Thursday, June 21, 2018

Old First Concerts: July, 2018

Readers have probably noticed that this site has been giving a fair amount of attention to both previews and reviews of events being presented by Old First Concerts (O1C). It therefore seems appropriate to avoid any risk of there being loose ends by presenting the O1C schedule on a month-by-month basis. As has been the case with the Red Poppy Art House, this creates a Web page that may be easily updated to account for any change in plans. In the same manner the Facebook shadow site can be used to provide notification when such changes arise.

All O1C events take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Hyperlinks to specific event pages will be attached to the date-and-time information given below. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church. Here are the specifics for the month of July:

Sunday, July 1, 4 p.m.: The Bridge Piano Quartet consists of Cynthia Baehr (violin), Eleanor Angel (viola), Kristen Garbeff (cello), and Kumiko Uyeda (piano). However, they will be presenting the world premiere of a composition whose resources go beyond those of the conventional piano quartet. The ensemble approached Chad Cannon with a commission to write a work focused on the struggles faced by immigrants and refugees. The result was “Gateway: Stories from Angel Island,” which draws upon poetry found on the walls of the Angel Island immigration center, having been etched there by Chinese immigrants. The performance of “Gateway” will require adding to the Bridge resources with narration, butoh dance, and electronics. Cannon’s premiere will be preceded by two more conventional piano quartet offerings, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 493 in E-flat major and Frank Bridge’s “Phantasy.”

Friday, July 6, 8 p.m.: The third of the four Debussy Centennial Festival concerts will be devoted entirely to the 24 preludes composed for solo piano. Debussy published these in two separate books, each consisting of twelve of the preludes. Performances of these pieces will be shared by Christopher Basso, Daniel Glover, Jeffrey LaDeur, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Robert Schwartz.

Wednesday, July 11, 7 p.m.: O1C will be one of the host institutions for the Golden Gate International Choral Festival. Founded in 1991, this event is sponsored every three years by the Piedmont Easy Bay Children’s Choir. The Festival hosts young singers from all over the world, providing a variety of performance opportunities across the San Francisco Bay Area. O1C will host two of the performing choirs, the Chamber Singers of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir (Orange, Connecticut) and the St. Stephen’s College Choir (Hong Kong). Information about this and other performances can be found at the Festival’s Web site. This will be a free concert, and tickets will not be necessary.

Friday, July 13, 8 p.m.: As part of the O1C commitment to providing diversity in its offerings, Arjun Verma will present an evening of sitar music accompanied by Sudhakar Vaidyanathan on tabla.

Sunday, July 15, 4 p.m.: Traditionally, jazz pianist and vocalist Mike Greensill has been the harbinger of the end of summer and the beginning of a new concert season. This year he will present a midsummer offering entitled The Art of the Duo. He will be joined by Joe Cohen on alto saxophone. The program will be devoted almost entirely to the music of Duke Ellington; but, as may be expected, Greensill will include some of his own latest compositions.

Friday, July 20, 8 p.m.: Jazz will continue the following Friday with the return of the Resonance Jazz Ensemble. This group is led by pianist Stephen McQuarry; and it is far from your usual combo, owing to its string section (of sorts), consisting of violinists Michelle Mastin and Michèle Walther and cellist Nancy Bien. The group also includes Laura Austin Wiley playing flutes of different sizes. The more conventional players are Georgianna Krieger on saxophones, Ted Burik on bass, and Greg German on drums. The repertoire includes both standards and McQuarry’s own pieces.

Saturday, July 21, 8 p.m.: Le Due Muse is the duo of cellist Sarah Hong and pianist Makiko Ooka. This will be a return visit to O1C to present a concert entitled The Charm of Czech Music. The first half of the program will be devoted to Bohemian composers Josef Suk, a D minor ballade, the first of two pieces for cello and piano in his Opus 3, and Bohuslav Martinů, his second sonata for cello and piano. Following the intermission, they will be joined by violinist Fumino Ando for a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 90 (fourth) piano trio in E minor, named “Dumky” after the common form of all of the trio’s six movements.

Sunday, July 22, 4 p.m.: The final concert of the month will see the return of pianist Sarah Cahill. The program will consist of pieces that she has commissioned or have otherwise been dedicated to her. The composers to be represented on the program will be John Adams, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, Ingram Marshall, Annea Lockwood, Phil Kline, and Samuel Adams.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Lavay Smith Coming to Biscuits and Blues

Lavay Smith with her Red Hot Skillet Lickers (from her Facebook announcement)

I have been aware of the Biscuits and Blues club, located just off Union Square, ever since I have been living in the Bay Area. By the same count I have been aware of Lavay Smith and her honoring of jazz traditions going back to the Forties within the same time frame. Indeed, for all I know, my first contact with her name was when I saw it on a Biscuits and Blues announcement.

Sadly, I have only seen her in performance once and that was in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, far from the best venue for her repertoire. That repertoire is based heavily on jazz origins that can be traced back to Kansas City and the music-makers that put that city on the map. Thus, when Smith returns to Biscuits and Blues at the end of this month, she will bring with her a repertoire based on a solid command of the music of Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Helen Humes, Lester Young, Jay McShann, Walter Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Myra Taylor, and Big Joe Turner. She will be joined by her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, which she calls her “all-star seven-piece little big band.”

Smith’s return visit to Biscuits and Blues will take place on Friday, June 29. She will give two shows starting at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively. The venue is located at 401 Mason Street, on the northwest corner of Geary Street, one block west of Union Square. The place is a supper club, so reservations are usually made for dinner and a show. Those reservations are handled by OpenTable, but they may be made through the event page for this evening on the Biscuits and Blues Web site. Tickets for each of the shows will be $24.

Friction Quartet Releases Debut Album

courtesy of the Friction Quartet

Exactly one month ago the Friction Quartet released its first album. Those who follow chamber music in the Bay Area are probably familiar with this ensemble, which consists of violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers (sharing the leader’s chair), violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Douglas Machiz. The title of the new album is resolve and, as of this writing, it is being distributed strictly in digital form. Thus, Amazon.com has created an MP3 download Web page for it; and the album is also available through Bandcamp and iTunes.

Those who have attended Friction concerts know that the group has a strong dedication to promoting new music and has reinforced that dedication with their own commissioning efforts. resolve presents performances of three compositions; and the “central position” is held by a work commissioned in 2015 for composer Roger Briggs. The name of the new piece is “Friction,” in spite of Briggs’ making his best efforts to avoid naming the music after the group.

On the album “Friction” is flanked by music from two markedly different centuries. The opening selection is Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/77 quartet, the third of the six quartets published as his Opus 76. The album then concludes with the second of Benjamin Britten’s three numbered string quartets, his Opus 36 in C major. (Britten wrote a fair number of pieces for string quartet prior to the one that he identified as his “first” quartet.)

The title of the album is supposedly derived from the idea of resolution as a device in the composition of music that mediates between tension and release. From that point of view, each of the composers whose work is being presented took different approaches to what constitutes resolution over the course of his work. Haydn was composing during the eighteenth century, a time when the basic conventions of harmonic progression had emerged from prevailing practices of the preceding century.

Nevertheless, Haydn was a consummate experimenter. He was always seeking out both new ways to establish tension (usually through dissonance but sometimes through rhythm) and unexpected techniques for releasing that tension to return to more familiar progressions. Hoboken III/77 was given the name “Emperor,” because its second movement was a set of variations on a hymn that Haydn had composed to serve as a “national anthem” honoring the Holy Roman Emperor. Writing variations was one of Haydn’s favorite ways to experiment; and several of the variations in Hoboken III/77 involve imaginative “warping” of “national anthem conventions,” although the solemnity of the hymn itself is never compromised.

Britten’s Opus 36 was composed in 1945, a very dark time for England during World War II. Britten’s personal situation was complicated by his own commitment to pacifism. As a result, Opus 36 is very much a product of the tension in the composer’s own life. 1945 was also the year in which he composed his Opus 33 opera Peter Grimes, a dark narrative of alienation whose tensions had been ingeniously captured by Britten through harmonic progressions, unconventional rhythms, and imaginatively dark instrumentation. In many respects Opus 36 amounts to further reflections on those tensions, now distilled down to the more fundamental expressiveness of a string quartet.

By the time musical practices had advanced to this decade, many composers no longer saw harmonic progression as a means of expressing tension and release. Briggs is one of those composers. His techniques take a far more fundamental approach to string quartet playing involving a richer palette of sonorities derived from extended performing techniques. What emerges in “Friction” amounts to a sustained prolongation of tension that never really resolves but, instead, is allowed to evaporate into silence. The piece lasts only a little more than five minutes, which comes off as just the right amount of time to figure out what the composer is doing and then enjoy the ride.

Taking the album as a whole, Briggs’ composition can be approached as a new form of tension that departs significantly from anything one might find in Haydn’s toolbox. Indeed, Briggs’ novelty is so intense in Haydn’s wake that even the dark passages that begin the Britten quartet provide an initial sense of release. However, that sense is quickly seen as deceptive; and there is very much a sense of irony in the way in which Britten concludes the final movements with a clear sense of cadence that is far less clear when it comes to any rhetorical sense of release.

Escher Gets by with a Little Help from a Friend

Escher String Quartet members Pierre Lapointe, Danbi Um, Adam Barnett-Hart, and Brook Speltz (photograph by Sarah Skinner, from the Escher Web site)

The Escher String Quartet was founded in 2005 by violist Pierre Lapointe, while he was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. He recruited violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie and cellist Andrew Janss, all of whom were fellow students. The group got off to a good start, since, by the following year, they were part of Chamber Music Society Two, the “farm team” for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As might be guessed, the group has enjoyed the benefit of some pretty high-powered mentoring; and their relationship with David Finckel and Wu Han led to their being invited to perform out here in the Music@Menlo series.

Last night Escher closed out the Summer Series of Chamber Music San Francisco, giving the last of the series’ three concerts in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The group has undergone several personnel changes since its founding. As of last night, Wu Jie’s second violin chair has been taken over by Danbi Um; and Brook Speltz is now the group’s cellist. The major work on the program was Franz Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major with local cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau taking the second cello chair.

Sadly, it was hard to avoid feeling that Escher is a group that still needs mentoring. Fortunately, Fonteneau was well-equipped for that task. Not only is he one of our city’s most skilled cellists but he is also a consummate pedagogue, both as a cello teacher and as a coach for chamber music students at SFCM. Even without noting that Fonteneau was situated in the middle of the group (violins to his right and the other low strings to his left), it was hard to avoid the feeling that he was leading the entire group from the bottom line of the score page, so to speak.

D. 956 is one of those pieces that is representative of what Robert Schumann called Schubert’s “heavenly length.” There are no end of arresting moments; and, if they do not literally bring the flow of the entire work to a halt, they certainly merit lingering. The problem, of course, is that inferior performances tend to linger too long; and “heavenly length” turns into “endless bore.” Having been fortunate enough to listen to Fonteneau play this work with other groups (including at least one other professional string quartet), I feel he has a scrupulous command when it comes to keeping the pace “heavenly.” Last night’s pacing could not have been better, and I am inclined to believe that Fonteneau was the “prime mover” of the overall pace.

I make this claim on the basis of the first half of the program, which consisted entirely of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet in D major. This quartet is probably best known for themes that were subsequently turned into songs for the musical Kismet. The result is that, for many, the piece has a pleasant air of familiarity. Escher’s account, on the other hand, had little ring of familiarity and not much that was pleasant.

The overall experience was one of a group in which each individual was still trying to nail down command of his/her respective part. Moments when the ensemble summoned up a convincing group sound were few and far between, suggesting that the players were looking at their parts rather than listening to each other. Indeed, the intonation almost suggested that each player had internalized the pitches of the twelve chromatic notes on a piano keyboard and was summoning up the necessary pitches as the printed score pages dictated. Admittedly, Borodin’s quartet is not exactly an epitome of fine quartet composition; but it still allows for an account far more convincing than the one Escher summoned up last night.

My only previous account with Escher was with their recordings of the string quartets of Alexander von Zemlinsky, which were released by Naxos. At that time the only member of the group that was not a founder was cellist Dane Johansen. I was impressed with the recordings, but the impression had as much to do with listening to Zemlinsky’s music as to how it was being interpreted. Nevertheless, one might make a case that those recordings were of a group closer in spirit to Lapointe’s “founding vision.” The current membership runs the risk of a group that sounds more like four independent musicians than like a string quartet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Last-Minute Announcement: Concert for Veterans


It has just come to my attention that tonight Herbst Theatre will host the Second Annual Summer Solstice Symphony Concert presented by Swords to Plowshares. Swords to Plowshares is a nonprofit organization that is a leading institution for providing services and advocacy to veterans. The music will be provided by Symphonia Caritas, a professional ensemble dedicated to presenting music as a means to improve the lives of those in need.

The program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto will be Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 21 (second) piano concerto in F minor. The concerto soloist will be Jeffrey LaDeur. Like the concerto, the symphony will be an early composition, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 25 in D major. This was the composer’s first symphony; and he would later give it the name “Classical” in recognition of the influence of Joseph Haydn (and, to a lesser extent, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Mozart himself will be the source of the overture, the one he wrote for his K. 492 opera, The Marriage of Figaro. The conductor will be Symphonia Caritas Music Director Paul Schrage.

This concert will begin at 7:15 p.m. tonight, June 19. Herbst Theatre is located in the Veterans Building on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. This makes it easily accessible to both east-west and north-south Muni lines. Premium seating in the orchestra will be $95, and all other tickets will be $60. Tickets are currently available only at the door.

Angelika Niescier in Berlin on Intakt Records

Recently, I have been trying to catch up on releases from Intakt Records, which, in spite of the fact that it is based in Switzerland, seems to have secured itself as my favorite label for adventurous jazz. That reputation was established through the husband-and-wife couple of pianists, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase; but they fostered a high level of trust in the label’s production values, from which I could branch out into other interests. The latest branch I have encountered involves Polish saxophonist (soprano and alto) Angelika Niescier.

Angelika Niescier at the 2015 Reykjavik Jazz Festival (photograph by Hreinn Gudlaugsson, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Sadly (but not unexpectedly), the English-language Wikipedia has not yet discovered Niescier. Fortunately, she can be found on the German Wikipedia site; and, thanks to Google, there is a reasonably acceptable English version of her Wikipedia page. My quest to learn about her was prompted by last month’s release on Intakt of her trio concert given at the Berlin Jazzfest 2017. The rhythm section of her trio consisted on Christopher Tordini on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Sorey is well established in the United States, and in 2017 he was the Festival’s Artist in Residence.

Within the first minute of listening to the opening track, entitled “Kundry,” I found memory transporting me back to my obsession with recordings by John Coltrane (but not Richard Wagner) during my student days, an obsession that was rewarded with a visit by Coltrane and his quartet to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (This took place shortly after Alice Coltrane replaced McCoy Tyner as the quartet’s pianist.) As a result, I was not surprised to discover on that Wikipedia page that Niescier referred to herself as “Coltrane-damaged.” Needless to say, I view that “damage” as an asset, rather than a liability; and I suspect that Niescier does, too.

There is an old joke that, when you steal from one writer, it is plagiarism; but, when you steal from many, it is research. Niescier never gives any sense that she is “stealing” from Coltrane. Instead, she seems to have caught the spirit well enough to steer it in new directions. However, Coltrane’s is not the only spirit behind her playing. “5.8” almost sounds as if Niescier went through a period of listening to as many recordings of Thelonious Monk that she could obtain, leading to a delightful pot-au-feu in which, while Monk may constitute a variety of different chunks of meat for the soup, the diversity of added vegetables is nothing short of awe-inspiring. In sharp contrast, on the other hand, the final track, “The Surge,” sees her venturing into the coarser sonorities one tended to encounter in those early days of Ornette Coleman’s contributions to the free jazz movement.

This is definitely an album for those who take listening to jazz seriously, particularly when the performers are not afraid to seek out adventurous new directions. Our numbers may be modest. Hopefully, we can make up for those numbers with our enthusiasm!

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Historical Approach to Fauré’s Songs

courtesy of Naxos of America

Regular readers probably know by now that I have been following pianist Malcolm Martineau’s project with Signum Classics to record the complete songs of Gabriel Fauré. By my count the project is 75% complete, having already issued three single-CD volumes. However, exactly a month ago today the Canadian ATMA Classique “scooped” Martineau with a four-CD collection of all the songs in a single package.

To be fair, Martineau probably has the upper hand when it comes to “star power.” His name is likely to be familiar to anyone who makes it a point to attend vocal recitals; and such enthusiasts are like to recognize (and probably enjoy) most, if not all, of the many vocalists that Martineau recruited for his project. The names associated with the ATMA Classique recording, on the other hand, will probably be less familiar. In this case the project was made possible by the Canadian Festival Classica and its General and Artistic Director Marc Boucher. There is again only one pianist, Olivier Godin; but also there is only one singer for each vocal range, Hélène Guilmette (soprano), Julie Boulianne (mezzo), Antonio Figueroa (tenor), and Boucher himself (baritone).

Nevertheless, this new release is likely to have greater historical impact than Martineau’s project. Most important is that this the first recording to account for each of the songs in terms of the keys and voice types designated by the composer for their first performances. Furthermore, to provide a better sense of what Fauré had in mind, Godin is playing an 1859 Érard instrument with a tuning pitch of 435 Hz, rather than today’s standard 440 Hz. To add yet another jewel to this heavenly crown, it should be noted that Fauré himself played an Érard piano. Godin’s piano was made available through the Arte Musica Foundation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Many readers probably know by now that I am a sucker for historically-informed performances. So it did not take much to bring my attention to this package. However, I should also add that this collection has a “convenience factor” that has been missing from the Signum Classics releases. On the ATMA Classique CDs, all the songs appear in order of their respective opus numbers, while I have never managed to catch on the logic behind Martineau’s ordering, other than to speculate that it has primarily to do with the vocalists he recruited. To be fair, that ordering issue is not really a big deal for me, since I have indexed everything in the Classical Music catalog tool on my iTunes! Nevertheless, I would suggest that Boucher’s project allows one to listen to any individual song with a better sense of the context in which it was written.

The Bleeding Edge: 6/18/2018

This is shaping up to be another busy week. Five of the events have already been announced, two at the Center for New Music (on Wednesday and Sunday), two at the Red Poppy Art House (on Thursday and Sunday), and the second SIMM Series concert of the month on Sunday. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, June 20, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Adventurous programming continues with another four-set program. Two of the sets will be taken by soloists, cellist Angela Roberts performing her Cruel Work project and Randy Lee Sutherland’s “Looose” woodwind work. There will also be a duo set taken by Bill Orcutt and Jacob Felix Heule. The largest group will be the Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble, which describes itself as an “elastic coterie of aging weirdos.”

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission on a sliding scale will begin at $5. However, this will be a NOTAFLOF (no one turned away for lack of funds) event.

Thursday, June 21, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s LSG Creative Music Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will amount to a “progress report” on Braids an improvised project conceived by Devin Smith and Robert Woods-LaDue. The second set will be led by Portland-based Ian Hawk, who works with drone and repetitive rock music. Failings began as a solo project but has since become a collaborative effort. Hawk will be joined by Agnes Szelag, Aaron Oppenheim, and Scott Siler. 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, June 22, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: This past November this site announced word of the new Curium piano trio, whose members are violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Natalie Raney, and pianist Rachel Kim. The trio is named after Marie Curie, whom they have adopted as a symbol of the innovations of female minds; and they have developed their repertoire around the music of female composers. Two of those composers will be featured on the program they have prepared for Old First Concerts.

One is Kaija Saariaho, whose “Light and Matter” provides an interpretation in sonorities of the changing lights and colors that the composer could see in Morningstar Park from the window of her New York apartment. The other is the piano trio “Tunes from My Home” by Chen Yi, which is organized around not only Cantonese tunes but also the characteristic sonorities of Cantonese instruments. The second half of the program will be devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, written during the darkest times of the Second World War.

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

Friday, June 22, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: This will be another two-hour “late show” concert. This time the performers will be a trio called The Pipes, whose members are Darren Johnson on trumpet and Cory Wright and Stephen Lugerner, both on bass clarinet. This clearly will not be your usual jazz trio.

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. (Those coming from the Civic Center will be able to avoid the tunnel entirely. However, this will probably not be an issue for this gig, since work on the tunnel is not scheduled to begin until June 25.) There will be a cover charge of $15 at the door for admission with a student rate of $5.

Wagner’s Cycle Concludes … and Recycles

Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera concluded its first cycle through Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) with the performance of the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). Götterdämmerung is practically an epic unto itself; and, indeed, its account of the death of Siegfried was the core idea from which the entire Ring cycle would emerge. Including intermissions, the running time exceeded five hours; and the first intermission did not take place until the first two hours of the opera had elapsed. If all this amounted to a rough ride, then the journey emerged as thoroughly engaging and perceptively inspired.

If Director Francesca Zambello’s setting for Siegfried presented an uncompromising view of the natural order of the planet being eroded by the technologies of industrialization, then those erosions come to a head in Götterdämmerung, in which, in that memorable phrase of W. B. Yeats, “things fall apart.” Indeed, collapse is already imminent in the first scene of the opening prologue. In Wagner’s libretto the three Norns are weaving the rope of fate; and, at the end of the scene, the rope begins to unravel. For Zambello’s “American” interpretation, Set Designer Michael Yeargan established this scene in a server farm, the technological hub of the “cloud” that now hosts all the activities of the digital world. The Norns have become the technical support team; and the surtitles even substituted the noun “cable” for “rope.” Instead of an unraveling, the entire complex of servers experiences a catastrophic system meltdown.

The server farm of the three Norns (Sarah Cambidge, Ronnita Miller, and Jamie Barton) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

Zambello also made some interesting casting choices for the Norns themselves. The first was sung by mezzo Ronnita Miller, previously seen as Erda, the Earth Mother, who warns Wotan of the collapse of his grand visions. Miller was joined by Jamie Barton, who, in the role of Fricka, provided another cautionary voice that Wotan failed to heed. The third of the Norns was sung by Adler Fellow Sarah Cambidge, last seen as Ortlinde, one of the nine Valkyries, the children of the union of Erda and Wotan.

After we leave the server farm, we are confronted with no end of images of the failure of the earth to hold itself together in the face of massive industrial abuse. If the gods of Valhalla amounted to an allegorical portrait of the Trump family, then the Gibichung clan in Götterdämmerung quickly registers itself as an allegory of the Koch family. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Koch Industries has a hand in just about every abuse of the natural world, but it would not be that all far from the mark. Yeargan translated this “family legacy” into a set design of a massive factory with more smokestacks than can be counted, all belching pollutants with full force.

The Gibichungs, of course, live a life of wealth and comfort and probably even enjoy that grotesque view of their factories. Yet there was something in the modernist architecture of their living room that suggested that we were in the world of Noël Coward’s Design for Living on a very bad acid trip. The Gibichungs are, of course, the instrument of Siegfried’s undoing, particularly Hagen (bass Andrea Silvestrelli), who is only a half-brother, since his father is Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann), still obsessed with reclaiming the ring that Wotan stole, even if he is now just a spirit in Hagen’s dreams.

The Götterdämmerung narrative also sees the return to the three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde (soprano Stacey Tappan), Wellgrunde (mezzo Lauren McNeese), and Flosshilde (mezzo Renée Tatum), also trying to recover the ring, since they had been responsible for guarding its golden source. Yeargan’s design for the Rhine itself was clearly inspired by the Great Pacific garbage patch, with more discarded plastic than the eye can see. The Rhinemaidens themselves are covered in a black oil slick and have been reduced to collecting plastic refuse in plastic bags.

Within this panorama of the earth’s decay, we experience the decay and collapse of those figures we would otherwise take to be “heroic,” Siegfried himself (tenor Daniel Brenna) and the now mortal Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin), whom he rescued from the eternal sleep cast upon her by Wotan. Note, by the way, that Wotan never appears in Götterdämmerung. We only learn about him through the Valkyrie Waltraute (Barton, again), who explains to Brünnhilde that Valhalla is experiencing the same rot as the earth.

Ultimately, the decay is so extensive that everything (literally) goes up in smoke. After Siegfried has been killed by Hagen (abetted by Brünnhilde), Brünnhilde builds a massive funeral pyre for him and then joins his body on it. The fires of the pyre reach all the way to Valhalla, but they also cleanse the entire planet. Even the Rhine is cleansed, and the Rhinemaidens reclaim their gold. Life begins again with Zambello’s final gesture of a child planting a very modest sprig (Baby Groot?). The cycle of the four operas really is a cycle, and Zambello chose to leave her audience hoping that things will get better the next time.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Red Poppy Art House: July, 2018

A quick scan on the Upcoming Events Web page of the Web site for the Red Poppy Art House suggests that most, if not all, of the gigs for next month are now in place. As usual, if any updates are necessary, I shall use my Facebook shadow site to provide notification of any increments after they have been added. To review the basics, the Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Unless stated otherwise, tickets will be available in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets.

Given the demand for these concerts, it is often the case that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for the currently planned events:

Friday, July 6, 7:30 p.m.: Those who read this morning’s account of last night’s Poppy event led by flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz know that one of her accompanying musicians was clarinetist and vocalist Gregory Masaki Jenkins, whose primary domain is the Balkan repertoire. For this concert Jones will return to the Poppy as a member of the trio IpeiroKritika, which specializes in tunes and songs from two particular regions in Greece, Epirus and Crete. All three members of the trio contribute to vocal selections, and the other two instrumentalists are Aya Safiya on violin and Tano Brock on the indigenous version of the lute. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 7, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening celebrating the boisterous revelry of a New Orleans Second Line. The “main event” will be a visit from Sacramento by the Element Brass Band, which will be celebrating the release of its brand new album, Cali Got a Brass Band. The opening set will be the local group Noelle Glory & The Guarantees, serving up soul, funk, and reggae. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, July 8, 7 p.m.: The next geographical region to be covered will be the Middle East. The performers will be the members of the Bamdad Ensemble, whose name comes from the noun bâmdâd, which means “dawn.” The group consists of two vocalists, Azadeh Farpoor and Siavash Rezvan Behbahani, and three instrumentalists specializing in Iranian traditional instruments. Golnaz Khazei plays percussion, Farzin Dehghani plays the bowed kamancheh, and Sirvan Manhoobi doubles on two members of the lute family, oud and shurangiz. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Friday, July 13, 8 p.m.: Pianist and composer Alon Nechushtan will lead a trio in a program of contemporary jazz. The other members of his trio are Pablo Menares on bass and Felix Lecaros on drums. They will be joined by the duo of drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Charlie Hunter. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a cross-cultural program that brings Venezuelan cuatro virtuoso Jorge Glem together with American composer Sam Reider. Reider will double on accordion and piano. Percussion will be provided by local multi-instrumentalist Jackeline Rago. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, July 15, 7 p.m.: Two vocalists will divide the evening. Danielle Wertz will lead with a program she calls Old, New, Borrowed & Blue, which weaves together elements of both jazz and folk. She sings with rhythm provided by Lu Salcedo on guitar and Owen Clapp on bass. She will be followed by Brie Capone, who accompanies herself on the acoustic guitar. She will promote her latest EP of original songs, If I Let You In. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.: Irish violinist and composer Colm Ó Riain will return to the Poppy with a program entitled Inter-Celtic Jazz. He will be joined by master Breton violinist Thomas Moisson, and vocals will be provided by regular collaborator Kate Brubeck. Rhythm will be provided by Geoff van Lienden on guitar, Joe Kyle, Jr on bass, and Wade Peterson on percussion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, July 21, 7 p.m.: The next Middle Eastern program will be led by vocalist Nader DeAik. Vocals will also be performed by a special guest artist, mezzo Crystal Philippi. The instrumentalists will be Dan Nervo (guitar), Jai Dhar (drums), Rony Dib (goblet drum), and Ash (bass). The other special guest artist of the evening will be belly dancer Nicole Maria Hoffschneider. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Sunday, July 22, 2 p.m.: This will be the next installment of the free Monthly Community Rumba, with music provided by Rumberos de Radio Habana. While this is a free event, donations are warmly accepted. All donated money goes to the performing musicians, and a recommended amount is between $5 and $10.

Thursday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.: Following up on her performance with the California Choro Club this past May, flutist Rebecca Kleinmann will return to the Poppy as leader. She will present an evening of Brazilian and Latin jazz with a rhythm section consisting of Vitor Gonçalves on both piano and accordion and Julien Cantelm on drums. She will also offer the world premiere of a selection of arrangements for flute choir and rhythm. She will be joined by flutists Chloe Scott, Daniel Riera, Debbie Gold, and Gaea Schell. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Friday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.: Vocalists Joyce Todd McBride and Stacy Starkweather have compiled a program entitled A 21st Century Songbook. They are both instrumentalists with McBride on piano and Starkweather on bass. They will be joined by Jeff Pera on drums. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, July 28, 7:30 p.m.: One of the Bay Area’s most interesting (not to mention skilled) jazz pianists is Adam Shulman. He will continue to keep things interesting with a program entitled Forgotten Gems from the Bebop Era. He will team up with Patrick Wolff playing both tenor and alto saxophones, instruments associated with several of the major leaders of the bebop movement. James Gallagher will be the drummer, and the bass player has not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Flamenco on the Threshold of Jazz

Flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz (from her Red Poppy event page)

Last night I headed down to the Red Poppy Art House for my break between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung during this week’s San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). The show for the evening featured flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz in a program entitled Collaborations in Flamenco. The program was given two performances, and I was there for the first of them.

This was definitely not a typical flamenco evening where dancers performed as part of a group of guitarists and singers. Cruz opened the program with a solo performance, an approach to flamenco that I had never previously encountered. While the rhetoric of her facial expressions and upper body language were familiar, the absence of any other sounds led me to concentrate on her footwork and her capacity to summon up elaborate rhythms that could stand securely as music unto itself. Indeed, listening to the sonic language of her feet, so to speak, took me back some 30 years when I would go into Manhattan to listen to Max Roach fill an entire evening with solo drum work.

Once Cruz had firmly established the voice of her own feet, she began to work with different combinations of four musicians who had joined her for the evening. These were percussionist Marco Peris, Bob Sanders on guitar and sometimes percussion, Gregory Masako Jenkins on clarinet and vocal work, and Alex Conde on piano and one percussion gig. Peris was the only one with a conventional drum. The other musicians played a touch-sensitive electronic device in the form of a cube also serving as a stool.

Conde’s music was the only offering that came closest to Hispanic idioms. Both Jenkins and Peris worked from different Balkan backgrounds, while Sanders’ technique tended to reflect primarily on jazz techniques from the middle of the last century. What was most important, however, was that every combination of musicians providing backup for Cruz had its own characteristic sense of spontaneity; so that each of the selections (which Cruz called vignettes) allowed for its own approaches to improvisation. The program then concluded with the entire group improvising off the tops of their respective heads with Cruz adding her own rhythms and dance style to the fabric of the emerging polyphony.

In that kind of a setting, it was easy to appreciate that Cruz’ skills as a musician were just as impressive as the personal stamp she put on her flamenco dancing.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

2018 Merola Opera Program Concerts in SF

The schedule for the 2018 Summer Festival of the Merola Opera Program is now in place. The offerings will follow the usual format: the Schwabacher Summer Concert showcase of the “Merolini” in this summer’s training program, two full-length operas, and a Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House. All performances other than the Grand Finale will take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The basic summary of these events is as follows:

Thursday, July 5, 7:30 p.m., Schwabacher Summer Concert: Full details have not yet been announced, but the program will consist of staged scenes from four operas: Vanessa (Samuel Barber), “Il tabarro,” (Giacomo Puccini), Don Giovanni (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), and Les pêcheurs de perles (Georges Bizet). Staging will be by Merola alumna (summer of ’16) Aria Umezawa. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by a full orchestra conducted by Merola alumna (summer of ’91 and ’92) Kathleen Kelly. All scenes will be sung in the original language of the libretto.

Thursday, July 19, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 21, 2 p.m.: The first full-length opera will be Mozart’s K. 208, Il re pastore (the shepherd king), written when the composer was nineteen years old. The work is given relatively little attention, although it contains many seeds that would subsequently flower with greater development in Mozart’s later and better-known operas. The production will be staged by Merola alumna (summer of ’06) Tara Faircloth. The orchestra will be conducted by Stephen Stubbs.

Thursday, August 2, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, August 4, 2 p.m.: The second-full length opera will be Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Based on what might be called a “graphic short story” by eighteen-century artist William Hogarth, the opera has an elegantly literate libretto written jointly by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. (For the record, Auden and Kallman also collaborated on translating the librettos of Mozart operas into English; and the keen listener will detect more than a few hints of Mozart in Stravinsky’s score.) This production will be staged by Robin Guarino. The conductor will be Merola alumnus (summer of ’87) Mark Morash.

Saturday, August 18, 7:30 p.m.: Details for the Grand Finale are not announced until later in the summer. As is always the case, the production will be staged by the current Merola Apprentice Stage Director, Marcus Shields. The conductor will be Dean Williamson. Also as always, the performance will be followed by a reception for which separate tickets will be required. The price of those tickets will be $75, and they will be sold by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) Box Office.

SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. The Way Memorial Opera House is at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Each of the above hyperlinks connects to a Web page with ticket price information and options for online purchase. All ticket sales are being handled through the SFO Box Office. For those not purchasing tickets online, the Box Office may be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.

Zambello Brings a Darker Heroism to Wagner

Last night in the War Memorial Opera, the San Francisco Opera advanced its first cycle of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) to its third opera, Siegfried. In many ways this is the most straightforward of the operas, even if the duration runs to four and three-quarters hours. On the surface the title character is a stock hero figure who both kills a dragon and rescues a maiden. However, in Wagner’s libretto nothing is straightforward; and in Francesca Zambello’s staging everything has an intensely dark side.

From a technical point of view, Siegfried is one of the two operas in the cycle that begins quietly. The first opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), begins with a low E-flat played in two different octaves by a divided bass section. The dynamic marking is piano; and that E-flat is the fundamental (pun intended for those who know about the harmonic series) pitch of the first stirrings of creation. However, instruments are steadily added to depict the planet coming into being, followed by the “gathering of the waters” into the Rhine River. In other words, as soon as the initial quietude is established, the volume proceeds to grow slowly but steadily.

Siegfried, on the other hand, begins with a sinister pianissimo drum roll on the timpani. Considering that Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), the second opera, ended in the blinding light of a ring of fire, things get very dark very quickly as Siegfried begins to establish itself. However, the darkness has as much to do with Zambello’s projected images as with the action that is about to take place. In Rheingold the projections depict the emergence of order within what is initially an inchoate display of light, and that order is eventually revealed as the waters of the Rhine. In Siegfried, however, the images have become painfully explicit, all depicting different ways in which man has despoiled the natural order of the planet. If Wotan’s “Board Room” in Die Walküre has, as I have suggested, windows painted over with idealistic visions to prevent his seeing what is really happening outside of his Valhalla, then Zambello accompanies the Siegfried prologue with all of those images that Wotan would rather not see.

Mime (David Cangelosi) encounters Wotan (Greer Grimsely) in the first act of Siegfried (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

When the first scene finally begins, we are still in the world of Justified that had been established for Hunding’s cabin in Walküre; but now all we have is a lone trailer where Mime (tenor David Cangelosi), Alberich’s henchman in Rheingold, is now raising Siegfried, the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde from Walküre. He is now a young adult; and, if you strip away the boyish looks and the golden tenor voice (sung by Daniel Brenna, making his SFO debut), it does not take much to discover that he is as much of a brute as Hunding. Anything that was bleak in Walküre has gotten much bleaker and even darker. The figure that Wagner himself conceived to be his hero is presented, instead, as an all-too-human anti-hero.

The spoken introduction that Jean Cocteau prepared for Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” oratorio begins by observing that, when Oedipus was born, he was already in a trap. The introduction prepares the audience to witness how that trap will now close on Oedipus. Siegfried was born in a similar trap; and, over the course of the opera, we are already witnessing its closing. (It will keep closing in Götterdämmerung until the moment of Siegfried’s death.) However, the trap closes over more than Siegfried. Wotan (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley) himself is also caught in it, doing little more than wandering the earth with only his staff of contracts, which Siegfried shatters in the third act. (Given all of the ways in which we have encountered Wotan’s conniving, we can probably assume that the staff had gotten pretty weak on its own.)

For that matter at least two other key characters are also caught in that trap. The aforementioned dragon is the giant Fafner, (bass Raymond Aceto) who transformed himself with the magic Tarnhelm, included as part of the “payoff” for Freia in Rheingold, in order to guard all the gold that was also part of that “payoff.” Zambello’s Fafner is as much a builder as he was in Rheingold. His “dragon” is actually an enormous iron suit that he controls from the inside, very much in the spirit of Tony Stark’s Jarvis in the Iron Man films. Even in that monstrous contraption, though, he is brought down by Siegfried. (There goes his job offer from Stark Industries.)

The “maiden” is, of course, Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin), rescued by Siegfried from her rock surrounded by impenetrable fire by Wotan. This is the one part of Wotan’s plan that seems to go off without a hitch: Brünnhilde has been rescued by a true hero. Note that “seems to” qualifier, though. Siegfried seems to have a happily-ever-after ending; but Wagner wrote its libretto only after he had completed the libretto for Götterdämmerung. He knew that things would take a turn for the worse; and we do, too!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Summer 2018 in San Francisco with SFS

With the conclusion of the 2017–18 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at the end of this month, SFS will launch almost immediately into its Summer with the Symphony concerts at the beginning of next month. While most of the concerts in this series depart from the “classical” tradition, there will be three offerings likely to appeal to those that take their listening seriously. Furthermore, as in the past, one of those offerings will be free.

The first of those offerings is the very first to be presented next month. Edwin Outwater will return to the SFS podium to present A Salute to Gershwin. The program will consist entirely of music by George Gershwin, although many of the selections were subsequently arranged by others. Pianist Andrew van Oeyen will be guest soloist in a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” presumably using the arrangement prepared by Ferde Grofé. The other soloist will be vocalist Capathia Jenkins, who will sample Gershwin’s contributions to the Great American Songbook, given “concert treatment” by a variety of arrangers. The other major orchestral work on the program will be “An American in Paris;” and the concert will begin with the overture to the musical Girl Crazy.

This concert will be given only one performance in Davies Symphony Hall, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3. Ticket prices range from $20 to $79. 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. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “Rhapsody in Blue,” along with sound clips of previous SFS performances the piece. Flash is required to play these sound files.

The other major concert offering will be a program entitled Decadent Romance: Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The conductor will be the 25-year-old rising talent Alexander Prior. The program will begin with the Tchaikovsky portion, the Opus 35 violin concerto in D major. The soloist will be another young talent, William Hagen. The second half of the program will then be devoted to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 27 (second) symphony in E minor.

This concert will be given two performances in Davies, both at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 13, and Saturday, July 14. Ticket prices range from $50 to $165. They may be purchased online through the event page. That event page also has an embedded sound file of previous SFS performances of the Rachmaninoff symphony.

That leaves the free event, which is the annual SFS appearance at the Stern Grove Festival. This year the conductor will be Jayce Ogren; and the concerto soloist will be Adam Golka, playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major. The program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format, concluding with Jean Sibelius’ Opus 43 (second) symphony in D major. The “overture” will take a somewhat imaginative approach, consisting of a “suite” of three of the Slavonic dances of Antonín Dvořák.

This concert will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 22. The entrance to Stern Grove is on the northwest corner where 19th Avenue crosses Sloat Boulevard. No tickets are required. Those planning to attend need to know that there will be no public parking area at Stern Grove for this event. Finding parking is extremely difficult, so all are encouraged to use public transportation. The 19th Avenue bus lines (23 and 28) both stop right at the entrance to Stern Grove. The K and M Muni lines stop one block to the east, where Sloat Boulevard meets St. Francis Circle; but those coming from the center of town should remember that both of these lines will be influenced by the work on the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The SFS event page for this concert has a hyperlink to the home page for the Stern Grove Festival, from which one can find further information. The event page also has sound files for both the Beethoven concerto and the Sibelius symphony.

Disappointing Opera at Davies Symphony Hall

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), presented a semi-staged performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Staging to accommodate the limitations of the performing areas was directed by James Darrah. His supporting team provided lighting design (Pablo Santiago), video design (Adam Larsen and Hana S. Kim), scenic and costume design (Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mack), and choreography (Christopher Bordenave). Bordenave led and performed with a company of five other dancers. Choral resources were provided by both the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and the Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown, director). The cast requires a prodigious number of roles, several of which were taken by members of the SFS Chorus. (For the record, last night saw the only one of the three performances of this opera that did not overlap action taking place across Grove Street in the War Memorial Opera House.)

Mussorgsky’s opera is based primarily on a play by Alexander Pushkin, whose full title is A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev. Pushkin claimed to have written this play “for the reading desk,” meaning he never intended it to be staged. One might say that he endowed major and minor figures of Russian history with first-person voices as his way of reflecting on a period known as the Time of Troubles. The result is that each of the scenes of Mussorgsky’s opera is based on what as almost a Socratic dialog on some aspect of Russian life during that period. The original version, completed in 1869, had seven of those scenes. When Mussorgsky revised the score in 1872, he dropped one of the scenes and added four, two of which took place in Poland and have come to be called the “Polish Act. Last night’s performance consisted of seven scenes, six from the 1869 version and the final scene from the 1872 revision.

Given that most of the text had its origins “for the reading desk,” there is no particularly compelling reason why Mussorgsky’s score cannot be given a simple concert treatment. Because so much of the text (not to mention the music) involves reflections on action, rather than action itself, Boris Godunov amounts to more of an oratorio than an opera. However, these days there seems to be a contingent of stage directors who do not know to leave oratorios well enough alone, although Darrah has established himself as one of their more capable members. He was particularly effective in his staging of the SFS performance, again conducted by MTT, of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 123 “Missa solemnis” in June of 2015.

Darrah’s approach to Mussorgsky never came close to the imaginative inventiveness he brought to Beethoven. Bordenave’s choreography did little more than get in the way, while much of the staging of the SFS Chorus resulted in singers losing eye contact with both conductor and musicians, resulting in a few disquieting cuing errors. More importantly, Darrah never seemed to have a clear idea of what Pushkin was doing or what Mussorgsky was doing with Pushkin. The result was one of major gaping holes in the action that never got filled by any sense of motivation.

Where the action was most explicit, the performance was most satisfying. Bass Stanislav Trofimov delivered a dynamite account of the leading role. His enactment of Godunov’s death (in the sixth scene of last night’s performance) was definitely a sight to behold; and I would like to believe that much of the body language can be attributed to Darrah’s efforts. Where minor characters are concerned, Vyacheslav Pochapsky delivered a thoroughly engaging (as well as more than a little alcohol-saturated) account of the siege of Kazan by the dissolute monk Varlaam. In that (fourth) scene in an inn on the Lithuanian border, mezzo Catherine Cook’s portrayal of the innkeeper never missed an opportunity to steal audience attention, whether or not Darrah had a hand in the works. In contrast tenor Yevgeny Akimov captured every Machiavellian detail of the opportunistic Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich Shuysky, while bass Philip Skinner perfectly nailed the minor role of a thuggish police officer in the opening scene (once again presumably based on input from Darrah).

Matvey Andreevich Shishkov’s 1874 design for the inn on the border and its raucous patrons (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The rest of the time, however, the production lumbered along with not much sense of orientation. Even the orchestra seemed more than a little out of place during the second (coronation) scene. This should not have been a surprise: When the orchestra players were not being shouted down by the chorus, they were being overwhelmed by the heavy bells in the Terrace that obscured even the loudest of any other sound sources.

Finally, there were clearly some higher-level problems of organization. The program book suggested that this would be a trimmed-down performance lasting about 115 minutes. This turned out to be about 90 minutes short of the mark. Of course those of us who have devoted much of this week to spending our time across the street are well adjusted to Richard Wagner’s penchant for extended durations. However, the stagecraft being presented by the San Francisco Opera is in such a different league from last night’s approach to Boris Godunov that it was no surprise that the Davies offering not only felt unduly lengthy but also turned out to be that way.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Pamela Z Providing Music for New Choreography

Poster for this weekend’s performance (from Sara Shelton Mann’s Web site, photograph of Anya Cloud by Robbie Sweeny, photograph of Jesse Zariott by Olivia Blaisdell)

Pamela Z is currently working on the latest project by choreographer and writer Sara Shelton Mann. The title of her piece, which is currently a work in progress, is ECHO/ the voice of stones. She is working with two performers, Anya Cloud and Jesse Zaritt. Z is providing the music.

This weekend Mann will give a “progress report,” presenting what she has achieved thus far. The score will consist of both recorded music and live performance. Z will be on hand for this weekend’s presentation to perform her contributions to the project.

This performance will be offered to the public twice, on Friday, June 15, and Saturday, June 16. The show will begin at 8 p.m. on both of these dates. The venue will be the Joe Goode Annex, located in NEMIZ (the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 401 Alabama Street on the southeast corner of 17th Street. Admission will be by donation. All those planning to attend are encouraged to pay what they can.

Wagner’s Challenging Talk:Action Ratio

Die Walküre (the Valkyrie) is not the longest opera that Richard Wagner ever wrote. Nevertheless, no one should be blamed for thinking that it sure feels that way. The second “chapter” in Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) was given the first of its three performances by the San Francisco Opera last night in the War Memorial Auditorium; and, from my vantage point, it seemed as if each of the two intermissions was ushered in with a collective sigh of relief. If Walküre is not even the longest opera in the cycle, it may well be the one that has the highest talk:action ratio.

It is important to remember that Wagner wrote the entire libretto for all four operas before beginning to write a single note. Furthermore, he wrote it in reverse. He began by writing an account of the death of Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungenlied (the song of the Nibelungs) epic poem. This would become the text for the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods). He then felt it necessary to account for the earlier stage of Siegfried’s life, for which he composed the opera Siegfried. Continuing this explanatory process, he then chose to document the events leading up to Siegfried’s birth, which became the libretto for Die Walküre. Both of these two operas draw upon tales in the Völsunga saga. Finally, he documented the origins of the magic (and cursed) ring around which all of these events revolve; and this became the libretto for Wagner’s “prologue” opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine).

One might say that the entire process began by identifying key elements of action and then deciding that each of them required fleshing out a backstory to explain the circumstances behind the action. As the project progressed, Wagner realized that he had to account for more and more backstory. Translating all of that backstory into staged action would have been a monumental effort. As a result Wagner had to make decisions about when backstory should be handled simply by having one of the characters offer up a verbal explanation.

Such explanations cut across the entire Ring cycle. However, they seem to dominate Walküre, perhaps because, by virtue of its transition from the world of supernatural beings to the world of men and women, it has the most background to explain. Last night’s performance ran for over 270 minutes, including about an hour divided across the two intermissions. That means approximately 210 minutes of music, roughly 90 of which are devoted to the second act. While that act concludes with the fight scene around which the entire plot revolves, that episode lasts only about six minutes. Almost everything that precedes it involves verbal explanation of one form or another.

Fortunately, Director Francesca Zambello and her production team have drawn upon a variety of visual supplements to get beyond the difficulties when the libretto prioritizes talk over action. During the frenetic opening prologue, a camera gives us Siegmund’s point of view as he runs from the forest to escape the enemies chasing him. When we finally see him on the stage (sung by tenor Brandon Jovanovich), his collapse in front of Hunding’s house is entirely understandable. Similarly, the second act begins by showing us Wotan, the “real estate patriarch” of Das Rheingold ensconced in the palatial Board Room of Trump Tower (oops! … make that Valhalla).

This serves up a device that reminds us of how much of Valhalla emerged as a project-gone-wrong in Rheingold. Like that chase through the forest, much of the background imagery is constantly in motion, even when it is nothing more than clouds floating by in the sky. Nevertheless, the view from the massive windows of the Board Room are entirely static, almost as if they had been painted on the glass to prevent Wotan ever seeing what is actually happening on the other side (not even a raccoon).

Activity finally rises to a fever pitch at the beginning of the third act, beginning with what is best known as the “Ride of the Valkyries.” These eight sisters of Brünnhilde are all done up like fighter pilots parachuting onto the multi-layered stage set where the souls of heroes fallen in battle are enshrined by their photographs. This was where the music really comes to life, even beyond the familiar orchestral portion. One encounters eight voices weaving a rich polyphonic Web whose elegance contrasts sharply with the earthiness of the rest of the score (even the love duet in the first act). Indeed, because these sisters are often unduly dismissed as bit parts, it is worth acknowledging all of them for their impeccable command of both pitch and rhythm: soprano Julie Adams (Gerhilde), soprano Melissa Citro (Helmwige), mezzo Renée Tatum (Waltraute), mezzo Nicole Birkland (Schwertleite), soprano (and Adler Fellow) Sarah Cambridge (Ortlinde), mezzo Laura Krumm (Siegrune), mezzo Renée Rapier (Grimgerde), and mezzo Lauren McNeese (Rossweisse).

Attention to these “lesser” parts should not distract from the top-rate skills with which the major characters negotiated all those extended passages of explanation and the punctuations of intense action. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley and mezzo Jamie Barton returned for that extended scene that Anna Russell calls “Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument.” This is one of those episodes where explanations are at their thickest. Zambello’s staging did much to compensate for the talk-without-action problem. Nevertheless, Grimsley was definitely in his best light with the concluding “Wotan’s Farewell” scene, in which the Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin) is put into a deep sleep for defying Wotan’s command and then surrounded by impenetrable fire. Prior to that heartbreaking scene, however, Theorin served up a dynamite account of the leader of her eight sisters.

Finally, there are the first three mortals to be encountered in the Ring cycle. Jovanovich’s Siegmund was perfectly complemented by soprano Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, whom he will abduct from her thuggish husband Hunding (bass Raymond Aceto). Zambello has claimed that her set for Hunding’s house was inspired by Deliverance; but, by the time her production found its way to the stage, most of the audience would probably have been reminded of Justified. There was also a nice nod to current events in having some of the members of Hunding’s hunting party carrying automatic weapons.

Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) begs for hospitality from Hunding (Raymond Aceto) and his wife (Karita Mattila) (photograph by Cory Weaver courtesy of SFO)

Once again, however, the driving force behind everything on the stage came from the orchestra pit. Conductor Donald Runnicles knew exactly how to pace the “explanation” episodes in such a way that the “action” episodes would have maximum impact. Wagner’s scores consistently make for thoroughly enriching listening experiences (which is one reason why so much of his music is given concert performances). Runnicles clearly knows what makes every note that Wagner committed to paper tick; and his “clockwork” precision of the entire score last night was a wonder to experience.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Three Approaches to a Violin-Cello Concerto

This Friday Sony Classical will release a new CD entitled Double Concertos. The recording provides a platform for the husband-and-wife duo of cellist Jan Vogler and violinist Mira Wang. The idea of a “double” concerto for both violin and cello is best known through Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 in A minor; and this work, composed in the summer of 1887, is the central piece on the album. It is flanked on either side by a 21st-century approach to the same genre, beginning with a single-movement concerto composed by Wolfgang Rihm in 2015 and concluding with a three-movement concerto by John Harbison composed in 2010. For all three concertos Wang and Vogler are accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders prior to the forthcoming release date.

I must confess that I have a weak spot for the Brahms concerto, because its second movement, in D major, serves up a particularly satisfying case of ambiguity. The movement is written in 3/4 time, and the pulse is established by both soloists playing (an octave apart and with accompaniment in the string section) a theme whose opening measure consists of three pairs of eighth notes. However, that measure is introduced by a slower account of its first four notes, two pairs of rising fourths. The first, A rising to D, is played only by a pair of horns. The horns are then joined by flutes, clarinets, and bassoons for the second fourth, E rising to A. In both of these introductory fourths, the second note is sustained by a fermata.

The opening measures (without the string section) of the second movement of Brahms Opus 102 concerto (from IMSLP, public domain)

Those opening measures lay the groundwork for the ambiguity. Both of them basically sound like a perfect cadence without full chords. Thus, in the first measure the tonic D is established by the A that rises to it. Then the dominant is established by a similar pattern. Put another way, in both of these intervals the first note sounds like an upbeat affirming the downbeat of the second one.

However, when the theme itself is introduced in the third measure, those roles are reversed. Both the D following the A and the A following the E are on decidedly weak beats (not even on the pulse); and that first A is now firmly established as the downbeat! Those who have listened to even a few of the many recordings of this concerto know that there is little agreement among conductors as to just how that ambiguity should be handled; and, without naming any names, I would suggest that more than a few of those conductors just muddle their way through, figuring that things will take care of themselves by the time they get to the end of the first score page.

In this context I am happy to report that Oundjian is no muddler. He knows that the ear is going to be deceived by those opening measures. However, he seems to have found just the right amount of stress to make it clear that the third measure is the one responsible for the definitive downbeat. I have no trouble fantasizing an image of Brahms’ ghost nodding in delighted approval!

I wanted to start by calling out this ambiguity because so much of the “new music” that comes our way involves whole new breeds of ambiguity that can be exploited in many different ways. In Rihm’s case that exploitation involves not only rhythm but also the very sense of progression in a rhetoric in which dissonance has been emancipated. In such a situation the idea of harmony may be abandoned in favor of thinking strictly in terms of a polyphonic fabric in which the overlay of multiple voices no longer adheres to traditional “point-against-point” rules. This is one way to approach listening to Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 42 piano concerto (which was performed here in San Francisco this past January); and, for that matter, it also serves listening to Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the Berg concerto is a bit like a ghost lingering in the shadows behind Rihm’s concerto.

Harbison’s concerto is another matter. One might say that it is inhabited by two ghosts. It was written in memory of violinist Roman Totenberg (whose students happened to include Wang). However, Totenberg’s own studies included working with George Enescu, whose work as a composer tended to draw more upon Eastern European folk styles than on the practices of harmonic progression that prevailed during the nineteenth century. Enescu’s music does not get the attention it deserves, but he is far from the only composer to have drawn upon such folk sources. Thus, those familiar with even a few of the compositions of Béla Bartók are likely to feel his ghostly presence in Harbison’s concerto.

To be clear, neither Rihm nor Harbison should be accused to trying to channel either Berg or Bartók, respectively, in their concertos. I refer to these as ghostly presences because they provide a baseline through which the mind of the listener can begin to orient itself and become better disposed to follow the originality of each composer. Through such orientation the attentive listener is likely to come away with a solid feeling of satisfaction with all three of the concertos on this recording, rather than just enjoying the familiarity that comes with listening to Brahms!

LIEDER ALIVE! Season to Conclude with Premiere

Featured composer Anno Schreier (photograph by Anfried Zerche, courtesy of LIEDER ALIVE!)

At the beginning of next month LIEDER ALIVE! will present the final concert in its seventh annual Liederabend Series. The featured offering on the program will be the United States premiere of a composition created under a co-commission with Deutsche Oper Berlin. The composer is Anno Schreier and the piece is a setting of five poems by Nora Bossong. The vocalist for this occasion will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, and she will be accompanied at the piano by John Parr. While Parr is well known to those who frequent chamber music and art song recitals in San Francisco, for his “day job” he serves as Head of Music Staff at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Schreier’s composition will be framed by more familiar offerings. The program will begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s only song cycle, his Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). Following the Schreier premiere, Scharich will sing a selection of songs by Franz Schubert. Specific details have not yet been announced. [added 6/14, 3 p.m.: The Schubert selections have now been announced. In order of performance, they will be D. 882 (“Im Frühling”), D. 544 (“Ganymed”), D. 741 (“Sei mer gegrüßt”), D. 774 (“Auf dem Wasser zu singen”), D. 827 (“Nacht und Traüme”).]

This performance will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 1. The venue will the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Single tickets will be $40 at the door with a $20 discounted rate for students, seniors, and working artists. If purchased in advance, the prices will be $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. An Eventbrite Web page has been created for advance purchase. Those interested in advance purchase may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

SFO Begins First Cycle of Wagner’s Epic

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) began its first cycle of Richard Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). Each cycle will take place over the course of this and the next two weeks, with the four operas being performed on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. These productions are a revival of the staging by Francesca Zambello, first performed here in its entirety seven years ago in 2011.

As Zambello’s “Director’s Note” in the program book explains, she conceived her production as “an American parallel to Wagner’s story.” This posed a somewhat provocative problem. Wagner’s cycle in its entirety may be the best instance of what has become a familiar trope these days, that of a train wreck in slow motion. After the first seven minutes of the very first opera, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), the first four of which are strictly instrumental, the narrative proceeds steadily on a solid descent that only ends when almost all of the characters have gone up in smoke (literally), leaving only the three Rhinemaidens (also known as the daughters of the Rhine), whose voices were the first encountered at the end of those first seven minutes. In contrast most American narratives tend to be optimistic accounts of progress and growth, blithely minimizing, if not overlooking, any downsides that may be encountered along the path of ascent.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Zambello created her “American parallel” for opera companies based in two of our country’s bastions of progress, so to speak. San Francisco has been a city of advances in business and finance that date back to the days of the gold rush; and, with the rise of Silicon Valley following World War II, those advances extended into the area of technology and the emergence of information as a commodity. SFO’s partner in Zambello’s project was the Washington National Opera, the city most responsible for weaving the threads of “the American story” around milestones of advancement and growth.

Zambello first began to put her thoughts into action in 2005. By that time the narrative of the “ever ascending America” had taken several serious beatings. For my generation the first of those beatings came during our student years with the Vietnam War. In 2005, on the other hand, the “American spirit” was only beginning to recover from the beating that took place closest to home, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By the time she had worked her way through all four operas with SFO giving the first performance of the cycle in its entirety in 2011, consideration of an “American parallel” to Wagner’s narrative of decline seemed not only feasible but necessary.

From that point of view, there is a chilling sense of the immediate present in Zambello’s setting of Das Rheingold as a narrative of thefts, acts of deceit and greed, and even one murder, all emerging around a ring fashioned from a lump of gold at the bottom of the Rhine that grants its wearer ultimate power. The depiction of Alberich (bass-baritone Falk Struckmann) as a prospector evokes not only the gold rush but also the early stages of greedy violation of natural environmental settings. Even more chilling is the connotation of Valhalla as a luxury real estate project, conceived and managed as the “family business” of the gods that will soon inhabit it. The project itself has been built on a contract made by the “family patriarch” Wotan (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley), who now brings in his “legal consultant” Loge (tenor Štefan Margita) to help him break the contract.

The “real estate family” on the way to their new luxury property: Wotan (Greer Grimsley), Fricka (Jamie Barton), Freia (Julie Adams), Donner (Brian Mulligan), and Froh (Brandon Jovanovich) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

There are multiple ironies in play here, even before we encounter connections between this fictitious real estate family and the other one that now dominates our attention due to the political advances of its patriarch. In the mythology that inspired Wagner, Wotan is the keeper of contracts. Every contract ever made is inscribed on the staff that he carries with him at all times. (Keep an eye on that staff, by the way. It will play a major role in the third opera of the cycle, Siegfried.) The staff is made from the wood of Yggdrasil, an immense ash tree that is the center of the cosmos. Wotan breaks off one of Yggdrasil’s limbs to serve as his staff. Thus, that “narrative of thefts” includes a “theft against nature” (as in the gold rush) that takes place even before Das Rheingold begins.

The one murder in the narrative involves the two “construction workers,” the giants Fasolt and Fafner (both bass roles sung, respectively, by Andrea Silvestrelli and Raymond Aceto). Wotan evades his original contractual obligation by “buying off” the workers with Alberich’s hoard of gold (which includes his all-powerful ring), which Wotan and Loge have stolen. (After the theft, Alberich puts a curse on the ring around which much of the plot to follow will revolve.) Presented with all of that gold, Fasolt takes the ring for himself, after which he is almost immediately killed by Fafner. (Remember that curse lurking between the parentheses?)

Thus, by the time the narrative was worked its way through the two and one-half hours following those first seven minutes (all of which unfold without an intermission), every character we have encountered is either in deep yogurt or dead. The one exception may be Erda (mezzo Ronnita Miller). However, as may be guessed from her name, she is the spirit of the earth itself, reminding us of how the natural world often cures itself of the abuses of the human world. She is not so much living or dead as simply a spirit that warns Wotan that he is already well on the path of his descent.

It should be clear by now that Wagner packed quite a lot of content into this one opera. Nevertheless, between Zambello’s ideas and the realization of those ideas through stage action, costume design, lighting, and some very imaginative use of projection, all that content proceeds through the narrative at an almost breathtaking pace. That pace was enhanced (but never overplayed) through the musical leadership of conductor Donald Runnicles (who had also conducted the 2011 SFO performances).

The astute readers may have noticed that the above tour through the Rheingold narrative did not involve any mere mortals. They will only make their first appearance tonight in this week’s performance of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie). As those readers can probably expect by now, things will not go well for them.