Tuesday, July 31, 2018

ABS will Celebrate 30th Season with Diversity

With the ninth annual American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival & Academy about to get under way at the end of this week, this is a good time to review the many ways in which ABS will be celebrating the coming season, which will be its 30th. The season will be marked by three significant themes. All of the programming for the concert season will consist of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, the theme of the sixteenth annual gala will be Versailles; and there will be a special New Year’s Eve concert that will feature Baroque operatic music performed by two leading vocalists.

As was the case last year, the season will begin at the end of next month with the gala, whose title will be Sparkle 2018: Versailles. [updated 9/1, 3:35 p.m.:  Once again the evening will feature a concert, probably about an hour in duration, conducted by Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. The program will offer a brief survey of compositions by Jacques Aubert de Vieux, François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Jean-Féry Rebel. Solo performances will be given by soprano Nola Richardson, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, flutist Sandra Miller, Steven Lehning on gamba, and Corey Jamason at the harpsichord. Prior to the concert, cocktails will be served after check-in, along with Baroque dancing performed by members of both San Francisco Renaissance Dancers and Dance Through Time. The concert will be followed by a silent auction during which cocktails and hors d'oeuvres will be served. Baroque dance lessons will also be offered. Dinner will then follow with a live auction to be held between courses. Details about the items to be auctioned may be found at the 2018 Auction Catalog Web page.] Black tie will be optional and guests are encouraged to wear period dress.

Sparkle 2018 will be held on Saturday, September 29, with check-in beginning at 5 p.m. The concert will take place at 5:30 p.m., followed by cocktails at 6:30 p.m. The dinner will begin at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be the James Leary Flood Mansion, located in Pacific Heights at 2222 Broadway. Valet parking will be provided, and shuttles from both Marin and the East Bay will be available.

A Web page has been created with all options for tickets, sponsorships, and donations. Basic admission is $295. It is also possible to register a table with seating for ten at levels of $2950, $5000, and $10,000. There will be no charge for the shuttles, but reservations are necessary and may be placed through the same Web page. The Marin shuttle will leave from Strawberry Village, and the East Bay Shuttle will leave from the Rockridge BART Station. Each shuttle will hold 150 riders. Registration will close on Friday, September 14. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-621-7900.

Traditionally, the ABS subscription series does not begin until after New Year’s celebrations. However, this season will offer four all-Bach programs beginning in October. As in the past, all San Francisco performances will be held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church beginning at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. Programming for these concerts will be as follows:

October 21: The title of the program will be Off to the Hunt!; and two of the three selections will feature the “natural” horn, which consists of a single coiled tube with no valves. Bach frequently referred to this instrument as a corno da caccia (hunting horn); and he featured it in his secular BWV 208 cantata, often called the “Hunting Cantata.” The vocal soloists will be sopranos Hélène Brunet and Julie Bosworth, tenor Derek Chester, and baritone Mischa Bouvier. Two of these horns also have solo parts in his BWV 1046 in F major, the first of his “Brandenburg” concertos. The remaining work on the program will be the BWV 1048 “Brandenburg” concerto in G major, scored for three violins, three violas, and three cellos, all with solo parts, along with a continuo.

February 17: The program for Bach to the Beginning will reflect back on the emphasis on performing Bach’s cantatas when ABS was first founded in 1989. Four cantatas will be performed:
  1. BWV 10: Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (my soul magnifies the Lord)
  2. BWV 78: Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, You, who are my soul)
  3. BWV 80: Ein fest Burg its unser Gott (a mighty fortress is our God)
  4. BWV 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (awake, calls the voice to us)
Vocal soloists will be soprano Nola Richardson, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Zachary Wilder, and baritone Tyler Duncan.

March 24: ABS and the American Bach Choir will revisit their past performances of BWV 244, Bach’s setting of the Passion text from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Baritone William Sharp will return to sing the words of the Christ. The Evangelist text will be sung by tenor Guy Cutting. For the other solo parts, Brunet will return for the soprano parts, along with soprano Katelyn Aungst. The other soloists will be altos Agnes Vojtko and Nicholas Burns, tenors Steven Brennfleck and Matthew Hill, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.

May 5: The season will conclude with the four “Brandenburg” concertos that were not performed at the beginning of the season: BWV 1047 in F major, BWV 1049 in G major, BWV 1050 in D major, and BWV 1051 in B-flat major. This will require the participation of many soloists. Those soloists will include John Thiessen (trumpet), Stephen Bard (oboe), Aldo Abreu (recorder), violinists Tatiana Chulochnikova, Carla Moore, and Jude Ziliak, and violists Clio Tilton and Ramón Negrón Pérez. Miller will also return for flute parts, and Jamason will be on harpsichord.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. There are a variety of options for purchasing tickets, all of which are available online through a single Tickets Web page on the ABS Web site. Subscriptions to the four concerts are being sold for $302, $234, $176, and $119. Single tickets are $89, $69, $52, and $35.

During the holiday season, there will once again be three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. This will be Blumberg’s other appearance during the season, singing the baritone solos. The other vocal soloists will be soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor Eric Jurenas, and tenor Aaron Sheehan.

All performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 12, Thursday, December 13, and Friday, December 14, respectively. As usual, the venue will be Grace Cathedral, located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street, between Taylor Street and Jones Street. Ticket prices range between $35 and $125. Tickets for any of the performances may be purchased from that same single Web page on the ABS Web site. Each of the three performance dates has a hyperlink showing the different areas in the Grace sanctuary corresponding to the different price levels. Mousing over any of these areas shows which seats are available for sale.

Finally, there will be a special concert to ring in the New Year. Entitled A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera, it will feature countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who will be joined by soprano Wilson. The program will feature vocal work by both Handel and Bach, as well as Christoph Willibald Gluck and Antonio Vivaldi.

This program will begin at 4 p.m. on Monday, December 31. The performance will take place in Herbst Theatre, which is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices are $125 (Premium Orchestra), $90 (Orchestra and Boxes), $65 (side Orchestra and Dress Circle), $50 (rear seats in center Orchestra and Dress Circle and front seats in Balcony), and $42 (remaining seats in all sections). Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, which includes a floor plan that shows the number of seats available in the different sections.

Fujii’s July Birthday Release with Joe Fonda

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Having been about a month late in keeping up with the monthly album releases by Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii in celebration of her forthcoming 60th birthday, I now feel a bit more caught up with things, since her July release came out this past Friday. The new album amounts to a follow-up of both an older album and the May release in her birthday series. Its title is Mizu, which is Japanese for “water;” and it consists of three pieces that Fujii co-composed and performed with bassist Joe Fonda.

Readers may recall that Fonda was the bass player on Triad, which was Fujii’s May release; and those with longer memories probably know that this is her second duo album with Fonda, the first, called simply Duet, having been released in October of 2016. Curiously, Duet has its own Amazon.com Web page; but, like all of the “birthday” releases, Mizu is not so fortunate. It was released on Long Song Records and is most easily purchased through the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records, which has provided the platform for most of her recording projects.

There are only three tracks on Mizu. The title track is the last of them, lasting about twenty-one minutes. It is complemented by the opening track, “Rik Bevernage,” which lasts almost half an hour and is dedicated to the late Belgian concert producer. Between these two compositions is “Long Journey,” which, ironically is only about seven minutes long. The first two tracks were recorded at a club in Belgium, while the last track was recorded at MunichUnderGround, which circulates most of its content through podcasts.

As is frequently the case with Fujii’s work, it is not always easy to establish how much of the music is based on notation and how much arises through inventive performance and improvisation. Each of the three pieces definitely conveys the sense of a rich dialogue between the two performers, a dialogue that, from time to time, is punctuated by vocal declamations by Fonda. Nevertheless, each dialogue seems to establish its own sense of flow that provides a framework for the passing of time. Rather like the flow of the Vltava (Moldau) river, depicted by Bedřich Smetana’s tone poem of the same name, the flow of the Fujii-Fonda dialogue leads through a variety of well-defined venues, allowing the listener to appreciate how it covers different “topics of conversation.”

From that point of view, what is most interesting about these tracks is the rich diversity of those “topics.” These are dialogues in which the conversing parties have much to discuss. We, as “outside listeners,” may not always be adequately informed about those topics. Nevertheless, we can still appreciate the passions that arise as they are proposed, considered, and, sometimes, argued vigorously. Those committed to “going with the flow” of that conversation will find that there is no need to worry about how much of it was formally composed and how much is spontaneous.

There is, however, one element of ambiguity that probably deserves attention. On the Triad album Fonda played flute, as well as bass; and there were occasions when even an experienced listener would have difficulty distinguished sounds from the flute and those of Gianni Mimmo’s soprano saxophone. On Mizu Fonda is listed as playing only bass; but, every now and then, there is a mournful passage played with harmonic fingering that could easily be mistaken for the sound of a flute! Fonda clearly likes to keep us guessing; and I, for one, find the game an enjoyable one.

Vlatkovich Leads Improvisation Trio at C4NM

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich (from his C4NM event page)

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) presented another of its occasional ventures into free jazz improvisation. This session was led by trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, playing in a trio with Steve Adams on alto and sopranino saxophone and Scott Walton on bass. Adams is a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet and a frequent visitor to C4NM, while Walton appeared fresh from Ask the Ages, the final concert in last week’s New Music Festival, produced by Outsound Presents and held at the Community Music Center in the Mission.

Vlatkovich structured the program as a sequence of six relatively brief improvisations, each given a familiar name: “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” “Why,” and “How.” These seemed to take less time than he anticipated; so he closed off the program with a more extended improvisation called “Why Not?” Over the course of the evening, Vlatkovich explored an impressive number of ways to get sounds from his instrument, including a variety of standard and non-standard mutes (the latter including a CD and a pie tin, both of which added some percussion by rattling off of the trombone bell), playing the instrument without the mouthpiece, and attaching the mouthpiece to the slide detached from the rest of the instrument.

This resulted in a rich palette of sonorities, interesting enough in their own sake to make up for the frequent absence of anything that might be called a theme, tonal or otherwise. Walton was equally imaginative in his bass work, exploring how the strings could be plucked in any number of non-standard locations and using his bow to considerable advantage, particularly when it came to inducing bizarre upper harmonics through sul ponticello technique. Adams tended to be the one member of the trio that held to straightforward approaches to his instrument, although his capacity for invention was impressively diverse.

The overall flow of the evening showed equally impressive diversity. This had much to do with the fact that not all of the playing involved the entire trio. Each performer had his own particular opportunities for extended solo work; and, over the course of the evening, every possible duo combination was explored. Each of these different approaches to personnel seemed to carry with it its own distinctive rhetorical stance. As a result, the attentive listener never felt that any of the pieces (or, for that mater, the program in its entirety) went on for too long.

There is still much to reward both performers and listeners in the domain of full-bore free improvisation.

Monday, July 30, 2018

SFP to Celebrate Anniversaries with Special Events

September is the month during which many of the major concert series in San Francisco launch their new seasons. This year both the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera will hold their opening gala events during the first full week of September. San Francisco Performances (SFP), on the other hand, will wait until the end of that month; but this season that opening gala will be one of two celebrations of highly significant anniversaries.

Traditionally, SFP has devoted its annual gala to raise funds for its educational and outreach program. To encourage participation, the event includes a concert program that features a celebrated guest artist. This year, however, the concert given by the gala will celebrate a major milestone in twentieth-century music, the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (the soldier’s tale) on September 28, 1918. Composed at a time when resources were sparse due to World War I, the score was written for only seven instrumentalists playing, respectively violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion. A libretto was provided by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz that required only three actors and one dancer.

Stravinsky wrote his score at a time when he had been influenced by the migration of jazz into Europe from the United States. This is particularly evident in music written for the dancer. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the work’s first performance, SFP will “reverse the flow” with a “jazz-inflected” approach to Stravinsky’s score drawing upon SFP’s commitment to providing a platform for highly innovative jazz performers. Trumpeter Sean Jones, currently Artist-in-Residence, will join forces with a previous Artist-in-Residence, violinist Regina Carter, to interpret the most prominent solo parts that Stravinsky composed. They will be joined by another leading jazz musician, trombonist Robin Eubanks. The program will also include an all-star set of jazz favorites.

[added 8/28, 3:35 p.m.:

The remaining performers have now been announced. The other instrumentalists are as follows: Aneesa Strings (bass), Jeannie Psomas (clarinet), Patrick Johnson-Whitty (bassoon), and Justin Sun (percussion). Nicholas Phan will narrate the texts from the libretto. Finally, the entire ensemble will be conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

The concert will be preceded by cocktails, a full-course dinner, and a fund-a-need drive. (Black tie will be optional.) Participation in the full gala may be through the purchase of either individual tickets or sponsor packages that fill a table for ten. Entry level is $500 for an Individual Ticket, $350 of which is tax-deductible. However, there is also a Benefactor Ticket for $750, $600 of which is tax-deductible. Table Sponsors may choose among three alternatives. The Silver Sponsor level is $5000, $3500 of which is tax-deductible, the Gold Sponsor is $7500, $6000 of which is tax-deductible, and the Platinum Sponsor is $10,000, $8500 of which is tax-deductible. Tickets for all of the gala events, including the concert, are not being sold online. Those interested in attending can call 415-677-0326 or send electronic mail.

For those wishing to attend only the concert, a limited number of tickets will be available in the side and rear orchestra, the side boxes, the dress circle, and the balcony. Ticket prices will be $55 and $45. Concert-only tickets will go on sale on August 6. As of that date, they may be purchased through an event page on the SFP Web site. The entire event will take place on Friday, September 28, in the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Cocktails and dinner will take place in the Green Room on the second floor, beginning at 6 p.m.; and the concert will be held at 7 p.m. in Herbst Theatre.

The second major anniversary to be celebrated will be the 90th birthday of pianist Leon Fleisher, who was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928. Fleisher will be honored with a solo piano recital that will be presented by Jonathan Biss, a particular favorite with SFP audiences. Program details have not yet been announced. However, the composers to be included on the program will all be those that were part of Fleisher’s repertoire: Johann Sebastian Bach, Leon Kirchner, Franz Schubert, Antonín Dvořák, and Maurice Ravel.

This recital will also be held in Herbst Theatre, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 12. Ticket prices will be $75, $60, and $45. Again, these tickets will go on sale on August 6, after which they may be purchased through the SFP event page.

Vivica Genaux Sings Vivaldi’s Sacred Music

courtesy of Sony Music

This past Friday Sony Classical released an album consisting entirely of sacred music by Antonio Vivaldi. For those who know Vivaldi only through the prodigious abundance of his concertos (and possibly also the RV 589 setting of the Gloria portion of the Mass text), this recording should provide a fascinating and delightful journey of discovery. It includes two other sections of the Mass, a G minor setting of the Kyrie (RV 587) and an E minor setting of the Credo (RV 591), two motets, In turbato mare irato (RV 627) and Sum in medio tempestatum (RV 632), and the RV 608 setting of the Nisi Dominus Psalm.

The entire album was recorded in Vienna. Rubén Dubrovsky conducts the members of the Bach Consort Wien and the Wiener Kammerchor, whose Music Director is Michael Grohotolsky. Of greater interest, however, may be the presence of Alaskan mezzo Vivica Genaux. Genaux has built up a solid reputation for her command of the Baroque repertoire, having recording on a variety of first-rate labels. This new release reaffirms her skill at interpreting the many different rhetorical stances one encounters in Vivaldi’s sacred music.

Beyond the impressive vocal artistry on the recording, however, one has the opportunity to appreciate many of the ways in which Vivaldi’s sacred music is more than just his concertos with words added. (Those interested in such an approach would do better to seek out Michel Corrette’s Laudate Dominum de Coelis motet.) The use of a scaled-down organ is better suited to the ecclesial setting than a harpsichord, while the inclusion of a theorbo lends an intimacy to the delivery of the sacred texts. From such a point of view, Genaux is always consistently on the same page as Dubrovsky when it comes to endowing her words with the most suitable and moving expressiveness.

As a result, those already familiar with Vivaldi’s sacred music will find this new album to give a satisfying account, while those for whom this album will be a journey of discovery will find both Dubrovsky and Genaux to be first-rate guides.

Latter-Day Ambience at Russian Hill Bookstore

Design for Action in the Stacks program sheet

Late yesterday afternoon the Russian Hill Bookstore hosted Action in the Stacks, described as “a three-part meta-composition of collaborative invocations, sonic illustrations, and curious collisions of sound, action art, spoken word, and space…amongst the books.” Reflecting on my experience of the first of those three parts this morning, I found myself thinking about Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the first of four albums that Eno produced under the series label Ambient. It was clear that Action in the Stacks supplemented the experience of browsing and reading while in a bookstore, just as Music for Airports intended to do the same for those in an airport terminal.

However, Eno appreciated, probably through personal experience, just how stressful just being in an airport terminal could be. Music for Airports was his way of trying to defuse at least some of that stress. The Russian Hill Bookstore, on the other hand, is about as stress-free as one could hope to find these days. The space is large and casual. It establishes quickly that it is there for browsing, rather than the purposeful quest for a specific title. Finding areas for specific categories is not always easy, but the staff is friendly and eager to assist. It is a far cry from the few remaining “industrial” shops that are branches of large impersonal chains, places that often feel even more depersonalized than Amazon Web pages.

As a result the ambience provided by Action in the Stacks was qualitatively different from anything Eno had in mind for his Music for Airports installation. (Ironically, this year is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Music for Airports album.) Subtle electronic sounds were synthesized and mixed by the Klooj duo of Thom Blum and Charles Kremenak. Those sounds neither enhanced nor impeded my browsing. They just were there; and, perhaps, they sustained my lingering at some of the difference shelves arrayed throughout the store.

Less ambient was the presence of Janet Silk, in costume and delivering a monologue through a headset while discarding illustrated sheets of paper as she moved across the bookstore space. The impression was one of eccentricity; but the delivery was relatively low-key. Ultimately, it was difficult not to look and ponder over just what Silk was doing; and that meant turning away from the shelf or book one happened to be browsing. However, within the overall course of the first of the three sets to be performed, Silk’s appearance was relatively brief, long enough to leave an impression in memory but not intrusive enough to detract from enjoying the bookstore space.

Personally, I like the idea of listening to something when I am browsing in a shop like the Russian Hill Bookstore. Nevertheless, as regular readers probably know by now, I am more than a little picky about my listening matter! Truth be told, the “auditory environment” of Bird & Beckett Books and Records is a bit more to my personal taste. That environment is pretty much consistently established by music related, one way or another, to Charlie Parker (“Bird”); and that is an environment that I never really want to leave. It can keep me browsing there longer than I intended, even if I never find a book to purchase.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Cappella SF to Launch Season in September

Cappella SF Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin (from his Web page on the Cappella SF Web site)

As was observed yesterday, the 2018–19 concert season in San Francisco will get off to a very early start this September. This means that it should not be long until those interested in offerings for serious listeners will be confronted with choices to make. Given how competitive things can get, this makes for a good reason that those who announce their plans earlier than others should be rewarded.

Such is the case for Cappella SF, our city’s own a cappella choir led by Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin. Plans are now under way for the first concert of the season, which will be entitled Crown Jewels of Britain – A Journey through Centuries of British Music. Readers familiar with the ensemble know that, when repertoire selections for programs are made, they prefer to go for breadth rather than narrow focus. This survey of English music will cover compositions from the early fifteenth century all the way up to the present day. The program will review, roughly in chronological order, sacred or secular selections by twelve composers: John Dunstable, Thomas Weelkes, Henry Purcell, Robert Pearsall, Edward Elgar, Henry Balfour, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten (known not only for his compositions but also his performing editions of Purcell’s music), Judith Bingham, James MacMillan, Jody Talbot, and Jonathan Dove.

[added 8/31, 2:45 p.m.:

Specific selections for the program have now been announced as follows:
  • Dunstable: Veni, Sancte, Spiritus
  • Weelkes: When David heardPurcell: If Musick be the Food of Love
  • Pearsall: Lay a Garland
  • Elgar: Lux aeterna
  • Elgar: Imperial March
  • Balfour: Evening hymn
  • Vaughan Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs
  • Britten: Chorale on a French carol
  • Bingham: The Darkness is No Darkness
  • MacMillan: The Gallant Weaver
  • Talbot: Leon, from Path of Miracles
  • Dove: Seek Him that maketh the seven stars]
Once again the San Francisco performance of this program will be held in Mission Dolores Basilica, beginning at 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 16. Mission Dolores Basilica is located on the southwest corner of Dolores Street and 16th Street. For those planning to drive, free parking will be available in the schoolyard, whose entrance is off of Church Street. Tickets will go on sale on August 1, at which time they may be purchased online through the Tickets hyperlink on the Cappella SF home page. General admission will be $45 with a $20 rate for students with identification at the door. VIP seating will be available for $60.

Delightful Jazz History at the Red Poppy

Jazz pianist Adam Shulman (from the Red Poppy Art House event page)

Last night at the Red Poppy Art House, jazz pianist Adam Shulman presented a program entitled Forgotten Gems from the Bebop Era. He led a quartet whose others members were Patrick Wolff on saxophones (both alto and tenor), Miles Wick on bass, and James Gallagher on drums. At the end of the evening Shulman announced that Gallagher was about to move to New York, making the gig a farewell concert of sorts.

I had been looking forward to this concert ever since I had prepared my “July calendar” article about the Poppy; and my interest was then reinforced after seeing Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. As I had observed about that film, Blue Note had played a major role in “the emergence of bebop and the adventurous styles that followed up on it;” and I anticipated that Shulman’s selections would reinforce my experiences with those recordings. Taking stock this morning, I realized that of the course of twelve songs distributed equally across two sets, only one of the selections originated on a Blue Note recording: “Sighin’ and Cryin’” from Song for My Father, Horace Silver’s debut album as a leader on the label.

The composer who received the most attention on the program was Thelonious Monk. This was no surprise, simply because Monk composed so many tunes. Whether or not Shulman’s selections were “forgotten” is probably a matter of taste. One of them, “Light Blue,” which opened the evening, came from his time with Orrin Keepnews and Riverside. The other two, both in the second set, came from Columbia recordings, a work environment that was far less sympathetic to Monk’s approach to getting things done. Fortunately, some of the Columbia releases were taken from club or concert performances. That was the case for the first Monk selection in the second set, “Gallop’s Gallop,” from the album Live at the It Club. The remaining Monk piece, “Eronel,” came from the Criss-Cross studio album.

The remainder of the program featured many of the “usual suspects,” presented to the audience through pieces that definitely get far less attention than they deserve. “Light Blue” was followed by acknowledging another Monk. “Monk’s Shop” had nothing to do with Thelonious; instead, it was written by the prodigious jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and named after his brother William Howard Montgomery, who played electric bass and was known by his nickname “Monk.” Other composers included Hank Jones (“Minor Contention”) Tadd Dameron (“If You Could See Me Now”), Al Cohn (“Infinity”), Jackie McLean (“Little Melonae”), and J. J. Johnson (“Wee Dot”). Less familiar was Herb Geller, better known as a saxophonist than as a composer. The second set opened with his “Love Is Like A Turtle,” a somewhat provocative title considering the breakneck pace of the music.

The real surprise of the evening was George Shearing, who tends to be associated more with the pop genre than with bebop. His best-known composition was “Lullaby of Birdland,” which used to get a lot of exposure but seems to have faded since his death in 2011. For last night’s program Shulman and his quartet prepared “Conception,” which comes much closer than “Lullaby” to the bebop style that was the focus of the evening.

All four performers were solidly on top of every selection. Shulman could not have been a better leader, always teasing out his own inventive takes at the keyboard while allowing plenty of time for the other players to take the spotlight. Wolff did much of the heavy lifting when it came to introducing each tune, and he was equally comfortable with both his alto and tenor instruments. (He also seems to have powerful muscle memory. For one of the pieces, he picked up the wrong instrument and started playing in the wrong key!)

Given all of the jokes about bass players that go into circulation, I have to say that it was a delight that Wick was given a chance to improvise on each of the selections last night. He brought a wealth of imagination to his solo takes, suggesting that he appreciated the individuality of each song on the program and could reinforce just the right mood for each of them. The only disappointment was learning that Gallagher was about to leave town. He is one of those drummers who knows how to work his kit for pitch as well as rhythm. Thus, even when his solos were wildly aggressive, he always seemed to be thinking of a melodic line that would contribute to the shaping of the off-beat and angular rhythmic patterns that did so much to establish the bebop style.

Working as a group, the entire quartet made a solid case that none of the twelve “gems” they played deserves to be forgotten.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Debut Recording of “Politically Incorrect” Opera


courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over two weeks ago, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) “house label” released a two-CD album of its most prodigious offering for its 2016–17 concert season. That offering was a fully-staged performance of the opera Le temple de la Gloire (the Temple of Glory), composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau with a libretto by Voltaire. The opera was written to honor King Louis XV of France as a commemoration of his victory at the Battle of Fontenoy.

Voltaire prepared an allegorical libretto for this occasion. It concerns the efforts of three kings from antiquity to enter the Temple of Glory. The first two fail. However, the last of them, Trajan, succeeds by virtue of his capacity for wisdom and benevolence. According to at least one eyewitness account to the performance given for Louis XV in November of 1745, the king was (to borrow words from a later British monarch) “not amused.” Rameau realized that, if this opera was going to have any hope of posterity, he would have to revise it; and, until the Philharmonia Baroque concerts given this past April, that revision was the only version to be performed. The new album is based on recordings made during the three performances that were held in April.

The music alone made this a major undertaking. Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan conducted both the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, the latter prepared by its director, Bruce Lamott. Vocal soloists included four sopranos (Camille Ortiz, Gabrielle Philiponet, Chantal Santon-Jeffery, and Tonia D’Amelio), two hautes-contres (Artavazd Sargsyan and Aaron Sheehan), and two baritones (Marc Labonnette and Philippe-Nicolas Martin). However, the greatest impact on the audience probably came from Catherine Turocy, responsible for both staging and choreography, the latter performed by her New York Baroque Dance Company.

The new album is, of course, a strictly auditory experience. Fortunately, there is a 94-page booklet that includes not only the libretto but also some highly appealing photographs of what was happening on stage. Listeners will probably particularly enjoy the photograph that includes dancer Meggi Sweeney Smith in the role of an ostrich:

Meggi Sweeney Smith, Camille Ortiz, and Artavazd Sargsyan (photograph by Frank Wing)

Where the music is concerned, Lamott contributed a delightful essay about Rameau’s music. Lamott frequently gives the pre-concert talks at PBO concerts; and he never fails to engage his audience. That technique is also evident in his booklet text, which begins with a quote from Will Rogers:
If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it’ll change.
His point was that, not only was Rameau capable of prodigious diversity in the music created but also he very rarely left one feeling that he was going on for too long. One has only to scan the timings for the individual tracks to appreciate the composer’s capacity for rapid-fire delivery, briskly ushering the listener from one episode to another.

As one might expect, McGegan’s account of that technique is a spirited one. His sense of pace consistently sits well with both the instrumental and vocal work. Nevertheless, the overall listening experience goes on for about two and one-half hours (without allowing for intermissions). Many listeners are likely to be inclined towards “piecemeal” listening to the entire opera. As a listener I am far from a purist in such matters. In many ways the freshness of Rameau’s inventiveness is all the fresher when it is consumed in smaller portions!

SFS Opening Week to Feature Itzhak Perlman

Michael Tilson Thomas (photograph by Spencer Lowell) and Itzhak Perlman (photograph by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

The featured soloist for the Opening Night Gala to launch the 2018–19 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will be violinist Itzhak Perlman. Taking a more popular approach to repertoire than usual, he will perform music from Hollywood film scores intended to feature a solo violin. The films and their respective composers will be Schindler’s List (John Williams), Cinema Paradiso (Ennio Morricone), Out of Africa (John Barry), and Scent of a Woman (Carlos Gardel). Gardel did not compose music for Scent of a Woman. (He died in 1935.) However, his music was appropriated for the tango scene; and the results could not have been better.

In addition Perlman will be bringing with him students from his Perlman Music Program. They will join him for a special and unique performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043 concerto in D minor, scored for two violins, strings, and continuo. For the other concert instrumental selections Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas will lead SFS in the first of Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto” waltzes and two “international” compositions by George Gershwin, his “Cuban Overture” and “An American in Paris.”

The performance of this program will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, September 5. Prices for concert tickets range from $180 to $300. They include a complimentary pre-concert wine reception and access to the after-party in the Tent Pavilion set up on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition there will be four unique Dinner Packages that include premium seating for the concert. The event page on the SFS Web site provides hyperlinks for the purchase of both concert tickets and Dinner Packages. Each of the four options has its own Web page describing both the offering and the prices. One can also learn more about these options by contacting the Volunteer Council at 415-503-5500. Tickets will also be available by calling the Box Office at 415-864-6000 or by visiting it at the Grove Street entrance to Davies Symphony Hall at 201 Van Ness Avenue, on the south side of the street (again between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street). Box Office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

As usual, the Opening Night Gala will be followed by the All San Francisco Concert. This is an event presented for San Francisco social service and neighborhood organizations, in recognition and gratitude for the work these groups do to enrich the lives of and serve the citizens of San Francisco. Members of those organizations are invited to attend the concert as SFS guests. The program will include the Liszt and Gershwin selections played at the Gala concert. However, the soloist will be the young local cellist Oliver Herbert playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 “Variations on a rococo theme” in A major.

This year, for the first time, the Concert will be given two performances. These will both take place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 6, and Saturday, September 8. Tickets for the general public are now on sale for $12 for general seating. As of this writing, they may not be purchased online. [updated 7/31, 4:25 p.m.: Hyperlinks for online purchase for both performances have been added to the event page.] However, they are available at the Box Office and may be purchased by telephone or in person.

Friday, July 27, 2018

LIEDER ALIVE!’s 2018/19 Liederabend Series

Once again the new season of vocal recitals presented by LIEDER ALIVE! as the Liederabend (evening of songs) Series will begin in September. This will be the eighth annual season since the Series was inaugurated in 2011 by LIEDER ALIVE! Founder and Director Maxine Bernstein. As was the case last year, the new season will consist of five recitals. Once again, all performances will take place at 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening. The specifics are as follows:

September 16: The title of the Grand Opening concert will be Neue, Lieder, Neue Welt. It will be a journey of discovery focused on the “new world” composer Alberto Nepomuceno. Except for his musical training in Europe, Nepomuceno was based in Brazil from his birth in 1864 until his death in 1920. His compositions will share the program with three key influences, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, and Ernest Chausson. The vocalist will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied at the piano by Ricardo Ballestero.

February 17: The second program will feature five artists from the Curtis Institute of Music, who will be joined by pianist Mikael Eliasen. The focus will be compositions written for multiple solo voices. The featured work will be Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer collection, scored for four voices and four hands on a single piano keyboard. The remainder of the program will be devoted to vocal solos and duets.

[10/7, 7:45 a.m.: The dates for the following two events have been changed.

March 24: Baritone Eugene Villanueva, one of last season’s featured soloists, will return to give another solo recital. His accompanist at the piano will again be Peter Grünberg. As the first American singer to win the Tosti song prize offered by Instituto Nazionale Tostiano in Ortona, Italy, he will include songs by Paolo Tosti in his program. He will also perform songs by Brahms and Richard Strauss.

April 7: The title of this program will be Mussorgsky and Kandinsky. Only one of those two is a composer, and Modest Mussorgsky will be represented on the program by his four Songs and Dances of Death. This selection will be complemented by a commissioned work by Canadian composer Veronika Krausas. The songs in her collection, entitled Kandinsky Lieder, were inspired by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, rather than his writings. Bass Kirk Eichelberger will be accompanied by Russian-born pianist Simona Snitkovskaya.]

April 28: Once again mezzo Scharich will conclude the season, beginning the program by revisiting Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). The remainder of the program will be devoted to two song cycles by Robert Schumann, the Opus 42 Frauen-Liebe und Leben (a woman’s love and life) and the Opus 39 self-described Liederkreis. Scharich’s accompanist will be pianist Jeffrey LaDeur.

All performances will be held at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Subscriptions for the full five-concert series will be $250 for reserved seating at all concerts and $160 for general admission. These may be purchased online from an Eventbrite event page. Single tickets for all concerts are $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. These may also be purchased in advance through Eventbrite using the hyperlinks attached to the dates for each of the concerts. Tickets at the door will be $40 with a $20 discount for students, seniors, and working artists. If purchased in advance, the prices will be $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. Those interested in both subscriptions and single tickets may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

Maria Canals Winner Plays Soler: Volume 8

Two weeks ago today Naxos released the eighth volume in its second project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler. The first project had presented Gilbert Rowland playing all of the sonatas on harpsichord. All of the releases in the second project consist of piano performances, all played by prize-winning pianists from the annual Maria Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona. These pianists are not being presented in “chronological order.” The seventh volume presented the winner of the first prize at the 60th competition, held in 2014. The eighth volume also presents a first prize winner but from an earlier competition, the 58th, held in 2012. That pianist is Soo-Jung Ann:

Soo-Jung Ann (photograph by Dan Hannen, courtesy of Naxos)

Fortunately, the sonatas themselves are being released in numerical order as they were published in seven volumes of transcriptions and scholarly revisions of manuscript sources by Samuel Rubio. (Any reference to a Soler sonata with an “R” number refers to Rubio’s publications, which run to seven volumes.) However, if we are to believe the description on the Amazon.com Web page for this recording, there may be some dispute over how many sonatas make for a “complete” account. That description (which also appears on the back cover of the album, claims that Soler “wrote around 150 keyboard sonatas;” but Rubio’s seven volumes only account for 120. Since I only have the first of Rubio’s volumes, I can only confirm that the numbers of the first twenty sonatas align with the first twenty sonatas to be recorded in this project.

The sonatas on this new release cover the numbers between 75 and 86. All of those sonatas are single-movement compositions with only one exception. Number 79 is a two-movement piece in (of all keys) F-sharp major. My guess is that there is a thesis to be written that addresses rhetorical correlates of Soler’s key selections, but I am not going to be the one to write it!

On the other hand, the fact that Soler chose to write in this key at all leads me to wonder whether Ann’s piano can do justice to interpreting the score. As far as I can tell, she is playing an equal-tempered instrument, since there are only a handful of exceptional cases that require a modern piano to be tuned any other way. Soler, on the other hand, was writing in eighteenth-century Spain, a time when the benefits of equal temperament were acknowledged but not always honored. Thus, Soler may well have tuned his instrument (probably a harpsichord) using perfect fifths and major thirds to define his intervals. Having decided to write in F-sharp major, he then would have written in a way that either avoided or exploited those intervallic “commas” that depart from the five fundamental overtones of the harmonic series.

If Soler took this approach, then it is clear that at least a few of his intervals would sound markedly different. A researcher (again better than I am) may be able to identify from Rubio’s score whether or not Soler avoided intervals in his 79th sonata that he might use frequently when writing in C major. Alternatively, there may have been intervals that he deliberately exploited, perhaps to make sure that anyone listening would not fall asleep. (As we know, Joseph Haydn had his own ways of dealing with such listeners.)

Fortunately, the fact that this new album does not serve as a potentially useful object lesson in musicology is pretty much its only flaw. One can still appreciate the rhetorical breadth of the twelve sonatas on this recent release. For most listeners, that will be enough to make the listening experience a delightfully engaging one.

Outsound’s Summit Remembers Ralph Carney

Ralph Carney’s 2010 photograph of himself in a white suit (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The full title of the program for last night’s New Music Summit concert, organized by Outsound Presents, was CarneyVal!: A night celebrating the memory of saxophonist Ralph Carney. Carney was the consummate professional musician, playing with more groups and in more sessions than can possibly be enumerated, although he may be best remembered for his association with the animated series BoJack Horseman and at least one appearance as the saxophone played by Lisa Simpson (on the Simpsons video game). He died last December from head injuries sustained from falling down the stairs at his home in Portland, Oregon.

Carney was honored by both sets of last night’s program, which owes much to the efforts of colleague and saxophonist David Slusser. Both Carney and Slusser were natives of Akron, Ohio, where Carney’s father worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. To honor their rust belt roots, they formed a band called Rubber City, joined by Chris Ackerman on drums. Last night’s first set was taken by reincarnation of Rubber City, with founders Slusser and Ackerman joined by saxophonist Sheldon Brown and bassist Richard Saunders.

Note that generic use of the noun “saxophonist." The stage was littered with saxophones of all sizes (recalling, for me at least, the prodigious number of clarinets played by the group Clarinet Thing, of which Carney was a founding member). Last night flutes were also added to the mix (but not the $50 plastic oboe that Carney once used for a solo gig). As one might guess from the diversity of instrumentation and his connection to animation, Carney had a strong tongue-in-cheek streak; and Rubber City prepared a set to celebrate that attitude.

The quartet opened by looking back on Akron with a performance of the waltz “Beautiful Ohio.” The best way to describe the performance was that both of the words of the title (as well as the waltz format) were reflected through an astounding variety of funhouse mirrors. One might almost call the interpretation a blend of nostalgia and good-riddance, treating both sides of the coin with equal affection and irreverence. It was easy for me to reflect on the playful irony that Frank Zappa would summon up whenever he and his group would try to play something “traditional.”

Similar irreverence was brought to another musician now deceased, Steve Lacy, who died in June of 2004. Lacy was also a saxophonist with a particular specialty on the soprano instrument. In an amusingly convoluted way, Rubber City paid tribute to Lacy playing tribute to Thelonious Monk. The title of the piece was “Steve’s Shorts” (with subtitle “Lacy Underthings”); and the references to Monk were as sincere as they were fragmented. (The reference to “Monk’s Dream” was the one that resonated the most with me.)

The raucousness of the wind style delivered by both Slusser and Brown could also be found in the darker Carney compositions, “Blues for Lucifer” and “Jazz Death.” These pieces also allowed the few opportunities for extended solo work on both bass and drums. The flute work, on the other hand, only came in on the final selection, “Migrants.” This was probably the most serious performance of the evening, probably because the plight of immigrants has grown to a global scale, which seems to be bringing out the heartlessness of just about any society that pretends to think of itself as civilized. Carney may have approached this piece with the same capacity for playful irony that he brought to so many other compositions, but last night’s performance suggested that the real world was creeping up on this particular selection.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Center for New Music: September, 2018

As of this writing, only two events for the month of September have shown up on Calendar Web page for the Center for New Music (C4NM). However, since this site has begun to take stock of how various performing arts groups are in the process of launching the new season, it seemed fair to create a “placeholder” for C4NM, which can be updated as further information surfaces. As usual, I shall use my Facebook shadow site to put out the word whenever such updates take place.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. All tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

[added 9/5, 6:05 a.m.:

Sunday, September 9, 7 p.m.: C4NM will host the latest production by Erling Wold Fabrications. The Great Debate Cabaret will interpret the divisiveness of this election year as a theater piece described as “Subtext Wrestling Match/Genderbending wrestling love orgy.” Wold himself will serve as master of ceremonies, Hadley McCarroll will be the Master, and Nikola Prinz and Laura Bohn will be the contestants. Musical selections will be appropriately eclectic. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.]

[updated 9/7, 12:55 p.m.: This performance has been postponed.

[added 8/11, 9:05 a.m.:

Friday, September 14, 8 p.m.: Unless I am mistaken, this will be the first program in a new series curated by Glenda Bates entitled the Crossing Over Series. The intent seems to be to explore the domain of through-composed music that provides room for improvisation in an effort to hybridize the relation between classical and jazz performance practices. This initial concert will be a recital by the Current Vibrant duo, whose members are Eldad Tarmu on vibraphone and Bates on oboe. All of the compositions on the program will be by Tarmu. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.]]

Saturday, September 15, 7:30 p.m.: THE BOSCO SERIES: Experimental Sonic and Immersive Multimedia Productions is the “umbrella organization” for presenting the works of composer Charles Xavier. With a (presumably) playful nod to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Xavier calls himself “The Xman.” In addition to composing, he is a percussionist and a performer of electronic music. He leads an ensemble called Charles Xavier’s Cow Walk Orchestra, which is actually a combo whose other members are trumpeter Clifford Brown III and Matt Montgomery alternating between guitar and violin. His compositions involve electronica explorations, the percussive arts, jazz improvisations, audio effects, ambience, and spoken word narratives. Admission will be $15 for general admission, $10 for C4NM members, and $5 for students.

[added 8/15, 7:50 a.m.:

Thursday, September 20, 6:30 p.m.: C4NM will host a special benefit concert to be given by the Thumbscrew trio of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on drums, and Tomas Fujiwara on bass. Readers with some history on this site may recall that Halvorson was one of the three guitarists in Err Guitar, an album of free improvisation for three guitars recorded by Elliott Sharp for Intakt Records. (Sharp was one of the other guitarists, and Marc Ribot was the third.) Thumbscrew works from original compositions with all three members serving as composers. The performance will begin at 8 p.m., preceded by a reception hosted by the C4NM Board of Directors, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. Admission will be $45, and the charge for C4NM members will be $20.

[added 8/21, 1:35 p.m.:

Friday, September 21, 8 p.m.: Dirt and Copper is an emerging Bay Area collective dedicated to the performance of radical new music. Members Tony Gennaro (percussion), John Ivers (clarinets), Michelle Lee (flutes), Matt Robidoux (guitars and doodads), and Golnaz Shariatzadeh (violin). The program will present a composition by each of these five performers. The concert will also feature works by Julie Herndon and Hunter Long. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members, although no one will be turned away for lack of funds.]

Wednesday, September 26, 8 p.m.: Live Cinema will be a two-part evening of visual and sonic experiments and environments. The two sets will be taken, respectively, by the Thingamajigs Performance Group and viDEO sAVant. The Thingamajigs performers will be Dylan Bolles (flutes, strings, and voice), Keith Evans (projections), Suki O’Kane (percussion, strings, and electronics), and Edward Schocker (reeds, strings, and glass). viDEO sAVant brings video artist Charles Woodman together with duo B., the improvising ensemble consisting of percussionist Jason Levis and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.]

Saturday, September 29, 7:30 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a visit by Korean pianist Jihye Chang. The title of the program is Co-Ko, which stands for Contemporary Korea. It is also the title of one of the pieces on the program, composed by Texu Kim about a year ago. Other composers whose music will be included on the program will be Unsuk Chin, Shinuh Lee, Hyo-shin Na, and Jean Ahn. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

A New Trio on Satoko Fujii’s June Release

 courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

The time I put into my project based on the complete operas by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky took me away from keeping up with Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii and her plan to celebrate her forthcoming 60th birthday by releasing a new album for every month of this calendar year. Now that I am “back on track,” I have had an opportunity to listen to 1538, her album for the month of June. As seems to have been consistently the case over the course of this project, Amazon.com has not been creating pages for these recordings. So, once again, I find myself directing readers to the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records, which happens to be the label on which 1538 was released.

1538 is the debut for a new trio that Fujii formed, which she has decided to call This Is It! (The exclamation point is part of the name.) The members will be familiar to those who have been following Fujii’s work. The trumpeter is her husband, Natsuki Tamura; and the percussionist is Takashi Itani, whom listeners may recall from when I wrote about her Live at Jazz Room Cortez album in November of last year. The advance material for 1538 quoted Fujii on how the trio got its name:
I always like to have smaller units that can play my compositions. I have led small groups like Satoko Fujii Quartet, Satoko Fujii Trio, ma-do, and others since the beginning of my career. Right now, this trio is the one I really like to work with, so I just named it This Is It!
I sympathize with her logic. When I helped Twyla Tharp manage a performance at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, we had so much trouble coming up with a title for the event that we eventually settled on “Let’s Not Call It.”

Readers may recall that I tend to be cautious about using the noun “jazz” when writing about Fujii’s music. Given how flexible making music has become regarding the noun “composition,” I feel it necessary to document Fujii’s own take on that flexibility:
When I sit at the piano, I always compose for 15 minutes before I begin to practice. After doing this for more than 10 years, I have 12 books of written compositions. The short pieces in these books can help me to make long pieces. I often turn to my diary books when I start to compose something.
This strikes me as a disciplined approach to spontaneity, even if many would take “disciplined spontaneity” to be an oxymoron. As I see it, Fujii uses those books to document “seeds;” and those seeds then “grow” through processes that involve both interpretation and improvisation. If there is no adequate category label for those processes, then we should not waste time on finding one when it is more important to pay attention to the results.

The compositions on 1538 are probably more likely to strike the attentive listener as chamber music that is jazz by other means, rather than jazz that is chamber music by other means. One cannot always tell for sure when Fujii and her colleagues are working directly from her notebooks and when they are moving from notation into improvisation while hiding their tracks in the process. From a personal point of view, what interests me the most about 1538 is the extent to which it prioritizes sonorities over more traditional constructs, such as themes or motifs. If I did not know any better, I would speculate that Fujii spent some time in Paris at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, which translates as “institute for research and coordination in acoustics and music”), possibly encountering the composer Kaija Saariaho while she was there. However, her Wikipedia page makes no mention of such a visit (or any visit to Europe, for that matter), leading me to assume that she developed her own approaches to working with sonority as a fundamental ingredient without much (if any) exposure to European influences.

Whatever her background knowledge may be, her results can be downright uncanny. My initial reaction to the final track on 1538, “Yozora,” was that the opening sounds were electronic. However, there is no mention of any use of electronic gear on this album. Unless presented with evidence to the contrary, I am willing to accept that all of the sounds are acoustic and just happen to have been very imaginatively concocted and possibly enhanced through amplification.

Some might say that the tracks on this album defy description. From a more optimistic point of view, I would say that the tracks encourage each individual listener to seek out his/her own description. (I have now listened to a good deal of Fujii’s work, including a visit she made here in San Francisco to the Center for New Music; and the last thing I would want to do is assert any description I formulate as authoritarian!) Granted, not all listeners necessarily want to play this game. They would prefer some “latter-day Leonard Bernstein” to explain everything before they actually do the listening, rather like Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoon of a herd of sheep desperately searching for a sheepdog.

Nevertheless, there is something about the jamming that takes place on this album that has enough reverberations of familiarity to encourage the listener to pursue his/her own path to sensemaking. I, for one, believe that more performances should be this way and that more recordings should capture such performances. Having established where I stand, I have no trouble inviting readers to stand with me in finding their own listening experiences in what has been captured on the tracks of 1538.

A Stimulating Synthesis of Cello and Percussion

One of the most exciting moments in the recorded legacy of saxophonist John Coltrane came with the recording of “Vigil,” a wild and wooly improvisation whose only other performer was drummer Elvin Jones. Last night’s performance by SO AR, the duo of cellist Shanna Sordahl and percussionist Robert Lopez, may have involved a major shift in instrumentation (particularly since Sordahl also performed with electronic gear) and style; but the rhetoric of an improvisation involving only two players was just as compelling. SO AR took the opening set of last night’s New Music Summit concert, organized by Outsound Presents and held at the Community Music Center; and the experience was intensely memorable.

The title of last night’s program was The Art of Noise: a night of sonic exploration. There was no shortage of exploration in the SO AR set; but I have to say that the noun “noise” never really came to mind while listening to the pair at work. Yes, there were several explosive moments, particularly from Lopez’ drum kit; but far more significant were the ways in which the two musicians moderated their dynamic levels, making it clear that each wanted to be aware of the other and of a balanced blend of their respective contributions. For that matter, the blend was always clearly articulated, rather than a nebulous cloud of noise from which mind had to struggle to extract signal.

Consider how the session began. Sordahl restricted herself to a single tone, suggesting that she wanted the listener to attend to the unique quality of each stroke of her bow. Similarly, Lopez began with a series of beats separated by intervals of silence. However, when the two aligned, it was clear that Sordahl would hold back on her bow stroke, beginning only after the slightest of pauses. This allowed her attack to avoid being masked by Lopez’ beat.

Sordahl’s instrument was, of course, amplified. In addition, she would sometimes set it aside and work only with synthesis gear. This was probably her way of balancing the diversity of sonorities coming from Lopez’ drum kit with her own palette of sonic diversity. However, just as her cello work had begun with single strokes of the bow, her electronics tended to explore different approaches to drone sonorities.

As the set progressed, both players’ approaches to their respective instruments became increasingly diverse. As already mentioned, there were moments when Lopez approached the threshold of noise; but he rarely remained there very long. He was far more in his element with his exploratory polyrhythms, which provided an elaborately textured context within which Sordahl could explore the diverse sonorities of her instrument. There was one episode of sul ponticello bowing during which it seemed as if she was judiciously selecting the upper harmonics she wished to enhance. This was the sort of passage that benefitted from amplification, but Lopez clearly knew how to balance his own strokes to accommodate those explorations.

The entire set unfolded over a duration that probably came in around 40 minutes. That would be about four times as long as the “Vigil” track recorded by Coltrane and Jones. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any attentive listener would have worried that things went on for too long. Whether or not Sordahl and Lopez planned out an overall “program” for their allotted slot on the program, there was very much a sense of a journey through a terrain of diverse sonorities. It would not surprise me if, at a subsequent encounter with the pair, I would find them in an entirely different terrain.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Adobe Books: August, 2018

It looks like next month will be another month in which Benjamin Ethan Tinker has arranged multiple concerts at Adobe Books. This time there will be two events during the same week, both of which will be three-set evening of live performances of highly adventurous music. Both of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m. and run until about 10 p.m. As usual, Tinker is more than a little shy on background information; but he tries to make it a point of providing useful URLs. Bearing that in mind, here are the specifics:

Tuesday, August 14: The three sets and hyperlinks are as follows: James Fei, Hystrionyx, Monopiece.

Friday, August 17: In this case the information reveals that the sets will involve a solo, a trio, and a duo. The solo will be taken by organist Douglas Katelus. The trio set will feature percussionist Nava Dunkelman and gabby fluke-mogul, who often perform as a duo. In this case they will be joined by Kanoko Nishi-Smith on koto. The duo calls itself French Radio and consists of Andy Way on a modular synthesizer and Bruce Anderson on guitar enhanced by electronic effects.

Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. The gig is free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings.

The Ninth Naxos Volume of Rossini’s “Sins”

courtesy of Naxos of America

Italian pianist Alessandro Marangoni and/or Naxos seem to be back on track in releasing albums of the fourteen unpublished volumes of music that Gioachino Rossini composed between 1857 and his death in 1868, collected under the title Péchés de vieillesse (sins of old age). Reader may recall that this project “went dark” between February of 2015 and this past April, apparently because Marangoni needed to set aside some time for research. That research led to the discovery of “chamber music and rarities,” whose fruits first appeared in the eighth volume of the series, which is the one released in April. That album included eight pieces that had not yet been assigned to any of the Péchés volumes.

A little less than two weeks ago, Naxos released the ninth volume in the series. Among the eighteen tracks on this album are five more of those “unassigned” pieces, one only a minute in duration and the other four significantly briefer. The minute-long piece includes soprano Laura Giordano; and the shorter pieces are piano solos.

Among those solo pieces, one is an allegretto given the title “del pantelegrafo.” The pantelegraph may well may well be the first working implementation of what we would now call fax technology. It was developed by Giovanni Caselli, who was teaching physics and the University of Florence; and it was used commercially in the 1860s. Rossini’s short piece assumed its subtitle because the manuscript had been transmitted by Caselli’s device.

The new album again carries a subtitle: Chamber Music and Rarities • 2. The “unassigned” pieces clearly fall into the “rarities” category; and the four minuscule pieces are the only piano solos on the album. All the other tracks are songs for solo voice and piano, featuring tenor Alessandro Luciano and baritone Bruno Taddia, as well as Giordano. All three of these vocalists seem to take it for granted that Rossini wanted them to have fun with these pieces, and it is easy to appreciate both the good humor of their delivery and the rhetorical reinforcement that Marangoni provides.

Nevertheless, I must confess that I am beginning to wonder about how many releases remain in this project. According to my records, only a few of the volumes have been recorded in entirety; and none of the selections from Volume XIII have been recorded at all. Then there is the question of whether or not Marangoni’s research has been turning up even more of those “unassigned” pieces. The Wikipedia page for Péchés claims that the entire collection consists of 150 pieces. According to my records, Naxos has released 157 tracks, thirteen of which are “unassigned.” My guess is that the Wikipedia author short-changed the count and that there will be more than one further album coming out before the entire project is complete.

Tim Thompson and his Space Palette Pro

Last night at the Community Music Center, Outsound Presents launched the concert portion of its seventeenth annual New Music Summit, a series of five evening events that will continue throughout this week. The title of the program was Sonic Foundry III: a night of unique invention, because it was the third in an ongoing series providing a showcase for invented instruments. The first set was taken by Tim Thompson, who has brought earlier incarnations of his equipment to the annual Touch the Gear expo that Outsound Presents holds on the Sunday before the Summit concerts begin.

For his concert performance he brought his latest creation, which he calls the Space Palette Pro. Like a palette, it is a flat horizontal surface, which Thompson controls with both hands. There is also a moderately small chromatic keyboard at the front and a display that seems primarily to show how the components of the instrument are configured.

The primary components are four Sensei Morphs arranged roughly as the corners of a square. A Sensei Morph is a rectangular touch-sensitive pad. It can sense multiple points of contact, as well as the pressure applied at each of those points. The Space Palette Pro basically translates input from the Sensei Morphs (and, occasionally, the keyboard) into both audio and video signals, the latter being projected on a large audience-friendly screen.

Ever since my first encounter with Joel Davel’s Marimba Lumina (which he plays in his performances with the Paul Dresher Ensemble), I have been sensitive to the distinction between an “instrument” and a “controller.” Clearly, all musical instruments “control” the creation of sound by virtue of how the performer interacts with an “interface.” However, a controller is basically a source of signals that is independent of the device that takes those signals as input.

Thus, in my personal lexicon I would prefer to call the Space Palette Pro a controller, rather than an instrument. However, this is far from an attempt to demean Thompson’s work. Indeed, to the contrary, it is the only controller I have encountered in which frequently, if not always, the same signals are passed to both audio and video devices. As a result performance consistently results in a smooth coordination between what you hear and what you see, very much in the same vein as the polished visualizations that Stephen Malinowski creates for recordings of classical music.

This is not to suggest that Thompson’s images follow the same sort of note-by-note account that one finds in Malinowski’s videos. Indeed, the very concept of “note” feels somewhat outmoded when one attends to the experience of both listening to and viewing a Thompson performance. I was particularly struck by how Thomson could convert his signals into images that unfold as cascades of a prodigious variety of symmetries. (The mathematical concept of symmetry involves far more than “mirror images.” Indeed, during the Q&A after the performance, I could not resist asking if Thompson had drawn on the systematic classification of symmetry types based on group theory and discussed in Hermann Weyl’s Symmetry monograph. They were not, which led me to admire all the more the extent of Thompson’s visual imagination!)

The performance itself clearly went through a series of episodes, each of which involved different interpretations of the signals from the Sensei Morphs. Thompson’s intuitions about the durations of those episodes could not have been more acute. No episode ever overstayed its welcome. Indeed, my only disappointment was that the performance, as a whole, never really managed to register a “sense of an ending.” At a certain point the flow of control signals ceased, and that was that. Mind you, there are any number of compositions that have this same trait. However, because there was always a clear sense of tonality on the audio side of his signal processing, it was hard to resist that Schenkerian urge to listen for an overall tonic-dominant-tonic cadence.

Nevertheless, Thompson is clearly playing by his own rules, rather than Schenker’s. Those rules are not just about listening but about the integration of listening and viewing. It would not surprise me if those rules go through further refinement as Thompson continues to explore approaches to generating signals that are interpreted for both listening and viewing. Hopefully, there will be future opportunities to observe how his efforts progress.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Profil Complies Recordings of Tchaikovsky Operas

courtesy of Naxos of America

When the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is associated with the opera repertoire, most people tend to think immediately of Eugene Onegin; and those with a bit more knowledge of the Tchaikovsky catalog might also bring The Queen of Spades to mind. Indeed, with about two decades of subscriptions to the San Francisco Opera (SFO) under my belt, I have encountered impressive accounts of both of these operas with a particularly imaginative approach to the latter. However, I can also credit SFO with introducing me to The Maid of Orleans, which was not the sort of opera topic I would have associated with Tchaikovsky. Most people would think that this might amount to an exhaustive account of the Tchaikovsky operas; but, when I was writing for Boston After Dark in my graduate student days, I remember covering a film of Iolanta.

One might think that I have lived through an exhaustive account of Tchaikovsky’s operas, but one would be mistaken. The Wikipedia List of compositions Web page for Tchaikovsky has eleven entries under the Operas heading. Furthermore, only one of those operas, Cherevichki (the slippers), is a revision of an earlier opera, Vakula the Smith. Fortunately, those curious about those operas that have received little (if any) attention by most opera companies can now have their curiosity satisfied through a 22-CD album released by Profil a little over a month ago.

Like most of these large Profil box sets, this is a compilation of archival material. In this case all of the recordings were made from live performances at the Bolshoi Theatre. However, because those performances took place between 1936 and 1963, there is considerable variation in the quality of the recordings themselves. Furthermore, several of the operas are represented only by fragments, one of which did not make it to the Wikipedia list, a “Chorus of Flowers and Insects” composed in 1870 for a Mandragora opera.

On the other hand the box also includes music that Tchaikovsky composed for two of William Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Those who associate the former only with the “overture-fantasy” that has become a concert favorite will probably take some delight in discovering that their favorite part of the piece (usually referred to as the “love theme”) shows up in this collection as an operatic duet for the two protagonists. Similarly, the overture-fantasy based on Hamlet (Opus 67a) turns out to be a revision on an overture that was part of a larger body of incidental music (Opus 67). Finally, the collection also includes incidental music for Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Snow Maiden.

There is an old joke about a book report by a sixth-grader that consisted of a single sentence:
This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.
My guess is that a lot of readers will feel that this Profil collection serves up more Tchaikovsky opera music than they would ever want to encounter. On the other hand, more intrepid listeners will find that there are delightful discoveries that pop up in unlikely places. I think I already knew that the music played at the beginning of Ken Russell’s film was the “Dance of the Tumblers” from The Snow Maiden. What I had not expected was that I would encounter an “initial draft” of the so-called “White Swan” pas de deux from the score for Swan Lake. It seems to have originated in an 1869 opera entitled Undina, where it was a duet for soprano and tenor. Those familiar with the ballet will know that those parts became the solos for violin and cello in the ballet score.

Rather than dwell on penguins, I would prefer to recall an advertisement for the Sunday edition of The New York Times from my younger days:
You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there.
When it comes to music for the stage, Tchaikovsky will probably always be known for his ballet scores. However, he was far more prolific when it came to opera; and there is much to discover in the opera scores that seem to be consistently ignored.