Monday, June 18, 2018

A Historical Approach to Fauré’s Songs

courtesy of Naxos of America

Regular readers probably know by now that I have been following pianist Malcolm Martineau’s project with Signum Classics to record the complete songs of Gabriel Fauré. By my count the project is 75% complete, having already issued three single-CD volumes. However, exactly a month ago today the Canadian ATMA Classique “scooped” Martineau with a four-CD collection of all the songs in a single package.

To be fair, Martineau probably has the upper hand when it comes to “star power.” His name is likely to be familiar to anyone who makes it a point to attend vocal recitals; and such enthusiasts are like to recognize (and probably enjoy) most, if not all, of the many vocalists that Martineau recruited for his project. The names associated with the ATMA Classique recording, on the other hand, will probably be less familiar. In this case the project was made possible by the Canadian Festival Classica and its General and Artistic Director Marc Boucher. There is again only one pianist, Olivier Godin; but also there is only one singer for each vocal range, Hélène Guilmette (soprano), Julie Boulianne (mezzo), Antonio Figueroa (tenor), and Boucher himself (baritone).

Nevertheless, this new release is likely to have greater historical impact than Martineau’s project. Most important is that this the first recording to account for each of the songs in terms of the keys and voice types designated by the composer for their first performances. Furthermore, to provide a better sense of what Fauré had in mind, Godin is playing an 1859 Érard instrument with a tuning pitch of 435 Hz, rather than today’s standard 440 Hz. To add yet another jewel to this heavenly crown, it should be noted that Fauré himself played an Érard piano. Godin’s piano was made available through the Arte Musica Foundation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Many readers probably know by now that I am a sucker for historically-informed performances. So it did not take much to bring my attention to this package. However, I should also add that this collection has a “convenience factor” that has been missing from the Signum Classics releases. On the ATMA Classique CDs, all the songs appear in order of their respective opus numbers, while I have never managed to catch on the logic behind Martineau’s ordering, other than to speculate that it has primarily to do with the vocalists he recruited. To be fair, that ordering issue is not really a big deal for me, since I have indexed everything in the Classical Music catalog tool on my iTunes! Nevertheless, I would suggest that Boucher’s project allows one to listen to any individual song with a better sense of the context in which it was written.

The Bleeding Edge: 6/18/2018

This is shaping up to be another busy week. Five of the events have already been announced, two at the Center for New Music (on Wednesday and Sunday), two at the Red Poppy Art House (on Thursday and Sunday), and the second SIMM Series concert of the month on Sunday. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, June 20, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Adventurous programming continues with another four-set program. Two of the sets will be taken by soloists, cellist Angela Roberts performing her Cruel Work project and Randy Lee Sutherland’s “Looose” woodwind work. There will also be a duo set taken by Bill Orcutt and Jacob Felix Heule. The largest group will be the Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble, which describes itself as an “elastic coterie of aging weirdos.”

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission on a sliding scale will begin at $5. However, this will be a NOTAFLOF (no one turned away for lack of funds) event.

Thursday, June 21, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s LSG Creative Music Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will amount to a “progress report” on Braids an improvised project conceived by Devin Smith and Robert Woods-LaDue. The second set will be led by Portland-based Ian Hawk, who works with drone and repetitive rock music. Failings began as a solo project but has since become a collaborative effort. Hawk will be joined by Agnes Szelag, Aaron Oppenheim, and Scott Siler. 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.

Friday, June 22, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: This past November this site announced word of the new Curium piano trio, whose members are violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Natalie Raney, and pianist Rachel Kim. The trio is named after Marie Curie, whom they have adopted as a symbol of the innovations of female minds; and they have developed their repertoire around the music of female composers. Two of those composers will be featured on the program they have prepared for Old First Concerts.

One is Kaija Saariaho, whose “Light and Matter” provides an interpretation in sonorities of the changing lights and colors that the composer could see in Morningstar Park from the window of her New York apartment. The other is the piano trio “Tunes from My Home” by Chen Yi, which is organized around not only Cantonese tunes but also the characteristic sonorities of Cantonese instruments. The second half of the program will be devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, written during the darkest times of the Second World War.

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

Friday, June 22, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: This will be another two-hour “late show” concert. This time the performers will be a trio called The Pipes, whose members are Darren Johnson on trumpet and Cory Wright and Stephen Lugerner, both on bass clarinet. This clearly will not be your usual jazz trio.

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. However, this will probably not be an issue for this gig, since work on the tunnel is not scheduled to begin until June 25.) There will be a cover charge of $15 at the door for admission with a student rate of $5.

Wagner’s Cycle Concludes … and Recycles

Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera concluded its first cycle through Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) with the performance of the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). Götterdämmerung is practically an epic unto itself; and, indeed, its account of the death of Siegfried was the core idea from which the entire Ring cycle would emerge. Including intermissions, the running time exceeded five hours; and the first intermission did not take place until the first two hours of the opera had elapsed. If all this amounted to a rough ride, then the journey emerged as thoroughly engaging and perceptively inspired.

If Director Francesca Zambello’s setting for Siegfried presented an uncompromising view of the natural order of the planet being eroded by the technologies of industrialization, then those erosions come to a head in Götterdämmerung, in which, in that memorable phrase of W. B. Yeats, “things fall apart.” Indeed, collapse is already imminent in the first scene of the opening prologue. In Wagner’s libretto the three Norns are weaving the rope of fate; and, at the end of the scene, the rope begins to unravel. For Zambello’s “American” interpretation, Set Designer Michael Yeargan established this scene in a server farm, the technological hub of the “cloud” that now hosts all the activities of the digital world. The Norns have become the technical support team; and the surtitles even substituted the noun “cable” for “rope.” Instead of an unraveling, the entire complex of servers experiences a catastrophic system meltdown.

The server farm of the three Norns (Sarah Cambidge, Ronnita Miller, and Jamie Barton) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

Zambello also made some interesting casting choices for the Norns themselves. The first was sung by mezzo Ronnita Miller, previously seen as Erda, the Earth Mother, who warns Wotan of the collapse of his grand visions. Miller was joined by Jamie Barton, who, in the role of Fricka, provided another cautionary voice that Wotan failed to heed. The third of the Norns was sung by Adler Fellow Sarah Cambidge, last seen as Ortlinde, one of the nine Valkyries, the children of the union of Erda and Wotan.

After we leave the server farm, we are confronted with no end of images of the failure of the earth to hold itself together in the face of massive industrial abuse. If the gods of Valhalla amounted to an allegorical portrait of the Trump family, then the Gibichung clan in Götterdämmerung quickly registers itself as an allegory of the Koch family. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Koch Industries has a hand in just about every abuse of the natural world, but it would not be that all far from the mark. Yeargan translated this “family legacy” into a set design of a massive factory with more smokestacks than can be counted, all belching pollutants with full force.

The Gibichungs, of course, live a life of wealth and comfort and probably even enjoy that grotesque view of their factories. Yet there was something in the modernist architecture of their living room that suggested that we were in the world of Noël Coward’s Design for Living on a very bad acid trip. The Gibichungs are, of course, the instrument of Siegfried’s undoing, particularly Hagen (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), who is only a half-brother, since his father is Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann), still obsessed with reclaiming the ring that Wotan stole, even if he is now just a spirit in Hagen’s dreams.

The Götterdämmerung narrative also sees the return to the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde (soprano Stacey Tappan), Wellgrunde (mezzo Lauren McNeese), and Flosshilde (mezzo Renée Tatum), also trying to recover the ring, since they had been responsible for guarding its golden source. Yeargan’s design for the Rhine itself was clearly inspired by the Great Pacific garbage patch, with more discarded plastic than the eye can see. The Rhinemaidens themselves are covered in a black oil slick and have been reduced to collecting plastic refuse in plastic bags.

Within this panorama of the earth’s decay, we experience the decay and collapse of those figures we would otherwise take to be “heroic,” Siegfried himself (tenor Daniel Brenna) and the now mortal Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin), whom he rescued from the eternal sleep cast upon her by Wotan. Note, by the way, that Wotan never appears in Götterdämmerung. We only learn about him through the Valkyrie Waltraute (Barton, again), who explains to Brünnhilde that Valhalla is experiencing the same rot as the earth.

Ultimately, the decay is so extensive that everything (literally) goes up in smoke. After Siegfried has been killed by Hagen (abetted by Brünnhilde), Brünnhilde builds a massive funeral pyre for him and then joins his body on it. The fires of the pyre reach all the way to Valhalla, but they also cleanse the entire planet. Even the Rhine is cleansed, and the Rhinemaidens reclaim their gold. Life begins again with Zambello’s final gesture of a child planting a very modest sprig (Baby Groot?). The cycle of the four operas really is a cycle, and Zambello chose to leave her audience hoping that things will get better the next time.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Red Poppy Art House: July, 2018

A quick scan on the Upcoming Events Web page of the Web site for the Red Poppy Art House suggests that most, if not all, of the gigs for next month are now in place. As usual, if any updates are necessary, I shall use my Facebook shadow site to provide notification of any increments after they have been added. To review the basics, the Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Unless stated otherwise, tickets will be available 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 often the case 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 currently planned events:

Friday, July 6, 7:30 p.m.: Those who read this morning’s account of last night’s Poppy event led by flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz know that one of her accompanying musicians was clarinetist and vocalist Gregory Masaki Jenkins, whose primary domain is the Balkan repertoire. For this concert Jones will return to the Poppy as a member of the trio IpeiroKritika, which specializes in tunes and songs from two particular regions in Greece, Epirus and Crete. All three members of the trio contribute to vocal selections, and the other two instrumentalists are Aya Safiya on violin and Tano Brock on the indigenous version of the lute. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 7, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening celebrating the boisterous revelry of a New Orleans Second Line. The “main event” will be a visit from Sacramento by the Element Brass Band, which will be celebrating the release of its brand new album, Cali Got a Brass Band. The opening set will be the local group Noelle Glory & The Guarantees, serving up soul, funk, and reggae. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, July 8, 7 p.m.: The next geographical region to be covered will be the Middle East. The performers will be the members of the Bamdad Ensemble, whose name comes from the noun bâmdâd, which means “dawn.” The group consists of two vocalists, Azadeh Farpoor and Siavash Rezvan Behbahani, and three instrumentalists specializing in Iranian traditional instruments. Golnaz Khazei plays percussion, Farzin Dehghani plays the bowed kamancheh, and Sirvan Manhoobi doubles on two members of the lute family, oud and shurangiz. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Friday, July 13, 8 p.m.: Pianist and composer Alon Nechushtan will lead a trio in a program of contemporary jazz. The other members of his trio are Pablo Menares on bass and Felix Lecaros on drums. They will be joined by the duo of drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Charlie Hunter. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a cross-cultural program that brings Venezuelan cuatro virtuoso Jorge Glem together with American composer Sam Reider. Reider will double on accordion and piano. Percussion will be provided by local multi-instrumentalist Jackeline Rago. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, July 15, 7 p.m.: Two vocalists will divide the evening. Danielle Wertz will lead with a program she calls Old, New, Borrowed & Blue, which weaves together elements of both jazz and folk. She sings with rhythm provided by Lu Salcedo on guitar and Owen Clapp on bass. She will be followed by Brie Capone, who accompanies herself on the acoustic guitar. She will promote her latest EP of original songs, If I Let You In. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.: Irish violinist and composer Colm Ó Riain will return to the Poppy with a program entitled Inter-Celtic Jazz. He will be joined by master Breton violinist Thomas Moisson, and vocals will be provided by regular collaborator Kate Brubeck. Rhythm will be provided by Geoff van Lienden on guitar, Joe Kyle, Jr on bass, and Wade Peterson on percussion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, July 21, 7 p.m.: The next Middle Eastern program will be led by vocalist Nader DeAik. Vocals will also be performed by a special guest artist, mezzo Crystal Philippi. The instrumentalists will be Dan Nervo (guitar), Jai Dhar (drums), Rony Dib (goblet drum), and Ash (bass). The other special guest artist of the evening will be belly dancer Nicole Maria Hoffschneider. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Sunday, July 22, 2 p.m.: This will be the next installment of the free Monthly Community Rumba, with music provided by Rumberos de Radio Habana. While this is a free event, donations are warmly accepted. All donated money goes to the performing musicians, and a recommended amount is between $5 and $10.

Thursday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.: Following up on her performance with the California Choro Club this past May, flutist Rebecca Kleinmann will return to the Poppy as leader. She will present an evening of Brazilian and Latin jazz with a rhythm section consisting of Vitor Gonçalves on both piano and accordion and Julien Cantelm on drums. She will also offer the world premiere of a selection of arrangements for flute choir and rhythm. She will be joined by flutists Chloe Scott, Daniel Riera, Debbie Gold, and Gaea Schell. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.: Vocalists Joyce Todd McBride and Stacy Starkweather have compiled a program entitled A 21st Century Songbook. They are both instrumentalists with McBride on piano and Starkweather on bass. They will be joined by Jeff Pera on drums. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 28, 7:30 p.m.: One of the Bay Area’s most interesting (not to mention skilled) jazz pianists is Adam Shulman. He will continue to keep things interesting with a program entitled Forgotten Gems from the Bebop Era. He will team up with Patrick Wolff playing both tenor and alto saxophones, instruments associated with several of the major leaders of the bebop movement. James Gallagher will be the drummer, and the bass player has not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Flamenco on the Threshold of Jazz

Flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz (from her Red Poppy event page)

Last night I headed down to the Red Poppy Art House for my break between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung during this week’s San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). The show for the evening featured flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz in a program entitled Collaborations in Flamenco. The program was given two performances, and I was there for the first of them.

This was definitely not a typical flamenco evening where dancers performed as part of a group of guitarists and singers. Cruz opened the program with a solo performance, an approach to flamenco that I had never previously encountered. While the rhetoric of her facial expressions and upper body language were familiar, the absence of any other sounds led me to concentrate on her footwork and her capacity to summon up elaborate rhythms that could stand securely as music unto itself. Indeed, listening to the sonic language of her feet, so to speak, took me back some 30 years when I would go into Manhattan to listen to Max Roach fill an entire evening with solo drum work.

Once Cruz had firmly established the voice of her own feet, she began to work with different combinations of four musicians who had joined her for the evening. These were percussionist Marco Peris, Bob Sanders on guitar and sometimes percussion, Gregory Masako Jenkins on clarinet and vocal work, and Alex Conde on piano and one percussion gig. Peris was the only one with a conventional drum. The other musicians played a touch-sensitive electronic device in the form of a cube also serving as a stool.

Conde’s music was the only offering that came closest to Hispanic idioms. Both Jenkins and Peris worked from different Balkan backgrounds, while Sanders’ technique tended to reflect primarily on jazz techniques from the middle of the last century. What was most important, however, was that every combination of musicians providing backup for Cruz had its own characteristic sense of spontaneity; so that each of the selections (which Cruz called vignettes) allowed for its own approaches to improvisation. The program then concluded with the entire group improvising off the tops of their respective heads with Cruz adding her own rhythms and dance style to the fabric of the emerging polyphony.

In that kind of a setting, it was easy to appreciate that Cruz’ skills as a musician were just as impressive as the personal stamp she put on her flamenco dancing.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

2018 Merola Opera Program Concerts in SF

The schedule for the 2018 Summer Festival of the Merola Opera Program is now in place. The offerings will follow the usual format: the Schwabacher Summer Concert showcase of the “Merolini” in this summer’s training program, two full-length operas, and a Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House. All performances other than the Grand Finale will take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The basic summary of these events is as follows:

Thursday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., Schwabacher Summer Concert: Full details have not yet been announced, but the program will consist of staged scenes from four operas: Vanessa (Samuel Barber), “Il tabarro,” (Giacomo Puccini), Don Giovanni (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), and Les pêcheurs de perles (Georges Bizet). Staging will be by Merola alumna (summer of ’16) Aria Umezawa. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by a full orchestra conducted by Merola alumna (summer of ’91 and ’92) Kathleen Kelly. All scenes will be sung in the original language of the libretto.

Thursday, July 19, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 21, 2 p.m.: The first full-length opera will be Mozart’s K. 208, Il re pastore (the shepherd king), written when the composer was nineteen years old. The work is given relatively little attention, although it contains many seeds that would subsequently flower with greater development in Mozart’s later and better-known operas. The production will be staged by Merola alumna (summer of ’06) Tara Faircloth. The orchestra will be conducted by Stephen Stubbs.

Thursday, August 2, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, August 4, 2 p.m.: The second-full length opera will be Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Based on what might be called a “graphic short story” by eighteen-century artist William Hogarth, the opera has an elegantly literate libretto written jointly by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. (For the record, Auden and Kallman also collaborated on translating the librettos of Mozart operas into English; and the keen listener will detect more than a few hints of Mozart in Stravinsky’s score.) This production will be staged by Robin Guarino. The conductor will be Merola alumnus (summer of ’87) Mark Morash.

Saturday, August 18, 7:30 p.m.: Details for the Grand Finale are not announced until later in the summer. As is always the case, the production will be staged by the current Merola Apprentice Stage Director, Marcus Shields. The conductor will be Dean Williamson. Also as always, the performance will be followed by a reception for which separate tickets will be required. The price of those tickets will be $75, and they will be sold by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) Box Office.

SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. The Way Memorial Opera House is at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Each of the above hyperlinks connects to a Web page with ticket price information and options for online purchase. All ticket sales are being handled through the SFO Box Office. For those not purchasing tickets online, the Box Office may be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.

Zambello Brings a Darker Heroism to Wagner

Last night in the War Memorial Opera, the San Francisco Opera advanced its first cycle of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) to its third opera, Siegfried. In many ways this is the most straightforward of the operas, even if the duration runs to four and three-quarters hours. On the surface the title character is a stock hero figure who both kills a dragon and rescues a maiden. However, in Wagner’s libretto nothing is straightforward; and in Francesca Zambello’s staging everything has an intensely dark side.

From a technical point of view, Siegfried is one of the two operas in the cycle that begins quietly. The first opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), begins with a low E-flat played in two different octaves by a divided bass section. The dynamic marking is piano; and that E-flat is the fundamental (pun intended for those who know about the harmonic series) pitch of the first stirrings of creation. However, instruments are steadily added to depict the planet coming into being, followed by the “gathering of the waters” into the Rhine River. In other words, as soon as the initial quietude is established, the volume proceeds to grow slowly but steadily.

Siegfried, on the other hand, begins with a sinister pianissimo drum roll on the timpani. Considering that Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), the second opera, ended in the blinding light of a ring of fire, things get very dark very quickly as Siegfried begins to establish itself. However, the darkness has as much to do with Zambello’s projected images as with the action that is about to take place. In Rheingold the projections depict the emergence of order within what is initially an inchoate display of light, and that order is eventually revealed as the waters of the Rhine. In Siegfried, however, the images have become painfully explicit, all depicting different ways in which man has despoiled the natural order of the planet. If Wotan’s “Board Room” in Die Walküre has, as I have suggested, windows painted over with idealistic visions to prevent his seeing what is really happening outside of his Valhalla, then Zambello accompanies the Siegfried prologue with all of those images that Wotan would rather not see.

Mime (David Cangelosi) encounters Wotan (Greer Grimsely) in the first act of Siegfried (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

When the first scene finally begins, we are still in the world of Justified that had been established for Hunding’s cabin in Walküre; but now all we have is a lone trailer where Mime (tenor David Cangelosi), Alberich’s henchman in Rheingold, is now raising Siegfried, the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde from Walküre. He is now a young adult; and, if you strip away the boyish looks and the golden tenor voice (sung by Daniel Brenna, making his SFO debut), it does not take much to discover that he is as much of a brute as Hunding. Anything that was bleak in Walküre has gotten much bleaker and even darker. The figure that Wagner himself conceived to be his hero is presented, instead, as an all-too-human anti-hero.

The spoken introduction that Jean Cocteau prepared for Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” oratorio begins by observing that, when Oedipus was born, he was already in a trap. The introduction prepares the audience to witness how that trap will now close on Oedipus. Siegfried was born in a similar trap; and, over the course of the opera, we are already witnessing its closing. (It will keep closing in Götterdämmerung until the moment of Siegfried’s death.) However, the trap closes over more than Siegfried. Wotan (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley) himself is also caught in it, doing little more than wandering the earth with only his staff of contracts, which Siegfried shatters in the third act. (Given all of the ways in which we have encountered Wotan’s conniving, we can probably assume that the staff had gotten pretty weak on its own.)

For that matter at least two other key characters are also caught in that trap. The aforementioned dragon is the giant Fafner, (bass Raymond Aceto) who transformed himself with the magic Tarnhelm, included as part of the “payoff” for Freia in Rheingold, in order to guard all the gold that was also part of that “payoff.” Zambello’s Fafner is as much a builder as he was in Rheingold. His “dragon” is actually an enormous iron suit that he controls from the inside, very much in the spirit of Tony Stark’s Jarvis in the Iron Man films. Even in that monstrous contraption, though, he is brought down by Siegfried. (There goes his job offer from Stark Industries.)

The “maiden” is, of course, Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin), rescued by Siegfried from her rock surrounded by impenetrable fire by Wotan. This is the one part of Wotan’s plan that seems to go off without a hitch: Brünnhilde has been rescued by a true hero. Note that “seems to” qualifier, though. Siegfried seems to have a happily-ever-after ending; but Wagner wrote its libretto only after he had completed the libretto for Götterdämmerung. He knew that things would take a turn for the worse; and we do, too!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Summer 2018 in San Francisco with SFS

With the conclusion of the 2017–18 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at the end of this month, SFS will launch almost immediately into its Summer with the Symphony concerts at the beginning of next month. While most of the concerts in this series depart from the “classical” tradition, there will be three offerings likely to appeal to those that take their listening seriously. Furthermore, as in the past, one of those offerings will be free.

The first of those offerings is the very first to be presented next month. Edwin Outwater will return to the SFS podium to present A Salute to Gershwin. The program will consist entirely of music by George Gershwin, although many of the selections were subsequently arranged by others. Pianist Andrew van Oeyen will be guest soloist in a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” presumably using the arrangement prepared by Ferde Grofé. The other soloist will be vocalist Capathia Jenkins, who will sample Gershwin’s contributions to the Great American Songbook, given “concert treatment” by a variety of arrangers. The other major orchestral work on the program will be “An American in Paris;” and the concert will begin with the overture to the musical Girl Crazy.

This concert will be given only one performance in Davies Symphony Hall, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3. Ticket prices range from $20 to $79. 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 an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “Rhapsody in Blue,” along with sound clips of previous SFS performances the piece. Flash is required to play these sound files.

The other major concert offering will be a program entitled Decadent Romance: Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The conductor will be the 25-year-old rising talent Alexander Prior. The program will begin with the Tchaikovsky portion, the Opus 35 violin concerto in D major. The soloist will be another young talent, William Hagen. The second half of the program will then be devoted to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 27 (second) symphony in E minor.

This concert will be given two performances in Davies, both at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13, and Saturday, July 14. Ticket prices range from $50 to $165. They may be purchased online through the event page. That event page also has an embedded sound file of previous SFS performances of the Rachmaninoff symphony.

That leaves the free event, which is the annual SFS appearance at the Stern Grove Festival. This year the conductor will be Jayce Ogren; and the concerto soloist will be Adam Golka, playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major. The program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format, concluding with Jean Sibelius’ Opus 43 (second) symphony in D major. The “overture” will take a somewhat imaginative approach, consisting of a “suite” of three of the Slavonic dances of Antonín Dvořák.

This concert will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 22. The entrance to Stern Grove is on the northwest corner where 19th Avenue crosses Sloat Boulevard. No tickets are required. Those planning to attend need to know that there will be no public parking area at Stern Grove for this event. Finding parking is extremely difficult, so all are encouraged to use public transportation. The 19th Avenue bus lines (23 and 28) both stop right at the entrance to Stern Grove. The K and M Muni lines stop one block to the east, where Sloat Boulevard meets St. Francis Circle; but those coming from the center of town should remember that both of these lines will be influenced by the work on the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The SFS event page for this concert has a hyperlink to the home page for the Stern Grove Festival, from which one can find further information. The event page also has sound files for both the Beethoven concerto and the Sibelius symphony.

Disappointing Opera at Davies Symphony Hall

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), presented a semi-staged performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Staging to accommodate the limitations of the performing areas was directed by James Darrah. His supporting team provided lighting design (Pablo Santiago), video design (Adam Larsen and Hana S. Kim), scenic and costume design (Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mack), and choreography (Christopher Bordenave). Bordenave led and performed with a company of five other dancers. Choral resources were provided by both the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and the Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown, director). The cast requires a prodigious number of roles, several of which were taken by members of the SFS Chorus. (For the record, last night saw the only one of the three performances of this opera that did not overlap action taking place across Grove Street in the War Memorial Opera House.)

Mussorgsky’s opera is based primarily on a play by Alexander Pushkin, whose full title is A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev. Pushkin claimed to have written this play “for the reading desk,” meaning he never intended it to be staged. One might say that he endowed major and minor figures of Russian history with first-person voices as his way of reflecting on a period known as the Time of Troubles. The result is that each of the scenes of Mussorgsky’s opera is based on what as almost a Socratic dialog on some aspect of Russian life during that period. The original version, completed in 1869, had seven of those scenes. When Mussorgsky revised the score in 1872, he dropped one of the scenes and added four, two of which took place in Poland and have come to be called the “Polish Act. Last night’s performance consisted of seven scenes, six from the 1869 version and the final scene from the 1872 revision.

Given that most of the text had its origins “for the reading desk,” there is no particularly compelling reason why Mussorgsky’s score cannot be given a simple concert treatment. Because so much of the text (not to mention the music) involves reflections on action, rather than action itself, Boris Godunov amounts to more of an oratorio than an opera. However, these days there seems to be a contingent of stage directors who do not know to leave oratorios well enough alone, although Darrah has established himself as one of their more capable members. He was particularly effective in his staging of the SFS performance, again conducted by MTT, of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 123 “Missa solemnis” in June of 2015.

Darrah’s approach to Mussorgsky never came close to the imaginative inventiveness he brought to Beethoven. Bordenave’s choreography did little more than get in the way, while much of the staging of the SFS Chorus resulted in singers losing eye contact with both conductor and musicians, resulting in a few disquieting cuing errors. More importantly, Darrah never seemed to have a clear idea of what Pushkin was doing or what Mussorgsky was doing with Pushkin. The result was one of major gaping holes in the action that never got filled by any sense of motivation.

Where the action was most explicit, the performance was most satisfying. Bass Stanislav Trofimov delivered a dynamite account of the leading role. His enactment of Godunov’s death (in the sixth scene of last night’s performance) was definitely a sight to behold; and I would like to believe that much of the body language can be attributed to Darrah’s efforts. Where minor characters are concerned, Vyacheslav Pochapsky delivered a thoroughly engaging (as well as more than a little alcohol-saturated) account of the siege of Kazan by the dissolute monk Varlaam. In that (fourth) scene in an inn on the Lithuanian border, mezzo Catherine Cook’s portrayal of the innkeeper never missed an opportunity to steal audience attention, whether or not Darrah had a hand in the works. In contrast tenor Yevgeny Akimov captured every Machiavellian detail of the opportunistic Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich Shuysky, while bass Philip Skinner perfectly nailed the minor role of a thuggish police officer in the opening scene (once again presumably based on input from Darrah).

Matvey Andreevich Shishkov’s 1874 design for the inn on the border and its raucous patrons (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The rest of the time, however, the production lumbered along with not much sense of orientation. Even the orchestra seemed more than a little out of place during the second (coronation) scene. This should not have been a surprise: When the orchestra players were not being shouted down by the chorus, they were being overwhelmed by the heavy bells in the Terrace that obscured even the loudest of any other sound sources.

Finally, there were clearly some higher-level problems of organization. The program book suggested that this would be a trimmed-down performance lasting about 115 minutes. This turned out to be about 90 minutes short of the mark. Of course those of us who have devoted much of this week to spending our time across the street are well adjusted to Richard Wagner’s penchant for extended durations. However, the stagecraft being presented by the San Francisco Opera is in such a different league from last night’s approach to Boris Godunov that it was no surprise that the Davies offering not only felt unduly lengthy but also turned out to be that way.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Pamela Z Providing Music for New Choreography

Poster for this weekend’s performance (from Sara Shelton Mann’s Web site, photograph of Anya Cloud by Robbie Sweeny, photograph of Jesse Zariott by Olivia Blaisdell)

Pamela Z is currently working on the latest project by choreographer and writer Sara Shelton Mann. The title of her piece, which is currently a work in progress, is ECHO/ the voice of stones. She is working with two performers, Anya Cloud and Jesse Zaritt. Z is providing the music.

This weekend Mann will give a “progress report,” presenting what she has achieved thus far. The score will consist of both recorded music and live performance. Z will be on hand for this weekend’s presentation to perform her contributions to the project.

This performance will be offered to the public twice, on Friday, June 15, and Saturday, June 16. The show will begin at 8 p.m. on both of these dates. The venue will be the Joe Goode Annex, located in NEMIZ (the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 401 Alabama Street on the southeast corner of 17th Street. Admission will be by donation. All those planning to attend are encouraged to pay what they can.

Wagner’s Challenging Talk:Action Ratio

Die Walküre (the Valkyrie) is not the longest opera that Richard Wagner ever wrote. Nevertheless, no one should be blamed for thinking that it sure feels that way. The second “chapter” in Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) was given the first of its three performances by the San Francisco Opera last night in the War Memorial Auditorium; and, from my vantage point, it seemed as if each of the two intermissions was ushered in with a collective sigh of relief. If Walküre is not even the longest opera in the cycle, it may well be the one that has the highest talk:action ratio.

It is important to remember that Wagner wrote the entire libretto for all four operas before beginning to write a single note. Furthermore, he wrote it in reverse. He began by writing an account of the death of Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungenlied (the song of the Nibelungs) epic poem. This would become the text for the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). He then felt it necessary to account for the earlier stage of Siegfried’s life, for which he composed the opera Siegfried. Continuing this explanatory process, he then chose to document the events leading up to Siegfried’s birth, which became the libretto for Die Walküre. Both of these two operas draw upon tales in the Völsunga saga. Finally, he documented the origins of the magic (and cursed) ring around which all of these events revolve; and this became the libretto for Wagner’s “prologue” opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine).

One might say that the entire process began by identifying key elements of action and then deciding that each of them required fleshing out a backstory to explain the circumstances behind the action. As the project progressed, Wagner realized that he had to account for more and more backstory. Translating all of that backstory into staged action would have been a monumental effort. As a result Wagner had to make decisions about when backstory should be handled simply by having one of the characters offer up a verbal explanation.

Such explanations cut across the entire Ring cycle. However, they seem to dominate Walküre, perhaps because, by virtue of its transition from the world of supernatural beings to the world of men and women, it has the most background to explain. Last night’s performance ran for over 270 minutes, including about an hour divided across the two intermissions. That means approximately 210 minutes of music, roughly 90 of which are devoted to the second act. While that act concludes with the fight scene around which the entire plot revolves, that episode lasts only about six minutes. Almost everything that precedes it involves verbal explanation of one form or another.

Fortunately, Director Francesca Zambello and her production team have drawn upon a variety of visual supplements to get beyond the difficulties when the libretto prioritizes talk over action. During the frenetic opening prologue, a camera gives us Siegmund’s point of view as he runs from the forest to escape the enemies chasing him. When we finally see him on the stage (sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich), his collapse in front of Hunding’s house is entirely understandable. Similarly, the second act begins by showing us Wotan, the “real estate patriarch” of Das Rheingold ensconced in the palatial Board Room of Trump Tower (oops! … make that Valhalla).

This serves up a device that reminds us of how much of Valhalla emerged as a project-gone-wrong in Rheingold. Like that chase through the forest, much of the background imagery is constantly in motion, even when it is nothing more than clouds floating by in the sky. Nevertheless, the view from the massive windows of the Board Room are entirely static, almost as if they had been painted on the glass to prevent Wotan ever seeing what is actually happening on the other side (not even a raccoon).

Activity finally rises to a fever pitch at the beginning of the third act, beginning with what is best known as the “Ride of the Valkyries.” These eight sisters of Brünnhilde are all done up like fighter pilots parachuting onto the multi-layered stage set where the souls of heroes fallen in battle are enshrined by their photographs. This was where the music really comes to life, even beyond the familiar orchestral portion. One encounters eight voices weaving a rich polyphonic Web whose elegance contrasts sharply with the earthiness of the rest of the score (even the love duet in the first act). Indeed, because these sisters are often unduly dismissed as bit parts, it is worth acknowledging all of them for their impeccable command of both pitch and rhythm: soprano Julie Adams (Gerhilde), soprano Melissa Citro (Helmwige), mezzo Renée Tatum (Waltraute), mezzo Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite), soprano (and Adler Fellow) Sarah Cambridge (Ortlinde), mezzo Laura Krumm (Siegrune), mezzo Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), and mezzo Lauren McNeese (Rossweisse).

Attention to these “lesser” parts should not distract from the top-rate skills with which the major characters negotiated all those extended passages of explanation and the punctuations of intense action. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and mezzo Jamie Barton returned for that extended scene that Anna Russell calls “Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument.” This is one of those episodes where explanations are at their thickest. Zambello’s staging did much to compensate for the talk-without-action problem. Nevertheless, Grimsley was definitely in his best light with the concluding “Wotan’s Farewell” scene, in which the Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin) is put into a deep sleep for defying Wotan’s command and then surrounded by impenetrable fire. Prior to that heartbreaking scene, however, Theorin served up a dynamite account of the leader of her eight sisters.

Finally, there are the first three mortals to be encountered in the Ring cycle. Jovanovich’s Siegmund was perfectly complemented by soprano Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, whom he will abduct from her thuggish husband Hunding (bass Raymond Aceto). Zambello has claimed that her set for Hunding’s house was inspired by Deliverance; but, by the time her production found its way to the stage, most of the audience would probably have been reminded of Justified. There was also a nice nod to current events in having some of the members of Hunding’s hunting party carrying automatic weapons.

Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) begs for hospitality from Hunding (Raymond Aceto) and his wife (Karita Mattila) (photograph by Cory Weaver courtesy of SFO)

Once again, however, the driving force behind everything on the stage came from the orchestra pit. Conductor Donald Runnicles knew exactly how to pace the “explanation” episodes in such a way that the “action” episodes would have maximum impact. Wagner’s scores consistently make for thoroughly enriching listening experiences (which is one reason why so much of his music is given concert performances). Runnicles clearly knows what makes every note that Wagner committed to paper tick; and his “clockwork” precision of the entire score last night was a wonder to experience.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Three Approaches to a Violin-Cello Concerto

This Friday Sony Classical will release a new CD entitled Double Concertos. The recording provides a platform for the husband-and-wife duo of cellist Jan Vogler and violinist Mira Wang. The idea of a “double” concerto for both violin and cello is best known through Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 in A minor; and this work, composed in the summer of 1887, is the central piece on the album. It is flanked on either side by a 21st-century approach to the same genre, beginning with a single-movement concerto composed by Wolfgang Rihm in 2015 and concluding with a three-movement concerto by John Harbison composed in 2010. For all three concertos Wang and Vogler are accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders prior to the forthcoming release date.

I must confess that I have a weak spot for the Brahms concerto, because its second movement, in D major, serves up a particularly satisfying case of ambiguity. The movement is written in 3/4 time, and the pulse is established by both soloists playing (an octave apart and with accompaniment in the string section) a theme whose opening measure consists of three pairs of eighth notes. However, that measure is introduced by a slower account of its first four notes, two pairs of rising fourths. The first, A rising to D, is played only by a pair of horns. The horns are then joined by flutes, clarinets, and bassoons for the second fourth, E rising to A. In both of these introductory fourths, the second note is sustained by a fermata.

The opening measures (without the string section) of the second movement of Brahms Opus 102 concerto (from IMSLP, public domain)

Those opening measures lay the groundwork for the ambiguity. Both of them basically sound like a perfect cadence without full chords. Thus, in the first measure the tonic D is established by the A that rises to it. Then the dominant is established by a similar pattern. Put another way, in both of these intervals the first note sounds like an upbeat affirming the downbeat of the second one.

However, when the theme itself is introduced in the third measure, those roles are reversed. Both the D following the A and the A following the E are on decidedly weak beats (not even on the pulse); and that first A is now firmly established as the downbeat! Those who have listened to even a few of the many recordings of this concerto know that there is little agreement among conductors as to just how that ambiguity should be handled; and, without naming any names, I would suggest that more than a few of those conductors just muddle their way through, figuring that things will take care of themselves by the time they get to the end of the first score page.

In this context I am happy to report that Oundjian is no muddler. He knows that the ear is going to be deceived by those opening measures. However, he seems to have found just the right amount of stress to make it clear that the third measure is the one responsible for the definitive downbeat. I have no trouble fantasizing an image of Brahms’ ghost nodding in delighted approval!

I wanted to start by calling out this ambiguity because so much of the “new music” that comes our way involves whole new breeds of ambiguity that can be exploited in many different ways. In Rihm’s case that exploitation involves not only rhythm but also the very sense of progression in a rhetoric in which dissonance has been emancipated. In such a situation the idea of harmony may be abandoned in favor of thinking strictly in terms of a polyphonic fabric in which the overlay of multiple voices no longer adheres to traditional “point-against-point” rules. This is one way to approach listening to Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 42 piano concerto (which was performed here in San Francisco this past January); and, for that matter, it also serves listening to Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the Berg concerto is a bit like a ghost lingering in the shadows behind Rihm’s concerto.

Harbison’s concerto is another matter. One might say that it is inhabited by two ghosts. It was written in memory of violinist Roman Totenberg (whose students happened to include Wang). However, Totenberg’s own studies included working with George Enescu, whose work as a composer tended to draw more upon Eastern European folk styles than on the practices of harmonic progression that prevailed during the nineteenth century. Enescu’s music does not get the attention it deserves, but he is far from the only composer to have drawn upon such folk sources. Thus, those familiar with even a few of the compositions of Béla Bartók are likely to feel his ghostly presence in Harbison’s concerto.

To be clear, neither Rihm nor Harbison should be accused to trying to channel either Berg or Bartók, respectively, in their concertos. I refer to these as ghostly presences because they provide a baseline through which the mind of the listener can begin to orient itself and become better disposed to follow the originality of each composer. Through such orientation the attentive listener is likely to come away with a solid feeling of satisfaction with all three of the concertos on this recording, rather than just enjoying the familiarity that comes with listening to Brahms!

LIEDER ALIVE! Season to Conclude with Premiere

Featured composer Anno Schreier (photograph by Anfried Zerche, courtesy of LIEDER ALIVE!)

At the beginning of next month LIEDER ALIVE! will present the final concert in its seventh annual Liederabend Series. The featured offering on the program will be the United States premiere of a composition created under a co-commission with Deutsche Oper Berlin. The composer is Anno Schreier and the piece is a setting of five poems by Nora Bossong. The vocalist for this occasion will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, and she will be accompanied at the piano by John Parr. While Parr is well known to those who frequent chamber music and art song recitals in San Francisco, for his “day job” he serves as Head of Music Staff at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Schreier’s composition will be framed by more familiar offerings. The program will begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s only song cycle, his Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). Following the Schreier premiere, Scharich will sing a selection of songs by Franz Schubert. Specific details have not yet been announced. [added 6/14, 3 p.m.: The Schubert selections have now been announced. In order of performance, they will be D. 882 (“Im Frühling”), D. 544 (“Ganymed”), D. 741 (“Sei mer gegrüßt”), D. 774 (“Auf dem Wasser zu singen”), D. 827 (“Nacht und Traüme”).]

This performance will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 1. The venue will the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Single tickets will be $40 at the door with a $20 discounted rate for students, seniors, and working artists. If purchased in advance, the prices will be $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. An Eventbrite Web page has been created for advance purchase. Those interested in advance purchase may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

SFO Begins First Cycle of Wagner’s Epic

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) began its first cycle of Richard Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). Each cycle will take place over the course of this and the next two weeks, with the four operas being performed on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. These productions are a revival of the staging by Francesca Zambello, first performed here in its entirety seven years ago in 2011.

As Zambello’s “Director’s Note” in the program book explains, she conceived her production as “an American parallel to Wagner’s story.” This posed a somewhat provocative problem. Wagner’s cycle in its entirety may be the best instance of what has become a familiar trope these days, that of a train wreck in slow motion. After the first seven minutes of the very first opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), the first four of which are strictly instrumental, the narrative proceeds steadily on a solid descent that only ends when almost all of the characters have gone up in smoke (literally), leaving only the three Rhinemaidens (also known as the daughters of the Rhine), whose voices were the first encountered at the end of those first seven minutes. In contrast most American narratives tend to be optimistic accounts of progress and growth, blithely minimizing, if not overlooking, any downsides that may be encountered along the path of ascent.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Zambello created her “American parallel” for opera companies based in two of our country’s bastions of progress, so to speak. San Francisco has been a city of advances in business and finance that date back to the days of the gold rush; and, with the rise of Silicon Valley following World War II, those advances extended into the area of technology and the emergence of information as a commodity. SFO’s partner in Zambello’s project was the Washington National Opera, the city most responsible for weaving the threads of “the American story” around milestones of advancement and growth.

Zambello first began to put her thoughts into action in 2005. By that time the narrative of the “ever ascending America” had taken several serious beatings. For my generation the first of those beatings came during our student years with the Vietnam War. In 2005, on the other hand, the “American spirit” was only beginning to recover from the beating that took place closest to home, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By the time she had worked her way through all four operas with SFO giving the first performance of the cycle in its entirety in 2011, consideration of an “American parallel” to Wagner’s narrative of decline seemed not only feasible but necessary.

From that point of view, there is a chilling sense of the immediate present in Zambello’s setting of Das Rheingold as a narrative of thefts, acts of deceit and greed, and even one murder, all emerging around a ring fashioned from a lump of gold at the bottom of the Rhine that grants its wearer ultimate power. The depiction of Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) as a prospector evokes not only the gold rush but also the early stages of greedy violation of natural environmental settings. Even more chilling is the connotation of Valhalla as a luxury real estate project, conceived and managed as the “family business” of the gods that will soon inhabit it. The project itself has been built on a contract made by the “family patriarch” Wotan (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley), who now brings in his “legal consultant” Loge (tenor Štefan Margita) to help him break the contract.

The “real estate family” on the way to their new luxury property: Wotan (Greer Grimsley), Fricka (Jamie Barton), Freia (Julie Adams), Donner (Brian Mulligan), and Froh (Brandon Jovanovich) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

There are multiple ironies in play here, even before we encounter connections between this fictitious real estate family and the other one that now dominates our attention due to the political advances of its patriarch. In the mythology that inspired Wagner, Wotan is the keeper of contracts. Every contract ever made is inscribed on the staff that he carries with him at all times. (Keep an eye on that staff, by the way. It will play a major role in the third opera of the cycle, Siegfried.) The staff is made from the wood of Yggdrasil, an immense ash tree that is the center of the cosmos. Wotan breaks off one of Yggdrasil’s limbs to serve as his staff. Thus, that “narrative of thefts” includes a “theft against nature” (as in the gold rush) that takes place even before Das Rheingold begins.

The one murder in the narrative involves the two “construction workers,” the giants Fasolt and Fafner (both bass roles sung, respectively, by Andrea Silvestrelli and Raymond Aceto). Wotan evades his original contractual obligation by “buying off” the workers with Alberich’s hoard of gold (which includes his all-powerful ring), which Wotan and Loge have stolen. (After the theft, Alberich puts a curse on the ring around which much of the plot to follow will revolve.) Presented with all of that gold, Fasolt takes the ring for himself, after which he is almost immediately killed by Fafner. (Remember that curse lurking between the parentheses?)

Thus, by the time the narrative was worked its way through the two and one-half hours following those first seven minutes (all of which unfold without an intermission), every character we have encountered is either in deep yogurt or dead. The one exception may be Erda (mezzo Ronnita Miller). However, as may be guessed from her name, she is the spirit of the earth itself, reminding us of how the natural world often cures itself of the abuses of the human world. She is not so much living or dead as simply a spirit that warns Wotan that he is already well on the path of his descent.

It should be clear by now that Wagner packed quite a lot of content into this one opera. Nevertheless, between Zambello’s ideas and the realization of those ideas through stage action, costume design, lighting, and some very imaginative use of projection, all that content proceeds through the narrative at an almost breathtaking pace. That pace was enhanced (but never overplayed) through the musical leadership of conductor Donald Runnicles (who had also conducted the 2011 SFO performances).

The astute readers may have noticed that the above tour through the Rheingold narrative did not involve any mere mortals. They will only make their first appearance tonight in this week’s performance of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie). As those readers can probably expect by now, things will not go well for them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

E4TT to Conclude Tenth Season at O1C

Dale Tsang, Anne Lerner-Wright, and Nanette McGuinness (from the Old First Concerts event page)

As was observed a little less than a year ago, Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) has been celebrating its tenth anniversary with three concerts in San Francisco during the current year. The group, which originally called itself the Jewish Music & Poetry Project, is a trio led by soprano Nanette McGuinness performing with instrumentalists Dale Tsang on piano and Anne Lerner-Wright on cello. The last of those three concerts will take place at the end of this month and will be hosted by Old First Concerts (O1C).

The title of the program will be 56 x 54: Focus on the Cello. As may be assumed from that title, much of the program will involve selections created as part of the 56 x 54 series of world premiere performances of works written in response to a Call for Scores issued in 2015. The second half of the title has to do with the performance of a capriccio for cello and piano composed by E4TT Co-Director David Garner. There will be three 56 x 54 world premieres, a ricercar for cello by Lawrence Kramer and two trios for the full ensemble, “From Lamentations” by David Lund and “The Sandpiper” by R. Michael Daugherty. The 56 x 54 offerings will also include Gladys Smuckler Moskowitz’ “Manic Screaming,” also performed by the full ensemble.

In addition the program will include two United States premieres and one West Coast premiere. All three of these works “focus on the cello.” The United States premieres include a suite for solo cello by George Hatzimichelakis and Frederick Schipizky’s “Sonia’s Letters,” scored for cello and piano. The West Coast premiere will be by Gene Pritzker, “In School-Days,” the first song in his Songs of Nostalgia collection, scored for soprano and cello. The program will also include “Music I Heard With You” by Tom Flaherty and “The Fig” by JJ Hollingsworth.

O1C events take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, which is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from the O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

Gabriel Schwabe’s Schumann Album on Naxos

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost exactly a month ago Naxos released an album showcasing performances by cellist Gabriel Schwabe. The recording consists entirely of compositions by Robert Schumann, the major selection being the single-movement Opus 129 concerto in A minor. Schwabe performs with the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Lars Vogt. The remainder of the album is devoted to chamber music performed with pianist Nicholas Rimmer.

Among those five chamber music selections, only one seems to have been written explicitly for cello and piano. That one is the Opus 102 entitled Stücke im Volkston (pieces in folk style), a set of five relatively short pieces. Two of them are cello versions of compositions written for another solo instrument, the horn in the case of the Opus 70 coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements and the clarinet in the case of the three Opus 73 “fantasy” pieces. For remaining two pieces, Schwabe prepared his own cello arrangements. One of these is the Opus 94 set of three “romances” for oboe and piano. The other is the Intermezzo movement that Schumann contributed to the so-called “F-A-E” sonata, a joint project that Schumann shared with his pupil Albert Dietrich and Johannes Brahms to prepare a sonata as a special gift to the violinist Joseph Joachim.

All of the performances on the album offer readings of the text that are never anything less than technically capable. However, things are not always as convincing when one takes rhetoric into account. This is most evident in Opus 102, whose tempo specification (sic) for the first of the five pieces is “Mit Humor.” It is not hard to get the joke in this piece, where every playful gesture in the upper register is dismissed with a gruff response in the lower. There is a temptation to overplay that gruff element; but, sadly, Schwabe’s pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, as if all that mattered were the fingering challenges behind bouncing back and forth across the distance between the two registers.

Where the concerto is concerned, I must confess that I was more curious as to how Vogt would fare as a conductor, since, until this recording was released, I knew him only as a pianist. On the whole I was impressed. Schumann was not always at the top of his game in managing orchestral resources; but Vogt provided a well-balanced account of the accompaniment for the solo cello part. One might almost say that his experience in accompanying chamber music at the piano has prepared him more than adequately to deal with the challenges of orchestral accompaniment. Nevertheless, it is hard to tell how much of that balance was a product of Vogt’s in-the-moment judgment and how much came from the mixing skills of Stephen Schmidt and his recording team. Still, this album left me looking forward to opportunities to experience Vogt’s work as a conductor, particularly in a concert setting.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Schubert with Isabelle Faust and Friends

courtesy of PIAS

Franz Schubert’s D. 803 octet in F major is one of his most delightful compositions, but it is also one that can be difficult to encounter in a performance setting. The required ensemble consists of a string quartet with the addition of a bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. It sometimes seems as if any piece of chamber music that involves a clarinet has a clarinetist behind it. In this case the clarinetist was Count Ferdinand Troyer who served as chief steward to Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Troyer was an amateur clarinetist with a soft spot for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 20 septet in E-flat major, which was scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. (Readers probably know that Rudolf was the Archduke to whom Beethoven dedicated his Opus 97 piano trio.) Troyer asked Schubert to write something along the lines of Beethoven’s Opus 20. Schubert replied with his D. 803, adding a second violin part while he was at it.

Schubert seems to have had no trouble using Beethoven’s septet as a model. D. 803 has the same number of movements (six) and pretty much the same structures for each of the movements. The most noticeable structural difference is that, in the fourth movement, Schubert provided seven variations for his Andante theme, while Beethoven’s variations movement has only five.

This Friday harmonia mundi will release a new recording of D. 803 with an ensemble led by violinist Isabelle Faust. The other performers are violinist Anne Katharina Schreiber, violist Danusha Waskiewicz, cellist Kristin von der Goltz, James Munro on bass, Lorenzo Coppola on clarinet, Javier Zafra on bassoon, and Teunis van der Zwart on horn. As usual, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this release.

Faust has long been an advocate for historically-informed performance. As a result all the members of the group are playing instruments appropriate for the time of the octet’s composition, early 1824. In fact, due to key changes, Coppola plays two clarinets, one in B-flat and the other in C.

Taken as a whole the piece is a delightful reminder of the sensitivity that Schubert could bring to individual instruments. Across the six movements the listener is led through an engaging diversity of sonorities, all of which are framed in conventional structures of the period that define paths from which Schubert never strays very far. One gets the impression that this music was intended for a social gathering of friends (probably all friends of Troyer); and it is easy to imagine that all who participated in playing this piece for the first time enjoyed the gathering.

For that matter, if my memory is correct, it has been over 35 years since I had a chance to listen to this music in a concert performance; and being reminded of its delights by this recording could not have been a more pleasant experience.

The Bleeding Edge: 6/11/2018

Once again the week promises to be a busy one. Also, as was the case last week, only one of this week’s events has already been reported. This time it is PC Muñoz’ album release concert at the Red Poppy Art House this Sunday evening. Fortunately, all of the remaining events take place prior to Sunday. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, June 12, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: This week the Joe Henderson Lab will offer two more concerts for those who take listening more seriously than any sense of an overall “experience.” Jeff Parker made his mark as guitarist for Tortoise, a post-rock band based in Chicago. He now leads a group named after his current project and the album about to be released, The New Breed. The music to be played follows up on the move by Blue Note Records into soul-jazz, which took place during the Seventies. The approach promises to be both retrospective and prospective at the same time.

This is another SFJAZZ concert that has been scheduled for two performances. There are separate event pages for the online purchase of tickets to the 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. shows. All tickets will be sold for $35. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Wednesday, June 13, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: For those who prefer where the avant-garde was going before things began to change in the Seventies, the Joe Henderson Lab will celebrate the work of Ornette Coleman with a program entitled Broken Shadows. The title comes from a 1982 Columbia album based on recording sessions that took place in the month of September in both 1971 and 1972. This was a time when Coleman was playing trumpet and violin, as well as alto saxophone. The “tribute band” for this occasion will feature two of today’s most inventive saxophonists, Tim Berne and Chris Speed. Rhythm will be provided by Bad Plus musicians Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums. Tickets for this concert will be $30, and there will again be separate event pages for the 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. shows.

Thursday, June 14, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: As was the case last month, this month’s installment of the Composers in Performance Series curated by the Meridian Gallery will be a multimedia affair. The program will again consist of four sets, this time featuring two visitors from New York City, percussionist Sarah Hennies and trumpeter Joe Moffett, each of whom will give a solo set. There will also be a solo set by sound artist Glochids. The one set that will not be a solo will present the trio of Jorge Bachmann, Jen Boyd, and Kevin Corcoran. The “media supplement” will be provided by Karla Hargrave, who will play field recordings collected during a recent trip to Patagonia between the sets.

The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach; admission is usually between $5 and $20, payable at the door and/or collected between sets.

Thursday, June 14, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): As usual, the LSG Creative Music Series will present two sets of improvisations. The first will be played by the duo of Nick Obando on alto saxophone and Tracy Hui on banjo. They will be followed by a quartet that calls itself Sugared Radiance. Percussionist Tony Gennaro provides rhythm for three front-line players, Camille Drachen on trumpet, Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone, and John Ingle on baritone saxophone. 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.

Friday, June 15, 7:30 p.m., Adobe Books: It would appear that Adobe Books is back in the groove of offering one concert per month. The usual three-set evening will present two duos and one trio. The first duo will bring Jordan Glenn together with Booker Stardrum. Hennies will make her second appearance of the week, this time sharing her set with Corcoran. The trio set will be played by Bruce Ackley, David Boyce, and Dave Mihaly.

Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. The gig is free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings.

Friday, June 15, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: This will be a two-hour “late show” concert entitled Bye Bye Bartok. Trumpeter Darren Johnston will lead a quartet, whose other members are Matt Renzi on reeds, Adam Shulman on piano, and Eric Vogler on bass. The idea will be to subject major composers in the classical music repertoire to a modern jazz treatment. A program has not been announced; but composers one might expect to encounter will include Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jean Sibelius.

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. However, this will probably not be an issue for this gig, since work on the tunnel is not scheduled to begin until June 25.) There will be a cover charge of $15 at the door for admission with a student rate of $5.

Rova’s Mixed Memorial for Cecil Taylor

Last night at the Center for New Music, the Rova Saxophone Quartet presented a program entitled AIR: A Tribute to Cecil Taylor. Each of the members of the group, Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin, took an improvisation set with one or more invited guest artists; and the quartet as a whole played a movement from Ochs’ Certain Space, which he had dedicated to Taylor. As might be guessed, there was considerable variation in the approaches to improvisation, with the result that the composed offering was the most consistently satisfying one. This was not surprising, since Taylor’s instrument was the piano; and none of the evening’s guest artists played any sort of keyboard instrument.

At the very least, the absence of a piano entailed a significant lack of those factors that made Cecil Taylor sound like Cecil Taylor, so to speak. As Adam Shatz observed in his NYR Daily obituary (cited yesterday on this site), the core of Taylor’s style and rhetoric emerged through building blocks of massive tone clusters, which took Henry Cowell’s percussive methods and elevated them not just to a higher level but beyond the planet’s gravitational pull. One could almost think of Taylor as being a bit like a race car driver, always “tinkering with the engine” to figure out how to produce ever more notes per second. (That metaphor is far from gratuitous, by the way. A quintet session that Taylor recorded with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Chuck Israels on bass, and Louis Hays on drums on October 13, 1958 was released under the title Hard Driving Jazz; and the currently available CD of this material shows the blurred image of a speeding race car on the cover.)


Yet, all of the intensity of Taylor’s clusters was crafted around a scrupulous sense of precision. He seldom used pedals, since that would blur the significance of the individual sounding tones. Indeed, no matter how dense the cluster, Taylor himself declared that he was always focused on the significance of every note. Indeed, it may have been in the interest of allowing every note to have its say that Taylor tended to eschew any sense of a consistent metric pulse, instead letting his thematic content (if you can call it that) unfold through jagged rhythms leaving the listener in suspense as to what would happen next and when it would happen.

Out of fairness to Rova, then, it must be said that most of this does not translate easily (if at all) to the wind family. The satisfaction that arose from the Certain Space excerpt came from Ochs’ ability to grasp the significance of Taylor’s approach to rhythm and then find just the right way to translate that approach to suit four saxophone players. That attentiveness to rhythmic eccentricity also provided the driving force behind Ochs’ improvisation, for which he was joined only by drummer Donald Robinson. Playing together, the two of them could summon up that same awe-inspiring sense of precision that Taylor could bring to his piano.

It should also be noted, as an aside, that Ochs seemed to use his improvisation to acknowledge that brief partnership that Taylor had with Coltrane. If his saxophone could not summon up a tone cluster, it could still revel in the arrhythmic wailing found at the beginning of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” the first track of Coltrane’s Meditations album. It was hard to imagine that this was an accidental gesture. I prefer to think of it as the spirit behind Taylor’s keyboard work emerging through the spirituality of Coltrane’s rhetoric.

None of the remaining improvisations convincingly tapped into Taylor in either spirit or flesh. Working with Adams, Clark Coolidge recited texts that he had written spontaneously while listening to Taylor recordings. Adams put his saxophones aside in favor of an alto flute for this set, and his deep and dark sonorities were perfectly complemented by Lisa Mezzacappa’s bass work. However, Coolidge’s diction, even with the assistance of a microphone, was just not up to snuff to allow his verbal free associations to have much impact. If anything, they tended to interfere with the moody qualities of Adams’ duo work with Mezzacappa, a performance that reminded one of Taylor’s quieter side without ever trying to imitate what he did at the keyboard in such moments.

That left both Ackley and Raskin, who seemed more attentive to doing their own thing than in relating that thing to Taylor. Ackley offered some provocative licks in the rather unbalanced company of Andy Strain on trombone and Karl Evangelista, doing his best to get his guitar amplification to hold its own above the fray. Raskin, on the other hand, engaged in some blood-curdling call-and-response with Darren Johnson on trumpet (playing an instrument that he calls his “peace cannon”). Safa Shokrai provided some highly active bass work behind the two of them, but it never emerged as its own unique contribution to the mix. Vijay Anderson’s drum work was capable, but too steady to be mistaken for anything referring to Taylor.