Sunday, March 31, 2019

Rova:Arts to Present Cecil Taylor Tribute Concert

Cecil Taylor at work with many of his resources (courtesy of Rova:Arts)

This site has done its best to keep up with performances in San Francisco that involve the members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin. However, readers may not know about Rova:Arts, which is the ensemble’s administrative arm. Its primary responsibility involves arranging performances; but it has also enabled the commissioning of more than 30 new works for saxophone quartet from artists as aesthetically diverse as minimalist composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, avant-garde composers Fred Frith and Anthony Braxton, experimental rock musician Lindsay Cooper, and jazz luminaries Jack DeJohnette and John Carter.

Next month Rova:Arts will produce Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly!, a special tribute concert in honor of the avant-garde jazz composer, pianist, and poet Cecil Taylor, who died on April 5 of last year. Last year Rova presented their first tribute to Taylor, a concert entitled Air. Next month’s affair will be more extensive and involve many more performers.

Rova’s primary contribution will be a reworking of Taylor’s Dark to Themselves, an album-length composition. For this endeavor they will be joined by four additional players, guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and Henry Kaiser, drummer Dan Robinson, and Jason Hoopes on bass. Rova has expanded its resources in the past, and these enlarged groups have performed under the name Orkestrova. In addition the duo B. combo of Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on percussion will present excerpts from Mezzacappa’s transcription of Taylor’s album Air Above Mountains. The program will then conclude with a second duo performance, coupling reed player Oluyemi with vocalist Ijeoma Thomas. They will present interpretations of Taylor’s poetry, as well as original works.

This tribute concert will be given only one performance, beginning at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 20. The venue will be CounterPulse, which is located near Union Square at 80 Turk Street, just West of where Mason Street intersects Market Street. General admission will be $20, and students and seniors will be admitted for $15. There is also a special Patron of the Arts rate of $35. Tickets may be purchased online through the CounterPulse Secure Ticket Portal, and the Box Office will open at 7:15 p.m.

Lisitsa’s Intimate Impressions of Tchaikovsky

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed

A little over a week ago, Universal Music Group released a Decca box set of the complete works for solo piano by Pyotr llyich Tchaikovsky. The pianist is Valentina Lisitsa, who, by now, has been generously represented on the Decca label. I have to say that, for Lisitsa’s many efforts to appeal to popular tastes (including opening up her 2012 London debut to cyberspace, devoting her intermission time to texting), the recording I still most value is her two-CD album of music by Philip Glass, which was released in March of 2015. Nevertheless, while this is likely to raise more that a few eyebrows, I would have to say that this new Tchaikovsky release makes a good “close second” to Glass.

The reason is simple enough: I would venture to guess that just about anywhere in the United States, listeners’ exposure to the music of Tchaikovsky is, for the most part, limited to his orchestral compositions. Where the piano is concerned, encountering anything other than the Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor is rare indeed; and the only departures from the concert hall are at the opera house, where performances of his operas amount to a fraction of his entire corpus in this genre, are seldom scheduled, and tend to be outnumbered by ballet performances of the Opus 66 Sleeping Beauty, the Opus 20 Swan Lake, and that old reliable Christmas entertainment, The Nutcracker (Opus 71). In other words, thanks primarily to “management decision-making,” Tchaikovsky is known almost entirely for intensely dramatic music and spectacle, more often than not rendered through hypertrophied orchestral resources.

The fact is that there is an intimate side to Tchaikovsky’s music that gets depressingly little exposure. Most of that can be found in his compositions for solo piano. In addition to his many collections of short pieces, he also prepared a compilation of 50 Russian folk songs arranged for performance by four hands at one keyboard. The one composer that chose to advocate this all-but-ignored side of Tchaikovsky was Igor Stravinsky, whose score for the ballet “Le baiser de la fée” (the fairy’s kiss) draws heavily on these more subdued Tchaikovsky sources (both two-hand and four-hand). Put another way, those who are really serious in their ballet appreciation are likely to find a generous number of old friends as they work their way through the tracks of Lisitsa’s collection.

I would also say that I took great satisfaction in listening to Lisitsa’s approaches to these pieces. If she could bring a Zen-like sense of calm to her interpretation of Glass’ approach to repetition and change, then there is a plainspokenness to her Tchaikovsky, sensitive without being saccharine. This is music that definitely deserves more attention. Lisitsa knows how to draw that attention from the serious listener without ever grandstanding her rhetoric. We all deserve to have a richer understanding of this side of Tchaikovsky’s approach to composition, and Lisitsa definitely has the technical and expressive chops to satisfy that need.

The High Spirits of B-flat Major from NEQ

New Esterházy Quartet members Lisa Weiss, Anthony Martin, William Skeen, and Kati Kyme (photograph by Barbara Butkus, from the NEQ home page)

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) concluded its twelfth season with a program entitled The Hunt for B. The program surveyed a little over a century’s worth of string quartets, all in the key of B-flat major, beginning with the very first composed by Joseph Haydn (Hoboken III/1, the first of his six Opus 1 quartets composed between 1762 and 1764), followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 458, 1784), and concluding with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 67 (1876). Those who recall the affective characteristics that Christian Schubart associated with the key of F minor may be interested that his entry for B-flat major was “Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.” However, as NEQ violist Anthony Martin observed in his opening remarks, B-flat major was also the key of hunting horns; and the 6/8 rhythm has become associated with the hunter on horseback. All three of the quartets on the program opened with that 6/8 “hunting” motif.

Haydn began his service to the Esterházy family in 1761, so Hoboken III/1 was one of his earliest efforts in his initial service as Vice-Kapellmeister. Most likely his new employer was pleased to encounter a musical motif he could recognize (and a secular one at that). The quartet (also called a divertimento) consists of five movements, all relatively short; but it is clear that Haydn’s creative juices were flowing from the very beginning of what would turn out to be a long period of service to the family.

K. 458, on the other hand, is one of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. While still serving the Esterházy family, Haydn tended to prefer the musical life in Vienna to the remoteness of the new Eszterháza palace. Mozart’s quartets date from when he first made Haydn’s acquaintance in Vienna; and they seem to reflect the younger composer’s appreciation of the older composer’s talents, as well as considerable enjoyment of Haydn’s capacity for wit. K. 458 is as playful as it is imaginative in its overall structure; and the NEQ did not short-change their appreciation of those playful qualities.

Unlike both Haydn and Mozart, Brahms composed only three string quartets; and his Opus 67 is the last of them. Rhetorically, it is the most upbeat of the three and may have been his way of reflecting on Haydn’s impact on Mozart’s imaginative productivity. At the same time Brahms seemed to be pushing the limits of his own imaginative capacity far more than he had done in his first two quartets. This is particularly evident in the variations that unfold in the final movement, all based on the simplest possible theme imaginable. However, the elaboration of that simplicity ultimately culminates in a reflection of the very opening “hunting motif” of the first movement; and the quartet goes out in a dazzling display of a solid link between conclusion and beginning.

Taken as a whole, the performances were thoroughly engaging from start to finish. As usual, violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss shared leadership with Weiss playing first violin in K. 458 and Kyme taking that position for the first and last selections. As usual, Brahms showed his unabashed preference for the low strings, giving both Martin and cellist William Skeen many opportunities to shine, particularly in that final variations movement. Listeners could thus leave the conclusion of the twelfth season with high-spirited thoughts (abetted by a new brochure) of what the next season will bring.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Choices for April 12–14, 2019 (and beyond)

April does not promise to be quite as busy as March has been. Indeed, the need to make any hard choices will probably not arise until the middle of the month. However, even that weekend will not be as filled with options as the first weekend in March had been. On the other hand, it will (at least for now) mark the beginning of the series of concerts scheduled at the Red Poppy Art House; so, as in the past, this article will provide a “forward pass” for the rest of the month. Also, the options begin with one item already mentioned as follows:

Friday, April 12, 7 p.m., Herbst Theatre: As previously observed, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale will conclude its season in San Francisco with a full-length performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 53 oratorio Saul.

Friday, April 12, 7 p.m., Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco: InterMusic SF will host a concert to raise funds for its operations, which includes the annual production of SF Music Day and the Musical Grant Program that supports the commissioning and performance of new works, such as the composition of Aaron Gervais’ “Talking in Circles,” which was given its premiere by the Stenberg | Cahill Duo of violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Sarah Cahill at the beginning of this year. The performers for this fund-raising concert will be the members of the Musical Art Quintet, violinists Jory Fankuchen and Anthony Blea, violist Charith Premawardhana, cellist Lewis Patzner, and Sascha Jacobsen on bass. The program will feature new original works by Jacobsen, including “Contra un Bajo de Magia,” which was composed under InterMusic SF sponsorship. The program will also include Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine,” from the (in)famous Blue Note trio album with Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums, “Alfonsina y el Mar” by Ariel Ramirez, and “From Within” by Michel Camilo.

The Swedenborgian Church is located in the “border area” between Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights. The address is 2107 Lyon Street, near the northwest corner of Washington Street. Admission will be $40 for a single ticket and $65 for a pair. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page.

Friday, April 12, 7:30 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: As of this writing, this will be the first concert of the month at the Poppy. The performers will be the members of Bal du Kor, a trio that provides a blend of traditional and original West African melodies and rhythms. Members are Michael Smolens, Ben Issacs, and Daniel Berkman, playing on a wide variety of indigenous instruments.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25. Tickets will be available in advance online through and Eventbrite event page. Given the demand for these concerts, it is often the case that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. 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. Other events scheduled for the month are as follows, with hyperlinks to the appropriate Eventbrite event pages attached to the date-and-time information:
  • Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.: Brazilian guitarist Carlos Oliveira will return to the Poppy, this time giving a duo performance with guitarist Ricardo Peixoto (also Brazilian). They will be joined by percussionist Alex Calatayud. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.
  • Friday, April 19, 7:30 p.m.: More Brazilian music will be presented by the Kata-Vento quintet. The name is Portuguese for the phrase “wind catcher,” so named because the quintet features three flutists, Rebecca Kleinmann, Chloe Scott, and Daniel Riera. Rhythm will be provided by Amarante on guitar and Brian Rice on percussion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.
  • Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m.: The French Oak Gypsy Band is a prodigiously eclectic group whose repertoire melds French jazz manouche and chanson, New Orleans jazz, Roma traditional music, and global folk. Vocals are provided by Stella Heath and Gabriel Pirard, the latter also playing guitar. Jimmy Inciardi plays a variety of saxophones, and rhythm is provided by Skyler Stover on bass and Jamie Foster on drums. All online purchases will be $20, but admission at the door will be between $15 and $20.
  • Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m.: This will be an evening of two sets of jamming with harp. Luminance, which was formed in the Mission District, is the duo of harpist Amelia Romano and trumpeter Matthew Ebisuzaki. They will share the evening with improvisations by Motoshi Kosako on pedal harp in conversation with Michael Manring on bass. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.
  • Sunday, April 28, 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.
Any additions or modifications to this schedule will be announced through posts to my “shadow” Facebook site.

Friday, April 12, 8 p.m., McKenna Theatre: The next concert in the 2018–2019 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will be given by the Paris-based Trio Ancuza Aprodu. The trio, which is associated with the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, is named after its founder, pianist Aprodu. The other members are violinist Gaël Raessert and cellist Valerie Dulac.

They will present a program prepared to acknowledge the centennial of the death of Claude Debussy on March 25 of last year. The program will begin with one of Debussy’s earliest compositions, a piano trio written in 1880 when the eighteen-year-old Debussy was a guest of Nadezhda von Meck at her home in Fiesole, Italy. The remainder of the program will devoted to two composers with whom Debussy tends to be associated. Raessert and Dulac will play Maurice Ravel’s duo sonata, and the program will conclude with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 120 trio in D minor.

The McKenna Theatre is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert lecture, which will begin 7 p.m. in Knuth Hall.

[added 4/10, 12:20 p.m.:

Saturday, April 13, 3:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): SFCM and the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the American Liszt Society will again co-sponor the sixteenth annual Young Pianists play Liszt concert. This event is organized annually by SFCM Faculty member William Wellborn, who is also President of the Bay Area chapter. The concert features talented young pianists from both the college and pre-college divisions of SFCM. Selections will include the second of the Hungarian rhapsodies, the second polonaise in E major, the second of the Saint Francis “legends,” “Sposalizio” from the second “year” in the Années de pèlerinage collection, and transcriptions of songs by Frédéric Chopin.

The performance will take place in the Osher Salon. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Muni Van Ness Station. There will be no charge for admission to this concert.

Saturday, April 13, 4 p.m., San Francisco Public Library, Richmond Branch: As already reported, Bruce Ackley will present a lecture-demonstration about the soprano saxophone.]

Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of the next guitar recital to be hosted by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts will be entitled The Professors of 50 Oak Street. Those who follow this site regularly will know that 50 Oak Street is the address of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The program will showcase performances by the Guitar Department faculty members, each of whom will be given a solo set: David Tanenbaum, Judicael Perroy, Larry Ferrara, Marc Teicholz and Richard Savino.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Seating will be general admission.Ticket prices are $55 on Orchestra level and and $45 in the balcony. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-242-4500.

[added 4/5, 9:55 a.m.: This concert has been cancelled due to illness; an alternative recital by pianist Alexandre Tharaud has been scheduled for a different date.

Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: San Francisco Performances (SFP) will present the final recital in its 2018–2019 Piano Series. Piotr Anderszewski will return to give his second SFP recital, having made his SFP debut in March of 2003. Somewhat surprisingly, he will be presenting the only work by Ludwig van Beethoven in the entire series. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to the Opus 120 set of 33 variations composed on the waltz theme given to him by the publisher Anton Diabelli. For the first half of the program, Anderszewski will perform selections from the second book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.

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 $75 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front of the Dress Circle, $60 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.]

Sunday, April 14, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The San Francisco Early Music Society will continue is 2018–19 season with a return visit by Ensemble Caprice. Directed jointly by recorder players Matthias Maute and Sophie Larivière (who also plays flute), the ensemble is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. The other performers will be Susan Napper (cello), David Jacques (baroque guitar), and Ziya Tabassian (percussion). The title of the program will be iLove Baroque: Short Histories and Voices of Eternity. The selections (including some folk songs) will all be oriented, in one way or another, around the theme of love.

Single ticket prices will range between $45 and $12. In addition, there are still membership and subscription options for attending three or more concerts with discounts of up to 25%. All information about ticketing options has been summarized on a single Web page. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 510-528-1725.

As of this writing, no other Sunday performances have been announced; but information will be posted when it becomes available.

Splendid Bach and Handel Conclude VoM Season

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music (VoM) presented the final concert of its 2018–2019 season with a program devoted entirely to compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. The two Bach selections were both instrumental. The opening Sinfonia for the BWV 156 cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß in Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave), featured an oboe solo played by Marc Schachman; and the program concluded with the BWV 1067 (second) orchestra suite in B minor, with the flute part played by visiting soloist Emi Ferguson. Most of the Handel selections were vocal, sung by soprano Amanda Forsythe and tenor Thomas Cooley and featuring instrumental solos by both Ferguson and Schachman, as well as visiting bassoonist Anna Marsh and violinist Carla Moore, serving as concertmaster for the evening. In addition, Schachman began the program with a performance of Handel’s HWV 287 oboe concerto in G minor.

In contrast to current activities in the Civic Center, Handel could not have been given better treatment. The vocal selections were drawn from both the sacred and the secular repertoire. All were solo offerings with the exception of “As steals the morn” from the “L’Allegro” portion of the HWV 55 pastoral ode L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato (the cheerful, the thoughtful, and the moderate man). The duo work by Forsythe and Cooley was complemented by double-reed interplay between Schachman and Marsh. Ferguson, on the other hand, contributed a delightful volley of bird calls for Forsythe’s performance of “Sweet bird,” also from “L’Allegro.” The Bach offerings were equally stimulating, with Schachman at his most lyrical in the BWV 156 sinfonia and Ferguson covering the full gamut of styles in BWV 1067 with awesome agility and a rhetorical stance appropriate to the mood of each of the movements.

Taken as a whole, this was an evening that pleased consistently with its offerings of virtuosity based on a foundation of expressive interpretation. This may also have been the largest number of visiting soloists I have encountered at a VoM concert; and, among them all, Cooley’s was the only familiar face. Nevertheless, the chemistry between visitors and hosts was always solid, making for an evening of historically-informed performance at its most stimulating.

Friday, March 29, 2019

SFS Visiting Conductors: April, 2019

April will be the next month during which, in all San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concerts, the podium of Davies Symphony Hall will be occupied entirely by visiting conductors. One of them will be making her (note the pronoun) SFS debut; and another will be returning after having previously served as SFS Associate Conductor. In addition, all three of them will be conducting piano concertos, meaning that all of next month’s guest soloists will be pianists. Specifics are as follows:

April 11–14: Andrey Boreyko was last seen on the SFS podium in February of last year, when his soloist was violinist Vadim Gluzman in a performances of Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium.’” This time his soloist will be Emanuel Ax; and the first half of his program will be devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. The second half of the program will also consist of a single composition, Alexander von Zemlinsky symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (the mermaid), a fantasy based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid.”

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, and Friday, April 12, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 14. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Peter Grunberg that will begin one hour before the performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $35 to $245. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Brahms concerto can be found on the Program Note Podcasts Web page; and the event page includes sound clips from previous SFS performances of that concerto. Flash must be enabled for both streamed content and online ticket purchases. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Grunberg at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premier Orchestra section and Rear Boxes and $45 for seating in the Side Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

April 18–20: Australian conductor Simone Young will make her SFS debut. Her soloist will be Louis Lortie in a performance of Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G major. The “overture” for the program will also be by Ravel, his orchestration of his “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (pavane for a deceased infanta), which was originally composed for solo piano. The “symphony” will be Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Opus 35 symphonic suite Scheherazade (not strictly a symphony but structured in four movements).

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, Friday, April 19, Saturday, April 20. The Inside Music talk will be given by Scott Foglesong one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $20 to $160, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about Scheherazade and sound clips of previous SFS performances of both Scheherazade and the Ravel concerto.

April 25–27: The final concert of the month will see the return of both conductor and soloist. The conductor will be James Gaffigan, who served as SFS Associate Conductor from 2006 to 2009 and is now Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. His concerto soloist will be Hélène Grimaud performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major. The “overture” will be the Good Friday music from the third act of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. The second half of the program will offer two symphony selections, both relatively short, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 297 in D major, followed by Samuel Barber’s first symphony.

This concert will be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27. The Inside Music talk will be given by Elizabeth Seitz one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $35 to $170, and an event page has been created for online purchase. The event page also has an embedded sound file of previous SFS performances of the Beethoven piano concerto. In addition, KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Mozart symphony can be found on the Program Note Podcasts Web page.

Garrick Ohlsson’s Second All-Brahms Recital

1894 photograph of Johannes Brahms (right) with Johan Strauss II in Vienna (photograph by Rudolf Krziwanek, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night pianist Garrick Ohlsson returned to Herbst Theatre to present his second recital devoted to the music of Johannes Brahms with the promise of two more all-Brahms recitals to be performed during the 2019–2020 Piano Series presented by San Francisco Performances. Last night’s program was organized around the earliest and latest years of Brahms career. The program was “bookended” by two extended early compositions, beginning with the Opus 2 sonata in F-sharp minor, composed in 1853, and concluding with the 1861 Opus 24 variations and fugue on a theme by George Frideric Handel. The “core” of the program then consisted to two collections of short pieces. The six Opus 118 pieces, composed in 1893, preceded the intermission, which was followed by the three Opus 117 intermezzi, composed in 1892.

Last night Opus 24 was definitely the most stunning of the many jewels in the program’s crown. The theme is taken from Handel’s HWV 434 keyboard suite in B-flat major, and Brahms maintained that key in his own setting, followed by 25 variations that survey a wide diversity of approaches to variation (a few of which are strikingly remote), concluding with over six pages of fugue, most of which involve free-form approaches to counterpoint but none of which abandon the fugue subject for very long. Technically, Brahms established highly imaginative ways of approaching the theme, often concealing it within layers of sophisticated embellishment. Fortunately, Ohlsson clearly never lost track of the theme’s presence; and his execution of the variations made that presence just as clear to the attentive listener capable of sorting out foreground embellishment from the core of the background.

The four movements of Opus 2 are also rich with the interplay of foreground and background, but each movement is a bit like a roulette table where Brahms puts all of his chips on a single number and then lets the wheel spin. Nevertheless, through just the right combination of disciplined technical skill and almost unbridled expressiveness, the ball always seems to drop in just the right number. Most disruptive is the attacca transition from the second (Andante con espressione, where “espressione” deserves to be italicized) movement to the following Scherzo, almost as if Brahms had impetuously decided that he had had enough of that “espressione” rhetoric. The fact is that Brahms had not quite gotten his head around working with large-scale composition; but, through Ohlsson’s perceptive interpretation, the attentive listener could appreciate the architecture that the composer envisaged, even if the building blocks did always not fit together with the best precision.

These days the late short pieces receive far much more attention than the early three multi-movement sonatas. Yes, the balance between intricacy of structure and expressiveness of rhetoric is much more refined. Nevertheless, the way in which Ohlsson organized his program revealed some traces of the continuity by which those late pieces could be seen to have grown from the seeds of the earlier ones.

This is particularly the case with the three Opus 117 intermezzi, which follow each other in an overall design that almost seems to be seeking out a new approach to those multi-movement sonatas. Ohlsson seemed to grasp that sense of an underlying unity in his approach to performing this set as a whole (in contrast the many pianists who prefer to pick and choose their favorites from the full canon of those short pieces). In his approach to Opus 118, on the other hand, Ohlsson seemed to focus on individuality over unity; but his overall rhetoric clearly honored the way in which Brahms decided that the ending of each piece should flow smoothly into the beginning of the next.

As was the case a little over a month ago, Ohlsson turned to Frédéric Chopin for his only encore selection (this time without any jokes about Chopin having written very early Brahms music). This time the selection was the second of the three Opus 64 waltzes, written in the key of C-sharp minor. Since this came on the heels of a night at the ballet, it was hard to suppress memories of Les Sylphides. However, Ohlsson approached the second theme with what felt like a gentle sense of whimsy, reminding me of how the late choreographer James Waring had set that music to the clapping game of pat-a-cake. Perhaps, for my own listening, this was just an echo of some of the more whimsical approaches to variation in Opus 24!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Outsound Presents: April, 2019

courtesy of Outsound Presents

Next month promises to be a busy one for Outsound Presents. Plans have already been announced for two concerts in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series. The LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series will continue on its usual weekly schedule on Thursday evenings, even if, as of this writing, details have only been announced for the first concert of the month.

All LSG events will begin at (or close to) 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission will be on the usual sliding scale between $8 and $15. In general, the LSG Series provides opportunities for the full diversity of approaches to improvisation.

SIMM Series concerts usually follow a two-set format. However, while LSG tends to focus on improvisation, SIMM usually involves composed works (which may, or may not, involve elements of indeterminacy in performance). They begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. The venue is the Musicians Union Hall, located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Here is an account of the events that have already been scheduled, with the plan that this article will be updated as more information is provided:

Thursday, April 4: This will be a two-set evening. The first set will be solo clarinet improvisations by Matt Ingalls. He will be followed by a quartet led by Heikki Koskinen, whose primary instrument is electric trumpet. He will be joined by Rent Romus on winds and two percussionists, Donald Robinson and Cheryl E. Leonard.

Sunday, April 7: The opening set will be a duo performance featuring Henry Kaiser on guitar and electronics accompanied by Scott R. Looney on piano. This will be followed by Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland. The current incarnation of this group is a trio led (of course) by Romus on a variety of winds. He will be joined by Philip Everett on drums, Ray Schaeffer on bass, and Alex Cohen on guitar.

[added 4/8, 9:50 a.m.:

Thursday, April 11: This will be an evening of two solo sets. The first will be taken by David Leikam, who plays an NS Design CR six-string electric cello with control signals provided by electric pedals. He will be followed by an acoustic set performed by Ross Hammond on slide guitar.

Sunday, April 14: The second SIMM Series concert of the month will begin with a set by The Guthrie Project. This will consist of original compositions by Beth Schenck, who will also be playing saxophones of different sizes. Her only accompaniment will be by Matt Wrobel on guitar. She will be followed by the latest incarnation of Noertker’s Moxie, led by composer Bill Noertker on bass. The other performers will be Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone, Brett Carson on piano, and Jason Levis on drums.

[added 4/8, 10 a.m.:

Thursday, April 18: This will be another evening of two solo sets involving cello and guitar. This time the order will be reversed. The opening set will be taken by San(S) Kazakgascar Solo, which is the performing name for guitarist Jed Brewer when he is not performing with the band San Kazakgascar. However, by way of a heads-up, reader should know that guests often show up at these “solo” sets. The second set will be taken by Colleen Kelly T performing as TanukiSpiderCat. She blends her electronic cello work with samples, little drum machines, and synthesizers.]

[added 4/22. 9:40 a.m.:

Thursday, April 25: The final concert of the month will be a two-set evening of vocal music. The first set will be a duo improvisation by Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin, both of whom have taken inventive approaches to vocal music that integrates language and vocal sung traditions. They will be followed by Norwegian sound-based vocal artist and multivocalist Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer.

A Hard Time for Handel at San Francisco Ballet

Possokhov’s “…two united in a single soul…” in rehearsal (photograph by Erik Tomasson, from the Web page of program notes for this ballet on the San Francisco Ballet blog site)

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet presented the world premiere of the latest creation by choreographer Yuri Possokhov, “…two united in a single soul….” The ballet was an interpretation of the Narcissus myth, taking its title from a phrase in Ovid’s account of that myth in his Metamorphoses (as translated into English by Brookes More). Music was composed by the young Russian composer Daria Novo on a commission by SF Ballet. Her score, in turn, involved a transmogrification of the music of George Frideric Handel including vocal selections originally written for castrati. This music is now sung by countertenors; and last night’s performance included countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, performing on stage alongside the SF Ballet dancers.

Handel’s music enjoyed a moderate amount of popularity in the dance world during the twentieth century. His music was choreographed by both George Balanchine and Ninette de Valois (as well as modern dancer Paul Taylor). This was a time when the very idea of a “historically-informed” performance (HIP) of such music was almost entirely unknown; and audiences tended to get rich orchestral interpretations prepared by Thomas Beecham and others sailing under his flag. Novo rejected both the Beecham and HIP “flags” in favorite of mashing up (she called it “integrated”) Handel sources through electronic treatment.

This entailed some awkward consequences. The musicians in the orchestra pit, led by Martin West, could not balance Novo’s electronic effects without having their instrumental sounds mixed and then fed to the loudspeakers on either side of the stage. Unfortunately, Cohen faced the same problem and had to sing into a headset with a wireless microphone. This meant that just about every aspect of the dazzling account of Handel that he had presented at the American Bach Soloists’ New Year’s Eve concert this past December was painfully distorted through the mixing process.

Since this was an evening of ballet, one can assume that most of the audience was there to look, rather than listen. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the choreographic interpretation involved costuming that made almost all of the dancers on stage look identical. This was not so much Narcissus gazing at his image in a pond as it was a carnival fun house with so many mirrors as to give the impression that everyone was Narcissus. This was definitely an imaginative take on the myth; but, once Possokhov made that point, it seemed as if he had little else to say and even less sense of how to incorporate Cohen’s physical presence into his choreography. As a result the dancing in “…two united in a single soul…” was as much a muddle of Ovid as Novo’s score was a muddle of Handel.

Nevertheless, over the course of the entire evening, there was more substance to what Possokhov did than could be found in the two preceding ballets on the program, both of which were given their respective world premieres by SF Ballet about a year ago. These pieces were “Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem,” choreographed by Trey McIntyre and set to recordings of Chris Garneau singing his own music, and “Bound To,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with songs by Keaton Henson, some of which were orchestrated by Matthew Naughtin. The best that can be said of either of these offerings is that the participating dancers brought an impressively solid command of technique to their performances.

The sad part was how little substance they were given with which to display their talents. There was a mind-numbing sameness in the musical offerings from both Garneau and Henson; and it was more than a little depressing that neither McIntyre nor Wheeldon provided the dancers with enough diversity and energy to rise above that sameness. Indeed, McIntyre was so locked into that routine music-does-this-so-dancers-to-that formula that his choreography sank into the music, rather than rising above it. Everything was decidedly not “beautiful at the ballet” last night.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

PBO to Honor Handel with SESSIONS and Concert

The London King’s Theatre Haymarket, where Handel’s Saul was first performed (illustration by William Capon, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Next month will begin with both the final Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) concert of the season and the second of the two PBO SESSIONS events taking place in San Francisco. Both of these events have been organized around the music of George Frideric Handel. The season will conclude with a performance of the HWV 53 oratorio Saul, structured in three acts around a libretto by Charles Jennens (best known for preparing the libretto for the HWV 56 oratorio Messiah). The title of the PBO SESSIONS event will be Handel’s Biblical Heroes & Villains; and it will feature a selection of arias from Handel’s Biblical oratorios sung by four of the leading soloists performing HWV 53.

The oratorio performance will feature the PBO debut of countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the role of David. Cohen is currently a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow. He is also the recipient of the 2019 Jeffrey Thomas Award presented by American Bach Soloists, with which he was featured during that ensemble’s New Year’s Eve concert at the end of this past December. In addition, he will be making his debut with San Francisco Ballet tonight in the world premiere performance of Yuri Possokhov’s “…two united in a single soul…,” a ballet based on the myth of Narcissus.

Cohen will also perform at the PBO SESSIONS event. He will be joined by baritone Daniel Okulitch, who will be singing the title role in HWV 53, tenor Aaron Sheehan, who will sing the role of Jonathan, and soprano Yulia Van Doren, singing the role of Merab. The PBO SESSIONS program will also include a dialogue between Music Director Nicholas McGegan and Francesco Spagnolo, a scholar that specializes in the role of Jews in music history. Sources for the arias that will be sung will include HWV 53, as well as Esther (HWV 50) and Alexander Balus (HWV 65).

The PBO SESSIONS event will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9. This will mark the return of PBO to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, located at 736 Mission Street, opposite Yerba Buena Gardens and along Yerba Buena Lane, which connects Mission Street to Market Street. Seating will be general admission, and all tickets will be $25. Complimentary wine will be served at the end of the evening. A City Box Office event page has been created for online purchase. Those who wish further information may call 415-392-4400.

The San Francisco performance of HWV 53 will take place on Friday, April 12, beginning at 7 p.m. (Note that this is an earlier start time than usual, owing to the length of the concert.) 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 $32 to $125 for premium seating. Tickets are also 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.

Music for 1, 4, and 3 Hands at Piano Talks

Last night in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Ross McKee Foundation presented the latest installment in its Piano Talks series. The full title of the program was Musical Journeys: A Performance and Discussion of Two Great Musical Narratives. The speaker was Paul Hersh, a member of the SFCM faculty; and, for the second half of the program, he was joined by his former student, Hye Yeong Min.

The “narratives” that Hersh discussed and performed were the concluding Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor and Franz Schubert’s D. 940 fantasia in F minor for four hands on a single keyboard. The piano arrangement for the Bach selection was composed by Johannes Brahms to be played by the left hand alone. Hence, the program was divided between music for one hand and music for four hands. Hersh and Min then concluded the evening with “Abendlied” (evening song), the last in Robert Schumann’s Opus 85 collection, which he called Piano Pieces for Young and Older Children (Klavierstücke für kleine und große Kinder). This is a three-hand composition: one hand for the melody and two for the accompaniment.

The scare quotes in the above paragraph are intended to suggest that I was not entirely convinced that either BWV 1004 or D. 940 can be approach on the basis of narrative qualities. I have always held to the conviction that BWV 1004 was composed for pedagogical purposes; and, like so many of Bach’s compositions, it introduces the student to the richness of invention presented in a setting of significant challenges to the capacity for execution. The chaconne movement, whose length approaches that of all the movements that preceded it, could almost be called a monumental vision of architecture that provides a setting for the student’s mastery of a vast panoply of technical challenges. The architecture of D. 940 is similarly impressive, almost symphonic in scale, even if the performance resources are those of the salon, rather than the concert hall.

Hersh’s introduction to the BWV 1004 Chaconne was as rich in detail as it was engaging. He began with the original composition for violin, laying out the three basic units of the architecture in terms of both structure and function. He also discussed the technical challenges that confront the violinist, before then discussing how closely Brahms followed the notes that Bach himself had composed. Implicit in this presentation was the proposition that Brahms had taken a masterpiece of pedagogical study from Bach and repurposed it for pianists; and, indeed, his arrangement was published as the last in a collection of five Piano Studies, each conceived with the mastery of different technical skills in mind.

When Hersh moved from talk to action, one could appreciate, from his performance, the extent to which Brahms had honored both flesh and spirit of the original Bach composition. In sharp contrast to Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of the same Chaconne, Brahms’ setting was clearly all about Bach from beginning to end. Listening to Hersh’s performance, I was reminded, once again, that Brahms was a faithful subscriber to the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, even if he died before the final volume in that series was published.

Hersh’s introduction to D. 940 also concentrated on the architecture behind the music. He invoked Robert Schumann’s famous assessment of Schubert’s “heavenly length” (mistakenly attributing that phrase to Donald Tovey). However, the features he most emphasized were the darkness that pervades the rhetoric of the entire composition and the way in which the opening theme returns twice over the course of the composition, an approach to recurrence that is rarely encountered. Equally important is that, as late as the early nineteenth century, individual keys were distinguished by their association with specific affective characteristics. Most likely Schubert was aware of Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (ideas for an aesthetics of the art of sound), which outlined those affective characteristics for all 24 major and minor keys. The description for F minor is “Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.” In the performance that followed, Hersh and Min never skimped on those dark qualities; but they also kept the temptation to over-emote under control, resulting in a reading that was decidedly true to Schubart without ever descending into degrading excesses.

In that context the performance of the Schumann selection, which was basically an encore, could be relished for its straightforward simplicity, whose rhetoric can convince without ever being overplayed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Marc-André Hamelin Coming to Davies this Sunday

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin (from the San Francisco Symphony event page for his recital)

The next Great Performers Series recital to be presented by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall will be a solo performance by French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Hamelin has been a frequent visitor to San Francisco and consistently performs with just the right balance of the cerebral and the expressive. For this occasion he has prepared a program that combines familiar and unfamiliar repertoire. On the familiar side he will perform works by two composers born within half a year each other.

Frédéric Chopin was born on March 1, 1810. He will be represented by two of his more familiar compositions, the Opus 61 “Polonaise-Fantasie” in A-flat major and the Opus 54 scherzo in E major. Robert Schumann was born only a few months later on June 8. He will be represented by a single composition, whose scale encompasses three movements of epic proportions. The work is his Opus 17 fantasia in C major.

Like many pianists, Hamelin will begin his recital with Johann Sebastian Bach, performing a piano transcription of the Chaconne movement from the BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. In the program as listed on this concert’s event page, no credit is given for the arrangement of the Bach source. It would not surprise me if Hamelin provided his own arrangement. (For that matter, given his impressive skill set, I would not be surprised if he performed directly from the violin part.)

He will also perform a set of arrangements by another pianist. These will be arrangements of six of the songs composed by the popular French singer Charles Trenet, and they were arranged by pianist Alexis Weissenberg. The other work on the program that probably will be unfamiliar to most listeners will be an early composition by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, his Opus 17 “Cipressi” (cypresses).

This recital will begin at 7:30 p.m. this coming Sunday, March 31. Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue and fills an entire city block. The other boundaries are Grove Street (north), Hayes Street (south), and Franklin Street (west). The main entrance (which is also the entrance to the Box Office) is on Grove Street, roughly halfway down the block. Tickets for this recital will be priced between $35 and $105. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Web page on the SFS Web site. Flash must be enabled for online ticket transactions. Tickets may also be purchased by visiting the Box Office or calling 415-864-6000. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours before the beginning of the concert on Sunday.

Monday, March 25, 2019

An Imaginative New Album from Splinter Reeds

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those who have been following this site for some time may recall that, a little over two years ago, I wrote an article about Carve, the debut solo album on Innova by bassoonist Dana Jessen. I took the liberty of introducing Jessen on the basis of how I already knew of her work, first as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and then as one of the founding members of the Splinter Reeds quintet. As its name implies, the latter consists entirely of players of reed instruments, both double (Jessen and Kyle Bruckmann alternating between oboe and English horn) and single (Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet, and Dave Wegehaupt on saxophones).

Around the middle of this month, New Focus Recordings released the latest album of performances by Splinter Reeds. I must “come clean” at the outset by observing that I welcomed this release for its ability to allow me to revisit several of the pieces I had enjoyed listening to Splinter Reeds play in concerts. Those occasions included a recital in Pamela Z’s 2017 ROOM Series followed by Anderle’s Faculty Artist Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in September of the same year. Indeed, the SFCM concert “primed the pump” of my interest, so to speak, by revisiting some of the ROOM Series selections. As a result, I was well prepared for the works of three of the composers on the new Splinter Reeds album, entitled Hypothetical Islands: Cara Haxo, Eric Wubbels, and Theresa Wong. According to my records, the title of the album is also the title of a composition by Yannis Kyriakides that was scheduled for SFCM but, unless I am mistaken, was not performed.

I should probably begin with the composition that turned out to provide a “guilty pleasure” experience. “Auditory Scene Analysis II,” composed by Wubbels, was given its San Francisco premiere at the ROOM Series recital. This event was a rather casual affair that found me talking back to the performers when they tried to explain the title, getting as far as saying that it was taken from the title of a book. I then chimed in with the name of the author, Albert S. Bregman. As I cited when I wrote about the ROOM Series concert, I had reviewed this book for Computer Music Journal; and my review was published in 1991.

When I look back on the experience of reading this book as a reviewer, I am reminded of a sentence from a lecture that Vladimir Nabokov gave on the subject of Fyodor Dostoevsky (whom he disliked intensely):
The mediocre … can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize.
Bregman certainly won his share of prizes, but none of them would probably be recognizable to most readers. His big idea involved representations of sound that are called sonograms. These are basically shapes on graph paper whose horizontal axis represents the flow of time and whose vertical axis corresponds to frequencies in the range of audibility. “Scene Analysis” involved the process of describing sounds on the basis of describing regions on a sonogram, where they are placed and how they relate to one another. Bregman’s book was not only inconclusive but also very poorly written, including 100 pages of content that can be found (word-for-word) in two different sections.

Listening to “Auditory Scene Analysis II” left me with the impression that Wubbels was no more impressed by Bregman’s efforts than I was. However, while I opted for the Nabokov gambit, Wubbels took it out on Bregman by composing music. It would not surprise me if his intention was to create an auditory “signal” whose sonogram was so resistant to image processing (scene analysis) software as to lack any clue about what was “signal” and what was “noise.” One might call the result one of “frolicking” auditory content dancing on the ill-defined boundary between signal and noise; and, for my money at least, the result is a real hoot.

Wong’s “Letters to a Friend” also involves teasing signal out of the noise; but her technique is entirely different. Wong’s “friend” was Alessia Pugliatti, who died very young of a rare form of cancer. The “letters” of the title carry a double meaning. Wong chose to memorialize Pugliatti through the poem “O Pulsar” by Brazilian Augusto de Campos. However, rather than composing a song using these words as text, she translated every letter of the text into its representation as Morse code, endowing the entire poem with a rhythmic representation (the plural noun in the title) that is then deployed over the five Splinter Reeds instruments. As might be imagined, execution of this piece demands intense concentration and discipline; but the Splinter Reeds performance emerges as a highly compelling experience.

My previous Haxo encounter was with “Ode,” the second of two “exercises” that she composed for Splinter Reeds, the first being titled “Inattendu” (unexpected). “Ode” is the more lyrical, keenly attentive to subtle shifts in sonority through changes in instrumentation. “Inattendu,” on the other hand is pointillist in structure. However, while Georges Seurat could convey sophisticated shapes and lighting effects through his approach to pointillism, one gets the impression that Haxo is keeping her “points” as disjoined as possible, thus avoiding any sense of shape (or the expectation of such a sense of shape). Because these pieces are exercises, they can be taken for honing technical skills of execution. Splinter Reeds offers a well-honed execution that avoids any suggestion of tedious pedagogy.

Of the remaining compositions on the album, the title work is the one that will require more listening experiences than I have managed thus far. The piece itself incorporates electronics. However, given the broad diversity of sonorities arising from the Splinter Reeds players, one gets the impression that Kyriakides expects the listener to confuse the electronic and physical sources. Rhetorically, the result captures at least some of the sense of an island as isolated territory (and, if that island is only hypothetical, then it is probably even more isolated). This is the piece that most resists casual listening; but, on the basis of what I have experienced thus far, the more attention one engages, the more one is likely to come away with a satisfying achievement of sensemaking.

Matthew Shlomowitz’ “Line and Length,” which is the opening track, is far more explicit in its intentions. HIs “lines” tend to emerge as glissando patterns of different “lengths.” This is “fun music,” as is the one remaining selection on the album, Sky Macklay’s “Choppy.” However, while Shlomowitz romps his way through glissandos, Macklay goes for the brash sounds of multiphonic effects, always flirting with the delicate balance between playful eccentricity and stark-raving madness.

Taken as a whole, the content on this album is a bit on the modest side, slightly less than an hour of music. Nevertheless, each composition has its own distinctive way of seizing and holding listener attention. Both the individual piece and the album as a whole are likely to admit significant attention from any serious listener.

The Bleeding Edge: 3/25/2019

This will be another week when almost all of the relevant events have been taken into account:
That leaves one more event, and for that one I am going to break with tradition and provide a pointer. Over on the San Francisco Classical Voice Web site, Janos Gereben has provided as comprehensive a preview of the Pacific Pythagorean Music Festival as one could hope to read. This will be a four-hour concert of just intonation compositions organized by the Del Sol Quartet and featuring a diversity of styles realized through many different composers and executed by an all-star lineup of Bay Area performers. With both undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, I find this topic irresistible; but Gereben has provided just enough background to rescue me from the danger of going on about this topic to excessive length!

BWV 244 in All its Richness from ABS

One of the fortuitous consequences of the Historically Informed Performance Practice movement was the discovery that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries was far more intimate than nineteenth-century performance traditions had led us to believe. Even the repertoire of sacred choral music tended to involve solo arias that could be performed as instances of chamber music. Musicologist Joshua Rifkin went as far as to assert that the choral writing could be performed with one singer per line. He made his point with a 1981 Nonesuch recording of the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor, known affectionately by many of us as the “B Minor Madrigal.”

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, American Bach Soloists Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas revisited Bach’s BWV 244 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, presumably composed for a Good Friday service at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. One-to-a-part was, with only a few exceptions, the order of the day. Nevertheless, there is an unmistakable grandeur in not only the durational scale of this composition but also the emotional intensity of not only Scripture text but also the interleaved poetic mediations on that text.

It did not take long yesterday to appreciate that such rhetorical grandeur was never compromised. The primary reason for this is that the music itself had been scored for a double ensemble: two orchestras with the usual complement of strings, winds, and continuo, each with its own SATB chorus. This division of resources entailed that every instrumental part had a single performer. The American Bach Choir, in turn, consisted of only sixteen vocalists, allowing for two-to-a-part singing by each of the two choruses.

Thomas then went one step further by distributing vocal solos across pairs of vocalists, one group for each of the orchestras. Soprano Hélène Brunet, mezzo Agnes Vojtko, tenor Steven Brennfleck, and bass Jesse Blumberg sat with the chorus members on the left side of the altar, while soprano Katelyn Aungst, countertenor Nicholas Burns, tenor Matthew Hill, and bass Constantine Novotny took their place on the opposite site. This allowed for three-to-a-part singing of choral passages; but, where Thomas felt it appropriate, it also allow a choral passage to be sung as a vocal quartet. The only “inflated” resources consisted of the nine members of the Pacific Boychoir, who sang the cantus firmus line in the first and last movements of the first half of BWV 244.

The result was a richness of rhetoric that consistently underscored the solemnity of the text without ever overloading it. Nevertheless, the journey through the entire score is a long one, clocking in yesterday at about three hours and fifteen minutes, even when Thomas brought a briskness of tempo to his interpretations. While I can appreciate the dramatic motivation for dividing the entire composition into two large parts, I have to say that, towards the end, my body was beginning to complain that a few more breaks might have been in order. On the other hand such additional pauses would have lengthened the overall duration!

The final measures of BWV 244 for Orchestra I with the flute appoggiatura on the upper staff (from the first Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, from IMSLP, public domain)

The fact is that, even as that duration begins to feel a bit of a strain while accounting for the agonies of the Crucifixion, Bach still knew how to recover listener attention with his final grand chorus. This was not just a matter of how he could bring together all of his resources for one last rhetorical gesture. There was also the bittersweet edge he brought to his finale, giving the flutes an appoggiatura through which they sustain a dissonance after all the other resources have resolved the cadence. This was Bach’s final reminder of the grief of the occasion that had been depicted, a grief that would not be resolved until the following Easter Sunday.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Jazz Pianist Asherie Goes for Repertoire Breadth

Cover of the album being discussed, reproducing Egon Schiele’s 1910 “Composition with Three Male Nudes” (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

A little over a week ago Capri Records released a new album featuring jazz pianist Ehud Asherie entitled Wild Man Blues. The title suggests a reflection back to the earliest days of jazz with a composition that has been attributed to both Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong with equal uncertainty. In fact, all eight of the tracks present selections that, one way or another, may be viewed as “historical.” Nevertheless, leading a trio whose other members are Peter Washington on bass and Rodney Green of drums, Asherie brings a contemporary perspective to whatever he chooses to play.

Only one composer rates more than a single track on this album. Charlie Parker is represented by both “Parker’s Mood” and “Chasin’ the Bird.” However, Asherie understands the thematic content well enough not only to tease out his own improvisations but also to undermine any listener’s preconceptions that this music was only suitable for bebop saxophone. Indeed, he seems more comfortable pursuing the potential of Parker’s inventive themes than he is on the title track, which, for my money, is a little bit too polite for the spirit of its times.

Curiously, Asherlie’s “comfort zone” seems to lie somewhere between the earliest down-and-dirty days of jazz and the emergence of bebop as we know it. He is quite at home with finding his own voice in George Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” as well as in Vincent Youmans’ “Flying Down to Rio.” However, from that same period, his comfort zone seems to lie in the songs of Ary Barroso with “Na Baixa Do Sapateiro” (gorgeous melody). That attachment, however, probably has much to do with his having a Brazilian life partner, although those of my generation will probably recognize this tune from its appearance in the Walt Disney cartoon The Three Caballeros.

This may not be a particularly earthshaking album, but it is one that is sure to draw and hold the attention of the serious jazz listener.

Joe Henderson Lab at SFJAZZ: April, 2019

Readers may recall that, if I delay too long in reporting on events at the Joe Henderson Lab on the ground floor of the SFJAZZ Center, I run into dates for which tickets are no longer available. There will be some fascinating diversity at the Lab next month. Hopefully, readers will encounter the same ticket availability that guided the preparation of this summary.

It continues to be the case that Henderson offerings are given two performances on a single evening. Times are at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. except for Sundays, when the events usually take place at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Each offering has its own event page, which has separate hyperlinks for purchasing tickets to the different time slots. Each of the dates in the enumeration below will have a hyperlink to the appropriate event page. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Thursday, April 4–Sunday, April 7: The month will begin with the annual SFJAZZ Poetry Festival. This year the festival title is American Dream States, and it will be curated by the new SFJAZZ Poet Laureate Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Founding Program Director of Youth Speaks. While the focus of this event is literature, many of the readings will be delivered with music accompaniment. Specifics have not yet been announced; but participating poets, in addition to Joseph, will be Mino Yanci, Ambrose Akinmusire, Adam Mansbach, Zoé Samudzi, Janae Johnson, Mona Webb, Jeff Chang, Ryan Peters, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Mona Webb, and RyanNicole. Separate event pages have been created for each day of the Festival: April 4, April 5, April 6, and April 7.

Thursday, April 11–Sunday, April 14: Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel will return to the Lab with a “revised edition” of his standards trio. He will perform with Italian bass virtuoso Dario Deidda and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. He will use the program to showcase his 2009 Word of Mouth album Reflections with new settings of timeless classics added to the mix.

Thursday, April 18: The theme of the following week will be Keyed Up II, the latest series of concerts featuring keyboard repertoire and the masters of its execution. The series will begin with a Hotplate concert given by pianist Joe Gilman. He will perform his impressions of the album Sunday at the Village Vanguard, a trio recording led by pianist Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The album was taken from both afternoon and evening sessions presented on June 25,. 1961. As of this writing, tickets are almost sold out for both the 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. performances.

Friday, April 19: The second pianist in the series will be San Francisco native Adam Shulman. He will lead a sextet whose front line will include Mike Olmos on trumpet, Lyle Link on alto saxophone, and Patrick Wolff on tenor saxophone. Rhythm will be provided by John Wiitala on bass and Evan Hughes on drums. The program will feature original compositions from Shulman’s new album Full Tilt.

Saturday, April 20–Sunday, April 21: Gerald Clayton will close out the series with two nights of a program entitled Piano Trio Legacy. The other members of his trio will be Anthony Wilson on guitar and Alan Hampton on bass. The trio will perform selections from Clayton’s latest Motéma release, Tributary Tales.

Thursday, April 25: This program will be co-presented by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). It will provide a platform for those students currently in SFCM’s Roots, Jazz and American Music (RJAM) Program. Members of the RJAM Faculty will appear as guest artists. This concert will be given only one performance beginning at 7 p.m.

Friday, April 26: In a related vein the Lab will host an Artists On The Rise concert. The artist in question will be San Francisco native Sasha Berliner, a versatile drummer and gifted vibraphone player. She will lead a quartet, whose other members will be Chris McCarthy on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. They will play selections from both her debut album Gold and her “sophomore” album Azalea, which is scheduled for release this coming fall.

All Those Pitch Classes!

Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Lucas Fels, and Ralph Ehlers (photograph by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

Last night the Taube Atrium Theater hosted the first of the three concerts presented by Other Minds that will constitute Festival 24. The title of the entire festival is A Pitch Perfect Revolution; and the featured composer is the Russian-born French-emigré composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979). Wyschnegradsky is  primarily known for working with microtones; and, of the five of his compositions performed last night, four were based on dividing the octave into 24 equal divisions, resulting in intervals known as “quarter tones,” since they involve dividing the semitone in half. The remaining composition had a title that explicitly included the phrase “in semitones” was the only one that was not microtonal.

The program consisted entirely of chamber music for strings, performed by the Arditti Quartet, led by Irvine Arditti. The other members are violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, violist Ralf Ehlers, and cellist Lucas Fels. Four of the Wyschnegradsky compositions were string quartets, all performed during the first half of the program. The second half began with a string trio, which he concluded shortly before his death in 1979. The remainder of the program was devoted to the second string quartet by Georg Friedrich Haas, composed in 1998. All of the Wyschnegradsky compositions were being given their first performances in the United States.

The program itself had a decidedly exploratory feel to it. The compositions themselves cover a period of activity from 1923 until 1979; and two of the quartets, the first and third, were subjected to revision a decade or more after they had been composed. There was a distinct impression that the composer, having made a calculated decision to work with an equal-tempered octave of 24, rather than twelve, pitch classes, kept revisiting the problem of how he could best work with twice as many pitch classes.

The notes in the program book raise the question of whether the earliest of those quartets is tonal or atonal. By fortuitous coincidence, I read that text only a few hours after having encountered the following sentence by James Tenney:
Time has given us some degree of familiarity with even the most advanced musical achievements of the early twentieth century, and yet our descriptive and analytical approaches to this music are still belabored with negatives—“atonal,” “athematic,” etc.—that tell us what the music is not rather than what it is.
I felt as if I had been predisposed to give an account of last night’s listening experience in terms of “what it is;” and this emerged as quite a challenge.

Given a choice between abstract constructs and “living experiences,” I do my best to opt for the latter. Looking back on my experience in listening to Wyschnegradsky’s earliest quartet, my primary impression was one of tone clusters. While no one would confuse Wyschnegradsky’s music with that of Henry Cowell, there seem to be a sharing of a common core. Cowell’s tone clusters were not “chords with extra notes” that allowed for new approaches to progression. Rather, they were the building blocks of rhythmic patterns, each of which had its own unified sonority that transcended any sense of voice leading or, for that matter, the idea of the cluster being a superposition of “voices,” rather than a unified object unto itself.

The tightly packed simultaneities in the opening measures of Wyschnegradsky’s first quartet presented a similar unity in which an overall sense of the flow of rhythms was more apposite than any “extended perspective” rooted in harmony or counterpoint. The entire evening thus processed as an unfolding of those initial impressions. Sometimes, as was the case in the second quartet, there were clear statements of linear motion that could be taken as “themes.” Indeed, much of Wyschnegradsky’s overall aesthetic seemed to emerge from a dialectic between the rhythms of his clusters and the almost vocal qualities of individual solo lines taken by each of the quartet instruments in turn.

In other words simply trying to account for a listening experience in terms of “what it is” is no easy matter. There was very much a sense that, over the course of his life, Wyschnegradsky sought, but never found, a methodical foundation for his efforts. Every composition amounted to posing a hypothesis about the nature of that foundation, and each one ultimately sent him off on a quest for another hypothesis. The result was an evening that ultimately culminated in “cognitive overload.” By the time the performance of the trio brought one to the end of Wyschnegradsky’s career as a composer, few “cognitive cycles” remained for mind to grasp, let alone process, those attributes that characterized Haas’ approaches to “what it is” in his own efforts at composition.

The fact is that none of the works on last night’s program deserved to be limited to a single listening experience. Executive and Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian observed that Arditti had recorded all of the Wyschnegradsky canon of chamber music for strings but that those recordings were now out of print. He hinted that Other Minds might try to reissue those recordings on its own “house label.” I hope he succeeds in this endeavor. There is too much imagination behind those compositions to be relegated to a single performance at a single concert.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Monday Make-Out: April, 2019

Readers probably know by now that I usually rely on the BayImproviser Calendar to provide information about the Monday Make-Out sessions at the Make Out Room. However, next month will be special enough to anticipate the usual listings of these sessions in Bleeding Edge articles. This is because next month will mark the tenth anniversary of Monday Make-Out Sessions. This landmark occasion will be celebrated by holding two concerts during the month of April (both on a Monday evening), instead of just one.

For both of these concerts, doors will open at 8 p.m., and the music starts half an hour later. 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! The dates and performers for next month’s events, both of which will be three-set programs, will be as follows:

April 1: The opening set will amount of a sort of “duel” between improvising duos. On one “side” will be the return of duoB (Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums), who performed a mind-blowing transcription of Cecil Taylor when they visited the Make Out Room in September of 2017. The other “side” will be the wind duo of Phillip Greenlief and Cory Wright. Wright will then stick around for the second set, playing saxophones for the Song & Dance Trio along with Karl Evangelista on guitar and Jordan Glenn on drums. The final set will be taken by clarinetist Ben Goldberg leading a large group he calls Brainchild, whose members have not yet been announced.

April 22: The opening set will be free jazz by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble. Romus leads from his alto saxophone and is also responsible for the compositions. The other members of the group at Heikki Koskinen on both electric trumpet and recorder, Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone, Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Timothy Orr on drums, and two bass players, Safa Shokrai and Max Judelson. The second set will be taken by Disappear Incompletely, led by trombonist Rob Ewing, who has prepared modern jazz treatments of Radiohead tracks. Ewing is joined on the front line by two saxophonists, Raffi Garabedian on tenor and Patrick Cress on baritone. Rhythm will be provided by Ryan Pate on guitar, Steve Blum on keyboards, Jaime Moore on drums, and Joe Bagale on bass, also providing vocals. The final set will be taken by Dillon Vado’s Never Weather, with drummer Vado leading performances of his own original modern jazz compositions. His front line consists of Aaron Wolf on saxophone and Josh Reed on trumpet; and he is joined for rhythm by Justin Rock on guitar and Tyler Harlow on bass.

Sony Classical Releases Salonen’s Cello Concerto

Courtesy of Sony Music Australia

Readers may recall that, when I was preparing my list of the “memorable recordings” I had encountered last year, I made a point to acknowledge Sony Classical’s 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Those interested in the completeness of this anthology will now be disappointed. At the beginning of this month, Sony Classical released the world premiere recording of Salonen conducting his own cello concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloist Yo-Yo Ma. If the Amazon.com Web page for this item is accurate, demand has been high, because no CDs are currently in stock. A new batch is expected to be available on March 27.

Lasting a little over half an hour, the concerto was co-commissioned for Ma by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre, and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. Chicago enjoyed the right to world premiere with Salonen on the podium at a performance given on March 9, 2017. Sony Classical recorded the composition during a performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on February 8, 2018.

Salonen himself prepared the notes for the accompanying booklet, from which we learn that the concerto emerged from a diversity of ideas that had been percolating in his consciousness for several years. This is often the case for many composers, many of whom document such preliminary thoughts in sketchbooks. Salonen never mentions any such explicit documentation. If it exists, I suspect that, within a matter of decades, it will be put to use by some industrious graduate student’s thesis research.

For now, however, we shall just have to be content with our respective capacities for attentive listening. In the spirit of the 1959 essay by James Tenney discussed on this site this past Wednesday, Salonen is as attentive to building blocks involving rhythm, dynamics, and timbre as he is to issues of relations between dissonance and consonance and those between polyphony and melodic lines. Indeed, the very first impressions established at the beginning of the first movement are based heavily on texture, while the use of percussion in the final movement suggests an approach to a polyphony of rhythmic, rather than thematic, patterns. (Writing about last week’s performance of the concerto with Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and cellist Truls Mørk, San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman encapsulated the concerto with the sentence, “That’s the one with the bongos, right?”)

To be fair, however, from an information-theoretic point of view, the bandwidth of Salonen’s score is far too wide to be apprehended through a single listening experience, regardless of whether the experience comes from a recording or a concert hall. As a result, the new Sony Classical recording is likely to be a great asset for anyone planning to attend an actual performance of the concerto. Entering an auditorium with even a few basic points of orientation involving more than the instruments in the percussion section is likely to establish at least a few key expectations that will establish context for the overall listening experience. On the other hand, those of us who never get that opportunity will still have much to take away from listening to this new recording several times, since each such listening experience is likely to turn up intriguing details not previously encountered.