Thursday, May 24, 2018

New Music to Inspire Climate Awareness

The mission of the ClimateMusic Project is to educate, inspire, and enable diverse audiences to engage actively on climate change. Put another way, the organization seeks to present experiences for their audiences that will make climate science personal, rather than an objective compilation of data and interpretations of those data. To this end project participants include not only world-class scientists and technology visionaries but also composers, musicians, and artists.

As of this writing, two composers have been actively involved in the project. The first contributor was Erik Ian Walker, whose “Climate” is a 30-minute multimedia composition that provides musical accompaniment for the visualization of climate conditions over a 500-year period that reaches back to 1800 and projects forward, through two possible future scenarios, to 2300. Played in front of a projection of the animated visualization, the music is scored for a combo of both acoustic and electronic instruments with solo violin work written for Michèle Walther.

Next month will see the premiere of a new string quartet by the second composer to contribute to the project, Richard Festinger. The title of his piece is “Icarus in Flight.” The piece may be viewed as a chamber music tone poem, conceived to track the last 200 years of human drivers of climate change, including land use, fossil fuels, and population growth. The piece will be given its premiere performance by the members of the Telegraph Quartet: violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw:

Eric Chin, Jeremiah Shaw, Pei-Ling Lin, and Joseph Maile, members of the Telegraph Quartet in performance at Old First Presbyterian Church (from the Telegraph Quartet Gallery)

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 9. The venue will be the Noe Valley Ministry, located in Noe Valley at 1021 Sanchez Street, just west of the 24th Street stop for the Church Street trolley and near the southeast corner of 23rd Street. General admission will be $25 with a $45 charge for reserved seating in the first three rows. Tickets are currently available in advance online from a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Doors will open at 7 p.m.

According to the ClimateMusic Project, this will be the only musical performance of the evening. The program will begin with an introduction by Dr. William Collins, Director of the Climate and Ecological Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There will also be time to engage with both the artists and the scientists behind the work, both before the music is played and afterwards at a closing reception.

The Remainder of the DG Böhm Collection

Having accounted for the three major categories in the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) box set, Karl Böhm: The Operas (the First Viennese School, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss), I must now take the eight remaining CDs into consideration. Three of these are “documents” organized primarily around Böhm himself discussing, in German, his life and work. The last of these is Karl Böhm: Erzähltes Leben (Karl Böhm: A Life Retold). The eight tracks divide his autobiographical account into distinct episodes, punctuated by brief musical excerpts. These excerpts include symphonic music by both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, leading (at least) this listener to hope that there will soon be a subsequent DG release of Böhm’s instrumental recordings. More substantial and relevant excepts can be found in a lecture about Mozart’s operas. The disc with this lecture includes two other addresses, one to the press about the 1967 release of his recording of Don Giovanni and the other about his relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The longest musical excerpts come from the 1972 Metropolitan Opera Gala, organized to honor the retirement of Rudolf Bing as the company’s General Manager. The two selections honor three of the vocalists who were leading figures during Bing’s tenure. The first presents soprano Teresa Żylis-Gara and tenor Franco Corelli singing the love duet that concludes the first act of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. This is followed by Birgit Nilsson’s riveting account of the final scene in Richard Strauss’ Opus 54 “Salome.” Both of these are “gala” performances, aimed more at a festive audience than at an attentive account of the entire opera; but, even in this more festive context, the deliveries of these excerpts never fail to hit the mark at dead center. This CD also includes Böhm’s reflections (again in German) about Strauss and his relationship to the composer.

The remaining five CDs account for what might be called the “extremes” of Böhm’s repertoire as a conductor. One is structured around eight arias and one duet from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 17 opera Giulio Cesare with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the title role of Julius Caesar and Irmgard Seefried singing role of Cleopatra. The ensemble is the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Let’s not try to kid anyone here. This is an account of Handel that will probably drive those with a serious commitment to historically-informed performance up the wall. Anyone that well informed about Handel will know that the role of Caesar was written for an alto castrato; and, if there is any good news about this recording, it is that we do not have to listen to Fischer-Dieskau demean himself by trying to sing falsetto! This album is probably the result of a decision made in some board room having more to do with DG’s balance sheets, rather than giving Handel the treatment he deserves.

Fortunately, Fischer-Dieskau redeems himself more than sufficiently on the CD on which he sings Mahler’s settings of texts by Friedrich Rückert, both the five Kindertotenlieder songs and four of the songs originally published in the Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (seven songs of latter days) and subsequently included in the Rückert-Lieder collection. Böhm conducts the Berlin Philharmonic on all nine of the tracks; and, given how much attention this collection gives to Strauss, this nod to Mahler has much to appreciate, however brief it may be. This CD also has a final track presenting Johannes Brahms’ Opus 53, known as the “Alto Rhapsody.” The alto is Christa Ludwig; and the male chorus consists of members of the Wiener Singverein, all performing with Böhm leading the Vienna Philharmonic. Since this collection already offers impressive accounts of choral music by Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Beethoven, the inclusion of the Brahms selection is welcome indeed.

Original cover of the vinyl album of Böhm’s Lulu recording showing Evelyn Lear and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the final scene of the opera’s first act (from Amazon.com)

Most interesting, however, is that the collection also includes Alban Berg’s two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu. Both of these are impressively intense. Böhm seems to have put the full extent of his understanding into both operas and has elicited just as much understanding from the leading vocalists in both operas, who happen to be the same on these two recordings. Fischer-Dieskau sings the title role in Wozzeck and Dr. Ludwig Schön in Lulu; and he is joined by Evelyn Lear singing the title role in Lulu and Marie in Wozzeck. The only down-side is that the Lulu recording was made in 1968 and thus predates the publication of Friedrich Cerha’s three-act version, which was published in 1979. It is unclear whether or not Böhm ever examined Cerha’s score, but it would appear that he never prepared it for either performance or recording. Given the intensity that he brought to what has been recorded, I, for one, wish that a recorded legacy of Böhm’s approach to Cerha’s score was available.

Anka Draugelates Visits HUSH Series at C4NM

Anka Draugelates in the poster for last night’s concert (courtesy of C4NM)

The HUSH Series, curated by Julia Ogrydziak at the Center for New Music (C4NM), presents concerts that explore sound as meditation. Last night’s offering featured a visit from Germany by Anka Draugelates, a vocalist that accompanies herself on viola. She was joined by dancer and choreographer Kilta Rainprechter, also from Germany. Draugelates presented a one-hour program entitled “im Fluß der Zeit” (in the river of time) in which the two of them performed with local artist Cheryl E. Leonard, playing primarily instruments of her own invention, punctuated with sampled sounds from natural sources.

As the series title suggests, the performance was one of subtle quietude. Draugelates’ vocal selections probably came from folk sources, one of which was in English; but it is entirely possible that she was also experimenting with sonorities at the syllabic level. She tended to use the viola to provide a sustained and subdued continuo, often suggesting the steady sonorities one often encounters in Hardanger fiddle music.

Leonard contrasted Draugelates’ approach to pitch with sounds from more natural sources. This included bowing physical objects, such as pieces of driftwood “planted” in a base of sand. (Draugelates also prepared several wind chimes, that appeared to be made of driftwood often in the shape of bones, unless they were bones in the shape of driftwood.)

While Leonard tended to focus on those natural sound qualities, one of her more impressive constructions took a unique approach to pitched tones. A glass vessel with a hole in the bottom deposited a stream of sand on a glass plate fitted with a concrete microphone. Those with some knowledge of physics know that such flat surfaces have a geometry of nodal points that induce vibrations at different frequencies. Thus, when the vessel changed position, the pitch of the sand bouncing off of the plate varied; and Leonard eventually let the vessel swing freely, providing a “natural melodic line.”

To borrow wording from Clive Barnes, Rainprechter danced through the sonic environment created by the seemingly independent efforts of Draugelates and Leonard. Near the beginning of the performance, she also added to the sounds when Draugelates suspended a wind chime on each of her elbow joints. She supported these instruments with impeccable balance, providing an intriguing instance of the creation of music arising from human movement.

The entire performance took place in most of the area of the C4NM performing space. Chairs for the audience were set up around the periphery, but the performing area itself was a large one. As a result each member of the audience had a preferred, but limited, view. Given the impressive array of objects and electronics that Leonard had prepared, I naturally biased my own view in that direction. This had little impact on Draugelates, whose own music-making had penetratingly distinctive qualities. On the other hand I was not in the best of positions to follow Rainprechter and therefore exercised my own personal bias for the sonic elements of the performance. Others would have come away with entirely different impressions of the overall experience.

Ogrydziak describes the concerts in her series as giving “a space and a moment to breathe in a hectic world.” Clearly, a one-hour performance occupies more than “a moment.” Nevertheless, where an artist like Draugelates is concerned, it is not difficult to abandon any personal sense of clock-time and let things unfold at their own pace. The sense of retreat from “a hectic world” still maintains; and all it took was walking out the front door of C4NM onto Taylor Street to appreciate the virtues of the intimate serenity of Draugelates’ offering last night.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wagner’s Epic Begins in Three Weeks!

The “Magic Fire” scene that concludes Die Walküre, the second of the operas in Der Ring des Nibelung (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

In three weeks’ time Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) will return to the War Memorial Opera House. This will be the second time that Francesca Zambello’s staging of this four-opera epic will be performed by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Traditionally, attending performances of the entire cycle has had a bit of a cult status, reserved only for the hardiest of lovers of Wagner’s music (which has always been a distinctive subset of the entire community of opera-goers).

However, when plans for the return of Zambello’s production were first announced, the director observed that audiences, in general, have become more acclimated to narratives that unfold over a long span of time than they used to be. George Lucas’ initial conception of Star Wars as a narrative that fills nine full-length films almost always comes up as an example; but television has played just as important a role in extending attention spans. Think of how, on HBO, The Wire unfolded its intense narrative of the decline of the middle class (which is how Director David Simon approached the project) over the course of five seasons or, to shift to the immediate present, Billions, basically a saga of vulture capitalism, is currently playing out (with no sense of when or how the tale will end) at a gripping pace worthy of the account of the Trojan War by the Homeric bards. Furthermore, with the appearance of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), at least a few of the characters in Wagner’s narrative are likely to be familiar.

Nevertheless, there is still very much a cult of those whose passion for the Ring operas is so strong that they will travel significant distances for a chance to experience the full cycle in its entirety. It should therefore be no surprise that, according to General Director Matthew Shilvock, over 90% of tickets to the three performances of the full cycle that will take place next month have already been sold. Many of those tickets have been purchased by Wagner fans, who will be visiting San Francisco explicitly to attend one of those three performances.

Mind you, sales have been going on for some time. As a season subscriber, I received notification of priority availability of tickets through mail that was dated September 26, 2016. (I should add that the sale of tickets for my wife and myself was finalized in less than a month of our receipt of that notification.) However, in the face of all of that demand, seats in the Orchestra section are still available for both all three of the full-cycle performances and all twelve of the individual opera performances, through a special Web page created on the SFO Web site.

Furthermore, the opera performances themselves have been embedded into a broader Ring Festival offering events both before and during each cycle. Indeed, the first of these events took place this past February at the monthly meeting of the Wagner Society of Northern California. However, many preparatory and supplementary events remain, all of which have been summarized on another Web page on the SFO Web site.

In the midst of all of this abundance, I am trying hard to resist piling on too much of my own perspective of this experience. However, as a result of an encounter with a “Wagner virgin” (Zambello’s phrase, not my own), I wanted to offer a few remarks to those considering a “first encounter,” be it with the cycle, Wagner’s operas, or opera in general. My reason for doing so is based on an observation that those who know little about Wagner are often afflicted with misleading, if not inaccurate, information (better known, these days, as “fake news”).

That observation arose from a personal encounter with a friend, who, in spite of avid enthusiasm for the classical repertoire, had shied away from Wagner. She had confessed that her suspicions could be traced back to the classic Warner Bros. Cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc,” which had Elmer Fudd sporting a Viking helmet while singing “Kill the Wabbit” to the theme of the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the music that opens the final act of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), the second of the four operas in the Ring cycle. It was only after the release of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, that I had the leverage to get her to change her mind.

Film buffs may recall that this film began with the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde played against a blank screen. After she saw the film, I asked her what she thought of the opening; and she confessed to being totally wrapped up by it. That allowed me to reply, “You know that was Wagner’s music, don’t you?,” doing my best to avoid feeling smug.

Since my friend has long enjoyed going to SFO performances, her opinion shift led to some questions about whether or not it was time to get to know the Ring. I agreed with her that a commitment to the entire cycle might be more than she might wish to take as a “first contact” experience. I then explained that the last opera in the set, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods, perhaps more familiar to the MCU crowd through its translation into the Old Norse noun “Ragnarök”), incorporates the entire narrative, because, at the beginning the three Norns, who weave the rope of Destiny, summarize everything that has happened in the first three operas. Having given that good news, I observed, by way of “full disclosure,” that the running time of Götterdämmerung tends to be over five hours. I then explained that the shortest opera is the first, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), which takes somewhat more than two and one-half hours; but it is performed without an intermission. As a result, I came away with the sense that my friend was not yet ready to take the plunge for even one of those four operas.

The bottom line is that Wagner takes his time in all four of the operas. Nevertheless, there are few moments when you feel as if he is dragging his heels. One reason is that, whatever the characters may be singing or doing, the music is always there providing a perspective on what is being observed. That music is based on a rich lexicon of themes and thematic fragments, known collectively as “leitmotifs.” These identify not only characters but also objects (such as swords), locations (such as the Rhine river), and ideas (such as the curse that is placed on the ring around with the entire plot revolves). There are even those who would argue that the leitmotifs do a better job of telling that story than the words that Wagner wrote for the libretto of each opera.

As to the current production here in San Francisco, Zambello has taken some innovative approaches to setting the narrative in California in a time span that reaches back to the days of the Gold Rush (the source of the gold from which the ring is made) to a futuristic high-technology world in which the rope of Destiny has been replaced by a server farm. The result is that the visual conception of the full cycle shares with the music the ability to advance the observer through the narrative without leaving behind any feelings that Wagner was taking too long to make his point. All this means that even those who are even slightly curious should go to that Ring Web site and do some browsing. Given how the demand for tickets has progressed, there is no time like the present!

50-Year-Old Civil Rights Songs Surface at CMC

Betty Reid Soskin (standing behind violinist) with the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Jamie Zimmer (third from right), photograph by Lisa Lee

Since the rise of the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties, Betty Reid Soskin was doing her part by writing songs. Through her music she offered up her own poetic reflections on her experiences as a mixed-race woman confronting segregation at work and in the East Bay housing market. She built up a library of her work on personal tapes that were never released commercially or even produced in more professional settings.

Soskin is now 96. At that age she is America’s oldest park ranger. She is also a beneficiary of new technology through which all of her old recordings have been digitized to provide a historical record of the breadth of her songwriting efforts. Last night jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, who directs the CMC (Community Music Center) Teen Jazz Orchestra, prepared arrangements of a selection of these songs to bring them to the attention of a full concert audience. Shelby also recruited local jazz artist Jamie Zimmer to serve as vocalist.

The results of Shelby’s efforts were presented yesterday evening in the CMC Concert Hall. Soskin’s words and music could not have been more timely, particularly in light of the historical fact that last April 4 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Those of us who believe in steady progress would have thought that this would have been an occasion to appreciate how far things had advanced, particularly with the election of the 44th President of the United States. However, anyone who pays close attention to the daily news knows that regress is threatening to unravel all of that progress; and Soskin’s words could not be a better reminder of where that regress will take us (if it has not already done so).

Zimmer was an excellent choice for bringing Soskin’s words to performance. Between the clarity of her diction and her solid sense of pitch, the attentive listener could relish the full impact of every phrase in Soskin’s text. Her delivery was judiciously seasoned with improvised vocalizations that reflected the poignancy of the text, particularly in its expression of frustration. Soskin was skillful in keeping the anger under control; and, in doing so, she left that intensity to be filled in by any listener paying close attention to her words.

Soskin’s share of the program was preceded by a final “report” on the progress of the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra. Shelby clearly wants this group to appreciate the legacy of past jazz masters in its repertoire. For this particular concert those masters were Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Mingus. All of his selections deserve attentive and informed listening; and, from a technical point of view, there was no hiding that the CMC players were not quite up to doing these pieces justice.

Nevertheless, Shelby brought a positive spirit to the occasion; and one could see how he was encouraging the group to keep going in their efforts to bring these thorny pieces under control. More importantly, however, was Shelby’s emphasis on the fact that any jazz playing worth listening to, no matter how modest the effort, deserves to be seasoned by some serious improvisation. If all of the CMC players still have a way to go before getting a piece like Mingus’ “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” under control, there was no mistaking all of the positive energy behind those who stood up to improvise their own takes on the tune. This may be “work in progress” jazz; but the committed jazz aficionado should have no trouble seeing where that progress is heading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

SFCA to Conclude Season with American Music

Next month San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA), led by Artistic Director Magen Solomon, will present the third and final program in its 2017–18 season. The full title of the program is More Pianos Than Bathtubs: America’s music. That title refers to the fact that, one hundred years ago, there were more pianos than bathtubs in American homes. The program has been organized to visit those American homes at various times in American history.

Those different periods will be represented by American composers including William Billings, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, William Grant Still, Aaron Copland, and John Cage. The program will also introduce new works by Composer-in-Residence Michael Kaulkin and Composer-Not-in-Residence Sylke Zimpel. Finally, there will be an assortment of “traditional” (the category label for music without an attributed composer) songs, including spirituals, music from shape-note tunebooks, folk songs, work songs, and play songs. The SFCA ensemble will be joined by tenor Brian Thorsett and pianist Teresa McCollough.

Visiting soloist, tenor, and American music specialist Brian Thorsett (courtesy of SFCA)

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the intersection with Franklin Street. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $33, $29 for seniors, and $15 for individuals aged 30 and under with valid identification. However, if single tickets are purchased in advance, the prices will be $28, $25, and $12.50, respectively. All online purchases are handled through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

An Engaging Schoenberg Offering from LCCE

Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) concluded its 25th anniversary season with a program entitled A Rare Serenade. The title referred to the major work on the program, Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 24, a serenade for baritone and seven instrumentalists. The “rare” part of the title refers to the fact that the work is seldom performed because the combination of instruments is so unconventional that it is seldom assembled.

The most familiar part of the ensemble is a string trio, consisting last night of Anna Presler on violin, Phyllis Kamrin on viola, and Leighton Fong on cello. The only wind parts, on the other hand, come only from the clarinet family, Jerome Simas playing both A and B-flat clarinets and visiting artist Jeffrey Anderle playing bass clarinet. The remaining instruments are the least conventional, a guitar played by Michael Goldberg joined by visiting artist Dana Rath playing mandolin. The baritone sings only in the middle (fourth) of the serenade’s seven movements; and this part was sung by visiting artist Josh Quinn.

In writing the preview for this concert, I observed that the instrumentation was not the sort that one would encounter in the serenades of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the other hand most of the movements did not stray far from classical tradition. There was an introductory march reflected by a concluding finale, two dance movements, a set of variations, and a “song without words” for an Adagio movement. The only real departure from tradition came with the insertion of the baritone song setting of Petrarch’s 217th sonnet.

In contrast to these “traditional” elements, the serenade is distinguished in Schoenberg’s catalog as his first use of the twelve-tone technique, which he applied only to the Petrarch setting. All of the other movements drew upon so-called “free” approaches to atonality, which Schoenberg had been exploring since about 1909. (Opus 24 had a long gestation period. He began work on it in 1920, but it was not completed until 1923.)

Nevertheless, when it comes to listening, one must be careful not to make too much of a fuss over pitch classes. This was the point behind Schoenberg himself writing about the need to “emancipate” dissonance, which not only challenges the concept of dissonance as a fundamental category but also abandons the traditional conviction that dissonance can be tolerated only if it resolves to consonance. As was observed yesterday, Schoenberg was far from the only composer to abandon traditional thoughts about dissonance. Alexander Scriabin’s fifth piano sonata, which was written in 1907, was not only exploring the use of unresolved dissonance but had also abandoned the need for a harmonic foundation based on a dominant-tonic relationship. For that matter, by 1920 the world was getting a generous share of dissonance from the pen of Igor Stravinsky.

What is more interesting about Schoenberg’s Opus 24 is that, when one sets aside those dissonant intervals and turns, instead, to the rhythms, the overall rhetoric of the serenade is light and even cheerful. Those fortunate enough to hear Emanuel Ax playing Schoenberg’s Opus 42 piano concerto this past January when he visited the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) would have been sensitized to Schoenberg’s rhetorical stance. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas offered up a pre-performance demonstration to illustrate that the rhythm mattered more than the atonality, and Opus 24 has many of the high spirits that SFS presented in Opus 42.

Indeed, there were even a few jokes for the really attentive listeners. The Tanzscene (dance scene) movement has at least two passing references to Stravinsky’s own music, one from “The Rite of Spring” and another from “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale). It would not surprise me if Stravinsky found out, sooner or later, that he had been tweaked by Schoenberg, because he eventually “got even.” In the music he composed for George Balanchine’s “Agon,” he not only tried his own hand at Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique but also included a mandolin in his instrumentation, whose figures occasionally suggest that Stravinsky knew what that instrument had played in Schoenberg’s Opus 24!

Last night’s stimulating performance of Opus 24 was preceded by a “warm-up” of two shorter pieces, both of which involved Goldberg playing guitar. One of these was a world premiere which brought Goldberg together with the string trio for the evening. Nicolas Lell Benavides’ “Rinconcito” (little corner) was an affectionate recollection of the composer’s childhood and his exposure to traditional New Mexican music through his two grandfathers. The title itself comes from Ramón Ayala’s song “Rinconcito En El Cielo” (a little corner of heaven); and it provides the basis for Benavides’ evocation of personal memories through his own imaginative voice as a composer.

Goldberg also played with Presler and Kamrin to present Sándor Jemnitz’ Opus 33 trio. Jemnitz was one of Schoenberg’s students, and he composed this trio in 1932. Like Schoenberg’s Opus 24, Jemnitz’ trio relies heavily on imaginative approaches to rhythm that allow him ample opportunity to find his own ways of working with “emancipated” dissonances. Each of the trio’s three movements is relatively short. However, all were sufficiently engaging that it might have been worth the time to give the entire piece a second hearing, particularly when none of us have any idea when it might surface as a listening opportunity again.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 5/21/2018

This will be a very busy week during which the number of “new additions” will be one short of that of those events already “on the books.” There will be concerts at the Center for New Music on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There will also be performances of interest at Bird & Beckett Books and Records on Thursday and Friday, the latter having just been added to the monthly summary of events on this site. Finally, there will be a Sunday gig by Pascal’s Triangle at the Red Poppy Art House. The remaining events for this week are as follows:

Thursday, May 24, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The LSG Creative Music Series will present two sets of solo improvisations. The first will be by bassist Tim Duff. He will be followed by Jaroba, alternating among electronics and different reed instruments and probably including some of his own invented instruments. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Friday, May 25, 7 p.m., Café Claude: Music will be provided for those at both the bar and the restaurant by the Vijay Anderson Quartet. Drummer Anderson leads the group, whose other members are Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, Dan Seamans on bass, and John Finkbeiner on guitar. Café Claude is located in the Financial District at 7 Claude Lane, which is just off the southwest corner of Bush Street and Kearny Street. There will be no cover charge.

Friday, May 25, 7:30 p.m., First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco: Local guitarist Giacomo Fiore will host guitarist Paul Kogut, who will be visiting from New York. Between the two of them, they will present a program of both solo and duo improvisations. The performance will take place in the church’s Chapel. The church is located at 1187 Franklin Street on the southwest corner of Geary Boulevard. Admission will be between $15 and $10, payable at the door.

Saturday, May 26, 3 p.m., San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) - Richmond Branch: Koto virtuoso Shoko Hikage, a core member of the acclaimed Wooden Fish Ensemble, will play four compositions by innovative composer and Wooden Fish colleague Hyo-shin Na, who will provide an introduction and context for each piece. Following the performance there will be a Q&A session. This SFPL branch is located at 351 Ninth Avenue. There will be no charge for admission.

Sunday, May 27, 8:30 p.m., Amnesia: The evening will feature one of the more adventurous bands currently based in Oakland. The Dirty Snacks Ensemble plays music by Mark Clifford, who also sings and plays vibraphone. He is joined by vocalist Patrick Roth and an instrumental ensemble with Cory Wright on B-flat clarinet and Crystal Pascucci on cello for the front line. For rhythm Clifford is joined by keyboardist Steve Blum, Scott Brown on bass, and Geneva Harrison on drums. Dirty Snacks will start to play at 10:30 p.m. after opening sets by two visitors from Brooklyn. The evening will begin with Loosh, followed at 9:30 p.m. by Maria Neckam. Amnesia is a bar in the Mission at 853 Valencia Street. There will be no charge for admission; but, as is usually the case for such gigs, donations will be solicited. Doors will open at 8 p.m.

Gavrylyuk Debuts with Impressive Scriabin

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk (courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco)

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco concluded its 2018 season with the San Francisco debut of Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. Gavrylyuk has a clear passion for Russian music from the early twentieth century, and the second half of his program was organized around sonatas by both Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, separated by a selection of three of Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes. Rachmaninoff was one of Scriabin’s greatest admirers, reacting to the older composer’s relatively early death in 1915 by changing his Carnegie Hall recital to an all-Scriabin program.

Gavrylyuk’s Scriabin selection was the Opus 53 (fifth) sonata, the first of his ten published sonatas to be written without a key specification. The score itself is oriented around three different key signatures; but what is most important is that, across the entire duration of the sonata’s single movement, one never encounters a perfect cadence. Arnold Schoenberg would not write about emancipating dissonance until 1926, but in 1907 Scriabin was already exploring musical organization that did not depend on a dominant-tonic relationship.

Instead, Scriabin orients the listener by unfolding a series of motifs, which then engage among themselves through a musical rhetoric that is almost conversational. (One can also find this rhetorical approach in Carl Nielsen, albeit in a far more tonal framework.) Thus, if Scriabin’s score may strike some as unsettled for never arriving at a tonic, the composer offers, instead, a vigorous context that can be described as highly dramatic without ever committing to a specific plot. Most startling is the way in which all that tumult of the different motifs bumping into each other just comes to an abrupt conclusion, rather like an argument that is never resolved because all of the antagonists collapse from exhaustion.

The Opus 53 sonata was clearly a major turning point for Scriabin, even if he had been preparing himself for it by taking similar approaches to shorter pieces. One wonders how Rachmaninoff would have played it, if he chose to play it at all. Certainly nothing he wrote following the publication of Opus 53 in 1907 suggests that Scriabin’s approach attracted his attention. If anything, Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) sonata in B-flat minor, with which Gavrylyuk concluded his program, was defiantly retrogressive.

Indeed, the sonata is a large bleeding hulk of exorbitant virtuosity all framed in a relatively conventional three-movement structure. To some extent it reminds the attentive listener that Robert Schumann was not in his most favorable element when he wrote his piano sonatas. As a technician Gavrylyuk clearly had a confident command of all the challenges posed by Rachmaninoff’s score, but he lacked the ability to convince even the most sympathetic listener that attention to this piece was time well spent. He was far more convincing in his account of the three short Rachmaninoff preludes that preceded the sonata performance, all in minor keys but each with its own highly personalized characteristics.

There was a similar lack of balance during the first half of Gavrylyuk’s recital. Things were at their best in his account of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XVI/32 sonata in B minor. Haydn clearly enjoyed exploring the possibilities of this less conventional (at least for his time) key. Gavrylyuk followed every step of that exploration with a light touch and an unabashedly playful rhetorical stance. It was hard not to think of Menahem Pressler’s playfulness in his younger days as both a soloist and member of the Beaux Arts Trio.

Sadly, the Haydn selection provided the only real satisfaction on the first half of the program. A selection of six of the études from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection were technically impressive but offered little to attract the attention of the seasoned listener. However, if the Chopin selections were merely undistinguished, Gavrylyuk’s approach to Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor was entirely off the rails, totally ignoring the profound respect that Busoni had for Bach’s music. Rather than approach the arrangement as a means to account for virtuoso organ-playing at a piano keyboard, Gavrylyuk’s style seemed to be channeling Leopold Stokowski’s outrageous full-orchestra arrangement of the same composition. The result was all sound and fury with little sense of either the spontaneity of the toccata or the elegant polyphony of the fugue.

The first of Gavrylyuk’s two encores followed up on the Rachmaninoff sonata was a more subdued offering, a solo piano version of the “Vocalise” that concluded the Opus 34 collection of fourteen songs. There are more piano transcriptions of that song than can be enumerated, so it is difficult to identify which one Gavrylyuk selected. This was followed by Arcadi Volodos’ outrageous transcription of the final (Alla turca) movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 piano sonata in A major, probably best known to those who follow Yuja Wang’s encore selections.

Overall, yesterday afternoon was an uneven affair whose rewards were few but still worth appreciating.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mälkki to Return as Final SFS Visiting Conductor

2008 photograph of Susanna Mälkki conducting the Ensemble intercontemporain (photograph by MITO SettembreMusica, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Next month will begin with the season’s last appearance of a visiting conductor on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). That conductor will be a frequent visitor to Davies Symphony Hall, Susanna Mälkki. During this season Mälkki began a three-year contract to serve as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first woman to hold that position. She is also the first woman to serve as Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, another three-year contract that began in the fall of 2016.

Mälkki made her SFS debut in 2012, and she has consistently prepared programs covering a broad base of music history, which have been both imaginative and stimulating. Her most recent visit was in June of last year, when she presented a program that was a “sandwich,” which situated Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in C major between very early music by Igor Stravinsky (the Opus 3 “Scherzo fantastique”) and his much better-known score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Next month’s program will again contrast a “traditional” concerto with two modern selections, this time from the present and the preceding centuries. The concerto will be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major, with the solo part being performed by Nikolaj Znaider. The second half of the program will begin with Kaija Saariaho’s “Laterna Magica,” which was composed in 2008, followed by Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 54, the symphonic poem he called “The Poem of Ecstasy,” written between 1905 and 1908.

This concert will be given only three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, Friday, June 8, and Saturday, June 9. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Elizabeth Seitz 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 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, June 7, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Seitz at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, the Side and Rear Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

The Theremin Comes to Old First Concerts

Last night Old First Presbyterian Church hosted a special Saturday night concert in the Old First Concerts series. The occasion was a visit by Thorwald Jørgensen, one of the leading classical theremin players and a major advocate for growing the repertoire for the instrument. For those unfamiliar with the device, it is one of the earliest musical instruments based entirely on electronic technology (and may well be the earliest).

 Léon Theremin demonstrating the instrument he invented during a European tour in 1927 (photograph by Corbis Bettmann, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The instrument is named after the westernized name of its inventor, Léon Theremin, a Russian physicist (originally named Lev Sergeyevich Termen) who was researching proximity sensors for the recently-formed Soviet government. He designed a way for one of those sensors to control the frequency of an oscillator and another to regulate the amplitude of the resulting signal. As can be seen in the above photograph, the sensors were placed on either side of the box holding the control circuitry. The result was the theremin, first built in 1920. The performer (Theremin himself in the photograph) controls pitch with the right hand and amplitude with the left. After touring Europe to demonstrate his instrument, Theremin moved to the United States and patented his invention in 1928. He subsequently granted commercial production rights to RCA. (Theremin would return to the Soviet Union ten years later, some say under questionable circumstances, where he became a leading figure in espionage technology.)

The instrument’s Wikipedia page gives an extensive account of music composed for the theremin. There is also a Wikipedia page for Clara Rockmore, who was probably the best known performer during the twentieth century.

Clara Rockmore and Léon Theremin (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

She had originally studied violin at the Curtis Institute of Music but had to give up her studies due to tendinitis. She then repurposed her skills to play Theremin’s instrument in recitals, usually accompanied at the piano by her sister Nadia Reisenberg. The two of them made many recordings, which have received revived interest through CD distribution.

In many respects Jørgensen is this century’s champion of the instrument. Like Rockmore his skill rests on a foundation of the relationship between physical position and pitch necessary for playing instruments in the string family. However, while Rockmore’s instrument could be an unruly beast due to the unreliable qualities of analog hardware, Jørgensen has the advantage of more reliable digital control, much of which is due to the engineering advances of the late Robert Moog.

Watching Jørgensen play, one can readily appreciate the precision of his technique. As famed violin teacher Dorothy DeLay used to observe, no string player consistently hits the right pitch all the time; but the best of them can readjust faster than the ear can detect. This is probably also true of Jørgensen’s technique, although it is interesting to observe how he uses finger movements to control the resolution of whole-tone and semitone intervals. It is equally interesting to reflect on how much of his repertoire, all of which, both original works and arrangements, is based heavily on stepwise motion.

Last night Jørgensen performed both solo works and compositions for theremin and string quartet. He was joined by the members of the Friction Quartet, violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz. (As always, Harriel and Rogers shared the leader’s chair, Harriel taking it in the first half of the program and Rogers in the second.) As a group they performed The Invisible Singer, a suite of eight short movements by Canadian composer Simon Bertrand. This piece was being given its United States premiere, and Bertrand was present to offer some introductory remarks. In addition the program opened with Dalit Warshaw’s quintet for the instrumental grouping entitled “Transformations.” Jørgensen concluded the program with two of his arrangements for theremin and string quartet, one of which was a transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” whose original version with piano accompaniment figured significantly in Rockmore’s repertoire.

In all of these selections, the overall blend of sonorities could not have been better. It was clear that all five performers were keenly sensitive listeners, resulting in a solid foundation of pitch relations that definitely reflected the impact of digital technology on theremin-building. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, it was easy to adjust to how well its electronic sounds blended with the strings, meaning that even the unfamiliar selections could be readily apprehended by the attentive listener. It was also interesting to observe how, in his solo performances, Jørgensen could incorporate the sampling technology of a loop-station and a microphone for his voice to weave rich polyphony around the monophonic limitations of his instrument.

Friction also contributed with an almost blood-curdling account of Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, named after Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata.” The source is a sordid tale of sexual frustration, betrayal, and murder, all delivered through a first-person narrative by a character that is clearly unhinged. Friction was not shy in presenting the thematic material, almost all of which is fragmented unto an extreme, with aggressive strokes consistent with the physical and emotional violence of the text. All four players clearly appreciated that his was not “polite” chamber music; and they had no trouble with a rhetorical delivery that was as true in spirit to Janáček as the composer had been true in spirit to Tolstoy. As if to ease that tension during the second half of the program, the quartet also played two of Machiz’ recent pop arrangements of selections by Prince (“Little Red Corvette”) and Porter Robinson (“Spitfire”), respectively.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Free Concerts in Union Square: June, 2018

We are now far enough into May to start thinking about plans for June. That month’s schedule for the Union Square Live concerts seems to have been finalized. Once again I shall simply summarize dates, times, and genres. Any further information should be available through the Events page created by Union Square Live for their Facebook site.

Wednesday, June 6, 12:20 p.m.: Nick Rossi Quartet (bebop jazz)

Sunday, June 10, 2 p.m.: Big Blu Soul Revue (Soul/rhythm and blues)

Wednesday, Jun 13, 6 p.m.: Nirav Sanghani’s Pacific Six (swing jazz)

Sunday, Jun 17, 2 p.m.: Tribu (Latin jazz)

Wednesday, Jun 20, 6 p.m.: Andre Thierry (zydeco with dance lessons included)

Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m.: The Nitecaps Blues Band (Blues/Rock)

Wednesday, June 27, 6 p.m.: Moonalice (American Roots/Folk)

O1C Debussy Festival: Too Much of Not Enough

Nadar’s circa 1908 photograph of Claude Debussy (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented the second of four concerts in a Centennial Festival series memorializing the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 1918. The series is being produced jointly by pianists Daniel Glover and Brent Smith, both of whom performed last night, along with three other pianists: Keisuke Nakagoshi, Robert Schwartz, and Laura Magnani. In addition Smith accompanied vocal performances by soprano Christa Pfeiffer and mezzos Leandra Ramm and Katherine McKee.

As might be guessed, this made for a lot of music. Unfortunately, where the music of Debussy is concerned, quantity has a way of eroding quality. One can sit for an uninterrupted two and one-half hours through Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold because the integrated flow of music and narrative escorts attention through both the vocal and instrumental offerings, never leaving the feeling that things are dragging too slowly. Debussy, on the other hand, was the consummate artist of the moment; and those moments can be so cerebrally and expressively intense at the same time that it becomes too difficult to manage too many of them in a single concert experience.

Last night’s effort to honor Debussy was marred not only by such excess but also by a sense that few of the performances had been given the necessary advance preparation. The most engaging offering evening came after the intermission, when Schwartz played the three pieces in the first book of a series that Debussy called Images. Each of those three pieces had its own agenda, so to speak, addressing, in turn, visual sensation, historical memory, and technical discipline. Schwartz knew how to honor each of those three evocations; but he also established a clear expressive stance for each of them, even when it came to the exercise-like quality of the final piece.

Schwartz’ attentiveness to the full scope of how Debussy could turn notes into music was so keen that one could not fail to recognize the shallower qualities of the other contributing pianists. Without attaching names to specific problems, there were lapses in both the notes themselves and the organizational logic behind those notes, as well as the more-than-occasional effort to take a technically challenging passage and treat it like an athletic event. The vocal selections, on the other hand, never quite homed in on the acuity of Debussy’s ability to convey his understanding of a text by one of his favorite poets in such a way than neither music nor words took a clear priority. (The program also included an example of Debussy setting one of his own texts from a collection entitled Proses lyriques.)

The overall result amounted to a slog through offerings that left little impression, a far cry from that compelling flow through a significant span of time that Wagner had mastered so well.

Friday, May 18, 2018

SFIAF to Showcase Music by Anthony Brown

Angela Davis and Anthony Brown (from the SFIAF Web site)

This year the title of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), which will begin next Thursday, May 24, and run through Sunday, June 3, will be Down by the Riverside: 50 Years Celebrating the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The half century cited in that title involves taking stock of how civil rights have progressed and regressed since King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. “Down by the Riverside” will also be the title of a composition by Anthony Brown, which will be given its world premiere as part of the Festival. The full title of Brown’s piece is “Down by the Riverside: Requiem for a King.”

Brown composed this piece for spoken word with both instrumental and vocal accompaniment. He will lead his own Asian American Orchestra, which will be joined by the vocal quintet Voices of A Dream. The spoken text, taken from a speech that King gave exactly one year before his assassination, will be presented by Angela Davis.

“Down by the Riverside” will be preceded by another Brown composition, “GO FOR BROKE!” Brown wrote this to salute the Nisei Veterans in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the February 19, 1942 signing of executive order 9066, which forced over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps during World War II. This composition also involves spoken word as part of the performance, and the speaker will be poet and activist Janice Mirikitani.

These two pieces will be separated by an intermission, and the entire program is expected to last 100 minutes. It will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 26. The venue for SFIAF is the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, and this particular concert will take place in the Cowell Theater. Tickets are being sold for $22.50, $32.50, $42.50, $52.50, and $62.50. They may be purchased online through an SFIAF event page, which shows where seats at the different price levels are available. Further information is also available by calling 415-399-9554.

Perlman Brings Impressive Balance to SFS

Violinist and visiting conductor Itzhak Perlman (courtesy of SFS)

Last night Itzhak Perlman returned to Davies Symphony Hall again to perform double duty as both violin soloist and conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). What was most impressive about the evening was the scrupulous sense of balance he brought to his musical resources regardless of the size of those resources. He began with a reduced ensemble suitable for a concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach, scaled up to a full string section for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 serenade in C major, and concluded with the rich instrumental resources required for Edward Elgar’s Opus 36, the set of orchestral variations that the composer called “Enigma.”

Perlman is one of those performers whose presence is guaranteed to fill a house of just about any capacity, and last night was one of those rare occasions when one had to work to find empty seats in Davies. When he was younger, he was not particularly shy about exploiting his “personality” status; but as he has aged he has become much more of a “prima la music” (first comes the music) person, seemingly far more absorbed in the joy of making the music than in the consistently roaring approval that almost seems like a reflex action to his very presence. Last night it was clear that all of the performers appreciated his prioritization and gave their all to respond appropriately to his efforts as a leader.

The evening began with an appropriately scaled-down setting for Bach’s BWV 1060R concerto in D minor with solo parts for violin (Perlman) and oboe (SFS Principal Eugene Izotov). BWV 1060 is the C minor concerto for two harpsichords, which is believed to be a transcription of the D minor version, whose manuscript was lost. The “R” thus stands for “reconstruction,” an attempt to restore the D minor concerto on the basis of the surviving C minor version. Perlman scaled his resources to a size suitable for the Davies space but still intimate: twelve violins, divided equally between firsts and seconds, five violas, and a continuo of four cellos, two basses, and harpsichord (played by Jonathan Dimmock).

The result was delightfully intimate and transparent. Perlman had no trouble ceding the lion’s share of solo work to Izotov, whose tone and phrasing could not have been better. Rather than playing along with the ritornello passages, Perlman focused his attention on the full ensemble, shifting his attention only to the gracefully elaborated passages provided for the violin solo work. It was clear that his priority was transparency of the elegant polyphony Bach had conceived for this concerto, a transparency that was delightfully colored during the middle Adagio movement, which was presented with only a single cello (Peter Wyrick), which was bowed while all the other strings played pizzicato.

Coloration was clearly also of the essence in Perlman’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48. Tchaikovsky clearly showed great interest in writing only for strings, but Opus 48 is his major full ensemble effort. From a structural point of view, each of the movements is almost predictably routine; but the spirit of the music resides in the composer’s sensitivity to the unique colors of each of the instruments of the string familiar and his ability to work with those colors through both give-and-take contrasts and imaginative blends.

Those who know their ballet history know that this is the first piece of choreography that George Balanchine created after having moved to the United States. One can appreciate his choice. Tchaikovsky endowed each of the instrumental parts with its own characteristic personality; and Balanchine knew how to translate that alternation between interplay and unity among the string sections into a vibrantly engaging “social dynamic” among his dancers. Even with his economic approach to movement while seated, Perlman seemed to grasp the nature of that social dynamic and endowed it with a vibrant account, even without the benefit of the added visual experience of Balanchine’s choreography.

Personality also figures significantly in Elgar’s Opus 36. Each of the variations amounts to a character sketch; and each is given an “enigmatic” title that needs to be “decoded” to identify the character. (The eleventh variation requires a bit more decoding. While the initials “G.R.S.” refer to the organist George Robertson Sinclair, the variation is actually “about” his bulldog Dan.) Nevertheless, the music stands quite well on its own without requiring the listener to know very much about the personalities that the composer has “encoded.”

More important is the rich diversity of instrumental resources deployed to endow each variation with its own unique characteristics. In this performance one could appreciate how attentive a listener Perlman could be. He always knew which instruments and combinations were responsible for registering the most salient impressions on the attentive listener, meaning that, once again, the music came first, taking priority over the details of the characters that inspired each of the variations. The result was an account of the score through which one could appreciate the many fine points of Elgar’s own skills, even he had had deployed them for the sake of evoking images of his friends.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tom Rigney to Bring Eclectic Combo to YBGF

Group portrait of Flambeau with Tom Rigney, center (from a Yerba Buena Gardens Festival Event page on Facebook)

Since, as was reported yesterday, the Let’s Go Salsa@Jessie mini-series of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) gets under way this evening, I realize that it may be useful to call attention to some of the “main stage” activities that are likely to appeal to those who take their listening seriously, regardless of the genre being performed. One of those will take place on the last Saturday of this month in a program organized by and featuring violinist and composer Tom Rigney. Rigney has formed a group called Flambeau to explore the broad scope of approaches to music-making that tend to be grouped under the term “roots.”

The other members of Flambeau are pianist Caroline Dahl, Steve Parks on bass, drummer Brent Rampone, and guitarist Danny Caron, a veteran of the blues-and-roots tradition. Those who know their French will recognize that the group’s name is the noun for “torch,” meaning that listeners should prepare for a fiery approach to the ways in which the group explores the many dimensions of “roots.” As might be expected, the geographical basis for that exploration is where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, with particular attention to New Orleans styles at their funkiest and Cajun and zydeco jamming at its most flammable. Expect a heavy dose of Delta blues at its most low-down to be added to the mix. Then, for good measure, it is likely that Rigney will add some of his own originals to this heady mix.

The “main stage” is located in Yerba Buena Gardens itself, which fills most of the northwest corner of Howard Street and Third Street. This particular concert will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 26, and should last for about 90 minutes. Seats are usually set up in front of the stage; but if May 26 happens to be one of those rare days when the sun comes out, attendees should be prepared to have their own ways to shade themselves. There are also a few shady spots under trees near the stage, and some may even have chairs set up there. There is no charge for those (or any other) YBGF event; so showing up is all that is required.

Finally, as an afterthought, those who really get into the spirit may want to take it with them into the Mission, since that evening the Red Poppy Art House will be celebrating Carnaval with a visit from the California Choro Club.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Böhm’s Richard Strauss Opera Recordings

The composer that received the most attention in the Deutsche Grammophon retrospective box set Karl Böhm: The Operas is Richard Strauss. This did not surprise me when I first saw the announcement of this release. Indeed, because, as I have already observed, it was a PBS broadcast of Böhm conducting Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera that piqued my interest in Böhm’s work, Strauss’ presence as the “strong suit” had much to do with my deciding to write about this collection.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that this is not a particularly balanced account of the Strauss canon. It is definitely not a through account of the fifteen operas that Strauss published. Furthermore, among the operas that are included, two of them get multiple treatments. There are two recordings of Rosenkavalier, made in 1958 and 1969, respectively, and three of Ariadne auf Naxos (1944, 1954, and 1969).

The two operas in this collection that tend not to receive very much attention are Die schweigsame Frau (the silent woman) and the one-act “Daphne.” Die schweigsame Frau is the sort of item that would have been popular in trivia contests, when those contests were, themselves, popular. It was Strauss’ only partnership with Stefan Zweig, who wrote the libretto as an adaptation of Ben Johnson’s play, Epicœne, or The silent woman. “Daphne” was one of two collaborations with Joseph Gregor based on Greek mythology, the other being the even less-known three-act Die Liebe der Danae (the loves of Danae).

Interior of the Vienna State Opera (photograph by Morgaledh, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As one can see from the Ariadne dates, these recordings cover a fair amount to time. The earliest is a concert recording of a performance at the Vienna State Opera on June 11, 1944, a time when Germany was slowly but surely losing ground on its Eastern Front. The latest is a studio recording made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. This is the only one of the three recorded under studio conditions, and I have to confess that it is the one I find most satisfying.

Anyone who has ever seen this opera in performance knows how much is going on up on the stage while the conductor is trying to pull everything together into a musical performance that is both coherent and compelling. The result is that, more often than not, the vocalists can only give their best account of Strauss’ demands when they do not also have to satisfy the demands of a stage director. Since the conductor must also bow to the will of the stage director, it is not that surprising that even the instrumental side sounds more coherent in a studio setting. Given how much attention Strauss paid to how he used his instrumental resources in this particular opera, appreciating the advantages of the recording studio is no small matter.

The fact is that this phenomenon generalizes beyond Ariadne. Strauss operas are at their best when the quality of the music can be appreciated through the qualities of the dramatic context. Indeed, there are going to be times when, unless one knows just what is happening up on stage, the music seems to come across as incoherent, if not senseless. (Thing of the pantomime that takes place at the beginning of the third act of Rosenkavalier.) In the context of what I have previously written about the recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner in this collection, some readers may deduce that, strictly on musical terms, Strauss never rose to the level of either of those two composers. As they say, if the shoe fits …!

On the other hand, for those with an opportunity to see one of Strauss’ operas performed with little experience of any of those operas, this is a useful collection. It allows the novice to get acquainted with the basic musical framework, and that almost always provides valuable orientation before one encounters what any stage director has decided to do with the libretto. Böhm’s performances tend to be consistently clear with a keen management of dynamic levels. As a result an opera like “Elektra” never sounds like an uncontrolled temper tantrum.

Also, I have to confess that this collection awakened many old memories of my own experiences in getting to know the Strauss canon. I remember seeing Tatiana Troyanos singing Octavian in Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera, as she does on the 1969 recording in this collection. Even at a distance I thought I could see the tears in her eyes when taking leave of the Feldmarschallin in the first act of Rosenkavalier. Even stronger was the memory of Birgit Nilsson singing the role of Bark’s wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) during what I think was her final Met season (which would have been long after the performance at the Vienna State Opera documented in this collection). So, I indulge in a lot of selfish pleasures when I listen to this segment of the Böhm canon; but I also think there is much for others to enjoy as well!

YBGF to Launch Salsa Mini-Series

Regular readers probably know that every summer I try to follow up on at least a few of the free concerts that are presented in Yerba Buena Gardens as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF). This year YBGF is launching a mini-series within the festival called Let’s Go Salsa@Jessie. This series will present one concert every month between this month and September, each of which will present a different combo with its own take on salsa style. As the name suggests, these performances will not take place on the “main stage” in Yerba Buena Gardens. Instead, they will be across the street in Jessie Square at 736 Mission Street. All performances will take place on a Thursday evening beginning at 6 p.m. and running for about 90 minutes. A brief summary of the dates and performers is as follows:

May 17: The series will begin with the Cabanijazz Project, named for its founder, conga player Javier Cabanillas. Born in Mexico, Cabanillas is now lives in the Bay Area and recently received a GRAMMY Award for his work with the Oakland-based Pacific Mambo Orchestra. For the Cabanijazz Project he has assembled a nine-piece band, which has recorded ten of his original compositions for an album soon to be released. For this performance the group will be joined by two of the Pacific Mambo vocalists, Omar Ledezma Jr. and Christelle Durandy.

June 21: Bululú is another nine-piece combo, this one led by percussionist and vocalist Lali Mejia. Mejia is from Venezuela, and he named his band after a common noun used there to describe a gathering that generates excitement. Mejia’s music director is Mexican-born string expert Jose Roberto Hernandez. Ledezma is also a member of this group, contributing to the percussion work as well as providing vocals. The other performers are Ruthie Dineen (piano), Miguel Govea (trumpet), Fernanda Bustamante (violin and vocals), Lichi Fuentes (percussion and vocals), Norma Kansau (vocals), and Ayla Davila (bass).

July 19: Pellejo Seco is a Cuban band based in the Bay Area, founded in the East Bay by Ivan Camblor. Growing up in Havana in the Eighties, Camblor was influenced by the earlier generation of performers that were active prior to the revolution. Thus, it would be fair to call his approach “Cuban roots.” The band released its first album, entitled Engánchate (grab on), in 2006.

August 16: Nicaraguan-American percussionist Annette A. Aguilar leads a Brazilian-Latin combo called StringBeans. The group has recorded three albums. It has also made three international tours under the auspices of the United States State Department serving as Latin Jazz Ambassadors.

September 20: The series will wrap up with vocalist Manny Martinez. Martinez comes from New York and spent his teens in Puerto Rico. However, he is now based in the Bay Area, where he plays a central role in the alternative music scene. Thus, there series is likely to conclude by venturing away from traditional approaches out to what this site usually called the “bleeding edge.”

Imperial Jazz Coming to Bird & Beckett

Jill Rogers singing with the Imperial Jazz Co. (from the group’s Web site)

The Imperial Jazz Co. (the abbreviation is part of the name) calls itself a “super group,” which is probably a good way to describe a gathering of jazz players that is larger than the usual combo and smaller than a big band. The About Web page on the group’s Web site lists seven instrumentalists, along with vocalist Jill Rogers. That same Web page also describes the group’s repertoire as including “a broad swath of vocal and instrumental American standards, performed with maximum swing, scorching solos, and delightful vocals.”

However, when the group visits Bird & Beckett Books and Records at the beginning of next month, Rogers will be singing with only five of those instrumentalists, probably because of the limited space afforded by the venue. That quintet will feature an imaginative front line of Phillip Greenlief on saxophone and John Ettinger on violin. Rhythms will be provided by John Hanes on drums, Myles Boisen on guitar, and Kurt Ribak on bass.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 2. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, which is a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. Notwithstanding the work on the Twin Peaks tunnel, this is a reasonably accessible site. There will be a charge of $20 at the door for admission.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Memorial Thoughts about Glenn Branca

Today provided yet another reminder of why I am reluctant to subscribe to The New York Times in either a print or an online version. Glenn Branca died on May 13, yet it was only through an article that came through my “NYT > Arts” RSS feed this morning that I became aware of the news. The article was by Seth Colter Walls, and it was apparently classified as a “pop music story,” which is a category that I tend to avoid. The piece was a “top ten tracks” affair with a passing reference that a “full obituary of Mr. Branca will follow.”

Personally, I feel that Branca deserves far more than the usual “pop treatment.” Many, if not most, of his albums deserve to be treated as a coherent whole, even if listing to that whole in its entirety could border on the unbearable. My own “first contact” with Branca came through choreographer Twyla Tharp when I saw a performance of “Bad Smells” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Branca wrote the music explicitly for the choreography, and the performance provided me with one of my most memorable encounters of unrelenting dissonance that was both auditory and visual. Thanks to Tharp, Branca’s name became firmly planted in my long-term memory.

Over subsequent years I began to follow up by collecting full albums, first on vinyl and subsequently on CD. The first of those albums was his third symphony, whose full text title was Gloria: Music for the First 127 Intervals of the Harmonic Series. (Those who have followed this site for some time can probably figure out why the title appealed to me.) The album was a recording of a performance made at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 16, 1983; so the venue itself had a positive disposition. What appealed to me was the intense discipline required to perform this music, whose dissonant stance departed significantly from the approach taken for “Bad Smells.”

On the other hand I was becoming braced for the sterner stuff. I arrived at that point when I went back to the first symphony, whose full title is Tonal Plexus: Music in Four Movements for Multiple Guitars, Keyboards, Brass and Percussion. This was one of those pieces that could never be given a satisfactory account through recording, simply because the intensity of it all would blow out just about any audio equipment intended for home use. As one of my old friends put it, this was “music to melt the wax in your ears.” Quite honestly, I doubt that I would have the stamina to sit through this music being performed; but, even at the “distance” imposed by recording, I could appreciate the intensity and the rhetorical stance that took one to the brink of unrelenting violence.

I would later learn that Branca’s approach may have been one of the few performance experiences that turned out to be too much for John Cage. Thus, the release of the album Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses came with a booklet including text entitled “Cage’s Folly;” and a recording of Cage in conversation with Wim Mertons. Whether Branca really came too close to the brink of fascism (or crossed it), as Cage suggested, in some of his performances may be debated for some time. These days I suspect that many would find what he did relatively mild compared to more recent disruptive approaches to performance. What is most important, however, is that there was always a solid foundation of music behind the surface structures of intense amplitude and rhetoric.

It is probably time for me to go back to review the Branca corpus, not as isolated tracks but as the well-conceived architectures that the composer had in mind.

Pocket Opera to Present Cimarosa

The next San Francisco offering by Pocket Opera will be given at the end of this month. The selection will be Domenico Cimarosa’s two-act opera Il matrimonio segreto (the secret marriage), the only work by that composer to be regularly performed. The premiere took place on February 7, 1792 at the Imperial Hofburg Theatre in Vienna before the “imperial presence” of Emperor Leopold II. The Wikipedia page for the opera describes it as “arguably one of the greatest 18th century opera buffa apart from those by Mozart.” Having seen it several decades ago presented by the Santa Fe Opera, I am not one to dispute the argument!

The pedigree of Giovanni Bertati’s libretto for this opera is an interesting one. He based it on the play The Clandestine Marriage, written jointly by George Colman the Elder and David Garrick and first performed at Drury Lane in 1766. Coleman and Garrick were, in turn, inspired by a series of six pictures painted by William Hogarth entitled Marriage A-la-Mode. Hogarth is better known among opera lovers for another one of his narrative series, A Rake’s Progress; and that narrative approach makes him a major forerunner of the graphic novel.

The plot itself involves a familiar assortment of stock characters. Geronimo is the rich old codger trying to arrange marriages for his two daughters. He has a young assistant, Paolino, who has secretly married the younger daughter Carolina. The source material made for a first-rate Georgian farce, which was just ripe for reconception as an opera buffa.

Jonathan Smucker as Paolino and Liesl McPherrin as Carolina (photograph by Nicolas Aliaga Garcia)

The leading vocalists for this performance will be bass Lawrence Venza as Geronimo, tenor Jonathan Smucker as Paolino, and soprano Liesl McPherrin as Carolina. The opera will be sung in English to allow the intricacies of the comic plot to have their greatest impact. Musical direction will be by Frank Johnson. The production will be staged by Ted Zoldan.

This performance will take place at the Legion of Honor, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 27. 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.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 5/14/2018

Those who follow this site regularly know that the coming weekend will be a very busy one. Those weekend activities will include several that definitely fall into the “bleeding edge” genre. This will also be an active week at the Center for New Music. Furthermore, there will be performances at the two most adventurous bookstores in San Francisco, Adobe Books and Bird & Beckett Books and Records, both of which have already been announced. That leaves only two events that remain to be taken into account for this week:

Thursday, May 17, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The LSG Creative Music Series will present two sets of improvisations. In the first bassist Max Johnson will jam will Phillip Greenlief on saxophone and Tim Perkis on live electronic and computer gear. They will be followed by a larger ensemble project called DennyDennyBreakfast conceived by drummer Bob Woods-LaDue. Each instance of this project involves different performers and different arrangements. This particular performance, however, will celebrate the release of a recording of one of these sessions that was made last December. The resulting album, entitled unlit overpass was released the following January. The core performers joining Woods-LaDue for this “release show” session will be Jordan Glenn on drums, Mark Clifford-Pascucci on vibraphone, Crystal Clifford-Pascucci on cello, David Young on keyboards, and Max Judelson on bass. There will also be a special guest performance by Rent Romus on alto saxophone. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Friday, May 18, 8 p.m., Space 151: Think Make Tank is an artist collective for creating experiences that incite dialogue and conversation around how we perceive the world. This program will pursue that agenda through the medium of sound involving performers both with and without experience in music. Those performers will be Jason Kahn, Kevin Corcoran, and gabby fluke-mogul.

The venue is located at 151 Potrero Avenue. Admission will be by donation on a sliding scale between $5 and $15. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m.