Monday, February 18, 2019

Tiberghien’s Solo Album Explores Late Liszt

courtesy of PIAS

Here in San Francisco pianist Cédric Tiberghien is probably best known as the piano accompanist for violinist Alina Ibragimova. The two of them have given recitals for San Francisco Performances, the most recent of which took place in April of 2017. They have also built up an impressive library of recordings on the Hyperion label; and my last encounter with one of their Hyperion releases took place in August of 2013 with the release of a two-CD album of the complete works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert.

At the beginning of next month, Tiberghien will make his San Francisco debut as a concerto soloist, performing with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). He will play Franz Liszt’s first piano concerto in E-flat major, working with conductor François-Xavier Roth, who will similarly be making his SFS conducting debut. That performance will take place a little over a month after the release of Tiberghien’s latest solo album for Hyperion, which was devoted entirely to Liszt. However, while the concerto was completed in 1849 when Liszt was at the peak of his career as a virtuoso pianist, all of the compositions that Tiberghien recorded were completed during the final decade of Liszt’s life, roughly 35 years later.

This was not a good time for Liszt. A variety of different illnesses were catching up with him; and, on the basis of some of his correspondence, one might also be inclined to diagnose clinical depression. Nevertheless, he kept composing; and the results suggest that he was determined to explore new approaches to invention that would experiment with alternative techniques of logic and grammar to throw new light on his consistently expressive rhetoric.

One of the earliest efforts in this regard was the third “year” in his Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) cycle of three suites for solo piano. This final collection is not labeled with the name of a country that the “pilgrim” has visited. Two of the movement titles are in Latin, “Sunt lacrymae rerum” (there are tears for things) and “Sursum corda” (lift up your hearts); and the title of the first piece is “Angelus! Prière aux anges gardiens” (Angelus! Prayer to the Guardian Angels). There is also a funeral march dedicated to the memory of the emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Furthermore, his two “tone poems” evoking the cypresses at the Villa d’Este are both identified as threnodies and composed in minor keys. Even his major-key evocation of the Villa d’Este fountains comes with a Latin inscription from the Gospel of John.

All seven of the “third year” pieces constitute the second half of Tiberghien’s album. They are preceded by six of the short pieces that Liszt subsequently composed. With the exception of the second of the “La lugubre Gondola” compositions, evoking the funeral of Richard Wagner, all of these pieces are less than five minutes in duration. All of them explore ambiguity in ways that go beyond Wagner at his most adventurous. Indeed, given that the title of the first track of the album is “Bagatelle sans tonalité” (bagatelle without tonality), one could almost make the case that the dying Liszt was in the process of beginning work on the bridge that would link Wagner to the Second Viennese School.

Where any Liszt is concerned, my highest priority as a listener is one of clarity. Whether we are dealing with the tightly intense gestures of the fourth (and last) of the “Mephisto” waltzes or the sprawling excesses of the E-flat major concerto, I feel it is always important to accept that any note Liszt committed to paper was put there for a reason. Since I am familiar with many (but not all) of the selections on Tiberghien’s latest album, I am happy to report that he brings a highly informative clarity to both his technique and his rhetorical expressiveness. It is as if he wants us to pay more attention to the composer than to the performer; and, for the repertoire on this new album, there will always be new rhetorical corners for the attentive listener to explore. Whether or not Tiberghien approaches the concerto the same way will be revealed here in San Francisco in a little over two weeks’ time!

The Bleeding Edge: 2/18/2019

It looks as if this will be a relatively quiet week. Of the five events of note in San Francisco, three have already been taken into account:
  1. The two-set evening shared by Lucrecia Dalt and Aaron Dilloway at The Lab on February 22
  2. The San Francisco-Munich Trio, bassoonist Friedrich Edelmann and cellist Rebecca Rust, joined by pianist Jeanette Tietze, presenting the next Chamber Music offering for Sunset Music and Arts on February 23
  3. Pamela Z joining the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chamber Orchestra, led by Steven Schick, to premiere a new work for voice, electronic, and chamber orchestra on February 24
The remaining two events are presented by the “usual suspects” as follows:

Wednesday, February 20, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: It looks like this month’s installment in the series of experimental performances will consist entirely of solo sets. That will definitely be the case for Kim Nucci, Andy Puls, and Julia Mazawa. In all likelihood the set taken by Mr. Hungry & The Gnawing Sensations will also be a solo act.

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

Thursday, February 21, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week the Outsound Presents LSG Creative Music Series will host a three-set evening. The first two sets will be solo improvisations, Andrew Jamieson on piano followed by Matt Ingalls on clarinet. The final set will present saxophonist Kim Nucci’s second gig this week. This time she will be part of an improvising trio, whose other members are Shanna Sordahl (cello and electronics) and Amy Reed (guitar and voice). LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

A Delightful Afternoon of Bach Cantatas from ABS

Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented the San Francisco performance of the second of the four subscription concerts in its 30th anniversary season. As was observed when the season was announced, all four of the programs were planned to be devoted entirely to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; and the title of yesterday’s program was Favorite Bach Cantatas. All four of the cantatas on the program had been performed when ABS was founded in 1989.

The first half of the program was devoted to BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, You, who are my soul), and BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (awake, calls the voice to us). Each of these movements has at least one movement that, through the proliferation of popular recordings, has escalated to “greatest hit” status. The intermission was followed by the so-called “German Magnificat,” BWV 10, Meine Seel erhebt den Herrn (my soul magnifies the Lord). The program then concluded with the cantata based on the most popular Lutheran hymn, BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (a mighty fortress is our God). For both of these cantatas, the audience was invited to join the ensemble in singing the final chorales with both music and words included in the program book.

Unless I am mistaken, my first encounter with ABS took place around the time that the group was concluding its first decade. I was living in Palo Alto, doing technical research at the Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Laboratory; and Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas brought a few ABS vocalists and instrumentalists to Stanford University to perform a program of Bach cantata arias (and possibly one or more duets). This was the first time I had given the Bach cantata literature serious listening; and I was quickly hooked, hooked enough to be an early purchaser of the Bach 2000 complete works collection!

One of the things that hooked me was the combination of the chamber music approach to those solos and duets embedded in the richer ensemble work provided to accompany the chorus sections. The overall plan of each cantata lends itself to this alternation of genres. The entire piece is framed by two performances of the hymn after which the cantata is named, concluding with a four-part harmonization of the hymn for full ensemble and opening with a chorale prelude based on the hymn theme. Both BWV 140 and BWV 80 also insert a second chorale prelude in the middle of the intervening sequence of arias and/or duets.

While this structure is moderately rigid, the extensive diversity of Bach’s capacity for invention brings a decidedly unique personal stamp to each of the 200 compositions classified as sacred cantatas. That diversity was readily appreciated yesterday afternoon, not only through thematic content but also through the choices of instrumental and vocal resources. The solos and duets covered all four of the vocal ranges with guest artists Nola Richardson (soprano), Jay Carter (countertenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone). Tenor Zachary Wilder was obliged to withdraw due to illness, but he was replaced by one of the tenors in the American Bach Choir, David Kurtenbach.

The oboe da caccia (photograph taken by Takashi Ogawa for the Bach-Gesellschaft Wiesbaden, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The instrumental resources, on the other hand, were colored by imaginative wind resources. These included a cornetto played by Stephen Escher, a curved oboe da caccia played by Priscilla Herreid, and some energetic contributions to the continuo by bassoonist Clay Zeller-Townson. The other imaginative continuo work came when Steven Lehning chose to play his violone pizzicato during BWV 78, recalling a recording in which Ron Carter plucked his bass to add an extra continuo layer to a performance of Bach’s BWV 1048 (third) “Brandenburg” concerto in G major. In addition, leader Elizabeth Blumenstock had to shift from violin to the smaller violino piccolo, a somewhat less cooperative instrument, for the performance of BWB 140. Both string and vocal resources were kept small enough to fit comfortably on the St. Mark’s altar, suggesting that their numbers were probably not that different from those of the groups that Bach led at the services for which he provided the music.

The overall experience was thoroughly engaging. No cantata overstayed its welcome, and even the interstitial recitative passages proceeded at a fair clip. Each cantata established its own identify not only through the music itself but from vocal and instrumental resources summoned to present that music. Thomas presided at the podium, providing a stimulating account that reminded me to go back to my Bach cantata recordings more often.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Generous Sampling of Schulhoff from Capriccio

courtesy of Naxos of America

Last month Capriccio released a six-CD collection of the music of Erwin Schulhoff. For no apparent reason, Amazon.com attached the title “Schulhoff: Masterpieces” to the Web page for this release. This probably would have amused Schulhoff himself, particularly in light of the absurdist compositions that emerged under the influence of Dadaism.

However, Schulhoff went through an impressive variety of stylistic phases reflecting a wide diversity of influences; and the fact is that six CDs can hardly do justice to either the breadth or the depth of his efforts. To be fair, however, I have to confess that my own knowledge of Schulhoff’s music amounts to a limited sampling of his entire corpus. Thus, when this release was announced, I welcomed the opportunity to take what I could get.

The CDs themselves are organized by category. The first consists of orchestral music, two symphonies (the second and fifth) and the 1921 suite of jazz movements originally called In the New Style. The second CD offers three concertos, the Opus 43 (second) piano concerto, the Opus 63 double concerto for flute and piano, and the 1930 concerto for string quartet and wind ensemble (which may, or may not, have been Schulhoff’s reflection on Igor Stravinsky’s 1924 concerto for piano and wind instruments). There is also a witty “appendix” in the form of Schulhoff’s arrangement for full orchestra of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 129 solo piano rondo, best known as the “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” The next two CDs offer a variety of chamber music compositions, all for strings. The last two CDs consist entirely of piano music for either one or two pianists.

I have to say that it has been a bit frustrating to account for the Schulhoff corpus in any comprehensive way. I have already encountered two different single-CD albums of the “complete works” for violin and piano, the first of which I discussed on Examiner.com, followed by the second discussed on this site in November of 2016; and it was with a bit of relief that the contents of the two albums were identical! I was therefore glad that none of those (four) pieces were part of the Capriccio collection.

My other past resource involved Schulhoff’s piano music. Parnassus released a single CD of all the recordings made by Schulhoff himself at the keyboard, most of which involved his playing his own music. On what I had hoped would be a more thorough account, Grand Piano launched a project with Caroline Weichert to record the piano music; but, as of this writing, that has resulted in only three volumes. When those three CDs are compared with the two in the Capriccio collection, it is clear that Grand Piano had a ways to go before accounting for the entire corpus.

In the context of my own listening experiences, I would have to say that the two chamber music CDs provided the greatest draw on my attention. To be fair, however, much of the “draw” of that music came from the five pieces for string quartet composed in 1923, because I was fortunate enough to listen to the Telegraph Quartet perform those pieces this past December. While there are definitely jazzy elements in Schulhoff’s chamber music, there is also a much more extended scope of eclecticism. In contrast to David’s coat of many colors, Schulhoff’s chamber music canon is one of many different coats varying not only in colors but also in the style determining the cut of the coat, so to speak. All of the selections offered make for delightful listening; not to mention (at least in my case) a stronger craving to hear more of this work in a concert setting.

This is not to diminish the significance of the other four CDs in the collection. Taken as a whole, this recent release offers the best way to become acquainted with the unique and diverse methods that Schulhoff brings to his compositional efforts. The more one is drawn to his music, the greater the regret that this highly creative candle was snuffed out by the Nazis in the Wülzburg concentration camp on August 18, 1942, soon after the composer’s 48th birthday.

Annual SFCO Fundraising Gala Goes Latin

Poster design for the annual SFCO Gala (courtesy of SFCO)

The title of this year’s thirteenth annual fundraising Gala for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) will be Two to Tango – Classical Meets Latin! For the performance portion of the evening, SFCO will provide music for tango dancers Mirabai Commer and Count Glover. Do not be surprised if guitars and bandoneons join the ensemble. The performance will be followed by a dinner featuring the cuisine of South America. As usual, the evening will begin with a “Bubbly Reception” with hors d’oeuvres to supplement the champagne. Guests will be invited to participate in a silent auction while enjoying their “bites and bubbly.” The dinner will be followed by a live auction and dancing. Cocktail attire will be appropriate for this event.

Festivities will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 23. The venue will be The St. Regis San Francisco, located at 125 3rd Street in the SOMA District, adjoining the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Until March 1, tickets will be on sale at the Early Bird rate of $275 for a single ticket, $550 for a couple, and ten-person tables for $3500, $5500, and $6000. After March 1 the rates will go up to $300, $600, $4000, and $6000, respectively. There will also be a Musicians Professional Rate of $175. A greatergiving Web page has been created for all purchases. The form also allows for all additional donations, including those to the Fund-A-Need program. This Web page will be closed at the end of Friday, March 22.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

SFP to Present Haimovitz Jamming with Iyer

Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Vijay Iyer (from their San Francisco Performance event page)

Following up on an emphasis of “then” with two concerts this past October, the Hear Now and Then Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) will juxtapose “now” and “then” in the programming for a concert next month that will bring cellist Matt Haimovitz together with pianist Vijay Iyer. Full program details have not yet been announced; but it is highly likely that Haimovitz will present “then” by performing solo cello music by Johann Sebastian Bach. At the other end of the timeline, we can expect that Iyer will be presenting his own recent work. Between these extremes, the program will also present music by Zakir Hussein and Ravi Shankar, best approached as a view of “then” from the vantage point of “now.” There will also be a “now and then” side to the selection of jazz composers, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and John McLaughlin. “Now” will also be represented by two of the composers that contributed to Haimovitz’ Orbit album, Philip Glass and David Sanford.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 9. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $70 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front of the Dress Circle, $55 for the remainder of the Orchestra, the remainder of the center Dress Circle, and the Boxes, and $45 for remaining seats in the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. 

New Music for Saxophone-Bassoon Duet

from the bandcamp Web page

The Post-Haste Reed Duo consists of Sean Fredenburg playing different sizes of saxophone and bassoonist Javier Rodriguez. Yesterday Aerocade Music released the pair’s second album Donut Robot! Currently, Amazon.com has only created an MP3 download Web page for the album; but bandcamp has created a Web page making the album available as a compact disc, as well as for download. This appears to be the duo’s second album, the first having been released about three years ago.

Regular readers know by now that I have attended concerts presented by chamber ensembles consisting of unlikely combinations of instruments. These groups usually build up their repertoire by working with contemporary composers; and for several years the San Francisco Conservatory of Music provided an excellent environment for symbiotic relationships between composers and performers. The Post-Haste Reed Duo is based in Portland, Oregon; but Donut Robot! suggests that they have found a similar sweet spot for such symbiosis.

The album consists of six new works, each by a different composer. In “order of appearance” on the album, the composers are Ruby Fulton, Drew Baker, Michael Johanson, Edward J. Hines, Andres Reinkemeyer, and Takuma Itoh. Perhaps the most salient impression left by this album is how diverse these six contributors are in their approach to composition. However, that diversity is reinforced by the virtuosity of the performers.

That virtuosity is evident immediately through the choice of instrumentation. One might think that a saxophone would overwhelm a bassoon. However, the full extent of the album is matched by a wide dynamic range, with just the right balance of the two instruments at any level of loud or soft blowing. Thus, some of the most engaging moments are the subtle ones, such as the shimmering sonorities of Baker’s “First Light,” in which subtlety emerges through microtonal oscillations that demand seriously attentive listening.

In contrast both of the Post-Haste instruments have a reputation for playful rhetoric. As might be guessed, the very title of the album is a nod to such playfulness (as is the artwork on the physical release). The album title is also the title of the first track by Fulton, apparently inspired by many of the absurd ways in which autocorrect can make mistakes. However, Fulton’s score also explores the dark side of the consequences of some of those mistakes.

The most unique offering is probably the piece by Hines, whose full title is “Hommage: Saygun et Bartók en Turquie 1936 (Chanson de Hatice Dekioğlu).” Dekioğlu was a thirteen-year-old girl when Belá Bartók and Ahmet Adnan Saygun recorded her singing an Armenian folk song in 1936 on an ethnomusicological field trip in Turkey. During their performance, both Fredenburg and Rodriguez recite the English translation of the text of the song Bartók and Saygun recorded; and the source recording is played as part of the coda of Hines’ composition.

Taken as a whole, the album provides an engaging journey through the diversity of the efforts of the different composers. No individual piece feels as if it is going on for too long, and the mood shifts from one composition to the next endow the entire album with at least a suggestion of an overarching narrative. If that narrative is a product of the unique sonorities that arise when saxophone and bassoon meet, then it is worth anticipating what the next Post-Haste project will be!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Marlboro Musicians Coming to Morrison Series

A Marlboro Music Festival performance (photograph by Marina Weber, from a WCRB Web page, courtesy of the Marlboro Music)

Musicians from Marlboro is a touring program created as an extension of the Marlboro Music Festival held every summer on the campus of Marlboro College in Vermont. The fifth concert in the 2018–2019 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will present a quintet of Marlboro musicians participating in this season’s touring schedule. Collectively, these performers constitute a piano quintet: violinists Robin Scott and Tessa Lark, violist Kim Kashkashian, cellist Christopher Richter, and pianist Zoltán Fejérvári. However, the program they have prepared will not require them to play as a single group.

The “main attraction” of the event will be of local interest. The group will present the world premiere of a duo for violin and viola composed by Berkeley-based composer Ken Ueno. The more traditional selections on the program will be Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XV/27 piano trio in C major, a serenade by Zoltán Kodály for two violins and viola, and Maurice Ravel’s 1914 piano trio in A minor, one of the outstanding pieces of chamber music composed during the twentieth century.

This concert will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. It will be held in the McKenna Theatre, which is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made, beginning on February 17, through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert talk. On this occasion it will be presented by the entire group, and it will begin at 2 p.m. in Knuth Hall.

ASQ and Yang Premiere Samuel Carl Adams

Composer Samuel Adams (photograph by Nathan Phillips, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Last night Herbst Theatre provided the venue for the West Coast Premiere of “Quintet with Pillars,” recently completed by Samuel Adams and scored for string quartet and piano with digital resonance. In a concert presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP), pianist Joyce Yang made her second SFP appearance performing with the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), whose members are violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. Adams was present for the occasion, providing some introductory remarks about the overall structure and a performance of the “Pillars” theme.

The “Pillars” mark the beginning, middle, and end of the composition, establishing the boundaries of two parts, the second bringing clarity to the more nebulous setting of material in the first. There was no question that this was not music for casual listening. Nevertheless, even in the rather prolonged nebulous section, both Yang and ASQ brought a distinctive clarity to the materials that Adams engaged in his work. Adams was also kind enough to inform the audience that the entire piece ran for about half an hour, and a sense of overall duration often goes a long way to encouraging attention. In addition his limited use of electronic augmentation went a long way toward guiding listener attention across the full span of the composition. This was the sort of performance whose primary virtue was leaving the listener wondering when (s)he will next have an opportunity to listen to the piece, which is probably the best thing that can be said about any music encountered for the first time.

As Adams’ “Pillars” framed the heart of his composition, the entire piece was, in turn, framed by the two piano quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The program opened with K. 478 in G minor and concluded with K. 493 in E-flat major. Grafilo was violinist for both performances. Both pieces were given energetic accounts. They were composed during Mozart’s time in Vienna, a time when he was also playing string quartets regularly with Joseph Haydn. He clearly appreciated the never-ending capacity for wit that Haydn could bring to his own compositions, and Mozart was clearly using these two pieces to let Haydn know that he had some of the same skills. Nevertheless, each of the quartets defines its own space of rhetorical variety; and last night’s performances gave as splendid an account of Mozart’s expressiveness as they had given to Adams’ imaginative capacity for invention.

Delightful Bach and Tedious Mendelssohn

This season András Schiff is visiting San Francisco as both pianist and conductor. Indeed, yesterday afternoon he began the first of the three San Francisco Symphony (SFS) performances he is giving in Davies Symphony Hall this week from the keyboard of his (probably not, strictly speaking “his”) Bösendorfer. He led a reduced string section (eight first violins, eight second violins, six violas, four cellos, and two basses) in performances of two keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1054 in D major and BWV 1055 in A major. He then moved to the podium to conduct Bach’s BWV 1068 orchestral suite in D major, with the same string ensemble augmented with two oboes, three trumpets, timpani, and harpsichord continuo (played by Jonathan Dimmock). Following the intermission, he conducted the full SFS resources, the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, director), and three soloists from the Chorus, soprano Jennifer Mitchell, mezzo Margaret (Peg) Lisi, and tenor Michael Jankosky, in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 52 Lobgesang (song of praise). The entire evening was thus one of increasing resources, first gradually and then radically.

Johann Georg Schreiber’s 1720 engraving of Katherinenstrasse with Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in the center (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Both of the concertos survive in an autograph score, which is generally dated around 1738, when Bach was living in Leipzig. In all probability they were written for the Collegium Musicum to which he belonged (and sometimes directed), which gave weekly concerts at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house. On the basis of an engraving of the Katherinenstrasse in Leipzig where the coffee house was located, it is reasonable to assume that the string section for those performances was even more reduced! In spite of the much larger dimensions of Davies, however, Schiff was able to convey at least a sense of the intimate setting in which this music had first been performed.

Most importantly, he brought a convincing sense of spontaneity to his keyboard work, generously seasoned with embellishments most likely of his own invention. This is consistent with my own opinion that the spirit of jam sessions as we now known them was already alive and thriving in the middle of the eighteenth century in Leipzig. Even in the manuscript itself, much of the solo writing anticipates the artistry we now enjoy in solo jazz licks, while continuo was simply an earlier approach to a rhythm section. Even in the absence of “period” instruments, these were performances very much in a jazzy spirit, which positively thrived through Schiff’s direction and stimulating solo work.

BWV 1068 was a more formal affair with Schiff now entirely focused on conducting, rather than performing. Unless I am mistaken, this is the first time I heard the Overture movement performed with both of its two sections repeated, which is the way it is indicated in Johann Ludwig Krebs’ manuscript of the full score. (Krebs was one of Bach’s students.) Here, again, the instruments may have been “modern;” but there was no arguing with the spirit that Schiff brought to his interpretation of the score.

For the second half of the program Schiff turned to one of his favorite nineteenth-century composers, who was also a serious admirer of Bach. The Lobgesang was composed for a three-day festival planned in Leipzig to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing with moveable type. Mendelssohn also composed a Festgesang for this occasion, which is best known because one of its themes was appropriated to set the words of Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The full title of the Lobgesang translated into English is “A Symphony-Cantata on Words of the Holy Bible, for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra.”

Following the structure of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (symphony) in D minor, Mendelssohn’s Opus 52 begins with three “symphonic” movements followed by a ten-movement cantata. Texts come primarily from the Book of Psalms along with a few other selections from the Old and New Testaments, as well as Martin Rinkart’s text for the hymn “Nun danket alle Gott” (now thank we all our God) in a four-part a cappella harmonization that has now become standard for most Christian church services.

Sadly, the most salient feature of Opus 52 is its duration, which borders on (if not crosses) the limits of endurability. Mendelssohn could invent any number of engaging themes; but his ability to develop them was, at best, uneven. Even before the cantata begins, the listener realizes that there are two many moments that grow paler the more that they are simply repeated. As a result, even the most sensitive listener will probably approach the cantata with the sense that fatigue has already sunk its roots during the opening movements.

The good news was that, yesterday afternoon, the vocal resources could not have been more stimulating, even when they were bogged down by clunky text settings. Soprano Mitchell came off in splendid style, particularly since she had the luxury of singing duets with both mezzo Lisi and tenor Jankosky. The choral singers were always right on the money; and their a cappella account of “Nun danket” came off as what was probably the most profound gesture of the entire undertaking.

As to Schiff’s leadership, I have to say that, for almost the entirety of the performance, I never had an urge to look at my watch. He knew how to keep things moving, even when the activity of those “things” was on the sparse side. Nevertheless, when I did check my watch at the conclusion, I realized that entire concert had taken two hours and 40 minutes! Mendelssohn clearly had a lot to say. I just wish he had found a bit more depth in his utterances!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Berlioz’ Sacred Music on Warner Classics

There are only five CDs in the third category according to which Berlioz: The Complete Works, the 27-CD boxed set released by Warner Classics, has been organized. This should not be a surprise. Berlioz’ work did not lead him to the church; and, in light of his amorous obsession with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, one might almost say that the complete works of William Shakespeare were more of a bible to him than any Holy Scripture ever was.

Even his best known work of sacred music had secular roots. In 1837 Berlioz was approached by Adrien de Gasparin, then France’s Minister of the Interior. He was asked to compose music for a Requiem Mass in memory of the soldiers who died during the July Revolution, the “Three Glorious Days” that marked the fall of the Bourbon monarchy and the emergence of a new constitutional order.

The result was the Opus 8 Grande Messe des morts, a work that could be said to have pulled out all the stops were it not for the fact that, by some fluke or another, the pipe organ happened to be missing from the score’s massive instrumentation. Those interested in the full details can find them on the IMSLP Web page for the Opus 8 score, but note that this will involve clicking on the hyperlink for the text “more…”! The score was first performed on December 5, 1837 at Les Invalides, the complex of military-related buildings in Paris, in the Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides. This is an imposing space, fully capable of accommodating all of Berlioz’ resources, including four brass choirs positioned to the north, east, west, and south.

Excerpt of the brass choir music from Berlioz’ Opus 8 (holograph manuscript, from IMSLP, public domain)

This is the sort of music that went down well in the days when “hi-fi” was first being promoted. As might be guessed, the magnitude of it all was dazzlingly captured by RCA Victor engineers responsible for recording a performance given by Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was a teenager when that album was released; and, like many of my contemporaries, I was obsessed with it. Here was a composer who could easily lord it over even the most aggressive of rock stars!

In retrospect, however, I would say that Munch had the gift of unleashing awesome power without ever being vulgar about it. As a result, I have to say that I miss that sort of excess and found Louis Frémaux’ account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Chorus to be much too lame to be consistent with Berlioz’ visions. Somewhat more satisfying is the vigorous account of the Opus 22 “Te Deum” setting with John Nelson conducting the Orchestra de Paris; but this is still a case where there is too much letter and not enough spirit.

Far more satisfying is the somewhat dirty little secret about Berlioz that lurks on the first CD in this set, a Mass setting completed in 1825 that was never given an opus number. Once again, this is early Berlioz working with material that would eventually find its way into the published compositions; and those preliminary moments will be recognized by just about all Berlioz lovers. Sure enough, those “first drafts” include the music that would subsequently be assigned to those four brass choirs in the Cathedral of Saint-Louis des Invalides. As might guessed, Berlioz flexed his brass-writing muscles in setting the “Resurrexit” portion of the Mass text. The results are a curious blend of the amusing and the exciting; but, as many a Hollywood producer has declared, “It needs work!”

The remaining major composition in the collection is the Opus 25 oratorio L’Enfance du Christ. This is the quieter side of Berlioz at its best. In terms of personal preferences, just as I previously reported my pleasure in listening to José van Dam sing Mephistophélès in the Opus 24 La Damnation de Faust, I have to say that van Dam brought far more lyricism to the music for Herod than that character probably deserved. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that I shall be listening to Opus 25 in the future on any regular basis.

Chanticleer to Continue Season Next Month

The members of Chanticleer (photograph by Lisa Kohler, courtesy of Brenden Guy Media)

Following a highly successful eleven-concert European tour across eight countries, Chanticleer will return home to present the next concert in its subscription season. Entitled Spacious Skies, the program will showcase a vast panorama of American choral repertoire spanning three centuries. The composers to be represented will reach back to colonial times with William Billings and extend forward to include living composers such as Ned Rorem, Steven Stucky, Steven Sametz, Richard Hageman, Matthew Brown, and Mason Bates. The second half of the program will shift to “pops” arrangements of popular, jazz, and gospel offerings.

The San Francisco performances of Spacious Skies will take place at 7:30 p.m on Saturday, March 16. The venue will be the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station.Ticket prices will be $60 for Premiere seating, $50 for Preferred seating, and $20 for General Admission. All tickets are being sold online through a City Box Office event page.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Adobe Books: February and March, 2019

Benjamin Ethan Tinker has announced his plans for the two concerts he has organized at Adobe Books for both this month and the next. As usual, these will be three-set evenings of live performances of highly adventurous music. Performances take place on Fridays, beginning at 7:30 p.m. and running until about 10 p.m. As usual, Tinker provides little information about the performers beyond useful URLs. Here are the specific dates and the hyperlinked performers:



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.

New Michael Byron Album from Cold Blue Music

from the Amazon.com Web page

One week ago this site reported the release of two new recordings from Cold Blue Music. That article discussed one of those releases, Michael Jon Fink performing his twelve-movement suite Celesta. The other album presents two compositions by Michael Byron separated by an interval of 45 years. The title of the album is Fabric for String Noise, which is also the title of a two-movement composition that Byron completed last year. The earlier composition is “Dragon Rite,” completed in 1973.

As titles go, “Fabric for String Noise” serves as an excellent model for “truth in advertising.” The piece was written for the violin duo String Noise, whose members are Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim-Harris. The music itself provides about as thick a polyphonic experience as one is likely to encounter from only two four-stringed instruments. Furthermore, the rhythms are equally complex, almost to the point that any sense of pattern arises more of the repetition of pitch sequences than from the durations of any of the individual notes. By all rights, the “weaving of this fabric” must have demanded meticulous attention to the finest of details; yet the overall experience is one of an almost ecstatic approach to jamming, not unlike the wildly free improvisations that John Coltrane could unfold when he started pursuing religious topics for his compositions towards the end of his life. (Think, for example, of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost” from his Meditations album.)

While “Fabric for String Noise” requires both violinists to play extremely high-register pitches, “Dragon Rite” was composed for four basses. The piece was dedicated to the poet Philip Lamantia; and, while the textures woven by the four parts are again thick, there is much less of a sense of tension. This is due, to a great extent, to a more homophonic approach to the contrapuntal techniques that are deployed. There is also a greater focus on harmonic bowing techniques, some of which involve quarter-tone inflections. In contrast to “Fabric for String Noise,” the homophony of “Dragon Rite” does not establish a sense of voices in polyphony playing off against each other. To the contrary, the performance on this album has bassist James Bergman playing all four parts for a multi-track recording.

It would be fair to advise those interested in experiencing this album, however, that the entire duration is about half an hour. “Dragon Rite” is only about eight minutes long; and the rest is devoted to the two movements of “Fabric for String Noise.” Nevertheless, quality always counts for more than quantity. There is so much on this album that is likely to expand just about anyone’s scope of listening experience that it would be churlish to quibble about overall duration!

San Francisco Nonagenarian Makes SFP Debut

Pianist Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco on July 23, 1928. Last night San Francisco Performances (SFP) celebrated his nonagenarian status by hosting his very first appearance under that organization’s auspices. He was joined by one of his students at the Curtis Institute of Music, Jonathan Biss, making his eleventh SFP appearance. In addition, his program included the latest in an impressive series of efforts to perform concertos with chamber music accompaniment. The chamber musicians for the occasion were the members of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw), along with bassist Charles Chandler. This was Telegraph’s third SFP appearance and probably Chandler’s first.

 Telegraph Quartet members Jeremiah Shaw, Joseph Maile, Pei-Ling Lin, and Eric Chin (from their San Francisco Performances event page from earlier this season)

My own encounters with Fleisher always seemed to involve the intense seriousness of his demeanor. Much of that seriousness may have resulted from his battle with focal dystonia, through which he lost the use of his right hand in 1964. However, during the Nineties he gradually recovered the use of that hand through combined therapies of Botox injections and Rolfing; and only one of last night’s selections was played by his left hand alone. At the same time his personality seems to have mellowed, particularly when it came to recalling his past in San Francisco, which involved his working with two conductors associated with the San Francisco Symphony, Alfred Hertz and Pierre Monteux.

He used his reminiscing to build up audience support for his announcement of a program change. Fleisher had just given a splendid account of “L.H.” (the standard abbreviation “left hand” in piano scores), which Leon Kirchner composed for Fleisher in 1995 and may be one of the best examples of how thoroughly dazzling virtuosity does not have to depend on a tonal center. After that demanding undertaking, Fleisher felt a need to beg off from his commitment to follow the Kirchner selection with Johannes Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of the concluding Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita for solo violin in D minor. (Both of these pieces constituted the first two tracks of Fleisher’s All the Things You Are album, but with the Bach arrangement leading off the album.) The program change involved replacing Brahms with two Debussy selections (“La puerta del Vino” from the second book of Claude Debussy’s preludes for solo piano and “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque) and one by Frédéric Chopin (the D-flat major nocturne, Opus 27, Number 2).

Fleisher’s other solo offering took place at the very beginning of the program, Egon Petri’s arrangement of “Sheep may safely graze,” the soprano aria (“Schafe können sicher weiden”) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 208 cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (the lively hunt is all my heart's desire). This was followed by Jonathan Biss’ first solo offering on the program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 109 piano sonata in E major. I have to confess that this juxtaposition had a strong personal impact on my listening dispositions. It is almost impossible to enumerate the available recordings of Opus 109, and I can barely keep track of the ones in my personal collection. However, among all of those alternatives, the one that has remained by favorite for many years has been a 1954 recording, probably made from a recital in Berkeley presenting Beethoven’s last three sonatas, featuring the pianist (as some may have guessed by now) Egon Petri!

Before explaining my disappointment with Biss’ account, I would like to evoke one of my own personal memories of Fleisher. It involves a Piano Master Class that he gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in October of 2008. As might be guessed, Fleisher had acute perception through which he could call a student’s attention to the most subtle of details. However, on this particular occasion, his insights regarding “micro-level” details were complemented with the need to take on the “macro-level.” He asked one of the students to look at the wall of the performing space beyond the piano. He then asked the student to imagine that the wall on the side of the performing space was covered with all the pages of the sheet music. (As I recall, he made a joke about not trying this with a Wagner opera.)

Clearly, this thought-experiment had to contend with unrealistic powers of visual acuity. Nevertheless, this was Fleisher’s way of reminding the student that, no matter how much attention is given to every last detail, one must always have one’s own clear thoughts about how each of those details contributes to the whole. Biss’ Beethoven performance last night never seemed to grasp that sense of the whole. He had clearly mastered the details with impressive precision; but the relations of parts to the whole were hopelessly obscured, if they existed at all. This observation was particularly critical, since Fleisher’s own account of “L.H.” left a deep impression on the macro-level that exquisitely complemented all of the rich micro-level embellishing passages (all this taking place, I must repeat, in the absence of any strong tonal center). Biss’ own account of Kirchner, “Interlude II,” was somewhat more satisfying; but the piece itself was on a much shorter durational scale.

The program concluded with the concerto offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 414 in A major. As had been the case last month, when the Calidore String Quartet provided the “orchestral accompaniment” for Inon Barnatan’s performance of keyboard concertos by Bach, the spirit of a collegium musicum was alive and well in last night’s Mozart offering. These were performers that were clearly enjoying each other’s company in the process of appreciating what made this concerto tick, even in the absence of the requisite oboes and horn. (The bassoon parts were optional.) That appreciation then spilled off the stage and into the audience area, gently persuading the attentive listeners that, as had been the case with Fleisher’s coaching at SFCM, music always “works its magic” at both the “micro-level” and the “macro-level.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Von Otter will be Soloist at Next PBO Concert

Versatile and virtuoso mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (photograph by Ewa-Marie Rundquist, courtesy of PBO)

The next concert to be presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) will be historical in more ways than one. During a visit to Los Angeles in 2016, PBO presented a program celebrating Nicholas McGegan’s 30th anniversary as Music Director. Participating guest artists included both mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and composer Caroline Shaw. In addition to presenting two of Shaw’s compositions, McGegan offered a program of both vocal and instrumental music by George Frideric Handel, Arvo Pärt, and Henry Purcell. This was the first time that von Otter had performed with PBO.

Next month McGegan will present that program in the Bay Area for the first time, again featuring von Otter as vocal soloist. Because the Handel portion of the program will offer duets as well as solos, she will be joined by countertenor Daniel Moody. In addition, because Shaw will be in San Francisco to be honored at the PBO Winter Gala & Auction on March 1, there is some chance that she will remain to attend the concert performances of her compositions “Red, Red Rose,” which von Otter will sing, and “The Edge.” The program will be framed by instrumental selections, beginning with the overture to Handel’s HWV 27 opera Partenope and concluding with a suite from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place on Friday, March 8, beginning at 8 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will range from $37 to $125 for premium seating. Tickets are currently available for advance purchase through a City Box Office event page, which displays a color-coded seating plan that shows which areas correspond to which price levels.

Composer Puts Meyer Sound Through its Paces

When the Diane B. Wilsey Center for the Opera, located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building in the War Memorial complex, was completed in 2016, its most public space was the 299-seat Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, conceived as an intimate and flexible space that would allow for a variety of settings for new programming. In the interest of that flexibility, the venue had, for all practical purposes, no natural acoustics. Those were all provided by the Constellation® technology developed by Meyer Sound.

The most salient quality of any Meyer Sound installation is that one should not be aware of its presence. This means that moment-by-moment control of the technology is often vital to its performing most effectively. At my first encounter with the space in March of 2016 (for a Winterreise program that was more about artist William Kentridge than it was about Franz Schubert), I quickly realized that the learning curve for such control was likely to take some time.

Last night, for the very first time, I was able to experience the full impact of Meyer technology when skillfully deployed. The occasion was the first concert to be given in Earplay’s 34th season. The overall title for the season is Desire and Idea, and the title of last night’s concert was Mise en abyme. The final work on the program was Flutter, Pulse, and Flight, a suite by Charles Nichols that was the first of four works commissioned by Earplay that would be receiving its world premiere performance.

During the pre-concert conversation, Nichols was very articulate in discussing his interest in bringing instrumental performance together with real-time creation of synthesized sounds. The three nouns in his title were the individual titles of his suite’s three movements, each of which was a thoroughly engaging account of when those two approaches to performance engage symbiotically. Synthesis was based on software which, in turn, was based on real-time capture of the amplified sounds of the four instruments: flute (Tod Brody), clarinet (Peter Joshoff), violin (Terrie Baune), and cello (Thalia Moore). In his note for the program book, Nichols explained that the captured content was then “processed with modulation and delay effects, real-time spectral analysis and resynthesis, and live sampling and playback.” What the note did not mention was that playback involved projection (a noun I picked up from following San Francisco Tape Music Festival concerts) of the sounds into the Atrium’s three-dimensional setting.

This involved Nichols running his playback content through the Meyer control technology. The result was a thoroughly absorbing realization in which awareness of the physical space itself was put through an ongoing series of modifications that were as engaging as the underlying relationship between the physical and the virtual that sustained the overall logic of the composition. A key feature of the Meyer technology is that the loudspeakers themselves are concealed from view, meaning there are no visual cues for spatial orientation of the sounds. Just about all past performances in the Atrium space seem to have involved fixed settings of the control board; but last night that board was Nichols’ own “instrument,” whose role in performance was as important as what the four instrumentalists were doing.

Just as a good instrumentalist keeps the listening focused on the sounds themselves, rather than the technique of arriving at those sounds, Nichols’ score enabled awareness of the variable nature of the position of the sounds without overloading any sense of presence with “special effects.” Edgard Varèse had envisaged such a listening experience for his “Poème électronique;” but neither the gear nor the control technology of 1958 was up to the realization of his ideal. Technology can now deliver the spatial experiences that Varèse had in mind; and Nichols knew not only how to provide content appropriate to that technology but also the performance skills required to realize the experiences themselves. He brought just the right blend of artistic creativity and technical skill to allow the Atrium finally to flex the technical muscles with which it had been endowed.

The other world premiere on the program was “Untamed Brush I” by Korean composer Hi Kyung Kim. This was a solo viola composition, written for and performed by Ellen Ruth Rose. It involved exploring a parallel between the individual lines of Korean traditional brush painting and the strings of Rose’s instrument. Performance involved a wide diversity of execution techniques (one of which resulted in one of Rose’s strings breaking, after which the string was replaced and the piece was played again from the beginning). The nature of Kim’s intended parallels was not always explicitly clear, but the diversity of sonorities that Rose evoked was sufficient for engaging listening.

Mise en abyme on a can of baking powder (realized as an animation by Feliks Tomasz Konczakowski on a Giphy Web page)

The title of the program was motivated by the inclusion of Tristan Murail’s “Paludes” for its United States premiere. The literal translation of mise en abyme is “placed into abyss;” but it refers to the recursive technique of embedding an image within an image. Thus, the above can of baking powder has a label that includes the same image of that can of baking power; and one descends into a bottomless pit of images within images. In a similar way “Paludes” is the title of a book by André Gide whose content is given similar recursive treatment. Scored for alto flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello (Leighton Fong) and conducted by Mary Chun, there was no shortage of diverse and engaging sonorities; but the sense of an abyss (recursive or otherwise) never quite came across.

The same could be said of Patricia Alessandrini’s “Homage à Purcell,” also receiving its United States premiere. This involved another imaginative approach to real-time performance from a computer keyboard engaging with the quartet of Josheff, Baune, Fong, and Brenda Tom on piano (again conducted by Chun). The score itself involved deconstruction of funeral music that Purcell had composed for Queen Mary (better known for having been appropriated by Stanley Kubrick for his film version of A Clockwork Orange); but the deconstruction was so fine-grained that any sense of Purcell’s presence would have required considerable imagination from the listener.

More effective was Stephen Blumberg’s “Aura.” Scored for clarinet, cello (Moore), and piano, the sense of “aura” was created by having the sonorities of one instrument reverberate through the sonorities of the other instruments. Fortunately, the execution made for a listening experience as engaging as the concept had been imaginative. It emerged as an enjoyable example of how recursion did not necessarily require “echos” from electronic gear; and, by all rights, it deserves more attention at future chamber music recitals by equally imaginative ensembles.

Monday, February 11, 2019

61st GRAMMY Awards Less Satisfying that 60th

Last year, when I reviewed the winners of the 60th annual GRAMMY awards, I found only one point of agreement between my preferences and those of the GRAMMY judges. This year at least there were two albums about which I had good thoughts that turned out to be winners; but in both cases I thought that there were better albums in the category. Let me be more specific.

The Best Jazz Instrumental Album went to Wayne Shorter’s Emanon album. This was, indeed, an impressive undertaking; but it was impressive because the jazz was only one component of a far richer structure that, on the musical side, included the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and, on the packaging side, included a graphic novel inspired by the music. Much as I like Emanon, I felt that the award should have gone to an album of “jazz for its own sake;” and my preference among the nominees was the Live in Europe album of the Fred Hersch Trio.

courtesy of Naxos of America

On the other hand, when it came to Best Opera Recording, things got a bit more delicate. Those who follow this site know that my reaction to Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was mixed, concluding with my deciding to allow the jury to continue to debate until I had the opportunity to see the opera in performance. In other words the recording did not go very far in encouraging my interest in the opera itself. By way of contrast, while I have a habit of turning away from yet another recording of an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, I have to say that the Rigoletto nominee was more deserving of the award, particularly for the stunning performance of Nadine Sierra in the role of Gilda. If anyone deserved credit for the Jobs opera, it was Elizabeth Ostrow for producing the album on the basis of live recordings made during the Santa Fe performances.

The Bleeding Edge: 2/11/2019

Philip Everett performing as a percussionist (from his BayImproviser Web page)

This week almost all of the action is taking place over at the Center for New Music, which has concerts on February 12, 15, and 16. The only other activity of note will be the weekly installment of the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series. This will be a two-set evening, opened by Philip Everett performing as Skullkrusher. Everett’s improvisations involve analog and digital processing of instruments of his own designs and/or modifications. These include a gong, a brass snare drum, an electro-acoustic 36-string lap harp, and a wind instrument he calls a xlarinet, basically a clarinet fitted with a contact microphone. The second set will present Prizm, the free improvisational duo project bringing bassist Kip Kipperman together with Gabby Wen alternating between electronics and guqin.

Like all LSG offerings from Outsound Presents, this one will take place on Thursday, which happens to be Valentine’s Day, February 14. The first set will begin at 8:15 p.m. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Another Side of Shostakovich from Other Minds

1940 photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich (center) with two other composers also contending with Soviet authority, Sergei Prokofiev (left) and Aram Khachaturian (right) (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon in the Taube Atrium Theater, Other Minds continued its 2018–2019 season with a program of music that few have encountered or even knew existed. Maki Namekawa and Dennis Russell Davies played two arrangements for two pianos created by Dmitri Shostakovich. The earlier of these was an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” made shortly after the work’s composition in 1930. (Much later, Shostakovich would present a copy of this arrangement to Stravinsky during his 1962 visit to the Soviet Union.)

Specifics about the other arrangement, of Shostakovich’s own fourth symphony (Opus 43 in C minor), are unclear, since Shostakovich withdrew the full score from rehearsal in 1936 under severe pressure from Soviet authorities. Most likely both the score and the orchestral parts were relegated to the composer’s famous “desk drawer;” and the music was never heard until Shostakovich and fellow composer Mieczysław Weinberg gave a private performance of the two-piano version in 1945, subsequently given limited printing (300 copies). The full orchestral score was not performed until December 30, 1961, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (whose recording legacy was discussed on this site at the end of last month).

To call Opus 43 an intense composition borders on understatement. From an architectural point of view, it recalls Gustav Mahler. The outer two of the three movements are both about half an hour in duration, sandwiching a ten-minute Moderato con moto between them. Like Mahler symphonies, each movement abounds with passionate expressiveness within a framework of conventional structures. However, those passions go far beyond Mahler, even at that earlier composer’s most excessive rhetorical turns, almost as if the music was waiting for Arthur Janov to develop his technique of primal therapy (documented in the book The Primal Scream).

As might be assumed, the full score demands abundant instrumental resources, deployed in an imaginative variety of different combinations. Before beginning yesterday’s performance, Davies said that he hoped all of us in the audience would have an opportunity to experience the orchestral version in concert. Given that Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded this symphony during his tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we have every reason to hold such hopes for a future visit to Davies Symphony Hall!

Nevertheless, because the two-piano version was Shostakovich’s own, it would make sense to assume that he knew how to guide our listening experience of the symphony, even in the absence of “symphonic instrumentation.” The arrangement served up the just right balance of the most significant technical details (such as the intricacy of fugal writing in that brief second movement) and the “primal scream” moments that could be mustered by two pianists going at their instruments with full force. Since the pianos faced each other, one could not experience both “keyboard sides” during performance. I opted for my usual left-side orientation, which meant that most of my attention was fixed on Namekawa. Nevertheless, I could observe how her attention was consistently fixed on Davies; and I was struck by how her lips would move to reflect overall phrasing, even when that phrasing was coming from Davies’ part.

From an emotional point of view, it is clear that two pianos could never summon all of the decibels put out by a full symphony orchestra. However, Davies and Namekawa had clearly developed strategies for working their more limited dynamic range for all it was worth. Yes, the roar of the chorale at the conclusion of the final movement approaches the threshold of pain when given the full orchestral treatment; and two pianos could not come close to that threshold. Nevertheless, one could still appreciate the agonies of that concluding gesture, followed by the hushed cowering qualities of the very last measures. This was definitely a fully authentic “Shostakovich experience.”

Presumably, Shostakovich prepared his Stravinsky arrangement to cultivate a better understanding of what was going on in that score. This was probably particularly the case where fugue was involved (again in the second movement). While fugue was one of Shostakovich’s favorite devices, it is almost never encountered in the Stravinsky canon. It would not surprise me to learn that Shostakovich began by working on the second Stravinsky movement and then proceeded to the two outer movements.

Needless to say, the choral parts of Stravinsky’s symphony became instrumental music; and the words were lost. Personally, I do not think that the loss is a serious one. I have come to call “Symphony of Psalms” the most secular piece of sacred music ever written. In each of the three movements, it seems as if the Latin syllables (not even words) are just there as a prop for the selection of appropriate note values. In other words the Shostakovich version is probably a closer approximation to the “pure music vision” that Stravinsky may have had in mind in the first place.

Nevertheless, the arrangement process was still a challenge. “Symphony of Psalms” was scored for a very generous supply of winds and brass, while the only strings were harp, cellos, and bass. In addition, there were already two pianos in Stravinsky’s full score. Thus, just about all of Stravinsky’s thematic expression grew out of the interleaving of different instrumental sonorities. Shostakovich, on the other hand, had to work with a far more limited spectrum of sonorities. For the most part he succeeded; and, if he never rose to the expressive intensity encountered in the Shostakovich symphony, the odds are good that Stravinsky himself did not seek that kind of expressiveness.

“Symphony of Psalms” is only about twenty minutes in duration. That meant that the Stravinsky in the first half was much shorter than the Shostakovich in the second. Davies and Namekawa thus decided that they would begin the program with their “encore” selection. This consisted of two of the movements from a score that Shostakovich composer for the soundtrack of the film Unity. The first of the two movements was a waltz, followed by a polka. These were performed by all four hands on a single keyboard. The music abounded with a relaxed wit, balancing the intensity of all that would follow with a more lighthearted “overture.”

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Warner’s Berlioz: Vocal and Choral Works

Engraving of Hector Berlioz (from the New York Public Library Archives, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The second category in the organization of Berlioz: The Complete Works, the 27-CD boxed set released by Warner Classics, is that of secular vocal and choral compositions. For the most part this amounts to “art song” set for one or more solo vocalists or for choral resources. Unless I am mistaken, there were no a cappella offerings in this category. The category also includes the Opus 24 La Damnation de Faust, which Berlioz himself described as a “Légende dramatique” (dramatic legend). Berlioz’ classification has not prevented opera companies from staging this piece. (I have enjoyed a “bicoastal experience” of staged productions given by both the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera.) However, Warner decided not to treat this as a “stage work.”

However, with the possible exception of Opus 24, this is likely to be a major journey of discovery for most listeners. Thanks to the imaginative programming of the San Francisco Symphony, I have been exposed to at least a few of those unfamiliar offerings. Nevertheless, when I encountered them on these recordings, the “ring of familiarity” was, at best, a dim one, often having more to do with the nature of the text than with the music itself. Far more interesting is recognizing that some of the earliest offerings explore thematic material that will subsequently resurface (usually with more refinement) in more familiar settings. One gets the impression that Berlioz never had any trouble letting themes flow from the tip of his pen, but finding the right setting for those themes did not always come easily.

One thing that I enjoyed about several of the CDs in this collection was greater satisfaction from personal favorites when it comes to performers. Readers may recall that I called out the absence of my favorite conductors in the instrumental works category. In this vocal section two conductors (from two different generations) stood out for me, John Barbirolli and Kent Nagano. Barbirolli is there with mezzo Janet Baker and the New Philharmonia Orchestra for what may still be the definitive account of the Opus 7 Les Nuits d’été (the summer nights).

Nagano, on the other hand, is of the current generation; but I have long appreciated the imaginative approaches he takes to his repertoire selections. He is conducting the resources of the Opéra National de Lyon in the recording of Opus 24, providing yet another data point suggesting that this should be treated as a stage work. He is also working with a wonderful set of vocal soloists, tenor Thomas Moser as Faust, mezzo Susan Graham as Marguerite, and baritone José van Dam as Mephistophélès. Finally, there is an “all-star” account of the seldom (if ever) performed duet “Le Trébuchet” with pianist Gerald Moore accompanying soprano Victoria de los Angeles and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Medieval warfare never sounded so good!

Red Poppy Art House: March, 2019

The Red Poppy Art House has begun to add concerts to its Upcoming Events Web page for next month. Enough have accumulated to justify launching this article. Following my usual incremental approach, I shall post to my “shadow” Facebook site to put out the word whenever this page is updated.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets are now being sold in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets.

Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for the two events that have been posted thus far:

[added 2/16, 7:15 a.m.:

Thursday, March 7, 7 p.m.: What now appears to be the first concert of the month will be a special evening of Tuvan throat singing. The vocalists will be the three members of the Alash Ensemble: Bady-Dorzhu, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik. All of them also play traditional instruments. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]

Friday, March 8, 7:30 p.m.: The title of the opening program of the month will be Poetic Art Songs. The vocalist will be jazz singer Lara Solnicki, making her Red Poppy debut. Her program will feature new music from her soon-to-be-released album, The One and the Other—a cinematic, creative music project produced by multi-award-winning Canadian musician and composer Jonathan Goldsmith. The concert also includes music from her sophomore release, Whose Shadow?, tunes from the Great American Songbook, as well as free improvisation. She will be accompanied at the piano by Jeremy Siskind. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for students with valid identification.

[added 2/16, 7:25 a.m.:

Thursday, March 14, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.: The Music Action Women Collective features Venezuelan bandola virtuoso Mafer Bandola—member of the all-female supergroup Ladama, internationally touring Serbian saxophonist, and leader of the all-women’s New Spark Jazz Orchestra—multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Sevana Tchakerian via Armenia and France; Singaporean electronic soundscape master Claire Marie Lim; CNN’s “Sudanese bassist for change” Islam Elbeiti; and Philly eclectic groove drummer, producer, community advocate, and educator Barb “Muzikaldunk” Duncan. For this concert they will debut the material they have created in collaboration through the Music Action Women residency, produced by San Francisco’s social impact music organization Giant Steps Music. As can be seen from the date-and-time information, there will be two shows; and tickets will be sold for both through the same hyperlink using a pull-down menu to select the time. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.]

[added 2/16, 3:10 a.m.:

Friday, March 22, 7:30 p.m.: The Guitar in Argentine Tango will be presented by guitarists Hernán Reinaudo and Scott O’Day. Reinaudo also composes Argentine Tango music. The program will feature not only his compositions but also his arrangements. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]

[added 2/17, 7:45 a.m.:

Saturday, March 23, 7 p.m.: This will be the next installment in vocalist Stella Heath’s The Billie Holiday Project. Heath’s repertoire includes some of Holiday’s most recorded songs, as well as lesser known tunes from her earlier years. She interleaves her performances with stories of both the life and the music of this legendary jazz icon. The backup band for this concert will be the quartet of Neil Angelo Fontano (piano), Jason Bellenkes (tenor saxophone and clarinet), Trevor Kinsel (bass), and Spike Klein (drums). Admission will be $20 if purchased in advance and $25 at the door. Bear in mind, however, that previous performances of The Billie Holiday Project has sold out in advance; so no tickets may be remaining for sale at the door.]

Sunday, March 24, 2 p.m.: This will be the next installment of the free Monthly Community Rumba, with music provided by Rumberos de Radio Habana. While this is a free event, donations are warmly accepted. All donated money goes to the performing musicians, and a recommended amount is between $5 and $10.

Friday, March 29, 7:30 p.m.: The Brian Andres Trio Latino will present an evening of Latin jazz. Andres leads the group on drums; and he is joined by Christian Tumalan on piano and Aaron Germain on bass. They will present both original compositions and exciting new arrangements of jazz and Latin standards. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, March 30, 7:30 p.m.: The Hét Hat Club is an international Balkan folk and jazz manouche ensemble based in Budapest, Hungary. The group is a quartet consisting of Kjartan Code (vocals, bass, and violin), Valentin Desmarais (saxophone), Bitó János (accordion), and Isaac Misri (guitar and tambura). Their folk sources come from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey; and, as might be expected, the manouche style is based on Django Reinhardt. Their appearance at the Poppy will be part of their third tour of the United States. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Another “Viennese Pivot” from the Assads

Odair and Sérgio Assad (from their San Francisco Performances event page)

Readers may recall that, on Friday night, Herbst Theatre provided the venue for the Viennese Pivot program presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. The idea behind the program was to experience the changes in music-making practices that unfolded during the transition from the end of the eighteenth century into the beginning of the nineteenth. That idea was warranted through a chronological examination of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert.

Less that 24 hours later, Herbst Theatre presented a program that began with music by another significant composer from that “pivotal” period. The program was the latest guitar recital to be hosted jointly by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. The performers were the duo of Brazilian-born brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad; and they chose to begin their program with the Opus 130 set of “concert variations” composed by Mauro Giuliani.

Giuliani was born in southern Italy; but, at the age of 25, he settled in Vienna in 1806 (the year in which Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto, presented on Friday night, was first performed). He was soon rubbing shoulders with not only Beethoven but also other major “pivotal” figures of the day, including Mozart’s former pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mozart’s distant cousin (by marriage) Carl Maria von Weber, and composer-publisher Anton Diabelli. While his primary instrument was guitar, Giuliani also played cello and made a “guest appearance” in the orchestra that gave the first performance of Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major.

Regardless of all of these associations, Opus 130 is definitely “pivotal” in its own right. Giuliani’s introduction to the theme on which the variations are based is on that same extended scale that we encounter at the opening of Beethoven’s Opus 92, leaving the less patient listeners wondering if the variations will ever have a theme! Nevertheless, the theme makes a clear appearance; and the variations that follow play out a rich diversity of virtuoso techniques that definitely hold their own among Giuliani’s Viennese contemporaries.

The grand opening to last night’s recital was then followed by a rich diversity of selections ranging from the close of the nineteenth century to the almost immediate present. The pieces that were not explicitly written for two guitars were arrangements, primarily by Sergio. The only arranged selection not attributed to Sergio involve two solo piano compositions by Isaac Albéniz. Those arrangements provided a generous nod to not only Albéniz’ distinctively Spanish themes but also the pianistic devices he summoned to embellish those themes.

For the most part, the remainder of the program was a journey of discovery involving familiar names associated with less familiar compositions. For example, Joaquín Rodrigo was represented by “Tonadilla,” composed in 1959 and first performed by the duo of Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya. Strictly speaking, a tonadilla is a particular form of musical comedy; but Rodrigo’s composition is basically a three-movement sonata, admittedly with more than a few satirical gestures injected.

In a more serious vein, the Assads played a four-movement suite of music that Antônio Carlos Jobim composed for the film Crônica da casa assassinada (chronicle of the murdered house). Astor Piazzolla was represented by Sergio’s arrangement of two movements from Suite Troileana, originally composed for his own quintet and named for his mentor in writing tango music, Aníbal Trolio. The program concluded with Sergio’s own three-movement Suite Brasileira.

After the “classical seriousness” of Giuliani and Albéniz, the program proceeded in a relatively casual and relaxed manner. However, there was never anything casual about the guitar technique presented up on the Herbst stage. This was the seventh appearance of the Assad brothers; and, since their first recital in 1992, they have consistently explored the diversity of the guitar repertoire with a foundation of solid technical discipline and an always inventive approach to expressiveness. Last night was a delightful reminder that they are still going strong.