Thursday, January 31, 2019

At the Met: Nothing Succeeds Like Excess?

During my convalescence this past August, the closest I could come to keeping up with performance was to watch the video recordings I had made of PBS broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions. They turned out to be a mixed bag, some of which still enjoy fond memories while others were far more disappointing than I could have imagined. My recording system is still set up to record Met videos, whether they are new or reruns; and, as a result, I have to allow myself to vent over a recent rerun of a Met telecast of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.

I was curious about this one, since the conductor was Nicola Luisotti, formerly Music Director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Luisotti’s performances here in San Francisco taught me a lot about listening to Verdi, but none of those lessons mattered very much on this broadcast. That was because the staging by Sonja Frisell reduced just about every other factor, even the “star power” of the vocalists, to insignificance.

Frisell decided that she was going to use the enormity of the area afforded by the Met stage for all it was worth. That meant defining areas on a variety of different vertical levels, sometimes even allowing those levels to move. Occasionally there was a logic in her maneuvers. In the final scene adding the vertical dimension allowed the audience to see not only the tomb but also those on the outside, but Frisell never really put that affordance to any use that would enhance the drama of the concluding situation. If anything, she distracted from the poignancy of what was happening in the tomb itself.

As might be guessed, she took things to extreme for the major crowd scenes. The triumphal return from the battle with the Ethiopians turned out to be as massive as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (and a bit sillier for those not willing to suspend disbelief). Admittedly, that scene has a history of going over the top, particularly by bringing in live animals; but I have to say that the horses made it clear that they really wanted to be somewhere else.

The silliness of the procession gave way to an even sillier ballet scene. The best one could say was that it was equally athletic for both female and male dancers. At this point, however, it was clear that the video work was going to be Frisell’s partner in crime. As a result, there were no end of shots taken by an overhead camera. Those of my generation quickly recognized that these were not ballet dancers; they were members of the June Taylor Dancers opening for Jackie Gleason!

I have long felt that Aida was far from Verdi’s finest hour in his efforts as a composer. Fortunately, recent SFO productions have changed that opinion. I suppose that is one reason why the best part of the Met broadcast took place before the curtain rose, when, once again, Luisotti reminded me of how sometimes Verdi could be inspired by the late quartets composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. If anyone can make a string section sound like a string quartet with a bit more amplitude, it’s Luisotti.

Nevertheless, after those opening measures, everything went downhill, all the way until we were all stuck in the depths of the tomb in the final scene. I would like to say that New Yorkers deserve better than this. However, given the enthusiastic reception the burst forth once the lights had dimmed on the tomb, I would say that this was an audience that got exactly what it wanted. I’m glad that my only contact with it was through the distance provided by the camera crew!

Another Strauss “Dresden Connection” on Profil

The Dresden Semperoper (photograph by Sebastian Terfloth, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Following up on Tuesday’s article, it turns out that Profil has another series with a “Dresden connection” that also includes music by Richard Strauss. This series is called Semperoper Edition. Thus far there have been at least eleven releases, but the volume numbers have not been in numerical order. Thus, the most recent release, a live recording of the performance of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Daphne,” has been numbered as Volume 4. The series is named after the building (named, in turn, after the architect Gottfried Semper) that contains both the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (Saxon State Opera) and the concert hall of the Staatskapelle Dresden, the orchestra that Strauss called his “beloved Dresdeners.”

As operas go, “Daphne” is a bit of an oddity. Indeed, when I was writing (in May of last year) about the opera recordings that Karl Böhm made for Deutsche Grammophon (DG), I mentioned it only in passing. It was part of the collection but one of two operas “that tend not to receive very much attention.” One reason is that staging it is a bit of a challenge, since it concludes with the title character being transformed into a tree after having rejected the advances of Apollo. This is basically the story as it appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; but the libretto by Joseph Gregor also draws upon Euripides’ play “The Bacchae” by having the shepherd Leukippos disguising himself in Daphne’s dress in order to be able to dance with her during a festival honoring Dionysos. Hugo von Hofmannsthal had his own variation on this sort of cross-dressing in his libretto for Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. However, what was comic for Hofmannsthal is far grimmer for Gregor. Daphne gets off with becoming a tree; Leukippos ends up dead (as did Pentheus in “The Bacchae”).

The opera was first performed at the Semperoper on October 15, 1938 with Böhm conducting. Böhm also seems to have been responsible for the first recording of the opera, but this was made in 1944 at the Vienna State Opera. As far as I have been able to tell, the Semperoper Edition releases are all taken from performances that were given following the end of World War II. The “Daphne” recording was made in conjunction with a live radio broadcast of a performance given on June 11, 1950, for which the conductor was Rudolph Kempe.

The release consists of two CDs. However, by the end of the first CD, only about an hour of material remains to complete the opera. The remainder of the second CD includes three excerpts based on the premiere performance with Böhm conducting soloists Torsten Ralf (Apollo) and Margarete Teschemacher (Daphne). In both the 1938 and 1950 versions, the final transformation scene is the high point of the whole affair. As a result, the second CD concludes with an instrumental arrangement (conducted by Kempe) that was made (probably by Strauss) for concert performance.

Böhm’s DG recording was made in 1964. According to the Wikipedia author of the “Daphne” page, there are cuts in Böhm’s recording. If there are cuts in the Kempe recording, I have yet to find them. (To be fair, however, I have not yet tried to follow the entire opera with a score.) While the Kempe recording is clearly more “vintage,” the remastering runs the gamut from satisfactory to impressive. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid thinking that Strauss recycled a fair amount of his rhetoric while preparing the score for this opera. (The flute music in the Dionysian round dance owes just about everything to the Rosenkavalier hairdresser.) This is the sort of opera that is most likely to appeal to those with encyclopedic tastes; and, from that point of view, Kempe’s “vintage” account may be more satisfying than the technological advantages enjoyed by the Böhm recording.

Choices for February 24, 2019

In addition to the final performance of Howards End, America on the afternoon of February 24, that Sunday will offer two other alternatives, each of which will be given only one performance in San Francisco. The first of these will be another offering of recently composed vocal music, this time in a choral setting, while the second will be a guitar offering by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. Specifics are as follows:

[third alternative added, 2/8, 2:40 p.m.:

2 p.m., Legion of Honor: The title of the second concert in the 33rd season offered by the Avedis Chamber Music Series will be entitled Mozart & More! The program will begin with the K. 298 flute quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart featuring Alexandra Hawley on flute. The “more” will feature pianist Robin Sutherland joining violist Paul Hersh for a suite by Seymour Barab featuring violist Paul Hersh, followed by  a piano trio by Louse Farrenc, and Bohuslav Martinů “Madrigal Sonata” for violin. The program will conclude with an ensemble performance of John Rutter's Suite Antique.

The Legion of Honor is located in Lincoln Park. It is approached by following 34th Street north of Clement Street (which is the southern boundary of the park). General admission is $30 with a discounted rate of $20 for seniors and students. Tickets can be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, and they also can be ordered by calling 415-392-4400.]

5 p.m., Mission Dolores Basilica: The title of the next program to be presented by Cappella SF will be Unveiling: Glorious New Music from Sweden and America. All of the works will be by composers from Sweden and the United States that were written within the last twenty years, and three will be receiving premiere performances. The American world premiere will be David Conte’s “Madrigals for the Seasons.” On the Swedish side Fredrik Sixten has prepared a new version of “Seek Him!,” which will also be given its world premiere; and Jacob Mühlrad’s “Time” will receive its first performance in the United States. The other American on the program will be Eric Whitacre with “When David Heard.” The Swedish side will also include a motet by Carl Unander-Scharin, “Djupt under dagens yta” (deep under the surface of the day).

Mission Dolores Basilica is located on the southwest corner of Dolores Street and 16th Street. For those planning to drive, free parking will be available in the schoolyard, whose entrance is off of Church Street. General admission will be $45 with a $20 rate for students with identification shown at the door. VIP seating will be available for $60. The student rate will be available only at the door. Other tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page.

7 p.m., Herbst Theater: The Dynamite Guitars series presented by the Omni Foundation will present the eighteenth season of International Guitar Night. This is an annual showcase program that presents four acoustic guitarists, each reflecting a different approach to performance. This season’s performers will be Italian Luca Stricagnoli, French Antoine Boyer, the first gypsy jazz guitarist to be named “Guitarist of the Year” by the British Guitarist magazine, French Samuel “Samuelito” Rouesnel, who specializes in both classical and flamenco, and Cenk Erdoğan, who plays the Turkish fretless guitar.

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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Two Major February Events on the Same Weekend

Next month will see a single weekend likely to appeal to many with adventurous tastes. Two events will take place on that weekend; and, because both of them will be given more than one performance, it will be possible to take in both of them. April may be the cruelest month, but it would appear that February has a soft spot for modernists! Specifics for these events are as follows:

Friday, February 22, 8 p.m.–Sunday, February 24, 2 p.m., Z Space: Having once again provided the music for the annual Snapshot program of work-in-progress offerings presented by West Edge Opera, the Earplay new music ensemble will turn to the music for the world premiere performance of Howards End, America. Composed by Allen Shearer with a libretto by Claudia Stevens, this opera will transport E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End from Edwardian England to 1950s Boston. Anyone who thinks that our country got over class consciousness in the wake of World War II clearly has not had a look at what life was like in Boston at that time. Neither war nor increased opportunities for higher education for all did not alter division based on wealth in Boston, as well as the practice of politics and reactions to changing ideas about race relations. Meanwhile, Senator Joseph McCarthy was intimidating much of the country with his self-proclaimed talent for discovering sinister Soviet agents hiding under every rock.

Stevens’ libretto distills Forster’s novel down to the interactions among seven key characters. These roles will be realized by vocalists Nikki Einfeld, Philip Skinner, Sara Duchovnay, Michael Dailey, Lori Willis, Daniel Cilli, and Erin Neff. Instrumentation will involve a chamber orchestra of thirteen players, the core of which will be members of the Earplay ensemble. The production will be conducted by Earplay conductor Mary Chun.

Howards End, America will be given three performances taking place at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 22, and Saturday, February 23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 24. Z Space is located in NEMIZ (the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 450 Florida Street. Ticket prices are $45 for general admission and $30 for students, seniors, disabled persons, and groups of eight or more. Z Space has set up a single event page with a pull-down menu for specific dates, which can be used for purchasing tickets online.

Friday, February 22, and Saturday, February 23, 9 p.m., SoundBox: Somewhat to my surprise, tickets are still available for the second of the three concerts in the 2018–19 SoundBox season. Each of the three performances has a different curator, and the curator for February will be composer Bryce Dessner, who is also guitarist for the rock band The National. He has structured the evening into three “acts,” each of which involves one of his compositions. In the first act members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will perform “Aheym.” Dessner will play guitar in the remaining two acts, performing “Garcia Counterpoint” in the second and “Wires” in the third.

SoundBox is located in the Rehearsal Room for the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall. The entrance is through the door on Franklin Street on the northeast corner of Hayes Street. General admission tickets are $45, and only a few are left. (They usually sell out by the time the performances are less than a month in the future.) On the other hand those willing to spring for a Producer Pass for $350 will find that more of these are available. Seats are not reserved. The space holds approximately 500 people, some of whom will be standing. Options include banquettes, ottomans, barstools, café tables, and high-top cocktail tables. All ticket purchases may be made through a single event page on the SFS Web site.

Alister Spence Composes for Satoko Fujii

Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)

Now that Satoko Fujii has completed her “Kanreki Cycle,” a new year has begun with an opportunity to listen to how she works with someone else’s music. The “someone” is composer Alister Spence, currently a Lecturer in Music at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The music, however, is a product of Spence’s doctoral research, which involved practices of improvisation for ensembles on a scale larger than that of the usual jazz combos. The result was “a suite in five parts composed for, and intended for realisation by, improvising orchestra.”

The title of the suite was Imagine Meeting You Here, with each of the first four parts having titles taken from the four respective words of the suite title. The final part is then identified as “Postscript.” Spence approached both Fujii and the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) to perform the piece. Fujii responded by arranging for the premiere in February of 2016, when it was performed by three of the Satoko Fujii Orchestras in Kobe, Nagoya, and Tokyo, respectively. GIO then performed the piece in Glasgow the following November as part of GioFest IX. In 2017 the members of Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe decided to revisit the composition, and they recorded their performance at the Big Apple jazz club in Kobe on September 10 of that year.

That recording has now been released. As of this writing, it appears to be available only for digital download; and Amazon.com has created a Web page for downloading the album in its entirety. The ensemble is definitely a large one. There are five saxophonists (Ko Iwata, Yasuhisa Mizutani, Eiichiro Arasaki, Tsutomu Takei, and Keizo Nobori), four trumpeters (James Barrett, Shojiro Yokoo, Natsuki Tamura, and Rabito Arimoto), two trombones (Yusuke Imanishi and Yasuko Kaneko), and a rhythm section consisting of Takumi Seino on guitar, Fujii on piano, Hiroshi Funato on bass, and Yoshikazu Isaki on drums. Spence is the conductor.

The piece definitely establishes itself as a composition in five parts, not simply because there are pauses between the parts but also because each improvised section has its own distinctive set of ground rules. Mind you, those rules are not always obvious from the audio alone. Thus, the third part (“You”) divides the ensemble into four autonomous units, each with its own conductor; and I have to wonder whether the police whistles were distributed in order for the conductors to signal each other. My guess is that those attending the performance itself benefitted from visual cues, but the contrasts in sonorities and performance techniques are likely to assist those who can only listen in differentiating the five parts of Spence’s composition.

Nevertheless, I shall take the liberty of calling out a “ring of familiarity” that I encountered, whether the composer intended it or not. The final part (“Postscript”) begins with what can probably be called a chorale with little stretch of the imagination. To my ears that chorale seemed to be based on the “thème de Dieu” (God theme), that introduces the opening movement of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental suite Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. My guess is that this was little more than the coincidence of mind trying to relate the immediate present to at least one past experience, but I still found myself satisfied with the idea that Spence was wrapping up his undertaking with a gesture similar to one that Messiaen had used to begin his own!

Calidore and Barnatan Bring Clarity to Their Bach

Pianist Inon Barnatan (above) with the members of the Calidore String Quartet: Estelle Choi, Ryan Meehan, Jeffrey Myers, and Jeremy Berry (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the third offering in its Great Artists and Ensembles Series. This involved the SFP debut of the Calidore String Quartet, whose members are violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi, joined by pianist Inon Barnatan, making his second SFP appearance. The entire program was devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

More specifically, Barnatan played (at the piano) four of Bach’s keyboard concertos: BWV 1052 in D minor, BWV 1058 in G minor, BWV 1055 in A major, and BWV 1056 in F minor. Calidore provided the “orchestral” accompaniment. In addition, they began the program with six of the pieces collected in the BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue, five four-voice fugues and one two-voice canon.

Putting aside any arguments over the assets and/or liabilities of “historical” instruments, the strongest quality to prevail over the entire program was one of clarity. From the very outset of “Contrapunctus I” at the beginning of the evening, it was clear that the Calidore players understood how to sort out foreground and background in Bach’s intricately elaborate webs of counterpoint. Mind you, there is no indication that Bach ever intended the fugues and canons he was writing for performance. More likely, he saw what he was writing as a pedagogical exercise to explore the rich diversity of approaches to imitative counterpoint.

Indeed, Bach was so focused on this exercise that he died while in the middle of writing out “Contrapunctus XIV.” As the program notes by Eric Bromberger observe, his efforts were only published after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was also responsible for giving the collection the name we now know, The Art of Fugue. Since the manuscript consisted only of notes on staff paper with no indication of dynamics, tempo, or even instrumentation, the publication was taken, for the most part, as an academic curiosity. It was not performed for the first time as music until 1922.

Taken as a whole, the collection reminds us that fugue is not a structural form like the dance forms one encounters in those compositions of instrumental music that Bach did intend to be played. It is, at best, a strategy guided by a minimum of constraints. Nevertheless, in spite of such loose flexibility, just about anyone familiar with “standard repertoire” will know a fugue when (s)he plays or listens to one.

From that point of view, BWV 1080 is as valuable a resource for listeners as it is for players. One may then conclude that Calidore played their selections in such a way that listener attention was guided in the directions that Bach had intended. Execution became a matter of just the right balance of the distinctiveness of the individual voices and the different techniques through which those distinctive elements may be blended. To borrow a noun from Antonio Vivaldi, BWV 1080 is a study of the cimento (contest) that arises when the sequential and the simultaneous face off against each other. Calidore knew how to turn that cimento into a rich listening experience.

Barnatan’s subsequent appearance for the concertos made that experience all the richer. His light touch provided just the right level of balance with the four quartet instruments. He acknowledged the broader scope of dynamics and the virtues of the damper pedal, bringing a contemporary expressiveness to his interpretation that showed few, if any, signs of compromising the marks that Bach had committed to paper. The flexibility of his dynamic range was then reflected through his give-and-take with Calidore with all five parties advancing through a keen awareness of how to distinguish foreground from background.

As was the case with BWV 1080, Barnatan’s concerto selections made it clear that there was not “cookie-cutter” mechanism behind Bach’s approaches to the concerto genre. Each of the four concertos had its own distinctive qualities and its own rhetorical framework. Indeed, if there was any problem with last night’s performances, it was the risk of serving up too much of a good thing in all of that diversity. Last night was rich in both expressiveness and variety, meaning that, by the conclusion of the final concerto, the attentive mind had been put through a generous round of paces. Such extensive workouts are seldom encountered in the concert hall; but, given their cerebral demands, that may be just as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Richard Strauss’ “Beloved Dresdeners”

courtesy of Naxos of America

I only recently discovered that Profil has been maintaining an ongoing project to build up a library of recordings by the Staatskapelle Dresden. This ensemble was founded in 1548 by Maurice, Elector of Saxony, which makes it one of the world’s oldest orchestras. It has a reputation that matches its age, going all the way back to an association with Heinrich Schütz. The position of Hofkapellmeister was held by both Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner (at different times, obviously). More recent leaders include Herbert Blomstedt, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and Bernard Haitink; and the current Chief Conductor is Christian Thielemann.

This month Profil’s project advanced to its 44th installment. This is a two-CD album consisting of compositions by Richard Strauss that are seldom encountered in recorded form. Strauss apparently referred to the Staatskapelle Dresden as his “beloved Dresdeners;” and this album definitely gives the composer a loving treatment.

Thielemann is listed as conductor, but what is most interesting is the intimacy of most of the selections on the album. The earliest work is the Opus 7 serenade, scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, along with four horns and one contrabassoon. Strauss composed this when he was sixteen years old. Towards the end of his life, he renewed his interest in wind ensembles with two sonatinas. The first of these, given the title “From an Invalid’s Workshop,” is included on the album, scored for double wind quintet plus two additional horns, a third clarinet in C, basset horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon. On a similar scale is another late work, the “Metamorphosen” for 23 solo strings. Finally, horn player Robert Langbein gets special treatment in a recording of the Opus 11 (first) horn concert in E-flat major.

All four of these compositions are given attentive readings. One can almost imagine that the ensemble made this recording to repay the love that Strauss had lavished on the group during his lifetime. Most importantly, there is a clarity to the recording technology by virtue of which the attentive listener can appreciate the fine level of details that guided Strauss’ efforts as a composer. Make no mistake, each of these compositions demands significant attention from both players and conductor. The level of commitment on both sides of the baton is so evident that each of these seldom-heard pieces emerges with passionate dedication to Strauss’ legacy.

Choices for February 20, 2019

Readers have probably noticed by now that next month is going to be very busy and is shaping up to confront the need for making hard choices. As has already been reported, Sunday, February 17, will see the superposition of three different concerts all involving vocal music. It turns out that the following Wednesday will be just as problematic, although the alternatives are likely to be more diverse. Once again the events will be listed in order of starting time:

6:30 p.m., Italian Cultural Institute: Ars Minerva will make a return visit to the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC). Once again Artistic Director and mezzo Céline Ricci will present a progress report on her current project set in a context of the performance of arias and works by Domenico Freschi, Antonio Vivaldi and Giovanni Porta. Her latest endeavor is called Human Journey, and the scope will extend beyond early music to take in other disciplines relevant to the music being performed. The first project under this rubric will be Andromeda, A Cosmic Tale, which will present the Greek myth of Andromeda through music, mythology, and astronomy.

This will lead to a performance later this year that will involve a full orchestra, four soloists, a narrator, and projections. The music will be taken from rare and forgotten Baroque works based on the Andromeda myth, such as Vivaldi’s Andromeda Liberata and Marc Antonio Ziani’s Andromeda. Narration will be provided by Stanford professor Richard Martin. Martin will join Ricci for her visit to IIC, as will mezzo Nikola Printz and harpsichordist Kelly Savage.

This presentation will probably last for about two hours. IIC is located in the Civic Center at 601 Van Ness Avenue, Suite F. Admission is free, but registration is required to assure having a place. IIC has created a registration page specific for this event. Anyone who registers may also add the names of a maximum of two additional guests. Those wishing further information may call IIC at 415-788-7142.

7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Program details have now been released for the second of the three concerts in the Discovery Series presented by San Francisco Performances. Young Turkish tenor Ilker Arcayürek will make his San Francisco debut by performing Franz Schubert’s D. 911 Winterreise (winter’s journey). His accompanist will be pianist Simon Lepper, who will also be making his San Francisco debut.

Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. All tickets are being sold for $45. They may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page.

8 p.m., The Lost Church: The Lost Church is an intimate 50-seat theatre with folding chairs and warm decor. They have a full calendar of events including both theater and music. On this particular occasion the venue will host a two-set evening of adventurous music and improvisation. The first set will be the first performance of the year from David James GPS. James is the vocalist, who also plays guitar. His group is a sextet whose other members are Alan Williams on trombone, Beth Custer on clarinets, Charith Premawardhana on viola, John Hanes on drums, and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. They will be followed by a solo set taken by David Mihaly involving percussion, guitar, and voice.

The Lost Church is located in the Mission at 65 Capp Street between 15th and 16th Streets. (Capp Street is located between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue.) General admission will be $20 on the day of the show but $15 if purchased in advance. A secure.force Web page has been created for online purchase, which includes a 3.25% fee for processing credit and debit cards. All purchases at the door are cash old.

Anderle’s Fascinating Clarinet Repertoire at SFCM

Jeff Anderle (from his Faculty Web page on the SFCM Web site)

Last night the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) provided the venue for a Faculty Artist Series recital by clarinetist Jeff Anderle. This was an “… and friends” program, since Anderle performed only two solo compositions, the first two on the program. However, the high point of the evening came when when Anderle recruited my three favorite clarinetists in the San Francisco Symphony (Carey Bell, Luis Baez, and Jerome Simas) for a quartet arrangement of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Strictly speaking, this was an arrangement of an arrangement, since the “source text” was Ferruccio Busoni’s flamboyant piano arrangement of the Chaconne movement that concludes Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. Arranger Kyle Hovatter prepared a score for two clarinets (Bell and Baez) and two bass clarinets (Anderle and Simas) strictly from Busoni’s piano score, presumably without ever “looking back” on the Bach original. Last night his efforts were given their world premiere performance; and, at least for those of who have either played (or, in my case, struggled with) Busoni’s thickly-textured approach to writing for solo piano, the results were stunningly impressive. Indeed, Hovatter appears to have known enough about the varying sonorities across the different registers of both instrument types to endow Busoni’s music with a transparency that tends to be lost on a piano’s sounding board (particularly when the pianist is overworking the damper pedal).

Bach-in-transcription turned out to be a central theme of the program. While the Chaconne arrangement closed off the first half of the program, the evening concluded with the Sqwonk bass clarinet duo of Anderle and Jonathan Russell presenting Russell’s arrangement of the BWV 565 organ toccata and fugue coupling in D minor. For the record, Busoni also transcribed this Bach favorite for piano; but, in this case, it is clear that Russell was working from the original organ score. The result was more of a straightforward account of the notes, which is probably as it should have been, since every organist makes his/her own decisions as to how those notes will sound through which ranks of pipes (and, for that matter, at what tempo). If that result was not as ostentatious as the arrangement of Busoni, it still provided its own unique way of listening to Bach.

The entire second half of the program was taken by Sqwonk. Russell has an easygoing verbal delivery with a capacity for witty banter, so the Sqwonk set felt more like a club gig than a recital. However, it provided an enjoyable survey of the efforts of composers, all of whom had been born during the second half of the twentieth century. As might be guessed, most of the music that Sqwonk plays was written with the duo in mind; and the diversity of approaches across such composers as Marc Mellits, Cornelius Boots, Aaron Novik, and Ryan Brown was impressive.

Brown also provided the arrangement for the second of Anderle’s two solo offerings. In this case the music arranged was “Zoetrope,” a song performed by a Scottish electronic band called Boards of Canada. While Anderle has recorded Brown’s arrangement, last night was his first live performance, which required his playing against real-time electronic processing.

The opening selection was a two-movement solo clarinet sonata by Edison Denisov. Born in Siberia in 1929, Denisov enjoyed the encouragement of Dmitri Shostakovich; but his work was too “advanced” for Soviet authorities, particularly when Stalin was in charge. Performing his music was out of the question; and, while he was allowed to teach, he could only give classes in theory, rather than composition.

The two movements of his sonata demonstrated the extent to which Denisov was determined to leave the beaten path. The opening movement is an Adagio which explores the use of microtones to provide a more precise account of how glissando effects should be executed. The second movement takes an almost stochastic approach to distributing its notes broadly across the multiple registers of clarinet sonority. Both movements held up well, at least for those without the tone-deafness of the Soviets and the ability to think about (if not grasp) both the “what” and the “why” of how Denisov could unfold his phrases.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Chinese New Year at Davies Next Month

The Chinese New Year of the Boar will begin next month (from the San Francisco Symphony event page)

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will welcome the Year of the Boar with its annual Chinese New Year Concert & Banquet. In the past festivities would begin with opening the doors to the Davies Symphony Hall lobby at 2 p.m., followed by the concert at 3 p.m. This year the doors will open at 4 p.m., meaning that the concert will be at 5 p.m.; and the banquet will begin at 7 p.m.

This year’s conductor will be Mai-Ann Chan. Angelo Xiang Yu will be violin soloist in “The Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” composed jointly by Chen Gang and He Zhan-Hao. In addition members of the Red Chamber ensemble will join SFS in performances of the traditional tune “The Moon Over Spring River” and Mao Yuan’s “Dance of the Yao People. Other Chinese composers on the program will be Huan-zhi Li and An-lun Huang. The program will also include video designs by Adam Larsen.

During the hour before the concert begins, all of the lobbies will offer a wide diversity of family entertainments. These will include arts and crafts appropriate to the season, lion dancing, games, and, for those wishing to snack, food, desserts, and tea bars. As in the past, the concert will be followed by the annual Lunar New Year Imperial Dinner, catered by McCalls.

Davies is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, and the main entrance is the Box Office lobby on Grove Street, about half a block to the west of Van Ness Avenue. Ticket prices in which seating is currently available range from $40 to $70. 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 Box Office.

Tickets for the Lunar New Year Imperial Dinner are sold separately. Prices range from $500 to $1500. As of this writing, all dinner packages have been sold. However, those interested to finding about about any cancellations may call the SFS Volunteer Council at 415-503-5500 for more information.

The Bleeding Edge: 1/28/2019

Last week the Bleeding Edge column took a “vacation,” since all of the events of interest had already been announced. This week there will be two new events to report, which might seem a bit modest were it not for the fact that six other events are in that previously-announced category. Those are as follows:
Specifics for the remaining two events are as follows:

Friday, February 1, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: As can be seen from the time, this is a “late show” offering. The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, led for 45 years by the legendary Chicago drummer and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, with Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Alex Harding on baritone sax, is on tour in support of the documentary film Be Known. This will be the group’s third annual appearance at Bird & Beckett. The shop has already maxed out on making reservations, but a limited number of seats will be available to those who come early. Donations will be appreciated. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART.

Monday, February 4, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: Information is already available for the Monday Make-Out on the first Monday of next month. As usual, the evening will offer three sets of cutting-edge Bay Area jazz and improvisation. The opening set will consist of modern jazz improvisations by the quartet of Beth Schenck on saxophone, Rob Ewing on trombone, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, and Jordan Glenn on drums. The second set will be free improvisation by the duo of Joshua Marshall on saxophone and Daniel Pearce on percussion. The final set will be a “tutorial” of improvisation entitled “How to Play the Drums.” The percussionist will be Tim Rowe, playing with Myles Boisen on guitar and Steve Adams providing electronics.

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

Profil “Profiles” Conductor Kirill Kondrashin

courtesy of Naxos of America

During the Fifties most Americans knew very little, if anything, about Russian conductors. Indeed, that was a time when the national mood was so paranoid that the mention of any Russian musician (with the possible exception of David Oistrakh) would open one to being suspected as a Communist sympathizer. Fortunately, all that changed in 1958 when the Soviet Union launched its first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Determined to promote the superiority of Russian musicians, the Soviet authorities had to endure the embarrassment of the first prize going to an American, the pianist Van Cliburn.

RCA Victor did not waste any time cashing in on Cliburn’s success. Shortly after Cliburn claimed his prize, they released an album of him playing the composition that won him that prize, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) piano concerto in B-flat minor. The ensemble was listed as the “RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra,” which tended to be the generic name for a pickup group. However, Cliburn himself requested that the ensemble be led by the conductor under whom he had performed during the competition. Consequently, Kiril Kondrashin was allowed to leave Russia to make the recording in the United States, an event that was as historic as the competition itself. The resulting album became the first classical recording to go platinum; and, while Cliburn’s was the name on everyone’s lips, Americans were gradually becoming aware of the name of Russian conductor.

By 1958 Kondrashin was recognized as a major Soviet conductor, complete with a Stalin Medal that had been awarded in 1947. In 1956 he had left the Bolshoi Theatre to become one of the principal conductors of the Moscow Philharmonic. In 1960 he was named that ensemble’s Artistic Director, a post he held until 1976. By that time he enjoyed the same international recognition given to Mstislav Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter, and, of course, Oistrakh; so it came as no great surprise (at least in the West) when he defected from the Soviet Union in December of 1978.

At the beginning of this month, Profil released its latest anthology of recordings of historical significance. This is a collection of thirteen CDs entitled Kyrill Kondrashin Edition: 1937–1963. As can be seen from the dates, all of the recordings were made when Kondrashin was a Soviet citizen; but a few of the performances were recorded outside the Soviet Union. Indeed, there is even one recording, made of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Opus 34 “Capriccio espagnol,” which is attributed to that RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. However, the date is given as 1957, meaning that it predates Kondrashin’s visit to the United State with Cliburn. Most likely this is a misprint: The RCA vinyl of Kondrashin and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra playing both Rimsky-Korsakov’s Opus 34 and Tchaikovsky’s Opus 45 Capriccio Italien was released in 1959. The Profil track listing gives 1958 as the year in which Opus 45 was recorded. In all likelihood Opus 34 was recorded in the same session along the the Cliburn concerto recording. (All of those sessions took place in Carnegie Hall.) RCA probably assumed that Kondrashin’s trip to the United States might be a once-in-a-lifetime affair; and they wanted to get what they could out of the occasion!

The track listing also has the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 serenade in C major as having been made in 1960 with the Staatskapelle Dresden, but it does not indicate whether it was made when that ensemble was visiting Russia or when Kondrashin was visiting Dresden. More specific are two recordings made in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic in May (Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 cello concerto in E-flat major with soloist Rostropovich) and July (Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 44 symphony in A minor) of 1960. The Rostropovich recording is one of two, the other being of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 62 “Pezzo capriccioso.” Oistrakh, for his part, makes three appearances, two of which are for Tchaikovsky selections, the Opus 26 “Sérénade mélancolique” in B-flat minor and the Opus 35 violin concerto in D major.

The description thus far may lead the reader to suspect that the entire collection consists of “the usual Russian suspects.” While the balance definitely tips in favor of the Russians, Oistrakh’s third contribution is Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane;” and that is the final track on a CD devoted entirely to Ravel. Of particular interest is that both of Ravel’s piano concertos are included, the “Concerto in G” with pianist Yakov Zak and the left-hand concerto with Emil Gilels. Even more unexpected is the presence of a 1961 recording of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra performing Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” in an account that is as fresh and witty as any recording available by a Western ensemble.

Indeed, the diversity of this collection is so great that it even includes a full opera. The last two CDs are devoted to Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. Mind you, because the recording was made in 1949 at the Bolshoi Theater, the text is a Russian translation of Karel Sabina’s libretto, translated by Kondrashin himself working with Sergey Mikhalkov. (Fun fact about Mikhalkov: Since he was born in 1913 and died in 2009, he is probably the only author to have written lyrics for his country’s national anthem on three different occasions!)

Beyond the diversity, however, the real value of these recordings resides in Kondrashin’s talent as a conductor. He knew how to bring clarity to whatever he was conducting, regardless of when or where it was written. That capacity for clarity also included the bond of communication he could establish with any of his instrumental soloists. One can appreciate why Cliburn insisted that Kondrashin accompany him to the United States for his RCA recording debut. Half a century or more later, a new generation of listeners can now appreciate how much Kondrashin had to offer through his talents as a conductor.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos Returns to Davies

Leonidas Kavakos (from the event page for his Great Performers recital)

Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos last visited Davies Symphony Hall at the beginning of this season, performing Igor Stravinsky’s 1931 violin concerto in D with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Last night he returned, this time as a recital soloist in the SFS Great Performers Series. He was joined at the piano by his long-time accompanist Enrico Pace.

All but one of the selections on the program were composed during the twentieth century, and they were presented in reverse chronological order. By way of contrast, the concert began with a relatively early composition by Ludwig van Beethoven, his Opus 23 (fourth) sonata in A minor, written in 1801. As regular readers know by now, all of Beethoven’s “violin sonatas” had title pages describing them as having been written “for pianoforte and violin.”

Last night’s performance was definitely presented as a partnership of equals. Furthermore, this was familiar music for the players, not only as individuals but also as partners. Kavakos and Pace joined forces to record the complete canon of Beethoven violin sonatas for Decca in an album that was released in January of 2013. The recorded account of Opus 23 delightfully captured the sharing of virtuosic duties between the two players, all in the context of the intense A minor rhetoric. (Only two of Beethoven’s ten violin sonata were written in a minor key, the other being Opus 30 in C minor.)

By way of contrast, Kavakos and Pace took an entirely different rhetorical stance for their recital opening. From the very opening exchange of the first theme, it was clear that they were far more interested in taking a playful approach. The result was a coy reminder that one can bring a playful rhetoric to a minor key without seeming ridiculous or appearing to mask sinister intentions. Instead, by the time the sonata had progressed to the final Allegro molto, theme exchange had escalated practically to the comic level of the give-and-take between Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Their approach to Beethoven thus provided an upbeat introduction to an evening that would turn darker for the remainder of the program. Opus 23 was followed by another minor-key sonata, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 80 in F minor. This was one of those compositions that took a long time to complete. Prokofiev began it in 1938; but it was not finished until 1946, after the end of World War II. It is therefore not surprise that a somber rhetoric pervades most of the sonata, a sinister reflection on not only Adolf Hitler but also the brutal purges of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. It would be fair to say that this was one of the darkest compositions that Prokofiev ever wrote; and it was more than a little depressing to learn that David Oistrakh, who gave the sonata its first performance, chose to play the first and third movements at Prokofiev’s funeral. Now, over 70 years after the sonata’s completion, Kavakos and Pace clearly knew how to capture the full extent of the music’s intensity, making the intermission break a necessary source of relief.

The second half of the program coupled Béla Bartók with George Enescu, both of whom drew upon indigenous sources from their respective countries of Hungary and Romania. The Bartók offering was his first rhapsody, composed in 1928. This consists of only two movements in slow-fast alternation. However, at least half a dozen source themes unfold over the course of those two movements. Written for Joseph Szigeti, the violin part abounds with virtuosic demands. These were delivered by Kavakos with meticulous focus on detail but never suggesting that he was showing off his abilities to take on the most difficult of the passages. This is a piece that I have encountered any number of times through both recordings and recitals, but there was a freshness to Kavakos’ delivery last night that made this encounter with an “old friend” utterly delightful.

The final selection was only slightly earlier, Enescu’s Opus 25 (third) sonata in A minor, completed in 1926. Enescu added to the title “dans le caractère populaire roumain” (in Romanian folk style). Unlike Bartók, Enescu was not so much interested in the “flesh” of folk sources as he was in their “spirit.” Thus, much of the keyboard work evokes the sound of a cimbalom without necessarily trying to imitate that sound, while the violin part eases its way into a gypsy rhetoric with more of a sense of authenticity than one finds in Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane,” first performed in 1924.

However, for all the virtues of the Opus 25 sonata, Enescu had a problem with long-windedness that both Ravel and Bartók were more successful in overcoming. It almost seemed as if Enescu had more thoughts about that Romanian folk style than could be crammed into merely three sonata movements. While the music is far from “epic” in its scope, there is a prevailing sense of a stream-of-consciousness delivery that undermines the “folk rhetoric” that Enescu was striving to evoke. In that context, both Kavakos and Pace gave the music admirable treatment; but it emerged as the weakest offering of the evening.

Kavakos’ first encore selection returned the performance to the more upbeat rhetoric encountered in the Bartók rhapsody. He played an arrangement of the “Russian Dance” from Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Petrushka.” In all probability this was a transcription that Samuel Dushkin made with Stravinsky’s approval, and it is likely that Stravinsky would have approved of the spirit that Kavakos brought to playing that transcription.

Neither of the two encores were announced. The second did not quickly register with me. However, it left the impression that Kavakos wanted to conclude with one last nod to Enescu. After doing some post-concert perusing, I came to the conjecture that he had played Enescu’s brief “Andante malinconico” for violin and piano. However, I offer that conjecture with full knowledge that it is open to challenge! [added 1/29, 7:50 a.m.: My conjecture was mistaken. The composer was Hungarian rather than Romanian. The selection was Ernst von Dohnányi's Opus 32, “Rurulia hungarica!”]

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Joyce Yang to Return to SFP, Again with ASQ

Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Joyce Yang, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson (from the SFP event page for this recital)

In November of 2015, pianist Joyce Yang made her San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut by sharing her recital with the members of the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. That program was structured entirely around quintets for piano and strings. Next month the entire quintet will return to SFP. This time the program will consists of quartets and quintets, but not necessarily in the way one might expect.

The quartets will be the two piano quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 478 in G minor at the beginning of the program and K. 493 in E-flat major at the conclusion. These are scored for violin, viola, cello, and piano; and presumably each of the two quartets will have a different ASQ violinist. Between these two selections, the entire quintet will present the West Coast premiere of “Quintet with Pillars” by Samuel Carl Adams, scored for string quartet and piano with digital resonance. As the composer himself put it, “Quintet with Pillars explores the question: what would it sound like if a piece were to build itself?” The “piece itself” is “Part II” of the composition; and “Part I” was conceived to provide an auditory account of how “Part II” came to be. The two parts are separated by “pillars,” three short episodes that mark the beginning, middle, and end of the entire work.

This recital will be held in Herbst Theatre, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 14. Ticket prices will be $70, $55, 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.

A Global Perspective on Early Music at St. Mark’s

Last night Voices of Music returned to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to present the third of the four concerts in its 2018–2019 season. The title of the program was Musical Crossroads; and the selections demonstrated how the early history of “Western” music often involved “imports” from “remote” sources. The program featured two guest artists, Imamyar Hasanov playing the Iranian bowed kamancheh and Laura Risk playing a baroque violin on which she explored the influences of different sources of fiddle tunes.

The earliest of those “fiddle sources,” however, was performed by Hasanov at the beginning of the program. This was an instrumental account of the eleventh of the 420 poems documented as monophonic songs probably by Alfonso X of Castile under the title Cantigas de Santa Maria. 356 of those poems are about miracles brought about through the intervention of the Virgin Mary, the others being songs in praise of Mary. All of the poems have rather lengthy strophic texts with a single melodic line setting all of the strophes. When countertenor Russell Oberlin released an album of about half a dozen of the Cantigas, each one sounded as if it went on forever.

Last night’s performance, on the other hand, involved only the melodic line. This allowed Hasanov to “jam” with Hanneke van Proosdij on recorder and Cheryl Ann Fulton on harp while Peter Maund provided percussion accompaniment with his usual skill in negotiating the pitch range of his hand drum. Such “jamming” provided the spirit for the entire evening, since almost all of the selections amounted to monodic tunes that could be readily embellished through polyphonic performances, many of which could easily have arisen through improvisation.

While the Cantigas were collected and documented on the Iberian Peninsula, Alfonso ruled at a time when that geographical region enjoyed a diversity of “foreign” influences from both the Middle East and the “interior” of continental Europe. It would thus be not too far out of the question to suggest that Alfonso was one of the earliest pioneers of what we now call “world music.” This became the point of reference for the entire program, whose “world” included Scotland, Quebec, and Azerbaijan, as well as seventeenth-century Italy. For almost all of the works performed, the source material was monophonic, with polyphony arising from the qualities of “jamming” brought by each of the performers.

Indeed, the first half of the program concluded with the world premiere of a composition by Proosdij that amounted to celebration of such “jamming” practices. As might be guessed, the title of the piece was “Musical Crossroads.” In the performance she again played recorder, joined by both Risk and Alana Youssefian on violins, William Skeen on gamba, Fulton on harp, Hasanov on kamancheh, David Tayler on archlute, and Maund on percussion. In other words, this was an “all hands jam session,” for which Proosdij provided the thematic foundation and the performers took care of the rest. By way of symmetry, the evening concluded with a similar group improvisation, this time based on the traditional “Folia” theme.

 The final measures from the manuscript of Antonio Bertali’s C major chaconne (copied in 1662 by Jakob Ludwig, from IMSLP, public domain)

There was, however, one documented composition that exhibited prodigious virtuosity. This was a C major chaconne by Antonio Bertali, whose solo part was performed by Youssefian with continuo provided by Skeen on cello, Tayler on archlute, and Proosdij on harpsichord. After several minutes I realized that I had run out of counting the number of virtuoso hoops through which Youssefian was required to jump; but she worked her way through each of the mind-blowing variations with the sort of calm demeanor that made it clear that the music is more important than the musician. It would not be out of the question to suggest that Bertali’s spirit was the “original source” of prodigiously improvised iterations that would eventually bring us to the monumental (almost an hour in duration) account of “My Favorite Things” that John Coltrane played with Pharoah Sanders in Tokyo in July of 1966. Indeed, even if the instruments were different, one could easily imagine Trane’s spirit coming back to life through Youssefian’s violin technique.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

2019 Schwabacher Recital Program Announced

This past Wednesday the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program jointly announced the program plans for the 36th season of the Schwabacher Recital Series. The series is named after James Schwabacher, who was a co-founder of the Merola Opera Program; and it provides an opportunity to showcase the talents of the exemplary artists who have participated in the training programs of the Merola Opera Program and/or the San Francisco Opera Center. As in the past, the season will consist of four concerts. This year two of those performances will take place in February, and the other two will be held in April. As was the case last year, all of this season’s concerts will take place on Wednesday evenings, beginning at 7:30 p.m., and the venue will again be the Taube Atrium Theater. Specifics are as follows:

February 13: The first program of the season will be shared by two Korean vocalists, tenor WooYoung Yoon and baritone SeokJong Baek. The accompanist will be pianist (and first-year Adler Fellow) Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad. Baek will begin the program, singing Francis Poulenc’s eight-song cycle Chansons gaillardes (ribald songs) followed by Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer), for which Mahler wrote his own texts. Yoon’s solo offerings will be the four songs collected in Richard Strauss’ Opus 27 and Jake Heggie’s cycle Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc. As is almost inevitable when a tenor and a baritone are in the same place at the same time, there will be a performance of the duet “Au fond du temple saint” (at the back of the holy temple) from Georges Bizet’s opera Les pêcheurs de perles (the pearl fishers). The two will also offer a selection of folk songs from South Korea.

February 27: Pianist John Churchwell will accompany baritone David Pershall in a program that includes three distinctively different song cycles. There will be a reprise of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, preceded this time by Ludwig van Beethoven’s only song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (Opus 98), usually considered to be the first example of a song cycle by a major composer. The program will conclude with a twentieth-century cycle, Gerald Finzi’s settings of ten poems by Thomas Hardy collected under the title Earth and Air and Rain. Pershall will also present a selection of songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

First page of the manuscript of Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom” (photographed from MS Mus 99.2, Houghton Library, Harvard University, public domain)

April 3: This will be another shared recital, bringing soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley together with tenor Christopher Oglesby. Piano accompaniment will be provided by San Francisco Opera Center Director of Musical Studies Mark Morash (a Merola alumnus from 1987). The program will begin with Franz Schubert’s D. 943 song, “Auf dem Strom” (on the stream), which includes an obligato part for horn (as may be seen in the above manuscript). The horn will also be required for Benjamin Britten’s Opus 55, the third in his series of five canticles. Setting a text by Edith Sitwell, the full title of the song is “Still falls the rain: The raids 1940. Night and dawn.” The program will also include another collection Strauss songs, this time the six songs in his Opus 19. The next collection will be Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 55 setting of seven poems by Adolf Heyduk, collected under the title Cigánské melodie (gypsy songs). There will also be selected songs by both Charles Ives and Gabriel Fauré, along with Italian duets by several different composers.

April 24: Pianist Martin Katz will lead a quartet of current Adler Fellows, soprano Hangley, mezzo Ashley Dixon, tenor Zhengyi Bai, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell. The one cycle to be performed in its entirety will be Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs. There will also be selections from the Mörike Lieder collection of Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms’ Deutsche Volkslieder.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. Note that, because much of the seating is raked, it is possible to select the option of Wheelchair Accessible seats. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 5 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

Subscriptions for the entire four-recital series are available for $100. However, these are not available online. They may be purchased in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, located in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-3330.

PIVOT Series’ Jazz Reflections on Bob Dylan

Jazz singer Paula West (from the San Francisco Performances event page for last night’s concert)

The Swedish Academy got it right. Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That phrase prioritizes Dylan and a poet, rather than a singer or a composer. The fact that he expressed his poetry through songs, rather than through slim printed volumes that few will ever read, simply meant that he was exceedingly successful at getting people to pay attention to his words. These days, any poet who can succeed in that achievement deserves all the awards he can get!

Nevertheless, it is important that Dylan was a poet fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” almost seems like his personal reflection on his own good fortune. However, those times had been changing long before Columbia released its third Dylan album under that name. It was in the second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that Dylan directed his words at the many social ills that were dividing the generations against each other. Ten of the thirteen tracks are Dylan originals, beginning with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and progressing through “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Whether the music came from his own guitar or from the different bands for which he would prepare arrangements, the words were always at the heart of what made Dylan be Dylan.

Last night at Herbst Theatre, for the second of the four concerts in the 2019 PIVOT Series, San Francisco Performances presented jazz vocalist Paul West accompanied by the Adam Shulman Quartet. Leading from the piano, Shulman was joined by a rhythm section consisting of Owen Clapp on bass, Scott Sorkin on guitar, and Jon Arkin on drums. The title of the program was The Bob Dylan Songbook.

Given the context of those first two paragraphs, this was clearly an evening when words mattered. It is thus necessary to begin by observing that West was clearly conscious of the need for first-rate diction over the course of her 90-minute offering. Indeed, when one takes into account Dylan’s own style of delivery, which almost seemed calculated to provoke any expectations a listener may have had about singing, West was probably far more conscientious about diction than Dylan ever was. The result was an evening that was not so much about Dylan’s music and performance practices as it was a way to honor his words in a jazz setting of Shulman’s arrangements, which would follow or reject Dylan’s musical practices as seemed most appropriate.

In that setting West also took the liberty of singing three songs whose words were not by Dylan but whose semantics fit into the overall flow of the Dylan lyrics she had selected. “Gimme Some Truth” was included in the lineup almost in a way to suggest that John Lennon had finally figured out a way to respond to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Then, in a gesture of irony that probably would have amused Lennon, West shifted immediately to “Put on a Happy Face,” one of the songs that Charles Strouse composed for Bye Bye Birdie. On the other hand “Subterranean” was followed by Randy Newman’s “Short People,” which then moved on to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

When American youth first became aware of Bob Dylan, it would be fair to say that they embraced his poems as a means of pushing back against what sociologist C. Wright Mills had describe as “the power elite.” Dylan’s early albums came out at a time when youth galvanized to rise up to challenge that “power elite,” whether it involved protest against the Vietnam War or the positive affirmation of the values and objectives of Martin Luther King. Last night West selected many Dylan texts that reminded us that there is now a new “power elite” that needs to be challenged. West not only delivered “the word of Dylan” but also added a few observations, along with an amusing … and not offensive … gesture of her own in reaction to those who delight in supporting “MAGA” baseball caps.

We need Dylan’s poetry now as much as we needed it to stand up to the “Masters of War” in the Sixties.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Stenberg | Cahill Duo to Present Benefit Concert

Kate Stenberg and Sarah Cahill (photographs by Jim Block and Christine Alcino, respectively, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Next month Zion Lutheran Church will present another benefit concert in partnership with the Interfaith Welcome Refugee Support. (Readers may recall that a similar benefit concert was curated by the church’s Director of Music Kyle Hovatter this past November.) The performers will be the Stenberg | Cahill Duo of violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Sarah Cahill. All proceeds will go directly to Dirty Girls of Lesvos, an on-the-ground NGO (non-governmental organization) that has pioneered the cleaning and redistribution of used and discarded clothing, bedding, and other materials for humanitarian relief.

The program will feature a performance of Aaron Gervais’ “Talking in Circles,” which the duo commissioned from InterMusic SF’s Musical Grant Program. The duo will perform with live electronics, but the score was written for solo violin and electronics or a variable ensemble of one to five instruments. Those who have been following the duo are likely to be familiar with some of the other works on the program. These will include Henry Cowell’s sonata for violin and piano, Kaija Saariaho’s “Tocar,” “Sueños de Chambi” by Gabriela Lena Frank, and Linda Catlin Smith’s “With Their Shadows Long.”

There will be no admission charge for this concert, but donations will be appreciated and expected. Suggested levels of donation are $15 for an individual and $25 for a family. All donations may be made in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. This site allows the selection of those two options or the ability to enter any other donation level. Zion Lutheran Church is located at 495 9th Avenue near the northwest corner of Anza Street.

Rzewski’s Variations on Dark Political Times

Pianist Ran Dank (from the San Francisco Performances event page for last night’s concert)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presented the first of four concerts to be performed on the four consecutive evenings of the 2019 PIVOT Series. The opening program was given by Israeli pianist Ran Dank playing a single composition whose duration tends to run roughly an hour, Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” The work is a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!,” composed by Sergio Ortega working with the Chilean folk music group Quilapayún. Rzewski composed it on a commission from pianist Ursula Oppens, who gave the world premiere performance on February 7, 1976.

Rzewski’s choice of a theme is sufficiently political to deserve a bit of context. It had been composed as an anthem for the Popular United (Unidad Popular) coalition in Chile that was instrumental in the 1970 election of Salvador Allende as the country’s president. Allende was the first Marxist to win an election in a democratic country; and, as might be guessed, his election through indisputable democratic means made the United States more than a little nervous. As also might be guessed, Allende’s administration did not last very long. It was brought down in a coup d’etat on September 11, 1973. (Note that date.) Allende committed suicide, and it was no secret that the Central Intelligence Agency supported the coup with planning assistance from Henry Kissinger. To this day the United States is still not a member of the International Criminal Court, and all efforts to bring Kissinger before that court have been futile.

As far as the music is concerned, Rzewski’s composition was as ingenious and inventive in the twentieth century as the extended compositions of variations by both Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms had been in the nineteenth. Indeed, those who write about this piece tend to overflow with references to composers from both the twentieth century and earlier periods. However, while listening to Dank’s performance last night, I realized that there was one composer that I had never encountered in these “roll calls,” Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff was not only wildly imaginative in his approach to variation but he also knew how to twist his theme to add new themes to the mix. Rzewski may not have been as skilled at twisting; but he drew upon the theme’s political context to add citations of two other significant anthems, the Italian socialist song “Bandiera Rossa” and Hans Eisler’s “Solidarity Song,” setting the words of Bertolt Brecht.

From a structural point of view, there is a mathematical elegance to the overall plan of Rzewski’s composition. The theme itself is 36 measures in duration. Rzewski thus conceived 36 variations on that theme, organized into six groups of six. The final variation is followed by an improvisation, after which the theme returns as it was originally stated. That overall framework parallels the conclusion of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations (whose variations happen to be organized as ten sets of three).

None of this background, however, prepares the listener for just how demanding the virtuosity of Rzewski’s expressiveness is. In the booklet for the HAT HUT recording of Rzewski himself playing the variations, Tom Johnson makes passing reference to the composer’s “post-Webern textures.” This verges on the height of understatement. Many of Rzewski’s variations involve mind-bending acts of deconstruction through which the individual notes of the theme are splayed out across the entire length of the keyboard. However, as the variations progress, each of those isolated points is subjected not only to finger-busting embellishments but also whistling by the performer (along with one slam of the piano lid). By the time the variations have run their course, it feels as if Rzewski has explored every possible avenue for transforming pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and texture. Thus, when the theme returns in its original simplicity, there is a sense of closure that is downright exhilarating, rather like the high that some marathon runners experience at the finish line.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Sinfonia Spirituosa to Make Bay Area Debut

The members of Sinfonia Spirituosa (from the Facebook Events Web page for this concert)

Sinfonia Spirituosa is a chamber orchestra dedicated to presenting bold, historically-informed performances on period instruments. The ensemble gave its debut concert in Sacramento in April of last year and is now in its first full season. While the group is based in Sacramento, performers come from both Northern and Southern California, Washington, Colorado, and even New York. The leader is Artistic Director Lorna Peters, and the Concertmaster is Jubal Fulks. The group takes its name from the title of a chamber music composition by Georg Philipp Telemann, TWV 44:1. That piece was scored for two violins, viola, and continuo with an ad libitum part for trumpet.

At the beginning of next month, the ensemble will make its Bay Area debut. It will perform with its full complement of eleven strings, flute, bassoon, theorbo, guitar, baroque guitar, and harpsichord, all period instruments. As might be guessed, the program will include the group’s namesake composition, as well as Telemann’s TWV 51:D2 flute concerto in D major with the group’s flutist, Cathie Apple, as soloist. The program will also include instrumental movements from theatre music composed by both Henry Purcell and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Bass Daniel Yoder will appear as guest soloist in vocal selections by both of these composers, the “Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur and the aria “Monstre affeux” from Rameau’s Dardanus. Concertmaster Fulks will present the oldest work on the program, the “La Melana” violin sonata, the third in the Opus 3 collection of six sonatas by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli. There will also be selections from the Charles Avison concerto grosso arrangements of keyboard compositions by Domenico Scarlatti.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 2. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The building is a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Only cash will be excepted for payments at the door.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Bach-and-Sons Recital Coming to SFCM

Postcard design for the recital being announced (from a Farwood Writing Web page)

At the beginning of next month, cellist Guy Fishman will join forces with harpsichordist Derek Tam to present a program entitled Bach & Sons. Those who have been following this site for some time (and probably its predecessor on Examiner.com) probably know that several of the sons of Johann Sebastian Bach were also composers. Fishman and Tam have prepared a program that will offer both solo and duo works to juxtapose Sebastian’s music with that of three of his sons. The earliest of those sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, had Maria Barbara as his mother. The other two, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, were the children of Anna Magdalena.

The program will be framed by the only two duo selections. It will open with a sonata in A major for cello and continuo by Friedrich, Volume X, Number 3 in Hansdieter Wohlfahrth’s catalog. The concluding selection will be a sonata in D major for gamba and continuo by Emanuel, entry 137 in Alfred Wotquenne’s catalog. Fishman’s solo performances will be of two of Sebastian’s solo cello suites, BWV 1007 in G major and BWV 1009 in C major. Tam’s Sebastian selection will be the BWV 903 coupling of a fantasia and fugue in D minor. In addition before the intermission, he will play Christian’s sonata in A major, entry A11 in Ernest Warburton’s catalog and the fifth of the six sonatas published as Opus 17.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 1. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), which is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, and a short walk from the Muni Van Ness station. General admission will be $25 with a $20 rate for seniors and students. All seats are general admission. They may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Thoughts on SFO’s 2019–20 Season Repertory

Yesterday afternoon at 1 p.m., subscription tickets went on sale for the 2019–20 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Early in the evening, as he had done last year, General Director Matthew Shilvock shared his thoughts on the new season to a selected audience of donors. Since my own level of donation allowed for my access to this event, I felt it would be useful to share some of his thoughts with my readers. As was the case last year, Shilvock’s presentation included a few musical previews sung by the current crop of Adler Fellows, accompanied at the piano by César Cañón (also an Adler Fellow).

The most significant item in the presentation involved the launch of a three-season production of the three operas that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed to set libretto texts by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Those operas are (in the order in which they will be presented over the course of the coming three seasons) The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492), Così fan tutte (thus do all women, K. 588), and Don Giovanni (K. 527). As can be seen from Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog numbers, these will not be rolled out in the order in which they were composed.

The director for this project will be Michael Cavanagh, whose previous efforts with SFO included the company’s most recent production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and a distinctively original staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China. Rather than trying to integrate the three operas into a common narrative (which would go against the grain of both Da Ponte and Mozart), Cavanagh decided to have the three operas share a common setting, a moderately grand house in the Early American style, perhaps along the lines of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. All of the operas will be set in the United States but in different historical periods. K. 492 will take place in Colonial times consistent with the physical setting. K. 588 will advance the clock about 150 years, using World War I as part of the context. K. 527 will advance another 150 years to a dystopian future.

Erhard Rom’s set design for the first act of The Marriage of Figaro

Shilvock also observed that the season would be distinguished by the number of performers that would be making role debuts across all eight operas to be presented. In the case of K. 492, the debut performance will be by soprano Jeanine De Bique, who will also be making her SFO debut, in the role of Susanna. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, on the other hand, will be making two role debuts, first in September as John Claggart in Michael Grandage’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and then the following June as Don Ruy Gomez de Silva in Jose Maria Condemi’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani. (Not only will Grandage be making his SFO debut but this production, originally performed in the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, was his first venture into directing opera.)

The opening production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette will have debuts in both title roles: tenor Bryan Hymel (last seen in Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens) and former Adler Fellow soprano Nadine Sierra. Originally a co-production of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and the Teatro Carlo Felice, its director, Jean-Louis Grinda, will be making his American staged opera debut. In the revival production of Olivier Tambosi’s staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, all three leading characters will be making role debuts: soprano Lianna Haroutounian in the title role, tenor Brian Jagde as the Chevalier des Grieux, and baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Manon’s brother. The same is true of the two leading roles in Ernani: tenor Russell Thomas in the title role and soprano Michelle Bradley as Elvira. Finally, there will be four role debuts in the revival of Christopher Alden’s staging of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope. Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli, discussed on this site last month for his recorded performance of HWV 40 (Serse), will make his SFO debut as Arsace. Soprano Louise Alder in the title role and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Armindo will both be making American staged opera debuts. Finally, former Adler Fellow bass Hadleigh Adams will make his role debut as Oromonte.

That leaves two other operas in the season. The last of these will be the Bay Area premiere of Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, given its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 2017. This will be an “original cast” performance with the leading roles taken by the same vocalists that performed in Santa Fe (whose performances can be found on the subsequently released live recording). The fall season will conclude with a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, originally staged at Covent Garden for the Royal Opera by Antony McDonald, who will be making his SFO debut. The libretto will be sung in English, and the title roles will be taken by mezzo Sasha Cooke and soprano Heidi Stober.

There will clearly be much more to say about all of these productions. However, I feel that I have done justice to my “first impressions.” More will follow with the usual more detailed preview articles for each of the operas in the season. Those who are already subscribers should expect their renewal packets to arrive soon in the mail.