Sunday, October 21, 2018

SFSYO Announces 2018–2019 Season

SFSYO Music Director Christian Reif (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Next month will see the first performance in the 36th season of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). Once again all concerts will be conducted by Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif. With only one exception, all performances will take place at Davies Symphony Hall at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. One of them will be the Annual Youth Orchestra Holiday Concert, for which tickets cost between $25 and $90, with those aged seventeen and under admitted for half price. Ticket prices for all the other concerts are $55 for reserved seats in the Loge and Side Boxes and $20 for general admission. All tickets may be purchased online through an event page 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. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to the specific dates given below. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours before the beginning of the concert on Sunday. Specific programming details are as follows:

November 11: Percussionist Jonas Koh, winner of the SFSYO 2018 Concerto Competition, will be the soloist in a performance of Emmanuel Séjourné’s concerto for marimba and strings. He will play the 2015 revision of the original version of the concerto, composed in 2005. The program will begin with John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” and conclude with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 70 (seventh) symphony in D minor.

December 9: The Holiday Concert will present the annual performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This year the narrator will be Richard Dreyfuss. Details for the rest of the program have not yet been announced.

March 3: The program will begin with the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro. This will be followed by a selection of arias and ensemble pieces performed by vocalists currently in the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship Program. The remainder of the program will consist of Claude Debussy’s Ibéria suite (the second piece in his Images pour orchestre collection) and the second suite that Georges Bizet extracted from the incidental music he provided for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne.

May 19: The overture for this program will be Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 concert overture, “The Hebrides.” The remainder of the program will offer two perspectives on the music of Gustav Mahler. First will come “Mahlerwerk,” composed by SFSYO alumnus Nathaniel Stookey. This will be followed by “real Mahler” in the form of his first symphony in D major.

June 16: This will be a special concert held at 8 p.m., rather than 2 p.m. It will be a “Bon Voyage” performance preceding SFSYO’s eleventh international tour. The program will reprise the performance of Dvořák’s Opus 70 given at the beginning of the season. The concerto offering will be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major. The soloist has not yet been announced. The overture for the occasion will be the first of the three “American” preludes composed by Detlev Glanert. Note that, as of this writing, an event page for this concert has not yet been created for online ticket purchasing.

E4TT Surveys Hungarian Composers on Centaur

The E4TT trio of Nanette McGuinness, Dale Tsang, and Anne Lerner-Wright (courtesy of E4TT)

This past April Centaur Records released its second recording of the chamber group that calls itself Ensemble for These Times (E4TT). The group was formed during the 2007–2008 season by soprano Nanette McGuinness, and the instrumentalists are pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Anne Lerner-Wright. The ensemble also has a resident composer, David Garner. The first album, Surviving: Women’s Words, consisted of repertoire prepared under the rubric of the Jewish Music & Poetry Project. The second album, The Hungarians: From Rósza to Justus, was released only in digital form and is available for download (including the booklet of song texts and program notes) from

As might be guessed, this is an album for those interested in learning about unfamiliar composers. The first name in the title is that of Miklos Rósza, best known as a composer of movie scores (and, within that category, as the composer for William Wyler’s Ben-Hur). His film career actually began in Paris in 1934 when he was offered the job of scoring music for a film of Les Misérables. However, that career took off after he moved to London. He worked at London Films, led by fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda. During the filming of The Thief of Bagdad, the Second World War began; and the production transferred to Hollywood, making Rósza another member that thriving scene of European composers living in the great Los Angeles area.

Like other film composers, he tried to keep his hand in concert music between film commitments. Those who championed his music included János Starker (another Hungarian), Jascha Heifetz, and Gregor Piatigorsky. Heifetz and Piatigorsky jointly commissioned him to write a sinfonia concertante for the two of them (his Opus 29); but they never performed the completed version.

I have chosen to focus on Rósza not so much out of a personal preference but because I have acquired a broader sense of his work through my listening experiences. The other composers represented on this recent album are Sándor Vándor, Lajos Delej, and György Justus. Their selections on this album were all “first contact” experiences for me; but none of them really elicited that where-have-you-been-all-my-life response. Some of this may be attributed to the way in which Lerner-Wright and Tsang knew how to tap into the rhetorical side of Rósza’s Opus 8 duo, making it clear that there was more to the music than the composer’s skill in reflecting Hungarian idioms.

The weakest selections tended to be the vocal ones. The sonorities of the final Justus track seemed to have more to do with nostalgia for Vienna, even though the text embodies a longing for Pest. Part of the problem may have come from McGuinness going a bit overboard on the forte passages, but I think it would be fair to that that Justus did not give her much of a platform for her interpretative skills. The four songs by Vándor, on the other hand, were more encapsulated but never really seemed to catch the spirit of the moment.

Nevertheless, these are personal opinions, which should not interfere with others wishing to exercise personal curiosity!

SFCMP: From Elliott Carter to the Present

1989 photograph of Elliott Carter with one of his scores (photograph by Jacques M. Chenet, courtesy of SFCMP)

Last night in the Taube Atrium Theater, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) launched its 48th season with an on STAGE Series concert entitled Carter and Beyond: Invention and Inspiration. The program was framed by three compositions by Elliott Carter, beginning with two short pieces for solo instrument and concluding with “Penthode,” a 25-minute composition, requiring twenty players organized into five quartets. Within this framework SFCMP presented the world premiere of a woodwind quintet by Asher Tobin Chodos entitled “Big Show” and “Shy Garden,” one of the pieces in Sabrina Schroeder’s Bone Games collection of pieces based on alternative approaches to playing instruments based on electronic transducers and physical techniques involving breath and/or sensitive touch.

Throughout his extensive lifetime (from December 11, 1908 to November 5, 2012) Carter never allowed himself to settle into some “characteristic voice” through which his music would be recognized. One might say that such a “voice” was unnecessary, since there were so few opportunities to encounter his music either in performance or on recording. In my student days he was “all about” a technique called “metric modulation;” but he was just as interested in working with pitch classes that would depart from the conventions of tonality without necessarily following in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg. While he has had some powerful advocates (Daniel Barenboim is always the first to come to my own mind), I realize that, whenever I set out to write about his music, my writing always involves pieces I have heard for the first time. (The only exception I can recall is when students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music played his second string quartet, which I had previously encountered at a concert during my student days.)

Nevertheless, my experiences have covered enough ground for me to appreciate the interest that Carter took in writing for a single instrument. The earlier of the two pieces played last night was actually written for guitar on the occasion of his own 75th birthday in 1983. The piece is less than ten minutes in duration and is entitled simply “Changes.”

There is a very strong sense that Carter wished to explore the full extent of sonorities that could be produced by an unamplified guitar. At the same time he seemed to be scrupulously avoiding anything that might be taken as a guitar-like idiom. The result is practically a study in pointillism, where each point seems to have its own characteristic sonority. Only towards the end of the piece does Carter allow the performer to indulge in a bit of strumming (which felt, at least to this listener, like a breath of fresh air)! In last night’s performance David Tanenbaum clearly seemed to have mastered the full extent of sonorities that Carter was exploring, and Tanenbaum’s approach to performance turned those explorations into a journey well worth taking.

The other solo composition also left the impression of a journey of exploration. This was “A 6 Letter Letter,” composed for cor anglais and played by Kyle Bruckmann. Carter composed the piece in 1996 for the 90th birthday of Paul Sacher, the Swiss conductor responsible for commissioning an almost overwhelming number of twentieth-century compositions. The six letters were those of Sacher’s name, each of which could be translated into a different pitch class. The result amounted to a highly lyrical monologue, based on pitch classes that steered clear of past tonal conventions. Even without a tonal center, however, one could appreciate the wistfulness of the rhetoric as the honoree entering his nineties was honored by a composer with less than two years to go before finishing his eighties.

The final work on the program, “Penthode,” was composed about two years after “Changes” and is different in just about every possible way. What was fascinating (and perhaps a bit ironic) about the massive resources required to play “Penthode” was how transparent it all was. With Eric Dudley, the new SFCMP Artistic Director, conducting, it seemed as if every note from every instrument had its own unique clarity.

Think again of a study in pointillism, this time on a very large canvas on which none of the points are that close to each other. The ear can “step back from it all” and gradually become aware of how individual notes are juxtaposed even when their respective instruments are distant from each other. Only towards the conclusion does the score seem to home in on an “ensemble sound” (rather the same as the way in which “Changes” falls back on conventional “guitar sounds” near its conclusion).

As a composer, Chodos was quoted in the program book as expressing appreciation for Carter’s approaches to polyphony. This made “Big Show” an appropriate “partner piece” for “Penthode,” even if the two pieces were not played consecutively last night. Indeed, “Big Show” deserved to stand on its own, because it was the one piece in the program with a raucous sense of humor.

Some of that humor went into naming the three movements after clichés about the American West. However, the deepest impression on me came at the very beginning when I realized that bassoonist Shawn Jones had been drafted into the task of providing a basso continuo. While the other four wind players frolicked, Jones plugged away at a four-square bass line that seemed to owe more to Baroque tradition than to the walking bass behind a big band arrangement.

“Shy Garden,” on the other hand, involved gently escorting the attentive listener to the threshold of audibility. Every sound involved some subtle quality, whether it was the resonant vibration of a large drum head or the barely audible sound of a bow being drawn across the body, rather than the string, of a viola. On the basis of what I could learn through a Google search (which, sadly, was not much), I came away from the impression that Bone Games was a cycle of pieces involved with taking sounds normally associated with the background and bringing them to the foreground. Here, again, Dudley was in top form as conductor, leading the ten players with such attentiveness than the willing listener could relish each moment in its own splendid isolation. Perhaps a future season will provide an opportunity to listen to the cycle in its entirety.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Fujii’s September Birthday Release with Spence

Back cover of intelsat showing Satoko Fujii and Alister Spence in performance (courtesy of Brathwaite & Katz Communications)

This has been a busy month, and one of the consequences is that I have not been as quick to listen to the September release in Satoko Fujii’s “Kanreki Cycle,” the series of twelve new albums, one for every month of the calendar year, that she has been releasing to honor her 60th birthday. The title of the new release is intelsat, and it marks her first album of a duo performance with Australian Alister Spence. Note the hyperlink to By my records this is the first to appear since the Kanreki Cycle began. It is for an MP3 download, but it is nice to see take any sort of notice for a change!

The title is a somewhat odd one. The use of lower case letters is deliberate, since Intelsat (as it is currently spelled and capitalized) is a communications satellite services provider, one of the leading pioneers is moving space technology into the private sector. Each of the tracks on the album is named for a different moon of Saturn; and the exploration of Saturn by spacecraft has been a major NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) mission since Pioneer 11 made the first flyby. Saturn has at least 62 moons, 53 of which have been given names; and the track titles show a preference for some of the more obscure of those moons.

On the musical side (which is where the real interest lies) Spence’s instrument is a Fender Rhodes electric piano. However, he does not limit performance to the keyboard. Just as Fujii can lift the lid of her grand piano to play the instrument from the interior or to prepare it by inserting physical objects either between or on top of the strings (see the image above), Spence can remove the cover of his instrument. He does this, in his words, “to see what noises I can make, with the aid of some electronic effects pedals, that were not necessarily linked to activating the keyboard mechanism. For me the setup presents me with a way in which I can explore sound without necessarily revealing myself as a keyboard player.”

Fujii first encountered Spence in 2007 when she and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were touring Australia. Fujii and Tamura asked Spence and his trio to join them when they were playing in Sydney, and the five players subsequently shared a double bill at the Tokyo International Jazz Festival. There followed a series of duo concerts given by Fujii and Spence, and all of the material on intelsat was recorded at such a concert given in 2017.

That concert consisted of a single uninterrupted improvisation, meaning that the seven tracks on the album are all excerpts, extracted as a result of some attempt to “parse” the session in its entirety. How much “logic” accounts for that “parsing” is left for the listener to decide. The second track is disproportionately larger than the other six, clocking in at over 22 minutes; and I have to confess that my own propensity for segmentation kicked in through efforts to “parse” that single track!

More interesting, however, are the sounds themselves. I would suggest that there is a clear objective on the part of both Fujii and Spence to give the impression that this is a performance of a single instrument capable of a prodigious variety of ways in which to produce sounds. Having said that, I have to confess that familiarity with extended techniques for playing a grand piano (including preparation) tended to facilitate my own abilities to sort out the respective contributions of Fujii and Spence. However, that is just the theorist in my trying to get your attention! As a listener I can still be content with just listening to the ongoing flow of a diversity of sonorities, wishing I had been there for the concert gig that served as the “source” for this album.

Quartetto di Cremona to Play Schubert at IIC

The Quartetto di Cremona (violinists Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violist Simone Gramaglia, and cellist Giovanni Scaglione) last visited the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) in January of 2017. On that occasion they performed of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 132 string quartet in A minor. That concert made such a deep impression that the following December, when I was preparing my month-by-month account of memorable concerts, there was no question that January would go to Quartetto di Cremona.

As a result I was more than delighted to learn that this ensemble will be making its third visit to San Francisco at the beginning of next month. (Their IIC recital had been preceded by their San Francisco debut having been hosted by San Francisco Performances in April of 2016.) This time the focus of their program will be Franz Schubert, Beethoven’s most worthy successor in the domain of string quartets (not to mention solo piano music). They will play Schubert’s best-known quartet, D. 810 in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden,” since the second movement is a set of variations on the D. 531 song Schubert had composed with that title.

First page of the original manuscript of Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The program will begin with three of the twelve relatively short pieces that Lorenzo Ferrero collected under the title Tempi de Quartetto. These were composed between 1996 and 1998; and all of them, divided into two “series,” were recorded by Quartetto di Cremona on the Klanglogo label for an album released in September of 2015. The titles of the pieces that the ensemble has selected for their IIC recital are “To David Huntley, in memoriam,” “Allegro,” and “Slow Rock.”

This concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 7, and will probably last for about two hours. IIC is located in the Civic Center at 601 Van Ness Avenue, Suite F. Admission is free, but registration is required to assure having a place. IIC has created a registration page specific for this event. Anyone who registers may also add the names of a maximum of two additional guests. Those wishing further information may call IIC at 415-788-7142.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Keith Jarrett in Venice at La Fenice

Exactly one week from today ECM will release its latest recording of a solo concert piano performance by Keith Jarrett. The album is entitled simply La Fenice. It consists of two CDs documenting a live concert performance that Jarrett gave at La Fenice (whose name means “the phoenix”), which is the major opera house in Venice, Italy. Since 1792 this has been one of Europe’s major venues for opera performances, playing a significant role in providing opportunities for bringing the bel canto style to large audiences. Note that last adjective. The space itself is mind-bogglingly large; and, given Jarrett’s popularity, particularly in Europe, it is likely that there was not an empty seat in the house when his concert was recorded there on July 19, 2006. As usual, is currently taking pre-orders for the resulting album.

Photograph of the interior of La Fenice taken at the end of 2015 (uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by photographer Youflavio, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

By way of disclaimer, I should begin by stating that I have not personally attended one of Jarrett’s recitals, solo or otherwise. For better or worse, I have come to know his work only through recordings. This raises some interesting issues where a concert like the one given at La Fenice is concerned. For the most part the content consisted of a suite of eight spontaneously created pieces, each identified on the track listing as “Part” followed by a Roman numeral. (I say “for the most part” because Jarrett inserts his take on “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” from the operetta The Mikado with music by Arthur Sullivan setting the words of W. S. Gilbert. This takes place between the sixth and seventh improvised “Parts.”

The album also includes the three encores taken after Jarrett’s extended improvisation, which, presumably, was played without any interruption other than occasional brief interjections of applause between the parts. The first encore was the traditional tune “My Wild Irish Rose” (leading me to wonder how many times Jarrett had to deal with a drunk coming up to him and asking him to play “Melancholy Baby”). This was followed by Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” given a hard-driving bebop account in which the tune is far less recognizable than is ever encountered in one of Miles Davis’ takes. Jarrett them wrapped up the evening with a “documented” (as opposed to spontaneous) tune of his own, “Blossom.”

While I have not experienced Jarrett in concert, I have had the good fortune to enjoy a performance that was basically a full evening of spontaneous improvisation. That performance was given by another pianist, Cecil Taylor. I note this because, while the styles of these two players differ markedly, they agree on one strategic approach to performing.

In both cases the initial improvisation is longest, tending to be a suite unto itself that perambulates in and out of different thematic terrains and different stylistic approaches. Furthermore, Jarrett’s “Part I” is not only the longest track but the one that is very leisurely about homing in on a tonal center. Taylor was more likely to go the entire night without ever establishing such a tonal center. In Jarrett’s case, one quickly becomes accustomed to the lack of anything even remotely suggesting a traditional cadence; yet, by the time that “Part I” has run its course, the attentive listener realizes that there is a “focal harmony” (if not, strictly speaking, a “tonality”) hovering over his final measures.

Having exercised his adventurous chops in “Part I,” Jarrett frequently turns to more familiar genres or styles to provide orienting landmarks in the subsequent parts. Perhaps that gradual intrusion of familiarity is his way of preparing the audience for a take on a “real tune” taken from The Mikado. Ultimately, the sense of timing that Jarrett brings to both what he plays and how he plays it is so well crafted that it readily absorbs any serious listener. (You never hear any sound from the audience except when Jarrett provides a break for applause.)

Mind you, all this may well have been an instance of a recording crew being in the right place at the right time. (A friend of mine happened to be at a Jarrett solo performance in Davies Symphony Hall that definitely was not at the right time!) Nevertheless, whatever circumstances may have led to this document that will soon be released by ECM, that document will definitely reward those willing to listen to it attentively.

BARS Winter Concert to Feature 2nd Guest Conductor

The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony has organized its 2018–19 season of four concerts to correlate approximately with the four seasons. Thus, the series opened with a Fall Concert on September 15, less than a week before the “official” autumnal equinox. The Winter Concert will get the jump on the first day of winter by an even greater distance, since it has been scheduled for November 10. This will be the second of the two concerts led by a guest conductor (the first having been the Fall Concert). The guest conductor next month will be Leif Bjaland.

Cellist Evan Kahn in front of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (photograph by Geo Kahn, from Evan Kahn’s Facebook Photos Web page)

If the event itself involves a loose approximation to the beginning of winter, one can say that the program is an equally loose approximation to the conventional overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto will be Samuel Barber’s Opus 22 cello concerto in A minor, one of the many instances of American modernism composed on a commission by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). (The financing was actually due to John Nicholas Brown, a BSO trustee who also happened to be an amateur cellist.) The soloist for the BARS performance will be Evan Kahn, who played the first movement of this concerto (with piano accompaniment) at the first of the two Graduate Recitals he prepared during the last academic year at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The “overture” for the program will be by Byron Adams with a composition entitled “Capriccio concertante.” The second half of the program will be the set of concert variations that Edward Elgar called “Enigma,” not a symphony but decidedly symphonic in both scope and rhetoric.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday, November 10. The venue will be Everett Auditorium, which is located in the Castro District. at 450 Church Street. (For those who have already made plans based on the 2018–19 season announcement, this is a change from the originally announced venue of Calvary Presbyterian Church on Fillmore Street.) General admission will be $30 with a $20 rate for seniors and a $10 charge for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Tix event page.

Bartók Informed by Ravel at Heras-Casado Visit

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado (from his San Francisco Symphony event page)

Last night Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado returned to Davies Symphony Hall for his annual appearance as visiting conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The concerto soloist for this week’s series of subscription concerts was also Spanish, pianist Javier Perianes, who also seems to be becoming a regular visitor to San Francisco. He made his San Francisco debut with SFS in June of 2015 with Charles Dutoit serving as guest conductor; and, in May of 2017, he made his San Francisco recital debut in the final program of that season’s Piano Series presented by San Francisco Performances.

Last night’s concerto selection, on the other hand, could not have been more distant from Spain. It was the last of Béla Bartók’s three piano concertos, completed in New York in 1945. Bartók delayed work on his viola concerto to make sure he completed the piano concerto before his death. He had planned it as a surprise for his wife Ditta, and many believed that he had hoped she would be able to sustain herself by giving performances of it once she was on her own.

Compared to the two preceding piano concertos, the third is far less aggressive, leading many to assume that Bartók had deliberately “tamed” it to improve his wife’s chances of getting bookings to play it. There are even a few passages whose playfulness reminds the listener of Bartók’s capacity for wit in better times. What is particularly impressive, however, is that this is a concerto in which the instrumental sonorities of the orchestra contribute to expressiveness as much as the elaborately conceived piano work. This puts it in the same “league” as Bartók’s earlier “Concerto for Orchestra,” not to mention the Opus 125 “Symphony-Concerto” by Sergei Prokofiev performed in Davies last week by cellist Truls Mørk under SFS visiting conductor Manfred Honeck. (Prokofiev, however, did not compose his Opus 125 until over five years elapsed after Bartók’s death.)

Much of the impact of Bartók’s final piano concerto involves his departure from his preferred percussive approach to the keyboard in favor of more lyrical thematic material. He could thus use the orchestral ensemble to reflect on that material through different approaches to instrumental coloration. Those colors, in turn, provide the context for the rhetorical stances taken by the soloist, resulting in an ongoing kaleidoscope of both sonorities and expressive dispositions.

Mind you, the display of skillful pianistic technique, of the sort that Perianes summoned for last night’s performance, always runs the risk of upstaging what the rest of the instruments are doing. However, Heras-Casado deployed a clever maneuver to raise awareness of instrumental activity. He preceded the Bartók concerto with Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of “Alborada del gracioso” (morning song of the jester), originally one of the five movements of a suite for solo piano he had entitled Miroirs (mirrors).

What had originally been conceived in terms of intense demands upon the full scope of keyboard technique was reconceived as an abundantly rich palette of instrumental sonorities. For those sitting in Davies, the impact of those sonorities could be reinforced by “visual input" regarding which players were the sources of which of those sonorities. There are few pieces in which the activities of the orchestra players are both so diverse and so intensive. Up on the podium Heras-Casado knew just how to balance all of those sonorities in such a way that any recollection of the original piano version could be found only in the insights Heras-Casado brought to the overall textures of rhythm.

“Alborado del gracioso” thus provided a first-rate account of the breadth of scope of the instrumental resources up on stage. When the program shifted to Bartók, most of those resources were still there. They clearly were being put to use for different purposes; but, as a result of Heras-Casado’s perceptive approach to Ravel, one could appreciate that Bartók’s purposes were just as significant and rhetorically compelling.

Following his concerto performance, Perianes offered his audience an encore. He selected the last of the four mazurkas (in the key of A minor) in Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 17 collection. This seemed to suggest that one good Eastern European turn deserves another; and Perianes’ attentiveness to his “source text” could not have been more solid. For my money, however, he seemed to dwell more on the melancholia of the A minor key than on any sense of the mazurka being a dance form. As a result, the distinctive three-beat pattern, whose shift in pulse clearly distinguishes it from a waltz, was all but entirely absent. What emerged was deep sadness where wistfulness would have been more appropriate. (On the other hand, going a bit overboard on the rhetoric was a bit of a relief after the featureless approach to Chopin in Davies last Sunday night.)

The second half of last night’s program returned to Spain through a familiar coupling of more Ravel with Claude Debussy. The Debussy offering was Ibéria, the three-movement suite in a collection of three compositions given the overall title Images pour orchestre. (In other words this the second of a collection of three pieces, which, in turn, consisted of three movements.) Composed in 1908, Ibéria was composed two years after the piano version of “Alborado del gracioso” but about ten years before the orchestral version.

Like that latter version, Ibéria establishes a rich palette of sonorities and works it to its fullest extent. In addition, the music is as diverse in its approaches to rhythm as it is in its sonorities. Indeed, the final movement, depicting the celebration of a feast day, even descends at one point into drunken revelry, serving up a delightful reminder of Debussy’s capacity for wit. The program then concluded with Ravel’s “Boléro,” playing to an audience that had now been “conditioned” to respond to the rich diversity of instrumental sonorities.

As just about everyone knows, Ravel’s piece grows out of an ostinato rhythmic pattern played on the snare drum. Heras-Casado decided this was significant enough to give Percussion Principal Jacob Nissly a “front and center” position in the ensemble, rather than relegating him to the rest of the Percussion section in their usual Siberian locale. Heras-Casado could not have been better at realizing the gradual crescendo that is the primary feature of Ravel’s score. As the theme migrated from solo instruments to small groups to orchestral sections and ultimately to full ensemble, Heras-Casado was at the top of his game in calling attention to the significance of each color arising from Ravel’s scrupulous approach to instrumentation. Familiar as this music may be, this was an account that left all those in Davies totally breathless at the final chord before erupting into one of the more thunderous ovations that hall has experienced.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Choices for November 9, 2018

As of this writing, the second weekend of next month has not shaped up to be as busy as the first (at least not yet). On the other hand the Friday that begins that weekend has a generous share of alternatives, a few of which were cited in yesterday’s “busy Thursday” article. Here are the specifics for November 8, the second Friday in November:

7:30 p.m., St. John the Evangelist: This will be a benefit concert with all proceeds going to the Gubbio Project’s Sacred Sleep program. The Gubbio Project is a joint effort of St. John the Evangelist and St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin directed towards assisting the homeless. An average of 320 individuals per day benefit from this effort. One of the major offerings is Sacred Sleep, which provides a safe, clean place to sleep on the pews and mats of the floors of both churches.

The concert itself will be presented by Symphonia Caritas, a professional orchestra with its own mission of improving the lives of those in need through free concerts while offering benefit concerts for fundraising. This particular concert will begin with the Adagietto movement from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony. The soloist for the program will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, who will perform selected songs by Franz Schubert, Edvard Grieg, and Johannes Brahms, as well as Mahler. The evening will conclude with what may be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s best-known symphony, K. 550 in G minor.

The church is located in the Mission at 1661 16th Street at the corner of Julian Street, between Mission Street and Valencia Street. The concert will be preceded by a reception beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased in advance through an Eventbrite event page. Front-row seating will be $50. All other tickets will be $30. Eventbrite has also included the option for those attending to purchase $30 tickets that can be used by Gubbio beneficiaries.

7:30 p.m., Zion Lutheran Church: The next performance to be curated by Director of Music Kyle Hovatter will be a recital of animal-themed art songs by soprano Winnie Nieh. (Nieh sang Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 51 cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen at a Worship Service this past June, accompanied by Hovatter at the organ and Ari Micich on trumpet.) Her November program will include premiere performances of songs by both Hovatter and Matt Boehler. Other composers to be included on the program will be Thomas Arne, Franz Schubert, Clara Schumann, Maurice Ravel, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Jake Heggie, and Julie Barwick.

This concert will be given in partnership with Interfaith Welcome Refugee Support. There will be no admission charge, but donations will be taken to assist in funding Sea of Solidarity, which is helping refugees on the coast of Greece. Zion Lutheran Church is located at 495 9th Avenue near the northwest corner of Anza Street.

Items previously summarized yesterday are the following:

8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Vivaldi the Teacher: When Reigning and Rising Stars Align, presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: the second performance of Banned and Boycotted: Music of Bartók and Shostakovich, presented by Jakub Hrůša conducting the San Francisco Symphony

Wayne Shorter Inspires a Graphic Novel

courtesy of Play MPE

About a month ago I became aware of a fascinating multimedia project released by Blue Note Records. At the heart of the project was long-time Blue Note saxophonist Wayne Shorter, one of the featured interviewees on Sophie Huber’s documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, discussed on this site this past July. Blue Note President Don Was suggested to Shorter the idea of creating a graphic novel inspired by Shorter’s music. Shorter then approached Randy DuBurke to be his partner in the project, having been familiar with the graphic novel that DuBurke had created about Malcolm X. The results were eventually released by Blue Note this past September 14 as a hardbound volume of DuBurke’s graphics with holders for three CDs at the back. The title of this package was Emanon.

That title amounts to a rather distinguished nod to jazz history. The word itself is “no name” spelled backward. Back in the Forties, Dizzy Gillespie came up with a new piece and had a lot of trouble figuring out what to call it. He settled on “Emanon,” remarking, “‘No name’ means a whole lot.”

Shorter’s Emanon goes beyond Gillespie’s struggling with a single new piece. In Shorter’s case the result was a four-movement suite. When it was first performed at Carnegie Hall, it was a major project. Playing both tenor and soprano saxophone, Shorter led his long-running quartet, whose other members were pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They were then joined by the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 1972, this was a pioneering ensemble that performed without a conductor, working instead with a collaborative leadership style. The day after the Carnegie performance, studio recordings were made of the four movements: “Pegasus,” “Lotus,” “The Three Marias,” and “Prometheus Unbound.” Shorter gave these recordings to DuBurke, along with a narrative framework he created with Monica Sly, and told him he could get to work.

At this stage I must confess that I have been so wrapped up in the music that I am just beginning to explore DuBurke’s graphic novel. The fact is that I was throughly fascinated by the idea of bringing an improvising jazz quartet into conjunction with a conductor-free chamber orchestra. This was definitely in a league different from the Charlie Parker with Strings arrangements by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman or the large ensemble arrangements that Gil Evans created first for Parker and subsequently for Miles Davis. There is clearly a score behind Orpheus’ role in the partnership; but it is also clear that the relationship between that group and Shorter’s quartet has not been reduced to a matter of “taking turns.”

Fortunately, the Emanon “package” provides the curious listener with ways to get to know just what that relationship is. The four tracks that motivated DuBurke’s work occupy the first CD in the collection. The tracks on the other two CDs come from a later concert that Shorter’s quartet gave at the Barbican in London. Those tracks include three of the pieces that were played at Carnegie Hall, “The Three Marias,” “Lotus,” and “Prometheus Unbound.” This allows the attentive listener to get a better idea of how Orpheus contributed to these pieces and how Shorter’s quartet could exercise their improvisation skills. The Barbican recordings also include three briefer tracks, “Lost and Orbits Medley,” “She Moves Through the Fair,” and “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean.”

All of this makes for an adventurous, and frequently challenging, approach to listening. Don’t expect the conventions of jamming to prevail; but, at the same time, don’t expect some grand symphonic design that constrains all of the players. Emanon deserves to be taken as a genre unto itself, which may be why the playful logic behind the title is entirely apposite.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Choices for November 8, 2018 (and beyond)

Having now enumerated choices for several weekends, next month will provide the first instance of a weekday for which hard choices will have to be made. All of the options will overlap, either entirely or in part. They will all deserve consideration. As noted above, the date in question is Thursday, November 8. Specifics are as follows:

7:30 p.m., secret location: The members of One Found Sound will present another one-night-only program of chamber music. The title for the evening will be Stories from the Chamber (Concert) of Secrets. Specific selections and performers have not yet been announced. The venue will be a secret art gallery near the intersection of 16th Street and Mission Street (making it accessible to public transportation). All tickets will be $25, and they may be purchased through an Eventbrite event page. Once the purchase has been concluded, ticket holders will receive electronic mail giving the location of the concert.

7:30 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: The first offering at the Poppy next month will be a trio called Florist. The group calls itself a “soft-synthesizer folk band” and a “friendship project.” Emily Sprague is the vocalist, accompanied by Jonnie Baker on guitar. Rick Spataro handles the synthesizer work.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20. Tickets will be available in advance online through and Eventbrite event page. Given the demand for these concerts, it is often the case that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. 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.

This will also be a good time to account for the other concerts scheduled for this month. Hyperlinks to the respective Eventbrite event pages will be attached to the date and time where appropriate. Here is the current state of the rest of the November calendar:
  • [added 10/18, 11 a.m.: Thursday, November 1, 7:30 p.m.: The Daniel Fabricant Trio will join forces with StringQuake for an evening of melodic French jazz, improvisations, and unusual rhythms. Fabricant leads his trio from his bass and Aaron Kierbel is his drummer. The pianist for this evening has not yet been announced. StringQuake is the trio of harpist Amelia Romano, cellist Misha Khalikulov, and percussionist Josh Mellinger. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.
  • Friday, November 2, 7:30 p.m.: The Yoga Society of San Francisco will present an evening shared by Mark Deutsch and Cornelius Boots. Boots will open with a shakuhachi solo set. Deutsch will play an instrument of his own invention, the bazantar, a 39-string upright bass. He will perform The Picasso Tunings, an epic cycle of compositions for this instrument. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]
  • [added 10/19, 10:45 a.m.: Sunday, November 4, 8 p.m.: Bassist Seth Ford-Young will lead a quartet whose other members will be violinist Evan Price, accordionist Rob Reich, and guitarist Jason Vanderford. As can be seen from the instrumentation, the style amounts to a chamber music approach to the legacy of Django Reinhardt. The group will perform selections from their new release Tme Memory Beauty Hope, as well as the first album, entitled simply Seth Ford-Young. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]
  • Friday, November 9, 7:30 p.m.: Mean to Me is a quintet whose repertoire is inspired by classic jazz from the Twenties through the Forties. However, their interpretations frequently reflect influences by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal, and an eclectic variety of purveyors of soul and Latin jazz. Judy Butterfield is the group’s vocalist. Instrumentalists are Ben Slater on saxophone and piano, Dave Shaff on trumpet and washboard, and Cairo McCochran on drums. The bass player for this gig has not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.
  • Saturday, November 10, 7:30 p.m.: Invisible Bird is the trio of trumpeter Shane Endsley, guitarist Dave Devine, and percussionist Scott Amendola, all three of whom supplement their instrumental work with diverse electronic gear. As might be expected, there is considerably diverse eclecticism in their styles. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.
  • Thursday, November 15, 7:30 p.m.: Morley’s vocal work weaves the threads of jazz, soul, and folk traditions. She accompanies herself on guitar. Any musicians joining her have not yet been announced. The program will feature music from her sixth studio album, Thousand Miles. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.
  • Friday, November 16, 7:30 p.m.: Flutist Rebecca Kleinmann will return to the Poppy to celebrate her birthday. She will perform with a trio of visitors from Goiania, Brazil: Everton Luiz on winds, Julio Lemos on guitar, and Diego Amaral on percussion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.
  • Sunday, November 25, 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.
  • Sunday, November 25, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.: Duo Moldova will present a program of Romanian Lautari music. This style encompasses soul-wrenching ballads, high-energy wedding dances, and village-style tunes. The members of the duo are accordionist Sergei Popa and violinist Valy Lautar. Their set will be preceded by the members of the Mahala project, violinists Annie Cilley and Matt Stein, Andrew Cohen on accordion, Balder ten Bate on cimbalom, and Travis Hendrix on bass. As can be seen above, the entire program will be given two shows. Admission for both will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25. Note also that there is a single Eventbrite event page for advance purchase.
  • [added 10/19, 10:50 a.m.: Wednesday, November 28, 7:30 p.m.: Saxophonist Anton Schwartz will give a duo performance with pianist John Nelson. They will play standards and original compositions. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]
  • [added 10/20. 2:35 p.m.: Thursday, November 29, 7 p.m.: Decoda is a chamber music ensemble based in New York. It is the only group to have been named an Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall. It's visit to the Poppy is co-presented with Noe Valley Chamber Music’s SNAPSHOTS series. The program will offer music by Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Schubert, and Evan Primo. The performers will be Premo on bass along with Owen Dalby (violin), Meena Bhasin (viola), James Austin Smith (oboe), Alicia Lee (clarinet). Soprano Mary Bonhag will make a special guest appearance. All tickets will be sold for $25.
  • Friday, November 30, 8 p.m.: Gamelan Sekar Jaya will present a program of music and dance range that takes in both the traditional Balinese repertoire and recent cutting-edge compositions. The musicians play on several different sets of Balinese instruments, consisting of various combinations of bronze-keyed metallophones, bamboo marimbas, gongs, drums, and flutes. Tickets will be $30 if purchased at the door. However, the price for online purchase will be $25.]
8 p.m., ODC Theater: The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) will present the first of the two PBO SESSIONS events taking place in San Francisco this season. The title of the offering will be The H.I.P. Revolution, the abbreviation referring to Historically-Informed Performance. Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Chorale Director Bruce Lamott will discuss the growing popularity of this approach to performance with Ben Sosland, Director of the Historical Performance program at the Juilliard School. Music will be provided by three PBO musicians, each coupled with a recent Juilliard graduate. These will be violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, cellists Phoebe Carrai and Keiran Campbell, and oboists Gonzalo X. Ruiz and David Dickey. Musical selections will be by Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, and Francesco Geminiani.

The ODC Theatre is located in the Mission at 3153 17th Street on the northwest corner of Shotwell Street. Seating will be general admission, and all tickets will be $25. Complementary wine will be served and the end of the evening. This season PBO is handling its own ticketing, and an event page has been created for online purchase. Those who wish further information may call 415-392-4400.

This event will serve as a preview for the performance of the next PBO program in San Francisco. The title of this concert will be Vivaldi the Teacher: When Reigning and Rising Stars Align. The program will consist primarily of six Vivaldi concertos, each for a different combination of instruments. The program will begin with the seventh, in D major, of the twelve Opus 6 concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli. The final selection will be a Corelli transcription, Geminiani’s concerto grosso arrangement of the last of the twelve violin sonatas in Corelli’s Opus 5, a set of variations on the “Folia” theme. The three Juilliard graduates visiting the PBO SESSIONS event will be featured as soloists.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place on Friday, November 9, beginning at 8 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will range from $32 to $120 for premium seating. Tickets are currently available for advance purchase through a City Box Office event page, which displays a color-coded seating plan that shows which areas correspond to which price levels.

8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: Finally, November 8 will be the first night of the week’s subscription concert by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The title of the program will be Banned and Boycotted: Music of Bartók and Shostakovich. Jakub Hrůša will conduct, and violinist Karen Gomyo will make her SFS debut performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 77 (first) violin concerto in A minor. Béla Bartók will be represented by the suite he extracted from his Opus 19 pantomime, “The Miraculous Mandarin.” The one “uncontroversial” work on the program will be Alexander Borodin’s second symphony in B minor.

This concert will be given two additional performances, also at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 9, and Saturday, November 10. The Inside Music talk will be given by Elizabeth Seitz one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $20 to $75, and an event page has been created for online purchase. KDFC’s Rik Malone has prepared podcasts about both the Bartók and Shostakovich selections. These are not, as of this writing, on the event page, but they should appear on the Program Notes Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program. The event page does gave sound clips of previous SFS performances of the Bartók selection.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal of the season. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 8, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Seitz 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 and Rear Boxes and $45 for seating in the Side Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Chanticleer’s Fortieth Anniversary Album

Tonight in San Francisco the men’s chorus Chanticleer will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building. The event will combine a gala concert with a reunion bringing past Chanticleer singers together with the current crew. For those unable to attend, this past Friday Warner Classics released Chanticleer’s 40th Anniversary album, Then and There, Here and Now. This anniversary season will also include two European tours, visits to 23 states, and 27 concerts focused around the San Francisco Bay Area.

As an “ambassador” for a cappella singing, Chanticleer has cultivated a diverse repertoire, which is about as broad as the scope of the touring plans over the last 40 years. The nineteen tracks on the Anniversary album definitely give a good account of the extent of that scope. Since the earliest compositions are from the sixteenth century, the full span accounts for about half a millennium of music-making.

When it comes to introducing such a repertoire to those unacquainted with it, Chanticleer probably could not be a better vehicle for “ambassadorship.” However, for those who take their listening seriously, there are any number of ensembles that can be enjoyed through recordings and touring schedules that tend to take a more historically informed and scholarly approach to repertoire. Such groups tend to focus on a particular period of history with its own characteristic performance techniques, and the diversity of those techniques is best appreciated by accumulating representative recordings that match each period with a well-informed ensemble of practitioners.

Where Chanticleer is concerned, they tend to have their own characteristic sound and style that cuts across the full extent of their repertoire. One result is that the more recent selections tend to ring truer to their sources than those from a more distant past. This can be particularly jarring when a madrigal for a group of solo voices is replaced by an arrangement for a full chorus, which is the fate of the selection by Thomas Morley on the Anniversary album.

Things turn from jarring to annoying, however, when the repertoire ventures into folk and pop styles. Settings of spirituals consistently have the sharper edges of their original sources significantly blunted. Then when you get to jukebox favorites (for those who remember what a jukebox is), the treatments of “Summertime,” “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (as transliterated from the Yiddish but, on the track listing, given the Germanized title from the sheet music edition, “Bei mir bist du schön”), and “Straight Street” are positively cringe-inducing. My only concert encounter with the group was in March of 2014 when they appeared as guest artists with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and I lost count of the number of times I cringed!

De gustibus non est disputandum!

Meeting Challenges of Complex Words and Music

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of five performances of Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Composed between 1929 and 1932 and given its first performance at the Dresden Semperoper on July 1, 1933, Arabella was the last of Strauss’ six collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal as his librettist. The staging was by Tim Albery for a production shared with the Santa Fe Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company. It received its premiere in Santa Fe in the summer of 2012.

On the surface Arabella appears to be a romantic comedy in which the woman after whom the opera is named eventually finds a man she wants to marry, the man she calls “der Richtige” (the right one). It can be taken as a comedy due to the many complications that arise; but these are all “surface level” events. Ever since his first collaboration with Strauss (“Elektra,” completed in 1908), Hofmannsthal had a knack for seeking out deeper levels of plot development to make sure than none of this characters, even the most minor ones, would be taken as stock figures.

Albery could not have done a better job in grasping the depths of Hofmannsthal’s libretto and presenting them clearly to anyone in the audience willing to pay attention. Indeed, the very first character to sing, a fortune-teller (mezzo Jill Grove), is depicted with just the right combination of mannerisms that know exactly how to engage Arabella’s mother (mezzo Michaela Martens) while making it clear that everything about that engagement is fraudulent. For that matter, Albery seems to have made it his objective to remind us that every character in this libretto is, in one way or another, flawed. Furthermore, by transplanting the Viennese setting from 1860 to 1910, Albery subtly reminds us that all those flaws are chickens about to come to roost with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a visit to Sarajevo.

As to the primary plot line, the opera is about far more than Arabella (soprano Ellie Dehn) recognizing “der Richtige” in Mandryka (baritone Brian Mulligan) practically at first sight. The complications that arise about halfway into the second act and spill over into much of third make it clear that this is far from a simple tale of dreams coming true. As Albery tells the story, Arabella and Mandryka do not survive those complications to live “happily ever after;” but they do emerge from the process with clearer-eyed perceptions of not only each other but also the fragility of the world in which they must live. (By setting the narrative in 1910, it should be evident to the audience that those woods that provide so much comfort to Mandryka’s home life will not remain idyllic for much longer.)

Mandryka (Brian Mulligan) and Arabella (Ellie Dehn) prepare to face the future together at the end of Richard Strauss’ opera (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

This was Albery’s first opportunity to work with SFO. Similarly, it was Marc Albrecht’s first visit to the conductor’s podium in the orchestra pit. One of Strauss’ most distinguishing features as an opera composer was his ability to use instrumental resources to establish context. One result is that, throughout his opera canon, there are relatively few moments in which the music thrusts one or more singers into the spotlight. In Arabella there is basically only one of them, Arabella’s duet with her sister Zdenka (soprano Heidi Stober) about “der Richtige.”

The rest of the time the instrumental writing is one of intricate textures of bustling activity. That activity frequently is observed on the stage; but, just as often, it embodies the conflicted interior monologues (none of which are actually sung) of the characters. Albrecht always knew how to balance these textures to make sure that the full scope of their connotations was clear to the attentive listener. At the same time he consistently balanced that essential background against the foreground activities taking place on the stage. Last night was Albrecht’s operatic conducting debut in the United States, and those of us who appreciate the activities in the orchestra pit just as much as those on stage will be well justified in hoping that we shall see more of him.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

SFCM: November, 2018

November activities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) are likely to be somewhat more limited due to the Thanksgiving break. Nevertheless, there will still be several offerings “on the books” that will appeal to attentive listeners. Reservations will not be required, but they are recommended for all events. Each event description will have a hyperlink to the appropriate Google Forms Web page for making the reservation.

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. Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest to serious and attentive listeners:

Monday, November 5, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: The first Faculty Artist Series concert of the month will be presented by violinist Cordula Merks. She will be accompanied by pianist Elizabeth Schumann; and, for the second half of the program, they will be joined by cellist Amos Yang for a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 90 (“Dumky”) piano trio in E minor. Merks’ sonata selections for the first half of the program will be Claude Debussy’s G minor sonata and Franz Schubert’s D. 821 sonata in A minor, originally composed for the arpeggione as the solo instrument. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Friday, November 9, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: The second Faculty Artist Series concert of the month will feature the SFCM Quartet-in-Residence. This is the Telegraph Quartet, whose members are violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. The program will feature Eastern European modernists, the earliest of whom will be Dvořák, whose forward-looking approach to composition can be attributed, at least in part, to the time he spent in the United States. His contribution to the program will be his Opus 51 (“Slavonic”) quartet in E-flat major. This will be framed by two adventurous composers of the twentieth century, beginning with a set of five pieces by Erwin Schulhoff and concluding with the octet composed by George Enescu. For this final selection Telegraph will be joined by Chamber Music Alumnus Evan Khan on cello and three current Chamber Music majors, violinists Maria van der Sloot and Sam Weiser and violist Carly Scena. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Sunday, November 11, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: The SFCM Baroque Orchestra will present a program of music by Arcangelo Corelli, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi. They will be led by the ensemble’s Co-Director Corey Jamason, who is also Chair of the Historical Keyboards Faculty. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Monday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Amos Yang will return, this time to give his own Faculty Artist Series recital. Program details have not yet been announced. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Thursday, November 15, and Friday, November 16, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: The fall production to be presented by the SFCM Opera will be Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera “Les mamelles de Tirésias.” Staging will be by Heather Mathews, and Curt Pajer will conduct a score for reduced orchestra prepared by Bart Visman. Reservations are recommended, and there will be separate Google Forms Web pages for Thursday and Friday.

Monday, November 26, 7:30 P.M., Recital Hall: The final Faculty Artist Series concert of the month will feature compositions by David Garner. He will be assisted in performance by MaryClare Brzytwa, Executive Director of Technology and Applied Composition, pianists Dale Tsang and Keisuke Nakagoshi, and the QUADRE Horn Quartet. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Friday, November 30, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Students of the Roots, Jazz, and American Music program will come together with the SFJAZZ Collective for the next “side-by-side” concert. The program will present both jazz standards and originals. Reservations are recommended and may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

The Remainder of Sony’s Centennial Nilsson Box

As was promised at the end of September, my account of Sony Classical’s Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings, released in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Nilsson’s birth, will conclude by considering the recordings of operas by composers other than Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.This amounts to only three works: Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. Each is a relatively weak link in the overall chain, but each still deserves consideration.

Most interesting is the Bartók offering, a one-act opera whose duration of less than 50 minutes requires only a single CD. The recording was made on February 11, 1953 in the Stockholm Concert Hall, suggesting that this was probably not a staged performance. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Ferenc Fricsay. The title role is taken by bass-baritone Bernhard Sönnerstedt with Nilsson as Bluebeard’s new wife Judith. (These are the only characters in the opera.) The libretto is sung in German, rather than the original Hungarian.

The primary virtue of this recording is its historical significance. This is the earliest live performance of a complete opera in the Sony collection. Nilsson was 34 years old at the time, and her career had already been solidly established. However, her reputation was, for those most part, confined to Stockholm; and many of the roles that would figure significantly in her international reputation were first sung in Swedish. There is a good chance that “Bluebeard’s Castle” was sung in German because a Swedish libretto had not yet been prepared.

Fricsay himself was Hungarian, and he was probably a guest conductor for this Stockholm concert. Bartók had been his teacher; and, over the course of his career, he made several recordings of Bartók’s music, each with a solid stamp of authority. If one overlooks the German text, one can certainly grant such authority to this recording. Sönnerstedt is more baritone than bass, which means that his Bluebeard is more lyrical than menacing; but this establishes a context in which Judith does not know what is in store for her has she opens the different doors in the castle. Nilsson’s voice is as solid in this performance as it will be in all of the recordings that follow this one in the Sony box. Those of us who cannot get enough of this opera (including myself) are likely to enjoy it even in the absence of the Hungarian text.

The recording of Fidelio also seems to have been made at a concert performance. This one was made on March 17, 1970 at the RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) studio in Rome. The studio chorus and orchestra are conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Nilsson’s Leonore is complemented by tenor Ludovic Spiess as Florestan and bass-baritone Theo Adam as Don Pizarro. Because the recording was made at a concert, almost all of the spoken dialogue (except for the melodrama in the second act) is omitted.

This may be the most problematic recording in the Sony collection. As usual, Bernstein is not quite the authority on Beethoven that he liked to make himself out to be; but the score itself is not the stuff from which silk purses can be woven. Nevertheless, what is most surprising is that the overall audio quality is far more disappointing than what is encountered in most of the recordings made during staged opera performances. One gets the impression that none of the participants were particularly enthusiastic about the project, which means that attentive listeners are likely to come away feeling the same way.

Similar audio problems are encountered in the Turandot recording, which was taken from a matinee radio broadcast (back in the days when Texaco sponsored those broadcasts) from the Metropolitan Opera House on March 4, 1961. This is the only opportunity in the collection to listen to Nilsson singing in Italian; and her account of the title character rises to the level of blood-curdling. To some extent that may have been the influence of conductor Leopold Stokowski (of all people). However, just as important are the ways in which Nilsson provides such sharp contrast to tenor Franco Corelli in the role of The Unknown Prince.

Leopoldo Metlicovitz’ 1926 promotional poster for Turandot (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, when it comes to the chemistry between Nilsson and Corelli, I have to confess that I prefer the recording made on December 7, 1964 for a gala performance at La Scala (where the opera was performed for the first time). Like the Met recording, the technology is not up to studio standards. Nevertheless, the La Scala engineers came up with better balancing of all the resources than those behind the Met broadcast. On the other hand Stokowski’s approach to Puccini definitely comes off as far more satisfying than Bernstein’s approach to Beethoven!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Renaud Capuçon’s New Album of Film Music

This past Friday the Erato label released its latest album featuring violinist Renaud Capuçon. The title of the album is Cinema; and, as one can easily guess, it consists entirely of music composed for film soundtracks. Capuçon is accompanied by the Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Stéphane Denève; and on one track, Bob Telson’s “Calling You,” written for the film Bagdad Cafe, the words of the song are sung by Nolwenn Leroy.

As the booklet notes observe, Capuçon (translated into English by Susannah Howe) was familiar with the two albums of film music recorded by Itzhak Perlman; and those who attended this season’s Opening Night Gala concert by the San Francisco Symphony know that Perlman’s interest in this repertoire is as strong as ever. Nevertheless, this is music that, of necessity, derives its impact through its contribution to a background, rather than a foreground. In other words, as far as listening experiences are concerned, those most likely to be drawn into the music are those recalling the cinematic images and/or narratives with which the themes are associated. Without those associations, each of Capuçon’s selections lacks the proverbial leg to stand on (writing as one who finally shed the crutches I had been using for over two months in favor of a cane)!

Where a selection may have a basis for interest of its own, that interest has more to do with history than with the music. I refer to the track on Capuçon’s album of the “Romance” theme composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood. In 1938 Korngold was making his living conducting opera in Austria when Warner Bros. invited him to Hollywood to work on the score for this film. That invitation got Korngold out of Austria right about the time that the Nazi’s invaded. When news about the fate of Jews in concentration camps came to light, Korngold would tell his friends that Robin Hood saved his life!

Korngold was one of those composers who was equally at home with scoring music for films and with composing concert music. However, to his credit, he appreciated the difference between the two activities. Thus, when Bronisław Huberman persuaded him to compose a violin concerto in 1945, he had no trouble drawing upon his film work as a source of themes. However, he knew how to “liberate” those themes from their past cinematic associations; and I doubt that anyone listening to that concerto today thinks about those associations or even knows the films behind them. (The Wikipedia page for the concerto provides a movement-by-movement summary of the soundtrack sources.)

The point of this anecdote is to argue that treating film music the same way one treats concert music amounts to what Gilbert Ryle called a “category-mistake” in his book The Concept of Mind. The Wikipedia page for this concept defines it as “a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category.” The difference between concert music and film music is so great that, for all intents and purposes, there is no region in which they even slightly overlap due to the radical qualitative differences between making one or the other.

This is not suggest that an album of film music will not please many listeners. It is only to affirm that the underlying act of listening to such an album involves a category that is entirely different from the category of listening to music composed for concert settings. For my part, so much of my time is occupied with the latter category of listening to leave anything left over for the former. Film fans, on the other hand, probably prefer spending time in that former category; and they will probably get a kick out of this new album.

The Bleeding Edge: 10/15/2018

This week there are only three events to add to what has shaped up to be a very busy week, particularly on the weekend. As was the case last week, two of those events are being produced by Outsound Presents, since this will be another week with offerings in both the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series and the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series. The third involves more than music but definitely promises to be interesting. As usual, the hyperlinked list of venues already taken into account is as follows:
  • Center for New Music: performances on October 15 and 18
  • Red Poppy Art House: “experimental chamber-folk with a jazz reduction” on October 18
  • Taube Atrium Theater: the beginning of the new San Francisco Contemporary Music Players season as part of the coming busy weekend
Specifics for the remaining three events are as follows:

Thursday, October 18, 8:15 p.m., LSG: This will be an evening of two duo improvisations. The first one will bring John Ingle, playing saxophones of difference sizes, together with guitarist Ishmael Ali. The second will also involve a guitarist, Ernesto Diaz-Infante on lap steel guitar, playing with keyboardist Ezra Sturm behind a Korg minilogue. 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.

Saturday, October 20, 8 p.m., Studio 210: Skatchdance! will be the latest project involving instrument inventor Tom Nunn. He will bring his latest “skatch” creations to a partnership with dancer Christina Braun and conceptual clothing artist Ilan Reuben. They have prepared a program of three multimedia pieces, each of which is based on its own set of resources and relationships among the performers. Studio 210 is located at 3435 Cesar Chavez, between Mission Street and Valencia Street, in Room 210 (as might be guessed). Admission will be $20, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Sunday, October 21, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: Call this a “rite of autumn” program. It promises to be an eclectic night of freewheeling sonic mayhem, art-funk, and social commentary. The first set will be entitled “Ode to Fall;” and it will bring together Rent Romus (saxophones, flutes, and percussion), gabby fluke-mogul and Golnaz Shariatzadeh (violins), Angela Roberts (cello), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Tony Gennaro (percussion). The second set will present the RIGHTSTARTER trio, all of whose members work with electronic gear. Danny Z will perform exclusively with such gear, while both PC Muñoz and MC DEM ONE will add vocals. (Muñoz will also play drums.) The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Kissin at his Best in Interpreting Rachmaninoff

Pianist Evgeny Kissin (from his San Francisco Symphony event page)

Yesterday evening at Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to host visiting talent, offered its first concert of the season. The program was a solo recital by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, who made his debut in Davies performing with SFS in 1994. Kissin devoted the entire second half of his program to preludes by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and his approach to this selection was definitely the high point of the program. The major work on the first half was Robert Schumann’s Opus 14 (third) piano sonata in F minor, preceded by two nocturnes composed by Frédéric Chopin (who happened to have been born in the same year as Schumann, 1810). The selected nocturnes were the first (in F minor) from Opus 55 and the second (in E major) from Opus 62.

Rachmaninoff composed only two collections of short pieces that he identified as preludes. The first of these was the Opus 23 set of ten, composed in 1903. This was followed in 1910 by the thirteen preludes in Opus 32. Neither of these publications offers much by way of an overall structure other than what is clearly a deliberate attempt to alternate major and minor keys. Most likely Rachmaninoff’s strongest influence was Alexander Scriabin, for whom the prelude was definitely a favored genre, so much so that, as his career progressed, it tended to serve as a “test bed” for his explorations in new approaches to the logic of harmonic progression.

In contrast, there is nothing particular “experimental” in Rachmaninoff’s approach to the prelude. Most likely its greatest appeal was the constraint of brevity, serving somewhat as the musical equivalent of a lyric poem. When one reads through the contents lists of both Opus 23 and Opus 32, the first thing that comes to mind is that, in Opus 23, Rachmaninoff never uses only one tempo marking twice, Largo at both the beginning and the conclusion. Opus 32 is not quite so strictly constrained, with two of the tempo markings being repeated in less strategic ways. Even with those repetitions, however, there is a clear sense that, within each set, each prelude is distinguished by its own unique character. Thus, the challenge for any pianist wishing to perform a collection in its entirety is to make sure that the listener grasps (and hopefully relishes) the characteristic uniqueness of each piece, never giving the collection as a whole a sense of “one damned thing after another.”

Last night Kissin performed the first seven of the Opus 23 preludes in the order in which they were published. They were followed by the tenth, twelfth, and thirteenth preludes from Opus 32. Within that selection Allegro is the only repeated tempo. On the other hand the minor-major alternation established in Opus 23 is disrupted by the specific selections from Opus 32. Nevertheless, the underlying concept of a journey through distinctively unique short pieces could not have been better rendered. Kissin clearly treated each individual prelude as if it were a “best friend” that he was eager to introduce to his listeners (for whom the Alla marcia prelude in G minor, the fifth in the Opus 23 collection, may have been the only familiar selection).

Listening to Kissin’s exposition of these preludes left me wishing that he had devoted the first half of his program to taking a similar approach to the Scriabin preludes. What he did offer during that first half was, sadly, far less compelling or, for that matter, convincing. Schumann’s Opus 14 sonata is more notorious than famous, best known for a final movement with the tempo marking Prestissimo possible (as fast as possible), which requires the pianist to speed up that tempo at two critical locations in the score. Kissin never quite grasped the manic urgency of that movement or, for that matter, the unabated “Florestan spirit” that dominates the preceding three movements.

Probably what makes this sonata so problematic is that the composer was so wrapped up in technical syntax that he never figured out how to complement his grand designs with a coherent sense of rhetoric. Pianists with a solid understanding of the scope of Schumann’s repertoire tend to compensate for this lack in the composer’s planning when they play Opus 14 (composed in 1836 but later revised in 1853). Last night Kissin gave no suggestion that he was one of those pianists. He executed the score as if all that mattered was jumping through a prodigious number of technical hoops, and even many in the audience were left uncertain as to when the piece actually ended.

Sadly, his approach to the brevity of the two Chopin nocturnes was equally dissatisfying. In this case it is clear that rhetoric was foremost in the composer’s mind, but Kissin never seemed to get beyond the syntax of the marks on paper. As a result, while all of the notes seemed to be in the right place, they never cohered to engage the listener with any distinctive features that one would associate with the character of a Chopin nocturne.

Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff set, it was more than evident that Kissin was enjoying the adulation of his audience. His response was to serve up four encores. The consistency across the four of them was mixed, but the enthusiasm of the crowd never abated. The most appropriate of those encores was the last, a Rachmaninoff-appropriate nod to Scriabin with a performance of the C-sharp minor étude that is the first in Scriabin’s Opus 2 set of three pieces. Two of the other encores involved taking another crack at both Schumann and Chopin. The “Träumerei” (dreams) movement from Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection was as featureless as his readings of the Chopin nocturnes, while Chopin’s Opus 53 “heroic” polonaise in A-flat major basically galumphed its way through its technical demands.

On the other hand Kissin put all of his personal enthusiasm into his own composition, “Dodecaphonic Tango.” This was a delightful bit of tomfoolery in which an unabashed approach to tango rhetoric runs headlong into the constraints of a serial composition. My own fantasy world has the ghost of Arnold Schoenberg smiling benignly in the presence of this exercise. If ever there were a demonstration that rhythm triumphs over all other factors, Kissin’s warped perspective on tango style would be it. This was a piece with a decidedly unique character that could hold its own in the company of all the diverse characteristics that populate Rachmaninoff’s preludes.