Monday, August 20, 2018

Adès’ Efforts to Turn a Buñuel Film into Opera

Poster for Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, complete with sheep (from Wikipedia, fair use)

This past season the opera production that most attracted my curiosity was The Exterminating Angel, the third opera composed by Thomas Adès with the ambitious goal of basing it on the film of the same name by Luis Buñuel. I first encountered Buñuel’s work during my student days in the Sixties; and, by the time I received my doctorate, I had become almost obsessed with seizing every opportunity to attend a screening of one of his films. I even remember that my first encounter with The Milky Way took place in Haifa, when I was teaching at the Technion, at the city’s closest approximation to an “art house” cinema. To this day I regard that film as the most absurdist perspective on Catholicism I have ever encountered.

I was still a student when I saw The Exterminating Angel for the first time. It was presented by a student film society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We in the audience saw it in the lecture hall that I associate with freshman chemistry, and it seems as if everyone there bought into the sharp-edged humor of the script. The setting was a dinner party of a very elite group, all of whom fancy themselves as intellectuals but cannot engage in conversation that rises above the level of inanity. The plot kicks in, so to speak, when, at the end of the evening, some intangible and unnamable force prevents each of the guests from leaving to return home. As the film progresses, we observe the deterioration of all signs of gentility until one of the guests suggests that they resume the positions they had after dinner and reproduce the conversation from that time. Sure enough, all are “liberated;” and give thanks to God by attending a Te Deum service (Tosca, anyone?) at the cathedral. At the end of the service, they discover that now they cannot leave the cathedral, while a riot erupts outside.

When I first learned that Adès had used this film as the source for his third opera, I was skeptical. This was one of those cases where the film was so much more than its underlying scenario. Buñuel always knew how to conjure up rich images; but he really went over the top in this case, particularly when he added sheep (lambs of God?) to the mix. However, the film also appealed to my sense of play: It was clear that it was rich in symbolism; but it was as if Buñuel had left the interpretation of each of the symbols as “an exercise for the reader.”

The opera was composed on a joint commission by the Salzburg Festival (where it was first performed on July 28, 2016), the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (first performed there on April 24, 2017), and the Metropolitan Opera (providing the United States premiere on October 26, 2017). It was also selected for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series for live simulcast to movie theaters on November 18, 2017. That simulcast was recorded for subsequent broadcast on the PBS Great Performances at the Met series; and on April 1 (which I found to be a delightful coincidence) I copied its first broadcast in San Francisco to save in my xfinity cloud storage space. I ended up watching it in two segments taking the intermission as my point of interruption, and I completed my viewing this morning.

My primary impression was that much of the opera reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the film, but I came away with the sense that Adès had tried to find a musical approach to Buñuel’s sharpest edges without every quite meeting his goal. The bottom line was that this was a film in which everything clicked together to provide a coherent and entertaining whole: plot, images, dialog, and an overall sense of the flow of the narrative. Adès’ librettist Tom Cairns’ approach to plot was definitely capable enough to establish the narrative even for those unfamiliar with the film. The images, which included sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler and video by Tal Yarden, departed from Buñuel but definitely served the narrative as effectively. However, both the specifics of the dialog and that sense of flow felt more labored in the opera setting than it had on the screen.

Much of that labored sense, however, may have been the result of Adès rhetorical approach to the score. I know his second opera, The Tempest, only through the performance of excerpts conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado during his visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony in October of 2013. That concert provided me with my first exposure to soprano Audrey Luna, whose upper register is, to say the least, stratospheric. Adès had composed the role of Ariel for her in The Tempest, and her delivery was chillingly unreal. Luna sang the role of the opera singer Leticia (called, by the other guests, “the Valkyrie”); and, according to a New York Times article by Zachary Woolfe, she now holds the record for a note so high (A above high C) that “it has never been sung in the 137-year history of the Metropolitan Opera.”

One way of approaching the score is to assume that Adès decided to work with provocative sonorities as a substitute for Buñuel’s lexicon of provocative images. Almost as important as the extremes of Luna’s soprano part was his use of an ondes martenot played by Cynthia Millar (who also played it at both Salzburg and Covent Garden). Indeed, as video versions go, I have to confess that I was often more drawn to the overhead shots of Millar’s playing than I was by what was happening on stage. At the very least I came away with the impression that recent technologies have made the ondes martenot a more “cooperative” instrument than earlier models had been, allowing Adès to take it in directions that would not have been risked by earlier composers. Furthermore, if his ondes sonorities were not scary enough, the six perfectly synchronized snare drums that dominated one of the instrumental interludes definitely wrenched the guts.

Nevertheless, one of the most salient impressions of the film was Buñuel’s playful attitude. He could get a bit nasty in his play from time to time; but, for the most part, he knew how to get his viewers to laugh with him at the absurdity of his characters and the situation that overcame them. Adès’ score, on the other hand, is, for the most part, deadly serious. Yes, there are times when he cracks a smile or two; and some of the camera shots of his conducting even remind us when those times are. The most memorable of those occasions comes when the sheep in the film appear on the stage during the opera’s third act, to be introduced by an off-the-wall account of the “Sheep may safely graze” aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 208 secular cantata that was definitely laugh-out-loud funny.

With my viewing experience still comfortably lodged in short-term memory, I would have to say that I came away with no great craving to see this opera a second time; but it did leave me “hungry” for a chance to see the Buñuel film again.

The Bleeding Edge: 8/20/2018

After another week of adventurous offerings that were already “on the books,” The Bleeding Edge is back with a relatively balanced summary of new announcements with previously noted activities for the coming week. Nevertheless, the overall schedule is a relatively modest one. The organizations responsible for events already reported are Outsound Presents, with both Luggage Store Gallery and Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series concerts taking place, and the Center for New Music. That leaves two additional events that need to be taken into account as follows:

Friday, August 24, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: By my records, the last time I reported on the Trance Mission Duo of local clarinetist Beth Custer and didgeridoo master Stephen Kent, they were playing at the Red Poppy Art House. This week they will be the performers at the next two-hour “late show” concert at Bird & Beckett. As usual, Custer will be playing all sizes of clarinets, while Kent will alternate his didgeridoo work with percussion and his playing the cello in the style of the African sintir.

Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, which is a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. Notwithstanding the work on the Twin Peaks tunnel, this is a reasonably accessible site. (Those coming from the Civic Center will be able to avoid the tunnel entirely.) There will be a cover charge of $15 at the door for admission with a rate of $5 for students, musicians, and others with low income. There will also be a special $10 charge for those who are “merely curious.”

Sunday, August 26, 6:30 p.m., Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco: This will be a lecture-demonstration of sorts dealing with the state of experimental music in China. The lecture will be delivered by Gabby Wen, whose own music-making involves modular synthesizer, homemade electronics, field recordings, guqin (seven-string Chinese zither), found objects, her own body, and software. She is both composer and improviser, and she will be performing with Yan Jun, who has similar interests in improvised and experimental music and is based in Beijing. He is also a poet and cultural critic.

The Chinese Culture Center is located on the third floor of the Hilton Hotel in Chinatown at 750 Kearny Street. A donation of $10 is suggested. The doors will open at 6 p.m.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rich Eclecticism on Rinde Eckert’s First Solo Album

courtesy of Sacks & Co.

As I write this, Rinde Eckert’s name is staring down at me from a poster that has been on the wall of the office I made out of the second bedroom of the unit where I now live in San Francisco. His name is part of a poster made by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a visit by the George Coates Performance Works to perform Coates’ “The Way of How” at the Next Wave Fall Festival in 1983. (That performance introduced me not only to Eckert but also to Coates’ “resident composer,” Paul Dresher.)

By the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, Dresher and Eckert had begun to collaborate on what amounted to chamber opera projects. One of them, “Was Are Will Be,” amounted to a hyper-charged linguistic romp; and, unless I am mistaken, its creation involved consulting with linguist George Lakoff. The scariest effort, however, was Slow Fire, which amounted to a penetrating examination of post-traumatic stress disorder at a time long before PTSD had become part of our everyday working vocabulary. Eckert’s acting was so intense that I was afraid to approach him to let him know how impressed I had been. (I eventually had a chance to chat with him about two years ago in the lobby of Z Space, when I went over to cover Paul Dresher’s Schick Machine, another examination of a deranged mind, that Eckert had directed.)

With all of that background, I was more than a little curious when I learned that Eckert had recorded his first solo album, The Natural World; and that album will be released by National Sawdust Tracks this coming Friday. Once again, Amazon.com seems to have been tardy in creating a useful Web page for this release (although they offer a fair number of Eckert’s earlier albums); but Bandcamp has created a Web page for pre-ordering the entire album for digital download. National Sawdust will host a release show and party two weeks from today.

Even before one starts to listen, the back cover of the album makes it clear that The Natural World is an exercise in eclecticism unto an extreme. This really is a solo album, since Eckert provides his own accompaniment. However, the diversity of instruments he plays, which are enumerated on that back cover, is more than a little awe-inspiring: piano, electronic keyboards (with samples), accordion, South American wood flute, hand percussion, tenor banjo, dobro ukulele, banjo ukulele, shruti box, and penny whistle.

The back cover also informs the listener that eleven of the thirteen tracks are original compositions. One exception is the traditional folk tune “Black is the Color,” for which Eckert provides his own arrangements. The other is “Cantata,” which credits Johann Sebastian Bach. This refers to the hymn theme of the BWV 192 cantata, Nun danket alle Gott (now thank ye all our God), which Eckert sings against a drone that one rarely encounters in Bach’s own music. (The theme itself is not “original Bach” and is usually attributed to Johann Crüger.)

Several of the tracks just involve wordless singing. There is often a sense that Eckert discovered a melodic line through improvisation and then sang along with himself as he proceeded to develop his discovery. On the other hand “The Singer Sings” reflects on the traditions of Indian classical music. After each phrase that Eckert sings, he offers a spoken translation of the text he has just delivered.

One might think that the entire album is a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the sort of eclecticism one was likely to encounter at those folk festivals that were so popular back in the Sixties. Mind you, those festivals took a lot of ribbing even at the height of their popularity. My own favorite attack came from the “Folk Singer’s Blues,” one of Shel Silverstein’s well-aimed arrows of scorn:
Well, I'd like to sing a song about the chain gang (whap!)
And swingin' twelve pound hammers all the day, (whap!)
And how a I'd like to kill my captain (whap!)
And how a black man works his life away, but

What do you do if you're young and white and jewish?
And you've never swung a hammer against a spike?
And you've never called a water boy
Early in the morning
And your only chain is the chain that's on your bike? yes
Your only chain is the chain on your bike
One does not encounter such cynicism on The Natural World, nor is there any sense of irony underlying any of the tracks. Instead, the tracks come across as the highly personal reflections of a performer who has been seriously eclectic over the course of his career. There is very much a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get quality to every track on this album; and, for each selection, “what you get” is likely to be an opportunity for personal reflection on where we all are now and how we got there.

SFO Announces Donizetti Casting Change

Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux will be the second offering in the 2018–19 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). It’s first performance will be given on Saturday, September 8, the night after the gala opening of the season with the double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” This past Friday SFO announced a change in the casting. Baritone Artur Ruciński will be unable to perform the role of the Duke of Nottingham due to lung injuries sustained in a serious bicycling accident involving a car in his native Poland. He is expected to make a full recovery, but that recovery will require an interruption of his performance commitments.

Andrew G. Manea (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Ruciński will be replaced by Romanian-American baritone Andrew G. Manea, who is currently in his second year as an Adler Fellow. He made his company debut in 2017 as Marullo in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, and last season he performed the role of the Marquis d’Obigny in Verdi’s La Traviata. As a member of the 2016 Merola Opera Program, he gave a memorable performance in the dual role of Iron Hans and the Wolf in Conrad Susa’s Transformations opera, based on poems by Anne Sexton.

Nottingham will be Manea’s role debut. He will join an all-star cast featuring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta (Elizabeth I, Queen of England), tenor Russell Thomas in the title role (Robert, Earl of Essex), mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham, tenor Amitai Pati as Lord Cecil, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Walter Raleigh. Pursell will be making his SFO debut.

The production of Roberto Devereux is being shared with the Canadian Opera Company with staging by Stephen Lawless. It was given its first performances in Toronto in 2014. Riccardo Frizza will conduct the SFO Orchestra and Chorus, the latter having been prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson.

Roberto Devereux will be given a total of six performances, which will take place at 7:30 p.m. on September 8, 11, 14, 18, and 27 and at 2 p.m. on September 23. The libretto will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $37 to $398. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

Finally, because the season has not yet begun, subscriptions are still on sale. There are a wide variety of subscription alternatives, ranging from the full season to a variety of different ways to attend a fewer number of operas. All of these options are summarized on a single Web page with appropriate hyperlinks. Further options for personalizing a series offering can be discussed by calling the Box Office number given in the preceding paragraph.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Opera Productions

In catching up with my viewing of PBS opera broadcasts, I found myself watching a “rerun” of a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House of Bartlett Sher’s staging of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann that took place on January 31, 2015. I took a particular interest in this production because it seemed to have drawn upon the same score that had been used by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) during its Summer 2013 season, the so-called “integral edition” edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck and published by both French and German publishers in 2011. For those who do not know the story behind The Tales, so to speak, when Offenbach died on October 5, 1880, he left behind a completed piano score and orchestrations of only the prologue and the first act.

As a result, over the course of my early years of going to the opera, it would be fair to say that I never saw any performing version of the opera twice. (The Wikipedia author of the page for this opera has done an admirable job of accounting for the many versions that have been staged.) The “integral edition” was supposed to converge on a single “authoritative source,” although Keck is still treating the project as open, his latest insights having been published in 2016. While I am not sure when the 2011 publication was first staged, seeing it in 2013 at the War Memorial Auditorium was an eye-opener, particularly with respect to the role of the Muse in the overall narrative. At the time I was writing for Examiner.com; and I suggested that, instead of three tales framed by a prologue and an epilogue, there was a “whole-cloth” approach to the narrative that could be called “The Tale of the Storyteller.”

Matthew Polenzani in the title role of the 2013 Tales of Hoffmann presented by the San Francisco Opera (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

The SFO staging was by Laurent Pelly; and I have to say that I had not previously experienced such a clear approach to the overall narrative, perhaps because the source for that narrative now enjoyed greater clarity. Furthermore, I remember that, on that evening, I was joined by a friend who, while familiar with much of Offenbach’s music, had never seen any production of the opera. Pelly’s staging held her in rapt attention from the first images of the key characters (Hoffmann, Muse, and Nemesis) until the final curtain. There was no shortage of special effects; but, where Olympia was concerned, Pelly ended up tipping his hand, letting us know why we were seeing the uncanny movements that we experienced.

In that context I have to say that I was far more disappointed with Sher’s efforts at the Met. The fundamental problem was that he let the special effects overwhelm the narrative. As a result, all the clarity that Kaye and Keck had brought to clarifying the narrative simply threw the whole concoction back into obscurity. Indeed, the visual overkill was so strong that one could easily lose touch with the music itself and how it was being performed by vocalists, instrumentalists, and the conductor leading them all. All the “usual champions” of the opera experience were thrust into the background by one outrageous staging device after another; and any sense of “tale,” whether by or about Hoffmann, seemed to dangle behind Sher’s images like the tip of a dog’s tail (or tale?).

This is not the first time that a Met production has labored under extreme excess. Unless I am mistaken, Jean-Louis Barrault created a Carmen that was conducted by Zubin Mehta in the Sixties that came close to being all choreography and no opera. One can appreciate that Barrault wanted a Carmen that would not be dismissed as the “same old same-old.” There is no doubt that he met that goal but at a price that ended up confounding and/or frustrating much of his audience!

SFEMF Announces Schedule for 19th Season

logo for the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival Web site

A Web site has now been set up for the schedule for nineteenth annual season of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). As was the case last year, the festival will run for three days, featuring three evening concerts at the Brava Theater Center. All concerts will begin at 8 p.m. and will consist of three sets. Performers for each of the three dates have been planned as follows:

Friday, September 7: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Sally Decker, Collin McKelvey

Saturday, September 8: Yasunao Tone, Vanessa Rossetto, Glochids

Sunday, September 9: Kassel Jaeger, Attilio Novellino, OMMO

The Brava Theater Center is located at 2781 24th Street at the corner of York Street. Single tickets for each of the three concerts are $17 with a $12 student rate. There is also a $30 “Generous” rate that will include a contribution to support continued SFEMF activities. All single tickets will be available for purchase online from a single Brown Paper Tickets event page with a pull-down menu for selecting the date. A second event page has been created for a Full Festival Pass for admission to all three concerts at the discounted rate of $42.

As was the case last year, there will also be a free special event hosted by Adobe Books. Leila Abdul-Rauf will be featured at an afternoon reception to celebrate the release of her latest album. The reception will begin at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 8; and there will be live music at 4 p.m. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street, which is only a few blocks to the west of the Brava Theater Center.

Phillip Bimstein’s Refreshing Imagination

composer Phillip Bimstein (courtesy of Other Minds)

The title of the third of the four new digital-only albums recently released by Other Minds Records in its Modern Hits series is Angels, Cats & Shackles. Each of these plural nouns refers to one of the compositions by Phillip Bimstein on the album, although not in that “order of appearance.” Like most of the composers that have been associated with Other Minds over the course of that organization’s history, Bimstein is highly imaginative. However, where many composers venture into experimental territory with intense seriousness, Bimstein is one of those composers whose music, even when it is serious, seems to be consistently tinged with signs of what John Cage called a “sunny disposition.”

The “nuts and bolts” of Bimstein’s path to becoming a composer is summarized in a single paragraph in the text of the accompanying booklet:
Bimstein was born in Chicago and is a graduate of Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he majored in theory & composition. In the 1980s he led the new wave band Phil ‘n’ the Blanks, whose three albums and six videos were college radio and MTV hits. After further studies at UCLA in composition, orchestration and conducting, Bimstein took a hiking trip to southern Utah and never left.
What emerged was an approach to composition that tended to reflect the world around Bimstein, rather than just the ideas knocking around in his head. The environment of southern Utah (which I have visited and relished, along with others far greater than I, such as Olivier Messiaen) seems to have triggered and refined Bimstein’s skills as a listener, skills that would then initiate his efforts in composition. The most straightforward example of this approach is the piece associated with the first noun in the album title, “Angels in the Cracks.” This is a “sound poem,” based on recording sounds in the natural environment and then fashioning musique concrète through processing techniques, editing, and mixing.

Ironically, the sources for “Angels in the Cracks” did not come from Utah. Instead, the piece was based on sounds recorded during a visit Bimstein made to Great Britain in 1995 to meet his girlfriend’s relatives. The result amounts to a “tour” of the British Isles that is initially based in London but extends as far as the Isle of Skye. Those wishing a “guide” for this tour will find it in the notes that Bimstein contributed to the accompanying booklet.

The other two compositions, on the other hand, are based solidly on Bimstein’s “home turf.” The “shackles” part of the title refers to “Lockdown,” which he describes as a “techno tome poem” and composed in 2005. In this case his source material consists of sounds and voices made at the Washington County Youth Crisis Center in St. George. The recordings were made over a series of visits between 1997 and 1999. This is clearly a political effort, and the composition has been used to promote dialogue over the state’s approach to both youth detention and crime prevention. However, the piece has also been given concert performances, and Bimstein prepared a score for his quartet blue haiku to play in synchronization with the concrete sounds. The quartet consists of oboe, violin, guitar, and bass; but Bimstein allows the score to be transcribed for other instrumentation.

Bimstein is clearly serious about his politics. Indeed, he is serious enough to have served two terms as mayor of his home town, Springdale. This led Outside magazine to declare him “America’s only all-natural politician-composer.” He would reflect back on his political service in his 2017 TEDx Talk “How to Practice Politics with Music in Mind.”

Far less political is the most recent (2007) composition on the album, a three-movement suite entitled Cats in the Kitchen. Bimstein describes this piece as follows:
Cats in the Kitchen was originally scored for flute, oboe, meows, purrs, cracked eggs, sliced onions, buttered toast, sizzling skillets, spoons, knives, pepper grinder, toaster oven, pots, pans, draining dishwater, and pretty much everything else in the kitchen “sync.” The sound score also features feline duets and trios, cat food crunches, waterdrums, and my partner Charlotte Bell speaking to her beloved cat, Fiona McGee, who sadly passed on shortly after this piece was composed. The flute and oboe playfully dance and weave with the sounds and each other, sometimes in imitation or dialogue with the cats, and at other times cooking up their own fanciful filigree.
As may be guessed, there is no shortage of wit in this suite. The instrumentalists are oboist Michele Fiala and flutist Heidi Pintner; and the piece was commissioned for them by Western Kentucky University, through its Provost’s Initiatives for Excellence Fund and the Potter College of Arts and Letters. This is the first piece on the album, and it definitely draws the listener into Bimstein’s world in which awareness of ordinary sounds affords a magic unto itself. By providing this playful introduction, the album then prepares the listener for the other exercises in listening that unfold over the remaining two compositions.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Next CMSSF Concert to Offer Mozart and Brahms

The Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (CMSSF) has announced the program for its next San Francisco concert. Regular readers probably know by now that this is the name of the string quartet founded by violinists Natasha Makhijani and Jory Fankuchen, violist Clio Tilton, and cellist Samsun van Loon. The title of their new program will be Illuminating Influence. They will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 (Dissonance) quartet in C major.

Opening measures of K. 465 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This is the last of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn and the one that best constitutes a “response” to the “call” of some of Haydn’s more adventurous approaches to harmonic progression. As can be seen in the except of the opening measures above, only the cello establishes C major as the basic pitch, while each of the other instruments tries to pull the tonal center in another direction (with no agreement among them as to where that center should be). Nevertheless, things settle down in time for the Allegro portion of the movement to romp its way through C major.

Once again, the recital will feature a guest artist. Violist Marcel Gemperli will join the quartet in a performance of Johannes Brahms Opus 88 (first) string quintet in F major. After completing the piece, Brahms declared to Clara Schumann that it was “one of [his] finest works.” Thus, it may well be that Brahms was thinking of her while working on the score. This selection will complement the program CMSSF presented in January of 2017, when they played Brahms’ Opus 115 clarinet quintet in B minor with guest artist Steven Sánchez.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, and is expected to last about two hours. The venue will be Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church, which is located in the Mission at 455 Fair Oaks Street. Ticket prices at the door will be $25 with a $5 rate for those aged eighteen and under. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through an Eventbrite event page.

A New Recording of Jerry Hunt at KPFA

The second of the four new digital-only albums recently released by Other Minds Records in its Modern Hits series consists of a single track of almost half an hour in duration. The source was a recording of a live performance given by Jerry Hunt during a visit to the KPFA studio on November 6, 1980. Hunt presented an excerpt from a much larger project (which he would call a “system”) entitled Ground.

Born in Waco, Texas in 1943, Hunt became a pioneer in what would later be called “performance art.” He was one of the first performers to work with live electronic music, but he was as interested in physical sources of sound as in the expressiveness of artificial synthesis. Often the visual appearance of his electronic gear had as much to do with the performance as the role played by the gear in creating sound (and possibly light). By 1980 Ground began to emerge as an overall system for Hunt’s approaches to performance, based more on a framework for activity than a “score” or “program” designed to fill an interval of time that could then be called a “performance.”

During his visit to KPFA, Hunt clearly could not bring the visual element into his performance. He thus limited himself to working with a bank of tape machines and adding his own sounds through hand claps and slaps, sometimes with rattles or bells attached to his wrists. There was also extensive vocalization, all of which was based on a phonemic deconstruction of texts from George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss.

The booklet that accompanies this new recording includes a four-by-four grid of images that set the tone for the listening experience:

courtesy of Other Minds

Photographs of Hunt himself, many of which seem to capture moments of performance, alternate with diagrams that may be plans for an event, specifications for gear, or just suggestive images. If any of the elements of the grid relate to the KPFA performance, my guess is that the relation is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, in its own abstract way, the grid sets the tone for how Hunt approached all of his performances, making it a useful “visual supplement” to this audio-only presentation of Hunt’s creative efforts.

I first learned about Hunt during my graduate student days. One of his friends was a modern dancer, whose work I followed; and she told me that she thought I would be interested in his work. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet him or see him in performance. He clearly had a capacity for going boldly where no performer had gone before, a capacity that distinguished John Cage so powerfully during the first half of the twentieth century. By keeping himself in Texas for most of his life, Hunt did little to establish himself in “new music” venues on either of our country’s two coasts, preferring instead to continue with his experiments and see where they led him. He took his own life in 1993 a few days before his 50th birthday, once he learned that he was suffering from both emphysema and terminal lung cancer.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

SFS Affiliating with Global Climate Action Summit

The first round of subscription concerts to be presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) following the opening week events will be affiliated with the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit. This will be a gathering in San Francisco of business and civic leaders from around the world intended to showcase and encourage climate action and to inspire deeper commitments from national governments in support of the Paris Agreement. With one exception the program will present offerings that reflect on aspects of the environment and its relationship to human presence.

The most familiar of these will be the orchestrated version of the complete score that Aaron Copland composed for Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring.” The original score was instrumented for a thirteen-member chamber orchestra, respecting the limited resources at Graham’s disposal. It was first performed at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1944, after which Copland prepared a reduced suite scored for full orchestra, which he completed the following year. That 1945 suite will be the final selection on the SFS program.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting a performance of Inverno in-ver by the New World Symphony (courtesy of the New World Symphony)

In addition SFS will be giving its first performances of Inverno in-ver, a series of eleven musical poems depicting winter scenes by Italian modernist Niccolò Castiglioni. This will be a multimedia presentation with the music accompanied by video projections designed by Clyde Scott and lighting designed by Luke Kritzeck. This piece will be preceded by another video event, projection of images from the COAL + ICE Project, a documentary photography exhibition, which will be on display at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture from September 4 through September 23. The exhibition has been designed to narrate the consequences triggered by the continued use of fossil fuels, following the trajectory of climate change from the dirty coal mines deep within the Earth, to the vanishing glaciers of the Greater Himalaya. Musical accompaniment will be provided by vocalist Abigail Washburn singing songs reminiscent of Depression-era Appalachia.

The one remaining work on the program will be Maurice Ravel’s D major piano concerto written to be played only by the left hand. Ravel composed this piece on a commission by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War I. The soloist for the SFS performance will be Yuja Wang. This will be her first appearance in Davies Symphony Hall since her Great Performers Series recital scheduled for last May had to be cancelled due to illness.

This concert will be given four performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 13, Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 16. Instead of the usual Inside Music talk, there will be a pre-concert panel discussion moderated by Tom Corwin, director of the COAL + ICD Project at Fort Mason that will begin one hour before the performance. Washburn will participate in the discussion on Saturday and Sunday, and remaining participants will be subsequently announced. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes prior to the discussion.

Ticket prices range from $32 to $169. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The event page also has a embedded sound files of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “Appalachian Spring” and sound clips of previous SFS performances of the piece. Flash is required to play these sound files.

Phelim McDermott’s Americanization of Mozart

Here in San Francisco we can take a justified amount of pride in the production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung that is currently in the repertoire of the San Francisco Opera, last seen in the War Memorial Opera House about three months ago. This production was particularly notable for the way in which Director Francesca Zambello conceived a staging that was true to the narrative of the libretto while drawing upon distinctively American icons to situate that narrative in a contemporary perspective. This past season, on the other side of our continent, Phelim McDermott took a similar approach to staging a more classical offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (so do all women), for the Metropolitan Opera.

Dubbed the “Coney Island Così” by some, McDermott drew heavily on 1950s Brooklyn but incorporated a wide variety of other sources to create a feast of visual impressions that, for the most part, did not overwhelm the underlying narrative of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto. Indeed, doing justice to that libretto is no mean feat, given that the conclusion is ambiguous enough to be interpreted in different ways. The idea behind the title is that all women are capable of infidelity; and in the libretto the women in question are a pair of sisters, Fiordiligi (soprano Amanda Majeski) and Dorabella (Serena Malfi). They are betrothed to Guglielmo (bass Adam Plachetka) and Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss), who, in the opening trio, are boasting about their lovers’ fidelity to the cynical old philosopher Don Alfonso (bass Christopher Maltman).

Alfonso proposes a wager that he can demonstrate that both of these women can succumb to infidelity over the course of a day. The basic idea is that the young men will (ostensibly) set off on military service and then immediately return in disguise. In their new personalities each will woo the other’s lover. Alfonso enlists their maid Despina (soprano Kelli O’Hara) to help break down the sisters’ virtuous resolve. To make a long story short, both eventually succumb to their “new lovers” to the point that a wedding is planned, in the midst of which Ferrando and Guglielmo return from their military engagement.

This is where different directors have the liberty to decide how it all ends. Either coupling is consistent with the libretto text. All that matters is that all four of them are wiser, if a bit sadder as a result of the process. The most innovative approach was probably the one that Peter Sellars took in which mere sadness gives way to all four parties having nervous breakdowns. McDermott, on the other hand, seemed content to let things return to the “natural ordering” of the original pairing.

PBS aired the Live in HD broadcast of the performance that took place this past March 31. I recorded the broadcast on local television and finally had a chance to view it. I was impressed by the diversity of images but even more impressed with how very few (if any) got in the way of Da Ponte’s libretto. Occasionally, this involved tweaking the English translation in the titles but never in a way that distorted the source unduly. I can also confess to more than a little nostalgia over McDermott’s choices of icons, having spent several of my earliest years in Brooklyn, which included a few memorable visits to Coney Island.

Nevertheless, it is not the plot that makes K. 588 one of my favorite operas. This is virtually a “mother lode” of Mozart’s vocal music, not only for solo voices but for pretty much all combinations afforded by the six members of the cast. Ultimately, it is the expressive sensitivity of musical interpretation that wins the day in this opera while the rather “stock” approach to comedy works its machinations. I would assume that much of that expressiveness had to do with the excellent chemistry of all the vocalists with conductor David Robertson, working with an appropriately reduced ensemble and a harpsichord continuo player who knew a thing or two about improvisation. The result was an approach to the score that could not have cast Mozart in a better light with each vocalist keenly aware that (s)he was always contributing to a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts.

The one weakness came with the video production work. For the most part the cameras were always in the right place at the right time, but the same could not be said about the microphones. Mozart’s music is always about blending the resources just the right way, and there were too many annoying moments when the audio engineering team lost control of that blend. As might be guessed, the instrumentalists suffered more than the vocalists; and, as a result, those who know their Mozart would have been consistently annoyed by how his judicious use of wind sonorities tended to get lost behind the vocal work.

I only went to a few of the movie theater simulcasts of Met productions, and those were in the earliest days of those efforts. Indeed, the most memorable was the broadcast in March of 2008 of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; and the memorability had as much to do with the video direction by Barbara Willis Sweete as it did with the contributions made by all of the instrumentalists and vocalists. Sweete’s technique reminded me of Jordan Whitelaw’s pioneering telecasts of concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conceived in full appreciation that what you heard often depended on what you saw. Whitelaw used to invest considerable time and resources in preparing for each telecast, and my guess is that the Met quickly realized that it did not have the budget for a comparable investment. The impact of that change for the worse varies according to the opera being presented; and, where K. 588 is concerned, I am afraid that things turned out for the worse.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Swing Music Coming to Bird & Beckett

from the Bird & Beckett event page

Having written earlier this summer about the “late show” jazz concerts at Bird & Beckett Books and Records, I wanted to let readers know that this month will conclude with a gig for the early-to-bed-early-to-rise set. The program will focus on the classic swing music of the late Thirties; and it will be performed by a group that calls itself “Swings Left,” created and led by pianist Rob Reich. The book for this group includes familiar tunes popularized by the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw; and Reich usually adds some of his own originals to the mix. Swings Left is a quartet whose other members are Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Andrew Stephens on trumpet, and Ollie Dudek on bass.

This concert will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, August 31. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, which is a short walk from the Glen Park BART station. It can also be reached by the Muni J trolley, which runs down Church Street and whose schedule is not impacted by the closing of the Twin Peaks tunnel. Admission will be by donation, with a recommended amount of between $10 and $20. For students, musicians, and those with low income, a donation of $5 will be viewed as acceptable.

An Engaging Collection of David Conte’s Songs


This past June Arsis Audio released, Everyone Sang, a two-CD album surveying the songs of David Conte. The album title is also the title of one of six song collections that constitute almost the entirety of the release. The only single-song entry is “Lincoln,” which was commissioned by the city of Concord, Massachusetts to honor the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The text was prepared by John Stirling Walker, drawing heavily on quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy of Lincoln.

This particular song is representative of much that is encountered throughout the album. Conte exercises keen judgement in selecting texts that he will then set to music, and that judgement is complemented by the perceptive ways in which the music both communicates the essence of the text and reflects upon that essence. Even when he is drawing upon familiar liturgical sources, which he does in his three Requiem Songs, one gets the impression that he is less interested in the liturgy itself than in his own semantic perspective on how those texts may be interpreted.

In all fairness, I should probably observe that I was at the first performances of three of the collections on this album. The earliest goes back to October 9, 2010, back when I was building up steam in my writing for Examiner.com, when the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), performed the chamber ensemble version of Sexton Songs with soprano Marnie Breckenridge. The other two encounters took place after my move to this site, both again premiers at SFCM: Love Songs, presented on October 11, 2016 at the Alumni Artist Insights Series concert given by tenor Brian Thorsett (’04), joined by cellist and fellow alumnus Emil Miland (’75) and pianist Richard Masters, and Everyone Sang, presented this past April 2 at Conte’s Faculty Artist Series recital and sung by bass Matt Boehler accompanied by pianist Kevin Korth. (On the new album the pianist for Love Songs is John Churchwell.)

One of the things I quickly appreciated from these concert experiences was that Conte’s approach to text involved not only a keen sense of semantics but also one of phonemics. Whenever the text was in English, I realized that I did not have to bury my head in a text sheet. There are, of course, times when the eye wants to look at the text, often in order to acknowledge underlying relations of the present to both the past and the future; but Conte’s settings tend to be informed enough to consistently allow the immediate present to take care of itself, so to speak.

Then of course there are texts that are not in English. The other languages on this album are Latin and French. From my own selfish perspective, my orientation to these languages is strong enough that, even if I do not know exactly what the words are, I can still appreciate where Conte is taking them!

As might be guessed, there is considerable diversity over the course of the two CDs in this collection. Perhaps as a result of my concert experiences, I tend to prefer listening to the individual sets one at a time, since each establishes its own characteristic setting for expression. Fortunately, today’s technology enables this approach more effectively than had been afforded in the past. There is much to be gained from dwelling on each of Conte’s offerings independently of the others. This new release enables a considerable amount of dwelling, all to the advantage of the serious listener.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

One Found Sound Will Start Early This Season

One Found Sound at Heron Arts (from the One Found Sound home page)

This year One Found Sound (OFS) will launch its sixth season in September, taking a rightful place alongside many of the other performing arts groups whose respective seasons will get under way next month. The season has been organized around the overarching theme of storytelling, and each of the three concerts to be performed will constitute of “chapter” of the overall “story.” Also, rather than managing as a “moveable feast” across different venues in San Francisco, the entire season, including the end-of-season gala, will take place at a single venue that has served past OFS performances very well during past seasons, Heron Arts in SoMa. All of the concerts will be evening events, beginning at 8 p.m.; and, as in the past, socializing among performers and audience is part of the overall experience. Specific dates are as follows:

Saturday, September 29: The title of “Chapter 1” is Kinship. That theme will be acknowledged most explicitly by the performance of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” which translates as “brothers.” This is a set of variations on a six-measure theme for which no specific instrumentation was specified. The Wikipedia page for this composition has a generous list of instrumentations for “authorized versions,” many of which involve a solo instrument accompanied by strings and percussion. Most likely OFS will select one of these versions for its performance. “Fratres” will be preceded by the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro, whose libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais) involves the disclosure of unanticipated kinship relations. The remainder of the program will be devoted to the ten short pieces that Antonín Dvořák collected under the title Legends (Opus 59). These were originally composed for four hands at one piano keyboard and subsequently arranged for a reduced orchestra. Explicit stories are not associated with any of these pieces, but the expressiveness of the music seems explore different approaches to expressive storytelling.

Friday, December 7: The title of “Chapter 2: is Divergence, which may be interpreted as departure from usual expectations. The opening selection will be “Teen Murti” by American pianist and composer Reena Esmail. Following a “mainstream” education in music that led to teaching in the Precollege division of the Manhattan School of Music, Esmail has sought out ways to express her Indian roots through “interdisciplinary” approaches to composition. “Teen Murti” is named after the New Dehli residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. This piece will be followed by a decidedly non-standard concerto composed by Frank Martin for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion, and string orchestra. The program will conclude with Mozart’s K. 183 symphony in G minor, often called the “little” G minor symphony when compared with K. 550. With its driving use of syncopation and wild melodic leaps, this symphony is a bold departure from conventions at the middle of the eighteenth century.

Friday, February 8: The title of “Chapter 3” is Recollection. Each of the three works on the program will present its own characteristic way of reflecting on a distant past. The opening selection will be the orchestral version of Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (pavane for a dead infanta), originally written for solo piano. The identification of the pavane genre reflects back on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while the “subject choice” of an infanta suggests the setting of the Spanish court of that time. Ravel’s orchestral version was composed in 1910, roughly in the same time frame as the following work on the program, Béla Bartók’s Opus 4, his second orchestral suite, composed between 1905 and 1907 (and subsequently revised in 1943). This was a time when Bartók had been influenced by childhood experiences of folk songs sung to him my his nanny, Lidi Dósa (but before he began more scholarly ventures into ethnomusicology with his colleague Zoltán Kodály). The program will then conclude with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 25 reflection on eighteenth-century traditions, his first symphony known as the “Classical.”

Friday, April 6: The annual Gala will wrap up the season with its own take on storytelling. Details have not yet been announced. However, the event will begin at 6:30 p.m.; and the concert will include the world premiere of a work commissioned from composer Sahba Aminikia. Details are expected to be announced this coming fall.

Heron Arts is located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. General admission tickets are being sold for $25. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through Eventbrite. Tickets are being sold only for individual concerts, and the hyperlinks on the above dates will lead to the appropriate event pages for ticket purchases.

Djll’s Electronic Improvisations on Other Minds

courtesy of Other Minds

Over the last four weeks Other Minds Records has released four new digital-only recordings in its Modern Hits series. (Perceptive readers will note that “modern hits” is an anagram of “other minds.”) The series as a whole is devoted to documenting archival works by the unsung pioneers of electronic music from the Bay Area, and each release focuses on a single composer. I first encountered this series in February of 2016, when I wrote an Examiner.com article about the album surveying the work of Ramón Sender, co-founder, along with Morton Subotnick, of the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

The composer featured on the first album in this latest round of releases is Tom Djll. The title of the album is Serge Works, and it is available for digital download from Amazon.com. The title refers to the fact that Djll’s work with improvised electronic music has been based heavily on his use of the analog modular synthesizer system (known as the Serge Modular Synthesizer) developed by Serge Tcherepnin, Rich Gold, and Randy Cohen when they were all at the California Institute of the Arts in 1972. The album consists of seven tracks, covering compositions and improvisations recorded between 1983 and 1988 but not ordered chronologically.

Instead the tracks are ordered according to the resources engaged in each of the works. The central (fourth) track, “FAT,” is the only “solo synthesizer” piece. Lasting almost fourteen minutes, it is also the longest; and it is actually an excerpt from the entire piece, which lasts over an hour. According to Djll’s description in the liner notes, the piece involves multiple voices derived from patching the Serge modules with minimal intervention by Djll as the “performer.” For the most part it emerges as an elaborate unfolding of a polyphony of sonorities, which Djll describes as an ecosystem of contributing voices. Over the course of the track’s fourteen minutes, one can get a sense of evolutionary forces at work; but my guess is that such a sense is only an approximation of the full scope that plays out over the work’s entire duration. Nevertheless, because this is the only solo composition, it provides the best opportunity to get to know the lexicon of Serge sonorities that one encounters in the other pieces on the album.

Djll’s other instrument is the trumpet, and the first three tracks present studio recordings of duo compositions for trumpet and synthesizer. According to my records, the last time I heard Djll playing both trumpet and synthesizer was when, as a member of Fushigi Kenkyūkai, he was part of a sextet providing live accompaniment for a screening of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée. (On that occasion he was playing his “surrealist prepared trumpet.”) The booklet descriptions for the album tracks provide a useful account of how the sounds from the trumpet interact with the control parameters of the Serge modules, suggesting that the trumpet itself contributes both its own sonorities and the modulation of the electronic sonorities. This is a far cry from doing little more than playing against sounds captured by a sampler, and I suspect that one can spend many pleasant hours contemplating what sort of underlying logic enables the sonorities that the mind actually experiences.

The final track on the album is also a duo composition. It is called simply “Seattle 1988,” because it is basically a document of a live performance that Djll gave at the Third Seattle Festival of Improvised Music. The remaining two tracks involve Djll’s collaborations with percussionist Ross Rabin. The first of these, “Pair Time,” was recorded in Djll’s studio in Santa Cruz, which he describes as “a giant arsenal of instruments.” Over the course of the piece’s six minutes, both performers navigate their way through all of these instruments, making Djll’s trumpet work far more modest. “Francine,” on the other hand, is a more conventional duo with Djll on both trumpet and synthesizer and Rabin adding a zither to his percussion resources.

During the Seventies, there was a certain amount of aesthetic tension between those who used synthesizers to create tape music, taking full advantage of the diversity of studio processing techniques, and those who advocated “live electronic music.” The leading pioneers of the latter “school” was John Cage, who promoted his position primarily by providing musical accompaniment for dances by Merce Cunningham that involved live interaction with electronic gear, often based on elaborately designed circuitry by Cage colleagues such as David Tudor and Gordon Mumma. Since Cage and company tended to work with basic nuts-and-bolts gear, Djll stands today as an early pioneer of the movement to bring a modular synthesizer into the fold. Serge Works provides an informative survey of his pioneering achievements, making for highly engaging listening experiences that deserve multiple encounters.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Bartlett Sher: from Rossini to Donizetti

Bartlett Sher at an event organized by the International Peace Institute (photograph provided by the International Peace Institute, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

To the best of my knowledge, my “first contact” with stage director Bartlett Sher was the Public Television broadcast of his 2006 staging of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at the Metropolitan (Met) Opera. To be fair, by now I have lost count of the number of stagings of this opera I have experienced, almost all of them the in a performance setting rather than from a broadcast; and I am somewhat surprised to admit that I have yet to encounter one that left me totally disappointed. This provides a somewhat challenging context for my having just viewed a recording of the PBS broadcast of Sher’s most recent project at the Met, Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love), recorded during a performance this past February 10.

There is an old joke in the theater profession that “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” This tends to be just as true of opera as it is of drama, and I realize how much satisfaction can be drawn from my having experienced successful interpretations of comic scenarios in operas from the eighteenth century to the present. However, when we consider settings of Italian librettos, it is hard to avoid the sense that, as with other genres of music, the comic operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set a very high bar for subsequent efforts to confront.

Where Rossini is concerned, it is hard to ignore that bar when both composers undertook to make operas based on the plays of the same French author, Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, with its Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, continues to establish a height to which even contemporary opera efforts aspire. The text is an intricate web of amorous intrigues within barely conceived political overtones, whose intricacy is matched, if not surpassed, by Mozart’s stunningly imaginative command of polyphony, meaning that the “web of the plot” is consistently reinforced by the “web of the music.”

The first performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville took place about 30 years after the premiere of K. 492. However, while K. 492 enjoyed considerable and sustained attention in Vienna, even during the composer’s lifetime, Rossini’s opening night was a disaster. Fortunately, the opera overcame the misfortunes of opening night and quickly rose in popularity. Nevertheless, there was a change in approach that could not go unnoticed.

Rossini’s librettist Cesare Sterbini was less interested in “webs of intrigues” and more interested in developing a cast of vivid personalities, each of which unfolded with the development of the overall plot. As a result the music tended to focus more on accompanied melody, rather than polyphony; and development was more a matter of gradually building up the level of dynamics, instead of superimposing the voices of conflicting characters, each with its own thematic signatures. Fortunately, Rossini was more than simply capable of realizing Sterbini’s texts through music, which is one reason why so many of the tunes from Barber are so memorable and immediately recognizable.

From a point of view of craft, on the other hand, it was clear that, while Rossini may have admired and respected Mozart, Barber never managed to capture the elegant (but still accessible) complexity of K. 492. On the other hand the characters of Barber are so vividly defined that stage directors have been consistently inventive in coming up with new ways to present them to their respective contemporary audiences. However, when it comes to L’elisir, both music and text (by Felice Romani) have been reduced to the simplest of terms. Romani’s text presents stock characters in stock situations; and Donizetti provides “musical backup” for each of those situations. There is a familiarity about everything; and it is a familiarity that only barely endures through the entire duration of the opera, even in the hands of a truly inventive stage director.

This brings us to how Sher fits into the picture. His staging of Barber pulls a prodigious number of rabbits out of any number of hats, even coming up with a particularly clever way to break through the fourth wall. The rabbits just aren’t there in the new L’elisir. This may be because neither the music nor the text provides very much by way of a “breeding ground;” or it may be because Sher chose not to go against the stock infrastructure.

One factor may have been the attention directed toward South African soprano Pretty Yende, who was making her role debut as Adina. This would hardly have been the first time that a performer took priority over both the music and the underlying narrative. However, to be fair, when all the characters are based on familiar stock, attention turns to how the performers breathe life into those characters. In the better situations, that life emerges through the successful collaboration of performer and stage director; but sometimes the performer prevails with ideas of her/his own.

Another possibility is that, while there is enough to mine from Barber that will sustain watching a video document more than once, an opera like L’elisir thrives best in the “immediate present.” (To lay my own cards on the table, this is the first time I have seen this opera on video, rather than in performance.) Nevertheless, having enjoyed Sher’s approach to Rossini so much with video as my only opportunity for experience, I have to confess that my hopes for L’elisir were high; and, perhaps, I have just succumbed to an unrealistic expectation.

The SFP 2018–2019 Shenson Chamber Series

[For those expecting a Bleeding Edge column today, all of the San Francisco events listed in the BayImproviser Calendar for this week have already been accounted for in the monthly summaries of the relevant organizations, Adobe Books, Center for New Music, Outsound Presents, Old First Concerts, and the Red Poppy Art House; as a result, I felt that time would be better spent with another article about what to expect during the coming season.]

As was the case last season, the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Shenson Chamber Series for the 2018–2019 season will focus on string quartets. For that matter, it will again be the case that one of those ensembles will appear with a “guest artist.” Two of the programs will focus on new or recent compositions, but each will include at least one work on the program that reflects on the past. All of the quartet groups have performed previously for SFP, although one of them did so in a non-standard capacity.

As usual, all of the concerts will take place in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Sunday, October 7, 7 p.m.: The Dover Quartet, consisting of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw, made its SFP debut at the end of October of 2016. For their return visit they have prepared a program entitled Made in America, which will present works by composers born in Europe, who were influenced by life in the United States. The most familiar of those composers is Antonín Dvořák; and, at their SFP debut recital, the Dover played the most familiar of his string quartets, Opus 96 in F major, generally known as the “American” quartet. For their return visit they will play his Opus 105 quartet in A-flat major. The program will begin with Benjamin Britten’s Opus 25 (first) string quartet in D major, composed in New York in 1941. Britten had left England in 1939, due to the difficult position of pacifists during the turbulent times leading up to the Second World War. The remaining work on the program does not quite live up to the overall title. Béla Bartók emigrated to the United States in October of 1940; but his third string quartet, which Dover has prepared for their program, was composed in 1927 and was definitely “made in Hungary!”

Friday, November 16, 7:30 p.m.: The Brooklyn Rider quartet of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas made its debut at the end of last November; but their performance was not part of the Shenson Chamber Series. Instead, they provided “live” music for Some of a Thousand Words, which was the first offering is last season’s Dance Series. For their first SFP chamber music recital, they have prepared a program entitled Healing Modes. They will set the tone for the program with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet in A minor, whose extended middle movement was given the title “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode). The remainder of the program has been conceived as a series of “responses” to the “call” of Opus 132 by contemporary composers. Two of those composers, Caroline Shaw and Du Yun, are Pulitzer Prize winners. The other contributing composers are Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Matana Roberts.

Thursday, February 14, 7:30 p.m.: Pianist Joyce Yang made her SFP debut in November of 2015 performing with the members of the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. As was the case in 2015, the entire program will consist of chamber music for piano and strings. The featured work will be the West Coast premiere of a piano quintet by Samuel Carl Adams. The first part of the program will be devoted to the two piano quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 478 in G minor and K. 493 in E-flat major.

Monday, April 1, 7:30 p.m.: According to my records, this will be the third appearance of the Elias String Quartet (violinists Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violist Martin Saving, and cellist Marie Bitlloch) under SFP auspices, the last having been in March of 2015. Based in London, the ensemble will devote the first half of its program to two British composers with quartets by Sally Beamish and Britten (his second, Opus 36 in C major). The second half of the program will present the first (in A minor) of the three quartets that Robert Schumann published as his Opus 41. This performance will be followed by a Sponsor Reception for donors that have made a contribution of at least $500. Those interested in becoming donors may do so online through a special Web page on the SFP Web site.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $260 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $200 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $160 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets are also on sale for $70, $55, and $45, accordingly. Each concert has its own City Box Office event page, and these may be accessed through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

David McVicar at the Metropolitan Opera

An early twentieth-century (historically sensitive?) Metropolitan Opera performance of Tosca (photograph by Boyer, from Wikipedia, public domain)

For several months I have set up my xfinity box to record all new PBS broadcasts of performances by the Metropolitan Opera. Since the San Francisco Chronicle tends not to be the best source for either the time or the channel of these broadcasts, I decided that I would be better off with Comcast technology. Nevertheless, I have to confess that these recordings have been building up at a rate faster than I can work them into my viewing schedule.

Nevertheless, those who know about my current condition can appreciate that I am not in shape to attend concerts these days; so catching up on accumulated recordings seems like a good way to keep my head (and writing skills) in the game. As a result, over the course of the last few weeks, I have watched two of these recordings; and, curiously, both of them are productions created by Stage Director David McVicar, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, which opened the Met’s 2017–18 season, and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which was given its first performance this past New Year’s Eve. McVicar is no stranger to the San Francisco Opera (SFO); and his productions here tend to resonate with impressions of strong opinions strongly held.

The strength of those opinions were displayed unabashedly at the first SFO Insight Panel of the 2016–17, when McVicar was invited to discuss his approach to Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. One of the first questions he fielded was whether his approach to this opera about the French Revolution would depart from fidelity to the period, as had been the case when he staged Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens with pyrotechnics that seemed to owe more to the Marvel Cinematic Universe than to the Homeric bards. This provoked a series of rants over the course of the evening, beginning with the disdainful observation that any opera based on history must be true to the historical setting and that Les Troyens was not such an opera, because it was based on myth.

Whether or not McVicar’s precept is a valid one (and I, for one, do not accept it), it is interesting to consider the extent to which both Norma and Tosca can count as “historical.” They are certainly not mythical, since neither involves supernatural intervention and the only role taken by any deity involves providing grounds for a sacred rite. On the other hand each opera raises its own questions about how a musical drama can take a valid stand with respect to a historical context.

In the case of Norma that context is the Roman invasion of Britain; and the obvious question is “Whose history?” We know at least some of the names of historians that chronicled the age of the Roman Empire, but we also know enough to assume that none of them were writing with any disciplined sense of historiography in mind. Under the Roman Empire a historian had two major priorities: fiscal reward and staying alive. Having their texts is useful; but unraveling those texts to establish “the story behind the story” is a task that has occupied only the most recent generations of historians.

Nevertheless, “history,” whatever it may be, really does not signify in Norma. There is a community of Druids and a battalion of Romans tasked with subduing them. For narrative purposes they could just as easily be Montagues and Capulets, particularly when we learn that the title character, the high-priestess of the Druids, has had twin sons by the Roman proconsul Pollione. Furthermore, to shift the context from Romeo and Juliet to Medea, while Norma has been caring for the children in secret, Pollione has shifted his attention to falling in love with another priestess, Adalgisa. In other words whether or not the opera is “historical” signifies less than its reliance of earlier (and familiar) dramatic narratives.

Ultimately, the weak underbelly of Norma has nothing to do with history and everything to do with the weaknesses of the text provided by Bellini’s librettist Felice Romani. To be blunt, over the course of this two-act opera, Romani’s narrative is beginning to run out of steam by the time of the second scene of the second act; and McVicar appeared to be at a loss when it came to compensating for Romani’s shortcomings. If anything, he seemed inclined to prolong every episode leading up to the climax, when Pollione joins Norma in being burned alive on a pyre. This is when McVicar succumbs to the urge to revive his pyrotechnical tricks from Les Troyens, lighting up the entire stage with images of fire as if Norma and Pollione had ascended to Brünnhilde’s Rock to be consumed by the flames that Wotan ordered Loge to light.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Norma is a bel canto opera. As I wrote on my Examiner.com site when Norma was was given its most recent SFO performances, presentation is all about “beautiful vocal sonorities (bel canto), usually to the exclusion of attaching very much significance to matters of logic, structure, and rhetoric that arise in either the music or the narrative of the libretto.” Thus, what matters most is that McVicar did not get in the way of the display of those “beautiful vocal sonorities.”

Indeed, one of the sources of that beauty was the same one I had enjoyed at SFO, the title role sung by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, perfectly matched with mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa. Both vocalists impressed not only through a thorough command of the text but also a stunning capacity to work a wide dynamic range. This was bel canto in which stillness on the threshold of silence carried just as much impact as a bold fortissimo, if not more so. Furthermore, if their talents as soloists were stunning, then their approach to the rich amount of duo work that Bellini had written was downright transcendent.

To be fair, however, this was a performance that was not entirely about the beautiful vocal work. There was more to the overall show, even if it was not due to McVicar. The other hero of this production was Carlo Rizzi, who was as sensitive to every instrument in the orchestra pit as he was to how the libretto was being sung on stage. Rizzi was able to call attention to subtle mixtures of instrumental coloration in the overture that tend to pass unnoticed while everyone is waiting for the curtain to rise; and those rich sonorities served the singers on the stage as well as they served the instrumentalists in the pit. Rizzi almost (but not quite) made the case that Norma might do better in a concert setting!

Where McVicar may have been closer to his own mark was in his approach to Tosca. The libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is firmly routed in Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and the impact of that invasion on governance in Rome. McVicar seems to have grasped the role of this context in establishing the character of Baron Scarpia, and the execution of that role by baritone Željko Lučić was definitely the high point of the production. Unfortunately, the remaining characterizations ran the gamut from woefully overwrought (both soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi) to annoyingly fussy (baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the sacristan). Even when “history matters,” a compelling opera production demands attention paid to more fundamental qualities of stagecraft.

2018 Feast of the Assumption at Church of the Advent

Musicians performing in front of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin on the high altar of the Frari church in Venice (photograph by Ornella Carnio Oficina Musicum, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The annual celebration of the Feast of the Assumption at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King with music by resident choir Schola Adventus will take place this coming Wednesday. This feast commemorates the end the the earthly life of the Virgin Mary and the taking (assumptio in Latin) of her body into Heaven. The service will consist of a Procession and High Mass. The Celebrant will be Father Paul Allick, and the Preacher will be Father Rod Thompson.

The music for the service has been selected by Director of Music Paul Ellison. Schola Adventus is currently on vacation, but they will return for this particularly solemn occasion. The Ordinary of the Mass will involve the singing of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s six voice setting Missa Assumpta est Maria. The service will also include music by Michel Corrette, Franz Liszt, Robert Parsons, John Tavener, and Healey Willan. Specifics have not yet been provided, but at past Assumption services Ellison’s selection of the postlude from the organ has been Corrette’s setting of the Magnificat canticle in the third and fourth tones. Similarly, music for past such services has included Parsons’ setting of the “Ave Maria” and John Taverner’s “Hymn for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.”

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. This is an inclusive parish of the Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The service will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 15. A festive reception will follow the service in Lathrop Hall. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.