Monday, July 22, 2019

New Azica Album of Guitar and String Quartet

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

Guitarist Jason Vieaux seems to have a particular interest in forming partnerships. I first encountered him in the summer of 2015, when I listened to Together his duo album with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis released by Azica Records. As a Guitar Series recitalist for San Francisco Performances (SFP) in October of 2017, he shared the stage of Herbst Theatre with Julien Labro playing both bandoneon and accordina (a variant of the melodica using accordion buttons, rather than the usual piano-like keyboard). (The two of them had previously recorded an album of the music of Astor Piazzolla joined by the A Far Cry chamber orchestra.) As a result, when Vieaux returns to the SFP Guitar Series this coming October, it will be my first encounter with his giving a solo recital!

I was therefore not surprised to see that his latest Azica release involved another partnership, this time with the Escher Quartet of violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Brook Speitz. The title of the album is Dance; and it presents compositions by (in order of appearance) Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Luigi Boccherini. That title seems to have been motivated primarily by the Kernis selection, “100 Greatest Dance Hits.”

Kernis was born in 1960, and his title was apparently inspired by the sorts of record advertisements found on late-night television during the Seventies. The piece was composed in 1993, by which time his reputation as a composer had been established. He clearly wanted to have fun in making this piece; but, considering the annoyingly raucous content that served as inspiration, the result was pretty bland. The only other reference to dance on the album resides in the final movement of the fourth (in the key of D major) of Boccherini’s nine guitar quintets, which is a fandango.

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco quintet, on the other hand, was written at the request of the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia and become the composer’s Opus 143. Castelnuovo-Tedesco first met Segovia in 1932 and was inspired to write his first composition for solo guitar shortly thereafter. His relationship with Segovia flourished, resulting in almost one hundred compositions for guitar. Opus 143 was composed in 1950. It is part of the Segovia discography, and he recorded it with members of the Italian Quintetto Chigiano.

I have to say that, as had been the case with the Together album, I did not find this new release particularly stimulating. Vieaux seems much more in his element when he is establishing chemistry with an audience. My first encounter with him at Herbst I found to be both absorbing and compelling, and I am looking forward to listening to him there again in the coming season. This new album, on the other hand, presents performances that are capable but little more, leading me to wonder what were the motives behind this project in the first place.

The Bleeding Edge: 7/22/2019

This is the week of the Outsound New Music Summit, with two-set concerts every night beginning tomorrow, July 23, and continuing through Saturday, July 27. In addition, last week’s Bleeding Edge column announced tonight’s performance of the second Monday Make-Out of the month at the Make Out Room. In the midst of that abundance, there are still three events to report, all taking place in venues previously reported. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, July 23, 8 p.m., El Rio: It has been almost two years since this site last reported adventurous programming at El Rio. That previous occasion involved three sets of “roving, ravishing, electric music.” This time all three sets will be devoted to women. Leila Adbul-Rauf is a composer and multi-instrumentalist, as well as co-founder of extreme metal bands. She also performed at last year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. She will be followed by the world music band The Voodoo Cabaret, formed by Gisela Tangui, who sings her original songs. Finally, Being Lara Maykovich is an mbira trio led by vocalist Maykovich performing with Tim Renner on bass and percussionist John Reitan.

El Rio is a bar, community space, and garden. The address is 3158 Mission Street near the southwest corner of Cesar Chavez Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $10. Doors will open at 7 p.m.

Thursday, July 25, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: SYNTH MECHANIQUE is the trio of performers calling themselves J. Lee (captjrab), R. Duck (albert), and AVA K (oohbor). They describe their work as “improvisation through known and unknown instrumentation, where electronics and mechanical forces connect and agree in creating chaotic sound space and serene landscape of noise.” There does not appear to be a charge for admission, but donations are likely to be greatly appreciated. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART.

Sunday, July 28, 4:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: Lightning will strike twice at Bird & Beckett this week with a visit from the Elder Ones quartet, whose influences include free jazz, Indian music, and the “classical” side of the avant-garde movement. The group is led by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, who performed with Code Girl at the SFJAZZ Center this past weekend. Kidambi will also play harmonium and synthesizer. She will be joined by Matt Nelson on soprano saxophone, Nick Dunston on bass, and Max Jaffe on drums. Elder Ones will be preceded by an opening set of improvisations by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. Again, there will be no explicit charge for admission.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The SFP 2019–2020 Chamber Series

Once again the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Chamber Series for the 2019–2020 season will focus on string quartets. However, while last season devoted all four events to string quartets, this season will begin with a piano trio; and the remaining performances will present quartets. Also, as was the case last season, one of those quartet performances will include a special “guest artist.”

As usual, all of the concerts will take place in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. All performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Friday, October 18: The piano trio that will open the season calls itself the Z.E.N. Trio, taking its name from the first initials of the first names of the players: Zhang Zuo on piano, Esther Yoo on violin, and Narek Hakhnazaryan on piano. The program has not been finalized, but it is known that the music of both Franz Schubert and Dmitri Shostakovich will be on the program. Both of these composers wrote two piano trios; but Shostakovich’s earlier trio, Opus 8 in C minor, is rarely performed. On the other hand both Schubert trios, D. 898 in B-flat major and D. 929 in E-flat major, are frequently performed. They were both written in 1827, and D. 929 was probably written within a year of his death on November 19, 1828.

Monday, October 21: The Calidore String Quartet made its SFP debut this past January, sharing the stage with pianist Inon Barnatan. The players are violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi. For their return to SFP they will present the world premiere of a new composition (not yet titled) by Anna Clyne. The second half of the program will be devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 130 string quartet in B-flat major coupled with the Opus 133 “Große Fuge,” which was originally intended as the final movement of the Opus 130 quartet. The program will begin with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/32 quartet in C major, the second of the six Opus 20 (“Sun”) quartets. This will be followed by Schubert’s D. 703 Allegro movement in C minor, given the name “Quartett-Satz" in Otto Erich Deutsch’s thematic catalog.

Tuesday, March 10: This season the string quartet that will be joined by a pianist will be the Pavel Haas Quartet, whose members are violinists Veronika Jarůšková and Mark Zwiebel, violist Jiří Kabát, and cellist Peter Jarůšek. The pianist will be Boris Giltburg, who will join them in a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 81 (second) piano quintet in A major. The first half of the program will present the sixth quartet by Bohuslav Martinů and the fourth quartet by Béla Bartók.

Saturday, March 28: The final recital will be given by the Jerusalem Quartet. This group consists of violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyrie Zlotnokov. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms’ first string quartet, the first of his two Opus 51 quartets in C minor. Their program will also begin with a Haydn quartet, this time Hoboken III/76, the second of the Opus 76 quartets known as the “Fifths” quartet. This will be followed by Shostakovich’s Opus 117 (ninth) quartet in E-flat major.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $260 for premium seating, $200, and $160. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, August 19 and will also be sold by City Box Office. Once available, they may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to each of the above dates.

“Vintage” Blues from HowellDevine at Union Square

Joshua Howell, Pete Devine, and Joe Kyle, Jr. (photograph by the author)

This afternoon I went over to Union Square Live to check out the first set taken by HowellDevine. Those who saw my “preview calendar” article for this month know that the genre for this group was given as “vintage blues.” HowellDevine is a trio named after two of its members. Joshua Howell is the vocalist, also playing both guitar and harmonica. Pete Devine plays drums and occasionally a washboard. The third member is the bass player, Joe Kyle, Jr.

It is slightly ironic that I should be writing about blues the day after I was taking issue with James Tenney over whether or not form is an “object of perception.” I think it would be fair to say that blues is not so much a form as it is an evolved repertoire of practices that loosely share a common framework. Variation can be found in the words, in the rhythms, and even in the overall tempo; but all those variations are rooted in the soil of a set of “common practices” (scare quotes serving as a sly nod to academic musicologists).

What springs forth from those roots is a rich diversity of approaches that players can take to improvisation. So listening to HowellDivine was not so much a matter of trying to recognize familiar tunes or following the words (familiar or not) as it was one of following the prodigious diversity of approaches to improvisation taken by all three members of the trio. Only a few of the selections were announced; and, for my part, the only hint of familiarity came near the end of the set with the performance of “Baby, Please Don't Go,” which I know best from my recordings of Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Familiarity aside, following all the improvisations was a real hoot. Howell’s guitar work took in a prodigiously diverse variety of sonorities spiced up by any number of imaginative rhythms. His harmonica playing, on the other hand, amounted to almost heartbreaking sorrowful wailing, about as close an approximation to vocal work as one could hope to achieve. Devine backed up Howell with a solid sense of rhythm, pulling out the washboard every now and then for a somewhat livelier rhetoric. Kyle’s bass work made for a steady foundation, but he also had his own ways to contribute to the prevailing spirit of improvisation.

Back when I lived in Los Angeles, I used to listen to Bernie Pearl’s blues program on the radio. A couple of times my wife and I were able to catch up on a performance by the Bernie Pearl Blues Band. All that took place about 30 years ago; and, since then, my primary source for blues has been recordings. To say that the experience of listening to blues in performance by HowellDivine was nostalgically refreshing would be the height of understatement!

Yoko Miwa’s New Trio Album

Courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

A little over a month ago, Ocean Blue Tear Music released the latest trio album by jazz pianist Yoko Miwa, entitled Keep Talkin’ (which is also the title of the first track, composed by Miwa). The other trio members are Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums, with Brad Barrett taking bass on the final track, another Miwa composition entitled “Sunshine Follows.” Miwa is a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; and there is an almost academic quality to this album, demonstrating the scope of trio improvisation through the inventiveness of all three players and featuring six of Miwa’s compositions.

In terms of pedagogy, this album is a valuable resource. However, for all of its polish, there is an overall sense of blandness. This is most evident in the performance of Charles Mingus’ “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” This is one of those Mingus pieces that only showed up in recording on the Columbia label, where it had been subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous bowdlerization by producer Teo Macero. When Mingus was allowed to be Mingus, his performances were aggressively raw and frequently provocative. When listening to the Mingus Ah Um album, the Mingus aficionado can come close to detecting those qualities struggling to make themselves heard, only to be smoothed over by technical production values. Unfortunately, Miwa’s account of this piece has more to do with Macero than with Mingus (so much the worse for the Mingus legacy).

The one Thelonious Monk track, “In Walked Bud,” fares much better. Slater takes the lead with his bass work; and, as was the case with Frank Kimbrough’s sessions for his Monk’s Dreams complete anthology, the emphasis is on the music itself, rather than Monk’s idiosyncratic approaches to the piano keyboard. The result is an upbeat account in which all three trio members seem to be having fun exercising their respective capacities for invention. Would that Miwa’s own pieces could raise spirits to a similar height!

James Tenney’s Final Thoughts on Harmony

In the last three of the chapters in the James Tenney anthology From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory, the author continues to wrestle with the nature of harmony and the perception of pitch. What is interesting is how each of Tenney’s essays on these matters tries to approach the subject from a different point of view, meaning that, by the end of the collection, one is reminded of the problems that three blind men have in trying to describe an elephant. “The Several Dimensions of Pitch,” written in 1993 and revised in 2003, tried to grab this particular elephant by its physiology, beginning with several informative pages that take a deep dive into what is happening in the inner ear. Of greatest interest is the explanation of the difference between hearing a simultaneity of individual tones and hearing them as a single unified stimulus, suggesting that, from an ontological point of view, a “chord” resides in a different category than a single tone.

In itself this is a rather profound insight. The problem is that Tenney does not quite seem to know where to take it. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that he never really reconciles the difference between the mathematical precision of integer ratio with the “fudge factors” of tolerance that arise when listening to real instruments playing their tones. As a result, I come away from Tenney’s speculations reminded of the old joke that the mathematical constant π, a transcendental irrational number, is equal to the integer 3 for very large values of 3.

The following chapter, “On ‘Crystal Growth’ in Harmonic Space,” also written in 1993 and revised in 2003, is the most problematic in the collection. It serves up an abundance of diagrams that get progressively larger and perhaps may be interpreted as a metaphor for crystal growth. For the life of me, I could not make heads or tails out of how to read those diagrams or what Tenney intended them to signify. It is as if he was in search of yet another metaphor to elaborate his thoughts, but it is almost immediately clear that his knowledge of auditory physiology was on much sounder ground than anything involving crystal growth.

The final chapter discusses Tenney’s composition “Diapason” and can be taken, without too much of a stretch, as a summing-up of the entire volume. The composition was clearly intended to make concrete many of Tenney’s abstract speculations on how the concept of harmony could “evolve” to accommodate new concepts of consonance and dissonance in the atonal repertoire. The “punch line” of those speculations is as follows:
Before harmony can evolve, the role of music itself must evolve. Otherwise we will simply be replaying an earlier scenario with minor, “cosmetic” changes in the details.
My own feeling is that there is too much to music to be crammed into a single context, let alone a “role” associated with that context. For my part, I would prefer to fall back on the “definition” that I think was attributed to Erik Satie by John Cage, which declares simply that music is what happens at concerts. I have now lived long enough to see the nature of the concert evolve in any number of imaginative ways, each with its own sense of context. Has music “evolved” along with the concert experience? From the Satie-Cage point of view, I suppose it has!

In the final paragraph of this chapter, Tenney turns his attention to the concept of form, which he declares should be treated “simply as another object of perception.” This takes me back to my own frequently-explored turf of the nature of mind as hypothesized by Gerald Edelman based on speculations by Friedrich Hayek. This involves the principle of “perceptual categorization,” which I discussed when writing about the “META Meta + Hodos” chapter in From Scratch. As I see it, what Tenney calls an “object of perception” is basically what Edelman calls a “perceptual category;” and, on the basis of what Edelman has written about the relationship between brain and perceptual categories, I am not yet convinced that the concept of form is one of those perceptual categories.

Mary Halvorson’s Poetic License in Code Girl

Code Girl musicians Amirtha Kidambi, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Adam O’Farrill, and Mary Halvorson (from the event page for last night’s concert)

Last night in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, guitarist Mary Halvorson expanded her Thumbscrew trio, which she had been leading on Thursday and Friday evenings, to her Code Girl quintet. The members of Thumbscrew are Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. The expansion consisted of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. (For those dwelling on the trumpeter’s name, he is the son of jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who has performed at Herbst Theatre for San Francisco Performances, meaning that he is also the grandson of the other trumpeter in the family, Chico O’Farrill.) Code Girl also involved an expansion of Halvorson’s compositional scope, since she provided the texts that Kidambi sang.

Halvorson is, without a doubt, an impressively imaginative guitarist. From the very beginning one could appreciate her attentiveness to every note from her instrument, frequently working with subtle bends in her intonation (no easy matter on a fretted instrument). Sadly, Halvorson the songwriter is another matter; and Kidambi seemed hard pressed to summon a satisfying account of her texts. It was hard to avoid thinking about that old joke that Halvorson’s poetic license should be revoked.

Part of the reason may have been that the texts themselves seemed to consisted of words morphing into phonemes and then peregrinating between those two “stable states.” Another part may have involved the fact that Kidambi rarely came across with clear diction; and, even with a microphone, she never found a balance with O’Farrill that would attain the threshold of audibility. However, the snippets that were comprehensible almost seemed to suggest that Halvorson was exploring the parody of beat poetry at its most self-absorbed.

Fortunately, O’Farrill’s trumpet work was inventive enough to hold attention whenever he took up the instrument. Over the course of the one-hour set, he explored a variety of different styles involving not only a diversity of genres but several imaginative approaches to alternative techniques. The truth is that I could not get enough of him and tended to regard both the conception and the performance of the vocal work as little more than a distraction.

With a vocalist and a trumpeter on the front line, Thumbscrew took the weight of the rhythm section. However, that status did not impede the inventive creativity behind Halvorson’s guitar work. Nevertheless, what was most impressive were the ways in which that guitar work could mesh seamlessly with Formanek’s equally inventive bass work. This threatened to relegate Fujiwara to the background; but, every now and then, he would erupt with a stunning polyrhythmic interjection to remind us that he was there.

Were Halvorson to back-pedal on her interest in songwriting, she might pay a bit more attention to O’Farrill and think of expanding Thumbscrew into a quartet.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Old First Concerts: September, 2019

Given how much will be happening during the month of September with the launch of a new season for many of the performing arts organizations, it seems appropriate to “keep up with the competition” by providing the schedule for the Old First Concerts (O1C) series during that month. Since these events have been included in a printed brochure, we may assume that plans are about as “cast in concrete” as they are likely to get. As always, however, any changes in those plans will be handled by posts to the shadow page for this site on Facebook.

All O1C events take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Hyperlinks for online purchase through specific event pages will be attached to the date-and-time information given below. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church. Here are the specifics for the month of September:

Sunday, September 1, 4 p.m.: Jazz pianist Mike Greensill will resume his tradition of performing for Old First Concerts on Labor Day weekend. He will be joined by vocalist Denise Perrier, who has been called “The Voice with a Heart.” Selections will be taken from the American Songbook, with a special emphasis on compositions by Duke Ellington.

Sunday, September 8, 4 p.m.: Tangonero is an ensemble based in San Francisco, which is dedicated to preserving the tradition of Argentine Tango. Their book ranges from the folk stylings of Roberto Grela to Astor Piazzolla, who led his own combo but also made significant ventures into the classical genre, including a full-length opera. Two of the core members are from the United States, Yuri Kye, who plays both violin and viola, and Richard Duke on bass. The other two are Russia-born Alex Roitman on bandoneon and Malaysian pianist Celeste Chiam, who is also a trained ballet dancer. For this performance they will be joined by vocalist Claudio Ortega.

Friday, September 13, 8 p.m.: Pianist Omri Shimron has prepared a program entitled Metamorphosis, which will amount to a study of how original identity is retained over the course of transformation. Two of the composers on the program explicitly incorporate the noun “metamorphosis” in their respective titles, Philip Glass (in which the original identity is a simple chord progression) and Menachem Weisenberg, whose two compositions explore individual intervals, perfect fifth and octave, respectively. In addition Shimron will explore the changes to a basic theme that unfold in the first (in C minor) of Franz Schubert’s D. 899 four impromptus. The program will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 830 partita in E minor, which, Shimron claims, “can be perceived as a set of variations on a theme, bound together by one key.”

Sunday, September 15, 4 p.m.: The ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a program of its own arrangements and commissioned works. This will include the world premiere of its latest commission, composed by Erberk Eryilmaz and not yet assigned a title. The other commissioned composers will be Robert Greenberg (“Exercised”), Gabriella Smith (“From Máncora to Huaraz”), and Allen Shawn (“Fantasy”). The most interesting arrangement involves Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye. This was originally composed as a suite for piano duet in 1910. However, a year later, Ravel expanded the score into an eleven-movement ballet with orchestral accompaniment, which was first performed in January of 1912. ZOFO will play their own arrangement of this ballet score, as well as Frank Martin’s 1924 overture.

Friday, September 20, 8 p.m.: In a program entitled Cello++, violist Aaron Rosengaus will celebrate the rich sounds of tenor strings by joining forces with the string players of the Delphi Trio and the Alden Trio. The selections will be Anton Arensky’s Opus 35 quartet in A minor for violin, viola, and two cellos and Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major, which adds a second violin to the resources for the Arensky quartet. The Delphi musicians will be violinist Liana Bérubé and cellist Michelle Kwon, and the Alden players will be violinist Yuri Kye and cellist Brady Anderson.

Sunday, September 22, 4 p.m.: This will be the second solo piano recital of the month, marking the return of Italian pianist Laura Magnani. Her program will be framed by two sonatas, beginning with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) in C minor and concluding with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 28 (third) sonata in A minor. Between these two selections, she will play Schubert’s D. 946 set of three piano pieces, sometimes known as the third set of impromptus.

Canellakis is Coming!

Conductor Karina Canellakis (from her San Francisco Symphony event page)

(Boy, do I wish I had a Game of Thrones font!)

At a time when following the news feels like “one damned thing after another,” BBC News provided a major lift to my spirits with a decidedly upbeat article by BBC music reporter Mark Savage. On the surface this seemed like the usual annual account of the First Night of the BBC Proms, but the occasion was anything but usual. The conductor was New Yorker Karina Canellakis, a violin graduate from the Juilliard School who was encouraged by Simon Rattle to leave the Second Violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and take up conducting. She has now made history as the first woman to conduct First Night.

She prepared a program that might almost have served as a thank-you to Rattle for encouraging her career change. The second half was devoted entirely to Leoš Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass,” so named because it is a setting of the Mass text in the Glagolitic alphabet. During his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle made a particularly impressive recording of this piece; and it is actually the “lead” selection (the first eight tracks of the first CD) in the Warner Classics anthology, Simon Rattle: The CBSO years.

The challenge of performing this piece goes beyond the music. Glagolitic is the predecessor of the modern Cyrillic alphabet, but there is very little knowledge about its phonetics. As a result, as mezzo Jennifer Johnston put it, pronunciation was “our best guess, along with academics who’ve given us some guidance.”

However, honoring Rattle was only part of the package Canellakis delivered at Proms. She opening with the world premiere performance of “Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory” by fellow New Yorker Zosha Di Castri. This was composed on a commission by the BBC to mark (today’s) 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. This was followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 109 symphonic poem, “The Golden Spinning Wheel,” given, according to Savage, “a lovingly-shaped rendition.”

Nevertheless, all of this is now in the past; but as William Shakespeare had Antonio say in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue.” Canellakis’ successful Proms debut should prepare those of us in the Bay Area for her debut on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony this coming October. She has prepared a program with a challenge entirely different from that of dealing with text written in Glagolitic.

The program will be shared by the two major Russian composers of the first half of the twentieth century, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. What is interesting is that Canellakis has chosen selections by each of these composers with extended passages that dwell on strict repetition to the point of aggravation, almost as if each of them were trying to get even with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” in his own way. The Prokofiev selection will be his first (Opus 10) piano concerto in D-flat major; and since it was completed in Russia in 1912, any connection to “Bolero” is entirely anachronistic. Nevertheless, the opening measures are so repetitive that it almost seems as if Prokofiev wanted to push (or cross) the limits of listener tolerance, while Ravel’s variation in instrumentation makes for a less provocative experience.

Prokofiev’s concerto lasts only about a quarter of an hour in its entirety. The remainder of the program will be devoted the Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony. This symphony is known as the “Leningrad;” and it was completed shortly after the beginning of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. (The city was still under siege when the symphony was first performed in Samara.) The first movement is dominated by what has been called the “invasion” march; and the Wikipedia page for this symphony clearly nods to Ravel in describing this march as a “bolero-like ostinato.”

However, this is a case of devils in the details. The second half of the theme sounds like a clear quotation of “Da geh' ich zu Maxim” (you’ll find me at Maxim’s), sung by Count Danilo Danilovitsch in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow; and no less than Shostakovich’s son has affirmed that the composer intended this as a shameless appropriation. Nevertheless, Russians hearing the symphony for the first time were, at least according to prevailing (i.e. “Party line”) reports, profoundly moved by the intensity that cut through the entire composition.

The American premiere was given by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini for a live radio broadcast. The recording of that concert is included in the complete collection of RCA recordings of Toscanini performances. Critical reception, however, was another matter. Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson declared, “It seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted.” There is also the story that Béla Bartók listened to the broadcast from a hospital bed and was so aggravated that he appropriated the “Maxim” theme for his own “Concerto for Orchestra.” (It provides the “interruption” for the movement entitled “Intermezzo Interotto.”) However, the pianist György Sándor, who worked closely with Bartók, claims that Bartók’s appropriation was from Léhar, rather than Shostakovich!

I have provided all of this background to make it clear that Canellakis will be biting off a good deal to chew when she comes to Davies. I, for one, am looking forward to the occasion. I am glad that she will be taking bold chances at a time when there are too many concert programs trying to “play it safe” in the hopes that more audiences will be inclined to attend.

Catching up on Met Telecasts: Damrau and Verdi

When the pace slows down in the summer, I try to use the time to catch up on the Great Performances at the Met broadcasts that I have saved in my xfinity cloud space. Last night I finished working my way through Michael Mayer’s new staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The “triangle” of principal roles were sung by soprano Diana Damrau (Violetta Valéry), tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Alfredo Germont), and baritone Quinn Kelsey (Giorgio Germont). The video was recorded this past December 15, and the broadcast was aired here on April 14.

I should probably begin with a disclaimer. As we get older, both my wife and I seem to have encountered a sort-of “saturation” with certain operas. My wife has made it abundantly clear that she has had enough of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. I understand and sympathize, but Traviata is the one that most gets on my nerves.

Verdi has always troubled me for his blatant inconsistencies; but, for my money, Traviata has one of his worst bloopers. The problem is that it has one of the most promising beginnings that rises to a pinnacle of ecstasy and then falls with a thud. The opening measures presage Violetta’s death scene, and there is a transparency to the scoring that makes these measures possibly the best thing Verdi ever wrote. Then, as soon as the listener is elevated by that rhetoric (s)he is dropped with a thud by some of the worst oom-pah-pah music in the literature.

The ultimate test of a conductor is whether (s)he can transcend the banality of that passage. Nézet-Séguin failed to do so, and it sounded as if he was not even trying. Indeed, he was clearly in his comfort zone when the score allowed him to run the full gamut from loud to loudest; and full-blast sonorities were just as strong from the choral work as they were from the orchestra pit. Too much of this performance involved Verdi written with a mega-sized Magic Marker.

Perhaps this was consistent with the paucity of subtlety in Mayer’s production. Yes, he took an imaginative approach to a silent depiction of the death scene during the very opening measures of the score. However, it turned out that both the death bed and a piano remained on the stage for the entirety of the opera. Perhaps Mayer wanted “Memento mori” to be the motto of his production; but he was so blatant about it that the overall impact was silly, rather than meditative.

Fortunately, the leading vocalists made the best of the situation. With her long blonde hair, Damrau reminded me of the younger Meryl Streep; and she definitely gets points for avoiding needless excess in much (but not all) of her vocal work. Flórez was less convincing; but, at the end of the day, his character is the one that is the most weakly shaped in the scenario. I must confess to a bit of bias towards Kelsey, since he is an Adler alumnus; but he deserved better than the turn-on-a-dime mood shifts that Mayer loaded into his character portrayal.

So, if I went into viewing this recording feeling as if I had reached saturation with Traviata production, there was very little about this broadcast to change my mind!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Plans for PBO’s 2019/20 San Francisco Season

Full and partial subscription tickets are still on sale for the 39th season of concerts given by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale. This season has the descriptive title Reflections, since it will reflect on the legacy of Nicholas McGegan and his 35 years of service as Waverley Fund Music Director. Once again, the season will consist of six programs, each of which will be given at least one performance in San Francisco. Also, as was the case last season, programming will extend the usual repertoire of the “distant past” by presenting a newly commissioned work by composer Caroline Shaw. Finally, all San Francisco performances will again take place at Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, October 17, 8 p.m.: San Francisco will have the honor of hosting the world premiere of Shaw’s commissioned composition, “The Listeners,” which will open the first program of the season, entitled A Cosmic Notion. Little information has been released to date other than the fact that it will feature the otherworldly low-register voices of contralto Avery Amereau and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Scoring will involve the full forces of PBO joined by the Philharmonia Chorale directed by Bruce Lamott. Shaw’s piece will be complemented by George Frideric Handel’s HWV 74 “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne” with a libretto by Ambrose Philips. This ode is often known by the first line of the text, “Eternal source of light divine.” Burton will be one of the three soloists, the other two being soprano Arwen Myers and countertenor Reginald Mobley.

Friday, November 15, 8 p.m.: San Francisco native Jeannette Sorrell, founding director of Apollo’s Fire, will make her long-awaited debut as PBO guest conductor. The title of her program will be Mozart’s Musings; and one of those “musings,” the K. 314 oboe concerto in C major, will feature PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz. The overture-concerto-symphony format will begin with the overture to the K. 51 opera La finta semplice (the fake innocent). The symphony will be K. 550 in G minor, probably Mozart’s best known symphony. As a “bonus” the overture will be followed by a suite of music from Zémire et Azor, a four-act opera by Mozart’s Belgian contemporary André Grétry.

Thursday, December 5, 7 p.m.: This December Hanukkah will take precedence over Christmas when McGegan conducts Handel’s HWV 63 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. The title role will be sung by tenor Nicholas Phan. The other vocal soloists will be soprano Robin Johannsen, mezzo Sara Couden, and baritone William Berger. Lamott will again prepare the Philharmonia Chorale.

Friday, February 7, 8 p.m.: Music Director Designate Richard Egarr will return to the PBO podium to present a program entitled The Well-Caffeinated Clavier. This will be a program consisting entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, bringing his BWV 211 “Coffee” cantata together with two keyboard concertos, BWV 1058 in G minor and BWV 1052 in D minor. Egarr will conduct both concertos from the harpsichord. Bach cantatas tend to be known by the first line of German text; but, where BWV 211 is concerned, I have always had a preference for the (very?) loose English translation, “All right, you guys, shut up and listen to me!” The cantata vocalists will be soprano Nola Richardson as the coffee addict Lieschen, tenor James Reese as the narrator, and bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as Lieschen’s father Schlendrian (another opportunity for English translation, since the name translates as “stick in the mud”). Egarr will conclude the program with the BWV 1068 orchestral suite in D major.

Friday, March 13, 8 p.m.: This will be McGegan’s annual program of nineteenth-century music. Violinist Alana Youssefian will return to the PBO stage as soloist in Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 concerto in E minor. This will be another overture-concerto-symphony program. The overture will be that of Luigi Cherubini’s opera Démophoon (which was actually first performed near the end of the eighteenth century but is admissible within “experimental error”). The symphony, however, will be decidedly nineteenth-century, Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“The Great”) in C major.

Wednesday, April 15–Saturday, April 18, 7 p.m., and Sunday, April 19, 3 p.m.: All four of the performances of the final program will take place in Herbst. This will be a fully-staged production of Scylla et Glaucus, the only surviving full-length opera by Jean-Marie Leclair. This offering will be co-produced by the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. The title roles will be sung by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery and haute-contre Aaron Sheehan. The other vocal soloists will be sopranos Véronique Gens and Judith van Wanroij and baritone Douglas Williams. The production will be staged by Catherine Turocy, who will also provide choreography for her New York Baroque Dance Company. The choral resources will be provided by Les Chantres de la Maîtrise du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles.

As noted above, there are a variety of subscription options for those not wishing to attend all six of these concerts. Prices range from $90 to $660. Single tickets will go on sale on August 1. The season summary Web page includes More Info hyperlinks for each of the individual concerts. Each of those program-specific Web pages will include a hyperlink for purchasing single tickets. Further information may be obtained by calling Patron Services at 415-295-1900, which is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition there will be three augmentations to the subscription offerings taking place in San Francisco. The first of these will be another side-by-side performance that will bring the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players together with members of Juilliard415, the period instrument ensemble at the Juilliard School. The program will consist of two Bach compositions, the BWV 1066 (first) orchestral suite in C major and the BWV 1048 (third) “Brandenburg” concerto in G major. Antonio Vivaldi will be represented by a concerto in D major for violin and double orchestra, and the program will conclude with an orchestral suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux.

This program will be given only one performance, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 10. As was the case last year, the venue will be the ODC Theater, located at 3153 17th Street on the northwest corner of Shotwell Street. All tickets will be $25 and a post-concert wine reception will be included.

The second augmentation will be on a much larger scale. This will be a staged performance of Handel’s HWV 72 dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. The production is shared with National Sawdust, and the producers are  Anthony Ross Costanzo and Cath Brittan. Staging will be by Christopher Alden, and McGegan will conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players. The title roles will be taken, respectively, by soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Costanzo, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

There will be an Opening Night Gala Performance on Wednesday, January 22, at 8 p.m. The venue will be the Taube Atrium Theater, part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This will be followed by seven performances at the ODC Theater at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 24, Saturday, January 25, Tuesday, January 28, Wednesday, January 29, Friday, January 31, and Saturday, February 1, as well as a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, January 26. Ticket prices will be announced when single tickets go on sale.

Finally, there will be only one PBO SESSIONS event taking place in San Francisco during the coming season. However, this will mark Egarr’s first participation in this series. The title of the event will be A Cup o’ Johann. It will explore the activities of Bach and his Collegium Musicum colleagues in the weekly concerts at Leipzig’s Café Zimmermann. This event will also take place at 8 PM on February 8. The venue will again be the ODC Theater, and ticket prices will be announced when single tickets go on sale.

Impressive SFS Debuts by Conductor and Soloist

Conductor Brett Mitchell and violinist Blake Pouliot (from the event page for this concert)

As previously announced, the two “serious” concerts being performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) as part of the Summer with the Symphony events at Davies Symphony Hall are both introducing new conductors and new soloists. At the first of those two concerts last night, the conductor was Brett Mitchell, currently Music Director of the Colorado Symphony. His soloist was the young Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, currently pursuing a Professional Studies Certificate at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles.

Pouliot’s concerto selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 in E minor, which was about as bread-and-butter as a rising violin talent could offer. His appearance, on the other hand, was more consistent with American Idol than with traditional SFS attire. However, appearances can be deceptive; and, after a few minor difficulties with the first salvo of rapid-fire triplets following the first statement of the opening theme, Pouliot consistently delivered a solid account of all remaining virtuoso demands. Just as importantly, he knew how to take command of the slower passages; and his soft dynamics were enough to make any attentive listener sit up and take notice. Furthermore, if his attire was a matter of “presentation of self,” his playing consistently embodied a finely-honed relationship of agreement between conductor and soloist. The result was that, for all of the familiarity of this concerto, there was an infrastructure of in-the-moment spontaneity that made this particular partnership of soloist, ensemble, and conductor one for the books.

The audience was clearly not going to leave for intermission until Pouliot provided an encore. He gave a solo performance of his own arrangement of the Irish tune “Aislean an Oigfear,” which serves as the melody for the poem “The Last Rose of Summer.” (Was his choice motivated by the fact that Mendelssohn’s Opus 15 is a solo piano fantasia on this tune?) The arrangement took on a variety of innovative technical devices, but it was the lyricism of the tune itself that stole the show. Pouliot is definitely a violinist to watch, however deceiving his “stage presence” may be.

Mitchell framed the Mendelssohn concerto with two selections by Hector Berlioz, both enjoying the same level of general familiarity as the concerto. The second half of the program consisted entirely of the Opus 14 “Symphony fantastique” (fantastical symphony), while the “overture” for the program was the “Marche hongroise” (Hungarian march) from the Opus 24 “légende dramatique” (dramatic legend), La damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust). Opus 14 was given a solid interpretation, accounting for the many expressive techniques that Berlioz conjured up to plumb the depths of a deranged (possibly through drugs) mind. What was important was that Mitchell never overplayed his hand, giving free rein to the rhetoric while keeping the vast instrumental resources strictly under control in the service of that rhetoric.

The real surprise came with the “overture.” In the overall plan of Opus 24, this almost serves as “incidental music” between the vocal selections that unfold the Faust narrative. However, Berlioz’ treatment of orchestral resources was never “incidental.” In this case the principal theme unfolds above a polyphony of different textures emerging from the different sections of the orchestra. (The last time I heard this music was when the San Francisco Opera presented a staged version of Opus 24; and, sadly, all of that polyphony got lost in the orchestra pit.) Mitchell clearly knew how many details were in play in this score, and he knew how to make every one of them stand out in its contribution to the intricacies of the entirety.

Mitchell is definitely a conductor to watch; and hopefully he will return to Davies during the “primary portion” of a coming season.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s New Album with ABS

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen on the cover of his new ABS album (from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording)

Those who follow this site regularly probably know by now that countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was the recipient of this year’s Jeffrey Thomas Award, named after the Artistic and Music Director of American Bach Soloists (ABS). He was introduced to ABS audiences this past December 31 at a special concert entitled A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera, a program of arias, duets, and overtures in which he was joined by soprano Mary Wilson. Since the beginning of this year, he has been featured on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House when San Francisco Ballet presented the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s latest ballet, “…two united in a single soul…,” in Herbst Theatre in the role of David when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale performed George Frideric Handel’s HWV 53 oratorio Saul, and again at the Opera House for the San Francisco Opera production of Handel’s HWV 31 opera Orlando.

Cohen will not give his first ABS Subscription Series performance until this coming January. However, at the beginning of this month, ABS released its latest recording, which features Cohen as soloist. As of this writing, Amazon.com is distributing this album only through digital download; but those who still prefer physical media can purchase the CD through a Web page created for ABS.

As might be expected, the content includes selections from Cohen’s New Year’s Eve performance. As was the case at that concert, the featured composers are (in order of appearance on the album) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel. Gluck is represented by only two arias, both on the New Year’s Eve program, the familiar “Che faró senza Euridice?” (what shall I do without Euridice) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the less well-known “Sperai vicino il lido” (I hoped that the harbor was close) from Demofoonte.

The major Vivaldi selection (which concludes the album) was not performed on New Year’s Eve. This is the most extended composition on the album, the RV 621 setting of the Stabat Mater hymn. Vivaldi is also represented by two opera overtures for, respectively, Farnace (RV 711) and La verità in cimento (truth in contention, RV 739). Finally, the album has four Handel opera arias, one of which, “Vivi tiranno, io t’ho scampato” (live tyrant, I escaped you) from HWV 19 Rodelinda, was performed on New Year’s Eve.

I made it a point to frame the content of this new album with my past concert experiences because I seldom have the opportunity to engage in such comparative listening. The fact is that Cohen has already cultivated a strong sense of stage presence, which, at the New Year’s Eve concert, held up just as well in his duet work with the more-experienced Wilson as it did in his solo performances. The recording, on the other hand, is “all about the music.” The good news is that Cohen’s solid and well-polished vocal qualities are as strong on recording as they have been on the stage. However, I would suggest that he still has a way to go before his “recorded presence” can capture rhetorical qualities as well as his physical appearance does.

There is, of course, a tendency to approach opera arias, particularly those preceding the Classical period, as static. The aria reflects the interior passions of the singer; and the “action” of the opera’s scenario is “put on hold” to allow those passions to reveal themselves. However, when the aria is performed out of context, the challenge is to convey some sense of the underlying dramatic qualities without requiring the listener to know all the details of that context. After listening to all of the selections on this album, I must confess that Cohen never quite disclosed rhetorical stances that would make listening a compelling experience, even when the rhetoric of the text was at its most blatant in the Stabat Mater setting.

Many, of course, may be content with this album, particularly as an introduction to the less familiar selections; but, personally, I had hoped for a more vigorous demand for my attention.

The SFP 2019–2020 Guitar Series

For its 40th Anniversary Season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) will present a Guitar Series with six concerts, rather than the usual five. As in the past, these concerts will be presented in association with the OMNI Foundation for the Performing Arts. Four of the programs will be solo recitals, one will be a guitar quartet, and one will include the Alexander String Quartet (violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson), which has been the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence since 1989.

The first concert in the series will begin at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, and all remaining events will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evenings. One event will take place at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. All others will take place at Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

October 13, Herbst Theatre: A former Artist-in-Residence, Manuel Barrueco has had a long and close relationship with SFP. He was born in Cuba and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1967 as political refugees. As a result, he has extended his repertoire beyond the usual Spanish sources to include those from the New World, particularly Cuba. His program will feature Cuban composers such as Ignacio Cervantes (whose teachers included Louis Moreau Gottschalk) and Héctor (Manuel) Angulo (Rodríguez), who is probably best known for having taught the music of the Guajira Guantanamera to Pete Seeger. In a related vein Barrueco will play an arrangement of Enrique Granados’ Opus 36 set of two pieces for piano entitled A la Cubana. The program will begin with Renaissance selections by Luis de Narváez, and the other Spanish selections on the program will be piano music by Isaac Albéniz and Francisco Tárrega’s transcriptions for guitar.

October 26, Herbst Theatre: Jason Vieaux will premiere a new suite written for him by Pat Metheny. He will also play two Baroque selections, his own arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 solo violin sonata in G minor and Leo Brouwer’s arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 208 keyboard sonata in A major. The program will also include Mauro Giuliani’s Opus 107 set of variations on a theme by George Frideric Handel and the Suite del Recuerdo by José Luis Merlin.

November 23, Herbst Theatre: The quartet concert will be by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, whose members are Scott Tennant, Matt Greif, John Dearman, and Bill Kanengiser. They are calling their program American Guitar Masterworks, although most of the selections will probably be arrangements for quartet, if not for the guitar itself. As a result there will be compositions by both John Philip Sousa and Aaron Copland, bluegrass created by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for The Foggy Mountain Boys, and “Sixties Revolutionaries,” such as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

December 7, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Born in China and now living in the United Kingdom, Xuefei Yang was the first internationally recognized Chinese guitarist on the world stage. She has attracted the attention of many composers, including Chen Yi, the first female student at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing to receive a Master of Arts degree. Yang will play several of the pieces that Chen wrote for her. Her program will begin with an arrangement of piano music by Claude Debussy followed by the “Homenaje” (homage) that Manuel de Falla wrote following Debussy’s death. There will also be selections by Granados, Joaquín Rodrigo, Paco de Lucía, and Paco Peña. She will conclude the program with arrangements of traditional Chinese music.

March 7, Herbst Theatre: Kanengiser will return to Herbst, this time to perform with the Alexander String Quartet. The title of the program will be British Invasion; and it will feature the United States premiere of Prism, arrangements of six songs by Sting prepared by Dušan Bogdanović. The “pop” spirit of the program will continue with Leo Brouwer’s arrangements of seven Beatles songs, after which the group will play “Labyrinth,” composed by Ian Krouse and based on a theme by Led Zeppelin. Earlier British music will be represented by Krouse’s “Music in Four Sharps,” based on John Dowland’s “Frog” galliard. Kanengiser will also give solo performances of several of Dowland’s songs.

March 21, Herbst Theatre: David Russell will return with another imaginative program of arrangements and originals. His arrangements tend to focus on the Baroque period. Handel will be represented by HWV 432 in G minor, the seventh of the so-called “eight great” keyboard suites, whose final movement is a passacaglia that inspired an arrangement for violin and viola by Johan Halvorsen. Bach, on the other hand, will be represented by two familiar chorale preludes. The first of these is BWV 645, the first of the “Schübler” chorales for organ, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (awake, calls the voice to us); and the second, “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” (Jesus joy of man’s desiring) comes from the BWV 147 cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (heart and mouth and deed and life). Russell will also play “Phyllis’ Portrait,” composed by another guitarist familiar to SFP audiences, Sérgio Assad. Russell gave the world premiere of this piece in New York this past April.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $335 for premium seating, $280, and $245. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, August 19 and will also be sold by City Box Office. Once available, they may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to each of the above dates.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

James Tenney’s 1990 Darmstadt Lecture

The next article I encountered in my traversal of the chapters in the James Tenney anthology From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory is entitled simply “Darmstadt Lecture.” The lecture was delivered on July 26, 1990, when Tenney was one of the many composers attending that year’s Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (international summer schools for new music at Darmstadt). I gathered from the first sentence of this article that much of the activity involved attendees presenting lectures to their fellow attendees; but, apparently, titles for the lectures were not required.

Tenney began by suggesting the title “Problems of Harmony (II),” the number indicating that Arnold Schoenberg had written a paper with the same title (without a number), which he presented as a lecture on January 20, 1927. (Given that date, it is clear that both the title and the presentation were in German.) Tenney then explained that the plural referred a variety of “smaller problems,” addressing different aspects of the overall topic. Those “subproblems” were, in the order discussed: the historical, the role of theory, the phenomenological, the psychoacoustic, the semantic, and the compositional.

My first reaction was that this fit neatly into “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” the title of a famous paper by cognitive psychologist George Armitage Miller about how many different “items” you could hold in your head at any given time. However, much as I admired Miller and always enjoyed listening to him lecture, I realized that I was much more at home with the ancient tradition of division into three parts. That realization reminded me of the first time I tried to write something serious about the performance of music on this site, in which I explained why I had a tendency to be skeptical of recitals given by competition winners.

My overall framework followed the “rule of three” but in an unlikely manner. The foundation for my argument was the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. I treated each of these as a “dimension” along which I could describe both my listening experiences and my negative response to those experiences. That article was written in March of 2007, and well over a decade later I continue to appeal to either parts of that framework or its entirety when taking on problems of both describing and evaluating listening experiences.

Tenney’s lecture, on the other hand, was the product of a composer, rather than a listener. Nevertheless, each of the problems he reviewed amounted to a problem that would confront anyone trying to describe a piece of music, whether it involved the nature of how the music would be performed or the nature of the experience from the perspective of a listener. As Tenney worked his way through the first five problems, I found myself sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes feeling is if a lightbulb had gone on above my head, and seldom with a Spock-like arched eyebrow.

However, when Tenney came to composition as a problem unto itself, I felt as if either or both of us had hit a brick wall. Rather than talking about composition as a particularly unique subclass of human behavior in general, Tenney devoted almost all of his attention to the concept of a “harmonic space.” His punch line then turned out to be that the activity of composition could be described in terms of “activity in harmonic space” (emphasis in the source text).

This surprised me for any number of reasons. One of the most important involved the close and friendly relationship that Tenney had with John Cage. (Tenney may be the first composer to appreciate and accept what Cage was doing since the early days when Cage and Pierre Boulez were correspondents.) The conclusion of Tenney’s lecture led me to wonder whether he had encountered Erik Satie’s (in?)famous dictum that “music is what happens at concerts.” Cage clearly embraced that assertion and never seemed to run out of innovative ways to exercise it.

Tenney, on the other hand, always seems to have fallen back on “marks on paper,” whether the medium was a score page, a mathematical proposition, or a line of code in a FORTRAN program. To be fair, it would not surprise me if those were also the three “frames of mind” found in every other participant of that year’s summer school. We are getting close to the 30th anniversary of that particular summer school, and I feel a need to ask whether we have advanced or regressed.

I would like to believe that no-one writes code in FORTRAN any more; and it has been quite some time since I have encountered anything requiring me to resuscitate my previous education in higher mathematics. The good news is that I still encounter a fascinating diversity when it comes to the sorts of marks on paper that pass from composer to performer. I take this as a significant departure from the need for “academic reinforcement” when one sets about to make music. The marks on paper have declared their independence from “academic constructs;” and I have yet to regret where that independence is leading us!

Trinity Alps Musicians to Visit San Francisco

Ever since Director Ian Scarfe founded his Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, he has arranged performances in San Francisco featuring Festival musicians. In the past these performances have taken place during the winter months, allowing most of the musicians to make the most of their time “on retreat” from their usual urban life. However, this summer, there will be an intervening weekend between the two weekends scheduled for Festival concerts. During that weekend there will be a special performance for audiences in and near San Francisco.

Opening system of Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet (from IMSLP, public domain)

The major work on the program will be Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major for double string quartet, which he composed at the age of sixteen in the fall of 1825. The performers will be violinists Emma Steele, Ellen McGehee, Otis Harriel, and Aniela Eddy, violists Paula Karolak and Stephen Fine, and cellists Karl Knapp and Joseph Howe. The program will also include a string quartet by Jessie Montgomery. Both of these compositions will have been performed during the first weekend of the Festival.

That weekend will also feature soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine, when she will will perform “To Keep the Dark Away,” a new cycle of songs by Scott Gendel based on poems by Emily Dickinson. That performance will be revisited in San Francisco. Accompaniment will be provided by Scarfe at the piano and cellist Knapp, who is Guarrine’s husband. She will also sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 505 concert aria “Ch'io mi scordi di te?” (will I forget you), which includes an obbligato part for piano. They will be accompanied by the octet of strings, which will work around the pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns included in the original score.

As has been the case with Festival-related concerts in the past, the venue will be The Century Club of California, which is located at 1355 Franklin Street, between Post Street and Sutter Street. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 2. Admission will be $25. The purchase of tickets online is being processed through a Groupmuse event page, and Supermusers will be able to pay only $20 for tickets. This will be part of the Massivemuse series of concerts, since most Groupmuse events are house concerts. Note that it will be necessary to register with Groupmuse before the site can process ticket purchases.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

SFCM: October, 2019

As plans for the coming season unfold, I have discovered that my own Calendar is beginning to fill up for the month of October. As I write this, about one-third of the days of the month have been committed; and that is before I enter the specifics for the concerts that will be taking place in Davies Symphony Hall! Thus, while program specifics have not yet been provided (with a few exceptions), it is probably a good idea to account for those dates that have been assigned in the schedule of performances hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM).

When further details become available, they will be found on the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site closer to the scheduled dates. The individual event pages will specify whether a concert is free and/or whether a reservation is required. If there will be a charge for admission, there will be a hyperlink to a Web page for purchasing tickets. (There will also be hyperlinks for making reservations for free concerts.) For those who do not already know, the SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. What follows is a brief summary of the events in September with hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages:

Journeys of Discovery

Considering how much interesting content unfolded in response to Sarah Cahill’s Facebook post regarding my account of her Flower Piano Recital, I felt a need to clarify the context and consider a broader issue. First of all, I would like to set the record straight on a minor he-said-she-said issue. Cahill made the following assertion:
If Steve, who goes to hundreds of concerts a year, can hear ninety minutes of music composed between 1811 and the present day and declare that it's all unknown to him primarily because the music is written by women, then there is a clear need for us musicians to keep bringing this repertoire to light.
My issue has to do with the use of “because” in that sentence. The text of the assertion that Cahill had in mind was the following:
Each composition had its own stamp of uniqueness; and all of them were unfamiliar to this writer (and probably just about everyone else in the audience this morning).
The compositions were unfamiliar to me not because of the gender of the composer but because, with the exception of Teresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees,” I had neither heard nor heard of any of them through reading or conversation. (Just to be clear, I knew that Fanny Mendelssohn composed; but, prior to Cahill’s performance, I knew nothing about what she had composed.)

The fact is that many of the concerts I attend involve “first contact” experiences, if not for all of the program than for a significant portion of it. One of the reasons I try to get to as many Cahill performances as I can is because I expect to have such experiences. For that matter, she is far from the only performer I approach this way. Other examples that quickly come to mind are Friction Quartet (which, readers of my preview pieces may recall, will share an Old First Concerts program with Cahill on August 16), The Living Earth Show, Areon Flutes, and the A/B Duo. The fact is that there is so much original programming in concerts in San Francisco that coming up with examples is a bit like eating potato chips! (Don’t get me started on enumerating composers, many of whom are, indeed, female.)

However, the selections listed on the program are only the surface structure of any listening experience. What sustains me through those “hundreds of concerts a year” is not whether the repertoire is new or familiar but whether the listening experience bears its own unique stamp of originality. When, at the beginning of this month, I took issue with the recent release of an “Educational Edition” of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, it was because there have been any number of performances of those four concertos that made me sit up and treat them as first-contact experiences, none of which involved “educational” background about the music or the poetry behind the music. Every performance has the potential to be a journey of discovery, and whether or not such a journey is experienced depends more on the performer than on the composer.

From that point of view, Cahill’s qualities as a performer go beyond her choices of repertoire and her approaches to execution. At her Flower Piano recital the attention she put into introducing each piece of music was as important as her presentation of the music itself. Truth be told, it was because of her attention that I found myself following up on many of her points during my writing, seeking out the knowledge serving as background for her remarks and occasionally venturing down a path or two of my own. As a result, while many of my journeys of discovery leave me overwhelmed by the sheer volume of novelty when I then have to write about the experience, I found that I could approach Cahill’s program as a “charted landscape,” through which I could easily set myself a clearly-defined path.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Tenney’s Rigorous Balance of Chance and Choice

Those who have been following my discussion of the articles by James Tenney collected in From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory should, by this time, appreciate how much rigor can be found in Tenney’s efforts, whether they are directed toward musical composition or toward imaginative reconceptions of practices that have come to be called “music theory.” When it comes to composition, there is a good chance that Tenney was inspired by John Cage, who could also be meticulously rigorous when called upon to explain the method behind the creation of one of his compositions. What is interesting about Cage is that, while many of those methods were based on a foundation of using a chance technique (such as the ritual for selecting passages to read from the I Ching), there could be prolific diversity in how that technique would be applied. The Silence anthology has two short articles about such applications, one published in 1952 and the other in 1957; and from these we may appreciate how the creation of method was as important to Cage as the creation of the music itself.

Cage’s approach would have an impact on other composers. The best known of these is probably Pierre Boulez. In 1958 Die Reihe published an article by György Ligeti that provided a deep dive into the creation of one of Boulez’ particularly challenging compositions. The title of the article was “Pierre Boulez: Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structure Ia” (Pierre Boulez, decision and automatism in “Structure Ia”); and evidence of Cage’s impact on Boulez is not hard to find. (The article appeared in the English-language edition of Die Reihe in 1960.)

As Ligeti’s title makes clear, much of the composition process is “automatic,” although it might be better to call it “algorithmic.” The connotations of the latter adjective allow us to appreciate that one cannot have an algorithm before first identifying input data, output data, and the relations that connect them. These are the issues that Ligeti addresses in the “decision” portion of his article.

Tenney’s article “About Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps” is very much cut from the same cloth that served Cage and Boulez. However, where Boulez was concerned with serial techniques that could be applied to the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, Tenney was more interested in exploring the pitches of the natural overtone series. He decided to do this by dividing the semitone into six equal micro-intervals, providing him with an equal-tempered gamut that would enable better approximations to upper harmonics, which could be represented terms of smaller “chromatic shifts” from the traditional pitch classes. (The reader should now appreciate why Tenney’s piece was scored for six harps; each harp had a different “micro-shift” in the pitch of its strings.)

In terms of method, Tenney was far more rigorous than either Cage or Boulez. His expertise in higher mathematics allowed him to make rigorous specifications of subtle variations. This was most evident in his effort to extrapolate principles of harmony into the domain of his 72-pitch equal-tempered gamut. Nevertheless, I think it would be fair to say that almost every reader of this article will come away with absolutely no sense of what it would be like to listen to the results.

(Back when I was living in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to listen to a tape that Tenney played of an excerpt from a performance of Changes. I had as much trouble making sense of my listening experience than I had encountered during my “first contact” with “Structure Ia!” I gather that there is now a performing version six guitars, taking the same approach to chromatic tuning; but I missed out on an opportunity to listen to that music played at the Center for New Music.)

It would be easy to dismiss Tenney’s project as “much ado about not very much.” The fact is that it is very difficult to establish the relationship between Tenney-the-composer and Tenney-the-listener. That relationship was always much clearer in Cage’s work: There was none! Cage simply created the “sonorous materials” for a listening experience; and the listener was free to make of those materials whatever (s)he wished.

Tenney, on the other hand, seems to have been motivated by a desire to explore how one could work with pitches based on the overtone series through techniques consistent with pre-existing knowledge of counterpoint and harmony. Those who have followed this site for some time know that he is far from the only composer to be so motivated. The two composers that have probably received the most attention in my writing have been Ben Johnston and, more recently, Harry Partch. Of these three, Partch has struck me as the one that gave the most thought to the sorts of listening experiences that would arise from his techniques. In that context Tenney occupies the space at the other extreme of the pendulum swing, a claim that I shall be happy to withdraw if convinced by sufficient experience in listening to Tenney’s music, rather than reading about his approaches to composition!

The Bleeding Edge: 7/15/2019

This will be another busy week for which almost all activities have already been announced on this site. These will be at the “usual suspects” venues as follows:
That leaves three remaining events, two of which are also at “usual suspects” venues with the third at a relatively new site that is likely to achieve “usual suspects” status. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, July 17, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This month’s installment in the series of experimental performances will feature two duos and two solos. The first duo will be Jupiter Blue, whose members are “tone scientists” D.Hotep and Jupiter Girl. The techniques behind the pair’s music-making are based on Hotep’s Akimbo Research Projects and involve wide diversity in vocal, instrumental, and electronic performances. The other duo is Voicehandler, which brings vocalist Danishta Rivero together with percussionist Jacob Felix Heule, whose percussion work makes extensive use of real-time electronics. Rivero works with source texts by authors that include Jorge Luis Borges, Knut Hamsun, Eduardo Galeano, and William Burroughs. The solo sets will be the Amphibious Gestures project of Kasper Rodenborn and Brandon Yahir-Taylor’s Heartworm.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight (sometimes known as Haight-Fillmore) at 552 Haight Street, between Fillmore Street and Steiner Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $10.

Sunday, July 21, 6:30 p.m., Honey Hive Gallery: This is the aforementioned site that is likely to achieve “usual suspects” status. Readers may recall that all ages are admitted, and there is a strict rule of no drinking or drugs in and around the venue. As a result, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; and the program concludes by 10 p.m. This usually makes for an evening of four sets, only three of which have been finalized. These will include a solo guitar set by Alex Cohen and a trio set with Tom Weeks on alto saxophone, Kazuto Sato on bass, and Kevin Murray on drums. Less conventional will be the quartet that calls itself Dancin’ Baby. This features two (count them!) euphonium players, Courtney Sexton and Brian Pedersen, who doubles on saxophone. Jeffrey Lievers provides rhythm with both drums and electronics. The quartet is then filled out by Kit Young, who creates real-time analog video feedback.

The Honey Hive Gallery is located in the Sunset at 4117 Judah Street. That makes it accessible to the Muni N trolley line. It is located between 46th Avenue and 47th Avenue. Admission is by a donation of $10.

Monday, July 22, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: It looks as if the Make Out Room has settled into a new pattern of offering two Monday Make-Out concerts every month. The second performance for this month will follow the usual three-set programming. The opening set will be a trio led by saxophonist Jon Raskin. The rhythm section of this trio has not yet been announced. The group will be followed by the art rock and progressive jazz combo that calls itself Education Reform. Appropriately enough, Education Reform will be followed by the Beauty School free improvisation trio led by Djll on both trumpet and modular synthesizer. The other members of the trio will be Matt Chandler on bass and Jacob Heule on drums. According to my records, this program was originally planned for the second Monday Make-Out of last month but seems to have been rescheduled.

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