Sunday, September 30, 2018

SFO to Present a New Staging of Romantic Strauss

A little over a week ago it was reported that, this coming Wednesday, San Francisco Opera will present a new staging of an opera with a long and proud history in the company repertoire, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. About two week’s later the War Memorial Auditorium will host another new staging, this time drawn from the prodigious operatic catalog of Richard Strauss. Arabella, last seen here during the 1998–99 season, will return in a new production shared with the Santa Fe Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company.

If Der Rosenkavalier amounts to a bittersweet comedy about the rise of the bourgeoisie in the face of aristocratic decline, Arabella is a romantic comedy of errors about a bourgeois family having trouble making ends meet. The family patriarch Count Waldner (baritone Richard Paul Fink) still has a title but little else. His only hope for economic security involves marrying his older daughter Arabella (soprano Ellie Dehn) to a man of secure means. To keep suitors focused on Arabella, he has forced his other daughter Zdenka (soprano Heidi Stober) to disguise herself as a boy.

Arabella, on the other hand, is determined that she will only marry “the right one,” even if she is not yet sure who that will be. He turns out to be Mandryka (baritone Brian Mulligan), a young man from the country who turns out to be sensibly generous. While Arabella and Mandryka quickly appreciate each other’s qualities, this would not be a comedy without their having to overcome several farcical obstacles.

Conductor Marc Albrecht, making his American operatic debut (photograph by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

In this new production just about every role (including those cited above) will be performed by its respective vocalist for the first time. This will also be true of Director Tim Albery, who is responsible for the new staging. In addition conductor Marc Albrecht, currently Chief Conductor of the Dutch National Opera, will be making his American operatic debut.

Arabella will be given five performances, which will take place at 7:30 p.m. on October 16, 19, and 24 and on November 3 and at 2 p.m. on October 28. The libretto will be sung in German with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three hours and fifteen minutes with two intermissions.

The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $398. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

Arabella will also be the topic of the first Insight Panel of the season. SFO Dramaturg Clifford Cranna will moderate a panel whose members will include vocalists Dehn, Stober, and Mulligan. This event will take place in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House. It will begin at 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 13. Like the other events in this series, the discussion will be free to Opera Guild members, SFO subscribers, and students. General admission for others is $5. An Eventbrite event page has been created for preregistration, including for those to be admitted without charge.

New Nilsson Recordings for her Centennial


I have to say that Sony Classical has been on a roll for about the last 30 days or so. No sooner had I wrapped up my disc-by-disc account of their release of A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, an eight-CD anthology of all the recordings for Columbia Records made by pianist Oscar Levant, which was released on August 31, than I was ready to launch into Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings, released exactly one week later in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Nilsson’s birth on May 17, 2018. Readers who recall my somewhat chilly reaction to the Warner Classics 42-CD anthology of remastered live recordings of Maria Callas may think I have it in for opera sopranos. This would be the fallacy of judging an entire category singers on the basis of a single vocalist.

For my money, Nilsson was an instance of the opera-sopranos category that not only represented the category in the best possible light but also served as a model for subsequent generations of vocalists. Sadly, I only saw her on the stage once, during her final season with the Metropolitan Opera, when she gave her interpretation of the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) an unforgettable run for her money (and ours). On the other hand I still remember my first encounter with her on an RCA recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni on which she sang the role of Donna Anna in opposition to Cesare Siepi in the title role.

Mozart is not to be encountered on this recent Sony release. Indeed, the 31 CDs in this collection are rather unevenly balanced. Seventeen of the discs are devoted to Richard Wagner, two consisting of excerpts and all of the others accounting for complete live opera performances. Richard Strauss holds second place with nine CDs, all complete live opera recordings. That leaves five CDs in the “other” category accounting for three operas: Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. I shall use these three categories to account for the Sony collection in three articles; and it would be unfair to Nilsson if I did not begin with Wagner.

Even here, however, the Wagner recordings are not particularly balanced. There are three different recordings of Tristan und Isolde in the collection. Some might view this as overkill; but each recording was made in a different decade, encouraging the attentive listener to use this one opera as a benchmark against which Nilsson could bring a broader base of experience to each successive performance. The earliest recording comes from the 1957 Bayreuth Festival with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. The remaining two were made with Karl Böhm conducting, the earlier at the Vienna State Opera on December 17, 1967 and the later at the Chorégies d’Orange festival held in the south of France on July 7, 1973. (Readers may recall that the recording of Böhm conducting Nilsson in this opera made by Deutsche Grammophon (DG) was made at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival.)

As might be guessed, one encounters a goodly number of Tristans across all of these performances. Wolfgang Windgassen sings the role at both of the Bayreuth recordings (including the DG release). The Vienna State Opera Tristan is Jess Thomas, while the most recent recording, made at Orange, presents Jon Vickers. All this makes for a healthy foundation for those interested in comparative musicology. My own personal approach to listening is not that quite extreme, but I suspect that I shall be returning to these recordings for the different perspectives they offer.

Nevertheless, I have to confess a certain delight when I discovered that I had already encountered the most recent of these Nilsson recordings. It turns out that a video recording was made of the performance at the Orange Festival, which was released as a DVD by Kultur Video in 2002. (I had previously owned a Japanese-produced videotape and acquired this DVD when shedding my collection of videotapes.) From a technical point of view, the CD is far more satisfying than the video; but, even if both images and sound are inconsistent on that DVD, there is still much to be gained from watching the chemistry between Nilsson and Vickers, rather than just listening to it.

The Wagner portion of the Sony collection includes only two other complete operas: a Lohengrin from the 1954 Bayreuth Festival conducted by Eugen Jochum and a Metropolitan Opera Die Walküre recorded on March 1, 1969 with Herbert von Karajan conducting. I have to say that my attitude towards Lohengrin has more to do with how it is staged than how I feel about Wagner’s role as a composer. Nevertheless, this is the earliest Wagner recording in the collection; and, if one wishes to talk about chemistry, Nilsson’s interactions with Windgassen’s Lohengrin definitely foreshadow the 1957 Tristan recording.

Where Walküre is concerned, I must confess that I prefer my Ring operas in the context of the full cycle. Nevertheless, the Ring gets the most attention in the two CDs of excerpts. Indeed, the earliest recording in the entire collection has Nilsson singing Brünnhilde in the final scene of Götterdämmerung in Swedish at a concert in Stockholm. (This is followed by a German account of the same scene at the Sydney Opera House.) There is also a recording from the 1957 Bayreuth Festival of Nilsson singing the “Winterstürme” duet from the first act of Walküre with Ramón Vinay as Siegmund. This is coupled with the duet of Brünnhilde’s awakening at the end of Siegfried, which has Nilsson joined again by Windgassen in the title role. This was conducted by Otmar Suitner at the 1967 Bayreuth Festival.

All this amounts to the fact that attentive listeners are more likely to enjoy all that is offered by what is present, rather than grousing about what is missing!

NEQ Begins Season with 19th-Century Quintets

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) launched its twelfth season with a program of two nineteenth-century cello quintets. The additional cello part was taken by Kenneth Slowik, a frequent visitor to the Bay Area for historically-informed performances and a regular participant in the American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy. Violinist Lisa Weiss was indisposed for the occasion and was replaced by Joseph Edelberg. The other contributing NEQ players were violinist Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen.

1834 engraving of George Onslow by Pierre-Roch Vigneron (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This was another NEQ program that focused entirely on the nineteenth century. The second half of the program was devoted to what is probably the best-known cello quintet from that century, Franz Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major. Slowik’s notes for the program cited a convincing hypothesis that Schubert’s inspiration for this composition may have come from George Onslow, a French composer of English descent (hence the spelling of his first name), whose catalog included 34 cello quintets. The first half of yesterday’s program consisted entirely of Onslow’s Opus 38 quintet in C minor, composed in 1829, the year after Schubert’s death.

D. 956 is representative of the prodigious productivity of Schubert’s work during the final year of his life, and it was completed two months before his death. That productivity can be seen not only in the number of works he created during those twelve months but also in his adventurous approaches to prolongation. Like his final three piano sonatas, D. 956 maps out a durational space that Ludwig van Beethoven was just beginning to explore in his final symphony and several of his “late period” piano sonatas and string quartets. Schubert’s approach to duration may not have been as “epic” as Beethoven’s; but there is an expansiveness that draws in the listener and envelops him/her in a space in which the composer seems to have everything to say about basic materials that are often uncannily modest.

The second movement of D. 956 is probably the best example of this quality. To say that it has a theme at all is to strain the lexicon of eighteenth-century traditions. Rhythm seems to be the highest priority, applied to a single pitch with meticulous delicacy before another pitch is even allowed to suggest its appearance. This motif is unfolded by the first violin against the calming harmonies of the ensemble, only barely hinting at any sense of progression as if the music were summoning the stillness of a vast lake on a calm day.

There is, of course, no shortage of recordings of D. 956; but it is the very presence of Schubert’s refined rhetorical qualities that give this composition so much impact. To listen to it played by period instruments and their resulting approaches to intonation is to throw a new light on those rhetorical qualities. The calmness of that second movement is so hushed that one dare not even try to breathe, yet the intense energy of the more rapid passages suggests a manic disposition that is often smoothed over when played on stronger and more modern instruments. Thus, even for those (like myself), who cannot get enough of performances of this quintet, NEQ’s approach made for a striking journey of discovery, rather than an encounter with an old friend.

Needless to say, the Onslow offering also amounted to a journey of discovery. The Opus 38 quintet has a name, “The Bullet;” and the entire composition is programmatic in nature. It serves as a document of a hunting party in which Onslow participated in 1829. Unfortunately, his mind was more on composition than on the hunt. He found a place in the forest where he could settle down and sketch out some thoughts. Unfortunately, the place was not as secluded as he thought; and he was felled by a shot by one of the other hunters.

The Opus 38 quintet begins by recalling the sound of that shot and the anguish that ensued. The “Menuetto” movement that follows departs from any conventions related to that dance form far more radically than Joseph Haydn ever did. The tempo is a wild Presto qualified by the words “Dolore, febbre e delirio” (pain, fever, and delirium). This is followed by an Andante sostenuto depicting convalescence, and the Finale movement concludes the composition with the representation of recovery.

This quintet is clearly a product of very vivid memories. However, Onslow’s ability to convert those memories into a lexicon of themes and harmonic progressions is almost uncanny. Indeed, while it may not have been appropriate to the physical state the composer was recalling, I found myself smiling with recognition of the power of his themes to represent the many facets of what was clearly a highly traumatic experience. As Slowik’s notes observe, Onslow’s reputation quickly declined after his death in 1853; but, if his Opus 38 is representative of his work, he is clearly a composer worthy of more attention.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Lab to Host Major Evening of Improvisation

Once again The Lab has announced a significant event that deserves advance notice before it is due to show up in the weekly Bleeding Edge article. The program is entitled simply An Evening of Improvisation. However, the evening will bring together five participants, all of whom have strong reputations for their highly imaginative approaches to invention. To the best of my knowledge, the program will be a two-set evening with a duo in the first set and a trio in the second.

The duo set will be of particular interest because it will entail a visit to San Francisco by French bass player Joëlle Léandre. Léandre performed with the Ensemble InterContemporain back when it was still being led by its founder, Pierre Boulez. She championed new music in her recitals, and both John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi composed works for her. However, she has a long-standing interest in genre-independent free improvisation that dates back at least as far as 1983. For her visit to The Lab, she will be joined by saxophonist Philip Greenlief, whose adventurous approaches to improvisation have been performed at any number of venues here in San Francisco, including the Center for New Music.

Guitarist Fred Frith (right) playing with two of his colleagues, percussionist Nava Dunkelman (left) and violinist gabby fluke-mogul (center) (courtesy of The Lab)

The second set will feature English guitarist Fred Frith, who was a major figure in the avant-rock movement half a century ago. He continues to pursue adventurous approaches to making music and now teaches in the Music Department at Mills College, where he is Professor of Composition. He will be joined by two adventurous improvisers of the current generation, who often perform as a duo. They are violinist gabby fluke-mogul and percussionist Nava Dunkelman.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 14. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street, which is a short walk to the east from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Admission will be $15, and there will be no charge for for members. Seats may be reserved through a login Web page for members and a guest registration Web page for others. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m., and it is usually the case that a long line has accumulated before then.

SFP Launches Season by Honoring Stravinsky

Sean Jones and Regina Carter (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in the Veterans Building, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its new season with its annual gala, whose proceeds provide funding for its educational and outreach programs. As usual, the schedule for the festivities allowed for about an hour of music featuring one or more guest artists that have become favorite visitors to SFP concerts. This year the performance was devoted to a single composition, which received its first performance exactly 100 years ago yesterday. That composition was Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale).

This music was composed a time when World War I was winding down, probably as much from exhaustion as from actual combat. Stravinsky had been waiting out the war in Switzerland since 1915, and his finances were strained. (He accused Serge Diaghilev of not providing the royalties due to him for the music he had composed for the Ballets Russes.) He collaborated with Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to create a theater piece with minimal resources based on a Russian folk tale. The resulting score for “L’Histoire du Soldat” required only seven instrumentalists playing, respectively violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion. Ramuz’ text, in turn, specified three actors and one dancer. The whole production could fit in the proverbial “back of a truck,” making for a low-budget “road show.”

Last night’s featured guest artists included tenor Nicholas Phan as the sole narrator of Ramuz’ script. He was joined by former Artist-in-Residence Regina Carter taking the key instrumental part of violin. (The tale itself is about a soldier selling his soul to the Devil; and the violin serves as the “embodiment” of that soul.) She was joined by current Artist-in-Residence Sean Jones on cornet. Given that Stravinsky had written his score under the influence of jazz that had migrated from the United States to Europe, last night provided an opportunity for jazz players to offer their “response” to Stravinsky’s perspective on jazz. Carter and Jones were joined by two other quality jazz players, Robin Eubanks on trombone and Aneesa Strings on bass. The other three musicians were Justin Sun on percussion, Patrick Johnson-Whitty on bassoon, and Natalie Parker on clarinet, replacing originally scheduled Jeannie Psomas. (Parker is probably best known by readers of this site as a founding member of the Farallon Quintet.) The ensemble was conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe.

No efforts were made to “jazz up” the score. All four of the jazz players had little apparent trouble with fitting into a chamber music setting and giving all the marks on paper their proper due. As the “lead” performer, Carter had a solid command of not only the technical demands of engaging with her instrument but also the deliberately eccentric rhythms of Stravinsky’s scoring. For the most part the remaining instrumental parts are there to provide context and reflection on the violin’s portrayal of the soldier’s character. The Devil, on the other hand, is usually embodied through full ensemble work; and his concluding “Triumphal March” ultimately resolves into a percussion solo in which an ostinato rhythm gradually builds to a blood-curdling climax.

As narrator, Phan had no trouble using tone of voice to differentiate the different characters in Ramuz’ narrative. Much of the text is deliberate doggerel, which migrated from French to English with little difficulty. (In her opening greeting SFP President Melanie Smith cited Michael Tilson Thomas as a contributor to last night’s translation.) The only key element missing from the original conception was the dancer. However, since the roles for the actors had all been distilled down to a text for a single narrator, that absence was not particularly critical. Overall, the tale is a bit on the longish side; and much of the music recurs (to accommodate the text of the script) a bit too often. Stravinsky would subsequently extract a suite from his full score, whose account of the narrative is almost as effective as the original production.

By way of an encore, the four jazz players returned to the stage for a rather extended take on “Night Train.” (For the record, it has been many decades since I heard anyone play this music in concert or on recording!) Each of the four had plenty of time to unfold a highly imaginative sequence of improvisations on the tune. When the tune itself returned in Carter’s hands, Jones and Eubanks were there with some belly-laugh punctuations. After about an hour of jazz-influenced Stravinsky, the encore made for a delightful reminder of the origins of those influences.

Friday, September 28, 2018

One Found Sound Launches Season Tomorrow

Members of the One Found Sound string section (courtesy of One Found Sound)

Last month this site reported that One Found Sound (OFS) would be launching its sixth season earlier than usual. For those who need reminding, “earlier” means tomorrow night! For those unfamiliar with the ensemble, OFS calls itself (on its home page) a “conductorless” collaborative chamber orchestra. Leadership is shared among the players according to the demands of the music, exactly as it is in smaller chamber music settings. Decisions about repertoire, as well as administrative matters, are decided collaboratively. Those who think this is all blue-sky idealistic should go back to the first sentence of this paragraph and bear in mind that the group has produced five seasons of highly engaging and well-executed programming.

As in the past, the season will consist of three concerts. This year the programming for those concerts has been organized around the overarching theme of storytelling; and, as a result, each of the programs is being called a “chapter.” Each chapter, in turn, has its own title; and, for the first of those chapters, that title is “Kinship.”

That title will be honored explicitly with a performance of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” whose title translates as “brothers.” The overture for the program will be that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro, whose plot development involves the disclosure of unanticipated parental relations. The remainder of the program will be devoted to the ten relatively short pieces that Antonín Dvořák collected under the title “Legends.” These were originally written for four hands on one keyboard but were later arranged for a reduced orchestra. None of the pieces have titles that would suggest narrative content, let alone kinship; but the rhetoric that pervades the entire cycle tends to evoke a storyteller’s voice.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. tomorrow night, Saturday, September 29. The venue will be familiar to those who have attended past OFS concerts, Heron Arts in SoMa, located at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street, All tickets are being sold for $25. They may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page.

More Satisfying Neoclassical Stravinsky from SFS

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave the first performance in the second week of its two-week series of concerts devoted entirely to the music of Igor Stravinsky. As was the case last week, the program contrasted the Russian and Neoclassical periods of Stravinsky’s development as a composer; and only one neoclassical composition was performed. That piece was the 1931 violin concerto in D, which predated last week’s Neoclassical offering, “Perséphone,” by about two years. It was framed on either side by each of the two ballet scores that followed “The Firebird.” These were presented in chronological order, opening with “Petrushka” (composed in 1911 but performed in its 1947 revision) and concluding with “The Rite of Spring” (composed in 1913 and again performed in its 1947 revision).

The concerto soloist was the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who has been consistently welcome in the performances he has brought to Davies. Furthermore, the music was far more representative of Stravinsky’s Neoclassical thinking than “Perséphone” had been last week. It also reflected a far more sanguine attitude towards string instruments, both solo and ensemble, than was encountered in “Perséphone.”

From a structural point of view, the movement titles may best be viewed as a friendly nod to Johann Sebastian Bach. The concerto begins with a “Toccata” (as several of Bach’s keyboard compositions had done). It is then followed by a succession of two movements called “Aria,” possibly with a nod to Bach’s larger-scale sacred compositions. It then concludes with a “Capriccio” (the title Bach used for a keyboard composition dedicated to his brother).

Unlike Bach, however, Stravinsky endowed these four movements with a unifying concept, a single chord (if one can call it that) that leaps across two wide intervals:

The chord that unifies the movements of Stravinsky’s violin concerto (digital notation by McLennonSon, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

When Samuel Dushkin, for whom the concerto was written, first saw this chord, he deemed it unplayable; but he then discovered that it fit comfortably on his hands when taking into account the strings of his violin. Stravinsky would call this chord the “passport” to the entire concerto.

Most listeners probably recognize that each movement begins with a single chord based on wide intervals, even if they do not realize that it is the same chord recurring across the concerto. However, this chord serves simply to get the listener’s attention (which it does very well), after which each movement develops its own thematic vocabulary. One would hardly confuse Stravinsky’s approach to exposition and development with anything Bach ever wrote, but one can still detect the twinkle in his eye as each movement concludes with a gesture of recapitulation.

That twinkle was clearly evident, in the gestural approaches to his violin if not in his eye, in Kavakos’ approach to the solo work Stravinsky had written. Those high spirits were complemented by the dazzling display on instrumental sonorities that provide the framework for those violin solos. Indeed, the wide intervals of that “passport” chord portend not only extreme registers in the instrumental writing but also highly imaginative approaches to how the instruments are combined. MTT clearly caught the high spirits of this music, resulting in a highly satisfying account of the characteristics that distinguished Stravinsky’s Neoclassical style.

Both of the ballet scores on the program constitute a significant departure from the more conventional approach Stravinsky had taken to “The Firebird.” Nevertheless, each of these scores is decidedly Russian; and some excellent scholarly studies have been written that provide roadmaps for all of the sources of Russian folk music that emerge in each of the ballets. (In the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky there is a scene in which Stravinsky is teaching his children to sing one of the tunes he incorporated into his “Petrushka” score.) Furthermore, both of the ballets reflect on different aspects of Russian life, although the “prehistoric” setting for “The Rite of Spring” is significantly less authentic than the evocation of a nineteenth-century pre-Lenten carnival is in “Petrushka.”

Musically, however, “The Rite of Spring” is the score that has burned its way into the annals of music history. There is no need to retell the story of the riot that broke out during the first performance of the ballet. Provocation had as much to do with the crude departures from the traditions of classical ballet that choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had concocted as with the incessant volleys of dissonance that assaulted the listeners’ ears in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. (To be fair, however, listeners were already on edge after the opening notes of a bassoon in an inordinately high register.)

By now I have lost track of the number of times I have listened to this score in Davies. Indeed, I have lost track of the number of times I have listened just to MTT conducting that score. Nevertheless, I have always come away with the sense of a fresh and in-the-moment account that consistently provides me with different ways of perceiving the many adventurous qualities of Stravinsky’s score.

Last night I had a particularly good vantage point from which I could appreciate the prodigious diversity of instruments Stravinsky deployed in that score. (I still have no idea how they all fit into an orchestra pit for a ballet performance.) As in the past MTT always found the right way to blend those resources, keeping the dissonances as shocking as ever by virtue of their sharp contrasts with quieter passages.

“Petrushka” similarly draws upon the resources of a large ensemble, although many of its approaches to dissonance are far more subtle (such as representing the title character as a fanfare in parallel tritones). Most important, however, is the music for the crowd scenes. Michel Fokine could not have been more ingenious in summoning up carnival images in which many things happen at once, distributed across the stage. Even more ingenious, however, was Stravinsky’s ability to endow each of those “things” with its own thematic representation. He could then summon up simultaneities in the score that reflected every simultaneity on stage arising from Fokine’s choreography.

The fact is that this score makes the most sense when one listens to it while viewing that choreography. The ballet itself makes for one of the most imaginative conjunctions of the visual and the auditory that one is ever likely to encounter in the history of staged works performed to music accompaniment. For the most part MTT knew exactly how to manage all of that auditory diversity, making for a performance that could stand just as well on its own, even for those unfamiliar with Fokine’s choreography.

Nevertheless, there is one point in which Stravinsky’s almost seems to be defying the conductor to give a fair account of all of that diversity. In the last of the four tableaux, the first episode is a dance of wet-nurses to a familiar Russian folk tune. When that tune is first stated in its entirety, Stravinsky snuck into the parts for the high winds a recapitulation of the opening theme of the entire score. So much is going on at that point that, more often than not, those winds are inaudible; and one has to wonder whether Stravinsky was playing a practical joke on his conductor, Pierre Monteux. As might be guessed, one is more likely to detect that recapitulation on a well-engineered recording (such as the one that Monteux himself made many years later with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) than in an actual performance; and I really had to struggle to convince myself that the opening theme was one of the many threads woven together in last night’s account. In the grand scheme of things, however, this is a mere mote in the metaphorical eye of the beholder!

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Choices for October 19–21, 2018

According to my records, October was the first month of last season that required serious listeners to make hard choices. Since it is early in the season, several of those choices involve season-opening concerts; and, as in the past, I shall use this occasion to summarize the entirety of those seasons. In fact, as of this morning, it appears that those summaries will outnumber the one-off events. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, October 19, 7 p.m., 405 Shrader: Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will be giving their first performance of the season this Sunday at SF Music Day 2018; but their first full program will lead off next month’s busy weekend. The title of that recital will be Emigres & Exiles in Hollywood. As was recently observed, during the Thirties and Forties Los Angeles became a cultural sanctuary for a rich diversity of European artists and intellectuals, some of whom, such as Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Miklós Rózsa, would make significant marks working on providing soundtracks for Hollywood movies. The E4TT trio of soprano Nanette McGuinness, cellist Anne Lerner-Wright, and pianist Dale Tsang will cast a wide net in surveying the achievements of many of those émigré composers in a program that will also include music composed by E4TT co-founder David Garner.

As might be guessed, 405 Shrader is the address of the venue, located at the corner of Oak Street near the Panhandle. Accommodations are modest, so the only way to guarantee a seat will be to make a reservation. Admission for all will be $20, and tickets may be ordered through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

E4TT will present two other full concerts in San Francisco this season as follows:
  1. Saturday, January 26, 7:30 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): This will be the latest installment in performing the results of the 56 x 54 Call for Scores issued in 2015. The title of this program will be 56 x 54: “But Wait! There’s More!” The offerings will include works by nine women composers, and there will be one world premiere and four West Coast premieres. Garner’s music will again be included in the program with selections from his revision of his Cinq Hommages. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission for this concert will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and $5 for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page.
  2. Sunday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): The final San Francisco performance will be a co-production with MaryClare Brzytwa and the SFCM Technology and Applied Composition Department. The program will feature world premieres of commissions inspired by the film noir genre. Xin Zhao will be guest pianist for this occasion. The performance will take place in the Osher Salon. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Muni Van Ness Station. There will be no charge for admission to this concert.
Friday, October 19, 7:30 p.m., Adobe Books: As has been the case in the past, the performers for the next three-set evening will be identified only by their URLs as follows: Dax Pierson, Beast Nest, and Marc Manning. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. The concert 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.

Friday, October 19, 7:30 p.m., Monument: groupmuse will host a Massivemuse to be presented by the Vinifera Trio, consisting of pianist Ian Scarfe, violinist Rachel Patrick, and clarinetist Matthew Boyles. They will be joined by cellist Matthew Boyles for a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). As many readers probably know, Messiaen composed and first performed this quartet in 1940 during his internment at the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp in what was then called Görlitz (now in Poland and called Zgorzelec). The performance will be preceded by a video/photo introduction to both Messiaen and this specific composition.

Monument is located in SoMa at 140 9th Street.  Admission will be $20 with a $5 discount for supporting Supermusers. The Web page for this event includes an interactive map showing the location of the venue and a hyperlink for advance purchase of tickets. However, Web-based transactions require creating a Groupmuse account, which will be password-protected. Guests are invited to bring their own drinks; but, because they may be alcoholic, all ticket-holders must be aged 21 or older.

Friday, October 19, 7:30 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: As was previously announced, the Poppy will be hosting a jazz quartet presenting a program entitled Original Music Borrowing from Old & New.

Friday, October 19, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The California Bach Society and its Artistic Director Paul Flight will begin their 2018–2019 season, appropriately enough, with a program consisting entirely of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The major work on the program will be the BWV 234 Mass setting in A major. The second half of the program will present two cantatas, one sacred and one secular. The sacred cantata will be BWV 118, O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (O Jesus Christ, light of my life). It will be followed by a mourning ode for Saxon Electoress and Polish Queen Christiane Eberhardine, the BWV 198 Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (Princess, allow still one more glance). The opening selection will be taken from the appendix to Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog, the BWV Anh. 159 motet for double choir Ich lasse dich nicht (I will not let you go).

There will be three remaining concerts in this season’s programming, all of which will also take place on Friday evenings beginning at 8 p.m. in St. Mark’s. These will be as follows:
  1. November 30: The title of the program will be Five centuries of Italian Christmas music, and the repertoire will extend from the Renaissance to a composition by Ottorino Respighi.
  2. March 1: This program will be devoted entirely to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.
  3. April 26: The program, entitled I Maestri Italiani a Vienna, will feature the music of two Italian composers who flourished at the Hapsburg Court, Giovanni Valentini and Antonio Bertali.
St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Subscriptions for the entire season are still on sale. General admission is $95 with an $80 rate for seniors and $35 for those under the age of 30. Subscriptions may be purchased through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Tickets for individual concerts are $30, $25, and $10, respectively. Brown Paper Tickets event pages have been created for all four concerts and may be found through the hyperlinks on the above dates.

Saturday, October 20, 7:30 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: As of this writing, there will be only one event on Saturday; but it will be a significant one. This will be the first season in which Eric Dudley will serve as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), which will be presenting its 48th season. The season will begin with a special celebration of the music of Elliott Carter entitled Carter and Beyond: Invention and Inspiration. The program will present three of Carter’s compositions, “A 6 Letter Letter,” “Changes,” and “Penthode,” as well as the world-premiere of a composition inspired by Carter and commissioned by SFCMP, “Big Show” by Tobin Chodos. The program will also include Sabrina Schroeder’s essay in the sensuality of noises, “Bone Games/Shy Garden.” As usual there will be a free How Music is Made Program held at 4 p.m., which will include an open dress rehearsal of Chodos’ composition, after which he will engage in discussion with Dudley. There will also be the usual pre-concert discussion with performers beginning at 6:45 p.m.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. General admission will be $35, with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from an SFCMP event page.

This will be the first of the four 2018–2019 season concerts that will be led by Dudley. Two of those concerts will be presented as a group entitled Guerrilla Sounds: Julius Eastman’s Legacy, taking place at 7:30 p.m. on both Friday, May 10, and Saturday, May 11. The performances will be at the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street on the northwest corner of Fell Street. The remaining concert will be the next installment of the in the LABORATORY series, and it will be entitled Auto-Tuning Ives. It will run from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), located at 50 Oak Street, near the Van Ness Muni station.

Subscriptions for the entire season are still on sale for $170 for general admission and $85 for students. SFCMP has created a Web page describe the full scope of subscriber benefits. It also includes hyperlinks for two purchasing options.

Finally, there will be two free events:
  1. Sunday, December 16, 3 p.m., The Women’s Building: This will be an in the COMMUNITY event for which audience participation will be encouraged. The first selection will be “Paragraph 7” from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. This will be followed by Pauline Oliveros’ “deep listening” piece, “Sonic Meditation.” The Women’s Building is located in the Mission at 3543 18th Street #8, about halfway between Valencia Street and Guerrero Street.
  2. Thursday, February 21, 7:30 p.m., SFCM: Kyle Bruckmann, an expert in extended techniques played on double-reed instruments, will lead a Master Class for SFCM students.
Sunday, October 21, 4 p.m., Church of the Advent of Christ the King: This season Music Director Paul Ellison has organized the eight concerts in his Third Sundays at 4 O’Clock series around a common theme. Each event will provide an opportunity to hear scripture spoken in the context of prayer and music from the Anglican choral tradition. The choral music will be provided by resident choir Schola Adventus, and the scripture selections will be based on specific services. The service for the first performance will be Pentecost XXII. [added 10/15, 1:35 p.m.: The prelude for this service will be the Adagio movement from the fifth organ symphony by Charles-Marie Widor. The postlude will be a G minor fantasia by Johann Pachelbel. The service itself will include plainchant and compositions by Richard Ayleward, Herbert Sumsion, William Blitheman, and Walter Vale.]Those for the remaining seven Sundays will be as follows:
  1. November 18: Pentecost XXVI
  2. December 16: Advent III (Rose)
  3. January 20: Epiphany II
  4. February 17: Epiphany VI
  5. March 17: Lent II
  6. May 19: Easter V
  7. June 16: The Most Hold Trinity
No admission will be charged, but donations will be requested. Those planning of attending should be advised that each of these events will cost approximately $500. The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center.

Sunday, October 21, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: This will be the first concert to be offered by American Bach Soloists following their Sparkle 2018 gala this coming Saturday. As has already been announced, the title of this program will be Off to the Hunt! Both subscriptions and single tickets are still for sale, also as previously announced. A pre-concert talk will be given by Victor Gavenda one hour before the performance begins.

Sunday, October 21, 7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the first of two concerts to be performed when the Mariinsky Orchestra performs as guests of the San Francisco Symphony. Valery Gergiev will conduct, and the piano soloist will be Denis Matsuev. The program will consist entirely of music by Igor Stravinsky. The concertante offering will be his “Capriccio.” Instrumental selections will include “Fireworks,” “Symphony in Three Movements,” “Symphony in C,” and the 1919 version of the suite Stravinsky prepared with music from his score for the ballet “The Firebird.”

Tickets for this concert will be between $35 and $99. Tickets 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 Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, 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. It will also open two hours before the performance begins.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Pierre Boulez, que me veux-tu?

Pierre Boulez on the cover of his Deutsche Grammophon album of his complete works (from Amazon.com)

In continuing to pursue my interest in the relationship between the listener’s point of view and the performer’s point of view, I finally decided to sit down with one of Pierre Boulez’ more notorious essays, whose title is a quotation, “Sonate, que me veux-tu?” The translation is best phrased as “Sonata, what do you want of me?” For some reason I had believed that it originated with Claude Debussy; but it actually goes back to the transition between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is attributed to Bernard Le Bouvier de Fontenelle. It was a reasonable question for him to ask when there was little sense of “sonata form” other than a collection of movements, not to mention that vast library of single-movement sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti.

Boulez chose this title for an article, which was first published in German in 1960 in Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik. The article was intended as a discussion of his third piano sonata. It was first translated into English by David Noakes and Paul Jacobs for publication in Perspectives of New Music and subsequently translated again by Martin Cooper for Jean-Jacques’ Nattiez’ collection of Boulez’ writings in the volume Orientations. 1960 also happens to be the year in which György Ligeti’s analysis of Boulez’ “Structure Ia” appeared in Die Reihe.

These two essays could not be more different. Most importantly, Ligeti was dealing with a composition that had been completed (in 1951), performed (in 1952), and published by Universal Edition (presumably in time for its first performance). Ligeti’s article is one of meticulous description that addresses the interplay between decision (specific commitments to structure on a variety of different time scales) and automatism (specifications that are  “bound logically” to the decisions). By the end of the article Ligeti even provides the reader with some sense of those “features” emerging from the automatism stage that are likely to be apprehended by attentive listening.

Boulez’ own article could not be more different. It is more like a progress report than an account of a completed composition. The overall structure of the sonata consisted of five “formants,” each of which had its own self-contained logic for both composition and execution. However, after discussing the first three formants, “Antiphonie,” “Trope,” and “Constellation” (which included the “mirror image” “Constellation–Miroir”), Boulez confesses that he will not discuss the remaining two formants, “Strophe” and “Séquence,” because “their forms are not yet definitive, having been put on one side and then interrupted by other works.” Indeed, in the Deutsche Grammophon collection of Boulez’ complete works, the recording of the third sonata, performed by Paavali Jumppanen, accounts for only two of the formants, “Trope” and “Constellation–Miroir.” Any connection between what one reads about these tropes in Boulez’ article and the experience of listening to Jumppanen is left, as they say, as an “exercise for the student!”

However, any shortcomings in Boulez’ talent for the art of verbal description are balanced (so to speak) by the first half of his article, which amounts to no-holds-barred polemic. Reading these outbursts can be entertaining, perhaps even as entertaining as coming up with counterexamples to the more outrageous assertions. However, we must be fair to Boulez and remember that, when he wrote his text, his experience with conducting was probably limited almost entirely to his work in the Domaine musical concert series, almost all of which involved composers who shared his polemic dispositions.

It is probably fair to say that, as a conductor, Boulez’ perspective changed when his attention shifted from his own experiences as a composer to those of past composers, such as Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler. It is hard to imagine that he approached either of these composers from one of the perspectives he voiced in his sonata paper:
Finally, Western classical music is opposed to all active participation, and this sometimes makes it difficult to establish any really significant contact, even if actual boredom does not intervene between the musical object and the listener contemplating it.
The very fact that he recognized that, in such music, a conductor needed “to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out” (as James Oestreich reported when writing about Boulez for The New York Times) makes it clear that by 2009 (when Oestreich wrote his article) Boulez had distanced himself from his 1960 outburst. Such a sorting-out process necessarily entailed “active participation,” first between conductor and ensemble and subsequently between performers and listeners.

Reading that passage reminds me of when Roger Sessions held the Norton Chair at Harvard University and gave his requisite six “poetics” lectures. What I remember most from that experience was Sessions’ remark that a composer should be able to listen to something he wrote ten years earlier without blushing. While the noun “sang-froid” tends to come to mind whenever my thoughts turn to Boulez’ personality, I have to wonder: Did he ever reread his 1960 diatribe against Western classical music later in life; and could he do so without blushing?

Hear Now and Then to Celebrate Monteverdi

Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

This season’s Hear Now and Then Series presented by San Francisco Performances will begin solidly on the “then” side of the balance with a program of vocal and instrumental Italian music from the seventeenth century. Vocalists will be Jolle Greenleaf, Artistic Director of TENET Vocal Artists, and her TENET colleague Molly Quinn. Instrumental support will be provided by the Quicksilver ensemble led by violinist Robert Mealy, whose other members are violinist Julie Andrijeski, cellist David Morris, harpsichordist Avi Stein, and Charles Weaver on theorbo. The program will pay special attention to Claudio Monteverdi and the madrigals he composed for one or two voices. Other composers to be represented on the program will be Giovanni Paola Cima, Giovanni Battista Fontana, Francesco Turini, Martino Pesenti, and Dario Castello.

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 12. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just to the west of the intersection with Franklin Street. Single tickets are on sale for $65 on the ground floor and $45 for the balcony. They may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page. Because this is the first concert in its series, subscriptions are still available. The price levels for the series of four concerts are $250, $205, and $155; and City Box Office has a separate event page for online purchase.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Other Minds Announces 2018–2019 Season

This season Other Minds (OM) will be busier than in the past. Activities will include a collaboration with the David Brower Center in Berkeley; but this article will focus (as most of the articles on this site do) on the events that will take place in San Francisco. These will include the three-concert OM Festival 24, which will take place in March and June of next year. This season, however, the Festival will be preceded by two piano recitals, each involving two pianists, and the launch of a concert series at the Center for New Music (C4NM) curated by OM Associate Director Blaine Todd. Specifics, given in chronological order, are as follows:

Wednesday, October 10, 7 p.m., C4NM: As has already been reported, Todd will launch his Latitudes series with an evening of sets taken by guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama and violinist John Krausbauer, details of which have been provided in the article about October performances at C4NM.

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley (courtesy of Other Minds)

Wednesday, December 5, 7:30 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA): The “official” season will begin with an evening consisting entirely of the piano works of Terry Riley. Riley himself will play “Simply M” and “Requiem for Wally,” the latter written in memory of his close friend and teacher Wally Rose, a pianist who specialized in ragtime. The second pianist on the program will be Gloria Cheng. She will play selections from The Heaven Ladder, Book 7, which she commissioned Riley to compose.

This program will be presented at the YBCA Forum, which is on the west side of Third Street between Howard Street and Mission Street (directly across from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). All tickets are being sold for $45. Tickets may be purchased in advance through an event page on the YBCA Web site.

Ticket information has not yet been announced for the remaining events on the schedule as follows:

Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: Having appeared together to honor Lou Harrison at the OM Festival 22 last year, Dennis Russell Davies and his wife Maki Namekawa will return to OM to perform arrangements of orchestral music for two pianos. The first of these will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s own arrangement of his Opus 43 (fourth) symphony in C minor, an arrangement being given its West Coast premiere. This will be followed by Igor Stravinsky’s two-piano arrangement of his “Symphony of Psalms.” The Diane and Tad Taube Atrium Theater is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street.

Saturday, March 23, 8 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: OM Festival 24 will feature the rarely heard piano and string chamber music of Franco-Russian microtonal composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky. For the first program the Arditti Quartet will visit from London to play Wyschnegradsky’s three string quartets, a work called simply “Composition for String Quartet,” and a trio for violin, viola, and cello. The program will also include the second string quartet by George Haas, an admirer of Wyschnegradsky.

Friday, June 15, 8 p.m., YBCA: The second OM Festival 24 concert will consist entirely of the world premiere of an evening-length work by American composer Brian Baumbusch. Like Harrison, Baumbusch has constructed his own new gamelan instruments, many of which will be employed in this performance, which will require 25 players (but has not yet been given a title). Performers will include Baumbusch’s percussion ensemble Lightbulb, our own Friction Quartet, a keyboardist, and four singers, yet to be named. This concert will be presented in the YBCA Theater, which is on the northwest concert of Third Street and Howard Street.

Saturday, June 16, 8 p.m., YBCA: OM Festival 24 will conclude by returning to the music of Wyschnegradsky, this time presenting his piano music. Most of the selections on the program will require four pianos, two of which will be tuned down a quarter-tone. Performances will be by a vast array of special guest pianists visiting from Los Angeles. This concert will also take place in the YBCA Theater.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Levant’s Final Columbia Recording Session

Back cover of Sony Classical’s Oscar Levant collection (from Amazon.com)

All of the tracks on the final disc in Sony Classical’s eight-CD anthology of all Columbia Records recordings of pianist Oscar Levant, A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, were taken from recordings made on a single day, June 5, 1958. Levant was only 51 at the time. A lifelong heavy smoker, Levant would succumb to a heart attack at the age of 65 on August 14, 1972. This session is far from Levant’s “last word” at the keyboard; but, not long after this session, he chose to move on to other things.

The first of those things was his own television talk show, called simply The Oscar Levant Show. Levant used this as a platform for playing the piano, but talk was his priority. It emerged through his own monologues and interviews, often with guests one would not associated with a “show-business personality.” A representative example was Linus Pauling.

Mind you, Levant was far from the only talk show host willing to respect the intelligence of his audience. Jack Paar consistently played in the same league; and, as I already observed, one of his guests was Levant. Later on there would be Steve Allen, whose Meeting of Minds reconceived the talk-show format to present “guests” from the past (embodied, of course, by actors working with scripts that Allen himself had a hand in developing). (I remember being totally hooked when Public Broadcasting Service presented this series. Unless I am mistaken, Attila the Hun and Emily Dickinson were guests on the same program; but the real tour de force came when William Shakespeare was interrupted by a “surprise appearance” of the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, played by Allen’s wife, Jayne Meadows, with impeccable command of iambic pentameter!)

However, as Paar liked to say, I digress. One of the things I particularly liked about this last session was that Levant was able to complete an undertaking that went all the way back to January 10, 1942, when Columbia allowed him to record only the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s sonatina for their Popular Moderns album. It took over fifteen years for Levant to give an account of the entire sonatina, but it was worth the wait. The session also allowed him to revisit many of the selections that ended up on his recordings of Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy and even added some of the Chopin mazurkas to the mix (not always with much sensitivity to the dance form but enough sensitivity to be true to Chopin).

The real treat, however, came at the end of this CD with Levant’s venture into Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 22 collection Visions fugitives. He plays only six of the twenty pieces in this set, all of which, as Prokofiev’s title suggests, are impeccable models of brevity. (The duration of the six pieces he plays is only slightly longer than six minutes.) Sadly, this is Prokofiev’s only appearance in the entire collection. I would like to believe that Levant wanted audiences to know how much more there was to Prokofiev other than “Peter and the Wolf” and that his ambitions were thwarted, at least in part, by Columbia’s “middle-brow” dispositions. Still, we have to remember that these were days when few were willing to believe that such recordings could be scholarly resources; so we just have to derive what pleasures we can from what record producers allowed us to get.

The Bleeding Edge: 9/24/2014

Once again, only two events have not yet been taken into account for the coming week. Here is a list of venues with hyperlinks to their respective articles regarding performances already previewed:
Specifics for the remaining two events are as follows:

Thursday, September 27, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s installment of the LSG Creative Music Series will offer three sets of free improvisations. The first set will be taken by the Slither Syndicate duo of Wolfgang Chan and Andre Custodio. They work directly with electronic gear to create spontaneous sound compositions, often associated with movie soundtracks. Custodio is also giving two-hour performances on Saturday mornings, bringing his gear to Bird & Beckett Books and Records. The second set will be a performance by Alphastare involving different genres of digital and analog sounds. The program will then conclude with Key West, a free jazz trio consisting of saxophonist Brian Pedersen, cellist Randylee Sutherland, and drummer Jay Korber. 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.

Monday, October 1, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: This will also be a three-set evening, featuring the cutting edge of Bay Area jazz and improvisation. The opening set will involve extended improvisation by saxophonist David Pate, accompanied by Steve Cohn at the piano. The second set will be an electronic approach to jazz by a trio called Manul Override. Electronics are provided by Amanda Chaudhary (who also works with keyboards) and Melne (also on guitar). The third member of the trio is vocalist Serena Toxicat. The final set will be taken by a tribute band honoring the music of Ornette Coleman. Members are saxophonists Steve Adams (alto) and Phillip Greenlief (tenor), two guitarists (Myles Boisen and John Finkbeiner), Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Hanes on drums.

The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome! Doors will open at 8 p.m.

More Positive Impressions of SFO’s Donizetti

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House to experience the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux for a second time. Readers may recall that, while the imaginative staging of Stephen Lawless did much to sustain the dramatic impact of this opera, I felt that, on opening night, the bel canto core of the musical performance left much to be desired. On that occasion my positive thoughts were limited to the solid account of Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, by mezzo Jamie Barton, while my greatest disappointment was with Sandra Radvanovsky in the role of Elizabeth I. I was also concerned about conductor Riccardo Frizza but added a disclaimer that some of the problems may have had more to do with Donizetti than with Frizza or any of the performers on stage.

Yesterday afternoon was far more satisfying, particularly where Radvanovsky was concerned. This led me to entertain another hypothesis about my first experience, which was that, in many ways, Lawless was the driving force behind the whole production. He establishes Elizabeth’s presence from the very beginning of the overture, with extended mime work of the aged queen providing a visual context for the historical background provided through the projected titles. Even before singing her first notes, Radvanovsky had to establish a solid sense of Elizabeth’s character; and Lawless’ staging involved an abundance of physical traits and gestures through which that character was sustained through the conclusion of the narrative with the succession of James I to the throne of England.

With such a dramatic burden to bear, it should not have been surprising that, on opening night, Radvanovsky had a lot on her mind. Doing justice to the virtually acrobatic demands that Donizetti imposed on her role while honoring every last physical movement specified by Lawless must have been quite a burden. (The old joke about chewing gum while walking downstairs comes to mind, rather at a personal level right now, since I have to negotiate stairs with crutches!) At yesterday afternoon’s performance, the fifth of six, she seemed more settled into both the dramatic and musical requirements. As a result her vocal work was far more confident, particularly when she had to take on the excesses of the many cadenzas Donizetti had written into her part.

Indeed, when it comes to responsibility to the music as a whole, I would now say that blame for negligence should be laid solidly on Donizetti, while Frizza should be given the musical equivalent of a Purple Heart for making the best of a difficult situation. As I previously observed, bel canto is only “bel” when the vocalist can provide solid accounts of pitch, phrasing, and balance with both the orchestra and, when necessary, the other vocalists. On opening night almost all of my satisfaction came from Barton and her duo work with Russell Thomas in the title role, the Earl of Essex. However, from the vantage point of my subscription seat, I was in a better position to observe Frizza’s work in the orchestra pit and could better appreciate how Donizetti had given him a tough nut to crack.

Of those “three qualities of bel,” pitch is the most critical, particularly in cadenza passages in which the pitches change at a breakneck pace. Now, whatever anyone may try to tell you about “perfect pitch,” in any performance that is not a bare-bones solo, relative pitch is all that matters. While this may be most evident in chamber music performances, where, for example, a string quartet is at its most convincing when every player is acutely aware of what every other player is doing, what we might call “awareness of pitch context” is always important, regardless of how many resources are involved.

Listening to the SFO Orchestra while watching Frizza at work, I was struck by how little attention Donizetti was giving to such awareness of pitch context in his score. (This was why Thomas was at his best on opening night when singing with Barton. He could establish more pitch context from her than from any of Donizetti’s instrumental writing.) Ultimately, it was no surprise that a problem that pervades the opera’s entire score had not found adequate solution on opening night (and I cannot begin to guess how many performances were required before all the vocalists had “found their footing”).

This brings to mind my favorite story about Giuseppe Verdi (which I think I picked up from Jodi Levitz, back when she was teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music). It would appear that Verdi was fond of using the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven for bedtime reading. He even had a special place for them on the table at his bedside. There are no end of stories about quartet musicians having pitch context problems when first trying to play Beethoven quartets, stories that go back at least as far as the so-called “middle” quartets, with the problems getting more and more serious as one advances into the “late” quartets. Yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me that it was by studying Beethoven that Verdi honed his own skills at providing his singers with not only impeccable voice-leading but also pitch context so well-established that they could focus on the drama as much as the music. Apparently Donizetti did not have such an encounter with Beethoven in his youth or in his maturity!

With the musical foundations so much better established yesterday, I also had the opportunity to take in more of the “secondary” aspects, both dramatic and musical. I was particularly drawn to the vocal exchanges between Sara and her husband (sung by Adler Fellow baritone Andrew Manea). Lawless conceived this as a more down-to-earth encounter with a conflicted relationship, contrasting sharply with the intense interplay between Elizabeth and Essex. I also enjoyed watching Lord Cecil (tenor Scott Quinn, filling in for an ailing Amitai Pati) strong-arming individual members of Parliament to approve the beheading of Essex. (It was hard to avoid thinking about such legislative tactics in our own government!)

For those unfamiliar with the opera’s narrative, Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh (baritone Christian Pursell) are the two influential forces against Essex. Once Essex’ fate has been sealed, we see each of them standing with smug satisfaction on either side of the stage. Cecil has a full cup of wine. Raleigh is smoking a long clay pipe. Why shouldn’t he have been doing so? He was the man who brought tobacco to England! It was Lawless’ attention to such minor details that gave the overall narrative a sense of underlying reality, rather than merely a costume drama.

An amusing reference to Shakespeare during the overture for Roberto Devereux (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

The other memorable tidbit came during the “historical” interpretation of the music for the overture. The titles remind viewers that the era of Elizabeth I was also the era of William Shakespeare. So, on the stage, we see a brief excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Elizabeth in the role of Titania and Shakespeare himself playing Bottom (complete with transformed head). This had absolutely nothing to do with Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto, but it was an amusing way to establish context for a dark narrative.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Oscar Levant in the LP (long-playing) Age

The Fifties was the decade in which Columbia Records phased out all media for recordings of pianist Oscar Levant other than the long-playing (LP) vinyl disc. The seventh CD in the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant brings together the first two vinyl-only albums that Columbia released. These were Oscar Levant Plays Liszt (released on May 21, 1956) and Some Pleasant Moments in the 20th Century (released on November 3, 1958), both of which happened to have exactly the same portrait photograph of Levant taken by Dan Weiner, albeit in different sizes.

The original cover of Oscar Levant’s second vinyl-only release (from Amazon.com)

By the time of that first release, LeRoi Jones (who had not yet changed his name to Amiri Baraka) had declared his fierce opposition to “middle-brow” tastes; and an album entitled Some Pleasant Moments in the 20th Century must have driven him up the wall. I have no idea whether Levant was a subscriber to Down Beat, but I would be surprised if he did not read that journal regularly. My guess is that he sympathized with Jones and probably groaned long and hard (a familiar personality trait) when he learned what the title of that November album would be.

More likely, Levant intended that album to provide an introduction to the general public of a composer who was not receiving very much attention, the Catalan Federico Mompou. Departing from the predominance of “short takes” encountered on most of his earlier releases for Columbia, this album allowed him to give a performance of the suite Scènes d’enfants (scenes of children) in its entirety. Admittedly, Mompou was most comfortable as a miniaturist; and each movement of this suite is a model of highly-expressive brevity. Nevertheless, the fact that Levant wished to approach the suite as a whole made for a welcome episode in surveying the contents of this eight-CD collection.

One consequence, however, is that, on that second album Mompou gets more attention than the other composer included, Maurice Ravel. As a result, only two of the movements from his suite Le tombeau de Couperin are included; and the other selection is the relatively brief “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” That makes the entire album a rather modest offering; but, from my own personal point of view, giving Mompou the spotlight overrides the other speed-bumps that must have been inevitable in most of Levant’s recording projects.

Where the Liszt album is concerned, he certainly catches the spirit of the four Hungarian rhapsodies included on the album. (Both Levant and Columbia also score points for that fact that the notorious second of those rhapsodies was not included. Here, again, discovery of the unfamiliar seems to have been one of Levant’s priorities.) The other selections are the “Sonetto 104 del Petrarca,” from the second “year” of the Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) collection, and the first, in F-sharp major, “Valse oubliée.”

Note that neither of these “long playing” albums is particularly long; but they both hold up very well to sustained listening.

Another Month of Conductors Visiting SFS

Last season the month of May was distinguished by the fact that, in the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concerts, the podium of Davies Symphony Hall was occupied entirely by visiting conductors. Such will be the case again next month. While there will be only three subscription concerts that month, each will feature its own visiting conductor, the last of whom will be making his SFS debut. Specifics for the three visitors and the programs they have prepared are as follows:

October 11–13: Manfred Honeck will be the first of the two conductors returning to Davies. However, he will be joined by a cello soloist, who will be making his SFS debut. This will be the Norwegian cellist Truis Mørk, who will be featured in a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 125 in E minor, which he called a “Symphony-Concerto.” The composer dedicated this piece to its soloist at its premiere performance, Mstislav Rostropovich. The Prokofiev selection will fill the first half of the program and will be followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 (eighth) symphony in G major.

This concert will be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, October 11, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 12, and Saturday, October 13. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Peter Grunberg that will begin one hour before the performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $20 to $156. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Dvořák symphony. Flash must be enabled for both streamed content and online ticket purchases. 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.

October 18–20: The visiting conductor for the second concert of the month will be Pablo Heras-Casado. He will be joined by pianist Javier Perianes, who will be the soloist in a performance of Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto, composed shortly before his death. The remainder of the program will consist entirely of twentieth-century French music, framed by two of the most familiar orchestral works of Maurice Ravel, “Alborada del gracioso” and “Boléro.” The second half of the program will begin with the second of the three Images pieces Claude Debussy composed for orchestra, “Ibéria.”

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, October 18, Friday, October 19, Saturday, October 20. The Inside Music talk will be given by Laura Stansfield Prichard one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $35 to $156, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “Alborada del gracioso” and sound clips of previous SFS performances of both Ravel compositions and the Bartók concerto.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by the first Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal of the season. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 18, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Prichard at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section and Rear Boxes and $45 for seating in the Side Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

October 25–27: The conductor making his debut will be Cristian Mӑcelaru. His soloist will be violinist Ray Chen, playing Édouard Lalo’s Opus 21 “Symphonie espagnole.” The program will also present the world premiere of “Silent Night Elegy,” Kevin Puts’ orchestral arrangement of music from his Silent Night opera, which was co-commissioned by SFS. In addition Mӑcelaru will begin his program with the first SFS performances of Anna Clyne’s “Masquerade.” The program will conclude with the orchestral suite that Richard Strauss extracted from the music for his Opus 59 opera Der Rosenkavalier.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, October 25, Friday, October 26, Saturday, October 27. The Inside Music talk will again be given by Grunberg one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $20 to $156, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound clips of previous SFS performances of the Lalo composition. Rik Malone’s podcast about Strauss’ suite is not, as of this writing, on the event page; but it should appear on the Program Notes Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program.