Tuesday, April 24, 2018

HAT HUT Releases Rest of Melford’s 1993 German Sessions


At the beginning of July of last year, this site reported on the reissue by HAT HUT of the first of two CDs recorded by the Myra Melford Trio in Germany in February of 1993. The two-CD album was originally released under the title Alive in the House of Saints; and the four tracks of the first CD were all recorded in Heiligenhaus at a place called simply The Club. The second CD hit the street this past February; but, as a result of my never-ending struggle to juggle my priorities, I was only able to give this album serious listening this morning. Although Melford currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, I have to confess that these two CDs provided my first introduction to her work.

Calling it “her” work may be a bit unfair. Melford, who is a pianist, formed a trio with Lindsey Horner on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums in 1990; and that was the group that found itself in Germany as part of a Knitting Factory tour. While Melford is listed as the composer of all the selections (four on the first CD and six on the second), each piece is very much a conversation among equals. The first four tracks of the second CD come from that same date at The Club. February 5, 1993. The remaining two tracks were recorded earlier (February 3) at the Alte Oper, the original opera house in Frankfurt am Main.

The jacket notes for the second CD were written by Andy Hamilton on October 14, 2017 (i.e. after the reissue of the first CD). He begins by calling Melford a polystylist and then devotes the rest of his text to trying to explain what that means, classifying any number of familiar names (not just from the jazz world) in terms of whether or not they belong to that category. Personally, I have to say that, when you have to go to that much effort to explain what you mean by a category label, then the label itself may not be as useful as you wish it to be.

More useful may be to consider how Melford and her colleagues can use the past as a point of departure from which they head off in a new direction. This approach is nicely demonstrated in the second track of that second CD, entitled “Some Kind Of Blues.” The very title suggests that the group is going to jerk that chain that holds you to categories you tend to use as if they were the most familiar things in the world. However, the piece is also jerking Hamilton’s own chain, to the extent that he has held up Horace Silver as one of Melford’s influences. If there is an auditory equivalent to squinting your eyes, you do not have to squint the ears, so to speak, very hard to detect a very faint spirit of Silver in “Some Kind Of Blues.” Indeed, the title itself points those ears in the right direction by suggesting an association with one of Silver’s best-known tunes, “Señor Blues.”

Mind you, you will not be able to hum “Señor Blues” while listening to “Some Kind Of Blues;” but that is just the point. Silver is never more than that “faint spirit,” a ghostly presence observing how this trio can take any traditional idea about blues and veer it off into another direction. I shudder to think that, sooner or later, there were be an academic treatise on the connection between these two pieces. As far as I am concerned, it is enough to have fun listening to this track.

I also confess to having a bit of fun with some of Melford’s other titles. The second and third tracks of the first CD were entitled “Now & Now 1” and “Between Now & Then,” respectively. Sure enough, one of the tracks recorded in Frankfurt (which took place before all of the tracks on the first CD were recorded) was given the title “Now & Now 2.” (Those interested in the finer details may appreciated that the two “Now & Now” tracks are almost exactly the same duration.)

My tastes being what they are, I was almost immediately reminded of Mel Brooks’ science fiction parody film from 1987, Spaceballs, in which Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) poses the metaphysical question “When will then be now?,” to which Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) replies “Soon!” It takes more than a little chutzpah to mess with time-consciousness; but Brooks knew enough about the real thing to do it right. Melford may not be as aggressive as Brooks was, but she is just as enjoyable.

Nomad Sessions Announces Season Finale

The Nomad Session octet, from their Facebook site

Regular readers probably know by now that the Nomad Session octet has been running a series of concerts that have been presenting a movement-by-movement introduction to a new composition by Nicolas Benavides entitled Cool Grey City. The octet consists of four woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon) and four brass instruments (horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba) and is the first ensemble of its kind in the Bay Area. It has also taken on some highly imaginative arrangements of unlikely sources, such as the “Jupiter” movement from Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 suite The Planets, which is about as large-ensemble as a concert offering is likely to get.

Cool Grey City is a suite of three movements, each of which has been inspired by a different source of hidden spaces in San Francisco. The titles are “Gardens,” “Stairs,” and “Landscapes.” The performance will also involve video projection. Maggie Beidelman has created a video reflection for each of Benavides’ movements based on the respective choices of titles. (Benavides observed that usually a composer is presented with a film or video and asked to create a soundtrack. For Cool Grey City he and Beidelman decided to reverse the process!)

Readers may recall that the first two movements of Cool Grey City were introduced in the club-like setting of the Eristavi Winery. Now that the composition has been completed in its entirety, it will be presented in a more concert-like setting. The presentation will be hosted by The Lab and will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 18. The performance will be preceded by a wine reception at 7:30 p.m.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk east of the northeast corner of 16th Street and Mission Street, which is a major hub for both Muni and BART transportation. The Lab is hosting this concert but not presenting it as part of its own calendar of events. [updated 4/24, 10:35 a.m.: Tickets will be available at the door, but they may also be purchased in advance through an Eventbrite event page. If purchased before the beginning of next month, they will have an early bird rate of $15. After that, the price will be $20, both online and at the door.]

Monday, April 23, 2018

Savall’s New Album Celebrates the Viol Consort

courtesy of PIAS

As can be seen from the design of its cover, the latest album featuring the early music ensemble Hespèrion XXI and its Director Jordi Savall is entitled Musica Nova: Harmonie des Nations 1500–1700. ALIA VOX will release this recording this coming Friday; and, as may be expected, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders. The release will take place just before Hespèrion XXI will begin a North American tour on April 29 in Durham, North Carolina. The tour will last about two weeks, concluding at the Boston Early Music Festival on May 11.

Because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (thank you, Alexander Pope), enthusiastic readers should be cautioned that the album title does not refer to ars nova, the term that designates how polyphony in the fourteenth century differed significantly from the polyphonic practices at Notre Dame (ars antiqua), which developed between 1170 and 1320 and are usually taken to be the earliest disciplined practices of polyphony. As one can tell from the dates in the album title, this is a much later period, during which at least three publications of collected music were published using that same title, two in Venice (instrumental music in 1540 and vocal music in 1568) and one in Leipzig in 1626, consisting of the music of Johann Schein.

However, none of these collections figure in this new album either! Instead, the album surveys the development of repertoire for a consort of viols. The origin of this instrument dates from the end of the fifteenth century; and, as Savall observes in his booklet notes (translated into English by Jacqueline Minett), the instrument was made to imitate the human voice, meaning that it could be played in groups with parts corresponding to soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. At this point I should depart from the technical and confess that I am a sucker for viol consorts. The summer when the training Academy run by American Bach Soloists had enough viol students to form (together with their teacher) a viol consort remains a high point in my memories of past listening experiences. The extended number of strings (usually six) and the reverberations arising from the tuning of the open strings endows the instrument itself with some of the richest sonorities in the string family; and, when these instruments perform as a group, the impact can be overwhelming.

That impact is what makes this new album such a treat. The basic consort consists of Savall (also serving a leader), Sergi Casademunt, Lorenz Duftschmid, and Philippe Pierlot. Continuo is provided by Xavier Puertas on violone and Xavier Díaz-Latorre alternating among archlute, theorbo, and guitar. In several of the selections they are joined by percussionist Pedro Estevan.

The selections themselves are presented in roughly chronological order, beginning with anonymous dance music from Venice dating from the very beginning of the sixteenth century and working through to the end of the seventeenth century with selections of Iberian dances and music based on the “Folia” theme. As might be expected, some of the composers are better known than others. The British contributors, John Dowland and Orlando Gibbons, are likely to be the best known, as will be Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who wrote music for the consort of viols that performed in service to King Louis XIV of France.

Those of a more scholarly bent might be inclined to track the “progress of history” over the course of this album; but I have to confess that my own personal inclination is just to sit back and enjoy it all!

The Bleeding Edge: 4/23/2018

This is shaping up to be a relatively quiet week. Events at the Red Poppy Art House, Adobe Books, and the Center for New Music (C4NM) have already been taken into account. However, there is a last-minute addition to the C4NM calendar and the usual weekly gig at the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG). Specifics for those two events are as follows:

Thursday, April 26, 8 p.m., LSG: This week’s offering will consist of two solo electronic sets. The first will present the electronic sound art, basically environments structured around field recordings, created by Jorge Bachmann, who presents these offerings under the performance name [ruidobello]. He will be followed by Doug Lynner, who will present the Mystery Serge, a highly versatile analog synthesizer designed by Serge Tcherepnin. 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, April 28, 6:30 p.m., C4NM: Sing If You Believe will be a jazz trio recital presented by C4NM founder Adam Fong, playing with Mohan Sundararaj and George Ayala. This will be C4NM’s spring recital for which admission will be free. Instead, attendees will be invited to contribute voluntary donations as a means of continuing support for C4NM operations. The trio will play original compositions and jazz standards. Wine and cheese will be served. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street.

Midori Brings New Perspectives to the Details

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) presented the return of violinist Midori to San Francisco, appearing for the first time under CMSF auspices. Her program consisted of four sonatas for violin and piano, performed with accompanist Özgür Aydin. Midori currently holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (USC), where she serves as Distinguished Professor of Violin. (Heifetz himself held the honorary position of Regents Professor of Music at USC during the 1958–59 academic year. He later joined the faculty as Professor Music in 1961.)

It therefore seemed appropriate that three of the four sonatas that she performed were part of the vast legacy of recordings that Heifetz made with RCA. Indeed, one her selections, César Franck’s sonata in A major, was the first selection performed at Heifetz’ final recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on October 23, 1972, which may be the only Heifetz release that was not recorded under studio conditions. The other two sonatas recorded by RCA filled the second half of the program, Franz Schubert’s D. 408 in G minor (a four-movement composition that Otto Erich Deutsch lists as a sonatina) and Ottorino Respighi’s B minor sonata. The only offering that was not in the RCA catalog was the first one, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 547 sonata in F major, his final composition for violin and piano. (Heifetz recorded only two of the many violin sonatas that Mozart wrote between his childhood and his final decade in Vienna.)

Since I am fortunate enough to possess the CD release of the entire canon of RCA Heifetz recordings, I am happy to state with confidence that Midori never showed the slightest sign of channeling (or even trying to channel) Heifetz’ spirit. Her interpretation of every sonata was uniquely her own, and that uniqueness often disclosed fascinating new insights. This was most evident in her approach to the Franck sonata.

She took a discursive approach to her phrasing that may not have been consistent with Franck’s own approaches to performance. Nevertheless, it disclosed to the attentive listener unique insights as to how each phrase was shaped, leading to a sense of inquiry that pervades the first three movements and is only resolved in the final movement when the composer falls back on one of the earliest polyphonic techniques, that of canon. The result was one of those rare occasions when past familiarity was blown away by new perspectives bringing priority to details of the composition that had not previously been explicitly realized through previous interpretations.

Equally impressive was her approach to the Respighi sonata. This piece is performed so seldom that all of my knowledge of it comes from that one Heifetz recording. However, Midori communicated a sense of unity of the whole that never came across quite as strongly on the recording (perhaps because that recording was a product of several disjoint studio sessions). Midori made it clear that the very opening gesture became the spinal cord of the entire sonata, returning in the following two movements but never forcing itself on the listener’s attention. The affect was one of an intimate exchange of thoughts, a rhetorical stance that those who know Respighi through his tone poems would not associate with him.

The “First Viennese School” selections on the program may have been more familiar (in spirit, if not in flesh); but they still both enjoyed fresh interpretations. Midori’s approach to phrasing her Mozart seemed to suggest its transitional qualities, almost as if the music was beginning to chart the path that Schubert would later follow. Particularly interesting was the scrupulous attention to dynamics in the Mozart performance, making it clear that both violin and piano were on equal terms. That approach to “division of labor” would return across the full canon of violin sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven; and Schubert would then continue that strategy in his D. 408.

The overall result was a highly satisfying journey through the violin sonata repertoire, capped off by an unannounced encore that I do not think I have encountered in any of the many recordings that Heifetz made of short pieces. There was a clear sense of ragtime though the presence of at least one Scott Joplin trope. However, the overall effect did not suggest that this was an arrangement of a Joplin piano rag.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Choices for May 12–13, 2018

Bearing in mind that things frequently change, the action for the second weekend on May seems to be focused primarily on Saturday and Sunday. Both evenings will be active at the Red Poppy Art House. There will also be a Saturday vocal recital at the Center for New Music, but that will be in the afternoon. So those interested in evening events will be able to cover two concerts on one day … if they are up for it. Saturday will also be the final day of San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts for that week. Other offerings, in both the afternoon and evening, are as follows:

Saturday, May 12, 6:30 p.m., Four Seasons Hotel: The Community Music Center (CMC) will hold its annual Spring Gala. As usual, music will be part of the festivities. Indeed, one of the featured performers will be mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who will be flying to San Francisco after giving her final performance in the title role of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Metropolitan Opera. She will be performing here along with composer Jake Heggie at the piano. In addition another mezzo, Frederica von Stade, will be honored with CMC’s third annual Gertrude Field Community Impact Award in recognition of her energetic activities in support of arts education. There will also be performances by both students and faculty at CMC; and, because this is a gala occasion, there will be a banquet dinner preceded by wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Individual tickets are available for $350, and one can also sponsor a table for eight for $2800. VIP tickets are being sold for $500 and $4000 for an eight-person table. There is also a Premium Table Sponsorship rate of $10,000. Those with VIP status will invited to a special reception with von Stade, DiDonato, and Heggie, which will begin at 6 p.m. CMC has created a single Web page from which tickets at all levels may be ordered. The event will take place in the Veranda Ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel, which is located at 757 Market Street.

Saturday, May 12, 7 p.m., Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin: The next installment in the Candlelight Concerts series will present Tamalpais Brass. This is a quintet consisting of Alison Sawyer on horn, Graham Taylor and Richard Roper on trumpets, Andy Strain on tenor trombone, and Brendan Lai-Tong on bass trombone. The program has not yet been announced, but their repertoire reaches back to the Renaissance (if not earlier) and all the way up to the present of a New Orleans second line. The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin is located in Cow Hollow at 2325 Union Street at the corner of Steiner Street. Admission will be free, and no reservations will be required. However, as always, donations will be appreciated.

[added 4/23, 4:20 p.m.:

Saturday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church: The May installment in the Seventh Avenue Performances recital series will again feature Meerenai Shim, virtuoso performer of all sizes on instruments in the flute family. At this concert she will be playing with flutist colleagues (also adept in all sizes of the instrument) Jill Heinke Moen and Kassey Plaha, the three of whom comprise the Areon Flutes trio. This will be a release concert for the trio's latest album on the Innova album, entitled No Era. They will play selections from the album by San Francisco composers Sahba Aminikia, Ryan Brown, and Danny Clay. Aminikia's piece, "Bade Saba." will be accompanied by a fifteen-minute excerpt from a documentary by Albert Lamorisse examining the Iranian landscape, people, and culture.

The Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church is located at 1329 Seventh Avenue, about half a block south of the stop for the Muni N trolley line. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for students and seniors and $5 for children aged twelve and under. Tickets are available in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Sunday, May 13, 2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra will conclude its 35th anniversary season with its third concert program. The title of this program, which will be conducted by Christian Reif, could be Three Faces of Modernism. The earliest composition will be the instrumental suite by Gabriel Fauré that he wrote for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande. This music was composed to be played when the play was first performed in London (and in English) in 1898. Fauré became the first of four leading composers to write music based on the play. Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music, Claude Debussy turned the play into an opera, and Arnold Schoenberg interpreted the narrative in the form of a symphonic poem.

The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to music that Igor Stravinsky wrote for the ballet “The Rite of Spring,” a composition that remains an icon of modernism, even though it is now over 100 years old. The most recent work on the program will be György Ligeti’s “Concert românesc” (Romanian concerto). This was composed in 1951 and might be described as having been written “before Ligeti started sounding like Ligeti.” On the other hand the composer used this piece to demonstrate that he could take the treatment of indigenous sources beyond the levels that Béla Bartók had previously achieved.

Ticket prices are $55 for reserved seats in the Loge and Side Boxes and $15 for general admission. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the San Francisco Symphony (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.) There is also a hyperlink for sound clips from the Stravinsky selection, which requires Flash for listening. Flash will also be required for seat selection during online purchase. 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.

Sunday, May 13, 4 p.m, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: American Bach Soloists will conclude its season with a performance of all four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestral suites: BWV 1066 in C major, BWV 1067 in B minor, BWV 1068 in D major, and BWV 1069 in D major. Each of these pieces has its own way of coloring the sounds of a string ensemble with that of wind and/or brass instruments. Featured soloists will be Debra Nagy on oboe, Dominic Teresi on bassoon, Sandra Miller on flute, and John Thiessen on trumpet. The prices of single tickets range from $25 to $89. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through the single Tickets Web page on the ABS Web site.

Sunday, May 13, 7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: Davies will also be active in the evening when conductor Ragnar Bohlin will lead the SFS Chorus and vocal soloists. The major work on the program will be Bach’s BWV 243 setting of the Magnificat canticle in D major, which will be the concluding selection. It will be preceded by shorter compositions by both Bach and Arvo Pärt. Ticket prices will range between $25 and $89. An event page has been created for online purchase.

Edward Simon’s Album of Interleaved Suites

Edward Simon (photograph by Scott Chernis, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

This past Friday, Sunnyside Records released the latest album led by Venezuelan-born jazz pianist Edward Simon. The title of the album is Sorrows and Triumphs, which is also the title of a three-movement suite that is performed. The movements of this suite interleave with those of a second suite, entitled House of Numbers. The album also includes an opening track, “Incessant Desires,” which is not part of either of these two suites.

Simon plays both piano and electric keyboards along with the other members of his Afinidad quartet, consisting of David Binney on alto saxophone, Scott Colley on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. In the performance of the Sorrows and Triumphs suite, the quartet is joined by vocalist Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Adam Rogers, and Rogerio Boccato providing additional percussion. Similarly, percussion is provided by Luis Quintero for House of Numbers; but what makes this suite interesting is the addition of Imani Winds, the quintet consisting of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman (oboe), Monica Ellis (bassoon), Mark Dover (clarinet), and Jeff Scott (horn). This ensemble is joined by Parlato for the “Chant” movement of the suite.

The Sorrows and Triumphs suite was inspired by Simon’s study and practice of Buddhism. One gets some sense of orientation from the titles of the three movements:
  1. Equanimity
  2. Rebirth
  3. Triumph
Simon wrote his own lyrics for “Triumphs;” and those for “Rebirth” were written by Parlato, who has also studied Buddhism. “Equanimity” is a vocalise.

I have to confess that this suite left me more than a little skeptical. Part of the issue is that I have never really been particularly moved by the sound of Parlato’s voice. She seems to affect a deliberate shallowness of tone that does not go down very well with me. This is a pity, because her sense of pitch is solid; and that solidity is necessary to keep up with Simon’s imaginative melodic contours. Similarly, I was first exposed to Buddhism through John Cage, from whom I leaned that it is best to keep practice to oneself.

House of Numbers, on the other hand, is an appealing exercise in bringing a classical wind quintet into an improvisatory setting. Each of the suite’s four movements is based on a different number: 3, 4, 5, and 7. Those numbers are interpreted through both sequences, through rhythm and phrase structure, and simultaneities, through chords. Imani has experience with jazz, so they took to improvising within this framework along with Afinidad the way a duck takes to water. Each of the suite’s movements has its own brand of upbeat energy, and I must confess that I would have been happier had those movements not been interrupted by the movements of Sorrows and Triumphs.

Here in San Francisco Simon was one of the artists selected to perform in A Heartfelt Gala, the concert organized in honor of Ruth Felt, founder and President Emeritus of San Francisco Performances (SFP). He performed in a trio with SFP Jazz Artist-in-Residence Sean Jones on trumpet and Marcus Shelby on bass; and the offerings were all straight-ahead jazz. The Sorrows and Triumphs album leads the attentive jazz listener along more circuitous paths, some of which have more engaging features than others.

MUSA’s Candlelight Concert

Yesterday evening at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Director of Music Eric Choate presented the latest installment in his Candlelight Concert series. These events are free and therefore depend significantly on donations left when the members of the audience depart. Yesterday’s concert was given by the local early music ensemble MUSA.

The program was MUSA’s fourth installment in a series called Art Inspiring Art, organized around new repertoire for harpsichord and string quartet. The quartet consisted of violinists Tyler Lewis and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, violist Sarah Bleile, and cellist Gretchen Claassen, all playing relatively recent instruments but with gut strings. The harpsichordist was Derek Tam, one of the group’s founding members.

On this program the source of artistic inspiration, so to speak, came from Abbie Phillips Walker, the author of several “sandman” books of relatively short stories that parents could read to their children at bedtime. Nick Benavides selected six of these as inspirations for the movements of a suite he entitled The Color Festivals. Walker’s tales tended to have ironic twists and often eccentric characters. Benavides could thus use MUSA’s instrumentation to explore Walker’s character traits through the contrasts between the “contemporary” sonorities of a string quartet and the “dated” connotation of the harpsichord. Also, in recognition of continuo tradition, he afforded the harpsichord several opportunities for improvisation.

Benavides took the time to summarize each of the stories before the performance began. This was useful, since I (at least) had never previously heard of either the author or her stories. However, the details were less important than the overall rhetoric of idiosyncrasy, which set expectations for how the music would reflect on each of the stories. For the most part those expectations were satisfied; and I, for one, hope that this music will be given further performances. Each piece was engagingly clever on the surface, and I suspect that each will be able to hold up to repeated listening by gradually revealing more substantive foundations.

The preceding selections on the program came from the twentieth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. The earlier work was by the Catalan composer Antonio Soler. Soler is best known for his keyboard music, which is currently the subject of an ongoing recording project by Naxos. He is also associated with a fandango, but there is now some question as to whether he was actually the composer of this piece. In 2016 this site discussed a collection of six concertos for two organs, which were probably written for pedagogical purposes and had a fascinating backstory about how they were originally played.

In 1776 Soler published a collection of six quintets scored for strings and obligato keyboard. The strings were the instruments of the string quartet as we now know it. (For the record, Joseph Haydn’s first collection of six string quartets was published in 1764.) There is some indication that the preferred keyboard instrument was an organ. Yesterday MUSA performed the fifth (in D major) of these six quintets with Tam taking the keyboard part on harpsichord.

What was interesting was the extent to which this music tended to sound more like a concerto than the sort of piano quintet encountered during the nineteenth century. Thus, the opening movement begins with an extended passage for the strings during which the keyboard part does nothing other than double the cello line. This is then followed by a duo between the keyboard and the first violin:

original manuscript of the beginning of the keyboard solo (from IMSLP, public domain)

One wonders how Soler would have fared had he been in Vienna, rather than at the court of King Philip V of Spain.

The opening selection was a concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra by the British composer Walter Leigh. Born in 1905, Leigh was best known for “functional” scores he composed for stage and screen. He was particularly adept in the techniques of creating film soundtracks, beyond his skills at simply composing music for those soundtracks. He joined the British Army to fight in the Second World War and was killed in action in 1942 during fighting near Tobruk in Libya.

The concertino was written in 1934 for Elizabeth Poston, who was primarily a pianist. In other words this was not one of the many harpsichord concertos commissioned by Wanda Landowska to promote her “revival” of the instrument, the best known of which were composed by Manuel de Falla (1926) and Francis Poulenc (1928). Listening to Leigh’s score, one gets some sense that he knew about these pieces but still had no trouble finding a way to bring his own voice to his concertino. In the sanctuary of St. Mary the Virgin, the string quartet proved to be just the right size to balance effectively with Tam’s harpsichord work.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

May will be a Month of Conductors Visiting SFS

It has already been established that next month will get off to a very busy start. The options for the choices that will have to be made include the return of Juraj Valčuha as visiting conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). However, all four of the remaining subscription concerts that will begin in May will also be led by visiting conductors. So it is worth taking stock of what lies in store for Davies Symphony Hall for the rest of May.

May 10–12: Stéphane Denève will return to the SFS podium to lead a program that will be heavily influenced by French composers. His concerto soloist will also be French: Gautier Capuçon will play Camille Saint-Saëns’s Opus 33 (first) cello concerto in A minor. The second half of the program will feature the first SFS performances of Guillaume Connesson’s “E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare” (the river appears clear in the valley), written as a tribute to the culture and music of Italy. This will be coupled, appropriately enough, with Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” tone poem. However, the international tone of the program will be established by beginning with a similar tone poem by French composer Jacques Ibert. “Escales” (ports of call) is structured as three colorful Mediterranean postcards from Rome, Tunis, and Valencia, respectively.

This concert will be given only three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 10, Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Peter Susskind that will begin at 7 p.m. Doors to the Davies lobbies open at 6:45 p.m. Ticket prices range from $15 to $155. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “Pines of Rome” and sound clips of previous SFS performances of that composition. In order to listen to SFS audio files, Flash must be enabled. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

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

May 17–20: Itzhak Perlman will return, once again serving as both conductor and violin soloist. He will share solo work with SFS Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov in a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1060 concerto in C minor. This will be followed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 C major serenade, which will be played entirely by the string section. For the second half of the program, the full ensemble will present Edward Elgar’s Opus 36 set of variations, which he called “Enigma,” since each of the variations has the title that needs to be “decoded.”

This concert will be given only three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, and Saturday, May 19, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 20. The Inside Music talk will be given by Alexandra D. Amati one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $26 to $185, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about Elgar’s Opus 36 and sound clips of previous SFS performances of that composition.

May 25–26: The next conductor to return to the SFS podium will be David Robertson. His soloist will be Kirill Gerstein performing Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor. This concerto is of imposing length; so the overture-concerto-symphony format will be reordered. The concerto will be the only selection after the intermission, which will be preceded by the symphony. That symphony will be Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/102 in B-flat major, the tenth of the twelve symphonies he wrote for performance in London, sometimes known as the “Miracle.” The overture for this program will be Brett Dean’s “Engelsflügel” (angel’s flight).

This concert will be given only two performances, both at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 25, and Saturday, May 26. The Inside Music talk will be given by John Palmer one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $15 to $99, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Brahms concerto and sound clips of previous SFS performances of that composition.

May 31–June 2: The month will conclude with the return of yet another familiar visiting conductor, Semyon Bychkov. This will be the program that conforms most explicitly to the overture-concerto-symphony format; but the works themselves will offer a significant departure from the usual bill of fare. The concerto will be Max Bruch’s Opus 88a in A-flat minor, composed for two pianos and orchestra. The two pianists will be the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle. The overture will be given its first SFS performances, even though it is about twenty years older than the concerto. It is the overture that Sergei Taneyev composed for his Opus 6, his only opera, Oresteia, with a Russian libretto adapted from Aeschylus. The symphony will be Tchaikovsky’s Opus 17 (second) in C minor, known as the “Little Russian.”

This concert will be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 31, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2. The Inside Music talk will be given by Laura Stanfield Prichard one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $15 to $159, and an event page has been created for online purchase.

Handel’s “Operatic” Vespers Psalm Setting

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the California Bach Society concluded the San Francisco round of its 47th season with a program entitled Handel in Rome. The title refers to the trip that George Frideric Handel made to Italy during his early twenties, ostensibly to hone his skills in writing opera. He was about twenty years old when his first two operas, Almira (HWV 1) and Nero (HWV 2), were first produced by the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg, where he worked as both violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra, in 1705.

While working in Hamburg, he met the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, which led to an invitation to Florence. The Duke had a keen interest in opera and had ambitions of making Florence the musical capital of Italy. Handel set off for Italy in 1706.

However, he knew that his operatic skills needed honing and set his sights on Rome. Unfortunately, while Pope Clement XI was a patron of the arts, he imposed a ban on opera that extended over all of the Papal States. As a result, Handel’s major source of work in Rome involved composing sacred music; and last night’s program presented three settings of Vespers Psalms composed for the Carmelites.

The best known of these is the HWV 232 Dixit Dominus (the Lord said) setting of Psalm 110. Handel may have been miffed at having been deprived of continuing his work on operas; but many of us view HWV 232 as the perfect example of getting even, rather than getting mad. Psalm 110 plays a significant role in Vespers services and is selected for recitation every Sunday and during major holidays. Ironically, it is one of the most aggressive of the Psalms, basically celebrating the Israelite God triumphing over all enemies.

Handel quickly saw this text for what it was worth: a blood-and-guts expression of Divine fury at its most intense. In other words the Psalm provided the stuff from which the juiciest of opera librettos could be fashioned! He went “all in” to exercise all those skills that he had come to Italy to cultivate; and many would agree that the result was Handel’s first big success as a composer. His efforts even won him the favor of many of the city’s influential Cardinals.

Last night it was clear that Artistic Director Paul Flight had focused his energy of giving HWV 232 the “operatic” treatment it deserved. Ironically (for a composer interested in opera), the score has only two arias, meaning that close to the entirety of the motet is left to the chorus. Nevertheless, five soloists were involved, one of whom was Flight himself taking the countertenor aria “Virgam virtutis tuae” (the rod of thy power). However, the strength in the evening resided in the choral command of Handel’s polyphony and his setting of onomatopoeia when the text is at its most brutal. The results were, for the most part, as thrilling as any operatic mad scene.

The first half of the program was devoted to Handel’s shorter settings of two other Vespers Psalms: Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, HWV 238) and Psalm 113 (Laudate pueri Dominum, HWV 237). Both of these were weaker offerings. Much of the solo work was unsteady over the course of the entire evening, but those efforts were given far more extended display during these first two Psalm settings. There was also a problem of too many heads (including those of the soloists) buried in the score pages and not always aware of the overall musical context through either sight or sound. To some extent these shortcomings were balanced by the first-rate instrumentalists that Flight had assembled for this occasion: Rachel Hurwitz, Lisa Grodin, Noah Strick, Aaron Westman, Anna Washburn, and Shelby Yamin (violins), Marieke Furnee, Amy Haltom, and Addi Liu (violas), Amy Brodo (cello), Kristin Zoernig (bass), and Yuko Tanaka (organ and harpsichord). Nevertheless, this was a program of vocal music; and the vocal efforts were, at best, variable.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Choices for May 4–6, 2018

Like the current month, the month of May will get off to a busy start with a very full three-day weekend. Once again, several of those events are already “on record” thanks to the monthly summaries that have already appeared. Thus, the Red Poppy Art House will be hosting events on both Friday and Saturday; and performances at the Center for New Music will be held on Saturday and Sunday. [added 4/21, 6:40 a.m.: In addition there are also the Friday and Saturday concerts being given by the San Francisco Symphony.] However, these amount to the tip of a far more imposing iceberg, the rest of which will now be summarized as follows:

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., Grace Cathedral: American Bach Soloists (ABS) will host a special one-of-a-kind benefit performance by baritone William Sharp. Sharp has been a longtime member of the faculty of the ABS Academy held every summer and has appeared frequently as soloist at the ABS Summer Festival and the subscription concerts. Sharp is preparing a program in which he will perform arias by Johann Sebastian Bach that are personal favorites. In addition the solo BWV 82 cantata Ich habe genug (I have enough) will be performed in its entirety. This cantata also includes an obbligato oboe solo, which will be played by Stephen Hammer. The remainder of the accompaniment will include one-to-a-part performances by two violins (Tatiana Chulochnikova and Noah Strick) and viola (Katherine Kyme). Continuo will be provided by William Skeen on cello, Steven Lehning on violone, and Corey Jamason on organ. Proceeds from this event will be used to support the ABS Academy.

As of this writing, all Premium tickets, which offer a variety of benefits both before and after the performance, have been sold. However, tickets for those who wish to attend only the performance are still available for $50. They may be purchased through an event page on the ABS Web site. Those holding these tickets will be admitted only after 7:30 p.m., because there is an event for the Premium ticket holders that begins at 7 p.m. Those who wish to inquire whether any last-minute Premium tickets are available are invited to call 800-595-4849 (4TIX). Grace Cathedral is located at 1100 California Street, at the top of Nob Hill; and the performance will take place in the Chapel of Grace.

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., McKenna Theatre: The final concert in the 2017–2018 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will be a visit from New York by the New Millennium Ensemble. This group is a sextet consisting of two winds (flute and clarinet), two strings (violin and cello), piano, and percussion. The clarinet will be featured in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 114, his A minor trio for clarinet, cello, and piano. Flute and violin will share solo work in the trio sonata included in Bach’s BWV 1079, known as The Musical Offering. The entire sextet will play Pierre Boulez’ “Dérive” and Richard Festinger’s “A Serenade for Six.” The program will also include Festinger’s “Tapestries,” scored for violin, cello, and piano.

The McKenna Theatre is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made through the event page for this concert. As usual, Festinger, who is Artistic Director of the Morrison Artists Series, will give a pre-concert lecture, which will begin at 7:30 p.m.. Also as usual, all of the Ensemble members will give a collective Master Class, which will be held at 2 p.m. on the day of the performance. This two-hour session will also take place in the Creative Arts Building, and will be open to the general public at no charge and with no requirements for tickets.

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) will conclude its concert season with a special event entitled Breathtaking: A Cornetto and a Voice Entwined. The cornetto will be played by Bruce Dickey, and the vocalist will be soprano Hana Blažíková. They have prepared a program that will include early seventeenth-century motets and madrigals for voice and cornetto, as well as some rare, late seventeenth-century arias from operas and oratorios with obbligato parts written explicitly for the cornetto. Composers include Biagio Marini, Nicolò Corradini, Giovanni Battista Bassani, Giacomo Carissimi, Tarquinio Merula, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Maurizio Cazzati. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by violinists Ingrid Matthews and Tekla Cunningham, Joanna Blendulf on gamba, Michael Sponseller on organ and harpsichord, and Stephen Stubbs on theorbo and guitar.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission will be $45 with discounted rates of $40.50 for seniors, $38.25 for SFEMS members, and $15 for students. A Web page has been created for online purchases.

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., St. Cyprian’s Church: SF Live Arts at Cyprian’s (formerly the Noe Valley Music Series) will present a concert that will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, as well as the release of the group’s latest CD, In Transverse Time. Quartet members Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Bruce Ackley have consistently maintained the group’s reputation as one of the world’s leaders in improvised music. Their performance will feature tracks from the new CD but also reprise vintage Rova material from the vaults.

The concert will take place in Cyprian’s Center, which is located downstairs at 2097 Turk Street (the address of the church itself) at the corner of Lyon Street in NOPA (NOrth of the PAnhandle). Admission will be $20 at the door but $16 if purchased in advance. Advance purchase may be made online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Students, seniors, and children under the age of twelve will be admitted for $14.

Friday, May 4, 8 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The Volti a cappella choir will conclude its 39th season with a program entitled Bay and Beyond. The six pieces on the program were all written by composers with strong ties to be Bay Area. Two of the selections will be world premieres of pieces written under Volti commissions. The first of these will be Danny Clay’s “Playbook Choruses,” which will be followed by “Chant des Voyelles” (chant of vowels) by Žibuoklé Martinaityté. The program will also include Robin Estrada’s “Caeli enarrant,” which was composed on a 2017 Volti commission. The final selections will be “Mexico City Blues,” composed by Terry Riley in 1993, which will be followed by the two Henry Cowell songs that were sung by Volti at Bard Music West at the beginning of this month, “Psalm 121” and “The Morning Cometh.”

The Noe Valley Ministry is located in Noe Valley at 1021 Sanchez Street, near the corner of 23rd Street. General admission will be $30 with discounted rates of $25 for seniors aged 65 or older, $15 for those under the age of 35, and $10 for children and currently enrolled high school and college students up to the age of 21. Tickets at all prices may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Saturday, May 5, 7 p.m., Calvary Presbyterian Church: The San Francisco Bach Choir will conclude its 2017–2018 season with a performance of Bach’s BWV 245 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of John. Dramatic soloists will be tenor Kyle Stegall as the Evangelist, bass Christòpheren Nomura as Jesus, and bass Caleb Lewis as Pilate. Aria soloists will be soprano Rita Lilly, mezzo Heidi Waterman, tenor John St. Marie, and baritone Nikolas Nackley. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by the Jubilate Orchestra.

Calvary Presbyterian Church is located at 2515 Fillmore Street, on the northwest corner of Jackson Street. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $30 with a $25 rate for seniors aged 62 or older. Both of these prices save $5 from the amount payable at the door. There is also a $10 rate for patrons under the age of 30 and students. In addition, youths under the age of 19 will be admitted for free, but only for tickets purchased in advance. Brown Paper Tickets has created an event page for all of these options. This page also allows for an Older Adult Choir Donation of $25 to cover the price of admission for a singing senior, as well as an Additional Donation of any amount specified. Tickets may also be purchased by calling SFBC at 855-473-2224 (855-4SF-BACH).

Saturday, May 5, 7:30 p.m., Grace Cathedral: Friction Quartet has prepared a special program to be performed in the Cathedral’s vast (if not intimidating) sanctuary. The featured work will be George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” which was explicitly composed for amplified string quartet. All members of the quartet are also required to play gongs and reverberating crystal glasses. Crumb’s title page notes explicitly that this music was composed during the Vietnam War; and he gave the piece the subtitle “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land.” The program will also include Max Stoffregen’s “California Crest,” inspired by the Pacific Coast Trail, and Ursula Kwong Brown’s “Emerald Meditations,” inspired by the Emerald Buddha statue in Thailand. There will be no admission charge for this concert, but a $20 donation from each attendee is suggested.

Saturday, May 5, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Chamber Music San Francisco will present the debut of Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son. Son has prepared a diverse program that spans from the eighteenth century of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the nine K. 264 variations on “Lison dormait”) to the bold modernist gestures of Arvo Pärt (“Variations for the Healing of Arinushka”) and Friedrich Gulda (selections from his collection of ten studies entitled Play Piano Play). The entrance to Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices are $48 (Orchestra and Boxes), $39 (Dress Circle), and $30 (Balcony). Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, which includes a floor plan that shows whether each of the different sections has tickets available.

Sunday, May 6, 2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the next (but not the last) concert of chamber music performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The program offers a stimulating blend of the traditional and the modern. It will include the percussion quartet “Ku-Ka Ilimoku” by Christopher Rouse, performed by Jacob Nissly, James Lee Wyatt III, Tom Hemphill, and Raymond Froelich. John Harbison’s second string quartet will be played by violinists Mariko Smiley and Sarn Oliver, violist Nancy Ellis, and cellist Margaret Tait. A more traditional string quartet, Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 51 (tenth) quartet in E-flat major, will be played by violinists Nadya Tichman and Amy Hiraga, violist Ellis, and cellist Peter Wyrick. The program will begin with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 120 piano trio in D minor with pianist Mark Shapiro joining violinist Kelly Leon-Pearce and cellist Tait.

All tickets for this concert will be $40. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. (This is also the main entrance to the hall itself.) The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office will also be open two hours prior to the beginning of the concert.

Sunday, May 6, 7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The following evening SFS will host a Great Performers Series recital by pianist Yuja Wang. She will open with her most traditional selection, Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 22 coupling of an Andante spianato with a Grande Polonaise. She will then move into more modernist territory, beginning with Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 70 (tenth) piano sonata. She will then perform three of György Ligeti’s finger-busting études, two from his first book and one from the second. She will conclude with the last of Sergei Prokofiev’s three “war” sonatas, Opus 84 in B-flat major. Ticket prices for this concert will be between $30 and $210 and may be purchased through a separate event page.

Tortelier Presents Three Aspects of Ravel’s Music

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier returned to Davies Symphony Hall to conduct the first of this week’s three subscription concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony. The entire program was devoted to Maurice Ravel, but it was conceived to examine three different aspects of that composer’s creative efforts. Those aspects served to parallel the usual overture-concerto-symphony format, but with a unique twist to each of those components.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the “symphony” portion, the music Ravel composed for Michel Fokine’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” a one-act ballet with a scenario in three parts. For those thinking that this might be a bit of a stretch, Ravel himself described his score as a “symphonie chorégraphique” (choreographic symphony). The “concerto soloist” was mezzo Susan Graham, singing Shéhérazade, Ravel’s song cycle setting three poems by Tristan Klingsor. The “overture” was the most unique part of the program, Ravel’s orchestrations of two short piano pieces by Claude Debussy, the sarabande movement from the suite entitled Pour le Piano and “Danse,” which, in its piano version, was also known as “Tarantelle styrienne.”

Tortelier conducted his own “concert version arrangement” of the “Daphnis et Chloé” score. Sadly, the program book offered little other than that quoted phrase and a note that last night’s performance would not use the chorus. Like many, I know this music best through the second suite of music that Ravel extracted from his score. Still, I have been fortunate enough to listen to the entire score in concert several times and even have two complete recordings in my collection. On the basis of clock time, I would guess that there were a few cuts, probably of music for pas d’action episodes. This may not amount to much, but I still feel it necessary to take the team producing the program book to task for not providing either the same sort of structural outline that is usually given when a ballet score by Igor Stravinsky is performed or any substantive comments on Tortelier’s version. The decision to recycle James M. Keller’s past program notes lies somewhere along the gamut between negligent and just plain sloppy.

Fortunately, Tortelier’s conducting made up for the absence of both clarifying text and, for that matter, a ballet company. Through his interpretation, one could easily discern the different episodes of the score, which of them involved love and which introduced dramatic tension. If one did not know that one of the sources of tension was an invasion by pirates, one could simply allow oneself to be struck by Ravel’s menacing sonorities and Tortelier’s no-holds-barred delivery of them. For that matter, Tortelier put a generous amount of body language into leading his arrangement. It may not have been ballet, but it was definitely physical movement that reinforced what the music was communicating.

Ravel’s “symphonic” approach to the narrative of a ballet scenario found its parallel in his approach to setting the three Klingsor poems for Shéhérazade. Ravel was clearly interested in aligning his musical discourse with the texts being sung. The program book provided excellent translations by Peggie Cochrane; but, sadly, the English words projected as surtitles on either side of the proscenium were significantly inferior at some of the more critical moments of the poem (and the musical reinforcement of those moments). Fortunately, the spirit of what the surtitles did not capture found its way into Graham’s delivery of the vocal line, not just through the clarity of her diction and the attentive phrasing given to every passage but also through her body language and occasional gusts of circulated air that billowed through her long garments.

Presumably, decadence was what Klingsor (whose birth name was Justin Léon Lecière) had in mind when writing these poems. Ravel knew exactly how to convey that decadence without wallowing in it. That left matters to both Graham and Tortelier to make sure that Ravel’s attitude rose above Klingsor’s; and last night’s performance could not have done a better job of meeting that goal.

Given that both Shéhérazade and the music for “Daphnis et Chloé” offered some of Ravel’s lushest sonorities, what was most impressive in his Debussy arrangements was his much sparer use of resources. These pieces were not so much arrangements of piano music as they were the product of rethinking what could be done with Debussy’s marks on paper when given different resources. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that Ravel’s orchestrations provided more clarity to Debussy’s texts, particularly when those texts are rendered by inferior pianists, who spend most of their time riding the damper pedal.

Tortelier clearly appreciated the precision that had gone into Ravel’s arrangements. He communicated that precision to the SFS musicians, who then presented it to attentive listeners in all of its glory. Ravel clearly had a deep appreciation of what Debussy had done with these short pieces; and, through his orchestrations, he could communicate just what it was that he appreciated.

Readers may also be interested in learning that Ravel’s sword could cut both ways. He also did an arrangement of Debussy’s three orchestral nocturnes. This time he took the instrumental music and set it for two pianos!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Somewhat Deceptive Naxos Guitar Collection

courtesy of Naxos of America

My interest in the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos reaches back to long before I committed myself to writing seriously about music-making. Like many, my “first contact” came from the first movement of the fifth of his Bachianas Brasileiras pieces. However, it was only after I acquired the EMI box set of all of the Bachianas Brasileiras compositions that I began to appreciate the composer’s inspired interleaving of the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach with his own Brazilian heritage.

When I began write for Examiner.com, I took the time to begin to explore other aspects of Villa-Lobos’ work. I found a collection of all of his string quartets; and, when Naxos began its project to record all of his symphonies, I made it a point to track their progress release-by-release. By the time that project concluded at the end of last year, this site had become my primary outlet for working out my thoughts about the composer.

As a result, when I recently learned about a Naxos box set of Villa-Lobos music entitled Complete Guitar Manuscripts, my curiosity got the better of me, even though the collection had been released in November of 2016, bringing together single-CD releases from the three previous years. Sadly, the title was a deceptive one, beginning with the fact that two of the pieces in the collection (rather lengthy ones at that) are scored for full orchestra without a part for a guitar! After putting a fair amount of time into searching for useful background information (which did not seem to be included with the recordings themselves), I discovered that the collection served as a platform for “rare and recently discovered works,” which were interleaved with selections that had already been published and catalogued.

The overall project was based on research by the guitarist recorded in this collection, Andrea Bissoli, who clearly had a great interest in tracking the historical record as far back as he could. This is particularly evident in the set of twelve études for solo guitar. These were dedicated to Andrés Segovia, and the autograph is dated 1928. However, these pieces were not published (by Eschig) until 1952, by which time they had gone through two revisions. It would not surprise me if Bissoli was the first to record these pieces from the 1928 manuscript.

On the other hand, I have discovered that one of the things I enjoy the most about Villa-Lobos’ music, regardless of genre or medium, is the way in which he can deliver even the most demanding and/or virtuosic compositions with an almost deceptively casual rhetorical disposition. I am reminded of how many of the pioneers of jazz resisted publication on the grounds that they would never think of playing anything the same way twice. Whether he is playing something familiar or providing “first exposure” to one of his manuscript discoveries, all that really matters is whether Bissoli can capture the sense of spontaneity that Villa-Lobos could bring to his own performances.

From that point of view, he is satisfyingly consistent in his delivery across the three CDs in this collection. When he is absent from those two lengthy orchestral selections, his absence is definitely missed. What matters is the style that Bissoli brings to playing Villa-Lobos’ music, and it is his stylistic stance that brings the most value to this no-longer-new collection.

Pocket Opera to Offer a Handel Oratorio

Only a week after this Sunday’s full-length staged production of The Bartered Bride, Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera in three acts, Pocket Opera will shift over to an oratorio. The work to be performed will be George Frideric Handel’s HWV 58, Semele, which was described as a “musical drama,” originally presented “after the manner of an oratorio” (as described on the 1744 Web page of the Handel Reference Database). This three-act work was given its first performance on February 10, 1744 at the Covent Garden Theatre in London, as part of an annual concert series held during Lent.

Given the setting, it is likely that the audience expected a Biblically-themed oratorio. Instead, they got a musical account of Jupiter’s dalliances with the title character, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes. Those familiar with mythology probably know that, every time Jupiter had one of these “adventures,” his wife Juno always came up with a suitable revenge; and the tale of Semele is no exception. One would think that Juno’s actions would be sufficient for Lenten meditation. However, Semele gives birth to Bacchus; so the oratorio does not end on a note of sobriety, let alone solemnity!

Maya Kherani as Semele (photograph by Nicolas Aliaga Garcia)

The title role will be sung by soprano Maya Kherani. The role of Jupiter will be taken by tenor David Gustafson, and mezzo Sonia Gariaeff will take the part of Juno. Because Semele is an oratorio, it will be presented in concert form without staging or costumes. Musical direction will be by Frank Johnson.

Like this Sunday’s offering, the performance will take place at the Legion of Honor, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 29. The Legion of Honor is located in Lincoln Park. It is approached by following 34th Street north of Clement Street (which is the southern boundary of the park). General admission is $50 with a discounted rate of $45 for seniors. Tickets will be sold at the door beginning at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are also available at the presale rate of $47 for general admission and $44 for seniors. Presale is being processed online through a Vendini event page, which allows for individual seat selection.

Discovering Dohnányi with the Takács Quartet

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the annual Shenson Chamber Series, presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP), came to a conclusion with a performance by the Takács Quartet, consisting of violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist  András Fejér. The ensemble made its SFP debut in 2010, and last night was its fifth visit. It will also be Schranz’ last appearance with the group here, because he will be retiring at the end of this month. (This will leave Fejér as the only founding member.)

This ensemble was founded in 1975 by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, but they have not shown a particularly strong bias towards the music of Hungarian composers. Last night, however, the central work on the program was the second string quartet (Opus 15 in D-flat major) by Ernő Dohnányi. Dohnányi lived a long a full life and was productively active during the first half of the twentieth century, but his music has received relatively little attention.

When I was growing up, his Opus 25 “Variations on a Nursery Tune” received a fair amount of attention and was frequently cited as a prime example of music’s capacity for wit. His Opus 10 C major serenade for string trio also received attention for its presence in Jascha Heifetz’ repertoire. I have heard Opus 10 performed several times at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and I cannot remember the last time I heard even a recording of the Opus 25 variations.

1905 photograph of Ernő Dohnányi (photographer unknown, from Wikipedia, public domain)

The Opus 15 quartet was composed in 1906, when Dohnányi was teaching at the Hochschule in Berlin. By way of chronological reference, this was when Anton Webern was beginning his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. 1906 was also the year in which Schoenberg completed his Opus 9 chamber symphony and Schoenberg’s other pupil, Alban Berg, was producing a prodigious number of songs. As a Hungarian point of reference, Béla Bartók would not complete his first string quartet until 1908.

Last night’s performance of Dohnányi’s Opus 15 revealed the work as an energetic flow across three relatively short movements, each of which would flow easily across a diversity of emotional dispositions. It was not difficult to detect a variety of influences on the composer’s abilities to shape themes and express them rhetorically. Every now and then the high level of energy would recall the similar intensity from almost a century earlier in the chamber music of Felix Mendelssohn. Dohnányi in Berlin may not have been as adventurous as his contemporaries in Vienna, but the Takács players demonstrated that he had his own distinctive voice, whose high spirits would eventually be dampened as the twentieth century grew dimmer in successive decades.

If there were any suggestions of Mendelssohn in Dohnányi’s quartet, they reverberated into the second half of the program with the performance of that earlier composer’s final string quartet, Opus 80 in F minor. Mendelssohn was a composer driven by intense energy. Cellist Bonnie Hampton once told her master class students that he was always burning his candle at both ends, and it is easy to imagine that Mendelssohn knew there was little left of that candle when he was working on Opus 80. Fortunately, the Takács players knew how to capture the urgency of the composer’s personal situation without overplaying it. The result was that the attentive listener could appreciate not only the intensity of the darkness but also the solid craft behind establishing that darkness.

Somewhat weaker was the opening selection of the program, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 387 quartet in G major. This is the first of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, and there is a good chance that they played it together with their fellow quartet members, violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and cellist Johann Baptist Wanhal. One can almost appreciate the collegial rhetoric that Mozart wrote into this score, and that sense of a string quartet as a gathering of close colleagues is still with us today. (One has only to read Dusinberre’s personal memoir of working with the the ensemble to appreciate that collegiality.)

Sadly, that sense of colleagues enjoying each other’s presence never came across in the Mozart performance. There was almost a sense that the group knew this music “all too well” (the phrase used by Leporello when Don Giovanni’s “house band” starts to play music from The Marriage of Figaro). There was no doubt that all of the notes were in their proper place, but this was music whose social qualities were as significant as the music ones. Without a sense of committed socialization, the performance became little more than a dutiful account of all of those notes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Art-Song Showcase at SFCM Tonight

Pianist Kristin Pankonin (courtesy of SFCM)

Tonight the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will host the annual Kristin Pankonin Art-Song Showcase Concert. Each fall student consortia, each comprised of a composer, a vocalist, and a collaborative pianist, submit proposals for new English-language art song cycles. The proposals—which include samples of previous works, the selected poem or text, and a vision for the full cycle—are vetted by SFCM faculty, with the assistance of outside judges. The winning consortium receives a cash prize, and then creates and rehearses the new piece. The result then receives its premiere at the annual Showcase Concert. Both the competition and the concert honor the memory of Pankonin, who was a long-time staff accompanist at SFCM.

The winning composer for this year is Nicholas Denton-Protsack; and the concert will present selections from his winning song cycle, Mountain Trails. He shares the award with lyric soprano Ashlyn Herd and pianist Xin Zhao. The full program for the evening will present a wide diversity of art songs by composers Samuel Barber, Matt Boehler, David Conte, David Garner, Gordon Getty, Jake Heggie, Richard Pearson Thomas, and Ben Yarmolinsky.

This performance will begin tonight, Wednesday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. It will take place in the SFCM Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. Like all student recital offerings, this concert will be free of charge; and reservations will not be required. 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 event page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information, including full details of the program to be performed.

Böhm’s Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival

Original cover of Böhm’s Tristan album (from Amazon.com)

There is no doubt that Karl Böhm brought considerable insight to his interpretations of the operas of Richard Wagner. This was clearly one of the benefits enjoyed by the Metropolitan Opera through his extended relationship with them. However, as was observed this past Saturday, the recent Deutsche Grammophon (DG) box set, Karl Böhm: The Operas, has only five Wagner CDs, which amounts to recordings of only two operas. While this is a modest offering, it is still a significant one. Both of the operas have been documented through live recordings made at the Bayreuth Festival.

The earlier of these is the recording of Tristan und Isolde. This was the opera with which Böhm made his Bayreuth debut in 1962, and he continued to conduct Festival performances through 1970. The recording was made in 1966 with the sort of casting that continues to be vivid, even when mediated by legacy recordings. The title roles were sung by tenor Wolfgang Windgassen and soprano Birgit Nilsson. (Böhm had conducted Nilsson’s Metropolitan Opera debut in this role in 1959.) Those who know the opera know that each of these characters has a “lower-voice counterpart.” These are the roles of Kurwenal, sung by baritone Eberhard Waechter, and Brangäne, sung by mezzo Christa Ludwig. Equally significant is the voice of bass Martti Talvela in the role of Marke, King of Cornwall; and tenor Peter Schreier, whose presence on the First Viennese School recordings was so significant, enjoys the very first notes sung from the stage in the role of the young sailor.

The later recording was of The Flying Dutchman, made during a 1971 Festival performance. This seems to have been recorded at Böhm’s last season at Bayreuth; and, as might be expected, it involves a new generation of singers. The role of the Dutchman was sung by Thomas Stewart, complemented by Gwyneth Jones as Senta. The earlier generation is represented by mezzo Sieglinde Wagner in the role of Mary (Senta’s nurse) during the second act. This performance follows Wagner’s original conception of an uninterrupted performance with instrumental transitions separating the three acts.

I shall not repeat my observation that the Tristan recording did much to draw my attention to Böhm. However, it is important to note that both of these operas are given briskly energetic treatments, thus strongly undermining any attempt to accuse the conductor of being boring! One may not have the advantage of viewing what was taking place on the Bayreuth stage, but these were clearly productions in which one could easily appreciate the suspense that comes with the unfolding of the narrative line. Considering how many operas Wagner wrote, this is a modest sample; but quality definitely makes up for any lack of quantity!

András Schiff’s Bold Experiment in Continuity

Pianist András Schiff (photograph by Dieter Mayr, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, pianist András Schiff returned to give the second of two recitals being presented jointly by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony. As had been the case at the first recital this past Sunday evening, the collections of solo compositions by Johannes Brahms served as a focal point. This time the focus was on the last three of those collections, the three intermezzos of Opus 117, the six piano pieces of Opus 118, and the four piano pieces of Opus 119. Once again the other two of Hans von Bülow’s “Three Bs,” Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, were also represented, along with two “significant predecessors,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for Beethoven and Robert Schumann for Brahms.

This all made for a generous program offering. Indeed, by the time Schiff had played the last of his three encores, roughly two and one-half hours had elapsed since the beginning of the concert. Furthermore, the broad scope of diversity was encompassed through an adventurous approach to presentation, which may have emerged from the challenge of approaching the Brahms collections. That challenge involved the question, which this site had raised in discussing Sunday’s performance, of whether the individual pieces of any of the Brahms collections could be approached in terms of an assembly into a coherent whole. That discussion recalled how Schiff had approached his performance of Bach’s BWV 988 (“Goldberg”) variations as a “journey,” raising the question of whether any of the Brahms collections allowed for such a journey.

The conclusion about the Sunday performances of Brahms was than any “sense of journey was more than a little elusive, if not downright illusory.” Last night Schiff seemed to double down on that “sense of journey,” playing both halves of his program (before and after the intermission) with only the slightest pauses between his selections. These were no longer collections of short pieces. They were two compilations of compositions, which, for the most part, had short pieces as elements. It took a bit of body language for Schiff to establish his approach; but, for the most part, the overall flow of each half of the program was almost entirely free of interrupting applause.

Did Schiff recover that sense of a journey that served his approach to BWV 988 so well? I must confess that I was not convinced. In both halves of the program, he drew upon relatively smooth transitions when it came to the key of one piece and the key of its successor. However, my own training taught me that harmonic progression is rarely all about sequences of chords and the keys they establish. Indeed, one of the other key attributes in Schiff’s approach to BWV 988 came in the program notes he provided, in which he admonished to listener to follow the bass line at all times. At the risk of sounding too reductive, it is the bass line that leads us through the harmonic journey; and the chords and key relationships just provide the features that we observe.

Unfortunately, the one-thing-after-another effect that inhibited any sense of journey through the Brahms collections on Sunday now took over the broader extent of each half of last night’s concert. This was more than a little problematic, particularly since Schiff’s ever reliable technical precision was consistently in full form. Furthermore, his rhetorical sensitivity to the opening selection, Schumann’s WoO 24 “Ghost” variations, made it clear that the last of the variations he played was not the end of the story, a story that was cut off by the composer’s attempted suicide.

Expression was just as rich when the second half of the program began with Bach’s BWV 869, the prelude and fugue in B minor that conclude the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a three-part invention in binary form followed by a richly sinuous fugue in four voices that almost serves as an instructive study in the use of the minor second. There was also a clever dramatic gesture in Schiff’s decision to conclude with Beethoven’s Opus 81a sonata, given the title “Les Adieux.” This sonata has three movements, each with its own programmatic title: “Farewell,” “Absence,” “Reunion.”

Indeed, Schiff, too, returned from his journey to reunite with his audience through three encores. He began by “responding” to the “call” of Beethoven’s sonata with Bach’s approach to a similar narrative, the BWV 992 “Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother,” although in this case the work concluded with one brother bidding farewell to the other. Schiff then pulled out a Brahms rarity, a short unpublished Albumblatt, which was written in 1853 and eventually found its way into the trio of the second (Scherzo) movement of his Opus 40 horn trio in E-flat major, completed in 1865. (It was also more shamelessly appropriated by Meredith Wilson in one of his songs for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.) Schiff then concluded, as he had begun, with Schumann, playing the tenth piece in the Opus 68 Album for the Young, “Fröhlicher Landmann, von der Arbeit zurückkehrend” (the merry peasant, returning from work).

The overall sense of a journey may not have pervaded either of the two uninterrupted halves of Schiff’s recital; but there was no shortage of “a little traveling music.”