Friday, January 18, 2019

SFP to Celebrate Leon Fleisher’s 90th Birthday

Celebrant and celebrator: pianists Leon Fleisher and Jonathan Biss (from the SFP event page for this concert)

As was initially announced last summer, San Francisco Performances (SFP) planned two “anniversary-based” programs for its 2018–2019 season. The first of these took place as part of the annual gala, which was held at the end of this past September and acknowledged the centennial of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (the soldier’s tale) on September 28, 1918. The second was the planned celebration of the 90th birthday of pianist Leon Fleisher, who was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928. That celebration will take place next month; and, if it seems a bit belated, that tardiness will be compensated with some impressive programming.

Many may know that Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in 1964 through focal dystonia. However, for about two decades he has been able to lessen his symptoms through Botox injections. Following his 85th birthday he began a series of recording sessions in the Gould Recital Hall of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The results were released by Bridge Records in July of 2014 on the album entitled All the Things You Are, which consisted of seven compositions, one of which required Fleisher using both of his hands. Two of the left-hand compositions were composed specifically for Fleisher.

The SFP celebratory concert will present performances by both Fleisher and Jonathan Biss. For one selection Fleisher will be joined by the members of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw), along with bassist Charles Chandler. That selection will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 414 piano concerto in A major with the five string players providing the instrumental accompaniment.

Fleisher will also play two of the selections from his All the Things You Are album, Johannes Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of the concluding Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita for solo violin in D minor and “L.H.,” which Leon Kirchner composed for Fleisher in 1995. With both hands Fleisher will play Egon Petri’s four-hand arrangement of the soprano aria “Sheep may safely graze” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 208 secular cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (the lively hunt is all my heart’s desire). Biss will contribute two additional selections to the program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 109 sonata in E major and Kirchner’s “Interlude II.”

This recital will be held in Herbst Theatre, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 12. Ticket prices will be $75, $60, and $45. As of this writing, seats are still available in all price categories. They may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Julian Bream at Aldeburgh on DOREMI

courtesy of Naxos of America

The last time I wrote about the Legendary Treasures series of recordings released on the DOREMI label, it involved a five-CD box set of trio performances by pianist Emil Gilels, violinist Leonid Kogan, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. At the beginning of this month, as if to give “equal time” to “the West,” DOREMI released a single CD of live performances of the young Julian Bream at two Aldeburgh Festivals. At the first recital, which took place in Great Glemham House on June 7, 1958, Bream was joined by tenor Peter Pears, accompanying him on both lute and guitar. His partner for the second recital at Jubilee Hall on June 23, 1959, was flutist Aurèle Nicolet; and, again, Bream played both lute and guitar.

The first recital was organized around English music from two centuries. The first half of the recital was devoted entirely to John Dowland. The second presented Benjamin Britten’s Opus 58 collection of six songs entitled Songs from the Chinese, followed by three arrangements of British folk songs. The Dowland portion was imaginatively organized to demonstrate how the composer would adapt a single tune for either a vocalist or a lutenist. Those who know Pears best through the intensity he could bring to Britten’s music are likely to appreciate the low-key intimacy of his delivery of the texts Dowland had set. Given that the recital took place only a few years before the 400th anniversary of Dowland’s birth, these were performances that effectively captured the spirit of making music in Renaissance England. The Britten guitar selections, on the other hand, capture both the boldness of the composer’s rhetoric and the twists of irony that he could apply to music from past cultures.

The 1959 recital, on the other hand, offered up a broader spectrum of diversity, most of which was due to arrangement. The opening selection was the TWV 42:D6 trio sonata in D major by Georg Philipp Telemann, originally composed for flute, violin, and continuo. Bream repurposed the violin part for lute to complement Nicolet’s flute playing, and harpsichordist George Malcolm provided the continuo. This is likely to strike most listeners as boldly imaginative, particularly those who expect instruments from the lute family to be relegated to continuo work. In other words this performance delivers early music refracted through a contemporary treatment.

Less idiosyncratic is the selection of waltzes from Franz Schubert’s D. 365 Originaltänze collection of 36. This past November I wrote about guitarist Pablo Márquez accompanying cellist Anja Lechner on her latest ECM album, Die Nacht. In a similar approach, Nicolet provides the “melody line” for each of the selected waltzes; and Bream takes care of everything else on his guitar. My guess is that this struck Aldeburgh listeners in 1959 as highly innovative; but many listeners today have come to appreciate that the guitar can fit comfortably into a variety of Schubert compositions. This recital also included Bream giving a solo performance of Joaquín Turina’s Opus 61 guitar sonata.

Taken as a whole this album offers a throughly engaging account of Bream at the beginning of his career in the context of Britten’s imaginative approach to repertoire in his planning of Aldeburgh Festival programs.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

PBO Announces McGegan’s Successor

An example of Richard Egarr’s dynamic approach to leadership (courtesy of PBO)

Readers may recall that, this past October, Nicholas McGegan announced his retirement as Music Director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) at the conclusion of the 2019–20 season. This morning PBO Board President Kay Sprinkel Grace and Executive Director Courtney Beck announced that Richard Egarr has signed a five-year contract to be the next PBO Music Director. Egarr will be the second Music Director in PBO’s history, following up on McGegan’s 35-year tenure in the position.

Egarr is already well-known to the PBO musicians, as well as their audiences. He has served as guest conductor three times since 2012, most recently in March of last year when he prepared a program entitled Corelli The Godfather. This turned out to offer a historical perspective on the concerto grosso, whose first major proponent was Arcangelo Corelli. The entire program was organized around two of the concerti grossi in his Opus 6 collection and their impact on two of the concerti grossi in the Opus 6 collection of George Frideric Handel. Through his outgoing style and capacity for insightful commentary, his appeal to PBO audiences has been both compelling and entertaining; and I, for one, am looking forward to the opportunity of seeing him more frequently and with greater regularity.

Nathan Davis’ “Dance Opera” Without the Visuals

Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto (photograph by David Michalek, from the October 23, 2015 BAM blog post)

Near the end of last year, New Focus Recordings released a CD of “Hagoromo,” a dance opera, written for dancers Wendy Whelan, Jock Soto, vocal soloists Katalin Karolyi and Peter Tantsits, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and a puppet troupe. The CD was based on recordings made when the work was first performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival in November of 2015. I have fond memories of Next Wave, since I was there when Harvey Lichtenstein launched it in November of 1981 with a performance of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha. Indeed, as a San Francisco resident, I have Next Wave to thank for introducing me to the George Coates Performance Works, its resident composer Paul Dresher, and performers such as Rinde Eckert.

The thing about Next Wave programming was that it never seemed to allow for a middle ground. One could leave a performance thoroughly exhilarated or hopelessly disgruntled, but one never seemed to walk out with only ambivalence. Looking back on it all, I feel that what mattered most was the “total theater” approach behind the selection and presentation of events. From that point of view, “Hagoromo” was right up BAM’s alley.

However, if one takes that observation as a premise, it follows logically that one cannot evaluate a “total theater” production on the basis of only a fraction of its “totality.” In the absence of any of the visual elements, I am afraid that my reaction for Davis’ score fell somewhere between ambivalent and disgruntled. Listening only to the music, I found it very difficult not to keep reflecting of the music that Benjamin Britten had composed in 1964 for the first of his three “Parables for Church Performance,” “Curlew River.” Britten’s score was compelling not only for its musical values but also for how he used his music to unfold a narrative in a ritualistic setting.

The problem with “Hagoromo” may have been that Director David Michalek had a clearer command over conveying a narrative that could be traced back to both Western and Asian folk sources than did Brendan Pelsue, who provided Davis with the libretto for his vocal resources. According to the booklet that accompanies the CD, Pelsue adapted his text “from Ezra Pound and other sources.” If one follows the booklet while listening to the CD, one is likely to conclude that the text does not read very well and, as a result, offers little to advance how one listens to either the vocal or the instrumental resources. Those who take listening seriously deserve better than what this recording offers.

Earplay Begins 34th Season Next Month

Earplayers conductor Mary Chun, cellist Thalia Moore, violist Ellen Ruth Rose, pianist Brenda Tom, and violinist Terrie Baune (standing) and flutist Tod Brody and clarinetist Peter Josheff (seated) (from the Earplay home page)

In a little less than a month’s time, Earplay will begin its 34th season entitled Desire and Idea. As in the past, this chamber ensemble continues to be committed to performing bold new music; and the new season will offer five world premieres, four United States premieres, and two West Coast premieres, including four new works commissioned by Earplay. Also as in the past, the season will focus on one particular composer, Tristan Murail, whose music will be performed in all three of the programs prepared for the new season.

The title of next month’s concert will be Mise en abyme. The literal translation of this French phrase is “placed into abyss;” but in Western art history it refers to creating an image within which is situated a copy of another image. Examples include the insertion of another painting or the inclusion of a mirror in which one sees a reflection.

The world premiere performance based on an Earplay commission will be Charles Nichols’ “Flutter, Pulse, and Flight,” scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and real-time software. The other world premiere on the program will be Hi Kyung Kim’s “Untamed Brush I.” The Murail selection, “Paludes,” composed in 2011 for alto flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, will be given its first United States performance. The other United States premiere will be Patricia Alessandrini’s “Hommage à Purcell,” also composed in 2011 and a Finalist in Earplay’s 2014 Aird Prize. The remaining work on the program will be Stephen Blumberg’s 2016 “Aura,” scored for clarinet, cello, and piano.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 11. The venue will be the Taube Atrium Theater, part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. General admission will be $25 with a $10 rate for students. There will also be a premium rate of $35 for preferred front-and-center seating. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. As always, there will be a preconcert talk, which usually involves both composers and performers, beginning in the performing space at 6:45 p.m.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Chamber Music SF Announces 2019 Season

Next month will see the beginning of the 2019 season of Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF). As was the case last year, the San Francisco season will consist of ten concerts that will take place between February and May; but there will also be a “bonus event” in the form of a lecture/demonstration. All performances will take place in Herbst Theatre, located in the Veterans Building on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Concerts will alternate between evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Specifics are as follows:

Sunday, February 10, 3 p.m., Calefax: Calefax is an Amsterdam-based quintet playing a non-standard assembly of reed instruments: oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, and bass clarinet. As might be guessed, much of their repertoire involves arrangements for the unique sonorities they offer. This will be their debut in Herbst Theatre; and they will mark the occasion with their own distinctive approach to landmark keyboard compositions, the BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations by Johann Sebastian Bach and Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite for solo piano.

Saturday, February 23, 8 p.m., Cuarteto Casals: Named in honor of the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, this string quartet has been acknowledged as ambassadors of Catalan culture by the Generalitat of Catalunya. This is one of an increasing number of quartets in which the two violinists share leadership duties from the first chair. The second half of their program will be devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. The first half will be shared by Joseph Haydn (Hoboken III/39 in C major, known as “The Bird”) and Felix Mendelssohn (Opus 80 in F minor).

Sunday, March 3, 3 p.m., Steven Isserlis: Cellist Isserlis will present the West Coast debut of a program he has designed entitled Composers & Their Muses. He has identified three familiar composers, Robert Schumann, Bohuslav Martinů, and César Franck, each of whom had been inspired by a female composer: Clara Schumann, Vítězslava Kaprálová, and Augusta Holmès. The relationship between the Schumanns is well known; Kaprálová and Holmès were pupils of Martinů and Franck, respectively. Isserlis’ accompanist will be pianist Connie Shih.

Saturday, March 16, 8 p.m., Pacifica Quartet: No strangers to Herbst Theatre, the members of the Pacifica Quartet will share with Cuarteto Casals the concept of a program framed by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. In their case, however, they will begin with early Beethoven (Opus 18, Number 6 in B-flat major) and conclude with Mendelssohn (Opus 44, Number 1 in D major). However, these “standards” of the classical repertoire will frame a composition not yet five years old, Shulamit Ran’s third quartet, composed in tribute to the Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum and other victims of the Holocaust and given the programmatic title “Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory.”

Pacifica will also participate in a lecture/demonstration entitled Shostakovich Walks the Tightrope. Professor Paul Phillips, Director of Orchestral Studies at Stanford University, will discuss the extent to which the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich may be given autobiographical interpretations. Pacifica will illustrate Phillips’ lecture by performing excerpts from the Opus 83 (fourth) in D major, Opus 110 (eighth) in C minor, and Opus 133 (twelfth) in D-flat major. This event will also take place in Herbst Theatre, beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 15.

Sunday, March 31, 3 p.m., Nikolay Khozyainov: This pianist was the youngest finalist in the 2010 Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw. He will demonstrate his command of Frédéric Chopin with a performance of the third sonata in B minor preceded by the shorter “Berceuse.” Both Chopin selections will be preceded by music of the twentieth century. The program will begin with Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, followed by two selections based on ballet scores by Igor Stravinsky. Khozyainov will begin with Stravinsky’s own arrangement of three excerpts from the score for “Petrushka.” Khozyainov will then play his own solo piano arrangement of the final section from the score for “The Rite of Spring, the “Danse sacrale” (sacrificial dance) in which the Chosen One dances herself to death.

Sunday, April 14, 3 p.m., Nelson Goerner: Argentinian pianist Goerner will make his San Francisco debut with a “meat-and-potatoes” program. He will use the second half of his program to play the entire Opus 25 collection of études by Chopin. The major work on the first half will be Beethoven’s Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) sonata in F minor, preceded by the four short pieces in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 119.

Saturday, May 4, 8 p.m., Mischa Maisky: Cellist Maisky will return to CMSF and Herbst, once again accompanied at the piano by his daughter Lily; the selections for the program they have prepared have not yet been announced.

Thursday, May 9, 8 p.m., New York Philharmonic String Quartet: The next San Francisco debut will be that of a string quartet formed from four leading members of the New York Philharmonic, Concertmaster Frank Huang, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples, Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps, and Principal Cello Carter Brey. They will devote the second half of the program to a Brahms quartet that deserves more attention that it tends to get, his second (Opus 51, Number 2) in A minor. The program will begin with Haydn’s Hoboken III/76, the second of the Opus 76 quartets dedicated to the Hungarian count Joseph Georg von Erdődy, known as the “Fifths” quartet. This will be followed by Shostakovich’s Opus 117 (ninth) quartet in E-flat major.

Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m., Brandenburg Concertos & More: This will be the annual Mother’s Day concert presented by the Archetti Baroque String Ensemble. In spite of the title, only one of Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos will be performed, BWV 1049 (the fourth) in G major. However, it will be preceded by the BWV 1043 (“double”) concerto in D minor for two violins. Other composers on the program will be Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Pieter Hellendaal The Elder.

Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m., Alexandra Soumm: The season will conclude with the San Francisco debut of French/Russian violinist Alexandra Soumm. She has prepared a program that will dwell, for the most part, on shorter works through which she can account for the diversity of styles under her command. Her offerings will allow for a relatively equal balance between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A single Web page has been created for the different options for purchasing subscriptions. A Full Series subscription costs $360 and includes the Pacifica lecture/demonstration, as well as the recital. There is also the mini-series option that allows purchasing tickets for four or more concerts. Single tickets also on sale. The above hyperlinks connect to the appropriate City Box Office Web pages for single-ticket purchases. (Those hyperlinks may also be found on the subscription Web page.) Tickets may also be ordered by calling 415-392-4400.

Füting’s Present Reflections on “Distant Songs”

from the Amazon.com Web page for digital download

At the end of last year, New Focus Recordings released its second album of works by German composer Reiko Füting. The title of the album is distant song, which refers to the composer’s technique of drawing upon sources from the past and “transplanting” them in the “soil” of his own grammatical and rhetorical techniques. In our “brave new world” of distribution, Amazon.com is currently making the album available only for digital download; but those who prefer the physical medium can purchase the CD through Naxos Direct.

Füting tends to draw upon pre-Baroque composers for much of his source material. The first two compositions on distant song, “‘als ein licht’/extensio” (as a light) and “‘in allem frieden’” (in all peace), appropriate from the choral music of Heinrich Schütz; and the source of “Weg, Lied der Schwäne” (journey, song of the swans) is a madrigal by Jacques Arcadelt. On the other hand, the final selection, “versinkend, versingend, verklingend: fernes Lied” (sinking, singing, sounding: distant song), from which the album takes its title, draws upon both a fifteenth-century German folk song and Claude Debussy’s piano prelude, “La cathédrale engloutie.”

Performing resources are similarly diverse. The vocal selections involve both solo singing and part songs. Instrumental resources are kept on a chamber scale but with a tendency to include diverse passages for percussion. On the other hand the two pieces that appropriate Schütz draw upon the resources of the Art d’Echo consort of four viol players joined by Klaus Eichhorn on positive organ. Both of those pieces involves settings of texts by the poet Kathleen Furthmann.

The accompanying booklet provides Furthmann’s poems. One quickly discovers that the very layout of her words is a significant element of her capacity for poetic expression. This is particularly the case in “‘in allem frieden,” where the layout encourages an indeterminate approach to reading that can be either horizontal or vertical. In a similar manner Füting’s instrumental music tends to be organized as a constellation of moments, allowing for an interplay of simultaneities and sequences embedded within the flow of “real time.”

From a rhetorical point of view, one might be inclined to approach the music of Arvo Pärt as an “orienting point of reference.” However, Füting’s overall strategy tends to reflect some of the approaches to indeterminacy that one can find in the music of John Cage. In other words, no matter how many sources may provide context for Füting’s music, each of his compositions definitely speaks to the listener in is own voice, as unique in its expressiveness as it is in its syntactic foundations.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Choices for February 9–10, 2019

One week from this coming Saturday may mark the first day that will require concert-goers to make hard choices. However, the way in which things seem to be taking shape, the first busy weekend will be the second weekend in February. Both Saturday and Sunday will be serving up diverse offerings that may well require some hard and serious thinking. Specifics for the alternatives on both of these days are as follows:

Saturday, February 9, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The fourth of the seven concerts in the 2018–19 season of the San Francisco Early Music Players will present the a cappella chamber choir Cut Circle. This group was founded in 2003 by its Director, Jesse Rodin. Their repertoire specializes in late medieval and Renaissance choral music. The title of the program will be To Love Another: Music by Du Fay, Ockeghem & Josquin; and the three Bay Area performances are being presented in association with Stanford Live. The first half will consist entirely of songs by Josquin des Prez and Ockeghem. The second half will present the Mass setting Missa “Se la face ay pale” by Guillaume Du Fay, preceded by his polyphonic setting of the song that provides the thematic basis for the Mass setting.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Single ticket prices will range between $52 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. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 510-528-1725.

Saturday, February 9, 7:30 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: British violinist Daniel Hope will make his first appearance as the new Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra. He will present a program entitled Recomposed, referring to the principal work to be performed, Max Richter’s Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons. The remainder of the program will be devoted to British composers. Those from the twentieth century will be Ralph Vaughan Williams (“Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”) and Peter Warlock (the Capriol suite). The opening two selections will both be arrangements by Benjamin Britten. A strings-only version of the second movement from Robert Schumann’s WoO 23 violin concerto in D minor will be preceded by Britten’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s G minor Chacony.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Prices for single tickets are $29, $49, and $61. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page.

As in the past, there will be an Open Rehearsal. It will be held on Wednesday, February 6, beginning at 10 a.m. The venue will be Trinity+St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, located at 1620 Gough Street on the northeast corner of Bush Street. All tickets for Open Rehearsals are sold for $15, payable at the door.

Saturday, February 9, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The next guitar recital to be hosted jointly by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts will see the return of the duo of Brazilian-born brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad. As usual their program will consist of original music and arrangements for both solo guitar and duo performance. Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $60 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front of the Dress Circle, $50 for the remainder of the Orchestra, the remainder of the center Dress Circle, and the Boxes, and $40 for remaining seats in the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page.

Sunday, February 10, 3 p.m., McKenna Theatre: The fourth concert in the 2018–2019 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will be the return of the six-voice a cappella ensemble Nordic Voices. Once again the program will emphasize works by Norwegian composers including a variety of commissioned pieces. The McKenna Theatre is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made, beginning on January 20, through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert lecture, which will begin 2 p.m. in Knuth Hall.

Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The next Noe Valley Chamber Music program will present the St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose members are violinists Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Constanza. This group has been ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University since 1998. They will be joined by clarinetist Todd Palmer for the final work on the program, Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” They will also play “Tango alla Zingarerse,” completed by Stanford composer Jonathan Berger in 2016. The remainder of the program will couple Joseph Haydn with Ludwig van Beethoven.

All tickets for this concert are being sold for $60. They may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Tickets may also be purchased in advance by calling NVCM at 415-648-5236.

Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: This will be the second piano duo recital offered by Other Minds as part of its 2018–2019 season. The pianists will be Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies, and they will play two arrangements by Dmitri Shostakovich. The first half of the program will be devoted entirely to an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” The second half will present Shostakovich’s arrangement of his own fourth symphony (Opus 43 in C minor). General admission will be $40 with a $25 rate for students presenting proper identification at the door. Tickets may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Pfitzner’s Songs: The Naxos Recording Project

Portrait of Hans Pfitzner by Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This past Friday Naxos released the second volume in its project to record the complete songs composed by Hans Pfitzner. Given that the first volume was released in October of 2013, it would appear that the project is proceeding at a rather slow pace. Indeed, word of that earlier release seems to have escaped my notice. Alternatively, the announcement would have come out a few months after I had written an Examiner.com article about a video of his Palestrina opera, pretty much the only work for which Pfitzner is known today; and, as a result I let the announcement pass, feeling that I had had enough of Pfitzner for a while.

However, with last Friday’s release my curiosity was piqued enough to give both volumes some attentive listening. After all, I have been going to art song recitals for over 30 years, even if my serious writing about them only began about a decade ago. Yet, over the course of all that listening, I am not sure I have encountered any of Pfitzner’s songs, either in performance or on recording.

To be fair, Pfitzner described himself as an anti-modernist. For example, he published a pamphlet entitled Futuristengefahr (danger of futurists) as a rebuttal to Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music. He was also strongly nationalistic. He was originally a Nazi sympathizer, but that association did not last very long due to his association with the Jewish conductor Bruno Walter and his refusal to write incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream that could replace what Felix Mendelssohn had written.

The two Naxos volumes cover songs written between 1884 and 1923. In the spirit of the current Hyperion project to record the complete songs of Franz Liszt, both volumes share the same pianist, Klaus Simon; but each presents a singer with a different vocal range. The songs on the first volume are for soprano voice and are sung by Britta Stallmeister. Those on the second volume are sung by tenor Colin Balzer.

Within the “community” of art song composers, Pfitzner was admired by both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss; and his strongest influence appears to be Hugo Wolf. Nevertheless, the extent of his catalog is considerably less than that of either Wolf or Strauss. On the basis of an earlier release, I anticipate that the Naxos project will required only five CDs.

Both of the albums released thus far make a strong case that Pfitzner deserves as much attention from recitalists as is currently given to Wolf and Strauss. His selections of sources show that he has good taste in poetry, and most listeners will probably discover poets they had not previously encountered. Both Stallmeister and Balzer clearly appreciate the rhetorical objectives of each poem, and they both serve as informed partners for Simon’s piano accompaniment. The bottom line is that these albums offer a journey of discovery worth taking; and I definitely hope that, sooner rather than later, I shall encounter a recitalist willing to offer up some of these songs in performance.

Nature with Cellos and Percussion from LCCE

Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presented the San Francisco performance of the third program in its 26th season. The title of the program was The Sound of Nature; and the primary “media” for the evocation of “natural” sonorities were cellos and percussion. Indeed, those resources were summoned in full force to conclude the evening with the world premiere performance of Clarice Assad’s “Lemuria,” a concerto scored for two solo cellos, percussion, and a cello choir.

A speculative map proposing the extent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The title is the name of one of those “lost lands” (such as Atlantis), conceived as a utopia and discredited during the nineteenth-century as scientific theory became more mature. It was also known as Mu and was believed to have been located in the Indian or Pacific Ocean. The name seems to have originated with the zoologist Philip Sclater, who had identified lemur fossils not only in Madagascar (which is now the only lemur habitat) but also in India. He concluded that there was once a larger continent, which he called Lemuria, that served as a land bridge across the Indian Ocean, most of which deteriorated. Any thoughts about Lemuria being utopian did not originate with Sclater but subsequently emerged among theosophists.

Regardless of what one may think about what Lemuria might have been, there was a consistently engaging other-worldliness in Assad’s score. Born in Brazil, Assad’s instrumentation recalls an earlier Brazilian composer with a keen ear for cello ensembles, Heitor Villa-Lobos. However, her voice as a composer is very much her own; and the music itself is characterized by distinctively panoramic qualities. By constantly shifting the way in which she partitions her ensemble, the cello choir establishes an ongoing flow of changing sonorities, against which the solo parts, taken by Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong, alternate between blending and contrasting, supplemented by “punctuations” from percussionist Loren Mach commanding a widely diverse assortment of instruments.

That accounts for the specification of Assad’s scoring as it appeared on the program sheet. However, a few elements were missing. Assad herself sat behind the cello choir with a microphone. Those who know her as a performer know that she is capable of a prodigious variety of vocalized sonorities; and she engaged those sonorities to add highlights to the other-worldly context established by all of her instrumental resources, capably conducted by Matilda Hofman. Those highlights were further enhanced by wind sounds, which the audience was requested to provide on cues given first by Tomkins and later by Hofman. The result was an unanticipated blending of the vocal and the instrumental that made for a thoroughly engrossing listening experience.

Mach had two further opportunities to apply his percussion resources to connotations of the natural world. He gave a solo marimba performance of the second movement of Evan Hause’s  “Fields,” which was particularly effective for the composer’s exploration of the deep reverberations of the lowest pitches on the instrument. Mach then joined with guitarist Michael Goldberg to perform George Crumb’s Mundus Canis (a dog’s world). This is a five-movement suite with each movement provided a miniature portrait of a dog the composer had kept as a pet. There were many moments of witty “sound effects;” and Goldberg would sometimes complement Mach’s work with percussive sonorities from his guitar. The whole experience was as delightful as it was imaginative. Far more serious was Kurt Rohde’s “credo petrified,” an evocation of Petrified Forest National Park for solo cello (played by Fong). This piece, too, was distinguished for the wide diversity of its sonorities but ultimately succumbed to the risk of devolving into a parade of special effects.

Tomkins began the program with a solo performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1007 suite in G major. This had little to do with the overall theme of the program; and, sadly, it did not do very much by way of justice to the composer. Tomkins seemed to be having trouble with consistent bowing, leading to sonorities that impeded the account of many of the pitches. Since there is no such thing as a “tone that does not matter” in a Bach score, the overall sense of most of the movements was blurred, sometimes beyond recognition. Furthermore, among the five dance movements, only the Courante and Gigue seemed to capture any sense of what the dance was, which constituted yet another blurring of the composer’s intentions.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Leif Ove Andsnes Recital at Davies Cancelled

This morning the San Francisco Symphony announced the cancellation of its Great Performers Series concert scheduled for next week. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is suffering from an injury to his elbow. As a result, he has had to cancel all of this upcoming United States tour performances this month; and that will include his January 22 recital at Davies Symphony Hall.

Those who have already purchased tickets for this concert have four options:
  1. Exchange the tickets for another concert in the 2019–19 season. Those interested in an alternative piano recital may wish to consider the Great Performers Series recital that will be given by Marc-André Hamelin on the evening of Sunday, March 31. Those seeking an option earlier this month may prefer the Great Performers Series event to be given by violinist Leonidas Kavakos on the evening of Sunday, January 27.
  2. Exchange the tickets for a gift certificate, which can be used at any time.
  3. Donate the tickets, and receive a tax deduction for the total ticket value.
  4. Receive a refund for the ticket.

Those requiring assistance for any of these options may get in touch with Patron Services, which may be reached by telephoning the Box Office at 415-864-6000 or by electronic mail. One can also visit the Box Office, on the south side of Grove Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, for assistance. Patron Services hours are the same as those of the Box Office, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to any concert on Sunday.

The Bleeding Edge: 1/14/2019

This is a week for which most of the events of interest have already been announced as follows:
That leaves only two events not yet taken into account, both at familiar venues. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, January 16, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: The first installment in the New Year of the monthly offerings of experimental performances will be a four-set program of non-standard approaches to the creation of “musical sounds.” Reed player Tom Weeks will be accompanied by the idiosyncratic circuitry custom-built by Nathan Corder. Cheryl Leonard, on the other hand, will play on physical instruments that she has sculpted from bone, ice, stone, and a variety of other natural surfaces. The performance by La Mère (Marian Wallace) involves projected images against which she diffuses her own processed sounds. The remaining set will be taken by Lulu & The Humans. Lulu is an African grey parrot, who will jam with Aurora Josephson and Wendy Reid, working from scores created using a “graphic notation for birds.”

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 between $5 and $10.

Saturday, January 19, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: For the next Saturday night jazz club! gig, the Jazz Philanthropists Union will present the Scott Amendola Trio. Amendola plays drums along with Karl Evangelista on guitar and Jason Hoopes on bass. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. The cover charge will be $20 with a special $10 rate for students, musicians, and those with low income.

A Liederabend for Poets Heine and Rückert

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the one concert in its The Art of Song Series based entirely on the liederabend tradition. The program consisted entirely of setting of poems by Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Rückert. The Rückert settings were by Gustav Mahler, while Heine’s poems were set by both Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The vocalist was English tenor Mark Padmore, accompanied at the piano by Paul Lewis. This is the second time that Padmore and Lewis performed for SFP as a duo.

The title page of Heine’s first published collection of poems, which includes his Lyrisches Intermezzo (photograph by H.-P. Haack, taken in his private library, from Wikimedia Commons, used with the photographer’s permission)

The major work on the program was Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe (a poet’s love). The texts come from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, structured as a Prologue followed by 65 poems. Schumann extracted twenty poems from this collection, organizing them around a narrative of unrequited love. The songs were composed in 1840, but when the cycle was first published by Peters in 1844, only sixteen of the settings were included; and that remains the version in which Dichterliebe is usually performed. Last night, however, Padmore restored the four deleted songs, inserting them were they would enrich the overall flow of the narrative.

Those familiar with Opus 48 would have recognized the insertions, but it took following the text sheet to appreciate more thoroughly the logic behind Padmore’s restoration. Two of the poems prolong the poet’s expression of his love, while the other two are part of the decent into despair following rejection. The cycle still ends with the last of the Lyrisches Intermezzo poems, in which the poet puts the “old, wicked songs” into a huge coffin cast into the sea by twelve giants. That final song captures the epitome of an observation that Padmore made at the beginning of the evening: even when Heine’s poems begin with traditional lyricism, there is almost always the sting of sarcasm in his final lines.

Padmore knew exactly how to capture all of Heine’s sharp edges without ever overplaying any of them. However, it is through that strong contrast between light and dark that one can appreciate Padmore’s decision to restore the four poems that Schumann originally deleted. The overall flow of the narrative has been enriched, and that enrichment adds an extra bite to Heine’s sarcastic turns of phrase.

However, because Schumann’s “element” was the piano, Padmore was also gracious enough to remind the audience that flow of the narrative depends as much on the “interstitial” (my word choice, not Padmore’s!) reflections in solo piano passages as it does on what the words are and how they have been set. Since Lewis is primarily a recitalist and concerto soloist, his partnership with Padmore ensures that the significance of those piano passages does not pass unnoticed. The result was a highly informed account of Heine’s texts presented in a context in which vocalist and pianist are collaborating partners.

The Schumann selection occupied the entire second half of the program. That program begin with Brahms’ setting of five Heine poems taken from three of his publications, Opus 71, Opus 85, and Opus 96. These were all relatively brief offerings (which tends to be the case with most of Brahms’ song settings). Each offered a straightforward delivery of the text, reinforced with a clear awareness of those sharp-edged “punch lines.” The idea of beginning the program with small, but still penetrating, “doses” of poetry made for an excellent “warm-up,” preparing listeners for the more extended efforts that would follow.

Mahler’s so-called Rückert-Lieder were originally part of the published collection Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (seven songs of latter days). The Rückert settings were composed in 1901 and 1902, and the other two songs were two of Mahler’s earliest settings of poems from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. The entire collection was not published until 1910. Mahler composed settings for both orchestra and piano accompaniment. The only exception is the setting of the Rückert poem “Liebst du um Schönheit,” which was only orchestrated by Max Puttmann after Mahler’s death.

While Mahler is best known for his orchestral writing, the piano versions can be as richly expressive when in the hands of the right pianist. Mahler is at his most orchestral, so to speak, in “Um Mitternacht” (at midnight hour), which requires four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and harp. These resources are not deployed until the final verse of the poem, yet Lewis managed to create an equally effective impact solely through his control of dynamics and phrasing. Working as a team, Padmore and Lewis made a convincing case that Mahler can have as much impact in a recital hall as he can with the full extent of his orchestral resources.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Piatigorsky’s RCA Chamber Music Recordings

It has taken me well over a month to cover all of the chamber music performances in the RCA portion of the collection Gregor Piatigorsky: The Art of the Cello. To be fair, this was the largest of the three segments that partitioned my coverage of this collection, as I had explained when I began writing about this collection this past November. The fact is that chamber music is the “mother lode” of the entire collection; and almost all of the recordings in that “mother lode” had a significant history even before this omnibus collection was released.

That history owes much to the presence of violinist Jascha Heifetz. The lion’s share of the chamber music in this portion involves recordings I had already encountered in RCA’s Heifetz Collection, which was released in 1996. However, the significance of that sector of the collection reaches back to 1963, the year of the 5th Annual GRAMMY Awards. That was the year in which the “Best Classical Performance - Chamber Music” award was given to The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts With Primrose, Pennario and Guests. (I have to wonder what Arthur Rubinstein thought of being relegated to the “and Guests” category!) Indeed, there is a good chance that this is the largest box set to achieve GRAMMY recognition; and the CD version is available with a single CD for each of the albums, all of whose covers are displayed on the back of the box:

from the Amazon.com Web page

The bottom line is that the original box of LPs was the result of recording sessions that had begun in 1950, and further sessions would be recorded after that GRAMMY had been awarded. This is a rich collection of chamber music, no matter how you cut it, which is why I am willing to wax hyperbolic with phrases such as “mother lode!” Charles William Eliot may have had his “Five Foot Shelf” of books that every reader should know, eventually published as the Harvard Classics; but the joint efforts of Heifetz and Piatigorsky constitute the five-foot shelf of chamber music.

Mind you, there are Piatigorsky performances without Heifetz that cannot be ignored. In 1966 he recorded both of the sonatas by Johannes Brahms with Rubinstein as his pianist. However, there are also lesser known sonatas that definitely deserve attention. Indeed, there are two recordings of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 119 sonata in C major (composed for Mstislav Rostropovich), one made in 1953 with Ralph Berkowitz and the other from 1965 sessions with Rudolf Firkušný, which also included Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 65 sonata in G minor. The other session that particularly interested me was another Berkowitz session in 1956 at which Paul Hindemith’s E major sonata and Samuel Barber’s Opus 6 sonata in C minor were recorded.

Thus, without dismissing the virtues of the entire Piatigorsky collection, when it comes to chamber music, this box set provides many hours (literally) of chamber music listening; and those hours are as informative as they are expressive.

Improvising Cello and Guitar Coming to The Lab

Bill Orcutt and Okkyung Lee (photograph by Laurent Orseau, from their event page on the Web site for The Lab)

Next month’s schedule at The Lab will begin with a duo improvisation session for cello and guitar. The cellist will be South Korean composer Okkyung Lee, whose repertoire includes classical, jazz, improvisation, noise, and traditional and popular Korean music. She will be joined by guitarist Bill Orcutt, distinguished for playing a four-string instrument. Orcutt is in his element with traditional blues as much as he is with the work of avant-garde composers.

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. This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 1. Doors open half an hour before each concert begins, and it is usually the case that a long line has accumulated before then. Admission will be $15 and free for members. Seats may be reserved through a login Web page for members and a guest registration Web page for others.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chandos Continues its Antheil Recording Project

In May of 2017, the British Chandos label released an album of the music of George Antheil that promised to be the beginning of a major project to record Antheil’s works. John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic in performances of two of Antheil’s symphonies, the fourth (“1942”) and the fifth (“Joyous”), along with the world premiere recording of “Over the Plains,” a rather loopy concert overture with ample references to familiar tunes. Antheil liked to refer to himself as a “bad boy;” and the music on this album definitely situates him at a significant distance from both Aaron Copland and Charles Ives (who are, themselves, separated by a considerable distance). However, in writing about Antheil’s music, the description that seemed most appropriate was “joyously raucous.”

At the beginning of this month, Chandos released its second volume in this project. Taking an “inside out” approach, Storgårds leads the BBC Philharmonic in two more symphonies, the third (“American”) and sixth (“after Delacroix”). The sixth was Antheil’s last, but that does not mean that two symphonies remain to be recorded. There is an unnumbered symphony in F, which Antheil begin in the same year that George Gershwin also wrote his concerto in F (with no qualifier for major or minor). Furthermore, the “Joyous” symphony is one of two bearing the number five, the other having the title “Tragic.” Storgårds definitely has his work cut out for him!

The second volume also presents three shorter offerings. This time it opens with the concert overture genre in the form of “Archipelago.” This is a rhumba that was originally the third movement of the second symphony. The album concludes with the “Spectre of the Rose Waltz,” a concert version of music that Antheil wrote for the 1946 film Spectre of the Rose about a homicidal male ballet dancer. The two symphonies are separated by “Hot-Time Dance,” a movement extracted from American Dance Suite No. 1, where it was called “Election Dance.” (Grove Music Online makes no mention of a Dance Suite No. 2!)

The prevailing rhetoric across the entire album is again “joyously raucous.” References to familiar thematic material come and go, but Antheil is never as extensive in his cross-references as Ives ever was. Indeed, I was somewhat amused to discover that the Spectre of the Rose music had much more to do with Jean Sibelius, the “Valse triste” movement from his Opus 44 incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt's 1903 play Kuolema (death), along with a nod or two to Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,” than Carl Maria von Weber, whose “Invitation to the Dance” served as the score for Michel Fokine’ ballet “Le Spectre de la rose.”

The title of the sixth symphony applies, strictly speaking, only to its first movement, which was inspired by Eugène Delacroix’ famous painting, Liberty Leading the People:

Liberty Leading the People (painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

To my ears there is nothing particularly French about Antheil’s score. On the other hand there is a somewhat distorted account of the “Battle Cry of Freedom” (also known as “Rally ’Round the Flag”), which would not have been out of place in one of Ives’ scores. This song was written by George Frederick Root during the American Civil War in 1862, but it definitely offers words to consider while looking at Delacroix’ painting.

It is unclear how Storgårds’ project will progress following this second release. The fact that it includes excerpts from longer works suggests that he is not systematically working his way through the list of orchestral works cataloged on Grove Music Online. Indeed, I found it a bit odd that he did not present the two “fifth symphonies” on a single album. Nevertheless, Antheil’s music continues to be so under-represented that I am very likely to follow Storgårds’ releases in whatever direction they may lead.

MTT and SFS to Premiere New Steven Mackey Work

Following this month of visiting conductors, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) will return to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to present the world premiere of a composition by Steven Mackey commissioned by SFS to honor MTT. The title of the piece is “Portals, Scenes and Celebrations;” and it is the sixth work Mackey has written for MTT. He seems to have a predilection for conjunctions, since the titles of two of the other works are “Lost and Found” and “Tuck and Roll.”

Violinist Gil Shaham (photograph by Luke Ratray, from the SFS event page for this concert)

Mackey’s piece will serve as the “overture” to a program with the “standard” overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto soloist will be Gil Shaham, who appears regularly with SFS and has been accompanied by MTT on many occasions. The concerto selection will be Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 19 (first) violin concerto in D major. The symphony selection will be an MTT favorite, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 7, Friday, February 8, and Saturday, February 9. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Peter Grunberg that will begin one hour before the performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $20 to $156. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Tchaikovsky symphony, as well as files of sound clips from previous SFS performances of both that symphony and the Prokofiev concerto. Flash must be enabled for both streamed content and online ticket purchases. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 31, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Grunberg at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section and Rear Boxes and $45 for seating in the Side Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Van Zweden’s Return Makes Deep Impressions

Conductor Jaap van Zweden (from his San Francisco Symphony event page)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall this month of conductors visiting the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) began with the return of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden. When van Zweden made his SFS debut in February of 2014, he was Music Director of the Dallas Symphony; but this season marks the beginning of his tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. While I have not be tracking the repertoire he has brought to the Philharmonic for his first season, here on this coast he clearly wanted to make an impression through his command of radically different styles.

His program consisted of only two compositions. SFS Principal Clarinet Carey Bell was concerto soloist in the first half, playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 622 concerto in A major. The intermission was then followed by Anton Bruckner’s fifth symphony in B-flat major, making “something completely different” far more than a Monty Python cliché. What was most important was how van Zweden clearly knew well how to focus his attention in each of these two works that were practically diametrically opposing.

Handling the instrumental resources for K. 622 is no easy matter. We have come to take it for granted that Mozart performances by SFS draw upon a reduced string section. However, when it comes to balance, the clarinet is a tricky instrument. Each of its registers has its own distinctive sonority, but all of them have the ability to cut through even the thickest of instrumental textures as easily as a warm knife cuts through butter. It goes without saying that Bell is impeccably skilled at endowing each of those sonorities with richly expressive execution. The key question, however, is whether the accompanying ensemble can hold up against an instrument that is undeniably assertive, even when playing pianissimo.

Last night it seemed as if van Zweden needed a bit of time to find just the right way to bring that reduced string section into balance. Early in the first movement, when Bell was blithely working his way through a well-polished account of a diverse palette of accompanying textures, the strings had a bit of difficulty making it clear that they were the one’s carrying the principal theme. However, by the time that movement concluded, the relationship between soloist and ensemble was more clearly oriented around the relationship between melody and accompaniment; and that established agreement pervaded the remaining two movements of the concerto.

Balance was also an issue in the Bruckner symphony, presented last night using the score edited by Robert Haas. In this case, however, the matter is one of dynamics. While working with relatively modest resources (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, and strings), the dynamic levels run the full gamut from barely audible to absolutely thundering. Furthermore, Bruckner is often inclined to shift rapidly from one extreme to another, often spending almost no time in the “middle ground.”

Van Zweden was clearly attentive to this rather idiosyncratic approach to loudness, but he was just as clearly determined to let Bruckner be Bruckner. Sadly, the audience was not as attentive. Back in 2006 when I was just beginning to exercise my writing chops, I wrote about “The Unbearable Being of Silence” in an audience that shattered the intense quietude of a piece by Toru Takemitsu with just about any means of breaking the silence, whether it involved coughing, sneezing, shifting weight in a squeaky chair, or rustling the program. The opening measures of Bruckner’s fifth are, admittedly, on the threshold of audibility; but, thanks of audience behavior, one only knew that the performance had begun by watching the cellists playing pizzicato.

Needless to say, things settled down the first time Bruckner’s pendulum took a swing into the fortissimo region. By then, however, the rhetorical significance of his approach to contrast has been seriously damaged. This was a great pity, since van Zweden clearly knew how to negotiate Bruckner’s extreme turns, whether they involved dynamics, instrumental resources, or, in a few cases, tempo. This was a reading that made a solid case to lure those who had their doubts about Bruckner into territory that, while clearly different from the territories of composers like Johannes Brahms or Gustav Mahler, had a distinctively compelling approach to logic, grammar, and rhetoric. All that was necessary was for the audience to sit still and pay attention; and, once listeners were willing to adjust to some of the more confounding qualities of the opening measures, it seemed as if they were gradually buying into what Bruckner was offering and how van Zweden was offering it.

Bruckner needs more advocates as compelling as van Zweden, and let us hope that more of them will bring their informed understanding to Davies in the near future.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Michel Petrucciani in Karlsruhe in 1988

In consulting my archives I discovered that it has been over four years since I have encountered a recording on the German Jazzhaus label. This label presents audio and video recordings of live and studio performances from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (SWR, “southwest broadcasting”) in Stuttgart, Baden-Baden, and Mainz. Their products are often released through partnerships with other labels, including Arthaus Musik and SWR>>music.

Ironically, my last encounter with this label led to some unpleasant repercussions. Through Naxos distribution I had downloaded the tracks of the album Early Chet: Chet Baker in Germany 1955–1959, which, to this day, remains a valued jewel in my collection. Sadly, my Examiner.com article about this recording prompted an angry response from Baker’s son Paul, claiming that the recording was an “illegal production of my fathers [sic] music.” Fortunately, Naxos had a solid case of legality based on their relationship with Arthaus Musik and was kind enough to copy me when they notified Baker of their position.

As a result, I find myself approaching today’s release of One Night in Karlsruhe with a bit of trepidation. This was based on a live recording made by Süddeutscher Rundfunk, which is now part of SWR. The venue was the “Jubez” (the “nickname” for the Jugend- und Begegnungszentrum); and the date was July 7, 1988. The occasion was a trio performance led by pianist Michel Petrucciani with rhythm provided by Gary Peacock on bass and Roy Haynes on drums.

For those who do not know the background, Petrucciani was born in Orange, in the south of France, on December 28, 1962 with the genetic disease osteogenesis imperfecta (known more commonly as “brittle bone disease”). This led to a life of short stature (as well as brittle bones) and an early death at the age of 36 on January 6, 1999. Nevertheless, Petrucciani was determined to become a pianist at a very early age after having seen Duke Ellington on television and was ready for piano lessons at the age of four. This meant not only acquiring the necessary technical expertise but also overcoming physical limitations, such as the distance between the bottom of his feet and the pedals. Nevertheless, he gave his first professional concert at the age of thirteen and began to play in Paris at the age of fifteen with the likes of Kenny Clarke and Clark Terry.

By 1982 he was in California, where he visited Charles Lloyd. This was a time when Lloyd had retired because his playing was viewed as out of fashion; but Petrucciani inspired him, leading to a successful West Coast tour by the two of them. Petrucciani became a leading Blue Note artist, both with Lloyd (including the One Night with Blue Note series) and as a leader. By 1984 Petrucciani was living in New York and spending time in Europe only on tour dates. Nevertheless, after his death he was buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where, according to his Wikipedia page, his body lies one tomb away from Frédéric Chopin.

Michel Petrucciani’s grave (photograph by Saruman, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

There is a good chance that many who know Petrucciani through his recordings had no idea of his physical limitations. As far as I am concerned, this is all for the better. His prodigious capacity for invention is evident in every track from this Karlsruhe date, whether it involves his own take on Ellington or John Coltrane (there is a certain irony in his decision to learn “Giant Steps” and then give that music his own unique interpretation) or the five tracks of original compositions. Indeed, Petrucciani’s inventiveness leads me to believe that the “subject” behind “Mr. K. J.” is probably Keith Jarrett (who had played with Lloyd prior to the saxophonist’s “retirement”).

Personally, I also enjoy the extent to which, on this recording, both Peacock and Haynes contribute significantly to the listening experience. It is not often that you hear a jazz bass sound lyrical, but that is definitely the mot juste for the way in which Peacock parallels the initial theme statement in the opening track, Petrucciani’s “13th.” Haynes, on the other hand, is discreetly low-key, holding back until there are a few critical moments when off-beat rhetoric is required to put a new twist on the tune. While the date itself may have been a matter of coincidence, I rather enjoyed the fact that this entire listening experience had been captured on Gustav Mahler’s 128th birthday. (Those who attach significance to powers of two should take note!)

Center for New Music: February, 2019

By this time the Center for New Music (C4NM) has accumulated a “critical mass” of performances scheduled for February (or, at least, for the first half of next month). This should be taken as a sign that planning ahead is in order. As usual I shall use my Facebook shadow site to put out the word for any future performances during the month of February, most of which will likely take place during the second half of the month.

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

Friday, February 1, 8 p.m.: The Founders’ Series will present a solo violin recital by Leslee Smucker. She will combine the music of Pietro Locatelli with more recent compositions by Conor Abbott Brown, Lera Auerbach, Luc Brewaeys, and Michel van der Aa to explore the strange and unnerving relationship between dream and reality. Brown will provide the sound design for the performance, which will also include the projection of a film by Maya Deren. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Saturday, February 2, 8 p.m.: Chad Goodman will bring his Elevate Ensemble back to C4NM for a program of chamber music on different scales. The title of the program is Low Hanging Fruit, which is the one ensemble composition on the program. Written by Michael Gilbertson, the piece is basically a tone poem based on the narrative of the Garden of Eden. There will be two solo performances, one of the solo piano études by György Ligeti and the other a Balkan-themed cello composition by the Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic. The program will also include Béla Bartók’s “Contrasts” trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Ticket prices will be $40 for premiere seating, $30 for general admission, and $20 for C4NM members, students, and artists.

[added 1/16, 4:05 p.m.:

Wednesday, February 6, 8 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening of adventurous jazz combos. The first set will be improvisations by the trio of Steve Adams on reeds, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, and Kjell Nordeson on drums. They will be followed by free improvisations by the duo of drummer Michael Vatcher and Phillip Greenlief on saxophone. These two have been working together since the Nineties, suggesting that each is capable of listening keenly and attentively to the other. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.]

Saturday, February 9, 8 p.m.: Composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz is currently on a tour to promote his new CD The Snowghost Sessions. He will lead a trio that will include his favorite Seattle colleagues, drummer Eric Eagle and bassist Geoff Harper. He will also play selected duo compositions with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, appearing as special guest artist. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Tuesday, February 12, 7:30 p.m.: The fifth installment of the Latitudes series, curated by Blaine Todd and run jointly with Other Minds, will be a two-set program. In the first set William Fowler Collins will perform works from his latest record Field Music, a “soundtrack" album based on the landscape in which the world’s first atomic bomb was assembled. He will be followed by Geneva Skeen, whose music is also inspired by geography with dark connotations. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Friday, February 15, 7:30 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a recital of contemporary piano works performed by Jared Redmond. He will play the world premiere of Rohde’s “Trotsky’s Icepick,” along with world premiere performances of “Tearing” by Carolyn Chen and the two-part Ahunavaiti Gāthā by Saman Samadi. He will also play a selection of compositions by Salvatore Sciarrino. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Saturday, February 16, 8 p.m.: The next Founders’ Series concert will be a program of improvised electric guitar duos and solos. The guitarists will be Alvaro Domene and Henry Kaiser. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Another Concert Series to Consider

Jazz composer and arranger Tammy Lynn Hall (from the Web page for purchasing tickets)

This past Sunday I wrote about the recently launched “spatial” concert series presented at The Midway by Envelop SF. Yesterday, thanks to a Facebook Events posting, I discovered that an equally interesting series is taking place on the “extreme opposite” side of town. The series is hosted by the Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center, whose mission is to provide recreational, vocational, and educational opportunities for people with disabilities through programs and services that encourage self-expression, promote personal achievement, and lead to greater independence.

The concert series is called Pomeroy LIVE!, and it was conceived to serve not only those benefitting from the Center’s services but also the community at large. Programming is definitely eclectic, but scheduling seems to be a bit on the arbitrary side. However, next month will begin with a double bill of jazz performers, who are popular enough that the audience is likely to be a friendly mix of those served by the Center and “community guests.” One set will be taken by composer and arranger Tammy Lynn Hall, who plays both piano and organ. The other set will feature pianist and vocalist (of sorts) Mike Greensill performing with his Five Spot Jazz Quintet, whose other members are Charlie McCarthy (tenor saxophone and flute), Joe Cohen (alto saxophone), and a rhythm section of John Clark on bass and Akira Tana on drums.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 1. The Pomeroy Center is located in the Outer Sunset (about as “outer” as you can get). The street address is 207 Skyline Boulevard, but the entrance is on Herbst Road (which is the first possible right turn after Skyline branches off of Sloat Boulevard). Admission is free for all those with disabilities. Tickets for others are $10. Those who purchase a Cafe Table for four will benefit from one drink (presumably one for each of the four people at the table) and a “bowl of crunchy snacks.” Tickets may be purchased online through a certified secure Web page maintained by giv.

Mexican Concert Music Recorded by Naxos

courtesy of Naxos of America

Tomorrow Naxos will release a new album whose full title is El Árbol de la Vida: Music from Mexico. The contents consists of orchestral works by Mexican composers written in this and the preceding centuries. Indeed, the Spanish portion of the album title, which means “the tree of life,” was completed in 2015 by Hebert Vázquez and is being given its world premiere recording. This is also the case for the 2007 composition by Simone Iannarelli, “El último café juntos” (the last coffee together). The twentieth-century composers on the album are (in the chronological order of their respective works) Ricardo Castro, Silvestre Revueltas, and José Pablo Moncayo. For those who cannot wait, the Amazon.com Web page for this album is currently processing pre-orders.

The performing ensemble is the Orquestra Juvenil Universitaria Eduardo Mata, named after the conductor that, prior to his early death in a plane crash in 1995, was a leading advocate for contemporary music with particular attention to the works of his composition teacher Carlos Chávez. The album conductor is Gustavo Rivero Weber. Both of the 21st-century compositions feature solo guitar work, and the guitarist is Pablo Garibay.

For many (most?) readers, the familiar names are likely to be those of Revueltas and Moncayo. Here in San Francisco the Moncayo selection, “Huapango,” has been played frequently (if not consistently) at the annual Day of the Dead concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony. Unless I am mistaken, the piece was also my first encounter with the second Mexican composer to come to my attention when Norman Walker decided to create choreography for it. (The first composer was Revueltas; and that first encounter came from a radio broadcast of Leonard Bernstein conducting a New York Philharmonic performance of his “Sensemayá.” Columbia would later release a recording of that performance.)

It is easy to see why “Huapango” is a Day of the Dead favorite. The music is unabashedly joyous; and listening to it is definitely a fun experience, very much in the way that listening to Aaron Copland’s music for the ballet “Rodeo” is fun. Since, prior to encountering this album, “Sensemayá” was the only Revueltas composition that I know, I welcomed the opportunity to listen to something else. The selection is the four-movement suite that José Ives Limantour arranged from the score that Revueltas prepared for the film The Night of the Mayas. This music shares a rhetoric of grandeur that gradually unfolds in “Sensemayá.” It also reveals what appears to be one of Revueltas’ “signature” devices, the bold assertion of a dissonant pitch by a solo brass instrument, darkening the coloration of what might otherwise be joyful rhetoric.

The Vázquez composition provides the longest single track on the album. Like Revueltas, Vázquez has a keen ear for instrumentation; but he deploys it in an entirely different manner. The solo part is written for amplified (rather than electric) guitar; and the engineering behind the recording definitely finds the right way to balance the folk-style finger-work against the textures woven by the instrumental ensemble. In many ways this is the most impressive instance of “concert music” on the album; and, by all rights, it deserves a place in future SFS Day of the Dead programming.

The Iannarelli selection, on the other hand, is an arrangement for guitar and string orchestra of the fifth of the twelve pieces for solo guitar collected until the title Italian Coffee. As the title suggests, the piece is affectionate, perhaps to the point of being more than a little sappy. To give it the benefit of the doubt, it closes out the album with a brief gesture of quietude, following the intense energy of the Revueltas suite. Iannarelli’s piece also pairs nicely with the almost quaint retrospection of the earliest piece on the album, Castro’s Opus 23, a brief minuet for orchestra.