Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Contrasting Choices for April 8, 2019

Having already summarized the choices that will have to be made during the first weekend in April, I now see that a choice will also have to be made for the following Monday. As things currently stand, there are only two alternatives; and they are likely to appeal to significantly different tastes. Nevertheless, they overlap and therefore deserve to be considered side-by-side.

7:30 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: The title of the second concert to be presented by Earplay in its 34th season entitled Desire and Idea will be Sound & Shadow. This time Tristan Murail, whose music is being performed in all three of the programs prepared for the season, will be represented by two compositions, both of which will be premieres. His 2006 “Les Ruines circulaires” (the circular ruins), scored for clarinet and violin, will receive its United States premiere. “Garrigue” (scrubland) was completed in 2008 and was scored for bass flute, viola, cello, and percussion. It will receive its West Coast premiere.

The program will also present the winning composition of the 2018 Aird Prize, “Here Come the Waterworks” by A. J. McCaffrey, scored for viola and piano. In addition, there will be a world premiere performance of a new work by Yu-Hsin Chang, composed on an Earplay commission. There will also be a world premiere performance of Claire Jordan’s solo piano composition “Feel” and the United States premiere of the 1994 string trio composed by Carola Bauckholt.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. General admission will be $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. A reception will follow the performance.

8 p.m., Grace Cathedral: The San Francisco Early Music Society, in conjunction with Grace Cathedral, will present I Heard a Voice, a one-night-only performance by The Choir of New College Oxford. Under the direction of Robert Quinney, the choir will perform a program of Renaissance and Baroque music. They will be joined by two Oxford organ scholars, Charles Maxtone-Smith and Timothy Wakerell. They will perform solo organ compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and William Byrd.

Grace Cathedral is located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street. General admission will be $40 with preferred Plus seating for $48 and Premium seating for $56. Full-time students under the age of 30 with identification will be admitted at the Box Office for $15. All other tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Arts People event page. SFEMS members will get an automatic 15% discount.

James Tenney: Music Theory Pioneer

A little over a month ago, University of Illinois press released the paperback edition of From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory. (The hardbound edition had been published in 2015.) This is a collection of essays by music theorist and composer James Tenney, written between 1959 (when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois) and 2003. The collection was jointly edited by Larry Polansky, Lauren Pratt, Robert Wannamaker, and Michael Winter; and Polansky provided the book’s Introduction.

I should probably preface anything I write about Tenney with a bit of personal background, since I first encountered his writing when I was still an undergraduate. The first article of his that I read was “Sound-Generation by means of a Digital Computer;” and it was published in the Spring, 1963 issue of the Journal of Music Theory (Volume 7, Number 1). (I began my undergraduate studies in September of that year.) This essay provided an account of the software technology that Tenney had encountered at the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where Max Mathews had developed a programming language for sound synthesis. (Mathews would subsequently write his own book, entitled The Technology of Computer Music, by which time the software had acquired the name Music V. The ideas behind that software are now available as Max, a programming language named after Mathews.) It would be fair to say that reading Tenney’s article and learning about Mathews’ work had a major impact on how I arrived at a topic for my doctoral thesis.

Many years later I would have my second significant encounter with a Tenney article. This time it was his review of Thomas Clifton’s book Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. That one appeared in the Spring, 1985 issue of the Journal of Music Theory (Volume 29, Number 1), by which time I had published two Journal of Music Theory articles of my own! That review had a revolutionary impact on how I would think about music more in terms of a practice, rather than just a collection of marks on paper.

The Bell Labs article is not included in the From Scratch collection, but the Clifton review is. If the purpose of the book was to provide a comprehensive review of Tenney’s thoughts about music and music-making, that review definitely deserves to be one of the nineteen articles (as well as the three Appendix articles) that form the contents of the book. Furthermore, after reading Polansky’s introduction, realized that I should prepare to renew the “dialog in my head” that began with my very first encounter with Tenney’s writings. Indeed, there is so much breadth and depth to From Scratch that it would be impossible to do justice to it in a single article. How I shall continue that dialog in subsequent articles remains to be seen; but, in order to get things rolling, I shall begin by limiting myself to the earliest essay in the book.

Written in 1959, that article has the longest title in the collection: “On the Development of the Structural Properties of Rhythm, Dynamics and Timbre in the Early Nontonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg.” In this essay Tenney plants a significant stake in the ground with the proposition that, in contrast to long-standing traditions of analysis, Schoenberg’s music should not be reduced to the study of pitch classes and how they contribute to melodic sequences or the simultaneity of what may be taken to be chords. Instead, he makes the case the one must take additional dimensions into account; and the article allots one section each to those dimensions of rhythm, dynamics, and timbre.

It goes without saying that I support Tenney’s thesis. Nevertheless, I feel that some issues need to be raised over how he discusses each of those dimensions. Most importantly, he never says anything about the extent to which any analysis of music entails an ability to distinguish foreground features from those of the background. This is a perspective that owes much to the insights of Heinrich Schenker; but Schenker’s approach to analysis would not recognize atonality as a “grammatically legitimate instance of music.” However, we should not throw out the bathwater of the foreground-background relation along with Schenker’s baby that basically viewed Johannes Brahms as the last legitimate composer!

I would argue that both rhythm and dynamics provide cues about what is in the foreground and when background material enters the foreground (and vice versa). In the two Schoenberg compositions that Tenney examines in his Rhythm section, the Opus 11 piano pieces and the Opus 26 wind quintet, a convincing performance demands a clear sense of what should be in the foreground on the part of the performer(s); and I fear that Tenney was too wrapped up in the notes themselves to acknowledge this fundamental precept. On the other hand, his enumerations of the “functions of the intensity-parameter” in the dynamics section seems to acknowledge foreground-background distinction at least implicitly, if not explicitly.

The real kicker, however, arises in the section on timbre. As might be guessed (at least among those who know their Schoenberg), the discussion focuses primarily on the third of the five Opus 16 orchestral pieces, to which Schoenberg himself assigned the subtitle “Farben” (colors). For the most part this movement is structured around a single chord whose instrumentation keeps changing. I have always felt that this movement poses major challenges to conductors, as well as listeners; and, for my money, Simon Rattle is (and has been for some time) the conductor that has come closest to achieving what Schoenberg had in mind.

Excerpt from Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (from IMSLP, public domain)

Nevertheless, I have always felt it would be a good idea to add a bit of levity to the seriousness of the challenge that Schoenberg posed with this one movement. Opus 16 was completed in 1909; but the idea behind “Farben” seems to have been revisited by Paul Hindemith over a decade later. The composition I have in mind is the 1922 “Kleine Kammermusik” (Opus 24, Number 2) for wind quintet. The third movement has a middle section that involves a prodigious repetition of a B minor triad, which is played by flute, (B-flat) clarinet, and horn (in F). However, the pitches of the triad keep bouncing from one instrument to another. To my ears this is Hindemith twitting Schoenberg by showing that one can play the “Farben game” with a triad just as easily as one can deploy it in an atonal setting. Nevertheless, this is just my own opinion about “rhetorical voice;” and I can appreciate Tenney’s decision to focus solely on Schoenberg himself!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

MTT’s Final Season: Distinguished Visitors

Last week, in discussing how the 2019–20 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will bring Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) to the conclusion of his 25-year tenure, this site discussed the priority that will be given to three “warhorse” composers, Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Wagner. The season will also single out three “distinguished visitors,” each of whom will be granted a season-long residency. They will be soprano Julia Bullock, mezzo Sasha Cooke, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, all familiar faces in San Francisco. There will, of course, be one other “distinguished visitor” in the form of conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will prepare two weeks of concerts in his capacity as Music Director Designate.

Bullock will curate and perform three concert programs that will illuminate the distinct voices of literary, visual, and musical artists. Note the verb in the final phrase of that sentence. Bullock will be the featured soloist at the concerts that Salonen will direct on February 20–22. She will perform Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, a cycle of settings of poems that Arthur Rimbaud collected under the same title. Her literary exploration of Rimbaud will then be complemented by an exploration of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé through Maurice Ravel’s settings of three of his poems. Next she will curate the SoundBox concert to be given on April 24 and 25, which will combine a broad repertoire of vocal music (from Hildegard von Bingen to Nina Simone) with poetry readings and immersive visual designs. Finally, in June she will bring her History’s Persistent Voice program to Davies Symphony Hall. Her program will include SFS commissions from Rhiannon Giddens, Camille Norment, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Pamela Z, as well as West Coast premieres of works by Tania León, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Jessie Montgomery. [Shameless editorial comment about Z: It’s damned well about time!]

Cooke will make her first appearance at the concerts on January 9–12. Having been involved in many of MTT’s Mahler performances, she will sing selections from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the boy’s magic horn) collection. As was observed last week, she will share the performance of the full cycle with bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. On the same program she will give the world premiere performances of Rilke Songs, a new setting of lyric poems by Rainer Maria Rilke composed by MTT. She will then return on May 31 to give a vocal recital that will feature chamber music as well as art song.

As was observed last week, Mutter will play a key role in the programming that will mark Beethoven’s 250th birthday. On January 26, accompanied by her longtime piano collaborator Lambert Orkis, she will play three of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, Opus 23 (fourth) in A minor, Opus 24 (fifth) in F major, and Opus 47 (“Kreutzer,” the ninth) in A major. The following evening, she will be joined by violinist Ye-Eun Choi, violist Vladimir Babesko, and cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott for a chamber music program. Without Choi, the program will begin with the Opus 3 trio in E-flat major. The entire quartet will conclude the program with Beethoven’s Opus 74 (“Harp”) string quartet in E-flat major. Between these two pieces, the quartet will give the West Coast premiere of Jörg Widmann’s sixth quartet, which he entitled “A Study on Beethoven.” Finally, as has already been observed, Mutter will be the soloist when MTT conducts the Opus 61 violin concerto in D major at the concerts on June 4–6.

Finally, the concerts on February 20–22 will mark the first week of Salonen’s two-week visit. In addition to the works that Bullock will perform, the program will present Steven Stucky’s “Funeral Music for Queen Mary” and the orchestral version of Ravel’s suite Ma Mère l’Oye (mother goose). The second round of concerts will take place on February 27–29 and will follow the more conventional overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto soloist will be violinist Leila Josefowicz; and she will play Salonen’s violin concerto, reprising the SFS “centennial day” performance, which Salonen conducted on December 8, 2011. Salonen will also acknowledge Beethoven by performing the overture from his Opus 117 King Stephen, a collection of vocal and instrumental movements composed in commemoration of King Stephen I, founder of the Kingdom of Hungary. The symphony will be Carl Nielsen’s Opus 50 (fifth), structured as two extended movements.

Domingo to Return to SFO for Anniversary Concert

Plácido Domingo (photograph by Kaori Suzuki, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

In 1969 tenor Plácido Domingo made his debut with the San Francisco Opera (SFO) in the role of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. Since then he has appeared in nearly 100 SFO performances, including fourteen different leading roles. The most recent of these took place during the Fall 2010 season, when he sang the title role in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac. More recently, he made a sold-out concert appearance at the War Memorial Opera House this past October.

This coming October he will return to give another concert, this time celebrating the 50th anniversary of his SFO debut. Details have not yet been released; but, as was the case last October, he will share the stage with guest artists. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra will be led by Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer for this exclusive Bay Area appearance.

Demand for tickets to this anniversary celebration are likely to be as heavy as they were for last October’s event. As of this writing, tickets just went on sale exclusively for subscribers to the 2019–20 season and donors. Sales will open to general public at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 27.

The performance will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 6. Ticket prices for subscribers and donors will range between $87 and $363, while those for the general public will range between $117 and $393. There will also be a facility fee of $2 for all Balcony seats and $3 for seating in all other sections of the Opera House. An event page has been created on the SFO Web site for this concert, currently configured with hyperlinks that screen for subscribers and donors. Tickets may also be purchased at the SFO Box Office, which is located in the outer lobby of the Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m.–6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. Orders may be also be placed by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Finally, a limited number of standing room tickets will be made available on the day of the performance at 10 a.m. As always, ticket prices are subject to change.

The Decca Release of Szeryng’s Philips Recordings

Henryk Szeryng arriving at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 1964 (photograph by Harry Pot, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

It has been almost two months since I filed my first report on Decca’s release of a 44-CD box set collection all of the recordings that violinist Henryk Szeryng made for Philips, Mercury, and Deutsche Grammophon (DG). Readers may recall that I began with the earliest recordings in the box, dating back to 1962, when Szeryng made his first recording with Mercury. I then said that I would follow with the Philips recordings, the first of which was made in 1966, and then conclude with the DG sessions, which began in 1968. However, while only eight CDs were recorded on the Mercury label, the Philips sessions account for the first 29 CDs in the box. Since there has been a lot on my plate over the last two months, I have been proceeding more slowly than I would have liked.

As was the case with the Mercury recordings, the closest that any of these albums comes to chamber music are recital selections for violin and keyboard accompaniment. (Note the use of the noun “keyboard,” rather than “piano.” I shall return to address that distinction.) All other albums involve Szeryng performing with an orchestra; and I have to say that, while Mercury drew upon the consistently impressive work of Antal Doráti and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, there was more variability in the stylistic and expressive approaches of the conductors recording for Philips.

In the context of my own tastes and preferences, I would say that the most compelling of the orchestral recordings are those that Szeryng made with Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. That means duplications of concertos that had been recorded with Doráti: the Opus 77 by Johannes Brahms, the Opus 35 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the Opus 64 by Felix Mendelssohn. However, I see nothing wrong with having two recordings, each of which offers its own characteristic approaches to interpretation, particularly when such frequently-performed concertos are involved.

On the other hand I have never been an enthusiastic fan of Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields ensemble that he founded. This is particularly the case where the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is concerned, and the content of one of the CDs duplicates the three Bach violin concertos found on one of the Mercury CDs. The Philips recording, however, includes a “bonus track” in the form of the second (Air) movement from the BWV 1086 orchestral suite in D major. August Wilhelmj arranged this movement, transposing the score down so that the melodic line could be played entirely on a violin’s lowest string; and Wilhelmj called his arrangement “Air on the G string.”

This gave Szeryng the opportunity to play the melodic line as a solo. Given that Wilhelmj made that arrangement in the late nineteenth century, it is no surprise that Marriner overloaded the accompanying instrumentation; and he took the same approach with the concertos (as well as those on his “Brandenburg” concerto album). None of this will go down well with those who prefer to listen to their Bach in a more intimate “Collegium Musicum” setting, which is how Mercury recorded the Bach concertos.

Far more preferable are the first four CDs in the box presenting works that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed for violin and orchestra (including the K. 364 sinfonia concertante, which also features solo viola work by Bruno Giuranna). Alexander Gibson is the conductor on all of these albums, leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Nevertheless, Gibson was clearly attentive to stripping down his string section to suit the rhetorical stance of each Mozart selection; and Szeryng’s polished account of the solo lines always fit into that context as a hand fits into a well-tailored glove.

Where keyboard accompaniment is concert, Szeryng’s primary accompanist is pianist Ingrid Haebler. However, the partnership is not a consistent one. Where the ten sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven and four sonatas of Franz Schubert are concerned, the chemistry between the two of them could not be better. On the other hand there are four CDs of sonatas and variations by Mozart, which, more often than not, come across as heavy-handed. Whether this is a matter of Szeryng reverting to Wilhelmj’s brand of rhetoric or Haebler trying to get the most out of a modern grand piano may never be resolved; but, where my own tastes in Mozart are concerned, I shall probably seek out other pairings of violinist and accompanist.

On the other hand there are also two CDs of the six violin sonatas by Bach, BWV 1014–1019. For these recordings Szeryng is accompanied by Helmut Walcha at a harpsichord. These provided me with my first encounter of Walcha on harpsichord, since I know him far better through his Bach organ recordings. Nevertheless, it is clear that Walcha knew how to establish the appropriate “period spirit” for these compositions; and, respectively, Szeryng consistently knew how to fit into the context that Walcha established.

Overall, while the may be a hit-or-miss consistency to the performances that Philips recorded, the misses are few enough to make this portion of the collection generally enjoyable.

Monday, March 18, 2019

SFS Chosen for Inaugural Event at Chase Center

This morning it was announced that the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has been selected to perform at the inaugural event for the new Chase Center. As most Bay Area residents probably know by now, this venue, a new 18,064-seat privately financed sports and entertainment arena, will be the new home of the Golden State Warriors. The event will be the first in the Center’s Reveal Week, which will showcase the first group of top-tier acts of perform at the Chase Center this fall.

Metallica members Robert Trujillo, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, and James Hetfield (from the Chase Center event page for this concert)

SFS will share the stage with Metallica, the heavy metal band of James Hetfield (lead vocals and guitar), Kirk Hammett (lead guitar), Robert Trujillo (bass and backing vocals), and Lars Urlich (drums). For those with a sense of history, next month will be the twentieth anniversary of a pair of concerts that brought Metallica and SFS together on the stage of the Berkeley Community Theatre. Those concerts were recorded, resulting in the release of both audio and video albums with the title S&M (for “Symphony” and “Metallica,” not the other thing). Footage from that concert, along with comments offered by Hetfield, was also released on the video created for the SFS Centennial Season.

Programming specifics have not yet been announced. The performance will take place on Friday, September 6. SFS will be conducted by both Michael Tilson Thomas and Edwin Outwater. Information about when the concert will begin has also not yet been announced.

Nevertheless, demand for this performance is likely to be high; and the first two rounds of ticket sales will be limited. Tickets will be sold online through an event page for the concert on the Chase Center Web site. However, at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 19, there will be a presale event exclusively for Metallica Fan Club Members. At noon that site will also include presale for Chase cardholders. Sales to the general public will begin on Friday, March 22, at 10 a.m. The tickets themselves will not be available until August 15. Online sales are being handled by Ticketmaster. Information about ticket prices will not be available until the Ticketmaster event page has been opened for public access.

The Bleeding Edge: 3/18/2019

This will be a week in which all but two of the events of note have already been taken into account. These are the events that have already been announced:
The remaining two events are as follows:

Kukangendai in performance (from their event page on the Web site for The Lab)

Saturday, March 23, 9 p.m., The Lab: Kukangendai is a three-piece band founded in Japan in 2006 with Junya Noguchi on guitar and vocals, Keisuke Koyano on bass guitar, and Hideaki Yamada on drums. This will be their first appearance in the United States, about a month in advance of the release of their new album Palm. Album tracks are made through a process of editing and replicating deliberate error. How this technique will influence live performance remains to be seen!

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. Doors open half an hour before the concert begins, and it is usually the case that a long line has accumulated before then. Admission will be $15 and $10 for members. Seats may be reserved through a login Web page for members and a guest registration Web page for others.

Sunday, March 24, 7 p.m., Adobe Books: Electronic technology will be the common infrastructure for this evening of two sets, both solo performances by women. Crystal Quartez creates experimental soundscapes by integrating field recordings, sounds produced and electronically processed live from objects such as crystals, lush synth textures and ethereal voice through ritual processes. Through computer coding she generates interactive AV experiences with visuals affected by sound and physical interactions. She will be followed by Clamber, who uses sound collage to create landscapes that evoke space, isolation and anomie. Her sound and video work often consist of stretching or collapsing time around mundane, isolated moments.

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

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Old First Concerts: April, 2019

It would appear that April will not be as complicated as the current month has been when it comes to overlapping activities. As a result, the April schedule for Old First Concerts (O1C) can be examined on its own at a bit more leisure. 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 April:

Friday, April 5, 8 p.m.: The month will begin with a recital by rising young violinist Patrick Galvin, accompanied at the piano by Jungeon Kim. The second half of his program will be devoted to the world premiere of “The Road of the Pilgrim,” composed by Chilean-American Axel Herrera. The recital will open with Franz Schubert’s D. 574 sonata in A major, followed by a solo performance of the concluding Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita in D minor.

Sunday, April 7, 4 p.m.: Two members of the New Piano Collective, Bobby Mitchell and founder Jeffrey LaDeur, will present a program entitled Schumann Revisited, conceived to present the music of Robert Schumann in a new light. The Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) suite will be reconceived as Kinderszenen Revisited. The reconception will include opportunities for improvisation, narration, and the performance of three piano études newly composed by Martin Scherzinger. This will be followed by Georges Bizet’s four-hand arrangement of Schumann’s Opus 56 Canonic Studies collection. The remaining selections will be Schumann’s Opus 72 collection of four fugues and the Opus 17 Fantasie in C major.

Friday, April 12, 8 p.m.: 23-year-old pianist and composer Audrey Vardanega will return to Old First; and, as has been the case regularly in the past, she will bring company. For this recital she will be joined by violinist Hannah Tarley and cellist Monica Scott. The three of them will play the second (in E-flat major) of the two piano trios that Ludwig van Beethoven published as his Opus 70. They will then play Schumann’s Opus 88, the piano trio that he entitled Fantasiestücke. The program will conclude with a duo performance by Scott and Vardanega of Leoš Janáček’s “Pohádka” (a tale).

Saturday, April 13, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.: The Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) will present a two-concert Birthday Tribute to Ali Akbar Khan.

The afternoon session will begin with a survey of Kahn’s works performed by a group comprised of both Classical Indian and Western musicians. This will be followed by the AACM Tabla Ensemble performing a composition by Director of Percussion Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. The ensemble will be joined by two guest percussionists, Vidwan T.H. Subash Chandran and Ganesh Kumar. The session will conclude with a trio performance by Kahn’s youngest son Manik on sarod, Arjun Verma on sitar, and Raginder Singh Momi on violin. They will be “backed by a rhythm section” consisting of Chaudhuri’s son Nilan on tabla and Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam.

The evening session will begin with a vocal performance by Shrinivas Joshi and his son Viraj. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by Prashant Pandav on tabla and Avinash Dighe on harmonium.They will be followed by a duo performance featuring another of Kahn’s sons, Alam, playing sarod. Percussionist Chaudhuri will return to accompany him on tabla.

Note that the event page presents the payment options for those planning to attend either one concert or both of them.

Sunday, April 14, 4 p.m.: Pianist Hadley McCarroll will present a program juxtaposing the old and the new. She will give world premiere performances of compositions by two of her colleagues, Scott and Matt Ingalls. However, she will begin with a selection of keyboard compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach. These will include two preludes from the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 850 in D major and BWV 849 in C-sharp minor. She will also perform two of the sinfonias (otherwise known as three-part inventions), BWV 795 in F minor and BWV 801 in B minor. The program will also include a selection of the études by Claude Debussy and Helmut Lachenmann’s “Ein Kinderspiel” (child’s play).

Friday, April 26, 8 p.m.: The Meráki Quartet, whose name comes from the Greek word for “soulfully artistic,” will make its O1C debut. The cellist is Isabelle Nichols; and the other three members, Sofia Matthews, Jun Yong Liu, and Anna Renton, all play both violin and viola. They will begin with a set of variations on a theme by Preben Antonsen. This will be followed by Claude Debussy’s Opus 10 quartet in G minor. The second half of the program will be devoted to Béla Bartók’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet.

BARS Program of American Discovery

Three of the offerings in last night’s Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) program, conducted by Music Director Dawn Harms in the Taube Atrium Theater, were by American composers. However, none of them get very much exposure in the concert hall; and one of them was all but unknown for about the last half-century. The program thus offered an opportunity to consider the history of American music from previously unconsidered perspectives.

The offering most likely to be familiar was a relatively brief composition by Aaron Copland based on music he had composed for the 1940 film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, directed by Sam Wood. Wilder had conceived the stage play as an appeal to the imagination, keeping sets and costuming to be barest possible minimum, allowing the words of the characters (including a Stage Director) to evoke images in the minds of each member of the audience. As might be guessed, the Hollywood “industry” did not buy into that minimality; but Copland conceived a score that appeals to the memory of anyone who has seen Out Town as Wilder originally conceived it.

To evoke my favorite quote from Buckminster Fuller, Copland could be a master at “making more and more with less and less.” Thematic material is stripped down to a bare minimum, recalling images of Wilder’s almost-empty stage more than the richly fleshed-out images developed under the supervision of Sol Lesser, the film’s producer. Harms knew exactly how to keep that minimality under control, making sure that even the most subtle of changes would be recognized. Dynamics were kept to an intense hush until the rise to a single thundering climax near the conclusion of the score. While Wood’s film gets very little exposure, this composition would not be out of place if played as an overture to a staging based on Wilder’s thorough text descriptions.

These days Copland’s name is seldom associated with such quietude. He is known more for bold and brash sonorities that reverberate with the American optimism that thrived through so much of the twentieth century. (Born in 1900 and living for 90 years, Copland experienced almost the entirety of that century.) San Francisco composer David Conte had the good fortune to study with both Copland and Copland’s best-known teacher, Nadia Boulanger. He was invited by conductor Neal Gittleman to compose an overture in honor of the centennial of Copland’s birth; and the result was “A Copland Portrait,” a title clearly chosen as a nod to Copland’s own “Lincoln Portrait.”

Conte’s overture could almost be taken as a Cook’s tour of Copland’s favorite idioms. Instrumentation is rich with winds, brass, and percussion; and even the timpani gets a crack at thematic motifs. The energy of the pacing is positively electric, easily triggering memories of Copland’s brash assertiveness in compositions such as “El Salón México” and scores for ballets such as “Rodeo” and “Billy the Kid.” Nevertheless, none of those triggers involve explicit appropriation: Conte developed his own thematic vocabulary to celebrate Copland without imitating him. “A Copland Portrait” served as the overture for the entire evening, thus providing the best possible contrast to that other side of Copland that was inspired by Wilder’s play.

The least known of the Americans on last night’s program was Florence Price. During her lifetime Price was a prodigious and imaginative composer, the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra. However, shortly after her death on June 3, 1953, she became all but forgotten for a good half-century. More recently her work has begun to emerge on recordings (one of which was discussed yesterday on this site); and the Oakland East Bay Symphony recently played her third symphony in C minor. Last night BARS devoted the second half of its program entirely to her first symphony in E minor.

For the record, I heard the phrase “just like Dvořák” twice last night before Harms raised her baton to conduct the symphony’s first movement. Price certainly knew more than a thing or two about Antonín Dvořák’s techniques as a symphonic composer, and one can appreciate that his may have been a light that guided her through her first major orchestral undertaking. Nevertheless, she developed her own thematic vocabulary and had no trouble drawing upon her source material as a “native,” rather than a “visitor.”

The first thing that will probably strike anyone reading the program page is that she abandoned the “Scherzo” label in favor of “Juba Dance.” This was her own “first-hand” account of the influences behind so many folk and jazz practices; and she had no trouble migrating those influences into a symphonic setting that never felt pedantically manipulated. Mind you, she seemed to have a particular love of gradual crescendo passages, resulting in much of that same “vast expanse” rhetoric that we now take as Copland’s bread and butter. However, the E minor symphony is definitely in Price’s own distinctive voice, and Harms knew exactly how to allow that voice to speak with all the clarity and rhetoric behind it.

The concerto selection for the evening, on the other hand, served to highlight a competition that Harms conceived with BARS support. The winner was the young guitarist Alan Holcomb; and he performed as soloist in Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Composed in 1939, it became one of the most popular concert selections for guitar and orchestra by the second half of the twentieth century. (It also inspired the first track on the album that may well be the one most frequently associated with Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain.) Last night Harms led an account that not only featured Holcomb’s virtuoso capabilities but also highlighted the strikingly fresh approaches to instrumentation that distinguished Rodrigo in all of his orchestral compositions.

Taken as a whole, the program was a delightful celebration of the wide scope of orchestral expressiveness that the BARS musicians command, all presented in a setting that turned out to be a thoroughly engaging journey of discovery.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dance Accompanied by Live Music at Fort Mason

Four of the dancers in the Mark Foehringer Dance Project (from the Media Web page on the Mark Foehringer Dance Project Web site)

At the end of November in 2017, the audience in Herbst Theatre enjoyed a performance by choreographer Brian Brooks dancing with Wendy Whelan to present his one-hour composition Some of a Thousand Words. Unlike most dance concerts, this one involved music performed by the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, consisting of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas. They were situated at the rear of the stage on which Brooks and Whelan performed, making for a rare opportunity for the dancers to engage with the in-the-moment performance of the musicians.

Such “real-time” engagement between dance in music is, sadly, encountered all too rarely, at least once one progresses beyond the performances by the San Francisco Ballet in the War Memorial Opera House. Fortunately, an opportunity will arise next weekend in a program of four contemporary ballets created by Mark Foehringer. The Mark Foehringer Dance Project Ensemble will present a program entitled Like An OX On The Roof & Other Dances. The program will consist of two world premieres and a restaging of two audience favorites from the company’s repertory. All four of the offerings will be presented with live musical accompaniment.

Sadly (at least for the music lovers), specifics about the compositions themselves have not been announced. Fortunately, the Friction Quartet of violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz has announced that they will be performing at this concert. They further announced that they will be playing Benjamin Britten’s Opus 4, which he called “Simple Symphony.” This was originally scored for string orchestra; but it has the ability to stand up reliably to one-to-a-part playing. According to Foehringer’s Web site, the other composers contributing to the program will be Franz Liszt, Darius Milhaud, and Ernest Bloch.

Like An OX On The Roof & Other Dances will be given two performances, both at 8 p.m., on March 22 and 23. The performances will take place in the Cowell Theater at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. The entrance to the Center is located in the Marina near East Harbor, where northbound Laguna Street ends and turns left into Beach Street. Ticket prices are $22.50, $32.50, and $42.50. Tickets for both concerts may be purchased from the same Web page, which has a pull-down menu for selecting the date.

Chicago Sinfonietta Records Women Composers

courtesy of Naxos of America

The full title of a new album released a little over a week ago by Chicago-based Cedille Records is Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers. This was the result of a project planned by the Chicago Sinfonietta and its current Music Director Mei-Ann Chen. It involved scheduling newly commissioned works by four women composers, Jennifer Higdon, Clarice Assad, Jessie Montgomery, and Reena Esmail, over the course of the ensemble’s 30th Anniversary season and then recording those pieces for release on the Cedille label. Chen also provided the album with an “overture” in the form of the three-movement suite Dances in the Canebrakes, composed for piano by Florence Price (1887–1953) in 1953 and subsequently arranged for orchestra by William Grant Still (1895–1978).

As might be expected, the album serves up a diversity of rhetorical stances. The final selection is Higdon’s Dance Card, a five-movement suite of dances that delightfully complements the Price suite. These are both high-spirited compositions; and, from a personal point of view, I found myself far more interested in the diversity of dance forms than I was in the fact that both of the composers were women and that Price was African-American. Granted, this is my own approach to being selective about the “cultural baggage” I bring to any performance. After all, I have never described Yuja Wang as a “woman pianist;” and the first time I saw Jessye Norman on a PBS broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I was paying more attention to her interpretation of Richard Wagner’s music for Sieglinde than I was to the color of her skin.

Nevertheless, two of the commissioned works were clearly conceived with connotations that were social as well as musical. The more explicit of them was probably Esmail’s “#metoo,” whose very title clearly suggests the sort of baggage she brought to her acts of composition. Indeed, the accompanying booklet notes make it clear that Esmail’s connection to that hashtag is a personal one, personal enough to let her own text speak for itself:
The harm itself happened when I was in high school and college, but I only began to admit it — even to myself — in 2015, when I first wrote honestly about it in words. And one of the first things I put in this writing was that I was hoping at some point that I could express those emotions, which were still so raw at that point, in an orchestral work. This piece, #metoo, written almost three years later, is that work.
This is a situation in which, quite honestly, I am not sure whether any account of my own listening experience will bring much relevance. I can, of course, write objectively about the rhetorical devices Esmail engaged in her process of composition; but those devices are simply part of a surface structure that should not be confused with the “deep structure” of her own mindset.

Assad’s composition, on the other hand, offers a somewhat more accessible balance between the objective and the subjective. The title is “Sin Fronteras,” which translates best as “without borders.” She was born in Rio de Janeiro, daughter of the Brazilian guitarist Sérgio Assad, whose own parents had emigrated from Lebanon to settle in Brazil. She has been living in the United States since 1998 and will say that her home is “The Americas.”

My own approach to “Sin Fronteras” was to regard it as a tone poem, which, over the course of a single uninterrupted movement, explores several different cultural contexts. The overall impact, however, is that of a unified whole, rather than a construction of interlocking parts. The transitions between those parts may be “border-like;” but they are not defined by “walls of separation.” In other words the music amounts to giving the composer an opportunity to express her own thoughts about those who respond to difference as a reason for building walls and those more inclined to seek out the unifying attributes of the human race. “Sin Fronteras” may be as “politicized” as “#metoo;” but its political stance is less involved with personal wounds and more an optimistic quest for celebrating similarities rather than resisting differences.

The Assad and Esmail compositions are separated by yet another dance-based piece. The title of Montgomery’s piece is “Coincident Dances.” Montgomery lives in New York, and one way to approach her composition is as a reflection on living in an environment in which cultural diversity is normative. As the booklet explains, her score casts a wide web across highly diverse cultural influences; yet, for all of their differences, those influences inhabit a single musical composition with little sense of discontent.

Nomad Session’s Imaginative Instrumentation

For those not yet familiar with the name, Nomad Session is an octet consisting of four woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon) and four brass instruments (horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba). Last night the group presented the second of the three concerts planned for its second season, which is called simply The Eight. All of the performers are on the young side, eager to make their respective marks; and the ensemble provides an imaginative way to advance toward that goal. The players themselves are Christy Kim (flute), Jesse Barrett (oboe and cor anglais), Jon Szin (clarinet and bass clarinet), Kris King (bassoon), Stephanie Stroud (horn), Ian Cochran (trumpet), Matt Carr (trombone), and Jonathan Seiberlich (tuba). As might be guessed, there is not much written for an octet with these sources; so, for much of the program, King and Stroud also contributed as arrangers.

The other way to establish repertoire, of course, is through commissions. Each of the three concerts in The Eight was planned to premiere a commissioned work. Last night’s commissioned composer was Nicolas Lell Benavides, whose Cool Grey City was premiered by Nomad Session last season. A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a founding member of the Guerrilla Composers Guild, Benavides is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Southern California.

There he collaborated with Diego Dela Rosa to create a folktale for wind octet and narrator. Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” was clearly an inspiring force; but Benavides’ real inspiration came from his native New Mexico and Juan B. Rael’s anthology of Spanish stories collected in both that state and Colorado. Following Prokofiev’s model, each instrument was associated with one of the tale’s narrative elements. However, both the tale itself and Benavides’ approach to composition were far too uniquely distinctive to be confused with the Prokofiev warhorse.

Indeed, Benavides’ approach to the Nomad Sessions resources was consistently imaginative. Nevertheless, the tale itself tended to be far richer in details than the text that Prokofiev used. Benavides also served as narrator but sat within the semicircle of the Nomad Sessions players, rather than closer to the audience at the edge of the performing area. That meant that, for many, he was out of sight; and visual cues are often valuable when one is trying to listen to unfamiliar text. In other words, this is a piece that still needs a bit of refinement with respect to how it is performed, both musically and as a narrative. Still, it was an impressive undertaking that could do with more exposure.

Spirits were at their highest in the performance of the two dance offerings on the program. King provided the arrangement of the fifth of Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian” dances. This was the “real warhorse” of the evening; and King’s approach to arrangement always found the right coloration for each of the component themes and phrases. As might be expected with music that always risks succumbing to cliché status, a bit of wit goes a long way to holding audience attention; and King was not shy about finding witty turns for each of the contributing instruments.

In the case of the four dances in Malcolm Arnold’s Opus 59, a set of four dances inspired by (but not actually using) Scottish sources, the wit came from Arnold himself, only to be highlighted in new ways by King, working this time with Stroud. Arnold was born in Northampton, meaning that he, himself, was English, rather than Scottish. While his study of the source material was clearly respectful, the music that resulted tended to go over the top in poking fun at what many would take to be “Scottish clichés.” In Arnold’s case that involved getting a symphony orchestra to mimic a rampant pack of bagpipes, and I have to say that I was more impressed than I had anticipated in the ways in which King and Stroud distilled Arnold’s “Scotch spirits” (pun unabashedly intended) down to Nomad Sessions resources. I’m not sure I have listened to Opus 59 since my undergraduate days, but encountering it again last night was a real hoot.

NASA photograph of Mare Tranquillitatis (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The program opened with another arrangement. Roger Zare’s “Mare Tranquillitatis” was composed for string orchestra; but Zare himself arranged it for wind ensemble. I can suspect that he may have imagined a richer sound. However, the one-to-a-part playing by Nomad Sessions endowed the music with a distinctive coloration that still evoked the unworldliness of Zare’s musical depiction of the surface of the Moon. (Mare Tranquillitatis was the landing site for Apollo 11.)

Overall, the result was a program in which the more boisterous offerings were bookended by the more reflective ones; and this made for a satisfying evening. Nevertheless, that lively spirit of the dance resurfaced when Nomad Sessions took an encore. The selection was an arrangement (presumably the group’s own) of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” which definitely left audience members leaving their seats with a bounce in their respective steps.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Third Coast Percussion to Return to SFP

Third Coast Percussion players David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors (from the SFP event page for their recital)

Earlier this week it was reported that, at the beginning of next month, the Elias String Quartet would wrap up the four recitals in the Shenson Chamber Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). That note of closure (so to speak) will recur two days later, when the Third Coast Percussion (TCP) quartet of Chicago-based percussionists Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore will present the final recital in the SFP Here Now and Then Series. This will be TCP’s second SFP recital, the first having taken place in March of 2016 as part of the inaugural season of the PIVOT Series.

The title of the program will be Perpetulum, which is also the title of the first piece that Philip Glass composed for the ensemble. Completed last year, this work was co-commissioned by SFP. The program will also include an excerpt from another composition written on commission, the “Prayer” movement from Augusta Read Thomas’ suite Resounding Earth. In addition there will be compositions by Dillon (“Ordering-instincts”), Martin (“BEND”), and Skidmore (“Torched and Wrecked”), as well as the “Niagara” movement from Paddle to the Sea, a work composed jointly by all four TCP members. Other composers represented on the program will be Gemma Peacocke (“Death Wish”), Devonté Hynes (“Perfectly Voiceless”), and Mark Applebaum (“Aphasia”).

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $65 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $50 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $40 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. They may be purchased through a City Box Office event page.

Dazzling Mozart and Sibelius from SFS at Davies

German violinist Christian Tetzlaff (from the event page for this week’s concert on the SFS Web site)

Last night Davies Symphony Hall hosted the first of four performances given by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to preview the final national tour the ensemble will make before Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) concludes his 25-year tenure. The program followed the conventional overture-concerto-symphony format, featuring violinist Christian Tetzlaff as concerto soloist. Tetzlaff will perform with SFS at the first five cities on this eight-city tour.

The concerto selection was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 216 (third) violin concerto in G major; and, if last night was representative, those cities that will get to listen to Tetzlaff play this concerto will be in for a real treat. This is one of the five violin concertos that Mozart composed in 1775 (at the age of nineteen) during his employment as a court musician for Hieronymus von Colloredo, Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Considering that Mozart was probably not particularly happy with either his job or his employment, there is a decided “sunny disposition” (to borrow a phrase from John Cage) about this concerto.

Tetzlaff was clearly aware of that disposition and honored it with a generous supply of witty turns, several of which were reinforced by MTT’s leadership from the podium. One might think that Mozart had decided that he could one-up the rich abundance of wit that flowed from the pen of his contemporary Joseph Haydn; but it is unlikely that the two met until after he had begun his career in Vienna in 1781. Furthermore, if Mozart’s manuscript did not provide Tetzlaff with enough opportunities to smile (if not belly-laugh), Tetzlaff cooked up a few of his own by providing his own cadenza material. The setting may have been “contemporary,” rather than “historical;” and the violin sections may have been a bit on the heavy side. Nevertheless, this was still a reading of Mozart that sparkled in every imaginable way, probably more than would have been encountered in Colloredo’s rather stuffy environment.

If the concerto served up elegant wit in a relatively intimate setting, the symphony offered far more intense drama on a much more massive scale. The selection was Jean Sibelius’ Opus 43 (second) symphony in D major. Sibelius completed this symphony in 1902, the same year in which Gustav Mahler completed his fifth symphony; and, when one considers the broad scope of dramatic rhetoric in Sibelius’ symphony coupled with no end of imaginative approaches to instrumentation, it is hard to avoid thinking of how Mahler deployed similar skills.

Sibelius would eventually meet Mahler when the latter traveled to Helsinki, but that meeting did not take place until 1907. Nevertheless, those who have followed MTT’s tenure with SFS would probably have no trouble identifying the many ways in which his rhetorical approach to the Sibelius second was informed by his experiences in conducting Mahler’s music. This was evident not only in MTT’s rich sense of sonorous coloration through almost microscopic attention to instrumental sonorities but also in his management of dynamics, particularly in escorting the listener through the gradual increase of the decibel level over the course of the final coda, a succession of auditory waves with the crest of each wave gradually but recognizably louder than its predecessor. Last night was a reading of Opus 43 sure to seize the attention of even those who thought they knew the score like the back of their hand.

The only disappointment of the evening came at the very beginning with Maurice Ravel’s orchestral version of his suite Le Tombeau de Couperin. Like most listeners I first came to know the music in its orchestral form, encountering the original piano version (with its two additional movements) much later in life. However, it was only through that piano version that I really became aware of any “Couperin connection,” the only part of which that shows up in the orchestral version being the elements of formal structure.

Nevertheless, that orchestral version has the same transparent qualities of instrumentation that surface in so many of Ravel’s other orchestral works. Unfortunately, much of that transparency was either blurred or obscured in last’s night reading of the score. There were too many passages in which the energetic rhythms (requiring both deft and delicate fingering at the piano keyboard) emerged from the strings as little more than mush. Fortunately, much of Ravel’s instrumentation focused on the imaginative scoring of wind and brass resources (along with any number of ear-catching moments for a single harp). As a result, there were many engaging moments in last night’s performance; but the overall impression of the composition taken as a whole came across as a disappointing failure to get at the sonorities Ravel’s score was trying to convey.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Disciples Without the Master?

Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer (photograph by Monica Jane Frisell, courtesy of ECM)

Tomorrow ECM will release its first recording of the piano duo of Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, entitled The Transitory Poems. (Purchase from this hyperlink will be enabled tomorrow; but it will also support pre-order from those who click through today.) Both Iyer and Taborn (who are almost the same age) have had a significant effect on what I would probably call “bleeding edge” jazz practices; but they share the property of a capacity for invention that is based as much on intellect as on raw spontaneity.

Their experiences in playing together date back to 2002, when they were both members of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory. Indeed, it was as members of the Note Factory that they contributed to Mitchell’s Far Side album, one of the recordings included in the ECM 21-CD box set The Art Ensemble of Chicago and associated ensembles, discussed on this site at the beginning of this year. Recorded in Germany in 2007, Far Side took the idea of a double quartet, used by Ornette Coleman in the recording session for his Free Jazz album on December 21, 1960, in a new direction, based more on deliberate cerebral exploration, in contrast to the impetuous spontaneity of Coleman’s group. Since the Note Factory had been created in 1992, Mitchell himself could serve as an axis point across which practices at the time of origin could be balanced against new members seeking to move the performances and recordings in new directions.

I introduce this historical riff because that creative tension that Mitchell could moderate in the 2007 incarnation of the Note Factory seems to be lacking in the duo performance that Iyer and Taborn bring to The Transitory Poems. Since the tracks were recorded live in the concert hall of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest in March of 2018, one would have expected some sense of spontaneity and exploration, cerebral or otherwise. Instead we have two pianists, both highly adept technically, with over fifteen years of collaboration based on a common “master.” In other words I came away from listening to The Transitory Poems with the feeling that Iyer and Taborn had run out of things to say to each other, because everything had already been said.

Perhaps the problem is one of too much shared influence. If Mitchell is present implicitly as a “founding father,” the final three tracks of The Transitory Poems are dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil Taylor, and Geri Allen, respectively. (In addition, the title of the album comes from a phrase that Taylor used in an interview with Chris Funkhouser conducted in 1995. The full paragraph of context for this phrase is reproduced in the album’s booklet.) All three of those composers have decidedly adventurous spirits, but those spirits were not even lurking in the shadows of the tracks that had been dedicated to them. I found myself wondering whether Iyer’s current faculty position at Harvard University may be smoothing off some of the sharper edges that made his earlier recordings more engaging.

At the end of the day, I do not feel quick to lay all the blame on Harvard. While there were many things that disappointed me about Iyer’s San Francisco Performances concert with cellist Matt Haimovitz last Saturday night, lack of imagination was not one of them. Indeed, as I look through all of the Iyer albums that I have accumulated, I have been struck by the ways in which working with different personnel led him to take his capacity for inventiveness in new directions. Perhaps it really is the case that, as creative improvisers, Iyer and Taborn may have exhausted their capacity to engage imaginatively with each other.

Center for New Music: April, 2019

The odds are fairly good that, by this time of the month, no further March events will be added to the Calendar Web page on the Web site for the Center for New Music (C4NM). Indeed, we have not yet reached the halfway mark of this month and there are already a generous number of events scheduled for April. That means that this is as good a time as any to initiate a report on those performances scheduled for next month. Since updated this Web page is easy, I shall, as usual, use my Facebook shadow site (which seems to be functioning normally again) to put out the word whenever this page is updated to account for additions and/or changes to the schedule.

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:

Thursday, April 4, 7:30 p.m.: Nicolee Kuester on horn and Eric Moore on cello will present a duo recital. They will present premiere performances of two compositions they commissioned for their unconventional approach to instrumentation. The commissioned composers are Dongryul Lee (“Szygy”) and Sergio Cote (“Paar”). They will also play “Two Instruments,” composed by Morton Feldman in 1958 and scored for cello and horn. Pianist Jenny Hunt will join them for the final work on the program, Alvin Lucier’s “August Moon” trio, composed in 2015. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Monday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.: Based in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, 113 was founded as a collection of composers and performers of new music that curates concerts, seminars, and master classes throughout the Twin Cities area. They now have a touring schedule that is taking their efforts both to Europe and throughout the United States. Their tour of California will bring them to C4NM, where they will present West Coast premieres of works by five of the composers in the collective, Joey Crane, Sam Krahn, Joshua Musikantow, Tiffany Skidmore, and Jeremy Wagner. The program will also included works by Georges Aperghis, Chaya Czernowin, and James Dillon. The performers that will visit C4NM will be Duo Gelland (violins), Nina Dante (soprano), Maria Ritzenthaler (viola), and the Hutchins/Qiang Duo (Jeffery Kyle Hutchins- saxophone and Neil Nanyi Qiang- piano). Admission will be $15 for general admission, $10 for C4NM members, $5 for students and seniors, and no charge for those under the age of eighteen.

Thursday, April 11, 6:30 p.m.: Glenda Bates will curate a lecture-recital entitled Vocalizing the Horn. The title of the program is also the title of a book of études for French horn by Amr Selim, who will be both the lecturer and the recitalist. The recital portion will present original and arranged Arabic tunes for the horn. In the lecture portion Selim will share some historical and theoretical background on Arabic music and will discuss the performance practice of such music on the horn. He will use his own études to demonstration his approaches to performance. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m.: Composer Patricia Wallinga will host a free salon-style concert of her own art song and chamber music entitled An Evening at Patricia’s: The Music of Patricia Wallinga.

Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a program entitled Summits. That is also the title of a song cycle composed for voice, string quartet, guitar, and accordion by Daniel Corral. The words for all of the songs are drawn from texts extracted from summit registers, notebooks that can be found at the tops of many mountain trails. Jazz vocalist Joanna Wallfisch will be accompanied by the Koan Quartet. Corral will provide the “continuo,” playing both guitar and accordion. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m.: The Amaranth Quartet will present a program entitled Bend, Bent, Break. “Break” is the title of D. Riley Nicholson’s most recent composition, which will be given its premiere performance alongside a new quartet version of his earlier piece “Bend.” Bent is the name of a 1997 film for which Philip Glass composed the score, and Amaranth will perform selections from that score. The program will also include music by the winner of Amaranth's young composer's initiative, Alyssa Weinberg, Ryan Brown, and Sahba Aminikia. Admission will be $20 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Thursday, April 18, 7:30 p.m.: Gregg Belisle-Chi is a guitarist and composer currently based in Brooklyn (New York). He is currently on a tour in support of the record release of his latest effort, “Book of Hours.” This is a 50-minute through-composed piece with elements of improvisation. The work was inspired by the history and texts of the Mass ordinary; and it was scored for a quartet of guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. The performance of “Book of Hours” will be preceded by a set taken by the Grex duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia. They will convene a “special expanded configuration;” but instrumentation and instrumentalists have not yet been specified. Admission will be $10 for general admission and $7 for C4NM members.

Friday, April 19, 7:30 p.m.: This will be another two-set evening, presenting freewheeling and imaginative Bay Area jazz by two ensembles, both led by women. Erika Oba plays both piano and flute and leads a trio called the Ends Meat’ Catastrophe Jazz Ensemble. The other members of the trio are Eli Maliwan on tenor saxophone and Chris Bastian on bass. The second set will be taken by the Lisa Mezzacappa Six, led by Mezzacappa on bass. The group will perform the suite that Mezzacappa composed based on the Cosmicomics stories by Italo Calvino. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Saturday, April 20, 7:30 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a solo piano recital by Sakurako Kanemitsu. Her program will span a wide range of compositions from the current and last centuries. She has created a “frame” for the evening that will begin with “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt and conclude with “Für Arvo” by Ryan Suleiman. In between she will play two of Philip Glass’ études (the thirteenth and fourteenth), “Au gré des Ondes” by Henri Dutilleux, Suleiman’s “The Floating Island II,” and works by Dai Fujikura (“Frozen Heat”) and Lei Liang (“My Windows”). Admission will be $10 for general admission and $7 for C4NM members.

Sunday, April 21, 6 p.m.: Slow & Steady Records will present a showcase of their artists. These will include trombonist Naomi Moon Siegel, pianist Richard Sears, saxophonist Steven Lugerner leading his SLUGish Ensemble, and the BASTET trio of Justin Rock (guitar), Giulio Xavier (bass), and Mike Quigg (drums). Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Wednesday, April 24, 7:30 p.m.: Curator Blaine Todd will present the next installment in the Other Minds Latitudes series. This will be a two-set evening of unorthodox approaches to plucking strings. Paul Metzger plays a modified 23-string banjo and calls his works “hymnprovisations.” He will be followed by John Saint Pelvyn, whose electric guitar is enhanced by an abundance of sound-processing technology. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m.: Dan Becker will curate a recital by the Galax Quartet entitled Music from 1607 to 2007. This is not the usual string quartet, since the two violins and cello are joined by a gamba. They will play selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1080, The Art of Fugue. The program will also include early music by Samuel Scheidt and much more recent music by Belinda Reynolds. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Sunday, April 28, 7 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a program entitled Guided By Voices, which is also the name of a commissioning project by Elinor Frey, who plays two variations on the modern cello, the Baroque cello and the five-string instrument for which Bach composed the last of his six solo cello suites (BWV 1012 in D major). Frey will play solo compositions by the Japanese-American composer Ken Ueno (“Chimera”) and Swedish-German composer Lisa Streich (“Minerva”) and Canadians Scott Edward Godin (“Guided By Voices”), Linda Catlin Smith (“Ricercar”), Isaiah Ceccarelli (“With concord of sweet sounds”). Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members.

Benjamin Grosvenor’s 20th Century Tops his 19th

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor made his San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut in April of 2013, serving as recitalist for the annual gift concert. Last night he returned to give his first “ticketed” recital in Herbst Theatre as part of this season’s SFP Piano Series. In the interim, in September of 2014, he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony performing Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto “in G,” one of the selections on his first concerto album released by Decca.

At the core of last night’s program, Grosvenor presented two “gems” from the early twentieth century, both distinguished for the amount of expression they could pack into relatively brief periods of time. The first of these was the piano sonata that Leoš Janáček entitled “1.X.1905;” and the second was Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 22, a collection of twenty miniatures entitled “Visions fugitives.” These short pieces were framed by more “monumental” selections from the nineteenth century. The first half of the program was devoted entirely to Robert Schumann, coupling his Opus 19 “Blumenstück” (flower piece) to his Opus 16 cycle Kreisleriana. “Visions fugitives,” was, in turn, followed by Franz Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Norma.”

The title of Janáček’s sonata is the date of a Czech workers’ demonstration at which one of the demonstrators was bayoneted. It consists of two relatively short movements that provide a before-and-after account of the episode. The first is entitled “Foreboding” and advances through a circulation of intense motivic fragments at a Con moto tempo. This is followed by an Adagio movement entitled simply “Death.” This movement is also structured around motifs; but the motifs are slightly longer in duration and the overall rhetoric is less fragmented. Grosvenor seemed aware of how the intensity of this composition derived from the turbulent flow of Janáček’s thematic materials; and, even in the absence of the full narrative behind the sonata’s title, the attentive listener could easily respond to the urgency of the composer’s rhetoric.

Prokofiev composed his Opus 22 between 1915 and 1917, giving the piece its premiere performance on April 15, 1918 in Petrograd (the name the Soviet Union initially gave to Saint Petersburg—it would later be called Leningrad). The following month he would leave for the United States and completed immigration processing on August 11, 1918. Through his connection with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Prokofiev was well aware of what Igor Stravinsky had been doing with dissonance; and, in many respects, one might (in the spirit of Hokusai) call Opus 22 “twenty ways of listening to dissonance.” Grosvenor definitely knew how to endow each of these short pieces with its own individual identity, but the sense of that identity would probably have been better grasped had the program book allocated enough space to list the tempo markings of the individual movements.

These crystalline examples of modernism provided by both composers seemed to be Grosvenor’s sweet spot for the evening. His approach to Schumann tended to be on the erratic side. This certainly was consistent with how the author E. T. A. Hoffmann had developed the character of the musician Johannes Kreisler, for whom Opus 16 was named. However, Grosvenor’s execution tended to exaggerate the mood swings in both directions, often obscuring Schumann’s underlying logic, which is just as relevant as his rhetoric. Furthermore, that somewhat warped mentality also tended to pervade the Opus 19, where there was less logic to support it. Here, again, the program book put the serious listener at a disadvantage, identifying each movement only by its initial tempo, rather than the richer internal structures denoted by tempo changes.

One of the final holograph pages of Liszt’s “Réminiscences de Norma” (from IMSLP, public domain)

At the other end of the evening, the program concluded with the Liszt selection, an arrangement of themes from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. This is a prime example of Liszt’s flamboyant display of technical virtuosity at its most excessive. Nevertheless, Grosvenor rose admirably to the many challenges posed by this composition, leaping all of the hurdles with astonishing facility. However, even the most capable execution, coupled with a sincere attempt to honor Liszt’s rhetoric, cannot save this piece from sounding like an archaeological discovery from the nineteenth century that should have been left buried.

Grosvenor took two encores, announcing neither of them. The first was probably one of the more technically flamboyant compositions by Moritz Moszkowski [added 3/16, 4:05 p.m.: the eleventh étude (in A-flat major) from his Opus 72 collection], and the execution was certainly delightful. This was followed by a more subdued selection by Edvard Grieg, most likely one of the the 66 short works he called Lyric Pieces, published over a series of ten volumes [added 3/16, 4:05 p.m.: “Erotikk” (erotikon) from the Opus 43 (third) volume]. Having not internalized the entire collection, I was not able to identify the specific composition [added 3/16, 4:10 p.m.: until I found it on the SFP event page for the recital]!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Elias String Quartet to Return to SFP

Elias String Quartet members Marie Bitlloch, Donald Grant, Simone van der Giessen, and Sara Bitlloch (from the SFP event page)

Next month will begin with the fourth and last of this season’s Shenson Chamber Series recitals presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The Elias String Quartet (violinists Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violist Simone van der Giessen, and cellist Marie Bitlloch) will be making its third appearance. The group made its SFP debut in March of 2013 and returned in March of 2015. Based in London, the ensemble will devote the first half of its program to two British composers with quartets by Sally Beamish (her fourth) and Britten (his second, Opus 36 in C major). The Beamish quartet was co-commissioned by Wigmore Hall in London and the Harvard Musical Association in Boston. The second half of the program will present the first (in A minor) of the three quartets that Robert Schumann published as his Opus 41.

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 1. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $70 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $55 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $45 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. They may be purchased through a City Box Office event page.

MTT’s Final Season: the Warhorses

Michael Tilson Thomas (photograph by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Yesterday morning the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) released the announcement of its 2019–20 season. For Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) this season will mark the conclusion of his 25-year tenure as Music Director. It should therefore be no surprise that the San Francisco Chronicle treated this as a full-width front-page story in today’s “Datebook” section. However, readers of this site should know by now that I have not tried to give a thorough account of such an abundant season in a single article; and, in the past, I have limited myself to at most two articles to make note of those events that I was anticipating most enthusiastically.

However, as they say, this time it’s different. There are several different categories that are likely to benefit from independent treatment. I have been digesting the full content since it arrived in my Inbox, and I am not yet sure just how many articles I shall be writing to prepare for the coming season. Nevertheless, I am pretty sure that there will be more than two of them. [correction, 3/19, 1:50 p.m.: It looks as if I was able to fit everything I wanted to say into two articles after all, the second of which has now been posted.] As the headline suggested, I have decided to begin with familiar repertoire and then venture from there into some of the more adventurous regions of the plans for the new season.

When it comes to familiar composers that will figure in the programming for the new season, three names have been set aside in what the press release called the “Masterworks” category. One of those is the name of the composer with a landmark anniversary on the way. Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized (there is no record of a birth certificate) on December 17, 1770, meaning that December of 2020 will mark his 250th birthday. As had been the case with the celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, MTT has chosen to recognize this occasion over the course of the year leading up to the birthday, rather than the year following it.

This is likely to be the richest account of Beethoven’s music since the three-week Beethoven Festival held in the spring of 2015, which included both an almost complete account of the famous Akademie benefit concert for Beethoven held at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on December 22, 1808 and a complete concert performance of the Opus 72 opera Fidelio. The offerings for the coming season will include three of the symphonies, Opus 36 (second) in D major, Opus 67 (fifth) in C minor, and Opus 92 (seventh) in A major, as well as two concertos, the Opus 19 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major with Emanuel Ax as soloist and the Opus 61 violin concerto in D major featuring Anne-Sophie Mutter. Mutter will also also be a recitalist in the Great Performers Series, for which she will present an all-Beethoven recital. That same series will also present all-Beethoven recitals by pianists Yefim Bronfman and Igor Levit.

It goes without saying that the season would not adequately honor MTT’s legacy without acknowledging his interpretations of the orchestral music of Gustav Mahler. Indeed, the season will conclude with what will probably be the grandest final gesture of MTT’s tenure, a performance of Mahler’s eighth symphony in E-flat major, known to many as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” even if the headcount of performers almost always falls sort of that number. Vocal soloists will include soprano Erin Wall, mezzos Sophie Koch and Kelley O’Connor, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, and others yet to be announced. The season repertoire will also include the sixth symphony in A minor and the ninth symphony, which will be featured at a special concert at the Mondavi Center on the campus of the University of California at Davis. Finally, mezzo Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny will be the soloists for a performance of the orchestral version of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the boy’s miraculous horn), settings of twelve of the poems taken from the anthology of folk poetry of the same name compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.

The third “Masterworks” composer will be Richard Wagner. My first encounter with the presentation of a semi-staged opera in Davies Symphony Hall took place in June of 2003 with MTT conducting The Flying Dutchman. I have to confess that I was blown away by the imaginative ways in which Director Peter McClintock’s staging established as clear an account of the narrative as MTT had established for the music. Thus, MTT will conclude his tenure by revisiting this opera in June of 2020 with a new approach to staging. Two of the Mahler symphony vocalists will contribute to this performance with Grimsley singing the title role and Koch in the part of Mary. Other members of the cast will be soprano Catherine Nagelstad as Senta, tenor Stuart Skelton as Erik, tenor Ben Bliss as the steersman, and bass Albert Dohmen as Daland. The SFS Chorus will be prepared by its Director, Ragnar Bohlin.