Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Levant’s International Survey on Columbia

The title of the third CD in the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, collecting all of his recordings for Columbia Records, is Oscar Levant Plays the Music of German, Russian and American Composers. The country that receives the most attention is Germany, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Wagner. Russia is represented by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Aram Khachaturian. (Strictly speaking, Khachaturian is Armenian; but he was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. At the time of his birth, he was a citizen of the Russian Empire and became a Soviet citizen following the Revolution. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and subsequently taught there. Like his colleagues Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, he was subjected to the vagaries of the Soviet authorities. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, left Russia after the Revolution, eventually ending up in the United States.) Levant is one of the two American composers on the disc, the other being Aaron Copland.

As was the case with Oscar Levant Plays Popular Moderns, most of the selections on this CD are relatively short, recorded with consideration for the duration of a single side of a 78 RPM record. Among the German selections, some are short enough to allow two of them to fit on a single side. This is the case, for example, with the coupling of the penultimate of Brahms’ sixteen Opus 39 waltzes (in the key of A-flat major) with “Träumerei” (dreams), the seventh movement from Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 suite Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood).

Consequently, the longest selection on the CD is the second of Beethoven’s Opus 27 sonatas in C-sharp minor, best known by the name “Moonlight.” This would have had a “sales draw” based on the popularity of both the music and the pianist. While the sonata is associated with any number of “higher class” pianists, Levant still deserves his place among the vast population of interpreters. This is much more than a mere accounting of the notes, and he clearly had his own approach regarding how the phrases should be shaped. There is also no evident sign that his Columbia producers were obliging him to keep one eye on the clock while he was playing. Equally impressive is his account of the second movement of the Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) sonata in C minor, making one wish for some document of how he played the outer movements.

Original 78 RMP packaging of music form the film Humoresque, with clips from the film (from Amazon.com)

The “wild card” among the German selections involves Wagner. This involves Levant performing with violinist Isaac Stern in an arrangement by Franz Waxman of music from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Waxman is conducting a studio orchestra, because he prepared this music for the soundtrack of the 1946 Warner Bros. film Humoresque, a torrid account of a romance between an aspiring young violinist (John Garfield) and his older patroness (Joan Crawford). (Levant appeared in this film in the role of the violinist’s accompanist.) The plot involves the violinist preparing a transcription of the “Liebestod” for a concert performance; and we hear that music while watching Crawford drown herself in the Pacific Ocean. As might be guessed, Stern is the center of musical attention on this track, while Levant acquits himself dutifully along with all of the other (anonymous) studio musicians.

The Khachaturian selections, both excerpts from his Gayane ballet (one being the notorious “Sabre Dance”) are also performed with an orchestra, identified only as the Columbia Concert Orchestra. This is what is usually called a “pickup group;” and it is conducted by Lou Bring, who was probably one of the conductors working on recordings for soundtracks. Of greater interest is his approach to three Rachmaninoff preludes, two from the Opus 23 set (the third in D minor and the sixth in E-flat major) and the fifth (in G major) in the Opus 32 set. Note the absence of the “notorious” C-sharp minor prelude (the second in the Opus 3 collection). Levant was clearly more interested in the musical value than in mass approval. One wonders whether Rachmaninoff himself ever heard Levant play and what he thought about Levant’s pedal-heavy approach to the E-flat major selection.

Levant’s own composition, the very last track on the CD is “Blue Plate Special.” This probably would have been called a “novelty” piece when it was first released. It is basically a comic tone poem in miniature depicting a hash house in the midst of its daily lunchtime rush. Nevertheless, rhetorically it is far more convincing than the excerpts from Copland’s “Billy the Kid” ballet arranged for solo piano by Lukas Foss. This is music that thrives on Copland’s ability to take simple tunes and endow them with vibrant life through instrumentation. When they are just tunes they can do little more then prompt memories among those who have seen the ballet in performance.

Isbin and Lubambo to Launch SFP Guitar Series

Sharon Isbin and Romero Lubambo (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The San Francisco Performances (SFP) 2018–2019 Guitar Series will begin next month with a duo recital that will bring American classical guitarist Sharon Isbin together with the innovative Brazilian jazz guitarist Roberto Lubambo. The synthesis of their respective perspectives will come to light with the second (Adagio) movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” arranged for two guitars by Laurindo Almeida. Rodrigo’s concerto has become one of the leading guitar offerings in the concert repertoire. However, Gil Evans’ arrangement of the second movement for Miles Davis triggered other approaches to playing that music by a variety of different jazz artists. Almeida’s arrangement will conclude a program of both original and arranged compositions that will explore the rich diversity of guitar styles that have established themselves over the last century in both recital and jazz settings.

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 13. Single tickets are on sale for $60 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $50 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $40 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and 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 $275, $235, and $180; and City Box Office has a separate event page for online purchase.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 9/17/2018

Owing to the “new regime” of methods for getting out the word for coming events of interest, this will be a week in which events already given account will vastly outnumber the new items. Here is a list of the venues involved and their respective offerings:
  • Adobe Books: the latest evening of adventurous performances, cited in last week’s Bleeding Edge column and taking place this evening, September 17
  • Center for New Music: the Benefit Concert on September 20 and Dirt and Copper on September 21
  • Old First Concerts: Winds of Change on September 21 and the Golden Gate Philharmonic on September 23
  • SFJAZZ: Jane Ira Bloom Quartet on September 23
That leaves only two events remaining to be reported. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, September 19, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This month’s offering of experimental tradition will return to the usual four-set format. As usual the performers and groups often have names as provocative as the music they make. This month’s (unusual?) suspects are: Scott Arford, Jungle Junk, The Fathers, and Filthmilk.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be $5.

Thursday, September 20, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The first set in this week’s installment of the LSG Creative Music Series will be taken by the How Are You Feeling Project, a major undertaking that brings together spoken word, instruments, and electronics. Contributing members will be Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Anna Avery, Mary Behm-Steinberg, Chris Christensen, alex cruse, Kevin Droese, Lenny Gonzalez, Kevin CK Lo, and Angela Roberts. The second set will be taken by the Cartoon Justice quartet, which gave a SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series concert this past June. The quartet consists of Mika Pontecorvo on guitar, Mark Pino on percussion, Elijah Pontecorvo on bass and piano, and Kersti Abrams playing alto saxophone, mbira (thumb piano), and a variety of North African reed instruments. For this performance they will be joined by guest artist Lenny Gonzales on electric cello. 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.

Columbia’s Take on Modernism Via Levant

Original 78 RPM packaging of much of the content on the CD discussed in this article (from Amazon.com)

In the early days of the recording industry, a battle (of sorts) unfolded between Columbia Records and RCA. As was observed in this weekend’s initial piece on the eight-CD anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, Columbia became the label for the New York Philharmonic (and its earlier incarnations) and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while RCA provided a “recording home” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA also had leading individual artists, such as the conductor Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and tenor Enrico Caruso. Columbia had violinist Isaac Stern and composer Igor Stravinsky. Over the somewhat irregular course of his career, pianist Vladimir Horowitz managed to play “both sides of the street.”

This was a time when both labels recognized that there was a limited audience for “highbrow” content; but each wanted to be seen as setting standards for “good taste,” whether it involved past or present. As one of the best interpreters of the music of George Gershwin, Levant was a high card in Columbia’s hand. As a result, there was an interest in presenting Levant as a standard-bearer for a wider scope of modernism; and that interest was fostered through a series of recording sessions that took place between 1941 and 1945. Initially issued as a collection of “singles,” these recordings were released in 1948 on an early ten-inch LP entitled Oscar Levant Plays Popular Moderns.

That title is also given to the second CD in the eight-CD anthology of Levant’s complete Columbia recordings. Within a decade of that release, Amiri Baraka, then writing about jazz as LeRoi Jones, would be railing against “middle-brow” tastes with labels like Columbia in his sights. My guess is that the very phrase “popular moderns” would have driven Baraka apoplectic; but, in all fairness to Levant, the tracks on this CD do not deserve to be dismissed as mere “pops” offerings.

First of all, picking up where the first CD left off, Levant rounds out his Gershwin repertoire with a rock-solid account of that composer’s three solo piano preludes. Furthermore, rather than write off Claude Debussy with nothing more than “Clair de lune” (which clearly had to be included) and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Levant serves up convincing accounts of two of the solo piano preludes and the third piece in the Estampes collection, “Jardins sous la pluie.” There is also a somewhat prankish coupling of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s sonatina with the first movement of Levant’s own sonatina. Nevertheless, it is a little disconcerting that Columbia would not allow Levant to record more than single movements and excerpts.

The CD then concludes with five previously unreleased tracks. These are five of the six movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 825 partita in B-flat major. Bach, of course, was not a “modern,” popular or otherwise; but Levant’s performance used an arrangement prepared earlier in the twentieth century by English pianist Harold Samuel. Samuel’s objective seems to have been to make Bach sound more pianistic, and his success in doing so will probably drive purists up the wall. On the other hand, if Bach wrote this collection for pedagogical purposes, than adapting the movements for piano pedagogy is far from the worst idea in the world; and one would not accuse the “piano sound” that Levant mines from the Bach source of being in excessively bad taste.

SFO’s Imaginative Integration of “Cav” and “Pag”

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the third of its seven performances of the opening production of its 96th season, the Cav/Pag double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (rustic chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (clowns). Combining these two one-act operas in a single production is a long-standing tradition; and SFO has paired them fifteen times since its founding, the earliest having been in 1927. Nevertheless, this season’s production is distinctively unique through the efforts of José Cura to stage the two of them in a single set of his own design.

If Cura’s name is familiar, it is because he made his SFO debut in 1996 as a tenor, singing the role of Don José in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. In addition to establishing himself as both director and stage designer, Cura has studied both composition and conducting and has maintained a regular career as a conductor throughout Europe since 1999. Born in Rosario, Argentina, he first conceived of transplanting an Italian verismo narrative to Buenos Aires when, in 2007, he reconceived “Pagliacci” in a production entitled “La Commedia è finita” (the show is over, the final text in the “Pagliacci” libretto). This then evolved into the synthesis of a continuous narrative beginning with “Cav” and proceeding smoothly into “Pag.” This version was staged for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège and first performed in Liège in 2012. The current production is being directed by Jose Maria Condemi.

At the core of the synthesis is a unit set depicting La Boca, the working-class barrio in Buenos Aries that hosted a community of Italian immigrants. The setting is so specific as to identify one of the streets in La Boca, “Caminito” (which basically translates as “little street”). Indeed, the street is so significant to Cura that it takes precedence over the music. Before one hears the first bars of Mascagni’s score, the setting is established with a recording of Carlos Gardel singing the 1926 “Caminito” song, composed by Juan de Dios Filiberto to a text by Gabino Coria Peñaloza. (The text bears the dedication: “Thanks to the woman’s love that I will never have.”) The sense of place is further established by a reproduction of the grotesquely surreal Mural Escenográfico, completed by Omar Gasparini in 1999 and recreated in 2012 after the original wall was demolished.

Having established place, Cura then allowed characters from its “population” to migrate across operatic boundaries, so to speak. Thus, “Cav” begins with Silvio opening up a bar on Caminito. He is putting up posters for the production to be played out during the second act of “Pag;” and he is already hooked on the image of Nedda. Similarly, “Pag” begins with a funeral procession of Turiddu, whose death marks the end of “Cav.” Not all of the transitions are smooth. “Cav” is set on Easter Sunday, while the church is celebrating the Feast for the Assumption of Mary, roughly half a year later. That is a long time for Turiddu’s body to be waiting for burial! On the other hand Santuzza’s pregnancy only becomes noticeable when we see her at the end of “Pagliacci.”

On the whole, however, Cura’s “synthetic” approach is effectively true to the verismo foundations of both operas. Both narratives involve illicit love, jealousy, and violent death. The very idea that the those events in “Pag” can be seen in the context of their unfolding in “Cav” is all the more chilling through the premise that they both unfold in the same place and community.

Yesterday afternoon all of that dramatic intensity was solidly reinforced by the musical account unfolding both on stage and in the orchestra pit. With this production Daniele Callegari is making his SFO debut as conductor, and he is definitely a talent worth watching. “Cav” is particularly challenging because, in Cura’s staging, it involves much of the singing taking place offstage. Callegari was impeccable in his sense of balance, always matching the audibility of vocalists (soloists and chorus) to the instrumental resources. Similarly, he always found just the right pace to match the unfolding of the narrative.

Most importantly, however, he was always there to support the soloists. Both operas impose significant demands on the realization of character through vocal work, and the consistency with which those demands were satisfied could not have been more impressive. In “Cav” mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk delivered an intense account of Santuzzua’s plight, never descending into the trivialities of the “abandoned woman” cliché. The humanity of her exchanges with mezzo Jill Gove’s Mamma Lucia served to amplify the brutality of the two men at the core of the narrative, Turiddu (tenor Roberto Aronica), who abandoned her, and Alfio (baritone Dimitri Platanias), husband of Lola (mezzo Laura Krumm), whom Turridu really loves. “Pag” similarly opposes the frustrations of a woman, Nedda (soprano Lianna Haroutounian), against the brutality of men, this time both her husband Canio (tenor Marco Berti) and stage manager Tonio (Platanias again). She hopes for a more loving relationship with Silvio (baritone David Pershall); but neither of them survive to the end of the opera.

FitzGibbon and Peláez dancing in front of the reproduction of Gasparini’s mural (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

If both operas are “about” sensitive women trying to get beyond the brutality of men, the idealized relationship they seek was distilled into choreography by Lawrence Pech during the musical interlude in “Cav.” His pas de deux for Alexandra FitzGibbon and Jekyns Peláez found just the right way to balance the sensitivity of love against the raw qualities of the erotic. Pech’s staging recalled many of the sinuous moves for which Roland Petit (who created a ballet version of Carmen) was so well known during the middle of the twentieth century. There is nothing more satisfying that seeing ballet in an opera production that rises above the superfluous, and Pech definitely found the right lever to elevate his work.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Dover Quartet to Launch SFP 2018–2019 Season

The members of the Dover Quartet (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Following the opening gala festivities at the end of this month, San Francisco Performances’ (SFP) 2018–2019 season will get under way at the beginning of next month with the first concert in the Shenson Chamber Series. As has already been observed last month, all four of the recitals in this series will focus on string quartets; and all four of the groups have performed previously for SFP. The first of these will be the Dover Quartet, which had its SFP debut in 2016 and will be making its second appearance.

This group was formed at the Curtis Institute of Music, where all four of the members were students. Those members are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. They would later become the Institute’s first Quartet-in-Residence during the 2013–2014 season. The title of the program they have prepared for their return to SFP is Made in America. It will present quartets by three composers, all of whom were born in Europe but were influenced by life in the United States.

The best known of these is Antonín Dvořák, whose Opus 96 quartet in A major, generally known as the “American,” was performed at Dover’s SFP debut recital. For next month’s concert they will play another quartet composed while Dvořák was in the United States, Opus 105 in A-flat major. The program will begin with the first of Benjamin Britten’s string quartets, his Opus 25 in D major. Britten was a pacifist, meaning that in 1939 he was out of favor due to the rising threat of Nazi Germany. With encouragement from W. H. Auden, he moved to New York, where he composed his Opus 25 in 1941. Between these two selections, Dover will play Béla Bartók’s third string quartet, which he composed in Hungary in 1927, long before his move to the United States in October of 1940.

This performance will take place at 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 7. Single tickets are on sale for $70 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $55 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $45 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and 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 $260, $200, and $160; and City Box Office has a separate event page for online purchase.

Rousing Jazz from Bernstein’s MTO West

Steven Bernstein with his slide trumpet (from his SFJAZZ event page)

Those who read this week’s Bleeding Edge article know that one of the major events of the week was trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s four-night residency at the SFJAZZ Center, which involved three different programs presented in the Joe Henderson Lab. Bernstein is engagingly brash in his arrangements, which cover music from some of the earliest days to jazz all the way up to the rich diversity of pop during the last quarter of the twentieth century, as well as his original compositions and his capacity for improvisation. For the first two nights of his residency, he led his Sexmob quartet, whose other members are Briggan Krauss on saxophones, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The first night took on music that Nino Rota composed for films made by Federico Fellini, while the second night shifted to the extensive repertoire of Duke Ellington.

Last night was the first of two nights at which Bernstein scaled up to the repertoire of his Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO). MTO was formed in New York, where Bernstein is based; but last night he presented a “Western edition” (my shameless appropriation of someone else’s pun) featuring Bay Area jazz luminaries. The members of Sexmob formed the core; and they were joined by Jenny Scheinman on violin, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Howard Wiley on tenor saxophone, Jeff Cressman on trombone, and George Samuels on guitar. The core of the repertoire draws on music from the pre-swing era territory bands that crisscrossed the country in the Twenties and Thirties; but the performances are grounded solidly on the rich diversity afforded by our “new millennium.” Thus, while last night’s selections were grounded heavily in the book of Count Basie, at least one of the Basie selections was heavily colored (in purple?) by the influence of Prince. (Was this a deliberately prankish “Prince meets Count” move by Bernstein?)

Nevertheless, over the course of last night’s first one-hour set, MTO covered far more than Basie originals. The group opened with W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” with a nod to Basie’s arrangement. Bernstein explained that, shortly after the original MTO was formed, the group played the piece at the funeral of Lester Bowie (co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago), who had died on November 8, 1999. After that Bernstein decided that every subsequent gig would begin with “St. Louis Blues,” honoring the recent past of Bowie with the more distant legacy of Basie and Handy. That elegiac synthesis of recent and distant past also surfaced in “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” which Charles Mingus composed a few month’s after Ellington’s death. (Mingus had played bass for Ellington early in his own career and was subsequently fired by him.) Bernstein turned to Mingus because he felt the music the group was playing needed more harmony, and Mingus brought to jazz some of the richest harmonic textures to be encountered this side of Richard Wagner.

Another past-in-the-present offering was the Bessie Smith song “Put It Right Here (or Keep it Out There)” (performed without a vocalist to keep the evening G-rated). Smith had sung in the film St. Louis Blues, an early two-reeler based on the Handy song (which Smith sang). Of a similar vintage was the account of “The Boy in the Boat,” originally given an overtly effeminate delivery by George Hannah accompanied at the piano by Meade Lux Lewis. Bernstein referred to the song as X-rated without going into details. (It was about sex between women; and, again, the music was performed without the words.)

As diverse as the repertoire were the styles of performance contributed by the individual MTO West players. Bernstein is a generous leader, making sure that each of the band members had more than ample time to exercise his/her own interpretations of the tunes. Those receiving particular attention were Wiley for his tenor work and Scheinman on violin. Samuels was a newcomer to the group, put he had a chance to display some engagingly intimate duo work playing against Scheinman’s pizzicato.

Bernstein himself has established his talent on the slide trumpet, an instrument about as obscure as the “Boy in the Boat” song. By using a slide, rather than valves, Bernstein could color his melodic lines with a portamento delivery that recalled vocal styles of a century ago (Smith being a good example). Given the size of the instrument, pitch control is far more difficult than on a slide trombone; but there was never any uncertainty in Bernstein’s melodic lines. Over the course of his set, he also played both a standard valve trumpet and flugelhorn.

Nuts-and-bolts-aside, though, what made last night memorable was the consistently vigorous energy coming from the group as a whole. Bernstein’s attention to harmony meant that all accompanying textures were solidly well-blended; and this was most evident in the subtle shadings that emerged when Goldberg, Wiley, and Krauss played as a group. MTO West was probably the largest ensemble I had encountered in the Henderson Lab, but they never sounded too loud. Rather, they delivered vigorous accounts of every selection with each player consistently given his/her all while Bernstein kept control over who was doing what and for how long. The group will return to Henderson tonight for sets at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. As of this writing, the later set is almost sold out; but tickets are still available for both.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Ghost In The House Coming to Canessa Gallery

from the Facebook event page for this performance

It has been about a year since I last wrote about the rather unconventional chamber music ensemble called Ghost in the House. The group was conceived and realized by David Michalak, who is also half of the T.D. Skatchit duo, who performs on the invented instruments of Tom Nunn (the other half of the duo). Nunn also plays those instruments in Ghost in the House, while Michalak plays lap steel guitar. The other players are Karen Stackpole on percussion (with particular attention to different sizes and types of gongs), Polly Moller Springhorn on bass flute, and John Ingle on saxophones. When Ghost in the House performed at the Community Music Center last year, they were also joined by dancers Cindy Webster and Kinji Hayashi, formerly an Associate Artist at the Theatre of Yugen and now Artistic Director at e-motion studio and Associate Producer at Incubator 16.

Later this month Ghost in the House will come to the Canessa Gallery to pay tribute to Hayashi and his work. Once again, dance will be part of the program, this time presented by Butoh dancer Christina Braun. There will also be a guest appearance by saxophonist Bruce Ackley. The program will consist of three sets:
  1. Braun will perform “Dance of Darkness” (which can serve as a translation of the Japanese noun “butoh”), accompanied by Ghost in the Machine.
  2. Ackley will play a duo improvisation with Ingle.
  3. Ghost in the House will provide a “live soundtrack” for projections of Hayashi’s performance in the Butoh production “The Dream Machine.”
This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, September 26. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. No information has been provided about the price of admission; but, when the gallery hosts events in the Composers in Performance Series, a collection is usually taken for which a contribution between $5 and $15 is generally appreciated.

Oscar Levant Gets the Anthology He Deserves

Original 78 RPM packaging of Oscar Levant’s recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” (from Amazon.com)

At the end of last month, Sony Classical released an eight-CD anthology that covers all of the recordings for Columbia Records made by pianist Oscar Levant. One wonders what Levant would have thought of this had he lived to see the day. (He died of a heart attack on August 14, 1972. He was 65 years old at the time.) There is a good chance that he would have come up with a withering wisecrack about the title of the album: A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant. (The remaining text on the cover is “pianist, composer, author, comedian and Hollywood star; his complete piano recordings.”)

Long before Lenny Bruce introduced the concept of “sick humor,” Levant had mastered the art of mining humor from a dysfunctional lifestyle. His Wikipedia page includes a generous sampling of his one-liners, the most appropriate being “I only make jokes when I am feeling insecure.” Nevertheless, he was one of the most significant pianists of the twentieth century; and, while “box office draw” is never a fair metric, he could play to a larger audience than either Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein. Indeed, he was invited to play at the White House when Harry Truman was President. (Truman, himself, was an amateur pianist.) When hosting Levant as a guest on his television program, Jack Paar told the story that, during the limousine ride back to the hotel after his gala White House evening, Levant said to his wife, “Now we owe them a dinner!”

Levant’s reputation as a pianist had much to do with his interpretation of the music of George Gershwin. In Rhapsody in Blue, the fictionalized film biography of Gershwin, Levant played himself. He then topped that role by channeling Gershwin himself in the film An American in Paris. Gene Kelly may have been the star of that film, but Levant had a tour de force of his own. In an entr’acte between two of the film’s episodes, his character (a pianist, of course) dreams of playing the solo at the beginning of the third movement of Gershwin’s concerto (in F). This is given an almost complete account, during which the camera discloses that Levant is also the conductor and pretty much every member of the orchestra. We also see Levant the pianist taking a very formal bow, while a Levant in the audience is shouting “Bravo!”

What is important about the Sony release, however, is that the breadth of Levant’s repertoire extends far beyond Gershwin. Indeed, it is so diverse that each of the eight CDs has its own distinctive identity. As a result, I find myself in the unlikely position that the only way to do justice to this release is to consider each of the CDs one at a time. As might be guessed, the title of the first CD is Oscar Levant Plays Gershwin, and there is no better way to begin my account.

As might be expected, this CD includes both the piano concerto and “Rhapsody in Blue,” along with “Second Rhapsody” and the variations for piano and orchestra on the theme from Gershwin’s son “I Got Rhythm.” This makes the concerto the lengthiest selection, but it is probably also the most significant. As was recently observed, the concerto was first performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra on December 3, 1925 with Gershwin himself at the keyboard. However, it was not recorded for the first time until 1928. Pianist Roy Bargy performed with Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra in an abridged arrangement made by Ferde Grofé. As a result, the first “real” (i.e. complete) recording had to wait until 1942, when Levant performed the concerto with Andre Kostelanetz conducting the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society of New York (which would subsequently merge with the New York Symphony Orchestra to form the New York Philharmonic).

These days, if Kostelanetz is remembered at all, it is for instrumental albums he made for Columbia that became the first wave of what would later be called “easy listening.” That reputation obscured the competence behind his dedication to bring recent works by living composers into the repertoire. In 1942 he was probably the best conductor around to introduce Gershwin’s concerto to the listening public, performing it the way Gershwin wrote it; and there could not have been a better choice for soloist than Levant. (Full disclosure: it was from the LP of that recording that I first really got to know Gershwin’s concerto.) To this day Levant’s reading can still be taken as a “gold standard;” and it is impossible to find fault with his on-the-ball engagements with Kostelanetz’ conducting.

This brings us to the two rhapsodies. Both of these are “original version” recordings, reminding the listener that both of these pieces went through revisions after their original composition. This is particularly significant where “Rhapsody in Blue” is concerned, because those purchasing the score will probably find themselves with a copy of the 1942 version published by New World Music Corporation, while New World first published the “original version” in 1924. Both of these versions were scored by Grofé, the earlier for Whiteman’s band and the later for full symphony orchestra. As a result, just about every recording made uses the 1942 version, which includes two extended passages (one of which involves solo piano work) that were added to the 1924 version.

However, the first complete recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” was made in 1935, prior to the 1942 version. This “original version” recording was made by pianist Jesús María Sanromá with Arthur Fielder conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra, a recording which is now available on a French reissue. Levant’s recording, made with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, was made much later in 1945. Those who have become familiar with the many recordings of the 1942 version will undoubtedly recognize that passages are missing, but we now have the benefit of two recording by two different pianists of the score as Gershwin originally wrote it.

Morton Gould conducts the Morton Gould Orchestra in the performance of “Second Rhapsody,” as well as the “I Got Rhythm” variations. Both of these pieces tend to be relegated to the shadows behind the concerto and the “first” rhapsody. In both cases, however, Levant and Gould make it clear that these pieces should not be hiding behind the more familiar works. Both compositions rise to the same high spirits encountered in the energetic passages of the earlier works, and they definitely deserve more attention in the concert hall.

Pianist Alberto Pizzo’s IIC Visit Disappoints

Italian pianist Alberto Pizzo (from his Web site)

Those who have been reading both this site and my previous contributions to Examiner.com know that I have been following musical performances presented by the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) for some time. Now that they have moved to the ground floor of Opera Plaza, where I live, I have made it a point not only to keep track of the performances they host but also to attend as many of those events as my schedule will allow. That includes not only “local talent,” such as Ars Minerva, which specializes in performing unfamiliar Baroque operas, mostly by Italian composers, but also visitors from Italy, such as last year’s flute recitalist Andrea Ceccomori.

Until last night I have never been disappointed with my experiences at IIC. However, with last night’s recital by the relatively young Neapolitan pianist Alberto Pizzo, the pendulum took a vigorous swing in the opposite direction. As I mentioned in my announcement of this recital, Pizzo is well educated, having earned a master’s degree at the Naples Conservatory of Music. He also has decided to focus on arrangement and improvisation, rather than pursuing the repertoire that garners attention at competitions (where he has been recognized at both national and international events). Therein lies the problem.

Last night’s program began with an early sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, K. 9 in D minor. This shows up very early in my own first Scarlatti acquisition, The Graded Scarlatti, compiled and edited by Marthe Morhange Motchane. In spite of its simplicity when compared against Scarlatti’s more virtuoso undertakings, this piece used to be an encore favorite of Vladimir Horowitz (which is probably why my teacher in Santa Barbara chose to steer me in its direction). In the right hands it is as much a source of satisfying listening as it is amenable to amateur execution.

Unfortunately, Pizzo’s hands were night the right ones. While he was capable of approaching this seemingly naive piece with a light touch, that touch was uneven and betrayed any sense of this brief piece having an overall shape. However, playing the sonata itself was simply a pretext for launching into a far more extended fantasia for which Scarlatti’s text was little more than a point of departure. However, while Scarlatti always provided both performer and listener with a solid framework of a journey from here to there, so to speak, Pizzo did little more than ramble about with little sense of direction.

That approach then extended into a series of original pieces, each of which began with a statement to set the mood (presumably consistent with the title he had assigned), followed by further ramblings that seldom reflected the point of departure and amounted, pretty consistently, to little more than “more of the same.” The one ramble that he explicitly introduced he described as an improvisation drawing upon music from the operas of Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini. It was easy to guess where this would lead after a brief introduction that had little to do with either of the composers. Mascagni was represented by his most familiar contribution to the repertoire, the intermezzo from his one-act opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” (given its strongest boost into popular culture by the movie Raging Bull), while Puccini was reduced to the most familiar measures from “Nessun dorma” (originally from Turandot and now probably holding the record for the number of commercial appropriations). Here, too, the performance was little more than a ramble for which the “source material” offered little more than a point of departure for a venture into even “more of the same.”

Last night’s performance was structured as two sets; but, after the first set, I sadly had to accept that one was all I could manage.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Schola Adventus Tonight at Church of the Advent

Gentile Bellini’s painting of a procession with a relic of the True Cross in the Piazza San Marco in Venice (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This evening the Church of the Advent of Christ the King will celebrate a High Mass as part of a service for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Veneration of the Relic of the True Cross. As was the case this past spring, I have to apologize for this being a last-minute announcement. Nevertheless, readers probably know by now that I make it a point to bring attention to performances by the church’s resident professional choir, Schola Adventus, led by Director of Music Paul Ellison.

The setting of the Ordinary of the Mass will be Francisco Guerrero’s Missa Sancta et immaculata. The Antiphon for the service will be Giovanni Maria Nanino’s setting of “Adoramus te, Christe.” The Anthem will be “Crux fidelis” by Jean Roger-Ducasse. From the organ loft Ellison will provide chorale preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach for both Prelude and Postlude. The prelude will be the Orgelbüchlein setting of “O Mench, bewein’ dein Sünde Groß,” BWV 622, from the section consisting of Passion chorales. The postlude selection will be BWV 737, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer hymn, “Vater unser im Himmelreich.”

This service will begin at 6:30 p.m. this evening, Friday, September 14. 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. There will, of course, be no admission fee for any church service; but those attending the service are kindly requested to leave something in the collection plate.

MTT Overloads this Week’s SFS Program

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the program for the first subscription concerts of the new 107th season. As Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) observed at the beginning of the evening, this program was conceived to complement the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, which also opened yesterday. He specifically cited the COAL + ICE Project, a documentary photography exhibition, currently on display at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. Video designer Clyde Scott selected images from this exhibition that were projected at the beginning of the evening as Abigail Washburn sang two songs associated with coal mining communities in Depression-era Appalachia, “Come All You Coal Miners” and “And Am I Born to Die.” Washburn’s solo account of the first of these set the dark tone for the problems being confronted at the Summit; but, sadly, that tone was undermined by the syrupy accompaniment that SFS provided for her second selection.

Scott’s designs, along with lighting provided by Luke Kritzeck, continued to be deployed throughout the evening with variable results. The impact was greatest at the very beginning of the evening, once SFS has dispensed with its accompaniment duties. MTT opened the main program with the first SFS performance of Inverno in-ver, a series of eleven musical poems depicting winter (which, in Italian, translates as inverno) scenes by the Italian composer Niccolò Castiglioni, a composition that MTT had previously performed with the New World Symphony. He introduced this music by comparing it to the miniaturism of Anton Webern but stressed that Castiglioni’s short movements were unabashedly tonal.

What made the deepest impression was the breadth of Castiglioni’s capacity for invention. Scott’s projections introduced each piece by providing its title in both Italian and English translation, and the attentive listener was quickly aware of how every movement had its own unique approach to thematic material and rhetorical delivery. The only unifying factor was a preference for extremely high registers (which made any appearance by low strings rare and striking when it occurred). Both Scott and Kritzeck clearly grasped the diversity of Castiglioni’s differentiations and complemented the music with an ongoing flow of highly imaginative visual impressions. Admittedly, this was a technology-heavy performance; but it was one of those rare occasions in which the technology reflected on the music, rather than distracting from it.

Inverno in-ver served well as the “overture” for the “concerto portion” of the program, Maurice Ravel’s D major piano concerto written to be played only by the left hand. When it came to matters of deploying an abundantly rich diversity of sonorities in the service of a single composition, Ravel was one of the twentieth century’s leading masters of the craft. His skill was evident from the very opening in which an almost sinister contrabassoon solo emerges from the murky churning textures of the low strings. Given all of that exposure to the highest registers in Inverno in-ver, this concerto could not have provided a better balance for the first half of the program.

Pianist Yuja Wang (photograph by Norbert Kniak, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon)

The concerto soloist last night was Yuja Wang, whose left-hand dexterity (whose who know their Latin will recognize the oxymoron) rose impressively to every challenge that Ravel posed. This is music in which a single hand must account for establishing both theme and accompaniment, and Wang never faltered when it came to distinguishing which was which. As her salvos of virtuosity emerged from the keyboard, SFS was always there with the full spectrum of sonorities that Ravel had conceived to offset the piano work. This concerto tends to receive less attention than Ravel’s other piano concerto in G major, and the combined forces of Wang and MTT could not have made a better effort to right that balance.

Nevertheless, whenever I approach either of Ravel’s concertos as a listener, I always find myself thinking of the friendship he established with George Gershwin. Michael Steinberg’s notes for the program book overlooked the fact that Ravel began work on both of his concertos in the same year, 1929, developing the two scores concurrently. There is every reason to believe that, by 1929, Ravel was aware of Gershwin’s two major concertante compositions for piano and orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue,” composed in 1924, and “Concerto in F” (the title deliberately avoiding commitment to either major or minor), written the following year. I can never avoid thinking that Ravel’s concertos constituted his own way of “responding to the call” of these two Gershwin compositions. Gershwin’s three-movement “Concerto in F” was complemented by the G major concerto, also in three movements, while the single-movement structure of the left-hand concerto is almost more of a “rhapsody” than a concerto.

These thoughts were enhanced by the visual experience of last night’s performance. Wang wore a blue gown that was stunningly electric, while Kritzeck lit the stage with just the right shade of blue to complement her outfit. Was Wang trying to remind us that Ravel knew about “Rhapsody in Blue” when he was working on his left-hand concerto? If so, then I admire her for her insight. If not, I can still enjoy my own idle speculations!

As always, Wang treated her audience to an encore before the intermission break. Her selection was the second of the six pieces in Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 67, the sixth of the eight books he composed with the title Songs Without Words. This entailed an abrupt shift from G major to F-sharp minor; but the “main attraction” was Wang’s lightness of touch (the tempo marking is Allegro leggiero), through which she even served up a gracious reminder of one of the tropes the composer favored in his chamber music.

All of this meant that, before the intermission had even begun, those of us on audience side had enjoyed a rich abundance of imaginative music-making. Perhaps it was inevitable that the second half of the evening would be a bit of a let-down. MTT decided that, in keeping with the “environmental” theme of the Global Climate Action Summit, Aaron Copland’s score for Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” would be appropriate. He also decided that, rather than serving up the usual reduced suite for full orchestra that Copland prepared in 1945, the year after the dance was first performed (accompanied by a thirteen-member chamber ensemble), he would play the full-orchestra version of the complete score. Copland began this effort at the request of Eugene Ormandy and had restored the longest of the cuts, the Preacher’s fire-and-brimstone sermon, in 1954. However, he abandoned further work on the project; and it was only completed in 2014 by David Newman. (This is probably the “Complete Ballet” version that Leonard Slatkin recorded with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for a Naxos recording released in 2016.)

Giving a more through account of the score is something that tends to go down well with fans of Graham’s choreography. (Full disclaimer: I am one of them.) However, for those unfamiliar with Graham’s narrative (and the booklet notes by James M. Keller were inadequately sketchy in this matter), the “full score” can quickly feel like somewhat of a slog. While Graham brought refreshing uniqueness to each of her fourteen episodes, Copland’s score was not quite as imaginative, particularly when it came to the transitions between those episodes, all of which seem to have been spooned out of the same can. The result was that MTT’s interest in providing a more thorough account came of as a rather tiring slog, reinforced by the fact that the final applause did not begin until 10:30 p.m.!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Graindelavoix’ Gothic Perspective on Music

Tomorrow the Spanish Glossa label will release its latest recording of the a cappella choir Graindelavoix, led by Director Björn Schmelzer. I first encountered this ensemble in May of 2016, not too long before Examiner.com lapsed into its extinction. On that occasion I was writing about the group’s recording of the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer. The composer was Guillaume de Machaut, and the setting is known as the Messe de Nostre Dame.

The title of the new album is The Liberation of the Gothic, and it involves a period that is roughly 150 years later than the time when it is believed that Machaut composed his Mass setting. During the period between these two recordings, Graindelavoix has undergone some changes. The Machaut setting was sung by a ten-member all-male choir. On The Liberation of the Gothic there are only eight vocalists, including two women in the soprano range: Anne-Kathryn Olsen and Carine Tinney. The male vocalists are altos Razek-François Bitar and Tomàs Maxé, tenors Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, and Marius Peterson, and bass Arnout Malfliet. The central selection is another Mass setting, the Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell, flanked on either side by Marian hymn settings composed by John Browne, beginning with a “Salve regina” and concluding with a “Stabat mater.”

As always, for those who cannot wait until tomorrow, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders for this CD. However, it is worth noting that, on the same date, an MP3 download page will also be enabled. I mention this because the download version includes a “bonus track,” “Rex virginum amator,” a polyphonic setting of a Kyrie chant taken from the Las Huelgas Codex, a manuscript that probably predates Machaut’s Mass setting by about half a century. (Schmelzer included a Las Huelgas sequence between two of the movements on his Machaut album.)

The “liberating” Gothic architecture of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (photography by Oldmanisold, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Back when I worked for the campus radio station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I would occasionally encounter early music albums that included the adjective “gothic” in the title. However, the only form of gothic music that Wikipedia recognizes is gothic rock; and the adjective “gothic” never appears on the Wikipedia page for Renaissance music (the period during which Ashwell and Browne were active). Grove Music Online is a bit more productive. While there is no explicit entry for gothic music, searching for “gothic” turns up entries for music from both the middle of the fourteenth century and the fifteenth.

Schmelzer’s choice of title was inspired by John Ruskin’s writings about Gothic architecture and how it “liberated” construction from the constraints of Romanesque architecture, allowing for structures that were taller, lighter, and stronger. The final paragraph of Schmelzer’s essay for the accompanying booklet takes Ruskin’s thoughts to the next level:
According to John Ruskin the liberation of Gothic does not only concern lines, ribs and folds, freed from their submission to structure and turned into structure themselves, making structure and ornament indistinguishable. It concerned also the workers, not submitted to repetitive, mechanical work but investing in continuous and infinite variation. Should we not also include the singers of English polyphony here, for whom no contradiction existed between individual involvement and textural totality?
The booklet page for the track listing describes the music of Ashwell and Browne as “florid polyphony.” It is through such a “florid” approach to embellishment that Schmelzer’s blurring of boundaries between structure and ornament is realized. It does not take the attentive listener long to be drawn into the richness that emerges when those boundaries are blurred. Such floridity is further reinforced by parallel richness encountered in the very sounds of the voices themselves. One might say that, in Schmelzer’s approach to performance, the beauty of the voices (bel canto?) themselves is as significant as the many aspects of florid execution that have been committed to marks on paper.

This recalled what struck me the most when listening to Schmelzer’s account of Machaut. In my Examiner.com article I speculated that performance of Machaut’s “text” (such as it was) “involved not only individually improvised embellishments but also improvised counterpoint, often leading to original harmonic progressions.” On this new album spontaneity of performance is probably not as extreme; but, if it is no longer occupied with the notes being sung, it can still take liberties with the coloring of the voices doing the singing.

BARS Announces 2018–19 Season

My announcements about the concerts offered by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) always seem to come at the last minute (when they come at all). This one is cutting things about as close as can be considered realistic. Nevertheless, having attended several of the group’s concerts, I feel it is important to get out the word.

For those not yet familiar with the ensemble, it was “born” on October 21, 2007 when five Bay Area musicians met “to form a new type of LGBTQ [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Queer] ensemble;” and the group’s name was decided at that meeting. The first concert was presented under the auspices of the Old First Concerts series on June 8, 2008 after three months of rehearsing for which Old First Presbyterian Church provided space. BARS now uses a rainbow icon on their concert announcements to identify LGBTQ composers and performing artists.

As in the past, there will be four concerts in the 2018–19 season. The first two will be led by guest conductors, and Music Director Dawn Harms will conduct the remainder of the season. All performances will take place on Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; but, as in the past, the season will be a “moveable feast” involving three different venues. Program information is as follows:

September 15, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Michael Morgan, guest conductor
Leonard Bernstein, three dance variations from the score for the ballet “Fancy Free”
Max Bruch, Scottish Fantasy, with violinist Andrew Sords
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Linz” symphony, K. 425
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Capriccio Italien

November 10, Calvary Presbyterian Church
Leif Bjaland, guest conductor
Byron Addams, Concertante for Orchestra
Samuel Barber, cello concerto, with cellist Evan Kahn
Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations

March 16, Taube Atrium Theater
David Conte, A Copland Portrait
Aaron Copland, El Salón México
Joaquín Rodrigo, guitar concerto, soloist determined by competition
Florence Price, third symphony

June 8, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Elfrida Andrée, Forspiel
Shawn Kirchner, Brokeback Mountain Suite, with pianist Kirchner
Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique

Prices for single tickets range between $10 and $35. Single tickets for all performances are currently available through a single Tix event page on the BARS Web site. Those who purchase ticket to four concerts at the same price tier will receive a 25% discount and a waiver of all service fees.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Muni Van Ness station. Calvary Presbyterian Church is located at 2515 Fillmore Street, on the northwest corner of Jackson Street. 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. Seats in the Conservatory Concert Hall will be reserved. Seating at the other two venues will be general admission.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Weinberger’s Reger Project: Volume 5

1913 photograph of a recording session with Reger at the console of the Welte-Philharmonic-Organ (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This Friday the German label cpo will release the fifth volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. As has already been observed, these releases have been appearing at a slow pace. On the other hand, when I made that observation I also suggested that the best way to get to know Reger’s compositions, many of which are richly embellished to yield thick contrapuntal textures, is through repeated listening. So the slow release pace may be an asset, rather than a liability: The curious listener will have plenty of time to get acclimated to the compositions on this new release prior to the next album getting released! As always, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders for this new two-CD album.

Fortunately, this new release is the first to offer selections from one of Reger’s more accessible collections. His Opus 67 is a collection of 52 “easy” chorale preludes. Fifteen of the chorale preludes from this collection are included on this new release. For those familiar with the German Lutheran services (or, alternatively, the chorale preludes composed by Johann Sebastian Bach) many of the chorale themes will be familiar. Examples would probably be “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus my joy) or “Nun danket alle Gott” (now thank we all our God). As is the case when listening to Bach, familiarity with the hymn tune provides an “anchor,” which makes it easier to sort out Reger’s prodigious capacity for embellishment from the pitches that are actually being embellished.

Building up a sense of familiarity with Reger’s approach to embellishment through recognizable tunes may then serve to guide the attentive listener through the composer’s more labyrinthine structures. In this new release those structures may be found in the moderately generous share of prelude (or toccata) and fugue couplings, a genre that was clearly inspired by Bach’s accomplishments. Reger’s approach to this genre can probably be called “Bach on steroids,” as long as no one mistakes that for a pejorative description. After all, many of these pieces were composed during the early years of the twentieth century, a time when Mahler was exploring extreme prolongation through his symphonies and Arnold Schoenberg was working on his massive Gurre-Lieder cantata.

There have always been those quick to dismiss Reger’s organ music as being “too much;” but, in the context of this new release, which balances the relatively short chorale preludes with the longer prelude/toccata-fugue pairings, the sympathetic listener will probably agree that the durations are “just right.”

Sainte-Agathe Becomes SFGC Artistic Director

Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (photograph by Ben La, courtesy of SFGC)

2018–2019 will mark the 40th anniversary season of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC). It will also mark the promotion of Valérie Sainte-Agathe from Music Director and Principal Conductor to Artistic Director, succeeding Lisa Bielawa in that capacity. As was observed last month, members of the SFGC School will be participating in Opera Parallèle’s revival production of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince in December; but, as they say, this is just the tip of the iceberg. This month they are already singing in the San Francisco Opera production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci;” and, later in the season, they will contribute to the production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. On the other side of Grove Street, they will be joining the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Perséphone” next week at Davies Symphony Hall. The coming season in San Francisco itself will serve up a diverse repertoire, performed, once again, at a variety of different venues. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, October 18, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, Mademoiselle: An American Inspiration: The “mademoiselle” of the title is Nadia Boulanger, one of the foremost composition teachers of the twentieth century. Through the French Music School for Americans, which opened in Fontainebleau in the summer of 1921, Boulanger educated multiple generations of America’s most well-known composers. The program will survey works by six of her students: David Conte, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, Louise Talma, and Leonard Bernstein. The program will open with Boulanger’s own music, excerpts from Les Heures Claires, followed by the music of her sister Lili, the prodigious pianist who died at the age of 25 in March of 1918, making this the centennial year of her death. Guest soloist for the program will be tenor Nicholas Phan. Herbst Theatre is located in the Veterans Building on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. (This corner is convenient to Muni lines running both north-south and east-west.)

Monday, December 17, 7 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, Holidays at Davies: This year the Kronos Quartet will join SFGC for their annual seasonal visit to Davies. They will also be joined by the women’s choral group Musae, which includes many SFGC alumnae, one of whom is Principal Conductor Laney McClain. In addition to the usual holiday offerings, the program will feature the West Coast premiere of Michael Gordon’s “Exalted.” Other contemporary composers whose music will be presented include Vladimir Martynov, Reena Esmail, Stacy Garrop, and Aleksandra Vrebalov. Davies is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street. It is also convenient to north-south and east-west Muni lines, as well as the Civic Center station for both Muni and BART.

Sunday, March 3, 4 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Modern Masters: True to its title, this program will feature the first of three world premiere performances of works commissioned for this season. Composed by Fred Frith for chorus, synthesizer, and percussion, the piece has not yet been given a title. Other contemporary composers to be included on the program will be David Lang, Steve Reich, John Zorn, and Kaija Saariaho. The Reich selection will be “Clapping Music,” usually performed by only two players; so a larger-scale treatment of the score is likely to yield an entirely different impression. The program will begin with Ralph Vaughan William’s setting of the Magnificat canticle. The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station.

Friday, March 22, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Next year Denmark’s leading girls chorus, the Copenhagen Girls Choir, will be making a tour of California. That tour will include a performance at Herbst, which will be presented jointly with SFGC. The program for this concert has not yet been announced.

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m., Mission Dolores Basilica, From East to West: The final program of the season will present the other two world premiere performances. The first of these will be Richard Danielpour’s Three Parables. The title of the second, by Aviya Koppelman, has not yet been given. The guest artist for the program will be Persian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat, who will present her own songs. Other composers included on the program will be Eric Banks, Tord Gustavsen, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Hildegard of Bingen. Mission Dolores Basilica is located in the Mission at 3321 16th Street, just west of Dolores Street.

Subscriptions for the four concerts of the season (excluding the Copenhagen visit) are currently available at a discounted price of $158. City Box Office has created a single Web page for the sale of both subscriptions and single tickets. Those wishing further information may call 415-392-4400.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Two Seasons to Launch on Same Date and Time

The new season is quickly coming up to speed; but, if my own iCal offers representative data, it looks as if October is going to be far busier than September. Indeed, the middle of next month will see two concert seasons getting under way in San Francisco on exactly the same date at exactly the same time. Furthermore, these two concert series overlapped in exactly the same way last year; and some of the subsequent concerts scheduled in both of the series will also be overlapping. I suppose there is nothing wrong with our having to face the hard decisions we shall have to make sooner, rather than later.

The first of the series is the 2018–19 season of the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS), which continues to distinguish itself by offering a thoroughly engaging blend of local and visiting talent. With one exception all concerts will take place on Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m.; and the venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Single ticket prices will range between $56 and $12. In addition, there are membership and subscription options for attending three or more concerts with discounts of up to 25%. All information about ticketing options has been summarized on a single Web page. Programs are as follows:
  • October 14: The El Mundo ensemble is directed by guitarist and lutenist Richard Savino. The title of the program will be Kingdoms of Castille. The program will take listeners on a musical journey from Castilian courts and cathedrals to Spanish-influenced Italian cities like Naples and on to the viceroyalties of Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala, where classical tradition blended with indigenous dances to create a unique Hispanic style that still exists today.
  • December 2: The local a cappella choir Cappella SF, led by Director Ragnar Bohlin, will present a program entitled Neither from Heaven nor Earth: Works of Schütz, Josquin, Couperin, and Allegri. Schütz will receive the greatest attention with the three pieces that constitute his German Musikalische Exequien (funeral music, SWV 279–281) and his setting in Latin of the Magnificat canticle (SWV 468). The earliest work on the program will be the “Miserere” motet setting of Psalm 51 by Josquin des Prez.
  • January 13: The Ars Lyrica Houston Chamber Players will visit SFEMS. This is a trio led by harpsichordist Matthew Dirst, whose other members are violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock and Mary Springfels on gamba. The title of the program will be Semper Phantasticus!; and it will survey the “fantastical style” explored by German composers during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
  • February 10: Cut Circle is a vocal ensemble founded in 2003 by Jesse Rodin, who continues to serve as director. The group specializes in late medieval and Renaissance choral music. Thus, the title of their program will be To Love Another: Sacred and Secular Music from the Late 15th and Early 16th Centuries.
  • Monday, April 8, 8 p.m.: This is the one San Francisco concert that will not be held on a Sunday afternoon. The Choir of New College Oxford, led by Director Robert Quinney, will be touring the United States. Its performance in San Francisco will be held at Grace Cathedral, located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street. The title of the program neatly summarizes the programming: I Heard a Voice: Palestrina, Victoria, Josquin, Guerrero, Lamb, Ludford, Taverner, Sheppard and Tallis.
  • April 14: Ensemble Caprice, based in Montreal, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. That celebration will include a tour that will take it to the Bay Area. The group is a quintet whose members are Matthias Maute and Sophie Larivière, both alternating between recorder and flute, cellist Susan Napper, guitarist David Jacques, and percussionist Ziya Tabassian. The program to be presented, Love Stories: Great Composers and their Loved Ones, will feature familiar names from the Baroque period.
  • May 12: Based in the Bay Area, Antic Faces first performed this past summer as part of the Berkeley Festival Fringe. The group is a sextet with three gamba players, David Morris, Julie Jeffrey, and Peter Halifax, joined by violinist Shira Kammen, flutist Mindy Rosenfeld, and John Lenti on theorbo. The title of their program will be Joyne Hands: Elizabethan Entertainments for Mixed Consort.
As was the case last year, the launch of the SFEMS season will take place at exactly the same time that Noe Valley Chamber Music (NVCM) will launch its 2018–19 season. The occasion will mark the beginning of a tenure of new artistic leadership shared by Meena Bhasin, who performs regularly as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and Owen Dalby, second violinist in the St. Lawrence String Quartet. New management means that the concert series now has its own name, Sundays at Four. Coincidentally, the season itself will consist of four programs as follows:
  • October 14: After having given a delightfully engaging program of music for both two pianos and four hands on a single keyboard for the Chamber Music San Francisco Summer Series this past June, the duo of pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe will return to San Francisco for a program of both their own innovative arrangements and piano compositions by Johannes Brahms and John Adams.
  • December 2: Decoda is a chamber ensemble that plays music for woodwinds, strings, and soprano. They present programs that balance new works by emerging composers with masterworks of the past. Their Sundays at Four program will feature Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 39 quintet.
  • February 10: Dalby will perform with his St. Lawrence colleagues, violinist Geoff Nuttall, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza. They will be joined by clarinetist Todd Palmer for a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” They will also play “Tango all Zingarese,” composed by their colleague at Stanford, Jonathan Berger. The program will also include works by both Joseph Haydn and Haydn’s best-known student, Ludwig van Beethoven.
  • May 12: Both Bhasin and Dalby will team up with violinist Tom Stone, cellist Tanya Tomkins, and pianist Eric Zivian for a special Mother’s Day concert. The featured work on the program will be Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 quintet in E-flat major. The festive occasion of the day will involve a hosted After Party at La Boulangerie de Noe, a short walk from the performance venue.
All concerts will take place at the Noe Valley Ministry, located in Noe Valley at 1021 Sanchez Street. Tickets are $40 at the door with a $35 rate for seniors and a $15 rate for students aged thirteen or older. All tickets for the St. Lawrence String Quartet concert will be $60. Subscriptions for the entire series will be sold for $135 and a VIP rate of $175, which includes priority seating and two guest passes for friends. NVCM has created a single Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing both single tickets and subscriptions. Tickets may also be purchased in advance by calling NVCM at 415-648-5236.

Pieter-Jan Belder’s Sixth “Fitzwilliam” Volume

This past Friday Brilliant Classics released the sixth two-CD volume in the project of Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder to record the 297 compositions collected in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Since the first volume was released in March 2012, the project has proceeded at a relatively slow pace; so it was with a bit of relief that I read that this new release is the penultimate one for the entire project. When completed, this will stand as a major undertaking for music that seems to have been compiled for personal recreation, rather than for performances before an audience.

Portrait of John Bull (artist unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The composer that receives the most attention on this new release is John Bull. Nine of Bull’s compositions were included in the very first volume of Belder’s project. He was one of the three composers, along with William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, whose music was published in the early seventeenth-century volume Parthenia. Both Byrd and Bull are generously represented in the Fitzwilliam collection, while there are only two Gibbons selections in Fitzwilliam, one of which, “The Woods so wilde” is included in this new release. On the other hand the 28 Bull compositions that have now been recorded still leave sixteen of his Fitzwilliam entries remaining for the final volume.

Putting such arithmetic aside, the real value of this and all preceding releases is the virtuosity that Belder brings to all of the selections he plays, most of which abound with finger-busting ornamentation. It must be remembered that much of the thematic material in this collection involved setting familiar tunes. More often than not, however, those tunes were subjected to elaborate, and often highly extended, processes of variation. The individual (probably amateur) keyboardist who undertook to play one of these pieces would be guided by his/her knowledge of what the tune was. However, as these variations unfold, it is often the case that even the most attentive listener will lose track of that tune. Indeed, some of the pieces involve variation on little more than a set of scale steps; and, even then, it is often possible to lose track of the “theme.”

For the most part Belder configures the instruments he plays (three different ones on this volume) to bring clarity to all of his keystrokes. Because dynamics are so much more limited on the harpsichord, distinguishing foreground from background is not always an easy matter. Nevertheless, Belder’s technique tends to facilitate the listener sorting out the ornaments from what is being ornamented. The act of listening, nevertheless, can be as challenging as the act of playing; but Belder’s dexterity at the keyboard invites the attentive listener to rise to the challenge.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 9/10/2018

After a quiet start last week, the local music scene is back in the swing of adventurous programming. Four of this week’s events have already been given account, each at a different venue:
  1. The season’s first Composers in Performance Series at the Canessa Gallery on September 10
  2. The last of the four Salons serving as “progress reports” for jazz bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s Cosmicomics project at Bird & Beckett Books and Records on September 13
  3. Charles Xavier’s Cow Walk Orchestra at the Center for New Music on September 15
  4. The world premiere of Richard Festinger’s “Winds of May,” performed by soprano Winnie Nieh and pianist Paul Dab at Old First Concerts on September 16
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg of a busy week. Most important will be a four-night residency by trumpeter Steven Bernstein at SFJAZZ, which deserves particular attention.

Bernstein plays slide trumpet, an instrument that is almost never encountered in either the classical or jazz repertoires. He is also a fearless improviser, composer, and arranger. For the course of his residency, Bernstein has prepared three programs that will involve two of his most explosive ensembles. All performances will take place at the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. All tickets will be sold for $25. Specifics are as follows:
  1. The first of the groups to perform will be Bernstein’s Sexmob quartet, whose other members are Briggan Krauss on saxophones, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. According to their Web page on Bernstein’s Web site, their mission is “to deconstruct familiar pop tunes with subversive impunity.” One of Bernstein’s favorite sources of tunes is movie soundtracks. As a result the first program will be devoted to Nino Rota, who composed the scores for most of the films made by Federico Fellini. The title of the program will be Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti; and the film scores to be revisited will be those for La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and Amarcord. This program will be given two performances on Thursday, September 13, at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The 7 p.m. concert is almost completely sold. Tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the two times.
  2. The second Sexmob program will shift to the music of Duke Ellington. They will put their personal stamp on pieces including “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “The Mooche,” and “Come Sunday.” This program will also be given two performances, this time on Friday, September 14, at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Both concerts are almost completely sold. Tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the two times.
  3. The final program will feature Bernstein’s more expansive ensemble, the Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO). This group draws upon much earlier styles, those of the pre-swing era territory bands that crisscrossed the country in the Twenties and Thirties. However, their material draws not only on the music from that period but also much more recent material, including tunes by Charles Mingus and pop material from Prince, the Grateful Dead, and Sly and the Family Stone. The group includes all of the Sexmob players, as well as Jenny Scheinman on violin, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Howard Wiley on tenor and soprano saxophones, Jeff Cressman on trombone, and a guitarist not yet announced. This program will be given four performances, on Saturday, September 15, at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and on Sunday, September 16, at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the four times.
Remaining events for this week’s installment are as follows:

Thursday, September 13, 8 p.m., The Lab: This will be a two-set program with an emphasis on electronics. The first set will be taken by performance artist Wizard Apprentice, who works with both electronic music and motion graphics. She combines song and video to create multimedia live performances that explore intimate emotional themes ranging from the challenges and triumphs of being an empath to overstimulation in the Internet Age. She will be followed by the duo of Julius Smack and Madalyn Merkey. Smack is the stage persona of musician Peter Hernandez, whose music is augmented by dance and theater segments. Merkey composes and plays live computer music.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk 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 $10 and free 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.

Thursday, September 13, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The LSG Creative Music series will offer two sets of instrumental and electronic improvisations. The evening will begin with the Marshall/Pearce duo of Josh Marshall on tenor saxophone and Daniel Pearce on drums. They will be followed by the Earspray trio, which adds electronics to the percussion work of Mark Pino. Carlos Jennings works exclusively with electronic gear. Ann O’Rourke uses similar equipment but also plays electronic cello. In addition she provides vocals and video. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Saturday, September 15, 1 p.m., Castro Theatre: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present a blockbuster day of four programs of silent favorites, all of which will be accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra. This group has been creating modern music for silent films since its founding in 1983 by Richard Marriott. The full schedule for the day is as follows:
  • 1 p.m.: Buster + Felix (Buster Keaton and Felix the Cat)
  • 3:15 p.m.: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  • 6 p.m.: Metropolis
  • 9:30 p.m.: Nosferatu
Tickets may be purchased for the individual films through a single event page. However, there will also be an all-day pass for this occasion, which may be purchased through a separate Web page. There are a variety of alternatives for pricing, all of which are enumerated on these two Web pages. The Castro Theatre is located at 429 Castro Street, a short walk from the Castro Muni station.

Monday, September 17, 7:00 p.m., Adobe Books: This will be a three-set evening of sound artists who draw upon a diversity of resources. Mark Kate’s approach to his music and audio works draws heavily on cinematic techniques. Joey Largent applies frequency enhancement and manipulation technology to acoustic instruments to explore their spectra of overtones, including both the natural harmonics and inharmonic frequencies. Chris Duncan employs repetition and accumulation techniques applied simultaneously to both visual and auditory media.

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.