Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Inna Faliks: Pianist More Important than Story


Not too long ago the mail brought me a Delos CD entitled Polonaise-fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist. This amounts to an audio document of a recital-monologue conceived by the Odessa-born pianist Inna Faliks. The monologue itself was autobiographical, with selections of solo piano music serving to separate the episodes of the narrative. On the recording Faliks only plays the piano, and the text is narrated by the actress Rebecca Mozo, currently based in Los Angeles.

I have to confess that I am skeptical about musicians who choose to talk about themselves. I suspect that my proclivities date all the way back to the eve of my high school graduation, when I cancelled all other plans in order to stay home to watch the CBS broadcast of the ballet “The Flood,” choreographed by George Balanchine to an original score by Igor Stravinsky. It was the first time I ever heard Stravinsky speak. My guess is that anyone who saw that broadcast still remembers what he said:
I don’t want to tell you more; I only want to play you more.
Decades (and no end of unkind biographical accounts) later, I still feel that the only way a musician (composer or performer) can express himself/herself is through making music.

To be fair, the Amazon.com Web page of Faliks’ album bears the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval. My guess is that this acknowledgement comes from having received only five-star customer reviews. Unfortunately, glowing as those reviews were, they came from only five customers! Even a college freshman squeaking by with a “gentleman’s C” in statistics would probably recognize the lack of mathematical significance in this evaluation.

Normally, I would just let an album like this slide, falling back on that classic quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
Nevertheless, listening to this album left me with another one of those Stravinsky moments: I really wish she had played more and told less. This was because the playing on the album included Elliot Carter’s “Retrouvailles” and two short pieces by Harrison Birtwistle, “Ookooing Bird” and “Living with Music” (the former, unfortunately, consigned to the background behind Mozo’s narration). There is even a creditable account of George Gershwin’s three piano preludes.

Faliks deserves more time devoted to listening her be a pianist, and those interested in her background would probably be just as satisfied with a printed version of her text.

Red Poppy Announces First March Concert

Nick Hours and Katy Stephan (from their Red Poppy event page)

Plans are not yet fleshed out for the month of March at the Red Poppy Art House, but the first concert for that month has now been announced. The program, entitled Dreamy Nighttime Music & Visuals, will feature three vocalists. The evening will conclude with Katy Stephan, who accompanies herself at the piano. She likes to sing her own songs of contrast, sweet and salty and/or delicate and powerful. It should be no surprise that her music goes beyond concert settings. Her voice as been featured in major motion picture soundtracks, and she has created scores for dramatic productions, modern dance, and even the circus.

She will be preceded by two short consecutive sets taken by vocalist Nick Hours, who accompanies himself on guitar. His first set will be strictly acoustic; and he will be joined by another guitarist, Hamza Tayeb, and Holly Mead on cello. The second set will feature projected visuals against the acoustics of stronger beats coming from drummer Nate Toutjian. It will also offer vocal duet work when Hours is joined by vocalist Claire Gendler.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1. The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets will be sold at the door on a sliding scale between $15 and $20 and may also be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin.

Monday, January 22, 2018

National Sawdust Releases Akiho’s Second Album


At the beginning of this year, National Sawdust released the second album of original works by composer Andy Akiho, entitled The War Below, currently available for MP3 download from Amazon.com. The album title is also the first title of a five-movement suite, Prospects of a Misplaced Year, which fills most of the album. The remainder of the album is a two-movement septet created for the LA Dance Project in collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Prospects of a Misplaced Year is a piano quartet bringing pianist Jenny Q Chai together with the members of the Friction Quartet, violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Douglas Machiz. Instrumentation for the septet consists of a string quartet of members of The Knights (violinists Colin Jacobsen and Ariana Kim, violist Mario Gotoh, and cellist Caitlin Sullivan) along with Vicky Cho on piano, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and Akiho himself playing steel pan.

That last phrase should suggest that Akiho has a playful streak. Most listeners should quickly recognize that streak through the engagingly imaginative approaches to rhythms encountered in both of these pieces. However, there is also a literary side to the composer’s ludic inclinations. The middle movement of Prospects of a Misplaced Year is “(K)in(e)tic (V)ar(i)atio(n)s,” with the parenthesized letters spelling out Rogers’ first name. Similarly, while it is unclear when Akiho began work to fulfill his commission, there is good reason to assume that he was working on the piece after Election Day in 2016, meaning that the reference to a “misplaced year” has to do with a ripped-from-the-headlines context. In that context one might also consider the title of the final movement, “On The tideS of november” has having a political message embodied in the capital letters TS, an acronym that should need no explanation for most readers! Finally, one cannot help but wonder whether or not the Friction violist has something to do with the title of the first movement and the entire album.

Nevertheless, it is the upbeat rhetoric of Akiho’s musical imagination that will draw the attention of the listener and hold on to it through the entire duration of both of the compositions included on the album. That imagination extends to finding his own ways to work with the now accepted technique of preparing a piano to use it as a percussion instrument, bringing an engaging palette of sonorities to Prospects of a Misplaced Year. Akiho is equally comfortable when working with repetitive structures and when developing gradual transformations of such structures over the course of one of his movements. In other words he has taken, as a point of departure, a genre that takes us back to the early work of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and developed a toolbox of techniques to find his own balance between repetition and alteration. The results on this album are two compositions that both are likely to hold up to successive experiences of attentive listening, at least in the opinion of this attentive listener!

The Bleeding Edge: 1/22/2018

Things are definitely back up to speed. As a matter of fact, this week has definitely gone into overdrive. There will be five additions to those events already taken into account, which are as follows:
As might be guessed, the additional gigs for the week will overlap many of those already reported. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, January 24, 6:30 p.m., C4NM: In a last-minute addition to the Events Calendar, cellist Robert Howard will give a recital accompanied by pianist Elizabeth Schumann. The program will consist entirely of twentieth-century compositions. Howard will give solo performances of György Ligeti’s solo sonata (1941) and Krzysztof Penderecki’s solo composition of Mstislav Rostropovich, entitled, appropriately enough, “Per Slava.” Schumann will accompany Howard in the cello-piano duo movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (quartet for the end of time). This quartet is essentially a suite in which each movement has a programmatic title. The movement for cello and piano is entitled “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” (praise to the eternity of Jesus). The other duo selection will be Benjamin Britten’s Opus 65 sonata, which was also written for Rostropovich.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission tickets will be sold for $20 with a $15 charge for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Wednesday, January 24, 8 p.m., The Bindery: This will be the monthly Experimental Music Night gig. As usual there will be four sets of groups whose names are often as interesting as the music they make. The first two groups on the program will be Shadow Revolutions and Radio Healer. They will be followed by a solo set by Surabhi Saraf. Finally, the digital synthesis work of Jonathan Crawford will be given real-time visual accompaniment by NOS Visuals, the performing name of Osman Koç.

The Bindery is located in Haight-Ashbury at 1727 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. Admission will be $5 and will be restricted to those age 21 or older.

Thursday, January 25, 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 be taken by the Sarkamere trio of Josh Marshall on saxophone with rhythm provided by Matt Chandler on bass and Daniel Pearce on drums. They will be followed by a solo improvisation set taken by guitarist Lenny Gonzalez. 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, January 26, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts (O1C) will present a solo piano recital by Jason Chiu, which will feature a performance of Lowell Liebermann’s Opus 29 “Gargoyles.” He will also play the Opus 6 Fantasy Pieces by the earlier American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The program will begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 80 set of 32 variations in C minor, followed by Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasia in C major.

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.

Saturday, January 27, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The next jazz performance at this shop will be given by a quintet that calls itself The Lost Shapes. The front line is shared by Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone and Darren Johnston on trumpet. Rhythm is provided by Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Safa Shokrai on bass, and Jason Levis on drums.

Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. The collections of books and records are pretty impressive, so be prepared for the urge to buy something there! Available information indicates that, while there is no explicit charge for admission, donations will be greatly appreciated with a recommended about between $10 and $15.

Foglesong’s Heavy-Handed Suites Recital

Yesterday afternoon in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, Scott Foglesong gave his annual Faculty Artist Series piano recital, providing oral commentary in the absence of program notes. The overall topic for the program involved short-duration compositions and the collections of those pieces into suites. He began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 816, the fifth of the six suites that would be published collectively as his “French” suites. Foglesong then assembled a suite of his own, drawing upon the short pieces that Johannes Brahms composed near the end of his life, which were collected and published as his Opera 116, 117, 118, and 119. The program concluded with Children’s Corner, the six-movement suite that Claude Debussy dedicated to his daughter (who was three years old at the time).

Foglesong’s oral commentary is always engaging and informative. Yesterday afternoon, however, he was hampered by a poorly-placed wireless microphone, which made thundering noises whenever he moved. (Foglesong can be very active in his oratory.) There was also some sense that he may have been stretching some points while short-changing others. No mention was made of any intentions (or speculations about same) behind Bach’s suites. (Those who have been following my writing for a while know that I personally place a lot of value on pedagogy having been one of Bach’s major objectives. I would even go so far as to say that the only “audiences” that concerned Bach were church congregations and those attending public ceremonies for which some of the secular cantatas were written.)

It may be that, as a result of being off his oratorical game, so to speak, Foglesong’s keyboard work also suffered. Many of his tempo choices bordered on the frenetic, and his approach to sorting out voices in counterpoint could be idiosyncratic. His comfort zone for the afternoon seemed to be the Debussy collection, perhaps for its inherent playfulness but also perhaps because the program was drawing to a close. At the other extreme, much of the Bach was weak for being hammered out, often concealing any trace that each of the suite’s movements was based on a dance form. The Brahms was more subdued; but it was also labored, often giving the impression that these “short” pieces were overstaying their welcome.

The one lengthy composition was the set of variations that Federico Mompou wrote on the seventh (in A major) of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes. Foglesong confessed that he decided to learn to play this piece after having written the program notes for the Great Performers Series recital given by Daniil Trifonov this past October. Mompou’s comfort zone was actually in the domain of the sorts of shorter pieces that occupied the rest of yesterday’s program, so this set of twelve variations is actually somewhat idiosyncratic.

It also has a sense of humor seldom encountered in Mompou’s music. He probably could have called this piece “Chopin Variations,” since the Chopin sources go far beyond the A major prelude. The quotation from the Opus 66 “Fantasie-Impromptu” is the most explicit; but just about all of Chopin’s other short-piece genres show up at some time or another. There is also at least one vigorous evocation of Sergei Rachmaninoff; and, in one of the variations, Mompou cannot resist throwing in a reference to at least one of his own shorter pieces. Foglesong delivered this abundance of content with all the clarity it deserves, but the idea that Mompou was having fun that he wished to share with his listeners seems to have eluded Foglesong’s rhetorical stance.

Nevertheless, considering that Mompou’s music is played so seldom, there is no denying that having two occasions to listen to this set of variations in a single season was a real treat.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Rademann’s Schütz Project Advances to Vol. 16

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past Friday I received word that Carus-Verlag had released the sixteenth volume in Hans-Christoph Rademann’s project to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz. That news came with a link to a download site set up for business connections (including press reviews); and I could not get to those tracks fast enough. The recording presented the entirety of Schütz’ final published work. Called Schwanengesang, it was published in Dresden in 1671; and Schütz would die of a stroke the following year at the age of 87.

The volume accounts for catalog numbers 482 through 494 in the Schütz-Werke-Verseichnis (SWV). The first twelve entries account for an extended setting of Psalm 119 with each individual entry accounting for a consecutive pair of “strophes.” This is a very long Psalm. It consists of 22 of these strophes, each of which has eight verses. Thus, each SWV entry accounts of sixteen of those verses. The Psalm is also an acrostic, since each strophe begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet following the order of that alphabet. The remaining entries are a single-movement setting of Psalm 100 and a German-language setting of the Magnificat canticle. Curiously, this recording is not yet listed on Amazon.com, meaning that those wishing to keep up with Rademann’s progress will have to purchase the recording through its Web page on the Amazon Web site for Germany.

As might be guessed, Psalm 119 is rarely encountered in religious services, due to its prodigious length. Nevertheless, the booklet notes by Werner Breig (translated from the German by Elizabeth Robinson) suggest that Schütz had a strong personal attraction to the words of this Psalm. Having “paid his dues” with an abundance of extended settings of narrative texts, primarily from the New Testament, one gets the impression that, recognizing his advanced age, Schütz decided to turn to a text purely for the religious values that it expressed. In other words his setting is as much a labor of devout love as it is a “swan song.”

The key sign of Schütz’ devotion is his straightforward delivery of the text. One might almost say that he was more interested in making sure that the listener appreciated the rhetoric of the text, rather than dwelling on his own rhetorical skills as a composer. This may stand as a problem for more “secular” listeners; but, if one is willing to take Schütz on his own terms, there will be much to consider as one journey’s through the thirteen selections on this album.

Music at Church of the Advent: February 2018

Paul Ellison, Director of Music at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, has announced that the church’s resident professional choir, Schola Adventus, will be singing at two major services during the month of February. Both will be early evening services beginning at 6:30 p.m. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, February 2, Blessing of Candles, Procession & High Mass for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple: The text of the Mass will be sung to a four-voice setting by Claudio Monteverdi; other composers whose music will be performed will be Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, William Byrd, and Josquin des Prez.

Wednesday, February 14, High Mass with Imposition of Ashes: The Ash Wednesday service will include music by Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and William Walton.

This will also be a good time to note that the Third Sunday Concert for February will present the duo of Alexandra Iranfar and Timothy Sherren. Both Iranfar and Sherren studied guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Iranfar is also a soprano. When they first started giving concerts, they called themselves One Great City, eventually releasing the album Excursions under that name. However, the new year seems to have brought a new name; and they are now performing as SopraDuo. At the February Third Sunday Concert they will be appearing with guitarist Cristóbal Selame. The program will include music by Bach, Fernando Sor, and Cole Porter; and the performance will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, February 18.

Readers should also recall that, as was announced earlier this month, the Church of the Advent will host San Francisco Early Music Society’s February concert featuring the Agave Baroque instrumental ensemble.

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. There will, of course, be no admission fee for church services; but those attending the service are kindly requested to leave something in the collection plate. Third Sunday Concerts also do not charge for admission but will appreciate a suggested donation of $20.

Voices of Music Visits Paris

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music gave the San Francisco performance of the second of the three concerts planned for its eleventh season. The full title of the program was An Evening in Paris: Music by Couperin, Marais, Telemann & Balbastre. The music of the three French composers, François Couperin, Marin Marais, and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, was framed by two quartets by Georg Philipp Telemann, the concluding quartet being one of his so-called “Paris” quartets, written during his eight months in Paris between the end of 1737 and the beginning of 1738.

Only six performers were involved in this program. Director Hanneke van Proosdij played only instruments from the recorder family of different sizes. She was joined by Carla Moore on violin and Elisabeth Reed on gamba. Continuo was provided by Director David Tayler on archlute, Derek Tam on harpsichord, and William Skeen, alternating between cello and gamba.

These reduced resources gave a sense of intimacy to the listening experience, even if the interior of St. Mark’s is not the most intimate space in town. One got the impression that all of the selections involved music to be played among friends for personal pleasure. If others happened upon the players and decided to stick around to listen, such an activity was taken as peripheral.

One thus encounters any number of settings in which the composer seems to appeal to the “social” qualities of making music. One of the Couperin selections was a duo for viols, whose performance by Reed and Skeen evoked images of players some 400 years earlier delighting in the rich sounds of parallel thirds and sixths that predominate the score. Similarly, one could empathize with the personal satisfaction that Tam seemed to exude in taking on Balbastre’s solo keyboard works. Then, of course, there were the skillful “sound effects” of Couperin’s depiction of a nightingale in love as realized by Proosdij playing the smallest of the instruments in her collection of recorders.

Couperin’s chirping nightingale in its solo keyboard version (from IMSLP, public domain)

While the prevailing social setting may have been one of eavesdropping, the sanctuary of St. Mark’s held an impressive number of eavesdroppers, most (if not all) of whom appeared to be more than satisfied to have confronted this intimate side of French music-making without ever seeming intrusive.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: March 2018

Perceptive readers probably noticed that there was not one of these articles for February. This is because, with one exception, all of the February events were folded into “busy weekend” articles; so they could be compared fairly in the context of all the other things that were happening. The exception was the San Francisco Performances presentation of Philip Glass’ “Music with Changing Parts,” whose account made due mention of the participation of brass and woodwind students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). Since February has now been pretty much taken into account, this article will provide readers with an opportunity to get the jump on March, whose highlighted offerings turn out to be pretty modest.

The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Readers are encouraged to consult the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information about any of these offerings. (As of this writing, two of the events that were to be announced on this site have been cancelled.) Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest to serious and attentive listeners:

Saturday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: For the next performance by the Conservatory Orchestra, Conductor Eric Dudley has arranged for one of his students, John Masko, to conduct the opening selection, which will be the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 77 opera Der Freischütz. The program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony structure with a slight variation. The Weber overture will be followed by Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor with student Kaiyuan Wu as soloist. The second half of the program will present the composition that Béla Bartók called “Concerto for Orchestra,” which is basically a five-movement symphony with passages that highlight all of the different instrument types in the performing ensemble. Tickets will be required for this performance, $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors, students, and SFCM members. Tickets may be purchased online through a Click4Tix event page, which displays a seating chart showing which seats are available (with a special marker for those that are wheelchair accessible).

Monday, March 5, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The only Faculty Artist Series concert for the month of March will be given by guitarist Judicaël Perroy. Program details have not yet been announced. This recital will be free, and neither tickets nor reservations will be required.

Friday, March 9, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: On the other hand March will offer the next concert in the Alumni Artist Insights series. This will feature a piano recital by alumnus Jeffrey Kahane, who graduated in 1977. Here, too, program details have not yet been announced. This recital will also be free, requiring neither tickets nor reservations.

Saturday, March 10, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 11, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: This will be the annual Baroque Opera performance presented by the Historical Performance Department. Department Chair Corey Jamason will conduct a concert performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 19 opera seria Rodelinda. Reservations will be required for this free concert, but there will not be reserved seating. Reservations made be made online through separate Google Forms pages for the Saturday and Sunday performances.

SFCM Students Visit the SFCMP “Laboratory”

This season the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) prepared only a single concert for their in the LABORATORY series, conceived to focus on experimentation and exploration. That concert was held last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM); and it benefitted from significant contributions by SFCM students and alumni. Given that the resulting program may not have emerged as refreshingly energetic without them, one might almost call the student performers “laboratory assistants.”

Their presence was particularly appreciated at the end of the program with a performance of John Zorn’s “Cobra.” Created in 1984, Zorn has called this a “game” piece, particularly since it is based on a set of instructions rather than the usual score. The “game” is one of exchanging signals and the interpretation of those signals in terms of the relationships between the performers and their respective instruments. As might be guessed, any number can play; and the instruments in the performance depend entirely on who the players are.

“Cobra” is as much a visual piece as it is an auditory one. The game is well defined, but the rules are not disclosed to the audience. I was reminded of José Arcadio Buendia, the patriarch figure in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Near the end of his life, he goes mad and is tied to a tree in the center of town. A visiting priest tries to strike up a relationship with him and offers to teach him chess. Buendia replies that he never saw the point in playing a game in which both sides had agreed upon the rules.

“Cobra” is a case in which one side (the performers) has agreed upon the rules; but the other (the audience) is not supposed to have the slightest idea what they are. Listening thus becomes a free-for-all experience seasoned with physical antics that punctuate any frustrations in trying to identify cause and effect. It was a thorough delight to watch how the students bought into Zorn’s rules without ever trying to bend them and barely concealing the fun they were having in following them. Indeed, when one of the rules seemed to allow for playing familiar music, it was as if the students could take all of their previous coaching sessions and turn them all on their respective heads.

“Cobra” was preceded by another “rule-based” composition, Frederic Rzewski’s 1969 “Let Moutons de Panurge.” Panurge is one of the secondary characters in François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. While at sea Panurge argues with a sheep dealer about having been overcharged. In a fury, he picks up one of the sheep he had purchased and throws it overboard, whereupon all the other sheep follow their leader.

“Les Moutons de Panurge” is not explicitly about the sheep; but it involves an unanticipated breakdown of a sense of order similar to the unintended consequences of Panurge’s act. All musicians play from the same score, which is designated “For any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” The score consists of a single line of notes numbered from 1 to 65. Below those notes are the following instructions:
Read from left to right, playing the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc. When you have reached note 65, play the whole melody once again and then begin subtracting notes from the beginning: 2 through 65, 3 through 65, 5 through 65 . . . 62-63-64-65, 63-64-65, 64-65-. 65. Hold the last note until everybody has reached it, then begin an improvisation using any instruments.

In the melody above, never stop or falter, always play loud. Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold. Continue to follow the rules strictly.
While the musicians are playing the score, the nonmusicians can make any sounds they wish (“preferably very loud”). They have a leader, “whom they may follow or not.” The leader establishes the pulse for both musicians and nonmusicians, after which “any variations are possible.” The nonmusicians are also provided with a “suggested theme” in the form of a single sentence:
The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.
Thanks to Rzewski’s “stay lost” instruction, “Les Moutons de Panurge” emerges as a study of how disorder emerges, even when the order has been very strictly defined. In contrast to compositions that explored the use of chance procedures, Rzewski created a music-making situation designed to illustrate the inevitability of entropy. As in “Cobra” the ensemble again involved SFCM students joining the SFCMP players. However, in contrast to “Cobra,” this was a case in which the attentive listener could quickly figure out the nature of the rules and appreciate the effects brought on by following them. I was reminded of an earlier concert in which SFCM students joined SFCMP for a performance of Terry Riley’s “In C,” another piece that involves entropic effects. Nevertheless, Rzewski’s approach to that concept had its own brand of uniqueness while making for a listening experience as exhilarating as any encounter with “In C.”

The first half of the evening involved more modest resources but still entailed student participation. Most impressive was the appearance of students coached by Meredith Monk in the performance of her music. Soprano Courtney McPhail and mezzo Marina Davis (accompanied by SFCMP harpist Karen Gottlieb) gave as compelling and (in its own way) affectionate account of the encounter depicted by “Cave Song” (1988) as could be imagined. Just as striking was the serene account of Monk’s 1981 “Ellis Island” for two pianos, in which student Taylor Chan joined SFCMP pianist Kate Campbell. Campbell also excelled in her performance of four of the seven études for piano composed by Don Byron in 2009, one of which involved a brief moment of vocal punctuation.

The “new generation” of composers was represented by Vivian Fung and SFCM alumnus Ryan Brown. Fung’s 2014 Twist was a short suite for guitar (David Tanenbaum) and violin (Roy Malan), each of whose movements involved a “twist” on a past familiar form. The score required some highly demanding technical skills associated with each of the distinct styles in the different movements; but this was technical work that was the bread-and-butter of SFCMP “core competences.” Nevertheless, each movement was straightforward in making its case and benefitted from Fung’s keen appreciation of brevity.

Ryan Brown’s 2010 “Under the Rug” was a far more lyrical duo for viola (Clio Tilton) and harp (Gottlieb), along with Nick Woodbury using the body and strings of the harp for the percussion line of the score. There was also accompaniment provided by a percussion “chorus” of four players, two of whom were SFCM students. Taken as a whole, the first half of the evening was one of quietude that turned out to be the calm preceding the storm of the second half.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Choices for February 24–25, 2017

The next busy weekend in February will be the last one. As of this writing, Sunday will be the busier of the two days; but any additions on the Saturday side will be seen as subsequent amendments to this text. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, February 24, 8 p.m., The Lab: The next concert offering at this venue will be a two-set program. The major offering will be “Atlas,” a “sonic experience” created by Leyya Mona Tawil and Mike Khoury. Performing as the duo Tawil & Khoury, this pair works with the interrelationships of the practices of dance and music-making. Their compositions involve narratives of identity in the context of the diaspora of Arab cultures. (Tawil describes her own background as Syrian, Palestinian, and American.)

The opening set for the evening will be taken by Dominic Cramp performing in his Lord Tang persona. Lord Tang wears a white tuxedo to go with his white painted face. He draws upon sounds dredged from the depths of Jamaican dub, from which he then creates his own kaleidoscope of surreal auditory experiences. Those sounds accompany dances of abstract narratives created by artist Kelly Porter.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station.

Admission will be $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free. Advance registration is strongly advised. Separate Web pages have been created for members and the general public. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m., half an hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Events at The Lab tend to attract a large turnout, so early arrival is almost always highly recommended.

Saturday, February 24, 8 p.m., St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church: Sanford Dole’s a cappella mixed choir, the North Star Vocal Artists, will present a program entitled Water. Dole will conduct a performance of his own composition, “Water: Making Everything New,” based on a text by Native American poet Paula Gunn. Specific to the ocean will be “The Sounding Sea” by Eric William Barnum, while there will be settings of verses about rain by Ivo Antognini and John Milne. On a more popular side, the program will include “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from The Fantasticks (music by Harvey Schmidt setting lyrics by Tom Jones), possibly in the arrangement for the jazz quartet known as The Singers Unlimited. Other popular songs to be given an a cappella arrangement will be “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Shenandoah,” and “Snowfall.”

St. Gregory’s is located at 500 De Haro Street, at the foot of Potrero Hill. General admission tickets may be reserved in advance for $25 and will be sold at the door for $30. There will be a reduced rate of $10 for students. Tickets are no being sold online, but advance registrations may be made through electronic mail.

Saturday, February 24, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) will present a trio recital bringing together tenor Michael Schade, violinist Livia Sohn, and pianist Kevin Murphy. Performing as a trio, these musicians will present a series of arrangements made by Fritz Kreisler for tenor, violin, and piano. Sohn will play violin solos based on operatic themes, and Schade will sing a variety of genres, including German lieder and arias from both operas and oratorios.

The entrance to Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices are $60 (Orchestra and Boxes), $51 (Dress Circle), and $42 (Balcony). Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, which includes a floor plan that shows the number of seats available in the different sections. In addition, because the CMSF season has not yet begun, full subscriptions to all ten concerts are still on sale. These may be purchased for $350 through a PalPal Web page. It is also possible to save $4 on each ticket with the purchase of a mini-series of four or more concerts. The best way to do this will be to contact CMSF by phone at 415-392-4400, but there are also hyperlinks on the Subscription Packages Web page through which one can create a PayPal shopping cart of mini-series selections.

Sunday, February 25, 2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The February installment of the chamber music recitals presented by members of the San Francisco Symphony will consist of three trios. Two of these will be conventional piano trios, the first (in D minor) by Anton Arensky and the third (Opus 65 in F minor) by Antonín Dvořák. The program will begin with a much more recent composition, a trio for flute, violin, and piano by Nino Rota, best known by the scores he created for the films of Federico Fellini.

Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue and fills an entire city block. The other boundaries are Grove Street (north), Hayes Street (south), and Franklin Street (west). The main entrance (which is also the entrance to the Box Office) is on Grove Street, roughly halfway down the block. All tickets are $40. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from an event page created on the SFS Web site. However, information about seat availability and seat selection requires that Flash be running. Tickets may also be purchased by visiting the Box Office or calling 415-864-6000.

Sunday, February 25, 3 p.m., Nourse Theater: The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will present Sunday with the Divas, a Special Event that will bring together on one stage four world-renowned opera singers: Marilyn Horne, Patricia Racette, Deborah Voigt, and Frederica von Stade. This will not be a musical event as much as it will be an informal conversation serving up different perspectives on the nature of a career in the opera world, probably with a generous share of anecdotes added as spice. The Nourse Theater is located at 275 Hayes Street, across the street from Davies Symphony Hall, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Ticket prices will be $50 in the balcony, $75 in the loge, and $100 in the orchestra section. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page.

Sunday, February 25, 3 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: West Edge Opera will present its second installment of Snapshot, a “showcase” program that will present staged excerpts from new operas by both emerging and established West Coast composers. This season’s offerings will be as follows:
  1. The Last Tycoon, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald of the same name with a score by Cyril Deaconoff working with a libretto by David Yezzi
  2. Dynamo, scenes from the professional and family live of Thomas Edison composed by Larry London with a libretto by William Smock
  3. Death of a Playboy, a reflection on the funeral of Hugh Hefner with both music and libretto by Brian Rosen
  4. 452 Jamestown Place, an examination of multiple personality disorder by Katherine Saxon, who wrote both the music and the libretto
  5. She Who is Alive, a dysfunctional futurist vision with a score by Erling Wold working with librettist Robert Harris
All tickets are being sold for $40. They may be purchased in advance online from a Vendini event page. The Diane and Tad Taube Atrium Theater is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street.

Sunday, February 25, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The American Bach Soloists (ABS) subscription series will begin by revisiting Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 245 Passion setting based on the Gospel According to Saint John (the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters, but with two interpolations from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew). Tenor Aaron Sheehan will return to sing the Evangelist texts, having previously done so when BWV 245 was performed in the 2013 subscription series. The words of Christ will be sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg, who had been the aria soloist in 2013. This year’s aria soloists will be soprano Hélène Brunet, alto Robin Bier (making her ABS debut after previously making a deep impression as an ABS Academy student), tenor Steven Brennfleck, and baritone Bryan Jolly (another debut performance).

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. There are a variety of options for purchasing tickets, all of which are available online through a single Tickets Web page on the ABS Web site. Subscriptions to the three 2018 concerts are being sold for $227, $176, and $89. Single tickets are $89, $69, and $35.

Sunday, February 25, 8 p.m., SFCM: The second Faculty Artist Series concert of the month will feature the music of composer Ryan Brown. The featured selection on the program will be “Mortal Lessons,” the work for which Brown was awarded the SFCM Hoefer Prize Commission. This concert will take place in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. Admission will be free, and reservations will not be required.

Hands on Opera Debuts “Harriet’s Spirit”

Hands on Opera is the community outreach program of Opera Parallèle conceived to foster an interest in opera among children still at the elementary school level. This involves a collaborative process of making a new opera over the course of an eight-week residency. Exactly a year ago, this site reported on the impressive success of last year’s residency at the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, a one-act opera entitled “Xochitl and the Flowers.”

Last night at the African American Art & Culture Complex, Opera Parallèle presented the results of this season’s residency at the Rooftop Alternative School. The title of this season’s opera was “Harriet’s Spirit,” composed by local jazzman Marcus Shelby. As was the case last season, the libretto was prepared by Roma Olvera, this time based on an original idea of a middle-school girl who finds her own identity through leaning about Harriet Tubman. Other “returning talent” from last season included conductor Luçik Aprahämian and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.

What was clear last season was that what mattered most was the extent to which the students bought into the project. This involved not only their receptiveness to the story they were telling but also the commitment they brought to bringing that story into performance. Clearly, the commitment itself was not at a “professional” level; but, in the resulting production of “Xochitl and the Flowers,” one could recognize how sure professional hands had shaped that commitment.

Sadly, this was not the case last night; and it is worth asking why without detracting from the efforts of the students themselves. In this case the buck probably started with Shelby himself, who is an undeniably significant asset to this city’s jazz community. Chris Pratorius’ score for last year’s “Xochitl and the Flowers” was well matched not only to the kids that would have to sing it but also to the members of the audience, many of whom were probably having their “first contact” experience with opera. Similarly, Olvera shaped her libretto around a children’s book, which gave her the benefit of a solid narrative framework.

In “Harriet’s Spirit” there was too much of everything in both the music and the words. This was all very well and good for enjoying the impressive vocal dexterity of Tiffany Austin (depicting Tubman) and Christabel Nunoo (singing the young student Modesty); but, for the most part, the participating students were clearly out of their depth. Similarly, Brendan Hartnett, who staged “Xochitl” knew how to keep things minimal without being overly abstract; and, through that minimality, every participating student knew how to “get into character” for the production. Director Erin Neff, on the other hand, seemed to compound the complexities posed by both Shelby and Olvera; and it was clear that most of the kids never got beyond being in the right place at the right time.

Let’s hope that next season’s project goes back to prioritizing the participating kids themselves over some “higher artistic vision.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thoughts on SFO’s 2018–19 Season Repertory

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) General Director Matthew Shilvock announced plans for the 2017–18 repertory season. This year the announcement was streamed live over the Internet. However, as a result of my Medallion status, I chose to “pull rank” and wait until an evening event, which included not only a generous account of the season itself but also musical previews sung by the current crop of Adler Fellows, accompanied at the piano by John Elam (also an Adler Fellow).

What is most important is that all eight of the productions in the 2017–18 season will be new to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. Even the most familiar of the operas will be given new stagings. In addition, for those of us who are as interested in the orchestra pit as the stage, six conductors will be making their respective debuts with SFO. Also important was that Shilvock chose to present the new season by organizing seven of the eight operas under two unifying themes.

The larger category was that of fairy tales. The operas in this category were Arabella (Richard Strauss), It’s a Wonderful Life (Jake Heggie, being given its West Coast premiere), Orlando (George Frideric Handel), and Rusalka (Antonín Dvořák). Of these the only one whose classification I would question would be Arabella.

Angels and Mortals in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life (photography by Lynn Lane, courtesy of SFO)

Fairy tales tend to entail at least some level of intervention with powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. Arabella, on the other hand, is set in the Vienna of the 1860s and involves a man of lesser nobility with a major debt problem. Indeed, he cannot afford dowries for his two daughters and has disguised the younger one as a boy. Admittedly, the arrival of a wealthy Croatian friend, who is very much out of touch with Viennese refinement, is basically a deus ex machina; and the opera will end with daughter Arabella marrying him with the promise that they will both live happily ever after.

Nevertheless, this is a story of ordinary mortals having ordinary problems and dealing with them through ordinary means. I would even submit that Strauss is at his best in getting such characters to express themselves through the music they sing. Each of the other three operas, on the other hand, ventures into the supernatural in one way or another; although the critical plot element in Rusalka concerns all-too-human behavior.

Shilvock described the other category as dealing with raw emotion. This covered three productions encompassing four operas. The first of these is the opening night “double bill” offering of the traditional coupling of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” The other two operas are Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) and Carmen (Georges Bizet). Most opera lovers are familiar with all of these offerings and will appreciate that this categorization speaks for itself.

That leaves one “unclassified” opera, Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. This is a typical bel canto instance of historical English characters enduring intense tribulations while singing in Italian. Nevertheless, it took the SFO production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, which opened the 2014–15 season, to each me how to sit back and enjoy the pretty voices without letting a clunky plot get in the way of my pleasure!

It would be unfair to offer any comments (opinionated or otherwise) on any of these productions before any of them have shown up on their respective drawing boards. I will, however, observe that the summer of 2019 will be the first time Rusalka has seen the War Memorial Opera House since 1995. For over two decades I have only been able to satisfy my delight in this opera with video recordings, so I am definitely glad that its return has finally been planned. It is also worth noting that the production team for It’s a Wonderful Life will be pretty much the same one that mounted Moby Dick, which also involved Heggie working with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This production will bring one of the few faces to the orchestra bit that will be familiar, conductor Patrick Summers.

Warner’s Thorough Account of Debussy’s Piano Music

1893 photograph of Debussy at the piano (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

We are now well into the centennial year honoring the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 2018. Readers may recall that I credited the Hyperion label with putting out the first all-Debussy release of the year, an album consisting entirely of Debussy’s music for solo piano played by Stephen Hough. However, I am embarrassed to confess that, on that occasion, I may have given the impression that it was the only all-Debussy album to be released this past January 5, because this was also the date on which Warner Classics released its impressively comprehensive Complete Works box set of 33 CDs.

Readers know that, when confronted with a collection of this size, I try to fine a logical way in which to take a piecemeal approach to discussing the contents. Fortunately, Warner has ordered the CDs in this box in a way that makes my doing so a relatively straightforward manner. The first eleven CDs are devoted to piano music and are supplemented by the last “bonus” CD, consisting of recordings of Debussy himself at the keyboard. The piano section is then followed by seven CDs of instrumental music, both chamber and orchestral. There are then seven CDs of vocal music, both songs and choral works. The remaining seven CDs are then offer opera and other forms of staged compositions.

Respecting the order of the packaging, I shall begin with the twelve CDs of piano music. This may provoke a wait-a-minute response from those readers who recall that, a little over a month ago, I wrote about Warner having reissued Walter Gieseking’s Complete Piano Works recordings in a five-CD box set. Why is this new release so much larger in scope than Gieseking’s?

The most important reason is that not all of Debussy’s piano compositions were written for solo piano. Back in 1991 Dover publications put out two Debussy volumes both entitled Works for Piano Four Hands and Two Pianos. These involve both original compositions and transcriptions of both choral and instrumental music. However, the Dover collection is far from comprehensive in these two categories, meaning that there were selections that I did not even know by name, let alone through past experiences in either listening or playing.

Furthermore, the Warner collection includes a prodigious number of transcriptions in all three of these categories (solo, four-hand, and two-piano). Some of these are transcriptions of Debussy’s music by others, such as André Caplet and Maurice Ravel. However, there is also an impressive number of transcriptions of other composers made by Debussy, including (wait for it) one for two pianos of the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Flying Dutchman! (Those not familiar with Debussy’s biography may be surprised to learn that he visited Bayreuth twice, first in 1888 and then in the following year. Finally, even in the solo domain, this collection includes pieces that had not yet been discovered at the time that Gieseking made his recordings.

Taken as a whole, this extended collection of piano music is more than enough to make Warner’s Complete Works release definitely worth “the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum would have put it), if not more so! I would further submit that, while Warner also released on January 5 a three-CD “sampler” under the title Impressions: The Sound of Debussy, the fact is that anyone who really likes Debussy’s piano music will only be satisfied with the full extent of the complete collection. As might be guessed, most of the recordings in that section drew upon material that was already in the Warner catalog. Thus, one will encounter the names of quite a few familiar pianists; and I, for one, prefer that diversity to trying to account for everything with one pianist taking on the full scope.

Then, of course, there are the recordings of Debussy himself. Most of that CD comes from piano rolls recorded through Welte technology. Those rolls were then played back for audio recording through a Welte instrument built in 1923 and restored in 1991. What is most striking about these tracks is the breadth of dynamic range supported by the technology and Debussy’s exercise of that full breadth. This is most evident in the recording of “La Cathédrale engloutie” (the submerged cathedral), the tenth prelude in Debussy’s first book of twelve. It is easy to imagine that Debussy himself wanted to see how far he could push the technology, and the result is as chillingly awesome as any performance one is likely to encounter one hundred years later.

This CD also includes four 78 RPM recordings of Debussy accompanying soprano Mary Garden. She sings three of the songs, all with texts by Paul Verlaine, from Ariettes oubliées (forgotten songs), as well as a brief solo from the third act of the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. (Garden performed the role of Mélisande when this opera was first presented.) One has to be forgiving of the degraded sound quality on these tracks, but restoration can only go so far. What matters most is the secure sense of pitch and phrasing that Garden brought to her performances of Debussy, making these recordings well worth study by both aspiring and mature sopranos today.

SFS in February: Three Programs; Two Conductors

SFS Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt (from the SFS Web site)

Next month the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will present only three concert programs. However, the month will see the return of Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt to lead two of them, while the third will mark the SFS debut of conductor Andrew Boreyko, currently Music Director of the Orchestra National de Belgique. He will lead the final concert in the series prepared to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Thus, February will have much to offer the serious listeners in the SFS audience.

Both of the programs that Blomstedt has prepared for this season’s visit will focus on the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The first half of the first program will be devoted entirely to Beethoven’s Opus 73 (fifth) piano concerto in E-flat major, generally known as the “Emperor” concerto. The soloist will be Garrick Ohlsson. In the second half Blomstedt will offer the first SFS performances of the second symphony in G minor (Opus 34) by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 8, Friday, February 9, and Saturday, February 10. Ticket prices range from $39 to $139. 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 Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, there is a free podcast about the Beethoven concerto, hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, which can be played on that event page, along with sound clips from previous SFS performances of that concerto. In order to listen to these audio files, Flash must be enabled. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by Alexandra Amati-Camperi, beginning at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6:45 p.m. 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.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 8, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Amati-Camperi at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, the Side and Rear Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

The featured Beethoven selection on Blomstedt’s second program will be the Opus 55 (third) symphony in E-flat major (“Eroica”). This will be played during the second half of the program. The first half will be devoted entirely to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 550 symphony in G minor.

This concert will also be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, February 15, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 16, and Saturday, February 17. Ticket prices range from $35 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 Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, there is a free podcast about the Beethoven symphony, hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, which can be played on that event page, as well as sound clips from previous SFS performances of both of the symphonies. In order to listen to these audio files, Flash must be enabled. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by Scott Foglesong, beginning one hour before the performance starts. Doors will open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.

The first half of the program that Boreyko has prepared for his SFS debut will be devoted entirely to Bernstein. The featured work will be the five-movement “Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium,’” composed in 1954. Bernstein scored this piece for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion; and Vadim Gluzman will return to Davies to perform the violin solo part. The serenade will be preceded by the orchestral divertimento that Bernstein composed in 1980. The second half of the program will consist entirely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor. However, it is worth noting that this symphony figured significantly in Bernstein’s career, since he conducted a performance by the New York Philharmonic that took place during a visit to the Soviet Union when the Cold War was at its coldest.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 22, Friday, February 23, and Saturday, February 24. Ticket prices range from $15 to $159. 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 Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, prior to the performances themselves, the Program Note Podcasts Web page will have a free podcast about the Shostakovich symphony hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone; and the event page will have sound clips from previous SFS performances of that symphony. Flash must be enabled to listen to both the podcast and the sound clips. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by John Palmer, beginning at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6:45 p.m.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Red Poppy Art House: Second Half of February, 2018

The Red Poppy Art House has begun to announce programming for the second half of next month. (Since February is a short month, the usual dividing line has been slightly displaced.) Thus far, only four events have been posted. As any subsequent concerts for the month are announced, they will be added with the necessary information; and my “shadow” Facebook site will notify readers each time an update has taken place.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets are now being sold in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets. Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for those four events that have been posted thus far:

Thursday, February 15, 7:30 p.m.: Dynamic is a jazz group founded by Paul Kim when he moved from Copenhagen to San Francisco. The group consists of four singers and a rhythm section. Kim is the baritone in the group, as well as the arranger. The other vocalists are soprano Kirstine Dahlberg, mezzo Katrine Rømhild, and alto Anne Rørbaek Olesen. The rhythm section consists of Niels Wilhelm Knudsen on bass, Hasse Tang on drums, and Fredrik Rejle on guitar. Somewhat in the spirit of Ward Swingle, Kim creates vocal arrangements of instrumental music, much of which comes from jazz giants such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. (Swingle’s group, Les Double Six de Paris, worked with Gillespie in Paris in 1963, performing arrangements by Lalo Schifrin.) Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, February 16, 8 p.m.: This will be a performance by Sheela Bringi, who is a Hindustani harpist, singer, and bansuri flautist. Most of her repertoire consists of classical Indian music rearranged for harp and voice. Whether this will be a solo performance or will include backup musicians has not yet been finalized. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, February 17, 7:30 p.m.: Grupo Falso Baiano is a choro group that explores how both samba and choro forms have developed over the last 100 years of music-making in Brazil. The members are Brian Moran on seven-string guitar, Zack Pitt-Smith on winds, and Ami Molinelli on percussion. For this performance they will be joined by special guest vocalist Francisco Marques. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, February 18, 7 p.m.: A Circle Has No Beginning is a program conceived by Sameer Gupta, who plays classical Indian percussion instruments. He will lead a quartet, whose other members are Jay Gandhi (bansuri flute), David Boyce (saxophone), and Rashaan Carter (bass). Their repertoire reflects the influences of not only Indian classical traditions but also soul, modern jazz, and Native American melodies. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

[added 1/20, 2:40 p.m.:

Friday, February 23, 7:30 p.m.: This will be an evening of two folk-related sets. The evening will open with the Alex Hand Band, the instrumental trio of led by Hand on guitar. The other two members are Lewis Patzner on cello and Isaac Schwartz on drums. The group presents dance tunes from Bulgaria and Romania with a progressive edge. They will be followed by the vocal trio Three For Silver, all of whose members are also instrumentalists. Lucas Warford alternates among resonator bass, banjo bass, and upright bass, Willo Sertain plays accordion, and Greg Allison alternates between violin and mandolin. The group is currently on tour supporting their newest album, The Way We Burn. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, February 24, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.: Alex Conde (piano), John Santos (percussion), and Jeff Chambers (bass) have prepared a program entitled Jazz Flamenco. As can be seen from the time, this performance will be given two shows, each with its own set of improvisations that will explore the intersections of jazz, Latin jazz, flamenco, and all the spaces in between. Admission will be $25 for each of the two shows. Advance purchase is highly recommend, because there are likely to be only a limited number of tickets available at the door.]

Stepanova’s Good Intentions Lead You-Know-Where

This Friday, Concert Artists Guild will release a solo album by pianist Liza Stepanova entitled Tones & Colors. As of this writing, it is unclear just what the release plans will be. The only Web page that Amazon.com has created thus far is one for an MP3 download. The terms for payment are somewhat interesting. Basically, the first track of the album is already available. As a result, those who pre-order will be charged $0.99 for that one track and will then be charged the rest of the full payment when the remaining tracks become available, presumably on Friday.

Those tracks are basically the result of what might be called a “concept project.” The “concept” behind the album comes from Stepanova’s interest in the “intersections” (the word choice on the Web page she created for this album) between art and music. She invokes this noun in terms of her interest in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, and what resulted was an album of solo piano music by twelve composers in which each piece was associated with one or more works of visual art. In addition the accompanying essay in the album’s booklet by Monika Fink (which was translated into English by Stepanova) refers to “cross-pollination between visual and aural media.”

The back cover of Tones & Colors, presumably illustrating the sorts of intersections that Stepanova had in mind

These are ideas that can make for fascinating reading, but it may be worth considering whether putting those ideas into practice should be preceded by some reality checking. Consider the Mussorgsky suite as a source of inspiration. Just about any set of liner notes for this piece will observe that the pictures that Mussorgsky had in mind were by Viktor Hartmann, and they included at least one architectural sketch. Nevertheless, it would probably be safe to bet that, among the multitude of listeners who know and love this music (in either the original form or one of its instrumental versions) have never seen any of Hartmann’s work; and I would modestly suggest that the absence of any visual association does not, in any way, detract from the listening experience. If one needs to make any connections at all, one can manage simply with the titles of the individual movements.

Consider now how Tones & Colors has been realized. Basically, it is a collection of relatively unfamiliar compositions (with a few exceptions), each of which has been coupled with at least one work of art. The booklet provides illustrations for several of the selections, but the dimensions of the booklet pages clearly work at cross-purposes to the intentions behind those illustrations. Of much greater value is that Tones & Colors Web page, which has hyperlinks to far more satisfying reproductions of the images (except when they don’t which is the case with the butterfly paintings of Max Švabinský). Even Fink’s explanatory notes have little to offer when it comes to how the listening experience may be enhanced by looking at the art or, for that matter, vice versa.

Of course there is also the possibility that one may be best off by disregarding any connections and simply approaching the music on its own terms. From that point of view, it is certainly true that Stepanova gives an acceptable, if not necessarily informed, account of each of her selections. Nevertheless, I have to confess that, from a personal point of view, I felt that every one of the pieces that Stepanova played would have benefited from a better “musical context,” based on the sort of thinking behind preparing a good recital program involving nothing more than what the music has to offer.

Nevertheless, I have Stepanova to thank for one critical flash of insight during my own listening experience. It was the realization of the extent to which George Crumb’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which he composed in 1979, sounds like some of John Cage’s earliest (i.e. between 1940 and 1945) music for “prepared” solo piano! This, in turn, brought to mind one of the stories that Cage would tell, from time to time, during the performance of Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.” Here is the story as it appears on Cage’s Wikiquote Web page:
David Tudor and I went to Hilversum in Holland to make a recording for the Dutch radio. We arrived at the studio early and there was some delay. To pass the time, we chatted with the engineer who was to work with us. He asked me what kind of music he was about to record. Since he was a Dutchman I said, 'It may remind you of the work of Mondrian.' When the session was finished and the three of us were leaving the studio, I asked the engineer what he thought of the music we had played. He said, 'It reminded me of the work of Mondrian.'
If this story has a point to make, is that associations should be left to the listener, which may (or may not) explain why I was unable to find much to satisfy me in this new recording!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Opera Parallèle to Partner with SFJAZZ Again

Following up on the joint production of Terence Blanchard’s opera Champion, Opera Parallèle will again collaborate with SFJAZZ. This time the occasion will be a joint celebration of the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein on August 25, 1918. Much of Bernstein’s music was heavily influenced by both jazz and popular song. Those who know their jazz know that Bernstein wrote “Big Stuff” for Billie Holiday, which she first recorded for Decca in November of 1944.

Opera Parallèle will bring to the SFJAZZ Center a fully-staged production of Bernstein’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti,” which he composed in 1951 using a libretto that he authored. Bernstein’s jazzy side pervades much of his score, particularly in the close harmonies provided by the “Greek chorus” specified in the libretto. The vocalists for this performances will be soprano Krista Wigle, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard. The cast itself consists only of a husband and wife dealing with the dark side of what was supposed to be a utopian suburban life. Both of these roles will be double-cast with baritones Kyle Albertson and Eugene Brancoveanu and mezzos Renée Rapier and Abigail Levis, respectively.

Abigail Levis and Eugene Brancoveanu in “Trouble in Tahiti” (from the SFJAZZ Web site)

“Trouble in Tahiti” will be preceded by Jake Heggie's “At the Statue of Venus,” a single scene scored for soprano and piano setting a libretto by Terrence McNally. The text is basically the interior monologue of a young woman waiting for her blind date. The setting is a museum, and the woman is waiting at the foot of a statue of the Goddess of Love. The order of presentation will suggest that this is the woman that we shall subsequently encounter as the wife in “Trouble in Tahiti.” Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel has written a “before-and-after” narrative text, which will serve to provide a seamless link between these two operas. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement will conduct.

This production will be given six performances between Thursday, February 15, and Sunday, February 18, preceded by a preview taking place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 14. Rapier and Albertson will sing at the preview and at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 16, and Sunday, February 18, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 17. Levis and Brancoveanu will present the “opening night” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 15. They will also sing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 17 and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 18. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Tickets are priced from $30 to $170. SFJAZZ has created a single event page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets to all seven performances.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Bobo Stenson Trio Returns to ECM

Bobo Stenson at the keyboard in 2006 (photograph by Richard Kaby, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has been leading a trio with bass player Anders Jormin for more than 30 years. Over that time they have worked with a series of drummers, including Rune Carlsson, Jon Christensen, and Paul Motian. When Motian departed in 2007, he was replaced by Jon Fält, who is still with the group. The trio has been making recordings for ECM since Christensen’s tenure, the first album, Reflections, having been released in 1993.

The group’s latest album, Contra la indecisión, will be released this coming Friday. As is usually expected, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders. The album is named after its first track, a song written by the Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez, who has sometimes been called “Cuba’s John Lennon.” Stenson himself is solely responsible for only one track, “Alice,” while Jormin is the composer of three: “Doubt Thou The Stars,” “Three Shades Of A House,” “Oktoberhavet,” and “Stilla.” “Kalimba Impressions” is the joint product of the entire trio.

What makes Stenson particularly interesting, however, is his ability to appropriate source material from “external” (sometimes unlikely) sources and then work it into his trio’s style of performance. Stenson calls such adaptation “respectful transformation.” That includes identifying the possibilities for improvising departures from the source; but it may also entail taking a different point of view, so to speak. For example, his adaptation of a wedding song from the Slovakian village of Poniky is based on music originally collected by Béla Bartók during his ethnomusicological research of eastern European regions. Under Stenson’s hands the music barely sounds anything like a “folk form,” let alone how Bartók appropriated it for his own purposes. Yet the substance of the original song is still there and is brought into a new light by virtue of Stenson’s own individual keyboard style.

A more direct appropriation can be found in Erik Satie’s “Élégie,” the second of a set of three songs he composed in 1886. This track begins with a relatively clear account of both the piano part and the vocal line. (It also may have been inspired by the album Mélodie passagère, recorded by the Italian singer Alice, probably the “subject” of the track on this album of the same name.) Once that “groundwork” has been established, Stenson exercises his own brand of freedom to weave his improvisations.

Taken as a whole, the prevailing rhetoric of this album is one of quietude. However, that quietude provides a setting for some imaginative approach to reflection. Those who do not always want their jazz to be hard-driving will find much to discover in how this trio can tease out different possibilities for improvising once they have established their source material.

The Bleeding Edge: 1/15/2018

Once again, this will be a busy week of events, most of which have already been given advance notice on this site. Here is a quick summary with hyperlinks pointing to the details for those events:
  • Center for New Music: concerts on January 16, 17, 18, 20
  • January 17: this month’s Composers in Performance Series concert at the Canessa Gallery
  • January 19: this month’s program curated by Ben Tinker at Adobe Books
  • January 19–20: busy-weekend offerings from San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Community Music Center, and The Lab
That leaves only two other gigs, both of which overlap with events accounted for above:

Wednesday, January 17, 7:45 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Activities will resume in the New Year at this venue following the usual four-set format. Sets will be taken by the duo of guitarist Bruce Anderson working with the electronics of A.C. Way, the electronically enhanced group that calls itself Cube, Frank’s Tina Takes (a solo performance), and another solo set by violinist and vocalist Christina Stanley. The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission for all will be $5.

Thursday, January 18, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s installment of Outsound Presents’ LSG Creative Music Series will be a two-set evening. The first set will be a duo improvisation by percussionist Mark Pino and Jack Hertz supplementing the drum work with electronics. They will be followed by the HUMMEL quintet, whose members are Brian Pederson on saxophone, cellists Shanna Sordahl and Sung Kim, and drummers Timothy Orr and Robert Lopez. 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.