Friday, October 18, 2019

Organ Recital Planned for SF Sister City Celebration

Organist Cosimo Prontera (courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute)

This year mark’s the 50th anniversary of a Sister City relationship between San Francisco and the city in Italy where St. Francis was born, Assisi. It also happens to be the 800th anniversary of that saint’s visit to the Holy Land. Both of these anniversaries will be honored with a recital that will be given by Italian organist Cosimo Prontera.

Only one of the composers on Prontera’s program will be Italian, Giovanni Morandi, who is best known as an early mentor of Gioachino Rossini. As might be expected, most of Prontera’s program will be devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The selection will include the BWV 543 prelude and fugue in A minor, the BWV 645 chorale prelude on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme” (wake, awake for night is passing), and the transcription of Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 522 concerto for two violins from his Opus 3 L’estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration) collection.

The program will begin with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s “The Grand Duke’s Ball.” The Bach selections will be followed by the sixth (in D minor) of the six organ sonatas by Felix Mendelssohn collected in his Opus 65. This will be followed by a selection from Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s collection of 66 chorale improvisations, number 59, which interprets “Nun danket alle Gott” (now thank we all our God) as a “Marche triomphale.”

This recital will take place at the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is located in North Beach at 610 Vallejo Street. The concert will be held with the support of both the Consulate General of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco. It will begin at 6 p.m on Tuesday, October 29. There will be no charge for admission, but it is reasonable to assume that donations will be accepted.

Anton Bruckner the Miniaturist

courtesy of Naxos of America

The name Anton Bruckner is most frequently associated with large-scale orchestra music in the domain of both symphonies and sacred music. Nevertheless, early in his career he wrote solo piano compositions that are far better suited to intimate social gatherings, rather than concert halls and cathedrals. His output in this genre is modest. Last month Brilliant Classics released a recording of his complete piano music (see below for qualification) played by Francesco Pasqualotto. It all fits on a single CD consisting of 31 tracks.

Pasqualotto is far from the first to record this canon. Nevertheless, Brilliant has packaged its recording with an informative set of booklet notes, giving the attentive listener ample background for this less familiar side of Bruckner’s compositional efforts. Still, he seems to overlook that at least one of the moments in the four Lancier-Quadrille that open the album is likely to evoke thoughts of Jacques Offenbach, rather than of Bruckner. (This leads one to wonder whether Bruckner ever thought to try his hand at operetta.)

Most of the album is devoted to selections from the Kitzler Study Book. This is a workbook in which Bruckner wrote pieces during his studies with the conductor and cellist Otto Kitzler. The entire volume consists of 163 pages of different sizes, not all of which are solo piano compositions.

To be fair, Pasqualotto has not accounted for all of the piano works in this notebook, meaning that the collection is not, strictly speaking “complete.” Furthermore, the track listing does not indicate which of the selections are from the notebook, nor does that listing provide the WAB catalog numbers (including the unclassified works with “deest” identification). Nevertheless, Pasqualotto’s selections are definitely representative and more than adequately so. Ultimately, this is an album best appreciated for its intimacy; and, where Bruckner is concerned, that is an attribute worthy of attention!

PBO Launches Season with Splendid Handel

Last night in Herbst Theatre the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale gave its first San Francisco performance in its 39th season. This will be Nicholas McGegan’s farewell season, marking 35 years of service as Waverley Fund Music Director, acknowledged by the entire season bearing the overall title Reflections. Last night certainly reflected upon McGegan’s impact on PBO programming.

Appropriately enough, the first half of the evening was devoted to the most significant composer in McGegan’s PBO repertoire, George Frederic Handel, represented by both vocal and instrumental selections. The program began with the 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.”

The celebratory nature of the ode was marked by the presence of two trumpets, beginning with a dialog between first trumpet (John Thiessen) and countertenor (Reginald Mobley). Solos and duets were performed by the usual complement of voice levels, joining Mobley with soprano Arwen Myers, contralto Avery Amereau, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. As usual, however, much of the “action” could be found in the choral work, prepared by Bruce Lamott, which included a double chorus at the conclusion of the ode.

What can be said of this performance that has not already been said of McGegan’s past interpretations of Handel’s choral music? In spite of certain repetitive qualities in the text, the composition proceeded at a brisk pace that never left one feeling as if familiar passages had outstayed their welcome. The balances both within the chorus and between chorus and instruments were consistently impeccable; and, for the most part, the soloists fit comfortably into the familiar rhetorical contexts established by the ensemble work. (Mobley was a bit shaky at the very beginning but almost immediately found and established far more confident footing.)

The instrumental offering was the suite from HWV 8b, “Terpsichore,” music which Handel composed as a prologue for his HWV 8 opera Il pastor fido (the faithful shepherd). This consisted of a series of five short pieces, each in its own distinctive form, followed by an extended Chaconne as the conclusion. Taken as a whole this was the perfect way to showcase the diverse skills of the different instrumentalists in the ensemble, even with a bit of tambourine work by Alan Biggs to liven up one of the more spritely movements. Taken as a whole, the first half of the program once again affirmed McGegan’s talent for taking music from half a century in the past and endowing it with freshness entirely suitable for the present.

Composer Caroline Shaw (photograph by Kait Moreno, from Shaw’s Web site)

The second half of the program consisted entirely of the fourth work by Caroline Shaw to be composed on a PBO commission. “The Listeners” is an oratorio inspired by the Golden Record, a long-playing disc with two copies, each attached to a Voyager spacecraft. An earlier satellite had been launched with a plaque that identified its origin, but Voyager was a major effort to launch a vehicle that would go beyond the solar system. (Carl Sagan called it “the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean.’”) The content included both text and a wide variety of musical selections, including folk sources and composed works that ran the gamut from Johann Sebastian Bach to Chuck Berry. Timothy Ferris, who produced the Golden Record itself, participated in a discussion with Shaw and Lamott prior to the performance.

It would be fair to say that Shaw conceived “The Listeners” as a “response” to the “call” of the Golden Record. While selections from that source were included, they were supplemented with settings of texts by Walt Whitman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ysesnia Montilla, and Lucille Clifton. All solo vocal work was in the low register, so the soloists for the performance were Amereau and Burton. The composition also included the recording of a 1994 lecture Sagan had given at Cornell University.

All this looked very good on paper, but performance was another matter. Shaw was clearly sensitive to the semantic implications of the texts she had selected. Unfortunately, her basic technique fell short of doing justice to any of those texts on either semantic or rhetorical grounds. All too often the attentive listener would come away with the sense that these texts were nothing more than strings of syllables that needed to be hooked up to the proper notes. Any sense of phrasing that would develop those syllables into words and the words into phrases was lost in the busy-work assigned to both instruments and voices. Perhaps, while her time with Roomful of Teeth has sensitized Shaw’s awareness to the wide diversity of vocal sonorities, those experiences have offered little when it comes to addressing semantic and rhetorical needs.

As a result, Shaw’s high point of the evening came even before Lamott convened his pre-concert discussion. The members of the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ), violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, performed one of her much earlier compositions, “Entr’acte.” This was my third listening encounter with this piece and the first that did not leave me entirely cold. The work amounts of a deconstruction of music from the string quartets of Joseph Haydn; and, since NEQ specializes in those quartets, it is reasonable to assume that they brought more appreciation of Haydn’s “nuts and bolts” to their performance than I had previously encountered.

However, they also contributed something even more critical to the execution, a sense of humor. Presumably, Shaw appreciated the many ways in which Haydn could inject humor into his compositions. Thus, the very act of deconstruction could have been a matter of playing a trick on a master trickster. That being the case, since NEQ has established a solid grasp of Haydn’s many tricks, they could bring that grasp to their execution of Shaw’s score. The result evoked a series of subtle grins and the occasional belly-laugh. Shaw clearly knows a thing or two about rhetoric, would that a bit of that background knowledge had surfaced in “The Listeners.”

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Kaija Saairaho’s Orchestral Music on BIS Release

Clément Mao-Takacs, Kaija Saariaho, and Peter Herresthal on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)

At the beginning of last month, BIS Records released an album of the orchestral music of Kaija Saariaho. The ensemble is the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Clément Mao-Takacs. The album is framed by two compositions for violin and orchestra with Peter Herresthal as soloist. The first of these is the world premiere recording of “Vers toi qui es si loin” (to you who are so far), a transcription of the final aria from Saariaho’s 2000 opera L’Amour de loin (love from afar), which she composed in 2018. This is complemented by her first concerto completed in 1994, “Graal théâtre,” inspired by legends of the Grail as L’Amour de loin had been inspired by the twelfth-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel. Between these two compositions, Mao-Takacs conducts the 2012 large-orchestra composition “Circle Map” and the twelve-cello version of “Neiges” (snow), composed in 1998 and also given its world premiere recording.

As I have previously observed, much of my interest in Saariaho comes from her balance of theory and practice. As a researcher, Saariaho used her tenure at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in English) in Paris to acquire a deeper understanding of the nature of sound itself. The theoretical results of her investigations were then put into practice through her compositions. Initially this involved working with both analog and digital synthesis (well supported by the hardware and software available at IRCAM); but Saariaho turned her attention to creating sonorities with conventional instruments, drawing upon the spectral qualities of the instruments themselves and the effects of alternative performance techniques.

Thus, through all four of the compositions on this new album, the listener is introduced to a prodigious diversity of sonorities, all of which are applied to “narrative themes” suggested by the titles of those compositions. To be fair, I have been fortunate enough to build up a rich body of listening experience where Saariaho’s techniques are concerned. Thus, almost a year ago, I had my first encounter with “Graal théâtre” through a Cedille Records album featuring violinist Jennifer Koh; and, at the Center for New Music in June of 2016, the debut concert by CELLOSCAPE COLLECTIVE included the eight-cello version of “Neiges.” I also enjoying watching the Metropolitan Opera telecast of L’Amour de loin and was reminded of that experience within the first few measures of “Vers toi qui es si loin.”

Nevertheless, I feel it fair to inform readers that I have been listening to Saariaho’s music pretty much for as long as I have been writing about my listening experiences. I thus feel some obligation to let readers know that, just as Euclid cautioned the pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter that there is no royal road to geometry, getting to know Saariaho’s music requires some time for the listener to acclimate to both her technical and rhetorical skills. Mind you, I do not need to emphasize my feeling that this was time well spent, since I have never been shy in declaring my enthusiasm!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A Survey of Judith Lang Zaimont on MSR Classics

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

This past August MSR Classics released an album of chamber music for strings composed by Judith Lang Zaimont. The string players were the members of the Amernet String Quartet, violinists Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violist Michael Klotz, and cellist Jason Calloway. Almost all the selections were being given world premiere recordings, the last of which saw pianist John Wilson playing with Vitenson in a performance of Zaimont’s “Sonata-Rhapsody,” in which the pianist is more partner than accompanist. Drawing upon the quartet’s name, the album was cleverly titled A to Z.

The most recent work on this new recording is “A Strange Magic,” the title of Zaimont’s second string quartet, completed in 2016. The oldest dates from 1998 and has been previously recorded on the album Pure Colors. It is the second “Sestina” movement from the three-movement cello solo composition “’Tanya’ Poems.” The other compositions on the album are the earlier 2008 string quartet, entitled “The Figure” (2008), “Verse” for solo violin, from the same year,  and the 2010 “Sonata-Rhapsody.”

I have to say that my personal overall impression of this album appreciated much of the diversity that cuts across these five selections. Nevertheless, it was hard to avoid an underlying reverberation of familiarity. This paradox was resolved when I visited Zaimont’s Wikipedia page. I discovered there that she was less than a year older than me and that there was a very generous list of composers that served as influences. It was no surprise that none of those names were unfamiliar to me, leading me to conclude that, while she may have been the one with composition skills, I was the one with the listening experiences that were probably shared with her. (I also suspect that I could add a name or two to those enumerated on her Wikipedia page.)

As a result, I found it hard to resist the feeling that each of the compositions on this album had its own way of being derivative from past twentieth-century compositions. The derivations themselves were well-wrought by consistent skill sets. Nevertheless, each listening experience left me wondering, “Why I am listening to this, when listening to [fill in the derivation source] is so much more satisfying?” It also left me appreciating that I allowed my own meager skills at composition to lapse, preferring, instead, to cultivate my listening skills.

Red Poppy Art House: November, 2019

Last month it seemed appropriate to present the monthly schedule for the Red Poppy Art House alongside those for The Lab and the events at the Joe Henderson Lab in the SFJAZZ Center in a compilation of “adventurous summaries” for October. As of this writing, it appears that next month will sort things out with less competitiveness. However, it is early enough in the month that the current list of concerts scheduled for November is probably incomplete. As usually seems to be reliable, I shall continue to monitor additions through notification of Facebook Events. I can then update this article and use my “shadow” Facebook site to let followers know about the latest additions.

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

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

Friday, November 1, 7:30 p.m.: The month will begin with the Rob Garcia 4, a jazz quartet led by Garcia on drums, also providing both original compositions and arrangements. The other members of the quartet will be Matt Renzi on tenor saxophone, Dave Ambrosio on bass, and a pianist yet to be announced. The scope of Renzi’s arrangements includes American folk songs and composers as diverse as Frédéric Chopin and Jimi Hendrix. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $25 with a $20 charge for students and seniors with valid identification. [added 10/17, 10:35 a.m.:

Saturday, November 2, 7:30 p.m.: Citizens Jazz will return to the Poppy for their next tribute concert. This one will honor tenor saxophonist Benny Golson. While Golson’s name may not be as familiar as those of the major figures in both bebop and hard bop, he was a major contributor, not only as a performer but also as a composer. Works such as “I Remember Clifford,” ̌“Blues March,” “Whisper Not,” and “Killer Joe” are all recognized as major contributions to the repertoire. The group continues to be led by Caroline Chung on bass, who will return along with Riley Bandy on alto saxophone, James Mahone on tenor saxophone, and Grant Levin on piano. For this performance the drummer will be Ruthie Price. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $25 with a $20 charge for students and seniors with valid identification.]

Friday, November 8, 8 p.m.: The program Venezuela 360° Musical Journey will be presented by the Venezuelan Music Project led by Musical Director Jackeline Rago. Rago performs as both vocalist and percussionist, as well as also playing cuatro, the Venezuelan version of a guitar with only four (hence the name) strings. Other contributing percussionists will be Yonathan Gavidia, Anna Maria Violich, and Jimmy Kansau, the last two also serving as vocalists. The only melody instrument will be the flute played by Donna Viscuso. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $25 and $30 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $30 with a $25 charge for students and seniors with valid identification.

Friday, November 15, 7:30 p.m.: Once again, Caminos Flamencos will return to the Poppy. They will again give two performances, but this time those performances will be on different weekends (and will therefore be listed separately in this chronological account). The Director of the group is the dancer Yaelisa, who will be joined in her choreography by Fanny Ara. Music is provided by guitarist Jason “El Rubio” McGuire. There will also be a special guest artist not yet announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $25 with a $20 charge for students and seniors with valid identification.

Saturday, November 16, 7:30 p.m.: Huarango is a new musical project initiated in Oakland with the objective of diffusing Afro-Peruvian culture to the San Francisco Bay Area through the performance of that culture’s musical roots. Peruvian Pierr Padilla specializes in instruments specific to those roots. He is joined by fellow Peruvians Javier Trujillo on guitar and Pedro Rosales on percussion. American violinist Kyla Danysh is the remaining member of the group. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $25 with a $20 charge for students and seniors with valid identification. [added 10/17, 10:40 a.m.:

Sunday, November 17, 7:30 p.m.: The weekend will conclude with an evening of Yiddishkeit. Clarinetist Michael Winograd will celebrate the release of his Kosher Style recording with a program of klezmer selections performed with accordionist Christina Crowder. They will share the program with the Book of J vocalists Jewlia Eisenberg and Jeremiah Lockwood, the latter providing guitar accompaniment. The repertoire brings together American psalmody, Yiddish folklore, and Jewish liturgical traditions. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25 for tickets purchased in advance. General admission at the door will be $25 with a $20 charge for students and seniors with valid identification.]

Saturday, November 23, 7:30 p.m.: This will be the second performance by Caminos Flamencos. Prices will be the same. However, the hyperlink for online purchase is different.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Simone Dinnerstein to Lead NCCO Next Month

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein (photograph by Lisa Marie Mazzucco, from the Photos Web page on Dinnerstein’s Web site)

Next month pianist Simone Dinnerstein will begin her tenure as artist-in-residence with the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) by leading the ensemble in the second concert of its 2019–2020 season. The program will consist almost entirely of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. These will include three of the keyboard concertos: BWV 1053 in E major, BWV 1056 in F minor, and BWV 1052 in D minor. In addition Dinnerstein will be joined by violinist Candace Guirao and flutist Christina Jennings in a performance of the BWV 1050 concerto in D major, the fifth of the “Brandenburg” concertos. Dinnerstein will also give a solo performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the BWV 639 organ chorale prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call on Thee, Lord Jesus Christ), included in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (little organ book) collection.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 9. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is entered through the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are on sale for $67.50 for premium seating in both the Orchestra and the Side Boxes, $55 for the remainder of the Box seating, the very front and sides of the Orchestra, and the front of the Dress Circle, and $30 for all other seating. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, which shows availability based on the Herbst seating plan.

Music Thriving Better Without the Words

About a month ago Orchard Classics released a rather idiosyncratic album organized around Edward Elgar’s Opus 68 “Falstaff,” his major venture into the genre of the tone poem. (Readers may note that the above hyperlink leads to the amazon.com.uk Web site. As of this writing, there is no sign of the recording on Amazon.com; but payment is just as easy as it is on the American site. Delivery, however, may take a bit longer.) The performance is by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. There is also a “bonus track” providing George Whitefield Chadwick’s much shorter tone poem “Tam O’Shanter” as an “encore.”

As tone poems go, “Falstaff” provides an account as rich in narrative qualities as can be found in many of the tone poems of Richard Strauss. The title character is the “fat knight” that appears in both of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, serving as companion to Prince Hal (who will become Henry V at the conclusion of the second of the two plays). The music is structured in four sections; and Elgar himself provided an outline of all of the episodes in an “analytical essay” that he wrote for The Musical Times following his completion of the score. That outline may have appeared in print prior to the music’s first performance; and, more often than not, it now shows up on the track listings for recordings of the composition. The essay itself even explains how there are specific themes to identify both Falstaff and Hal:

from the Wikipedia page for Elgar’s “Falstaff”

Constantine, however, seems to have decided that Elgar’s background material was (in the words of the accompanying booklet) “initially, hard to grasp.” As a result, he came to the conclusion that a presentation of the performance could be spruced up with a good paint job and perhaps a bit of perfume. (Hopefully, a few Shakespeare lovers will catch the reference to King John!) He thus recruited Timothy West and Samuel West to deliver some of the passages of dialogue between Falstaff and Hal, adding them as interjections into Elgar’s score. Similarly, he preceded the “Tam O’Shanter” track with a “background explanation” taken from Chadwick’s own words (delivered by Erik Chapman), along with excerpts from the Robert Burns poem that inspired the music, read by Billy Wiz.

At this point I should probably make a personal disclaimer. Whenever I attend a concert, I find it hard to resist the urge to cringe whenever a performer picks up a microphone before beginning her/his performance. These usually amount to well-intentioned efforts to provide a bit of explanation before the performance itself begins. These days, however, pre-concert talks tend to be getting more frequent and usually far richer in context. Unless there has not been such a talk and/or any explanatory information in the program book, my tendency is to grumble to myself that the performer should just “get on with it” and say what (s)he has to say through the music! As Igor Stravinsky said when CBS insisted that he “introduce” the music he had composed for “The Flood” on their telecast, “I don’t want to tell you more; I only want to play you more.”

Curiously, Constantine’s album consists of two CDs. The second presents “Falstaff” as Elgar meant it to be performed, without any verbal interjections. This is certainly less annoying than having to sit through the verbal intrusions on the first CD. However, while Chadwick’s interpretation is capable enough, it certainly does nothing to woo me away from the wonderful remastering job on the recording of Elgar himself conducting this music as part of The Elgar Edition recordings. (“Tam O’Shanter” is not included on the second CD, since all of the verbiage preceded the track on the first CD.) Elgar makes it clear that his own capacity for delivering narrative can stand up far more than adequately without assistance from any actors delivering Shakespeare’s words!

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Bleeding Edge: 10/14/2019

This week the only events that have already been reported are those taking place at the Center for New Music on October 16, 17, and 21. On the other hand this will be the second week in a row that will see “double header” offerings from Outsound Presents with the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series on Thursday and a Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series concert on Sunday. It will also see events at sites that have not figured in recent dispatches. Specifics are as follows:

Monday, October 14, 8:15 p.m., The Lost Church: It has been almost half a year since this site reported on any activity at The Lost Church. That is because the venue maintains a diverse and eclectic calendar that appeals to far more than “bleeding edge” tastes. Tonight, however, will see a show that takes rock into more remote and adventurous territories. The evening is being presented by Deadly Score and will feature the End of the Night band led by Chris Brokaw, best known for his work with rock bands Codeine and Come. The band will include Lori Goldston, Greg Kelley, Dave Abramson, and Luther Gray. In addition, there will be a guest appearance by guitarist Bill Orcutt, who has been giving experimental gigs for at least 30 years, many of which have been influenced by the adventurously sophisticated free jazz work of Cecil Taylor.

The Lost Church is located at 65 Capp Street, north of the corner of 16th Street between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. This show will run until 10:30 p.m. with one intermission. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. Because the venue is small, it is advisable to purchase tickets in advance. Because today is the day of the show,  tickets left will be sold only at the door, where only cash will be accepted. The price will be $20.

Thursday, October 17, 7 p.m., Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM): This month’s installation in the Experiments in Sonic Potential series will feature composer Theresa Wong, who performs as both cellist and vocalist. Her program will be presented in the setting of Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped, the first major survey of Rosen’s ceramic sculptures. CJM is located at 736 Mission Street, opposite Yerba Buena Gardens and along Yerba Buena Lane, which connects Mission Street to Market Street. The performance will be free for those admitted to the Museum. The admission charge will be $8. A Web page has been created for purchasing tickets in advance.

Thursday, October 17, 8:15 p.m., LSG: This week the LSG Creative Music Series will present a two-set program. The first set will be taken by David Samas, Cheryl Leonard, and Dan Gotwald, working collectively with both natural and invented objects and vocalizing. They will be followed by Tom Nunn’s latest performance working with his invented instruments. For this performance Nunn will be accompanied by choreography improvised by Christina Braun.

Friday, October 18, 8 p.m., PianoFight: According to my records, I have not written anything about PianoFight since 2015, when I was still writing for Examiner.com. The venue will host a one-hour composition by Samson Y Hiss entitled POISON CIRCUS, which amounts to a synthesis of opera with circus acts. This will be a world premiere performance, and the narrative was inspired by the novel Geek Love. The vocalists will be mezzo Nikola Printz and tenor Alex Taite, accompanied by an organ quintet led by Paul Dab at the organ. He will perform with Matthew Ebisuzaki on trumpet, Tiffany Bayly on tuba, Robert Lopez on drums, and Hiss himself on remaining percussion. The circus acts will be performed by contortionist Hunny Bunny and clown Renee Sedliar.

PianoFight is located near the southwest corner of Union Square at 144 Taylor Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. All ages will be admitted, but parental guidance is recommended. Admission will be between $25 and $50.

Sunday, October 20, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: This week’s SIMM Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. The opening set will be taken by the Ends Meat’ Catastrophe Jazz Ensemble. Vocalist Rachel Austin will be accompanied by Erika Oba (piano and flute), Eli Maliwan on tenor saxophone, and Chris Bastian on bass. They will be followed by the Trouble Ensemble with vocalist Ernest Larkins. The front line will be saxophonists Rent Romus and Joshua Marshall. Rhythm will be provided by Jakob Pek on guitar, Tim DeCillis on vibraphone, Andrews Jamieson on piano, and Chris Lauf on drums. The Musicians Union Hall, is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Cavanagh’s Mozart Cycle Begins at SFO

Yesterday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, I attended the second performance by the San Francisco Opera of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 comic opera The Marriage of Figaro. As was previously announced, this production marks the beginning of a three-opera cycle, which will unfold over the course of three seasons. The entire cycle encompasses Mozart’s partnership with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, which resulted in not only K. 492 but also the K. 527 Don Giovanni and the K. 588 Così fan tutte (thus do all women). The project was conceived by director Michael Cavanagh, setting all three operas in a common setting, which Cavanagh calls “the Great American House of Mozart and Da Ponte.”

This idea serves K. 492 particularly well. The entire scenario, based on a five-act comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais with the same title, takes place over the course of a single day in the estate house of Count Almaviva in Spain near the city of Seville. Cavanagh shifted time and place to the early years of the newly-constituted United States of America in a venue suggesting the architectural skills of that Great American Polymath Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, there are more than a few suggestions of Jefferson’s presence in Erhard Rom’s set design. Thus, while there are a few passing references to Seville, they could, for all intents and purposes, be taken for a small town in Virginia.

It is important to remember that Beaumarchais was a bête noire to the Holy Roman Empire. The play was written in 1778 and many saw it as provocation for a public uprising in France. (Guess what happened?) There were any number of comedies about servants outwitting their masters; but Beaumarchais made Figaro a spokesman for the “rights of man” that led to his play being banned in Vienna. Nevertheless, Da Ponte managed to provide Mozart with a libretto that satisfied the Censor of the Imperial Court.

In Cavanagh’s setting the distinction between nobility and the common folk translates relatively smoothly into the opposition of the haves and the have-nots. Wealth makes Almaviva a figure of power. If he has grown tired of his wife (a far cry from the spunky Rosina we know from The Barber of Seville) and shift his attention to one of the household staff (Susanna), then her efforts to thwart Almaviva (with assistance from her betrothed Figaro) suggests a looming “Me Too” incident in which the woman firmly gets the upper hand.

Nevertheless, Cavanagh’s is not a “politicized” reading of Da Ponte’s text. After all, in the final scene, Almaviva is caught in his attempted abuse and begs forgiveness of his wife. Being the better person of the couple, she grants it to him, leading to a final chorus that reflects on the day of folly brought to content and happiness by the power of love. All of this is delivered to the audience by Mozart’s music at its most ravishing, almost as if music itself has the power to summon the better angels of human nature.

Susanna (Jeanine De Bique), Figaro (Michael Sumuel), and the Countess (Nicole Heaston) plan to thwart Almaviva’s designs on Susanna (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Indeed, what makes K. 492 such a significant opera is the consistent abundance of music that cuts to the core of human nature. We encounter it in the opening measures of the exchange between Figaro (bass-baritone Michael Sumuel) and Susanna (soprano Jeanine De Bique). On the other hand baritone Levent Molnár had the courage to play Almaviva as a self-indulgent scoundrel, who seems to have totally forgotten his passion for the young Rosina, now his Countess (soprano Nicole Heaston).

 At the same time, it is clear from the music that no character is secondary; and Cavanagh reinforces Mozart’s commitment. The moment at which Figaro discovers that Bartolo (bass James Creswell) and Marcellina (mezzo Catherine Cook) are his parents was as cloying in its music as it was in its stagecraft, punctuated hilariously by Susanna’s confusion over the turn of events. On the other hand, Susanna was anything but confused during her “letter” duet with the Countess, a show-stopping reminder of just how heavenly Mozart could make too female voices sound. Even the almost-insignificant notary Curzio (tenor Brenton Ryan) had his moment during the dance at the wedding celebration, during which he wistfully dances steps choreographed by Lawrence Pech with only an imaginary partner.

If there was any flaw in the production, however, it could be found in paying too much attention to the house itself. The high spirits of the overture were undermined by excessively animated projections of the designs for the house, and the set itself served to summon up more venue changes than the libretto specified. Most gratuitous was the decision to set the first-act scene for Bartolo and Marcellina in the kitchen. When Marcellina gets bored with Bartolo’s self-important posturing (it does not take long), she starts dancing with a pig’s head, giving it all of the affection worthy of a pet cat. Mind you, Cook could not have been more hilarious in playing this scene; but “comic relief” generally works better towards the end of a show, rather than at the beginning.

More importantly, however, this production gave us Mozart’s music at its best, consistently delivered under the baton of Henrik Nánási. This conductor’s past SFO appearance was for Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” in the fall of 2017. This season’s effort was clearly “something completely different,” thus providing an excellent account of the breadth of Nánási’s talents. Six performances remain of a production that should not be missed on both dramatic and musical grounds in equal measure.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

SFSYO Announces 2019–20 Season

Daniel Stewart on the SFSYO podium (photograph by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Next month will see the first performance in the 37th season of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). This will also mark the beginning of Daniel Stewart’s tenure as Wattis Foundation Music Director, succeeding Christian Reif, who concluded his tenure at the end of last season. All performances will take place at Davies Symphony Hall at 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoons with two exceptions. For the first time in more than twenty years, SFSYO will present a Music for Families program entitled “Meet the Orchestra” on Saturday, April 4, at 2 p.m. SFSYO will also participate in the annual Bay Area Youth Orchestra Festival, which will begin at 3 p.m. in Davies on Sunday, January 19. As usual, details about this multi-ensemble presentation will be announced closer to the date of performance.

Ticket prices for “Meet the Orchestra” will be between $20 and $65, and those for the Festival will be between $25 and $70. Ticket prices for all but one of the other concerts are $55 for reserved seats in the Loge and Side Boxes and $20 for general admission. The one exception will be the annual Youth Orchestra Holiday Concert on December 15, whose prices will be between $10 and $42.50. All tickets in Davies may be purchased through the Calendar Web page on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. 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 concerts on Sunday.

The Holiday Concert will feature the annual performance of Serge Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This year the narrator will be Dulcé Sloan, best known as one of the correspondents for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central. Additional programming has not yet been announced, but singing carols with the audience is another part of the tradition. That leaves the four “principal” concerts, whose programming details are as follows:

November 17: The 2019 SFSYO Concerto Competition winner Roger Xia will be featured as soloist in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s A minor piano concerto. The program will begin with the first SFSYO performance of “Agnegram,” composed by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) in 1998 to celebrated the 90th birthday of SFS. The title honors Agnes Albert, who inspired the creation of SFSYO. The program will conclude with selections from the music that Sergei Prokofiev composed for the ballet Romeo and Juliet.

March 15: SFSYO will perform the Davies premiere of Mason Bates’ “Mothership,” commissioned by MTT for the second (and, to the best of my knowledge, last) performance by the YouTube Symphony in Carnegie Hall. This will be a “four centuries” program with compositions from the preceding three: the twentieth (Benjamin Britten’s Opus 35 “The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra”), nineteenth (Bedřich Smetana’s evocation of the Moldau River, “Vltava,” from his Má vlast cycle honoring his homeland), and eighteenth (Jospeh Haydn’s Hoboken I/104 “London” symphony in D major). (These compositions will not be performed in chronological order.)

May 10: This program will be framed by two major symphonies from the nineteenth century. It will begin with Franz Schubert’s D. 759 (“Unfinished”) two-movement symphony in B minor and conclude with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major. These symphonies will frame a performance of Steven Mackey’s “Eating Greens,” composed, in Mackey’s words, in “a spirit of rugged individualism and a healthy irreverence for the European masterpiece syndrome.”

Voices of Music Continues Women in Music Project

Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music presented its first concert in San Francisco in its 2019–2020 season. The title of the program was Concerto delle Donne (consort of women), named after an ensemble of women singers that Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, assembled to perform for his court in July of 1584. That occasion was honored as part of the Voices of Music Women in Music Project, presenting the works of Italian composers active during the seventeenth century.

Consistent with the occasion, last night’s performers were almost entirely female, the one exception being co-director David Tayler alternating between archlute and guitar. The other performers included Tayler’s co-director Hanneke van Proosdij, both playing recorder and providing continuo on harpsichord and organ, Elisabeth Reed, rounding out continuo on gamba, violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, and sopranos Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki. Over the course of the evening, these musicians joined together in a diversity of combinations.

The program was organized in four sets, only the last of which focused on a single composer, Claudio Monteverdi. The only female composer of the evening was Barbara Strozzi, three of whose songs were framed by instrumental selections by Marco Uccellini. Similarly, the opening set alternated the instrumental music of Salomone Rossi with vocal selections by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, two arias and one duet. The third set focused entirely on instrumental works by Giovanni Battista Fontana and Dario Castello.

Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose support enabled one of last night’s Monteverdi selections (from the Villa Perdomini collection, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

My guess is that most, if not all, of the selections were unfamiliar to most of the audience. Those familiar with Monteverdi madrigals may have recognized the final selection, “Chiome d’oro” (golden tresses), from the seventh book of madrigals. Those interested in his earlier efforts might have recognized “Damigella tutta bella” (pretty woman) from the Scherzi musicali, which may have been composed for the entertainment of guests when Monteverdi was the service of the Duke of Mantua at the time, Vincenzo I. Both of these were vocal duets performed at the very end of the evening by the entire ensemble. Both Junker and Panthaki served up a lively account of the text, volleying their own intimate exchanges within the rich context of the instrumental ensemble. These selections were preceded by Panthaki’s solo account of the “Laudate Dominum” Psalm setting from Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale (moral and spiritual forest) collection, presenting the sacred side of Monteverdi in Venice before indulging in secular Mantua.

Those familiar with Ottorino Respighi’s three Ancient Airs and Dances suites would probably also have recognized the “Bergamasca” tune, whose 1650 arrangement by Bernardo Gianoncelli concluded the second of the suites. This was presented in the version taken from Uccellini’s Opus 3 collection Sonate, arie et correnti. Uccellini’s version was one of the several offerings composed for two violins, allowing for a generous serving of playful give-and-take between Blumenstock and Youssefian. Even more engaging were the exchanges that emerged when these violinists performed a sonata selection by Castello, a composer distinguished by the fact that we know almost nothing about him (as Robert Mealy once put it during a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music).

Thus, lack of familiarity did not make any of last night’s selections less engaging. All of the performances were consistently rich and expressive, with continuo support that always attentively followed every mood shift. As a whole the program was a generous serving, lasting over two hours; but the engagement was so consistently riveting that clock time rarely signified to the attentive listener.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

BIS Releases Mussorgsky’s Original Version

courtesy of Naxos of America

Fate has not been particularly kind to several of the compositions of Modest Mussorgsky. His best-known work is probably his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, but that music did not begin to rise to popular status until after it had been orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Even during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, his instrumental scores were subjected to tinkering by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Furthermore, “Night on Bald Mountain,” probably the best known of those scores, was not published until 1886, five years after the composer’s death, after Rimsky-Korsakov arranged the source manuscript to “repair” it. (It was the Rimsky-Korsakov version that became popular after it was included in the program for Fantasia.)

The same can be said for Mussorgsky’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov. His source was a “closet drama” (i.e. intended for reading, rather than staging) by Alexander Pushkin in 25 scenes, which Mussorgsky excerpted into seven scenes. His initial version, completed in 1869, was rejected, because it lacked any platform for a virtuoso soprano performance. (The only high voices are those of children.) A reworked version was completed in 1874; but, again, Rimsky-Korsakov had a hand in how the opera came to be performed. He reworked the orchestration in 1896 and revised the whole score in 1908.

As a result, Mussorgsky has acquired a reputation of having good ideas without the skill to follow up on them. However, when his original “Night on Bald Mountain” was recorded towards the end of the last century, serious listeners began to appreciate that this was a composer ahead of his time, whose reputation had to suffer from Rimsky-Korsakov’s efforts to pull it “back where it belongs.” Around the time of the “Night on Bald Mountain” discovery, a movement emerged to go back to the 1869 version of Boris Godunov. I remember seeing that version at the Metropolitan Opera back in the Eighties. I found the experience to be more intense than I had anticipated, as much for the reduced number of scenes as for the rawer qualities of the sonorities.

About a month ago, BIS Records released a recording of that 1869 version. The conductor is Kent Nagano (whom I associate with several innovative opera projects, all of which seem to take place in Europe), leading the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, along with the Göteborg Opera Chorus and the children of the Brunnsbo Music Classes. The title role is sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk, complemented by Sergei Skorokhodov in the role of the monk Grigory, who fashions himself as pretender to the Russian throne.

Nagano clearly appreciated that there were no “problems” in Mussorgsky’s score that required “remedies.” The libretto, in turn, is more like a series of stained glass windows, episodes extracted from a richer narrative that assume their own logic when performed in their stated order. This “excerpted” approach to Pushkin’s source is thus as much a “closet drama” as the original. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Opera made a convincing case that those seven episodes could be staged with an overall sense of dramatic coherence. Mussorgsky’s music does much to facilitate the listener’s grasp of that coherence.

We thus have the advantage of a conductor willing to take the composer on his own terms, and there is much to be gained from listening to the merits of that advantage.

SF Native to Debut as PBO Guest Conductor

Poster image of Jeannette Sorrell on the banner for the second concert of the new PBO season (from the Web page for this concert)

Regular readers should know by now that this coming week will bring the first concert in the 39th season of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale. Almost exactly a month later, PBO will host its first guest conductor of the season. Jeannette Sorrell was the founding director of the Cleveland-based period instrument ensemble Apollo’s Fire. She also happens to be a San Francisco native, returning to the Bay Area to make her debut on the PBO podium.

Sorrell has prepared a program entitled Mozart’s Musings, which will provide an overture-concerto-symphony survey of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The category order will also be a chronological one, beginning with the overture to the K. 51 opera La finta semplice (the fake innocent), which Mozart composed at the age of twelve. The concerto will be the K. 314 oboe concerto in C major with PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz as soloist. This was composed for Giuseppe Ferlendis, oboist of the Court Chapel of Salzburg, in 1777, almost a decade after K. 51 had been completed. The symphony will be one of Mozart’s final (and familiar) compositions, K. 550 in G minor. The program will also include a “bonus” in the form of a suite of music from Zémire et Azor, a four-act opera by Mozart’s Belgian contemporary André Grétry, which will follow the overture.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place on Friday, November 15, beginning at 8 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will range from $32 to $120 for premium seating. Tickets are currently available for advance purchase through a City Box Office event page, which displays a color-coded seating plan that shows which areas correspond to which price levels.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Music and Message Get Muddled on Oboe Album

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

Recently my attention was brought to an album of music for oboe and English horn that was released by MSR Classics this past May. The title of the album is Botanica; and the soloist is Sara Fraker, accompanied at the piano by Casey Robards. The advance material on the Amazon.com Web page for this album calls it “a musical entry point into current conversations around environmental and social justice” through “intersections between the human and botanical worlds.”

Explicit evidence of those intersections can be found on two of the compositions on the album, an elegy for oboe and piano composed by Glen Roven shortly before his death in 2018, whose two movements are entitled “Blight-Killed Eucalyptus” and “Pale Pink, Dark Pink,” and “Braiding: Lessons from Braiding Sweetgrass,” completed by Asha Srinivasan in 2017. Somewhat of a stretch may be found in Hugo Godron’s 1939 Suite Bucolique, whose title may reflect the botanical world but whose movements have more to do with latter-day reflections on Baroque forms and rhetoric. On the other hand, any “conversations” to be found in Vladimír Soukup’s oboe sonata probably have more to do with Paul Hindemith and that composer’s predilection for composing for as many different instruments as possible than with the “botanical world.”

Most enigmatic, however, is the framing of the album by two compositions by Pavel Haas. His 1939 three-movement suite for oboe and piano was written in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Moravia; and it is hard to imagine that his mind was occupied with anything other than getting as far away from Europe as possible. Sadly, the opportunity to move to the United States came only after he had been deported to Theresienstadt, which is where the first selection on this album was composed, a set of four songs based on Chinese poetry, originally composed for baritone and piano and transcribed by Fraker for English horn and piano.

Ultimately, this is an album based on good intentions that do not go very far. The attentive listener would do best to dispense with conversations and intersections and simply appreciate the quality of Fraker’s intonation, instrumental sonorities, and a sense of rhetoric that may well be more capable in serving the abstract, rather than the concrete. After all, most listeners are likely to be unfamiliar with every composition that Fraker has chosen to perform; and, among the composers, the name most likely to be recognized is Haas by virtue of his connection with Theresienstadt.

Note to Fraker: If you wish to hold a conversation “around environmental and social justice,” the best way to draw attention is to find just the right words with the same sort of skill that enabled composers like Haas to find just the right notes, even in the face of catastrophic adversity.

LCCE to Present Program Inspired by Schoenberg

The title of the second program to be presented in the 2019–2020 season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) is Air From Other Planets. That title comes from the beginning of a poem by Stefan George, originally written in German. The title of the poem is “Entrückung” (transport); and the opening line is “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (I feel the air of another planet). Arnold Schoenberg incorporated this poem for the final movement of his Opus 10 (second) string quartet, along with another George poem, “Litany,” which is set in the third movement.

LCCE will perform this quartet next month, coupling it with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 quartet in C major, known as the “Dissonance” quartet by virtue of the ambiguous harmonic progressions in the opening measures. This coupling goes beyond the precept that one good dissonance deserves another. Anyone who has read a representative sample of Schoenberg’s essays knows that Mozart was one of his favorite composers, and Schoenberg offers any number of valuable insights to the attentive reader.

The program will also include world premiere performances of two commissioned pieces. “Movement for Viola and Guitar (Eye Contact)” was composed by Berkeley jazz guitarist John Schott explicitly for LCCE members Phyllis Kamrin (viola) and Michael Goldberg (guitar). The two of them are a married couple and have also performed for many years as the Alma Duo.

The second premiere work will be “Waving Goodbye,” composed by bassoonist Jamie Leigh Sampson. Somewhat in the spirit of the Schoenberg offering, “Waving Goodbye” is a string quartet with additional parts, one (again) for voice and the other for guitar. The vocalist for both of these “quartet++” compositions will be soprano Nikki Einfeld. In addition to Kamrin, the quartet members will be violinists Anna Presler and Liana Berube and cellist Tanya Tomkins.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, November 4. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Tix Web page. There will also be a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:05 p.m. Mark Theodoropoulos will discuss the Schoenberg quartet.

SFJAZZ Celebrates Monk’s 102nd Birthday

Pianist Kenny Barron (from the SFJAZZ event page for last night’s concert)

The iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917; and, since SFJAZZ was first launched, the organization has made it a point to celebrate this significant birthday. Last night (Monk’s 102nd birthday) was curated by jazz pianist Kenny Barron, who had previously performed with Sphere, the quartet that included Monk alumni Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone and drummer Ben Riley. Barron was joined by another pianist, Benny Green, and guitarist Miles Okazaki. While Okazaki was not a pianist, Barron introduced him as having prepared solo guitar transcriptions of the entire Monk canon.

The evening was structured strictly around that canon. For the first half, each of the three musicians took a solo set, playing three of Monk’s tunes. The intermission was followed by all of the three possible duet combinations, each playing two Monk pieces. The entire trio then wrapped up the evening with another two Monk compositions.

That made for a lot of Monk filling a duration (including the intermission) of almost two and one-half hours. Writing as someone who admires Monk’s association with the keyboard as much of that of Johann Sebastian Bach, I still have to confess that last night’s quantity was beginning to take its toll on my attention even before the entire group gathered for the trio set. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed the occasions when one of the musicians would begin with the contrafact (the “silent theme” that is transformed into a new tune) that inspired Monk before launching into the Monk composition itself.

Several of those occasions were discoveries for me. “Hackensack,” played by Green and Okazaki, began as “Oh, Lady Be Good!” and was transformed into “Rifftide” by Coleman Hawkins before Monk put his stamp on it, while “Evidence, played by Baron and Okazaki, emerged from “Just You, Just Me.” However, there were also takes during which one Monk tune would encroach on another. During, Green’s solo set, there were signs that “Crepuscule with Nellie” was haunting the shadows of “Trinkle, Trinkle,” while “Ruby, My Dear” put out a call for which “’Round Midnight” provided a response.

For all of those rich discoveries, there was one disappointment that pervaded the entire evening. All three musicians demonstrated a clear and clean grasp of Monk’s thematic lines, and each performance unfolded its respective line into inventive improvisations. However, what was missing consistently from all of the performances was any indication of Monk’s idiosyncratic sense of rhythm. It was almost as if those idiosyncrasies had been expunged in favor of a clearer account of the tune itself. Nevertheless, in a piece like “Monk’s Dream” (the opening selection played by Barron), there is an intruding triplet of repeated notes that suggests that the dream is a disquieting one, while Barron merged that three-note stutter into a single note consistently for every statement of the tune.

This may simply have been a well-intentioned effort to “smooth over some rough edges” found in Monk’s own performances. However, both Green and Okazaki followed Barron down this path. The result was an avoidance of one of the key stylistic qualities that made Monk the remarkable pianist and composer that he was. A little of that coarseness might have held off the fatigue that was beginning to set in after two hours had elapsed.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Wolfe’s Latest “Song With Social Significance”

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

Composer Julia Wolfe, one of the creators of Bang on a Can, seems to have had a longstanding interest in the history of the American laborer. I first encountered that interest when I was writing for Examiner.com and ran an article about her one-hour song cycle Steel Hammer. This amounted to a study of workers in the coal-mining industry viewed through the lens of the fictitious coal miner John Henry. The recording of Steel Hammer was released in 2014. The following year Wolfe escalated her resources to an oratorio for chorus and instruments. The result was Anthracite Fields, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

At the beginning of this month, Decca Gold released a recording of the world premiere performance of Wolfe’s latest venture into this domain. Fire in my mouth shifts the venue from the rural coal fields to the urban sweatshop in lower Manhattan, a major source of employment for young immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century. Once again she has composed an oratorio, this time about a sweatshop that was involved in one of the darkest moments of American labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Triangle became the emblem of negligent working conditions serving as a disaster waiting to happen. The building caught fire on March 25, 1911, leading to the death of 146 garment workers, 123 women and girls and 23 men. Deaths were caused by the fire itself, smoke inhalation, and victims that either fell or jumped to their deaths.

I learned about the Triangle fire as a result of a bar mitzvah present, a copy of Only in America. This was Harry Golden’s first compilation of essays he had first published in his own newspaper, The Carolina Israelite. Through his perspective I came to appreciate that immigration was a two-sided coin, the “land of opportunity” could also be the “land of catastrophe,” particularly when financial matters took precedence over human affairs. Ironically, a similar tragedy took place in Bangladesh in 2012, again at a garment factory, in Dhaka. When that news broke, I experienced the shock of realizing that no one talking about it seemed to have even the slightest awareness of what had happened in our own country in 1911.

If anything good came out of the Triangle fire, it was an increase in consciousness of the efforts of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Recognizing that one of the best ways to get a message across is through entertainment, Max Danish, editor of the ILGWU newspaper, conceived a musical review about working conditions. The result, Pins and Needles, ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1940. I still remember seeing a performance of the opening chorus, “Sing Me A Song With Social Significance” on television back when I was still in high school.

Sadly, there seems to be little sense of “social significance” in Fire in my mouth. Instead, the priorities seem to be directed towards spectacle, enabled through the vehicle of decibels. The world premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, along with the 36 women of The Crossing and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. The Fire in my mouth album was created from recordings of that premiere occasion.

All of this makes for no end of sound and fury. However, the sounds are so overwhelming that one is unlikely to “get the message” without the assistance of a printed text sheet. With that assistance, however, one will probably be more aware of the insistent repetitions of phrases, suggesting that Wolfe had doubts as to whether or not listeners would “get the message.”

For that matter, it is unclear just what Wolfe intended her message to be. Golden’s essay remains a powerfully terse account of what happened. However, over the course of the 50-minute performance of Fire in my mouth, one may get a sense of catastrophe and dread without necessarily grasping any of the relevant context. Yes, there is emotional intensity in Wolfe’s score and the interpretation of that score by the performers; but the signification of the content is embedded in a complex network of context. Such a network is beyond the expressiveness of music, leaving signification hanging in a limbo of “sound and fury.”

Second Morrison Recital will Debut ensemble PHASE

ensemble PHASE in performance (from the Morrison Artists Series event page)

The second concert in the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will host the San Francisco debut of ensemble PHASE (앙상블 페이즈). The members of this group play traditional Korean instruments; and much of their repertoire draws upon Korean traditions in both classical and folk genres. However, that music will account for only about half of the program.

The remainder will be devoted to the efforts of contemporary composers to write for the group’s instruments. The performance will include the world premiere of “Rare Bird” by SFSU Professor Benjamin Sabey, and Sunghyun Lee’s “Isle of Ecstasy” will be given its United States premiere. The program will also present Christine Lee’s “Deep Ocean.”

The performance will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. As usual, the venue will be the McKenna Theatre, which is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Beginning on October 13, reservations may be made through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert event, which will begin at 2 p.m. in Knuth Hall and will discuss the nature of the instruments involved in the performance. In addition, ensemble PHASE will conduct residency activities at the SFSU School of Music at noon on Monday, November 4.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Mike Tamburo to Bring “Sound Experience” to C4NM

Mike Tamburo with his instruments (from his Facebook Events Web page)

Last December the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted a “sound experience” planned and implemented by Mike Tamburo. This was a solo performance involving the Crown of Eternity, an ensemble of over 50 overtone-rich instruments including gongs, bells, hammered dulcimer, and tuned metal instruments. From the audience perspective, this amounts to a synthesis of “deep listening” (as Pauline Oliveros originally conceived of that phrase) and meditation.

Last year members of the audience could choose between sitting and lying on the floor. According to the advance information for this year’s concert, “extended relaxation” will be part of the experience. As a result, all those attending are encouraged to bring a yoga mat, blanket, or cushion to make the floor more comfortable. Also, the ticketing information for this event suggests that C4NM is only providing the venue; and, as of this writing, it is not included on the C4NM Events Web page.

The performance will begin at C4NM at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 1; and the experience should last for about two hours. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $25 through a BrightStar Live Events Web page. If any tickets remain at the door on the evening of the performance, they will be sold for $30. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street.

A New Album of Music from the Holocaust

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

The Black Oak Ensemble is a string trio based in Chicago whose members have decidedly different backgrounds. Cellist David Cunliffe was born in Britain; and violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli was French-born. Violinist Desirée Ruhstrat’s ancestry is divided between the United States and Switzerland. The trio formed in 2015 and has a concert schedule that covers much of Europe and, to a more limited extent, the United States.

This past summer saw the release of the group’s debut album, Silenced Voices. This is a collection of works by six composers whose careers were interrupted by the beginning of World War II. Only one of them survived, Géza Frid, born in Austria-Hungary in 1904 and resettled in Amsterdam in 1929. He was active in the Dutch resistance during the war and would then go on to teach chamber music at the Conservatory of Music in Utrecht. The other five were victims of the Nazis, either in camps or elsewhere. In order of appearance on this album, they are Dick Kattenburg, Sándor Kuti, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Paul Hermann.

Two of those composers were familiar to me from past listening experiences. Both Krása and Klein were included on a 2013 album released on Hyperion by the Nash Ensemble entitled Brundibár. All four of the composers on the album had created works while interned at the Theresienstadt transit camp prior to transport to Auschwitz. The album title is the title of a children’s opera composed by Krása, represented by a suite of instrumental excerpts. The Klein selection is his string trio, which is also included on Silenced Voices.

Silenced Voices makes for particularly rewarding listening simply by virtue of the diversity of the compositions. All six of the composers had a solid command of technique but with markedly differing rhetorical perspectives. As might be guessed, nostalgia figures in many of the selections. The Frid composition reflects on Hungarian folk influences from his childhood, in spite of his move to Amsterdam. Krása, on the other hand, looks back to a much earlier time with a coupling of passacaglia and fugue movements that recalls Baroque tradition without trying to appropriate it. Krása also comes closest to program music with his brief “Tánec,” a depiction of the trains entering and leaving Theresienstadt.

It is unclear how aware the three Black Oak players were of the dark context that envelops all of the pieces they performed for this recording. On the other hand few members the generation that still has vivid memories of that context are still alive, and probably only a few of them make it to chamber music recitals these days. Nevertheless, even today’s listeners deserve to be reminded that much of this album is devoted to works created at Theresienstadt by composers that would then be shipped off to Auschwitz, from which there was no return.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Program Details for Telegraph Quartet at SFCM

Telegraph Quartet members Eric Chin, Jeremiah Shaw, Pei-Ling Lin, and Joseph Maile (photograph by Matthew Washburn, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Some readers may recall that the final Faculty Artist Series recital for this month at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will be presented by the Telegraph Quartet. This ensemble is the SFCM quartet-in-residence; and three of its members graduated in 2012, violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile and violist Pei-Ling Lin. They are joined by cellist Jeremiah Shaw.

Since its formation in 2013, this ensemble has had a stimulating commitment to breadth of repertoire. That commitment led them to receive the Grand Prize at the 2014 Chamber Music Competition, followed by the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 2016. That latter accolade entailed their debut performance under the auspices of San Francisco Performances in Herbst Theatre at the end of January in 2017.

The program Telegraph has prepared for the fall recital at SFCM reflects the diversity of the group’s repertoire. They will begin with what is probably the last of Joseph Haydn’s completed string quartets, Hoboken III/82 in F major, the second of the two quartets published as Opus 77 in 1799. If Haydn took a retrospective stance in composing this quartet, then that stance will be complemented by the prospective stance of one of the earliest published compositions by Alban Berg, his Opus 3 string quartet. This quartet reflects not only Berg’s studies with Arnold Schoenberg but also his desire to forge trails of his own. Past and present are then conjoined in the final selection, Benjamin Britten’s Opus 36 (second) string quartet in C major. This quartet was first performed on the exact 250th anniversary of the death of English composer Henry Purcell; and the composition itself views Purcell’s approaches to composition through a modern lens. The connection is most evident in the last of the three movements, which Britten explicitly named “Chacony.”

This concert will take place on Wednesday, October 23, beginning at 7:30 p.m.. The venue will be the SFCM Sol Joseph Recital Hall. 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. There will be no charge for admission, but reservations are highly recommended. Tickets may be reserved through a hyperlink on the event page for this recital on the SFCM Web site.

Baroque Takes a Beating from Harnoy and Herriott

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

At the beginning of this month, the Canadian Analekta label released a “comeback” album of Canadian (born in Israel) cellist Ofra Harnoy entitled Back to Bach. The “comeback” was from reconstructive surgery performed in 2015, followed by successful physical therapy, which allowed Harnoy to return to performing last year. Back to Bach marked the return of her recording career.

The album was created in partnership with versatile brass player Mike Herriott (who also plays bass). However, the alert reader should note the verb in that last sentence. None of the selections are performed in the usual sense of that verb. Each is a product of Herriott’s multi-track recording techniques through which both performers create “ensemble results.” The results consist primarily of solo cello accompanied by brass choir. However, Harnoy also creates an interpretation of the first (in G major) of Georg Philipp Telemann’s six canonical sonatas (TWV 40:118) and Herriott’s cello ensemble arrangement of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus.”

Those who attended the Bach to Bluegrass & Beyond program presented this past August as part of the annual summer Festival & Academy organized by American Bach Soloists know that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries (including at least one of his sons) can hold up to performances based on rhetorical stances that did not exist during the transition from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the operative word in that last sentence is “performances.” As I have previously observed, there was very likely an element of “jamming” that took place when Bach and his Collegium Musicum colleagues gathered at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house; and I have even suggested that a latter-day continuation of such sessions could be found at the Monday night concerts at the Village Vanguard prepared by The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Such approaches to performance simply do not signify in Herriott’s production technique. Thus, Back to Bach has little (if anything) to do with performance practices that have been around for centuries. A more appropriate model would be the sorts of studio techniques required to make recordings of the earliest generations of electronic synthesizers. In other words, Back to Bach may best be described as Switched-On Bach without the electronics. As Miss Jean Brodie put it in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.
By now readers should appreciate that, where recordings are concerned, I do not “like that sort of thing.” I listen to a lot of recordings. I can usually tell the difference between actual performances and the results of scrupulous editing and post-processing. I almost always come down in favor of the former. Nothing on this album has persuaded me to change my point of view.