Saturday, July 20, 2019

Old First Concerts: September, 2019

Given how much will be happening during the month of September with the launch of a new season for many of the performing arts organizations, it seems appropriate to “keep up with the competition” by providing the schedule for the Old First Concerts (O1C) series during that month. Since these events have been included in a printed brochure, we may assume that plans are about as “cast in concrete” as they are likely to get. As always, however, any changes in those plans will be handled by posts to the shadow page for this site on Facebook.

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

Sunday, September 1, 4 p.m.: Jazz pianist Mike Greensill will resume his tradition of performing for Old First Concerts on Labor Day weekend. He will be joined by vocalist Denise Perrier, who has been called “The Voice with a Heart.” Selections will be taken from the American Songbook, with a special emphasis on compositions by Duke Ellington.

Sunday, September 8, 4 p.m.: Tangonero is an ensemble based in San Francisco, which is dedicated to preserving the tradition of Argentine Tango. Their book ranges from the folk stylings of Roberto Grela to Astor Piazzolla, who led his own combo but also made significant ventures into the classical genre, including a full-length opera. Two of the core members are from the United States, Yuri Kye, who plays both violin and viola, and Richard Duke on bass. The other two are Russia-born Alex Roitman on bandoneon and Malaysian pianist Celeste Chiam, who is also a trained ballet dancer. For this performance they will be joined by vocalist Claudio Ortega.

Friday, September 13, 8 p.m.: Pianist Omri Shimron has prepared a program entitled Metamorphosis, which will amount to a study of how original identity is retained over the course of transformation. Two of the composers on the program explicitly incorporate the noun “metamorphosis” in their respective titles, Philip Glass (in which the original identity is a simple chord progression) and Menachem Weisenberg, whose two compositions explore individual intervals, perfect fifth and octave, respectively. In addition Shimron will explore the changes to a basic theme that unfold in the first (in C minor) of Franz Schubert’s D. 899 four impromptus. The program will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 830 partita in E minor, which, Shimron claims, “can be perceived as a set of variations on a theme, bound together by one key.”

Sunday, September 15, 4 p.m.: The ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a program of its own arrangements and commissioned works. This will include the world premiere of its latest commission, composed by Erberk Eryilmaz and not yet assigned a title. The other commissioned composers will be Robert Greenberg (“Exercised”), Gabriella Smith (“From Máncora to Huaraz”), and Allen Shawn (“Fantasy”). The most interesting arrangement involves Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye. This was originally composed as a suite for piano duet in 1910. However, a year later, Ravel expanded the score into an eleven-movement ballet with orchestral accompaniment, which was first performed in January of 1912. ZOFO will play their own arrangement of this ballet score, as well as Frank Martin’s 1924 overture.

Friday, September 20, 8 p.m.: In a program entitled Cello++, violist Aaron Rosengaus will celebrate the rich sounds of tenor strings by joining forces with the string players of the Delphi Trio and the Alden Trio. The selections will be Anton Arensky’s Opus 35 quartet in A minor for violin, viola, and two cellos and Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major, which adds a second violin to the resources for the Arensky quartet. The Delphi musicians will be violinist Liana Bérubé and cellist Michelle Kwon, and the Alden players will be violinist Yuri Kye and cellist Brady Anderson.

Sunday, September 22, 4 p.m.: This will be the second solo piano recital of the month, marking the return of Italian pianist Laura Magnani. Her program will be framed by two sonatas, beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) in C minor and concluding with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 28 (third) sonata in A minor. Between these two selections, she will play Schubert’s D. 946 set of three piano pieces, sometimes known as the third set of impromptus.

Canellakis is Coming!

Conductor Karina Canellakis (from her San Francisco Symphony event page)

(Boy, do I wish I had a Game of Thrones font!)

At a time when following the news feels like “one damned thing after another,” BBC News provided a major lift to my spirits with a decidedly upbeat article by BBC music reporter Mark Savage. On the surface this seemed like the usual annual account of the First Night of the BBC Proms, but the occasion was anything but usual. The conductor was New Yorker Karina Canellakis, a violin graduate from the Juilliard School who was encouraged by Simon Rattle to leave the Second Violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and take up conducting. She has now made history as the first woman to conduct First Night.

She prepared a program that might almost have served as a thank-you to Rattle for encouraging her career change. The second half was devoted entirely to Leoš Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass,” so named because it is a setting of the Mass text in the Glagolitic alphabet. During his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle made a particularly impressive recording of this piece; and it is actually the “lead” selection (the first eight tracks of the first CD) in the Warner Classics anthology, Simon Rattle: The CBSO years.

The challenge of performing this piece goes beyond the music. Glagolitic is the predecessor of the modern Cyrillic alphabet, but there is very little knowledge about its phonetics. As a result, as mezzo Jennifer Johnston put it, pronunciation was “our best guess, along with academics who’ve given us some guidance.”

However, honoring Rattle was only part of the package Canellakis delivered at Proms. She opening with the world premiere performance of “Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory” by fellow New Yorker Zosha Di Castri. This was composed on a commission by the BBC to mark (today’s) 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. This was followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 109 symphonic poem, “The Golden Spinning Wheel,” given, according to Savage, “a lovingly-shaped rendition.”

Nevertheless, all of this is now in the past; but as William Shakespeare had Antonio say in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue.” Canellakis’ successful Proms debut should prepare those of us in the Bay Area for her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony this coming October. She has prepared a program with a challenge entirely different from that of dealing with text written in Glagolitic.

The program will be shared by the two major Russian composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. What is interesting is that Canellakis has chosen selections by each of these composers with extended passages that dwell on strict repetition to the point of aggravation, almost as if each of them were trying to get even with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in his own way. The Prokofiev selection will be his first (Opus 10) piano concerto in D-flat major; and since it was completed in Russia in 1912, any connection to “Bolero” is entirely anachronistic. Nevertheless, the opening measures are so repetitive that it almost seems as if Prokofiev wanted to push (or cross) the limits of listener tolerance, while Ravel’s variation in instrumentation makes for a less provocative experience.

Prokofiev’s concerto lasts only about a quarter of an hour in its entirety. The remainder of the program will be devoted the Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony. This symphony is known as the “Leningrad;” and it was completed shortly after the beginning of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. (The city was still under siege when the symphony was first performed in Samara.) The first movement is dominated by what has been called the “invasion” march; and the Wikipedia page for this symphony clearly nods to Ravel in describing this march as a “bolero-like ostinato.”

However, this is a case of devils in the details. The second half of the theme sounds like a clear quotation of “Da geh' ich zu Maxim” (you’ll find me at Maxim’s), sung by Count Danilo Danilovitsch in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow; and no less than Shostakovich’s son has affirmed that the composer intended this as a shameless appropriation. Nevertheless, Russians hearing the symphony for the first time were, at least according to prevailing (i.e. “Party line”) reports, profoundly moved by the intensity that cut through the entire composition.

The American premiere was given by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini for a live radio broadcast. The recording of that concert is included in the complete collection of RCA recordings of Toscanini performances. Critical reception, however, was another matter. Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson declared, “It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” There is also the story that Béla Bartók listened to the broadcast from a hospital bed and was so aggravated that he appropriated the “Maxim” theme for his own “Concerto for Orchestra.” (It provides the “interruption” for the movement entitled “Intermezzo Interotto.”) However, the pianist György Sándor, who worked closely with Bartók, claims that Bartók’s appropriation was from Léhar, rather than Shostakovich!

I have provided all of this background to make it clear that Canellakis will be biting off a good deal to chew when she comes to Davies. I, for one, am looking forward to the occasion. I am glad that she will be taking bold chances at a time when there are too many concert programs trying to “play it safe” in the hopes that more audiences will be inclined to attend.

Catching up on Met Telecasts: Damrau and Verdi

When the pace slows down in the summer, I try to use the time to catch up on the Great Performances at the Met broadcasts that I have saved in my xfinity cloud space. Last night I finished working my way through Michael Mayer’s new staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The “triangle” of principal roles were sung by soprano Diana Damrau (Violetta Valéry), tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Alfredo Germont), and baritone Quinn Kelsey (Giorgio Germont). The video was recorded this past December 15, and the broadcast was aired here on April 14.

I should probably begin with a disclaimer. As we get older, both my wife and I seem to have encountered a sort-of “saturation” with certain operas. My wife has made it abundantly clear that she has had enough of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. I understand and sympathize, but Traviata is the one that most gets on my nerves.

Verdi has always troubled me for his blatant inconsistencies; but, for my money, Traviata has one of his worst bloopers. The problem is that it has one of the most promising beginnings that rises to a pinnacle of ecstasy and then falls with a thud. The opening measures presage Violetta’s death scene, and there is a transparency to the scoring that makes these measures possibly the best thing Verdi ever wrote. Then, as soon as the listener is elevated by that rhetoric (s)he is dropped with a thud by some of the worst oom-pah-pah music in the literature.

The ultimate test of a conductor is whether (s)he can transcend the banality of that passage. Nézet-Séguin failed to do so, and it sounded as if he was not even trying. Indeed, he was clearly in his comfort zone when the score allowed him to run the full gamut from loud to loudest; and full-blast sonorities were just as strong from the choral work as they were from the orchestra pit. Too much of this performance involved Verdi written with a mega-sized Magic Marker.

Perhaps this was consistent with the paucity of subtlety in Mayer’s production. Yes, he took an imaginative approach to a silent depiction of the death scene during the very opening measures of the score. However, it turned out that both the death bed and a piano remained on the stage for the entirety of the opera. Perhaps Mayer wanted “Memento mori” to be the motto of his production; but he was so blatant about it that the overall impact was silly, rather than meditative.

Fortunately, the leading vocalists made the best of the situation. With her long blonde hair, Damrau reminded me of the younger Meryl Streep; and she definitely gets points for avoiding needless excess in much (but not all) of her vocal work. Flórez was less convincing; but, at the end of the day, his character is the one that is the most weakly shaped in the scenario. I must confess to a bit of bias towards Kelsey, since he is an Adler alumnus; but he deserved better than the turn-on-a-dime mood shifts that Mayer loaded into his character portrayal.

So, if I went into viewing this recording feeling as if I had reached saturation with Traviata production, there was very little about this broadcast to change my mind!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Plans for PBO’s 2019/20 San Francisco Season

Full and partial subscription tickets are still on sale for the 39th season of concerts given by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale. This season has the descriptive title Reflections, since it will reflect on the legacy of Nicholas McGegan and his 35 years of service as Waverley Fund Music Director. Once again, the season will consist of six programs, each of which will be given at least one performance in San Francisco. Also, as was the case last season, programming will extend the usual repertoire of the “distant past” by presenting a newly commissioned work by composer Caroline Shaw. Finally, all San Francisco performances will again take place at Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, October 17, 8 p.m.: San Francisco will have the honor of hosting the world premiere of Shaw’s commissioned composition, “The Listeners,” which will open the first program of the season, entitled A Cosmic Notion. Little information has been released to date other than the fact that it will feature the otherworldly low-register voices of contralto Avery Amereau and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Scoring will involve the full forces of PBO joined by the Philharmonia Chorale directed by Bruce Lamott. Shaw’s piece will be complemented by George Frideric Handel’s HWV 74 “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne” with a libretto by Ambrose Philips. This ode is often known by the first line of the text, “Eternal source of light divine.” Burton will be one of the three soloists, the other two being soprano Arwen Myers and countertenor Reginald Mobley.

Friday, November 15, 8 p.m.: San Francisco native Jeannette Sorrell, founding director of Apollo’s Fire, will make her long-awaited debut as PBO guest conductor. The title of her program will be Mozart’s Musings; and one of those “musings,” the K. 314 oboe concerto in C major, will feature PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz. The overture-concerto-symphony format will begin with the overture to the K. 51 opera La finta semplice (the fake innocent). The symphony will be K. 550 in G minor, probably Mozart’s best known symphony. As a “bonus” the overture will be followed by a suite of music from Zémire et Azor, a four-act opera by Mozart’s Belgian contemporary André Grétry.

Thursday, December 5, 7 p.m.: This December Hanukkah will take precedence over Christmas when McGegan conducts Handel’s HWV 63 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. The title role will be sung by tenor Nicholas Phan. The other vocal soloists will be soprano Robin Johannsen, mezzo Sara Couden, and baritone William Berger. Lamott will again prepare the Philharmonia Chorale.

Friday, February 7, 8 p.m.: Music Director Designate Richard Egarr will return to the PBO podium to present a program entitled The Well-Caffeinated Clavier. This will be a program consisting entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, bringing his BWV 211 “Coffee” cantata together with two keyboard concertos, BWV 1058 in G minor and BWV 1052 in D minor. Egarr will conduct both concertos from the harpsichord. Bach cantatas tend to be known by the first line of German text; but, where BWV 211 is concerned, I have always had a preference for the (very?) loose English translation, “All right, you guys, shut up and listen to me!” The cantata vocalists will be soprano Nola Richardson as the coffee addict Lieschen, tenor James Reese as the narrator, and bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as Lieschen’s father Schlendrian (another opportunity for English translation, since the name translates as “stick in the mud”). Egarr will conclude the program with the BWV 1068 orchestral suite in D major.

Friday, March 13, 8 p.m.: This will be McGegan’s annual program of nineteenth-century music. Violinist Alana Youssefian will return to the PBO stage as soloist in Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 concerto in E minor. This will be another overture-concerto-symphony program. The overture will be that of Luigi Cherubini’s opera Démophoon (which was actually first performed near the end of the eighteenth century but is admissible within “experimental error”). The symphony, however, will be decidedly nineteenth-century, Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“The Great”) in C major.

Wednesday, April 15–Saturday, April 18, 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 19, 3 p.m.: All four of the performances of the final program will take place in Herbst. This will be a fully-staged production of Scylla et Glaucus, the only surviving full-length opera by Jean-Marie Leclair. This offering will be co-produced by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. The title roles will be sung by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery and haute-contre Aaron Sheehan. The other vocal soloists will be sopranos Véronique Gens and Judith van Wanroij and baritone Douglas Williams. The production will be staged by Catherine Turocy, who will also provide choreography for her New York Baroque Dance Company. The choral resources will be provided by Les Chantres de la Maîtrise du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles.

As noted above, there are a variety of subscription options for those not wishing to attend all six of these concerts. Prices range from $90 to $660. Single tickets will go on sale on August 1. The season summary Web page includes More Info hyperlinks for each of the individual concerts. Each of those program-specific Web pages will include a hyperlink for purchasing single tickets. Further information may be obtained by calling Patron Services at 415-295-1900, which is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition there will be three augmentations to the subscription offerings taking place in San Francisco. The first of these will be another side-by-side performance that will bring the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players together with members of Juilliard415, the period instrument ensemble at the Juilliard School. The program will consist of two Bach compositions, the BWV 1066 (first) orchestral suite in C major and the BWV 1048 (third) “Brandenburg” concerto in G major. Antonio Vivaldi will be represented by a concerto in D major for violin and double orchestra, and the program will conclude with an orchestral suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux.

This program will be given only one performance, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 10. As was the case last year, the venue will be the ODC Theater, located at 3153 17th Street on the northwest corner of Shotwell Street. All tickets will be $25 and a post-concert wine reception will be included.

The second augmentation will be on a much larger scale. This will be a staged performance of Handel’s HWV 72 dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. The production is shared with National Sawdust, and the producers are  Anthony Ross Costanzo and Cath Brittan. Staging will be by Christopher Alden, and McGegan will conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players. The title roles will be taken, respectively, by soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Costanzo, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

There will be an Opening Night Gala Performance on Wednesday, January 22, at 8 p.m. The venue will be the Taube Atrium Theater, part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This will be followed by seven performances at the ODC Theater at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 24, Saturday, January 25, Tuesday, January 28, Wednesday, January 29, Friday, January 31, and Saturday, February 1, as well as a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, January 26. Ticket prices will be announced when single tickets go on sale.

Finally, there will be only one PBO SESSIONS event taking place in San Francisco during the coming season. However, this will mark Egarr’s first participation in this series. The title of the event will be A Cup o’ Johann. It will explore the activities of Bach and his Collegium Musicum colleagues in the weekly concerts at Leipzig’s Café Zimmermann. This event will also take place at 8 PM on February 8. The venue will again be the ODC Theater, and ticket prices will be announced when single tickets go on sale.

Impressive SFS Debuts by Conductor and Soloist

Conductor Brett Mitchell and violinist Blake Pouliot (from the event page for this concert)

As previously announced, the two “serious” concerts being performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) as part of the Summer with the Symphony events at Davies Symphony Hall are both introducing new conductors and new soloists. At the first of those two concerts last night, the conductor was Brett Mitchell, currently Music Director of the Colorado Symphony. His soloist was the young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, currently pursuing a Professional Studies Certificate at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.

Pouliot’s concerto selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 in E minor, which was about as bread-and-butter as a rising violin talent could offer. His appearance, on the other hand, was more consistent with American Idol than with traditional SFS attire. However, appearances can be deceptive; and, after a few minor difficulties with the first salvo of rapid-fire triplets following the first statement of the opening theme, Pouliot consistently delivered a solid account of all remaining virtuoso demands. Just as importantly, he knew how to take command of the slower passages; and his soft dynamics were enough to make any attentive listener sit up and take notice. Furthermore, if his attire was a matter of “presentation of self,” his playing consistently embodied a finely-honed relationship of agreement between conductor and soloist. The result was that, for all of the familiarity of this concerto, there was an infrastructure of in-the-moment spontaneity that made this particular partnership of soloist, ensemble, and conductor one for the books.

The audience was clearly not going to leave for intermission until Pouliot provided an encore. He gave a solo performance of his own arrangement of the Irish tune “Aislean an Oigfear,” which serves as the melody for the poem “The Last Rose of Summer.” (Was his choice motivated by the fact that Mendelssohn’s Opus 15 is a solo piano fantasia on this tune?) The arrangement took on a variety of innovative technical devices, but it was the lyricism of the tune itself that stole the show. Pouliot is definitely a violinist to watch, however deceiving his “stage presence” may be.

Mitchell framed the Mendelssohn concerto with two selections by Hector Berlioz, both enjoying the same level of general familiarity as the concerto. The second half of the program consisted entirely of the Opus 14 “Symphony fantastique” (fantastical symphony), while the “overture” for the program was the “Marche hongroise” (Hungarian march) from the Opus 24 “légende dramatique” (dramatic legend), La damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust). Opus 14 was given a solid interpretation, accounting for the many expressive techniques that Berlioz conjured up to plumb the depths of a deranged (possibly through drugs) mind. What was important was that Mitchell never overplayed his hand, giving free rein to the rhetoric while keeping the vast instrumental resources strictly under control in the service of that rhetoric.

The real surprise came with the “overture.” In the overall plan of Opus 24, this almost serves as “incidental music” between the vocal selections that unfold the Faust narrative. However, Berlioz’ treatment of orchestral resources was never “incidental.” In this case the principal theme unfolds above a polyphony of different textures emerging from the different sections of the orchestra. (The last time I heard this music was when the San Francisco Opera presented a staged version of Opus 24; and, sadly, all of that polyphony got lost in the orchestra pit.) Mitchell clearly knew how many details were in play in this score, and he knew how to make every one of them stand out in its contribution to the intricacies of the entirety.

Mitchell is definitely a conductor to watch; and hopefully he will return to Davies during the “primary portion” of a coming season.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s New Album with ABS

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen on the cover of his new ABS album (from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording)

Those who follow this site regularly probably know by now that countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was the recipient of this year’s Jeffrey Thomas Award, named after the Artistic and Music Director of American Bach Soloists (ABS). He was introduced to ABS audiences this past December 31 at a special concert entitled A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera, a program of arias, duets, and overtures in which he was joined by soprano Mary Wilson. Since the beginning of this year, he has been featured on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House when San Francisco Ballet presented the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s latest ballet, “…two united in a single soul…,” in Herbst Theatre in the role of David when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale performed George Frideric Handel’s HWV 53 oratorio Saul, and again at the Opera House for the San Francisco Opera production of Handel’s HWV 31 opera Orlando.

Cohen will not give his first ABS Subscription Series performance until this coming January. However, at the beginning of this month, ABS released its latest recording, which features Cohen as soloist. As of this writing, Amazon.com is distributing this album only through digital download; but those who still prefer physical media can purchase the CD through a Web page created for ABS.

As might be expected, the content includes selections from Cohen’s New Year’s Eve performance. As was the case at that concert, the featured composers are (in order of appearance on the album) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel. Gluck is represented by only two arias, both on the New Year’s Eve program, the familiar “Che faró senza Euridice?” (what shall I do without Euridice) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the less well-known “Sperai vicino il lido” (I hoped that the harbor was close) from Demofoonte.

The major Vivaldi selection (which concludes the album) was not performed on New Year’s Eve. This is the most extended composition on the album, the RV 621 setting of the Stabat Mater hymn. Vivaldi is also represented by two opera overtures for, respectively, Farnace (RV 711) and La verità in cimento (truth in contention, RV 739). Finally, the album has four Handel opera arias, one of which, “Vivi tiranno, io t’ho scampato” (live tyrant, I escaped you) from HWV 19 Rodelinda, was performed on New Year’s Eve.

I made it a point to frame the content of this new album with my past concert experiences because I seldom have the opportunity to engage in such comparative listening. The fact is that Cohen has already cultivated a strong sense of stage presence, which, at the New Year’s Eve concert, held up just as well in his duet work with the more-experienced Wilson as it did in his solo performances. The recording, on the other hand, is “all about the music.” The good news is that Cohen’s solid and well-polished vocal qualities are as strong on recording as they have been on the stage. However, I would suggest that he still has a way to go before his “recorded presence” can capture rhetorical qualities as well as his physical appearance does.

There is, of course, a tendency to approach opera arias, particularly those preceding the Classical period, as static. The aria reflects the interior passions of the singer; and the “action” of the opera’s scenario is “put on hold” to allow those passions to reveal themselves. However, when the aria is performed out of context, the challenge is to convey some sense of the underlying dramatic qualities without requiring the listener to know all the details of that context. After listening to all of the selections on this album, I must confess that Cohen never quite disclosed rhetorical stances that would make listening a compelling experience, even when the rhetoric of the text was at its most blatant in the Stabat Mater setting.

Many, of course, may be content with this album, particularly as an introduction to the less familiar selections; but, personally, I had hoped for a more vigorous demand for my attention.

The SFP 2019–2020 Guitar Series

For its 40th Anniversary Season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) will present a Guitar Series with six concerts, rather than the usual five. As in the past, these concerts will be presented in association with the OMNI Foundation for the Performing Arts. Four of the programs will be solo recitals, one will be a guitar quartet, and one will include the Alexander String Quartet (violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson), which has been the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence since 1989.

The first concert in the series will begin at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, and all remaining events will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evenings. One event will take place at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. All others will take place at Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

October 13, Herbst Theatre: A former Artist-in-Residence, Manuel Barrueco has had a long and close relationship with SFP. He was born in Cuba and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1967 as political refugees. As a result, he has extended his repertoire beyond the usual Spanish sources to include those from the New World, particularly Cuba. His program will feature Cuban composers such as Ignacio Cervantes (whose teachers included Louis Moreau Gottschalk) and Héctor (Manuel) Angulo (Rodríguez), who is probably best known for having taught the music of the Guajira Guantanamera to Pete Seeger. In a related vein Barrueco will play an arrangement of Enrique Granados’ Opus 36 set of two pieces for piano entitled A la Cubana. The program will begin with Renaissance selections by Luis de Narváez, and the other Spanish selections on the program will be piano music by Isaac Albéniz and Francisco Tárrega’s transcriptions for guitar.

October 26, Herbst Theatre: Jason Vieaux will premiere a new suite written for him by Pat Metheny. He will also play two Baroque selections, his own arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 solo violin sonata in G minor and Leo Brouwer’s arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 208 keyboard sonata in A major. The program will also include Mauro Giuliani’s Opus 107 set of variations on a theme by George Frideric Handel and the Suite del Recuerdo by José Luis Merlin.

November 23, Herbst Theatre: The quartet concert will be by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, whose members are Scott Tennant, Matt Greif, John Dearman, and Bill Kanengiser. They are calling their program American Guitar Masterworks, although most of the selections will probably be arrangements for quartet, if not for the guitar itself. As a result there will be compositions by both John Philip Sousa and Aaron Copland, bluegrass created by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for The Foggy Mountain Boys, and “Sixties Revolutionaries,” such as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

December 7, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Born in China and now living in the United Kingdom, Xuefei Yang was the first internationally recognized Chinese guitarist on the world stage. She has attracted the attention of many composers, including Chen Yi, the first female student at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to receive a Master of Arts degree. Yang will play several of the pieces that Chen wrote for her. Her program will begin with an arrangement of piano music by Claude Debussy followed by the “Homenaje” (homage) that Manuel de Falla wrote following Debussy’s death. There will also be selections by Granados, Joaquín Rodrigo, Paco de Lucía, and Paco Peña. She will conclude the program with arrangements of traditional Chinese music.

March 7, Herbst Theatre: Kanengiser will return to Herbst, this time to perform with the Alexander String Quartet. The title of the program will be British Invasion; and it will feature the United States premiere of Prism, arrangements of six songs by Sting prepared by Dušan Bogdanović. The “pop” spirit of the program will continue with Leo Brouwer’s arrangements of seven Beatles songs, after which the group will play “Labyrinth,” composed by Ian Krouse and based on a theme by Led Zeppelin. Earlier British music will be represented by Krouse’s “Music in Four Sharps,” based on John Dowland’s “Frog” galliard. Kanengiser will also give solo performances of several of Dowland’s songs.

March 21, Herbst Theatre: David Russell will return with another imaginative program of arrangements and originals. His arrangements tend to focus on the Baroque period. Handel will be represented by HWV 432 in G minor, the seventh of the so-called “eight great” keyboard suites, whose final movement is a passacaglia that inspired an arrangement for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen. Bach, on the other hand, will be represented by two familiar chorale preludes. The first of these is BWV 645, the first of the “Schübler” chorales for organ, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (awake, calls the voice to us); and the second, “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” (Jesus joy of man’s desiring) comes from the BWV 147 cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (heart and mouth and deed and life). Russell will also play “Phyllis’ Portrait,” composed by another guitarist familiar to SFP audiences, Sérgio Assad. Russell gave the world premiere of this piece in New York this past April.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $335 for premium seating, $280, and $245. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, August 19 and will also be sold by City Box Office. Once available, they may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to each of the above dates.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

James Tenney’s 1990 Darmstadt Lecture

The next article I encountered in my traversal of the chapters in the James Tenney anthology From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory is entitled simply “Darmstadt Lecture.” The lecture was delivered on July 26, 1990, when Tenney was one of the many composers attending that year’s Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (international summer schools for new music at Darmstadt). I gathered from the first sentence of this article that much of the activity involved attendees presenting lectures to their fellow attendees; but, apparently, titles for the lectures were not required.

Tenney began by suggesting the title “Problems of Harmony (II),” the number indicating that Arnold Schoenberg had written a paper with the same title (without a number), which he presented as a lecture on January 20, 1927. (Given that date, it is clear that both the title and the presentation were in German.) Tenney then explained that the plural referred a variety of “smaller problems,” addressing different aspects of the overall topic. Those “subproblems” were, in the order discussed: the historical, the role of theory, the phenomenological, the psychoacoustic, the semantic, and the compositional.

My first reaction was that this fit neatly into “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” the title of a famous paper by cognitive psychologist George Armitage Miller about how many different “items” you could hold in your head at any given time. However, much as I admired Miller and always enjoyed listening to him lecture, I realized that I was much more at home with the ancient tradition of division into three parts. That realization reminded me of the first time I tried to write something serious about the performance of music on this site, in which I explained why I had a tendency to be skeptical of recitals given by competition winners.

My overall framework followed the “rule of three” but in an unlikely manner. The foundation for my argument was the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. I treated each of these as a “dimension” along which I could describe both my listening experiences and my negative response to those experiences. That article was written in March of 2007, and well over a decade later I continue to appeal to either parts of that framework or its entirety when taking on problems of both describing and evaluating listening experiences.

Tenney’s lecture, on the other hand, was the product of a composer, rather than a listener. Nevertheless, each of the problems he reviewed amounted to a problem that would confront anyone trying to describe a piece of music, whether it involved the nature of how the music would be performed or the nature of the experience from the perspective of a listener. As Tenney worked his way through the first five problems, I found myself sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes feeling is if a lightbulb had gone on above my head, and seldom with a Spock-like arched eyebrow.

However, when Tenney came to composition as a problem unto itself, I felt as if either or both of us had hit a brick wall. Rather than talking about composition as a particularly unique subclass of human behavior in general, Tenney devoted almost all of his attention to the concept of a “harmonic space.” His punch line then turned out to be that the activity of composition could be described in terms of “activity in harmonic space” (emphasis in the source text).

This surprised me for any number of reasons. One of the most important involved the close and friendly relationship that Tenney had with John Cage. (Tenney may be the first composer to appreciate and accept what Cage was doing since the early days when Cage and Pierre Boulez were correspondents.) The conclusion of Tenney’s lecture led me to wonder whether he had encountered Erik Satie’s (in?)famous dictum that “music is what happens at concerts.” Cage clearly embraced that assertion and never seemed to run out of innovative ways to exercise it.

Tenney, on the other hand, always seems to have fallen back on “marks on paper,” whether the medium was a score page, a mathematical proposition, or a line of code in a FORTRAN program. To be fair, it would not surprise me if those were also the three “frames of mind” found in every other participant of that year’s summer school. We are getting close to the 30th anniversary of that particular summer school, and I feel a need to ask whether we have advanced or regressed.

I would like to believe that no-one writes code in FORTRAN any more; and it has been quite some time since I have encountered anything requiring me to resuscitate my previous education in higher mathematics. The good news is that I still encounter a fascinating diversity when it comes to the sorts of marks on paper that pass from composer to performer. I take this as a significant departure from the need for “academic reinforcement” when one sets about to make music. The marks on paper have declared their independence from “academic constructs;” and I have yet to regret where that independence is leading us!

Trinity Alps Musicians to Visit San Francisco

Ever since Director Ian Scarfe founded his Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, he has arranged performances in San Francisco featuring Festival musicians. In the past these performances have taken place during the winter months, allowing most of the musicians to make the most of their time “on retreat” from their usual urban life. However, this summer, there will be an intervening weekend between the two weekends scheduled for Festival concerts. During that weekend there will be a special performance for audiences in and near San Francisco.

Opening system of Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet (from IMSLP, public domain)

The major work on the program will be Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major for double string quartet, which he composed at the age of sixteen in the fall of 1825. The performers will be violinists Emma Steele, Ellen McGehee, Otis Harriel, and Aniela Eddy, violists Paula Karolak and Stephen Fine, and cellists Karl Knapp and Joseph Howe. The program will also include a string quartet by Jessie Montgomery. Both of these compositions will have been performed during the first weekend of the Festival.

That weekend will also feature soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine, when she will will perform “To Keep the Dark Away,” a new cycle of songs by Scott Gendel based on poems by Emily Dickinson. That performance will be revisited in San Francisco. Accompaniment will be provided by Scarfe at the piano and cellist Knapp, who is Guarrine’s husband. She will also sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 505 concert aria “Ch'io mi scordi di te?” (will I forget you), which includes an obbligato part for piano. They will be accompanied by the octet of strings, which will work around the pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns included in the original score.

As has been the case with Festival-related concerts in the past, the venue will be The Century Club of California, which is located at 1355 Franklin Street, between Post Street and Sutter Street. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 2. Admission will be $25. The purchase of tickets online is being processed through a Groupmuse event page, and Supermusers will be able to pay only $20 for tickets. This will be part of the Massivemuse series of concerts, since most Groupmuse events are house concerts. Note that it will be necessary to register with Groupmuse before the site can process ticket purchases.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

SFCM: October, 2019

As plans for the coming season unfold, I have discovered that my own Calendar is beginning to fill up for the month of October. As I write this, about one-third of the days of the month have been committed; and that is before I enter the specifics for the concerts that will be taking place in Davies Symphony Hall! Thus, while program specifics have not yet been provided (with a few exceptions), it is probably a good idea to account for those dates that have been assigned in the schedule of performances hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM).

When further details become available, they will be found on the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site closer to the scheduled dates. The individual event pages will specify whether a concert is free and/or whether a reservation is required. If there will be a charge for admission, there will be a hyperlink to a Web page for purchasing tickets. (There will also be hyperlinks for making reservations for free concerts.) For those who do not already know, 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. What follows is a brief summary of the events in September with hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages:

Journeys of Discovery

Considering how much interesting content unfolded in response to Sarah Cahill’s Facebook post regarding my account of her Flower Piano Recital, I felt a need to clarify the context and consider a broader issue. First of all, I would like to set the record straight on a minor he-said-she-said issue. Cahill made the following assertion:
If Steve, who goes to hundreds of concerts a year, can hear ninety minutes of music composed between 1811 and the present day and declare that it's all unknown to him primarily because the music is written by women, then there is a clear need for us musicians to keep bringing this repertoire to light.
My issue has to do with the use of “because” in that sentence. The text of the assertion that Cahill had in mind was the following:
Each composition had its own stamp of uniqueness; and all of them were unfamiliar to this writer (and probably just about everyone else in the audience this morning).
The compositions were unfamiliar to me not because of the gender of the composer but because, with the exception of Teresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees,” I had neither heard nor heard of any of them through reading or conversation. (Just to be clear, I knew that Fanny Mendelssohn composed; but, prior to Cahill’s performance, I knew nothing about what she had composed.)

The fact is that many of the concerts I attend involve “first contact” experiences, if not for all of the program than for a significant portion of it. One of the reasons I try to get to as many Cahill performances as I can is because I expect to have such experiences. For that matter, she is far from the only performer I approach this way. Other examples that quickly come to mind are Friction Quartet (which, readers of my preview pieces may recall, will share an Old First Concerts program with Cahill on August 16), The Living Earth Show, Areon Flutes, and the A/B Duo. The fact is that there is so much original programming in concerts in San Francisco that coming up with examples is a bit like eating potato chips! (Don’t get me started on enumerating composers, many of whom are, indeed, female.)

However, the selections listed on the program are only the surface structure of any listening experience. What sustains me through those “hundreds of concerts a year” is not whether the repertoire is new or familiar but whether the listening experience bears its own unique stamp of originality. When, at the beginning of this month, I took issue with the recent release of an “Educational Edition” of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, it was because there have been any number of performances of those four concertos that made me sit up and treat them as first-contact experiences, none of which involved “educational” background about the music or the poetry behind the music. Every performance has the potential to be a journey of discovery, and whether or not such a journey is experienced depends more on the performer than on the composer.

From that point of view, Cahill’s qualities as a performer go beyond her choices of repertoire and her approaches to execution. At her Flower Piano recital the attention she put into introducing each piece of music was as important as her presentation of the music itself. Truth be told, it was because of her attention that I found myself following up on many of her points during my writing, seeking out the knowledge serving as background for her remarks and occasionally venturing down a path or two of my own. As a result, while many of my journeys of discovery leave me overwhelmed by the sheer volume of novelty when I then have to write about the experience, I found that I could approach Cahill’s program as a “charted landscape,” through which I could easily set myself a clearly-defined path.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Tenney’s Rigorous Balance of Chance and Choice

Those who have been following my discussion of the articles by James Tenney collected in From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory should, by this time, appreciate how much rigor can be found in Tenney’s efforts, whether they are directed toward musical composition or toward imaginative reconceptions of practices that have come to be called “music theory.” When it comes to composition, there is a good chance that Tenney was inspired by John Cage, who could also be meticulously rigorous when called upon to explain the method behind the creation of one of his compositions. What is interesting about Cage is that, while many of those methods were based on a foundation of using a chance technique (such as the ritual for selecting passages to read from the I Ching), there could be prolific diversity in how that technique would be applied. The Silence anthology has two short articles about such applications, one published in 1952 and the other in 1957; and from these we may appreciate how the creation of method was as important to Cage as the creation of the music itself.

Cage’s approach would have an impact on other composers. The best known of these is probably Pierre Boulez. In 1958 Die Reihe published an article by György Ligeti that provided a deep dive into the creation of one of Boulez’ particularly challenging compositions. The title of the article was “Pierre Boulez: Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structure Ia” (Pierre Boulez, decision and automatism in “Structure Ia”); and evidence of Cage’s impact on Boulez is not hard to find. (The article appeared in the English-language edition of Die Reihe in 1960.)

As Ligeti’s title makes clear, much of the composition process is “automatic,” although it might be better to call it “algorithmic.” The connotations of the latter adjective allow us to appreciate that one cannot have an algorithm before first identifying input data, output data, and the relations that connect them. These are the issues that Ligeti addresses in the “decision” portion of his article.

Tenney’s article “About Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps” is very much cut from the same cloth that served Cage and Boulez. However, where Boulez was concerned with serial techniques that could be applied to the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, Tenney was more interested in exploring the pitches of the natural overtone series. He decided to do this by dividing the semitone into six equal micro-intervals, providing him with an equal-tempered gamut that would enable better approximations to upper harmonics, which could be represented terms of smaller “chromatic shifts” from the traditional pitch classes. (The reader should now appreciate why Tenney’s piece was scored for six harps; each harp had a different “micro-shift” in the pitch of its strings.)

In terms of method, Tenney was far more rigorous than either Cage or Boulez. His expertise in higher mathematics allowed him to make rigorous specifications of subtle variations. This was most evident in his effort to extrapolate principles of harmony into the domain of his 72-pitch equal-tempered gamut. Nevertheless, I think it would be fair to say that almost every reader of this article will come away with absolutely no sense of what it would be like to listen to the results.

(Back when I was living in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to listen to a tape that Tenney played of an excerpt from a performance of Changes. I had as much trouble making sense of my listening experience than I had encountered during my “first contact” with “Structure Ia!” I gather that there is now a performing version six guitars, taking the same approach to chromatic tuning; but I missed out on an opportunity to listen to that music played at the Center for New Music.)

It would be easy to dismiss Tenney’s project as “much ado about not very much.” The fact is that it is very difficult to establish the relationship between Tenney-the-composer and Tenney-the-listener. That relationship was always much clearer in Cage’s work: There was none! Cage simply created the “sonorous materials” for a listening experience; and the listener was free to make of those materials whatever (s)he wished.

Tenney, on the other hand, seems to have been motivated by a desire to explore how one could work with pitches based on the overtone series through techniques consistent with pre-existing knowledge of counterpoint and harmony. Those who have followed this site for some time know that he is far from the only composer to be so motivated. The two composers that have probably received the most attention in my writing have been Ben Johnston and, more recently, Harry Partch. Of these three, Partch has struck me as the one that gave the most thought to the sorts of listening experiences that would arise from his techniques. In that context Tenney occupies the space at the other extreme of the pendulum swing, a claim that I shall be happy to withdraw if convinced by sufficient experience in listening to Tenney’s music, rather than reading about his approaches to composition!

The Bleeding Edge: 7/15/2019

This will be another busy week for which almost all activities have already been announced on this site. These will be at the “usual suspects” venues as follows:
That leaves three remaining events, two of which are also at “usual suspects” venues with the third at a relatively new site that is likely to achieve “usual suspects” status. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, July 17, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This month’s installment in the series of experimental performances will feature two duos and two solos. The first duo will be Jupiter Blue, whose members are “tone scientists” D.Hotep and Jupiter Girl. The techniques behind the pair’s music-making are based on Hotep’s Akimbo Research Projects and involve wide diversity in vocal, instrumental, and electronic performances. The other duo is Voicehandler, which brings vocalist Danishta Rivero together with percussionist Jacob Felix Heule, whose percussion work makes extensive use of real-time electronics. Rivero works with source texts by authors that include Jorge Luis Borges, Knut Hamsun, Eduardo Galeano, and William Burroughs. The solo sets will be the Amphibious Gestures project of Kasper Rodenborn and Brandon Yahir-Taylor’s Heartworm.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight (sometimes known as Haight-Fillmore) at 552 Haight Street, between Fillmore Street and Steiner Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $10.

Sunday, July 21, 6:30 p.m., Honey Hive Gallery: This is the aforementioned site that is likely to achieve “usual suspects” status. Readers may recall that all ages are admitted, and there is a strict rule of no drinking or drugs in and around the venue. As a result, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; and the program concludes by 10 p.m. This usually makes for an evening of four sets, only three of which have been finalized. These will include a solo guitar set by Alex Cohen and a trio set with Tom Weeks on alto saxophone, Kazuto Sato on bass, and Kevin Murray on drums. Less conventional will be the quartet that calls itself Dancin’ Baby. This features two (count them!) euphonium players, Courtney Sexton and Brian Pedersen, who doubles on saxophone. Jeffrey Lievers provides rhythm with both drums and electronics. The quartet is then filled out by Kit Young, who creates real-time analog video feedback.

The Honey Hive Gallery is located in the Sunset at 4117 Judah Street. That makes it accessible to the Muni N trolley line. It is located between 46th Avenue and 47th Avenue. Admission is by a donation of $10.

Monday, July 22, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: It looks as if the Make Out Room has settled into a new pattern of offering two Monday Make-Out concerts every month. The second performance for this month will follow the usual three-set programming. The opening set will be a trio led by saxophonist Jon Raskin. The rhythm section of this trio has not yet been announced. The group will be followed by the art rock and progressive jazz combo that calls itself Education Reform. Appropriately enough, Education Reform will be followed by the Beauty School free improvisation trio led by Djll on both trumpet and modular synthesizer. The other members of the trio will be Matt Chandler on bass and Jacob Heule on drums. According to my records, this program was originally planned for the second Monday Make-Out of last month but seems to have been rescheduled.

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.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sarah Cahill’s 2019 Flower Piano Recital

A photograph of Sarah Cahill in the spirit of Flower Piano (photograph by Marianne Larochelle, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

As was announced about a month ago, this morning Sarah Cahill took her current ongoing project, The Future is Female, to the solo recital she performed for the Flower Piano music festival. She presented a recital slightly less than 90 minutes in duration, over the course of which she performed eight compositions, each by a different female composer. These covered a period in music history that ranged from 1811 to a composition completed earlier this year. Each composition had its own stamp of uniqueness; and all of them were unfamiliar to this writer (and probably just about everyone else in the audience this morning). Cahill provided a verbal introduction to each piece, which basically encouraged the attentive listener to follow her on what emerged as an adventurous and highly stimulating journey of discovery.

The background for the earliest composition was perhaps the most fascinating. Hélène de Montgeroult was born into an aristocratic French family and became the wife of the Marquis de Montgeroult. Her aristocratic status led to imprisonment during the Reign of Terror and could easily have then led to the guillotine. However, she performed a set of improvisations on “La Marseillaise” for the Committee of Public Safety, which then led to her release from prison. In 1795 she became the first woman to teach at the newly-formed Conservatoire de Paris. Cahill’s selection was the last in her Opus 5 publication of three piano sonatas, this one in the key of F-sharp minor. Published in 1811, the music may well have reflected admiration for Muzio Clementi and perhaps her Conservatoire colleague Luigi Cherubini. Nevertheless, it also showed signs of its own distinctive individuality.

At the other end of the time-line, Cahill played the one work on the program that I had previously encountered. This was Teresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees,” inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Images,” which, in turn, was inspired by a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet William Waring Cuney. I had attended the West Coast premiere of this piece when Cahill played it at an Old First Concerts recital on May 17 of this year. It is an energetic composition with decidedly unique approaches to both rhythm and keyboard glissando passages. However, I have to confess that “Images” is not a part of Simone’s repertoire that I have come to know; so I was pretty much obliged to take the music on its own terms, which definitely turned out to make for a satisfying listening experience.

There were two other nineteenth-century selections, each of interest in its own way. Fanny Mendelssohn was represented by two of the pieces in her Opus 2 collection published under the title Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte (four songs for the piano). The Wikipedia list of her compositions refers to this as “Songs without Words,” suggesting a “family resemblance” to the pieces published under that title by her brother Felix. Recently, musicologists have been suggesting that some of those works published by Felix were actually written by Fanny, which may explain why the publication under her name was given different wording. As a result, Cahill’s performance encouraged speculations on the brother-sister relationship that may have led to the pieces she chose to play.

The other piece from the nineteenth-century was “Un rêve en mer” (a dream at sea), the first in a set of three Morceaux de salon (salon pieces), the Opus 28 of Teresa Carreño. In her day Carreño had a 54-year concert career as a virtuoso pianist; but she was also a soprano and a conductor, as well as a composer. Cahill cited her acquaintance with Franz Liszt in introducing “Un rêve en mer;” but, considering the span of her career, it would be fair to say that Carreño knew “anyone who was anyone,” as they say. (The itemization of specific names on her Wikipedia page is nothing short of awesome.)

The twentieth century was represented by (in order of appearance) Vítězslava Kaprálová, Grażyna Bacewicz, Elena Kats-Chernin, and Chen Yi. The most interesting of these was Kats-Chernin, born in the Soviet Union in Tashkent (which is now the capital of Uzbekistan) but now living in Australia, where she is not only a pianist and composer but also an active participant in underground theatre. Cahill played “Peggy’s Minute Rag,” which was dedicated to another Australian composer, Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Readers may recall that Glanville-Hicks was represented on the album Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune (where she was the only female) by her upbeat sonata for piano and percussion. Kats-Chernin’s take on ragtime has similar upbeat qualities, not to mention a wry nod to the first of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 64 waltzes, which Chopin himself called “Valse du petit chien” (waltz for a little dog), since it was supposedly inspired by a dog chasing its own tail.

Taken as a whole, Cahill’s program was a thoroughly engaging journey into unfamiliar repertoire; and I hope I am not the only one looking forward to subsequent journeys based on further discoveries of works by female composers.

Outsound Presents: through August, 2019

For the first half of this month, I have been trying to keep up with Outsound Presents concerts through listings on my weekly Bleeding Edge dispatches. However, the second half of the month will be dominated by the 18th Annual Outsound New Music Summit with concerts every night between July 23 and 27, preceded by the annual Touch the Gear expo on July 21. Full details have already been provided in an article released at the beginning of last month. Meanwhile, plans have already begun to take shape for next month, making this a good time to summarize activities between now and the end of next month. This site will then be updated as further information is available; and, as always, notifications of updates will appear on the Facebook shadow site.

For those not yet familiar with Outsound, two concert series are offered. The LSG Creative Music Series takes place at the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) on Thursday evenings beginning at (or close to) 8 p.m. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is usually on the sliding scale between $8 and $15. In general, the LSG Series provides opportunities for the full diversity of approaches to improvisation.

The second offering is the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series. These concerts tend to focus on composition, rather than improvisation. They usually begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. The venue is the Musicians Union Hall, located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Events between now and the end of next month are as follows:

Thursday, July 18: LSG will host a two-set evening. The opening set will be duo improvisations by Golnaz Shariatzadeh on violin and Seiyoung Jang working with real-time electronics. They will be followed by The Ether Ship, whose members are Willard Van De Bogart and Lemon DeGeorge. They describe their duo as an “Electro-Ambient group creating music to explore the Universe.”

Sunday, July 21–July 27: These are the dates of the Outsound New Music Summit, whose details have already been provided.

Thursday, August 1: This will be another two-set evening at LSG. The opening set will feature the vocal improvisations of Lorin Benedict performing with violinist gabby fluke-mogul. They will be followed by the Faults trio. Jaroba plays a variety of reed instruments, some of his own invention. He will be joined by Kevin Corcoran on percussion with electronics provided by Jorge Bachmann.

Sunday, August 11: The next SIMM Series concert will also be in two sets. The opening set will be taken by the Guinea Pig quartet with a front line of two multi-instrumentalists. Tony Passarell plays different sizes of saxophones, a variety of brass instruments, and, when necessary, percussion. Rent Romus also plays multiple saxophones and percussion, to which he adds different sizes of flutes. Rhythm will be provided by Timothy Orr on drums and Robert Kullman on bass. The second set is also a quartet, this one named Fellow Hominids. In this case Cory Wright will be playing different sizes of saxophones. Rhythm will be provided by two guitarists, John Schott and John Finkbeiner, and Jordan Glenn on drums.

Thursday, August 15: This LSG concert will also be in two sets, both of which will again involve a diversity of saxophones. The Manala Chamber Ensemble consists of three saxophonists, Romus (alto, as well as flute), Heikki Koskinen (tenor as well as e-trumpet), and Tom Weeks (alto and baritone). Rhythm will be provided by Safa Shokrai on bass, and David Samas will perform vocals. The second set will be taken by the trio that calls itself Free Sax. Brian Rodvien provides percussion support for saxophonists Aaron Saul (alto) and Andrew Ferren (tenor).

Sunday, August 18: The following week will see a second SIMM Series concert. The first set will be taken by Peanut Twins, which is the trio (of course) of Curt Brown playing prepared banjo, Alex Cohen on gamba, and Kim Nucci on baritone sax. They will be followed by the latest compositions to be presented by Noertker’s Moxie, let by Bill Noertker on bass. Annelise Zamula will play both alto saxophone and flute, and remaining performers will be announced at a later date.

Thursday, August 22: This concert will present improvisations by musicians that have also established themselves as composers. The first set will be taken by Theresa Wong and will involve both vocal work and solo cello performance. She will be followed by the improvising quartet organized by bassist Rodrigo Barriga. The other improvisers will be Emily Cardwell, Patrick Talesfore Jr., and Ben Westfall.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

An Encounter with Thomas Clifton’s Text

Reading James Tenney’s review of Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology, I came away curious about what it would be like to read one of Clifton’s texts. On the basis of Tenney’s account, I decided that I would not try to take on the book he had reviewed without some sense of what sort of a writer Clifton was. As a result, I turned to an article that Tenney had cited entitled “Some Comparisons between Intuitive and Scientific Descriptions of Music.” After all, this site has, for all intents and purposes, served as my “field notes” in exploring how one describes the performance of music; and, every now and then, I turn my attention to how musicians themselves approach the task of description. One of my favorite examples of that latter case has been György Ligeti’s approach to describing Pierre Boulez’ “Structure Ia,” which turned out to be an engaging exercise in the relationship between pure logic and the rhetoric of expression.

Clifton’s paper was published in the Spring, 1975 (Volume 19, Number 1) issue of the Journal of Music Theory. It involved a quest for an approach to description that would serve as a viable alternative to the rigor of scientific description, in which the description itself amounts to an assertion (albeit a large and complex one) whose consistency can be validated through the tools of formal logic. Having once encountered a doctoral thesis that used formal logic to validate compositions by Arnold Schoenberg based on his twelve-tone technique, I could appreciate Clifton’s objective. However, formal logic is basically a tool for analysis of symbol structures; and the only symbol structures in music are the marks on the score pages. I have previously cited Jonathan Biss for observing that the music resides not in the marks on paper but on how those marks are realized through performance.

Unfortunately, reading Clifton turned out of be a rather frustrating experience. This was probably due, in no small part, to his invoking the term “intuitive” as a dialectical opposition to “scientific.” There are probably about as many different ways to interpret what “intuitive” means as there are disciplines that invoke the adjective. As one reads through Clifton’s paper, one realizes that he is weaving his way in and around all of those disciplines; and it is not difficult for the reader to feel that (s)he is getting lost in the midst of all that weaving. Not only is this understandable, but I came away with the distinct impression that Clifton himself had gotten just as lost and had not been able to find his way to a satisfying conclusion at the end of this article.

The good news is that he tries to make his case through musical examples, rather than resorting entirely to prose-based argumentation. Sadly, the insights that emerge from those examples seldom have much impact on the “mission statement” embodied in the paper’s title. The examples amount to Clifton saying, “Here is an imaginative way to describe this particular musical excerpt,” to which I would reply, “I agree that it is imaginative, but what point is it making?” By the time I reached the end of the paper, I felt that Clifton had led me into a dark forest in which I could not figure out which path would lead me back to daylight.

In many respects the concept of “intuition” seems to have led Clifton away from his goal, rather than toward it. Thus, he has the same predicament that Tenney has encountered in his work with computers, in which he had to use programming languages that allowed the evaluation of complex numerical forms but not the manipulation of symbolic structures. Rather than focus on “intuition” and what the many different schools of thought have to say about it, Clifton would have done better to go “back to the basics” of description itself. Specifically, description should be approached as a text type through which individuals can communicate with each other.

There is a discipline in literary theory concerned with the nature of text types. What is relevant in this case is that the text type of argumentation, which is basically the text type behind “scientific” reasoning, is distinctly different from that of description. The other two text types are exposition, found in topic-based essays, and narrative. Note that narrative is the only time-dependent text type, suggesting that discourse about “music as heard” probably requires a synthesis of description and narrative, amounting to the use of narrative for means other than storytelling.

Most likely we are now swimming in waters that were unknown to Clifton when he was working on the paper that would appear in the Journal of Music Theory. Indeed, those waters become known to me only during the final decade of the twentieth century; and I still cannot claim that I have come to terms with them. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that Clifton’s own swimming took him into a considerable amount of turbulence. My own thoughts about these matters are also contending with that turbulence; but I am hoping that, with enough persistence, I shall eventually be able to chart and pursue a more viable course that I can swim!

Eclectic Trio Coming to Concerts at the Cadillac

Christie Harbinsky (from the Free Press Music home page)

The next event in the Concerts in the Cadillac series at the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin will present the return of the trio that calls itself Free Press. Given the tenuous state of what counts for news these days, the name should be sufficient to attract attention. The group consists of vocalist Christie Harbinsky, guitarist Michael Cavaseno, and percussionist Dave Mihaly. The trio is an improvisational collective that draws upon soul, jazz, and blues. As previously reported on this site, the group performed at The Lost Church towards the end of last month. For their visit to the Cadillac, they will play music by Irma Thomas, Augustine Lara, and Chabela Vargas.

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this recital will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place on Friday, July 19. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Disappointing Coltrane at Old First Concerts

John Coltrane being presented the Edison Award for his Giant Steps album in November of 1961 in the Netherlands (photograph by Dave Brinkman, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication) 

Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts presented a concert consisting entirely of the music of John Coltrane, performed by a group modeled on what is now referred to as the saxophonist’s “Classic Quartet.” Coltrane’s part was taken by tenor saxophonist Tod Dickow, taking soprano saxophone on one of the six pieces played. The remainder of the quartet was taken by the Charged Particles trio, assuming the roles of pianist McCoy Tyner (Murray Low), bassist Jimmy Garrison (Aaron German), and drummer Elvin Jones (Jon Krosnick).

The “main event” of the evening was the opening selection, a complete performance of John Coltrane’s four-part composition A Love Supreme, music that originally filled an entire LP album. The other works on the program were Coltrane’s arrangement of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” “Dear Lord,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Naima,” and “Straight Street.” The result was a repertoire that covered Coltrane recordings on his three major labels, Prestige, Atlantic, and Impulse! Records.

While all this looks very good on paper, the listening experience itself left much to be desired. Krosnick even went as far as to admit that Coltrane had little to do with the usual Charged Particles repertoire. Indeed, of all four quartet players, the one that came closest to “source content” was German’s bass work. Krosnick never really seemed to approach the polyrhythmic complexities of Jones’ drumming, while Low gave little attention to the two-hands-full chord progressions that so defined Tyner’s style when playing with Coltrane. However, too often German let his bass dexterity lose touch with a solid sense of intonation, meaning that there were some disquieting jolts of pitch disagreement when Low’s piano reentered the scene.

For his part, too much of Dickow’s time went into reading his charts with little sense of what the music was trying to do. As a result, there was a total of character distinction across the four parts of A Love Supreme. It seemed as if the titles of those four parts, “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm,” were there only as markers with no indication of why and how those words were significant to Coltrane himself. (A Love Supreme was created at a time when Coltrane took his Christianity very seriously.)

The result was an evening of jazz that was disappointing from beginning to end. This was particularly disconcerting coming in the wake of the perceptive approach to Lee Morgan’s music presented by the jazz quintet affiliated with the Noise record shop this past Wednesday evening at the Balboa Theatre. Nevertheless, when it comes to honoring the jazz masters of the twentieth century, there has always been a fools-rush-in risk.

Fortunately, the Mingus Big Band had the advantage of being managed by Charles Mingus’ widow Sue, who made sure that the spirit of Mingus was never in jeopardy. On the other hand, when it came to Frank Kimbrough and his quartet recording the tracks for Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk, there was no effort to “channel” Monk’s performance techniques, preferring, instead to be true to his charts and personal in improvisation. Coltrane, on the other hand, continues to live more through his recordings than through the efforts of more recent players to account for either his charts or his style. Last night had little to offer down either of those paths, and the quartet would have done better to let well enough alone.

Friday, July 12, 2019

LCCE Announces 2019–2020 Season

The 2019–2020 season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will again run from October to June of next year. As was the case last season, there will be five programs; and, for the coming season, all San Francisco performances will be held in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). All concerts will take place on Mondays at 7:30 p.m. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. As in the past, each concert will have its own thematic title. Details are as follows:

October 7, Changing and Unchanging Things: The title of this concert is taken from the title of an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, which displays the work of two artists who explored intersections of Japanese and Western visual art. This exhibit inspired Karen Tanaka to compose “Wind Whisperer,” a trio for flute, viola, and harp, which will be given its world premiere performance. The program will conclude with the world premiere of “Sharaku Unframed,” a micro-opera by Hiroya Miura, whose scoring includes a shamisen, which will be played by Hidejiro Honjoh. The program will also present “Neo” by Dai Fujikura and an earlier trio for flute, viola, and harp by Claude Debussy, who had a strong interest in the Japanese culture.

November 4, Air From Other Planets: This title is taken from the beginning of a poem by Stefan George, which is sung at the beginning of the last of the four movements of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 10 (second) string quartet in F-sharp minor. Those wondering what a vocalist is doing in a string quartet should note that both the third and fourth movements set poems by George. The poem for the third movement is “Litany;” and it is about faltering faith. The title of the poem for the final movement is “Entrückung” (transport); and the opening line is “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (I feel the air of another planet).

Schoenberg’s quartet will be coupled with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 quartet in C major, known as the “Dissonance” quartet. Mozart was one of Schoenberg’s favorite composers, and there is much to be learned from the many things that Schoenberg wrote about Mozart’s music. (Unless I am mistaken, one of Schoenberg’s sharpest insights was subsequently “rediscovered” by Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for The New York Times.) The program will also include world premiere performances of two commissioned pieces, both of which feature the guitar. Jamie Leigh Sampson’s “Waving Goodbye” is scored for guitar, voice, and string quartet; and John Schott’s duet for guitar and viola has not yet been given a title.

February 3, French Sublime: Unless I am mistaken, the performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time) will take place on the fifth anniversary (to the day) of the last LCCE performance in San Francisco of this composition, which has come to be recognized as one of the most significant works of the twentieth century. The piece was composed while Messiaen was imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a World War II Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (which is now the Polish city of Zgorzelec). Messiaen showed early sketches to fellow prisoner and clarinetist Henri Akoka; and the finished product would emerge as a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. As was the case in 2015, the clarinetist will be Jerome Simas.

The program will also present two earlier French compositions, one of which will be Debussy’s first clarinet rhapsody. The other will be a set of three pieces that Nadia Boulanger composed for cello and piano. The one work by a composer that is not French will be the world premiere of “One Wing,” which is Kurt Rohde’s reflection on the influences of Messiaen and his unconventional quartet.

March 9, Fairytale Pieces: The title of this program is taken from the title of Robert Schumann’s Opus 113 set of four pieces scored for piano and viola. In addition, storyteller Susan Strauss will appear as guest artist, narrating two tales for which Chris Castro created musical renditions, “Coyote Goes to the Sky” and “Birds of Fortune.” The program will then conclude with the world premiere of Carl Schimmel’s “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” my own first contact with Howard L. Chase’s extraordinary anthology of homonymic humor, Anguish Languish, which now enjoys collector’s-item status.

June 1, Living in Color: The title of this program is based on the winner of LCCE’s twentieth annual composition contest, “I prefer living in color” by Sarah Gibson. The first performance of this piece will be coupled with the world premiere of a new work for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and bass by Josiah Catalan, which has not yet been given a title. The program will also include Johannes Brahms’ Opus 78 (first) violin sonata in G major, known as the “Regensonate” (rain sonata). From the more recent repertoire, there will be two compositions by Elliott Carter, “Esprit rude/esprit doux,” a study of breath techniques score for flute and clarinet and the bass clarinet solo “Steep Steps.” Even more recent will be another composition by Fujikura, “Flicker,” Gabriella Smith’s “Anthrozoa,” and Veronika Krausas’ “cloisonne” for solo bass and film.

Subscriptions for the full season are currently available for $125 for general admission and $105 for seniors. This amounts to a savings of up to $25 per ticket if tickets are purchased individually. There is open seating for all concerts. Tickets may be purchased online through the Subscriptions Web page on the LCCE Web site. Subscriptions are also available for $50 for students and those under the age of 35. These apply to currently enrolled high school and college students. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. A separate Web page with all of the necessary hyperlinks for purchasing individual tickets will be accessible on Monday, July 15. Those hyperlinks will be found through the Ways to Buy Tickets Web page.