Thursday, February 22, 2018

Free Jazz Improvisation from London on Intakt

Paul Lytton in 2016 (photograph by Hreinn Gudlaugsson from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Once again Intakt Records has released an album of free jazz improvisation for the truly adventurous. The album was released this past Friday, and the title is Music for David Mossman: Live at Vortex London. The album consists of four improvised sets all lasting between ten and 25 minutes. These were all recorded at a single club date at the Vortex Jazz Club (founded in 1987 in London by Mossman) on July 14, 2016. The improvisers are the trio of Evan Parker on saxophone, Barry Guy on bass, and Paul Lytton on drums. Parker and Lytton have been doing free improvisation gigs since 1969, and they started doing trio work with Guy in the early Eighties.

In spite of that extensive legacy, none of them have abandoned their commitment to avant-gardism. Over the course of their four sets, they cover considerably imaginative ground. Since all three of them are roughly my age, I hesitate to use phrases like “in spite of their age” in describing what they do. However, I have to say that I am particularly drawn to passages that seem to reflect the interplay of introspection and collaboration, leaving me to wonder whether that rhetorical stance is the result of the “seasoning of age.” What may be more important is that the introspective side allows for an appreciation of the virtues of soft-spoken interactions at a time when the younger generations are more inclined to pour out the decibels in full force.

This is music that quietly asks for attentive listening, rather than trying to melt the wax in your ears.

Eliot Fisk and Angel Romero to Join Forces

Eliot Fisk and Ángel Romero (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The next guitar recital to be presented jointly by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts and the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Guitar Series will see the return of two frequently visiting guitarists. Eliot Fisk made his SFP debut in 1997 and will be making his fourth appearance as an SFP recitalist. Ángel Romero was a founding member, in 1960, of the guitar quartet called The Romeros, created by his father Celedonio and also including his two brothers Celin and Pepe. As a result he had an international reputation, which included giving concerts in San Francisco, long before SFP was founded in 1979. He first visited SFP as a soloist in 2008, and the coming concert will mark his second SFP appearance.

Between the two of them, these artists encompass a broad scope of repertoire. The full extent of that breadth cannot be captured in a single evening’s program. Nevertheless, the diversity of the offerings will be extensive. For example there will be two solo-and-accompaniment arrangements of concerto music by two different composers, Antonio Vivaldi (his D major concerto for lute and strings) and Joaquín Rodrigo (the Adagio movement from his “Concierto de Aranjuez”). In addition Fisk and Romero have collaborated on two-guitar arrangements of settings of popular Spanish songs by Federico García Lorca. As might be guessed, Celedonio Romero will be recognized with performances of his “Malagueña” and “Fantasia.” Several Spanish composers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be included as well.

This performance will take place in Herbst Theatre beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 10. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Tickets prices are $55 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $45 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $35 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Imaginative Conclusion to SFP Virtuosi Series

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances wrapped up its 2017–2018 Virtuosi Series with a recital by flutist Emmanuel Pahud accompanied by pianist Alessio Bax. Curiously, only one of the four sonatas on the program was written for the modern flute. This was the sonata completed in 1957 by Francis Poulenc (first performed later that year by Jean-Pierre Rampal accompanied by the composer). The only other “flute sonata” was Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1031 in E-flat major, which was certainly not intended for a contemporary version of either a flute or a keyboard instrument. Each of these was followed by a sonata written for an instrument other than the flute. Poulenc was followed by Franz Schubert’s D. 821 in A minor, originally intended for arpeggione, while Bach was followed by an early violin sonata in A major by Felix Mendelssohn.

In the midst of this diversity, a variety of interesting interconnections emerged. Perhaps the most explicit of these was the way in which Poulenc used the Cantilena in the middle of his sonata to reflect back on the middle movement of BWV 1031, a Siciliano that has been popularized through any number of different versions. However, while BWV 1031 comes across as the more “abstract” of the two flute sonatas, Poulenc evokes more complex emotional dispositions merely through the tempo specifications of the outer movement, Allegro malinconico and Presto giocoso. Pahud’s reading of the text provided an insightful account of both the melancholy and the joyous, always establishing his expressiveness through Bax’ supportive accompaniment.

That approach to expressiveness continued through his approach to playing Schubert. Putting aside any of the string-family instruments that usually play D. 821 (primarily cello or viola), the attentive listener could be easily reminded of Schubert’s many gifts in writing for solo voice through Pahud’s approach to the score. Rather than try to imitate any of the effects of bowing or pizzicato (which would have been an absurd undertaking), Pahud’s approach to breath control evoked a singer taking on a setting far more sophisticated than the simple repetitions associated with the verses of a strophic text. In other words the listener could enjoy Schubert for his own sake, but the Schubert skilled in the subtleties of human breath, rather than instrumental technique.

The Mendelssohn sonata, on the other hand, did not fare quite as well. One got the impression that the composer was only interested in dexterous virtuosity, more attentive to the notes themselves than to the physical efforts necessary to establish those notes. My guess is that harmonica legend Larry Adler could have pulled off the same score with equally impressive results. Nevertheless, Pahud’s selection provided a sure-fire way to conclude his program in high spirits.

Pahud’s encore also departed from the instrumental intentions of the composer. He played the second of the three “fantasy pieces” (Fantasiestücke) published as Robert Schumann’s Opus 73. Schumann wrote these for clarinet and piano but indicated that the clarinet part was also suitable for viola or cello. Probably using the arrangement published by Jacques Larocque, Pahud reflected the higher-register sonorities of the clarinet; but the spectral qualities of his instrument served up a somewhat less aggressive stance than one usually gets from the clarinet. This allowed him to highlight the light touch that Schumann suggested in his tempo marking with a rhetoric significantly different from that of any of the instruments the composer had in mind.

The opening measures of Larocque’s Schumann arrangement (from IMSLP, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 license)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ébène Quartet to Return to SFP with New Violist

The members of the Ébène Quartet (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Unless I am mistaken, the Ébène Quartet is the first ensemble to have performed in two different Series offered by San Francisco Performances (SFP). As a string quartet they have performed twice in the Shenson Chamber Series, but they also have appeared in the Jazz Series. When they return to SFP next month, their performance will be the third concert scheduled for this season’s Shenson Chamber Series, and there will be one change in personnel. Three of the founding members, violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure and cellist Raphaël Merlin, are still part of the ensemble. However, last year Marie Chilemme joined to become the group’s third violist.

Readers may recall that this past Monday the Danish String Quartet introduced itself to San Francisco with, among other compositions, a highly perceptive account of the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s three Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartets, written in the key of F major. Ébène will follow suit, so to speak, by performing the second (in E minor) of the Opus 59 quartets, once again accounting for the second half of their program. The program will begin with Beethoven’s best known teacher, Joseph Haydn. The selection will be Hoboken III/76, the second of the six quartets published as Opus 76 and written for József Erdődy. This quartet has two nicknames, the more familiar being “Fifths” but also known as “The Donkey.” The Haydn selection will be followed by Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 121 quartet in E minor, completed within months of his death of November 4, 1924 and very much a reflection of the nineteenth-century traditions of his past.

This concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 9. As with all Shenson Chamber Series concerts, the venue will be Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Ticket prices are $65 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $55 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $40 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Soprano Nuria Rial Sings with Eight Cellos

courtesy of Sony Music

Last Friday Sony Classical released its latest album featuring the Catalan soprano Nuria Rial. The title of the album is Vocalise, and all accompaniment is provided by eight cellists, who are members of the Sinfonieorchester Basel. Those musicians also frame Rial’s performances with a prelude, interlude, and postlude, all featuring a single composer.

My guess is that just about anyone with listening experience knows what to expect when you combine a soprano with eight cellists. These are the resources required to perform the fifth of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras compositions. This is a relatively short piece in two movements. The first movement is entitled “Aria” and is structured in ternary form. The middle portion is a setting of a text by Ruth V. Corrêa, while the outer sections are wordless (thus constituting a vocalise). The second movement is a vigorous “Dança,” setting a text by Manuel Bandeira in which the poet poses questions to a variety of birds, all of which reply only by singing.

Rial brings a finely polished reading to Villa-Lobos’ vocal lines. Indeed, if anything, she is a bit too polished for music that has a decidedly indigenous character. In both of the movements, it frequently sounds as if the cellists have mustered more Brazilian spirit than the soprano. However, this will probably not surprise those who know that Villa-Lobos was, himself, a cellist.

While the birds are only described in Bandeira’s text, they play a more active role, so to speak, later in the album with an account of the Catalan Christmas song and lullaby “El cant dels ocells.” Here in San Francisco cello fans have been exposed to two arrangements of this song, the first, played by Gautier Capuçon, arranged by Pablo Casals for solo cello and low strings, and the second, played by Steven Isserlis, by Sally Beamish for solo cello alone. On the Vocalise album we get to hear the words of the song delivered by Rial, accompanied by not only the Basel cellists but also tape recordings of the birds themselves, all in an arrangement prepared by Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos.

The album also includes the world premiere recording of an original Vivancos composition, which he dedicated to all nine of the performers. This is a “complete” vocalise piece in contrast to the first movement of the Villa-Lobos work at the beginning of this album. Ironically, he gave the work a punning title, which probably only works in English: “Vocal Ice.” He claims that the music was inspired by Michelangelo’s Pietà carving, which would make punning feel a bit awkwardly out of place. Fortunately, anyone familiar with Michelangelo’s sculpture will appreciate the presence of the artist’s spirit in both the soprano line and the cello accompaniment.

To provide a context for these selections, the cellists perform the four Estaciones Porteñas, usually translated into English as “the four seasons of Buenos Aires,” by Astor Piazzolla. The album opens in the summer and concludes in the spring. Autumn and winter provide a “spacer” between Villa-Lobos and Vivancos.

Those who have heard this music in ensemble setting are most likely to have encountered the all-strings arrangement that Leonid Desyatnikov made for Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica. Desyatnikov went for very raw sonorities, including some really scratchy work on the bridge; and then he threw in a few references to Antonio Vivaldi for good measure. The arrangement on this recording is by cellist James Barralet. It is far more polite, but it definitely keeps the cellists in check from trying to upstage Rial!

Philip Glass at SFP: Origins Re-examined

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the second of the two events it prepared to honor composer Philip Glass. The program consisted of a single composition, Glass’ first extended work structured over a time span of about 90 minutes, entitled “Music with Changing Parts.” For many decades Glass has been subjected to shallow jibes at what his detractors tend to call “mindless repetition;” so it is probably a good idea to approach this massive undertaking with a clearer sense of just what takes place during a performance.

The fact is that the very title of the composition could not be a better example of “truth” in advertising. However, this is best appreciated by allowing Glass to explain himself in his own words. In this particular case those words come from his memoir, Words Without Music. Here he is writing about the pieces he discusses in the “First Concerts” chapter of his book:
In composing these pieces, I made the musical language the center of the piece. By “language,” I mean the moment-to-moment decision made when a note of music is composed. To make that work, I had to find a music that would hold your attention. I began to use process instead of “story,” and the process was based on repetition and change. This made the language easier to understand, because the listener would have time to contemplate it at the same time as it was moving so quickly.
In other words, rather than drawing upon narrative as a source of structure, such as one would find in a tone poem, or any of the preconceived abstract structures of the Classical and Baroque periods, Glass decided to go “back to the basics” of “how time passes” (the latter actually being the title of an essay by Karlheinz Stockhausen). What resulted was a series of compositions based on repeated patterns that would gradually change with the passing of time. Glass was far from the only composer to investigate such a process-based approach. The paragraph from which the above sentences were extracted cites Steve Reich, and one of the other composers from that time finding his own way of working with processes was Terry Riley.

Glass’ first major concert took place in January of 1970 in the downstairs recital hall of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. (For the record, I was at the concert. It was a part of a series of three. I performed as a “guest artist” in one of the other two, presented by the Sonic Arts Group. The third was given by Reich; and, sadly, I missed it.) The Glass program presented three pieces all structured around subjecting repeated patterns to change, “Music in Fifths,” “Music in Contrary Motion,” and “Music in Similar Motion.” Each of these pieces was about twenty minutes in duration.

Having familiarized himself with his self-made tools, Glass was now ready to work on a more extended time scale. The result was “Music with Changing Parts;” and it was first performed in November of 1970. What is probably most interesting about this composition is the sheer breadth of interpretations of the concept of change that Glass was able to summon. While the underlying pulse is steady throughout the entire work (as it is in Riley’s “In C”), Glass’ approach to change may be described a multi-dimensional.

Far from involving just patterns of notes, it delves into different approaches to phrasing, alternations of how pulses are grouped, and different strategies for overlaying simultaneous voices. All of these low-level and mid-level activities are then embraced by “the mother of all changes,” a gradual crescendo that extends over the entire duration to an almost gut-wrenching intensity. What may look abstract on paper emerges as a throughly visceral listening experience.

Last night’s performance demonstrated that such an experience could be as intense today as it had been when the music was created in 1970. Nevertheless, in his earliest days, Glass worked with a relatively small number of players, usually less than a dozen. In his notes for last night’s program book, he explained that returning to the score involved revisiting the music and orchestrating it for a much larger ensemble. Six of the players from the earliest days of the Philip Glass Ensemble (Glass himself, his Music Director Michael Riesman, and Lisa Bielawa, Jon Gibson, Mick Rossi, and Andrew Sterman) all participated last night. However, they were joined by four more recent Ensemble members, seven brass students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the full force of the San Francisco Girls Chorus conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

This increase in resources contributed significantly to clarifying the full extent of the multi-dimensional approach that “Music in Changing Parts” took to that fundamental concept of change. To be fair, one of those more recent members of the Ensemble was Dan Bora, whose performance took place behind a massive mixing board. Microphones were abundant on the Davies stage; and it was clear that, as the layers of activity began to accumulate, Bora was playing an active role in keeping them sorted and accessible to the limitations of human perception. He was probably also the most crucial player in managing that gradual crescendo that serves as “the mother of all changes,” meaning that his efforts were the ones most responsible for the full expressive intensity of the evening.

Ultimately, however, the spirit of the occasion has not changed much since 1970. Glass understands how music “lives” only through acts of music-making. Since 1969 he has been hard at work conceiving and reconceiving ways in which acts of music-making may be executed. Last night demonstrated clearly and vigorously that the making of music is still Glass’ highest priority, and that priority could not have been honored in a better fashion.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Two Student Offerings Coming to SFCM

Between now and the end of the month, there will be two interesting concerts featuring students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The good news is that both of these events will be free, and no reservations will be required. The venue for both of them will be the more casual setting of the Osher Salon. The bad news is that the first of these involves a last minute announcement.

That will be the Junior Recital being given by Alyssa Wright early this evening. Wright has prepared an imaginative program that will involve a variety of instrumental resources. She will present a selection of tangos by Astor Piazzolla performed as violin-viola duos. With the more conventional piano accompaniment she will play Jean Sibelius’ E major suite and Pablo de Sarasate’s “Malagueña.” In addition the program will begin with a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VII/4 concerto in G major with string ensemble accompaniment. This performance will begin at 6:30 p.m. this evening, Tuesday, February 20; and a reception will follow.

Violinist Alyssa Wright (from her Facebook announcement)

Next week conducting student John Masko will present a chamber orchestra arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony. This score was prepared by Erwin Stein for one of the concerts presented by Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna. Stein conducted the first performance of this version on January 10, 1921 with two following performances on January 20 and January 23. The soprano part in the fourth movement was sung by Martha Fuchs. The soprano for Masko’s performance will be Esther Tonea. This will be the only work on the concert, which will begin at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 28.

A Delightful Danish Debut

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Danish String Quartet, consisting of violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, who shared the leadership chair, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, made its San Francisco debut. They performed in the second of the four concerts in this season’s Shenson Chamber Series presented annually by San Francisco Performances. The program was framed by two string quartets separated by almost exactly a century, each by a composer who made significant strides in advancing the genre. Between these two major “historical” offerings, they presented selections of folk music from Nordic countries, presumably in their own arrangements.

Those significant composers who spanned that aforementioned century were, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven and Béla Bartók. The program began with Bartók’s first (Opus 7) string quartet, which he completed in January of 1909. The second half was then devoted to the first (in F major) of the three Opus 59 quartets that the composer wrote in 1806 for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky. These are the sorts of selections that a string quartet invokes to establish its credentials, particularly when making a debut appearance. By the end of the evening there was no questioning that this was an ensemble with a solid command of both the technical and the expressive.

However, because of the overall structure of the program, Nørgaard introduced the evening by noting that all of the selections were rooted in folk traditions. Bartók made his first sketches for his quartet in 1907; but he did not complete it until after his field studies of folk melodies, which he conducted with his colleague Zoltán Kodály. Beethoven, on the other hand, appealed to Razumovsky’s nationality by inserting Russian themes into all three of the Opus 59 quartets.

In many ways Bartók’s experiences are more interesting in that one can almost draw a line at the point where the composer broke with nineteenth-century tradition in favor of the folk sources he had been collecting. Indeed, his decision to open with a fugue could easily be interpreted as a latter-day reflection on the fugues Beethoven wrote to begin two of his late quartets, Opus 131 in C-sharp minor and Opus 132 in A minor. However, by the time the quartet has advanced to its second movement, one can sense Bartók’s feelings that he had had enough of traditional forms. (Beethoven was similarly not that all pleased with such forms in both of those two quartets that begin with fugues.) By the time Bartók had begun his quartet’s final movement, he was well equipped to explore new territory; and the results of his field studies provided him with a compass for orientation.

Fortunately, the Danish String Quartet did not perform this music as if it were a history lesson. Nevertheless, one could say that their sensitivity to the composer’s technique provided an informed reflection of his mindset. Thus, the final movement was performed with what might be called a definitive sense of arrival, settling into a new rhetoric and enthusiastically exploring where that rhetoric might lead the underlying language of string quartet music.

This made for an excellent parallel with the F major Opus 59 quartet. Here, again, Beethoven does not introduce his “folk reference” until the final movement. Mind you, he was not about to sacrifice his long-standing commitment to formal architecture; but, at the same time, he used his Russian theme as orientation for exploring new approaches to rhetoric. In would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that the Danes performed their Beethoven as a parallel to their Bartók, but they performed both quartets in a way that drew attention to how each composer found his own way to explore a new domain.

Like many (most?) in the audience, I was unfamiliar with the folk sources presented between the Bartók and Beethoven selections. Nevertheless, there was a clear sense that the Quartet members were playing for the joy of making music (jamming?) together, rather than interpreting marks on score pages. If the music was unfamiliar, the spirit behind that music could still work its magic, bringing a personable atmosphere to a chamber music setting in which character tends to be more on the formal side. That spirit was also present through the encore selection of music by the only named Danish composer of the evening, Carl Nielsen. The selection was described as a song; but it had all the trappings of a Lutheran hymn in four voices, closing of an evening of impressive insights with a calm sense of quietude.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 2/19/2018

Readers may have noticed that The Bleeding Edge did not “go to press” last Monday. Last week happened to be one of those cases in which all events likely to appeal to the adventurous had already been reported. As a result, I decided that, rather than just prepare a list of reminders, I would catch up on preparing previews for other concerts worth of attention in the more distant future.

This week there appears to be pretty much an equal balance between reminders and announcements of new events. Nevertheless, the overall list is a relatively sparse one. Whether this is a side effect of everything coming to a halt to make time to watch Olympic competitions on television is left for the reader to decide. In any case here are three items definitely worth of reminders:
  1. February 20: The performance of Philip Glass’ “Music with Changing Parts” as a belated recognition of his 80th birthday.
  2. February 22: This week’s installment in the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series.
  3. February 24: The performance of “Atlas” by Tawil & Khoury.
Specifics for previously unannounced events are as follows:

Tuesday, February 20, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: This will be the February offering in the Composers in Performance Series curated by the Meridian Gallery. The program will be a three-set evening. The order of the sets is not particularly clear from the advance work, but it appears that things will begin with skratchklang, which is the result of a new collaboration that brings violinist and composer Thea Farhadian together with visual artist Heike Liss. They will be followed by the more geographically dispersed jazz duo consisting of saxophonist Jack Wright, based in Easton, Pennsylvania, and bassist Evan Lipson, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The program will conclude with an all-electronic set by Silvia Matheus. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission is between $5 and $20, payable at the door and/or collected between sets.

Tuesday, February 20, 9 p.m., Darger Bar: Weird Ear Records will be hosting what appears to be a showcase concert of two of the groups they record. The more familiar group name that has shown up on this site in the past is Angst Hase Pfeffer Nase, whose name is the juxtaposition of four German nouns that translate, respectively, as “fear,” “bunny,” “pepper,” and “nose.” The group is an Oakland-based duo in which guitarist Chris Cooper plays against a variety of electronic creations by Jess Goddard. The other set also involves electronic transformation of guitar performances. However, this one is the one-man project of Stephen Abbate, which he calls Windowpain Industries.

The Darger Bar is located in NEMIZ (NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 2700 16th Street, right at the corner where Treat Avenue converges with Harrison Street. Those unfamiliar with the name will miss out on its connotations of “realms of the unreal” (as Jessica Yu put it in the film she made about Henry Darger). There does not seem to be any mention of a cover charge, so it is likely that donations will be both requested and appreciated.

Wednesday, February 21, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This will be the February installment of the monthly four-set program of ventures into the weird. There will be solo sets by Thomas Dimuzio, Deletist, and Sarah Lockhart and a duo performance by Zachary James Watkins and Ross Peacock. The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission for all will be $5.

Debussy Rises Above Schumann and Prokofiev

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist Yefim Bronfman presented a solo recital as the latest offering in the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony. The first half of his program was devoted entirely to Robert Schumann, while the second half was divided between Claude Debussy and Sergei Prokofiev. Taken as a whole, the evening was a mixture of insights and disappointments.

Most satisfying was his account of Claude Debussy’s 1890 Suite bergamasque. This may have been Bronfman’s way of reminding us that we are a little more than a month away from the 100th anniversary of Debussy’s death. However, Debussy was not yet 30 when he wrote this suite, a time when he was not particularly certain about his future as a composer.

Those who know the title of the suite at all, probably know it best because one of its movements is “Clair de lune.” Familiar as that music is, most of its admirers probably do not know that the title comes from an 1869 poem by Paul Verlaine, let alone that the poem inspired the entire suite. Scott Foglesong’s notes for the program book elaborated on this point by quoting four lines of the poem (in English translation):
Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masques and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
The noun “Bergamasque” refers to the Italian town of Bergamo; and, when we encounter it at the end of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it refers to an Italian folk dance similar to the tarantella. Verlaine uses his poetic license to transform two kinds of performance into those doing the performing.

Except for the “Clair de lune” movement, the suite is a reflection on pre-Classical suites, each of whose movements presented a different dance form, all of which may be introduced by a prelude. “Clair de lune” is preceded by such a prelude followed by a minuet; and it is followed by a passepied. However, Debussy is far less interested in dance forms than Johann Sebastian Bach was. His attention is more devoted to Verlaine’s whimsical sadness, punctuated every now and then by evoking the lutes being plucked by those personified masques and bergamasques.

Bronfman’s account of the full score of this suite could not have been more attentive to the rich amount of detail that Debussy packed into it. However, there was also a clear sense that Bronfman was aware of those lines by Verlaine that capture the “code” of Debussy’s music. The result was a level of expressiveness that was evocative of poetry (or at least those four lines of poetry) without ever compromising the meticulous detail behind all of Debussy’s marks on paper. As we look back on Debussy’s life and works during this “memorial” period, Bronfman has clarified the view with an engagingly perceptive account of one of the composer’s earliest pieces.

The Prokofiev selection that followed could not have been more of a jolt. Bronfman played the Opus 83 (seventh) sonata in B-flat major, the second of the three “War Sonatas” composed between 1940 and 1944. In my own personal experiences, this is the one of the three that gets performed in recital most often. One reason may be that the references to war are at their most explicit, beginning with the marching of the troops in the very opening measures to charging headlong into the chaos of battle itself in the final movement. Ironically, the blatant blood-and-guts rhetoric of the outer movements is given a break during the second movement with one of Prokofiev’s most lyrical instances of piano composition (with a little help from a citation of Robert Schumann’s “Wehmut” song from his Opus 39 Liederkreis song cycle).

Ironically, Schumann as cited by Prokofiev fared far better than Schumann in his own right. The program began with two of the solo piano compositions that Schumann wrote in 1839, the Opus 18 arabesque followed by the Opus 20 cycle entitled Humoreske. These pieces could not be more different. Opus 18 is a straightforward rondo, more interested in exploring the repeated theme in changing contexts than any of the visual connotations of the piece’s name. However, departure from the literal is even more obvious in the complete lack of humor (or any other form of light rhetoric) in Opus 20. In contrast to the programmatic structure of a piece like the Opus 9 Carnaval, Opus 20 barrels its way from one hyper-charged abstract piece to the next, almost defying the attentive listener to make sense of it all.

Josef Kreihuber’s lithograph of Robert Schumann, made in the year when Opus 18 and Opus 20 were composed (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Bronfman did not do such a listener any favors. In both selections he was fixated on the technical issues of getting all the notes in their proper place. However, there was little by way of sense as to why each of those notes belonged in its designated place. Ultimately, the music was treated as little more than a technical exercise. The demands of that exercise made achievement impressive but not particularly satisfying.

Bronfman took only one encore, the E major (third) étude from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection of twelve. This served well as the calm after Prokofiev’s storm. Nevertheless, it was a bit saddening to encounter so much expressiveness in such a short piece after hardly any expressiveness had been accorded to Schumann at the beginning of the evening.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Choices for March 18, 2018

The third Sunday in March will follow up on its two preceding Sundays. Furthermore, the choices for March 18 will show the same preference for the choral repertoire that will be offered on March 11. Sadly, the two choral offerings reported thus far will both begin at the same time, 4 p.m., with the respective venues separated by a considerable distance. As a result, “both” will not be a choice option for this particular Sunday. The venues are as follows:

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church: For the final concert of its 2017–18 season, Clerestory will present a program whose full title is Dream States: Songs of Daring and Whimsy. Full details of the program have not yet been announced; but the objective is to explore music tuned to different states of consciousness (hence the reference to daring and whimsy). The program will also highlight the work of two female composers, one of whom is Pulitzer Prize finalist Augusta Read Thomas. The other is local composer Minna Choi. Those who have not yet visited St. Gregory may not know that the sanctuary is surrounded from above by frescos of dancing saints, whose very presence will reflect diversity of consciousness:

The dancing saints above the congregation in St. Gregory of Nyssa (courtesy of Clerestory)

The plan is to supplement the music further with projections of artwork from the David Brower Center.

St. Gregory’s is located at 500 De Haro Street, at the foot of Potrero Hill. Tickets may be purchased in advance through an Eventbrite event page. General admission tickets are $25 with a senior rate of $15. There will also be a reduced rate of $5 for students.

Church of the Advent of Christ the King: San Francisco Renaissance Voices will continue its 2017–18 season with a program entitled A Nun, A Queen, The Lady & A King. The program will be structured around a performance of Heinrich Isaac’s six-part Mass setting entitled Missa Virgo Prudentissima. Isaac composed the “Virgo prudentissima” motet for the confirmation of Maximilian I as Holy Roman Emperor; and his Mass setting would have used this motet as a point of departure. The movements of the Mass setting will be separated by other motets by Josquin des Pres, Jacob Obrecht, Jean Mouton, Adrian Willaert, Jacquet of Mantua, and Jean Le Santier.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street, approximately across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. General admission will be $30 with a $25 rate for students and seniors and $20 for children aged twelve or younger.

Women Performing Women at C4NM

Hubbard Quartet players Jamie Roberts, Klaudia Szlachta, Hyun Min Lee, and Laura Manko Sahin (photograph by Sedar Sahin, used with permission of the photographer)

Emma Logan has been directing her curatorial responsibilities at the Center for New Music (C4NM) towards providing more platforms for contributions by women to the new music scene. Last night she presented a quartet, all of whose members were women, playing a program of four works, one a West Coast premiere, all by female composers. The performing ensemble was the Hubbard Quartet, consisting of Jamie Roberts on oboe, Klaudia Szlachta on violin, Laura Manko Sahin on viola, and Hyun Min Lee on cello. The composer whose music was being premiered was Devree Lewis. The other composers were Julie Barwick, based in the Bay Area, Marilyn Zupnik, and the late Vivian Fine, who lived through over three-quarters of the twentieth century, during which time she was known primarily (if at all) by name, rather than by experiences of listening to her music. (Last night was the first time I ever heard one of her pieces; and, somewhat curiously, she wrote it in the year in which I was born.)

The members of the Hubbard Quartet first met in the summer of 2015. They were all teaching at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and they all shared a house in Lennox. The name of the quartet came from the location of the house on Hubbard Street. Since that time they have dispersed to Boston, the District of Columbia, and San Francisco, which clearly limits the amount of time they can put into working as a group.

Fortunately, they know each other well enough to know how to use that time to its best advantage. They have a well-blended sound, which gives the impression that each member knows how to listen attentively to the other three. This is particularly critical given that one of the instruments is an oboe, so listening involves much more than what is required for chamber music among string players. Over the course of last night’s concert, there was really only one moment when intonation seemed somewhat off base; and that could just as easily have been a reflection on the composer as on the players.

More problematic is the question of how they can schedule their time to involve the composers whose music they have chosen to perform. Clearly, this was not an issue where Fine was concerned. However, Fine was on the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont; and it is entirely conceivable that the Hubbard players learned about her through their connections to Boston or Tanglewood. (I first learned about Fine when I was a student in New England.) It would not surprise me to learn that last night’s Fine selection, a capriccio for oboe and strings, was one of the first pieces they prepared back when they were living on Hubbard Street.

On the other hand it was hard to get a sense of how much connection had been established with any of the living composers. Last night’s performance left a general impression that the players were still finding their way through at least major sections of the scores they were performing, if not the composition in its entirety. The Zupnik quartet seemed to reflect the most comprehensive understanding, perhaps because the piece consisted of a single movement in four well-defined sections.

The Barwick and Lewis pieces were based on literary foundations, and it was in these pieces that execution seemed to be the most problematic. Barwick’s piece was based on the episode in Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude when Death visits Amaranta and orders her to sew her own shroud. This is, to milk the metaphor, but a single thread from the vast tapestry of magical realism that García Márquez wove to fashion a text capable of eliciting belly laughs and gasps of amazement at the same time. It took a lot of courage for Barwick to try to pluck one episode out of context; and, ultimately, she got no further than having interleaving rhythms evoke the process of sewing. However, this was the one piece in the evening that showed intonation problems, leaving me to wonder whether the author was more involved in the literary text than in the evocative potential of the string trio playing her music.

Lewis’ piece was actually an arrangement of a bandoneon solo by the Argentinian composer Emmanuel Trifilio. Trifilio called his piece “Luz de agosto,” naming it after William Faulkner’s novel Light in August. My guess is that he just liked the imagery and could have cared less about Faulkner’s surreal approach to melodrama set in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. One could definitely get a feel for the Argentinian rhetoric behind the music, but the Hubbard players left the impression that they were more wrapped up in the notes than in the raw sensuality of Trifilio’s music.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Two Performances of BWV 245 for Lent

This year the Lenten season will be enriched with a generous supply of a major composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, his BWV 245 setting of the Passion text taken from the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Gospel According to Saint John (with two interpolations from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew). Composed in 1724, BWV 245 predates Bach’s BWV 244 setting of the entire Passion text from Matthew, which was probably first performed in 1727. Regular readers should know by now that, one week from tomorrow (Sunday, February 25), the American Bach Soloists will perform BWV 245. However, they will perform the 1725 version of the score, for which Bach added three arias, which have their own entries in Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis as BWV 245a, 245b, and 245c, respectively.

Fortunately, this season will also provide an opportunity to experience the original version; and it will not conflict with this month’s performance. Sanford Dole is in the process of preparing his Bay Choral Guild (BCG) to present BWV 245 in its original version. Instrumental resources will be provided by Jubilate with David Wilson serving as concertmaster. Tenor Corey Head will sing the words of the Evangelist, and baritone Jeffrey Fields will sing those of Jesus. The aria soloists will be Tonia d’Amelio (soprano), Heidi Waterman (contralto), Michael Desnoyers (tenor), and Nikolas Nackley (baritone).

The San Francisco performance of BWV 245 will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 17. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. BCG has created an event page for advance purchase of tickets online. General admission for such purchases will be $30 with a $25 rate for seniors and $10 for students. The student rate applies to those over eighteen with identification. Those under eighteen who attend with an adult paying either the general or the senior rate will be admitted for free. Ticket prices at the door will be $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors. Dole will give a preview lecture beginning at 7 p.m.

Debussy’s Concert Music for Voice(s) on Warner

This third dispatch on Warner Classics’ Complete Works 33-CD box set of the music of Claude Debussy takes in two categories in Warner’s own organization of the collection. The seven CDs in this group consist of four devoted to songs, two devoted to choral works, and one “linking” CD that finishes up the songs and begins the choral works. For readers following my account of pianist Malcolm Martineau recording the complete songs of Debussy on four CDs and wondering about the additional space taken by Warner, that space is used for orchestral versions of piano accompaniment, almost all of which were prepared during the composer’s lifetime. The one exception is Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht’s 1949 orchestration of Debussy’s final song, the “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons” (Christmas carol for homeless children).

Because Martineau organized his recordings around his work with specific singers, finding a specific song in his collection is not always an easy matter. Warner has simplified this process by organizing both the songs and the choral works chronologically. As long as the searcher can associate his/her objective in terms of a specific year (and there are several resources to assist that precondition), achieving the goal should be relatively straightforward. In addition, there is almost prodigious diversity in the performances of the songs. Warner has been able to draw upon an abundant archive of past recordings, allowing the listener to enjoy performances by many different singers in any given vocal range accompanied by a generous cross-section of pianists experienced in art song accompaniment.

Nevertheless, I am not sure I would recommend any of the individual discs in the Warner collection for beginning-to-end listening. Debussy clearly had a broad interest in poetry. One might almost say that his interest took in the full breadth of the history of French literature. Nevertheless, chronology (either of the texts or the dates of Debussy’s compositions) is not necessarily a useful path in appreciating the scope of that breadth. Furthermore, my own knowledge of French literature (not to mention the diversity of French art song) is ill-equipped to recommend any possible “listening programs” for this collection. The reader should just be prepared to explore in small doses, eventually finding his/her way to those songs that provide the richest listening experiences.

Where the choral repertoire is concerned, the selections are far more limited. Most of them are given multiple accounts, usually involving changes in instrumentation. There are two world premiere recordings in this genre. One of these is the only recording of the “Chanson des brises” (song of the breezes), setting a text by Louis Bouilhet for soprano, female choir, and four hands on one keyboard.
The other is a “first pass” at setting two chansons by Charles d’Orléans for a cappella choir in 1898. Ten years later Debussy would add a third chanson to the set and rethink the other two, resulting in a final version of this collection.

As to the performances, while the choral work tends to be consistently satisfying, the same cannot be said of the solo offerings. Too many of the sopranos come across with a shrillness (particularly when aiming for high pitches) that never seems to sit very well with the words. Others (including at least one for whom French is not her native tongue) shape their intonations around the words with a consistency that is as engaging as it is satisfying. Ultimately, however, the real priority here involves Debussy’s music; and, considering the breadth of this repertoire, the overall treatment is definitely a good one.

Hakhnazaryan Makes an Impressive SF Debut

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the San Francisco debut of the young Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. This was the second of the three concerts in the 2017–2018 Young Masters Series, the annual reminder that awareness of the coming generation is always just as important as the enjoyment of those who have firmly established their careers. Hakhnazaryan was accompanied by pianist Noreen Polera, returning to SFP for the third time.

The program was divided between large-scale compositions and a diversity of shorter works. The major work on the program was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 cello sonata in F major, the second of the two he composed. Brahms completed his first cello sonata, Opus 38 in E minor, in 1865, around the time he was beginning work on A German Requiem (Opus 45), which became his first major public success. Indeed, he had trouble getting Opus 38 published and even spoke dismissively about it.

Opus 99 was written about two decades later. It presents a composer with a far more positive attitude, confident to write a duo in which the partners are very much on equal terms. The result is a first-rate match of richly expressive phrases for the cello that resound through floods of pianistic gestures that never force the cello off the stage. Both Hakhnazaryan and Polera clearly understood this relationship, supremely confident that they were up to its high-wire challenges. The result could not have been more satisfying, making it clear that the judges for the fourteenth International Tchaikovsky competition knew what they were doing in awarding the Cello First Prize and Gold Medal to Hakhnazaryan in 2011.

The Brahms sonata was preceded by the work of one of Brahms’ strongest influences, Robert Schumann. His Opus 70 was a coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements originally written for horn and piano. Schumann subsequently specified that the solo part could be taken by cello or violin; but one can easily detect the “horn call” passages in the Allegro movement. Hakhnazaryan took the idioms that characterized both of the movements at face value, never trying to imitate a horn but reflecting that instrument’s capacity for not only vigorous energy but also extended lyrical passage by rethinking those qualities through his cello.

The intermission was followed by a diverse assortment of music on a shorter durational scale. Hakhnazaryan began with a collection of five relatively brief pieces, each based on a folk theme, by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze. Hakhnazaryan observed that there were many parallels in the folk traditions of Georgia and Armenia. Indeed, listening to these engaging miniatures, one could easily hear echoes of Aram Khachaturian (along with a bit of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s take on an “Arab” dance, which he composed for the ballet The Nutcracker). There were even a few suggestions of klezmer, making me think that the ethnomusicological expertise of Veretski Pass might have been informative.

The geographical stance then migrated west to the Iberian peninsula. “Asturias,” which was originally published as the first movement of Isaac Albéniz’ Opus 232 suite Chants d’Espagne, is one of that composer’s best known pieces. It is also one of the most successful evocations of guitar technique to come from a piano keyboard, so it should be no surprise that the music is now played frequently by guitarists. So last night we had a cello and piano evoking the spirit of a piano evoking the spirit of a guitar, prepared by an arranger not credited in the program book. To his credit Hakhnazaryan seems to have a clear sense of when the music was conducive to the cello, and he played up those moments for all they were worth.

from IMSLP (public domain)

He then complemented this “chain of evocations” with an evocation of Albéniz himself by the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. Shchedrin was no stranger to Spanish rhetoric, having transmogrified Georges Bizet’s score for Carmen into a bizarre concoction for strings and percussion, which served as music for a ballet based on the opera choreographed by Alberto Alonzo for Shchedrin’s wife, prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya. Shchedrin’s “Imitating Albeniz” was written for solo piano in 1959 and subsequently arranged for cello and piano by Walter Despalj. Hakhnazaryan and Polera presented this version with all of the wit it merited.

Hakhnazaryan then turned to the “violin encore” repertoire with his own arrangement of the “Meditation” interlude from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Listening to his performance, one could easily forget that Massenet had intended the music for a solo violin. Hakhnazaryan then returned to Iberia, concluding his program with “Requiebros” (compliments) by the Catalonian composer (and student of Pablo Casals) Gaspar Cassadó, a thoroughly engaging wrap-up of his survey of miniaturist techniques.

As might be expected, however, he and Polera returned with two encores. The first went back to appropriating virtuoso violin music. This time he turned to the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini playing his “a Preghiera” sonata, an introduction and variations on “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera Mosè in Egitto. What made this a particularly virtuoso turn was that Paganini required the entire piece to be played on the highest string of the instrument (E on the violin but a fifth lower on the cello). He then concluded with the one selection by an Armenian composer, a nocturne by Edward Bagdasarian (not to be confused with Ross Bagdasarian or any of his chipmunks). Again this was music written for violin which translated over to cello with little difficulty.

Friday, February 16, 2018

NCCO to Host Zurich Chamber Orchestra

Those who have been following the career of Daniel Hope know that, in addition to serving as Artistic Partner of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO), he is also Music Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Next month the Zurich Chamber Orchestra will be touring the United States, and their tour will begin here in San Francisco. As a result Hope has organized this kick-off concert to be a joint performance of the two ensembles he is currently leading.

The visiting Zurich Chamber Orchestra (photograph by Sandro Diener, courtesy of NCCO)

The program will begin with NCCO playing one of the most popular pieces in its repertoire, Béla Bartók’s six-movement collection of Romanian folk dances. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra will then take the stage to present two compositions, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 138 divertimento in F major and Max Richter’s “recomposition” of “Summer,”  the second concerto from Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection of twelve violin concertos, whose first four are best known collectively as The Four Seasons. Hope will perform as soloist in the Richter piece. The two ensembles will then join forces to play the orchestral version of Frå Holbergs tid, the piece usually called the “Holberg Suite.” Hope will serve as Concertmaster for the entire program.

This concert will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 16. The venue will be Herbst Theatre at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will be those for all other NCCO concerts, $29, $49, and $61. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes a seating plan showing which prices apply to which areas of the house.

The reason for the early start is that the concert will be followed by NCCO’s 2018 annual gala. This will begin at 7 p.m. in the Green Room on the second floor of the Veterans Building, the same site that houses Herbst Theatre on its first two floors. In honor of the special visitors, the title of the gala will be Soirée Suisse. Proceeds will benefit both education and artistic programs; and the evening will include an elegant sit-down dinner. Individual tickets are $500; and those attending the concert will be entitled to purchase premium tickets for only $50. It will also be possible to purchase Gala Tables of Ten for $5,000, $10,000, and $25,000. Those interested in attending the gala may make their purchases through Rebekah Rabiroff, Director of Development, who may be reached by calling 415-357-1111, extension 306. Rabiroff can also be reached by electronic mail.

Pianist Clara Haskil in Recital on SWR>>music

courtesy of Naxos of America

Exactly one week ago SWR>>music released its latest album of remastered tapes of a live concert recital. The entire recital, including the encores, fits on a single CD with all audience applause expunged. The performance itself was a solo recital given by pianist Clara Haskil in the Ordensaal of the Ludwigsburg Castle on April 11, 1953.

A search of Amazon.com reveals a generous number of documentary recordings of Haskil’s performances. I therefore felt a bit sheepish when I realized that the only time I mentioned her was when Alexandre Tharaud dedicated his album of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti to her. To say the least, this provides an unsatisfactory account of the breadth of her accomplishments.

Nevertheless, she only began to emerge “as a presence” after the end of World War II, by which time she was over 50 years of age. This overlooks the fact that, when she was only sixteen, she had played Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor in his presence. Busoni was so impressed that he invited her to study with him in Berlin. Her mother disapproved, which may have been just as well. She would have had to endure World War I in Germany; and, as an adult, she would have had to contend with the rise of Adolf Hitler, not the best of circumstances for a Sephardic Jew.

When one examines the full program that SWR recorded, the first impression is the breadth of music history that it encapsulates. She begins with Bach’s BWV 914 toccata in E major followed by three of the Scarlatti sonatas. She then moves into the nineteenth century with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata in C minor followed by two selections by Robert Schumann, the Opus 99 “Bunte Blätter” (colorful leaves), followed by his earlier Opus 1, the set of variations on the “ABEGG” theme. The program concludes in the twentieth century with two of Claude Debussy’s études and Maurice Ravel’s sonatina in F-sharp major. For her encores she returns to Bach (Busoni’s arrangement of the BWV 659 chorale prelude on Advent hymn “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland”) and the “Abschied” (farewell) movement from Schumann’s Opus 82 Waldszenen (woodland scenes) cycle.

The performances suggest that her interest in breadth may have led to shortcomings in depth. Those who have listened to many different performances and/or recordings of Opus 111 are likely to find her account somewhat uneven. Whether this is a matter of physical shortcomings (with which she had to contend for most of her life) or matters of the notes themselves, which she had not yet resolved for her own satisfaction, her reading is not particularly convincing. On the other hand there is no such sign of either discomfort or confusion in her approaches to Debussy and Ravel; and, where Bach and Scarlatti are concerned, she has the good sense to let them speak for themselves without imposing undue layers of latter-day expressiveness. Indeed, her account of BWV 659 suggests more concern for Bach than with what Busoni had done to Bach.

As a result, while this recording may be somewhat uneven when taken as a whole, much of the album still provides a valuable document of many of Haskil’s virtues as a pianist.

Meat and Potatoes Never Sounded So Good

Those who like meat-and-potatoes familiarity in their concert repertoire could not have been more pleased yesterday afternoon, when San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt began his second round of concert appearances for his annual two-week visit to Davies Symphony Hall. The program consisted entirely of two of the most familiar symphonies throughout the full scope of music history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 550 in G minor and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) in E-flat major. Familiar as this music may have been, Blomstedt brought an energetic freshness to both of them, teasing out no end of details that could easily have previously gone unnoticed.

Attentive readers may have noticed that the Mozart symphony was given two dates. It was originally composed in 1788, but Mozart added the two clarinet parts for a pair of concerts given in Vienna in April of 1791, a little over half a year prior to his death in early December. This is the version that is usually performed, and Carey Bell and Jerome Simas were on hand for that purpose.

Most important, however, was that Blomstedt followed his usual practice of having the first and second violins face each other. While many listeners enjoy this symphony for the dramatically dark qualities of its minor key, the overall texture tends to remind one that Mozart was particularly in his element when writing for string quartet. There is no end of elegant detail in the four primary string parts; and it is only the need to balance against the eight winds (including the two clarinets) that those string parts need some (but not too much) reinforcement.

Blomstedt clearly knew how to set his numbers for the best balance. However, once that balance was achieved, he exploited it to advantage, consistently teasing out the many ways in which the lines of Mozart’s counterpoint would play against each other in an ongoing flow of energy. (That sense of energy flow was even present at the Andante tempo of the second movement.) Furthermore, Blomstedt knew how to add a spatial element to that flow. His arrangement of the string section allowed the attentive listener to track the migration of thematic elements from one set of instruments to another.

If that was not enough to provide a new way of approaching familiar material, Blomstedt also decided that the Menuetto portion of the third movement could do with having its repeats taken during its return after the movement’s Trio. One could see the smiles on many of the faces in the ensemble. The players clearly enjoyed this twist; and the sparkle in their eyes seemed to say to the audience “You didn’t expect that, did you?”

All of that clarity that disclosed every one of Mozart’s details to its best advantage served the Beethoven performance equally well. Once again Blomstedt was as sensitive to the spatial elements of his performance as he was to the many unique elements of Beethoven’s thematic vocabulary and his techniques for developing those elements. It was also significant that Blomstedt appreciated the “assai” (rather) modifier for the Adagio assai tempo of the funeral march. This was a procession that proceeded at a respectful pace without dragging its feet. By holding back on those elements that can descend too easily into the ominous, Blomstedt directed attention, instead, to thematic interplay and the rhetorical impact of Beethoven’s approach to dynamic levels. Taken as a whole, this was an account of the entire symphony in which no dramatic element was neglected while, at the same time, no dramatic element was overplayed.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Second Round of 24 Pianists Playing Bach Announced

Readers may recall that last May the McRoskey Mattress Company hosted a concert featuring 24 different pianists each playing one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s prelude-fugue couplings. The title of this program was 24 by 24: Twenty-four Pianists Perform the Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Of course anyone who knows their Bach will tell you that Bach wrote two of these collections, each traversing all of the major and minor keys associated with the chromatic scale in the order of the pitches of that scale beginning with C.

What is less known is that these two sets were separated by twenty years. Book I was completed in autograph in 1722 during Bach’s service as Kapellmeister (director of music) for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen:

The first page of the autograph of Book I (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Because the prince was a Calvinist, Bach’s duties involved only secular music; and he was particularly productive in that genre. Book II, on the other hand, was completed during Bach’s tenure in Leipzig in 1742, which would be early in the last decade of the composer’s life. For many years I have reflected on the hypothesis that this second set can be regarded as autobiographical in nature, using many of the preludes and fugues to reflect on the composer’s past achievements. Indeed, when the idea first occurred to me, I went as far as to call Book IIthe only autobiographical account Bach would be capable of telling.”

All this should serve as prelude (so to speak) to the announcement that, at the beginning of next month, the McRoskey Mattress Company will complement the program it hosted last May. Once again 24 pianists will gather, this time to perform all 24 of the prelude-fugue couplings in Book II. This will involve a new gathering of performers, only some of whom participated in the Book I performance. Those performers will be, in the order of the keys of the preludes and fugues as they were published, as follows:
  1. C major: Robin Sutherland
  2. C minor: Allegra Chapman
  3. C# major: Ken Iisaka
  4. C# minor: Peter Grunberg
  5. D major: Victoria Neve
  6. D minor: Anne Rainwater
  7. E-flat major: Daniel Glover
  8. D# minor: Robert Schwartz
  9. E major: Kelly Savage
  10. E minor: Kevin Korth
  11. F major: Nicholas Pavkovic
  12. F minor: Derek Tam
  13. F# major: Brian Fitzsousa
  14. F# minor: Monica Chew
  15. G major: Robert Brownstein
  16. G minor: Adam Tendler
  17. A-flat major: Keisuke Nakagoshi
  18. G# minor: Serene
  19. A major: Nayantara Jain
  20. A minor: Christopher Basso
  21. B-flat major: Michael Gilbertson
  22. B-flat minor: Elizabeth Dorman
  23. B major: Dale Tsang
  24. B minor: Laura Magnani
The performance will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 2. (Note that this is an hour earlier than the performance of Book I; Book II is longer in duration.) The venue will be the McRoskey Mattress Company at 1687 Market Street. All tickets will be $20. Advance purchase is highly recommended, because seating will be limited. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. The event is again being sponsored by R. Kassman: Purveyor of Fine Pianos.

An Unexpected Continuation of Kroll’s Couperin Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this month, Centaur Records released the fifth volume in harpsichordist Mark Kroll’s project to record the complete keyboard works of François Couperin. Astute readers may recall that the last report on this project was an account of the third volume in the set, which was written at the beginning of this past December. Those readers may wonder why an account of the fourth volume has not yet appeared.

They are not alone. An Amazon.com search on “Mark Kroll Couperin” includes links for the first three volumes and the fifth volume but nothing for the fourth. Indeed, a full Google search on the same keywords is not more productive. The only mention of the fourth volume seems to be on the Discography Web page on Kroll’s own Web site, which provides the catalog number (Centaur 3597) with a hyperlink to a PDF image of the front and back covers. To make matters more perplexing, that Web page does not yet have an entry for the fifth volume!

None of this is likely to surprise those who read last December’s account of Kroll’s third volume. After having accumulated several experiences, including some dating back to my time with Examiner.com, I had decided that it was finally time to vent on just how frustrating things could get when dealing with Centaur products. I also made it a point to keep Kroll out of that “loop of frustration.” As far as I can tell (primarily on the basis of information on the back covers of the CD packages), he is working his way dutifully through the process of recording Couperin’s four Pièces de clavecin volumes that collectively contain 27 ordres (suites). Production and distribution are out of his hands (and I am sure he is glad that he does not have to worry about such matters while preparing for his future recording sessions). However, when it comes to how Centaur handles these matters, there seem to be some “randomness” (as the middle-school students my wife used to teach would put it) about how the products are handled.

This is all more than a little unfortunate, since there is so much to be gained from listening to Kroll’s recordings. The fifth volume makes for a useful “companion” to the third. Like the third volume, it begins with an ordre that opens with a set of dance movements (an allemande, two courantes, a sarabande, and a gigue), followed by a series of nine “character” pieces, each given a distinctive descriptive title. What makes the fifth ordre (which begins the fifth volume) so interesting is that six of those “character” pieces are rondos. (These are explicitly marked as such in the Dover Publications printing of Couperin’s Complete Keyboard Works, reprinting the publications edited by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander; but those labels are not included in the track listing on the album’s back cover.) The rondo was, of course, a familiar approach to prolongation; but the fifth ordre is the first set in which Couperin explores its use so extensively.

Note, also, that the fifth ordre is the longest available to date in this project. The duration of the entire set runs more than 40 minutes. As a result, the entire recording includes only one other ordre, the 22nd. Those familiar with the dance suite that Richard Strauss composed based on Couperin sources will immediately recognize the first piece in this collection, entitled “Le Trophée” (the trophy). One might almost indulge in the pun that this is one of the more rewarding tracks on the album!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

PBO Annual Winter Gala to Honor David Daniels

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) has announced that its Annual Winter Gala will take place in a little over a week’s time. This year PBO will use the occasion to honor countertenor David Daniels. As a result the highlight of the evening will be a performance of Handel arias and other surprises for which Daniels will join the PBO led by Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

This year the Gala will be chaired by Melanie Peña, who, along with Mark Perry, Kay Sprinkel Grace, David Low, and Dominique Lahaussois, has been a generous sponsor of the occasion:

Melanie Peña and Mark Perry (courtesy of PBO)

As usual, gala festivities will begin with a cocktail party and silent auction. Following the performance, an elegant sit-down dinner will be served. Then the dinner will be followed by a festive afterparty featuring a premium Scotch tasting.

This year’s Gala will be held on Friday, February 23, with cocktails beginning at 6:30 p.m. The venue will be the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, whose main entrance is at 217 Stevenson Street, just below the southwest corner of Market Street and Third Street. A Web page on the PBO Web site has been created with registration information. Basic admission is the $550 Patron rate with a VIP Guarantor rate of $800. There is also a special $250 ticket for those under the age of forty. It is also possible to register a table with seating for ten at both the Patron level ($5500) and the Guarantor level ($8000). Those who wish further information or to register by phone may call Andrea Sáenz at 415-252-1288, extension 300.

“Song Cycle Without Words” from Peter Garland


This Friday, in addition to the new John Luther Adams album discussed yesterday, Cold Blue Music will also release its third album consisting entirely of the music of Peter Garland. Like Adams, Garland is a composer with a keen sense of quietude, who also enjoyed an association with Lou Harrison. The title of the new album is Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1), whose length almost seems to poke fun at the fact that the composition itself is less than 40 minutes in duration. Like the Adams release, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.

The piece consists of six pieces, each of which is based on a short Japanese poem written during the time of the feudal shogunates. However, the music is scored for only three large knobbed gongs and one large chau gong (usually called a tam-tam when used in a modern symphony orchestra). There is no vocal line for the poems to be sung in either Japanese or English. For that matter the album jacket provides only the first line of each poem and its respective author. Fortunately, Cold Blue has created a Web page for this album that provides English translations of all six of the poems.

Each of the knobbed gongs has its own distinctive pitch. The tam-tam, on the other hand, puts out a relatively narrow band of noise, which has been used for intense rhetorical effects by composers going back to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, if not further. As a result, the primary vehicle for musical expression in this piece is rhythm, to which Garland then imposed on his writing the constraint that every stroke on one of these instruments “should be allowed to resonate and decay freely” (Garland’s own words). Garland also notes that the music should correlate with the text; but that correlation has more to do with the mood established by the poem, rather than any rhythm of recitation of declamation. He also suggests that the circular appearance of all the instruments amounts to a reflection (my word choice, not Garland’s) on the full moon.

As was the case with Adams’ “Everything That Rises,” listening requires a keen attentiveness to subtle details, which again raises the question of achieving both effective performances and recordings that do justice to those performances. It is worth noting that William Winant, the percussionist performing Moon Viewing Music, also had a direct hand in the production of this album. Because this is a solo composition, it creates a situation in which the performer is a fundamentally necessary conduit between what the composer has created and what the attentive listener experiences.

Working with members of the Cold Blue production team, Winant has made sure that “audio engineering” has contributed to that conduit, rather than detracting from it. All that remains is for the listener to utilize equipment responsive to the richness of all the low frequencies and to engage that equipment in a setting that is as free as possible from interfering noise. Under those circumstances one should have little trouble appreciating the extent to which Garland has responded by Buckminster Fuller’s injunction to strive to make more and more with less and less and to derive a richly satisfying listening experience from that appreciation.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Davies to Host Two Piano Recitals This Month

Davies Symphony Hall may be the home of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS); but every season there is considerable diversity in the performances that SFS hosts that do not require the ensemble’s participation. February has turned out to be a particularly interesting month in this capacity, since SFS will be presenting recitals by three pianists over the course of two concerts. One of these is part of the annual Great Performers Series, while the other has been arranged as part of the season-long residency of Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, who made his first appearance in the Great Performers Series solo recital, which he gave at the end of this past October. Specifics are as follows:

The Great Performers event will be a solo recital by Yefim Bronfman, a frequent performer at Davies whose visits as concerto soloist and recitalist are equally welcome. Bronfman has prepared a program with marked diversity in aesthetic stances. The program will conclude with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 83 (seventh) sonata in B-flat major, the second of the three “War Sonatas” composed between 1940 and 1944. What many may not realize is that the opening theme of the second movement is a reflection on “Wehmut” (sadness), the ninth of twelve songs in Robert Schumann’s Opus 39 Liederkreis cycle of settings of poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.

Bronfman seems to have an appreciation for this connection, because he has chosen to begin his program with two of Schumann’s solo piano compositions (neither of which have anything to do with the Liederkreis cycle). He will begin with the Opus 18 “Arabeske” in C major and then continue with the Opus 20 “Humoreske” in B-flat major, a half-hour piece in seven sections played without interruption. Claude Debussy will “intervene” between Schumann and Prokofiev through Bronfman’s inclusion of the Suite Bergamasque on the program.

This concert will be held in Davies Symphony Hall, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 18. Ticket prices are between $25 in the Second Tier and $99 in the Loge. They may be purchased online through the seat selection Web page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. (This is also the main entrance to the hall itself. Note that Flash will be required for online seat selection.) 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.

Trifonov’s offering will be a duo recital. He will be joined by pianist Sergei Babayan in presenting a program of music for two pianos. In this case the second half of the program will be dominated by Sergei Rachmaninoff with performances of both of the suites he composed for two pianos, the more-frequently performed Opus 17 and the earlier lesser-known Opus 5. Opus 5 was originally given the title Fantasie (Tableaux), since Rachmaninoff conceived of the piece as “a series of musical pictures” (the English version of the quote coming from Max Harrison’s biography of the composer). With that goal in mind, Rachmaninoff attached a poetic description to each of the suite’s four movements, while the movements of Opus 17 are labeled only with respect to form.

Rachmaninoff’s music will be balanced by a generous amount of diversity. Schumann will again be represented, this time by his Opus 46 in B-flat major, a set of variations on an Andante theme. There will also be a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 488 sonata for two pianos in D major. Between these two selections will be “something completely different,” Arvo Pärt’s “Pari intervallo.” This was one of the seven pieces that Pärt composed in 1976 as the first instances of his tintinnabuli style, and it was written in four parts with no instrumentation specified. In 2008 he published a version for two pianos, which is what Trifonov and Babayan will play.

This concert will be held in Davies Symphony Hall, beginning at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 27. Ticket prices are between $37 in the Second Tier and $99 in the Loge. They may be purchased online through the seat selection Web page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. (This is also the main entrance to the hall itself. Note that Flash will be required for online seat selection.) 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.