruckner on Profil

Anton Bruckner with his Order of Franz Joseph medal (photograph by Otto Schmidt, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

A little less than a week ago, I wrote about the Brahms portion of Profil’s ten-CD release of Hans Knappertsbusch conducting music by Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner. At that time I confessed to having lost count of the number of recordings in my collection of different conductors performing the Brahms symphonies. That count is far more limited where the symphonies of Anton Bruckner are concerned, as is my account of any of that music at concert performances I have attended.

The same may be said of my interest in those symphonies. I went through the better part of my life with little interest in Bruckner’s writing, which I tended to dismiss as being as narrow in scope as it was long in duration. However, after I moved into a position of having to write about the music I experienced it in a more productive way, I found that two conductors served to guide me towards a better appreciation of that conductor. One of those conductors, Sergiu Celibidache, is now deceased; and I had to draw upon recordings of his performances. The other, Herbert Blomstedt, is still alive; and I had the good fortune to experience his impact in February of 2012 during one his visits to Davies Symphony Hall in his capacity as Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony.

Blomstedt’s selection was the fifth symphony in B-flat major. This was not a “first contact” experience, since I had first encountered the symphony on one of the recordings made by Wilhelm Furtwängler, compiled in the 107-CD collection Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy. However, it was Blomstedt that prompted me to sit up and take notice; and, before I knew it, I was teetering on the edge of my seat! The positive energy that I poured into my Examiner.com account of Blomstedt’s performance managed to work its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Altenburg, Germany, the home of the querstand label, which had released an SACD box of all nine numbered symphonies by Bruckner, all taken from concert performances given by Blomstedt with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. By November of 2012 I had channeled my February enthusiasm into an Examiner.com article about that box set.

Since then my interest in these symphonies has grown with every listening opportunity that comes my way, either in concert or on recording. I have become more aware of decisions made involving Bruckner’s manuscripts, his own revisions, and the labors of well-informed editors. Considering how much scholarly attention has gone into creating critical editions of these symphonies, it is important to note that all of Knappertsbusch’s performances (including those recorded) were based on first published editions, even though critical editions were beginning to see publication during his lifetime.

Nevertheless, the music is in the performance, rather than the scholarship. In addition to the fifth symphony, the Profil collection includes the third in D minor, the fourth (“Romantic”) in E-flat major, the seventh in E major, the eighth in C minor, and the published three movements of the ninth in D minor. The earliest of the recordings is of the fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic (1944); and the latest is of the fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic (1956).

What is important about all of these recordings is that, whatever technical shortcomings there may have been in the audio equipment, Knappertsbusch had an uncanny knack for bringing clarity to Bruckner’s scores. Often, this was a manner of finding the right levels of balance for his full-throated homophonic passages. However, when the writing is polyphonic, Knappertsbusch knew how to draw attention to all of the multiple layers of activity. This new release could have been an excellent selection for those just becoming acquainted with Bruckner were it not for the fact that the accompanying booklet provides so little background material. Given my own background knowledge, I suspect that I shall be visiting all six of these CDs with considerable frequency.

On the other hand those who know their Bruckner also know that there is a somewhat contentious issue around the seventh symphony. Those readers should bear in mind that a spoiler is about to follow. Bruckner knew that Richard Wagner was dying when he began work on this symphony. He thus conceived of the second (Adagio) movement as a solemn memorial that would come to a climax depicting Wagner’s soul entering heaven (which appears in the score at rehearsal letter W). (Supposedly, Bruckner was working on this portion of the movement when he received word of Wagner’s death.) This is the only time in the entire symphony that Bruckner adds the percussion section to his instrumental resources, underscoring the climax with a single cymbal crash. There has been a fair amount of argument as to whether the use of those cymbals was over the top. However, since they were in the first published edition, they ring forth in all their glory on the Knappertsbusch recording!

Tommy Emmanuel will Return to Dynamite Guitars

Finger-picking guitarists Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles (courtesy of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts)

Those who regularly follow the Dynamite Guitars concert series offered by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts know that acoustic guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel has been a fixture in the programming at least for as long as I have been writing previews about this series (and probably much longer). On one season I recall that he offered not only a concert but also an all-day guitar workshop. As a result it did not go unnoticed (at least among his fans) that he did not perform here during the 2017–2018 season. Fortunately, he will return to Dynamite Guitars early next month.

Inspired by Chet Atkins, Emmanuel has developed his own complex fingerstyle technique, frequently augmented with the use of percussive effects on the body of his guitar. While his repertoire is not thoroughly comprehensive (I have not encountered him playing anything from the classical domain), it is broad enough to encompass jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk and rock. (The absence of classical is understandable, since Emmanuel does not read or write music.) His virtuoso technique is sufficiently solid that most of the tracks in his studio recordings are captured in a single take.

Emmanuel will return to San Francisco as part of a tour celebrating his latest recording, Heart Songs. This is a duo album on which he is joined by John Knowles, whose own prodigious technique has landed him in the Thumb-Picker Hall of Fame. Knowles will be making the tour with Emmanuel and will appear with him in San Francisco.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 8. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $65 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front of the Dress Circle, $55 for the remainder of the Orchestra, the remainder of the center Dress Circle, and the Boxes, and $45 for remaining seats in the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Sacred Music on Beethoven’s Birthday

Having established that the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will be celebrating the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven with music that will have absolutely nothing to do with Beethoven, it is worth adding that this coming Sunday will also see two Christmas-related performances. This is due, in some part, to the fact that this year Beethoven’s birthday also happens to be the third Sunday in Advent; but that impacts only one of the two offerings to be presented. The other is a celebration of a Mass that incorporates the Nativity narrative. Both of these performances will take place this coming Sunday, December 16. Specifics are as follows:

4 p.m., Church of the Advent of Christ the King: The third Sunday in Advent will be celebrated with a Solemn Evensong and a Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The celebrant will be the Church’s rector, Father Paul Allick. Music Director Paul Ellison will lead the resident choir, Schola Adventus, and play both the prelude and the postlude on the church organ. These will be two chorale preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach, both based on the Advent hymn “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (come now, saviour of the heathen). Music for the Preces and Responses will be by Thomas Tomkins. The other composers whose music will be performed during the service will be William Byrd (canticles for the Second Service), Orlando Gibbons (the anthem “This is the Record of John”), and Thomas Tallis (the hymn “O Salutaris”).

Since this is a religious service, no admission will be charged; but a collection will be taken. The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center.

8 p.m., Episcopal Church of the Incarnation: San Francisco Renaissance Voices will begin its fifteenth anniversary season with a Mexican Pastorela, which presents the Nativity story from the perspective of the shepherds that were the first to see the Christ child. The music will include the Missa Queramus cum pastoribus (Mass of the quaking shepherds), composed in the early sixteenth century by Cristóbal de Morales. The program will also include the enactment of a somewhat humorous fight between good and evil. The former will be embodied as the Archangel Michael, sung by soprano Susan Gundunas, opposing the Devil, portrayed by actor Joseph Schmitz. Instrumental accompaniment will include classical guitar played by guest artist Giacomo Fiore.

Susan Gundunas and Joseph Schmitz rehearsing for this Sunday’s Pastorela (courtesy of San Francisco Renaissance Voices)

The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation is located in the Sunset at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices will be $30 for general admission with a $25 rate for students and seniors and a $20 charge for children aged twelve and younger. Tickets may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Handel’s Best-Known Opera Aria in Context

About a month ago Deutsche Grammophon (DG) released a three-CD album of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 40 opera Serse (usually better known by its English title Xerxes). This is a historically-informed performance with Maxim Emelyanychev conducting the instrumental ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, the choral resources of Cantica Symphonia, prepared by Artistic Director Giuseppe Maletto, and a cast of seven vocal soloists, all of whom are clearly sensitive to eighteenth-century practices. Where the Baroque repertoire is concerned, HWV 40 tends to be known as a “one hit opera,” since the most, if not only, familiar music comes from the opening aria “Ombra mai fu.”

The title page of the accompanying booklet identifies the work as “Dramma per musica in tre otti” (drama with music in three acts), an attribution I was unable to find in any of the score source material on IMSLP. The author of the opera’s Wikipedia page classifies it simply as “an opera seria in three acts.” However, when I saw the opera performed by the San Francisco Opera in the fall of 2011, I found Nicholas Hytner’s staging to provide the funniest account of a Handel opera I had ever seen (at least at that time). Here is how I described it, using A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a point of departure, when I wrote about it for Examiner.com:
The whole scenario is a muddle of who-loves-whom, which is so difficult to explain (with or without a straight face) that the author of the synopsis in the program note felt obliged to illustrate it with a diagram. Furthermore, on the surface, the whole affair is little more than lord-what-fools-these-mortals-be confusion without the interference of William Shakespeare’s fairies.
Apparently, the idea of comedy being presented in a musical style generally associated with seria rhetoric did not go down well in eighteenth-century London. The first production on April 15, 1738 was a failure. As Charles Burney, best known as the author of A General History of Music, published as a series of four books between 1776 and 1789, put it, “here is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from serious opera.” As far as Burney was concerned, the idea that Serse not be taken seriously in the first place was out of the question.

Nevertheless, this new recording does not try to play up the buffoonery, which is probably just as well. Whether or not Hytner intended to take Midsummer as a point of departure, his staging shared with the better productions of Shakespeare’s play a calculated sense of how to deploy sight gags. Given only the music, one would do better simply to enjoy the diverse palette of relationships between voices and instruments that unfold over the opera’s three acts.

Furthermore, the packaging seems to have been designed to present Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli as the center of attention. Since his is the title role, his is also the first voice we hear in that most recognizable aria “Ombra mai fu;” and there is no question that he delivers a thoroughly ravishing account with just the right attention to adding his own embellishments. Unless one consults the words themselves, one would not suspect that this is a love song to a shade tree (although the cover photograph of the album manages to find a way to give that topic a slightly disturbing erotic twist).

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed

Nevertheless, this is a recording in which all hands contribute to a historically-informed performance that is so well-paced that one is unlikely to tire of the da capo arias. (Indeed, one of the distinctive features of HWV 40 is that not all of the arias have that ternary da capo structure.) One can particularly appreciate bass Biagio Pizzuti’s account of the servant Elviro, who is definitely the most explicitly comic character in the narrative. Most important, however, is the crystal clarity that every note Handel committed to paper enjoys, whether it emerges in an aria, a chorus, or a recitative passage. Conducting from the harpsichord, Emelyanychev is definitely up there with the well-informed Handel interpreters; and I, for one, will be looking forward to his first visit to San Francisco.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Yuja Wang’s Mostly Russian Recital in Berlin

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

At the end of last month, Deutsche Grammophon released its latest recording of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Entitled The Berlin Recital, the album is a live recording of a solo recital that Wang gave in the Kammermusiksall (chamber music hall) of the Berliner Philharmonie this past June. The program consisted entirely of twentieth-century compositions by three major Russian composers, four short pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Opus 70 (tenth) sonata by Alexander Scriabin, and the Opus 84 (eighth) sonata by Sergei Prokofiev. Between the Scriabin and Prokofiev sonatas, she played three of the eighteen études that Hungarian György Ligeti composed late in the twentieth century. (The last études in the collection were actually composed after January 1, 2000; but all of Wang’s selections were earlier than that date.)

This program is nothing if not a thoroughly vivid exercise in distinctively contrasting approaches to compositions. For all those differences, however, the selections are unified in the finger-busting technical challenges they impose. One might almost say that Wang conceived of this recital to demonstrate just how much diversity there can be in the space of technically demanding writing. It is therefore important to call out the extent to which Wang always seems to find just the right expressiveness to affirm that each composition is built on a solid rhetorical foundation, no matter how technically demanding its execution may be.

The contrast in expressiveness is most evident in the two sonata selections. Scriabin’s Opus 70 was the final composition that he called a sonata. It was written in 1913, not long before the composer’s unexpected death from septicemia in 1915. (He was only 43 at the time.) Like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 53 (the fifth), it consists of only a single movement; and like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 62 (the sixth), it has no key signature.

The author of the Wikipedia page for this piece describes it as “highly chromatic and atonal;” and it would be fair to say that Scriabin deploys his pitch classes is such a way as to avoid any sense of a perfect cadence establishing a tonal center. In the “Harmony” entry of the 1929 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, Donald Francis Tovey wrote:
Scriabin, each of whose last five sonatas is built round its own new chord, complained shortly before his untimely death that he had, after all, not succeeded in getting away from a sophisticated dominant seventh.
If Tovey’s attribution is correct, then it would be fair to say that in his “deathbed confession,” Scriabin sold himself short. Whether or not Scriabin knew of Arnold Schoenberg’s heavy use of the perfect fourth to distance his Opus 9 (first) chamber symphony from cadences based on a dominant seventh, Scriabin used that perfect fourth heavily in in Opus 70 sonata from beginning to end; and the persistent appearance of a C-F fourth in the bass line of the final measures is quite effective in keeping the dominant seventh at bay! Had Scriabin given more thought to ambiguity, rather than traditional harmony, he might have been less dismissive in his “final judgment.”

I do not think I have had an opportunity to listen to Wang play any music based on the Second Viennese School. However, in her interpretation of Opus 70, one gets the impression that she understands the nature of ambiguity and has no trouble letting Scriabin’s harmonic ambiguities remain unresolved. At the same time she also seems to appreciate how Scriabin has created that “sense of an ending” with that persistence of C-F providing an unmistakable foundation for the last nineteen measures of the sonata.

Mind you, this is not my first encounter with Wang playing Scriabin. I believe my first was a concert performance of the F-sharp major poème (Opus 32, Number 1) in 2010; and her 2014 recital in Davies Symphony Hall included a generous serving of Scriabin, culminating in the Opus 68 (“black mass”) sonata. She has a long-standing command of a “biographical scope” of Scriabin’s music in her  wheelhouse; and nothing could please me more than discovering that she is still extending her command of the Scriabin catalog.

As might be suspected, her approach to Prokofiev is quite another matter. Opus 84 is the last of his three “war” sonatas. While there is sometimes a wistful quality in how Prokofiev unfolds his thematic material and a fearless tendency to modulate into remote keys, one never worries about the tonal center being absent, even if it is more migratory than one might anticipate. From a rhetorical point of view, Prokofiev may have been aiming at the weariness of dealing with a war with no end in sight and a longing for a peace that seems out of reach. Nevertheless, there are also unmistakable “militant” qualities, which tend to be most evident in the final movements of each of the three sonatas.

Wang knows better that to try to outdo Prokofiev when it comes to martial metaphors. She is perfectly willing to focus on her technique and simply make sure that she brings clarity to every note that Prokofiev committed to paper. That technique is necessary, particularly for those listening to any of those war sonatas for the first time; and Prokofiev’s legacy could not have been better served than by Wang’s interpretation at this Berlin concert. Indeed, that same attentiveness to clarity serves her Rachmaninoff selections equally well, paying more attention to how she can balance the thematic lines that unfold simultaneously in different registers than to whether or not she can add anything to the expressiveness that Rachmaninoff had already committed to paper.

Where pure technique is concerned, however, nothing can surpass what Ligeti took to be an étude. It is hard to imagine him not feeling prankish about the demands he places on a performer. It would be fair to say that Wang takes a play-it-as-it-lays approach to the three études she selected for her recital. Each one of them requires a massive commitment of both mental and physical cycles, and Wang was could not have been better equipped on both counts. Since I have been fortunate enough to listen to Wang playing more Scriabin on this release, my real wish is that she decides to learn more of those Ligeti études, perhaps to a point where she can give a convincing account of the entire set!

The Bleeding Edge: 12/10/2018

This will be a relatively quiet week, whose most important day will be Sunday. As has already been reported, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will celebrate Beethoven’s birthday with an in the COMMUNITY Series event entitled Sonic Meditations. That is also the title of the collection of sixteen “social encounters” by the late composer Pauline Oliveros; and the third piece from that collection will be performed. It will be followed by the final paragraph from Cornelius Cardew’s composition based on the Confucian treatise known as “The Great Learning.” Roll over, Beethoven! There will be only two other events of note this week, both involving the usual suspects:

Wednesday, December 12, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This will be the December installment in the monthly offerings of experimental performances. As usual, the evening will consist of four sets. Like his father Don, Ezra Buchla is into building new sound-processing hardware; but, unlike his father, he tends to use his gear in the avant-pop genre. Sally Decker’s work involves approaching sound, language, circuit, emotion and exterior space as all of a piece. David Molina is a multi-instrumentalist, who is always interested in seeking out new instruments. He will be presenting Transient, his current solo project involving both ambient and noise genres. The remaining performer will be Tena Deletist, who performed this past May in the Composers in Performance Series concert at the Canessa Gallery.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be $5.

Thursday, December 13, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s installment of the Outsound Presents LSG Creative Music Series will follow the usual format of two sets of improvisations. Outsound Presents Executive Director Rent Romus will play saxophones in the first set. He was a founding member of Guinea Pig in 1995. The group, which mixes free form noise, jazz, and grunge funk, is now in its third incarnation as the New Guinea Pig quartet, whose other members are Tony Passarell (saxophone, cornet, and percussion), Robert Kuhlmann (bass), and Aaron Levin (drums). The second set will present Leyya Tawil dancing to music improvised by Dominic Cramp on electronics and vocalist Amy Melissa Reed, also playing guitar and hydrophone. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Eastern European Moods from Telegraph Quartet

Telegraph Quartet members Jeremiah Shaw, Joseph Maile, Pei-Ling Lin, and Eric Chin (from their San Francisco Performances event page)

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances launched its three-concert Discovery Series with a recital by the Telegraph Quartet, winner of the 2016 Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award and currently Quartet-in-Residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The ensemble’s two violinists, Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, alternate in occupying first chair. The other members of the group are violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw.

The “discovery” element of the program involved the trajectories of three composers of Eastern European origins. The “source” of those trajectories, so to speak, was Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, represented by his Opus 51 quartet in E-flat major, known as the “Slavonic” for drawing upon indigenous source material, particularly in its second movement based on the dumka form of sharply contrasting moods. Late in his life Dvořák encouraged another young Czech to begin studies at the Prague Conservatory. That young man was Erwin Schulhoff, and he was only ten years old at the time. Yesterday afternoon’s program began with a collection of five pieces, each based on a different geographical origin, only one of which was Czech.

Since he was of Jewish descent, Schulhoff’s career took a turn for the worst after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. He ended up in the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis on August 18, 1942. Polish-born Mieczysław Weinberg was more fortunate. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, just as the Nazis were moving in on Poland; and he managed to flee to the Soviet Union before they got as far as Warsaw.

There he was fortunate enough to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, and the two became close friends. As might be guessed, however, that friendship had its own down-side when, following the end of World War II, Shostakovich once again found himself out of favor with Soviet authorities. Indeed, in February of 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism;” and the only thing that saved him was the radical shift in Soviet policies that followed the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, Weinberg’s achievements as a composer remained in the shadows; and, for the most part, they remained there until after his death in 1996. Since then, however, there has been a growing interest in the vast catalog of his works (his “opus count” ran to 154) thanks, in no small part, to Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer (another Eastern European connection), British director David Pountney, who staged the first performance of Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, and the French Quatuor Danel, which made all seventeen of his string quartets part of their repertoire and recorded them all for the German cpo label between 2006 and 2009. (The entire six-CD collection is available as a box set.)

Telegraph chose to introduce Weinberg’s quartets to their audience with his Opus 35 (sixth) in E minor. This quartet was composed in 1946, the year in which Soviet Central Committee Andrei Zhdanov imposed the Zhdanov Doctrine, which led to Shostakovich’s second denunciation by Soviet authorities. Ironically, Weinberg was not impacted by the Doctrine on the grounds that no one was particularly interested in his compositions! Nevertheless, Opus 35 constitutes a major undertaking on the same epic scale as Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, written during the darkest days of World War II.

Mind you, there is no question that Weinberg had his own distinctive voice, which would not be confused with that of Shostakovich. Nevertheless, he shared with Shostakovich a sophisticated discipline for polyphonic structures as a basis for intensely dark rhetoric. Each of the four principal movements of Opus 35 presents its own approach to that darkness through a different tempo.

Curiously, a rapid pace appears only after the first movement, with two intense movements that ferociously pass through like a bolt of lightning with a combined duration of less than five minutes. For those unfamiliar with the piece, trying to follow the movement structure on the program sheet can be a bit disorienting. However, disorientation may have been Weinberg’s way of expressing his awareness of his own state of neglect; and the more we know about Weinberg the man, the better equipped we are to respond to the expressiveness of his music.

Weinberg’s quartet was the only piece played during the second half of the program. The first half offered the balance of a far sunnier rhetoric. There are no dark shadows haunting the four movements of Dvořák’s Opus 51 quartet. Even in the second dumka movement, the Andante con moto section is more wistful than elegiac (and, of course, the essence of dumka is that balance between the discreetly subdued and the overtly raucous). Telegraph clearly appreciated the sheer delight expressed through this music, pleasantly reminding its audience that there is more to the Dvořák quartet repertoire than his popular Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major.

The opening Schulhoff selection was probably as unfamiliar as the Weinberg quartet to most of the audience. During the Twenties (yesterday afternoon’s selection was composed in 1923), Schulhoff was as adventurous as many of the more familiar composers of that decade. He wrote an essay in which he had the temerity to propose that, for all of his efforts at appropriation, Igor Stravinsky never really “got” jazz. (Even before I knew about either Schulhoff or his article, I agreed with this observation!) In his set of five pieces, Schulhoff steered clear of the American jazz sources he was getting to know; but he still came up with an outlandishly wacky tango movement. Indeed, each of the five pieces in the set seems to be grounded in parody; and no genre that he considers escapes unscathed. (The perverse liberties he takes with a Viennese waltz in the first piece perfectly establishes expectations for the remaining four.)

Given the intense seriousness of the second half of the program, there was a certain healthy quality in the sense of humor that Telegraph brought to their performance of the Schulhoff pieces. Like any good stand-up comedian, the group knew that the telling of the joke is often more important than the joke itself. They appreciated the discipline required to tell Schulhoff’s jokes the right way, the perfect approach to allowing the audience have a bit of fun before settling into the less frivolous offerings that would follow on the program.